Bayern Munich is winning the battle for German soccer supremacy but may be losing the war

A Dortmund player for how much longer?
A Dortmund player for how much longer?
Image: Reuters/Ina Fassbender
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In 2012, the soccer club Borussia Dortmund won both the German championship and the DFB Cup. The next year, the team made it all the way to the final of the European Champion’s League, only to be narrowly beaten by its German rival, Bayern Munich. Munich, which has won the German title 24 times and the European Cup five times, did not take kindly to Dortmund challenging it for the right to rule German soccer—so it raided Dortmund’s cupboards and took their best fine china.

Dortmund’s reversal of fortune has been swift. Now the team sits at the bottom of the Bundesliga with only seven points, its worst start ever. Munich is the leader, with 24 points. Rarely has a championship-winning team been undermined so quickly by its biggest competitor. Mario Gotze—he of the winning goal in the final of  the World Cup— was acquired for $50 million in 2013, and this was cruelly announced just before the Champion’s League final between the two teams. In January, Munich signed the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski on a free transfer, meaning Dortmund got no compensation for a player that scored 101 goals in 185 appearances for it, peaking by scoring all four goals in Dortmund’s 4-1 destruction of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

And Munich has plans to sign more players. Munich recently revealed that Dortmund winger Marco Reus has a 25-million-euro ($31-million) buyout clause in his contract from this summer, which prompted this retort from Dortmund: “Sometimes it’s better if people would shut up.” The relationship between the two clubs is at a low as Dortmund resents Munich using its financial firepower to entice players that it developed. ”Bayern Munich want to destroy us,” Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke has said. “There are players here at Dortmund who are happy to play for 20% less money. But that’s not the case when we’re talking about 50% less money.” To add insult to injury, Munich even signed Gotze’s two brothers from Dortmund—for free.

All is fair in love and war, right? But sport needs competition to be interesting. There is actually a danger that by destroying its biggest rivals, a team can end up dominating the league to the point that fans lose interest. The Guardian reported that former Munich president Uli Hoeness, currently in jail on tax evasion charges, warned the Munich coach and CEO against peaking too early and robbing the second half of the season of its drama: “Do you want to be champions at Christmas time?” he reportedly told them when they visited him in prison.

Munich is not the only sports team to do this. Across the pond, the New York Yankees baseball team has a reputation for buying good players who have caused them trouble in opposition colors—examples include CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. Many of the current squad of the English soccer champion Manchester City comes from Arsenal, who found and cultivated young players only to see them leave for more money at the Etihad. But those teams are in competitive leagues. Munich dominates its league—it has won eight of the last 13 titles and won the league in record time last year. Compared to England, the Bundesliga is already quite boring.

In England, any one of five teams can reasonably be said to be in the hunt for the championship—and foreign ownership has spurred a battle over investment in players and new stadiums that makes the Premier League ever more competitive. ”The reason five teams can win the Premier League? Owner investment,” writes the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuels. “If Munich can routinely plunder the second-biggest club in Germany for players, how can they ever lose?”

Dortmund’s fans are keeping the faith at the moment with Jurgen Klopp, the brilliant young coach who took over Dortmund in 2008 and won the 2011 title with the youngest team in Bundesliga history. But will fans keep driving seven hours from England to watch the games if Dortmund is in a relegation battle and Munich has wrapped up the title before 2015 has even started?