By Brian Blickenstaff
On the afternoon of July 8, the fans of MSV Duisburg, the esteemed club from Northwest Germany, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The good news they'd been waiting for finally arrived: The German Football Association (DFB) had awarded the club a license to play in the 2013-2014 season. But the license wasn't for the Bundesliga, or even the 2. Bundesliga. It was for the 3. Liga -- the third tier of German football.
Normally, a 3. Liga licensing decision isn't something that Kicker, the revered German soccer magazine, treats like a cup final, but this was different. MSV is a club of considerable legend -- it was a founding member of the Bundesliga in 1963 -- and it had already been denied a license once this offseason. This 3. Liga licensing decision was a make-or-break moment. If MSV hadn't received the 3. Liga license, it would have been cast into the depths of Germany's regional fifth division, where it would never fill its 30,000-plus seat stadium. Insolvency loomed, and for a traditionsverein (traditional club) like MSV, that would have been a tragedy.
If you're unfamiliar with German licensing, here's a quick primer: Every summer, clubs in Germany are required to file paperwork with the league showing that the club has the financial wherewithal to cover its debts, pay its players, rent its stadium and generally remain solvent for the forthcoming season. For most clubs, it's a formality.
Not so with MSV.
In May, in a display of either shocking incompetence or horrendous bad luck (or both), MSV officials filed the club's licensing paperwork with a 364,000 Euro miscalculation. If things had been different, perhaps club officials, realizing their mistake, could have found creditors and refilled, no harm no foul. But MSV officials didn't leave themselves that sort of latitude. They procrastinated, failing to file the paperwork until 10 minutes prior to the league's deadline, according to 11Freunde. By the time club officials discovered the error and found creditors willing to plug the financial gap, it was too late. The German Football League (DFL), which governs the top two divisions in Germany, revoked MSV's license. Despite finishing last season in 11th place in the 2. Bundesliga, well above the relegation zone, MSV was relegated. SV Sandhausen, which finished 17th in last season's 2. Bundesliga and was set for relegation, received MSV's license instead -- a kind of stay of execution.
(To put this in perspective, imagine if a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates, instead of simply being terrible, were so terrible they were sent down to Triple-A. Then, after a couple of years there, they made an accounting error and were made to play Double-A ball.)
Although with a 3. Liga license in hand, MSV now appears to be out of the woods (or at least, in a nation-wide league), the team's plight shocked football fans locally and nationally. Duisburg, like many rust-belt cities in the United States, is a city whose economic heyday as a steel town and industrial center has passed. And for some, there's a sense that MSV's dilemma is the latest episode in a long, slow decline for the city.
"[MSV's relegation] is a shame for the city too," said Sandra Goldschmidt, a Duisburg resident, told me via email. "Especially after the Love Parade incidents, MSV were like the only good thing here papers still reported about." (For example, in 2010, 21 people died and scores were injured in a crush at the Love Parade electronic music festival in Duisburg, and that was widely reported.)
Nationally, MSV's fall fits into a larger narrative of what some in Germany see as the decline of traditional clubs in German football. What most German football fans mean by "tradition" is not always easy to understand. Certainly being a founding member of the Bundesliga or having a full trophy case goes a long way in separating the traditional clubs from the pretenders. But as Matt Hermann, a television presenter and the co-anchor of "The Bundesliga Show" podcast told me, German football fans don't "think of tradition as something that happens necessarily in the distant past." Community involvement, number of supporters, geographical location and recent success all contribute to the definition of a traditionsverein. And there's a real worry among some that these clubs, which are seen as embodying all that is good and fair in German football, are under threat.
"Everyone would rather see traditional clubs in the Bundesliga or 2nd Bundesliga than the likes of Hoffenheim," Goldschmidt said. (Hoffenheim is owned and propped up by Dietmar Hopp, a billionaire and founder of software giant SAP.)
"I really see a problem in the semi-private owned clubs like Hoffenheim, Leipzig, even Wolfsburg and Leverkusen," Moritz Hoffmann, a graduate student and Sandhausen fan told me via email. "Not only do those clubs bring relatively few fans to their games (at least in 1. Bundesliga dimensions), they disturb the economic system of German football."
"It's a bit like playing a "Football Manager" game and using cheat codes; those clubs don't have a fixed budget but can, if things get worse, always put more money in," Hoffmann said.
Despite Sandhausen's respectable age (founded in 1914), Hoffmann is aware that the club might be too small to be considered traditional. But it doesn't have a sugar daddy either. Rather, its history is one of primarily grassroots, amateur football. And although the club has punched above its weight for several years now, for Sandhausen supporters, the events of the past month are perhaps a little surreal.
"I don't think any Sandhausen supporter truly felt like they 'deserve' to even get to 2nd Bundesliga in the first place," Hoffmann said when asked how Sandhausen supporters responded to receiving Duisburg's license. "To be honest, staying in the 'Dritte Liga' for a longer time [would have been] a success on its own."
"The only thing that would make me feel like the club deserved it is that Sandhausen didn't make the mistakes Duisburg made -- spend money they don't have on (former) famous players, for example," continued Hoffmann.
Like Sanshausen, Duisburg doesn't have deep pockets, but its status as a threatened traditionsverein does come with some perks. Schalke and Dortmund, both rivals of MSV -- and arguably the two most traditional clubs in Germany -- have agreed to friendly matches against Duisburg, as has Bayern. The proceeds will go to the troubled club. Schalke also loaned MSV some money. "MSV is an old and well-known club in the region," Shalke's chairman Clemens Tönnies told WDF when asked about the loan. "It would be a real pity if [MSV] were to sink into insignificance."
Of course, that doesn't mean Duisburg is safe. Just to get back to the 2. Bundesliga is a pretty big mountain to climb. The team's coach and 15 players left the club during the offseason. To make matters worse, many of those players were on 2. Bundesliga contracts with built-in relegation-release clauses, meaning they were able to transfer to other clubs for free. MSV lost out on millions in potential transfer fees.
The club has since signed 11 new players and a coach, but as of this writing, the playing staff numbers just 18, which is not nearly a deep enough pool to compete in the 3. Liga, let alone attempt to win promotion back to the 2. Bundesliga.
On July 19, Duisburg played its first match of the season against Heidenheim. Not exactly a world power, -- the highest Heidenheim has ever climbed in the German league system is the 3. Liga. Its stadium seats just 10,000 people (but the team does have 25 first-team players). Hoffenheim beat MSV 1-0.
In other words, 3. Liga license or no, we have every reason to remain pessimistic about the MSV's future. That said, a decade ago Dortmund had financial issues of its own, and this season the team competed in the Champions League final. This is German football, after all, and anything's possible.
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