Derek Rae of ESPN was kind enough to speak to me at length about Germany and German football. If you have access to ESPN/ESPN International, you may be accustomed to Rae’s commentary for the Champions League, La Liga or even Eredivisie; therefore, you might find that an interview of a football announcer who doesn’t announce Bundesliga games a bit odd. However, Derek Rae is fluent in German and is a self-described German-file.
It started for Derek with the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany, where he fell in love with football. For him that tournament was very German in a cultural sense and he found himself gripped by the country as well as the games. It was this tournament that he described as forcing his schooling choice when it came to secondary language between French and German. But rather than learning the core and forgetting, as happens with many English speakers, he turned it into fluency that would help form a lasting connection with the country. While his first visit to Germany was at age 12 to the port city of Hamburg, he spent considerably more time in Germany as part of student exchange programs from ages 16 to 18 on the East/West German border in Hesse. The town was Wildeck-Hönebach and from the back yard of the house in which he resided he could see Communist Germany.
Just to prove his “street-cred”, the congenial Scotsman named, after his beloved Aberdeen, the Regionaliga Sud club KSV Hessen Kassel as his club during his heady days in Germany. It’s a club he obviously still holds great affinity for. He won’t name any Bundesliga club as a favorite, but having surprised himself in recounting that through his days he had been to almost every major stadium, he unabashedly named Westfalenstadion (or Signal Iduna) as not only the best, but as the Cathedral of German football. And he pointed out that football mad supporters in the Ruhr region, with their distinct sense of humor, were some of his favorites.
We spoke as he returned from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Ct. where he is covering the Confederations Cup. International football was the starting thread as the area we live in is abuzz about the US victory over Spain. The discussion turned to Michael Bradley of Borussia Mönchengladbach. I asked him what had happened to the large number of Americans that had once made their home in the German system. He recounted the days when you could find an American at the odd Regionaliga match. Germany has had one of the loosest foreign player policies of the major leagues for some time. Back in the days when the MLS was just starting and the US wasn’t quite established as a top 20 side, there were few options for Americans in Europe. Germany was the biggest and best opportunity at that time. But culturally he admitted that it’s a difficult transition to make for many young players with the long winters (a point I found funny coming from a fellow New Englander) and new language. These days, the entry for Americans into Scotland and England is much easier as the Home Office has relaxed rules for footballers, so naturally American players are heading there, when possible, due to obvious cultural similarities. Meanwhile the emergence of the EPL as a global brand makes it doubly attractive for American footballers.
We weren’t done with Gladbach, as we discussed how Germany could start to make inroads in European competitions. Remembering the golden era of his Aberdeen side*, he reminded me of how the dominant teams of Europe in the 70′s and 80′s were German. While we remember England’s 7 out of 8 European Cups during that era, its easy to forget that Germany won four (Bayern and Hamburg), while three times they were the runners up to English sides. Meanwhile, other than Tottenham, England made little headway outside of the main tournament during that era. Gladbach won two UEFA Cups and Frankfurt and Bayer also won one, while three other finals were lost by German sides. And in the Cup Winners Cup, Magdeburg and Hamburg both won while Jena, Lokomotiv Leipzig, Köln and Fortuna Dusseldorf all lost finals.
*as a reminder to newer fans, Aberdeen had to defeat both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to lift the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1983.
While appreciative of the growing popularity of all the leagues, he did lament on the lack of perspective of some new fans and supporters. He used a line that just blew me away, “I am always disappointed when supporters think the league started when they discovered it.” He sent a fantastic message to all new fans that EVERY team has a history to tell. Sometimes it’s timeless like Barcelona, sometimes it’s old and grand like Mönchengladbach and sometimes its a brief spark like Nottingham Forest.
But when I asked about what it would take to regain some of that form for German sides, Rae was of the opinion that there was nothing they could, nor should do. While a team could spend exorbitant amounts of money for European glory, Dortmund’s dark days stand as a stark reminder that such a scenario can backfire in a league that can’t compete culturally with La Liga and Series A for the best South American talent. He felt the reemergence of the Bundesliga in Europe would be an organic process that may have well started this year with Werder Bremen. And the new found strength of Eastern Europe at the international level could help the league that is best at scouting and cultivating its talent.
Finally we turned to the season past and season to come. While he couldn’t discount Wolfsburg’s improbable run, he felt that Hoffenheim’s ability to make us believe they could do the impossible for so long was a richer story in the long run. As for the most surprising player, he quickly pointed out Zvjezdan Misimovi?. He couldn’t emphasize more the amazing difference one player had made to a side, turning a solid team into champions; whereas a year earlier he had been part of relegation. Rae has obvious respect for Felix Magath and paraphrased the manager’s assessment that sometimes the pieces just fit. In Misimovi?’s case the fit was other-worldly.
As for next year, Ribery is a very interesting situation to him. He could understand Bayern cashing in while they can for the French playmaker, especially while the money is “silly”; however, he didn’t feel that he was replaceable. Players like Ribery rarely are. So while he feels that Bayern will contend for the title, much will ride on how the club conducts itself around the Ribery sell. But Ribery wasn’t the only concern for him, when it came to Bayern. He feels that Van Gaal, while a great coach, is a polarizing figure and could backfire on Bayern, so he doesn’t think Bayern are odds on favorites. He feels that Schalke along with one other will be there to contend with Bayern. He was interested in how Wolfsburg would come along next year, but he didn’t seem overly optimistic with their chances. And finally when I asked about Marin’s move to Bremen, he said that while Diego leaves a huge hole to fill, that Marin has the character to step up to the challenge. It just may take more than a year.
I want to thank my good friend Eddie Emmanuel, a Lazio supporter, for helping connect an Aberdeen and Spurs supporter to talk about German football. It’s a grand old sport with a rich tapestry.