This season marks a milestone occasion in Bundesliga history: on 24 August, Germany’s top flight celebrates the 60th anniversary of the league’s founding. The 1963/64 season was the start of a success story that continues to this day.
The title race at the end of the 2022/23 season in May was a nail-biter right down to the wire, with Bayern Munich ultimately snatching the Meisterschale away from Borussia Dortmund on the last day thanks to Jamal Musiala’s 89th-minute winner against Cologne, leading to ecstasy on one side and despair on the other. It was not just at the top of the table, however, that incredible stories have been written.
The foundation was laid on 28 July 1962 when the 129 delegates at the DFB (German Football Association) national conference in Dortmund decided, by 103 votes to 26, to introduce single-division top flight for the 1963/64 season. “Yes to the Bundesliga! From August 1963” was the headline of kicker magazine at the time after the lengthy meeting.
Yet as widely popular as the Bundesliga is today, that was by no means the case at the start of the 1960s. However, after some fierce debates the decision was made to create a professional league in Germany, with 16 clubs competing for the title from August 1963. And so the Bundesliga was born!
Watch: 60 years of the Bundesliga!
And because advocates like national team coach Sepp Herberger and DFB president Hermann Neuberger paid heed to the suggestions of Cologne president Franz Kremer, household names that are still recognised by football fans across Germany today - especially those involved in the 1954 World Cup title - were involved from the start: Helmut Rahn, scorer of the winning goal in the “Miracle of Bern”, played for Meidericher SV; Max Morlock was at Nuremberg; and Hans Schäfer at Cologne, where he led them to a commanding title success in the inaugural season.
Back then, Cologne were among the top dogs in German football, although it was Hamburg forward Uwe Seeler who finished as top scorer in the maiden campaign with 30 goals. The Bundesliga was quickly accepted by fans, with an average attendance of almost 28,000 per game.
At that time, there was one club not yet involved that would go on to decisively shape events in the Bundesliga: Bayern. They didn’t qualify for the inaugural season – local rivals 1860 Munich participated instead due to the rule of just one club per city – but the Reds joined in 1965/66, and have remained ever since.
They swiftly established themselves among the league’s elite and won the first of their 32 Bundesliga titles to date in 1969, which, combined with their DFB Cup triumph, formed part of the first double in Bundesliga history. Bayern had previously lifted the cup in 1966 and 1967, the same year that Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Co. added the European Cup Winners’ Cup to their collection – a trophy Dortmund had claimed just one year earlier.
Watch: An ode to Gerd Müller
After a few growing pains (and some more serious problems), the Bundesliga developed superbly, and in the 1970s it finally became one of European football’s heavyweight divisions. That was partly down to the emergence of legendary rivalries between the likes of Bayern, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburg and Cologne, who were all top-class teams in that decade.
This continued into the following decade, with other teams such as Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart mixing it at the top. Fierce jostling for position near the summit was a regular occurrence. Dortmund enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s with two titles, while Kaiserslautern, who also lifted the Meisterschale twice in those years, carved out a unique slice of history for themselves in 1997/98 by becoming the first newly promoted side to crowned champions.
In doing so, the team and legendary coach Otto Rehhagel sent a message around the world that anything was possible in the Bundesliga. Almost 30 years earlier, Nuremberg had learned first-hand that the opposite experience is also possible. The Bavarian side began the 1968/69 campaign as reigning champions, but were relegated at the end of the season.
Gerd Müller knew a thing or two about winning the Bundesliga title, thanks in large part to his incredible knack of scoring. Der Bomber der Nation (The Nation’s Bomber), as he was affectionately known, plundered 365 goals in 427 games for Bayern, and set what was once considered an unbreakable record when he hit 40 Bundesliga goals in a single season in 1971/72. That best mark was surpassed 39 years later, shortly before his death in August 2021, when Robert Lewandowski struck 41 times.
These are all stories that – to borrow a phrase from journalists - only football writes. It is especially true in the Bundesliga. For example, there is no TV footage of the league’s very first goal, scored by Dortmund’s Friedhelm 'Timo' Konietzka, nor of Dieter Müller's record six-goal haul for Cologne against Bremen in 1977. Both instances are destined to forever remain untelevised mysteries.
Watch: Kaiserslautern's fairytale 1997/98 title win
There were abandoned matches, broken woodwork, four-minute champions and open-goal misses. In short, there were enough talking points to dominate pub conversations, water-cooler chats at work and at home in the living room. There were legends on and off the pitch, faces that are as familiar to us all as our best friends, quotes that have become commonplace in everyday conversation.
The Bundesliga has had to survive numerous difficulties over the years. For example, the scandal of 1971 when Horst-Gregorio Canellas, president of Kickers Offenbach, went public about match-fixing and making bribe payments in the relegation battle. The public was shocked, but Germany's top flight fought its way back into the hearts of the fans.
There have been other challenges, too. From declining attendance figures, changes in the stands or on TV, the upheavals caused by the Bosman ruling in the 1990s, sporting dry spells or, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic, the Bundesliga has by no means come through the last 60 years without scratches and scrapes. But none of that did anything to change the overwhelming love of football fans in Germany.
The depth of their love of the Bundesliga was underlined in 2022/23, the league's 60th season, when fans were finally allowed back on the terraces throughout Germany after restrictions imposed for the pandemic were lifted. After a drop in numbers in 2020/21 (160,000) and 2021/22 (6.4 million), attendance figures returned to something approaching normal again, with over 13.1 million spectators watching from the stands across the 306 games of the season. With an average of 43,019 fans per match, crowd numbers were finally back at pre-pandemic levels.
Watch: The Bundesliga's record attendance
Packed-to-the-rafters stadiums boasting unrivalled atmospheres – that is one of the hallmarks of the Bundesliga, which is unique among Europe's top leagues due its standing terraces and the 50+1 rule. In the 2023/24 campaign, Heidenheim will become the 57th different club to play in Germany's top tier.
And goal-filled spectacles are virtually guaranteed here: nets rippled in the Bundesliga more often than anywhere else in Europe. A total of 971 goals were scored, 17 more than in the previous year. Compared to the other big five leagues across the continent, the Bundesliga was the only one to average more than three goals per game in 2022/23: 3.17 to be exact. England's Premier League was second in this regard with 2.85.
Indeed, that average of three or more goals per game has been a constant in the Bundesliga for the last five years. That is good news for fans, who are virtually guaranteed to enjoy similar numbers in the coming anniversary season. That remains just one of the reasons why the Bundesliga has been, and will continue be one thing for many more years to come: Germany's favourite child!