History has become a burden for Germany’s struggling powers

It’s no secret that the 2014-15 Bundesliga season has been a rough one for Borussia Dortmund. After a few seasons of success, the tradition-rich club has spent much of the fall slumming it in the table’s depths, at one stage bottoming out in dead last.

It’s been a shock for everybody, especially considering the team’s good form in the Champions League, but a closer look at the standings reveals a wider truth: Many of German’s traditional powers are in terrible shape.

Six out of the bottom seven clubs in the Bundesliga at the moment — in descending order, 1. FC Köln, Hamburger SV, Dortmund, Hertha BSC, Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart — are what Germans would call a Traditionsverein. The term is a bit fuzzy (you can argue about its application, and I have) but it gets thrown around as an honorific. It simply means a club (Verein) has tradition.

Fans attach all kinds of positive attributes to Traditionsvereine. They have deep roots in their communities, having been established long ago. They have large fanbases, whom they treat right, giving them a say in the club’s operation. They’ve spent a lot of time in the top flight. Ideally, they win, too, except these days, Germany’s Traditionsvereine have fallen into a funk.

Particularly this season, the group stands in contrast to the duo we highlighted last week: second place VfL Wolfsburg, and fourth place Bayer Leverkusen. These clubs, along with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, are the opposite of Traditionsvereine. They’re “plastic clubs.” German soccer fans, especially those who support traditional powers, think these clubs’ reliance on corporations (Volkswagen for Wolfsburg; the famous aspirin maker in the case of Leverkusen) or rich men (Hoffenheim chairman Dietmar Hopp) as an affront to the game’s populist roots, a form of gaming the system.

Ever since Hoffenheim arrived in the top flight six years ago, for example, Dortmund fans have mercilessly taunted Hopp in fan songs. At one point, they even unfurled a banner with the software tycon’s face within a rifle’s sight.

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim - Hannover 96

There are some good, principled impulses behind the uproar. There may be some nobility in protecting the Bundesliga from the Glazer families of the world. But the uproar also contains an ugly strain of “stay in your place” conservatism. Games involving plastic clubs often come last in TV ratings, presumably evidence nobody likes them. But this isn’t true. Go to a game in Wolfsburg or Leverkusen and you’ll find a team that’s very popular within those towns. Unfortunately, those towns aren’t that large.

Plastic clubs are often overshadowed in their regions by clubs from bigger cities. Leverkuseners can love Bayer all they want, but it will never be as popular as FC Köln, a club representing a city next door that’s over six times larger. Wolfsburg, similarly, is nestled next to Braunschweig (twice as large) and not too far from Hannover, more than three times its size.

Part of the anger directed at plastic clubs seems devoted to the idea of a rightful place. They’re small-town clubs who have dared to rise above their station, sometimes through cash injections that aggravate other fans. But with each year of Traditionsvereine incompetence, that resentment becomes misplaced. A number of the traditional clubs have been dining out on past success and could learn a lot from smaller clubs.

Hamburg, for example, is Germany’s fourth largest club in terms of revenue and in the top 20 in Europe, according to the Deloitte Football Money League. The club has never been relegated, a fact it celebrates with an ever-upward-counting clock in its stadium, one that shows how long, to the second, HSV has been in the top flight. But the club hasn’t won a title since 1987, hasn’t had a top-four finish since 2008, and has experienced a number of relegation scares.

With eight head coaches in six seasons, Hamburg is clearly not giving its staff enough time, but neither are quite a few of its fellow Traditionsvereine. Be it in Cologne, Stuttgart, or Berlin, none can keep a coach for long, and very often, their squad lists read as mismatched remnants of previous, ill-fated eras. For these clubs, the weight of history no longer brings stability but chaos. Fans believe they’re just a new coach and a few top players away from getting back to where they belong (into Europe), but each time the next big shot fails, recriminations fly. Somebody empties a gas tank, lights a match, and waits until the embers die before beginning the process anew.

Germany Soccer Bundesliga

Hamburg’s opponents last weekend, Mainz, employ an alternate approach, one that the Traditionsvereine would do well to copy. Coach Kasper Hjulmand came to Mainz from Denmark’s FC Nordsjaelland in the summer after being monitored by die Nullfünfer for two years. He’s been given the freedom to institute his style – a steady, attractive game that, despite failing on Sunday, stood in pleasant contrast to Hamburg’s. Despite Mainz going on a six-game winless skid, tumbling from fourth to 11th, Hjulmand’s job is not under threat. Mainz makes personnel decisions carefully and sticks with them, as long as they don’t compromise the club’s long-term interest.

That isn’t to say Mainz Sporting Director Christian Heidel can’t drop an ax. After Jürgen Klopp took the club down in 2008, Heidel turned to the Norwegian-German coach Jørn Andersen. In his first year, he did just that, taking the club back up, but less than a week before the next season started, Andersen was out of a job. In Heidel’s view, Andersen had run the squad into the ground. Youth coach Thomas Tuchel, a rising star in German coaching circles, was given his chance to grow into the job, a process that concluded with Mainz amassing more points than all but four teams in Germany over Tuchel’s five seasons. When he departed in May, Tuchel left behind a top-half side other teams had come to fear.

All of this happened in part because of freedom from tradition. When things went wrong, tens of thousands of fans didn’t bay for blood. Without that burden, a guy like Heidel, who came to the club back in 1991 and continued in his other job (running a car dealership) for 15 years, got the time he needed. What Mainz lacked in history, money and size, it made up for with acumen and patience.

And yet, after almost a quarter-century as one of the faces of a Mainz, Heidel is still a bit of a nobody. After taking his turn on Sunday in the mixed zone at Hamburg’s HSH Nordback Arena, Heidel was stopped by security while trying to return upstairs, to the room that would stage the day’s press conference. With no badge on display, no lanyard dangling the requisite laminated pass, Heidel’s nobody status was reinforced.

Soon, at a guard’s behest, the Mainz architect was diving into his wallet, summoning his credential just in time to wave off an admonishing supervisor. It wasn’t necessary, Heidel said. There was no need to explain anything to the guard. Better to just get back to work.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Dietmar Hopp during the match between Hoffendem and Hannover on Sept. 23, 2012 (AP Photo); Mainz head coach Kasper Hjulmand prior to the match between Hamburger SV and FSV Mainz 05 on Dec. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/dpa, Malte Christians).