So Bayern Munich won the German Bundesliga following a win against Hertha Berlin. It is the 23rd time the Bavarian club has claimed the title – and the third time in the past five years. This year is particularly remarkable as the title has been won in March, with a record seven matches of the season still remaining. Bayern’s players have now won 19 league games in a row.
Bayern may be unusually good this year, but such domination is nevertheless familiar across European football: Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the La Liga title 54 times between them and regularly defeat other Spanish sides with embarrassing ease. In England, Manchester United has won the Premier League 13 times in its 22-year history, and the Italian title has been taken 29 times by Juventus.
This success has created an iconography and a mythology for these clubs, enabling them to capture the public’s attention and to build commercial empires across the world.
The allure of dominant clubs is undoubted: elite professional athletes at the peak of their careers, with the sort of team dynamic all coaches strive for. With it comes glitz and glamour, heroes and role models.
But many people object to this view: domination brings predictability, meaning sport that is monotonously dull, bereft of emotion, and just plain boring. Should we therefore love or loathe the likes of Bayern Munich and the metronomic success of coaches such as Pep Guardiola?
Guardiola’s Munich, and the Barcelona side he managed previously, have provoked a debate about whether football is a sport or a form of entertainment. In this pre-packaged era where consumers demand consistent product quality, Bayern – and Guardiola’s Barcelona before them – bring a Hollywood franchise-like presence to football.
No matter where you are, no matter when, you are always going to get the same thing – certainty and consistency. Whether watching a Star Wars prequel, the latest Spider-Man or Bayern taking on Hertha, you get the stars, the drama and a happy ending.
For many people, this makes “consuming” sport so much easier: you know what you are going to get when you spend your money. No worries, no doubts, and with added psychological benefits too. Being a fan of a great, successful team allows you to bask in reflected glory – your team looks good, so you do too.
The problem is some sport fans want their football as some people want their films: possibly blood-curdling, often horror filled and unpredictable to the last. After all, this has always been the essence of sport: a titanic struggle, an unpredictable battle, the outcome never certain until the last minute.
As academic research illustrates, this is what draws many people to sport in the first place. Nowhere else can such uncertainty be found, especially in the way it provokes drama and collective emotions. There may not be a happy ending, yet sport invariably brings excitement and joy, pain and tears.
One might argue that sporting domination is inevitable and has characterised sport across the ages. Consider the AC Milan team of the 1980s – Gullit, Baresi, van Basten and all – then compare this to the situation AC now finds itself in, 12th in the league with players forced to explain themselves to angry fans. Perhaps there is a natural cycle governing the rise and fall of dominant teams in sport?
Rich get richer
An alternative view is that 21st-century sport simply reflects the type of industrial concentration evident elsewhere. Just as English football wrestles with issues of its domination by a small number of big clubs, so British retailing is similarly dominated. Where once there were a large number of food stores now big chains dominate. Perhaps the likes of Bayern Munich are simply more efficient and better managed than other clubs, just like Tesco and Sainsbury’s once rose to dominance through out-competing their rivals.
Many people in Britain nevertheless bemoan the demise of their local food stores and the need to drive miles to faceless outlets located in business parks on the outskirts of towns – so too football fans. In the face of domination, authorities could take a more interventionist stance and alter the balance of power.
In football, one intention of UEFA’s much debated Financial Fair Play initiative is to reduce domination by a small number of clubs and bring about greater balance in European football. This means working to ensure the top clubs do not simply buy their success.
North American sport is founded on such interventionist measures; indeed, some commentators wryly observe that in the world’s biggest free-market economy sport is run according to socialist principles. Salary-caps, revenue sharing and draft picks for the best young players maintain competition and guard against Bayern levels of domination.
Whether or not intervention in sport by bodies like UEFA is either necessary or desirable brings us back to the central premise: sport as entertainment for consumers, or sport as uncertainty (and possibly pain) for fans?
Many diehards will scream the latter; but as sport, its markets and its target audiences globalise, cradle-to-grave fans of a team cannot assume that people in places like China and South Korea will want the same things. While traditional fans back in Europe may secretly revel in the torpor of underachievement, the followers of Western teams in Beijing and Seoul go in search of the luxury, status, consistency and certainty of success.
So yet another Bayern Munich victory might be bemoaned by football supporters in Dortmund and Berlin, Manchester and Madrid (particularly if the Champions League goes to Bayern again this season). But fans in the cafes and bars of Gangnam and Sanlitun will rejoice in the status their association with the German club brings them, and the Hollywood-like entertainment they’re served up, week after week.