Bolstered by youngsters, Bundesliga is booming
The stadiums are full, the games are close and all seven Bundesliga clubs have advanced to the knockout stage in European competitions for the first time. The Bundesliga is booming behind a surge of home-grown young talents.
The league is reaping the benefits of a youth training system put into place after one of the country's most embarrassing moments in an otherwise often glorious football history - when the national team failed to win a game at the 2000 European Championship.
One year later, the German Football Federation (DFB) obliged all Bundesliga clubs to establish youth academies with professional coaches. It also set up national leagues for youth teams. While schooling players, the academies and youth leagues also provided jobs and opportunities for young coaches with new ideas.
A decade later, young stars are carrying their clubs. Marco Reus and Mario Goetze are the standouts at champion Borussia Dortmund - which won its Champions League group ahead of Real Madrid, Ajax Amsterdam and Manchester City, all national champions.
Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller came out of its academy. Bayern and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was the product of Schalke's school before moving to Munich. All are established Germany players.
More coaches of youth sides are being promoted to Bundesliga jobs and have the courage to use young players. Thomas Tuchel is 39 and his team Mainz is sixth halfway into the season. Freiburg, another team whose limited financial means force the club to rely on its academy, is fifth.
Eintracht Frankfurt, promoted this season, is fourth, equal on points with Dortmund. Frankfurt includes several home-grown players. One of second-place Bayer Leverkusen's key players is Andre Schuerrle, schooled in Mainz.
The DFB has established its own academies nationwide and is considering building a national training centre at one location. Germany, once notorious for its efficient but dour style of play, now thrills crowds across the world with its brand of exciting, attacking play borne by its young stars. Germany had the youngest side at last year's European Championship, where it lost in the semifinals to Italy.
The revival of German football has yet to translate into titles. Germany's last title was the 1996 European Championship, its last World Cup title came in 1990 and the last club to win the Champions League was Bayern Munich in 2001.
"This young team is still not at its peak. We are going to prepare in such a way that we are absolutely competitive in 2014 (World Cup in Brazil)," Germany coach Joachim Loew said recently. "That would be the greatest, if we could win the World Cup."
"We've taken great steps forward in the past year. We have confidence in our work. We are absolutely certain about our concept, methods, plans and targets," Loew said.
The emergence of young German players has offset the absence of any major international stars. Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are arguably the league's biggest foreign stars, but the Bundesliga has rarely attracted major figures, who have usually opted for England, Spain or Italy.
With austerity squeezing Spain and Italy - and with German clubs paying salaries regularly - that could change. But few German clubs seem willing to pay exorbitant transfer fees and stratospheric salaries now that they have a steady supply of talented home players that fans can easily identify with.
The German Football League, which runs the Bundesliga, has a licensing system that makes sure all clubs follow sound financial policies. Income is distributed more or less fairly and there is no foreign ownership. German rules allow no single owner to hold more than 49 percent of a stake in a club, with the rest in the hands of club members.
The league has secured an increase in income of more than 50 percent for television rights in a four-season deal starting next season.
The deal will bring in about ?628 million ($833 million)per year on average, compared with ?412 million ($546 million) per year at the moment.
Other factors have contributed to the success of the league. Germany overhauled its football infrastructure for the 2006 World Cup, building new stadiums and renovating old ones. It now boasts some of the most modern arenas in the game and attracts vast crowds to even run-of-the-mill matches. Most matches are sell-outs and the entertainment value is high because the outcomes are highly unpredictable.
Last season's average attendance jumped to about 45 000 and totaled 13.8 million - second only to the NFL in the United States. Attendance is high and tickets are cheap - some standing-room tickets cost around ?15 ($20).The price of public transport is included in the price. The clubs limit the number of season tickets so that other fans can also attend some matches.
"The successes in Europe reflect the state of the Bundesliga, which has become a lot more even," said Karl-Heinz Koerbel, director of Frankfurt's football school who played a record 602 Bundesliga games. "Now we have very good coaches, great players and an excellent youth program - all this is attracting international attention."
"The schooling of young players has been professionalized in all areas," said Uwe Harttgen, the director of Werder Bremen's training centre. "The Bundesliga has continuously improved."
Not everything is splendid. Fan violence and the infiltration of supporter groups by neo-Nazis have raised concern, although both are relatively fringe occurrences.