After sealing a transfer to Arsenal from Werder Bremen yesterday, Per Mertesacker is in the increasingly rare position of being a German in the English Premier League. Before the defender joined Arsenal (and Swansea City snapped up free agent Gerhart Tremmel as a reserve goalkeeper this week too), Stoke City’s Robert Huth was Germany’s sole Premier League representative, someone who has himself never played in the Bundesliga, joining Chelsea at the age of 16.
In Mertesacker’s case, the move to Arsenal seems to make perfect sense for the player. Werder Bremen failed to qualify for Europe for this season, so with the promise of Champions League football at the Emirates, for this season at least, this was probably too good an offer to turn down, especially as he faces increasing competition for his spot at the heart of Germany’s defence. From the club’s perspective, their captain was always expected to leave, and was in the last year of his contract. If it made sense for Mertesacker, it’s odd to think that more haven’t made the move, given the international talent the Premier League consistently attracts.
The lack of German players in England is not just a recent development either. Mertesacker becomes the 33rd German player in the history of the Premiership, compared with approximately 149 French, 55 Italians, 55 Spaniards and 84 Dutch from Europe’s other premier leagues. And these days, it’s a lot harder to lure a German player from his homeland than you might expect, especially considering the riches and prestige of the Premier League.
Firstly, the pulling power of Germany’s biggest club, FC Bayern München, should not be underestimated. While their stake in the national team is nowhere near the dominance levels of Barcelona in Spain, they do contribute a sizeable percentage to the Nationalelf, offering Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Gomez, Müller, the developing Badstuber, and more recently Boateng and Neuer. As comfortably Germany’s richest and most famous club, they can, and have, hoovered up much Bundesliga talent in recent years. When they came knocking for Manuel Neuer this summer, despite reported interest from Manchester United, Bayern München was always going to be the team the goalkeeper would join, and commented on the “huge and exciting challenge” ahead for him upon his arrival. Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez, both deadly scorers for their previous clubs, are just two other Bundesliga superstars Bayern have swooped for. For a young German, there aren’t many bigger places to play than for Bayern München, even if they don’t have the same record in European competitions lately as the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea.
Then there’s the Bayern players who were brought through the club’s academy. “For a Bavarian, there’s no better country than Bavaria”, says Franz Beckenbauer, and it’s extremely difficult to see the Bavarian-born members of the team, namely Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Müller, ever leaving the club, certainly while at their peak. Attracting one of these to the Premiership – and Schweinsteiger has been linked with a move over the past few years – is probably as realistic as getting Barcelona’s Xavi or Iniesta to leave a club so close to their hearts, or at the very least there are huge similarities to be drawn.
Another element, perhaps a more important one, is that Bayern pay huge wages. This tends to be one of the luring attributes of the Premier League for foreign stars, but the Bundesliga is more immune to it than other European leagues, particularly at Bayern. Schweinsteiger, for instance, is easily one of the highest paid players in the world. This is part of the reason why we aren’t seeing any German stars in the Premiership. Not only would it be extremely difficult even for the richest English clubs to afford to pay the transfer fee and wages of one of Bayern’s stars, but also there is no financial lure of football away from Germany there once was, certainly not away from Munich. According to Rudi Völler, one of many West German internationals from his generation who moved abroad, “20 years ago, anyone who wanted to do something with his career, also in financial terms, would go to Italy. These days there’s no difference between Bayern and the big European clubs anymore”.
It’s not just Bayern with a hefty wage budget. From ESPN figures published in May this year, five of Europe’s top-20 clubs in terms of cumulative player salaries are from Germany, and the Bavarian club has a higher wage bill than any from England except Chelsea and Manchester City. Indeed, the Bundesliga is now the world’s most profitable football league, with the German league flourishing particularly because of marketing and sponsorship (again looking at Bayern München, a club whose endorsements are worth more than Manchester United’s), not to mention the “51% rule” meaning that clubs are run honestly and fairly, and the impressive attendances in its many huge stadia.
All of this means that, over the past few years, not only has the Bundesliga become a great league to play football, offering regular first-team action to its youngsters, but it also has the means of keeping its home talents. In my opinion, all of factors I mentioned are at play, but it could also be true that Germany’s players simply enjoy playing there too much to want to leave.
Admittedly, there have been more departures from the Bundesliga than usual this summer. But for all the hype surrounding the wave of bright young attacking players being produced in Germany right now, it’s the old guard (if Mertesacker can be included in that) who are making the moves, with Miroslav Klose joining Lazio in search of first team football, and Piotr Trochowski transferring to Sevilla for similar reasons. But the youngsters appear extremely happy staying put in Germany, for now at least. A move away is the last thing on Borussia Dortmund winger Kevin Groβkreutz’s mind, commenting “I know of no reason why I should leave the best club in the world”, a significant expression of pride and gratitude at playing for a club like Dortmund, while new Leverkusen acquisition André Schürrle has spoken of his move in similar terms. It is telling that of Germany’s current star players, only Özil and Khedira are playing abroad, at a club with the prestige and pulling power of Real Madrid, showing how difficult it has become to prize home players away from Germany.
Even Özil’s transfer to arguably the biggest football club in the world was met with a measure of scepticism by the German press. After Özil left the Bundesliga last summer, influential German tabloid “Bild” (which is very pro-Bayern, it must be stressed) did a feature around Christmas time comparing Özil with Bastian Schweinsteiger, who decided to stay with Bayern despite transfer rumours, asking “who made the right choice?”. The paper concluded that it was obviously “Schweini”, with the cynical eye inferring it is simply because he stayed with Bayern.
An interesting side-note to all this is that, if anything, the opposite is the case when it comes to the Bundesliga’s star foreign players, who are starting to desert it. This summer alone, two of the Bundesliga’s greatest assets, Arturo Vidal and Nuri Sahin, have joined Juventus and Real Madrid respectively, following Edin Dzeko who left in January, and the division has a growing reputation for being a talent pool for other European clubs.
When it comes to transfers, Germany also has an unusual way of negotiating moves for its players, certainly to followers of the English game. Deals are often agreed between two Bundesliga clubs long before a switch is made. For instance, Bayer Leverkusen wrapped up a long-term deal for André Schürrle, who transferred from FSV Mainz 05 in the summer, as long ago as last September. Transfers like this are fairly common, meaning foreign clubs are often behind the curve when chasing coveted players.
So now that Mertesacker has made the move, will there be more German stars joining the Premier League in the near future? It’s unlikely we will see many others over the next couple of years. For the current set of home players, the incentives of the Premier League aren’t quite enough to tempt them away from a league that already offers them so much, and I would also add that this shared belief in the German system is no small contributing factor to the togetherness and confidence of their flourishing national team.
That said, while the prestige of the Bundesliga is growing, German clubs aren’t at the pinnacle of world football. If there’s any player might possibly prove too good for the Bundesliga, it’s Mario Götze, heralded by the German media as their once-in-a-generation talent. I don’t want to speculate where Götze might end up if he leaves Borussia Dortmund in the next year or two, but staying with his current team could be more a attractive prospect to Götze than Europe’s leading clubs might bargain for. Could Manchester United tempt him away? If they do, he will be the first German ever to play for them.