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Fault! The file name is not specified. Bielefeld’s annual budget is approximately equal to Robert Lewandowski’s annual salary in Bavaria, but they have returned to the Bundesliga. Lucas Schultze/Bundesliga/Getty Images Bundesliga meeting
BILEEFELD, Germany — Bielefeld’s director Markus Rajek refers to the worn-out seats in the western grandstand of the Shuko Arena, the Bielefelder Alm, one of Germany’s famous former football fields and one of the few in the country located in the heart of the city, where residents sell beer from their gardens to fans on match days. Built in 1926, the terraces open onto the fields and slowly wash away the blue paint from the chairs.
At some point we will have to replace them, says Reyek, 52, before they wave their flags on the terraces on the south side behind the gate.
It’s like walking into the old stadium of Highbury [Arsenal], says Andreas Kramer, a Bielefeld fan who has guided the club through all the ups and downs of its history. It’s unique here in Germany. Maybe you can do it in Freiburg. You take a bratwurst and a beer, then you come downstairs. In this part of Germany, the British had the largest airbase during the Cold War, many of which became supporters of Bielefeld. They always return to God when they can.
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In Germany there is a joke going on: the town of Bielefeld, hidden in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, an hour’s drive northeast of Dortmund – their opponents on Saturday, 10:30. ET, Stream LIVE on ESPN+ is just an illusion.
In 1994 pupil Achim Held made a joke in one of the first internet forums in which he remembered a story his friend told him when they met someone from Bielefeld at a party and he was told that this place didn’t exist (That doesn’t exist). It gains popularity and becomes part of German satire. There are other urban myths that point in the same direction: For example, trains never stop in Wolfsburg, another Bundesligastad on the important railway line between Cologne in the west and Berlin in the east.
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This is how the joke works. If Bielefeld is mentioned, you will be asked three questions: Do you know anyone who was born in Bielefeld or lived there? You were at Bielefeld yourself? Do you know anyone who’s ever been to Bielefeld? Does everyone have to say no to all three when answering Bielefeld? There’s no such place! Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s like the German version of Area 51, where the spaceships are or where Elvis is still alive.
The conspiracy theory in Bielefeld was even mentioned in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech when she remembered her visit to the city, if it existed at all. It was the subject of a film made by a local university and even prompted the municipality to offer a generous sum of 1 million euros in 2019 to anyone who could prove that the city was the product of the imagination of THE (an omnipotent fictional creature called Oni).
Merit from the city itself: With Max and Jules (two brown bears living in the nearby Teutoburg Forest) and the Sparrenburg, a restored 13th century fortress, the castle is a real gem. In the 19th century, a joke was added to the tourist booklet of Bielefeld, which dominates the city centre.
This conspiracy is a cool thing, says ESPN Arthur Wihniarek, a former Polish internationalist who played for Arminia Bielefeld and Gerta Berlin. You should be able to laugh at yourself, and that’s what you can do here.
Playing Bielefeld has always meant that we have to fight the relegation, according to Wihniarek. And these days, we’ve been able to cover up a few teams. Just like the 30th. March 2007, the last time they defeated Borussia Dortmund. While Dortmund’s renaissance over the years has been remarkable, Bielefeld’s return to the Bundesliga is no less striking. Armenia’s back, and it’s real.
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The city is proud that its 330,000 inhabitants are proud to be sick and to celebrate, hope and suffer with the Arminiya football team. Maybe the focus is on Leiden – in German football Arminius Bielefeld is called the elevator team, in fact a club that constantly dances in the elevator between going up and down. This summer they managed the eighth promotion to the Bundesliga.
The club is led by coach Uwe Neuhaus, director Samir Arabie and Reyek, who learned the marketing trade at Borussia Dortmund during the successful years of Jürgen Klopp until early 2014. Together they lead one of the most fascinating projects in German football: the return of a traditional club from the abyss.
Fault! The file name is not specified. – set
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Everything was joyless in Bielefeld when Reyk came to Bielefeld three years ago. Based on the experience gained in Dortmund and then at TSV 1860 Munich, Raijk took over the management of Armenia’s finances – they were in debt and needed EUR 4.6 million to close the season.
Bielefeld is one of the big traditional clubs, says Reyek. Where Bielefeld was in 2017, the club simply has no place. And I like a challenge. I couldn’t imagine where I could be of use to a club like Bavaria Munich. I don’t know how to give them what they don’t already have.
We had to make a new start in Bielefeld, and according to Reyek it could have been someone else. I had a different experience and way of thinking than in my previous work. When I was in Dortmund, I had this attitude: think more, be brave. Here in this region, people sometimes like to humiliate themselves. We had to change that.
With the help of the Bundnis Ostwestfalen – a group of regional companies that supported the club and provided a credit line to the new management – the club returned to its roots. The club has established contacts with many large German companies, including Dr. Oetker, the brewery and coffee company of Krombacher Melitta, is based in the region and offers them a hopeful vision for the future. Some supported the clubs, while others gave up their demands for old money.
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The club was also forced to sell the stadium with debts, where it had been playing since 1926, which almost bankrupt the club after the expansion and some modernization in 2008. Together with Schüco and other local investors, they set up a regional company, which granted them a squeeze-out option 15 years later. The plan also convinced members to approve the sale with a green light.
If you have to climb that high mountain, you can only do so with the help of a lot of people, with the goodwill of companies who all feel deeply responsible for their club, but who all have to regain their trust to have a new story, adds Rejek.
Bielefeld’s debts of nearly EUR 30 million were almost fully repaid at the end of 2018.
It’s very important to get out of this vicious circle, Reyek says. Football has created a system that honors sporting success. If you succeed on the field, you get more money for television. As long as you’re in this system, you need to invest in future income now. You sell your future, but [if the future doesn’t go as planned] the snowball turns into an unstoppable avalanche of debts and liabilities.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Bielefeld coach Uwe Neuhaus has brought the club back into the Bundesliga since his arrival in 2018. Sascha Steinbach – Polish/Getty pictures
Once they managed to rise above the water, Reyek said Armenia was able to promote untapped potential within the club. While the staff sometimes had the luxury of a work chair or a new computer, the team in the field became the hardest working team in the second division.
In December 2018 Bielefeld Neuhaus, 59 years old, was appointed as his new head coach. After the victory of Dortmund Borussia in 2002 as Matthias Summer’s assistant, Neuhaus has long pursued his dream of becoming Bundesliga champion. While he came close to Union Berlin and Dinamo Dresden, he remained a coach in the second division, and at the age of almost 60 it seemed that the work in the Bundesliga would have eluded him. Until Armenia knocked on the door.
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It was a foreclosure, Reyek said, with a view to 2018. It’s like Arminia Bielefeld was waiting for Neuhaus and Neuhaus was waiting for Arminia Bielefeld. He is perfect for the region and when we met him in 2018, Uwe made it clear that he wanted to fulfill his dream of winning the Bundesliga in a traditional club like Bielefeld.
Already in 2014, in the last minute of the extra time in qualifying against Darmstadt, they were in the lead in the third division of German football, but the core of the team stayed together for several seasons. The club’s captain, Fabian Clos, an attacker from neighbouring Gifhorn in Lower Saxony, represented the club’s problems when Neuhaus took control. Clos remained loyal to Armenia in those dark days and, like Neuhaus, he dreamed of playing in the Bundesliga in 2009 with a club he had joined from the reserves of Wolfsburg.
You could see what Clos could do last season, said Reyek of the Bundesliga 2 top scorer in 2019-2020. His 21 goals and 11 other assists played an important role in Bielefeld’s second division victory despite the budget in the middle table. Claws is the club’s top scorer with 152 goals in all leagues and competitions, but this season he just hasn’t found it yet.
I really hope he gets on the horse and shows that he can score in the Bundesliga. It is important for the club, said Wichniarek, a former Polish international whose 45 goals in the first division are the record of Armenia. He’s the real number nine, and he needs to be fed by his team.
It’s all about goals and wins on the field, and Vikhnyarek knows that. But Reyek thinks success means more. It’s a team sport and to be successful here everyone has to buy it, from the striker to the person who brings the mail to the office.
In the summer, Bielefeld made clever signatures, for example those that Germany lent to U21 captain Arna Mayer of Gertha Berlin. But they did not spend money on transfers; instead, they brought in players for free transfers or paid small loans and lived on a budget of 22 million euros. (In perspective, this is the annual salary of the Bavarian star Robert Lewandowski) Last season they had only the eighth Bundesliga 2 budget and worked with a budget of 12 million euros for 28 million Hamburger SV.
Bielefeld’s only goal so far is to stay in the top league. We feel good as losers and are waiting for the chance to create a new miracle, says Reyek. We’re not one of the five biggest clubs in Germany, but wherever we are, it’s important to develop as a club and not just stand on the sidelines.
With the start of the first winter, the coronavirus pandemic remains uncertain when Arminia Bielefeld or a club will be able to play in a crowded stadium again. When Rejek looks at the bleachers right now, in the 27,300-strong stadium alone, it’s hard not to get nostalgic.
In my opinion, football and music still have the power to bring people together, says Reyek. People want to experience emotions together, says Reyek. What we see now with all those empty chairs is that the fan is part of football, and football is a game for people. They’re all part of everything. We have to do what we’re doing now, we have to keep doing it. But football without fans is not football.
The plan now is to make a mark on Dortmund’s Borussia Dortmund and remind them and the Bundesliga in good time of what it takes for the team to win above its weight.