The champagne was popped on Monday, when a 4-0 win over Dynamo Dresden secured a return to the Bundesliga for Arminia Bielefeld after an 11-year absence.
A slender victory over Darmstadt, the club that relegated Arminia to the third tier six years ago, followed three days later to complete their magical week and secure the 2. Bundesliga title, their first since 1998-99. The preseason favorites for promotion — big-city clubs Hamburg and Stuttgart — have been left scrapping for the leftovers.
Unlike those clubs, Arminia’s squad isn’t peppered with big names or former Bundesliga journeymen. Instead, their star man this season has been striker Fabian Klos. His 19 goals (and counting…) have made him the top scorer in the division and the man upon whom Arminia’s hopes of survival next season will rest.
At 32, Klos is no rising star. He has spent the last nine years with Arminia, celebrating two promotions to the second-flight and enduring a relegation to the third without ever playing in the top-flight. A German Jamie Vardy, if you will.
Top scorer Fabian Klos has been at Arminia for almost a decade, and has lived through many highs and lows
But Klos stayed loyal. Immediately after Arminia’s relegation to the third tier in 2014, he rejected the advances of clubs with more muscle than Arminia. Instead of jumping ship Klos called on the club, then led by coach Norbert Meier, to build a team fit for promotion and he duly pledged his future to them. Klos’ goals fired them back up at the first time of asking and Klos was rewarded with the club captaincy.
Arminia’s problems weren’t behind them though, and the threat of insolvency pushed them into an existential crisis. At the end of 2017, new CEO Markus Rejek was brought in, but Arminia’s mounting debts were threatening to swallow them up. Almost €30 million ($34 million) in the red, the club was facing the removal of its license by the German Football Association (DFL).
A financial restructuring plan was put in place to walk the club back from the cliff edge, which included the sale of the club’s stadium, the Schüco Arena, to a local business consortium. This deal wiped off 95% of the club’s debt throughout 2018 and returned them to stronger financial health.
While the club now pay a reported €800,000 a year in rent for their own stadium, their home since 1926 and known as Alm to the fans, they have the option to reacquire it three years from now. Crucially, its ownership remains in the hands of local businesses.
The house that Neuhaus built
Securing the club’s financial future seemed to liberate them on the field, too, and at the start of 2018-19 there was optimism coach Jeff Saibene could help the club push for promotion. But a disappointing start saw them drop to 14th before he was replaced by Uwe Neuhaus in December.
The ex-Union Berlin coach transformed Arminia, guiding them to fourth place that season before leading them all the way to the top in this current stellar season.
The Schüco Arena, or Alm, as it’s known to fans, had to be sold to a local consortium to keep Arminia afloat
Neuhaus likes to play neat, attractive, attacking football in a 4-3-3 formation, and the players have responded well to his demands, as Klos explained recently in 11Freunde magazine. “I have never experienced anything like Uwe Neuhaus’ ideas, and above all, how this is developed and implemented,” he said.
‘That’s what Bielefeld is about’
You have to have a strong heart to support Arminia, and the club’s nadir in 2014 still weighs heavy on their fans.
“Losing that game to Darmstadt and going down six years ago was definitely the toughest moment,” Arminia fan and journalist Eva-Lotta Bohle told DW. “I’ve never been that down in my whole life.”
“That isn’t the only down we’ve had though, we’ve had a few,” she added. “We’ve always known that Arminia doesn’t have much money, but in the winter break of 2017-18, we heard that the club was very close to being bankrupt. I remember Markus Rejek saying he wouldn’t have taken the job if he knew quite how serious the clubs’ problems were.”
“But then everything came together really fast, the city’s businesses — not only [food manufacturer] Dr. Oetker and [construction company] Schüco but many others too — and the club is now very strong. And that’s what Bielefeld is about, the helping of others,” Bohle added.
There is no doubt that this safety net rescued Arminia and now the club is reaping the rewards. And to put the icing on the cake, Arminia’s promotion to the Bundesliga has coincided with local rivals Paderborn’s demotion from it. A perfect end to a perfect week at the end of a roller coaster decade.