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August 24, 2013
Fifty years ago, on 24 August 1963 the Bundesliga was kicked off. It put an end to an obsolete system consisting of five regional leagues whose eight best teams then qualified for a final tournament leading to the championship final. It also introduced professionalism officially in Germany, although there had of course been a lot of money around in football since the 1920s.
Compared to other national leagues, the Bundesliga was a real latecomer, born over thirty years after the leagues in Spain (1928), Italy (1929) and France (1932), not to mention England, where professional football has had its national league since 1888. But this late birth is probably the best thing that could happen to her (please note that the Bundesliga is female in German, like her Spanish, Italian and French big sisters): the fact that there has never been a ‘Reichsliga’, that there are no pictures of Nazi dignitaries handing over the ‘salad bowl’ trophy (introduced in 1949) to the winning teams, that her name is so evidently linked to the ‘Bundes-Republik’ probably explains much of her immense popular success.
It is difficult for a foreigner to seize the affective connotation of the word ‘Bundesliga’. When you ask Germans abroad – a researcher in his/her American university lab, the engineer on mission in China – what they miss most in their exile, they almost systematically mention the Bundesliga, along with independent quality media, the public services of the welfare state, or the traditional loaf of ‘Schwarzbrot’. And within Germany, whether you like it or not, it is difficult to escape. No TV news show, no daily or weekly paper, even the most ‘serious’ ones, can afford to do without its results or current news stories.
For those who were born between the 50s and 70s, the Bundesliga has become a part of the German post-war narrative. As the philosopher Gunter Gebauer once remarked, ‘stories about the Bundesliga are at the same time epical stories about the Federal Republic’. Beyond the persisting regionalism that divides the country on administrative, linguistic and cultural levels, the Bundesliga has managed to create a ‘sentimental geography’ that ‘organises emotions’ across all social classes.
The emotional dimension of the term is best illustrated in the fact that despite several highly interesting offers the League has so far resisted all temptations to sell her name. They luckily also missed all opportunities to fiddle around with the format: brought to 18 teams in its third season in 1965 the Bundesliga has always remained the same (with the brief transitory exception of the 20-club post-reunification season 1991-92).
The 50th anniversary of the Bundesliga has already produced a real torrent of publications over the last twelve months, all along the 50th season that Bayern and Dortmund had the good taste to crown with an all-German Champions League final. The vast majority of the books were simple collections of milestones, portraits and anecdotes, many of them pleasant to read. One, however, clearly stands out: Nils Havemann’s patiently researched ‘Samstags um halb vier’ (‘Saturday half past three’), whose 650 pages are the product of over three years of patient and meticulous work in more than thirty different archives. His book is a real contribution to a better understanding of how the history of professional football in Germany is intertwined with the history of the Federal Republic itself, especially with its much-quoted but often misinterpreted principles of social market economy.
Nils’ work is well worth a blogpost of its own. Celebrating a milestone in contemporary German history, it has good chances to become a milestone itself.