Die Gefallenen Riesen: How the Bundesliga 2 Became a Graveyard of Germany’s Biggest Clubs

As recently as 2018, the English Championship housed ten of the 24 teams to have lifted the top division of English football – with those sides accounting for 35 of the 122 titles wins since 1889.


Going one step further, if you take away the six ‘Premier League ever-presents’, then the 35 titles from 17-18’s Championship season accounted for over two thirds of the total titles won in English football.


Over recent years, the story has become similar in German football – but perhaps more severe. Of the 105 titles won by teams still in existence (and those who still play in the German leagues – sorry Rapid Wien), 31 of those have been won by clubs currently sat in the Zweite Bundesliga, with the likes of Fortuna Düsseldorf, Hannover 96 and Karlsruher SC tasting title success.


But most notably, four of the six clubs to have lifted the most major honours in Germany now ply their trade in the second tier, with Nürnberg, Schalke, Werder Bremen, and Hamburg currently outside of the top flight, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund naturally the exceptions.


It would be the equivalent of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham playing second tier football, or Internazionale, Lazio, Roma and Torino playing in Serie B.


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These numbers are incredible as they display a pattern of steep declines and falls from grace for some of the country’s biggest clubs – starting with the earliest.


Nürnberg are the second-most successful club in German league history having won nine titles all told – but eight of those pre-date the Bundesliga era.


Following its inception in 1963, Der Club’s only league triumph arrived during the 1967-68 season when they beat off competition from Werder Bremen to finish three points clear at the top.


But Nürnberg were relegated the very next season, as they parted company with their much-heralded coach Max Merkel to try and stay afloat, but instead suffered the ignominy of going down as Bundesliga Champions – Germany’s most successful club tumbled out of its top flight.


In truth, Der Club has never truly recovered from that. Their best Buli performance since was 5th in 1988, but that has been offset by just five other top half finishes and a solitary DFB Pokal win in 2007.


They returned to the big time in 2018 following a four-year absence, but went straight back down to the Zweite just a year later, meaning that the club who held the distinction of being the ‘Deutscher Rekordmeister’ (German record champion) for over sixty years up until 1987, is now the side with the most Bundesliga relegations with nine. But the problems were bigger, and the rot didn’t stop there.


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A tumultuous season back in the second tier was characterised by inconsistency (as they both won and lost 6-0 in their final three games, for example), which resulted in a 16th place finish and a relegation play-off bout against Ingolstadt.


Der Club won the first leg 2-0, but they found themselves 3-0 down in the second and relied on a stoppage-time goal to secure their second-tier status by virtue of away goals.


But as they prevented the unthinkable, another German giant – the club they battled with to lift their most recent title – were doing the same in the top division.


No team has played more Bundesliga games than Werder Bremen, with the Green and Whites occupying third spot in the all-time Bundesliga and German honours table, too. But unlike Nürnberg, the majority of their success has come in the colour television era.


After a 10th place finish in the inaugural Bundesliga season, Werder took home their first title in the 1964-65 season – edging out second placed Köln by just three points while boasting the meanest defence in the division, before coming closest again in the aforementioned 1967-68 season when they finished second behind Nürnberg.


While the following decade brought the ‘Millionelf’ tag due to their excessive spending, Werder were bypassed by the better run clubs of the era and finished in the bottom half of the table in every year from 1970 to 1979, before eventually paying the ultimate price for their stagnation.


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The 1979-80 season saw Werder relegated for the first time in their history, but unlike Nürnberg, they bounced straight back and rebuilt during a successful period in the 1980s – following up promotion with three 5th and 2nd place finishes in the next six years, before lifting the title again in 1988.


Under the stewardship of legendary manager Otto Rehhagel, Werder bought well in the transfer market, became a European regular and tasted title success again in 1993, following on from triumphs in the DFB-Pokal and The European Cup Winners Cup in the years previous.


Rehhagel left in 1995 to join Bayern and while that brought initial instability, the appointment of club legend Thomas Schaaf in May of 1999 changed all of that.


He immediately kept the club up, lifted the Pokal just over a week later and led Bremen into a new dynasty of consistency, trophies and legendary players.


Much like Rehhagel before him, Schaaf built Werder from the bottom up and made them challenge once more – winning a league and cup double in 2003-04, before finishing third and second twice apiece over the next four seasons.


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Everything seemed to be going well, and while they came a disappointing 10th in 2009, they still lifted their sixth domestic cup and returned to 3rd the year after, but the tide soon changed in northern Germany.


Their success was built on a foundation of savvy dealings in the transfer market, as Die Werderaner bought the likes of Mesut Özil, Miroslav Klose, Diego and Naldo.


But they allowed these players (amongst others) to depart – at one point in a bid to keep Claudio Pizzaro, who duly left for free – as the dressing room was sapped of quality, leadership and characters who fit the club, and replaced with a raft of players who were tricky to manage while not providing on the field.


This went on for most of the 2010s and while the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Milot Rashico and Marko Marin tried at different points, Werder were entering a tailspin.


Schaaf departed in 2013 following 14-years at the helm but he left a lasting legacy as Bremen continuously tried to recreate the Glory Days; four of their next five appointments came from within the club, but none of them could arrest the slide.


Then came that fateful relegation play-off game with Heidenheim where Werder relied on away goals to remain in the division after a 2-2 draw, but that warning did little to encourage a change of tact as Florian Kohfeldt because the third consecutive manager promoted from Werder II to the top job.


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It ended in another relegation scrap, as the ever-more chaotic hierarchy turned back to Schaaf to produce a miracle, but Werder were beyond saving.


Following a run of eight defeats and a draw from nine, Schaaf was unable to get a result on the final day to give his beloved Bremen a fighting chance.


After flying too close to the sun for many a year, Werder finally bit the dust for a decade of mismanagement and poor decisions – it’s just a shame that it was Schaaf in the dugout to watch it happen. But as they dropped, their fall was broken by another stalwart of German football.


Much like Nürnberg, Schalke enjoyed plenty of their success prior to the introduction of the Bundesliga – with each of their seven titles coming between 1934 and 1958 – playing swashbuckling football, going nearly a decade without losing a home game and six consecutive seasons unbeaten.


Those titles placed them second in the Championship standings behind Nürnberg, and their triumphs since mean they still stand joint-third for total trophies with Borussia Dortmund.


Schalke had tasted time in the Zweite prior to this season, however, as they treaded water in the early Bundesliga days – eventually succumbing to relegation in 1981 and a spiral of yo-yoing in and out of the top tier; suffering three relegations between 81’ and 88’ before eventually settling back into the top flight at the turn of the 1990s.


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They were initially met with bottom half finishes upon their return, but a magical year under Jörg Berger led them from 11th to 3rd to grant them European qualification.


He failed to capitalise on such a stellar season, though, and a poor start to the next campaign saw him sacked in its infancy.


His replacement was the little known Dutchman Huub Stevens – but that soon changed as he led ‘the Eurofighters’ to the UEFA Cup Final.


Their side lacked star quality beyond their backline so built their success on it – boasting the second-best backline in the Buli (despite coming 12th), while keeping six clean sheets on their way to the showpiece match with Inter Milan.


A fine Marc WIlmots strike was cancelled out by an Iván Zamorano flick in the second leg, but the Germans (unsurprisingly) prevailed on penalties, turning Milan blue and white as they took the trophy back to Gelsenkirchen. 


The victory set them up for a successful 2000s in what was an often hotly contested Bundesliga (oh, how things have changed), with four separate teams lifting the title along with perennial victors Bayern Munich – with no decade more competitive since the 60s.


Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund and Werder all claimed the title along with Bayern – but how Schalke didn’t add their name to that list is anyone’s guess.


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By the 2000-01 season, Stevens had evolved his side from one based on defensive solidity, to one with a rigid backline and attacking potency to match. They were the top scorers in the division with the meanest defence, and went into the final day with it all to play.


They defeated Unterhaching 5-3 while Bayern trailed Hamburg by a goal to nil, but Die Roten only needed a point and they came up with a typically Hollywood moment – scoring a last minute indirect free-kick to send the Meisterschale back to Munich.


While they didn’t get that close to the title again, it was hardly doom and gloom at the newly opened Veltins Arena. Stevens led the club to back-to-back Pokals in ‘01 and ‘02 prior to his departure, while they finished 2nd a further three times during the naughties.


They roared into the new decade as successfully as the last, with Ralf Rangnick leading the side to another Pokal as well as the Champions League semi-finals, with UCL or at least Europa League qualification becoming the norm once more for S04 – but problems began to emerge.


Throughout the decade, their squad became littered with academy products/promising young players, and the club were happy to move these players on for healthy fees to reinvest in the squad and playing infrastructure, with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, and Thilo Kehrer moving on for over £145m.


But Schalke hit a wall; their youth academy slowed down and those promising young players who were leaving for big money at one point, were now walking out the door for free or pennies on the dollar.


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From 2012-20, Lewis Holtby, Christian Fuchs, Joel Matip, Sead Kolasinac, Benedikt Höwedes, Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer, Sebastian Rudy and Alexander Nübel all left for a combined £6m – with only Holtby and Höwedes commanding a fee, while Goretzka and Nübel (who burst onto the season during a particularly dry spell for the academy) both moved to Bayern free of charge.


The club’s inability to tie players down to long contracts was a major issue and selling clubs can only get away with it for so long.


Schalke became a stepping stone and the players coming into the door were of a far poorer quality to those who went out of it, leaving a dishevelled and disinterested squad at the door of David Wagner who took over in the summer of 2019.


While he started well with just four defeats from his opening 25 games, they failed to win any of their final 13 games of the campaign and opened the 20/21 campaign with an 8-0 humbling by Bayern Munich (with Neuer, Goretzka and Nübel in the squad), and a 3-1 loss to Werder.


This run of results cost Wagner (a former Eurofighter from ‘97) his job – leading to question the choice to keep him in charge for the summer, only to dismiss him weeks into the season.


Manuel Baum lasted just ten days before suffering the same fate, before Stevens (much like Schaaf, albeit not as late in the season) was brought in to try and reinvigorate a group of players who were a far cry from the ones he managed during the glory years – as Schalke ticked over to 30 winless Bundesliga games.


Christian Gross and Dimitrios Grammozis tried their luck in the New Year, but this ship had too many holes to plug and it soon sank all the way down the Bundesliga 2 – where they currently sit fourth.


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But the giant which has arguably fallen furthest is the one who have found the shackles of the Zweite the hardest to escape from. By the time the Bundesliga came around, Hamburg were one of the most reputable teams in all the land.


When they took to the field against Münster in the club’s maiden Buli match, they had already lifted three German titles, 15 regional titles and a DFB-Pokal while competing in the latter stages in the European Cup, and were invited to the division as one of the crowning jewels in it.


From that day, they began a clock which counted every second of Bundesliga football Hamburg played, as they outlived all before them. 


Early league success failed to materialise, however, as HSV found more luck in the cup competitions – reaching two Pokal finals between 1967 and 1974, as well as The Cup Winners Cup Final and two galivants in the UEFA Cup.


But these near misses were offset by five bottom half finishes and change was afoot to try and catapult Hamburg into title and European contention 


Kuno Klötzer joined in 1973 and turned Hamburg from the bridesmaid to the bride – lifting the Cup in 1976 and CWC the year after, while crucially making them stronger in the league with 6th, 4th and 2nd place Bundesliga finishes in that time.


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His departing gift was to shock the footballing world by bringing England icon Kevin Keegan from Liverpool in 1977 – ensuring Hamburg had one of the best players in the world and someone ready to carry the load for Europe’s next best side.


That transition didn’t happen immediately, but Branko Zabac took the reins in 1978 and transformed HSV into league Champions in his maiden season at the Volksparkstadion, with Keegan his centrepiece.


The Englishman netted 17 goals in all comps – becoming the first Hamburg player to hit those numbers since club legend Uwe Seeler a decade earlier, as he took home the Ballon d’Or in the process.


Hamburg then reached the 1980 European Cup Final following a stunning 5-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the semis, and although they were toppled by Brian Clough’s miraculous Nottingham Forest side, it wouldn’t be long until big ears reached northern Germany.


Zebec was moved on in the winter of 1980 and replaced by the legendary Ernst Happel who led the club through their golden era.


Back-to-back Bundesliga titles in ‘82 and ‘83 followed, while the Austrian managed to deliver the elusive European Cup – defeating Juventus 1-0 in Athens to cement his spot in Hamburg folklore. But unbeknownst to them, this was the peak of the mountain. 


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While another cup followed in 1987, Happel moved on in the summer after a stellar six-year spell in charge. He was a tough act to follow and so it proved; HSV began to tumble down the league to 13th come 1995, as financial difficulties threatened their very existence as a Bundesliga side.


The naughties were kinder and a return to the newly reformed Champions League was secured during a stable period under Thomas Doll in 2006, but his exit the next season led to the chain of events which would ultimately condemn Hamburg to the unthinkable.


HSV went through a manager season from 2007-2011 and had employed eight different gaffers prior to Thorsten Fink somewhat steadying the ship from 2011-2013.


His dismissal came following a 6-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund with the club citing a lack of belief in Fink to turn it around as well as ‘outside troubles’ – a similar note in the sacking of Branko Zebec all those years earlier, but glory days failed to follow this time around.


Back-to-back titles under Happel were met in stark contrast by consecutive relegation play-off appearances against Gruther Fürth and Karlsruher but it only delayed the inevitable.


Der Dino’s own Big Bang came in 2018, and with the clock ticking on to 54 years, 261 days, 36 minutes and two seconds, relegation was sealed and the dinosaur became extinct.


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For the first time in their then-100 year existence, Hamburg would play in the second tier and one relegation has proved enough to knock them – at least for now – down for the count. They are marooned in the Zweite, and that doesn’t look all that likely to change. 


We’ve now seen why these teams have fallen so far, but why have they – up until now – failed to return to the Bundesliga?


At the time of writing, Germany’s second tier sees Werder in second, then Schalke, Nürnberg and Hamburg taking up fourth-sixth, in what is a hotly contested Bundesliga 2 – with just five points separating first and fifth.


In Schalke and Werder’s case, they’re experiencing their first season following relegation but both rather crashed out of the top flight – with Schalke’s famous 30 game winless run in the Bundesliga a prime indicator of that.


These big clubs are like tankers – they’re not easy to turn around. Squad, board, ownership and manager turnover is massive as pressure mounts to return clubs from Bundesliga 2 money to the riches of the Premier division (with the revenue difference between the two leagues standing at over €3.1 billion).


Since the four sides’ relegations, they have sacked nine managers between them, leading to a lack of stability and philosophy when trying to escape an already fierce division (more on that later).



These sides also have to shift their mentality; going from sitting back to try and salvage as many points as possible to try and avoid the unthinkable, to being the biggest fish in the pond and expected to steamroll all before them.


Between the lack of stability, shift in approach and massive overhauls all over the squad it becomes very difficult – but it’s not just in their own hands.


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The Bundesliga 2 has become very competitive. We have seen the likes of RB Leipzig plough through the league with big financial backing, while the likes of St Pauli, Darmstadt and Heidenheim have profited from good coaching and a strong club culture to find themselves up amongst the big boys at the top of the league. 


While these club’s have earned plenty of plaudits at one point or another during the history of German football, the Zweite takes no prisoners and reputation counts for little. You don’t just dominate from day one – you have to prove you belong, or fall into line if you don’t.


By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Cathrin Mueller / Getty Images