BIELEFELD, Germany — Arminia Bielefeld’s managing director, Markus Rejek, points into the drained chairs in the west stands of these Schuco Arena, that the Bielefelder Alm, one of the renowned older German football grounds, and one of those few in the nation that is found in the center of a town where, on game days, locals sell beer to lovers from the gardens. Built in 1926, the terraces reach down all of the way into the pitch, together with time gradually washing the blue paint off the chairs.
“We’ll need to replace them at one point,” that the 52-year old Rejek states, before gesturing up in the terraces at the south end behind the goal at which the diehard fans fly their flags.
“It’s like walking to the older [Arsenal stadium] Highbury,” Andreas Kramer, a Bielefeld supporter who’s followed the team through all of the ups and downs of its foundation, states. “It’s unique here in Germany. You maybe get it down in Freiburg. You get a Bratwurst and a beer, then walk on to the ground.” It was in this component of Germany the British had their main air force base throughout the cold war, a lot growing to become Bielefeld fans. They nevertheless go back to the Alm if it is possible.
There is a running joke in Germany that the city of Bielefeld, tucked away in North Rhine-Westphalia an hour northeast of Dortmund — their opponents on Saturday, 10.30 a.m. ET, Stream LIVE on ESPN+ — is a mere illusion.
In 1994, college student Achim Held made the joke on an early internet forum, recalling a story his friend told him of when they met someone from Bielefeld at a party and were told the individual the place “does not exist” (“Das gibt’s doch gar nicht“). It gained traction and became part of German satire. There are other urban myths in a similar vein; for example, Trains never stop in Wolfsburg, another Bundesliga city on the key rail line between Cologne in the west and Berlin in the east.
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The joke functions such as this. When Bielefeld is mentioned, you are asked three questions: Do you know anyone who had been born or lived in Bielefeld? ) Have you been to Bielefeld? ) Do you know anyone who’s been to Bielefeld? ) Everyone’s anticipated to reply “no” to three, reacting “Bielefeld? There’s no such place!” Depending on who you speak to, it is similar to the German variant of Area 51, a location where spaceships are placed or where Elvis still resides for this day.
The Bielefeld conspiracy concept has been referenced in a speech by German chancellor Angela Merkel, when she recalled that a trip to the town “if it existed at all.” It was a topic of a film made by the local university, and even motivated the council in 2019 into offer a bounty of €1m to anyone who might prove the city was a figment of DIE’s (an omnipotent fictional thing called “They”) creativity.
Credit into the city : the joke was added to Bielefeld’s tourism booklet alongside “Max and Jule” (both brown bears living in neighboring Teutoburg Forest) and Sparrenburg Castle, a restored fortress dating back into the 13th century which looms over town centre.
“That conspiracy is a cool thing,” Artur Wichniarek, a former Poland worldwide who played Arminia Bielefeld and Hertha Berlin, informs ESPN. “You need to be able to laugh about yourself, and here, the people can do it.”
“Playing at Bielefeld always meant battling against relegation,” Wichniarek states ) “And back in the days, we were able to upset quite a few teams.” Just like on March 30, 2007, when they last defeat Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund’s renaissance through the years has been notable, but Bielefeld’s go back to the Bundesliga is equally astonishing. Arminia are back, and are extremely real indeed.
The city boasts that its 330,000-strong population proudly “cheer and celebrate, hope and suffer along with the Arminia football team.” Emphasis, perhaps, on “suffering” — in German football, Arminia Bielefeld are referred to as the “Fahrstuhlmannschaft” or the “elevator team,” effectively a club that’s perennially dancing between promotion and relegation. This summer, they won promotion to the Bundesliga for the eighth time.
Those steering the club are head coach Uwe Neuhaus, managing director Samir Arabi and Rejek, who learned his trade as a marketing officer at Borussia Dortmund during the successful Jurgen Klopp years until early 2014. Together, they oversee one of the most intriguing projects in German football: bringing a traditional club back from the brink.
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Things were bleak at Bielefeld when Rejek arrived three years ago. Using expertise garnered from Dortmund and then TSV 1860 Munich, Rejek took charge of Arminia’s beleaguered finances — they were in debt, and in need of €4.6 million to finish the season.
“Bielefeld are one of the big traditional clubs,” Rejek says. “Where Bielefeld was in 2017, the club just didn’t belong there. And I love a challenge. I couldn’t imagine where I could be useful for a club like Bayern Munich. I would not know how I could give them what they don’t already have.
“We needed a fresh start at Bielefeld, and it could have been down to someone completely different,” Rejek says. “I had different experiences and ways of thinking from my past jobs. When I was at Dortmund, I had this attitude of thinking bigger, being courageous. Here, in this region, people sometimes like to belittle themselves. We needed to change that.”
With the help of the Bundnis Ostwestfalen — basically a bunch of regional companies getting behind the team and awarding the new leadership a line of credit — that the team moved back to its origins. With many large German companies such as Dr. Oetker, that the Krombacher brewery and java company Melitta located in the area, the team turned into them, giving them a vision of hope to the future. Some obtained behind the nightclubs, while some waived their claims to get previous money owed.
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The club was likewise made to market their debt-ridden stadium, in which they had played because 1926 which had nearly bankrupted the team following an expansion and a few upgrades in 2008. In Schüco along with other local investors, they discovered a regional company who given them a buy-back alternative in 15 years. The program also convinced that the members of this club to green lighting the sale.
“If you have to climb a mountain that high, you can only achieve with the help of many, with the good will of companies, who all felt a deep responsibility for their club, but who all needed to win trust again, to have a new narrative,” Rejek adds.
Bielefeld’s debts, amounting to nearly $30 million, were cleared in late 2018.
“It was critical to escape this vicious cycle,” Rejek says. “Football established a system where sporting achievement is honoured. If you’re successful on the pitch, you receive more TV money. Once you’re in that program, you have to invest future income from the current. You market your potential, but [if the future doesn’t work out as planned] a snowball turns into an unstoppable avalanche of obligations and debts.”
Once they had managed to get their heads above water, Rejek stated Arminia had the capability to nurture the untapped potential inside the bar. While employees were enjoying the occasional “luxury” just like a functioning seat, or a computer, the group on the pitch had been turning turning themselves to the hardest-running side at the next branch.
In December 2018, Bielefeld appointed Neuhaus, 59, as their new head coach. Having acquired the Bundesliga name with Borussia Dortmund as a helper to Matthias Sammer at 2002, Neuhaus had chased a fantasy of becoming top dog in a Bundesliga club. While he came close to realising that in Union Berlin and Dynamo Dresden, he stayed another branch trainer, and coming 60 years old, it seemed just like a Bundesliga project could have escaped him. Until Arminia came knocking.
“It was a fit,” Rejek states, return to 2018. “It was like Arminia Bielefeld had been waiting for Neuhaus, and Neuhaus for Arminia Bielefeld. He’s a great fit here in the region, and when we met up with him in 2018, Uwe made it quite clear to us that he wants to fulfil his dream of winning promotion to the Bundesliga at a traditional club like Bielefeld.”
Back at 2014they had been relegated to the next grade of German football in the last minute of extra time at the playoffs against Darmstadt, however the center of the team remained together for many seasons. Club captain Fabian Klos, an outsider from neighboring Gifhorn at Lower Saxony, personified the club restlessness when Neuhaus took over. Klos had stuck with Arminia through these dark times and, such as Neuhaus, had dreamed of playing at the Bundesliga together with all the club he joined from Wolfsburg reservations in 2009.
“You might determine exactly what Klos can perform [based on] previous year,” Rejek claims of this Bundesliga two’s leading scorer at 2019-2020. His 21 targets, together with a further 11 aids, were instrumental as Bielefeld won the next league despite having a mid-table side’s budget. Klos is the club’s leading scorer with 152 aggressive goals across all competitions and leagues, but this year he has yet to discover the back of the internet.
“I really hope he starts rolling and shows he can score goals in Bundesliga. It’s important for the club,” Wichniarek, the prior Poland global whose 45 targets from the top-flight are still an Arminia record, states. “He’s a real number nine, and he needs to be fed by his team.”
On the pitch, it is about targets and wins, also Wichniarek understands it. However, Rejek considers that being powerful means longer. “It’s a team sport and to enable success here, you need everyone to buy into the ethos, from the guy who scores the goals to the person who posts the mail in the office.”
Over summer, Bielefeld made intelligent signings, such as loaning Germany U21 captain Arne Maier from Hertha Berlin. But they did not invest any money on transports; instead they attracted gamers in on free transfers or compensated little loan charges, living within their means on a $22 million budget. (Put in view, that is the yearly salary of Bayern celebrity Robert Lewandowski.) The past year, they just had the eighth-highest budget in Bundesliga two, working on a $12 million budget to Hamburger SV’s $28 million. )
For today, Bielefeld’s sole Aim is to Remain in the upper tier” We feel very well in our job as the underdogs, and we are going to wait to get a opportunity to create another wonder,” Rejek says. “We aren’t one of those five largest clubs in Germany, but no matter where we’re, it is very important to keep on growing as a golf club instead of only stand still.”
With that the coronavirus pandemic going to its first winter, it remains unclear when Arminia Bielefeld, or some other club, will probably be permitted to play into a packed stadium . As Rejek appears to the stands while we speak, alone from the 27,300-capacity stadium, it is difficult not to feel a pang of nostalgia.
“Football and songs, I think, nevertheless have the capability to unify individuals,” Rejek says. “People wish to experience feelings collectively,” Rejek says. “What we could see today with the vacant grounds is that the fan a part of football and football is performed for its people. They are part whatsoever. We need to do what we do at this time, it is required to keep going. But football with fans is not any football.”
The plan is to leave their mark on Borussia Dortmund, giving them and also the Bundesliga a timely reminder of what it requires for a side to punch above their weight.