Leagues apart in Italy & Germany

Richard Mason and Christoph Biermann study two countries where there is a significant gulf between big and small clubs

In overall charge of the whole game in Italy from top to bottom is the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Gioco Calcio) under its president, Luciano Nizzola. Although the FIGC is the umbrella, the various leagues are and always have been separately administered. Serie A and B are run from Milan, Serie C 1 and C2 from Florence, and Serie D from Rome.The other categories are run by regional or provincial committees. Separate administration means that they have their own referees, their own disciplinary committees and procedures, their own version of the Coppa Italia.

There has been some tinkering – Serie C was reduced from 108 clubs to 90 a few years ago, Serie D from 216 to 162 and play-offs at the top and bottom have brought more interest in Serie C – but someone returning to Italy after 10 years on Mars would not notice much difference on opening his Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday morning. He would still find some kind of report, with teams, scorers, referee’s name, for all the 64 matches played over the weekend from A to C2. He would probably be surprised by the number of goals in Serie A, but would be comforted to note the usual ration of 0-0 and 1-0 results in C.

Italy has always been a country in which most of the attention is focused on a few very big metropolitan clubs, and in which most fans think you are mad if you attend matches below Serie B. This is reflected in the attendance figures, where the whole of Serie C (45 matches) sometimes doesn’t pull much more than the equivalent of a full house at San Siro. Apart from one or two isolated pockets – Livorno springs to mind – there are not many clubs in Serie C with more than a few thousand hard core fans, and these are usually in the south, where there are few A and B clubs.

Attendances have not been affected, however, by the spread of European games over three evenings, mainly because midweek league football in Italy is virtually non-existent, and so clubs do not have to play at the same time as a big game is being shown on TV. In fact, it is the European games themselves which suffer most, with attendances usually way below those for league games on Sunday – even Juve- Man Utd failed to draw a full house.

This is not to say that the Serie C clubs do not have any grouses. One is that the drop from B to C can be financially catastrophic because of the difference in income received from TV contracts and the pools. This has become greater since the introduction of the live match on pay-TV in 1993. But something has been done about this, with two or three Sundays a year seeing only Serie C matches, and all the pools income going to their clubs, though this is usually about one sixth of that of a ‘normal’ Sunday. Italians don’t like betting if ‘their’ team is not on the coupon.

There is also a 30 minute programme of RAI 3 every Monday afternoon dealing exclusively with Serie C. Nevertheless, there are nearly always several Serie C clubs in an extremely perilous financial state but this is nothing new and cannot be blamed on Juve’s participation in the Champions League.

It might be thought that the influx of foreign players would have had a ‘trickle down’ effect and that there would be more good Italian players in B and C. But if this is so, it is only marginal. The tendency in A has been for ever-larger squads, and most players would rather earn a Serie A salary on the bench or in the stand than a Serie C pittance on the field. Also the increased number of foreign players is to an extent counter-balanced by the number of Italians now playing outside Italy, an unthinkable proposition only a few years ago.

The changes in European football from Bosman to the Champions League have probably had less effect on the professional game at its lower levels in Italy than in England, and this is likely to remain the case unless Italy introduces its own ‘premiership’ with all the additional trappings. While there are some presidents who would like a league of perhaps 10 clubs, they would have to defy the FIGC and break away, and I can’t really see it happening.

The volatile nature of Italian fans means that the big clubs need the so-called ‘minnows’ to give them wins and breathing space if they are having a bad run. A ‘big’ club would have to finish last in a ‘premiership’ – and it would almost certainly be a club unused to such an indignity (pace Napoli this season, currently bottom of the table).

English football can learn a thing or two from Italy, however. Although the various levels of ltalian football are governed by separate committees, progress up the pyramid is generally seamless, because there is always the FIGC in the background. Criteria must be satisfied, yes, but because the various championships are all part of a clear national structure, and the committees are all ultimately answerable to the FIGC they cannot make autonomous decisions on which clubs to accept and which to reject. Here the idea that you can go from Category Three (the tenth division) to Serie A is not entirely fanciful. Castel di Sangro, for example (featured in WSC No 116 ) is a village of 5,000 people which has risen from almost the lowest tier to Serie B.

The rulers of Italian football would be well advised to leave the structure basically as it is. Castel di Sangro docet as the Romans might have said.


I wanted to see some real football. At the time my loyalty to Westfalia Herne was unshakeable, but they didn’t play in the Bundesliga, so on Saturdays I cycled the 10 kilometres to watch the stars of VfL Bochum. On Sundays the Second (and later also Third) Division was on display locally in Herne, at “the glorious SC Westfalia” as my father used to say, usually with a slight sneer. Luckily my blue and white scarf could be pressed into service for both clubs.

Diehard supporters of Walsall, Grimsby or Leyton Orient may see it as a peculiar form of schizophrenia, but such double loyalties were common among Westfalia fans. Even the majority of the supporters club members had a favourite Bundesliga team, usually Schalke 04, and regularly went to their games. The sheer number of clubs in the Ruhr was a positive invitation to spread your affections widely, and the fixture list made it a practical option. Friday night and Saturday afternoon were reserved for the Bundesliga, while virtually all lower division games were played on Sundays.

That was more than 20 years ago. But even today, the only lower division clubs which can rely on the exclusive loyalty of their fans are those few which are geo-graphically isolated, and those which have spent much of their recent existence in the Bundesliga. Nuremberg and 1860 Munich managed to draw crowds comparable to the Bundesliga even after they were relegated from the Second Division, while this year Kickers Offenbach, also in the regionalised Third Division, have been watched by more people than two-thirds of the Second Division teams.

But such clubs are the exceptions. The majority in the lower divisions, and even many in the Second, are either the second club of many of their followers, or are simply not taken very seriously. The attendance figures speak for themselves. Of the 108 clubs who play in the two Bundesliga divisions and the level immediately below, 57 had an average home crowd of less than 2,000 last season, 33 of which were even below 1,000. When the Berlin team Hertha Zehlendorf met Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt in a Third Division clash, only 46 desperate punters paid for the privilege of watching.

This relative lack of interest in lower division clubs reflects the fact that many of them have been the big losers in a long process of concentration in Germany’s league structure. It wasn’t until 1933, with the introduction of the Gauliga, that the top level of German football was formally unified, but even this was split into no less than 16 groups, with 180 clubs in all. The new National Socialist leaders of German sport pushed this structure through to the dismay of all those who had hoped for a single, professional league. For the Nazis, professional sport was un-German.

After the war, the top 76 West German clubs played in five regional leagues (one of which was Berlin). It was only in 1963 – much later than in any other big European country – that a single top division, the Bundesliga, came into being, initially with 16 clubs, rising to 18 in 1965. It took another 11 years before the five regional divisions below that were reduced to two, and then finally in 1982 to one national Second Division. A national Third Division is on the agenda for 1999.

The single most important reason for this long drawn-out journey to professionalism and the focusing of resources and quality is the traditionally hostile attitude towards professional sport in Germany, which was not really overcome until the end of the 1960s. But the greater distances between towns in Germany compared to England also played an important role. The clubs always preferred to play a succession of regional or local derbies rather than face the uncertainties of a nationwide professional league.

Inevitably, this struggle to modernise produced a lot of losers (quite apart from the separate and very sad fate of the clubs in the DDR). As in other countries, the potential of professional football as a business has exploded, but because of the restructuring of the league, the number of clubs who could take advantage of it was reduced. The financial risks of launching into bigtime football also grew, just as the era when an indulgent benefactor would keep a club’s head above water was coming to a close. Today support comes almost exclusively from sponsors, who naturally demand a return on their investment. As a result there are now many clubs with a rich tradition, but absolutely no future prospects.

In 1959, Westfalia Herne made it to the play-offs for the German championship, with 1966 World Cup goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski between the posts. But they failed to qualify for the Bundesliga in 1963, partly because the club’s committee shied away from the financial risk. Nevertheless, with the exception of two single seasons, Westfalia remained at least at Second Division level until 1979. The briefly heady days of the mid-70s, when the owner of a garage chain bankrolled the club, ended with his imprisonment due to tax evasion on a grand scale. For a few further years committed football people among the town’s business community kept the club at Third Division level, but after that it sank without trace.

Many other clubs, particularly in the big cities and conurbations, met a similar fate. Where there were four roughly equal clubs in Duisburg at the end of the Fifties, now MSV Duisburg are completely untouchable and the others have fallen to similar levels of obscurity as Westfalia Herne. In Berlin, two former Bundesliga clubs, Tasmania and Blau-Weiss 90, had to file for bankruptcy, as have regional leaguers Hessen Kassel, who only a decade ago narrowly missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga on several occasions.

Even Rot-Weiss Essen, former Bundesliga stalwarts with a powerful fan base, are now under threat. They are even considering a merger with equally hapless local rivals Schwarz-Weiss. Mergers have long been a part of German football history, thanks to the constant pressure of competition and the financial difficulties which arise from it. Many of today’s Bundesliga clubs were spawned by mergers, or have incorporated other, smaller clubs along the way. Cologne, for example, was formed from two successful surburban clubs, which came together with the specific aim of creating one big club in the city.

My old rhythm of a Saturday Bundesliga game in Bochum and Sundays at Westfalia Herne broke up long ago. Probably when it occurred to me that I could be doing at least as well as the players Westfalia put on the pitch. Now even their probable promotion to the Verbandsliga (fifth level) at the end of this season is likely to provoke at most a very muted cheer.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month