THE BLOG
05/20/2013 12:29 pm ET

The Political and Cultural Subtext of the Bayern Munich - Borussia Dortmund UEFA Champions League Final

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By Martin Krauss and Andrei S. Markovits

Well beyond soccer and sports, much of the world's attention will be fixated this Saturday on Wembley Stadium where -- for the very first time in the pedigreed history of this tournament -- Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will play for the title of Champion of Europe. This is a huge event by any measure: the most important game in arguably the best soccer tournament in the world in which the absolute very best professional clubs with the very best players play each other for nearly ten months to determine the eventual winner. Some -- us included -- regard the quality of soccer produced in this tournament -- and thus in its final game -- as the world's best bar none surpassing that of the World Cup; the latter is contested by hastily assembled all-star teams whose players share little in common other than passports, and lack the long-term coherence and familiarity with each other that collaborating in these clubs on a weekly basis in seasons with anywhere from forty to sixty games provides.

By featuring for the first time in its history two teams from Germany as its finalists, this event has attained yet another dimension of importance and magnitude. The crescendo of the public discourse about this match in Germany is anchored in the widely-held view that this intra-country showdown is unique and reflects a certain qualitative edge, if not superiority, of German soccer, perhaps even of other features in the German political economy and culture. Once the two contestants had qualified, voices in Germany quickly de-Europeanized this game and rendered it an intra-German affair. Thus, Kicker, Germany's soccer publication of record, ran a cover featuring the German flag and the trophy itself which it labeled "our cup". Now it is no secret that sports, soccer in particular, have been massively intertwined with nationalism.

Germany is certainly no exception here. But still, if one looks at the other three cases in which teams from the same country contested the Champions League final -- Real Madrid and Valencia from Spain in 2000; Juventus and AC Milan from Italy in 2003; and Manchester United and Chelsea from England in 2008 -- there appears little, if any, of this nationalization of an international event. No Spanish, Italian and English publication of Kicker's standing declared the trophy "ours." And the national themes and overtones in the pre-game buildup that have been so overwhelming in the current German case were much more muted in the other three instances. Assuming that Germans are in no way more nationalistic than Spaniards, Italians or Englishmen, what then are the reasons for this difference in tone and demeanor?

Here are some plausible reasons:

First, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Germany's two best teams of the past decade, perhaps beyond, will meet in this showdown. Moreover, by dint of this consistent excellence in on-the-field quality, there developed a genuine rivalry between these two clubs that reach way beyond soccer. Thus, Bayern has become the darling of Germany's conservative elites among whose fans Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer are merely two of the most prominent. Borussia, on the other hand, has become the preferred club of social democracy's male modernizers with former Chancellor and Frau Merkel's direct predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder and her current main rival Peer Steinbrück often sporting scarves with Borussia's black-and-maize team colors. Furthermore, these two teams represent Germany's pronounced rival regions and traditions: Bayern standing for Bavaria (in the country's south) which does not even call itself a federal state but proudly sports the name "Freistaat" (free state), thus claiming a very special -- even haughty -- position in Germany's politics, economy and culture; Borussia hailing from Dortmund well to the north, representing the country's former industrial heartland of the Ruhr which has seen rough times in its transition from coal and steel production to a much more diversified economy, very similar to Pittsburgh whose Steelers, Penguins and Pirates share Borussia's colors to a T.

Nothing of the sort occurred in the previous three cases. Had Barcelona rather than Valencia been Real's opponent in 2000, in other words had the famed "Clasico" become the UEFA Champions League final, we are reasonably certain that the overall hype and hysteria would have far surpassed the rather muted tones at the time. Ditto with Manchester United and Chelsea. While major rivals, to be sure, the enmity did not come close to what would have been the case had United faced its archenemy Liverpool in which case, too, we would have seen much more ink spilled on the game being a "dream" final, a unique event. Whereas there is no love lost between Juventus and AC Milan, the latter's biggest enemy in the top-tier Italian league is cross-town rival Inter. In other words, were Bayern or Borussia to play, say, VfB Stuttgart or Bayer Leverkusen -- good sides but not each other's main rivals nor particularly popular with the German public beyond their immediate fandom -- we believe that the nationalist hype accompanying the current intra-German showdown would also be less acute than in this perfect-storm rivalry game.

Second, in the hierarchy of emotional attachment, we believe that in Spain, Italy, and England the degree of affection brought to bear towards one's club supersedes any and all feelings. Above all, one never harbors anything but complete contempt and hatred for one's immediate rivals and always wishes them ill. Indeed, this team-bound particularism always trumps any umbrella-like bridging provided by the national team. Team rivalries are deep in Germany, too, but they often are muted when a German team meets a team from another country in a major competition. Headlines such as "We are all Bayern tonight" that Germany's tabloid of record Bild screamed in huge letters on the day that Bayern met Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League Final in 2010 in Madrid would be unthinkable in its English counterpart. So would statements like these that are often heard in Germany when a German club plays internationally: "Oh, I had better support X even though I hate them." Unthinkable in England that an Arsenal or Liverpool fan utter anything remotely similar when United play a team from another country. Club rivalries in England are eternal and never superseded by any circumstance, certainly not appearances in international competitions. Ditto in Italy and Spain. In other words, in no case of the three previous intra-country showdowns did the national dimension of soccer culture approximate the intensity of its club-level partisanship.

Third, Bayern and Borussia will contest their match on the hallowed ground of Wembley Stadium, arguably one of the greatest icons of the game. Playing there lends this match an added aura of importance and charisma that playing in Paris (Real - Valencia in 2000) and Moscow (United - Chelsea in 2008) simply did not, although Juventus and AC Milan contested their game in 2003 on ground possibly every bit as saintly as Wembley: Manchester United's home ground of Old Trafford.

Lastly, one cannot separate the forthcoming intra-German showdown from the current overtones of intra-European politics and culture in which many Germans -- most certainly the country's governing elites -- believe that nobody does a better job in running an economy soundly and properly than the Germans and that others would do well to emulate them. Ditto with these two clubs -- and by extension the Bundesliga and German soccer as a whole -- who are convinced that their sound economic behavior and responsible financial comportment offer a far more equitable, efficient and morally superior model of governance to those pursued by flamboyant Russian oligarchs, showy Arab billionaires, and aloof American absentee owners with all their debt, financial wizardry and hocus pocus.

Martin Krauss is a Berlin based journalist who has written many articles and books on sports as well as politics. He has been a contributor to the JUEDISCHE ALLGEMEINE, the official publication of the German Jewish Community.