The Fractured Rise of the Bundesliga

By Lucien Betancourt

The Bundesliga is the top level of German soccer, and is the perfect example of a league that has attracted the public eye for the wrong reasons too often. While the Bundesliga would later rise to a level of international dominance, this rise was not perfect nor was it easy. To talk about the rise of the German Football Association, we have to understand why the Bundesliga is as good as it is today. To understand that, we have to go back to the infamous Bundesliga scandals of its early years. 

First, let’s go back to 1965 and a little club in West Berlin known as Hertha Berlin. During this time, Berlin was a mess, split between the east’s communism and the west’s capitalism by an infamous wall. This mattered a lot since East Berlin was doing worse economically than West Berlin, meaning that most East Berlin clubs were at risk of bankruptcy, and thus most of their players were more prone to leave the city for economically richer clubs such as FC Koln and FC Nurnberg. Since Berlin was situated in East Germany, they were separated from playing in the German Football Association. Instead, they were forced to make their own league, the “Berlin League,” but were eventually able to join the GFA in 1964. 

The modern crest of controversial club Hertha Berlin Soccer Club.

In February 1965, while looking through Hertha Berlin’s documentations to join the GFA, the auditor of the deal found a chart of billing transactions belonging to players all over Berlin, containing bribes worth much more than the salary cap established by the GFA. It was revealed that Hertha Berlin was paying Berlin clubs to sell their best players for below-market prices, and in turn, would pay the players three times their reported wages to practically force them to stay and play. When this evidence was found, the club was brought to court and Hertha Berlin was banned from joining the Bundesliga, therefore being demoted back to the Berlin League. Although they had their license revoked, Hertha Berlin would eventually reach the Bundesliga in 1968, and when they did, used the same system with the same Berlin clubs. Once again, this wouldn’t end well.

In 1971, eight different German clubs were caught running a match-fixing scandal to prevent Offenbach from being relegated to a lower league. They planned out their matches just so that no matter how many games Offenbach lost, they would remain in the league. In total, 10 matches were fixed, with each team getting paid a huge bonus by a third party to do so. The scheme almost worked, but Offenbach was still sent down because of a tiebreaker rule. 

The scandal was exposed the following summer by Offenbach’s president Horst-Gregorios Canellas, who, out of fear that he would face the most severe punishment if caught, presented GFA officials and journalists with a tape of club captains allowing the bribes to go through. FC Schalke 04, Offenbach, and Arminia Bielefeld received the worst punishments for their primary roles. All of FC Schalke 04’s first team who played the first match-fixing game were banned for life from playing soccer in the Bundesliga. Offenbach and Arminia Bielefeld had their Bundesliga license revoked for life, though Arminia’s ban was overturned in 1978. Both Offenbach and Arminia Bielefeld were relegated, but Arminia Bielefeld was allowed to play all of their 34 scheduled Bundesliga games in 1972. However, Arminia would end up with 0 points no matter what the results of their matches ended up being. 52 players and 2 managers were punished, as well as the presidents of the 8 clubs involved– except for Offenbach’s, a small mercy for exposing the scandal while these punishments convinced the other Bundesliga clubs to hold on trying other match-fixing events, the GFA made it clear that they do not mess around. 

Horst Gregorios-Canellas was at the center of the 1971 scandal–and this picture.

As a result, the Bundesliga is now one of the least corrupt soccer leagues in the world. Despite the lack of an insane influx of money like other leagues such as the Premier League and Ligue Un, this system has also kept them up top as one of the most entertaining leagues. Plus, having a European giant in Bayern Munich attracting attention brought in the money needed to modernize the game to stay on par with the other top leagues. This has also led to a balanced transfer system and salary cap, where players move from club to club more easily and cheaply than in other leagues.

In the GFA there are currently around 26,000 clubs, the most of any country by far–for example, the French League has a minuscule 46 clubs. This allows youngsters to easily move up through the tiers of German soccer. German clubs also have their academies playing in these leagues, giving youngsters a chance to play against professional and thus higher-level. Germany has the infrastructure, money, and stability to support thousands of foreign players under the weight of which other leagues would just collapse, making the Bundesliga one of the healthiest leagues in the world.