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A picture tells a thousand stories

The other day I was thumbing through one of the many pre-season guides that flood the German magazine market each summer when something caught my eye. "Have you ever had a closer look at the Ingolstadt club crest?", I asked my workmate. When he replied in the negative, I said: "There's a lettering that diagonally runs across the whole badge. It reads: Schanzer. Now, what is that all about?"

He was as clueless as yours truly, so we did some research. These days, most Germans will think of a ski-jump when they hear or read "Schanze", but there are some expressions that still point to the original meaning of the word, such as the verb "verschanzen" (to barricade oneself). Because a "Schanze" used to denote an entrenchment.

Ingolstadt is a city at the river Danube in Bavaria. Since the place was of some strategic importance, the city was turned into a fortress for the Bavarian army in 1537. Thus Ingolstadt became known as the "Schanz" and its inhabitants were called "Schanzer". Many locals still proudly refer to themselves as such and this is reflected in the club's badge.

Once we had solved this mystery, I concluded that if there's a badge that baffles even Germans, there must be lots of them which confuse foreigners. And since one of the most popular chapters in my book is the one about the meaning of German club names, I figured it's about time I follow this up with a brief excursion into the wild and wacky world of Teutonic badges.

There is, for instance, the famous Unterhaching crest I received a few e-mails about back when the team was in the Bundesliga because people wanted to know why it prominently displays a four-crew bobsleigh. Now, that one's easy. Like the vast majority of German clubs, Unterhaching are a public multi-sports club.

Well, "multi" is taking things far here, because Unterhaching engage in only two sports, football and - since 1965 - bobsleighing. In fact, the club is better at the latter than at the first. The bobsledder Christoph Langen, a several-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist, won his trophies as a member of Unterhaching.

Actually, a similar thing holds true for many clubs. Eintracht Frankfurt's track-and-field division is much more successful than the football division, Bayer Leverkusen's volleyball team has lifted three German championships (the footballers are still waiting), Wolfsburg's men's judo team was virtually unbeatable in the 1970s, collecting seven titles.

The fact that German clubs offer more than just football explains why, apart from the odd bobsleigh, you seldom see sports equipment in their badges. In the top two flights, only Ahlen carry a football in the logo.

What you'll often find instead are symbols referring to the city or the region the club represents, sometimes very old symbols. Thus the three mysterious and oddly-shaped black lines on yellow ground in VfB Stuttgart's badge date back to at least 1228 AD. They are supposed to represent deer's antlers, a common motif in heraldry as it signals the ownership of game, thus land, thus wealth. Württemberg, the dynasty which eventually lent its name to a historical state, took up this symbol in the High Middle Ages and it's still used in the coat of arms of Baden-Württemberg, today's federal state. (But you have to look awfully closely to spot it.)

Correspondingly, the blue-and-white pattern within Bayern Munich's badge refers to the flag of Bavaria. Actually, Bavaria has two flags, and this one, using diamond shapes, dates back to the House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria for more than eight hundred years.

Another Bavarian club in professional football, Augsburg FC, use an element you certainly won't find in too many club badges - a pine cone. The surprising thing about it is that it's not a Bavarian symbol, not even a German one. It probably dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Augsburg was founded as a Roman garrison, and the Romans used the symbol of the pine cone for many things, from graves to standards. (I say "it probably dates back" because the story is much more complicated and there are also other theories, but I guess I'm boring you enough as it is.)

However, you don't have to use age-old and ornate elements in your crest. In fact, you can use almost nothing, really, and still have the most famous badge of them all. Witness Hamburg. Their crest has no letters, no numbers, no imagery at all, yet it is among the most readily recognisable.

This rare, if not unique, badge was designed in the late summer of 1919, when three clubs merged to form Hamburg SV, or HSV. The colours of the crest were borrowed from those three clubs, the diamond shapes (usually referred to as a rhombus) were inspired by the logos of shipping companies, which preferred to use austere geometrical patterns.

Sadly, there is some controversy as to who designed the HSV crest. For a long time, it was presumed that former player Otto Sommer came up with the idea, despite the fact he was only fourteen years old in 1919. But in the mid-1990s, a newspaper discovered a report dating from 1957 that clearly credited one Henry Lütjens, the son of a club official, with the design. In any case, the badge has been in use ever since.

Thankfully, the most famous of the German badges are not altered very often. (Remember when Arsenal revamped their crest in 2002 and suddenly had the cannon point the other way, abruptly outdating hundreds, probably thousands of tattoos on hairy chests and arms all over England?) Though it sometimes happens, all too often for what are called marketing reasons. A prominent recent case are Karlsruhe.

In 1998, the club introduced a modernisation project called "KSC 2000", in the course of which they also changed the badge, adding a red-and-yellow pyramid to the very simple traditional logo. That caused quite some confusion, but I'm fairly sure the new image was chosen because there is in fact a pyramid, erected in the 1820s, right smack in the middle of Karlsruhe. (Yellow and red, while not the colours of the club, are to be found in the city flag of Karlsruhe.) Yet many fans hated the new crest and were happy when the old one returned in 2004.

However, there is one recent change to a crest which I applaud, primarily for its cheekiness. In 2003, Greuther Fürth presented an updated badge on the occasion of the 100th birthday of SpVgg Fürth (the club that merged with Vestenbergsgreuth in 1996 to create today's entity). The club issued a long-winded statement that explained all kinds of things about the new badge, for instance that the cloverleaf is a symbol of Fürth or that the wooden clog refers to an old patrician family from Franconia.

However, the club's statement carefully avoided any mention of the three silver stars that hover above those elements. That's because they represent the three national championships won by SpVgg Fürth in the 1910s and 1920s. And this caused a ruckus, because it was a novelty. At that time, the custom of having championship stars on shirts did not exist in Germany.

Fürth played the 2003-04 season with those stars on the shirts, but for the 2004-05 season the DFL (German Football League) introduced their own system, controversially only taking titles since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963 into account. Consequently, the DFL ordered Fürth to take their stars off the shirts.

As far as I can see, the club could have remained steadfast, because they had taken the precaution of making the stars a part of the badge. But I guess they were afraid of crossing the DFL and haven't used any stars since. In fact, since 2007, Fürth present a simplified logo on the players' shirts that only displays a cloverleaf. Meaning here's a club that has a nice, intricate crest full of meaning and references - but they are not using it on the field of play.

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