German football has seen its fair share of tragic falls from grace. From well-known individual cases like Kaiserslautern succumbing to corruption or 1860 Munich being run into the ground by Hasan Ismaik, to entire regions, like the former GDR, getting enveloped by the mists of obscurity, there is somewhat of a precedent when it comes to clubs plummeting out of the upper echelons of the German football pyramid. A perhaps less prominent example of a club slipping into mediocrity is Alemannia Aachen. The story of Alemannia is one of megalomania and the slow, painful death of a so-called Traditionsverein.
Only trailing Greuther Fürth in the all-time points collected table of the 2. Bundesliga, few clubs are as synonymous with Germany’s second division as the Kartoffelkäfer (potato beetles). But that reputation is quickly fading – or perhaps it’s already long gone – simply because Aachen haven’t tasted the sweet nectar of the 2. Bundesliga in eight years. There is a decent chance that people who are new to the weird and wonderful world of German football will never even have heard of Alemannia, a crying shame when you consider that the club is older than most of its significantly more illustrious neighbors like Dortmund, Schalke, and Köln.
Much like its hometown – once the crown jewel of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire and later one of the first imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire – Alemannia can nowadays look back on quite a bit of history, even if their trophy cabinet remains sparsely populated. In 1967, they were promoted to the still relatively young Bundesliga, which had played its inaugural season a mere four years earlier. It was the first of just two ultimately unsuccessful stints in the top flight, but that is the nature of football; not every club can be a first-division powerhouse. Incredibly, though, they ended their sophomore Bundesliga season as runners-up, finishing eight points behind Bayern – still arguably their biggest achievement to date, but celebrations didn’t last long as they came dead last the following season and were relegated not to return for another 36 arduous years. With debts mounting, they even dropped down to the third division for a while.
Financial troubles had plagued the club on and off for much of its history, but thanks to success on the pitch in the early 2000s – reaching the DFB Pokal final in 2004 and thus qualifying for the Europa League (and even reaching the Round of 32 as a 2. Bundesliga side!) – Alemannia were in a somewhat stable position heading into their second stint in the top flight. That financial security didn’t translate into performances, however, and they went straight back down. At the time, they did have a knack for unearthing some decent talent, though.
Jan Schlaudraff, Sérgio da Silva Pinto, Vedad Ibišević, and Christian Fiél all called Aachen home in 2006/07 and let’s not forget that they were heading into the season under the stewardship of Dieter Hecking, who would go on to have a decent Bundesliga (coaching) career himself, although they did soon part ways on awkward terms – Hecking terminated his contract after receiving an offer from fellow Bundesliga side Hannover.
Looking back now, Alemannia’s success was ultimately its undoing. During the glory years of 2004-2006, delusions of grandeur started rearing their ugly head. The club was in desperate need of a new stadium. The Tivoli, a little 21,300-capacity ground with stands right on top of the pitch, creating a suffocating atmosphere, had been Alemannia’s trusty home for the best part of eight decades. Even though it managed to retain its charm through the years, it was undeniably outdated, run-down, and just downright filthy in some quarters.
Predictably, the decision to build a new stadium split the fanbase. Giving up on something that has, in many ways, been the heart of the club for nearly a century is not easy and some supporters even directly rejected the idea of a New Tivoli altogether. But a new stadium simply had to be built, so in consultation with cooperative fans, the club tried to keep the New Tivoli as simplistic as possible whilst also attempting to keep some of the Old Tivoli’s features; the stands, for example, are as close to the pitch as UEFA regulations would allow.
That’s all well and good, but the one thing the club failed to consider was who the hell was going to pay for all that. Remember that financial security we talked about earlier? Well, by the time construction commenced, Alemannia were toiling away in the 2. Bundesliga and they had to figure out a way to get €50m (yes, fifty million euro) from somewhere. They bit off more than they could chew. Long story short, the city of Aachen had to step in and take on the expenses of building the stadium because the club was now operating on the verge of bankruptcy. In a bid to fully liberate Alemannia from their self-inflicted economic burden, the city officially purchased the ground for €1 (not a typo) in 2015 – a great gesture in theory, but the taxpayers were incensed and rightfully so because they were now essentially asked to pay the club’s rent. The city forks out €2m annually in stadium upkeep costs; Alemannia chip in with €150,000.
The New Tivoli holds up to 33,000 people, but with the Kartoffelkäfer increasingly struggling to stay afloat on both the sporting and financial side of the game, crowds were unavoidably getting smaller. Picture this: it’s 2011, your club is neck-deep in debt, playing in a soulless, sterile stadium, fighting for survival in the 2. Bundesliga. If you were a fan at the time, you were probably thinking that it couldn’t possibly get much worse. But it could, actually. And it did get worse.
After flirting with relegation for two years, Alemannia finally went down at the end of the 11/12 season. Their poor form continued in the 3. Liga and with spectator numbers dwindling – they only averaged an attendance of 11,513 – things looked bleak. But now you’re thinking, surely it can’t get much worse. Bad news, it did get even worse. Alemannia filed for bankruptcy in late 2012 and were relegated to the Regionalliga West as a result. And that’s where they’ve been stuck ever since.
After a poor first season in the fourth tier, it actually seemed as though things were looking up again. Aachen were battling it out with Rot-Weiss Essen – another fallen giant of the German game – for supremacy and they claimed top spot shortly after the winter break. They then smashed the attendance record for all five Regionalligas when the aforementioned Essen came to town. 30,313 people showed up and got their hopes up of returning to the professional ranks of German football when they watched their team beat Rot-Weiss 1-0, only to have these aspirations crushed at the end of the season when Alemannia finished as runners-up and missed out on promotion.
Despite the heartbreak of the previous campaign, 15/16 began with a bang as Alemannia recorded their best start to a season in more than half a century, collecting 16 points from six games, but that momentum soon dissipated. A 6-0 loss to Viktoria Köln shook the club to its very foundations; a letter by the players demanding the resignation or firing of the coaching staff entailed unprecedented levels of personnel turnover. The head coach was sacked, the goalkeeping coach resigned, players were suspended for speaking up, and eventually, the club also parted ways with the sporting director. Alemannia came 7th after a tumultuous season and they haven’t finished higher than 6th since then. This year won’t be much different, they currently sit in 10th, having just been beaten 1-0 by Fortuna Köln.
It’s been a weird decade for Alemannia Aachen. Financially, there is still no stability nowadays – they filed for insolvency again in 2017 – and promotion seems as distant a target as it has since the club first came down to this level. It’s a shame to see such a big club languishing in the semi-professional Regionalliga, but nobody has a divine right to play top-flight or second-division football, not even a team that held the 2. Bundesliga all-time points record for eight years.
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