Thursday, May 24, 2012
End of term report
It's become a heart-warming tradition to open the end-of-season column with what football is all about - goals. Those among you who've been following for a while know very well what's coming now, but let's spare two sentences for the new kids on the block.
Once the season has ended in the five major European footballing countries - England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - I calculate how many goals per game those leagues have produced and compare the numbers.
It's partly just a habit I accidentally picked up and now can't kick, partly a perplexing puzzle, as the result never seems to change: the German Bundesliga has the most goals per 90 minutes of football, the French Ligue 1 the fewest. Yes, for the 22nd year in a row, to be precise: since the 1989-90 season (when England topped this particular chart by the narrowest of margins), the Bundesliga has again outscored the other major leagues. Taking into account how often I have typed a sentence like that over the past ten years, you'd think I expected this result - but no, not this time.
This time I approached the calculation with considerable trepidation. First, the overall tally in Germany was down by some 20 goals from last season. That's not terribly much, but I knew that Spain's Primera Division had produced some scarcely credible scoring feats by Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and their respective teams.
Contemplate for just a moment that these two strikers alone have scored 96 times in the league, while their teams combined for a staggering 235 goals. It means that, on every single matchday, any game involving either Real or Barcelona produced 3.10 goals per game. This looked like such a statistical anomaly that I was fairly sure the league as a whole would also come up with an aberration and overtake the Bundesliga.
Guess what? The Spanish couldn't even keep the English at bay, let alone the Germans.
For all Real's and Barca's heroics in the box, no other side scored even 60 goals (or less than half of Real's total). Which is why the league arrived at a solid but hardly noteworthy 2.76 goals per game.
That was decent enough to keep at arm's length Italy's Serie A (2.56 goals per game) and our perennial rearguards, the French (2.52 goals). But it was below the Premier League (2.81 goals per game) and the Bundesliga (2.86 goals).
To put those differences into perspective, Spain would have needed an additional 37 goals, or more than one complete round of games, to match the Bundesliga's average output. The Premier League would have beaten the Germans if the English season had produced 21 more goals.
This is an entirely manageable amount, so I guess I had been keeping an eye on the wrong challenger.
The Bundesliga also came out on top again in terms of average attendance. The league, the DFL, hasn't yet issued the official figure, but - taking all different sources into account - the average attendance should be somewhere between 44,700 and 45,200 fans per game, up by about 3,000 from last year, when the Bundesliga was already almost 7,000 fans ahead of the Premier League.
It's the fifth season in a row that this number has risen in Germany. Of course this is a trend that can't continue for eternity - and might be reversed as early as next season. The top flight has lost three fairly big grounds, as Kaiserslautern, Cologne and Berlin have been relegated. Since two of the promoted teams, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, have stadia almost exactly the same size as those in Kaiserslautern and Cologne, the Bundesliga effectively exchanges Berlin (population: 3.5 million; ground capacity: 74,200) for Furth (population: 115,000; ground capacity: 15,200).
Incidentally, a similar development can be witnessed in the Second Bundesliga, where Regensburg replaces Karlsruhe, Aalen replaces Aachen and tiny Sandhausen replaces Rostock. So I guess this league will be happy to have Hertha, their support and their spacious Olympic Stadium back.
However, for all those good news about goals and attendance records, there is also cause for concern. Yet I'm not talking about the subject that is currently filling hours upon hours of air time and square miles of ink space over here, namely the perceived increase in crowd trouble.
It's true that we've had quite a lot of unpleasant incidents in the past two years. Players or linesmen were hit by missiles in St. Pauli, Hamburg and Mainz. Spectators invaded the pitch in Berlin, Frankfurt, Dortmund and Dusseldorf. Fireworks and smoke bombs caused problems in Cologne or Dusseldorf and in Dortmund during that notorious cup game against Dresden. Fans rioted on the streets of Karlsruhe or clashed at Hannover main station.
Put into one single paragraph like this, it sounds indeed terrifying.
But the last time I felt unsafe, let alone threatened, at a football ground was ten years ago in Rotterdam's De Kuip. And I've never had any serious problems - nothing that goes beyond the yobbo yelling and drunken posturing you will just as easily encounter on a public square in the evenings or at any old funfair - in or outside a Bundesliga ground since the 1980s, when fighting was so commonplace that it wasn't even reported upon.
You have to look at every single instance I have listed above individually, but that's not done in the mainstream media. And in no walk of life, I should add. Football and football fans are by no means the only victims of sensationalist and sloppy coverage.
Just take a brief look at the two relegation play-offs that have produced those garish headlines in which everything is lumped together - hooligans and ultras and normal families and fireworks and violence and celebrations.
Fireworks in both fan stands, mainly from the ultras, caused a break in play when Dusseldorf hosted Hertha. That is one thing. Another thing is that this interruption then led to a lot more stoppage time, which partly explains why people thought the game was over when they heard a whistle and ran onto the pitch to celebrate.
These people had nothing whatsoever to do with the Fortuna or the Hertha ultras, who were still in the stands. Understandably so, as their code of honour demands they support their team until the final second. They were regular supporters, families and children among them, who never intended to attack players but got carried away by the party atmosphere, as both the official police report and the television coverage prove beyond doubt.
If you want to see people who invade a pitch and mean harm, look no further than Hertha's own supporters who stormed the field of play brandishing iron bars in March 2010.
The violence in Karlsruhe, meanwhile, occurred after the game, concerned the area surrounding the ground and was largely directed towards the police. It's deplorable, yes, but totally different from and unrelated to the events of the following day in Dusseldorf.
So I'm not particularly worried by what is called the "crowd issue". At least not yet. There is, however, an entirely different cause for concern, and that leads us back to what is happening on the pitch, not in the stands. In this case, Bayern's gut-wrenching defeat in the Champions League last Saturday.
Yes, you could just shrug your shoulders and say that these things happen in sport. You could say that the Munich giants were very unlucky, somehow let the game slip out their grasp and then didn't have the nerve or the confidence it takes to win a penalty shoot-out. But it's precisely these things - making your own luck, taking your chances when they present themselves, being cold and efficient - Bayern used to pride themselves on.
And not only Bayern. Ahead of the final, many Chelsea fans I spoke to said what they feared most was the proverbial German winning mentality and ability to turn it on when it counts. Plus, yes, the legendary German infallibility in penalty shoot-outs.
Which only proves that some people cling to their stereotypes way past their sell-by dates. Because it's not at all as if Bayern's defeat was a singular occurrence. On the contrary, any other outcome would have bucked the trend.
In the past ten years, four different German clubs - Bayern, Bremen, Dortmund and Leverkusen - have reached five major finals... and lost them all. During that same span, the national team have reached two major finals... and lost both. That makes seven losses in seven finals in ten years.
The record isn't much better when we look at the last hurdle, the semi-finals of big international competitions or tournaments. The national team have lost two of them in those ten years, while four club sides - Bremen, Bayern, Hamburg and Schalke - shared that fate. Hamburg and Schalke even twice. (Though Hamburg were pitted against another Bundesliga team in one of their semis, so a German defeat couldn't be helped there.)
Put differently, we somehow have, on both club and national-team level, acquired an unfortunate habit of losing the big ones. There's one more chance, though, to stop this trend before we all go into the summer break. It's only two weeks until Euro 2012. See you then.