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 By Uli Hesse

VfB Stuttgart - The reasons behind the fall

Putting it mildly, it was not a good week for VfB Stuttgart.

Last Monday, an investigative commission looking into the University of Freiburg's role in the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports announced there was "secure evidence" that "between 1975 and about 1980" at least two professional German clubs were using anabolic steroids "systematically" and "on a larger scale." The press release named SC Freiburg and VfB Stuttgart.

Four days later, on Friday, Stuttgart only drew a relegation six-pointer with Hertha Berlin at home. The team put in a decent performance but failed to score for the 12th time this season. It was VfB's ninth winless home game in a row, a new club record. Even more depressing was that only 45,400 people had come out to support their team for this crucial game. Stuttgart's ground holds more than 60,000.

The result left the side in last place, five points from safety. They will now play five teams in a row that are in the top half of the table and challenging for Europe. In other words, the scoreless draw meant that reaching the relegation playoffs against a team from the second division might be the best VfB can now hope for.

Just a few weeks ago, Stuttgart's Mayor for Sports and Culture (a position many German municipalities have), Susanne Eisenmann, said that "VfB's relegation would be a catastrophe" for the city. "Without a team in the Bundesliga we would have a real problem with our visibility."

An hour after the Hertha game, the city had a different sort of problem. Some 80 VfB hooligans, armed with iron bars, attacked two policemen. The situation became so threatening that one of them was forced to pull his gun and fire off warning shots.

Rainer Wendt, a spokesman for the police union, said that he could no longer rule out the possibility that "one of these days a colleague in great trouble will use his gun in such a way that we'll have the first casualty".

Which begs the question: how did a club that won the Bundesliga only eight years ago manage to sink to such lows?

With each passing week VfB Stuttgart's hopes of Bundesliga survival continue to fade.
With each passing week VfB Stuttgart's hopes of Bundesliga survival continue to fade.

On one level, the story of VfB's decline is a tale that simply centres on a lot of bad decisions made by a dazzling number of individuals. Stuttgart have changed their coach no less than eight times during the seven-and-a-half years since that 2007 title. Over the same span, three different directors of football were responsible for the squad and three different presidents have represented the club.

On another level, it's almost emblematic of the changing landscape of the German game. Stuttgart, the sixth-largest city in the country, is the centre of one of the richest and economically most powerful regions in Germany. The car was invented here, which is why Daimler/Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are still based in Stuttgart, while the famous engineering and electronics company Bosch resides nearby.

Over the last few years, the distribution of wealth in this region has become highly conspicuous in football, too. When Stuttgart won the league back in 2007, five small and in some cases tiny clubs, all based within less than 50 miles of VfB, were playing lower-level or semi-pro football: VfR Aalen, SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach, FC Heidenheim, TSG Hoffenheim and SV Sandhausen.

Now, seven years later, they have all risen to the professional level: one, Hoffenheim, is playing in the Bundesliga (and currently 11 places above VfB), three are in the second division, one in the third. Adding to that is the fact that there are three other, bigger and better-known but equally up-and-coming clubs that are no more than 90 miles away from Stuttgart: FC Augsburg (strong contenders for the European berths), Darmstadt and Karlsruhe (strong contenders for promotion to the Bundesliga).

While some parts of Germany, most notably the Rhineland and the Ruhr area, have always had numerous teams in the top two or three divisions, VfB used to tower above the surrounding region for decades. For a long time, the only real threat to the club's dominance of Swabian football were local rivals Kickers Stuttgart, whose heyday ended in the late 1910s, but who briefly made it to the Bundesliga on two occasions a quarter of a century ago.

Perhaps nothing illustrates VfB's exalted position better than the fact that in the mid-1980s my best friend's younger brother was a Stuttgart fan, despite the fact he lived on Lake Constance, almost a three-hour drive south of Stuttgart. When I asked him why he didn't support a more local team, he said: "Unless you choose Bayern Munich, which as Swabians we cannot do, there's only VfB. We don't have a choice."

But that was a long time ago. Suddenly mighty VfB are all but encircled by smaller but smarter -- and sometimes also more successful -- clubs. It's a story that's also played out elsewhere.

Stuttgart's 2006-07 Bundesliga title must now seem like ages ago to their supporters.
Stuttgart's 2006-07 Bundesliga title must now seem like ages ago to their supporters.

Ingolstadt -- based almost exactly between Munich and Nuremberg -- are about to leave both 1860 and FC Nurnberg in their dust. Hoffenheim are heads and shoulders above tradition-laden neighbours Waldhof Mannheim. Last season, Paderborn were promoted to the top flight, while Arminia Bielefeld (just 25 miles down the road) dropped to the third division. And of course there's the new club in Leipzig, RB. Everyone expects them to play Bundesliga football soon, whereas the old, well-known clubs from that city (like VfB Leipzig, which is now known as Lokomotive Leipzig) have been run into the ground.

The traditionalists among German football fans, of which there are many, bemoan this development. They have a point. Last week, I took two football fans from Birmingham to a Dortmund game because they wanted to savour the atmosphere. And the week before that, an English ESPN colleague travelled to Stuttgart with half dozen friends not on professional duty but to experience the Bundesliga. I doubt people are going to organise similar trips to Ingolstadt next season.

However, it's certainly not enough to just complain that football as we know it is going to the dogs and moan where it's all got to with the money pumped into the likes of Leipzig or Hoffenheim. For one, it's not exactly pumped into Heidenheim or Sandhausen. Second, while big, old clubs from economically weak regions (such as almost the entire former East Germany) may indeed be incapable of withstanding the new competition on purely financial grounds, this is an excuse a behemoth like VfB Stuttgart just doesn't have.

What seems to have happened is that some of the big clubs (Hamburg also come to mind) realised too late that what used to be their competitive advantage -- their size, their history, their large fan base -- gradually turned into a disadvantage. Like dinosaurs, they became too heavy to move quickly and too hungry to be patient.

Now they seem to think that what is holding them back is just a structural problem -- both Hamburg and Stuttgart loudly discussed the pros and cons of turning their professional football divisions into limited companies last year. Maybe that's the solution. And maybe it's not. Maybe something else has to be changed. An attitude, say, or a mindset. In any case, all the signs are that Stuttgart will have to find an answer to this question in the second division.

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.

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