When Wuppertal Rubbed Shoulders With Europe’s Elite

If you’re like me, the name Wuppertal probably doesn’t evoke images of footballing greatness. Hell, for some, the name Wuppertal doesn’t produce any kind of images; after all, it’s not a city the average non-German frequently comes across. Literally named “Wupper valley” due to being situated in, well, the valley surrounding the Wupper river, Wuppertal is a bustling metropolis in an idyllic location, but it does not boast the same level of international recognition as neighboring Düsseldorf or Dortmund – and neither does its football club Wuppertaler SV.

WSV can’t claim to be one of German football’s powerhouses, but in the 1970s, they etched their names into the annals of history by producing one of the craziest and most memorable Bundesliga stints ever. The Lions’ three-year top-flight adventure was as historic as it was ephemeral.

Like the city itself, the club came into being via a merger. Both Wuppertal clubs, TSG Vohwinkel 80 and SSV 04 Wuppertal, had some top-flight football on their CVs, but most of their existence was spent in the lower leagues. That trend largely continued beyond their fusion in 1954. WSV spent three seasons in the Oberliga West – one of the five post-war first divisions – in the 50s, and they returned in 1962, but their instant relegation meant that they were not considered for the freshly established Bundesliga, which played its inaugural season in 1963/64.

After a decade of mixed results in the second-tier Regionalliga, the Lions returned to the elite level. WSV only lost twice all season in the Regionalliga West in 1971/72, finishing with a whopping goal difference of +88 before storming through the promotion round unbeaten with eight wins from eight games. Günter Pröpper scored an absolutely ridiculous 60 goals that season (52 in the league and 8 in the promotion round). Once promoted, they were out for blood and carried their imperious form into their debut Bundesliga campaign, which, by all accounts, was perhaps one of the strangest Bundesliga seasons ever – its start was delayed due to the Olympics and as a result, it only finished in June, some clubs fielded weakened sides because players still carried suspensions from the match-fixing scandal that shook German football the year prior, and VfB Stuttgart qualified for the UEFA Cup despite only coming in sixth (UEFA Cup spots were usually reserved for the DFB Pokal finalist that came away empty-handed and the sides that finished second to fourth in the league).

Manfred Cremer and…yeah… (imago/Horst Müller)

Wuppertal got their season off to a flyer with a 2-0 win over Kaiserslautern. A victory over Bochum sandwiched between two losses meant that WSV were comfortably sitting in mid-table heading into matchday five where they faced the daunting task of hosting defending champions Bayern, who were yet to drop points and who had just demolished Hertha 4-0 – the Bavarian behemoth would go on to win the league again that season and the one after that, too, becoming the first club to win a hattrick of Bundesligas in the process. Jürgen Kohle’s opener was canceled out by Bayern legend Bernd Dürnberger, who was only recently overtaken by Thomas Müller as their seventh all-time appearance maker. This 1-1 draw with a Bayern side at the peak of their powers was the first real statement of intent from the minnows hailing from “Germany’s greenest city”.

Over the course of the season, Wuppertal would draw twice with Pokal finalists Köln and third-placed side Düsseldorf, destroy the likes of Stuttgart, HSV, and Schalke, and even consolidate second in the table for a few weeks. They ultimately ended up in a very impressive fourth place and thus qualified for the UEFA Cup; had they not completely capitulated against Hannover on the final day, they could even have finished third. Pokal winners Gladbach, with a golden generation that included the likes of Günter Netzer and Jupp Heynckes, were the only side to truly have Wuppertal’s number that season, which is a testament to how incredible an effort it was from the promoted outfit.

Unfortunately, their European adventure was short-lived as they were immediately knocked out of the competition by Ruch Chorzów from Poland on an aggregate score of 8-6. In the league, too, things began to unravel for the Lions; in 73/74, they only survived on goal difference, and the following season, an aging squad failed to put up any kind of fight and was relegated with a measly 14 points, the second-worst points total ever recorded in Bundesliga history and just four more than what Tasmania Berlin racked up in their infamous relegation season – WSV did somehow manage to beat Bayern 3-1 on matchday five, though. That was Wuppertal’s final shot at top-flight football to date and they certainly won’t return anytime soon.

The club’s recent history is marred by financial struggles and the odd scandal here and there. In 1999, Wuppertal were relegated to the fourth division despite finishing a solid eighth in the Regionalliga because they refused to settle outstanding insurance payments; it took them four years to get back to the third tier. WSV returned to the professional ranks when they qualified for the new 3. Liga, but just two years later, they were back to playing Regionalliga football, which was now the fourth division. Things soon took a turn for the worse when the club had to file for insolvency and was relegated to the fifth tier in 2013.

A constant, ominous cloud of uncertainty looming over the club has seemingly always been their monumental ground, the Stadion am Zoo, named that, because it is right next to the Wuppertal Zoo, one of the city’s main attractions besides the well-known Suspension Railway and the house (now a museum) that Friedrich Engels grew up in. When it was opened in 1924, it was a stunning state-of-the-art multi-purpose sports cathedral only matched by the predecessor to the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Funnily enough, football wasn’t even the main sport that was hosted in this vast arena; initially, its biggest claim to fame was its world-renowned velodrome.

Before and during their debut Bundesliga campaign, the Lions regularly attracted up to 30,000 captivated spectators. Against Bayern, that number purportedly rose to over 50,000 – a far cry from the meager crowds the WSV, now languishing in the fourth-tier Regionalliga, was able to draw in the years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. After Wuppertal dropped out of the top flight, crowds diminished and so too did the preservation of this storied ground.

The iconic Stadion am Zoo in 2009 (imago/Werner Otto)

With the main stand increasingly falling into disrepair, a decision was made in the early 90s to replace the old one, however, renovations were soon hampered because the old stadium façade is under monument protection – it is the last one of its kind in Germany along with the outside of the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Due to numerous hindrances, construction costs ultimately amounted to a mouthwatering 28 million marks. Since then, the ground has been the subject of seemingly perpetual, ever-changing discussions regarding modernizations. The Lions’ home was again refurbished in 2008 and plans to finally cover every stand with a roof were presented to the public in 2017, but the penniless club has struggled to attract the necessary sponsors and investors in recent years. In fact, halfway through 2020, WSV announced that they were once again broke and unable to pay off their debts.

It’s not all doom and gloom in Wuppertal, though. Despite the insolvency procedures which usually entail relegation, the Lions remained in the Regionalliga and they have recently been given the all-clear, thanks in no small part to EMKA CEO Friedhelm Runge, born and bred in Wuppertal and a lifelong WSV fan. Runge served as WSV president from 1991 until 2013 and recently invested several million euros into the club to stabilize its finances.

With Runge’s money, the Regionalliga side has been able to strengthen its squad in the January window after a worrying Hinrunde that saw them hovering around the relegation zone. Current coach Björn Mehnert and his new-look team have played an impressive Rückrunde thus far, only losing three of their 13 post-winter break fixtures, and the stated goal for next season is to build on this form and push on. The Regionalliga West will be stacked next term with Wuppertal, Essen, Aachen, Münster, Oberhausen, Fortuna Köln, and potentially Uerdingen all convening there next year – a football romantic’s dream!

Although things are looking up for Wuppertal, there are still a few concerns that need to be resolved before they can even consider returning to the professional ranks: they desperately need more sponsors and investors, the stadium question needs to be settled, and the club needs to be restructured from the top down; the football department will likely become an independent entity eventually, the club statute will have to be updated, and, according to Runge, something needs to be done about the board of directors, which currently exercises complete, unchallenged control over the organization.

The past few decades have not been kind to Wuppertaler SV, but they will always have those three years of utter ecstasy to fondly look back on. While the future may look somewhat bright, there is still a lot of work to be done before this Traditionsverein can get back to where it belongs.

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