This season has seen a few unlikely promoted teams, most notably FC Ingolstadt and SV Darmstadt into the Bundesliga. A team from the most northern federal state of Schleswig-Holstein could be added to that list as a potential new team in the Bundesliga 2. Tonight, Holstein Kiel play the first leg in the relegation playoff as the 3rd from the 3. Liga against 1860 München, another unlikely playoff candidate, as they hoped for promotion rather than relegation before the start of the season.
The “Storks”, as Holstein is nick-named, have seen a miraculous rise to the top of the 3. Liga table and only had to bow to former Bundesliga mainstays Arminia Bielefeld and MSV Duisburg. Kiel themselves have only appeared in the 2nd division of German football between 1978 and 1981, when they got promoted as clear outsiders into the Bundesliga 2, which was back then split into a north and a south division.
The club’s biggest successes precedes the formation of the Bundesliga by a few decades. Holstein Kiel was German champion in 1912 and then was a big team in the North-German championships in the 20s and 30s. Since then, Kiel has played in the regional divisions of the German football pyramid and only got promoted to the 3. Liga in 2013, when they beat Hessen Kassel in a playoff between 4th division Regionalliga winners. On a side note: The club missed barely out on getting into the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 after those divisions were formed.
Their first season was that of a classic promoted side. Even though they only were in a relegation spot for three matchdays, Kiel had to fight till the final matchday to secure the 16th spot. A feature back then was already their solid defence, which turned out in their favour, even though attacking-wise it left a lot to be desired. Kiel strengthened though and hoped for a more care-free and less nerve-wrecking 2014/15. Their season began as that of a mid-table side and nothing could have predicted that they’d make a crazy run to the top. It began just before Christmas, when Holstein beat northern rivals Hansa Rostock 4:0 away from home on matchday 22. That was followed by 14 more games the “Storks” went unbeaten, many matches ending with the narrow scoreline 1:0. Their run only came to an end when they faced MSV Duisburg in a direct duel for 2nd spot. Duisburg made no mistakes and came from an early goal down to win 3:1. Holstein was safe in 3rd spot then though, more than they ever had hoped for.
Holstein fulfils the DFL’s criteria to play 2nd division football, a great feat for a club from Schleswig-Holstein, the only federal state in Germany that has never seen a team in the top tier of the league since the introduction of the Bundesliga in 1963. Kiel is a traditional handball town with THW Kiel being the “Bayern Munich of handball”. Football has always come second but Holstein has a good chance to establish itself in more people’s minds. The Holstein-Stadion is completely sold out, all 11.386 tickets were gone after just a few hours.
Of course, Kiel will be the big outsider, given their status compared to 1860, who play in the Allianz Arena and have a big foreign investor behind them. But the team from the Baltic Sea knows, that they are not without a chance. The two sides met in the 1st round of the DFB-Pokal this season, with 1860 getting a 2:1 win that looked a bit fortuitous, the winner coming ten minutes from time by after a very soft penalty was awarded to the Lions by referee Dr. Felix Zwayer.
KSV coach Karsten Neitzel, who has been with Holstein since 2013, has certainly put his mark onto the team. The Dresden-born defender and midfielder played for his hometown club Dynamo in the GDR, then moved on via Halle and Stuttgarter Kickers to SC Freiburg, where he finished his playing career in 1997. He then turned into a coach in the famous youth system of Freiburg and was a protégé of legendary coach Volker Finke, whom he followed as an assistant coach to Urawa Red Diamonds in 2009. Neitzel’s first job as a head coach was with VfL Bochum in November 2012, where he first was as an assistant. The time in Bochum only lasted for six months, as he was released in April 2013. Kiel seems to be a better fit for him. The aforementioned solid defence is his achievement, but one can’t say that Holstein park the bus. They are also a good pressing side and can hit teams on the counter. Furthermore, their set pieces are lethal, both center backs are prominent figures on the score sheet.
Holstein are a team that is already happy to have come this far and – of course wanting to get the promotion – they have far less pressure than their opponents. A drop into the 3. Liga is crass, especially financially, but Holstein won’t be there to show much empathy. Most of Schleswig-Holstein – except archrivals VfB Lübeck (themselves once a Bundesliga 2 side before relegations ruined that team financially numerous times) – will cross their fingers for the “Storks” to tame the “Lions” from Munich in this playoff.
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