What do Brian Laudrup, Oliver Bierhoff and Aílton have in common? They’ve all played for a club that now plays his football in the 3. Liga, the third tier of German football. That club is called KFC Uerdingen.
Uerdingen is a little-known side with a rather interesting history in German football, and can be considered one of the sleeping giants of the domestic game. That the club still has plenty of ambition could be seen in this summer’s transfer window. On 5 July it was announced that Kevin Grosskreutz had signed a three-year contract with the team from Krefeld. The 2014 German world champion is going to play in the third tier of German football for a club that has just been promoted from the Regionalliga.
German football is unique, but I can’t describe why I have this perception. Growing up in the Netherlands with the Eredivisie, I’ve always been envious of the passion of German football lovers. In my early teens I discovered the treasure of Germany and their dedication to the sport we all love.
I began to discover the gems of German football, specifically those from the NordRhein-Westfalen state. The obvious choices are to visit the footballing giants like Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Fortuna Düsseldorf. NordRhein-Westfalen isn’t short of professional clubs and it’s a groundhoppers haven to visit. Around the time I was 19 years old, I visited several clubs in NordRhein-Westfalen, but I never really thought of going to the lower leagues. That is until my friend posed the question: “Have you ever been to Krefeld?”
Krefeld is a city in NordRhein-Westfalen with approximately 222.500 inhabitants and lies between Düsseldorf and Duisburg. I’d heard about the city before but rarely paid attention to the local club. At the time, there was a team playing in the sixth tier of German football, the Landesliga Niederrhein. I knew precious little of lower league football but the experience of visiting KFC Uerdingen changed that overnight.
It became apparent to me that this was a fallen giant. The reason why I hadn’t heard about KFC Uerdingen before had everything to do with their name. They were called Bayer Uerdingen some years earlier, a name that rang a bell with me. I was intrigued by the prospect of discovering a former big name of German football. It felt like visiting Preston North End or Nottingham Forest, but on a more emotive scale.
KFC Uerdingen were founded in November 1905 as Fußball-Club Uerdingen, an era in which the game was blossoming in NordRhein-Westfalen. Borussia Mönchengladbach were founded in 1900, Schalke in 1904, Bayer Leverkusen the same year, and Borussia Dortmund in 1909.
After World War One, during the Interbellum and World War II, the club was forced to merge with others, including Sportvereinigung des Realgymnasiums Uerdingen and VfB 1910 Uerdingen, largely because regional power balances were shifting. As a result of various sides merging, many become wealthier and more successful.
This continued until 1950, with their name remaining as FC Uerdingen 1905. It changed again in 1953 – a year before the 1954 miracle of West Germany triumphing at the World Cup – when they merged with the workers’ club of AG Bayern, a major pharmaceutical company in Germany. So began the era of Bayer Uerdingen 05, during which they reached the height of their powers.
Bayer Uerdingen mainly played in the lower leagues during the 1950s and 60s, but slowly progressed up the pyramid in the 70s. A strong season in 1974/75 saw them finish in second place, earning them promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.
Despite their rise, they were relegated the next season and were bound to the 2. Bundesliga again. Still their ambition remained, however. Success began to arrive by the late-70s, with a DFB-Pokal run in 1977 only halted by the power of Hertha BSC. Trophyless though they were, the rise in the latter part of the decade would lead to their greatest glories through the 1980s.
Promoted in 1979, they would drop down again in 1981 before returning for a prolonged period and shaking off their yo-yo tag – at least temporarily – in 1983. The proof of their development came in 1985 when they reached the Pokal final for the first time in their history, squaring off against the mighty Bayern Munich. The final was played at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, with 70.000 spectators seeing Uerdingen clinch the title with thanks to a 2-1 win. It marked the zenith of their time in the domestic game.
Winning the DFB-Pokal also meant they qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup. Making their debut in Europe, Uerdingen managed to get to the semi-finals, surprising much of the continent with their forward-thinking, progressive football. Along the way, they beat Cercle Brugge, HJK Helsinki and East German giants Dynamo Dresden, before being ousted by Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals.
The two games against Dresden were special affairs. The first leg finished 2-0 to the East German side – who were considered one of the favourites for the title – with many predicting their safe passage to the semis.
The return leg, however, provided one of the biggest shocks in German football history. Up 3-1 at the half-time in the second leg, Uerdingen needed five goals to progress. And they got them. After 90 minutes the score was 7-3 as the West Germans progressed. For many there that day, it remains the greatest match in the club’s history.
While the 1980s are considered the most successful decade in the history of Uerdingen, the 20 years following it would be troubling for all involved. During the early 1990s, they flitted between the first and second tiers, rarely able to assert themselves in the top-flight and suffering, like many fallen powers, from financial woes along the way. The 1980s quickly seemed like a lifetime ago.
Key to their demise was the withdrawal of their main sponsor, Bayer, who decided to focus their investment at Leverkusen. At the turn of the century, they were playing in the Regionalliga, now known as the 3. Liga, but their demise wasn’t complete just yet. Relegation after relegation followed and, in 2008, they found themselves in the sixth tier of German football.
Once again, German football’s amateur ranks had a fallen giant to witness. Subsequent financial woes continued to trouble the club until the 2010/11 season offered the hope of a new dawn. It would be a campaign in which they’d catapult themselves to relevance once again.
Uerdingen were promoted to the Oberliga Niederrhein in 2011, and then reached the Regionalliga as champions in 2013. Their stay in the Regionalliga – the fourth tier – was brief, with a relegation in 2015 suggesting that their days as a yo-yo club had returned. For many fans, the professional tiers seemed unattainable.
But that’s where football provides us with such great stories; where the impossible suddenly becomes distinctly possible. Uerdingen attracted new owners and the added investment saw them promoted in both 2017 and 2018, reaching the 3. Liga after a long absence and becoming a professional club once again.
Ahead of the new season, KFC Uerdingen will play in the third tier alongside clubs like 1860 Munich, Karlsruher, Carl Zeiss Jena, Hansa Rostock and Eintracht Braunschweig, all former Bundesliga clubs who once held some form of power in the domestic game.
From the sixth tier to the third in less than a decade is perhaps not the most captivating story, but it’s only the beginning. With the signing of Grosskreutz, Uerdingen will be looking to emulate the likes of RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim in the rise through the German football pyramid. It has taken them two decades but KFC Uerdingen are back.
By Marc Lamberts @lambertsmarc