The Bundesliga's playoff system in which the third-last team faces the third-best team from the second divison is in need of reform. However, this is not because of fan violence, writes DW's Matt Ford.
Jahn Regensburg goalkeeper Philipp Pentke spent the final few minutes of his team's promotion playoff second leg on Tuesday dodging seats and metal bars thrown from behind his goal, as 1860 Munich were relegated to the third division. The shameful scenes in the Allianz Arena have led to calls for the abolition of the playoff system and arguments that such all-or-nothing games cause emotions to run so high that supporters can no longer control themselves. One night earlier, fans of second-division side Eintracht Braunschweig invaded the pitch after their team lost the playoff against Bundesliga club Wolfsburg.
The Bundesliga's playoff system is indeed in need of reform, but fan violence has nothing to do with it.
Sporting reasons to reform the playoffs
Since it's re-introduction in the 2008-09 season, seven of nine playoffs to determine relegation from and promotion to the Bundesliga have been won by the team from the top division - Nuremberg, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hoffenheim, Hamburg (twice), Eintracht Frankfurt and now Wolfsburg.
Simply put, it is wrong to require a team that has finished third in its division to then contest a playoff against a higher-ranked team. Promotion ought to earned based on a team's performance against similarly sized clubs on similar-sized budgets, not against a club operating within entirely different parameters.
No matter how poorly the Bundesliga team may have performed over the course of the season, and regardless of how well the second division side have played, the playoff is not a level playing field; the odds are stacked firmly in favor of the higher-ranked team. Wolfsburg may have struggled all season and weren't convincing in the two playoff games against Braunschweig either, but they were still able to call upon the individual quality of Vieirinha, Mario Gomez and Younes Malli to decide the tie. Two years ago, a perfectly placed free kick rescued Hamburg.
Of course, the playoffs were re-introduced for financial reasons, a prime-time season finale with increased viewing figures - a record 62,000 fans packed the Allianz Arena to watch 1860 Munich's collapse.
However, a glance at England shows how a playoff system can be exciting, dramatic and fair at the same time. In the second-tier Championship, the third, fourth, fifth and sixth placed teams face off in a semifinal and final format to determine the third promoted team. It features matches between evenly matched teams from the same league with a much more positive slant, the winner benefitting from the riches of the Premier League while the losers are not threatened with relegation.
The roots of fan violence go much deeper
There are more than enough reasons to reform German football's playoff system, however fan violence isn't one of them. The apparent increase in disorder at matches this season - not just the playoffs - is attributable to far wider-reaching factors than sporting failure.
As unacceptable as the behavior of a minority of 1860 Munich supporters was, their ire was directed not solely at their relegated players but rather at an investor who has driven their beloved club to the brink of extinction - and a governing body that has failed to enforce suitable checks on whether said investor can be considered fit and proper to run a football club.
Similarly, the boos and whistles that drowned out Helene Fischer's halftime performance at the German Cup final in Berlin on Saturday were not directed at the pop star herself but at a perceived commercialization and "eventization" of the sport. If the derogatory chants aimed at the German football association (DFB) by both sets of supporters before kickoff weren't clear enough, a Borussia Dortmund banner declaring "war on the DFB" certainly was.
Finally, when fans of RasenBallsport Leipzig were attacked in Dortmund's in February, this was not simply a rejection of the Red Bull-backed club but of what it represents. Such behavior can never be condoned but the repeated incidents highlight a growing sense of frustration and disenfranchisement in a sport which has been commercialized to the extent that corporations now exploit the game for their own marketing purposes.
German football has a problem with its playoff system and with violence. But the two are not linked.