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Massive Clubs In Europe Currently Playing Third-Tier Football

By John Dodge
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All the big footballing nations in Europe have their own unique footballing pyramids. The top two tiers usually mimic each other with the best and brightest playing in the top tier and a single tier below them.  After that the leagues start to differ. England has a single professional tier for the top 5 levels. France has a single semi-pro 3rd tier before having 4 amateur divisions at the 4th tier. Germany has 3 professional tears before the regional semi-pro 4th tier is split into 4. The Italian third tier is split into 3 semi pro leagues. Spain has two tiers of professional football before introducing 4 divisions at the semi pro 3rd tier.  Oh and next year  there'll be only 2 divisions at level three in Spain. You get the picture, it's confusing and they're all different. Smaller football leagues have even more differences.

Some of the pyramid systems allow reserve or underage teams into the leagues. So when we're talking about big clubs playing in the third tier we're not talking about the likes of Barcelona B,  Juventus U23 or Bayern Munich II. We're talking about teams with big fan bases and a long history of (relative) success playing far below the level they're used to.  Let's go through some of them.

Deportivo La Coruna (Spain)

Only 9 clubs have won La Liga and only one of those clubs aren't playing in Spain's top tier this season. Deportivo La Coruna were the last club to join that elite list as recently as 2000 and they finished in the top 3 for 5 years during that golden period with players like Roy Makaay, Djalminha and Diego Tristan being household names among football fans around Europe. Their decline since then hasn't been that dramatic either. They drifted down La Liga before their first relegation in 2011 and since then have been promoted to and relegated from the Primera Division a number of times with their last Primera season as recent as 2018.  2019/20 was a disaster for the club though and, after a long pandemic delay, they were relegated in August this year. A 2-0 away loss to Ponferradina ultimately being the deciding factor in their head to head battle to stay up. The Galicians now playing in Group 1, subgroup A of the Segunda B as they look to bounce back to the national ranks at the first time of asking. Among the other 101 clubs at this level are former Primera regulars Racing Santander, Hercules and Real Murcia.

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Kaiserslautern (Germany)

In 1998 1. FC Kaiserslautern won the German title for the 4th time.  It was a turbulent few years for the club. Surprise league winners in 1991, they were regular contenders for several years after that. In 1995/96 they won the German Cup (DFB Pokal) but shockingly, were relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time ever. They bounced back straight way winning the second division in 96/97 and followed that up by becoming the only club to win the Bundesliga immediately following promotion. They didn't quite hit those heights in subsequent seasons but did reach the latter stages if European competition several times. Following their second relegation in 2006, they've only spent 2 seasons in the Bundesliga and in 2018 they were relegated to 3. Liga for the first time.  Pre-pandemic, FCK were regularly getting over 35,000 people to attend third tier games at the Fritz Walter Stadion - named after local hero and one of Germany's greatest ever footballers. It could get even worse for them too. They're currently in the relegation places in 3. Liga.  The financial ramifications of that are unthinkable for one of Germany's biggest clubs.


Dynamo Dresden (Germany)

A different path to the third tier for Dynamo Dresden. The former giants of East Germany (8 times champion) struggled to compete financially with their western rivals when admitted to the Bundesliga after reunification.  After 4 seasons at the top table, they were relegated in 1995. The club were further punished by the DFB for financial irregularities and demoted to the regional leagues. As recently as 2002, they were playing in the regional 4th tier. They've yo-yoed between 3. Liga and 2.Liga since then, steadily increasing their average attendance back up to over 25,000 a game pre-pandemic. They're currently top of 3.Liga and looking good for promotion back to the second tier.



Sunderland (England)


Sunderland have been champions of England six times but the fact that only one of them has been in the last century (and that being 84 years ago) mean they're the archetypal sleeping giant club.  Pre-pandemic they were still averaging over 30,000 at each home game in League One.  They had 10 years in the Premier League before being relegated in 2017. That Championship season was caught on camera for the excellent Netflix documentary as the club dropped to the third tier for only the second time. They've stayed there since and currently sit in midtable battling the likes of Fleetwood Town with about 120 years less professional league experience than Sunderland.



Palermo (Italy)

Unlike the others in the list so far, Palermo have yet to win a league title.  In 2010 however they finished 5th in Seria A and looked set to be a force in Italian football for years to come. 3 years later they were relegated. They danced between Serie A and Serie B for a few years with off field matters being in even more influx with multiple takeovers attempts failing (and some succeeding). The 2018-19 season saw the team finish in 3rd place before the league authorities punished them for severe administrative irregularities. Initially they were placed last. They appealed and the punishment was reduced to only 20 points, leaving them safely in mid table. The summer of 2019 saw Palermo excluded from all professional football as they failed to provide evidence of a required insurance policy for licensing.  A new zombie club was quickly formed and Palermo won promotion to Serie C in the pandemic shortened season. In Serie C they're joined by former Serie A regulars Bari, Perugia and fellow Sicilians Catania. All were punished for financial issues and all fighting their way back up through the Italian league system.


Bastia (France)

Similarly to Palermo, Bastia are rebounding from financial demotion/expulsion. Thought not a giant club, they did win the Coupe de France in 1981 and even reached the UEFA Cup final in 1978. Throughout their history the biggest team in Corsica have bounced between the top tow tiers but seemed relatively stable in the top Ligue 1 before an audit in 2017 exposed a perilous financial situation. They were immediately demoted to the 5th tier.  After a re-launch, they've since won back-to-back promotions and at time of writing are on course for promotion back to Ligue 2.


There are other big clubs around Europe that have had to drop into the lower leagues for financial and other mishaps. FC Tirol Innsbruck were Austrian champions in 2002 when they were dropped to Tier 3 (and subsequently collapsed). CSKA Sofia is a giant in Bulgarian terms and had to fight their way back to the top from the third tier.  In England Leeds United were deducted points for financial mismanagement but would have been relegated to League One in 2007 anyway. They're finally back among the bog league this year.   You also have clubs like Manchester City who played third tier football recently enough before being boosted by billionaire oligarchs and RB Leipzig seem to be on the way to competing with Bayern Munich having only won promotion from the third tier in 2014.

The common theme for all these clubs is gambling on football success. Some gambled to try and compete at the top tier while others gambled to earn promotion immediately after their initial relegation.  All the clubs have proud fan bases though, and for their sake, we hope their clubs survive and who knows, they may even reach the top level again too.





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