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The 2021-22 season gets underway in Germany's second division on Friday as Schalke host Hamburg, just two huge names in a league full of fallen giants, cult clubs and fanatical support. Welcome to the "Super League."
When 12 European clubs launched their ill-fated attempt to form an elite European Super League earlier this year, they did so under the slogan: "The best clubs. The best players. Every week."
Now, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but, given that the venture collapsed in a storm of almost universal condemnation within 48 hours, it's safe to assume that not everybody thought it was the best idea in the world.
The failed coup demonstrated once and for all just how far detached the men who run football are from the people who regularly watch football: not always the best clubs, rarely the best players — but absolutely every week.
Entirely without the involvement of Florentino Perez, Andrea Agnelli, Joel Glazer, John Henry & Co., however, the 2021-22 season will feature a "Super League" after all: Bundesliga 2.
Germany's second division starts on Friday night, and here's why you should be watching:
In Germany, where the so-called 50+1 rule ensures that members have a say in the running of their clubs, the size of a football club is measured not by footballing success, but by its membership numbers.
And, when Schalke (158,000 members*) host Hamburg (85,360*) in the opening game on Friday night, the fixture will not only see Germany's third and seventh-biggest clubs going head-to-head, but two of the biggest sports clubs on the entire planet, with both clubs making the top 20 (Schalke fifth, HSV 18th).
Indeed, with Werder Bremen, St. Pauli, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Nuremberg, Dynamo Dresden, Hannover 96 and Hansa Rostock also in the division, Bundesliga 2 features nine of Germany's 25 biggest football clubs in terms of membership.
* Figures according to kicker magazine on 19.7.2021, which also puts Borussia Dortmund on 160,000 and Bayern Munich on 293,000.
Not that the second division is short on sporting pedigree, either.
This season's Bundesliga 2 clubs have a grand total of 43 league titles among them, whether in the Bundesliga since 1963, the pre-Bundesliga German Championship or the former East German Oberliga.
They also boast a combined 26 domestic cups, whether the prewar Tschammerpokal, the modern DFB Pokal (German Cup) or the former East German FDGB Pokal.
In Hamburg, Schalke and Werder Bremen, the division also has former European champions. HSV won the European Cup in 1983 and the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1977, Schalke's famous "Eurofighters" lifted the UEFA Cup in 1997, and Werder Bremen triumphed in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1992.
In addition, Fortuna Düsseldorf reached the European Cup Winners' Cup final in 1979, while Dynamo Dresden reached the UEFA Cup semifinal in 1989.
In 2018-19, the last full season to be played prior to the coronavirus pandemic, this year's second-division clubs recorded a combined average attendance of 24,500.
To put that in perspective, that would make this current Bundesliga 2 the fourth-most-watched league in Europe, behind La Liga (27,100 in 2018-19), the Premier League (38,200) and the Bundesliga (42,738), and ahead of Serie A (25,000) and Ligue 1 (22,800).
Two of the eastern German giants in particular, Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock, pride themselves on their fanatical support.
In October 2019, more than 30,000 Dynamo fans followed their team away to Hertha Berlin in the Cup, and have made headlines in the past when taking over 20,000 fans to away games against 1860 Munich in the Allianz Arena in 2005, 2011 and 2016. In January 2017, more than 10,000 traveled to Nuremberg — just because they could.
As for Hansa Rostock, their fans are looking forward to being back in the second division for the first time in a decade. In March 2018, Hansa set a record away attendance for the third division when 4,400 fans accompanied the team to Bremen for a league game against Werder's reserves.
This season, they'll see their side face Werder's first team, if COVID-19 infection rates allow it.
The two games between Hansa and Dynamo themselves will be two of the most hotly anticipated, especially if fans are allowed.
The fixture is one of the biggest derbies in eastern Germany, pitting Rostock, the Hanseatic port on the Baltic Sea coast, against Dresden, the grandly nicknamed "Florence on the Elbe" and capital of the state of Saxony.
They meet in Rostock on Matchday 4 on August 21 and in Dresden in February, while Dynamo fans will also be looking forward to Saxony derbies against local rivals Erzgebirge Aue.
Elsewhere, the season will feature several northern clashes of varying intensity. The standout is the Hamburg derby between HSV and St. Pauli, now going into its fourth consecutive season after HSV's latest failure to secure promotion. HSV will also resume Nordderby hostilities against Werder Bremen, after the latter were relegated.
Holstein Kiel and Hannover complete a strong northern German lineup while, in the west, there's little love lost between Schalke and Fortuna Düsseldorf either.
There are also three Bavarian clubs in the division, but nine-time German champions Nuremberg wouldn't consider Regensburg or Ingolstadt rivals. The "Club" would have been hoping that 1860 Munich had been promoted instead, but the Blues missed out on the final day.
The big names and fallen giants may grab the headlines, but they're in the second division for a reason: From Hamburg to Gelsenkirchen to Dresden, some of Germany's greatest clubs have been let down by gross mismanagement.
For other smaller clubs, the second division is a reward for sensible management and sustainable development, allowing them to punch above their weight.
In Hamburg, St. Pauli have fashioned an entire identity around doing football differently. With their explicit anti-racism stance, regular anti-discrimination campaigns and defense of the 50+1 rule, they've attracted fans from all over the world. The football isn't always brilliant, but they've only lost one of the last eight derbies against HSV, and that's probably more important.
Elsewhere, nestled in the Erzgebirge mountains on the German-Czech border, Aue have thrived where many of their more illustrious eastern German rivals have failed. Hailing from a former mining town of just 18,000 inhabitants, Aue have been a regular fixture in the second division since 2003, only suffering two relegations in that time. Their Erzgebirgsstadion, in one of the most picturesque locations in Germany, was renovated in 2018.
Heidenheim's Frank Schmidt is Germany's longest-serving coach. He gave Bayern Munich a scare recently
Further south in Baden-Württemberg, Heidenheim have enjoyed an impressive rise under the steady but expert guidance of head coach Frank Schmidt, Germany's longest-serving coach, having been in the job since 2007.
In 2019, they gave Bayern Munich a scare in the German Cup quarterfinal, only losing 5-4 in the Allianz Arena. In 2020, they reached the promotion playoff, losing on away goals to Werder Bremen. At 555 meters (1,821 feet) above sea level, Heidenheim's Voith-Arena is the highest stadium in professional German football.
It's cropped up a couple of times regarding the importance of club membership and the stance of clubs such as St. Pauli, but German football's 50+1 rule is arguably more heavily anchored in Bundesliga 2 than in the top-flight.
Of the 18 clubs, only Ingolstadt really draw frowns from advocates of the 50+1 rule, given the club's links to car manufacturer Audi. Ingolstadt's members do retain 80.1% control of the club, but the other 19.9% belongs to Audi Sport GmbH, itself a subsidiary of Volkswagen. Two former Audi board members, one current employee and a Volkswagen board spokesman form a majority on the club's supervisory board.
Hannover have been at the center of the debate over 50+1 for years. Former club President Martin Kind is a vocal opponent of the rule but was thwarted in his attempt to secure an exemption and take over majority control in 2018.
When Hamburg's professional football division was separated out into a private company in 2014, some supporters broke away in protest and formed their own club, HFC Falke. The promised successes as a result of the separation (or Ausgliederung) have since failed to materialize and HSV remain reliant on major shareholder Klaus-Michael Kühne.
It has been suggested that Schalke, relegated from the Bundesliga last season with €217 million ($257.8 million) of debt but still a 100% member-owned club, may be pursuing similar options.
Nevertheless, the second division doesn't feature any exemptions from the 50+1 rule (such as VfL Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and TSG Hoffenheim) or organizations that have actively circumvented regulations.
For many German fans, that's another reason to watch Bundesliga 2, Europe's real "Super League."