As football fans, nothing captures the imagination quite like a dramatic title race. Who can forget the closing day of the 2000/01 season, when Schalke were edged out at the death by Bayern Munich in what is one of the most epic and tragic moments in football history.
But nowadays, excitement has become the exception rather than the norm when it comes to deciding league winners in Europe. True, Manchester City, Liverpool and the two Milan teams served up heavyweight battles last season, but spiralling inequality has led to a detached class of elite clubs who hog all the silverware. And nowhere has this inequality of opportunity been more egregious than in Germany. The Scottish league is the butt of many jokes, but at least one of two teams can win the title, and neither have ever managed to rack up ten in a row.
While the Bundesliga in many ways serves as the model example of what football should be like – with its forward-thinking coaches, exciting attacking play, meaningful connection between fans and clubs and unbeatable matchday experience – the lack of competition at the top is a major problem. While relegation battles and the race for Europe can serve up drama and surprises, can they ever really compare to the tension and high stakes that come when the biggest prize is up for grabs? After all, no child dreams of one day scoring the goal that clinches Conference League qualification.
Domestic football leagues are a product of a time before globalisation, when a relatively even spread of national resources and popularity ensured a healthy level of competition. Now, in the era of super clubs with global fanbases, this self-regulating system has been left in the dust. The result is that most leagues are boring and predictable, at least when it comes to deciding a winner. The Super League project was a disgraceful attempt at an elite power grab, but as painful as it may be to admit, it’s easy to see where the big clubs were coming from. Like it or not, the game finds itself locked in a battle for attention on the global market, and if a product isn’t serving up enough entertainment value, then eyes will wander elsewhere.
Let’s look at the NBA as an example. In an average NBA season, there are generally about eight teams with a realistic shot at winning the championship. Talking over their various strengths and weaknesses is far more interesting than debating if Bayern will need a rebuild for next season because they’ve drawn a couple of games in mid-February.
While the do-or-die, it-all-comes-down-to-this nature of US sports can seem manufactured and a bit too American for European sporting sensibilities, it undeniably provides excitement, which is surely what all sports fans crave? The Bundesliga, in its current form, increasingly looks incapable of delivering this. So why not try something completely different, such as a playoff system to decide who gets to lift the trophy at the end of the season?
For many football purists, this may seem like sacrilege. And they may have a point; after all, there is no fairer way to decide who the deserving champions are than by having each team play one another home and away and then seeing who gets the most points. But it’s not as if playoffs are unprecedented in football – lots of leagues use them to determine promotion and relegation, and they’ve become an accepted and widely-enjoyed part of the landscape.
Furthermore, using playoffs to determine the champions of Germany would in fact mark a return to tradition as opposed to a radical leap into the unknown. Prior to the inauguration of the Bundesliga in 1963, German football was divided into different regional leagues, with the winners and runners-up of the regions entering a knock-out tournament to battle it out for the chance to be crowned national champions.
With the Bundesliga turning 60 next year, experimenting with playoffs for the 23/24 season would be a fun way to pay homage to the past while giving teams other than Bayern a shot at lifting the trophy.
But how would you implement this while still maintaining the competitive integrity of the regular Bundesliga season? Under the following system, last season’s league table would have given us the following playoff bracket.
Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, Union Berlin, Freiburg, FC Köln and Mainz all qualify. The higher a team’s position in the standings, the higher their seed for the playoffs. In the first round, the highest-seeded team (Bayern) face the lowest seed (Mainz), the second seed (BVB) face the seventh (Köln), third play sixth and fourth face fifth. In each case, the higher seed would play at home, and this would continue into the subsequent rounds. Bayern would be rewarded for their first-place finish with the advantage of playing all their games – including a potential final – at the Allianz Arena, while also getting the easiest route to the final by avoiding the second and third seeds.
Naysayers would raise the already-packed calendar as a stumbling block, but finalists would only play three additional fixtures, bringing their total to 37 for the season. This is still one fewer than teams in all other “big five” European leagues, meaning it would be possible to accommodate with a few adjustments to the schedule.
Of course, sod’s law dictates that if they were to try this format for a season, Bayern would have an off year and finish in third place only to storm back to full strength in the playoffs to claim their 12th straight title. Nonetheless, football, as perfect as it is in so many ways, shouldn’t be afraid to try new things in a shifting entertainment landscape.