BIELEFELD, Germany -- Arminia Bielefeld's managing director, Markus Rejek, points to the worn-out seats in the west stands of the Schuco Arena, the Bielefelder Alm, one of the famous old German football grounds, and one of the few in the country that's located in the heart of a city where, on match days, locals sell beer to fans out of their gardens. Built in 1926, the terraces reach down all the way to the pitch, with time slowly washing the blue paint off the seats.
"We'll need to replace them at one point," the 52-year-old Rejek says, before gesturing up at the terraces in the south end behind the goal where the diehard supporters fly their flags.
"It's like walking up to the old [Arsenal stadium] Highbury," Andreas Kramer, a Bielefeld supporter who has followed the club through all the ups and downs of its history, says. "It's unique here in Germany. You maybe get it down in Freiburg. You get a Bratwurst and a beer, then walk on to the ground." It was in this part of Germany that the British had their biggest air force base during the cold war, many of them growing to become Bielefeld supporters. They still return to the Alm whenever it's possible.
There is a running joke in Germany that the city of Bielefeld, tucked away in North Rhine-Westphalia an hour northeast of Dortmund -- their opponents on Saturday, 10.30 a.m. ET, Stream LIVE on ESPN+ -- is a mere illusion.
In 1994, college student Achim Held made the joke on an early internet forum, recalling a story his friend told him of when they met someone from Bielefeld at a party and were told the individual the place "does not exist" ("Das gibt's doch gar nicht"). It gained traction and became part of German satire. There are other urban myths in a similar vein; for example, Trains never stop in Wolfsburg, another Bundesliga city on the key rail line between Cologne in the west and Berlin in the east.
The joke works like this. When Bielefeld is mentioned, you're asked three questions: Do you know anybody who was born or lived in Bielefeld? Have you yourself been to Bielefeld? Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld? Everyone's expected to answer "no" to all three, responding "Bielefeld? There's no such place!" Depending on who you talk to, it's like the German version of Area 51, a place where spaceships are housed or where Elvis still lives to this day.
The Bielefeld conspiracy theory has even been referenced in a speech by German chancellor Angela Merkel, when she remembered a visit to the city "if it existed at all." It has been a subject of a film made by the local university, and even prompted the council in 2019 to offer a bounty of €1m to anybody who could prove the city was a figment of DIE's (an omnipotent fictional entity called "They") imagination.
Credit to the city itself: the joke has been added to Bielefeld's tourism brochure alongside "Max and Jule" (the two brown bears living in nearby Teutoburg Forest) and Sparrenburg Castle, a restored fortress dating back to the 13th century that looms over the city center.
"That conspiracy is a cool thing," Artur Wichniarek, a former Poland international who played for Arminia Bielefeld and Hertha Berlin, tells ESPN. "You need to be able to laugh about yourself, and here, the people can do it."
"Playing at Bielefeld always meant battling against relegation," Wichniarek says. "And back in the days, we were able to upset quite a few teams." Just like on March 30, 2007, when they last beat Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund's renaissance over the years has been remarkable, but Bielefeld's return to the Bundesliga is just as astonishing. Arminia are back, and are very real indeed.
The city boasts that its 330,000-strong population proudly "cheer and celebrate, hope and suffer along with the Arminia football team." Emphasis, perhaps, on "suffering" -- in German football, Arminia Bielefeld are referred to as the "Fahrstuhlmannschaft" or the "elevator team," effectively a club that's perennially dancing between promotion and relegation. This summer, they won promotion to the Bundesliga for the eighth time.
Those steering the club are head coach Uwe Neuhaus, managing director Samir Arabi and Rejek, who learned his trade as a marketing officer at Borussia Dortmund during the successful Jurgen Klopp years until early 2014. Together, they oversee one of the most intriguing projects in German football: bringing a traditional club back from the brink.
Things were bleak at Bielefeld when Rejek arrived three years ago. Using expertise garnered from Dortmund and then TSV 1860 Munich, Rejek took charge of Arminia's beleaguered finances -- they were in debt, and in need of €4.6 million to finish the season.
"Bielefeld are one of the big traditional clubs," Rejek says. "Where Bielefeld was in 2017, the club just didn't belong there. And I love a challenge. I couldn't imagine where I could be useful for a club like Bayern Munich. I would not know how I could give them what they don't already have.
"We needed a fresh start at Bielefeld, and it could have been down to someone completely different," Rejek says. "I had different experiences and ways of thinking from my past jobs. When I was at Dortmund, I had this attitude of thinking bigger, being courageous. Here, in this region, people sometimes like to belittle themselves. We needed to change that."
With the help of the Bundnis Ostwestfalen -- essentially a group of regional companies getting behind the club and granting the new leadership a line of credit -- the club went back to its roots. With many big German companies including Dr. Oetker, the Krombacher brewery and coffee company Melitta based in the region, the club turned to them, offering them a vision of hope for the future. Some got behind the clubs, while others waived their claims for past money owed.
The club was also forced to sell their debt-ridden stadium, where they had played since 1926 and that had nearly bankrupted the club following an expansion and some upgrades in 2008. In Schüco and other local investors, they found a regional company who granted them a buy-back option in 15 years. The plan also convinced the members of the club to green light the sale.
"If you have to climb a mountain that high, you can only achieve with the help of many, with the good will of companies, who all felt a deep responsibility for their club, but who all needed to win trust again, to have a new narrative," Rejek adds.
Bielefeld's debts, amounting to nearly €30 million, were all but cleared in late 2018.
"It was crucial to get out of this vicious cycle," Rejek says. "Football created a system in which sporting success is honoured. If you are successful on the pitch, you get more TV money. Once you are in that system, you must invest future income in the present. You sell your future, but [if the future doesn't work out as planned] a snowball turns into an unstoppable avalanche of liabilities and debts."
Once they had managed to get their heads above water, Rejek said Arminia had the ability to nurture the untapped potential within the club. While staff were enjoying the occasional "luxury" like a working chair, or a new computer, the team on the pitch were busy turning themselves into the hardest-running side in the second division.
In December 2018, Bielefeld appointed Neuhaus, 60, as their new head coach. Having won the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund as an assistant to Matthias Sammer in 2002, Neuhaus had long chased a dream of being top dog at a Bundesliga club. While he came close to realising this at Union Berlin and also Dynamo Dresden, he remained a second division coach, and approaching 60 years old, it looked like a Bundesliga job might have escaped him. Until Arminia came knocking.
"It was a fit," Rejek says, looking back to 2018. "It was like Arminia Bielefeld had been waiting for Neuhaus, and Neuhaus for Arminia Bielefeld. He's a great fit here in the region, and when we met up with him in 2018, Uwe made it quite clear to us that he wants to fulfil his dream of winning promotion to the Bundesliga at a traditional club like Bielefeld."
Back in 2014, they were relegated to the third tier of German football in the final minute of extra time in the playoffs against Darmstadt, but the core of the team stayed together for several seasons. Club captain Fabian Klos, an attacker from nearby Gifhorn in Lower Saxony, personified the club's restlessness when Neuhaus took over. Klos had stuck with Arminia through those dark times and, like Neuhaus, had dreamed of playing in the Bundesliga with the club he joined from Wolfsburg reserves in 2009.
"You could see what Klos can do [based on] last season," Rejek says of the Bundesliga 2's top scorer in 2019-2020. His 21 goals, along with a further 11 assists, were instrumental as Bielefeld won the second league despite a mid-table side's budget. Klos is the club's top scorer with 152 competitive goals across all leagues and competitions, but this season, he has yet to find the back of the net.
"I really hope he starts rolling and shows he can score goals in Bundesliga. It's important for the club," Wichniarek, the former Poland international whose 45 goals in the top-flight are an Arminia record, says. "He's a real number nine, and he needs to be fed by his team."
On the pitch, it's all about goals and wins, and Wichniarek knows it. However, Rejek believes that being successful means more. "It's a team sport and to enable success here, you need everyone to buy into the ethos, from the guy who scores the goals to the person who posts the mail in the office."
Over the summer, Bielefeld made smart signings, such as loaning Germany U21 captain Arne Maier from Hertha Berlin. But they didn't spend any money on transfers; instead they brought players in on free transfers or paid small loan fees, living within their means on a €22 million budget. (Put in perspective, that's the annual salary of Bayern star Robert Lewandowski.) The previous season, they only had the eighth-highest budget in Bundesliga 2, operating on a €12 million budget to Hamburger SV's €28 million.
For now, Bielefeld's sole goal is to stay in the upper tier. "We feel quite well in our role as the underdogs, and we'll wait for a chance to create another miracle," Rejek says. "We are not one of the five biggest clubs in Germany, but regardless of where we are, it's important to continue developing as a club and not just stand still."
With the coronavirus pandemic going into its first winter, it remains unclear when Arminia Bielefeld, or any club, will be allowed to play to a packed stadium again. As Rejek looks to the stands while we talk, alone in the 27,300-capacity stadium, it's hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia.
"Football and music, I believe, still have the power to unify people," Rejek says. "People want to experience emotions together," Rejek says. "What we can see now with all the empty grounds is that the fan is part of football and football is played for the people. They are all part of all. We have to do what we do right now, it's necessary to keep going. But football without fans is no football."
The plan now is to leave their mark on Borussia Dortmund, giving them and the Bundesliga a timely reminder of what it takes for a side to punch above their weight.