April 25, 2017

Small Club, Big Story: FSV Frankfurt

There are plenty of German football clubs with a history that is not so famous and fabulous, but still worth hearing about. One example is 2. Bundesliga side Fortuna Düsseldorf, a club that attracts thousands of people to their home and away games, despite having a trophy cabinet that is close to empty these days. Another example is F95’s league rival FC. St Pauli, a club that is recognized internationally because of the way their fan scene developed some 30 years ago. Or have you ever heard the tale of Dynamo Berlin? The capital club, today known as BFC Dynamo, resides in the Regionalliga these days, but they won every trophy available in eastern Germany back in the days when a wall separated the east from the west.

Another club with a history that is pretty interesting when you read about it is FSV Frankfurt. Believe it or not.

While Fortuna Düsseldorf can attract over 50,000 people to their home games at the Esprit Arena, a stadium that can hold 54,600 spectators, FSV Frankfurt have a hard time even attracting 10,000 people to the Bornheimer Hang on a sunny Saturday, despite being located in a big town.

stadion-bornheimer-hang
The Bornheimer Hang, FSV’s somewhat modest ground.

But … there is no way a club that can’t even fill a 12, 000 capacity stadium can have an interesting story to tell! They are not even interesting enough to attract the locals to their games!

Well, don’t you want to know how it came to be that almost the entire city of Frankfurt at some point decided to support Eintracht, rather than FSV? (Yes, there’s a story here.) Or don’t you want to know how the introduction of the Bundesliga as we know it in 1963 affected FSV Frankfurt?

If you’re looking for another tale about how FC Barcelona won their first La Liga title you’re looking for, or how much money Manchester United had to spend to expand the Old Trafford, then you can stop reading now.

This series and piece is about a football club, not a massive, commercialized, empire from Spain or England that can spend an entire developing country’s GDP on a striker. This is about a very small football club that fought long and hard to establish themselves in the second division. A football club that most people don’t care about, but a limited amount of people would die for.

Big City ≠ Big Support

First of all, Frankfurt itself has more 700,000 citizens with many millions in the greater metro area. When you put the numbers together, it looks like less than five percent of the town has any sympathies at all towards FSV Frankfurt. So if the Fortuna Düsseldorf is a small, but at the same time pretty big club, then FSV Frankfurt is smaller than the small clubs – in one of Germany’s biggest cities.

Frankfurt am Main's dazzling skyline - Germany's biggest.
Frankfurt am Main’s dazzling skyline – Germany’s biggest.

How did this happen?

First, the most significant reason is that the club technically isn’t even from the city of Frankfurt. Rather, the club was founded in 1899 in the Bornheim district of Frankfurt, a small area with around 48,000 inhabitants. You don’t really have much of a reason to support FSV if you’re from downtown Frankfurt since your closest team in that case is one of the biggest clubs in Germany.

Second, the club has mostly never been successful. FSV reached the top group of the Northern District League in the 1909/10 season, and won it seven years later. The club clinched another title in 1933 when they won the Süddeutsche Football Championship, two years after moving to their current stadium. They also reached the German championship final in 1925, but lost to 1. FC Nürnberg.

So if you’re younger than 90, you have probably not lived to see FSV Frankfurt win anything at all.

Unable to Compete with Eintracht Frankfurt

The story of how Eintracht Frankfurt became the number one football club in Frankfurt begins the day they were founded, but this piece of text is not dedicated to Eintracht, so we’re beginning our timeline in 1945 when a new league format was formed in Germany, creating two Oberligas as the highest tier: Oberliga South and Oberliga West.

FSV Frankfurt in 1902.
FSV Frankfurt in 1902.

The original Oberliga South included three teams from the Hessen region and FSV Frankfurt, along with local rival Eintracht Frankfurt and Kickers Offenbach. If you were a blue and black faithful back then, rather than red and black, your dream was probably that this was the time when FSV should establish themselves as Frankfurt’s number one football club. FSV failed to live up to those expectations, however, and the club won few derbies, reached very little success worth mentioning and the fans of FSV didn’t have much else than fifth place finishes in 1950 and 1951 to celebrate.

On March 9, 1957, FSV Frankfurt managed to defeat their local rival at home in front of only 10, 000 spectators by scoring four goals, and conceding “only” three. That is until this day the last time FSV Frankfurt won a competitive fixture against Eintracht Frankfurt.

It wasn’t all bad though.

FSV Frankfurt avoided relegation year after year, and remained in the Oberliga Süd until 1962, when they were demoted for the first time. FSV competed well with their rivals the following season in the second tier, but FSV still failed to win promotion since the Bundesliga as we know it today was introduced in 1963. The new top tier of German football had only room for the best Oberliga clubs, and FSV Frankfurt was obviously not one of them. The club had to settle with a place in the new Regionalliga Süd, but couldn’t help but to look at the Bundesliga with a great hope of one day being one of the clubs in that league.

Movie entrepreneur Karl-Heinz Böllinghaus took over the team in 1964 and promised to lead the club to a finish in the first third of the table and, eventually, to the Bundesliga. Böllinghaus wasn’t able to live up to his words, however, and FSV could only secure mediocre positions in the table, and their attendance began to decline. In the end, FSV had to face relegation from the second division as well.

Financial debts and only short stints back to the second division followed until 1975, when FSV finally managed to win promotion without being relegated immediately. FSV drew 2-2 in the final game against VfR Bürstadt in 1975, in front of a record crowd of 17, 000 people, and won promotion to the newly formed 2. Bundesliga. FSV Frankfurt remained a second division team until 1983, when a winless streak of five games led the club back to the amateur divisions once again.

3rd-tier football and financial difficulties

It was not easy for FSV Frankfurt to adapt to life as an amateur club, and it wasn’t enough to attract the locals to their home games. FSV was once again hit with debt in the early 80’s and not more than around 700 people followed the club’s home games from the stands. FSV’s future didn’t look too bright at the time, but the club never gave up the hope of once again reaching the 2. Bundesliga.

They found a slight path back to winning ways in 1991 when young prospects got the chance to show their worth in the club, but it was still not enough to secure a promotion. Some success could be celebrated either way, though, as their newly formed women’s team reached the final of the German championship in 1991, but lost to TSV Siegen 4-2. That same women’s team went on to win the German championship four years later as well as the DFB-Pokal, which polished FSV Frankfurt’s reputation quite a bit.

The men couldn’t reach the same heights though, and it took FSV Frankfurt eleven years to leave the days as an amateur club behind, at least temporarily. FSV performed well during the 1993/94 season and reached the playoff round to the 2. Bundesliga. FSV locked horn with SSV Ulm, Eintracht Trier and Kickers Emden in the playoff, and the club could eventually celebrate another promotion after ending the playoff in an impressive fashion.

Immediate Relegation & Fighting for Survival

Life in the 2. Bundesliga was tough for FSV Frankfurt this time around as well, however, and the club had a hard time collecting points. FSV could only manage to win three games all campaign long, and was relegated from the second tier headfirst, once again. It wasn’t clear, though, if the club really was demoted since a couple of clubs faced the prospects of not gaining new licenses. FSV prepared to spend another year in the 2. Bundesliga, but 1. FC Saarbrücken was the only team not to gain a new license in the end, and FSV was relegated after much doubt.

Once again FSV Frankfurt had to settle with a place in the third tier, but this time they had less time than usual to get a team in place. FSV had practically no senior players at their disposal with two weeks left until the season opener due to the licenses.

The club got a team together at last, but it was very evident on the field of play that the players hadn’t had the best of conditions. FSV struggled in the league and the fans didn’t show up at the games in any great numbers. The club had a hard time paying the wages, and FSV looked set for bankruptcy in the spring of 1996. An article was published in the local newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau regarding the imminent resolution of a “traditional club” and FSV Frankfurt’s final home game against SG Egelsbach was destined to be the last encounter in the club’s history.

Well, it wasn’t. FSV Frankfurt could live on after a long fight to save the club, led by Bernd Reisig. The Frankfurt-native was FSV’s right-hand man for many years, and he led the club to salvation as the executive director, a position he remained at until 2010.

Back to 2. Bundesliga & Beginning of New Era

FSV Frankfurt had the worse of luck in the early 60’s when the Bundesliga was formed since the club, with a bit of luck, could have been one of the teams in the first edition of the greatest league in the world, but missed out due to their first ever relegation. In 2008, however, the fortunes turned for the better.

The third tier of German football was reformed into a single league instead of multiple Regionalligas, and FSV Frankfurt was one of many teams thought to be in the first edition of the new third division. FSV took many by surprise during the 2007/08 season, though, and won the Regionalliga Süd and thus qualified to the 2. Bundesliga – again.

The Regionalliga as we know it today is the fourth tier of German football, and it’s very hard to win promotion from it since the league winner moves on to a playoff, rather than a promotion.

FSV Frankfurt, together with FC Ingolstadt, Rot Weiss Ahlen and Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, was the last team ever to go straight from the Regionalliga to the 2. Bundesliga. Hence, the bottom nine in FSV’s league that year remained in the Regionalliga the following season, while the clubs between positions three and ten moved on to the new 3. Liga, meaning that some of the clubs FSV faced in June, was two divisions below them in August. Some of those clubs, like SV Babelsberg and VfB Lübeck, are still struggling to get back to where they once were.

Nonetheless, FSV Frankfurt is still struggling to attract big crowds even eight years after their promotion, and the Bornheimer Hang is more often than not taken over by the away supporters. FSV’s average attendance, 6,049 spectators, would have been lower if it wasn’t for the big away followings that frequently makes the trip to Frankfurt.

But the club’s fan base is in fact is growing, and the club has around 3,000 regular visitors today, according to the club itself. It might not sound like much, but FSV’s average attendance during the 2006/07 season, in what today is the 3. Liga, was below 1,000. So they sure are moving in the right direction.

FSV today: Low Budget & Down to Earth

FSV Frankfurt has established a down to earth kind of culture the last couple of years and being a part of FSV is in many ways just like being a part of a family. The club’s budget is usually much lower than many of the other 2. Bundesliga clubs.

The overall budget in the 2008/09 season was 8, 9 million euros, with some clubs reaching as high as over 13 million euros. FSV Frankfurt on the other hand, had to make do with 5, 4 million euros, and still managed to stay up. FSV reached as high as a fourth place finish in 2014, despite taking part in what some say is the “strongest second division in the world”, without a lot of money to spend.

This year hasn’t been easy on FSV Frankfurt and they are involved in the 2. Bundesliga’s relegation battle. The club is one point above relegation with two games left on the calendar.

However, it’s not usual for FSV Frankfurt to stay in the 2. Bundesliga as long as they have done this time around, and it’s clear that the promotion eight years ago have brought many good things to the club that they would have missed out on otherwise. The new stadium will not be demolished just because it’s no longer the home to a 2. Bundesliga side, and most of the new supporters and sponsor partners will probably remain true to the blue and black as well. The foundation FSV stood upon once upon a time was not made for anything but armature football, but FSV has taken many steps in the right direction the last couple of years, and they have transformed the club into a professional side.

It’s hard not to wonder, however, what FSV Frankfurt would have become if they had performed better in the 60’s and gotten a place in the first ever edition of the Bundesliga. The road back to professional football has been long and hard on them ever since that year, and it wasn’t really until 2008 that they once and for all established themselves as a professional club, with a small but true and passionate, fan base.

FSV Frankfurt of today is the result of a lost battle against a local rival, amateur football, financial difficulties, bad management and a lack of luck. If you put the pieces together, it’s really not that weird that the club can’t attract more than 4,000 people to the stadium on a sunny Saturday when SC Paderborn comes visiting. Not even Fortuna Düsseldorf would be able to do that under FSV Frankfurt’s circumstances.

(Sources: Transfermarkt, Boersen-zeitung.de & Wikipedia.)

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Linus Vedmar

Linus is a 20-year-old Swede who follows all Bundesliga clubs but have a soft spot for FC St. Pauli. You can follow Linus on Twitter @LinusVedmar.

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