Sometimes it is difficult not to look at the amounts that get spent within football and think that it is a business that makes lots of money. The rights to broadcast the English Premier League between 2016 and 2019 cost a total of €5.75 billion. For their television rights between 2017 and 2021 the Bundesliga were paid €4.64 billion. During the summer Paris Saint-German paid €222 million for Neymar and then €180 million for Kylian Mbappé. In the middle of 2020 Bundesliga side SC Freiburg will move into a new stadium that is supposed to cost €76 million (and yet will hold less than half of the people accommodated by the stadiums of Borussia Dortmund, FC Bayern Munich or Hertha Berlin). The largest Bundesliga transfer fee was the more than €43 million paid by VfL Wolfsburg for Julian Draxler (who was then bought by Paris Saint-Germain just 16 months later), closely followed by the almost €42 million paid by FC Bayern Munich for Corentin Tolisso. I look at my bank account and think that I went into the wrong business when I was younger.
Yet, you do not have to go far below the surface to realize that everything is not always quite so rosy, even in the top-tier leagues. Back in 2002 the German media company Kirch, which had won the bidding for Bundesliga TV rights, declared insolvency and clubs which had given contracts to players based on the predicted revenue struggled to cope. Borussia Dortmund were one of the clubs in trouble and reportedly only survived through a €2 million loan from FC Bayern Munich. The European Union of Football Associations (UEFA) estimated that up to 56% of Europe’s 733 top-flight clubs were in debt by 2009. This is what led to the ‘Financial Fair Play’ rules, which were meant to prevent clubs from accumulating unworkable amounts of debt. However, even now some clubs are still struggling with debt levels or completely reliant on ownership to help them out financially.
Further down the football pyramid this is even harder. People are drawn to success so the spectator numbers (and TV revenues) in the Bundesliga are significantly higher than in Bundesliga 2, which are themselves higher than those in the 3.Liga. In order to improve financially a team needs to be promoted, but that often means attracting better players which costs money. In any given season only 2 or 3 teams are promoted from the Bundesliga 2 to the Bundesliga, or from the 3. Liga to the Bundesliga 2, so a risk is that money can be spent without significant reward or, even more catastrophically, even result in relegation. TSV 1860 Munich are a good example of this. In 2005/2006 the club found themselves in severe financial difficulties and had to sell their 50% stake in the Allianz Arena to FC Bayern Munich (whether they should have been ground sharing in the first place is a whole other debate). Then, at the end of last season they were relegated from the Bundesliga 2 to the 3.Liga, however when it came to paying the license fees for the 3.Liga they were unable to do so and were relegated even further to the Regionalliga Bayern.
2016/2017 was also a difficult season for some of the teams that were already in the 3.Liga. FSV Frankfurt, who had only been relegated to the 3.Liga at the end of the previous season after 8 consecutive seasons in the Bundesliga 2, found themselves struggling to cope financially and on April 11th applied for insolvency. This also resulted in a 9-point penalty from the DFB (German Football League). However, their results during the season had generally been so poor that, even without the penalty, they would still have been relegated into the Regionalliga Südwest. This season they are struggling even to be competitive in that league. In contrast, the other team to face the loss of 9 points through a declared insolvency, on February 14th, had been fighting for most of the season for promotion. They challenged the penalty (as did FSV Frankfurt) but this first challenge was rejected on March 24th, as were subsequent appeals. However, their positive football, even during a financial crisis, meant that although they missed out on promotion (and would have done even without the penalty) they avoided being relegated. Their creditors agreed to the bankruptcy plan, they have emerged debt free, and they were able to obtain a license, which meant that they remained safely in the 3.Liga for this season. That team is VfR Aalen.
VfR Aalen are rapidly approaching the one hundred year anniversary of their club. After a split within MTV Aalen sporting club, the football division that is now VfR Aalen was formed in 1921. As was mentioned on Matchday 12, the VfR stands for ‘Verein für Rasenspiele’, which translates to ‘association for lawn sports’, and over the years they have added a number of other sports (including athletics, swimming and handball) to their club. Their initial ground was called the “Wacht am Rhein” (after the restaurant which was situated opposite the field, and later to become the German codeword for what is also known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ during World War II) however when the club were promoted to the Gauliga (then the top division in the region) in 1939 the ground was deemed not good enough and they moved instead to the Schlageter-Kampfbahn. That ground was taken from them after the war but in 1949 construction was completed on the Stadion im Rohrwang which is where they are still based today Having said that, in 1988 the stadium was actually sold by the club to the city of Aalen to help reduce their debt.
Aalen is on the eastern edge of the state of Baden-Württemberg, near the border with Bavaria, about 77 km east of Stuttgart. In the 1st century C.E. it formed part of the frontier fortification (or Limes) of the Roman Empire and you can visit the Limes Museum, which includes the fort that the Romans built to house their cavalry, not far from the Ostalb Arena (as it is now called after a previous sponsor withdrew their support during the financial crisis earlier this year) in the west of the town. The old part of the town is also on the western side of the station so you can walk through it and then to the museum without adding too much distance to the 2 km it would normally be from station to stadium. It is interesting that, unlike other games I have been to this year, your ticket does not include free public transport within the city to the game (on the whole this has been a feature of German football at each of the top four leagues that I have seen). However, the team website does allow you to calculate the amount of CO₂ generated by the journey and choose between different environmental projects that you would like to support with your compensation.
After having caught the bus to Munich for the game at Unterhaching this time I returned to taking the train. Although the bus is cheaper there is more room and comfort on German trains. Because they run more regularly there is also a lot more flexibility about timetables. You can book a seat according to your specifications on the Inter City trains (on a window, with a table etc) which proved to be handy because the one of the trains I was on was travelling from Berlin to Munich via Leipzig and there were a large number of Leipzig supporters traveling down to see the game. Aalen is on a train line between Nuremberg and Karlsruhe, alternatively there are trains there from Stuttgart and Ulm. The station is not far from the center of town and, because it was market day, there were quite a few people walking around the old town even though it was a little overcast and somewhat chilly.
Aalen gets its name from the Aal (the German word for ‘eel’) River that flows into the Kocher River that runs through the city. The Kocher is itself a tributary of the Rhine but still far enough away that a restaurant in the town named after the Rhine seems odd. Of course these days there are restaurants representing all sorts of cuisines from a large variety of nationalities (for example one, on the road out to the stadium, is named ‘Enchilada’s’) so perhaps it is silly of me to even think of such things. Having walked through the markets I headed out to take a look at the Limes and the museum before heading up the slight hill along the southern edge of the forest which lies to the west of the town and which is the setting for the stadium, as it is for a number of other sporting fields.
Having arrived a few minutes early I got the opportunity to chat with a SV Werder Bremen II (VfR Aalen’s opponents for the day) supporter and his young son. Surprisingly, they hailed from Karlsruhe but the father had been born in Bremen and maintained his ties with his hometown by following their reserve side (which is made up of players under the age of 23) because they are in the same league as Karlsruher SC. He has clearly passed his fandom on to his son, who was wearing the shirt of Ousman Manneh, the Gambian player who wears number 47 for the SV Werder Bremen II side. We chatted about various stadia, travel, the cost of taking his son to football games (which is much cheaper in the 3.Liga as well) and the general quality of play in the 3.Liga before the gates were open and we could make our way in to find our seats.
I know I have mentioned the bizarre music choices played in the period before games during previous Matchday reports in the 3.Liga, but today was the most bizarre by far. About 30 minutes before the game, while both sides were warming up, suddenly the loudspeakers start blaring the tune ‘Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’ by Baddiel, Skinner and Lightning Seeds, which was recorded for Euro 96 and the England football team. Perhaps I was the only one listening, but it seems very odd to be playing a song about English football and how they haven’t won a trophy for a long time (it was thirty years in the song, it is more than fifty now) as part of the pre-match entertainment for a game in the third division of German football. Perhaps it was meant to be ironic! In the context, Werder Bremen’s third strip of purple with fluorescent orange lettering and a shocking pink goalkeepers outfit seemed relatively tame.
SV Werder Bremen II have the smallest crowds in the 3.Liga this year (they are averaging just under 1000 spectators per game) so it was not a surprise to see very few people in the away end. There seemed to be more people wearing Bremen paraphernalia not far from me at the western end of the seated area on the northern side of the ground. Much as happened last week with SpVgg Unterhaching, the number of ultras for VfR Aalen was relatively small but they were loud and bounced up and down a lot which provided entertainment for the other spectators. They also had one of the better drummers I have heard because he seemed to have a drum kit, rather than just the single drum, given the variety of different sounds accompanying the singing and chanting before and during the game. It was only a small crowd of 3101 (Aalen had been averaging just over 4000 prior to today) but everyone seemed to be in good spirits. Perhaps that was due in part to the fact that VfR Aalen are sitting comfortably in 11th place. It is interesting that there were only 4 points separating 11th from 20th before the Matchday began, whereas there were 18 points separating 1st and 10th.
As the game kicked off there was quite a strong westerly blowing (it was the first time this season that I have actually felt cold before or during a game) and that made it hard for VfR Aalen who were kicking into the wind in the first half. Any time their captain, Bernhardt the goalkeeper, lifted a kick into the air it struggled to get even close to half way before the wind caught it and started to send it back toward the goal. Aalen were forced to keep a lot of their play on the ground, which suited the play of Schnellbacher and Vasiliadis who are both quite short, but caused some frustration for Wegkamp who was not getting the long balls to take advantage of his height. It was interesting to see Aalen line up as a 3 4 1 2 while Bremen were using the 3 5 2 that they have been playing with for most of the season. Both teams started fairly tentatively and, indeed, after about 20 minutes the home crowd were clearly getting frustrated with the lack on forward progress being shown by VfR Aalen, with much of the passing going sideways or backwards. In contrast, Bremen were using the wind to their advantage sending balls for Toure and Schmidt to chase. Unfortunately the wind often took them too far or made it difficult to control, which saw opportunities spurned early.
In the 22nd minute came the first really good chance of the game, a free kick from central left gave Schmidt the chance to shoot and it was only a good save from Bernhardt that kept it out. Not long after, in the 25th minute, Schmidt had another opportunity. A good ball from Verlaat saw him go past Preißinger and turn into the box with only Bernhardt to beat, however he got too far under the ball this time and skied it over the bar. Werder Bremen II were looking the better side and Schmidt, in particular, was showing some of the quality that saw him make an appearance for the first team against Wolfsburg and set up the winning goal last season. VfR Aalen’s trainer Peter Vollmann was looking frustrated on the sideline and made some changes that seemed to have an impact. From the half hour mark the tide of the play started to turn in Aalen’s favor and chances came first to Bär and then to Vasiliadis but both times they weren’t quite able to finish.
As the first half was drawing to a close there was some good football being played by both sides with the ball moving end to end but each time the final pass, or the shot, just seemed to go astray. If anything, Werder Bremen II had seemed to have the best chances of the half, and Bernhardt had to handle the ball much more than Oelschlägel in the Bremen goal, but it was still not totally out of the blue when a goal came and it went to the home team. VfR Aalen were given a free kick out on the left and sent it into the box, Toure managed to get up and head the ball and it went out to the right hand side where Traut had been lurking for Aalen. He ran in and smashed a shot past Oelschlägel into the back of the net. 1:0 to the home side and the crowd was clearly delighted. VfR Aalen finished the remainder of the half in the ascendant and must have felt positive going in at half time.
Although Bär was replaced by Lämmel during the break, the second half began much as the first had ended, with some good play from VfR Aalen giving an opportunity to Wegkamp however his shot went just wide. Vasiliadis and Schnellbacher were still buzzing around and pressuring the Bremen defense at every opportunity but the very next chance came to Bremen. In the 50th minute Schmidt was taken down about 25 meters out from goal in line with the right upright. He hit a really good free kick but Bernhardt was able to make another very strong save. A couple of minutes later he was forced to make another one, this time from Eggestein. Young came on to replace Jensen for SV Werder Bremen II and used his speed to great effect, a cross from the left came to Eggersgluß but he steered it just wide. It looked like Bremen were bound to score but then, as happened a lot in this game the next chance fell to Aalen. This time a free kick from the edge of the box gave to opportunity to Welzmüller who kept the ball low under a leaping wall and forced an outstanding save from Oelschlägel.
In the 75th minute VfR Aalen had another chance, a good corner came to the head of Rehfeldt (who would no doubt have loved to score against his former team) but he just couldn’t get the ball on target. Werder Bremen II were throwing more men forward pushing for what would have been a well deserved equalizer and their trainer Kohfeldt sent Pfitzner on for Kazior and then Manneh on for Toure to try and achieve it. Once again despite their dominance and the, at times, desperate defense of Aalen, the best chance went the other way with Vasiliadis stealing the ball from Verlaat and bursting through on the goal with only Oelschlägel to beat. This time it was a brilliantly timed tackle from Volkmer who slid in and got the ball away when it seemed like any mistake could easily have become a penalty. In response Bremen continued to pressure but just could not make the final touch count. When the referee’s whistle blew for the last time it was VfR Aalen 1 SV Werder Bremen II 0.
Both teams had put on a very good show, with just the finishing letting them down (although to be fair both goalkeepers, Bernhardt and Oelschlägel, had also performed heroics at times). What was really nice to see was that players from both teams came across to the crowd at the end of the game to sign autographs for, and have photographs taken with the children. In particular, Wegkamp for Aalen deserves credit for staying as long as he did, despite having had a frustrating performance. For SV Werder Bremen II the after game hero was Manneh, who had come on as a late substitute. When he met the father and son who I had been talking to before the game, and saw that the son was wearing a green home shirt with his name and number on it, he took off his purple shirt and gave it to the boy. They may have been disappointed with the loss but I guarantee they made the trip home to Karlsruhe in a very positive frame of mind. Once again I was really pleased to have been at a 3.Liga game, where the football was very entertaining but there were lots of other positives on display as well.