Regionalliga West – The league of the sleeping giants

An outsider without any knowledge about German football would have been taken aback upon entering the Tivioli Stadion in Aachen on Saturday. 30,000 fans had gathered to witness the fourth tier clash between Alemannia Aachen and Rot-Weiss Essen in the Regionalliga West. Both sets of supporters managed to convey throughout the 90 minutes that there is more to German football than simply titles and accolades. If one would have travelled to Wolfsburg or Hoffenheim on any given weekend of the season, one would have certainly not encountered the same atmosphere coming from the stands.

Supporter passion and fire are still well and alive in the Regionalliga West, as the second most visited game this season was the clash between SG Wattenscheid 09 and Rot Weiss Essen (over 14,000 fans were in the attendance for that match). From a historic point of view, the western region of Germany is a Mecca for those who are interested in football history.

In the days before the Bundesliga started, the region in and around the Ruhrpott area was littered with decently good football teams, competing in the Oberliga West. Those fans who wanted to follow their team to the away day matches could famously get to the away games by using the tram (the league was called the “tram league” back then).

DFB Pokal finals and trying to make it in the Bundesliga

Alemannia Aachen were the last team to make waves on the national stage out of the two sides competing on Saturday, when the team managed to get to the DFB Pokal final back in 2004. Two years later, the team played its last season in the Bundesliga. Going over the club’s rosters from the recent past, most Bundesliga fans will find a host of familiar names: Marco Höger, Lewis Holtby, Vedad Ibisevic, Jan Schlaudraff, Sami Allagui, Simon Rolfes, Matthias Lehmann and Zoltan Stieber have at some point of the careers represented the club.

A lot has been going wrong at Aachen ever since they played their Bundesliga season. Upgrading the stadium turned out to be too expensive for the club. With insolvency looming over everybody’s heads, the club were relegated to the 4th tier in 2012 for the first time in its existence. These days Alemannia are taking a more sober approach to their business. The city of Aachen has relieved the club of the down-payments for the stadium and now the club can look into the future focussing on getting back into the third tier. Assistant coach Reiner Plasshenrich told the local paper RP ahead of the game that the fans in Aachen were yearning for better football in their stadium, and nowadays Aachen try to accomplish just that without going overboard.

ADFB Pokal final and four seasons in the Bundesliga are the biggest accomplishments Alemannia Aachen can point to in their club history. Getting into the 3. Liga would represent the sort of success the fans are gagging for at the moment.

Their counterpart from Saturday’s match, Rot-Weiss Essen (RWE), are very much facing a similar conundrum. If anything, the fans of the club are living vicariously through the accomplishments of the past and there’s oftentimes scepticism regarding the future prospects of the club, said Uwe Harttgen, Rot-Weiss Essen’s head of sports, in an interview with the German football publication 11 Freunde.

The club spent a total of 7 seasons in the Bundesliga between 1963 and 1977, before things started to unravel. Furthermore, RWE even won the DFB Pokal back in 1953 after a 2-1 win over Alemannia Aachen (and funnily enough RWE lost the German cup final against Werder 10 years before Alemannia Aachen lost against the same team in the cup final of 2004). Back in their heyday, the stadium in Essen was a feared ground other teams hated. Even Bayern lost two of their 7 matches at Georg-Melches Stadion.


RWE finished bottom in their first Bundesliga, but they managed to beat Bayern 3-1 at home on match day 6 of the 1966/67 season.

Some of those feelings Harttgen alluded to in the interview may be attributed to the fact that the recent past has held a number of unpleasant surprises for the fans of the club. In 1999, the club almost went bust, before going into insolvency in 2010. However, the new leadership at the club has managed to get the club out of debt and these days RWE can look into the future, working out how they can make their way back to the third or second tier of German football. The fans are currently taking to the course the club has taken, and these days the club from the Hafenstrasse can boast about an attendance average of 9,000 spectators at their home matches.

Right now the Regionalliga West sees a three horse race for promotion between Alemannia Aachen, RWE and Borussia Mönchengladbach II. The league winners are awarded with a place in a play-off against teams from other regional divisions.

This model has seen teams who have gone from strength to strength throughout a season miss out on gaining promotion. Almost every president and CEO of 4th division team with some ambitious has pointed out that this system makes life difficult for the teams in the 4th division. Play-off matches are great entertainment, especially for broadcasters, but planning for a new season without knowing where one is heading is hell for most sporting directors.

Being caught mid-table

Besides RWE and Alemannia there are a number of other teams who can point to a glorious past. Rot-Weiss Oberhausen (RWO) played in the Bundesliga for four seasons between 1969 and 1973. Always fighting against relegation, RWO made some headlines during their time in the Bundesliga. Best remembered these days is their involvement in the Bundesliga scandal of 1971, which saw their coach Günther Brocker being banned for two years and Germany’s biggest football magazine refusing to award the Torjägerkanone to Lothar Kobluhn.

After getting relegated 2 years later, RWO spent most of its time in the second division. The team has featured in the Bundesliga 2 in 10 of the last 18 seasons. However, after they were relegated back in 2011 the club had to battle financial problems and ended up getting relegated once more after only one season in the 3. Liga. Last year, the club barely managed to escape insolvency after they sold their club house.

Tomorrow evening the club are taking on SG Wattenscheid 09 who are currently battling against relegation from the Regionalliga West. RWO are looking to get close the gap to Aachen on top to 7 points, whilst Wattenscheid are looking to get Schalke II and Bochum II in the table.

After 16 years in the Bundesliga 2, Wattenscheid gained promotion to the Bundesliga back in 1990. Bayern’s manager Uli Hoeness wasn’t enthused at all, stating that Wattenscheid’s existence in the Bundesliga was “the worst thing that could have happened to the league,” However, the 09’ers, who had been funded generously by their president Klaus Steillmann, turned out to be thorn in the side of Bayern München more than once over the years. After being beaten by the Bavarian juggernaut 7-0 in the Hinrunde, Wattenscheid managed to pull off a 3-2 win in the Rückrunde which ultimately ended up costing Bayern the championship.

After four years of sticking it to the big guns of the league every now and then, Wattenscheid were relegated to the second tier. Ever since the club have been battling the odds, and slowly, but surely, they have gone down the divisions over the years. The club reached rock bottom when they were relegated to the 6th tier in 2010. Three years later on they were playing in the fourth tier once again, but as for now it seems like that division is the best Wattenscheid can hope for in the near future.

The fifth and final team in the division which has made an impact in the Bundesliga is KFC Uerdingen 05. Between 1953 and 1995 the team was commonly known as Bayer Uerdingen, due to the drug makers involvement in the club. During that time the fans from Krefeld could celebrate a few notable wins. Most football fans in Germany to this day know the story of Bayer loosing 2-0 in the away tie against Dynamo Dresden in the quarter final of the cup-winners cup. In the second tie the East-Germans led 3-1 at half time, but for the last 45 minutes Uerdingen came out all guns blazing and won the match 7-3, progressing to the semi-finals of the competition.

The club has spent 14 years in both the Bundesliga and the Bundesliga, but after getting relegated from the Bundesliga 2 back in 1999, the team hasn’t managed to find a way back into the upper echelons of German football. However, despite playing in the lower tiers of German football the club still has an appeal for fans, usually drawing more than 2,000 spectators at their home matches.

The charm of history compared to the stark reality

Given that teams like Wattenscheid, Alemannia, RWO, RWE and KFC all play in the same division could be seen as a positive for the fans. When attending matches at this level tickets tend to be dirt cheap, the beer and Bratwurst comes at a lesser cost than in the divisions above and all five teams can draw decent crowds at times. A romantic’s point of view might be that the tram league has returned, providing the football fans of the region with a host of mouthwatering local derbies.

However, for clubs like RWO, RWE and Alemannia life is difficult. The teams they are competing against have vastly different backgrounds. The Under 23 teams of the Bundesliga regard the competition as a way of educating talents, whilst other teams with a background from amateur football are content staying in the league, because they wouldn’t be capable of complying with the conditions set by the DFB for the teams playing in the third tier of German football.

That in itself leads to an uneven competition most teams want to get out of as quickly as possible. However, only one team can qualify for the play-off round at the end of the season(and that team isn’t guaranteed promotion).  The appeal of the matches being played at home differ from match day to match day, which in turn leads to unpredictable attendance levels at every match. In Alemannia Aachen’s case the amount of people supporting the club at the ground have been between 6,000 and 30,000.

Some of the clubs also struggle with declining attendance levels for every season they play in the fourth tier. All of those things combined present an enormous challenge for the clubs, and in turn it could lead to teams taking too big a risk financially trying to escape this vicious cycle.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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