Monday 1 March 2021

The Beauty of Germany's Third Division

Living in England, only once in my life have I attended a match in Germany's 3. Liga. It came last year in what turned out to be the final round of fixtures before COVID-19 sent Germany into lockdown and stopped all football for several months. The match in question at the flyeralarm Arena saw FC Würzburger Kickers draw 0-0 at home to SV Waldhof Mannheim 07 in what really wasn't a good advert for Germany's third tier. And don't get me started on the fact that the only beer on sale inside the ground was non-alcoholic... Nonetheless, I was and still am very much in love with German third division football. 

Moving there almost four years ago, my brother spent a year living in the German city of Cologne where he was introduced to one of its local sides Fortuna Köln by some colleagues and several times saw them in 3. Liga action (when I visited him there were no matches on). His accounts of how very different life on the terraces was at such games compared to the all-seater stadia back home very much intrigued me but it was actually earlier than that when I became captivated by Germany's lowest national level division.

Before that though, first of all, there are several reasons why the 3. Liga is so fascinating. The league was formed in 2008 as a new national level division to sit between the 2. Bundesliga and the varying regionalliga divisions that had, until that point, sat directly below it and one perfect example of its intrigue is its mix of clubs. I once, a few years back, read an article talking about the league's mix of fallen Bundesliga giants and classic names from the old East German Oberliga. Obviously, with the nature of promotion and relegation, not all the teams mentioned in said article are still present in the league but, at the time of writing, there are still enough of these names that fit the bill.

In terms of ex Bundesliga clubs in the division, TSV 1860 München, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, KFC Uerdingen 05 (formerly Bayer Uerdingen), and MSV Duisburg, for exmple, were all at one point or another big name top flight sides. Amongst that list are two former Bundesliga champions, an ex runner up, and several DFB-Pokal winners not mention a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup runner up. Several other teams in the league have briefly played Bundesliga football including a couple of the ex East German sides as well as FC Ingolstadt 04 who were promoted to the top flight for the very first time as recently as 2016 though were relegated after just two seasons.

Most East German sides have struggled post-reunification and, as mentioned, several fallen giants from the east also now sit in Germany's third tier including Dynamo Dresden and 1. FC Magdeburg. Dresden sit behind Berliner FC Dynamo as East Germany's most successful club with 8 DDR Oberliga titles to their name, 8 runners up finishes and seven FDGB-Pokal triumphs whilst in Europe they were UEFA Cup semi-finalists in 1988-89. In more recent times they are famed for taking 30,000 away fans to a DFB-Pokal clash with Hertha BSC at Berlin's Olympiastadion in 2019. Magdeburg, meanwhile, defeated AC Milan in the final of the 1974 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and like Dresden also have several domestic league and cup triumphs to their name. The current 3. Liga also includes FSV Zwickau who were East Germany's first-ever champions and FC Hansa Rostock who were the Oberliga's final champions pre reunification as well as Hallescher FC, formerly known as Chemie Halle. Notably, fellow East German sides FC Energie Cottbus, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, and Chemnitzer FC have all in recent years played in the 3. Liga with Jena UEFA Cup Winners' Cup runners up in 1981.

The league, which also happens to be the highest level at which reserve sides can play, also includes amongst all those old warhorses from both east and west much newer names such as Türkgücü München who, at the time of writing, are competing in the third tier for the very first time. Not so long ago that mention of new and old could have also extended to the league's stadiums as there were some real old skool, often kitsch, open-air terraces amongst the new modern era stadia now favoured by many. Sadly, the former are becoming less and less common. A lot of clubs have played in modern arenas for quite some time now and although in recent times there have still been a few clubs in the division using retro venues most of them no longer play in this league. Amongst others, Carl Zeiss Jena, Holstein Kiel, Preußen Münster, and SpVgg Unterhaching are all ex 3. Liga clubs that have not yet moved into modern arenas. Meanwhile, Uerdingen who currently play in the division are having their very much old skool venue upgraded. But for some real nostalgia on the current stadium front see FC Bayern II/1860 München, VfB Lübeck, and SV Meppen. 

The stadiums of Kaiserslautern's and Türkgücü are also worth mentioning too. Kaiserslautern's Fritz-Walter-Stadion although, perhaps, looking more modern due to various upgrades was originally built in 1920. Whilst as for Türkgücü, their usual home is not up to 3. Liga standard so they have this season been mostly groundsharing at the Grünwalder Stadion home of 1860 and FC Bayern II but have also played several matches at Munch's Olympiastadion. This famous venue is surely one of the country's most historic sporting arenas alongside the other Olympic stadium in Berlin. It's just a shame that due to COVID fans are currently not allowed to attend these games.

The host of famous club names from years gone by and old skool stadia if you look hard enough, as I have mentioned above, are probably what first led me to take note of the 3. Liga. But what actually made me fall in love with it was some good old fashioned final day drama.

Having visited Germany with friends for the first time in 2014 to see my beloved Newcastle United play in a pre-season Schalke Cup tournament I went back home and started following German football with far more interest than normal. This eventually took me to the final day of the 2015-16 3. Liga season.

Now I'm not usually one to advocate the illegal streaming of football but wanting to follow the final day of the 3.Liga season and nowhere in the UK legally broadcasting it I turned to the internet.  As my fascination with German football continued to grow I had become more interested in the German lower leagues and wanted to watch some of the action for myself. Live in-person at the stadium fourth and sixth tier action in Berlin would eventually follow before that aforementioned 3. Liga match in Würzburg last year but I would have to start by watching from home on my laptop. I managed to find a stream of the ARD Sportschau coverage, which was a type of around the grounds show that I believe the Germans call Konferenz, and settled in for what turned out to be a cracking couple of hours with relegation still to be decided. 

With VfB Stuttgart II already down, any two from Energie Cottbus, Stuttgarter Kickers, SV Wehen Wiesbaden, and SV Werder Bremen II were set to join them. For Kickers a win would be enough to keep them up whilst two points behind them Cottbus could also stay up with a win. Bremen and Wiesbaden were a point behind Cottbus and therefore in a slightly more difficult position but, nonetheless, victory would potentially give them a chance of survival if other results went in their favour. 

Bremen found themselves 2-0 up at the break against VfR Aalen and won 2-1 whilst Kickers lost 1-0 at home to Chemnizter, but the real drama came at Cottbus and Wiesbaden.

There were tears in the stands of Cottbus' Stadion der Freundschaft when 1. FSV Mainz 05 II took the lead early in the second-half but after an equaliser eight minutes later there were eventually scenes of unbridled joy when on 77 minutes Cottbus found themselves 2-1 ahead. The whole stadium went wild as Cottbus fans looked towards safety and another season of 3. Liga football. But alas for those exuberant fans disaster eventually struck... Two minutes from time Mainz grabbed an equaliser and in stoppage time retook the lead as the stadium very quickly turned into what felt like a morgue and Cottbus abruptly found themselves relegated.

So now you are thinking but what of Wiesbaden and who actually went down with Cottbus? Bremen and Wiesbaden started the day level on goal difference with -15 whilst Kickers had -13. Kickers losing 1-0 saw them move down -14 with Bremen also joining them on -14 and the same number of points due to their 2-1 win. A slightly higher number of goals scored ended up being enough to see Bremen finish above Kickers and secure themselves safety but for Kickers, survival would end up hinging on events in Wiesbaden where there would be more late drama. Very late.

An early Wiesbaden lead at home to VfB Stuttgart II gave them hope but a second-half equaliser severely dented their prospects. When Wiesbaden retook the lead on 83 minutes they were still going down thanks to having scored fewer goals than Kickers who they now joined on -14 goal difference and, like Bremen, the same number of points. Kickers finished their match outside the relegation zone, but with Wiesbaden still deep into injury time those connected with the Kickers had to wait a short while longer to see if things would stay that way.

At this point, as I sat watching on my sofa, I was almost ready to turn off when the commentator at Kickers was abruptly interrupted by shouts of "Tor im Wiesbaden!!!" (Goal in Wiesbaden). It was the 94th minute of the match and suddenly on my screen, I saw wild scenes of players running off full pelt to celebrate with each other and fans going beserk in the stands. Wiesbaden had just scored a third goal and now 3-1 up would be moving to a goal difference of -13 which would send Stuttgarter Kickers on -14 down with Cottbus and keep themselves up. No sooner did the opposition kick-off again then the full-time whistle blew at Wiesbaden's small, neat, and compact looking Brita-Arena home - Out of nowhere Wehen Wiesbaden were somehow officially safe from the drop.

After several hours of sheer drama with an extra dramatic finale that even the Hollywood scriptwriters could not have written those involved could breathe a little easier whilst I could sit back ponder what the hell I had just witnessed! It was then that I quickly realised I had fallen in love with Germany's third tier. A picture of the Brita-Arena was even the desktop wallpaper on my computer at work for a short while. God, aren't I cool!

Three seasons after that final day drama Wiesbaden would actually find themselves promoted to the 2. Bundesliga though they only lasted a season before heading back down whilst Cottbus would secure promotion back to the 3.Liga after two seasons away only to suffer relegation again at the first attempt. Relegation and promotion actually seems to bring a lot of drama to the 3. Liga and not just involving Cottbus and Wiesbaden. 

In 2016-17, SC Paderborn 07 thought they had completed a third straight relegation when they finished third bottom of the 3.Liga just three seasons after their maiden appearance in the top flight but were saved thanks 1860 München's owner failing to pay the league's licence fee. 1860 were duly relegated to the fourth tier Regionalliga Bayern and Paderborn got a reprieve. 1860 would soon be back in the third tier whilst as for Paderborn well they truly made the most of their reprieve by finishing runners up the following season before a second successive promotion saw them right back in the Bundesliga again after what had been a rather lively five years for the club.

There was more drama at the end of the 19-20 season though this time at the other end of the table. League winners FC Bayern II had, of course, been denied promotion as a reserve side meaning second and third would go up automatically with the fourth placed side partaking in a play-off match. 1860 München missed out completely by losing to an Ingolstadt side who had started the day two points above them with Ingolstadt ending their match in the second promotion spot behind Eintracht Braunschweig but that was not the end of it. 

With the DFB nowaday's streaming weekly a 3. Liga match to international viewers free of charge via YouTube fans like me were able to watch live pictures of Ingolstadt's victory but the real drama, however, came in the dying seconds at Würzburg. The home side who had started the day in the second promotion place soon found themselves in a play-off spot behind Ingolstadt on goal difference thanks to being 2-1 down against Halle. In the third minute of stoppage time, however, Würzburg were awarded a penalty, and a chance to draw level. Doing so would move them back above Ingolstadt to secure automatic promotion and suddenly condemn Ingoldstadt to a play-off match against the third bottom 2. Bundesliga side. Würzburg duly scored the penalty whilst Ingolstadt, despite coming back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to lead 3-2 on aggregate against 1. FC Nürnberg in their play-off tie missed out on promotion thanks to conceding a 96th minute goal that made it 3-3 and saw Nürnberg saved by the away goals rule.

I continue to follow the 3. Liga with interest from afar and having now even attended a match in the division hope to soon get back to Germany and attend many more. Of course, with or without me in attendance, the drama will no doubt still continue and, as I write, the famous name of Kaiserslautern currently sit two points above the relegation zone just waiting to bring, neutral viewers at least, more excitement as the season draws to a close. Meanwhile, one point above Kaiserslautern sit Viktoria Köln who now claim the title of Cologne's second club, behind Bundesliga side 1. FC Köln, having been promoted to the division in 2018-19 the same season my brother's side Fortuna were relegated from it. But by then Philip was living in Arizona.

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