If you know anything about the federal structure of Germany, you might ask yourself why, as well as the thirteen Flächenländer (the ‘area states’, such as Bavaria, Thuringia, Hesse or Saxony), there are three Stadtstaaten (‘city states’): Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen? Berlin, as the capital, seems to make some sort of sense and it is also the largest German (and European) city with a population with 3.5 million people. In that context Hamburg, the second largest city with approximately 1.8 million, would also seem to fit, but why Bremen, which sits in eleventh place by size at approximately 560 000? An oddly related question applies to car license plates. Cities and towns throughout Germany have a variation of the first letters of their name at the beginning of the license plate for their vehicles. Berlin has a ‘B’, but Hamburg is ‘HH’ and Bremen is ‘HB’. Why?
The answer to both questions is, unsurprisingly, connected to history and in this case goes back to the late Middle Ages. At that time, the area we know as Germany today was not a country, but a collection of Kingdoms, Principalities, Duchies and Margraviates (a region ruled by the military commander, or margrave, maintaining the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire as the Romans had done in Aalen). However, among all those regions were some independent ‘free’ cities. Within those cities merchants had formed guilds to work together to promote trade with other cities and different parts of the world. In the northern part of Germany, on the Baltic and North seas, these guilds in different cities formed an association which allowed them to guarantee trade as well as send their ships in convoys, or Hansa to use the low middle German term. Over time, this association became the Hanseatic League, which was officially founded in 1356, but had been operating without the title since at least the middle of the twelfth century.
At its peak, the Hanseatic League controlled trade from what is now the east coast of southern England, through Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the westernmost areas of Russia. The independent cities were answerable directly to the Holy Roman Emperor without needing the intermediary of local nobles. They were even able to wield military muscle to protect their routes from other nations (notably declaring war on Denmark between 1361 and 1370) and from pirates. However, over time their involvement in politics (the League supported the Yorkists in the War of the Roses which led to their expulsion from London under Elizabeth I whose grandfather had defeated Richard III, the last Yorkist king) and internal squabbles between cities of the League saw their influence decline.
The last formal meeting, featuring only nine members, was in 1669, but in a technical sense the league stayed in existence until the creation of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1862. Prior to that, only Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen remained as members (Lubeck in Schleswig-Holstein was the city where the league was formed) and all three retain the term “Hanseatic City” in their official title, which is the reason for the extra H on their license plates. Even though the League, ended Hamburg and Bremen were able to maintain their independence. Other Dutch and German cities still value their Hanseatic links and in 1980 a ‘new Hanse’ was formed, open to any of the former Hanseatic League cities, to foster and develop business links, tourism and cultural exchange. The term ‘Hansa’ still exists as well in the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen in the Netherlands, and, most notably, in the airline Lufthansa.
All of which brings us to today and the reason for this discussion about the Hanseatic League: FC Hansa Rostock, a 3.Liga football team. Rostock was also a Hanseatic city although not quite as independent as the others (being part of the Duchy of Mecklenburg). In fact, this year the Hanseatic Days of New Time, which is an annual festival of the ‘New Hanse’ featuring celebrations of history, art and culture, will be held in Rostock from the 21st to the 24th of June. It begins with an arrival at the docks of the ‘Hanseatic ships’ and a ceremonial unloading of their cargo. Moreover, license plates in Rostock begin with HRO and it is also to celebrate this heritage that the team bears the term Hansa as part of their name but there is more to their history than that.
As mentioned in previous reports, many teams like to emphasize the length of their histories, looking for the ancestor team that dates back the furthest from which to claim their founding. Hansa Rostock has taken a slightly different approach. There have been football teams in Rostock since the late nineteenth century. Indeed Rostocker FC 1895 play in the Verbandsliga Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (the sixth tier of German football) and through their history, they have merged with numerous other sides from the city. In contrast Hansa Rostock, were originally formed in 1954 as Sportclub Empor Rostock; however, at their foundation, there were not enough quality footballers joining the club to make a team and the East German authorities wanted the team to be a success. In contrast, the area around Lauter, near the Czech border, already had a number of teams (such as Aue and Zwickau). So the decision was made, in November 1954, to just take all the players from Empor Lauter and move them over 500 kms [311 miles] north to Rostock, with the new team simply taking the place of the old one in the DDR-Oberliga (you might remember something similar happening in the history of Chemnitzer FC although in that case the towns were closer so the team did not physically move).
In 1965, East German sports, as a whole, were reorganized and in December of that year most of the football teams in the Oberliga were separated from their sports clubs. This meant that their names changed from SC to FC, but in Rostock’s case this was also when they first took the name Hansa Rostock and is when they now date their formation. Like FC Carl-Zeiss Jena, they were also designated as one of East Germany’s ‘focus clubs’ where players would be developed to make the national team stronger. Although they struggled to be successful in the Oberliga, being relegated three times during the seventies and once more in the eighties, each time they bounced straight back. They were able to win both their first (and so far only) championship and the East German Cup (FDGB-Pokal) in the final season of separate East and West German leagues, 1990/91.
This success saw them (along with Dynamo Dresden) participate in the first season of the combined Bundesliga in 1991/92, unfortunately finishing in 18th and being relegated. After a couple of seasons they returned and spent ten consecutive years in the Bundesliga between 1995/96 and 2004/05 before being relegated once more. Like most teams from the east the economic situation has not helped them and currently they are spending their sixth consecutive season in the 3.Liga.
The Ostseestadion has been Hansa’s home since their predecessor team was formed in 1954 and after some expansions and updates now accommodates close to 30 000 fans. So far this season they have been attracting the second largest crowds in the 3.Liga (behind 1.FC Magdeburg) with an average of 11 391. As I saw back on MatchDay 3 they also manage great away support, with every one of their away games having a crowd better than the home teams average. They also do some impressive displays as is seen in the slideshow here. As I wandered the streets of Rostock earlier in the day there were already many people walking the streets wearing hats, scarves and shirts for the team. All over the city (and even further north in Warnemünde) team stickers were visible on poles and bins. As I made my way out to the stadium (you can catch buses directly there, or trams and trains which have stops a relatively short walk away) there were even more people, all in good spirits.
It was no surprise the fans were feeling good. FC Hansa Rostock had won 8 of their previous 10 games and were sitting in fourth, just three points behind Wehen Wiesbaden in the promotion playoff position, with a game still in hand. When they had played the reverse fixture, back on August 20th, Rostock had won 0:3 away from home after FC Würzburger Kickers had seen Jopek sent off. Benyamina scored twice that day and Hüsing scored the other. However, after a difficult beginning to their season in the 3.Liga following relegation from the Bundesliga 2 last season, with 2 draws and 3 losses in their first five games, Würzburg had also been in much better form of late. They have won 8 of their previous 9 games (including a win over second place 1.FC Magdeburg last week) and were only six points behind Rostock in eighth place. It promised to be a very interesting match, Rostock were playing forward Pascal Breier (from VfB Stuttgart) who they had acquired during the winter transfer window although they were missing Amaury Bischoff (their captain) who was out with a hamstring injury. In the warm-up before the game, Rostock came out to ‘TNT’ by AC/DC and we were then regaled with Kiss’ ‘I Was Made for Loving You’ before the singing of the team song.
When the game kicked off, it was clear that FC Würzburger Kickers were not going to be playing a defensive game. They took the attack to FC Hansa Rostock from the beginning, playing a very high press, chasing everything and also employing a really high defensive line (at one point Benyamina was called offside for Rostock and he could not have been more than three meters past half way). Both Ademi and Baumann had early shots for Würzburg and in the twelfth minute a misplayed back pass almost put Ademi in on goal but Hüsing was able to get it clear. After the first twenty minutes had been predominantly Würzburg, slowly Rostock managed to push back into the game. They began employing similar tactics, using Benyamina and Breier to pressure the Würzburg defense and produced a couple of similar pressured back passes without any resulting goal.
After Baumann had made a number of very strong runs, and headed just wide to the right in the 29th minute, it looked like Würzburg were most likely to score. Then Breier got a good pass out on the left for Rostock, beat a defender and broke into the corner of the penalty box before being brought down by former Rostock player Ahlschwede (who was having his 28th birthday on the day, this was not a good gift). Benyamina converted the penalty straight down the center as Drewes dove left and, against the run of play, Rostock were 1:0 in front. This lead really seemed to boost the Rostock team and in the 37th minute Müller for Würzburg was forced to bring down a charging Holthaus only a few meters away from where the penalty had been conceded, this time outside the box. Hilßner delivered the free kick into the center of the area and a diving header from Wannenwetsch saw Rostock suddenly 2:0 up. This second goal caused a determined response from Würzburg and in the remaining few minutes of the half there were no less than three goal line clearances by Rostock and one shot from Wagner that came back off the post, each when it seemed a goal was the more likely outcome. Rostock’s goalkeeper Blaswich (on loan from Borussia Mönchengladbach) was in outstanding form. At half time it felt very likely that we would see more goals in the second term.
Sure enough, within seconds of the restart FC Würzburger Kickers were down deep in Rostock’s half and Blaswich had to make another good save from a cross to get the ball before Baumann, who was coming in behind him. Then, in the 48th minute a free kick for Würzburg from a similar position to the one from which Rostock had scored their second produced a similar result; this time it was Nikolaou with the headed goal and it felt very much like ‘game on’. FC Hansa Rostock were determined however and with coach Dotchev shouting instructions from the sidelines (while most of the rest of the coaches and substitutes huddled under blankets on the bench) they won a free kick wide on the left. The ball was lofted into the center of the goal where Drewes was able to punch clear but the ball fell to Rankovic just outside the box. He fired a low shot toward the right corner and it seemed to bobble up and over the diving Drewes into the back of the net. 3:1 to Rostock.
The next ten minutes or so saw chances at both ends. Breier produced a diving save from Drewes after some good work by Henning, and then Skarlatidis hit a scorching shot just over the bar from not far outside the area. In the 60th minute Holthaus had a shot deflected which required a great save from Drewes and then, a couple of minutes later Blaswich had to make another good stop to deny Baumann. After another effort from Breier went just wide to the left in the 66th minute, FC Hansa Rostock started to sit back to hold onto their lead. FC Würzburger Kickers were still pushing hard though, bringing on King and Bytyqi to push for goals. It was interesting to see that the last of Rostock’s substitutes, Väyrynen, was injured shortly after coming on the field and it seemed that, even though he had warmed up, it was a tough transition into the cold. Würzburg were piling on the pressure, Blaswich was still required to tip a shot from Baumann in the first minute of time added on, but Rostock managed to hang on for an important win. Würzburg could certainly consider themselves unlucky however and both managers commented after the match that perhaps, today, the better team had not won.
Still, it was a pleasant trip on the bus back into town with some very cheerful fans. FC Hansa Rostock have stayed within striking distance of the top of the table if SC Paderborn 07, 1.FC Magdeburg or SV Wehen Wiesbaden slip up. It was a good weekend for goals in the 3.Liga with 5 of the 8 games played across Friday and Saturday producing 24 goals between them (the other three were all 1:0 results). Top placed club SC Paderborn 07’s loss to bottom placed Rot-Weiß Erfurt (admittedly playing on a Friday night after a tough DFB Pokal fixture at Bayern München during the week) also makes things tighter at both ends of the table. With 14 MatchDays to go it is shaping up to be a very exciting end to the season.