German soccer sides are accustomed to success at the home of English soccer, Wembley Stadium. The 1996 European Championships, held across England, ended in heartbreak for the hosts, who were defeated by Germany on penalty kicks in the semi-final. The Germans went on to win the final against the Czech Republic (both matches took place at Wembley). The slogan for the tournament was “Football Comes Home.” Not quite.
Four years later, in what would be Wembley’s final game before the famous stadium was demolished (it reopened in 2007), the World Cup qualifier between the European rivals ended in a 1-0 home defeat for England. Manager Kevin Keegan – who actually played for German team Hamburg during his playing career – ended up resigning in the toilet after the match, which seems about as depressing a way to quit as it gets.
But at this May’s Champions League final – an all-German affair between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which is taking place at Wembley Stadium to celebrate 150 years of the English Football Association – it appears unlikely that the losing manager will call it a day in the bathroom, due to German soccer’s rude health.
Things are going too well for German sides. Bayern Munich is playing in its third final in four years, and enter the game having won the domestic league title with ease. Dortmund, who was league champion in Germany for two seasons in a row before this latest campaign, has positively sparkled in the Champions League, only losing one game, and winning the so-called Group of Death against the champions of Spain (Real Madrid), England (Manchester City) and Holland (Ajax) along the way. But Dortmund had difficulty during the second leg of its semi-final against Real, with the Spanish side needing a 3-0 win to progress and getting mighty close, scoring twice late on but unable to find a winner.
Dortmund arguably saved its best for the first leg of the Champions League semi-final (in the knockout stages of European competitions, the sides plays home and away). Dortmund put Real Madrid away 4-1 at home and Bayern went one better, in a sense, by not even conceding an away goal to Barcelona during a 4-0 thrashing. Surely just as impressive was their 3-0 dismantling of Barca in the second leg on Wednesday away from home, even if Bayern didn’t have to face the talismanic Lionel Messi, who was left on the bench due to injury. “There’s been a sense in European football all this season that the Germans have a momentum and this was coming,” soccer writer John Carlin told the New York Times recently. “The Germans seem to be poised to take it to a higher level still.”
And to get to that higher level that Carlin speaks of, German sides have been helped out by the people who run German soccer, due to the decision to have an annual month-long break in the middle of the winter. The players usually get at least two-weeks off, before heading off to a mini-camp which prepares them for the remainder of the campaign. It’s hardly a surprise that the players are in good shape, compared to their counterparts in Spain, Italy and England, who don’t enjoy the same luxury (the Spanish and Italian sides only get two weeks off, which is two more than the clubs in England). “When you play against them in March and April — especially in April — as an English club or a Spanish club, you have a handicap,” Arsène Wenger, the manager of English Premier League team Arsenal said after being knocked out by Bayern in the quarter-finals.
Ironically, German soccer is reaping the rewards because of the lack of success after the Euro ’96 triumph. The next tournament in 2000 was an abject failure for the Germans, who didn’t win a game, and only scored one goal. The response from the soccer authorities in Germany was to invest close to $1 billion in improving youth soccer, via a two-tiered system with training academies run by the teams while other areas were the responsibility of the national association. Though they rode their luck, the national team reached the World Cup final in 2002 (losing to Brazil) and had highly respectable third-place finishes in the 2006 World Cup – which was held in Germany – and South Africa in 2010 as well as being losing finalists to Spain in Euro 2008. And had Germany not come up against a Mario Balotelli-inspired Italy in the semi-final of Euro 2012, they may well have had a chance to avenge their loss to Spain in last year’s final.
(VIDEO: Mario Balotelli Opens Up to TIME)
The main domestic league, the Bundesliga, has a sensible pricing policy, state-of-the-art stadiums and fan-friendly kick-off times while the atmosphere in the stands pulsates with passion. Off the field, a centralized marketing policy means that the bulk of the income is split equitably between the clubs, which has kept debt, in the main, manageable.
The supporters of the Champions League finalists are lucky enough to see some of the sport’s finest players. Bayern, which entered the May 25th Wembley showdown as favorites in the eyes of the bookmakers before the second leg took place on Wednesday against Barca, have the likes of Germany’s captain Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng marshalling the defense, in front of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Further forward, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger can either score or stifle the opposition and Bayern will be even more fearsome up front next season after announcing the signing of Mario Götze, who will join Bayern in a $48 million deal from … Borussia Dortmund. Though the 20-year-old suffered a suspected hamstring tear during the second leg defeat to Madrid on Tuesday, he should recover to face his soon to be new teammates in the final.
Alongside him is Marco Reus and the four-goal hero of the first leg of the semi-final, Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, who put himself in the shop window with a stunning solo performance (he’s out of contract at the end of next season). As for the managers, Jupp Heynckes would like to sign off on his short reign in charge of Bayern by delivering a first Champions League to the club since 2001 (former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola takes over next season). Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp has won many admirers for his attacking approach to the game, and a first Champions League victory for his side since 1997 would cement Klopp’s growing reputation.
But when the sides step out onto the fabled Wembley turf at the end of the month, fans with slightly longer memories may recall the events of ten years ago. Dortmund was on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to pay the players’ wages. Bayern stepped in to lend their rivals $2.6 million and the rest is history. As tens of thousands of German supporters get set to cheer their teams on at Wembley, it looks like Fußball’s coming home.