Friday, May 11, 2012
The promise of the play-offs
Now that Borussia Dortmund are the toast of the town for the second year running, it's easy to forget it could all have been very, very different.
I'm not referring to that day in March of 2005, when the club's fate was at the mercy of a group of investors who could have voted Borussia into immediate bankruptcy. Rather I mean a sunny day in May 1986, when a few seconds made all the difference; when a more pernickety referee, a half-decent clearance or simply a more sensible rule would have prevented the club's rise to the top and with it all those trophies of the '90s and of course also the current golden era.
On May 17, 1986, Dortmund, having finished the Bundesliga season in 16th place, met Fortuna Cologne, the third-placed team from the second division, in the second leg of the relegation play-offs. Fortuna had won their home leg 2-0 and now, with less than a quarter of an hour gone, one of their offensive midfielders, a player called Bernd Grabosch, shimmied past Borussia's Michael Zorc. The man who is now Dortmund's director of football fell on his backside, while Grabosch ran a few more steps and then struck home from twenty yards.
The lower-division team thus held a commanding 3-0 lead on aggregate. In order to avoid relegation, Dortmund now needed... no, not the four goals you'd expect. Because this is where the regulations come into play. Back then, the relegation play-offs were not subject to the away-goals rule as used in the European Cup competitions: if, after both legs, the teams were level on points and goals, a third game at a neutral venue decided the tie.
And so Dortmund, trailing 1-0 in the second leg, needed "only" three goals to force a third game. Nine minutes into the second half, the team were awarded a debatable penalty and Zorc equalised from the spot. And on 68 minutes, Dortmund's diminutive playmaker Marcel Raducanu scored with a rare header to make it 2-1. But that's how it stayed. Until the final minute.
With 32 seconds left on the clock, Dortmund's goalkeeper Eike Immel hurried to take a goal-kick and start the final attack of the game. The ball was still in motion when Immel knocked it to a team-mate, but the referee turned a blind eye and didn't blow his whistle to have the goal-kick retaken.
With nine seconds left on the clock, Dortmund's Ingo Anderbrugge sent in a low cross almost from the byline. Fortuna's goalkeeper Jacek Jarecki got both hands to the ball at the near post but palmed it awkwardly into the goalmouth. It almost went past Dortmund striker Jurgen Wegmann, who was a step ahead of the ball. But only almost. Wegmann stuck out his left leg, made contact with the ball and somehow nudged it goalwards. It slowly rolled across the line with seven seconds left and, immediately after Fortuna had kicked off, the referee ended the game.
For the first time, the relegation play-offs went to a third game - which Dortmund won 8-0, in Dusseldorf. (Two years later, Mannheim lost 3-2 away at Darmstadt and then won the home leg 2-1. Another deciding game was staged, but this time the team that would have prevailed on away goals also came out on top in a third match, as Mannheim won on penalties.)
For most of the Dortmund fans who were there on that fateful Easter Saturday, this last-gasp 3-1 victory against Fortuna Cologne remains their team's most memorable game, and also the most important one, as the cash-strapped club's future in the lower division would have been bleak. Fortuna Cologne, on the other hand, never came that close to the top-flight again and today, a few years after being almost bankrupt, compete in the western tier of the fourth division.
As you can see, the Bundesliga relegation play-offs have a long and colourful history, although the two teams that are involved in this season's edition - Hertha Berlin and Fortuna Dusseldorf - are new to this particular competition.
Or maybe that just depends on how you define the play-offs - in a way, they go back to the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. Back then, there was no nationwide Bundesliga II, so the best teams from the five regional second divisions were put into two groups and then played brief round-robin tournaments to see which two sides would win promotion. In 1966, both Hertha and Dusseldorf were in the same group, and Fortuna eventually went up.
This system was in effect until a bribery scandal convinced the German FA to introduce a second professional league, the two-tiered Bundesliga II, in 1974. From now on, it would not be two teams relegated from the top flight but three, while three teams would win promotion: the best team from the northern tier of Bundesliga II; the best team from the southern tier; and the winner of the play-offs between the two second-placed teams.
Thus the promotional rounds were replaced by promotional play-offs, a system that would survive the next six years. (Incidentally, this is how Dortmund got back into the Bundesliga in the first place: In 1976, they won the second-division play-offs against Nuremberg.)
Then, in 1981, the German FA introduced a single, nationwide Bundesliga II. Theoretically, this eliminated the need for play-offs, but the 16th-placed team in the top flight was given the chance to avoid the drop by facing off against the third-placed team from the lower division. This was the birth of the relegation play-offs as we know them today. The first team to benefit from the system were Bayer Leverkusen, who defeated second-division Kickers Offenbach 1-0 and 2-1 in early June 1982.
This system remained in use for ten seasons. In three of them, the lower-division side upset the Bundesliga team: Bayer Uerdingen against Schalke in 1983, Saarbrucken against Bielefeld in 1985, Kickers Stuttgart against St Pauli in 1991. And, as we have seen, Fortuna Cologne came within a whisker to make it four.
The relegation play-offs were dropped in 1991, when another massive change occurred: eight clubs from the former GDR had to be incorporated into the league system (two into the Bundesliga, six into the lower flight). From that point on, little was heard of such games for more than 16 years - until early October 2007. That's when the country's 36 professional clubs surprisingly voted to reintroduce the play-offs for the following season.
One would have expected the Bundesliga II teams to oppose this move, but the only two clubs to vote against the resurrection of the relegation play-offs were Mainz and 1860 Munich, then both in the lower division. Six clubs abstained, while an overwhelming majority of 28 voted yes - probably with an eye on all that extra income from ticket sales and television money.
There was one crucial modification, though. The clubs decided that this time around the play-offs would be contested under the regulations known from games in Europe, meaning with the away-goals rule.
Which is why Fortuna Dusseldorf are now very close to returning to the Bundesliga after 15 long years. On Thursday night, the team won the first leg of the play-offs away at Hertha 2-1. It means that Berlin will have to score at least two goals in the second leg on Tuesday - 1-0 won't be enough.
If Dusseldorf press home the advantage they now hold, the team will become the second lower-division side to knock out a Bundesliga club in the four years since the relegation play-offs returned (Nurnberg were the first, defeating Cottbus in 2009). Of course, that's no consolation whatsoever to Fortuna Cologne and their fans.