A win over Duisburg put Fortuna Düsseldorf on a record 41 points for the first half of the season. The tradition-rich club hasn't lost since March, and is in the midst of a remarkable revival.
Rösler and the men in red are setting a new standard
The basement of Alois S., a tapas bar in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, is 560 kilometers away from Düsseldorf. But the tension among the Fortuna fans who gathered there Monday night to watch their club take on Duisburg was palpable.
After the hard-fought - and historic - win, supporters seemed stunned, as if even they couldn't really believe what their team had accomplished.
"It's really crazy," said Moritz, a 28-year-old fan who showed up for the match decked out in Fortuna red and white. "Things were so bad fifteen years ago that I almost cancelled my membership. But all the patience and hard work have paid off."
To outsiders, Fortuna's amazing run may seem to have come out of nowhere, but the club is one of the genuine sleeping giants in German football, being located in a large city and having a long tradition ripe for re-awakening.
Experts who follow the team aren't surprised that it is doing so well.
"I said right at the start of the season that they'd be near the top of the second division," Christian Krumm, a reporter who covers Fortuna for the local football magazine Reviersport, told Deutsche Welle. "If they hadn't got off to such a horrible start last season, they could easily have been promoted a year ago."
Düsseldorf lost their first six matches in 2010-11. Since then, they've collected more points - 94 - than any team in German professional football, reviving memories of when Düsseldorf's fortunes were on high.
Downs and Ups
Fortuna goes all the way back to 1895 and was a powerhouse in the early decades of the sport in Germany, even winning a national title in 1933.
Duisburg rarely got a look at goal against their local rivals
After the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963, Fortuna needed a few years to qualify for the top flight and first established itself there in 1971. Düsseldorf's highlights in the 1970s were a pair of German Cup titles, a runners-up finish in the Cup Winners Cup and a 7-1 thrashing of Bayern Munich, which remains the Bavarian giants' worst-ever away loss.
But Fortuna's fortunes waned in the 80s and 90s, and by the new millennium the club was nearly insolvent and had plummeted down to the fourth division. The financial situation was so dire that in 2002 Düsseldorf had to rely on the sponsorship of one's Germany's most successful rock bands, local heroes Die Toten Hosen, to survive at all.
Since then, it's been a steady process of recovery and rebuilding. 2008-9 was the turning point. Fortuna won promotion back to the second division and thus began playing all its home matches in the Esprit Arena, a stadium with a capacity of over 50,000, which greatly increased gate revenues.
"In decades past, the club was not considered very ‘in’, even in their home city, and their old stadium wasn’t somewhere many people wanted to take their families" Krumm said. "Now they’ve stop living beyond their means and are featuring lots of homegrown players. People identify with the club again, and with the new stadium, people are bringing their kids to matches."
2008 was also the year the club hired coach Norbert Meier, whose back-from-the-dead story rivals Fortuna’s own.
Meier is perhaps best known for an incident in 2005, when he, as the head coach of Duisburg, butted heads on the touchline with former Cologne player Albert Streit and then threw himself on the ground in pseudo-agony, trying to elicit a red card.
Meier, at right, remains an excitable coach
To be fair, Streit feigned agony too, but both men's play-acting was so dismal that the scene has become a fixture of “world's worst dives” videos on the Internet. The Bundesliga and Duisburg were less amused. Meier was suspended from coaching for three months and fired.
But for the past three seasons in Düsseldorf, Meier has been using his head in the more conventional sense.
"Fortuna used to play a standard 4-4-2, but Meier got them into a formation with two midfield stoppers and two wingers," Krumm said. "It's the same system Bayern Munich use, although they're much more offensive, of course. Meier's players know they have to track back a lot more."
The multi-tasking is working. Fortuna's goal difference is about the same as the other promotion candidates in the second division, but the telling stat is what’s in the loss column: a zero. Fortuna have become next-to-impossible to beat, having last dropped three points back in March.
But can the formula work where Düsseldorf seem likely to be heading - the first division?
Back with the big boys
"Absolutely," says Krumm. "The team that's doing so well this year features much the same starting eleven that played last season. Of course, if they do go up, they'll be looking to make qualitative improvements at three or four positions, especially since some of the veterans are well over thirty. But I think the passion with which they play will serve them well. It's no accident that they've won all their home matches this season."
Jens Langeneke is one of Fortuna's veteran perfvormers
The goal scorers against Duisburg were a pair of 34-year-olds, Jens Langeneke and Sascha Rösler. And Fortuna's top youngster, 21-year-old playmaker Maximilian Beister, is a loanee from Hamburg whose play has attracted the attention of several of the Bundesliga's bigger clubs.
That's left supporters a bit nervous, even while Fortuna have put together their amazing streak.
"I think there's still a big difference between the top team of the second division and an established mid-table first-division team," Fortuna fanatic Moritz said. "If we do go up, we'll probably have to make improvements to half the squad."
Düsseldorf were so bad for so long that die-hard fans’ caution is understandable. And despite going undefeated in the first half of 2011-12, Fortuna are by no means a shoo-in for promotion since the top teams in division two have racked up an unusual amount of points this season.
On the other hand, Düsseldorf have the infrastructure in place to make a go of it in the top flight. The club has established an effective youth division, and membership has more than doubled in the last five years.
In any case, Fortuna won't have to wait long to form a clearer impression of what the competition is like among Germany's footballing elite. They play reigning German champions Dortmund in the German Cup on December 20.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Hermann