German pro league brings success
Germany will be at the center of the women's soccer world, as the country is set to host the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup beginning June 26. And the German World Cup team will have a familiar look, as all 21 players on head coach Silvia Neid's roster currently play club soccer in the Frauen-Bundesliga -- the country's domestic league.
Germany's resounding dominance on the international stage as the two-time defending World Cup champion parallels the success of the Germany's top-flight division. The Frauen-Bundesliga continues to rank among the best in the world, particularly in terms of skill level, youth development, and stability.
Shek Borkowski surveyed Germany's soccer set-up during his time coaching former Russian champions Zvezda 2005 Perm. He believes the country's unique mindset toward women's soccer has resulted in its preeminent status in the women's game.
"[Germany] understands that a strong national team benefits clubs, and that strong clubs benefit the national team," he said. "The two work together on achieving long-term football objectives, and there is weekly communication between club coaches and the national team coaching staff."
The Frauen-Bundesliga became Germany's first official women's soccer league when the German Football Association (DFB) first established it in 1990, partly in an effort to strengthen the country's women's national team. The league was structured like the established and prestigious men's Bundesliga, and adopted many of its features, including promotion and an August to May calendar. It was initially split along regional lines between north and south, before becoming nationalized in 1997.
The league experienced some uncertainty in its early years, as teams either dissolved or merged with others. It's now been around for 21 years, and the Frauen-Bundesliga is entrenched in the German sporting landscape, and is a model for other international women's soccer leagues.
The close relationship between club and country extends beyond player development, marketing, and training techniques. Many of Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga teams play with the same tactics employed by Germany's national team.
Oliver Zimmermann oversees the German women's soccer website, www.framba.de, and observes the stylistic similarities between the two.
"The players know which way to run, pass and shoot, even if they play with other players during the regular season," Zimmerman said.
The Frauen-Bundesliga's highly competitive league structure means that the majority of Germany's national team players are spread across a handful of the league's elite clubs. As is often the case in Europe's top men's soccer leagues, the Frauen-Bundesliga championship is typically contested by two to three premier leagues each season.
In the past decade, the league title has been won by just two teams: FFC Turbine Potsdam and FFC Frankfurt.
Frankfurt has won six league championships in the past 10 years, and in 2002 became the first team to win the UEFA Women's Cup (now known as the UEFA Women's Champions League)
The club is home to a number of national team powers, including striker Birgit Prinz, midfielder Kerstin Garefrekes and goalkeeper Nadine Angerer.
The team's superiority has recently been challenged by a fierce rival, Turbine Potsdam. Forty years ago, the club was founded by the city's electricity company. Potsdam has won five titles since 2003, including a UEFA Women's Champions League championship last season. Turbine Potsdam returned to the final on May 26, but the team's title defense was ended after a 2-0 loss to French club Olympique Lyonnais.
Although the Frauen-Bundesliga's structure is rooted in a professional environment established by the DFB, the league has adopted a semi-professional business model. Unlike the fully-pro Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) in the United States, the majority of players in the Frauen- Bundesliga must work at second jobs to supplement their salaries.
Germany's national team players earn higher wages from their clubs, but many have found additional sources of income. Some players are physical therapists, while others do distance study.
The fiscally conservative model has helped ensure the Fraeun-Bundesliga's longevity. As average attendances suggest, the league's steady financial framework is primarily derived from lean player salaries and the continued monetary support from the DFB. Average league attendance for the league's most popular clubs hovers around 1,000 -- far short of the 3,602 average gate WPS attracted in the 2010 season.
Zimmermann does not expect the league to abandon its semi-pro model any time soon.
"There is simply not enough money from sponsors, media and women's soccer supporters for a pro model," Zimmerman said.
The staging of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany could boost the Frauen-Bundesliga's popularity and commercial viability. It would be a sweet reward for a league that has maintained stability and helped sustain the dominance of Germany's national team -- a combination all too rare in women's soccer.