One Hit Wonders: SpVgg Unterhaching Invades (Briefly) from the Suburbs

About a 20 ride on a commuter train from Munich, you can get off at an outer ring suburb of about 22,000 people. What used to be farms and forests with a village (said to be older than Munich itself!) is now built up into European suburbia. In this suburb, well just north of town, you’ll find the Stadion am Sportpark in a German-styled sporting complex (with other sporting facilities). Here’s the fußball ground itself:

The Stadion am Sportpark, after an expansion in 1999. The ground currently seats 15,000+.

This ground is the home of one of the Bundesliga’s one hit wonders: SpVgg Unterhaching.

SpVgg Unterhaching is best known for its two year stint on the Bundesliga’s big stage. Famously, the wee club robbed Bayer Leverkusen of the league title during the last match day of the 1999-2000 season. Indeed, on the last match day of the very next season, SpVgg Unterhaching again found itself influencing the title race as Schalke was robbed and Bayern, again, won another title.

So who is this SpVgg Unterhaching? On the map, you’ll find the suburb of Unterhaching southeast of Munich:

Unterhaching_map_Capture
Unterhacing, Germany. In Munich’s long shadow. Home of our Bundesliga party crashers.

I hear if you’re from Munich and trying to catch a Haching match, take the S3 streetcar to Fasenenpark, then hoof it for the remaining 10 minute walk to the pitch – surrounded by some undeveloped fields. In various “grounds reviews” (seriously, a blogging genre I discovered), a few folks called the surrounding country “picturesque.” Apparently, a lovely little Biergarten with generous pitch views can be enjoyed during Haching matches. And don’t forget your currywurst.

Although the stands are rarely completely full, the supporters who do attend sing and chant, light their flares, and drink their bier, making a robust account of themselves.

SpVgg Unterhaching’s supporter section.

The suburb itself seems slightly interesting. (I say as a current suburbanite myself.) From its roots as a village with monastic roots, the place boasts a lovely old church (St. Korbinian) in a sort of “old town.” Industry-wise, you’ll find a fascinating Geothermie plant, the headquarter for the mustard company Develey, and a headquarters for Wrigley.

 

But get this: the fußball club isn’t even the biggest sporting show in town. That honor goes to the bobsled team, a powerhouse in the icy sport. Founded in 1975, the bobsledding team has won multiple European and world titles, also claiming the services of Olympic gold medalist, Christoph Langen. The sporting club’s bobsledding legacy is so important that a bobsleigh famously features on Haching’s crest, as noted by Uli Hesse and in a funny little piece in When Saturday Comes, which leaves me to wonder what the club crest looked like prior to 1975.

Fussball and bobsledding, linked by the SpVgg Unterhaching crest.
Fussball and bobsledding, linked by the SpVgg Unterhaching crest.

But you’re here for the footy, not bobsledding.

When I first read about SpVgg Unterhaching in Hesse’s Tor!, I immediately knew I had to write about the club someday, because I find the narrative of a tiny club from the suburbs emerging to top flight play fascinating. Mainly, it’s the suburban part of this narrative that fascinates me. As someone who’s lived in suburban areas, I’ve learned to take pleasure in seeing these sorts of places transcend the cliched confines of meanings through which we popularly view them.

However, information about SpVgg Unterhaching is hard to find (at least for an English-reader), beyond the basic contours of its Icarus-like narrative of ascending to top flight play in Germany, only to crash back down after a couple seasons. Yet as Uli Hesse remarked to me, it’s odd the club doesn’t have more written about it, given its “starring role in two legendary Bundesliga title races in both of [its] Bundesliga seasons.” (Even Uli said he’s only written about the crest.)

So what’s the story? First, the beginning. The fußball club itself was founded in 1925. According to a couple of sources I found, the club was actually disbanded in 1933 by the Nazis, because it lacked “political reliability.” I suppose we should consider this fact to be a feather in the suburb’s cap.  After WWII, the club was reformed. It remained in city leagues and amateurs levels until the 1980s, when it eventually become a Bayernliga power (the highest level of amateur play in Bavaria, one of Germany’s 14 Oberliga – i.e. 5th tier of clubs).

In 1983, Haching topped the Bayernliga, qualifying for a playoff to 2.Bundesliga (that’s how it worked then), but failed to advanced. No problem. Six years later, the club finally broke the fußball glass ceiling by qualifying for 2.Bundesliga, but were instantly relegated after a poor 20th place finish. (Aside: Uli Hesse explained to me that manager, Karsten Wettberg, an Eastern German, gave an emotional 2.Bundesliga promotional speech in front of the home fans, pronouncing the club as “Under-Hatching,” as as Englishman would.)

So it was back to being king of the Bavarian amateurs. Their reign as Bayernliga kings lasted three seasons, as they were promoted to 2.Bundesliga in 1992. Yet the comedy continued, as Haching was – again – instantly relegated. But the suburbanites were hopeful: the club had improved, finishing 18th in 2.Bundesliga this time. Progress.

The magic began in 1995-96 when the club made its 3rd return to professional fußball. This time for good. 1995-96 was magical, as Unterhaching finished 4th in 2.Bundesliga! Then after consecutive 6th and 11th place finishes, it happened – in 1998-99, the club finished 2nd in 2.Bundesliga and, suddenly, Munich had three clubs in the top flight: Bayern, 1860 Munich, and now Unterhaching. German fußball history was made.

The minnows from the suburbs had arrived.

Before this inaugural Bundesliga season, Unterhaching’s roster naturally contained many unrecognized names, besides an older Ludwig Kögl (former Bayern man) and the Albanian, Altin Rraklli, as Hesse writes briefly in Tor!. During the season, Unterhaching’s relatively stingy defense garnered some attention with the play of keeper Gerhard Tremmel and the defenders, Alexander Strehmel and Jochen Seitz. Offensively, Rraklli and midfielder André Breitenreiter combined for 13 goals.

During the 1999-2000 Bundesliga season, the minnows did not disappoint, as Unterhaching finished 10th – above traditional powers like Dortmund, Schalke, and Eintracht Frankfurt. The club won 12, drew 8, and lost 14 with a goal differential of only -2 (40 goals scored, 42 conceded). In home matches, Haching won against traditional powers like Schalke (3-1), Dortmund (1-0), Stuttgart (2-0), and Eintracht Frankfurt (1-0). On the road, Haching completed sweeps against Dortmund (3-1) and Stuttgart (2-0).

Mostly importantly, however, Unterhaching famously beat Bayer Leverkusen at home on the final matchday. On May 20th, the Werkserf with Ulf Kirsten, Stefan Beinlich, and a young Michael Ballack rolled into the Munich suburb atop the table (with 73 points, while Bayern was second with 70 points), seemingly ready for their coronation as first-time Bundesliga champions. Stunningly, this happened instead:

Neverkusen happened. Tragically, Ballack scored – for the wrong side – with an own goal. Then at 72′, midfielder Markus Oberleitner made it 2-0 with ecstatic scenes around the brimming Stadion am Sportpark. Meanwhile at home, Bayern beat Bremen 3-1, pulling even with Leverkusen on table points at 73 all. However, Die Roten won the Bundesliga crown on their superior goal difference (+45 vs. +38). Fittingly, Bayern won its (then) 15th Bundesliga title, thanks to help it received from its suburban neighbor.

Leverkusen’s party crashers survived only one more year in the Bundesliga, as the 2000-2001 season was much less successful for SpVgg Unterhaching. The club finished with 8 wins, 11 draws, but 15 losses with a goal differential of -24 and were relegated. Yet Haching had its proud moment by beating both Bayern (1-0) and 1860 Munich (3-2) at home.

However, the 2000-2001 season is mostly remembered for Unterhaching’s supporting cast role in another legendary Bundesliga season finale. On the final match day, Bayern led Schalke by 3 points in the table, yet had an inferior goal differential. Unterhaching had the misfortune of traveling to Gelsenkirchen to face Schalke. Meanwhile, Bayern had Hamburg at home. What happened next was the “four minute championship”:

Recapping the video: Unterhaching stunningly go up 2-0, then Schalke surge for 2 goals; Unterhaching pluckily takes another, pulling ahead 3-2, then Schalke absolutely crush Haching’s spirit with 3 straight goals. In Munich, a tense game is 0-0 until HSV scores at 90′. Pandemonium ensues in Gelsenkirchen – for four minutes. Bayern scores a last second goal to edge Schalke out of the Bundesliga title by one point.

And Unterhaching is relegated. Even as the club wins the last-ever DFB Hallenpokal. The indoor fußball cup.

The newspaper caption for Unterhaching’s 2001 Hallenpokal reads something like: “Much joy for the little champion.”

In 2001-2002, Haching lasted only a single season in 2.Bundesliga and were immediately relegated after a 15th place finish. As if Unterhaching hungered for 80s nostalgia, the club spent a year in 3rd division play (Regionalliga), then bounced right back to 2.Bundesliga. From 2003-2007, Haching hung on in 2.Bundesliga – barely. However, a 16th place finish relegated them again to the Regionalliga in 2007.

So remains Unterhaching today.

Last season, the club sniffed at promotion, yet slipped to 9th in the table at the season’s end. I even caught bits and pieces of a couple Unterhaching matches last season; however, given the German-language broadcast, I lost interest as it seemed I was simply watching 22 anonymous young men play fußball on an anonymous small pitch. I had no frame of reference, only the name of one of the clubs.

However, the youth movement lives at Unterhaching (as it seems to all over Germany right now). Not only is club young, but it’s also collecting relatives of prominent German fußballers:

  • Jonas Hummels, centerback (Mats Hummels’ younger brother).
  • Fabian Götze, midfielder (Mario Götze’s younger brother).
  • Pascal Köpke, forward (Andreas Köpke‘s son).
  • Markus Schwabl, rightback (son of club president, Manfred Schwabl)
  • Marvin Sammer, midfielder (plays on U-17 squad, Matthias Sammer’s son).

I’m a sucker, too. Besides the historical narrative, these names give me a frame of reference for following Unterhaching this season. I admit that I’m intrigued by these brothers and sons. I even “liked” Unterhaching on Facebook – I’m all set for the 2013-14 3rd division season and ready to invest in just a bit of support for the fußball-playing bobsledders.

*****

So here’s the Unterhaching narrative, at least its fairly general contours.

However, it’s the suburban element of this story that first hooked me.  Usually, we don’t talk much about suburbs, especially in the context of a big name city, like Munich. Instead, we drive through to the airport, or simply live in them. We call them placeless, soul-less, or angst-filled. We ironize the wide serpentine roads, strip malls, and leafy greenery. I am no different. Since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved dense urban spaces, always wishing to live in them (still haven’t made it!). At each stage in life, I’ve always had to overcome disappointment about living in the suburban spaces where I spend most of each day. I’ve sought to muster all the moral arguments about the superiority of urban spaces and living, which have spilled out in silly arguments with those close to me. Regardless, learning to enjoy living in suburbs has been work for me.

It’s little wonder that Unterhaching’s story grabs my attention – or other suburb club stories from Germany, too. I love to see that stories can emerge from the suburbs – sporting stories that become part of Wikipedia entries. Because, here’s Unterhaching amid the sprawl of Munich with its tiny ground, welcoming the biggest clubs in the Bundesliga for two seasons. Because, imagine you attended that season finale in 2000 and saw the presumptive champions, dear Neverkusen, lose 0-2 on your pitch. Because, imagine you attended the home wins against your metropolitan rivals, Bayern and 1860 Munich, during the next – and last – season.

And this is when football is special with its promotion and relegation system; the narrative possibilities are infinite, given the flux club movement, which is mute to both tradition and social status. That is, even the most storied of clubs can be relegated (e.g. River Plate recently or Manchester United in 1974) or the smallest of minnows can complete in the top flight (e.g. SpVgg Unterhaching). In a theoretical (and abstract) sense, there’s upward mobility in football.

When a club like Unterhaching gains promotion,  it momentarily punctures the power structure of place status through simple sporting achievement. And because these moments of puncturing happen, something like football hope is always floating around smaller towns and suburbs.

Interestingly, the meaning of Unterhaching’s narrative provides sharp contrast with the current narrative of Hoffenheim, historically another small suburban club. We label Hoffenheim a “plastik” club with no tradition, little supporter culture, but also – and here’s the big difference – success bought with money. When I first started following the Bundesliga, I was a bit mystified by the condemnation heaped upon Hoffenheim until I learned more about the 50+1 club ownership model, and Dieter Hopp’s sponsorship of Hoffenheim. I quickly learned that Hoffenheim was “plastik,” not wholly because of its lack of tradition, but mostly because of Hopp’s purse strings, which effectively financed the club’s rapid climb through the amateur ranks to the Bundesliga. On the other hand, a club like Unterhaching climbed the ranks the hard way with many setbacks and without a billionaire’s financing. Naturally, money is needed to remain in the top flight. Unterhaching didn’t have it and, logically, was promptly relegated. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim remains in the Bundesliga (even if somewhat luckily this last season).

So within the context and logic of German fußball kultur, we usually elevate Unterhaching to cult-status and relegate Hoffenheim to plastik status. The difference between the two clubs is the means to the end (Bundesliga promotion). Yet as an American – in a country with new sports expansion teams almost every year, buying tradition out of thin air!  – I can appreciate the end that both these suburban clubs achieved. Because, for a minute, I submit that we can appreciate the places from whence these two clubs emerge as Bundesliga participants, even if their means of achievement becomes a “good”/”bad” binary. The point is that suburbs have football too, by which I mean they don’t just host the stadia and training facilities of big city clubs, but actually field clubs that represent the often nameless and homogenuously perceived living spaces of many people.

Sure, the Deadspin parody of this article might be “Writer Says Suburbs Are Places, Too” but this ironic makeover is kind of my point. Furthermore, I’d say that the story of the SpVgg Unterhaching’s brief Bundesliga triumph provides us with another facet to examine when we think about suburbs, instead of the more common cultural irony. After all, Unterhaching toiled away for decades before making the eventual steps into the Bundesliga. And the club achieved promotion on its own accord, representing its suburb, rather than a club representing company money.

Remember SpVgg Unterhacing. Remember the suburbs. And appreciate the path of possibility that football’s promotion and relegation system provides this club and these places. Otherwise, your emotional life on Saturdays would be just a bit emptier. You know it.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed your article. I attended todays (Feb 11,2018) @ Unterhaching vs Hallescher, a 1-1 draw.
    In the years since you wrote this article, it would appear from today’s attendance that club support may have declined significantly, most particularly from the home supporters’ behind goal who could barely be heard over the roar of the small amount of allocated seats to Hallescher.
    Too bad for me, as I wished for a more raucous afternoon

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