Germany has one of the best-supported championships in Europe, but it’s losing superstars at an increasingly alarming rate
Losing one of your best strikers, the Bundesliga, could be considered an accident; both losses seem like carelessness.
Fans of Germany’s top flight were reeling from Erling Haaland’s highly anticipated departure after announcing he will be moving to Manchester City this summer when they received the far more surprising news that Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski is also looking to leave.
The Polish international still has a one-year contract at the Allianz Arena, but he is now demanding a summer transfer.
“My story at Bayern is over,” he told reporters at a press conference. “After everything that has happened in recent months, I can’t imagine any further good cooperation.
“Bayern is a serious club and I hope they don’t keep me because they can. A transfer is the best solution for all parties.”
The Bundesliga has been one of the strongest and most entertaining championships in Europe for years, but it is in a more dangerous state than it has been for a while.
Of course, Lewandowski and Haaland are not the end of the Bundesliga, but they are undoubtedly the division’s two biggest world stars, the two household names, and both leaving in the same summer is a worrying scenario for German football.
Indeed, it is not only the big players that seem to be on their way, but also the next talent.
Christopher Nkunku, who beat Lewandowski to Bundesliga Player of the Year after his phenomenal season in charge at RB Leipzig, is closely associated with Chelsea, Manchester United and PSG.
Another potential dropout is Jude Bellingham, one of the league’s biggest stars since coming to Dortmund from Birmingham City.
The England international is more likely to move next summer, likely following Jadon Sancho’s lead to the Premier League, but it seems inevitable that his long-term future lies outside of Germany.
It feels like there is a talent drain going on in Germany right now, one that will only erode a reputation abroad dwindling due to rather lukewarm exports.
For example, Chelsea trio of Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz, despite the Champions League final winning goal, have not fared well in England, meaning the overall level of the Bundesliga has to be questioned.
A common argument from German football is that the clubs cannot offer the same kind of salaries as the biggest teams in England and Spain, but at least for Bayern that is not a problem.
The Bavarians have been paying Lucas Hernandez more than €15 million (£13 million) a year since 2019 and have reportedly offered Sadio Mane €20 million (£17 million) a year to join them from Liverpool.
The bigger problem for Bayern is that they don’t want to pay tens of millions of euros when it comes to transfer fees, especially for young players.
Several years ago, the greatest German talents such as Mario Gotze, Manuel Neuer or Jerome Boateng were cheap enough to be picked up in Munich, but that is no longer the case due to the market inflation caused by the old European order trying to keep up with the state – supported super clubs.
That is why the top talents from the center of the Bundesliga – Dortmund, Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and so on – are moving abroad. There is no longer a talent drain in Germany, but outside it.
Bundesliga clubs, for their part, know that they cannot lure elite players away from England, Spain or even Italy.
The Ligue 1 has become the favorite shopping area, as most German clubs know, it is the only one of the other top European leagues that can be considered a tier below the Bundesliga.
So, what now for German football? Sure, there’s no obvious short-term fix for the best talent wanting out. Bayern’s overconservative attitude when it comes to finances is a big factor.
They could afford the money to have Leverkusen’s child prodigy, Florian Wirtz, but the feeling is that it’s more important for them not to suffer a financial loss in a given year. But if they don’t risk anything, they won’t get players like Wirtz in the future.
Bayern have been accused for years of stripping the best talent from the rest of the Bundesliga, wiping out mid-market clubs and turning the league into a one-team parade that scares off fans and even potential players.
However, in the last 10 years in which Bayern have won every Bundesliga, they have bought 21 top German players for a combined sum of €238.2 million (£203 million/$255 million).
Dortmund, meanwhile, have bought 29 players from rivals in the league, for a total cost of €386.2 million (£329 million) – almost €150 million (£128 million/$160 million) more.
This has proved to be a spotty strategy for Dortmund: on the one hand, they’ve picked up Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus; on the other hand, they have had flops like Maxi Philipp and Jeremy Toljan.
However, they are still trying to pick up the best players Germany has to offer. Nico Schlotterbeck, who was also interested in Bayern, was recruited from Freiburg along with Salih Ozcann van Koln.
It is more likely that the Bundesliga will continue to be a testing ground for emerging young talents – such as Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka at Bayern, and Bellingham at Dortmund – and a place for those who have failed elsewhere to restore their reputation, such as Arjen Robben in the past and Leroy Sane now.
The problem with that is that the Bundesliga is not a destination, but a springboard for the best players.
Bayern won’t be the ones to pay £100million for Bellingham next summer – that will be Real Madrid, or one of the big six in the Premier League.
That this is now true even for the few established world-class stars the league has is deeply concerning for German football.
For Bayern, more and more players want to see something different. David Alaba, Thiago Alcantara and now Lewandowski – arguably their three greatest players, could all be gone within two years.
This is something completely new for them. During the first seven seasons of their current dominance, Toni Kroos to Madrid was the only example of a key player making the switch – now it’s almost an annual.
But most disturbing of all, from a broader German football perspective, it may have nothing to do with money at all, but with boredom.
Winning the league title has become routine for Lewandowski, unsurprisingly he wants to do something new.
Combine this with behind-the-scenes evidence of disruption – he, Alaba and even Neuer have occasionally expressed dismay at Bayern’s leadership under Oliver Kahn, Herbert Hainer and Hasan Salihamidzic – and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a problem that even money can’t solve.
This has taken to the pitch like a spin, with both Bayern and Dortmund suffering from embarrassing early European exits.
The former were stunned in the quarter-finals of the Champions League by Villarreal; the latter failed to even make the group stage before being properly sent off by Europa League Rangers.
Of course there are counter-arguments against the Bundesliga as a talent sinkhole at the moment, with evidence to back it up.
Eintracht Frankfurt is Europa League champion. He beat Barcelona en route, defeated Premier League opposition in West Ham and defeated Rangers in the final in front of tens of thousands of raucous, white-clad fans.
However, a penalty shootout victory in the final cannot completely solve the worrisome state of the German domestic game.
The Bundesliga’s huge asset remains that, of the top five European leagues, it offers the best environment to watch football: great stadiums everywhere, passionate crowds and generally affordable prices.
But if you don’t have your best players available to watch, even the best facilities can’t make up for it.