Sunday 11 September 2022

A Very Brief History of German Domestic Football Before The Bundesliga

When 1. FC Köln clinched the league title in April 1964 they held the distinction of being the first ever Bundesliga champions. Being the inaugural winners of Germany’s first-ever national division, as German football finally entered the modern world Köln became its first victor ludorum of this new era.

Of course, football in Germany existed before the formation of the Bundesliga, much like fans in England will tell you that football did not just begin in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League. But whereas, at least in terms of format and structure, not much really changed when the English top flight reformed under a different guise, in Germany it was a very different story. The Bundesliga brought a proper national division to the country for the first time in its footballing history - completely changing forever the way German domestic football would be structured.

Before the Bundesliga came along, German football consisted of various regional league systems with an end-of-season knock-out tournament involving each regional top flight (Oberliga) winner to determine the country’s national champion. Until after the war when professionalism began to creep in, these regional leagues were generally amateur. There had been talk of creating a professional national division for some years prior to the Bundesliga’s formation but bickering amongst clubs and regional associations had stopped such a competition from being introduced sooner.

Okay, when Germany split in two after the Second World War, the DDR (East Germany) were able to introduce a fully nationwide division as early as 1949. However, in the BRD (West Germany), at least, they would continue under the old system of regional divisions for a further 14 years. This was 61 years after Germany crowned its first ever football champion and some 76 years after the Football League was introduced in England, for example.

Founded in 1874 by a group of Englishmen living in the city, the Dresden English Football Club was the first such club to be founded in Germany and quite possibly the first outside Great Britain. Sixteen years later after the sport had spread across the country, representatives from 86 clubs formed the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) which became the nation's official football association. The first German Football Championship took place three years later in 1903 with six teams eventually participating. 

For that first edition of the new national championship, ethnic German clubs from outside the country were eligible to take part and one such side Prague-based DFC Prag entered and reached the final. Once the DFB joined FIFA the following year, however, foreign clubs were no longer permitted so Prag would never get the chance of revenge for their 7-2 loss to VfB Leipzig in Altona. VfB were predecessors of the modern-day fourth tier Regionalliga Nordost side 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, once a big name in the DDR. Having existed under various different guises before and since, Lokomotive were losing UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup finalists in 1987. 

Leipzig would win two more championships over the next ten years and twice more finish runners-up. Over that same period BFC Viktoria, predecessors to the current Viktoria Berlin side relegated from last season’s 3. Liga, reached four finals and won two of them also. There was also success for the city of Karlsruhe too, with Karlsruher FV’s 1910 triumph coming a year after near neighbours Phönix Karlsruhe were crowned champions. Karlsruher FV currently play tenth-tier football whilst Phönix Karlsruhe later became Karlsruher SC who currently play in the 2, Bundesliga.

It was  1. FC Nürnberg, however, who became the first club to really dominate German football. This came through winning five titles during the 1920s and led to the nickname Der Club (the club) in recognition of their success. It is a nickname they still use today despite not having won a league title since 1968 and currently residing in the second tier.

By the 1920s various regional leagues and tournaments had been formed from which, of course, the winners would take part in that end-of-season national championship. League numbers and formats would vary over the years before becoming more settled after the war.  The end-of-season championship also used various formats itself ranging from a complete knock-out tournament to using a short group stage format for the first round of the competition.

At one point during World War II, there were as many as 31 regional league structures. This was when German territory was at its largest in part due to Nazi invasion and occupation. Under the Nazi regime that came into power in 1933, the different regional top flight leagues were known as Gauligas. This period was noticeable for the fact that three teams from Vienna in Austria, then under Nazi control, reached the final of the end-of-season championship. Of Admira Wien, First Vienna, and Rapid Wien, however, only the latter of the three managed to become champions. Rapid came from 3-0 down to win 4-3 over favourites Schalke 04 in the final. In more Austrian success, Rapid Wien and First Vienna both became German Cup winners during this time by winning the Tschammer-Pokal which, formed in 1935, would later become known as the DFB-Pokal. Despite losing the 1941 championship final to Rapid and also a further two finals during the Nazi regime, Schalke were definitely the most successful side during this era, however, winning six championships over a 12-year period.

Whilst Nürnberg and later Schalke had seen periods of dominance, no one would team dominate the post-war pre-Bundesliga era in the same way. Although, Borussia Dortmund did win the first three of their to date 8 titles during this 16-year period, including the last ever final in 1963. Of course, one team noticeably absent during this time and as yet not once mentioned are FC Bayern München. Indeed Bayern, currently by far the most successful German club of all-time, clinched only one of their record 32 titles during the pre-Bundesliga era defeating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 in 1932 just before the Nazis came to power. Later, Bayern did not reach the Bundesliga until 1965 two seasons after its beginning. Their first Bundesliga campaign saw city rivals 1860 München win what is still their only national title to date. Bayern themselves secured their first Bundesliga crown three years later.

As stated it was Borussia Dortmund who were the final side to win the old German championship. 1. FC Köln were defeated 3-1 in the final played in Stuttgart but, as we know, they made up for that defeat the following season by becoming inaugural Bundesliga winners. The country’s 16 best sides had been selected to join the brand new national professional league whilst the highest level regional Oberliga divisions were to continue on as part of a new second tier. Those Oberliga divisions would remain at that level until the 2. Bundesliga was created 11 years later, initially split into North and South sections.

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