This article was originally published on February 26, 2016, and republished without changes in February 2018.
There’s a saying in soccer: If you don’t concede any goals, you can’t lose.
That defensive mindset aptly describes the situation in Germany’s top-tier league, the Bundesliga, where clubs are strategizing how to ward off a raid on their top players by rivals in England’s deep-pocketed Premier League.
For most of them, it could be a mission impossible.
With the start of the 2016-17 season, Premier League clubs will have even more cash to spend on buying players, thanks to the league’s record broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky satellite TV firm and rival newcomer BT Sport. It’ worth £5.16 billion (€6.52 billion, $7.2 billion), or £10 million per game, for three seasons. That’s a hefty 71 percent increase over the £3.01 billion paid for the three previous seasons.
By the look of things, a good chunk of that money will end up in Germany.
“The English clubs have their pockets full of cash and are really interested in the Bundesliga, a top league, which many view as more attractive than the French and Spanish leagues,” said Franco Moretti, a licensed players’ agent with International Football Management.
I thought the tipping point was a few years ago but obviously with BT starting to bid, that has changed. Dietmar "Didi" Hamann, Former Liverpool player
If last summer’s deals are any indication, Bundesliga managers should brace for an English raid.
The total sum of deals in Germany during the summer transfer window was €479 million, which more than doubled a single-season league record. The Premier League accounted for the majority of business. Chief among the deals was the €76 million transfer of playmaker Kevin de Bruyne from Volkswagen-sponsored VfL Wolfsburg to Manchester City.
After spending in the shorter January transfer window is included, the Premier League’s transfer outlay for the 2015-16 season so far is £1.045 billion – another new record.
Because of the amounts of money broadcasters and clubs are willing to spend in the United Kingdom, many speak of a football bubble, not unlike the one that elevated and later devastated the global Internet and U.S. real estate sectors.
“I thought the tipping point was a few years ago,” said Dietmar “Didi” Hamann, a former player with top German side Bayern Munich who later joined Liverpool FC in England and now works as a commentator with Sky. “But obviously with BT starting to bid, that has changed. And unless one of the competitors says ‘I’ve had enough,’ things will go on.”
Mr. Hamann spoke of continued huge demand for securing the soccer broadcasting rights. If Sky or BT should decide not to bid, “then maybe Google or someone else will – it’s a global event,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
But the former star player warned of an “identity crisis” of English clubs “whose fans can’t afford the games anymore” and whose stadiums aren’t “rocking” the way they used to.
“If I took you to a game in England now and blindfolded you and then took you to one in Germany blindfolded, you would say the England game was the German game and vice versa,” he said.
The Bundesliga, with its fan-owned clubs, full stadiums and cheap tickets, has taken pride in being an alternative football model to the oligarch, sheikh and U.S. equity investor-driven Premier League.
But many managers in Germany now see a need to raise more revenue to prevent the Bundesliga from becoming what they refer to as “a training league for English clubs.”
“We’re at the beginning of a new era,” Max Eberl, the Borussia Mönchengladbach sport director, told the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication. “The next two to three years will set the pace. If we can’t keep up, the gap could be too big to close.”
Mr. Eberl referred to the Bundesliga as “the best league in the world” when it comes to stadium infrastructure, professional training and fan support, but it still lags far behind the Premier League financially.
Konstantin Liolios, a players‘ agent with KL Sportsbase, agrees. The money English clubs are willing to pay for players “is clearly a disadvantage for the Bundesliga,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition, adding that German teams “have exhausted all other incentives” for retaining players offered more.
The terrifying prices paid by richer leagues and the difficulty of filling the gaps left by departing stars are the Bundesliga’s main concerns. Wolfsburg’s general manager, Klaus Allofs, described Mr. de Bruyne’s move to Manchester City as “astonishing” and in the same breadth “particularly wounding.”
The club is currently 8th in the table, after finishing second behind Bayern Munich last season and winning a coveted spot in the Champions League. Mr. de Bruyne’s presence is sorely missed.
Other teams may soon feel the pinch, too. Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp, for instance, signed Joel Matip from FC Schalke 04 for the coming season. And the defender and Cameroon national squad member is only the first of several new players he hopes to win over as he rebuilds the team.
His shopping list is rumored to include Schalke midfielder Leroy Sané, striker Granit Xhaka of Borussia Mönchengladbach and striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund – Mr. Klopp’s former club. A few of his English rivals, however, are also interested in all three players in what could become a costly bidding war.
Mr. Klopp, himself a transfer from the Bundesliga and only the second German ever to coach a team in the Champions League, left for England knowing he’d not only make more, but also be able to spend more on players than in Dortmund.
The same applies to Pep Guardiola, the Spanish coach who will leave Bayern Munich at the end of the season for Manchester City. His shopping list is anyone’s guess but one name will certainly be missing – Thomas Müller. The Munich club’s chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge referred to the Bavarian icon as “unsaleable.”
The Premier League’s spending in the January transfer window reached a five-year high of £175 million, according to a report by the sport business unit of the consultancy Deloitte.
And in the next transfer window, the one or other English club may go for another record. “In summer, there will most likely be a transfer for over €100,000, breaking the record set by Gareth Bale,” Raffaele Poli, head of CIES Football Observatory, told Handelsblatt Global Edition
In 2013, Mr. Bale became the first player to cost €100 million when he transferred from England’s Tottenham Hotspur to Spain’s Real Madrid.
But some help is on the way for German clubs. A new TV contract will kick in at the start of the 2017-18 season and could be as high as €1.5 billion per season. In the current season, the league will generate €663 million and €673 million in the next.
“If the Bundesliga had the same possibilities to generate revenue as the Premier League, it would do the same,” Mr. Liolios said.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering sports and politics. To contact the author: [email protected]