|Did you know that you can get from London to Hoffenheim and back for around 168 euros? That includes a flight from London to Frankfurt and then a convoluted bus and train combo to the hometown of the Bundesliga leaders. A round-trip beginning in Manchester will cost you 338 euros. A journey originating from Liverpool's John Lennon International Airport will set you back even more, totaling a tasty 501 euros due to Easyjet's nearest air destination being Berlin.
While this may be useful information for the average man in the street who may have a passing interest in jetting over to catch Hoffenheim in the flesh at the Dietmar-Hopp Stadium while their star is still in the ascendency, it will be just a bunch of useless filler for those who have more tactical reasons in mind.
For these people, navigating time-consuming travel Web sites and working out complicated itineraries are what the plebs do when they want to escape their dreary, non-diamond-encrusted lives. These people have their own transport and won't spend precious time sorting out their own travel. Oh no…they'll just Learjet off or set a luxury yacht's course for Hoffenheim with their pockets full of cash and their eyes on a cut-price soccer superstar.
Unsubstantiated rumor has it that Arsenal's Arsene Wenger has already ignored Ryanair's super cheap flights from Stansted to Frankfurt in favor of a club sanctioned sortie to the home of the German league leaders. If the highly unlikely stories are true, Wenger has trumped any luxury scouting mission by a certain Russian billionaire and his cronies and left a certain ruddy-faced Knight of the Realm on the tarmac in Manchester, not to mention grounding a strangely-bearded Spaniard in the murky grayness of Merseyside.
News travels fast in the world of soccer and managers and chairmen wanting to get the jump on rivals over a potential bargain move even faster. Hoffenheim's fairytale ascension to the summit of the Bundesliga has been reported with unconstrained glee around the world –- and rightly so. Everyone loves the fact that a little village team is heading one of Europe's top soccer leagues (while conveniently forgetting that an entrepreneur's millions are easing the passage). But while the celebrations continue, the vultures of world soccer have taken to the air unnoticed and have the smell of blood and cut-price transfer deals in their nostrils.
Victory, in whatever form, creates lustful envy. If a team is enjoying a winning streak, you can rest assured that those who see the accumulation of winners as a way of assuring their own success will want to pick the best from that bunch and install them in their own collection. It isn't always a recipe for domination but what does that matter? Players themselves can be trophies even when a combination of any number of them isn't winning any.
All of which adds credence to the rumors that the Arsenal supremo has been spotted running his eye over the understated riches at Hoffenheim's disposal. Wenger might not need a new playmaker like Carlos Eduardo or a striker such as Vedad Ibisevic but because these players are big news right now, he's probably not willing to let anyone else have them either.
How much further ahead would Manchester United be if they pinched Demba Ba from under Wenger's considerable nose? Would Liverpool make the Gunners choke on their dust if they snatched Chinedu Obasi from the Frenchman's bony clutches? Would more bragging rights in the capital go to Stamford Bridge if Abramovich were to steal Sejad Salihovic away from a potential move to North London?
With so much at stake these days, who is willing to take these kinds of chances?
|The first quarter of the season is over, and there are four teams ahead of Bayern -- something that last happened five years ago.
Munich have a history of making stunning and often very lucky comebacks. But every once in a while, such as in 2003-4, they don't get the job done. Bremen won the league that year, and Stuttgart accomplished the same feat in 2006-7.
So it can be done. The question is: Which, if any, of the quartet currently leading Bayern is up to the challenge?
Here are my answers.
Hoffenheim: yes. I'm not sure what makes me more nauseous -- Sarah Palin or hearing reporters talk about tiny Hoffenheim. This is a very professionally organized club, with lots of money behind it and a coach who knows what he's doing in charge.
They remind me of the 2003-4 Bremen; a high-scoring, in-your-face outfit that plays its style of soccer, whatever the situation and beats the crap out of opponents. If they can hold their nerves in close matches, they could take it to the wire.
Leverkusen: yes. For my money, this is the most well-rounded and one of the deepest squads in the league. There's hardly anyone in their starting eleven you'd particularly want to replace, and they have the league's best goalkeeper in René Adler -- who should be good for a few points on his own.
The big question mark is history. Leverkusen has never won anything worth winning since anyone can remember, and they even pulled of the amazing feat of blowing the league, the Champions League and the German Cup in one season. But that was then, and this is now, and heck, if the Red Sox can win the World Series, anything's possible.
Hamburg: doubt it. The Northern Germans got absolutely spanked by Hoffenheim this weekend, and I don't think that was an accident. Look at Hamburg's goal difference. Zero. Nada. Zilch.
That means they've been grinding out wins without really putting their stamp on matches. Now, there's nothing wrong with winning the hard way, but not all close decisions are going to turn out to your advantage. To go on a seriously deep run at the title, you have to demolish some teams. And Hamburg, I think, just don't have the arsenal to do that.
Stuttgart: seriously doubt it.
|Things seem to be listing slightly aboard the good ship Jogi. The Germany coach appears to be dealing with a period of unprecedented mutiny within Die Mannschaft; something that is as rare as a Thomas Hitzlsperger goal.
The warm, sunny camaraderie of the summer of 2006 looks to have dissipated entirely along with any fuzzy feelings that former coach Juergen Klinsmann may have instilled in the team.
We saw the first taste of discontent at Euro 2008 when Michael Ballack and the oh-so-smug Oliver Bierhoff almost came to blows after the whistle blew on that fateful final day. Watching the robust Ballack and the dandy Bierhoff being pulled apart by team mates was more exciting than the previous 90 minutes of soccer. It also signaled the end of the Klinsmann era of harmony and happiness.
If that wasn't enough, the feud between the general manager and the captain bubbled on until very recently when they agreed to bury the hatchet (not, as some assumed, in one head or the other).
Next up to rock the boat was Kevin Kuranyi who spat the dummy over being left out of the team against Russia earlier this month. KK showed his displeasure and the childish nature of the overblown soccer ego by storming out of the stadium in a huff.
This was followed by a statement from Torsten Frings which implied that he was willing to turn his back on his country after what appeared to be a number of snubs by coach Loew.
Which brings us to the latest reports of friction from the Germany camp. Michael Ballack again finds himself on the wrong side of the management by siding with Frings and demanding that senior international players of his and his midfield partner's ilk deserve more r-e-s-p-e-c-t (just a little bit).
On the one hand, if someone has served their country for many years with loyalty and passion then, yes, of course they deserve to be told whether they feature in the current coach's future plans.
But on the other, shouldn't the experience and knowledge of age tell these players that they are dealing with a coach who knows full well that by the time the 2010 World Cup comes round, some of his older legs will have very little running left in them?
Maybe instead of negating the whole concept of respect by airring these grievances in the press, Frings and Co. should take their issues up directly with the boss.
Respect is a two-way street. If you want respect, you go to your boss and you tell him your situation and then listen to his side of things. Respect means you accept the decisions of those paid to make them and stay and watch your team, not flounce out of the stadium like the worst kind of pampered diva.
While the soap opera the Germany team is currently becoming makes them a little more interesting -- at last -- it is also sad to watch. To see the German players behave like spoilt brats just confirms that no-one is immune to the curse of the inflated ego. I for one never thought Germany would turn out to be just like all the rest.
|Looks like Kevin Kuranyi is gone for good, and rumors of Torsten Frings packing his things are also growing. But who will be next? Soccer experts try to look into their crystal balls to read Jogi Loew's mind, but they'd have a much easier time if they looked at the breakfast table instead.
Players on the German national team are suffering from the Nutella Curse. One German paper even called the chocolate-hazelnut cream spread "The dark power of German soccer."
So what makes a creamy Nutella so dangerous? Seems that the players who appear in its TV ads keep disappearing from the national team.
Here are a few examples:
Benny Lauth: one of the first victims. He's moved from the national team to long bus trips in the second division with 1860 München. As a one-time candidate for the national ski team, maybe he's wishing he made a different choice?
Andreas Hinkel: on the team, injured, off the team but, apparently still in the back of the coach's mind. But that sounds like more of a placating measure than an actual hope to be called up.
Tim Borowski: one-time great hope of the national team and successor to captain Michael Ballack, Tim hasn't put a foot on the pitch since the European Championships.
Marcell Jansen: Without much of a chance of taking the field in Bayern, Marcell left for Hamburg and earned a spot on the national team but injured his thigh in a training session before the team's game against Russia and is likely out for at least another four weeks.
Arne Friedrich: Watch yourself Arne! You're the only one still playing well. Maybe it's time to reconsider your advertising appearances?
For its part, Nutella told German media it would continue broadcasting its current set of ads with Kuranyi and other under/non-performing national team players. Kuranyi's caricature still features prominently on Nutella’s Web site.
At least if Germany's once-legends-to-be end up on riding the bench (or worse) for the long haul, they'll be able to find consolation in a delicious chocolate spread.
|No one would have predicted that eight weeks into the season the two top title candidates, Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen, would be mucking about in the bottom half of the table. But there they are, sandwiched between the likes of Cologne and Karlsruhe.
To appreciate how worried the bosses are at Bayern, just look at the players coach Juergen Klinsmann picked for last weekend's away match against Karlsruhe: a back four, two defensive midfielders, and -- nominally at least -- only four offensively oriented players.
This is the same Klinsmann, who, when he took over the German national team ahead of the 2006 World Cup, never tired of preaching his philosophy of modern attacking football.
Yet he nominates a squad that screams "damage control" against one of the smallest clubs in the Bundesliga. Klinsi seems to have realized that the team he manages may be star-studded, but the collective adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Bayern barely eked a 1-nil win -- and commercial manager took out his frustration on a reporter who had the temerity to ask, after the match, whether the victory was fortunate. The irony was that the journalist worked for Bayern Munich's own TV station.
Werder Bremen have no problems with being too defensively orientated. In fact they seem to have forgotten about defense entirely, having conceded a league worst 19 goals this season -- or almost two-and-a-half per game.
Now under coach Thomas Schaaf, Bremen have always been a squad that would rather win 3-2 than 1-nil. But their inability to keep the ball away from their own net in the final minutes has left them hemorrhaging points, as was the case on Saturday when they allowed Dortmund a last second equalizer.
In fact, Werder can thank their lucky stars that they eked our a 5-4 win over second-placed Hoffenheim earlier in the year, having allowed the upstarts to come back from a 4-1 deficit and having themselves gone a man down.
It's not a good sign when three-goal leads aren't safe. In the past, Bremen could afford to be generous at the back late in matches. This year they can't, as their 2-3-2 record attests. In fact the only team they've beat convincingly thus far...
...is Klinsi's toothless Bayern.
|After Nuremberg tossed him out in what could have been their hour of greatest need shortly before being relegated to the second division last season, Borrusia Moenchengladbach convinced Hans Meyer to take over until 2010.
Meyer will replace Dutchman Jos Luhukay. Luhukay had the team roster ripped from his hands earlier this month after the club grabbed just three points from their opening six matches. Stand-in coach Christian Ziege, who led the team to a point Friday against Bochum, said he wanted to leave the pitch and go back to his office job as the club's sporting director.
Players seem, obviously, to be looking forward to having Meyer at the helm. He's got a proven record for turning around teams loitering dangerously near the relegation zone.
"From what I've heard he's a real agitator," defender Alexander Voigt told German soccer magazine Kicker. "It's definitely going to be an experience."
Meyer left a happy retirement to take the reigns at Nuremberg while the team was at the bottom of the league in November 2005 and turned the team around to an eighth-place finish and raised the German Cup the in 2007 with a 3-2 win over Stuttgart.
Then a short bad stretch hit him in Nuremberg. Meyer was let go and the team was relegated to the second division.
At his first job since leaving the Bavarian team, Meyer, who coached the club from September 1999 to March 2003, took a positive view of the situation when issuing his expectations of the team.
"Seven or eight teams aren't better than us," he told Kicker. "The on-the-pitch substance is there."
|The Bundesliga 18 teams' fan liaisons have had nearly two months (much longer than I originally anticipated) to fill me in on why I should support their team. Sadly, the results weren't quite as passionate as I'd been hoping for.
Testimonials came in from (in order received): Bielefeld, Wolfsburg, Hanover, Berlin and Schalke.
Despite out-of-office replies from Bochum and Stuttgart (who sent a pair of automatic responses), I'm putting them on the list with Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Moenchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, Energie Cottbus, Hamburg, Hoffenheim, Karlsruhe, Cologne and Werder Bremen as unworthy of my fandom for failing to reply to a desperate would-be fan's call for help.
Hanover takes the Press Release Award for copy-and-paste response from their Web site describing the team's long history, successes since 1938, arena size and a somewhat pleading request that I join in supporting their team.
The fan’s Diplomacy Award goes to Wolfsburg.
There are no advantages or disadvantages to any particular Bundesliga team. Fandom is a matter of the heart and normally results from a visit to the Bundesliga stadium. That's why I don't want to convince you that VfL Wolfsburg is the one and only true Bundesliga team. No team in the Bundesliga -- or even in the entire world -- can lay claim to that title.
Well, if that's your answer, then fine. I'll head somewhere else.
Even in the face of that carefully worded response from Wolfsburg, it's Bielefeld who win the title for most friendly and passionate example of (realistic) low expectations.
"THAT'S a good test," Christian Venghaus wrote:
Lots of people dedicate themselves to successful things -- and it's the same in soccer. Here at Arminia we're modest and know where our boundaries are.
That we will NEVER be German champions shouldn't been seen as a negative -- it shows a high degree of self-appraisal and creates a bond among fans.
Arminia moves you! One trip to the Alm in the SchücoArena and you'll be infected!
Christian may not set the fandom bar very high, but he'll never be accused of being a fair-weather fan. Bielefeld fans also get plus points for showing that win, lose or tie, they'd be fun to go out and have a beer with after the game. Partially negating these positives is a niggling apprehension about exactly what I might be infected by in Arminia's stadium.
Like Christian, Hertha Berlin's fan liaison, Hans-Georg Felder, extended a personal invitation to show me around the grounds on my next trip to the German capital.
Schalke's message, from the Boston-based international fan liaison Michael Bastian, took the most offensive position. Michael argued that the Royal Blues have the "most committed fan base in all of Germany." He may get some grief from other teams about that statement, but no one will disagree with the following, "We have been through a lot of ups and downs, but our support and commitment to the club is never lacking."
Honestly, I can't say the five responses I got really convinced me to lend my undying support to any of the teams.
So I'm not going to. At least not right now.
I'll be using this season to watch the teams more closely -- with a particular eye at the top of the table on Schalke and, hopefully not too low in the rankings on Bielefeld. And with a little luck I'll be able to take the fan liaisons up on their offers to check out their stadiums and cities.
Stay tuned for more the in-depth reports and, as always, leave a comment to let me know which team you think deserves special attention. Voting will also remain open until I make a final decision.
|On the surface, the news on Thursday that Germany’s current number 1, Robert Enke, had broken his hand ahead of this weekend’s match against Russia was a shock. But it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Leverkusen’s René Adler will likely replace Enke between the posts, and don’t be surprised if the change becomes permanent. Many people have been touting the talented 23-year-old as Germany’s keeper of the future, and his record in the Bundesliga is excellent.
Adler is the sort of offensive-minded keeper every coach likes, someone who not only stops shots, but understands how to kick-start the counter-attack with long balls.
Plus, whatever Enke’s merits, he’s no Ollie Kahn or Jens Lehmann in terms of on-the-pitch personality. Adler, whose acrobatic style has pundits often playing on the fact that his last name means “eagle,” is better suited to inspiring his teammates.
So I doubt Jogi Loew is really all that concerned about the lack of Enke.
For bigger soccer countries, qualifications are as much about finding the best squad for the tournament itself as racking up enough points to come first or second in your group.
Adler, I predict, is one youngster who’ll be promoted in South Africa in 2010. Another pipsqueak to keep an eye on is Bremen's Mesut Oezil.
Just a few days shy of his 20th birthday, the midfielder is enjoying a breakthrough season for Werder Bremen. He’s scored three goals thus far, all of them the sort of mid-range blasts that would help energize an area of the German team currently in need of a bit more bite.
Oezil is eligible to play for both Germany and Turkey. So it was good news that the midfielder has resisted calls for Ankara and is suited up for the German Under-21s this weekend.
If he maintains his form, count on Loew inviting Oezil to play with the big boys, thus securing his services for Germany for years to come. History shows that older teams rarely thrive in major competitions, and if Germany are to do some damage in South Africa, they’ll need young talents like Adler and Oezil.
|After finishing a review of the scathing remarks the rest of the German press had for Juergen Klinsmann after his first 100 days at the head of Bayern Munich, here's my appraisal.
There are a few reasons to expect neither Klinsi nor Bayern's management to adhere to the soccer's traditional logic of kill the coach as soon as the team falters.
The main reason is one of priorities. Even if the current situation speaks against it, Bayern has the talent to beat the rest of the Bundesliga. Short of outplaying teams on the pitch, Munich has also established a tradition of ensuring their reputation as Bavarian giants by buying up league players performing better than their own. Lukas Podolski a few seasons ago and Miroslav Klose now are just two of the more recent examples.
But, ultimately, the Bundesliga is not the place where Bayern, or Klinsmann, really wants to make a mark. The team sees Europe as the stage where it wants to be in the spotlight, and that's where Klinsmann, along with the rest of his 11-man coaching team and team management have set their priority.
And there's enough work for them to do.
Bayern want to put an end to their long European hiatus and get back into the European elite after an embarrassing end at the hands of Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Cup and an ongoing Champions League drought. Historians need to go back to 2001 to remember the last time Bayern reached the semi-finals.
That's one reason why after securing enough points to stay first in their Champions League group, Bayern could return to Germany -- little more than a province on the European soccer map -- and let Klinsmann experiment with lineups (he hasn't started the same 11 players in any of Bayern's matches) and ways coax talent out of his players before facing their upcoming European competition.
Bayern's management knew the team would be in for a rocky transition with Klinsmann coming and team leader Oliver "King" Kahn moving on to TV consulting job. But they decided to take a chance at European glory rather than simply continuing to dominate in Germany. It's not as if Klinsmann arrived in Munich with a long, star-studded resume, but in his biggest coaching endeavor he proved he can get players to perform.
He impressed the world by successfully turning around the German national team and leading it to third place in the 2006 World Cup where he had the freedom to experiment with a variety of lineups during qualification since Germany was automatically given a tournament berth. But he's never coached a club team and never been subject to the demands of amassing league points with solid showing week in and week out will continue to be his biggest challenge.
Hopes that can deliver some European silverware over the long term, and put in an impressive performance now, and the expectation that his experiments with yield the right team chemistry by the end of the season to deliver the Bundesliga title to Munich again, are driving Bayern to stand behind Klinsmann after a less-than-spectacular first 100 days with the team.
Then again, you also need to stand behind a man to knife him in the back. We'll have to see how this one ends.
|Croatian strikers Ivica Olic and Mladen Petric struck as visiting SV Hamburg defeated Energie Cottbus 2-1 to open up a three-point lead at the top of the German Bundesliga on Sunday.
Petric headed a last-minute winner for Hamburg to give Martin Jol's side - who went into the weekend programme a point ahead - a fifth league victory and 16 points after seven games.
Olic mopped up from close-range following a shot from Jose Paolo Guerrero which keeper Gerhard Tremmel could only parry to put Hamburg ahead in the 54th minute at Cottbus.
A draw was on the cards after Branko Jelic levelled 20 minutes later, but Croatia team-mate Petric headed home in the 90th minute from a Piotr Trochowski corner to give Hamburg a first-ever win at the eastern Germans.
"We were clearly better and normally you should win a game like that by two or three goals. At the end it was clearly deserved, but difficult," Jol said.
Petric, who scored both goals in a 2-0 UEFA Cup win at Romanian side Unirea Urziceni on Thursday, has now six goals in his last four appearances for Hamburg after joining pre-season from Dortmund.
"I am just glad it's going so well at the moment, I am not thinking about the reasons why," he said.
Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund both lost ground after being held to home draws.
Schalke snatched an injury-time equalizer to rescue a 2-2 draw at home to Wolfsburg, while Borussia Dortmund missed a chance to go top after being held 1-1 by visiting Hanover.
Wolfsburg had a man sent off at Schalke who salvaged a point with a goal from Kevin Kuranyi three minutes into stoppage time.
Kuranyi had put the home side ahead in the 20th minute but Edin Dzeko levelled six minutes after the break and Brazilian striker Caiuby notched a second just after the hour.
Wolfsburg defender Ricardo Costa was sent off for bringing down Heiko Westermann in the area, only for Diego Benaglio to stretch to his right to save the 72nd-minute penalty from Rafinha.
It looked like a second successive defeat for Schalke until Kuranyi's late leveller from close range, with the striker taking an attempted shot from keeper Manuel Neuer who had moved into the opposing box for a corner.
Borussia Dortmund were held to a 1-1 draw by Hanover and had good reason to complain after a goal was not given although the ball had crossed the line.
Nelson Valdez took a pass from Jakub Blaszczykowski and with a clever feint gave himself room to fire Dortmund ahead in the 10th minute.
The home side thought they had a second eight minutes later when a Robert Kovac header was half parried by Robert Enke in goal before the keeper clawed the ball away.
Television pictures showed the ball had clearly crossed the line before the keeper cleared, but referee Wolfgang Stark waved Dortmund protests away.
Hanover then punished the home side when Mikael Forssell took a cross from Steven Cherundolo and belted the ball into the roof of the net with a side-on volley.
Hoffenheim and Stuttgart, who both won on Saturday, are now second and third on 13 points, while Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke and Dortmund are a further point behind.
Stuttgart were 4-1 winners over Werder Bremen, while Hoffenheim overcame Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 in games on Saturday.
Champions Bayern Munich were held 3-3 at home to leave Juergen Klinsmann's side in midtable, five points behind leaders Hamburg.
Bottom side Borussia Moenchengladbach meanwhile Sunday dismissed coach Jos Luhukay after Saturday's 2-1 home defeat to Cologne, their sixth defeat in seven league games.