Life in the Ninth Division of German Football

The problems faced by big Bundesliga clubs are familiar to us all. The struggle to juggle European competitions with league responsibilities, operating within the rubric of the financial regulations, stopping your promising youth players from being snapped up by big clubs and, of course, preventing the drop into 2. Bundesliga. But what about the perils of a club playing in the ninth tier of German football? In the course of several discussions I’ve had with the treasurer of a club playing in Germany’s Bezirksliga a distinct picture of the dilemmas facing small clubs looking to ascend the ladder has emerged. Such clubs have to handle difficulties we might not appreciate—being followers of high-level and comparatively glamorous football. But they pose pertinent questions, especially in the face of the meteoric rise through the divisions of clubs like Hoffenheim, and the impending climb of RB Leipzig.

The club and its treasurer—who I’ve been speaking to—would understandably like to remain anonymous. Before the current board took over, the club was suffering from every dereliction possible. Poor management had led to the depletion of a succession of promising youth teams and back-to-back relegation. The new management took over in January 2011, and unfortunately for them a disastrous half-season in Bezirksliga meant that relegation was inevitable. But over the summer of 2011 the new management engaged in shrewd investment and administrative restructuring that put the club back on track. Under the aegis of the new board, the club have enjoyed instant promotion back into the Bezirksliga and have a rosy long-term future ahead of them. Their good run has continued into this season, and they’re now dominating the division they were relegated from two years ago. Following a 15 game winning streak this season, they sit 15 points clear of the rest of the pack, and promotion to the eighth tier looks increasingly likely.

The fact that they’re coasting along steadily at the top of their division presents a major problem to the team, though. Getting promoted this season would mean they’ll have experienced back-to-back promotions over the past two years, and the ambition is always to get promoted again once they reach the eighth division. Three successive elevations might seem like a tantalising prospect, but one of the dilemmas facing lower-league clubs is that promotion after promotion might not actually be financially stable—leaving the club in a position worse off than they would be if they were wallowing in midtable in an even lower division.

Hoffenheim are known for their remarkable ascension from fifth division amateur club to Bundesliga staple over the past ten years, largely thanks to the financial backing of software mogul Dietmar Hopp. His investment in the club ensured financial security and led to the building of new world-class facilities and a Bundesliga-worthy stadium. It is indeed quite remarkable that an obscure club from a village of less than 3,500 people could reach the status Hoffenheim have in such a short period of time.

As well as Hoffenheim, we can also expect another club to rocket through the divisions soon enough. If all goes to plan for Red Bull-owned RB Leipzig, then they will become the latest club to overcome the odds and secure a place in the upper echelons of German football. As with Hoffenheim, though, this comes with a price. Red Bull have poured a significant amount of money into the club, which they took over in 2009. The club, before their corporate makeover, were known as SSV Markranstädt and played in the fifth division. They were promoted to the fourth division during their first season, and now sit comfortably  perched at the top of the table in it, ready for promotion into the third. Thanks to the funding provided by Red Bull, Leipzig outspent all of the other clubs in their division this summer.

Life is not likely to be so easy for our club in the ninth division. Promotions in rapid succession, although eminently desirable, would put untold financial strain on almost any club playing at that level. In fact, at a recent meeting the board of the club decided that they will not gun for promotion once they reach the next tier, consciously avoiding the prospect of getting into the seventh division. It would not be permissible, financially, for the club to make such a jump in such a short time.

Another reason boils down to logistics. When they are promoted into the eighth division, around half of their games will be against local teams. These are teams within the same city, and teams which the club already has a decades-old rivalry with. This is in stark contrast to the majority of their matches this season—many of which entail a 30 kilometre drive to other, surrounding cities and villages. Facing your local rivals so frequently not only saves you money on travel, but also ensures that games are well-attended. Derbies in the lower divisions are much like those in the Bundesliga. Hordes of fiercely passionate fans flock to these matches to create an electric atmosphere. If they were to get promoted from the eight division next year into the seventh, then they’d risk losing all of that, and face even more gruelling road trips every Sunday to play in sterile environments. And there is precedent for this: another local club were promoted to the seventh division and, even at home games, saw their attendance figures cut in half. This is not something a ninth division club recovering from a precarious position can afford to risk happening to them.

Financial concerns are never far from the mind of any football club. The perception of a lower division team might be that they are a group of mates who all turn up on Sunday for a bit of a kick about, but in reality the clubs are far more organised, and the finances involved are far from Sunday-league level. The club spends roughly 15,000 euros every year on wages alone. This buys them the service of one manager and five paid players. The players who get paid have often played at a much higher level, some as high as the fourth division. Others who take a wage would easily find another club to lend their services to were it not for the lucrative incentives lavished on them by the club. The players who do not get paid tend to be those who have a life-long affiliation or identification with the club—those who have risen through the youth ranks, for example. It is not, however, sustainable to run a club purely with these types of players. Typically, the clubs who perform the best are those who employ the services of paid players—and the bottom half of the league our club is in is made up exclusively of teams who refuse to or who are unable to splash out regularly.

With promotion inevitable this season, the club, like a club rising from 2. Bundesliga to the Bundesliga, will need to invest in new talent and will likely bring in two or three new paid players. They’ll also need to expand their budget in order to keep their current players and manager. Naturally, there are also transfer fees. The club are lucky to be in a position that means several local businesses are willing to invest every year and ensure they remain stable, but there are many clubs who lack such backing and are unable to compete at increasingly higher levels.

Since the youth teams are such a vital provider of players for teams in these divisions, the board also has to be acutely aware of the problems this can cause. A youth system can help to cultivate a sense of loyalty towards the club in those who are part of it, and –as mentioned above—such players will often play without demanding a wage when they become seniors. Local clubs have, however, in recent years, found themselves in an uneasy situation regarding youth.

One major problem relates to the demographic shift over the last decade or so that has meant less and less children being born in Germany. This means there are less kids to attend elementary schools, and following this, local authorities have embarked on a campaign to shut down those schools which are no longer financially viable. In and around the area where our club plays and generally absorbs its youth intake from, some eight or nine local elementary schools were shut down almost a decade ago. This has had a knock-on effects for the club. Kids who would have gone to the local elementary schools and logically joined the club have been forced to go to schools in other districts, and, for obvious logistical reasons, end up joining the clubs in those districts. Since kids usually practice after school, it would make little sense to sign up for a club that is far away from the school. And since there are less and less schools near the club, the volume of young players they have been able to attract has significantly decreased in recent years.

Life in the ninth division is not easy. The portrait painted here of one club can probably be generalised to most other clubs at that level—although each club deals with its own specific, geographically-derived problems. Many of the problems are the same we find clubs higher up the totem pole having to deal with,  and some, such as the ‘Do we purposefully avoid promotion?’ question are unheard of and rather quite novel to followers of clubs in the top division. But the problems become increasingly salient in German football. The rise of Hoffenheim is the envy of lower division clubs, but their journey to the top came with a high price—a price that many lower division clubs feel they are unable to afford.

Header courtesy of Marcel Wähler

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