Imagine you are a young footballer and you would have the chance to play professional football in one of Germany’s top divsions. Then the club decides, it is not sustainable to go up. What do you? Why is that possible? The news broke last Wednesday (February 12, 2020) that SV Rödinghausen would not apply to get a licence to play in division three next season despite the club being top favourites to win promotion. As reasons the financial demands were cited as well as the capacity of their stadium.
Rödinghausen ist located in the north east of Northrhine-Westphalia, north of Bielefeld and east of Osnabrück and has about 10000 inhabitants. About one fifth of the population fit into their ground: 2400. The club are currently in top position in the regionalised fourth division and are a dead bet to win automatic promotion. Yet, the requirements are beyond their means. The DFB, which manages this division demands a capacity of 10001 (yes, 10001) as well as financial securities to secure the functioning of the club in the higher division. An extension would be costly and demand that they temporarily move their home matches to neighbouring Bielefeld or Osnabrück. This is not an option for the club as by the time the stadium would be extended, the club may have been relegated again and would play in an oversized ground in the future. It could potentially be the death knell for the club. It is moreover unlikely that the fan base extends exponentially so much so that the whole town would be attending matches. That is just not thinkable. In this division there are Rot Weiss Essen (attendance: 1830), Wattenscheid 09, Rot Weiß Oberhausen, Fortuna Köln (1375), Bonner SC and Alemannia Aachen: these are clubs with a serious fan base willing to travel. Just to add some perspective: Rot Weiss Essen had 12113 attending their home match against Rödinghausen in early February. The current average gate figure is 1170. Even with a successful performance in league 3, a higher gate figure is not guaranteed. Therefore the decision of the club seems comprehensible as it does not seem to be sustainable and is indeed morally questionable.
At the same time the decision beggars belief as it distorts the competition. The conditions to play higher up are not new and have long been known to anyone. At the start of the season Rödinghausen proclaimed
We can do League Three
Just as to confirm this statement, Rödinghausen are top of the table and look certain to go up as there will be no promotion playoff for this division this season. Yes, Rödinghausen are an unlikely top team but they have proven any one wrong so far. Now to cede their right to promotion, this far into the season, is unfair and has to be considered as unsporting behaviour by the club’s directors.
Why are the rules the way they are in the first place? Too often clubs went beyond their means in order to achieve promotion in the past. A division higher up and it does not work out well: as a result coaches are sacked, players are on inflated wages; this way the downward spiral begins often leading to bigger problems, in some cases it may end in the club going out of business. The most recent example is that of Bury who have been let down by an irresponsible owner but also by the football league and association and sluggish regulations. Yet, the English and German club structures are significantly different but the example may help why such conditions have been put into place by the DFB. The way forward would be to guarantee financial stability while at the same time require minor amendments to the grounds of the clubs in question.
Example: Rödinghausen may have a small stadium but are healthy in terms of finance and therefore there will be no risks for either side. The influx of visiting fans will be catered for as only as little as ten percent of the ground’s capacity need to be made available for visiting supporters. In this case this would be only 300, maybe a little more. Yes, the ground and its lack of capacity may pose a problem but why can’t there be a provisional arrangement between the club and the DFB? The latter demands an additional stand to be built for away fans only. This way the segregation between fans can be guaranteed. Everyone would be happy.
Those rules are there to ascertain the smooth running of the football during the season, that much is clear. Yet the demand for a 10000+ ground, of which at least 2000 must be seated and about 600 must be roofed, are ridiculous. There exist clubs in Bundesliga 2 that never manage to draw a five figure attendance even against the top dogs in this division, whereas others could easily sell twice their actual stadium capacity for any league game. A fine line needs to be drawn and it seems that the DFB are incapable of doing that. Some flexibility should be allowed in order to avoid a situation like this where the fans of Rot Weiss Essen and the other clubs feel as though they are being slapped in the face by the decision of Rödinghausen. It is most likely that the club will win the division yet there will not be any celebration. Has anyone ever thought about the psychological consequences this may have for the players? The DFB will not hand out any punishment for the club but rather look on sheepishly and carry on as if nothing has happened.
On the one side, the decision is understandable, on the other it is a distortion of the competition. The regulations in place should allow some leniency, yet it is most likely that nothing will happen.