Turbine Potsdam Go Down With a Whimper – Football, Soccer And Everything In Between

On May 13, something historic happened. As a relentless Bayer Leverkusen ran rampant, finding the back of the net after just five minutes, then again in the 12th, and again in the 32nd and then on another two occasions either side of half-time at the Karl-Liebknecht-Stadion in Brandenburg’s capital, the realisation that this was it for the home side hit like a ton of bricks.

The 1-5 result on that Saturday confirmed something that had been inevitable for weeks; in truth, it had felt inevitable since the opening half of the season: Turbine Potsdam were relegated from the Frauen-Bundesliga, ending a 29-year stay in Germany’s top women’s division. During that time frame, Turbine became one of the country’s elite sides, claiming six FBL titles, three DFB-Pokale and two European Cups. In fact, to this day they are the only side from the former German Democratic Republic to have won a first-division league title after reunification.

Next season, however, this illustrious club will be playing against top-flight reserve teams in the 2. Bundesliga. But how did it come to this? How did a side that came so close to qualifying for the UEFA Women’s Champions League last year end up rock bottom of the Bundesliga just 12 months on? Though it felt like Turbine speedran relegation this term, manifestations of stagnation and decay had been visible for years. This season, the moribund structure finally crumbled.

The situation at Turbine is reminiscent of what happened to Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson departed, the major difference being that the Potsdam outfit is not a global brand that rakes in hundreds of millions even when success on the pitch proves elusive, but a club that has always had to pinch pennies. Turbine lost their Ferguson, their eminently successful manager, the heart of the club when Bernd Schröder retired.

Schröder had built Turbine from the ground up, being at the head of the organisation for 45 years, from the humble beginnings in 1971 until 2016, by which point clubs backed by the financial muscle of the men’s Bundesliga had already surpassed Turbine. And it is these two factors that contributed to the club’s downfall: not only had they lost their talismanic leader but they also couldn’t muster the resources required to stay competitive in an increasingly nouveau riche environment as an independent club.

Bernd Schröder lifting Turbine’s first FBL title (Alexander Heimann/Bongarts/Getty)

It is a tragic irony and emblematic of the dramatic changes being wrought in women’s football that Turbine are relegated in the same season that RB Leipzig win the 2. Bundesliga. That is not to say that we shouldn’t welcome investment in the sport – we absolutely should. In fact, it is criminal that in one of Europe’s trailblazing women’s leagues like the Frauen-Bundesliga, many players and coaches still aren’t paid a living wage. But there is no shame in admitting that there is also something bittersweet about these new economic developments.

Women’s football is heading down the same alienating route as the men’s game – and should the sport ever become profitable, women’s clubs will also be turned into money-making machines and playthings of billionaires – and yet many of its pioneers will never reap any of these newfound rewards. The Frauen-Bundesliga’s record champions, Bergisch-Gladbach, have long since ceased to exist, while Germany’s most successful women’s club, FFC Frankfurt, had to relinquish their identity in order to remain competitive.

Even if Turbine had wanted to do something similar to guarantee funding, they wouldn’t merely have had to change their branding but they would have had to be transplanted into a different community altogether. Potsdam’s main men’s team, Babelsberg 03, play in the semi-professional, fourth-tier Regionalliga and therefore can’t support a full-time women’s department, so Turbine would have had to move to Berlin – only a stone’s throw away, of course, but an entirely different city.

In fact, they actually found something of a compromise with Hertha BSC a few years ago, a “cooperation agreement,” but that ultimately proved short-lived as the capital side are now working on assembling their own women’s department, recently announcing the takeover of Hertha 03 Zehlendorf, the former club of Turbine legend Ariane Hingst, herself now involved with Viktoria Berlin, another enterprising women’s football project in the capital area.

With little backing to speak of, Turbine have struggled on and off the pitch as investment in infrastructure becomes impossible. The facilities decay and the youth set-up, once the best in the country, is being increasingly neglected. Symbolic of Potsdam’s dereliction is the fact that it took more than a day for someone to update the club website and announce relegation, as noted in a taz article. The same report also makes a salient point about the German FA, the DFB.

“Heike Ullrich, general secretary of the DFB, announced just four years ago that both independent clubs and an increased interest from professional men’s teams would be ideal [for the Frauen-Bundesliga]. The DFB would have to create the conditions to ensure this diversity.

In hindsight, you have to say that the federation failed miserably at this. If it had truly been desired, there would have been an easy way to accomplish this. Independent women’s clubs could have been considerably favoured in the provision of TV money, for example. On average, women’s clubs with men’s departments currently operate at a loss of €1.5 million per season but internal redistribution of resources balances the books.

The DFB has allowed this competitive disparity to continue unabated despite its insistence on diversity. No wonder, then, that second-division side SG Andernach [an independent club] announced in the spring that they don’t even want to get promoted in the event of sporting success.”

The DFB’s role in this can’t be overstated, though it must be said that pointing fingers won’t solve any issues, especially when those in charge of Turbine must take a long hard look in the mirror themselves. Potsdam managed to live purely off of their reputation in recent years, and unexpectedly good performances often papered over the cracks, as they did last season.

Halfway through last term, Potsdam were in a surprising third – the final Champions League spot – and coach Sofian Chahed, a product of the Hertha cooperation, was rewarded with a new contract in the winter. By the end of the season, however, Turbine had crumbled, missing out on Europe and losing the DFB-Pokal final to Wolfsburg. Star striker Selina Cerci, sidelined with injury at the time, announced that she was leaving for Köln; some 14 first-teamers followed suit over the summer in what was an exodus of epic proportions. Chahed was sacked, after which president Rolf Kutzmutz, allegedly excluded from the decision-making process, resigned in protest.

Was this all merely the fallout of an unfortunate bottle job? Of course not, the chickens had finally come home to roost. Turbine went into 2022/23 with a completely overhauled team and a new coach, the relatively unknown Sebastian Middeke from SV Meppen’s reserves. I wrote at the start of the season that Potsdam’s new roster smacked of mid-table mediocrity, not in my wildest dreams anticipating the dreadful campaign to come. By late October, Middeke was gone and Turbine were bottom of the table with one point to their name – they wouldn’t collect another one until March 21 after losing 13 games on the bounce.

In light of their historically awful start to the season, Tamara Keller carried out anonymous interviews with six former players for rbb. Their answers painted a picture of a club frozen in time, with stagnation and neglect noticeable everywhere.

“In particular, the following problems are mentioned frequently in the discussions: bad playing and training conditions, issues of communication – physios, for example, being unaware of the manner of injury plaguing a player. The coaching staff is responsible for most of the communication and, as is clear to the players, is totally overwhelmed. The actual tasks of the coaching staff are overlooked. Moreover, the club failed to progress and adapt to modern women’s football.”

Overburdening was also evident in the higher reaches of the club, according to the players. The voluntary nature of the work in the upper echelons restricted efficient running, and indeed several volunteer board members resigned earlier in the season. There was reportedly a split between the board and the praesidium, with members of the former throwing their weight behind modernisation and restructuring, whereas the latter favoured the status quo.

Kutzmutz had been the face of Turbine’s stagnation for years, but this became particularly evident in 2021 when former player Tabea Kemme, calling for a wholesale makeover of the club, narrowly lost out to him in the presidential race. In my 2021 piece celebrating Turbine’s 50th anniversary, I wrote the following on the leadership battle:

“In the end, this election probably did more harm than good because it elucidated the growing schism at Turbine, with one side determined to take the club in a new direction, while the other is content with staying the course. When two camps in an organisation pull in different directions, it is usually bound to end in a veritable train wreck. Let’s hope that Turbine will be an exception to the rule.

It’s lamentable that a year that should have been one of celebration is being overshadowed by a power struggle of such magnitude. But perhaps it is a sign of the times. German women’s football at large finds itself at a similar crossroads: stick to your guns and risk getting left behind or adapt and improve. One thing is clear, though: the cost of superficial incrementalism or, worse, complete inertia could prove to be extortionate.”

Leverkusen players celebrate after sending Turbine to the 2. Bundesliga (Source)

For Turbine, it has proved to be extortionate. “Someone,” wrote nd-aktuell a few weeks ago, “like assistant coach Dirk Heinrichs struggles to cope with [Turbine’s decline]. ‘It is sad. It is mentally difficult for the girls, in particular,’ said the 54-year-old after their recent 1-6 loss to Hoffenheim. Heinrichs has been working at the club for two decades and he has had to watch on helplessly as the competition continuously professionalised while the former flagship club remained in amateur conditions.”

Player Noa Selimhodzic told Elfen earlier in the campaign that she found “staying positive extremely difficult” in the first half of the season as Turbine trudged along like a rudderless ship. New president Karsten Ritter-Lang, voted into office in November, insists that Turbine needs to be run like a “middle-class business,” and something certainly has to change because even staying competitive in the 2. Bundesliga could be a challenge.

According to Heinrichs, several players have contracts that remain in force in the second tier, yet according to Soccerdonna data, 14 players are on expiring contracts, including key players such as Jennifer Cramer, Maria Plattner, Selimhodzic and Anna Gerhardt, whose departure has already been confirmed by the club.

Moreover, they will have to make do without the €300,000 they used to receive from the DFB in the first division. This may prove catastrophic, and the financial chasm between them and the Frauen-Bundesliga will only continue to widen due to the league’s new, more lucrative broadcast deal coming into effect next season. This is not a unique development confined to Germany, either. In the WSL, Kelly Chambers, coach of all-but-relegated Reading, the only non-Premier League-backed side in the league, drew attention to the growing financial gulf in England at the weekend:

“We can’t compete with clubs who are in the league right now because of budgets. The women’s game is growing like this. Premier League clubs are investing which is what we want them to do, it’s what they should do. But they’re doing that and we’re staying here so it’s hard for myself, the staff, even the players to be fair.”

Additionally, Turbine’s youth work could also come under severe threat due to developments elsewhere. They have been cooperating with the elite Friedrich Ludwig Jahn sports school in Potsdam since the 1990s, but that relationship has been neglected in recent times. Moreover, with Hertha BSC getting involved in women’s football, the ambitious Viktoria Berlin project one step away from joining Turbine in the second tier and Union Berlin’s women rapidly professionalising, there will be heightened competition for youngsters – and senior players – in the Berlin area, which will heavily restrict the talent pool. Newly-promoted RB Leipzig across the border in Saxony are also bound to become a more attractive prospect for women from Germany’s eastern regions.

All of this is to say that the future of one of Germany’s most storied football clubs is looking incredibly bleak at this moment in time. It would be an exercise in futility trying to predict what exactly will happen next season and in subsequent years, but it’s clear that this year’s relegation was the predictable result of recent developments. The rapid evolution of women’s football has passed Turbine by: economically, structurally and even in terms of attendance. Once the shining light of the sport and one of the nation’s best-supported women’s clubs, Turbine’s spectatorship numbers see them rank third bottom this season.

Last Sunday, Eintracht Frankfurt came to town. This game between the two traditional giants of German women’s football used to be dubbed der Klassiker. In truth, this game had neither the feel of a Klassiker nor did the two ever see eye to eye during those 90 minutes as the away side ran out comfortable 3-0 victors en route to another Champions League qualification.

In 1981, Turbine won the GDR championship in front of 6000 spectators; in 2003, 8000 showed up to watch the season finale versus Frankfurt; when these two used to face each other in the DFB-Pokal final, up to 30,000 people came to watch at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. On Sunday, just 1542 fans turned up to witness Turbine’s farcical last home Klassiker as a Bundesliga club at the 10,787-capacity Karl-Liebknecht-Stadion.

This latest Klassiker – and it could be the last one for a while – was a fitting illustration of the divergent paths of these two former behemoths: Frankfurt have adapted to the exigencies of modern women’s football, while Turbine, ossified and antiquated, failed to do so. The former had to relinquish their iconic identity, but they now get to play football at the 51,500-capacity Deutsche Bank Park while challenging for Champions League football. In hindsight, and taking Turbine’s fate into account, it was a small price to pay.

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Author: Sean Miller