Packed stadiums, passion in spades and high-paced, state-of-the-art football are the current hallmarks of the Bundesliga in Germany, where a milestone season has just come to an end. It was the 50th edition of the modern top flight, and it was a campaign where countless records tumbled to new champions Bayern Munich, who emphatically accomplished their mission of wresting the title back from bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund.
But for all Bayern's dominance, it was also a campaign in which an almost forgotten striker silenced his critics, two unfancied sides claimed places in Europe on the back of fearless attacking play, a team that looked dead and buried by Christmas somehow preserved their top-flight status, and two German footballing greats said tearful farewells. FIFA.com reviews the six most newsworthy aspects of an extraordinary season.
All-conquering Bayern sweep rivals aside
The stats show the men from Munich storming to the title by taking 91 of a possible 102 points. The new champions lost just once, a 2-1 home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen. They finished the season a yawning 25 points clear of runners-up Dortmund, and no fewer than 36 ahead of fourth-placed Schalke. And they were crowned after just 28 of the 34 matches, before finishing on a total of 29 wins. Bayern's 23rd German championship title was genuinely remarkable, reflecting a hitherto unseen dominance by any one particular club.
The setting of new records was much less important to men of the season Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic than the restoration of the traditional pecking order in the league, after Dortmund had seized the championship shield not once but twice in a row.
“Regardless of me making three, four or five changes to my team, you couldn't possibly have noticed. That was one of the secrets this season," reflected coach Jupp Heynckes. “Another was Bayern winning nothing for two years. That's also contributed to us playing such dominant and exceptional football."
As the nation knows, the last word for this season in the long-running feud between Bayern and Dortmund has not yet been spoken. Germany's top two meet again in Saturday's UEFA Champions League final at Wembley to contest Europe's biggest prize. “If we win, it won't make us the best team in the world, it means we’ll have beaten the best team in the world,” deadpanned BVB boss Jurgen Klopp.
Kiessling wins the cannon
Third place and a confirmed spot in next season's Champions League went to Leverkusen, in large part due to a renaissance for Stefan Kiessling. The 29-year-old won the cannon-shaped trophy traditionally awarded to the league's top scorer with 25 goals. Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski came in second, a goal behind. In the last 20 years, only 2012 winner Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (29 goals) plus Mario Gomez and Brazilians Grafite and Ailton (28 each) have scored more.
Kiessling is now up to an impressive 110 goals in his top-flight career, but the 1.91m No9 is no longer on Germany coach Joachim Low’s radar, as he favours more agile and innovative strikers at present.
“Winning this trophy isn't about making a point to the national coach, because it has nothing to do with him," said Kiessling. “The business with the national team is over for me.” The striker made the last of his six appearances for Germany in the match for third place against Uruguay at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
Surprise packages Freiburg and Frankfurt
One area in which the pundits were all proved wrong was qualifying for the UEFA Europa League, as Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt proved the surprise packages of the season with fifth- and sixth-placed finishes respectively. Freiburg’s chief weapon was outspoken coach Christian Streich, a key personality in the provincial club’s youth section since 1995, before taking the hot seat in December 2011.
Streich successfully turned a young and inexperienced team into a feared unit, while Frankfurt counterpart Armin Veh instilled courageous attacking spirit into a largely unknown squad as Eintracht became the first promoted club to qualify for Europe since 1998. At 52, Veh boasts a wealth of experience and led Stuttgart to the Bundesliga crown back in 2007. “Qualifying for the Europa League with Frankfurt feels like winning the title,” he said proudly.
And Streich, a cult figure for his abrasive yet likeably humorous manner, took the microphone after the final match of the season and addressed the Freiburg crowd: “I have no clue what I’m supposed to say. Thanks for your support! And please come back and buy tickets for next season, or we’ll be on our own at the stadium.”
Augsburg complete the fairytale
The Bavarian city of Augsburg is arguably better known for its famous Augsburger Puppenkiste puppet theatre than its football team, explaining why the FCA players donned t-shirts bearing the slogan “The puppets are still dancing in the Bundesliga" after their final match.
After garnering a miserable nine points and lying second from bottom in the first half of the season prior to the winter break, the team sensationally preserved their top-flight status by finishing 15th. The Bavarians, promoted to the top flight for the first time in 2011, were the seventh-best club in the second half of the season with 24 points from 17 matches.
The last day was packed with drama, as already relegated Greuther Furth were unexpectedly joined by the relative big guns of Fortuna Dusseldorf in making the drop. Both clubs were only promoted 12 months ago. Hoffenheim had looked certain to go down with Furth, but scraped a controversial late 2-1 victory away to wasteful Dortmund and won a reprieve, at least until a home and away double-header against Kaiserslautern, who finished third in the second division behind promoted Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Braunschweig.
Bremen legend takes his leave
After 14 years, 5,119 days, 644 matches, two league titles and three cup triumphs, the highly successful Thomas Schaaf era at Werder Bremen came to an undignified end, as the tight-lipped head coach left the training ground without a word, leaving his tearful players behind him.
Schaaf, a club member for more than 40 years, made 281 senior appearances for Werder prior to taking the coaching job, but the Bremen icon and the northerners parted company on 15 May. The long-serving boss had been struggling with his dressing room and the need to adapt his team’s play for some time.
Regular Champions League contenders in the recent past, Bremen failed to make Europe three seasons in a row, and narrowly avoided relegation this term after scraping into 14th place. “It was a tough decision, but it's the best thing for Werder," intoned sporting director Thomas Eichin.
One consolation for the respected coach would be the example of his role model and former master Otto Rehhagel, who relinquished the Bremen hot seat after 5,202 days in charge. There followed the small matter of Greece and a stunning triumph at UEFA EURO 2004.
Full circle for Heynckes
Schaaf had already taken his leave before the last day, but immediately after the final whistles around the country, the spotlight fell on Heynckes. After 48 years and 1,011 matches as a player and coach, Bayern's all-action 4-3 win away to Borussia Monchengladbach was the 68-year-old Heynckes’ last in the German top flight. In a Hollywood twist, Gladbach is Heynckes’ home, and where he started out both as a player and a coach.
“In the dressing room, I told my players it would mean a lot to me to win my last match. And I noticed the players were delighted afterwards because they managed to give me that gift," said the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ winner, who is now looking to gild a glittering career with the treble.
Bayern face Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley on 25 May, and Stuttgart in the German cup final on 1 June in Berlin. Heynckes would merely confirm his status as a great if the Bavarians collect the last two trophies of term, and would also bequeath his successor Pep Guardiola a truly challenging legacy.