Sunday 31 May ~
Germany reintroduced play-offs this season, or rather relegationsspiele (relegation games). This afternoon Energie Cottbus, who finished third from bottom in the Bundesliga, travel to Nuremberg, who finished third in the second division, to try to claw back a 3-0 deficit from Thursday’s first leg. Once they have failed, the Bundesliga will start next season without a single club from the former East Germany. Division Two will have just three eastern teams – Cottbus, Rostock and promoted Union Berlin – while the third division will feature just four, or possibly five if Hallescher can pip Kiel for promotion from Division Four North.
That would make a total of, at best, eight former East German teams out of 54 in the country’s top three divisions. Almost 20 years after reunification, the economic, political and cultural gap between Germany’s east and west continues to be mirrored by its footballing landscape. And thanks to the reform of the country’s pyramid structure one year ago, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Each of the three regional fourth divisions that now feed into the newly created Division Three only send up one club. Only Division Four North contains teams from the east, so it would take an improbable decade of steady one-way movement (eastern teams going up, western teams going down) to redress the balance.
Presumably the relegationsspiele between the top flight and the second division were reintroduced for the purposes of excitement. It’s ironic, then, that the path to the country’s top three levels has been made so much harder by the restructuring. With only one team promoted from each of the three fourth divisions, there are great swathes of meaningless games in the lower levels for teams not good enough to challenge for the sole promotion spot, or not involved in a relegation fight. It’s the same for teams trying to escape any of the 12 fifth divisions – it’s much easier to go down (four relegation places) than it is to go up (one).
One of the reforms mooted for the English league has been a return to the old regional third divisions, scrapped just over 50 years ago, but with three leagues rather than two. In many ways it makes sense, given that Cup ties often show that there’s not a huge gap in quality between League One and the Conference. It’s also worth considering that hard-up clubs would benefit by saving on travel and accommodation costs as energy prices will inevitably rise further in the coming years. And it would make the jump to the Premier League of just two levels instead of possibly three or four more feasible to ambitious teams on the rise. It would be nice for Lincoln City fans, say, to dream that they are just two years away from challenging for Champions League football. But the German model exposes the flaw that would certainly be the cause of most resistance from teams and fans alike – if only one team went up from each regional division three, the season’s later stages would suffer from a crippling lack of interest.
The English play-off system attracts far fewer critics now than it did when introduced over 20 years ago, even if promotion for a sixth- or seventh-placed team after a 46-game campaign is just as ludicrously unfair now as it was in 1987. But then whoever said that football’s fair? The late push for a play-off spot among mediocre mid-table teams and the prospect of a Wembley final for fourth division stalwarts have established themselves as a widely loved part of the domestic game. Although the new German pyramid is a more stable entity, it’s also much more of a closed shop at its highest levels. While the Bundesliga enjoyed a thrilling, multi-team chase for the title, for most teams further down the German leagues the season was already over months ago. Ian Plenderleith