People seem to like a ‘rags to riches’ story. The idea of someone starting in obscurity and rising to the top has an appeal across a variety of cultures. Whether we describe it as the ‘American Dream’ or the form in which a similar idea occurs in other cultures and religions, there seems to be a way in which it gives a sense of hope. There is a means by which it becomes aspirational when we see it in others. Even when elements of it are, perhaps, not entirely as they seem, people like to claim it for themselves. During the 2016 election Donald Trump told the story of how he could identify with poor people fighting their way up because, when he was young, he had set out with just a ‘small loan’ from his father of a million dollars. The concept clearly had some appeal.
The same is often true of sporting teams. Last season, in the Bundesliga, people marveled at ‘plucky’ RB Leipzig who in 2009/10 had been in the 5th tier of German football, but for a few weeks were sitting on the top of the table and ended up finishing in second to qualify for the Champions League. This season, in La Liga, the story of Girona FC has been similar, having been in the Spanish 5th tier as recently as 1998/99. Back on October 29, 2017 they defeated Real Madrid, one of the biggest and most famous clubs in the world, 2:1. Of course both these clubs have had some assistance, RB Leipzig through the ownership of the Red Bull corporation, Girona FC through their association with Manchester City FC. Still, the concept clearly appeals to many people.
One feature of the ‘rags to riches’ story is that the climbers have to ascend to the very top. After all, you don’t get the kudos if you make it ‘almost’ to the top of the mountain. This might explain why a team which had climbed from the Bezirksliga Unterfranken (the 7th tier of German football at the time) in 2003/04, to the 2. Bundesliga in 2016/17 did not get the attention that they might otherwise have attracted. The fact that they crashed back down after a catastrophic second half of the season (Rückrunde) means that even the limited attention that they did draw has now faded somewhat. However, the fact of their success clearly still carries some cachet in footballing circles. This could, in part, explain why their manager during the climb between the Regionalliga Bayern and the 2. Bundesliga, Bernd Hollerbach, was appointed last month to be the new head coach at Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga.
Of course, there is more to the FC Würzburger Kickers story than just the last 14 years. They were originally founded back in 1907 and during the 1930’s spent the final three consecutive seasons (1930-1933) in the Berkliga Bayern, which was the top league in the state of Bavaria at the time, until the Nazis disbanded it. After the reorganization of sport by that regime they spent two further seasons in the Gauliga Bayern (1940/41 and 1942/43), which was one of the sixteen top-flight divisions put into place by the Third Reich. However, for most of their history they have been a relatively nondescript local side.
Würzburg itself is not a ‘nondescript’ town. It is in the northern part of the state of Bavaria, about halfway between Frankfurt and Nuremburg, sitting in a valley of the river Main. It is the capital of the region of East Frankonia and has a population of approximately 125 000 people. On the hills on the western side of the river lies the Fortress Marienberg, so it overlooks the town and the valley and has been the site of a defensive fortification dating back to the Bronze Age. It, the wineries on the hill slopes, the churches and other architectural features combine to give it a very beautiful aspect. It is somewhat reminiscent of Prague, but on a smaller scale.
It has a fascinating history with a variety of peoples, including the Celts, the Alamanni and the Franks having occupied the area. The name itself seems to come from ‘würze’ the German word for ‘herbs or spices’ and in the Middle Ages it was actually Latinized as ‘Herbipolis’. In 686 CE the Christian church came to the region through the Irish missionaries Kilian, Kolonat and Totnan and a diocese was founded there in 742. The site of the present day cathedral had a first church built on it in 788 and was consecrated by Charlemagne. Then, in 1402, a university was founded and it was there, in 1896, that Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays in his laboratory.
Of course, not all of history has been good. In both 1147 and 1298 there were pogroms against Jewish people in the city and this was followed, between 1941 and 1943, by the approximately 2000 Jewish people still living in the city being systematically sent to Nazi concentration camps. Würzburg was also the location of one of the larger witch trials in early modern Europe. 157 men, women and children were burned at the stake, mostly after first being beheaded (which does seem like overkill). Some of the victims were executed in other ways and, in all, approximately 900 accused ‘witches’ were killed across the region.
Worst of all these events was a 17 minute period on the night of March 16, 1945 when 225 British bombers destroyed approximately 90% of the city in a firestorm (much as they had done with Dresden a couple of weeks earlier). Every church, cathedral and monument in the city was either destroyed or heavily damaged and 5000 civilians were killed in the medieval city center, including the staff and patients at 40 hospitals which were based in Würzburg (even today medical research is a big feature of the work of the university here). Two weeks after the bombing American troops captured what was left of the town. There is an exhibition in the old Rathaus related to that day and the destruction that resulted. Looking at the model and the photographs it is amazing to think that it was so totally destroyed. It took twenty years of hard labor and detailed research to reconstruct the city. Buildings considered to be of historical importance were reassembled mostly by the ‘Trümmerfrauen’ (rubble women) because the men of the town had either been killed or interred. It was only in 1964 when the last of the 2.7 million cubic meters of rubble was finally cleared.
Today the city attracts tourists for its beauty, particularly of the architecture which has an amazing mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque as well as a number of more modern buildings. This is the second time that I have visited and even though it was a grey and cold day there were still thousands of people arriving at the train station, wandering the streets of the city, sitting in the cafes and restaurants and taking photographs of their surroundings. In particular, it is always worth looking up in Würzburg because so many of the buildings are decorated with statues or old-fashioned signage much of which, I understand, was salvaged from the rubble.
The easiest way to get to the Kickers ground for a game is on the number 5 tram. However, if you have the time it is much nicer to walk. It is a short walk from the station to the center of the old town but there is a lot to see along the way. Once you get to the Rathaus you can cross the Alte Main Bridge (which, like the Charles’ Bridge in Prague, has statues lining either side) and look up the hill toward the Fortress Marienberg. From there you head south along the river for another 3 kilometers until you reach the Flyeralarm Arena (a local company has sponsored the stadium which used to be known as Kickers-Stadion am Dallenberg) which has been the home to the team since 1967. Prior to that time they played just across the river at the Randersacker Straße stadium that had been their home ground for the previous sixty years. Despite their recent success the ground still only has one covered stand with seating, the other three sides are terraced and the ends of the ground somewhat restricted which might explain why their capacity is only 14 500 people. Last year, while in the second league, their average home crowd was 11 145 which is impressive when you consider that ten years earlier they averaged between 150 and 200 spectators per game. This year they have averaged around 5300.
It was interesting to be watching FC Würzburger Kickers again so soon after I had seen them away at Rostock. Much as they had done the previous weekend they began at pace and in the first two minutes managed two efforts on goal, first through a low cross by Göbel and then a corner from Müller which Brinkies (the FSV Zwickau goalkeeper) had to punch away. However, not long after, a free kick was given to Zwickau on their right hand side, Barylla sent a high ball into the box and König rose above the pack to plant his header into the right hand corner of the goal. Looking up in Würzburg is not just something you do as you are walking through the city.
Thus, a pattern was established in the game. FC Würzburger Kickers would try to move their way through at ground level, using pace and short passes, while FSV Zwickau would more often launch balls forward-looking for König (primarily) to either control the ball and shoot, or knock the ball down for a supporting player. König was giving the defense a torrid time and more often than not it fell to Neumann to deal with him, it was a good battle. He also, along with Schröter and Eisele, chased every ball that went back into the Würzburg defense and lots of passing was being done between the FC Würzburger Kickers defenders and Drewes in their goal. This contributed to a growing level of frustration among the home fans which had been building as Würzburg, and Baumann particularly, were struggling to get shots away. Zwickau looked like they wanted it more and seemed to be getting to every shot, every clearance, and every loose ball ahead of Würzburg.
This high energy game takes a toll after a while and, near the end of the half, FSV Zwickau seemed to tire. Again, as they had the previous week, FC Würzburger Kickers seemed to get a number of late shots in and build enormous pressure, only to see those efforts cleared off the line. One corner, in the 44th minute, saw a series of shots blocked, parried, and then finally scrambled away from the goal. As both teams went off for half time you could hear the dissatisfaction in the home fans as Würzburg were a goal behind and had, with the exception of that final few minutes, seemed to be second to everything for most of the half.
As the second half began the Kickers seemed to have gained confidence from their late surge and once again they started strongly. Baumann managed to get past the Wachsmuth deep on the left hand side from a good through ball and was brought down, resulting in a yellow card for the Zwickau captain. The free kick, as with many that had already been taken that day, was wasted by being over hit and the crowd moaned some more, however it did look like Würzburg were starting to take control of the game. This seemed to be heightened in the 63rd minute when Baumann once again broke away on a good run and was, once again, brought down by Wachsmuth. The second yellow (and subsequent red) meant a defensive reorganization by Zwickau but surely, one thought, that would give the Kickers more opportunity to score.
However, as they had done all match, Zwickau continued to defend stoutly, throwing themselves in front of every cross or shot that came their way. When they weren’t able to get to a ball sometimes a little bit of luck intervened instead. In the 74th minute Ademi produced a great shot on goal which Brinkies was able to knock down, then as Ademi followed up his second shot hit the post. Würzburg head coach Schiele tried making some changes to see if they could get a goal that way, bringing Mast on for Wagner, Königs on for Göbel, and replacing the exhausted Neumann (who had looked more assured as he had come to terms with König’s aerial threat after the sending off) with the more attacking Kaufmann. The Kickers piled forward and were nearly caught out in the 82nd minute when König was just not quite able to keep a header down after a great cross from the left.
Finally, when it looked like FSV Zwickau were going to be able to hang on for a much-needed win, the goal finally came for FC Würzburger Kickers. After some good interplay up the middle and into the box the ball came out for Skarlatidis and he was able to smash a low shot into the Zwickau goal. With a couple of minutes of injury time to play there was still a chance for the home team to go for the win and Mast made a great run down the left in the 91st minute but none of his support could quite get to the cross. As the seconds ticked away it was Zwickau with the final chance, Baxter Bahn putting in a wonderful cross in the 93rd minute but Eisele’s header traveled just wide of the right hand upright. The final whistle blew and both sides could be happy (and yet somewhat disappointed) with what had been an exciting game of football. Zwickau, no doubt, were disappointed that they had not been able to hold on to their lead for just a few more minutes but pleased to have played so well. Würzburg pleased to have come back from behind but disappointed that they had not made more of the chances earlier in the match.
As I jumped on a tram back into the city I was pleased to have had to opportunity to watch another positive game of football and visit one of my favorite cities. FC Würzburger Kickers may not be going back to the Bundesliga 2 this year but they shouldn’t be going down either (at the end of the MatchDay they were sitting in 10th, only nine points back from the promotion play-off position but thirteen clear of the final relegation place). While it is not the ‘rags to riches’ story that would draw the most attention, their climb up six tiers (before falling back one) sees them attracting good crowds (there were 5057 today even though it was cold and grey) and playing decent football. I have now been to 15 of the 20 teams in the 3.Liga and with 13 MatchDays left in the season you can look forward to me visiting Bremen, Lotte, Osnabrück, Köln and Großaspach.