THIS BUNDESLIGA SEASON IS GOING TO BE THE smallest EVER!
You won’t see that on the side of a DFL (German Football League)-branded bus this week, but fears over the German top flight’s verzwergung (dwarfification) have never been this acute.
In the absence of big-hitters Schalke, Hertha Berlin and Hamburg, who are all otherwise engaged in the second division, the combined home stadium capacity of the elite’s 18 clubs for the season kicking off tomorrow (Friday) is 732,000 — the lowest since a professional league was first introduced in Germany 60 years ago. Happy anniversary! Or, should we say, “Welcome to your mid-life crisis”?
Fewer people than ever before in Bundesliga grounds fits perfectly into German football’s declinist narrative in 2023.
But size isn’t everything and the raw numbers can be misleading. While it’s true new boys Heidenheim (capacity: 15,000) and Darmstadt (17,810) won’t get many pulses racing and that the league really could have done with the presence of a few more blue-chip sides this season, excitement levels up and down the country have defied the doomsayers.
Last year’s trend of fans turning matches into uplifting communal experiences irrespective of results seems to have carried over, with many clubs reporting a frenzied run on tickets.
Bayer Leverkusen, for example, have sold more season tickets than ever, no doubt a reflection of the team’s rapid progress under coach Xabi Alonso since his appointment last October and a promising summer window that has seen the arrivals of versatile midfielder Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), full-back Alejandro Grimaldo (Benfica), forward Victor Boniface (Union Saint-Gilloise) and Germany winger Jonas Hofmann (Borussia Monchengladbach).
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Leverkusen are widely seen as possible title contenders, alongside 2022-23 runners-up Borussia Dortmund — now sans Jude Bellingham — and a remodelled RB Leipzig boasting some of the league’s most thrilling newcomers in strike duo Benjamin Sesko and Lois Openda (Lens), as well as Austria international midfielder Nici Seiwald.
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It’s hard to remember a trio of challengers feeling this good about their chances ahead of a season, even if they’re careful to not sound too boastful in public. Dortmund, far from being demoralised by last season’s last-day stumble, seem to have drawn strength from the traumatic experience.
Bellingham’s energy will be missed, of course, and sporting director Sebastian Kehl’s work in the transfer market isn’t done quite yet. But ex-Bayern Munich midfielder Marcel Sabitzer should prove a useful addition to a settled side that at last found a sense of flow and dependability in the second half of last season.
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Leipzig’s 3-0 Supercup defeat of perennial title holders Bayern last weekend also suggested that Marco Rose’s task of building half a new starting XI after the departures of Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool), Josko Gvardiol (Manchester City), Konrad Laimer (Bayern) and Christopher Nkunku (Chelsea) is ahead of schedule.
More importantly, though, is a lingering sense of Bayern’s weakness, Harry Kane’s arrival from Tottenham notwithstanding.
More than 60 per cent of voters in an online poll by leading German football magazine Kicker last week thought the champions wouldn’t win the league for a 12th time in a row — a remarkably high figure.
There’s nothing new in Bayern being potentially their own worst enemy, to be sure. But the extent of last year’s troubles in Bavaria, combined with a strange loss of confidence in the dressing room and multiple open questions ranging from Manuel Neuer’s deputy to Joshua Kimmich’s defensive qualities, continue to encourage the rest of the field in a way last seen when Jurgen Klopp was winning trophies with Dortmund more than a decade ago.
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Further down the ladder, there are plenty of similarly positive stories.
Union sold all 40,000 mini-season ticket packages for their three home Champions League group matches, which have been switched to neighbours Hertha’s 74,000-capacity Olympiastadion, in about an hour this week. They’re still at their atmospheric Alten Forsterei stadium for Bundesliga games, but as it only holds 22,000, good luck getting a ticket there. Signing Germany wide man Robin Gosens from Inter Milan is exactly the kind of deal that will make them even more watchable. Internationally, the hype surrounding Urs Fischer’s side is primed to enter a new dimension if they can get veteran Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci to line up next to Ritter Keule.
Freiburg, the league’s most unlikely top side, are embarking on another campaign in the Europa League led by iconic manager Christian Streich. Eintracht Frankfurt have put together another intriguing squad, especially if they can hold onto France forward Randal Kolo Muani for another season, and, in Dino Toppmoller, Julian Nagelsmann’s former assistant at Bayern, they have one of the league’s most interesting coaches taking charge. The same is true of Bo Svensson at Mainz.
Wolfsburg, who came close to making it back into Europe but fell one point short, have added Croatia midfielder Lovro Majer from Rennes in France and their former striker Wout Weghorst is back in the Bundesliga on loan to Hoffenheim from Burnley. Stuttgart look like they could be a surprise package under Sebastian Hoeness — although replacing Wataru Endo won’t be easy if the Japan midfielder does end up moving to Liverpool.
As far as who’ll go down is concerned, all fingers point to Darmstadt. Top-flight debutants Heidenheim are rated a little higher, while Bochum will also have their work cut out after avoiding the relegation play-off by two points last time.
All in all, it promises to be a high-quality and entertaining season, whether Kane’s goals soothe Bayern’s issues or not.
Justified concerns about the coming TV rights cycle delivering less money and Hansi Flick’s chaotically inept national team are destined to keep public angst levels elevated, as will the increasing financial dominance of the Premier League and the novel market distortion courtesy of its Saudi Arabian equivalent.
But there are precious few signs that the core market of domestic supporters care very much about any of that. On the contrary, in fact. Even foreign audiences might be persuaded to tune in a bit more over the coming months, eager to see how Kane will get along in a new league or perhaps lured in by the prospect of checking out the considerable coaching and player talent on show.
In an ideal world, Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Roberto Firmino, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Toni Kroos, Antonio Rudiger, Ousmane Dembele, Manuel Akanji, Thiago, Kai Havertz, Erling Haaland, Szoboszlai, Gvardiol, Nkunku, Bellingham, Marcus Thuram, Victor Osimhen and Robert Lewandowski would all still be around.
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But the Bundesliga’s talent drain also provides plenty of room for the next cohort of excellence to emerge.
If it’s tomorrow’s superstars today that you want — in some very cute little stadiums — you could do worse than giving it a whirl.
(Top photos: Getty Images)