League structure in Germany

The level of play in the German leagues is among the top in Europe, and probably the world. Certainly the recent financial power of the EPL and Spain's La Liga have given more success to their clubs. And despite a constant decline, Italy's Serie A remains a top league. England and Spain now have the financial clout where the top clubs can easily outbid the Bundesliga for top players. However, I think it is a fair statement the the Bundesliga is the most balanced and exciting league. Fans tend to vote by showing up in the stadium, and Germany always has the top attendance figures. Furthermore, very few of Germany's clubs are drowning in a sea of debt while overspending in a futile attempt to compete.

Now as far as the league structure, Germany's soccer federation, the DFB is almost always tinkering with it. Not like England, which is fairly constant. (Although at least not misnamed, where the Championship is not, the 1st division is really the 2nd division... Oh well, the Brits invented soccer, so we'll cut them some slack.) Throughout most of German history, the champions were determined by winners of regional leagues, and then some type of playoff system, ending up with a final match. However by the 1950s, concern increased that German clubs and the national squad were being left behind by more powerful European leagues such as Italy and Spain. In addition, the weak financials were worrying many clubs about the drain of domestic star players to foreign leagues. So the DFB decided to do something about it...

Below is a breakdown of the league pyramid. I've only included the complete hierarchy for the present day:

Level 2008-present 1994-2008 1974-1994 1963-74 1946-63
I Bundesliga Bundesliga Bundesliga BundesligaOberliga
II 2.Liga 2.Liga 2.LigaRegionalliga 2.Liga
III 3.Liga RegionalligaAm.Oberliga1.Amateurliga
IV Regionalliga Oberliga Verbandsliga 2.Amateurliga
V Oberliga Verbandsliga Landesliga
VI Verbandsliga Landesliga
VII Landesliga Bezirksoberliga
VIII Bezirsksoberliga Bezirksliga
IX Bezirksliga Kreisliga
X Kreisliga Kreisklasse A
XI Kreisklasse A Kreisklasse B
XII Kreisklass B Kreisklasse C
XIII Kreisklasse C
This table gives only a rough approximation of the groupings, as the structure was not necessarily uniform across Germany. For example, the Amateur-Oberliga established in 1974 was controlled by the regional federations, mostly in the north. The southwestern associations kept their existing structure until 1978. (Thanks to Christian Karn for clearing this up)

As for the current setup, the following comments are relevant:

BUNDESLIGA (1st division)

The BUNDESLIGA (Federal League) is the top division, and was only founded in 1963. The only founding member never to be relegated is Hamburger SV, since 1.FC Köln bit the dust in 1998. HSV has had a few close calls, but is still kicking. Originally with 16 teams, it was expanded to 18 a couple of years later, where it has pretty much remained. Initially, the bottom two clubs were relegated, but it's been 3 for several years now. The Bundesliga has been the one constant in Germany Professional soccer for some 45 years, but the DFB has changed things around willy-nilly in the lower divisions.

The Bundesliga is unquestionably a financial powerhouse. In recent years, average attendance has climbed well over 30,000 per match, which is the highest in all of Europe. (Indeed, the 40,000 mark was finally breached in 2006!). The successful clubs are generally done well financially and have been expanding or building new stadiums. The gravy train was slightly derailed in 2002, when the Kirch Media group collapsed into bankruptcy. Kirch had paid outrageous amounts of money and attempted to rip off the public with a Pay-TV package for the Bundesliga. The viewers sensibly revolted, and Kirch was left holding the bag. This will undoubtedly force saner finances, although most Bundesliga clubs are on solid financial ground. This is reinforced by a relatively stringent operating licensing procedure that the DFB requires for all clubs operating at a professional level. In general, the requirements are that the club show financial solvency based on the league they intend to operate in. It is not unusual for clubs suffering from short-term cash flow to barely meet the requirements set by the federation, as by-and-large dodgy financing and cheating is generally frowned upon. (Compare with Italy, where if the same standards were applied, probably every club would be relegated down to the Serie D.)

ZWEITE BUNDESLIGA (2nd division)

The second division is officially known as the ZWEITE BUNDESLIGA, or more commonly simply as "die Zweite Liga". Like most 2nd division leagues, it consists of teams with aspirations for top flight, and other obscure clubs that nobody outside Germany has ever heard of.

The DFB has moved things around here quite a bit. For the first 10 years of the Bundesliga, the 2nd division was left to Regionalliga, organized on regional basis, with promotion playoffs. Then these were consolidated into a two section 2.Liga Nord and 2.Liga Süd. These were then finally combined into a single 2nd division (with an exception in 1990/91, when the two division format was revived to accomodate the integration of the former GDR clubs into the leagues).

Financially speaking, the 2.Liga has been getting stronger. When popular Bundesliga "traditionals" drop down, they often have tremendous attendance records. For example, when Kaiserslautern dropped, they were averaging 45,000 per home game. While the top clubs often average in the upper twenties, the league seems to have stabilized around a 15,000 attendance mark for the high end clubs. Of course, there are also clubs like Burghausen that draw much worse than your average 3.Liga or Regionalliga club.

DRITTE LIGA (3rd division)

Starting with the 2008/09 season, the DFB authorized a new national league, the 3.Liga. This is a fully professional league, and is the highest level where the "II" teams can be promoted.

REGIONALLIGA (4th division)

When introducing the 3.Liga in 2008, the DFB also decided to reorganize the Regionalligen again. This time, there are 3 leagues contained, the Nord, West, Süd. These clubs can either be fully-professional or semi-pro.

The Regionalliga came into existance along with the Bundesliga in 1963. Originally, this was the 2nd division, and the champions and runner-ups of each league would then meet in promotion playoffs for the Bundesliga. The original leagues were: Berlin, Nord, West, Südwest and Süd.

This setup lasted until 1975, when the DFB reorganized and did away with the Regionalliga altogether. Instead, the Regionalligen were replaced with the "Amateur" Oberliga (so named to distinguish from the old pre-1963 Oberliga). These basically followed the same organization, but the larger leagues, such as Nord and Süd were further broken up into more regional leagues, generally based on the states. When the former GDR was integrated in 1990, the ex-GDR teams were spread around in various leagues, but additional regions popped up. It was pretty clear that this setup was untenable in the long run, and that reform would be needed.

So the Regionalliga made a comeback. From 1994 until 2000, 3rd division was made up of four regional leagues, the divided into:

Süd (South = Bayern, Hessen, Baden-Wuertemberg), West/Südwest(West/Southwest = Saar, RheinlandPfalz,NordrheinWestfalen), Nord (North = Niedersachsen, Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein) and Nordost(Northeast = former GDR and Berlin)

Under those rules, the champions of the South and West/SW were automatically promoted into the 2.Liga. The North and Northeast champion had a playoff for the 3rd spot. The fourth and final slot was then a playoff with the loser of the North/Northeast and the runnerups of the South and West/SW. The DFB decided on this formula since the number of clubs represented by the regional federations of south, west/sw and north/northeast is approximately equal.

Starting with the 2000/01 season, the 3rd division was combined into two "fully professional" leagues, the Regionalliga Nord and Regionalliga Süd. Both the winner and the runner-up gain automatic promotion into the 2.Liga, pending the granting of a 2.Liga license by the DFB, demonstrating financial solvency. Regionally speaking, this essentially divides Germany with a line in the middle, which meant the breakup of the old GDR leagues.

Of course, now we have the recent reorg, giving us the 3 league 4th division...

Attendance in the 4 section Regionalliga varied, but was usually under 5,000 a match. It was generally higher in the former GDR, given the presence of many "traditional" clubs. The new two section Regionalliga seems to be a bit higher, so the jury is still out whether it's a success. One thing is clear. Now that the DFB has "fixed" the 2.Liga and 3.Liga, they are sure to keep on tinkering with the Regionalliga...

OBERLIGA (5th division)

The 5th division consists of many regional OBERLIGA. For the most part, these coincide closely with the the actual federal state structure, at least in western Germany. (The eastern leagues are merely divided into a two group north/south). This should not be confused with the pre-1963 (i.e. Bundesliga) Oberliga, which was then the highest level. And of course, the old GDR used to call it's top division the Oberliga as well.

Attendance in the Oberliga is usually pretty lame. Average crowds are probably around 1,500 for decent clubs. Small clubs often make due with numbers in the hundreds.

The basic Oberligen are:

Hamburg/Schleswig-Holstein, Niedersachsen/Bremen, Westfalen, Nordrhein, Südwest, Hessen, Baden-Württemberg, Bayern, Nordost-Nord, Nordost-Süd

Starting in 2004, Hamburg/Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen/Bremen combined into the single unit Oberliga Nord - but this was broken up again in 2008 when the 3.Liga came into existance. On the other hand, Westfalen and Nordrhein combined to make a "Oberliga-NRW".

VERBANDSLIGA (6th division)

The 6th division is usually called the VERBANDSLIGA or occasionally LANDESLIGA. . This can be a bit confusing, since in most areas, the Landesliga will be the 6th division. (In general, the "Verbandsliga" terminology became common in the late 1970s, as most districts pushed their Landesliga down a notch.) In many cases, they may not be even named Verbands or Landes, but will just have a local description, like "Niederrheinliga". The basic idea is that these leagues are under control of the local regional soccer organization. These are basically local affairs, with only short distances. Attendance is usually in the hundreds.

The Rest

As you go further down the ladder, perhaps all the way to the 12th division, you have all sorts of leagues, such as Kreisliga, Bezirksliga, Oberunterundherumliga, etc. Often the distinction is made between a Liga ("League") and Klasse ("class"), where the former is usually higher. Hence, the Bezirksliga (the league for beserk people; just kidding) would be higher than the Bezirksklasse. Not all regions have all the different divisions, but you get the general idea.

In the old days, clubs usually fielded as many squads as they had players. So if you really wanted to play for Bayern München, perhaps you could have played on the 8th squad or so down in the Haultsmaulundgibtmirnebierliga. Today, it's unusual that a team will have more than 3 squads in the men's league (ignoring youth squads), so if you want to play and you're not good enough Bayern, you'll have to switch to one of the zillion other local clubs.

Youth soccer

Youth leagues are organized pretty much the same, except there are obviously no professionals. There is no national league, so the top level is the Regionalliga. The winners then go into a playoff tournament to determine the German champion. The A-Jugend is the top age group, 17-18 years, and the B-Jugend is 15-16, C-Jugend is 13-14, down to eventually "Bambinos", who probably just popped out of the womb. Basically, in order to play youth soccer, you join a club and play on one of their youth teams.

One interesting aspect (or disturbing trend, depending on your perspective), has been the rise of the "amateur" squads of the Bundesliga clubs. Under current DFB rules, full professionals under 23 can play in the amateur squad, as long as they don't play in the "A" squad in the same weekend. With a mix of superb young professional talent and seasoned amateurs, these clubs have risen in strength in the last few years, and have become quite strong in their presence in all lower divisions, with perhaps the exception of the ex-GDR Nordost. As a result, there is no "reserve" competition or informal matches. In 2005, the motly collection of "B" squads, varyingly known as "Amateur", "U23", "U21", "II" etc. were all renamed to "II". The DFB has also instituted various rules to encourage the development of youth players, by requiring minimum number of U23 players on each roster - for all clubs in the lower divisions. Supposedly new regulations will lessen the impact of Bundesliga clubs "loaning" their pros to their "amateur" squads. In addition, the DFB has imposed rules that a "II" cannot arise above the 3.Liga. And of course, two squads of the same club may not play in the same level, so if the higher squad were to be relegated, the "II" squad would be dropped to a lower level. Nevertheless, most smaller clubs and fans strongly oppose the II setup. The DFB looks at this as a good way to develop young talent, but the opposition merely sees death at the box-office, as "II" squads quite often draw "crowds" of less than 1,000. Certainly there is some pressure to force all II squads into a seperate reserve league, like England, but the DFB and richer pro clubs have so far resisted.

This raises another important issue, the actual definition of "amateur". The Bundesliga and 2.Liga are strictly professional, no questions here. The DFB sets very strict financial guidelines, stadium requirements, coaching licenses etc. The 3.Liga is also considered fully professional, and in theory the now 4th division Regionalliga is as well. Below that, in theory the squads are "amateur". However this is clouded by the existance of the Vertragsamateur (contract amateur). Basically this arrangement allows the player to receive a salary from the club, along with fringe benefits (apartment, car, job, etc.). I guess you could say it's a bit like NCAA football and basketball :) In any case, ambitious clubs have been known to pull out all the stops and often pay higher wages than some 2.Liga clubs. (For example, in 97-98, Mainz star Bruno Akrapovic transferred from 2.Liga to then 3rd division Tennis Borussia Berlin, but was reportedly earning over DM 200,000 after taxes.) Although this does cloud the "amateur" status somewhat, it does mean that the quality of play in the lower leagues is extremely high. In 1997/98, 3rd division Eintracht Trier defeated reigning UEFA Champion Schalke AND reigning CHAMPIONS LEAGUE holder Borussia Dortmund in the DFB Cup!! In 2001, 3rd division Union Berlin made it all the way to the finals, and ended up qualifying for the UEFA Cup.

League Attendance Figures

(c) Abseits Guide to Germany