Bayern Munich Are the World's Best-Supported Club. Why Might That Be?

Stuart Telford@@StuartTelfordFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2016

Bayern Munich consistently sell-out their 75,000-capacity Allianz Arena.
Bayern Munich consistently sell-out their 75,000-capacity Allianz Arena.CHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

With 277,000 registered members, Bayern Munich are the best-supported club in world football in terms of fan membership, outstripping fellow European juggernauts Barcelona and Benfica.

German champions a record 26 times, the Bavarians even count Pope Benedict XVI among their fans. Bayern are one of the biggest teams in the sport by any reasonable measure. However, it was not always like this.

Founded in 1900 by members of a Munich gymnastics organisation disaffected with the body's decision to block footballers within the club joining the Deutscher Fussball-Bund [German Football Association], the Reds spent their formative years slowly making their way up the South German football league system, amid little fanfare.

Indeed, when the regional leagues in Germany were consolidated into the Bundesliga in 1963, Bayern were not invited to join.

Today, city rivals and fellow Allianz Arena occupants 1860 Munich exist firmly in the shadows of their illustrious neighbours—Bayern even purchased 1860's interest in their shared stadium for €11 million in 2006 to help Die Lowen avert financial implosion.

Back then, however, it was 1860 who were the top dogs in the city, winning the Oberliga South that year, four points and two places clear of Bayern.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

MUNICH, GERMANY - APRIL 15: General view of unfinished Allianz Arena football stadium April 16, 2005 in Munich, Germany. The Allianz Arena will be the future home stadium of soccer clubs FC Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich and will also host the opening
Jan Pitman/Getty Images

In 1963, Bayern had one league title and one DFB-Pokal in their not-yet-glistening trophy cabinet.

1860 had won the highest division available to them three times and had picked up their first German Cup 15 years earlier than Bayern. 1860 were asked to be Munich's representatives in the new national league. Bayern stayed at home.

However, a seemingly trivial event four years earlier had set the wheels in motion for something that changed the course of both clubs' footballing histories forever.

A certain Franz Beckenbauer grew up as an 1860 supporter, recounting in Ulrich Hesse's 2002 book Tor!: The Story of German Football: "It was always my dream to play for them."

The two-time FIFA World Cup-winning sweeper and then coach was an aspiring centre-forward in 1959, playing under-14 football and hoping to one day emulate the great Fritz Walter.

Beckenbauer and his SC Munich '06 team-mates had planned to join the 1860 youth academy together at the end of that season, knowing that their own club was running out of finances and planning to discontinue their team.

However, a meeting with 1860 in the final of a youth tournament in the south of the city changed all that. The 1860 centre-half and Beckenbauer got into a physical altercation, and a matter of months later "Der Kaiser," as he would come to be known, was on the books at Bayern instead.

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14:  Franz Beckenbauer, former president of Bayern Muenchen is introduced to the public prior to the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris St
Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Bayern went on to win four league titles, four German Cups and three European Cups in Beckenbauer's 13 years in the first team, with a side that featured fellow 1974 world champions Sepp Maier in goal and Gerd Muller up front.

Since the late 1960s and 1970s, Bayern's success, built on that platform, has continued unabated, with the club now boasting 18 German Cups and 25 Bundesliga titles—both records.

Bayern have also been in 10 European Cup/UEFA Champions League finals, and completed the continental treble as recently as 2012-13.

Naturally, success begets success, and on scanning the landscape of the global game it is obvious that the most successful team and the best-supported club in a country are often one and the same, from Penarol in Uruguay and Galatasaray in Turkey to Juventus in Italy and Manchester United in England.

Part of the charm of Bayern, though, is that they are not governed by one single financial backer, with the 50-plus-1 rule in Germany meaning the club is owned in large part by its members, in contrast to clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea.

When Bayern welcome RB Leipzig to the Allianz Arena on December 21, they will come up against a club trying to impose the "English model" on German football.

Leipzig's Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer celebrate scoring the 2-2 during the German first division Bundesliga football match of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim vs RB Leipzig in Sinsheim, southern Germany, on August 28, 2016.  / AFP / DANIEL ROLAND / RESTRICTION
DANIEL ROLAND/Getty Images

Backed by Austrian energy drinks company Red Bull, Leipzig have cleverly, if not cynically, worked around DFL statutes to attain their place in the top flight. RB is short for RasenBallsport—an invented word in German—and although the fans can buy their way into the club, the membership fee is prohibitively expensive for most.

In truth, Leipzig are not the first to try to overhaul the Bayern machine. Bayer Leverkusen are backed by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, VfL Wolfsburg are owned by car manufacturer Volkswagen, and Hoffenheim ascended to the Bundesliga in 2008 largely on the strength of software billionaire Dietmar Hopp's deep pockets.

Bayern have never needed to lean on such sources, and their teams to this day are peppered with players raised at their youth academy on Sabener Strasse. Just as Beckenbauer led the team to success at home and abroad 40 years ago, so now do the likes of Thomas Muller, David Alaba and captain Philipp Lahm.

MUNICH, GERMANY - AUGUST 26:  Philipp Lahm (R) of Bayern Muenchen celebrates his team's fourth goal during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and Werder Bremen at Allianz Arena on August 26, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Get
Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Apart from Wolfsburg's single league triumph in the 2008-09 season and Borussia Dortmund's successes in 2011 and 2012, Bayern have consistently maintained their position at the summit of the Bundesliga, and they remain the best advert for the German model of ownership.

Not that Bayern do not have an air of defiance when it comes to their organisation. When Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low set about restructuring German football after the national team's disastrous showing at UEFA Euro 2004, in which they failed to win a game, they put pressure on every club in the country to either establish a youth academy or run their existing one in Klinsmann and Low's vision.

Bayern were already doing things well, and they continued to plot their own path. The 4-2-3-1 formation played throughout the age groups in Germany's top two divisions has helped supply a constant stream of players well-versed in how the national team want to play. One only needs to look at the 2014 World Cup—in which Germany beat hosts Brazil 7-1 on the way to lifting their fourth title—for evidence of its effectiveness.

However, five of the team that dismissed Brazil in Belo Horizonte on that warm July evening were formed at Bayern, with Muller and Lahm joined by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels—who returned to the club this summer after an eight-year spell at Borussia Dortmund.

Bayern Munich's Portuguese midfielder Renato Sanches (L) and defender Mats Hummels (R) wait prior a press conference ahead season presentation of the German first division Bundesliga club FC Bayern Munich in the stadium in Munich, southern Germany, on Aug
CHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

The Bayern team today boasts some of the greatest players in the world, with Arturo Vidal one of the best South Americans in the game, and Renato Sanches following Hummels to the club this summer having become the youngest winner of a European Championship.

Crucially, the fans can afford to see these stars in action. Two years ago this correspondent was back in his native Scotland watching a game between East Stirlingshire and Albion Rovers in Scottish League 2—the fourth tier domestically. Two weeks later he was commentating on Bayern at the Allianz Arena for Eurosport. The difference in ticket price? A matter of euros.

A club who ascended against the odds, Bayern have shown generosity to their city rivals on reaching the top, enjoy a strong team identity infused with youth academy products, and they have turned cleaning the trophy cabinet at the Allianz Arena into a full-time job in its own right.

When youngsters today muse about "always […] dream[ing] to play for them," it is little wonder that, unlike in 1959, they are invariably referring to the red half of Munich.