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Opinion Piece

Fußball and United, a complicated relationship

MONDOGOL: GERMANIA; BAYERN VOLA A +5, BALLACK VICINO A FIRMAThis season was, undoubtedly, a momentous one. The arrival of Robin Van Persie, a 20th league title and Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure ensured we won’t forget the 2012-13 season easily – if we will forget it at all, that is. As far as European football is concerned, though, the campaign just concluded will always be etched in the history books as the year Germany sent shockwaves through the continent (if you’ll excuse the rather sinister political pun).

Whether it was Borussia Dortmund’s breathtakingly attacking football and their fantastic terrace or Bayern’s perfectly oiled machine, we all gazed with stupor as Ze Germans set upon conquering the Champions League in swashbuckling style.

There’s plenty to like about the Bundesliga, of course. Cheap tickets, fan ownership, standing sections and beer inside the ground are all elements we would love to import to English football and, perhaps, there are more chances to pay a tenner for a ticket to Old Trafford than to see Marco Reus in a United shirt anytime soon.

During a season in which everything German suddenly became the flavour of the month, it was put to me that, while the Bundesliga’s stock has risen systematically in recent seasons, Manchester United have always shown a rather lukewarm approach towards German players, or indeed players plying their trade in the Bundesliga.

In the first 12 seasons since the turn of the millennium, United have not signed a single German player, with only two of the 83 players joining the club (either from another club or after turning professional) arriving from the Bundesliga. Shinji Kagawa and Owen Hargreaves remain the only two to have swapped the German top-flight for the Premier League even when one considers all the transfers since the Bosman ruling in 1995.

18 years, 120 players signed (again, including trainees) and only two players were ever poached from the Bundesliga. One could argue that the German league wasn’t the hipster heaven it is now but, even so, it retained competitive aura in Europe considering that, in the first 10 years since the Bosman ruling, a team from the Bundesliga reached the Champions League final four times compared to England’s two.

Furthermore, Germans and players arriving from the Bundesliga should find life in the Premier League easier than, say, their Portuguese, Spanish or South American counterparts for the style of football is similar and, crucially, so is the weather for at least seven-eight months a year. Yet, since 1995 United have signed  three Portuguese, three Spaniards, three Argentines, a Mexican, an Uruguayan and five Brazilians.

So, unless Fergie’s labour views prevented him from dealing with German clubs, the answer must lie elsewhere – and it’s not that Sir Alex didn’t try either. In 2006, Fergie made the first of numerous attempts to sign Michael Ballack who, then at the peak of his powers and set to leave Bayern Munich after a three-year stint, decided to join Chelsea instead, as he discussed in an interview with Four Four Two earlier this season.

“They [United] came before Chelsea, but I didn’t have discussions with Sir Alex Ferguson.

“At the time United were not really good in the Champions League – they had gone out in the first round that year.

“But Chelsea were growing really quickly. I wanted to be a part of this. I saw we could reach something really big in the next few years,” said Ballack who, undoubtedly, had time to ponder on his decision in the dressing room of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in 2008 as United were crowned Champions of Europe thanks, in part, to an excellent performance by one of Ballack’s former team-mates at Bayern Munich.

Bastian Schweinsteiger,Mario GoetzeBallack was again in United’s radar two years later when, having been released by Chelsea, he was available as free agent, but the former Germany captain opted to return to Bayer Leverkusen instead. Less than six months later, United were linked with Ballack’s heir, that Bastian Schweinsteiger who, for many pundits, embodies all the quintessential characteristics of the modern midfielder.

In December 2010 United, by then blighted by an increasingly evident need for a midfield general, were reportedly ready to fork out £18m for a player whose contract was due to expire at the end of the 2011-12 season. United did indeed spend £18m that summer but, unfortunately, they ended up in Aston Villa’s coffers while Ashley Young went the other way.

Twelve months later, in winter 2011, it was Bastian Schweinsteiger’s partner in the national team turn to be linked with a move to Old Trafford as reports suggested that Sami Khedira was growing frustrated with being left on the bench by Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. Alas,United summoned Paul Scholes out of retirement while the German remained at the Bernabeu alongside Mezut Ozil, another German that had often inhabited the dreams of many Reds.

After impressing at the 2010 World Cup, the then 21-year-old was coveted by Europe’s biggest clubs but, for a while, United seemed poised to snap the Werder Bremen man. As demonstrated by the premature announcement of David Moyes’ appointment this month, United’s PR department are no strangers to jumping to conclusions and, in August 2010, United’s official website included a page dedicated to the German in the “first team players” section.

The page, rather short of content, was never to be filled as Ozil packed his bags to join Real Madrid, even though last November United were again linked with the playmaker.

As Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich steamrolled their way through the Champions League this season, Robert Lewandowski’s name became increasingly linked with Manchester United as Dortmund, having already lost Mario Gotze to the Bavarian giants, seemed more inclined to sell their striker abroad thus preventing him from joining forces with his former team-mate at the Allianz Arena. Predictably, the Polish striker’s agent has since categorically denied the rumours, confirming that his client will almost surely join the newly crowned European champions next season.

United have, of course, been incredibly successful over the last 20 years and transfer speculations are part and parcel of modern football but, considering the amount the club has forked out for the likes of Bebe, Kleberson, Ashley Young and Anderson one can’t help but wonder if that money could have been better invested in other markets, namely the German one.

The likes of Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Andriy Voronin somewhat dismiss the notion that importing players from the Bundesliga is a guarantee for success but, if his first season is anything to go by, Shinji Kagawa offers a stark reminder of the quality available in the German top-flight.

Ultimately winning, preferably in emphatic fashion, is all supporters care about but who wouldn’t fancy a bit of German efficiency alongside Michael Carrick next season?

Dan (@MUFC_dan87)