A season not to remember?

May 20, 2008
By Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger
(Archive)

Ever since I joined the wonderful ESPNsoccernet family (is that slimy enough to get a raise, boys?), which was six years ago or something, this end-of-season column has centred on the most pressing of patriotic questions: is the Bundesliga still where it's at?

GettyImagesBayern Munich's steam-rollering of the Bundesliga robbed the fans of final day drama.

Newcomers to this cozy corner of the world wide web may wonder what this is leading up to, given that the German clubs once again didn't turn Europe upside down. So, let me recap (and invite regular readers to skip the next three paragraphs).

I belong to the group of football fans, and I don't think we're a minority, who kind of enjoy it when people score goals. A few years ago, as I was having a look at the weekend's results from the top European leagues, I was of the impression that there were more goals per game in the Bundesliga than in Italy, Spain, England or France. So I did some math and found that I was right.

I then went back a season and compared the stats again. Same result. I went back another season. Same result. And so on. The stunning bottom line of it all was that the Bundesliga has been leading the top five leagues in goals scored per game for every single season since 1989.

Call me someone who should spend his time on more worthwhile things, but this little bit of trivia never fails to fascinate me.

Over two decades, so many things change - new teams, new players, new tactics. And so many things fluctuate - a league will have quite a few strong sides, then only one or two that dominate, then perhaps lots of sub-par teams. So why should the Bundesliga regularly produce the most goals (per 90 minutes of football)? Or, for that matter, the French top flight the least? You tell me.

Anyway, as you might have already guessed - nothing much has changed.

For the 18th year in a row, the Bundesliga (2.81 goals per game) has run away with the 'Bulging Net Trophy'. Spain is in second place (2.69), England comes next (2.64), Italy is fourth (2.55). Inevitably, the French are bringing up the rear (2.28).

Before my dear friend Ernst Bouwes crosses the border to complain: yes, the Dutch Eredivisie, as often happens, outdid even the Bundesliga, with a cool 3.12 goals per game. But I still stubbornly refuse to grant Holland more than just an honorary mention, because I can't shed the feeling there are too many teams in that league who are only there to let the big dogs find the net.

Just consider the fact that the most goal-hungry team from the five big leagues are Real Madrid, with 84 goals. Now, Ajax scored ten goals more than that - and played four games less! (Real also got outscored by, wait for it, Heerenveen.)

Putting these stats aside, many German fans I know felt kind of, er, underwhelmed when the season ended last Saturday. I tend to share that feeling, but I also know that's it's a bit unfair.

First, we are quite simply spoiled. The Premier League season, for instance, went down to the wire - but it was only the fourth time since 1992 that the title was still at stake on the final matchday.

Germans, by comparison, almost take it for granted that it 'ain't over till the man in black blows his whistle for the last time. In those sixteen years, the Bundesliga title was decided on the last day no-less than eight times. This year, however, the question was not if a certain team would wrap it up - but when.

And this leads to the second reason why quite a few supporters will not count the season just past among the most memorable - Bayern Munich.

Part of the reason they dominated the on-the-pitch season so much has to do with their competitors' inconsistency. Even Werder's business manager Klaus Allofs, whose team overcame a veritable injury plague to win direct qualification for the Champions League, could muster up only a sour smile on Saturday.

'Going into the winter break, we were level on points with Bayern,' mused Allofs. 'So, with a little more luck and a little more consistency, we could have achieved more.'

And that's also how they must feel in Schalke, considering they sacked their coach just after he'd led the team to the biggest European success in the club's history and then also gave Barcelona a scare or two.

Or how they view things in Hamburg, where an abysmal second half of the season almost ruined it all. Or in Leverkusen, where the fans now demand the coach's head. Or in Stuttgart, where a defending league champion has to make do with the Intertoto Cup.

The general air of disappointment even extends to teams such as Hannover and Frankfurt, despite finishing in perfectly fine places.

The former speak only of a 'so-so season' (coach Dieter Hecking) because they had secretly aimed for Europe. The latter reached their goal for the season as early as late March(!) and then, just when the fans began to hope for a miracle year, seemingly couldn't be bothered anymore and lost six our of eight.

GettyImagesBayern joker Ribery joins the club's long-serving keeper Kahn in celebrating the Bundesliga title.

But it wasn't just Bayern's exalted position on the playing field that made the season strangely anaemic for almost anyone supporting another club. It was also that the Munich giants stole all the headlines - and then the rest of the front pages for good measure as well.

Stuttgart's Mario Gomez, for instance, was once again outstanding, scoring 19 goals in 25 appearances for a side having grave problems. But no one outside of Swabia cared much, because the great predatory story of the season was Luca Toni.

Werder's Diego and Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart, to cite two other prominent cases, were once again very good set-up men.

The Brazilian proved the key player in the side that scored more goals than any other, while the Dutchman somehow managed to create ten goals for a team so stingy it got outscored even by Bochum. Yet neither of the two had the slightest of chances in the media-darling department because that started and ended with Franck Ribéry.

Consider Premiere's live coverage of last week's UEFA Cup final. Lothar Matthäus was their guest in the studio and what do you think the presenter discussed with his pundit during the interval? The first half in Manchester? Well, only perfunctorily. Then we were swiftly treated to a snippet filmed at Bayern's training ground, where Ribéry emptied a bucket of water on an unsuspecting Oliver Kahn from the roof of the clubhouse.

Ribéry's practical jokes (and his team-mates' retributions) were extensively documented this season, and this particular one allowed the Premiere presenter to not just talk about Ribéry but also about Kahn.

Who, of course, was yet another reason why it was such a monothematic Munich year. Because if it wasn't Bayern's wins or Toni's goals or Ribéry's tricks that got dissected, it was Oliver Kahn's farewell tour. And if it wasn't that, there was always Ottmar Hitzfeld's last hurrah.

So I, for one, won't go into all that again. At least not now. I'll do it next week.

Watch out for part two of Uli's Bundesliga review next week.


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