The Biggest Fallen Giants in German Football

There is nothing like German football, from the dedicated fans vehemently protesting any attempt to corporatize their teams or league to their stadiums laden with beer and bratwurst that are home to fans of all ages, as football is often seen as an affordable family outing.


One of the most interesting particularities of the Bundesliga nowadays is how many truly gigantic clubs are languishing in the lower tiers, with many of them experiencing hardships like this in recent times. The German obsession with keeping their football clubs fan-owned is a double-edged sword, on the one hand, it means that you effectively own a club that reflects your identity as a fan and not the whims of a billionaire or the investment opportunity of a hedge fund, on the other hand, it means that all of these clubs except Bayern operate without a safety net.


When a club like Chelsea underperforms so drastically that they don’t even reach the European spots at the end of the season, Todd Boehly can coolly drop some hundreds of millions in the club’s transfer budget, whereas one too many seasons like that for a German club will see it sell its best players to keep things running and sign players of lesser value, as footballers don’t usually tend to sign for relegation-threatened sides out of the goodness of their heart.



As German football has to reevaluate its identity and goals some new fallen giants have been replaced at the top of the table by clubs like RB Leipzig, joining their fellow fallen brothers who have experienced their decline a long time ago. So let’s hop into something like an all-wheel drive Audi, go for a nice drive on some unrestricted German motorways and visit some of Germany’s biggest clubs that now play lower-league football.


We head to Hamburg for our first entry, where, on the cold shores of the North Sea, Hamburger Sportverein are the only club outside Bayern and Borussia Dortmund to have won the Champions League. Having picked up three German titles prior to the formation of the Bundesliga, the club spent the first decade of the newly established competition as just another German club playing in the top tier, counterbalancing top half finishes with lower half disappointments.


By the early 70s however, something was stirring in the north of Germany as HSV appointed Peter Krohn as their new president, who revolutionised the club’s finances, being only the 5th club in Germany to sign a shirt sponsor when they partnered up with Campari. This enabled the club to sign better and better players leading them to win the 1976 DFB Pokal, which qualified them for next year’s edition of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, which they also won.


Their European triumph and their newfound wealth enabled them to sign Kevin Keegan in a shock move from Liverpool, who were probably the best team in Europe at the time, a move which was probably akin to someone like Real Sociedad signing Mo Salah today. With Keegan in the team, picking up two Ballon d’Ors the club won just one title titles, and lost the 1980 European Cup Final to Nottingham Forest after eliminating Real Madrid in the semis.



Keegan’s departure was made practically irrelevant by genius manager Ernst Happel joining the team. Under his guidance, HSV won The 1983 European Cup against Juventus, two Bundesliga titles and one DFB Pokal. Although they did not manage to replicate those heights in more recent seasons, up until 2018 Hamburg were the only German club to have played every season of the Bundesliga since 1963.


However, during the 2010s the club experienced a sharp downturn mainly due to the absence of European football as well as an average of two managers per season. The managerial upheaval meant that the squad lacked clarity in its signings and meant that players like Hakan Calhanoglu and Heung-min Son ended up being replaced by a discordant mess of average signings left over from the various managers that came and went. They have been languishing in the second tier since 2018, somehow failing to make the relegation places each year and are currently in danger of seeing their bitter rivals St. Pauli make the Bundesliga before them.


Located in the Ruhr industrial area, Schalke are not only Germany’s third most successful club by number of trophies won, but also the fourth biggest club in the world by the number of members with a staggering 178000. Schalke’s true heyday came during the 1930s and 1940s, as they were at the forefront of professionalisation in German football.


They picked up 6 titles during those years and some argue that were it not for Germany being nearly completely destroyed in the second World War, Schalke would have continued to dominate the league in the 50s and 60s. Instead, a solitary title during the postwar era in 1958 was all they had to show for until the 90s when the club embarked on another rise.



The team that was nicknamed the Eurofighters won the 1997 edition of the UEFA Cup against Inter Milan under head coach Huub Stevens whose motto was “Die null muss stehen” or the zero must stand referring to their play style that emphasised that there would be a zero next to their club’s name on the scoreboard at the end of games.


Schalke entered the new millennium on the rise and were mainstays in the top four during the early 2000s as well as winning back to back DFB Pokals in 2001 and 2002. Their newfound success was shrewdly exploited on the financial and sponsorship side of things, culminating in a mega sponsorship deal with Gazprom being signed in 2006, with the Russian gas giant being expected to provide an investment worth more than 100 Mio in the coming seasons.


With their newfound wealth, Schalke signed attacking duo Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Raul and under Ralf Rangnick’s tutelage, the club would eliminate Inter from a European competition once again, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2011, where they lost to Manchester united. If that semifinal can be viewed as the summit of Schalke’s rise, Manuel Neuer’s sale to Bayern Munchen at the end of that season can be viewed as the first step towards their descent into the second tier.


Financial mismanagement, failed big-money signings like Kevin Prince Boateng and the sales of talented academy graduates like Leroy Sane and Leon Goretzka came to a head at the start of the Covid pandemic. In 2021, Schalke were relegated to the Zweite Bundesliga for the first time since the 90s and bounced back just in time to see their main sponsor banned due to some Russian garden gnome deciding that the people of Ukraine shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things. Schalke are currently 14th in the second tier with a further relegation being a very real possibility.



From Gelsenkirchen we head south to Kaiserslautern. In 2014, six of Germany’s players that started the World Cup Final were Bayern players, with Toni Kroos joining Real Madrid just a few days after the final. Exactly 60 years prior Germany also stood in a World Cup Final, although the mood around that team was very different.


Germany was making their first World Cup appearance after the second world war having not played in 1950 and were viewed not only as unfancied outsiders and semi-professionals but as outright hatred, as the horrors of the war were still very much fresh in the memories of Europeans. In front of them stood one of the greatest national teams of all time, the mighty Magyars, who had beaten them earlier in the tournament were full professionals who had not lost a game in the past 5 years.


The German manager Sepp Herberger had built his squad around a core of Kaiserslautern players, with 5 of them being on the pitch that day and brother Fritz and Ottmar Walter being the superstar attacking duo of the squad. Serberger lived around 60 kms from Kaiserslautern and was very familiar with the squad and especially with the Walter brothers who had rebuilt their club from the ground up after the war.


That first World Cup win was credited by many historians with not only kickstarting the footballing machine that Germany became later but also with helping Germany as a country regain its international recognition. During those times the so-called Walter eleven of Kaiserslautern was viewed as one of the best and most exciting teams in Germany, but they failed to replicate their success in the newly established Bundesliga.


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After some decades of anonymity, Kaiserslautern rose during the 90s winning two titles and two DFB Pokals. The second title was all the more impressive as the team had just been promoted after a shock relegation to the second Bundesliga. Coach Otto Rehhagel, who would shock the world in 2004 leading Greece to victory in the Euros was key to their success.


However, financial mismanagement and poor signings coupled with failure to reach the Champions League spots meant that Kaiserslautern embarked on a downward trajectory that would see them taste relegation in the mid 2000s and in 2012. In 2018, they went one step lower getting relegated to the third Bundesliga and being nearly unable to pay for their licence to play there. Nowadays, the club who arguably kickstarted German football as we know it today is struggling to maintain its second-tier status.


Before we visit one of the prettiest German cities, which happens to host a very famous Christmas market, I think some honourable mentions, whose downfalls aren’t as drastic are in order. Borussia Monchengladbach absolutely dominated the 70s winning 5 titles, two UEFA Cup and reaching the European Cup final where they lost to Liverpool, but are just another Bundesliga team nowadays.


Werder Bremen who are 4 time German Champions as well as UEFA Cup and UEFA Cup winners cup winners have been relegated this decade. VfB Stuttgart, who have one Bundesliga title more than Werder, but lost their UEFA Cup and Cup winners Cup finals have been relegated twice since 2017.


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And finally 1860 Munchen, who were until the 60s the premier team from Bavaria and Bundesliga founding members were relegated to the regional 4th tier of German football in 2018. Their owner Hassan Ismaik, who bought a 60 percent stake in the club in 2011 with the aim of in his words preserve the tradition of the club refused to pay for the club’s playing licence after they were relegated to the third tier. He still remains in charge despite the club experiencing nothing but misery under his leadership, possibly serving as a cautionary tale against foreign investment in German football.


Wait what’s that? Oh God, I forgot about East German clubs. Ok so two more honorable mentions as the Stasi officer assigned to me has just texted me that they will be most displeased if I fail to mention any east German clubs. And speaking of the dreaded secret police of East Germany, they had a hand in the tale of the two Dynamos which dominated the DDR Oberliga.


Dynamo Dresden was former two-time German champion Dresdner Sportclub with communist clothing and were one of the biggest clubs in the Soviet-occupied zone. After winning one east German title in 1954 their whole squad and place in the Oberliga was transferred to BFC Dynamo Berlin as the state wanted to have a competitive team in East Berlin as east Berliners kept supporting western clubs like Hertha.


Between the two, they won 8 and 10 league titles, with Dynamo Berlin’s 10 titles coming back to back. Ok the Stasi officer has just told me I can get back to my list and has asked you all to let us know in the comments to the tweet if you would like to see a deep dive on the story of those two clubs.


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With these little detours out of the way we finally head to Nurnberg where you only have to look at FC Nurnberg’s nicknames to understand what this club is about. Amongst them you can find names like The Legend, The glorious, the old champions and the one most used which is the club, alluding to the fact that for a long time, they truly were the club and no others could come near them.


After their establishment in 1900, they quickly came to dominate the regional competitions they played in. From 1920 to 1927 Nuremberg only missed out on the title three times. The German Championship was decided by a playoff of the best regional teams and Nurnberg won those first five titles without conceding a single goal in any of the finals. During that time the club went four years and 104 games without losing once.


Following their period of dominance they picked up three more titles and three DFB Pokals and they entered the first season of the new Bundesliga as the most decorated German club. On the European stage they reached the quarter finals of the European Cup in 1962 losing to eventual winners Benfica and one year later they lost the semifinal of the Cup Winners’ Cup to Atletico Madrid.


During those years the team was spearheaded by Max Morlock, one of the best strikers Germany ever produced. He was a one club man who scored 294 goals in 472 appearances for Nurnberg as well as the first German goal of the 1954 World Cup Final, which started their comeback.


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After joining the Bundesliga and spending some years in midtable positions, the club won their first title in 1968 with a dominating display only to be relegated the following season after coach Max Merkel decided to release ten of the players from his squad. Believing them to be too old, he sought to make room for younger signings which were supposed to make them more competitive for the upcoming edition of the European Cup. Instead, this move saw them exit the European Cup at the first round and get relegated, which destroyed the club’s finances and saw them spend 9 years in the second tier.


From there the club embarked on a journey of mediocrity which saw them face financial issues and get relegated several times leading up to the 2000s. During that time they were still the record german champion, an honour they lost to hated rivals Bayern Munchen at the end of the 1987 season, a hatred I nearly experienced firsthand when as a kid my uncle and my cousin took me to a Nurnberg game and my uncle tried to trick me into wearing a Bayern cap before my aunt told him to stop the nonsense.


After spending a season in the third tier during the late 90s and two more relegations Nurnberg seemed to find their feet again winning the 2007 DFB Pokal, which seemed to herald a comeback for the old champions. It was a false dawn however as bad signings tanked any chance of continuing that success and they were soon relegated the next season. Since their last trophy win in 2007, the club has spent 9 of the past 16 seasons in the second tier.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sandra Behne / Bongarts