The tie pitches two former Bundesliga champions against each other for a place in the top flight, with public support firmly behind the underdogs
24 May ~ Only two sides from Lower Saxony have ever won the Bundesliga: my own team, Eintracht Braunschweig (in 1966-67), and the VfL Wolfsburg eight years ago. On Thursday, they meet in the first of the two-legged national interdivisional play-off. The overall winner will be granted the final Bundesliga berth for the 2017-18 season.
It is fair to say that sympathies are not exactly equally distributed: just about all of Germany would prefer Braunschweig to emerge victorious. In a peculiar twist of events, this even includes supporters of arch-enemy Hannover 96. The cities of Hannover and Braunschweig have been rivals from the time they were ruled by different family members of the House of Guelph.
On the other hand, Wolfsburg – a short train ride from either – is a postwar new town, whose major reason for existence rests on hosting the headquarters of Volkswagen. In other words, a pesky kid brother awash with unearned pocket money.
For the national public, the major attraction of this year's pairing is the fact that it doesn't remotely resemble a combat between two sides on an halfway equal footing. And it comes with a gleeful schadenfreude that a team as expensively assembled as Wolfsburg's needed a mere year to make the transition from Champions' League quarter-finalist to Bundesliga bottom three.
Which, incidentally, might be less surprising than it initially looks: Wolfsburg's transfer activities seldom seemed to be based on a discernible strategy beyond bidding for what happens to be on the market. Their current side, aptly described by one observer as “a bunch of talented individuals suddenly realising that they have ended up in the same team” weren’t able to cope with the necessities of a relegation dogfight they amazingly found themselves in.
Quite a contrast to Braunschweig, who thrive on their comparatively unremarkable players' ability to switch tactical formation in the middle of a match. They just missed out on direct promotion to two clearly superior sides. But Braunschweig supporters are surprisingly optimistic that Wolfsburg are an easier prey. Wolfsburg's mental fatigue may prevent them from realising what an enormous gulf in class exists between their players and ours. Or so we hope. Peter Schimkat