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FC Bayern Munich is closing in on a tenth successive Bundesliga title and yet there is a sense of disappointment about how the season has gone.
A shock defeat to Spanish minnows Villarreal in the Champions League quarter-final has blown hopes of adding another European trophy to its collection and means, as has often been the case for the past decade, its procession to the domestic title is now the focus.
Some extreme elements of the German club’s fanbase, demonstrating just how warped their expectations have become, decided the shock result was enough to threaten the life of manager Julien Nagelsmann on social media.
Ire directed at Nagelsmann, while not to the same sickening level, has not been restricted to Germany, however. In Spain, the La Liga side was annoyed with a perceived lack of respect from the manager in comments he made before the first leg.
Villarreal striker Dani Parejo had a particularly evocative way to describe the pleasure the Spaniards had in demonstrating how foolish he’d been.
“When the draw was made and they got Villarreal, their coach, whom I don’t know, disrespected not only Villarreal but also football, by saying he wanted to settle the tie in the first leg,” Parejo was quoted as saying.
“It was a lack of respect towards us. Sometimes when you spit up, it falls on your face.”
Nagelsmann wasn’t the only one to end up with something on his face. A clip of sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic chuckling at the prospect of facing the Spaniards and saying “let’s put it this way: it’s a very manageable draw,” also made for embarrassing post-result viewing.
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An insistence on success at FC Bayern is often described as a positive, providing the basis for a culture that has spanned generations.
The club’s motto ‘Mia san Mia’ is about this concept as long-serving Bayern star Thomas Muller once explained:
“Mia san Mia stands for a hardcore winning mentality with a good dose of self-belief, but without any arrogance,” he said, “whoever wants to win has to work hard for it. It’s the same as for professional footballers.
“The best footballers always play for Bayern. Everyone gives it their all in training. Anyone who can’t get on with the idea is in the wrong place.
“It’s something we all try to teach the younger players. There’s nothing that’s more important.”
Muller might insist that Bayern’s culture “without any arrogance,” but that’s not what Villarreal thought, the sense they were being taken lightly by the Bavarians fired them up even more.
Criticism of Bayern has focused on the lack of intensity the players showed across the two legs and a failure to match the commitment of Villarreal.
These were not new themes, the previous round had seen a lackluster 1-1 first-leg draw against RB Salzburg in German, a game many felt the Bavarians took too lightly.
A 7-1 demolition of the Austrians in the return fixture quelled them, but, when FC Bayern failed to turn it on the second time around, the combination of overconfident statements and a lack of intensity begged the question; what happened to the ‘Mia san Mia’?
The curse of PSG
Two years ago things were very different, FC Bayern had blasted its way through to another Champions League Final against Paris Saint Germain and was being heralded as a great example of a ‘sustainable’ super club.
The game was billed as a clash of cultures; a Parisian side owned by the Emir of Qatar and the club governed by the 50+1% fan-ownership principle.
As I pointed out at the time, was that the clubs were far more similar than the narrative suggested, both in their business dealings and also in the almost unbreakable stranglehold the pair had on the domestic competitions.
The latter was not considered a barrier to success in 2020, as their Champions League final clash showed it wasn’t affecting the clubs’ ability to compete in European competition.
But this year it’s a different story.
Paris Saint-Germain crashed out to Real Madrid in the Round of 16, which is no disgrace. However, the Parisians only played the Spaniards because they’d let a commanding lead in the group stage slip.
Flat and underwhelming draws with both RB Leipzig and Club Brugge, combined with defeat to Manchester City, meant eventual group winners City actually could afford to lose to Leipzig and still qualify in first position.
The criticism, as has ever been the case with PSG, was that they just weren’t used to having to work that hard for their success.
There is often a gleeful satisfaction in soccer circles that hubris has been the weakness of a side bankrolled by a middle eastern royal. Many critics take comfort from the sense while domestic success can be bought the meritocracy of European competition remains untarnished.
But the manner of FC Bayern’s performances in Europe this season demonstrates it’s not just PSG who can be victim to their local superiority.
More fundamentally it challenges the notion, pushed quite heavily by Bayern itself, that its model is both fair and good for European soccer.
Despite being a product of a much-lauded system of soccer ownership, the club has created a domestic monopoly so effective it is now damaging to its efforts to compete in European competition.
The allure of the ‘German model’
In England, the allure of the ‘German model’-based on the rule the German Football League has insisting all clubs members maintain a 50+1% share of their team-remains strong.
The system of ‘fan ownership’ is frequently the alternative offered up by those calling for an overhaul in the way clubs are run in the UK.
In the wake of the European Super League debacle last year Boris Johnson’s main political opponent, Keir Starmer, floated it as a potential remedy to the ever-widening gap between communities and their clubs.
“There has got to be a [fan] mechanism on ownership, and what the percentage of ownership would be on any given club, and the German model is quite interesting there,” he pondered.
While there are many benefits to the German system, current evidence indicates a level playing field isn’t one of them.
A major factor in this is Bayern’s Bundesliga rivals lagging so far behind the Bavarian giants financially.
According to Deloitte’s 2022 Football Money League, FC Bayern’s $663 million revenue is near twice its closest competitor Borussia Dortmund ($366 million). There is no other German club even in the top 20 list.
By contrast five of the top ten are Premier League sides, who make up half of the list.
In the decade of FC Bayern’s Bundesliga domination, 5 different teams have won the Premier League title and only once has it been retained by the same side.
This is because there are more sides with the resources to compete and therefore greater competition.
If English soccer is to change its ownership structure the question should not be whether clubs should follow the German model, but whether they can create something of their own: A system where sustainability is paired with competition and ambition across the board.
Because as any regulator will tell you; a monopoly is not the sign of a healthy market.