A pall is cast over a milestone victory for Bayern Munich

Saturday March 15th, 2014

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller and Franck Ribery celebrated Bayern's win over Leverkusen.
Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

Two goals in eight minutes either side of halftime, the first from Mario Mandzukic, the second from Bastian Schweinsteiger, were enough for Bayern Munich. This wasn't one of its romps, when it seems it could put four or five past any opposition, but it was good enough to beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 and so extend Bayern's unbeaten league run to an extraordinary 50 games.

It's not yet the best streak in European history, but it did take Bayern past the 49-game marks of Arsenal (May 2003-October 2004) and Juventus (May 2011-November 2012). If, as some measure of quality control, you include only leagues that have produced teams that have won the European Cup, this run is now seventh on the overall list, and still a long way behind the 104 games unbeaten set by Steaua Bucharest between August 1986 and September 1989 -- although few now believe there wasn't at least a measure of state collusion in that run.

If Bayern can extend the run to the end of the season -- and so become the first team to go unbeaten through a Bundesliga season (the Bayern side of 1986-87 lost just once) -- it would pass Ajax (52 games, August 1994-January 1996), Benfica (56 games, October 1976-September 1978) and AC Milan (58 games, May 1991-March 1993). Celtic's run of 62 games between November 1915 and April 1917 would be within reach. Yet those statistics don't quite explain the full indomitable majesty of this Bayern: it has won its last 17 straight league games and averages 2.96 goals per contest. Perhaps its domination -- and that of Real Madrid and Barcelona as well as Juventus and PSG in their respective leagues -- heralds the coming of the super-clubs, teams too big for their own countries, but these are still astonishing figures.

And yet, the week that led up to the half-century didn't seem much like one of celebration. Bayern's president, Uli Hoeness, resigned after being sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for evading €27 million ($37.5 million) in taxes, something he described as "the worst mistake of my life". To speak of him as the president, though, is only to hint at how significant a figure Hoeness was. He played for the club between 1970 and 1979, winning three Bundesliga titles and three European Cup. After a knee injury forced him to retire at the age of 27, he became the club's commercial/general manager and over the 45 years that followed built the club into a financial powerhouse, with the highest commercial revenue of any club in Europe, thanks to a number of sponsorship deals with major Bavarian firms. So integral to the club is Hoeness that even the sausages served in the Allianz Arena come from the bratwurst factory he co-owns in Nuremburg. He was Bayern and Bayern was him. "Uli Hoeness has always devoted his leadership qualities, great personal commitment and outstanding lifelong effort to the best interests of Bayern Munich," said Herbert Hainer, the Adidias chief executive who had just been appointed as Bayern's new chairman. "He is very largely responsible for Bayern becoming one of the most successful and attractive clubs in the world both in sporting and financial terms."

Around 500 Bayern fans gathered outside the courtroom to support Hoeness, while such was the interest in the case that websites of both the club and Suddeutsche Zeitung, the main Munich-based newspaper, crashed after the verdict was announced. For a man so central to Bayern's rise to be brought so low inevitably cast a pall.

But that wasn't the only sour note this week. There was also the bizarre comment from the former West Germany and Bayern captain Franz Beckenbauer after Bayern's victory over Arsenal in the Champions League that "in the end, we'll be unwatchable like Barca. They'll be passing it backwards on the goal-line." It was a strangely churlish comment, not just because of Bayern's recent record but because it came in the context of a game Bayern began with a 2-0 first-leg lead.

The previous season, Bayern had been beaten 2-0 at home by Arsenal after winning 3-1 at the Emirates, and although it edged through on away goals, its complacency very nearly cost it. This season, it played sensible, pragmatic football, keeping the ball from Arsenal and protecting the lead; the result was a 3-1 aggregate win, something most saw as an improvement.

Beckenbauer is the honorary president of Bayern and a less influential figure than he once was, but it still struck a discordant note and raised the question of whether there are splits behind the scenes, people who resent the Barca-isation of Bayern. It may be that Beckenbauer is isolated and was simply expressing an individual opinion, but Bayern has historically been a vipers' nest, a club as political as it is glamorous. One of Hoeness's triumphs recently was -- at least relatively -- to keep that culture in check. Without his leadership, it's possible that the cliques and factions will emerge again.

On the pitch, though, Bayern remains a phenomenon. It's possible that the streak will falter once the Bundesliga title is secured and the attention shifts tothe Champions League, but at the moment it seems more likely than not that Bayern will keep rolling on until the end of the season, rewriting the record books as it goes.

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