It was raining yet mild. Far from overcast noticeable were the aeroplanes departing from the nearby Düsseldorf Flughafen. A succession of Boeing 737 aircraft flew over the Merkur Arena as 22 players kicked a ball about on a lush rain soaked grassy surface.

At ground level the second tier of German football – 2. Bundesliga – had arrived.

Barcodes of tickets were scanned and the security checks done. Fans filed away into little corners of the stadium to be met by brief checks by security staff. At the numerous kiosks food and drink had been purchased and fans were all strapped in ready to be entertained.

If departing aeroplanes were providing some entertainment in the sky so the activities of the visiting Hertha fans were providing the fun in the stands. ‘

Feuerwerks and hundreds of them ignited in the huge away section just as Hertha lined up for the game. A message came over the stadium loudspeaker ‘Pyrotechnik verboten’ but very few from Berlin were listening.

It was all so beautifully choreographed.

Multiple black, white and blue smoke bombs were set off – the recess of the summer was over. It all provided an interesting back drop and spectacle; a sign of things to come.

2.Bundesliga 2023-24

Matchday 1

Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Hertha BSC

Merkur Spiel-Arena

Düsseldorfer Turn-und Sportverein Fortuna 1895 e.V. is about as long winded a team name as you can get.

At least we lost ‘to a big named team’ Hertha fans might say come full time.

While it has long been recognized that Fortuna are one of Germany’s most traditional clubs, from as far back as the 1960’s performances in at the top table of football have never really been good enough.

Despite the status of the club and its location in the heavily populated Western part of Germany they were deemed not good enough to earn a place among the original 16 teams chosen for the newly founded Bundesliga in 1963. The club did manage to play its way into the top tier three years later but were immediately relegated.

Aside from the pinnacle of the 1930’s the greatest era for the club was the 1970’s.

On 9 December 1978, Fortuna recorded a 7–1 victory against Bayern Munich. To date this is the highest away defeat for Bayern in its entire Bundesliga history.

In addition, Fortuna were highly successful in the DFB-Pokal making multiple appearances.

After losing in its fifth final appearance in 1978 against local rivals 1. FC Köln, the club finally broke through and came away as champions in 1979, prevailing 1–0 against Hertha BSC. They then repeated that triumph by defeating Köln in 1980.

During this period, the club established a record for consecutive DFB-Pokal match victories, with 18-straight wins between 1978 and 1981.

In UEFA competition Fortuna were as equally successful if not actually managing to win one of the three premier European tournaments. The club’s best run in European competition was to the 1979 European Cup Winners’ Cup but they lost the final to Barcelona 4–3 in extra time.

This was the Fortuna side dominated by the Allofs brothers (Thomas and Klaus) but even they were not enough to defeat a Barcelona side spearheaded by Hans Krankl.

Since German reunification the club have struggled being in the shadow of the nearby Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund both of whom have significantly larger fan bases. Moreover, the growth of Bayer Leverkusen and newer Bundesliga football brands like Mainz, Hoffenheim and Red Bull has meant that traditional clubs like Fortuna have been squeezed out of the Bundesliga.

Like local rivals 1.FC Koln, the Düsseldorf club have bounced back and forth between the leagues, spending irregular seasons in the 1.Bundesliga but slipping as low as Oberliga Nord Rhein (IV) between 2002–04.

Relegation from the Bundesliga always causes a hangover and for Fortuna Düsseldorf the morning after remedy has been required on numerous occasions. Successive squads have managed to gain very few points from matches across the whole campaign. For a team that loves to talk about promotion contention more often that not the season has been left in tatters long before the crucial spring period.

As for the international scene it is sometime since they have had a player in the international frame. It is March 1981 since they last played in a major European competition losing to Benfica in the European Cup Winners Cup.

Season 2022-23 ended with Fortuna finishing in a respectable 4th place but like so many other seasons it just was not enough. The problem like, other big traditional German clubs, has been the depth of the competition. In fairness last season’s surprise package Heidenheim’s championship win was possibly the only thing that stopped Fortuna gaining a play off place which eventually went to SV Hamburg. That said Fortuna have failed to be a consistent force in the second tier more often that not being a top 5 rather than a top three team.

Fortuna For All

Fortuna Düsseldorf went into the 2023-24 with a range of innovative ideas, in particular a revolutionary new approach to ticket sales.

One project is called #fortunaFurAlle ‘Die Freispiele für die Saison 2023/24‘ and essentially the concept can be seen as one that is positioned against the fashionable backdrop of social engagement, charity and inclusion.

The future viability and relevance of FC’s is increasingly determined by their fan and wider social engagement. More often than not they use wider themes of tradition, community and equality and to engage sporting success off the field.

Three home games make up the pilot phase of the #fortunaFurAlle initiative all of which have the aim of enticing fans into the stadium against a backdrop of attractive, traditional opponents.

The staggering of three ‘free entry games’ is being done in an incremental phased way with the aim of each free event (starting with Kaiserslautern in October and ending with Eintracht Braunschweig in April) leaving enough time between each game to gather feedback and make improvements to various areas of the fan experience.

You may though rightfully question how such an initiative makes sense given the importance of season ticket sales to club revenues.

Essentially, Fortuna aim to offset lost ticket sales with €45m of additional investment over the next five years from a group of major business sponsors for the ‘free’ events. The deals are with corporate partners like Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Targo Bank whom in exchange for financial sponsorship of the events will gain a window to new customer streams. Sponsorship and an association with the events is seen as an opportunity to engage free advertising at fixtures and access to the lucrative data streams that comes from modern electronic systems.

One issue Fortuna Düsseldorf have faced is attracting average crowds of more than 28,000 to a stadium that boasts a capacity of 54,600. As a UEFA Euro 2024 venue (the city missed out on FIFA World Cup 2006) the club aims to fill the stadium and anchor the club’s standing within the city over the course of the season as it looks ahead to being a host for the UEFA event.

Many games in the second tier at the moment go ahead with one end of the stadium closed.

Wir Sind Der Verein

If Fortuna are all inclusive and innovative in outlook the messaging and sentiment projected amongst the large travelling support seemed slightly different. ‘Gegen Investoren‘ being the message on a huge banner hanging from the second tier.

The backdrop is the question of new investment in Hertha from a US based private equity firm, a matter than is always likely to engage division in view and opinion.

While many BSC fans know new money is needed if the club are ever to be a major challenger to the all powerful Dortmund and Bayern Munich there are accusations any new investment agreements will serve to circumvent the Bundesliga’s ’50+1′ ownership regulations. By fudging voting rights rules a sense of negative perception has embedded itself in the clubs fanbase engaging suspicion at the traditional Berlin club between new investors and existing club members.

Moreover, the particular US private equity firm hovering around Hertha have a portfolio of football investments i.e. Hertha being part of a the ‘multi club ownership model’ which includes Sevilla, Genoa, Vasco da Gama, Standard de Liege and Melbourne Victory is a step too far for many.

Regardless of whom or which investor model is involved, gaining promotion back to the Bundesliga is the object for a number of clubs this season with Hertha Berlin being amongst the favorites to win the title.

That said, Hertha have proper competition in Schalke 04 and the giants from Hamburg HSV both of whom run parallel to Fortuna in terms of ‘tradition’. Moreover what all of the teams learned from last season was that an outsider creeping into the picture at the top of the table is not unrealistic.

On the final matchday of the 2022-23 season, 1. FC Heidenheim managed to score two goals in the stoppage time to win 3–2 against Jahn Regensburg. It meant that they finished top of the table ahead of Darmstadt and thereby cutting out HSV from automatic promotion.

It took some time for the winning goal to put this fixture to bed.

Former Wolfsburg striker Daniel Ginczek cleverly placed a header past Christensen from close range and that was the end of scoring.

The story of Hertha over the 90 minutes was an all too familiar and common one. Chance after chance came and went. The lack of energy in the closing stages meant any hope of an equalizer for the capital cup petered out in the face of resolute is often desperate Fortuna defending.

Hertha go into this season against the backdrop of a season from hell. Neighbours 1 FC.Union Berlin have overtaken them as the capital’s best (if not biggest) club and another unsuccessful season could see a further drop in the third tier not beyond the realms of possibility.

Full time: 1-0

Zuschauer: 40.600 (Gaste 3.500)

Referee: Christian Dingert

Merkur Spiel Arena