After somewhat of a false dawn for the reborn Regionalliga Nordost last year, a season in which RB Leipzig cantered away with the title, the second edition has delivered more of an even playing field for those hoping for promotion to the relative riches of the 3. Liga. Given the illustrious names whiling away their time at Germany’s fourth tier, including European Cup Winners’ Cup winners FC Magdeburg and multiple East German champions Carl Zeiss Jena, you’d be forgiven for not recognising this season’s true pacesetters. Here’s a look at business end of the season so far.
Entering the winter break with a lead almost akin to Keegan’s Newcastle, TSG Neustrelitz are undoubtedly the surprise of the season. Neustrelitz may have been everyone’s dark horses for promotion at the start of the 2013/14 season, especially after taking SC Freiburg to extra time in the first round of the DFL Pokal in August, but the job that former German international Thomas Brdarić has done in the picturesque Mecklenburg town is no less impressive. Seven points ahead at the time of writing, TSG president Hauke Runge has already announced that Neustrelitz will be applying for promotion to the 3. Liga next season, a quite astonishing development considering Neustrelitz were nothing more than a mid-table 5th division side in the relatively recent past.
Even with its weekly highlights show just before the main Bundesliga highlights and ailing former Bundesliga clubs trying to tread water (including, in the past, Bielefeld, Karlsruhe, Rostock, etc.), promotion from the 3. Liga is not the great reward everyone may imagine it to be. Indeed, no less than four teams in the Regionalliga Bayern didn’t even bother to apply for promotion last season. The standards, both financially and in terms of infrastructure, are high – including a 10,000-seater stadium and floodlights that are suitable for TV.
Neustrelitz’s unrelenting form saw them quickly rise to the top of the table in place of early-season pacesetters Berliner AK. An unbelievable run of straight victories stretched from the piercing heat of mid-August to the knee-shattering, half-frozen turf of December. Thirteen victories in succession have given the Mecklenburg club a serious shot at making the step up to the third tier. Perhaps north-eastern Germany, with train stations from Usedom to Wismar daubed in unmistakable blue and red Hansa Rostock graffiti, may get a second representative in professional German football.
Hot on Neustrelitz’s heels are FC Magdeburg – a club that (*favourite stat klaxon*) have never been relegated for sporting reasons in their entire history. Magdeburg have been stuck at this level ever since failing to qualify for the newly created 3. Liga by a margin of just four goals in 2008. The team that took their place? Eintracht Braunschweig – football can be tough sometimes. With a relatively new stadium and one of the region’s largest supports, everything seems to be in place for the club from the Saxony-Anhalt capital – only sporting success and, importantly, money have been missing.
One aspect of FC Magdeburg that certainly isn’t missing is goals. The league’s second-top scorers have well and truly left behind the days of arrow-based humiliation at the hands of their own supporters and with Christian Beck, signed from league rivals Germania Halberstadt in January 2013, they have a striker who can seem to get his head on anything and more often than not pop up with a crucial goal. Under manager Andreas Petersen, Magdeburg looked to have settled down after seasons of mediocrity – a playoff spot could certainly be a possibility. Magdeburg travel to Jena and then to Neustrelitz’s Parkstadion in consecutive away matches in March, and this could prove decisive for the promotion race.
Perhaps the only other promotion contender, bar any miracle runs from mid-placed sides, in this season’s Regionalliga Nordost is Carl Zeiss Jena. The Jenenser were the only side to put up anything resembling a fight to RB Leipzig last season, and after going from perennial 3. Liga promotion hopefuls to relegation to the Regionalliga in just one nightmare season a couple of years ago, they will be looking to make a return sooner rather than later.
That being said, things are all change behind the scenes at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld. Belgian millionaire Roland Duchâtelet, whose other investments include Belgian clubs Standard Liège and Sint-Truiden as well as Charlton Athletic and one-time Real Madrid-slayers Alcorcon, has purchased 49% of Carl Zeiss for a one-off payment of €2 million. A further €4 million has been pledged over the next four years. Duchâtelet’s plan is for Jena to make a return to the 2. Bundesliga within five to seven years. It’s an ambitious target, but with Jena city council recently approving the construction of a new stadium to replace the ageing, and often sodden, Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, things could start falling into place for the Zeisser.
Then again, financial deliverance from a single individual can often end in tears, forced relegations and balance sheets redder than Vincent Tan’s fucked-up dreamworld. Given their money troubles of the past, Zeiss fans are all too aware of this. Jena president Rainer Zipfel called Duchâtelet’s an “opportunity the club would never have again”, but one of the leading ultra groups – Horda Azzuro – have announced they will no longer be actively organising any support in protest at the move. Could Carl Zeiss Jena, the former works club of the optical systems giant based in the city, become the next Hoffenheim?
Naming a city’s main station “Paradise” is quite an audacious move. As you cruise through the Thuringian Forest and the picturesque Saale valley and roll into Jena Paradies station, that’s exactly the sight that greets you. Paradise is subjective I suppose, but unless you’re a fan of Eastern European-style, uncovered bowl stadiums and huge sets of floodlights, there are probably more attractive places to spend the afterlife.
Every lamppost and spare piece of wall in Jena city centre contains a clue to where loyalties lie in this city: FC Carl Zeiss Jena. The Zeiss name is inextricably linked with Jena’s fortunes. Backed by the huge Carl Zeiss precision engineering company, East Germany’s largest state-owned combine, FC Carl Zeiss Jena were one of the most successful sides in East Germany – even reaching a Cup Winners’ Cup final, which they lost to Dinamo Tblisi in Düsseldorf. The links are so strong that the name was kept after the reunification. Carl Zeiss is Jena, Jena is Carl Zeiss.
Nowadays FC Carl Zeiss Jena (FCC) find themselves in the fourth tier of German football after relegation from the 3. Liga last season. Sporadic periods of 2. Bundesliga football and one DFB-Pokal semi-final in Dortmund are the most FCC fans have had to cheer about since reunification. Today FCC would host FSV Zwickau – a “best of the rest” clash in the Regionalliga Nordost for the honour of finishing the season a distant second to runaway leaders RB Leipzig.
The walk from Jena Paradies to the Jena’s home, the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, would have been pleasant if it hadn’t been colder than Thatcher’s heart. After a quick five-minute stroll through the Paradies park, which gives the station its name, the stadium’s enormous floodlights soon come into view. Like so many grounds in the former East Germany, the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld is a largely uncovered bowl with one main, covered tribune. It undoubtedly has its charm and on warm afternoons with the sun on your back and a cold beer in your hand, it’s a pleasure to watch football there. However, the biting wind sluicing down the valley made memories of previous spring or summer visits to FCC seem very far away indeed.
The Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld’s days appear to be numbered after the European Union approved subsidies for new stadiums to be built for Thuringia’s two largest clubs – arch rivals Rot-Weiß Erfurt and Carl Zeiss Jena. The memories of European nights under the floodlights when FCC sent teams such as Valencia and AS Roma packing, and more recent spells in the 2. Bundesliga, are etched into the substance of this place. Going there is almost like a trip back in time, back to patchy TV broadcasts with crackling commentary when teams from the former Eastern Bloc were almost exclusively referred to as “crack outfits”. My hope is that, like in Dresden and Halle, the new stadium retains part of the character that makes the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld special.
Today was not only the meeting of traditionally two of East Germany’s most successful sides, it was also a long-awaited reunion between two of the region’s most colourful and active fan scenes. The last meeting between the club’s first teams at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld dates back to 2004, and the friendship between the Zwickau ultras Red Kaos and Ultras Dynamo from almost universally hated Dynamo Dresden adds extra spice.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this match day would have a somewhat different meaning for the Jena fan scene. A founder member of ultra group Lost Boyz Jena lost his battle with cancer at the age of 36 the week before. Prior to kick-off, a group of players presented Lost Boyz members with a wreath, which was laid in front of the Sudkurve, while a fellow fan held aloft a single flare. Despite the niggling rivalry between the two groups of fans, the ceremony was well respected by the vast majority of Zwickau fans present. Irrespective of footballing loyalties, 36 is no age. RIP. It was clear that the rest of the match would be overshadowed by the loss, and Jena fans spent the rest of match without any organised support – in stark contrast to the vocal, hyperactive Zwickau fans directly opposite them.
FSV fans greeted the sides onto the pitch with a colourful mixture of smoke, which the wind soon dissipated. The melodic style of the Zwickau’s Red Kaos ultras, who go through their repertoire in almost no consideration of the way their team is playing, may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s no doubt that the group of 200 or so active supporters put everything into supporting their team. The downside of the understandable lack of organised support from Jena was that, aside from one corner of the ground housing the Zwickau fans, the atmosphere never really got going. Aside from a handful of exceptions, ultras have become the key component in atmospheres in German stadiums and – like ‘em or hate ‘em – when they’re missing, the atmosphere is poor.
The freezing conditions left their mark on the match, as did the high winds. Almost every period of possession was punctuated with a bobble, followed by a 50:50 and the inevitable crunch. The referee was kept extremely busy by several tough challenges from both sides in the opening half an hour. FCC appeared to be enjoying success down the flanks against the narrow Zwickau defence. Intelligent runs from Tino Schmidt on the left and René Eckardt on the right created overlaps and space, which was duly exploited by Jena’s pair of full-backs. However, the swirling wind didn’t lend itself to quality crosses and chances were squandered.
The source of Zwickau’s success this season was clear to see. With one of the tightest defences in any of Germany’s top four leagues (having conceded a mere five goals in 16 league matches prior today), the compact and robust shape at the back gave the deep midfield a platform from which to form quick, penetrative counter-attacks. After twenty minutes, Jena lost possession in the Zwickau half and Davy Frick was given acres of space to push forward and play in Steffen Kellig, who crossed for André Luge at the far post to put the delirious Westsachsen in the lead.
Jena looked short on ideas and didn’t seem to be able to penetrate the Zwickau back line. Indeed, after half time, it was Zwickau that looked more likely to extend their lead. They continued to defend well and ventured forward in numbers. Kellig rattled the bar, Yeboah-style, with a raking 18-yard drive after 50 minutes. For the home side, Timo Schmidt was perhaps the only person capable of making anything work, but he was isolated on the left wing, often dropping deep to pick up the ball in centre midfield too. It almost looked as if the huff and puff from Jena was to be in vain, but with just a minute left on the clock Yves Brinkmann broke forward and was clumsily brought down by Zwickau centre-back Christoph Göbel. Matthias Peßolat proceeded to convert the spot kick and deny FSV Zwickau what would have been a thoroughly deserved three points.
Should RB Leipzig successfully negotiate the Regionalliga playoffs at the end of the season, Jena and Zwickau should be among the favourites to make a return to professional football next season. Hopefully their fans will have thawed out by then.
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