3. Liga: Up and Down, Promotion and Relegation

A piece about what will happen in the 3.Liga that got away from me

Originally my plan had been to write a simple piece about who might get promoted and relegated to and from the 3. Liga at the end of this season. However, as I kept investigating it I kept asking myself the question ‘Why?’ If you are like me, the first part of this article attempts to explain how we have got to the system of promotion and relegation that exists in the German league system. If, however, you just want to know about promotion and relegation from the 3. Liga for this season you can skip the first part of this article.

How Did We Get Here?

The structure of the top-tier of the Bundesliga has remained largely the same since its foundation in 1963 with only the number of teams changing: from 16 in the first two seasons, to 18, then 20 during the season immediately after German reunification, before returning to 18 where it has remained ever since. However, the structure of the football pyramid below the top league has been much more volatile. Immediately below the Bundesliga, for its first 10 seasons, were five Regionalliga that were similar to the ones that currently comprise the fourth tier of German football (Nord, Süd, West and Südwest, but with West Berlin instead of Bayern). At the end of each season, the top two teams from each Regionalliga were placed into two groups and the winner of playoffs within each group was promoted. It was quite a complex system but there was only one national league, below that the leagues were more regional.

In the 1974/75 season, the 2. Bundesliga was created, although it was still not completely national because there were two divisions (Nord and Süd) with twenty clubs in each (this was before reunification, so there were no eastern teams included). Underneath these two second divisions were fifteen Amateurliga (nine in the south, four in the north, of which one was in West Berlin) which made promotion and relegation even more complex. Because of the politics of football among the regions of Germany, some Amateurliga champions were guaranteed promotion while others had to playoff against one another. Beginning in the 1978/79 season, the fifteen Amateurliga were reduced to eight Amateur Oberliga, which somewhat simplified things.

Then, in the 1981/82 season, the two 2.Bundesliga divisions were combined into one, creating a second tier national league. Underneath them were still the Oberliga (“Amateur” was now dropped from their name): four in the north, and four in the south with the champions of both playing off for two promotion positions each. Seemingly very simple, however, from the 1983/84 season the team finishing as runner-up in the Oberliga Nord also got to participate in the northern playoffs which complicated things slightly. Additionally, the reunification of Germany in 1991 added an extra layer of complexity. Consequently, in 1992 there were play offs involving 13 teams in four groups with the group winner gaining promotion. Involved in these play offs were the ten Oberliga champions (two had been added from the east), the runners-up from the Oberliga Nord and two of the relegation teams from the 2. Bundesliga. The system was a mess, so in the 1994/95 season, four Regionalliga were reintroduced as a third tier between the 2. Bundesliga and the Oberliga. You would think that this might make relegation and promotion of four teams into the 2.Bundesliga simpler (it did, sort of), but you would be wrong if you thought it was just the champions of each Regionalliga moving up, politics between the regions in German football is much more complex than that.

Because the Regionalligas Süd and West/Südwest each had populations and playing strength that were significantly larger than the Regionalligas Nord and Nordost, the winners of Süd and West/Südwest were always directly promoted. The winners of Nord and Nordost then met in a play off for the third promotion position. However, it was the fourth promotion spot that was the most problematic. At the end of the 1994/95 season, this spot went to the Nord/Nordost region, so that both league winners were promoted that year. However, in 1995/96 it was the runners-up in the West/Südwest Regionalliga (Rot-Weiß Essen) who were promoted. In 1996/97, it was the runners-up of the Regionalliga Süd (SpVgg Greuther Fürth) who went up. From 1998 to 2000 it changed again so that the runners-up of both West/Südwest and Süd, plus the losing team from the Nord/Nordost Regionalliga play-off, played a group round-robin to determine the fourth promoted team. Fortunately, in season 1999/2000 the four Regionalliga were combined into two, Nord and Süd, so play-offs became unnecessary and two teams from each league were directly promoted.

When the 3. Liga was first formed for the 2008/09 season, it corresponded with a change to promotion and relegation in the leagues above. Since 1992, there had been direct promotion and relegation for three teams between the 2.Bundesliga and the Bundesliga; however, currently across all three national leagues the team finishing third from bottom in the higher league would meet in a playoff against the team finishing third in the lower league. Now that the Regionalliga had dropped to the fourth tier of German football, a third (the Regionalliga West) was added. Having a third Regionalliga allowed the pattern of three team promotion and relegation that operated above them, although there would be no playoff involving the third team. It seemed that a nice simple system had finally emerged.

However, in October 2010 the Regionalligas were, once again, reorganized because of the large number of insolvencies that had taken place across German football during the previous season. The travel demands combined with lower media interest from any except local outlets, made it hard for teams to stay viable. Consequently, the DFL returned to the set up with the five Regionalliga that we currently have (Nord, Süd, West, Südwest and Bayern). This latest reorganization has meant that, since the 2010/11 season, the bottom three teams are relegated from the 3. Liga each season, while the winners of each Regionalliga plus the runner-up in the Regionalliga Südwest are paired up in a playoff for the promotion positions.

One last change, however, occurred. At the 96th DFB-Bundestag in December 2017, delegates decided to change the promotion rules and once more reduce the number of Regionalliga to four. Ultimately, there will be four teams relegated from the 3.Liga each season and the champions of each of the new Regionalliga will be promoted. To achieve this goal, a temporary solution has been put into place for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons. Four teams will be promoted and there will be three guaranteed promotion places from the champions of the five regional leagues. The champion of the Regionalliga Südwest (because they are giving up their second playoff place) will be promoted automatically in the next two seasons. Moreover, in the 2018/2019 season, the champion of the Regionalliga Nordost will also be promoted directly. The winner of the third guaranteed promotion place will be decided by the drawing of lots. The remaining two Regionalliga champions will compete in a two-legged playoff to determine the fourth promotion place. Then, in the 2019/20 season, the two Regionalliga whose teams took part in the playoff the previous season will automatically have promotion places (along with the Regionalliga Südwest) and the other two Regionalliga winners will playoff. From 2020/21 onwards, it will just be the winners of the restructured Regionalliga automatically being promoted with four teams being relegated (at least until the next time they change).

Where Are We Now?

At the end of this season, the top two teams will win promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Given the strength of their play during the season (and how many points they are in front of the chasing pack) I don’t think I am really going out on a limb to say that it will be SC Paderborn and 1.FC Magdeburg. This achievement is particularly impressive from Paderborn, given that last year they finished 18th and would have been relegated if it were not for the decision of TSV 1860 München to drop down to the Regionalliga rather than accept a position in the 3. Liga.

The competition for the playoff spot, however, is still up for grabs. At different times, Hansa Rostock and Fortuna Köln have been right up there this season, and FC Würzburger Kickers have finally started to play like a team that were in the 2.Bundesliga only last year. Currently though the playoff spot will likely be filled by either SV Wehen Wiesbaden or Karlsruher SC. It is hard to decide, because they both play attractive football and a few weeks ago when Wiesbaden were challenging Magdeburg for second I would have thought it was them. However Karlsruher put together a run of 21 games undefeated (before the hiccup of a loss to Magdeburg) so they would now be my tip over a Wiesbaden who have lost their last three league games, plus a regional pokal game in the last few weeks.

At the other end of the table relegation seems pretty much a formality. Rot-Weiß Erfurt (who had previously been the only side to have been there for every season of 3. Liga history) are going down and might have been even without the point deduction for financial irregularities and the further nine points deducted after declaring bankruptcy. It has been a miserable season for them. Although SV Werder Bremen II managed two straight wins to stave off definite relegation for another week they will almost certainly also be relegated. Despite a 5:0 thrashing of Erfurt two weekends ago, Chemnitzer FC have struggled all season to find consistency (particularly in defense where they have allowed more goals than any other team in the league) and probably would have been relegated anyway even if they had not also declared bankruptcy in the last week.

So who are we likely to see replacing these teams in the 3. Liga next season? Readers are invited to check out these betting sites for odds on upcoming games. Currently, Energie Cottbus are running away with the Regionalliga Nordost and 1. FC Saarbrücken are doing something similar with the Regionalliga Südwest, so they should make up two of the playoff positions. Kickers Offenbach are currently sitting in second in the Südwest, but SV Waldhof Mannheim are six points behind with three games in hand so the race for the runners-up playoff spot looks very close. Hamburger SV II and TSV 1860 München both have reasonable leads (in the Regionalliga Nord and Regionalliga Bayern respectively) and look like strong possibilities to make two of the other spots, although I would not rule out SC Weiche Flensburg 08 in the Nord. The Regionalliga West is the closest one with KFC Uerdingen (looking to make it back-to-back promotions) leading FC Viktoria Köln but with Köln having two games in hand. Of course, when it comes to playoffs it depends on which team is drawn against another. The draw looks like this, with exactly what is meant by the Südwest A and B (as in, champions or runners-up) still to be decided.

Südwest B vs. Bavaria, Nord vs. Nordost, West vs. Südwest A

The three first leg matches will take place on Thursday, May 24th, the return leg on Sunday, May 27th

Coming down from the 2.Bundesliga is even harder to predict (as Jonny Walsh keeps mentioning). 1. FC Kaiserslautern have been struggling all season but some recent good results mean that even they could escape the drop. With 5 MatchDays remaining there are only 12 points separating Ingolstadt in 4th and Kaiserslautern in 18th. Even crazier is that there are only 4 points between Ingolstadt and FC St Pauli in 15th. At the moment 1. FC Heidenheim and SV Darmstadt 98 occupy 16th and 17th but I would not like to stick my neck out about anything in the 2.Bundesliga.As with all things in that league, my advice is ‘Ask Jonny!’

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Wayne Symes

Born and raised in Australia, Wayne developed a love of football at an early age and an interest in German football not long after. He is an international schoolteacher of English literature and Theory of Knowledge with a love of history and has taught in England, Qatar, China and now Germany (and attended local and international football matches in all of those countries). Wayne loves to travel and explore new places and cultures. His other interests include baseball, cooking, music and movies.

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