Let’s rewind to the spring of 2020, when football worldwide came to a standstill due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Football governing bodies were in disarray, uncertainty shrouded the fate of the 2019/20 season. Constantly shifting information left enthusiasts bewildered, with debates over whether certain championships should be terminated, titles awarded to someone, or whether there should be no champion at all.
This was precisely the situation in the Bundesliga. During the darkest days of the lockdown, the leaders of the German Football Association pondered the possibility of concluding the season without declaring a victor. Ironically, it was the Germans who were the first to resume the championship to secure Bayern Munich’s eighth consecutive title.
However, the question looming over the most populous European nation was whether 2020 would become only the third year in the last century when the Bundesliga would be without a reigning champion. The last time this occurred was in 1945 when Germany’s surrender and the subsequent division of the country into separate regions left the football enthusiasts without a championship. But back then, it was one of the nation’s least concerns.
Let’s go back even further, all the way to 1922. We turn our attention to the perennial ranking of German football and observe that precisely 99 years ago, Germany once again found itself without a champion. But why did this happen? That’s precisely what we will uncover today.
As you are likely aware, the Bundesliga has existed in its current form only since 1963. In the 1963/64 season, 1. FC Köln became the inaugural champion in the newly established league, which, interestingly, remains the last title for “the Billy Goats” to date.
However, prior to that, German football underwent a series of changes, revisions, and reconstructions. In 1922, the championship format was such that Germany was divided into seven football regions, each conducting its own championship. The winners from each region, along with the previous season’s champion, participated in a final tournament using an elimination format.
Of course, the football landscape in 1922 was far removed from the contemporary standards. The final eight comprised teams that even the most fervent fans of the game today would likely be unfamiliar with. Teams like Viktoria Forst and 1899 Leipzig-Lindenau were the leading contenders for the German title. Nonetheless, the final match pitted two well-known teams, albeit in a much-diminished state compared to their former glory—Hamburg and Nuremberg.
The epic clash took place on June 18, 1922, in Berlin, but after 90 minutes of play, the score stood at 2-2. As you might imagine, penalty shootouts were still a distant concept at the time, and even the coin toss had to wait another 30 years to be introduced. This compelled both teams to continue playing until a “Golden Goal” was scored—the first team to find the net would claim the title.
However, this scenario never materialized. After 189 minutes of play, the match was halted due to darkness since stadium lighting was not yet available. Additionally, the players on both teams were physically exhausted after more than three hours of running.
And if you thought that was dramatic, wait until you hear about the rematch. It occurred a full seven weeks later, in front of over 50,000 enthusiastic spectators at the Leipzig stadium. There, even 90 minutes failed to determine a winner, and the final result stood at 1-1. Once again, the “Golden Goal” rule was invoked—whichever team scored it would be declared the victor. However, a winning goal never materialized.
The Nuremberg team found themselves with fewer players on the field. After only 18 minutes of play, a player named Willi Böß was shown a red card, and shortly thereafter, his teammate left the field due to injury. Substitutions did not exist at the time, so Nuremberg continued with only nine players. In the 100th minute, another player from the Bavarian team received a red card. Just seven minutes later, Luitpold Popp from Nuremberg was completely drained of energy, and he refused to continue playing.
As a result, Nuremberg was left with only seven players on the field, and according to the rules of the time, a team needed at least eight players for the match to continue. Referee Peco Bauwens, who would later become the president of the German Football Association after World War II, had to call off the game.
According to the rules, the title should have been awarded to Hamburg, even though the referee made a formal mistake that could have led to a replay. According to the instructions, he should have resumed the game after Nuremberg was left with seven players on the field and then called it off, but he did not. This prompted the Nuremberg team to protest against the referee, causing the football association to abandon its plan to award the title to Hamburg. In turn, this led to a counter-protest from the Hamburg team, as Nuremberg already had only seven players on the field, and the match had to be discontinued.
After a series of disputes, the leaders of German football ultimately decided to award the title to Hamburg, but it was already tainted, leading the “Red Shorts” to decline the trophy. Thus, officially, German football remained without a champion for the year 1922.
In our present times, it is challenging to fathom that such a scenario could occur, let alone that any of the top football leagues in the world might be left without a winner. In contrast to 1922, which was nearly a century ago when football was more of a hobby, today the sport is a multimillion-dollar industry.
It is impossible to directly compare these two vastly different eras, but in our contemporary world, it is crucial that matches are played and a champion is determined—for the sake of the fans, television rights, bookmakers, and various other stakeholders.