After a seemingly endless summer break of 75 days, two hours and nine minutes, weekends have at last a purpose again: Europe's best-supported*, highest-scoring** and most deliciously random league is back on Friday night with champions Wolfsburg taking on contenders VfB Stuttgart. But for one unlucky manager, the first game of the 2009-10 campaign has already come too late. On Monday, newly-promoted Mainz 05 fired their head coach Jorn Andersen after a shock defeat in the German FA Cup against VfL Lübeck and a dreadful pre-season that has seen a pile-up of injuries. No one has ever lost his job this early in the history of the league, not even Peter Neururer.

Andersen, if dressing-room whispers are to be believed, had behaved increasingly erratic in recent weeks. He banned all family photos from lockers in order that players should "concentrate properly", spent more time golfing than on the training pitch and had turned into a bit of a caricature dictator. "We know we can only survive in this league with great team spirit, that's why we had to make this decision now," explained the general manager Christian Heidel.

The youth coach Thomas Tuchel has now taken over. But Mainz are probably doomed either way and likely to be relegated alongside Hannover (no new players, no confidence in manager Dieter Hecking), Gladbach (not enough quality) or perhaps even Frankfurt (more stagnant and lifeless than the Dead Sea). Perennial scrappers Bochum will definitely be at the wrong side of the table again, too, and are set to answer the curious "DO YOU FOOTBALL" slogan on their chest enthusiastically in the negative: their shirts even come in a pre-stained, always-dirty look. It's an excellent idea, this. Imagine what a bit of fake muck might do for the popularity of Berbatov, Adebayor et al in the Premier League.

Bavarian traditionalists, meanwhile, can sleep easy again. Malicious rumours of orange away shirts for the moderately Dutchified, Louis van Gaal-trained Bayern Munich have been wide of the mark. Their new little number, with its grey collar and weird pin-stripes, has a whiff of Burger King uniform about it, but is at least reassuringly white.

Sixteen out of 18 Bundesliga managers polled see Bayern as firm championship favourites, only Freiburg's Robin Dutt ("Hamburg, Leverkusen, Bayern and Wolfsburg all have new coaches, one has to see how things pan out") and Van Gaal himself beg to differ. "My aim is to win a trophy – and produce better football," he said. "I don't think that it will be very easy. We'll have to fight very hard for the league." Van Gaal's first match in charge on Saturday evening will take him to last season's surprise package TSG Hoffenheim.

As is their want, Bayern have treated themselves to a spot of retail therapy after their second trophy-less season in three years. A net sum of €50m (£42m) has been spent on new recruits but unlike this column, they crucially forgot to start from the back. Instead of bringing in a goalkeeper worthy of the name and a decent right-back, €35m went towards addressing a problem that didn't exist. In Mario Gómez (Stuttgart), they have signed their third tall, slightly immobile centre-forward. He's good, no doubt, but it was a classic impulse buy from general manager Uli Hoeness, bereft of any imagination, simply borne out of fear that somebody else might get him.

The former manager Ottmar Hitzfeld foresees plenty of friction in the dressing room, especially from Luca Toni who he perceives as "a world champion of discontent". Franz Beckenbauer, on the other hand, thinks this is "the best Bayern squad of all time". A bizarre assessment, or sarcasm of the bleakest, cruellest type, who can tell? Next week, "Der Kaiser" will claim the squad's not good enough to beat Upper Giesing, the local amateur side. It'll be also interesting to see how Franck Ribéry will take to his new designated position at the tip of a midfield diamond. The Frenchman will stay for another inglorious quarter-final exit in the Champions League before moving to Real Madrid next year.

The fact that the Bundesliga has managed to hold on to all the big-name players with the exception of Diego (Juventus, €25m) bodes very well for the season. Stuttgart, who welcome back the home-sick Alex Hleb and have signed Pavel Pogrebniak from Zenit St Petersburg, will be a formidable outfit and grade A Meisterschaft material. The same is true of Hamburg under Bruno Labbadia (insert your own Umlaut-based joke here, if you're inclined that way) and maybe Hoffenheim, again. You can't even discount Wolfsburg, even though playing in the Champions League will probably take its toll. Bremen, Dortmund (watch out for new Argentinian goal machine Lucas Barrios), Hertha and Leverkusen could all feasibly finish third, too. There are hardly enough also-rans to go around this time; all those nice, middle-class sides who used to turn the other cheek when richer neighbours or plebeian street fighters from the relegation gutter come to town, have somehow disappeared. You're either a potential Champions League side or 2. Bundesliga fodder in this league.

Schalke 04, however, will be neither. Their manager Felix Magath has found only cobwebs in the Royal Blues' safe and downscaled his ambition in a desperate attempt to manage expectations. "I want to win the championship, but I don't know when that'll be," he said. "When I talk about making it into Europe, there's a lot of hope involved." Last year's Meistertrainer has been severely frustrated by the lack of quality in this one-paced, utterly mediocre side. Last weekend in the cup, TV cameras caught him loudly querying whether his men on the pitch had "shit in the brain".

But Schalke have potentially even bigger problems. A few days ago, a couple of Turkish newspapers somewhat belatedly discovered a curious passage in S04's club song that has been sung in Gelsenkirchen since 1963. "Muhammad was a prophet who doesn't understand football," the fans chant every week before kick-off, "but out of all the beautiful colours, he chose blue and white." (It barely rhymes in German, in case you wondered) "Out of thin air" (Frankfurter Rundschau), Schalke have received more than 200 threatening emails that demand an end to this practice. "Jihad on Schalke," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung about a wave of protest that has been taken serious enough by the club to get the police and federal authorities involved. An expert in Islamic theology has also been consulted.

There are no logical reasons for the Muhammad reference in the song, only the suspicion that the composer Hans J König was inspired by another obscure, folkloristic piece that mentioned the prophet's affinity to the colour green. The large Turkish contingent among the Schalke supporters has certainly never taken any offence to these harmless lines before; even the articles in the Turkish press were actually rather benign. The sudden outrage feels very manufactured. The question is: by whom?

At least one website frequented by German Islamic activists has distributed the email template used by most of the protesters but some Schalke fans suspect right-wing extremists have orchestrated the whole affair to stir up resentment. One can only hope that everybody concerned will soon be far too aggrieved by the Royal Blues' poor performances to care about the infidel song, because a fully-fledged "fatwa on Schalke" (taz) would pose organisational problems. As much as Magath might enjoy going underground and turning up unannounced at the odd match or two with a beautiful lady on his arm, it's just not a feasible arrangement.

* average attendance was 41,900 last season, a new record for the seventh consecutive season.

** the Bundesliga has seen the highest number of goals per game compared to the other four big leagues in each year since 1989.


Raphael Honigstein

The GuardianTramp

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