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Feb 17, 2012

Go Furth and conquer

Much has been made of the Bundesliga's thrilling title race in the last few weeks. Sky Germany has even dubbed the leading teams the Fantastic Four and for obvious reasons likes to point out that we are watching the closest race since 1991-92. (When, after 21 matchdays, fourth-placed Kaiserslautern were only two points behind table-topping Dortmund.)

Yet the jockeying for position among the top-flight's alpha males is nothing if you compare it to what's going on in the lower tier - the Second Bundesliga. Because only two points separate Paderborn in fifth place from the team in first, Fortuna Dusseldorf.

The clubs between Paderborn and Dusseldorf are, in ascending order, FC St Pauli, Eintracht Frankfurt - and Furth. Or, to give them their proper, more grandiose and also slightly ridiculous name, SpVgg Greuther Furth.

You may have come across this name a few times in the past months, provided you've been checking the results of the DFB-Pokal. Furth, whose ground is only eight miles northwest of Nurnberg's stadium, are the only lower-division club in the semi-finals of the cup (accompanied by three of the Fantastic Four).

They have knocked out two Bundesliga teams away from home, local rivals Nuremberg and Hoffenheim, and will now host Borussia Dortmund on March 20, trying to restage one of the biggest days in the club's recent history: on August 4, 1990, Furth eliminated Dortmund from the cup in the first round.

It would be an upset now; it was a sensation back then. First, Furth played with ten men on that summer afternoon, as a defender was sent off for a professional foul as early as the third minute. Second, 'professional foul' is an improper term, because Furth were an amateur club at the time, playing in the fourth division.

In a way, this stunning win marked the end of Furth's dark ages, as the team soon began climbing back up the divisions again - though there will be quite a few hardcore SpVgg fans who say that the real height of ignominy was the 1996-97 season. That was when the club changed its name and the crest and then also changed the name of one of the most famous grounds in all of Germany.

It was also the year when the team had to play competitive games against Quelle Furth, for all practical puroposes the company team of a famous mail order house, Quelle, and unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the venerable SpVgg, which is not so short for 'playing union'.

They do have a long and proud history in Furth and little angers veterans more than all those statements you could hear over the last ten years, when the club regularly hoped for promotion and often came agonisingly close to reaching the top flight. "Greuther Furth?" people, even well-versed Germans, would say with a sneer, putting an emphasis on the first word. "What do THEY want in the Bundesliga?"

Well, a lot. In the ten years I've been imposing these disjointed maunderings on you, Furth were probably mentioned more often than any other club that have never played Bundesliga football during that span - and perhaps also more often than some that have.

To cite just two examples, my second-ever ESPNsoccernet column (September 11, 2002: "Forget Europe, this is derby day" - don't look for it, it predates the the archive) gave ample room to the rivalry between Furth and Nurnberg and, a few years ago, the piece about the stars on players' shirts mentioned the role Furth's crest played in the genesis of those badges of honour (January 26, 2009: "A picture tells a thousand stories").

In fact, I guess I could have brought up Furth even more often. In 1914, for instance, when the SpVgg were the biggest sporting club in the country (they had more than 3,000 members at that point), a Furth footballer scored the first 'silver goal' in history.

That year, the final for the German championship was played under somewhat unusual rules. If there was no winner after 90 or 120 minutes, the referee was to add extra extra times, so to speak, each lasting ten minutes, until one side was in the lead at the end of one such period. As if one cue, the score between Furth and mighty VfB Leipzig was 1-1 after regulation time, 2-2 after normal extra time.

So it went on, until a local Furth boy by the name of Karl Franz at last found the target in the 153rd minute. Seven minutes later, it was all over and Furth had won the first of three national championships. The other two would only come in the following decade, though, as World War I temporarily put an end to Furth's rise - and to Franz's life, who was killed in France, two months after the final.

The 1920s were the club's golden period, as the sister cities of Furth and Nuremberg dominated the German game. At one point, the entire national team was made up of players from those two clubs. Between 1924 and 1929, all but one championship went to Franconia, as Nurnberg won the title in 1924, 1925 and 1927, Furth in 1926 and 1929.

That decade also saw the birth of two club legends. One was Heinz Alfred Kissinger, who began his playing career at a Jewish club before joining SpVgg Furth's schoolboy team. He later changed his first name to Henry, but he never stopped following the ups and downs of his beloved SpVgg, not even when he was Secretary of State.

The other was Karl Mai, a left half back, who would gain ever-lasting fame as one of the 11 'Heroes of Berne', the West German national team that upset Hungary to win the 1954 World Cup.

It was telling that Mai left his hometown club four years after this triumph, in 1958, to join a team with much less pedigree than Furth - a club called Bayern Munich. While the Bavarians were clearly on the rise, the Cloverleaves - as Furth are known because of their club crest - were caught in a downward spiral. The club missed out on qualifying for the new nationwide league, the Bundesliga, and soon found themselves in financial trouble.

By 1970, Furth were 1.7 million Marks in the red, at that time a big sum for a second-division club, and a dozen years later the debts totalled almost 6 million. In 1983, the club even had to sell their ground, the legendary Ronhof, to Horst Brandstätter, a local businessman whose company produces the Playmobil line of toys. The cash saved SpVgg from bankruptcy, yet the club still went down, ultimately landing in the fourth division ... and playing against Nurnberg's reserve team. But, like I said, the aforementioned cup win against Dortmund signalled a new, brighter dawn.

However, first the traditionalists, of whom Furth have many, had to swallow another bitter pill. Or two. No, three. In the mid-'90s, Furth had problems paying the rent for their ground. At the same time, there was an ambitious neighbouring club called TSV Vestenbergsgreuth. They had just made national headlines by knocking Bayern Munich out of the cup, but they had neither a stadium not the fan support for higher-level football.

In late 1995, Furth's members voted in favour of a merger to save their club. They also agreed, though one presumes with a heavy heart, to add 'Greuther', a word bereft of meaning, to the club's name to honour TSV Vestenbergsgreuth. Under a certain Armin Veh, the new team won promotion to the Second Bundesliga.

Yet that created new problems, as the Ronhof was in no shape to stage professional football - it didn't even have floodlights until 1999.

Brandstätter and the city of Furth agreed to help, but in the process the ground was renamed Playmobil Stadium, a constant source of mockery and highly embarrassing for the Furth fans, who never stopped calling the ground the Ronhof. (In July 2010, the naming rights were sold to a manufacturer of gummy candy and the stadium is now called Trolli Arena. It's admittedly difficult to say which name is worse.)

Over the next years, a new taunt was directed at Furth, though this one was probably easier to take than jokes about Greuther and Playmobil.

Playing good, attacking football, Furth finished fifth in the Second Bundesliga in 2001, 2002 and 2003. And then again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. When the team came fifth again in 2009, it seemed the club were well and truly cursed and many fans scoffed at Furth's tendency to choke at the final stretch.

But, for one thing, that is better than being bankrupt or playing amateur football. Secondly, all the signs are that this could finally be Furth's year. And even if it isn't, even if they should lose to Dortmund in the cup and finish in fifth place in the league again, they will always have December 20, 2011 - the day they won away in Nuremberg.

But if they go all the way, if they reach the cup final or at last win promotion, there is a good chance Henry Kissinger will travel across the Atlantic for the celebrations. After all, he owns a lifetime season ticket.

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