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For the love of the game

Last Saturday, I saw a cracking game. The visitors, second from bottom, scored from a set-piece in the first minute and then, as the hosts piled on the pressure looking for an equaliser, added two goals from counter attacks for a stunning 3-0 lead at half-time.

The home side, in fourth place when the game began, pulled one back early in the second half and proceeded to throw everything forward. They hit the post, then scored to make it 3-2 and in the final 20 minutes it was thrilling end-to-end stuff, though even the best chances went begging.

I had a few beers and a bratwurst, I applauded good moves and shook my head at bad ones while squinting against the sun. Then the final whistle blew, we all went home and, all things considered, the world was not a bad place to be. There's no point in telling you who played whom and who scored - suffice it to say that I had a stunning conversation with the groundskeeper, who is an old pal of Otto Rehhagel and owns the very ball with which Bremen's Uwe Reinders scored from a throw-in against Bayern Munich.

It was a game in the Schleswig-Holstein-Liga, one of the 11 regional divisions that currently make up the fifth level of German football. Despite the presence of some well-known clubs at this tier - former German champions VfR Mannheim and former cup winners Schwarz-Weiss Essen, for example - this is what we call amateur football.

Apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, the day reminded me of how central amateur football still is to the game here. When my book about the history of German football first came out, the worst review I got came from a German who chastised me for mocking the fact we outlawed professionalism until well into the 1960s. The amateur spirit that still permeates our football, he said, should actually be praised for being the backbone that carries, well, everything.

I must admit he had a point. On a good weekend, some 625,000 German football fans will go out and attend the games in the Bundesliga, the second division (2. Bundesliga), the third division (3. Liga) and the three-tiered Regionalligen, the fourth divisions. These are good numbers and we are rightfully proud of how amazingly well the upper leagues are supported in Germany.

But those figures pale when you compare them with the amateur game. Every weekend, roughly 2.4 million Germans go out and watch their local team, even though a much-trumpeted professional game will probably be on television at the same time, now that the big clubs' games are spread all across the weekend. And yet it's very difficult to define what exactly we mean when we speak of amateur football.

Most people from Britain will associate the term either with what is known as non-league football in England or with honourable ideals and charmingly old-fashioned principles as represented by Corinthian-Casuals FC. It's neither. It doesn't even necessarily have to do with money, or the absence of it, as the very best of the players I was watching last weekend might be making as much as €700 per month from football, yet almost everyone calls them amateurs.

True, the term itself comes from the French word for somebody who loves something, suggesting these are people who play purely for enjoyment, but it's a lot trickier than that in Germany. In fact, it's so complicated that it would take way too long to explain it all in detail. But the bottom line is this: In Germany, all clubs are amateur clubs and all players are amateurs or semi-pros, though some clubs and some players have been granted a temporary exemption from this rule.

It's true! You can look it up. As regards clubs, the most recent set of regulations issued by the German FA (DFB), published in October, explains it quite simply. "Amateur clubs," the text reads, "are clubs that don't have a team in the licensed leagues but only teams in the amateur leagues." The term "licensed leagues" covers the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga (but not, contrary to popular belief, the nationwide third division: the 3. Liga).

The strange expression - licensed leagues - harks back to the fact that our clubs have to apply for a licence to be allowed to play fully professional football. This licence can be lost quite easily. First, it can be revoked for all kinds of reasons, usually financial mismanagement. Second, you can simply get relegated from the leagues in question.

And what happens then? Again, the DFB's regulations are uncharacteristically straightforward - at least when you bear in mind that "licensed" by and large means "professional". "A licensed club," the regulations explain, "becomes an amateur club again if its licensed team is relegated from the 2. Bundesliga to the 3. Liga."

Which means that, as far the DFB is concerned, every club that is not playing in one of the top two divisions is an amateur club. That includes well-known teams like Arminia Bielefeld, currently playing in the 3. Liga. When this division started in 2008, it was often referred to as the "third professional league in Germany". However, while its clubs are professionally run and the players live like professionals, technically we are talking about amateur clubs here.

How can this be? How can clubs pay their players money, sometimes pretty good money, and still be considered amateur in the eyes of the governing body? The trick is a technicality having to do with the status of the players. On the face of it, the regulations of the DFB know only two groups of players: amateurs and non-amateurs. This time, however, things are not as straightforward as they seem, because there are two kinds of non-amateurs: licensed players and contractual players.

A licensed player is not a club member but the employee of a licensed club playing in one of the two licensed leagues. A contractual player is a club member who has in addition signed a contract according to which he receives money for playing football. The sum is irrelevant, as long as it exceeds €250. If you get less than that, it is regarded as expense allowance and you are considered an amateur.

One is tempted to say that a licensed player is a full professional and a contractual player only a semi-pro, but that's not necessarily so. The difference is rather that a licensed player is treated like a regular employee, while a contractual player is more like somebody who is self-employed. He is taking care of taxes and social security stuff himself and he may or may not also have a non-footballing job.

While so-called licensed players can obviously only play in the top two flights because they can only play for licensed clubs, it's different for the other two groups of players. Paragraph 9 of the DFB's general rules declares that "amateurs and contractual players are allowed to play in all teams of clubs in any division".

Put differently, when you go to a game in Germany's organised football, you really have no way of knowing who is on the pitch. In theory, there could be amateurs or semi-pros playing in the Bundesliga. (Though nobody has tried this since Darmstadt's legendary Feierabendprofis, evening pros, who kept their regular jobs when they won promotion to the Bundesliga in 1978.)

In the lower leagues, there will be no licensed players, but that doesn't mean there's no money involved. No matter the level, no matter the division: one team may field a few or many contractual players - i.e. men on decent wages - while the other team could be full of true amateurs. It all depends on how rich, and how ambitious, the club is. Of course, the further you go down the pyramid, the less likely you are to encounter players of semi-pro calibre. But you never know.

So, in Germany, "amateur football" is basically just a catch-all phrase used to describe the game played by not so glamorous players in not so glamorous surroundings. Currently, and despite the DFB's choice of vocabulary, hardly anyone will refer to the 3. Liga as amateur football, while the Regionalligen are usually called semi-pro. Whether the game at the fifth level, which I watched last week, is amateur or semi-pro is absolutely open to debate, but the tier beneath that will almost always be labelled amateur football.

This state of affairs explains something that used to baffle foreign observers, particularly the presence of teams such as Bayern Munich Amateurs in the league system until 2005. These sides were usually described as the Bundesliga clubs' 'reserve teams'. This was not entirely correct, as any club in the league system can register as many teams as it wants and it is not unusual for clubs with many active members to have two or even three senior sides.

So Bayern Munich Amateurs were simply Bayern Munich's second team. Since the rules barred this side from promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, they were playing amateur football by definition and thus carried that name. It had nothing to do with reality, of course, so the custom was finally changed and now Bayern Munich's second team are called Bayern Munich II, just as this is handled across the rest of the league pyramid. In the league I was watching last week, for example, you'll find Holstein Kiel II and VfB Lubeck II.

It also explains why modern history books will tell you that some big, famous clubs have spent considerable time in amateur football. Let's just look at four former national champions. In 1982, the DFB revoked 1860 Munich's licence; they were demoted to the third division and all in all spent ten long years in what was technically amateur football. Hertha Berlin and Nurnberg, meanwhile, temporarily became amateur clubs through relegation from the 2. Bundesliga (Hertha in 1986, Nurnberg in 1996); Fortuna Dusseldorf even dropped to the fourth level in 2002.

Of course, bearing in mind what I've outlined above, these teams didn't really become full-blooded amateur sides during those years in the wilderness. However, it's not like this can't happen: SSV Ulm, a Bundesliga club as recently as 2000, are currently playing fifth-level football; Wattenscheid, who were in the Bundesliga from 1990 to 1994, are now in one of the countless regional divisions that form the sixth tier, which is definitely amateur football of the old-man-and-his-dog variety.

Which leads me back to last Saturday: among the 125 people watching the game, there was indeed the proverbial cantankerous pensioner with his dog. About ten or 15 steps to his left, there were three younger men, in their 30s, who were not watching the game at all but discussing the travails of mighty Hamburg.

"That coach is sugar-coating everything!" one of them complained. "Well, what can he do?" his mate replied. "This lot just aren't good enough to stay up." When I heard that, I made a brief calculation and arrived at an amazing fact. If Hamburg really go down, and then go down again, the DFB will consider them an amateur club.


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