July 24, 2017

Small Club, Big Story: Fortuna Düsseldorf

When the word ‘history’ comes to mind in a Football context, you usually think of trophies, success, legendary players and cultural impact. And all of the clubs that have the best histories in the world have these elements in their past, such as Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona, and Manchester United.

But there is one German club in a big city, like the clubs mentioned above and has a history as unique as any of those clubs as well. And even though they don’t have many trophies, prestige and legends, they have a history worth talking about. This club is Fortuna Düsseldorf (F95).

A Seemingly Small Big Club

For many outsiders, Fortuna are a small and obscure club in the lower half of the 2. Bundesliga table. Most people who like German football don’t know F95 except for their famous win against Hertha Berlin in promotional playoff a few seasons ago. And even though this is the norm, it shouldn’t be given all that F95 has been through since their formation over 100 years ago.

On the surface, you would expect Fortuna to be a big club in German football, or at least a top flight club.

After all, Düsseldorf is one of Germany’s most recognizable cities, with over 500 thousand people and large airports and several points of interest. Similarly to Hertha Berlin, people always wonder why Düsseldorf doesn’t have a big club.

F95 are in the capital of the North-Rhine Westphalia, which contains most of the Bundesliga’s biggest clubs. Dortmund, Schalke, Gladbach, Leverkusen and even Koln resides in this area. And despite being bigger than most of those places, Fortuna is still a small club compared to those rivals.

And because the city has money from being a tourist attraction, Fortuna has a 53,000 capacity stadium, which is bigger or similar to many big clubs. That stadium is not only huge capacity wise, but unlike other big stadiums the supporters fill it up to it’s max. Fortuna has the fans and they stadium of a big club. The location of the club and the fan support is that of a big club, but the remarkable part of Fortuna’s history is that they aren’t a big club despite all of these features.

This is fascinating when you think of how small of a club this is. Not many teams middling in the second tier can fill up 50,000 capacity stadiums and put on some of the best fan displays in the world. But Fortuna can, and this is because they haven’t always been even a second tier club.

Upper and Lower Division Adventures

For F95, being in the second tier isn’t a surprise, or something that’s new to them. While some of the other clubs such as Nuremberg or even Kaiserslautern would consider themselves traditional Bundesliga clubs. This is because F95 have spent a lot of their history in the lower divisions of German Football. For Fortuna, they’ve been a Bundesliga club for some of their 20tj century history.

Despite not being a part of the original Bundesliga clubs in 1963, Fortuna came up and were relegated in the 1966-67 season. But when they came back in 1971, they had an impressive 16 year run in the top flight. This period included multiple 3rd place finishes and a 7-1 win against Bayern in Munich. And at this point in their history, Fortuna looked like they could become a German powerhouse. After all, Bayern don’t get beaten like that very often, especially in a decade that saw them win 3 consecutive European cups.

But this period in their history got even better, and Fortuna established themselves as a dominant force in the German cup. First, F95 lost the cup final to Köln in 1978, in a contested 2-0 game against their rivals. And after that match, Fortuna continued to thrive in the cup. And in the following season they won the competition by beating Hertha Berlin in the final. And then in 1980 they retained the Cup, and that final saw them get revenge on rivals Koln for 1978. But the success didn’t stop there for the Düsseldorf club as they started to get results in Europe. They had there best European showing in the 1979 European cup winners cup, which saw them lose 4-3 in a heartbreaking final against FC Barcelona in extra time.

Despite the loss, F95 became a force to reckon with in Germany and they looked to build on the good showing in Europe. They became a power with homegrown stars like current Wolfsburg director Klaus Allofs, who won the Euros in 1980 with West Germany as well as winning 2 Bundesliga Golden Boot awards. Klaus’ brother Thomas was a core player as well, playing for West Germany and contributing to F95 before leaving for Kaiserslautern. Another star player for F95 was Gerd Zewe, who has the most appearances on club history with 440 during a 15 year reign with the club. Fortuna had other homegrown players as well, and this nucleus of stars gave them a promising future after the loss to Barça, but things would soon change for the club.

After losing Klaus Allofs to Köln after his brother’s departure, the fortunes of the club really began to turn around in the opposite direction. Fortuna have never been blessed with  large amounts of money, and once they lost their stars they were tough to replace. The club relied on the academy, but as the homegrown talent dried up, so did the fortunes of the club. And this all culminated with relegation from the Bundesliga in 1987. After a very long period of Bundesliga football, the relegation of F95 was a surprising one like Nuremberg a few seasons ago. But they fought back and returned to the top flight fairly quickly. And after coming back to the top flight from 1989 to 1992, it looked like they would be back and contending for trophies again. But they never became more than a mid table side, and relegation occurred again for Düsseldorf. But after another relegation in 1997, following a 2 year spell in the to flight, things started to get really bad for Fortuna.

Unlike their previous relegation seasons in the 80’s and the 90’s, the club was unable to make their way back into the Bundesliga very quickly. Now this is the unique part of their remarkable history, since Fortuna found themselves all the way in the 4th tier in 2002. It’s hard to comprehend that a club that was competing for trophies in the 70’s and went head to head with Barcelona in the 80’s went all the way down to the 4th tier. After all, not many 4th tier sides have 53 thousand capacity stadiums or 7-1 wins over Bayern like F95 do.

But when they got to the Oberliga, it took them some time to get back up. The financial woes continued as they do for all 4th tier clubs. And the once glamorous club seemed like they would become like Dynamo Dresden, a lower tier club with a great history. They had such bad financial issues, that they were sponsored by a popular German rock band for a few seasons. Imagine Linkin Park sponsoring the LA Galaxy, that’s what happened to F95 as that just added to the misery that they club was experiencing And despite the financial issues, they began to restore order, and by the 2008-09 season Fortuna gained promotion to the 2. Bundesliga with a 2nd place finish in the 3.Liga. When Fortuna came back to the second tier, they had a very good season as they began to regain credibility. A 4th place finish in their first season back was very surprising to say the least, and after so many agonizing season’s, Bundesliga football was somehow back in sight.

But the next season started very badly, and F95 managed a 7th place finish in a year that saw them near the bottom at the start. But things would get better very quickly, and they began the famous 2011-12 season by winning 12 games in the first half and not losing. Despite the great start, Fortuna fell off track and scrambled to finish in third. And after beating Hertha Berlin a legendary playoff, their remarkable comeback had been completed. After playing in the 4th tier, they came back to the Bundesliga. They became the first (and likely the last) German club to go for. The top flight to the 4th tier and back to the top tier. They went from playing Bayern and Dortmund 2 to going to the Allianz and Westfalenstadion once again. The magic of the 70’s was finally back in Düsseldorf, and one of the most unique clubs in Germany was back.

That is Football at its finest.  

Fortuna Düsseldorf aren’t just another second tier club despite what some might think. They have a huge stadium and reside in a big city, but they find themselves mingling in the 2.Bundesliga, while they’ve been all the way to the fourth tier and back to the top flight. This club has a unique history, with many highs and lows. If they do return to the Bundesliga anytime soon, it would add another chapter to the very long book that is the history of Fortuna Düsseldorf.

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Alex Lynch

Alex a passionate fan of the Bundesliga and German Football who resides in the United States, who also loves writing and talking about the Bundesliga.