From Augsburg to Wolfsburg – the booming Bundesliga

A complete guide to the game across the country

World champions in 2014, Germany and its football had been enjoying their best period since the glory days of the 1970s – until the complete disasters of the World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020. 

At domestic level, however, attracting the highest attendances in Europe, Germany’s top-flight Bundesliga remains the role model for others to follow. Affordable ticket prices, free city transport to stadiums on match days and family-friendly initiatives are all part of this winning formula. Beer flows copiously, quality Germany beer at that – fans are expected to behave, and are treated, like grown-ups.

For all this revenue, no German club, not even record champions Bayern Munich, can spend beyond their budget. This is the sacred 50+1 rule, giving club members the casting vote in any decision. The German Football League (DFL) sets strict financial criteria for the 38 teams in the top two divisions. Real Madrid and Manchester City can buy Bale and Grealish. Bayern cannot, which makes their achievement in reaching four Champions League finals between 2010 and 2020 all the more remarkable.

Even so, Bayern are mockingly referred to around Germany as FC Hollywood, able to snaffle up the best players from other German clubs. The last time the league trophy – actually a shield, nicknamed the Salatschüssel or salad bowl – went elsewhere was 2012. During that time, the only spring the title race was even close came was in 2019. In 2013, the season both teams met in the Champions League final, Bayern’s winning margin over Borussia Dortmund was 25 (!) points.

The two local rivals based in the country’s football heartland of the Ruhr – Dortmund and Schalke 04 from Gelsenkirchen – may have huge fan bases but truly top-drawer players only develop here and rarely arrive for big fees. While Dortmund remain Bayern’s most consistent challengers, Schalke sank to the Zweite and had to curtail their long-term lucrative sponsorship with Russian energy giant Gazprom. On the plus side, their presence in the second tier kept crowd figures buoyant – fallen giants Köln and Hamburg both attracted close to 50,000 average home gates during the complete pre-pandemic season, 2018-19. 

The quality of Germany’s stadia cannot be gainsaid, nor the universal practice of safe standing. Top arenas were modernised (or rebuilt) for the World Cup of 2006, with more improvements expected for Euro 2024. 

Recent internationals have been staged in Stuttgart, Mönchengladbach and Leipzig, home of the derided yet defiantly successful RB Leipzig, European semi-finalists twice in recent seasons. While certain German clubs are backed by car companies, Wolfsburg the most notable example, this undiluted showcase for an energy-drink empire continues to irk fans nationwide. German fans revel in taking a moral stance – the European Super League idea fell on sharp, stony ground here.

Supporters travel in significant numbers, best illustrated by Eintracht Frankfurt’s outstanding win at Barcelona in April 2022 when 30,000 fans from Mainhattan, Europe’s financial capital, decamped to the Nou Camp to witness the Eagles triumph in the Europa League. For all the beer sunk on European nights or around the sacred hour of 3.30pm on a Saturday, for all the German admiration of the passion and tradition of the English game, actual violence is quite rare. 

The 2006 World Cup saw Germany’s Nationelf regain national favour, a watershed moment comparable to England’s in 1990. The morning of the World Cup final, crowds descended on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to welcome the team bus conveying the losing semi-finalists through the throng. Many wore a national shirt carrying the message ’82 Million’ – the population of Germany, citizens of all kinds. Euro 2024 should contrast with its predecessor in so many ways.


Arriving and getting around by public transport

As well as the main UK and Irish budget airlines that cover most major German cities, Germany has its own, Eurowings, a subsidiary of national carrier Lufthansa.

Some airports have rail terminals linked to Germany’s efficient and comfortable train network run by Deutsche Bahn. On-the-day inter-city ticket purchases can be expensive – many Germans hold discount Bahncards – but the DB website provides print-at-home tickets at advance discounts.

Public transport in major cities is similarly efficient – though most Bundesliga clubs offer free match-day transport for ticket holders within certain times before and after the game.


The league system, promotion, relegation and cups

Of Europe’s top five leagues, Germany’s Bundesliga is the only one with just 18 clubs. The bottom two change places at season’s end with the top two of the 2. Bundesliga (aka ‘die Zweite Liga’). The 16th plays off over two legs with the third-place side from the lower flight.

Exactly the same system is in place for promotion and relegation between the 18-team 2. Bundesliga and the third-flight, 20-team 3. Liga, overseen by the German FA.

Three teams drop down from the 20-club 3. Liga, into the Regionalliga, divided into five regional divisions. The Nordost looks much like the old East German league did – except that this is the fourth flight.

The winners of each of the five leagues, plus the runners-up in the most extensive Südwest, play off for the three promotional places into the 3. Liga.

The German Cup, the DFB-Pokal, starts with 64 clubs: all those in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga, plus leading ones in the 3. Liga and from the amateur leagues. The draw is seeded, so that smaller clubs play bigger ones, almost always at home. Ties are decided over one game, extra-time and penalties if need be.

Upsets and cup runs by minnows are commonplace. The final takes place at Berlin’s Olympiastadion in May.

A League Cup, Ligapokal, was last played in 2007.


The season from kick-off to crunch time

The Bundesliga starts in the third week of August and finishes in the third week of May. The winter break starts just before Christmas (the leaders thus called the Herbstmeister – ‘Autumn champions’) and goes on until the end of January/early February.

Traditional match time is Saturday, 3.30pm, but there’s usually a Friday kick-off at 8.30pm, a later game on a Saturday at 6.30pm, and two games on a Sunday, at 3.30pm and 5.30pm.

The 2. Bundesliga season starts in early August, sometimes late July, and runs until late May, with the play-offs soon afterwards. Like the top flight, there’s a winter break before Christmas, games starting again in early February.

The weekend schedule begins on a Friday, with a couple of games at 6.30pm and/or 8.30pm. On Saturday, there’s usually at least one game at 1.30pm. Sunday generally sees a game or two, again at 1.30pm, and there’s a Monday game at 8.15pm.

For exact timings each week, check with leading Germany football magazine Kicker, for the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

All ticket information for top- and lower-flight clubs can be found on the Bundesliga website. It points out that it wants fans to pay a fair price – and not turn to the black market.

That said, tickets for Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, 1.FC Köln and Freiburg can be very limited. Even games at Augsburg, Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt are often a sell-out.

For domestic fixtures, the home (and sometimes away) end features standing places (stehplätze), usually a special type of terrace that can be quickly converted into seating places for European games.

The end is usually referred to as the kurve, the main stand the haupttribüne, the sideline stand opposite the gegentribüne. The away sector is the gästesektor.

Through they’re generally filled with season-ticket holders, home standing usually costs around €15, seating behind the goals around €20-€25. A decent seat on the sidelines is around €30-€35.