Germany’s 3. Liga: a Quality League

In one of the many recent reports on the promotion/relegation playoff between SSV Jahn Regensburg and TSV 1860 München in kicker, I noticed the summary comment that the 3. Liga was “a quality league” – eine echte Qualitätsliga. I had always believed this, but thought it would be a good idea to dig out a few figures in order to present a more solid case.

This process involved a simple analysis of the nine playoff matches that have taken place since the creation of the reorganised 3. Liga in 2008, followed by a closer a look at all of the teams that have won promotion over the past nine seasons from the 3. Liga – and where they are set to be at the start of the 2017/18 season.

Playoffs: 7-2 to the 3. Liga

In looking at the results in the playoff ties, there is a clear winner. In the nine two-legged encounters played since 2008/09, 3. Liga sides have won seven of them – with this year’s winners Regensburg featuring twice (2011/12, 2016/17) alongside SC Paderborn 07 (2008/09), FC Ingolstadt 04 (2009/10), Dynamo Dresden (2010/11), SV Darmstadt 98 (2013/14) and Würzburger Kickers (2015/16).

On the two occasions where 2. Bundesliga teams have retained their status, Dresden (2012/13) feature alongside TSV 1860 (2014/15).

So, as far as the playoffs are concerned – there is little question that the 3. Liga has proved to be the more durable league. This is in stark contrast to the difference between and 1. and 2. Bundesliga, where the top flight team has prevailed seven times in the last nine seasons.

So, as far as the playoffs are concerned, the 3. Liga comes out on top.

Clubs Promoted from the 3. Liga: How Are They Doing?

The second part of of this statistical study is looking more closely at the teams that have been promoted from the 3. Liga over the past nine seasons, and how they have progressed since then. In all, twenty different teams have filled twenty-five promotion slots, from 2008/09 champions 1. FC Union Berlin through to Holstein Kiel, who finished in second place this season.

Of these twenty teams to have made their way out of the 3. Liga, six have made the further leap to the 1. Bundesliga:

  • Fortuna Düsseldorf (2012/13, 1 season)
  • SC Paderborn 07 (2014/15, 1 season)
  • FC Ingolstadt 04 (2015/16-2016/17, 2 seasons)
  • SV Darmstadt (2015/16-2016/17, 2 seasons)
  • Eintracht Braunschweig (2013/14, 1 season)
  • RB Leipzig (2016/17, 1 season, present)

Looking at the current status of the these twenty teams, as at the projected start of the 2017/18 season:

1. Bundesliga (1 club)

RB Leipzig

2. Bundesliga (13 clubs)

FC Erzgebirge Aue, 1. FC Union Berlin, Arminia Bielefeld, Eintracht Braunschweig, SV Darmstadt 98, Dynamo Dresden, MSV Duisburg, Fortuna Düsseldorf, 1. FC Heidenheim, FC Ingolstadt 04, Holstein Kiel, Jahn Regensburg, SV Sandhausen

3. Liga (6 clubs)

VfR Aalen, Karlsruher SC, VfL Osnabrück, SC Paderborn 07*, FC Hansa Rostock, Würzburger Kickers

*Reprieved on 2nd June 2017, following the demotion of TSV 1860 München.

Crunching the Numbers

This is an excellent return, with almost two-thirds of the twenty promoted 3. Liga sides retaining their status in the 2. Bundesliga or above. Five of these twenty clubs have returned to the third tier, while a sixth, SC Paderborn 07, had been set to return to amateur football only to be saved at the last minute.

Having suffered two drops in two seasons, Paderborn made it three from three and had been set to play in the fourth tier in 2017/18. Then came the dramatic demotion of TSV 1860 München on 2nd June 2017. Die Helden had won an unexpected reprieve, and were reinstated in the 3. Liga in 1860’s place.

So, is the 3. Liga a quality league? I would suggest these figures strongly support this argument. While there is still something of a gulf between the 1. and 2. Bundesliga, the difference between the 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga is very slim. 3. Liga sides have not only been triumphant in the majority of playoff matches they have played against second tier opposition, but the majority of promoted teams have either established themselves in the second tier or gone on to bigger and better things.

Five teams have been promoted from the 3. Liga twice: FC Erzgebirge Aue (2009/10, 2015/16), Dynamo Dresden (2010/11, 2015/16), SSV Jahn Regensburg (2011/12, 2016/17), Arminia Bielefeld (2012/13, 2014/15) and MSV Duisburg (2014/15, 2016/17)

The Twenty Teams

The following section contains a summary of the twenty teams promoted from the 3. Liga, tracking their progress from their initial promotion season.

1. FC Union Berlin

Union Berlin were the first 3. Liga champions in 2008/09, and have remained a solid fixture in the 2. Bundesliga since. Twelfth place in the first season was followed by a one-place rise to eleventh, but for the six seasons since the “Iron Union” have secured a position in the top half of the table. Toyed with possible promotion to the top flight this season, just missing out to finish in a creditable fourth place.

2008/09 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2009/10 12th 2. BL, 2010/11 11th 2. BL, 2011/12 7th 2. BL, 2012/13 7th 2. BL, 2013/14 9th 2. BL, 2014/15 7th 2. BL, 2016/16 6th 2. BL, 2016/17 4th 2. BL

Fortuna Düsseldorf

European Cup Winners Cup finalists in 1979, Fortuna suffered a decline that took them down to the third tier Oberliga in the early 1990s. Promotion from the fledgling 3. Liga saw Fortuna climb back into the 2. Bundesliga, and in 2011/12 they had made it back up to the 1. Bundesliga. Immediate relegation followed, but they have been mid-table finishers in the second tier since then. After flirting with relegation disaster, they finished 2016/17 in eleventh place.

2008/09 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2009/10 4th 2. BL, 2010/11 7th 2. BL, 2011/12 3rd 2. BL (promoted, won playoff v Hertha BSC), 2012/13 17th 1. BL (relegated), 2013/14 6th 2. BL, 2014/15 10th 2. BL, 2015/16 14th 2. BL, 2016/17 11th 2. BL

SC Paderborn 07

A tale of glory and disaster, all within the space of a decade. It is a story that one would hard to believe were it not borne out by the brutal statistics. After securing a place the 2. Bundesliga via the playoffs in 2008/09, a period of consolidation followed before SCP 07 reached the top flight for the first time in 2013/14. Then, the nightmare. Three straight relegations on the spin, leaving them playing fourth-tier football in 2017/18. Or so we all thought.

2008/09 3rd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v VfL Osnabrück), 2009/10 5th 2. BL, 2010/11 12th 2. BL, 2011/12 5th 2. BL, 2012/13 12th 2. BL, 2013/14 2nd 2. BL (promoted), 2014/15 18th 1. BL (relegated), 2015/16 18th 2. BL (relegated), 2016/17 18th 3. Liga (relegated, but reinstated following demotion of TSV 1860 München)

VfL Osnabrück

Having lost in the relegation playoff to SC Paderborn the season before, VfL stormed to the 3. Liga title in 2009/10. Their stay in the 2. Bundesliga was short, however, lasting just one season before their return to the third flight after losing the relegation to Dynnamo Dresden. The Lily Whites had always been something of a yoyo team, but have remained in the 3. Liga since – coming close to another promotion in 2012/13 when they lost the relegation playoff – once again against Dynamo Dresden.

2009/10 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2010/11 16th 2. BL (relegated, lost playoff to Dynamo Dresden), 2011/12 7th 3. Liga, 2012/13 3rd 3. Liga (lost playoff to Dynamo Dresden), 2013/14 5th 3. Liga, 2014/15 11th 3. Liga, 2015/16 5th 3. Liga, 2016/17 6th 3. Liga

FC Erzgebirge Aue

Another team that has flitted between the second and third tier of German football, Aue won promotion back to the 2. Bundesliga in the second season in the third tier, and claimed a creditable fifth spot in 2010/11. Three years in the bottom half, culminating in relegation back to the 3. Liga in 2014/15. They bounced back at the first time of asking, but after a miserable start to their first season back in the 2. Bundesliga it looked as though they were set to go straight back down. A solid recovery in the Rückrunde would see them finish in fourteenth place.

2009/10 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2010/11 5th 2. BL, 2011/12 15th 2. BL, 2012/13 15th 2. BL, 2013/14 14th 2. BL, 2014/15 17th 2. BL (relegated), 2015/16 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2016/17 14th 2. BL

FC Ingolstadt 04

Founded only in 2004 with the merger of city rivals MTV and ESV, FC Ingolstadt 04 started out in the fourth tier of German football before rising up the ranks. The club won promotion to the 2. Bundesliga from the old Regionalliga Süd in 2007/08, but suffered immediate relegation. They returned just as swiftly to the new 3. Liga the following year via the playoff, and consolidated their position in the 2. BL before winning the title in 2014/15. The Schanzer dug in and beat the odds with a mid-table position in the top flight in 2015/16, but returned to the 2. Bundesliga this year.

2009/10 3rd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v Hansa Rostock), 2010/11 14th 2. BL, 2011/12 12th 2. BL, 2012/13 13th 2. BL, 2013/14 10th 2. BL, 2014/15 1st 2. BL (promoted), 2015/16 11th 1. BL, 2016/17 17th 1. BL (relegated)

Eintracht Braunschweig

Bundesliga champions in 1967, Eintracht Braunschweig suffered a dramatic collapse after that. By the mid-1990s, they were an established third tier team. They established themselves quickly in the newly-formed 3. Liga, winning promotion at the third time of asking in 2010/11. A season of consolidation was followed by a return to top flight football, but this was followed by an immediate return. Since then, Die Löwen have established themselves as regular promotion candidates – missing out this season in the relegation playoff against Lower Saxon rivals VfL Wolfsburg.

2010/11 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2011/12 8th 2. BL, 2012/13 2nd 2. BL (promoted), 2013/14 18th 1. BL (relegated), 2014/15 6th 2. BL, 2015/16 8th 2. BL, 2016/17 3rd 2. BL

FC Hansa Rostock

One of the original Eastern German clubs in the post-Wende 1. Bundesliga, Hansa Rostock completed a long period of decline with a drop to the new 3. Liga following a playoff defeat against FC Ingolstadt 04 in 2009/10. They returned to the second tier immediately in 2010/11, but dropped back down just as quickly. Since then they have found their place in the wrong end of the 3. Liga, finishing two points above the drop zone in 2016/17.

2010/11 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2011/12 18th 2. BL (relegated), 2012/13 12th 3. Liga, 2013/14 13th 3. Liga, 2014/15 17th 3. Liga, 2015/16 10th 3. Liga, 2016/17 15th 3. Liga

Dynamo Dresden

Like Rostock, Dynamo were a 1. Bundesliga side in the early 1990s, before a similar period of decline saw them drop down into the fourth tier at the turn of the millennium. Having established themselves in the rearranged 3. Liga, they won promotion to the second tier in 2010/11, courtesy of a playoff win over VfL Osnabrück. After a creditable ninth place in 2011/12 they would have to beat Osnabrück again to retain their second tier status, but were unable to survive the following year. Dynamo had to wait just two seasons for a return, storming to the 3. Liga title in 2015/16. Their first season back in the second tier saw a far more encouraging fifth-placed finish.

2010/11 3rd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v VfL Osnabrück), 2011/12 9th 2. BL, 2012/13 16th 2. BL (won playoff v VfL Osnabrück), 2013/14 17th 2. BL (relegated), 2014/15 6th 3. Liga, 2015/16 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2016/17 5th 2. BL

SV Sandhausen

One of the original members of the reformed 3. Liga, Sandhausen were comfortable mid-table finishers until 2011/12, when they jumped no fewer that eleven places to claim the title and a first-ever promotion to the second tier. They had looked set for an immediate return to the third tier after finishing in seventeenth spot, only to be given a stay of execution following the demotion of MSV Duisburg for licensing issues. The small club from Baden-Württemberg have made the most of their reprieve, and have developed into solid mid-table finishers.

2011/12 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2012/13 17th 2. BL, 2013/14 12th 2. BL, 2014/15 12th 2. BL, 2015/16 13th 2. BL, 2016/17 10th 2. BL

VfR Aalen

Aalen were original members of the 3. Liga having finished fourth in the Regionalliga Süd in 2007/08, but a miserable seaosn saw them sent back down to the (now fourth tier) Regionalliga Süd. Their return was just as emphatic, and in 2010/11 they just about managed to survive. The following year they had turned things around completely, winning promotion to the 2. Bundesliga where they spent three seasons. Relegation followed in 2014/15, and after that they have established themselves in third tier no man’s land.

2011/12 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2012/13 9th 2. BL, 2013/14 11th 2. BL, 2014/15 18th 2. BL, 2015/16 15th 3. Liga, 2016/17 11th 3. Liga

SSV Jahn Regensburg

SSV Jahn were original members of the reshuffled 3. Liga in 2008/09, and struggled early on before securing a safe ninth place in 2010/11. The following year they finished third, and secured a place in the 2. Bundesliga with a tight relegation playoff win against Karlsruher SC. Their first foray in the second tier however was something of a horror show, where they finished rock bottom with a miserable nineteen points. Within two seasons Jahn had dropped back into the fourth level Regionalliga Bayern, but a barnstorming first-place finish sparked an astonishing recovery. Jahn snatched the playoff spot in the last week of their first season back in the 3. Liga, whey they saw off TSV 1860 München to complete back to back promotions.

2011/12 3rd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v Karlsruher SC), 2012/13 18th 2. BL (relegated), 2013/14 11th 3. Liga, 2014/15 20th 3. Liga (relegated), 2015/16 1st RL Bayern (promoted), 2016/17 3rd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v TSV 1860 München)

Karlsruher SC

Karlsruher SC had been an established top flight side in the 1990s, even playing European football. By 2012/13 the team that had produced such greats as Oliver Kahn and Mehmet Scholl were in the 3. Liga. Their stay was short as they won promotion at the first time of asking, and for three seasons in the 2. Bundesliga they threatened a return to the top flight – only just missing out in the playoffs against Hamburger SV in 2014/15. Any hopes of improving on that near miss quickly evaporated, and the 2016/2017 season saw the Badeners finish dead last.

2012/13 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2013/14 5th 2. BL, 2014/15 3rd 2. BL (lost playoff v Hamburger SV), 2015/16 7th 2. BL, 2016/17 18th 2. BL (relegated)

Arminia Bielefeld

If one looks up the term “yoyo” in the German footballing lexicon, Arminia Bielefeld would appear at the top of the list. Having initially yo-yoed between the 1. and 2. Bundesliga, Arminia first encountered the new 3. Liga in 2011/12, and after two seasons had climbed back up again – only to make a swift return in 2013/14 following a playoff defeat to SV Darmstadt 98. They bounced back immediately, but after one mid-table season they were back in the relegation mix again in 2016/17. Seemingly doomed for most of the season, an astonishing 6-0 win over promotion hopefuls Eintracht Braunschweig helped propel Arminia to safety.

2012/13 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2013/14 16th 2. BL (relegated, lost playoff v SV Darmstadt 98), 2014/15 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2015/16 12th 2. BL, 2016/17 15th 2. BL

1. FC Heidenheim

1. FC Heidenheim have been one of Germany’s success stories, climbing up through the ranks to establish themselves as a solid second tier team with realistic hopes of top flight football. In 2003/04 they were in the sixth tier Verbandsliga Württemberg, but by 2009/10 they were in the 3. Liga after winning the Regionalliga Süd title. Four top ten finishes followed, and their improvement was capped off by the 3. Liga title in 2013/14. FCH’s three seasons in the 2. Bundesliga have seen them achieve safe finishes, with a top-six finish in 2016/17.

2013/14 1st 3. Liga (promoted), 2014/15 8th 2. BL, 2015/16 11th 2. BL, 2016/17 6th 2. BL

RB Leipzig

Like Heidenheim, but with more money and power. Formed in 2009 from the renamed SSV Markranstädt and placed in the sixth tier Oberliga Nordost, RB won the title at the first time of asking in 2009/10, and won promotion from the fourth tier Regionalliga Nord after just two seasons. Back to back promotions in 2011/12 and 2012/13 earned the team a place in the 3. Liga, and a second-placed finish saw them reach the 2. Bundesliga at the first time of asking. It would take two seasons to complete the climb into the top flight, and we all know what happened after that.

2013/14 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2014/15 5th 2. BL, 2015/16 2nd 2. BL (promoted), 2016/17 2nd 1. BL

SV Darmstadt 98

Having had two one-season top flight forays in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Darmstadt had sunk to the fourth tier of German football by the end of the 1990s. For more than two decades they flitted between the fourth and third tiers, before landing back to back promotions to the top flight. Promotion to the 2. Liga in 2013/14 had been hard earned with an extra-time playoff victory against Arminia Bielefeld, and this was followed by an astonishing second place finish in the 2. Bundesliga the following year. Having survived in the top division against all odds in 2015/16, they returned to the 2. Bundesliga this season.

2013/14 3nd 3. Liga (promoted, won playoff v Arminia Bielefeld), 2014/15 2nd 2. BL (promoted), 2015/16 14th 1. BL, 2016/17 18th 1. BL (relegated)

MSV Duisburg

Like Arminia Bielefeld, MSV had been a top flight side before becoming something of a yoyo team. Having established themselves as a mid-table finisher in the 2. Bundesliga, disaster struck when they were demoted to the 3. Liga for licensing irregularities. After two seasons of third tier football the Zebras made their way back into the 2. Bundesliga, only to drop back down via the playoffs the following season. In true yoyo fashion, they then bounced straight back up again.

2014/15 2nd 3. Liga (promoted), 2015/16 16th 2. BL (relegated, lost playoff v Würzburger Kickers), 2016/17 1st 3. Liga (promoted)

Würzburger Kickers

Having tasted second division football back in 1977/78, Würzburger Kickers had fallen into terminal decline over the following thirty years, dropping as low as the seventh-tier Bezirksliga in 2003/04. A gradual climb followed, and in 2014/15 the Kickers had won promotion to the third tier as champions of the Regionalliga Bayern. The success was carried over to 2015/16, where they won promotion back to the second tier at the first time of asking via the playoffs – their fourth promotion in five seasons. Their first season in the 2. Bundesliga started brightly, but a horrific and winless Rückrunde saw them fall back into the 3. Liga on the last day of the season.

2015/16 3rd 3. Liga (Promoted, won playoff v MSV Duisburg), 2016/17 17th 2. BL (relegated)

Holstein Kiel

The name on the list of teams promoted from the 3. Liga is completed by Holstein Kiel, who had come close before in the in playoff in 2014/15, only to be beaten by an injury time by TSV 1860 München. Having been in the fourth tier Regionalliga Nord just in 2012/13, Kiel would spend just four years in the 3. Liga before securing second tier status.

2016/17 2nd 3. Liga (promoted)

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London-based but with his heart firmly in Fröttmaning, Rick Joshua's love of German football goes back more than thirty years and has witnessed everything from the pain of Spain '82 and the glory of Italia '90 to the sheer desolation of Euro 2000. This has all been encapsulated in the encyclopaedic Schwarz und Weiß website and blog, which at some three hundred or so pages is still not complete. Should you wish to disturb him, you can get in touch with Rick on Twitter @fussballchef. This carries a double meaning, as he can prepare a mean Obazda too.

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