“Record insolvency champions” SSV Ulm: Ex-Bayern coach leads Rangnick’s heirs back to League Two

The sparrows are flying again: SSV Ulm achieved a sensational breakthrough and returned to the 2nd Bundesliga after 23 years. The euphoria in the Swabian city is huge and brings back memories of iconic times.

Sometimes it’s helpful to break through clichés. So let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning: not all Swabians are particularly good at managing money. An example of this is SSV Ulm, which has come dangerously close to the abyss in recent decades due to financial problems.

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What is currently happening in the Swabian province is all the more astonishing. It is nothing less than a resurrection that is met with much love. In the city where Albert Einstein was born, where the Danube flows and where the world’s tallest church tower stands, it is clear to many: the greatest pride and exclamation point is and remains the Ulm 1846 swimming and sports club.

The traditional football club has certainly not always made things easy for the city and its fans. The club’s history condenses the notorious ups and downs, the tears of joy and sadness that so many traditional clubs know. SSV Ulm is one that often fell and then always got back up again.

The squad of sleeping giants

The black and whites are one of these always tumbling clubs. And now, in 2024, the SSV has made a lot of money. Like Alemannia Aachen and Rot-Weiss Essen, who have also found their way back into professional football. All sleeping giants that are waking up. That’s how SSV Ulm sees itself and that’s especially how the fans see it, who now populate the iconic Donaustadion every two weeks. And in doing so, he serves as a ray of hope for all the others who didn’t make it. Projection surface of football longing.

So now the “Sparrows” are writing the latest chapter. Through the 2-0 (0-0) home win against Viktoria Cologne the surprising promotion to the 2nd Bundesliga is guaranteed. The miracle of the Danube perfect. SSV Ulm brings nostalgic 90s and 2000s vibes back to the present, hitting a nerve with many football romantics who get goosebumps just by hearing the name Donaustadion. SSV Ulm has the potential to become a cult club.

There is great football euphoria again in Ulm and around Ulm. This season the Donaustadion was sold out for the first time since the millennium. Even if the club and fans had to move to Aalen for a short time because the Donaustadion does not have a heated pitch. It wasn’t until the 29th matchday that the sparrows returned to their home nest.

The last time he was in the Bundesliga lower house was 23 years ago

The old SSV feeling is back. The good news: Ulm got the license for the 2nd league – albeit with some homework. The venerable Donaustadion needs to be modernized for the coming season. In the past two seasons, the team has exceeded all expectations and stormed through the regional league and now also the sensational league leaders in the 3rd league.

No exaggeration: this was not to be expected. The return to professional football a year ago was celebrated as a major coup. The minimalist approach for the 2023/24 season was therefore: stay in the league. This was spectacularly missed, as the Sparrows will be competing in the 2nd Bundesliga again next season. Finally 2nd Bundesliga again.

The last time that the Ulm team attacked on the second floor of football was 23 years ago. Opponents back then included: Nuremberg, Gladbach, Mainz and the Stuttgarter Kickers. And sometimes history repeats itself: This is not the first time that Ulm has found itself on the move. It all started with Ralf Rangnick.

Revolutionary Ralf Rangnick

At the beginning of 1997 he moved from arch-rival SSV Reutlingen (another traditional club from Swabia that had fallen and, like Pattex, was stuck in the top league) to the Danube and from then on played newfangled football à la Rangnick. Back four, ball-oriented pressing. Everything that is familiar vocabulary today was the latest trend back then. Downright revolutionary. And then it paid off!

Ulm stormed into the 2nd Bundesliga as champions of the Regionalliga Süd (then the third highest division) and suddenly led the table there, unbeaten. Tabula Rasa in Swabian. The “ZDF Sportstudio” consequently invited the improver Rangnick to the TV studio and had the coach explain his four-man chain vision to the whole of Libero Germany on a legendary magnetic board. From then on, the nickname “football professor,” which was not always meant as a compliment, accompanied the coach from Backnang.

Because everything is connected to everything else: In Ulm, Rangnick, who was traded to Bayern in 2024, was training the still Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel, who is currently in a public dispute with Bayern patron Uli Hoeneß, probably the city’s greatest son along with Einstein.

The curse of success

Curious: The success was almost fatal for Ulm. During the winter break, the SSV was at the top of the 2nd league – and the “big” VfB Stuttgart quickly snatched the head coach from their neighbors and announced Rangnick’s move to the state capital.

Ulm then got tangled up in a winless streak and parted ways prematurely with Rangnick, who left for VfB at the end of the season (with manageable success and including a feud with Krassimir Balakov). Ulm brought in Martin Andermatt as a replacement and saved the climb to third place. Either way: a sensation. Little Ulm now played in the Bundesliga against Bayern, Dortmund and HSV.

For a long time it looked as if the club was continuing to shake up the Bundesliga, and at times they were closer to Europe than to the relegation zone. But in the end the team ran out of steam (even after a 1:9 loss against Leverkusen) and had to go down again in 16th place.

Relegation, bankruptcies, logo dispute

It wasn’t possible without scandals anyway. SSV Ulm was part of one of the most memorable Bundesliga games ever in September 1999. In the 1:2 draw against Hansa Rostock, four Ulm players were sent off. It was only shortly before the final whistle that Ulm conceded the decisive goal.

The guests went wild, defender Janusz Gora condensed everything that happened into facial expressions, gestures and the legendary exclamation: SCANDAL, which quickly became a household word. Rostock saved themselves in the league with three points more than Ulm. And the sparrows swooped down just as steeply as they had previously shot up. The next round backwards. From the Bundesliga to the regional league. Hangover mood. But Ulm wouldn’t be Ulm if things had turned out even more dramatically.

The club ran out of money and had to file for bankruptcy. The case went even deeper – into the association league (!). This great wheel of fate then continued to spin wildly in Ulm right up to the present day. The SSV rose, got stuck in the upper league, and returned to the regional league. This was followed by scandals involving social security fraud by some players and involvement in betting fraud. There was rarely peace. The football club split off from the parent club, garnished with a logo dispute. Second more bankruptcies follow, back to work. Which in this case means upper league. Since 2016/17, the Swabian patient has stabilized again in the regional league.

From the world coach election to SSV Ulm

Thomas Wörle finally put him in a stable side position and stood him up again. The 42-year-old is not necessarily a new Rangnick (in Ulm they now play a back three), he had previously made a name for himself as coach of the FC Bayern women’s team, won the championship twice and was even nominated as world coach of the year.

In 2021, he took over the Ulm team out of unemployment, became runner-up in the regional league in the first season and immediately reached the state cup final. The following year he made the jump back into professional football and now made it through to league two. Wörle could work in peace and kiss the sleeping giant awake. “I felt from day one: The people here are hungry for professional football,” Wörle told SWR. However, a renewed rise was not to be expected. “We didn’t even think about that. It’s unbelievable. And that’s why we’re enjoying these weeks so much that we’re there shortly before the end and can play for something,” he said before the promotion decision.

What makes his team special? “Our team feels the self-confidence from many strong games this season. That’s one thing. The other is that we have this willingness in the team to fight with and for each other,” said Wörle. “You see that in most of our games. And we are ready to understand again and again that the last game has nothing to do with what happens in the next game. You have to work everything out again and again. That’s it the striking thing about us.”

The Heidenheim of the 3rd league

Wörle has built a team that functions as a collective. Ulm doesn’t magically make it through the league, but impresses with its defensive stability, standards and cool-headedness. The burden is spread across several shoulders. One of the most noticeable is former Schalke player Leonardo Scienza, who is one of the best scorers in the entire league this season with nine goals and 15 assists. While the Brazilian was unable to assert himself in the professional field at Schalke and Magdeburg, he made his breakthrough in Ulm. Samba in Swabia.

According to information from Sky, he will even become a first division professional next season. 1. FC Heidenheim should secure the services of the winger. Somehow it fits: Ulm could be described as the Heidenheim of the 3rd league. The offensive forces Dennis Chessa and Felix Higl also scored eight and six goals, the “six” Philipp Maier also contributed six goals, and the central defender duo scored six goals together.

On defense, keeper Christian Ortag kept his box clean 16 times, a league record. With 35 goals conceded, Ulm has the best defense in the league. Johannes Reichert holds the much-praised defense together. The 32-year-old is not only captain, but also a native of Ulm. Born here, myself a fan and also a player. So roughly the Kevin Großkreutz from Ulm.

“There will be no stopping”

These are great times right now. “Especially after the difficult times in the past, what we are currently experiencing is even more beautiful,” he told SWR. “I haven’t thought about what would happen if we did that – which of course would be an absolute miracle.” Ulm played itself into a frenzy in the second half of the season and has now been unbeaten in 17 games. The last defeat came just before Christmas.

With a view to the promotion celebration, Reichert announced: “There will be no stopping us. And I would be happy to be able to experience this moment.” Now the time has come: the SSV is back in league two. The Ulm miracle comes true. So maybe it will soon be time for a new banner or new song.

The Ulm fans took the eternal financial problems as an opportunity to hang a banner with the inscription “Record insolvency champions” in the D block, where the most loyal fans stand, and even wrote their own song about the three-time bankruptcy. “Chronically no success, never pursued by luck, but I know for sure, you are my SSV!” it says at the end. In any case, there is no need to warn the people of Ulm against too much arrogance or arrogance. A look at recent history is enough.

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