Germany has a very well defined tiered system of professional football leagues. Its hierarchy starts with 1.Bundesliga (first division) at the top and goes down to regional leagues (fourth division). The first two leagues (1.Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga) are governed by the German Football League while the 3.Liga along with the five regional leagues are governed by the German Football Association. All leagues are professional (fourth division is a mixed bag with some amateur players) with strong fanbases, and their own football stadiums/facilities.
Recently, there have been many American footballers who have played in the 3.Liga: Terrence Boyd, Lennard Maloney, Chris Richards, Jalen Hawkins, Taylor Booth, Bryang Kayo, Johan Gómez, and many others. Similarly, there have also been American footballers playing in the different regional leagues (4th division): Joel Bustamante (Hertha II), Nico Carrera (Holstein Kiel II), Quincy Butler (Hoffenheim II), Justin Che (Hoffenheim II), Matthew Hoppe (Schalke II), Michael Edwards (Wolfsburg II), Uly Llanez (Wolfsburg II), Blaine Ferri (Greuther Furth II), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach II) and many others in the past.
Some footballers (those on affiliate teams) have used the regional leagues as a stepping stones to the 1.Bundesliga (aka Bundesliga) or other top tier leagues around Europe. Bundesliga clubs like Wolfsburg, Bayern, Hoffenheim, Borussia Mönchengladbach, etc. have their affiliates in the regional leagues therefore making a jump from 4th division to Bundesliga is not only realistic, easier but common (ex. Matthew Hoppe, Chris Richards, Taylor Booth, Alphonso Davies, Uly Llanez, etc.).
As the German market continues to welcome young American footballers, it’s important to highlight a few of its characteristics for families and players seeking opportunities in that market. Since last July, when Johan joined the 3.Liga, we have learned a few things that are worth sharing and comparing with USL/MLS, Bundesliga or even other European leagues.
Before we start, it’s important to note that German football is very sound tactically; on the technical side, it’s different than other leagues around the world (ex. South American, MLS, Liga MX) that may have a Latin flair to them. To be fair, very few leagues compare to the flair South American football offers and the German market has indeed very few South American players in it. The brand of football played in Germany however, strives to perfect team and individual football fundamentals or at a minimum, seeks to minimize football mistakes.
The destination is often more important than the journey. As a result, the 3.Liga is not the most aesthetical appealing league; however, week in and week out, one can see the parity of teams fighting for either promotion or relegation. Chris Richards talks about the 3.Liga level relative to the Bundesliga in this recent Chumchat episode:
Just like the Bundesliga, the 3.Liga has a few clubs with deeper pockets. It differs significantly from MLS where financial parity is a continuous goal (ex. no draft in Bundesliga). However, unlike the Bundesliga, the 3.Liga is not setup to be dominated by the same clubs (ex. Bayern Munich recently winning their 10th consecutive Bundesliga championship) every season. By design, the 3.Liga can’t be dominated by the same clubs every season as there’s the concept of promotion (and relegation). Out of the 20 clubs that compete in the 3.Liga every season, the top clubs get promoted to the 2.bundesliga and the bottom clubs get relegated to the fourth division of their respective regional leagues based on geographic location.
As a recent example of the impact money has on club survival, the owner of 3.Liga, club Türkgücü, disappointed with the season team results, opted to stop the cash influx to the club. As a result, and for the first time since the 3.Liga inception, the team was unable to fulfill their financial obligations and was immediately relegated to a regional league two thirds through the season.
Bundesliga being the top tier league only has relegation with some matches not being very competitive due to the financial disparity between teams. On the other hand, both 2.Bundesliga and 3.Liga are very competitive where the outcome of any match cannot be predicted with ease. The top two tiers of the bundesliga have an automatic promotion/relegation for the top/bottom two clubs. The third/antepenultimate top/bottom clubs play a home and away playoff series to determine who gets promoted/relegated.
The 3.Liga does not follow the above playoff relegation format verbatim. Instead, the bottom four clubs are relegated automatically to the regional leagues without the need of playoffs. For example, in the 2020-2021 season, while 2003 born Justin Che played for Bayern II, the team was relegated to the fourth division where it’s currently playing this season. Note: Justin has now moved on to the Hoffenheim setup where he was recently playing fourth division football; however, he also recently made his Bundesliga debut (congrats Justin). Similarly, when Chris Richards was playing 3.Liga with Bayern Munich II, the team finished first; however, there’s a rule that prevents affiliate teams to be promoted to the 2.Bundesliga.
Direct game / Speed of play
The 3.Liga speed of play is not as fast as English football League One (3rd division in England) mostly because German players historically have displayed a higher technical skill level which forces them to play the ball on the ground more. However, the 3.Liga is similar to League One in its physicality. German footballers are not extremely athletic (ex. agile, strong, and fast) when compared with other ethnic profiles but their cultural pursuit of perfectionism permeates to their football leagues. That pursuit of perfection is reached via repetition and Germans more than compensate from “their perceived” lack of athleticism with strong football fundamentals and work rate.
As physical as the 3.Liga is, there are not many penalty kicks (PKs) calls which translates into a lack of player confrontations. Most games (and this could be a German culture aspect) are played in their purest form without many (if any) simulations (ex. diving) or time wasting strategies like the South American style. Referees seem competent; however, it’s fair to say that most of our experience assessing referees has taken place while there’s been a limited fan base at the stadiums. In every part of the world, fans play an instrumental role trying to influence referees decisions. Thus, since there’s no simulation, it makes calling penalty kicks that much easier. It could also be that the lack of VAR provides referees the freedom and confidence to make mistakes and live with those decisions.
Referees strive to maintain the flow of the games; the decreased frequency of foul occurrences helps in that regard. They also have more game time responsibilities since there’s no fourth referee/official in the 3.Liga. Therefore, normally a team official is in charge of making/calling the subs from the center referee and indicating the injury time to the audience. Let’s be clear though, no other fourth official duties are delegated to team officials.
Throw ins get their own section as we have seen a complete deterioration in the calling of throw-ins especially in Germany. Anything from not having both feet on the ground to having one foot inside the pitch. Unfortunately, this tendency is not unique to the 3.Liga. In fact, it’s been more pronounced in the Bundesliga. However, there’s plenty of consistency with the calling of ball handling or those commonly referred to in the US as “handballs”. It’s worth noting that some refereeing tendencies are temporary but we figured it’s worth mentioning.
German fans are very passionate about football and they show it every week. The Bundesliga is the number one league in the world in attendance. Their football infrastructure is on par with that statistic. The German Football Association requires 3. Liga teams to play in stadiums of at least 10,000 seats. Their football infrastructure easily surpasses that minimum requirement.
In the 3.Liga, Johan has had the privilege of playing in stadiums that were used for World Cups (ex. 2006 and 1974). In fact, it was in Munich’s Olympic stadium that he scored his first brace in Germany. As a form of comparison, the football infrastructure capacity in the 3.Liga is better than Spain’s second division.
All that being said, the brand of football played in Spain’s second division is better than 3.Liga’s, and 2.Bundesliga. However, In terms of other infrastructure (ex. TV rights), both leagues offer paid subscriptions (domestic and internationally) for football fanatics. Overall the 3. Liga has audience numbers that are comparable to the second football leagues in Italy (Serie B), France (Ligue 2) and Spain (Segunda División). Only the third-rate English football league One has similarly high or higher attendance numbers.
The 3.Liga is a nationally televised league which allows the players to earn a significantly higher average salary than a league like USL-1/MLS Pro (3rd division in the US) or Liga Expansion in Mexico (3rd division in Mexico) but as expected lower than English League one. As stated above, some German clubs have deeper pockets partly due to stronger fan bases and sponsorships.
Most of the Bundesliga teams are scattered in west Germany while 3.Liga teams are scattered all over.
Ironically (from a geographical standpoint), 3.Liga teams often travel by bus while Bundesliga clubs (with larger budgets) fly mostly but ride team buses occasionally due to their proximity to other clubs.
Now that Johan is wrapping up his first season in the 3.Liga, he’s playing the analogous of our US Open Cup (SachsenPokal). One day he’ll play in a huge (used for past world cups or Olympic) stadium and the next week, his team will play in a more discrete stadium. All are great memories whose pictures can be found in the “Stadiums” section of this blog.
Johan’s move to the 3.Liga
In the Chumchat episode below, Johan talks about the reasons for his move to FSV Zwickau. He elaborates on his current situation in a German market where he is consistently playing first team minutes, impacting the game, and playing an instrumental role while continuing to develop his overall game as a versatile young player. In the episode, he reminisces about his time in Porto where he could have stayed an extra year and maybe could have been making first team rosters this year like his former Porto B teammates. In his head, it probably would have been an additional season of limited playing time with the first team. Each player’s ambitions are unique; some players are more willing to wait for a first team debut (plenty of examples in the Bundesliga.1 and Bundesliga.2 with American players) while others (Johan) not so much. It is also about opportunity. This season, has been a very rewarding experience in Germany.
BTW, enjoy one of the most recent Chumchat episodes with dual national Julian Araujo. He mostly talks about his decision-making process choosing to represent Mexico. A decision that very few players (let alone fans) will ever understand but that is becoming more frequent…
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