In the next few days we shall hear much about how the all German Champions League Final on Saturday is a game changer. True, the way Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund destroyed Real Madrid and Barcelona suggested a dramatic shift in power from Spain to Germany. But such conclusions, while both common and tempting immediately after the whistle has blown, rarely stand up to more considered scrutiny.
If a couple of matches can produce such dramatic football changes then why did the Manchester United-Chelsea final in Moscow in 2008 not leave an imprint on the game? Why did it not mean a similar fundamental shift in England’s favour? The reason is that during a football match, rightly described as the theatre of dreams, the passion and intensity of the game can make us believe that what we are witnessing represents revolutionary, dramatic, changes. In reality what is often happening is that there is change of scenery before the next act. The plot and essential nature of the play does not alter.
But this is not to say that English football can just dismiss what Wembley and the world will see on Saturday as a match which has no wider consequence. For a start there is a minor, not entirely irrelevant, matter that Saturday’s showcase of football’s Teutonic strength will come at the home of the English game. This is all the more significant given that UEFA broke with its conventions to assign this match to Wembley.
Normally, it would not revisit a city just two years after the previous final but they are back in London to celebrate 150 years of the founding of the Football Association. When your fiercest opponent not only comes to your home, but virtually takes it over, it is time to pause and ask some questions. And the question to be asked is if there is anything the English game can learn from the German football model? The answer to that must be an emphatic yes.
The major lesson English football can learn, indeed must learn if it is to correct much that is still wrong with the national game, is that in the last 50 years the Germans have developed a formula for football that produces success for club and country. What is more, when things go wrong they are willing to examine what went wrong and why. And, just as crucially, they then go on to make the necessary changes. Two examples prove that.
One dates back to 1966. The old Romans were fond of saying victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. On that summer’s day, which will always live in English football memory, the Germans may have felt orphaned as they left Wembley. But once they had stopped cursing the Russian linesman for allowing the decisive England goal they had a determined look at themselves and their football. What they realised was that the old style of football education, where kids learned by kicking a ball on the streets round their homes, could not be sustained. The arrival of the motor car and the increasing modernisation of life meant that the Victorian system had to change. To produce modern footballers you needed academies and proper instruction.
This also meant sending would-be managers, even if they had been great players, to school. Not any old school but a football school to learn the very different art of coaching. As Bertie Vogts, who won the World Cup in 1974, told me: “You cannot just move from player to coach. I had to go back to a school to learn.”
In contrast the victors England – as victors always do – did not feel any need to learn or change anything. The result is there for all to see. Since 1966, apart from two semi-finals, in the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 Euros, England have not had a sniff of victory in a major competition. In contrast since 1966 the Germans have won two World Cups and been a finalist three other times. In addition they have won the Euros three times including the one at Wembley in 1996, and been runner-up on three other occasions.
The one exception to this German dominance was Euro 2000 when they lost to England. This led to the second German revolution with the Germans doing what England often promise but rarely deliver, a root and branch examination of their football. And while no major championships have resulted since then they have again been the team to beat for any side that wants to win a trophy. There has also been considerable success at youth level and consistent performances at major competitions by German club sides.
The Germans have been able to do this because their football has long been integrated with their national and club teams singing from the same hymn sheet. In Germany there is no divide between their national association and the league. And just as important, unlike English football clubs which can be owned by anyone, the German ownership pattern for clubs ensures that clubs always remain in German hands. This is the famous 50 + 1 rule which ensures German ownership of clubs. So Bayern is 82 % owned by its 187,865 members and Dortmund controlled by 30,000 members.
This bond makes it easy for club teams to recognise that it is also their job to service the national side. So Saturday’s final could see up to 15 Germans in both teams qualified to play for their country. Contrast that with 2008 when the combined total of English players between Manchester United and Chelsea was just seven. And the Chelsea team that won the Europa League last week fielded only three Englishmen.
Yet no sooner do you present this argument then you are told that surely the Premier League does not need to change. This may not have been a vintage Premier League season. Manchester United won the title in a canter without ever producing anything like the form which at its best can be so enthralling. But despite this the Premier League trump card is that it can always sell its product. The football that is presented every week from English grounds is so compelling, full of thrills, excitement and that special English capacity to make any game into a Cup Final, that the Premier League has no problems marketing itself worldwide. There can be little doubt that the Premier League is the greatest product this country now produces.
Just in case anyone had doubts they only have to return to Wembley just two days after the Champions League Final. Then the most mouth watering prize will be on offer to the team that wins the Championship play-off which decides who plays in the Premiership next year. Crystal Palace and Watford, the contestants in this football version of a gunfight at the OK Coral, stand to gain a staggering £120 million. Indeed, as Palace manager Ian Holloway told me, that pot of gold is his stimulus for winning: “I am trying to get them to the Premier League to build the new ground. What a fantastic job it would be for me.”
The Germans are well aware of the money power of the Premier League. As Christian Seifert, chief executive of German Bundesliga said of the Premier League: “It is a perfectly marketed product all over the world. It is the League with the most financial opportunities in Europe and we will never overtake them financially.” And, irrespective of the fact that on the field of play in recent seasons English teams have rarely conquered the Germans – Chelsea being the exception last year – when it comes to money the English always beat the Germans. Next season the combined income of the clubs in the Premier League will be an estimated £860 million more than the Bundesliga clubs. The Premier League has 20 clubs, two more than the German Bundesliga, but that does not explain the huge disparity in income.
In the face of such riches it is easy to see why English football sees no reason to change let alone look at the German model. But while such complacency may be understandable what this ignores is how the Germans have integrated the fans in their system. Here Seifert is spot on when he says: “The clubs realised to be successful it is not only a question of money. The vast majority of people support the 50+1 rule. Football is considered to be a public good, and people can be truly part of it, by being members of the club.”
The English failure to appreciate this produces a lot of angst among supporters, angst well represented in the book, Passion United by Philip Miles. The slim, 107 page, book claims to be about the passion the game brings out in fans. These words can often mask some vile sentiments. But in this case Miles, combining prose with poetry, is a delight to read. Make no mistake he is no Nick Hornby , but then no can match the master of this art. But, like Hornby, he is a devoted fan who can both describe his feelings for the game and has gathered facts to show how the game has changed since the 50s. This includes attendance figures and costs of going to the game. And while the book seeks to assert that there was a “golden era” in the 60s and 70s, when Miles was growing up, he is not afraid to remind us of the dark side of the game.
So he talks of the hooliganism that started in the 60s and so dreadfully scarred the game and which, recent events suggest, have not entirely gone away. Miles recalls going to a Manchester United-Southampton match and the rampage of the United fans in Southampton city centre after the match despite winning 5-2. It is worth reminding us that Manchester United fans played a big part in the rise of hooliganism.
His most vivid description of how, in 1972, he went with his cousins, who supported Crystal Palace, to the Orient. He sat with Palace fans close to the Orient fans and heard the abuse hurled by two sets of supporters. One Palace fan in his twenties told Miles, “Are you ready for a rush boy”. Miles did not understand but soon two sets of fans were rushing at each other, fighting broke out and the police had to restore order.
It was on the way home that he had his most frightening experience when West Ham fans got on the train and “mindlessly started to hit out at people on the train, including a woman. We were stiff with panic. Chris [his cousin] was hurriedly trying to hide his Palace scarf under his jacket. I thought, “but I support West Ham and am going to be beaten up by them if they spot us”. Luckily he was not.
Yet the book also records how the game has changed for the worse. For Miles is now a Portsmouth fan and almost apologises for being a West Ham fan in his youth, or even going to see Southampton play Manchester United, despite the fact that he wanted to see his heroes Law, Best, Charlton and Kidd. Back in the “golden” era of the 60s and 70s no such apology would not have been needed.
That such dreadful tribalism is now accepted and fans like Miles feel they have to kowtow to it shows how for all the money and glamour football has gone backwards.
It will be interesting to see if the Germans fans in the Champions League final can show us a more welcome attitude. For all the success of German football I somehow doubt it.
Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @ mihirbose