German Football's Obscure Fairytale

If you are new to German football, or you don’t care about German football at all, chances are you’ve probably never heard of Waldhof Mannheim. And that’s fine. The club has been bouncing around the lower leagues since the early 2000s and they haven’t been anywhere near the top flight since 1990. Recently, however, things have started to change dramatically.

Back-to-back promotions are rare. The most recent and high-profile example of one such case is SC Paderborn going from the 3. Liga (third tier) straight to the Bundesliga. Mannheim, currently sitting 2nd in the 3. Liga standings, were on course to achieve these coveted back-to-back promotions – going from the Regionalliga (fourth tier) straight to the 2. Bundesliga – before COVID-19 brought football to a screeching halt. Whatever happens next, whether the season gets voided or resumed, whether Mannheim stays put or gets promoted, what this little club with just 2400 members has done over the past 18 months is extraordinary and unprecedented.

Mannheim is located in the Southwest of Germany, separated from Ludwigshafen by the Rhine river, and just a 20-minute drive north of famous university city Heidelberg. SV Waldhof Mannheim 07, founded on April 11, 1907 in the working-class “Waldhof” district of Mannheim just a few kilometers north of the city center, spent most of its early history competing in the top division. After finishing runners-up to city rivals VfR Mannheim in 1949 in the newly-formed Oberliga Süd – established in the wake of World War II – Waldhof began to slip into obscurity. SVW were relegated to the 2. Liga Süd following a lowly 15th-place finish in 1953/54.

It took them a few years to recover from their first relegation in four decades, but in 1957/58 promotion was achieved. Unable to compete at the top end of the table, Mannheim became a yo-yo club, bouncing between the Oberliga and 2. Liga, which ultimately led to Waldhof not being considered for a spot in the new Bundesliga in 1963/64.

Waldhof Mannheim taking on Werder Bremen during the 1980s (Bongarts/Getty Images)

Fast forward to 1982/83 and Mannheim finally reached the promised land. The first three years of Bundesliga football were successful with Mannheim finishing 6th in their sophomore campaign and 8th the subsequent year. Things began to unravel in 86/87 with Mannheim dropping further down the table and in 1990, the “Waldhof Buben” (Waldhof Boys) were relegated back to what is now known as the 2. Bundesliga. The club hasn’t been in the top-flight since.

After seven years in the 2. Bundesliga, Mannheim were relegated to the Regionalliga (back then the third division) but bounced back in 1998/99. Things were actually going well for a while and if it wouldn’t have been for St. Pauli defeating Nürnberg on the last day of the season, Mannheim would have been promoted back to the Bundesliga in 2001. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and financial struggles soon followed, acting as a swift damper to freshly heightened expectations. In the aftermath of the failed promotion campaign, the club was, once again, relegated and soon a not insignificant problem arose; after failing to obtain a proper Regionalliga license, Waldhof were forcibly relegated to the Oberliga.

Eventually, the club’s finances evened out and with aspirations of getting back to the professional ranks of German football, Mannheim invested significantly in their squad. The Waldhof Buben tried and failed over and over again to qualify for the Regionalliga but to no avail. It took even more investment, and even more players – some with Bundesliga experience – to drag Mannheim out of the mire. Finally, in 2008, Waldhof were promoted back to the Regionalliga, now only the fourth division following the establishment of the 3. Liga.

Lightning would strike twice, however, and after two years, their stint in the Regionalliga was unceremoniously cut short after Waldhof yet again failed to acquire the proper license and yet again had to drop down to the Oberliga. Thankfully, promotion was achieved at the first time of asking and Mannheim haven’t looked back since.

Mannheim’s Chris Hock challenging Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino in a friendly (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Waldhof finished the 15/16 season top of the Regionalliga Südwest and thus qualified for a playoff tie against Regionalliga West champions Sportfreunde Lotte with promotion to the 3. Liga on the line. Despite getting a good 0-0 draw away at Lotte in the first leg, Mannheim would ultimately end up stuck in the fourth division for the foreseeable future after losing 2-0 at home.

History repeated itself in 16/17 when Waldhof lost to SV Meppen in the 3. Liga promotion playoff. In January 2018, following a less than ideal start to the season, Bernhard Trares was hired as head coach. Under Trares’ guidance, Waldhof still managed to finish the campaign as runners-up and competed for a spot in the third tier anew. They were well-beaten by KFC Uerdingen in the promotion playoff.

After three consecutive years of heartbreak, Mannheim finally achieved promotion to the 3. Liga last season. It took them 16 years – or 5809 days – to get back to the professional ranks of German football. The Waldhof Buben won the Regionalliga Südwest at a canter, only dropping points on six occasions (28W-2L-4D) and finishing on a whopping 88 points, a full 21 points ahead of Saarbrücken in second.

Coach Trares and Director of Football Jochen Kientz didn’t rest on their laurels and strengthened the squad in the right areas over the summer while still operating at a profit. 29-year-old midfielder Timo Kern was sold to Bayern Munich II for a sizeable fee of €200,000 and replaced by Max Christiansen from Arminia Bielefeld for just €80,000. Former Hamburger SV player Mohamed Gouaida was brought in from Sandhausen for an undisclosed fee, so too was 20-year-old center-back Gerrit Gohlke from Kickers Offenbach. 5 other players, including ex-Napoli and Roma forward Kevin Koffi, were free transfers.

After a slow start to their 3. Liga campaign, in which they drew their first three games, the Waldhof Buben went on a three-game winning run, which included a big 4-0 win over 1860 Munich and a 4-3 thriller against Duisburg, who were having a fine season themselves prior to the COVID-19 outbreak putting the league on ice.

On Matchday 7, the 3. Liga was set alight as Mannheim made the hour-long journey down the A6 to take on Kaiserslautern in the first Südwest Derby in more than 18 years, one of German football’s most heated and bitter rivalries. While the performances on the pitch didn’t live up to expectation – the game ended in a one-all draw – everything around it certainly did. Mannheim supporters beheaded two player statues which can be found on the iconic “11 Freunde Kreisel” in Kaiserslautern in the build-up to the match. Lautern fans retaliated by dumping the body of a pig on the field of resident baseball team Mannheim Tornados. The game itself was played in front of the fifth-largest 3. Liga crowd ever recorded and the 36,766 spectators made for an electric atmosphere.

The Kaiserslautern fans put on a spectacle when rivals Waldhof came to visit (Jörg Halisch/Getty Images)

The following week, Mannheim suffered their first defeat in 29 games; a 2-1 home loss to Würzburg. Emphasis on “home loss”, because, at the point of writing this, Mannheim are yet to be defeated on their travels, an astonishing 30-game unbeaten run stretching all the way back to the very beginning of the 18/19 season. A 2-0 loss at SSV Ulm on the final day of the 17/18 season was the last time Mannheim went home empty-handed.

The subsequent fixtures were a bit of a mixed bag for the Waldhof Buben. They collected just 14 points out of a possible 30, losing twice at home and only winning three times over a ten-game stretch. Since falling to Unterhaching at the beginning of November, Waldhof have been undefeated; a stretch of 13 games.

The last few weeks prior to the league’s suspension gave off the impression that nobody really wanted to get promoted. The 3. Liga’s top teams were dropping points left, right and center and Waldhof were no exception. After coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 away at table-topping Duisburg, points were dropped at home in the derby – another 1-1 draw – and at in-form bogey team Würzburg. Despite patchy form and rumors that Trares might be off to 2. Bundesliga outfit Darmstadt, Waldhof are sitting pretty in second, level on points with Unterhaching and just three points off top spot.

2400 members, 30 games undefeated away from home and on the verge of back-to-back promotions – SV Waldhof Mannheim are the German fairytale club that you’ve never heard of.

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