I went to my first Bayern Munich game in 1972, which means that this year is my fiftieth anniversary of being a Bayern fan. While I generally don’t like to write personal essays or even publish on BFW in the first person one of my colleagues here asked me to do an article on my fifty years as a Bayern fan and I agreed. If it helps you have perspective on my story I will mention that another of my sharp minded BFW writers pointed out that I was born the same year as Hansi Flick, 1965.
A strange journey to the field of dreams
So I am a Canadian, born to a Canadian father and an Austrian mother and I came to soccer in an odd way. My father was a very good baseball and football player and when I started playing T-ball he ended up being my coach. I was not big on that so I had to find a sport that my dad knew nothing about to get away from a live in coach. That happened to be soccer and I forced a change to that sport as quickly as I could.
My father at the time worked as a reporter for some publications focussed on the construction industry. This worked out great for us as the biggest construction trade show in the world at the time was held in Munich every summer and my mother’s home town (Raab) was just over the border in Upper Austria. My father would always get assigned to cover that trade show and then we would take an extra couple of weeks and spend a goodly part of every summer in Austria.
Once I got into soccer it was obvious to my father that I should see how the game was played properly. Knowing nothing about the game he asked our relatives and they told him Bayern was the obvious choice.
It being summertime, there were only exhibition matches ongoing and that is just fine by me. To this day I still have a special place in my heart for being at a live Bayern exhibition game.
My first Bayern game has a surreal “field of dreams” feel in my memory. There were maybe two thousand fans in wooden stands at a field in the middle of nowhere. My dad and many others sat up there drinking a cold beer on a warm summer day while Bayern fans tried to explain the game to him between their English and his German.
But the real spectacle was for the kids. All that separated the playing surface from the fans was a waist high yellow rope strung up around the field maybe three meters back from the touch line. There were no ball boys and all the kinder ran around following the play trying to catch or recover the ball to give it back to the players.
The magic happened and I got the ball. Ran up to the rope, handed it to a gigantic player in a Bayern jersey (they all looked like giants to me). He took the ball, tousled my hair, gave me a hand shake and a quick danke and off he went to take the throw. That was it, I was done for life. Hook, line and sinker. Bayern fan forever.
No, I have no idea who that player was. Not a clue. My father and mother didn’t know who was who and I was too young to know. In fact I don’t even know exactly where the game was played. My parents (as older couples do) argue about where the match took place. My father thinks it was near Passau, Germany, my mother thinks it was in Austria near Gmunden. I suspect I will never know.
Uli’s nightmare year and how it shaped the future of Bayern
While 1972 was the year I fell for the beautiful game in a big way, it was one of the hardest years of Uli Hoeness’ life and it left impressions on him that shaped the way he would build Bayern into a world class football institution.
Despite coming off a spectacular 1971/72 season, winning the Bundesliga, Gerd scoring his legendary 40 and making the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Bayern were skint. Virtually broke. The squad was becoming a victim of its own success, payroll was up and income was inadequate to meet it. It got so bad that with the Olympics delaying the start of the league that year it was unclear if Bayern would be able to continue to operate.
But management came up with a solution. They decided to take the squad out on a savage barnstorming run to raise money to fund the team for the season.
In the 37 days between July 31, 1972, and September 6, 1972, Bayern played no less than 21 matches. Commentators called the schedule “murderous”. Things got ugly. At many games the starters were nowhere to be seen and the fans got angry, forcing the coach to put in players who were desperate for rest.
Uli thought that spell was unsafe and simply cruel on the players. One of the first things he did when he got into management was to put firm limits on the number of matches players would play and he put all his energy into creating revenue streams not dependant on the number of matches. Thus was born Bayern’s unrivalled success in building commercial deals that have kept the club healthy without putting the players’ health at risk.
Uli also suffered a hard blow that year at the Olympics. While representing West Germany he was in Munich when 9 Israeli athletes died in a tragic terrorist attack. Uli’s later comments made it clear he was heartbroken and that no human could focus on chasing medals under those circumstances. Despite his struggles Uli managed to score in a rather famous loss to East Germany on Sept 8, 1972.
I have never walked alone
For me watching Bayern games has been a group activity. It started watching with my parents in Canada or larger groups of relatives when I was in Austria (where, oddly enough the only broadcasting of Bayern games for a number of years was on American Armed Forces Television).
As I got older the groups got bigger. Famous Austrian-Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach helped found a Austrian/German-Canadian cultural center in my home town with a top class restaurant and the first big screen television I had ever seen. It was some sort of bizarre projection system, the picture was grainy and the satellite dish looked like something from the D.E.W. line but it changed my life. Bundesliga fans of all stripes would gather to watch matches, eat, drink, mock the each other, and sing their hearts out. It is difficult to understand German football culture without the singing. Singing at German and Austrian football matches simply crushes most other countries with perhaps the exception of Scotland.
My wife is now a Bayern fan, after having been an exceptional striker in her younger years.
Later in life Bayern really got their act together and have built a world wide family of fan clubs. Finding fellow fans to watch a match with while I am on the road is an easy as looking them up on the club website or Facebook and sending a couple of e-mails. I have watched matches with my beloved Sudkurve Toronto and fan clubs in Austria, Dallas, New Orleans and Dubai, and I plan to add several more fan clubs to that list. There are few experiences better than that moment when the ball crosses the line and we rise as one filling the room with the thunderous sound of primal celebration. Breathtaking.
One of the reasons I know Bayern’s fan base is so healthy is from watching matches with different fan clubs. There are almost always three or four generations of families there showing how the tradition and community are handed down from grandparents, to parents, to children and grandchildren. The chain grows stronger, and remains unbroken.
In North America the fan clubs tend to be very diverse, another source of strength and pride.
I also owe a special thanks to the Bayern fan club in Dallas-Fort Worth for their incredible hospitality and spirit. I had the bad luck to be with them for the match that cost Kovac his job, the 5-1 loss to Frankfurt. This group has a special affection for Manual Neuer, and even as the team was getting shredded, every time Neuer would make a save or even handle the ball they would start singing (literally) his praises again. Their spirit and love for Bayern was not impaired in the least even in the face of a catastrophic loss. I remain in awe of this great group of fans and can’t wait to get back there again.
And you never know just who you might meet at a Bayern fan club gathering.
Modern fans are spoiled
After all these years I have to say something about the modern version of the Bayern fan. And it’s true that the modern Bayern fan is spoiled, but perhaps not in the way you think.
The modern Bayern fan is spoiled for information on his club, its players and coaches. When I was young, in the Toronto area, getting information on Bayern was hard work. Getting scores was even difficult. The Toronto Star occasionally had box scores but that was inconsistent. There was a multicultural TV channel that had a soccer program every Saturday but the host, Dale Barnes, had no love for the Bundesliga and would always leave our scores to last, if he bothered with them at all. For most of the program there were no highlights rather he would simply read scores and I still have nightmares about his voice droning through “Partick Thistle One...Aberdeen Nil” hoping to get some Bundesliga scores.
Ask me sometime how we “vocal” Bundesliga fans got revenge on Barnes.
The only place to get regular news on the Bundesliga was from German language papers I could only get my hands on at local German restaurants, and they were always at least two weeks out of date.
A lot of that changed when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge exploded to stardom. He got a huge multi-page article in Inside Sports magazine (a now defunct glossy competitor to Sports Illustrated) and suddenly the Bundesliga was all the rage in North America. That got Soccer made in Germany onto the PBS station just across the border and regular games on television.
Even then the idea of being able to watch every Bayern game over the course of a season was in the realm of pure fantasy.
Today’s fan is literally drowning in good quality Bayern information. With a few clicks, or just a visit to BFW, you can get information, stats, videos, news and gossip on every aspect of Bayern and the Bundesliga. I honestly don’t know how young fans survive university any more. Had this much content been available when I was in law school I never would have graduated.
It’s always a good day to be a Bayern fan
Every team has it’s ups and downs, but Germany’s dominant club is far steadier than most. Our finances are sound and our management competent always with an eye to the long term success of the club. Perhaps more importantly we are a fan-owned side. Nothing beats that connection between management and supporters. Nothing.
For me the first big loss was the 1-0 loss to Aston Villa in the 1982 European championship match. After Villa lost their starting keeper at the beginning of the match I thought we had it in the bag. Like who is Nigel Spinks anyways? I won’t go on about some horrible offsides calls, but the result was an injustice.
When I coached football (American style) I always taught my players to simply hand the ball to the nearest ref after a touchdown and jog off the field, no big celebration required. I would say to them “Act like you have been there before and will be back again soon”, referring to the endzone.
I feel the same way about Bayern. Even when we lose a match at the pinnacle of the sport I know we have “been there before” and we will be back again in the future. It might take a while but this is not the kind of club that only has one chance for a shining moment in it’s history never to be heard from again. It is a club with a history of shining moments and many more in the future.
Every day as a Bayern fan I know we have a glorious history behind us and a bright future stretching out ahead of us. How can I ask for anything more?
You can’t win them all
The plan this year was for the family to go over to catch a Bayern game together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our association with the team. Unfortunately my mother (90) is not well enough to travel and my father won’t go overseas without her, so we have put it off for a year. Like Bayern and championships, we will be back there soon enough. The team will still be there when the time is right for us.
To wrap up, all I can really say is that I hope your Bayern journey is as long and rewarding as mine is. Take a moment to enjoy what we share together. It’s pretty amazing.