Berlin, Germany | AFP | Bayern Munich may have wrapped up a seventh successive Bundesliga title on Saturday, but their domestic dominance was severely tested in one of the most exciting German league campaigns in years.
Perennial champions Bayern, who have romped to the title every season since 2013, finished just two points ahead of Borussia Dortmund, as the title race went down to the final day of the campaign for the first time in a decade.
Yet while the excitement was higher than ever at home, German clubs fared surprisingly poorly in European competition, raising concerns the Bundesliga is a league in decline.
Dortmund’s title challenge, though ultimately unsuccessful, provided welcome respite from the hegemony Bayern have enjoyed in recent years.
Since 2013, the Bavarian giants had won six titles in a row by a margin of 10 points or more, and finished 25 points clear of Dortmund in 2013.
Forced to claw back a nine-point gap to retain their crown, even Bayern welcomed Dortmund’s newfound strength.
“We are happy to have such opponents, and I hope it continues next year because the Bundesliga and the fans in Germany need that,” Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic told broadcaster Sport1 after Saturday’s triumph.
“It was nice to have an exciting title race for once.”
Nor was it just the title race which provided entertainment until the end. On the last day of the campaign, three clubs were still in the running for Champions League qualification, while six sides still had hopes of a Europa League spot.
For all the excitement, however, there is growing concern the Bundesliga cannot keep up with other major European leagues.
Frankfurt-based FAZ newspaper wrote on Saturday the German top-flight was “exciting, but weak”, adding the league produced “masses of losers”.
It was certainly true in the Champions League this year, as all four Bundesliga clubs were knocked out by the last 16.
Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke were all convincingly beaten by English opposition, meaning there was no German team in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2006.
Eintracht Frankfurt’s fairytale run to the Europa League semi-finals aside, it was a barren year for the Bundesliga in Europe.
– ‘Internationally meaningless’ –
In 2013, former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld called the Bundesliga “the best league in the world” after both clubs reached the Champions League final.
Now, many are warning it has become a “second-class” league behind Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League.
Last January, Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert warned the league could soon become “internationally meaningless” if it did not adapt and keep the pace with its competitors.
Most Bundesliga clubs run on a model of no debt and financial responsibility, and even mighty Bayern struggle to match the huge transfer sums paid out by Europe’s biggest sides.
The “50+1” rule, which ensures fan power by guaranteeing club members majority voting rights, means most German outfits are unlikely to attract from wealthy foreign investors, as teams in England and France have done.
The once sacrosanct rule has become increasingly contested of late, with calls for it to be reformed or even abolished.
“I hope the league gives up on 50+1,” Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told GQ last year.
“I think every club should be able to decide for itself whether it is open to investors or not”.
League CEO Seifert, meanwhile, said in January that the Bundesliga had to find the balance between domestic and international success.
“We need our top clubs to keep the pace in Europe while also offering exciting competition at home,” he said.