The view from Germany

Singing the Blues' blues

July 16, 2013
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

They say it's next to impossible to watch a game at the Allianz Arena in Munich because it's always sold out and tickets are like gold dust. That's rubbish. At the time of writing, there are still plenty of tickets available for the season home opener against Frankfurt, including standing-room tickets for just £12.

1860 Munich have slipped into the shadow of Bavarian giants Bayern Munich
GettyImages1860 Munich have slipped into the shadow of Bavarian giants Bayern Munich

If you now scratch your head and mumble: "Well, that's strange, seeing as how Bayern open the season against Gladbach, not Eintracht Frankfurt", then you are one of the people who have completely forgotten that there is another professional football club in Munich. But don't worry. Nobody will fault you for this memory lapse, because even to us Germans, 1860 Munich can sometimes seem like the Great Lost Club.

When the Blues, as they are usually called in Munich, meet FSV Frankfurt at home on July 28, the club's fans will be watching Second Bundesliga football for the ninth year in a row. Nobody else in the entire league has spent more than five consecutive years at this level. Put differently, in the minds of most people, proud 1860 Munich - who won the Bundesliga and reached a European final before Bayern did – have become a natural second-division team.

That in itself is not even the club's biggest problem. 1860 spent no less than ten seasons in the regional third division between 1982 and 1993, so the club's fans are aware that things could be a lot worse than the lower-league mid-table mediocrity that has been the fate of the Lions, as they are usually called in the rest of Germany, for the last five years.

No, the main problem is that the vast majority of German football fans no longer know what 1860 stand for. In fact, even many 1860 fans no longer know that. Which is one reason why the members elected the 51-year-old Gerhard Mayrhofer their new president on Sunday. He won over most of the people who attended the general assembly with an emotional speech in which he urged the club "to return to our identity". He also said there was a negative vibe around the club - a mood he referred to as the "Lions Blues".

There's no denying it exists. Until fairly recently, a famous German football truism said that people who come from Munich support 1860, the city's traditional working-class team, while Bayern fans tend to hail from faraway places. It is no longer true. But this seismic shift has not happened because Bayern have enjoyed so much success in the past two decades, it's rather because 1860 have ceased to be the alternative.

Almost exactly three years ago, I talked with Helmut Schulte about clubs that have a much bigger local rival. At the time, Schulte was director of football at St. Pauli, a club that has managed admirably to forge its own identity despite or perhaps because of the large shadow cast by Hamburg. "When you are the second club in a city," Schulte said, "you cannot just try to duplicate the first club. It'll never work." Which is why you probably have to trace 1860's downfall back, as strange as it may sound, to the spring of 1995.

It sounds strange because that was when the club appeared to be on the verge of a renaissance. The Blues had climbed from the third division to the Bundesliga in only three years and then managed to avoid relegation quite comfortably. In fact, the team had some good seasons ahead of it and would even reach the Champions League qualifiers in 2000.

But 1995 was also the year when the club decided to permanently move into Bayern's ground, the Olympic Stadium. I'm fully aware that this wording is not entirely correct, because both the Olympic Stadium and the Grunwalder Stadium, where 1860 had been based since 1911, were owned by the city of Munich. But for all practical purposes and in the public perception, the Olympic Stadium was Bayern's place and the Grunwalder Stadium was 1860's home. (Not least because it had actually been built by the club before the city bought it in the 1930s.)

The decision divided the fan base. Some felt that the club's habitually shaky finances made the move a no-brainer because there was just no money to modernise the ramshackle Grunwalder Stadium. Others flatly refused to follow the team onto enemy territory. "It's possible that we will lose 500 or 1,000 fans," then-president Karl-Heinz Wildmoser said in his defence of the move. "But we can win 30,000 new ones in the Olympic Stadium."

However, what 1860 lost was not merely a group of fans but something much more important. Just as 'Don't Dilute Your Brand' became the catchphrase of the image-conscious noughties, the Blues threw away the one thing that made them special and willingly settled down into an existence as Bayern's poor cousins. Or more accurately: Bayern's ne'er-do-well kid brother who's moved in because he can't afford his own flat.

Munich's Champions League qualifiers against Leeds United in 2000 provided the highlight of the decade for the now struggling club
APMunich's Champions League qualifiers against Leeds United in 2000 provided the highlight of the decade for the now struggling club

The problem with such bad decisions is that they trigger a string of events that ultimately lead to even worse decisions. When Bayern began building a football-only ground, the Allianz Arena, 1860 absurdly agreed to pay for half of the building costs (even though they didn't have any money) and become co-owners of the shiny new stadium (even though they would never be able to fill it). Almost inevitably, the Blues ran out of cash less than a year after the ground opened, were forced to sell their shares in the project to Bayern and became rent-paying tenants.

As if that wasn't embarrassing enough, it also began to look as if 1860 had installed a revolving door to the corridors of power, since club officials came and went at an alarming rate. Since 2004, the Lions have had a dozen coaches, five or six CEOs (I've lost count) and eight presidents. The eighth one, Gerhard Mayrhofer, told the members on Sunday: "I've smarted under the wrong decisions of the past ten years just like you did. We have become some sort of training camp for club officials."

And investors. The most flamboyant and prominent, the Jordanian Hasan Ismaik, arrived in the spring of 2011. He saved 1860 from bankruptcy by acquiring roughly 60 per cent of the shares for €13 million and also loaned the club an additional €5.4 million to pay off debts. Then he signed loan contracts that guaranteed the club €30 million, spread over two years.

When Ismaik did that, he said he fully understood the regulations in Germany, in particular the 50+1 rule. He said he was aware that a good deal of the shares he had bought were non-voting shares, because nobody could buy a controlling interest in a club in Germany. Put differently, Ismaik said he was aware that all the money he had pumped into the club didn't buy him a say in how the club was run. Only, it seems, he didn't believe those Germans were really serious about that.

But they were. Over the two years of his involvement, Ismaik has had many run-ins with club officials, because he can't get his head round the fact he is bankrolling the club - yet wields no real power. The situation came to a head a couple of months ago, when Ismaik let it be known that he felt both director of football Florian Hinterberger and coach Alexander Schmidt should be fired. Instead the club extended their contracts. Seven days later, Ismaik's lawyer informed 1860 by letter that the loan contracts would be terminated and that the club would not receive the final instalment, because "personnel decisions were made without first consulting Mr. Ismaik".

One is tempted to shake his head and say: "Welcome to the world of 1860 Munich, Gerhard Mayrhofer! Let's hope you have nerves of steel and a larger-than-normal capacity for suffering. You'll need it." But you never know, maybe this is the season when 1860 finally turn things around. Despite all that chaos surrounding the club, the Blues have assembled a promising team that could really, whisper it, flirt with promotion.

And during his speech on Sunday, Mayrhofer said: "I turned my back on the club when 1860 built the Allianz Arena with Bayern, because I didn't believe it was good for us. It makes no sense to share a ground with Bayern. We need a new stadium. Our own lion's cage." Yes, it could be just another 1860 pipe dream. But it could also be a first step.