Five into three won’t go – The peculiarity of the Regionalliga

Stadion Essen
Stadion Essen by Blue-Letter at German Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain,

One of my favourite Bundesliga players that I have seen very little of is the Dutch winger Willi Lippens. The first of his nation to be selected for the Netherlands national team that was not playing in that country. A gifted player with a pronounced gate that earned him the nickname, The Duck, Lippens did most of his best work for Rot Weiss Essen. Essen were a feature in the 1970s, reflecting the size and stature of that great city in North Rhein Westphalia. In time a combination of poor management and, you guessed it, more poor management saw them fall away. They now reside in the German fourth tier, a regionalised league structure called, appropriately enough, the Regionalliga.

And Essen are not the only former Bundesliga club in such reduced circumstances: FC Saarbrücken, Alemannia Aachen, KFC Uerdingen (known then as Bayer Uerdingen before the big pharma company took their patronage elsewhere), Waldhof Mannheim, SG Wattenscheid 09 and Stuttgarter Kickers are among some some of the teams that have enjoyed life in the top flight. Add to that the former GDR teams Energie Cottbus, Lok Leipzig and the notorious BFC Dynamo of East Berlin. Most notably and recently added to the legion of the lost is of course 1860 Munich. The 1966 Bundesliga champions were relegated from the 2. Bundesliga at the end of the 2016-17 season but did not pay the license to participate in the 3-Liga so ended up in the Regionalliga Bayern, one of the five leagues that make up the fourth tier.

1860 have made a good start to the season and are clear favourites to win the Regionalliga Bayern. Under normal circumstances you would think that entry into the 3-Liga is a close to certain as you can be. However, there is an extra obstacle that may even interrupt an august institution as 1860 fro their return to the national league. That is the Regionalliga play off, a postseason that means winning your league is not a guarantee of promotion. Only three clubs are allowed to go into the 3-Liga so six teams from the Regionalliga (one from the north, north-east, south, Bavaria and two from the south-west) play off for the three spots. This has been in place since 2012.

Plenty of clubs are barred from promotion because their facilities do not meet the criteria of the level up. Plenty are barred on financial grounds. However, to be prevented from promotion on sporting grounds is counter intuitive. Play-offs are commonplace but they usually apply to the runners up rather than the Champions. Moreover, most playoffs result in a team or teams being promoted. Under the Regionalliga system a league can and will play out an entire season and at the end of it no one is promoted. In the Kreisliga or Bezirksliga level this may be understandable but in the fourth tier of German football it is manifestly unjust and damned unsporting.

It would be absurd to say that these clubs are deserving of a place in the national leagues of the Bundesliga. It would be naive to suggest that a more streamlined path would see them through to the 3. Liga and higher. But it is perfectly true to say that a relatively convoluted play off system after a long league season is a barrier to success and discourages sensible investors from becoming involved with their local club. After all, what local business is going to seriously invest in their team if, despite winning the title, there is no guarantee of achieving your goal of promotion.

Moreover, the continued existence of bigger clubs in the Regionalliga can be a financial burden on smaller amateur clubs at that level. Granted when the likes of RW Essen or 1860 come to town there is the promise of a big attendance to swell the coffers. However, with the big clubs come additional requirements in terms of facilities. Clubs spend a great deal of money providing security for a league that in reality does not need it for most clubs with modest travelling support.

There is also the added wrinkle that the under 23 sides of higher placed clubs play in this league and allowed promotion. This could potentially hindering the progress of other clubs.

These factors combined, led to the German football culture magazine 11 Freunde to start a campaign to reduce the number of leagues in the fourth tier from five to three. Their proposals in full are:

  1. Three leagues in which the champions are promoted.
  2. The under 23 teams are excluded from promotion
  3. A parallel play-off for Under 23 teams.

The petition was enthusiastically received and 11 Freunde hope that the DFB will be moved to act. But perhaps there is an alternative in the shape of a fourth national league: a 4. Liga so to speak. With the number of traditional clubs occupying this tier is there not sufficient justification to include them in a national league? This could have the benefit of the U23 clubs still participating without exclusion. There would be additional expense and logistical issues that would have to be overcome but it is not beyond the wit or resources of the DFB to provide the necessary assistance to overcome these issues.

Germany is a big place with an enormous football culture and landscape. Surely it is now big enough a four national tier.