Champions League

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Bundesliga winning debate vs. La Liga

Kick it Around: Review of Champions League, Premier League season.
Kick it Around: Review of Champions League, Premier League season.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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GERMAN ENGINEERING

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These games are no longer soccer contests. Instead, they have become a battle of ideas.

When Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund face each other anew (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET), and Barcelona and Bayern Munich resume their bout in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinals series (live, FX, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET), the ultimate outcomes aren’t at stake. Those ships have sailed and are long over the horizon by now.

Bayern destroyed Barcelona 4-0 at home last Tuesday. And Dortmund did almost as well on Wednesday, when four-time goalscorer Robert Lewandowski and his zippy peers took Real Madrid apart 4-1.

So, instead, the discourse ahead of the return games pivots to the meaning behind these monumental and historically lopsided contests. So one-sided were these affairs, so total the German dominance over the Spanish foes, so authoritative their message, so prohibitive their leads, that nobody equipped with any sort of realism thinks Barca or Real have a prayer of surviving. No, Barca is no longer imperious; its failure to win this tournament can’t be written off as an aberration this time around. And Real won’t win its tenth European crown ten years hence from its last.

So what does it all mean? What are the suspicions and theories we look to confirm in the second leg?

Philosophy and ideology: not just of playing styles and the superiority of the Germans’ dynamism over the Spanish patience but of the entire national approach towards operating the business of professional soccer, too.

It is well worn by now that the German Bundesliga takes a communal and holistic approach to its affairs, both financial and sporting. No league in the world is more fun and competitive – although Bayern’s dominance this year concerns some, including Bayern – well run or as well-attended as Germany’s. The fans own every club – except for historic factory/company-teams Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, and Hoffenheim, which has a major-shareholder benefactor – by 50 percent plus one member. And they are king. The atmosphere is carefully monitored and cultivated and tickets are affordable – as low as $20 for even the biggest teams.

The UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations that will go into effect the season after next are modeled after the Bundesliga’s rules. Simply put: break even and pay your debts promptly. And when Borussia Dortmund found themselves on the brink of financial ruin in the mid-2000s, it was their archrivals Bayern Munich who gave them a reported $3 million bridge loan to help them survive. They are very much in it together.

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Bundesliga, La Liga go head-to-head. Who will be left standing?

As such, not a single Bundesliga club is in financial trouble, whereas the rest of European football – most notably Spain’s La Liga – is billions of dollars in debt. It was recently reported that the clubs in La Liga have a combined debt of almost a billion dollars to the Spanish tax man alone.

Barcelona and Real Madrid, while saddled with plenty of debt of their own, are mostly impervious to the financial hardships everybody else in Spain contends with, since nobody ever calls in their loans. And that’s just fine with them. They take the lion’s share of television money – ten times as much as most teams. And they wield their considerable power to extract advantages and perks out of the league whenever they are given the opportunity. As Spanish professional soccer crumbles, they turn a blind eye to the misery surrounding them.

This seems to be having a deleterious effect on Barca and Real’s European chances. Most of their domestic games are walkovers, as evidenced by the large scores they rack up in spite of cycling their reserves in with their regulars. They aren’t often much fun to watch. And they don’t prepare them for the rigors of Europe. So when they come up against deftly constructed and fluid and well-drilled sides like Bayern and Dortmund, who face elite competition every single weekend and are better for it, Spain’s teams have withered. Or they did in last week’s first leg anyway.

German clubs have overtaken the Spanish on the overall strength and soundness of their domestic league. They are strong through their unity, whereas Barca and Real’s selfishness has so chipped away at their competition that they are going down with them.

These are the conclusions the Germans will hope to affirm on Tuesday and Wednesday. And the ones the Spanish will just as eagerly try to avoid, by making the final aggregate scores as close as they can. Because a country that mass produces talent the way Spain does at the moment would surely hate to discover that it’s all ultimately in vain because they’ve got the bigger picture of how their clubs compete all wrong.

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