The killer Bs

The financial muscle of Bundesliga clubs is hurting Germany’s lesser lights in unexpected ways. As Paul Joyce explains, ill‑regarded but well funded B teams are squeezing out lower-league sides

In December, José Mourinho dismissed English reserve competitions as “not good enough” for his starlets. “This country should look to other countries, to France and Spain,” where second teams compete in the professional leagues, he declared. He would “love to see” a Chelsea B side play in the Championship. If Mourinho looked to Germany, however, he would see that such an integration of reserve sides has proved deeply unpopular.

B teams not only play in the German Cup, but can also ascend as far as the third tier of the pyramid, provided they remain at least one division beneath their first XI. Recently lucrative sponsorship and TV contracts for the elite Bundesliga clubs has enabled them to acquire powerful second-team squads and training facilities with which impoverished lower-league clubs cannot compete. There are 37 sides in the two regionalised third divisions (Regionalligen), 11 of them B teams; a further 28 clog up the fourth tier (Oberligen). Even Werder Bremen’s third team is close to gaining fourth-tier status. Forced downwards have been former Bundesliga stalwarts Waldhof Mannheim and the renamed KFC Uerdingen 05, as well as GDR powerhouses Dynamo Berlin and Lok Leipzig, all of whom now struggle at the fourth level or below.

For Thorsten Timm, a member of VfL Osnabrück’s Violet Crew fan initiative, which organised a nationwide protest against reserve teams in October 2004, the argument that second-team participation in the league system is somehow necessary to bring through future German stars is “calculated hypocrisy”. “Third and fourth division clubs also develop young players,” Timm argues. “And they usually recruit German talent, whereas rich Bundesliga clubs use their overseas scouts to scour places like Brazil and Africa.”

The sheer unpredictability of a B team line-up, which may include a convalescent Lars Ricken or Bastian Schweinsteiger one week, but a horde of untried 19-year-olds the next, unfairly distorts key promotion and relegation issues. In May 2005, Werder Bremen delegated Nelson Valdez, whose two goals had sunk Valencia in the Champions League, to their reserves to help them avoid relegation from the Regionalliga. Valdez scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win at Borussia Dortmund II; Bremen II stayed up, Chemnitzer FC went down.

Reserve teams are also bad news at the turnstiles. Their away support often ­consists of the left-back’s doting great-aunt and their home crowds are just as meagre. This season, Werder Bremen’s reserves have an average attendance of only 472, whereas their Regionalliga Nord rivals St Pauli Hamburg attract 18,116. VfL Wolfsburg II, runaway leaders in the Oberliga Nord, have their league’s lowest average gate – a mere 143.

B teams are a switch-off for television audiences too. Carsten Flügel, a reporter for the north German broadcaster NDR says: “None of the regional state broadcasters wants reserve teams in the third divisions. They don’t fill grounds and they don’t play in TV-friendly stadiums. Reserve sides interest nobody.” The south-west German broadcaster SWR cancelled its weekly Regionalliga programme in 2004, citing mounting costs and plummeting ratings.

Persistent lobbying from lower-league clubs meant that the German Football Association (DFB) looked set to introduce a single national third division from 2008-09, from which reserve sides would be barred. But in September 2006, DFB president Theo Zwanziger caved in to pressure from Bundesliga clubs such as Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen and announced that a maximum of four B teams would be allowed to enter this 20-club league in its first season. After that, the quota restriction may well be lifted completely. “The second teams of professional clubs have no business in the new third division,” fumed Friedhelm Runge, president of Wuppertaler SV Borussia. “Now it’s only a matter of time before they pop up in the second division.”

To ensure a level playing field and economic survival for lower-division clubs, sleeping giants such as Fortuna Düsseldorf and Dynamo Dresden have proposed the creation of a separate league pyramid for reserve teams – the very set-up that Mourinho, Wenger and Benítez would like dismantled in England. Predictably, Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge rejects this idea out of hand: “There’s no marketing potential for this. It would just be 18-year-olds that nobody knows.” That these 18-year-olds are already destroying the marketing potential of the lower leagues doesn’t seem to concern him in the slightest.

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month