This article was brought to you by Halb Vier as part of The Away End. Inspired by the resurgence of print based football magazines, Halb Vier is a new fanzine focussing on the joys of German football, be it the stadiums, the fans, the beer or the even the action on the pitch.
The German football landscape is full of teams who played at the highest level before disappearing into the lower leagues. Rot Weiss Essen, Stuttgart Kickers, Tasmania Berlin and Wuppertaler SV have all played in the Bundesliga and now compete in regional leagues. No club has fallen so far as Borussia Neunkirchen.
In the mid-1900’s the town of Neunkirchen in Saarland was booming as a result of the coal and iron industry. It’s football team, Borussia Neunkirchen, were a successful team; DFB Pokal runners up in 1959, competitors in the German Championship finals 3 times between 1959 and 1963 and a Bundesliga side for 3 seasons in the mid-sixties. In the top division they hosted Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt in front of crowds of 25,000.
The team play in the wonderful Ellenfeld stadium. Opened in 1912 it’s now a football museum that showcases a glorious past. It was expanded to a capacity of 35,000 after WW2 when Saarland existed as protectorate of France and had it’s own national team. Borussia wanted the town to finance the expansion of the stadium’s capacity to 35,000, with the aim of hosting international games. Work on the stadium was nearing completion as the club was competing in the most successful period in its history.
Today the coal and iron works are long closed. The town centre shops are permanently closed, pubs are boarded up and many houses in the narrow streets are empty. The team plays in the 6th division Saarland League against teams like Spvgg Quierschied, FSV Jägersburg and TuS Herrensohr. 300 people watches the games on a good day, a good proportion of which are groundhoppers making a pilgrimage to the Ellenfeld.
They come to see the steep terraces that were once filled with huge crowds, the gigantic stand in the corner shoulder barges its way into the surrounding residential streets and feel the history that oozes from every crack in the terraces.
It’s the magnificent history of the club and it’s stadium that are helping to keep it alive. Recent fundraising efforts show the desire of football fans to maintain the stories of the past for generations of future fans and support for the club’s motto of “alte liebe lebt” (old love lives).
In 1959 Borussia Neunkirchen competed in the DFB Pokal final, against another team that have also fallen into the lower leagues, Schwarz Weiss Essen (now of the 5th division Oberliga Niederrhein). Borussia lost 5-2 and, at the end of that season, missed out on winning the German championship, after losing to other regional champions Hamburg SV, Karlsruhe SC and Westfalia Herne (another fallen giant now playing in the 5th division Oberliga Westfalen) in a play-off round.
In 1964 the team qualified for the newly formed Bundesliga, after winning a playoff round including Bayern Munich and St. Pauli. Neunkirchen became the smallest town to play Bundesliga football and represented the smallest German state on the national stage with a team consisting of players from the town and region.
The first home game in the Bundesliga was a 1-2 defeat against Borussia Dortmund in front of 25,000 at the Ellenfeld stadium.
That season Neunkirchen beat HSV, Meidericher SV (now MSV Duisburg), 1860 Munich, Karlsruher SC, Hannover 96, Schalke 04, VfB Stuttgart and Eintracht Frankfurt at home. Thanks to this home strength the team finished the season in 10th place. Most home games were played in front of 25,000 spectators at the Ellenfeld stadium, a figure that represented well over half the town’s the population at the time.
It was the home game against Eintracht Frankfurt, a 4-0 victory in front of a packed Ellenfeld, that recently became the centre piece of the club’s recent fundraising efforts.
18,355 tickets for a virtual game were sold to raise funds to help the club through the Corona crisis. Awareness of the club’s fundraising appeal spread via social media and tickets were sold throughout Germany, showing the allure the Borussia Neunkirchen story continues to have. Each virtual ticket is valid for the first match after the Corona shutdown and the organiser of the virtual game, Jörg Eisenhuth, said, “it would be great if the people in an around Neunkirchen would rediscover their enthusiasm for Borussia and support us in our work through a visit to our beautiful Ellenfeld stadium, with its unique atmosphere.”
On the day of the virtual match the club presented a minute-by-minute report of the game against Eintracht Frankfurt on their Facebook page and brought the club’s glorious past to life for a modern audience.
The second Bundesliga season resulted in relegation back to the Regionalliga South West after a disastrous campaign, which included a 1-9 home defeat against 1860 Munich. The team even lost against Tasmania Berlin, one of only 2 games the capital city side won all season as they finished up with a record low of 8 points.
The club returned to the Bundesliga for the 1967/8 season. The campaign included a 1-1 home draw against a Bayern Munich side including Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller and a 10-0 defeat away at Borussia Mönchengladbach. At the end of the season Neunkirchen were relegated again. In the same year the last coal mine in Neunkirchen closed.
Promotions to the 2. Bundesliga in 1974, 1978 and 1991 saw the team relegated again at the end of the next season. The 1980’s saw the industrial base of the town further decline as the ironworks, which stood in the centre of the town shut down. The population of the town decreased, and the economy shrunk. Money for the football team became scarce.
Borussia Neunkirchen’s on field struggles were compounded by reforms to the German football pyramid, which pushed them further down the football pyramid when a national 3rd division and new regional leagues were introduced. Attempts to return to the top levels of football cost significant amounts of money and saw the club struggling financially.
There were a few bright spots in more recent history. The early 1990’s saw Jay-Jay Okocha play 35 times for the Neunkirchen, who spotted him after he joined in training with the club when visiting a friend.
In 1992 and 2003 Borussia Neunkirchen played against Bayern Munich again at the Ellenfeld, losing 0-6 and 0-5 in the DFB Pokal. The 2003 Bayern side included Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and Owen Hargreaves and the game was watched by 23,000 people inside the Ellenfeld. Millions more watched at home as the game was shown live on national television. The club’s past again highlighted and highlighted to a new generation of football fans.
The club had to turn down promotion to the 3rd division in 2005 due the financial problems that continued to plague the club and by 2015 the club were facing bankruptcy. Two fans raised the profile of the club’s plight by driving a VW Beetle around Bundesliga clubs and getting players to sign it before auctioning it to raise money. The club were able to raise enough funds to keep going but it wasn’t enough to prevent relegation to the 6th level Saarland league in 2017, where they remain today.
Borussia Neunkirchen and the Ellenfeld stadium are important for the cultural identity of the town and the Saarland region. The Saarland Interior Ministry recently made €2m available for the renovation of the stadium and, before the league was stopped, the team were performing well in fifth place with a team built around young players. There’s hope for the future and Jörg Eisenhuth notes “that people, in this time of crisis, realise what meaning local football has”. Football acts as a connection to the town’s history and there are hopes that recent small steps forward can act as a catalyst for a brighter future for Borussia Neunkirchen.