Welcome to the “League of Hearts”
The second Bundesliga begins on Friday – with more traditional clubs than ever. Here, lazy and full big clubs are brought out of their comfort zone and grounded on the often muddy and holey lawn on which football has always thrived.
Ein the soccer game of Schalke 04 against the Hamburg Sports Club – that could have been a German cup final a few years ago. Or a game about participation in the Champions League. On Friday, on the other hand, these once and still big clubs will open the 48th season of the Second Bundesliga. Because other prominent names from German football history – such as Werder Bremen, 1. FC Nürnberg, Dynamo Dresden, Fortuna Düsseldorf – are also in the basement, there is talk of a season of nostalgia, a round of tradition or even a “League of Hearts ”. But is football really played with the heart?
Actually, the presence of numerous big clubs in the small edition of the Bundesliga testifies to a failure on a sporting and economic level. Anyone who is relegated from League One and – like HSV or Hannover 96 – cannot get out of the subclass for years, has done pretty much everything wrong with the existing options and has disappointed their own fans for years. Doesn’t every ambitious athlete, coach, manager want to play among the very best in the country? Better to compete with European legends like FC Barcelona, AC Milan or Manchester United?
“Never again the second division!” Sing the fans who are finally allowed to go back to the stands, when they are turned down or when they have made it up. In the coming months, hardened second division clubs will play in oversized arenas in Gelsenkirchen, Hamburg and Bremen: Heidenheim, Sandhausen, Aue.
“The god of money devours everything”
You will find out: The prominence of the second division is a sporting godsend. For years, the table has shown that the teams in the lower house of football are much closer together than in the elite class, where Bayern Munich has won the championship for years and the following clubs usually rank according to their balance sheet volume. “Money doesn’t score goals”, the legendary trainer Otto Rehhagel once claimed, both romantically and incorrectly. But in the tough capitalism of professional football, only the bare is the real thing. “The god of money”, that’s how Christian Streich, coach of SC Freiburg, put the situation nicely in words, “devours everything”.
Internationally this spring, a European super league worth billions could only be averted by a narrow margin and massive fan protests without a sporting mix. Behind a showcase of major European clubs, financed by investment funds and media groups, lies the future global marketing of the sport, which is no longer aimed at fans who are freezing behind the club cladding in the standing stands. Instead, growth markets in Asia are to be served, where children admire superheroes like Cristiano Ronaldo on their smartphones and consume football as a real extension of their Playstation.
Anyone who as a second division fan on the Brenz faithfully followed the games of FC Heidenheim for years or shivered with FC St. Pauli not far from the Reeperbahn – you won’t know what to do with the global haggling over transfer fees and broadcasting rights. Paradoxically, the less attractive marketing was good for sporting competition. A resourceful management can raise the required annual budget of 10 to 20 million euros through dairies or hardware stores in the province. That’s why peripheral underdogs such as Erzgebirge Aue or Holstein Kiel have been able to regularly defeat the favorites with sounding names in recent years. Where relegated and promoted players are only separated by a few points, a Goliath like HSV recently stumbled and a David like Spielvereinigung Fürth was promoted to the First Bundesliga.
In the second division there is tension – and the game
In this way, the House of Commons preserves the decisive qualities, rare at the top, that once made football popular: unpredictability, regional roots, identity. The gnarled Sepp Herberger, 1954 world champion coach at the “Miracle of Bern”, summed up the appeal of the game succinctly: “Why do people go to the stadium? Because they don’t know how it’s going to end. ”This is no longer the case in the technically well-equipped arenas full of VIP lounges. Customers who have been invited by business partners, free ticket winners of lotteries or families who want to show off the superheroes from the Internet in analog format for their children’s birthday meet there. How it ends is often a minor matter; and the atmosphere suffers.
For another reason, the provincial second division is an attractive counter-program to the cold global kick of the real or supposed champions. Football is actually an inexpensive game. All you need is a green lawn and twenty-two athletes who do not necessarily have to earn ten million euros a year for quick acceleration and shooting power. And because the athletes in the second division do not just earn little money because they train professionally and are tactically trained by shrewd experts, the lower classes offer not only excitement, but astonishingly often first-class fun. A striker like Serdar Dursun, for example, who finished the last second division season with 27 goals as the top scorer for Darmstadt 98, is now playing for Turkish record champions Fenerbahçe Istanbul. With his quality he could certainly also assert himself with top clubs in England or Spain.
Professional football has always been business. Critics of the current money frenzy are targeting “retort clubs” such as TSG Hoffenheim, made big by the billionaire Dietmar Hopp, the VW Club from Wolfsburg or the Aspirin kickers from Bayer Leverkusen. Even the lawn ball club from Leipzig would hardly make it into the Champions League without the push of an Austrian power shower. However, it was not these investors who ousted clubs like Schalke, Werder or HSV from the First Bundesliga, but smarter, harder-fighting rivals like FC Augsburg, Mainz 05, Union Berlin or SC Freiburg. It is their sporting success stories that keep competitive thinking alive right through to international business.
Above all, however, in the second division lazy and full big clubs are brought out of the comfort zone and, in honest competition, they are grounded again with the often muddy and holey lawn on which football has always thrived. May the dubious money from Arabia and Russia triumph in the Champions League, Bayern may win the dozen record championships in a row in Germany – in the second division 2021/22 it is by no means impossible that in the end it is not Hamburg and Schalke that will rise, but Jahn Regensburg or Holstein Kiel. Success here has to be worked out and cannot simply be bought. Because tradition doesn’t score goals.