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Women's Bundesliga: SGS Essen now one of a kind

Lorenz Schalling
September 17, 2023

SGS Essen are embarking on their 20th consecutive year in the Bundesliga. Notably, Essen are the only football team in Germany's top flight that don't have a professional men's club behind them.

SGS Essen players celebrate a goal
SGS Essen are their own distinct brand with no men's Bundesliga club to back them financially or otherwiseImage: Marcel Rotzoll/frontalvision/IMAGO

On one of the final days of SGS Essen's preseason preparations, the first team players are forced to move their training session to a plastic pitch. This is because workers from the city, which owns the facility, had picked that particular day to fertilize the grass pitch. Such inconveniences will happen at a club that don't own their own training facility. Things haven't changed since former Germany midfieder Turid Knaak's days as a youth player at the club more than two decades ago.

"We trained on three different pitches," Knaak told DW. "We trained a lot on artificial turf and in the winter, we had to drive all over the city of Essen."

Family atmosphere

SGS Essen are more than just a football team, they're a club that also offer their members the opportunity to take part in several other sports. Both current and former players, like Knaak, stress the fact that there is a family-like atmosphere at the club.

"You felt very comfortable as a football player. What SGS perhaps couldn't offer in terms of professionalism, they made up for in other ways," she said.

"You felt well looked after as a player, so you could still perform at a high level."

Knaak returned to SGS Essen to play in the Bundesliga in 2017. Her three years there were the most successful era in the club's history – with the team finishing in a best-ever fourth place in 2018-19. The following season, SGS reached the final of the German Cup for a second time, losing on penalties to Wolfsburg.

Turid Knaak tackles a Wolfsburg opponent
Turid Knaak (right) returned to her youth club to play in the BundesligaImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

Sustainable development

Over the past two decades the club have continued to make progress in many respects, including improvements in athletic training, training management and nutrition. The current major project is the construction of a clubhouse, which is slated for completion next year.

For the club's managing director, Florian Zeutschler, it's important "that we have the best possible conditions in terms of infrastructure with our training ground and with our training turf. Not compared to other teams, but within our means."

Taking a chance on youngsters 

Essen also has a reputation for giving players as young as 16 or 17 an opportunity to play in the Bundesliga.

"The crucial thing is that we believe in our talented young players and are prepared to take a certain degree of risk," Zeutschler said.

"Many teams that have international ambitions are not able to do that. For us, it's a matter of course."

Among those to get their first Bundesliga games at Essen are Germany players Lea Schüller, Lena Oberdorf and Linda Dallmann. SGS captain Jacqueline Meissner is another good example.

"Back then, I learned a lot from Charline Hartmann, who was more or less my mom here," she said of her rookie season in 2011. Now it's Meissner, who the younger players to turn to for guidance.

SGS Essen players training
SGS Essen players sometimes have no choice but to train on a plastic pitchImage: Lorenz Schalling/DW

Competitive disadvantage?

With Turbine Potsdam having been relegated at the end of last season, SGS are the only club in the Bundesliga that don't have a men's professional outfit behind them. Yet just two seasons ago, SGS were one of four "independent" clubs. While many see this as a disadvantage – particularly in financial terms; in Essen, it's simply not a topic of discussion.

"Our overarching credo is to never place the club in jeopardy," Zeutschler said. "We work within the revenue we take in. And we don't spend what we haven't earned."

The fact that teams with a men's professional club backing them are at a financial advantage is not lost on Tobias Trittel, Women's Football Coordinator at VfL Wolfsburg and chairman of the German FA's (DFB) Women's Bundesliga Committee.

"It's no secret that their ability to invest is usually much greater," he said, while noting that professional men's clubs also profit from such arrangements, though not necessarily in financial terms.

"You mustn't forget that the recent development of women's football has also had incredibly positive effects for the professional clubs, like in terms of their image."

No quick path to the top

The women's teams under the umbrella of a men's professional club also reap non-fiscal benefits, such as their experience in practical matters, like how to plan a training camp or how to maintain training pitches.

"In these areas, we have now reached the same level that is offered to our men on a daily basis," Trittel said of Wolfsburg's women's team.

Florian Zeutschler
Florian Zeutschler Image: Lorenz Schalling/DW

Women's teams whose clubs are already familiar to fans of men's football help raise awareness of the women's game as a whole. The latest to start their own women's programs have been Borussia Dortmund in 2021 and Hertha Berlin this past summer. But you also have to think investing in a women's team only becomes worth it for a men's club, when they make it to the Women's Bundesliga.

However Zeutschler, the managing director at SGS Essen has his doubts about whether such clubs will have the patience it takes to work their way up to become one of the 12 teams in the topflight.

"The fact that only two teams get promoted (from the second division per year) raises the question as to how long big clubs are prepared to stick it out in the second division, or in the regional league (third tier), to achieve the goal of making it to the Bundesliga."

SGS Essen, on the other hand, are already there – and they have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

This article was adapted from German and edited by Matt Pearson.

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