The 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ does not start for another three months, but the local top flight is already setting world-beating standards. At the halfway mark in the current campaign, the 18 Bundesliga clubs have set a new attendance record at 5,708,999 spectators, roaring past the previous best of 5,311,927 from the season before. In short, the Bundesliga is enjoying an unprecedented boom ahead of the FIFA World Cup on its home turf.
Attendance records have been repeatedly smashed as fans flock to catch the action at first division stadiums all over the country. The relentlessly upward trend of recent years is in stark contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when the average attendance fell to a paltry 17,000. The recovery has been characterised by vast crowds never before experienced in the German elite league.
Just over 10 million paying customers watched 306 matches in 2002-3, an average attendance of 34,198. The real explosion has taken place over the last two seasons. In 2003-4, an incremental one million spectators passed through the turnstiles, a total of 11,469,167 (an average of 37,481). Even this record fell the following year when 11,568,788 (an average of 37,806) took up station in the stadiums, a new and memorable benchmark representing the highest-ever total since the national Bundesliga was founded in 1963.
Hardly anyone expected the figure to increase yet again, but the prospect of the 2006 FIFA World Cup kicking off on 9 June this year has unleashed a hitherto unimaginable wave of passion among the German football family. The trend from the first half of the current campaign points to another new record come the end of the season in May. Indeed, should fans show up in equal numbers for the second half of the league programme, the magic figure of a 40,000 average crowd could well become a reality.
The proximity of the FIFA World Cup has clearly boosted popular interest in the Bundesliga, as the 2006 host nation boasts attendance figures other European leagues can only dream about. The German top flight leaves the rest trailing in its wake: the English Premier League attracts an average of around 34,000, the Spanish Primera Division approximately 28,000, and Italy's Serie A some 26,000.
The crowds are huge, and club membership figures are sky-rocketing too. In the run-up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, 19-time domestic champions Bayern Munich now boast more than 100,000 paid-up members, making the Bavarians the world's second largest football club behind Barcelona. Schalke 04 can lay claim to a 50,000-strong membership list, while Hamburg, Cologne, Borussia Monchengladbach and VfB Stuttgart all started the new year with record membership levels at over 30,000 apiece. Up until 2002, Werder Bremen had only 3,000 paid-up members, but that figure has increased to substantially more than 20,000 now.
What lies behind all these mind-boggling figures? The statistics are certainly worth a raised eyebrow, as German club football has fallen from its lofty international perch in recent years and currently lags well behind the leading leagues in terms of silverware. As an example, Borussia Dortmund won the Uefa Champions League in 1996-7 and reached the Uefa Cup final in 2001-2, but have failed even to qualify for European competition since then. That did not stop a new record average of 77,235 paying customers passing through the Westfalen stadium turnstiles last term.
"The football hasn't become any more attractive. The soaring demand arises from a different factor: the top quality, modern stadiums," explains Claus Binz of the Institute for Sports Stadium Consultancy in Bad Münstereifel. Clubs and cities have fallen over themselves to construct a host of sparkling new arenas in advance of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, including Monchengladbach and Duisburg which failed to make the cut as Host Cities.
The new generation of superbly-appointed grounds is a major hit with the fans, and the forthcoming FIFA World Cup provides the icing on a rich cake. "Football remains miles ahead as the sport for the masses in Germany. People are enthralled by our sport, and they just want to be a part of it," reckons 1. FC Cologne President Wolfgang Overath. The FIFA World Cup is a bountiful source of inspiration as fans seek to identify with the game by following a Bundesliga club live and in person.
That close-up, live experience has become a more attractive commodity than ever, although the stadiums are the new stars as a clutch of ultra-modern arenas provide an irresistible backdrop to the action. "People who were never interested in football are desperate to witness games now," former Cologne manager Andreas Rettig observes. Far-reaching structural improvements in terms of acoustics, safety, facilities and services have played a vital role.
Exceptionally reasonable admission prices provide the rocket fuel for the attendance boom. A match ticket in Germany costs just €18 on average, a bargain compared to England (average price approx €44) and Spain (average price approx €25).
FIFA World Cup Organising Committee vice-president Wolfgang Niersbach offers a pithy assessment of the current situation: "Thanks to the World Cup, we possess the finest set of stadiums in the world." The boom appears likely to continue for now, as there are no signs of attendances tailing off. The Bundesliga, often known as 'Germany's favourite child', is benefiting from more love and affection than ever before in the year of the 2006 FIFA World Cup.