Not Dead but Barely Alive – The Atony of MSV Duisburg

The days of MSV Duisburg rubbing shoulders with Germany’s elite are long gone. After years of mismanagement, the Zebras have hit rock bottom. The women have been relegated from the Frauen-Bundesliga and the men’s team barely escaped the drop to the semi-professional Regionalliga, finishing the 3. Liga campaign in pitiful form with only a solitary point from the final five games while also getting absolutely trounced 6-2 in the Niederrheinpokal by fourth-tier outfit Wuppertal. Duisburg’s demise has been nothing short of tragic.

A founding member of the Bundesliga – and the league’s first vice-champion – the Meidericher have a long and proud history; the club is firmly enshrined in German football folklore. At one point, they were virtually ever-present in the top-flight and actually became a real force to be reckoned with. Of course, the name MSV Duisburg doesn’t necessarily evoke images of grandeur or of trophy-laden seasons, they never went toe to toe with the likes of Barcelona and AC Milan, and they certainly aren’t as synonymous with the ubiquitous pomp and circumstance of top-level football as their neighbors. In fact, tangible success in the form of silverware has always eluded the Zebras; they have never won a major trophy. But what the name MSV Duisburg does stir up is a sensation, a visceral feeling.

In many ways, they are the quintessential “Kultklub”. Located in the Ruhrpott, the nexus of cities that accommodates many a powerhouse from Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 to VfL Bochum, MSV have always been a working-class club entrenched in the community. The city itself exudes a rough, unpolished, proletarian charm; Duisburg is renowned for its heavy industry as well as its inland port, the largest in the world. “Duisburg is the last stop on the Silk Road, it’s basically the gateway to the world; but nobody knows that,” extolls club legend Ferry Schmidt. Back in the day, supporters used to go to games right after getting off work at the nearby coal mines and steelworks.

When Duisburg were permitted entry into the freshly established Bundesliga, the euphoria in the city was barely containable. Under 36-year-old coach Rudi Gutendorf, Meidericher SV, as they were known back then, went into the inaugural Bundesliga season as firm underdogs seeing as though the club’s facilities weren’t even comparable to what the likes of Köln could offer. A squad littered with homegrowns, who were often still employed full-time and had to get up at five in the morning, and the city’s extreme air pollution also made training difficult. But MSV made the best of these adverse conditions.

Gutendorf managed to lure 1954 World Cup hero Helmut Rahn to Duisburg despite initial protests from his superiors. Der Boss had acquired a rather unimpressive reputation since scoring the all-important goal against Hungary a decade earlier: he had made headlines for all the wrong reasons with his predilection for having a drink, which, by extension, occasionally led to unsavory run-ins with the police. He had also been exiled to the Netherlands and, given his age, most people were naturally under the impression that he was very much past it. Notwithstanding the 34-year-old’s laundry list of transgressions, Gutendorf was still prepared to pay up to 90,000 marks for him. Contrary to what anyone thought at the time, it turned out to be quite a shrewd piece of business.

Over the course of the season, Rahn would chip in with a respectable seven goals as Meidericher SV took the new league by storm, finishing second behind a Köln side that was able to provide the most professional work environment for footballers out of anyone in the entire country. Gutendorf’s men turned their home, the Wedaustadion, into a fortress, only losing once there all season; on matchday ten, 40,000 captivated Duisburger witnessed their team dishing out a 4-0 hammering to the mighty HSV. The young coach’s system – playing with two nominal strikers, but pushing one of the fullbacks so high as to become a front three – took most of the teams in the league by surprise; in fact, opponents initially looked askance at Gutendorf’s style of play. But once MSV began scaling the table, superciliousness gave way to envy.

Report after MSV 4-0 HSV: “Good lord! The Zebra from Meiderich can kick…” (NDR)

The following campaigns proved to be much less successful, however, as the Zebras reverted to a level more in tune with what you would expect from a club of their stature. In 1967, they changed their name to MSV Duisburg, but their fortunes didn’t improve under the new moniker. With the help of Bernard Dietz, they soon rebranded again, although not officially: in his 12 years with the club, the defender left an indelible mark on MSV “Dietzburg”. After more than a decade of mediocrity, 1977/78 turned out to be a season of celebration as MSV not only defeated Bayern 6-3 – Dietz scored four goals in that game! – but they also qualified for the UEFA-Cup.

Unfortunately, being competitive on multiple fronts was too much to bear and their league form suffered drastically as a result of them reaching the UEFA Cup semifinals, where they were beaten by eventual winners Mönchengladbach. By the way, three out of the four semifinalists that year were Bundesliga clubs; Hertha lost to Red Star Belgrade in the other tie. Financial difficulties soon arose and in 1982, MSV were relegated after 19 years of Bundesliga football. The club was bankrupt and even had to drop down the third-tier Oberliga a few years later.

When they returned to the professional ranks, they were a far cry from what they used to be and morphed into a yo-yo club, eventually establishing themselves as a solid second division side after the turn of the millennium. One of the heroes birthed during this time of adversity was Michael Tönnies: in 1992, the club legend scored five goals – including a five-minute hattrick (the fastest in league history at that point!) – in a 6-2 drabbing of a Karlsruher SC side with a certain Oliver Kahn in goal. Between 1987 and 1992, Tönnies racked up north of a century of goals in 179 games for MSV. That’s quite the record.

Fast forward to the 2010s, and things take a sudden turn for the worse. While the decade ostensibly got off to a good start with Duisburg reaching their fourth DFB-Pokal final in 2011 – thus becoming the club with the most final appearances without ever winning the cup – it proved to be a false dawn as they yet again found themselves struggling for liquidity. Things came to a head when the Zebras were forcibly relegated to the 3. Liga prior to the 13/14 season after not receiving a 2. Bundesliga license. They bounced back after two years in the third tier, but their return to the second division was short-lived. They seemingly turned a corner when they won the 3. Liga in 16/17 and came a respectable seventh the following year – even threatening the promotion spots at times – but alas, they eventually regressed to their mediocre ways and finished dead last in 2019.

For large stretches of last season, Duisburg were the team to beat in the 3. Liga, sitting comfortably atop the standings from November onwards. For 19 matchdays the Meidericher led the league; at one point, they even had a nine-point cushion. But then the pandemic struck. When league action resumed after a two-month break, Duisburg struggled to recapture their imperious form, ultimately slipping down the table in dramatic fashion and only ending up in an embarrassing fifth place. It was a collapse of epic proportions, the ramifications of which are still felt today.

Evidently, not even the summer break could halt the Zebras’ downturn in fortunes since they carried their abhorrent form over into this season. To put it bluntly: they were absolutely pathetic in 20/21. After a 2-1 loss to Türkgücü on matchday ten, they slipped into the relegation zone not to return to safety until game 27. Pavel Dochek provided a minuscule new-manager-bounce that, although enough to survive, subsided as quickly as it had appeared. As already mentioned at the beginning, Duisburg finished the season with one point from the last five games, and the low point was reached when they were demolished by Regionalliga side Wuppertal in the regional cup, which means that they have missed out on participation in the DFB-Pokal for only the second time since 1963.

MSV vs. Wuppertal in the Niederrheinpokal (Dirk Freund)

The situation is decidedly dire, but there are some glimmers of hope for next season: in Marvin Bakalorz, Duisburg have already announced a high-profile signing, and experienced defender Felix Bastians is reportedly also on his way to MSV. Moreover, the club are continuing their rich tradition of fostering youth, with Vincent Gembalies and 17-year-old wonderkid Julian Hettwer having recently signed new contracts. Perhaps most significant of all, however, is that sponsor Capelli Sport is revving up its investment. Back in January, the American sportswear brand substantially increased its holdings in the limited liability company MSV Duisburg GmbH & Co. KGaA, funneling €5.4m into the club to help them get back on an even keel financially.

The struggles of the men’s team obviously don’t occur in a vacuum, so of course, the women have also been hit hard by recent mismanagement and economic insecurity. The bankrupt former European champions FCR 2001 Duisburg have been playing under the MSV moniker since 2014, but the one-time German champions have found it incredibly hard to stay competitive despite the fusion with the Zebras. They finally succumbed to relegation this season, but in truth, they could conceivably have gone down every year since returning to the top flight in 2016.

Both of last year’s relegated Frauen-Bundesliga teams came back up immediately, so Duisburg will be fancying their chances for the upcoming campaign. However, it certainly won’t be a walk in the park considering the competitive nature of some of the clubs they will share the division with, especially the likes of RB Leipzig and whoever will drop down alongside MSV, be it Sand or Meppen, will give them a good run for their money. Whether the club’s newfound budgetary stability and room to maneuver extends to the women’s team remains to be seen.

Whatever happens to the men and women at MSV going forward is fairly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because the damage has already been done: the club has become a laughing stock, sharing the same fate as Kaiserslautern, and the supporter base has been alienated. The small positive to take from these past few years of anguish is that it could always be worse. Relegation to the Regionalliga could have threatened the very existence of the club, but now that the gravest of dangers has been averted, MSV Duisburg lives to fight another day. Let’s hope that they can turn their fortunes around and get back to where they belong.

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