Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The ball's in Bayern's court, pitch and lane
It's been a difficult season for Bayern Munich so far. The team has been haunted by an injury curse, yet the coach is unfazed and not willing to change his aim for the season. That aim is of course first place and anything less is, to be frank, simply unacceptable at this club.
After all, Bayern field a whole collection of star players, including the Germany captain. These elite athletes want to play in Europe against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid on a regular basis instead of toiling in the lower regions of a domestic league.
"But I don't want to talk too much about the future at the top of the European game at the moment," the coach said a few weeks ago. He added: "That would seem out of place if we should lose against the Crailsheim Merlins."
The Merlins are a basketball team. They represent a city halfway between Nuremberg and Stuttgart and currently play in a league which goes by the grandiose name of Pro A but is, in fact, the Second Bundesliga.
That's also where Bayern Munich's men's basketball team competes - for the time being. Because since Uli Hoeness stepped down as the professional football team's business manager to become the parent club's president, he has been overseeing an ambitious project: making Bayern a basketball powerhouse.
Again, one should add. Because Bayern's basketball division, set up in 1946, used to produce great teams in the past - in 1954 and 1955, Bayern even won the German championship two years in a row. Hoeness, who played school basketball in Ulm quite capably (though his brother Dieter was probably better and certainly more enthusiastic), wants to restore this golden era.
To this end, Bayern have not only signed a famous coach, Dirk Bauermann, but also a whole group of star players including Steffen Hamann, the captain of Germany's national team. That he and players of his calibre decided to join a team in the second division tells you they really believe Bayern can become in basketball what they already are in football and thus emulate Barcelona and Real. These clubs also field Spain's best basketball teams, with 44 national championships and a bunch of European titles between them.
Foreign fans, particularly if they come from England or the US, are often surprised to learn that clubs famous for football also engage in other sports. For Germans, nothing could be more natural and, in fact, clubs that only play football are, as we shall see, very unusual. That's because our sporting system was and is based on public, multi-sports, non-profit clubs that were formed to serve their local community - from young kids who want to romp about to pensioners who want to stay in shape.
Actually, many of today's famous football teams came into being when shy young men asked the board of a big multi-sports club to set up a new division for those members who liked to kick a ball about. Which also explains why you will encounter years of foundation such as 1846 (Ulm), 1848 (Bochum) or 1860 (Munich), years that actually predate the game as we know it.
It's not rare that a club's football players may be well-known and well-paid even though they can't hold a candle to other divisions in terms of achievement. The fact that Bayern's basketball players were double champions of Germany in the mid-50s, for instance, meant they had a better domestic record than the club's footballers until 1969.
(Should you feel like heading to the pub after you've read this, you might want to note the following trivia question, which I'll answer at the end of the column: Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga five years running between 1989 and 1993 - true or false?)
If we stay with this game - basketball, that is - we'll quickly spot another familiar name in the list of winners. You could even say we spot the German club Bayern Munich are trying to become - Bayer Leverkusen. For three decades, and while their footballers won precious little, Leverkusen dominated German basketball, lifting a whopping 14 league titles between 1970 and 1996, first as TuS 04 Leverkusen, then as TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
In fact, you might argue that TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen were the most celebrated sports club in Germany until the football boom of the mid-90s became such a juggernaut that practically every other sport was crushed under its weight and no amount of basketball trophies could rival a piffling mid-table finish in football.
More than 10,000 members engage in more than a dozen sports at TSV Bayer 04 and there were and are highly successful athletes among them. Besides basketball, Bayer also dominated boxing and women's team handball in the 1980s and lifted national trophies in fencing and volleyball. The club's track-and-field division has produced more famous athletes than we have space to list, including Olympic gold medallists such as Ulrike Meyfarth, Dieter Baumann or Heike Henkel.
Yet even Bayer don't hold the record for the highest number of sporting divisions in (football's) top flight. That honour belongs to VfL Wolfsburg. The club offers its members no less than 29 different sports, from - no kidding - arm wrestling to the Chinese martial art wushu.
Yes, sometimes those other sporting activities are, err, surprising. FC St. Pauli, and let me remind you that this means Football Club, have a gridiron division. Hamburg offer cricket, darts, rugby and golf. While that seems excessively anglophile, Greuther Furth are thoroughly German and maintain a singing division. Yes, singing. (I'm not sure if they compete in a league, though.)
Such diversity within a club can come handy. When Mehmet Scholl finished his football career in 2007, he simply switched divisions and joined Bayern Munich's nine-pin bowling team. (Scholl was a very talented bowler as a teenager; his Karlsruhe team almost won the national youth championship when he was 14.)
In the (football) Bundesliga, the club with the least sports on offer is, bizarrely, SC Freiburg. I say bizarrely, because SC stands for sports club, yet Freiburg has only football and tennis, whereas Kaiserslautern, who call themselves a football club, also engage in field hockey, table tennis and triathlon.
True, the ties between the clubs' other divisions and the football teams you see on television and read about on ESPNsoccernet have somewhat weakened since October 1998. That's when the German FA decided to allow the clubs to turn their professional football teams into limited companies. However, since these companies have to remain under the ownership of the parent club (which is known as the "50+1" rule), Bayern's Bundesliga footballers and Bayern's fourth-division nine-pin bowlers are for all practical purposes still part of the same club.
If you encounter a club that is really what it says on the tin, namely a football-only club, chances are good it comes from the former East Germany. Examples include Energie Cottbus and Union Berlin, currently in the Second Bundesliga. The reason for this is that the GDR restructured football in 1966 to become more competitive and turned some clubs' football divisions into new, football-only clubs.
However, there are exceptions. In the Second Bundesliga, there are three clubs that are not from the East and yet play nothing but football: Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, SC Paderborn and FC Ingolstadt 04.
In Ingolstadt's case, the explanation is simple - the club is almost brand new. It was created in 2004, when two football divisions from two multi-sports club merged to form a new club. And a similar story lies behind Paderborn's monoculture, because today's club is the result of a whole string of mergers. (Some of you may remember TuS Schloss Neuhaus, one of many precursors.)
Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, meanwhile, used to offer quite a lot of sports and the team handball side even played in the second division. But in the early 1970s, RWO were involved in the infamous Bundesliga bribe scandal. It almost ruined the club, both financially and image-wise, and by and by all their divisions save football left to form new clubs or join existing ones.
This, we can state with some certainty, is not a fate Bayern's basketballers have to fear. They not only have the support of Hoeness but also that of Bayern's other divisions - when the club's membership was polled this summer, the majority voted in favour of investing money to go for basketball glory.
Yet the road is rocky. Last week, Bayern lost away at Wurzburg, 63-55. The Crailsheim game is on November 20.
P.S. Here's the answer to the trivia question: true. Between 1989 and 1993, Bayern Munich won the chess Bundesliga five times in a row.