Commentary: As New Bundesliga Season Kicks Off, Bayern Faces Identity Crisis

AUGUST 13, 2015

As the new season of the Bundesliga kicks off on Saturday, there is no doubt about which club is the favorite contender for the title. The dominance of Bayern Munich over the past years, even decades, allows little room for other suggestions. Sure enough there have been other teams that were perfectly capable of challenging Bayern Munich in the league in the last couple of years, yet over the course of one season, the Bavarian giants have usually been more or less consistent in their performances, and even a streak of unlucky injuries last season did not prevent them from clenching their 25th Bundesliga title in record time. This is where a high quality squad pays off -- other clubs like VfL Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund or Borussia Moenchengladbach simply don’t have the luxury to bring in world-class players off the bench.

Nevertheless, the upcoming season will be quite interesting to watch as Bayern Munich is currently going through an identity crisis, and both head coach Pep Guardiola and president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are in the line of fire. Strangely enough, this time, harsh criticism not only comes from pundits, other coaches and former players, but also from Bayern Munich’s own fans.

They lament the fact that Guardiola seems to be able to do whatever he wants with little or no resistance from the board or management. They begin to raise their eyebrows at the club’s questionable transfer strategy that brings in lots of new talents from abroad -- mainly Spain, where Guardiola comes from -- but happily gives away their German players. The fans start to wonder: would Bayern Munich go down this path if Uli Hoeness were still around? Ever since the former president has been imprisoned for tax evasion, things seemingly became a bit chaotic.

There have actually been signs suggesting this might happen, but they were only visible for those who weren’t blinded by the premature praise that accompanied Guardiola when he took over for Jupp Heynckes in 2013.

Heynckes was not only respected but also loved -- by both players and fans -- whereas Guardiola surely is respected, too, but he is hardly the father figure that his predecessor was. One can hardly imagine the Spaniard listening to Lady Gaga to have a closer connection to the players in his team. But this is exactly what Heynckes did.

From the beginning, Guardiola didn’t seem to be impressed with the “Mia San Mia” (we are who we are) philosophy of Bayern Munich, but it is the foundation of the club, that Hoeness had carefully built over the last decades. Surely, success and trophies were equally important, but never at the expense of the “we are one big family” feeling, which is at stake now.

German players that were regarded as either highly promising talents or established and valuable assets to the team, such as Emre Can or Toni Kroos, have left Bayern Munich. The falling out between Guardiola and Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt -- which resulted in the resignation of the long-serving medical doctor of Bayern Munich -- was another incident that was met with criticism.

The club’s failure to reclaim the Champions League trophy in the last two seasons is of course not the coach’s fault, yet Bayern’s clear defeat in the semifinals against Real Madrid in 2014 and the one against Barcelona earlier this year have mainly been held against Guardiola’s tactic.

But nothing hit the fans as hard as the departure of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who embodied the spirit and philosophy of the club like no other player. When Rummenigge officially announced that Schweinsteiger would move to Manchester United during the team presentation at the Allianz Arena, the audience mercilessly booed him.

If a club gets rid of a player who the fans affectionately and religiously refer to as their “football god,” his departure will be painful. Whether or not his move to the Premier League was justifiable, it was the way he was treated by the club that caused anger among the fans: there was an immense lack of respect and gratitude for the loyal and deserving midfielder, role model and icon of Bayern who had played for the same team his whole life.

Continuing rumors about Mario Goetze and Thomas Mueller leaving the club only cause unwelcome confusion and disturbance, and with the transfer window still open until Aug. 31, Bayern Munich fans wonder who will be next in line?

The displeasure among the fans will also leave its trace within the team. And which club in the world can be at its best when the fans are unhappy and angry?

Bayern Munich will naturally still be in the running for the Bundesliga title. In fact, no club has ever managed to win this trophy four years in a row, and the Bavarians are eager to break yet another record.

If Guardiola manages to have a successful season, including a good run in the Champions League, the fans will eventually calm down. If he doesn’t, however, he faces a very uncomfortable year ahead -- and this, in turn, could also have an effect on the performance of the team. Other clubs of the Bundesliga may regard this as an opportunity to swoop in and dethrone Bayern Munich. At least for the coming season.

Katrin Figge is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta. She recently published her first book on football, 'An Tagen wie diesen.'

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