In its own way, 2. Bundesliga has more to offer than Germany’s top flight football. While the latter has been almost boringly dominated by Bayern Munich in recent years, the second division remains incredibly competitive, with the intrigue in both the promotion and relegation zones kept alive till the last day.
The 2018/19 season kicked off on Friday, August 3 with Hamburger SV’s first night in Germany’s second division. Another new kid on the block, 1.FC Magdeburg, debuted in the league on Sunday afternoon against FC St Pauli, HSV’s local rivals.
If you’re still undecided on who to follow in the 2. Bundesliga, one of these debutants could be a perfect fit. The two sides made their way to the league from the opposite directions, the former (finally) relegated from the first division, the latter (finally) winning promotion from the third. Yet the difference between the two clubs is not quite so wide as one may think: in the 70s and 80s both were no strangers to the highest level of European football.
On May 12, 2018 the last dinosaur of Bundesliga became extinct: Hamburger Sports-Verein were relegated for the first time in the club’s history. The team had been nicknamed ‘Dino’ for their longevity in Germany’s top division, yet an ironic mind may view it a little differently. The dinosaurs of the league had gradually turned into fossils with an outdated structure, little planning beyond the investments and no clear ambition for the future. They were doomed to go down to escape the shadow of their own glorious past.
HSV secured three national titles even before the Bundesliga was founded in 1963, and was home to a number of brilliant players, most notably 1954 World Cup champion Josef ‘Jupp’ Posipal and the Seeler dynasty, the legendary Uwe first and foremost. Yet the mid-70s to 80s marks the most successful run in the club’s history, beginning with the triumph at the Cup Winners Cup in 1977 and reaching a pinnacle when lifting the Champions Cup in 1983. During that time, HSV reached two more European finals (Champions Cup in 1980 and UEFA Cup in 1982) and thrice won the Bundesliga. One would have thought that the black-white-and-blue team from Hamburg had turned into a new giant of German football, but that was not meant to be.
The last trophy—the club’s third German Cup—was won in 1987, the last ray of light before the dark years. It’s hard to trace to when exactly the team’s current crisis began, but some say it’s been accumulating since 1987. By 2000 what HSV fans were celebrating was a Champions League group stage 4-4 home draw with Juventus (all the more ironically, the same club the 1983 Champions Cup final was won against). Slightly over a decade later, there wasn’t even that to celebrate.
Over the past 5 years, HSV have constantly flirted with relegation. Twice in a row they made the narrowest of escapes by winning the playoffs against promotion candidates 1. In 2017, a win on the last day of the season delayed the comedown for a year, but in 2018 the same trick did not suffice. In a parallel game, Wolfsburg’s win over Köln secured Hamburg 17th place—and direct relegation.
Amazingly—and perhaps making the downgrade to 2. Bundesliga an even more bitter pill to swallow—the team put forth their best performance at the end of the season. Under Christian Titz, appointed in mid-March after having coached Hamburg’s U21 and reserve teams, HSV’s game finally became attractive and modern, and, importantly, effective, securing 4 wins in the last 6 games. This late ray of hope was not enough to make up for the preceding disastrous spells: two wins in the entire first half of the season under Markus Gisdol, zero victories in the following two months with Bernd Hollerbach as head coach. Yet the entertaining style of play instilled by Titz seemed to guarantee a brighter future (so, predictably, the coach signed a new two-year contract at the end of the season). It may seem a paradox, but the number of fan memberships increased immediately after relegation; as new sporting director Ralf Becker put it in a pre-season kicker interview, “there is even something like euphoria” surrounding the team.
That euphoria (pre-season predictions of direct promotion were not an unpopular opinion) may nevertheless vanish if HSV continue the way they debuted (squandering opportunities throughout the first half, losing control after half-time and eventually conceding three unanswered goals from Holstein Kiel). It is tempting to explain this failure by the obvious lack of experience—after all, the central defenders are the 21-year old David Bates, the summer’s new signing from Rangers FC, and Rick van Drongelen who is just 19. Overall, HSV are the youngest side in German professional football right now; their average age is 22.9 and only one player, captain Aaron Hunt, over age 30 (he’s just 31, to be precise). But the tricky thing is their youth may also be their strength.
In the 1970s, Hamburg’s success began when they focused on a handful of promising players. Now, the team once again has a number of talented youngsters. The one to keep a particularly sharp eye on is Jann-Fiete Arp, the 18-year-old prodigy who turned down an offer from Bayern Munich this summer—and somehow ended up in the HSV reserve team. Presumably Fiete needed intensive practice ahead of the season; he certainly showed he could score beauties like this one. Yet in the first match he didn’t make the squad against Holstein Kiel, instead playing against Werder Bremen’s reserves—a decision that left many bewildered.If HSV want to shake off their reputation as dinosaurs and start a new era, leaving out their rising star isn’t the way to go. The team’s revival is contingent on giving their young players the opportunity to prove and develop their talents.
If there’s a side in the 2.Bundesliga that’s an even greater paradox than HSV, it’s 1.FC Magdeburg, a team that won a European trophy yet until last week had never played above Germany’s third division. A united third division, it should be specified. 1.FC Magdeburg as we now know it was formed in the German Democratic Republic, and theirs is a story of a rise and fall like few others.
The city on the banks of the river Elbe had professional football before, of course, with teams like SV Viktoria 96 Magdeburg and Cricket Viktoria Magdeburg founding members of the German Football Association. After the Second World War, the victors banned football clubs in Germany. They were, however, quickly revived everywhere but the Soviet zone, where the plans to disband the existing teams were meticulously carried out. The players of various Magdeburg-based teams formed SG Sudenburg. What followed was a period of teams forming, uniting, and changing names—just like in the early days of German football—and by 1955 a club named SC Aufbau Magdeburg emerged. The team went on to lift the East German Cup in 1964 and 1965, after which new changes were to come. The government had a plan to build a stronger East German national team, and by January 1, 1966 eleven football sections had separated from their clubs (originally multi-sport ones, as is traditional for Germany). Thus 1.FC Magdeburg came into being. The country’s most promising players were to be signed by these ‘focus clubs’, to allow the most talented footballers to develop together. It’s difficult to say how much the East Germany national team benefited from the system, but the Magdeburg side certainly managed to make the most of the situation. During the decade that followed the team won three league titles and two more cups. Most importantly, they triumphed in the 1974 Cup Winners Cup with a 2-0 victory over AC Milan, becoming the only East German team to ever win a European trophy.
Much of this success could also be attributed to head coach Heinz Krügel. In 1976, however, his career was brutally interrupted by the East German Football Association, which issued formal accusations of not doing enough to develop Olympic athletes at Magdeburg. The reality was that Krügel never allowed the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany to influence his work, which saw him labeled as ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘seeking reconciliation with the West’. Krügel was given a life ban from coaching and ended up among the technical staff at a lower division Magdeburg-based team (he was finally rehabilitated by the German Football Association 20 years later).
1.FCM never fully recovered from the shock, although they continued being a strong side in the East German football and won the Cup three more times (in fact, they never lost a final once they reached it). During the 1989-90 season, after the fall of Berlin wall, the club had a chance to win the title but ultimately finished third; the next year—decisive in terms of qualifying for a decent place in the united football leagues of the newly united country—everything went wrong. As coach Joachim Streich (a former striker for Magdeburg and the national team who was so goal-prolific he earned the nickname “Gerd Müller of the East”) and key players left for Western teams, 1.FC Magdeburg ended up tenth in the final East German championship and didn’t manage a single win in the qualifications for 2. Bundesliga.
Thus their struggles in third and regional divisions began.
But the dark years brought forth a few rays of light. In 2000 Magdeburg became known as the “Cup nightmare” as the then fourth-division team knocked out of the German Cup top flight clubs such as 1.FC Köln and even Bayern München. The remarkable run was stopped by Schalke 04 who managed a 1-0 win.
More importantly, since the turn of the century the club has been making far-sighted investments, such as building a new stadium and training centre as well a youth centre. The effect wasn’t instantaneous; in 2011-12 1.FC Magdeburg had four (!) different coaches and still finished last—it was only reform in the Regionalliga that saved them from further relegation. It was from that lowest point that the club started their recent ascent. After the disastrous season the sporting director Mario Kallnik emphasised that the aim was to gain promotion to the third division no earlier than in three years, as that’s the minimal time needed for rebuilding the team. And indeed, in 2015— after exactly three years— Magdeburg was again in the 3.Bundesliga, immediately putting out a strong side and finishing fourth. The next season again saw a fourth-place finish, missing the promotion zone by just two points. Finally last season, at the end of another three-year cycle, the club from Sachsen-Anhalt won the league—and direct promotion to the second tier of German football.
The long-awaited 2. Bundesliga debut was not a smooth one. 1.FCM lost at home to FC St Pauli who, to be fair, dominated the game. Yet the league freshers gave a solid performance, initially taking the lead through a goal by Christian Beck. The #11 has thrice been a league top-goalscorer during his five years at Magdeburg, and, by the way he kept fighting for every ball and seeking every chance, gave the impression of one willing to contend for the title at the new level.
1 In Germany, the third place in relegation/promotion between the first and the second and the second and the third leagues is decided via direct play-off games: the third last team from the higher division plays against the third best team from the lower division