21 November ~ Football in Germany is flourishing – Bundesliga clubs continue to attract bumper crowds and the national team still has the knack of saving its best performances for the World Cup. However, if you look beyond the headlines and focus on those teams struggling a few rungs down the ladder, the picture is far less positive. In 2008, the German FA (DFB) made sweeping changes to the structure outside the top two divisions, introducing a third national league and a wholly new structure for the leagues below. The Regionalligen were reorganised into three sections (West, South and North) and were guaranteed improved coverage on Germany's extensive regional TV network.
However, the DFB caved in to pressure from the Bundesliga clubs on one vital point – they allowed the reserve teams of the professional clubs to take up places in these new regional leagues, and a limited number were even allowed into the third division (but they cannot get promoted into the second division from there).
The top clubs maintain that they need their reserve sides to mature in the competitive environment of "proper" league football, but it is a fact that the majority of these second-string teams are not popular with spectators. The crowd figures at their home games can often drop to under 1,000 and, apart from a few exceptions such as the two Munich clubs (for wildly differing reasons), they also have next to no travelling support. This season, 24 out of 54 Regionalliga teams are reserve sides, thus reducing the number of attractive fixtures for the other clubs and putting more pressure on revenue streams, already affected by reductions in TV fees and sponsorship income.
Meanwhile, clubs are forced to gamble ever higher sums on ground improvements to stay in the Regionalligen and chase the one available promotion spot in each division. The costs are crippling and there is little realistic chance of recouping the outlay after promotion, as inflated travel and policing costs soon eat up the extra revenue gained by progressing to the third division. The consequences are visible for all to see – in the summer of 2010, six clubs were declared insolvent and had to drop down to state league level, including the former Bundesliga teams Rot-Weiss Essen and Waldhof Mannheim.
Various state federations submitted reform proposals at the DFB conference in October 2010. These ranged from the creation of a national division for reserve teams, categorically rejected by the Bundesliga clubs, to the splitting of fourth-tier football into eight regional divisions. In the end, the DFB chose a compromise that seems to be acceptable to all concerned – from 2012-13, the "five-point solidarity plan" means that there will be five Regionalligen: North, North-East, West, South-West and Bavaria. The champions of each division will then play-off to determine who gets promoted to the third division.
The DFB have achieved their stated aim of avoiding a schism between professional and amateur clubs, but the reserve teams will be just as present in the new structure as they are today. And it remains to be seen how many of the current Regionalliga teams will be able to take their place in the new leagues in 2012 – SpVgg Weiden last week became the first club this season to open bankruptcy proceedings. John van Laer