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?