Decisive moment in the 2023/24 Bundesliga season: the spotlight is on the big stages: Leverkusen will probably celebrate its first German league title today, Bayern wonders “Who's mine?” and they appear to be in the biggest identity crisis since 1979, the year of their emperor's death. Cologne and Schalke are still on the brink of existence. However, in the football province, in the third league, something extraordinary is happening: a club from the Ruhr area shows how to return to the light even from the depths.

Bochum is panicking about relegation to the second division, MSV Duisburg is already as good as in the regional league, where the first Bundesliga team The Rot-Weiß Oberhausen has been languishing for years. After a disastrous season, the glorious FC Schalke can be happy if they remain in the second division this year. If they were relegated to the third division, all contracts would expire and all players could leave for free. It would even be doubtful if the seven-time German champion would get a license for the third division: the club has a debt of 165 million euros.

VfL Bochum's former local rival, SG Wattenscheid 09, home club of Leroy Sané's father Souleymann and a Bundesliga club for four years, went bankrupt in 2019 after 110 years and deregistered the first team from the regional league . And then there are also Westfalia Herne and Schwarz-Weiß Essen, who were big players in the 1950s and 1960s. Both play in the Oberliga today, as does SG Wattenscheid 09, which currently occupies second-to-last place in the Oberliga Westfalen.

Journalist Christoph Biermann describes the decline of traditional clubs in the Ruhr region in his acclaimed book “When We Dream of Football.” Apparently he continues. “Up” luckily. The conveyor basket is stuck or only knows one direction: down, still one level lower. With one exception (aside, of course, from heavyweight Borussia Dortmund): Rot-Weiß Essen, German champions since 1955. After coming back with a slap in the first professional football match in 15 years against SV Elversberg in the first matchday of the championship, third division season 2022/23, when RWE fell 5-1, Hafenstrasse is continually becoming one of the most popular addresses for paid football in Germany.

Essen's Hafenstrasse is once again a fashionable address

An example from matchday 31: the 19,200 tickets for the home game against MSV Duisburg the previous Sunday were sold out in 45 minutes. In the 2022/23 comeback season, an average of around 17,000 spectators attended each home game. More than Bundesliga newcomers SV Darmstadt and FC Heidenheim, behind Dynamo Dresden, that meant second place in the third league. And the average is likely to rise even further this season.

After the first year of turmoil in the third division, when cult striker Simon Engelmann kept the red and white in the league with a last-minute goal against 1860 Munich, the team is playing exceptionally well this season. “You should never count this team out,” said one fan during the confident 4-1 matchday 31 victory against MSV Duisburg after trailing 1-0. What sets the team apart: they always look for technical solutions and never throw the ball at random, even when things get difficult.

RWE coach Christoph Dabrowski, 273 Bundesliga games, including 208 with VfL Bochum, does not deviate from this line, although the impatient fans of the western corner called for his expulsion at the end of last season. CEO Marcus Uhlig (53) stood by him even when things were going badly and Essen was almost catapulted back into the regional league in the final meters. It is not a fact, as currently demonstrated by Ruhr rival VfL Bochum, who fired their well-deserved coach Thomas Letsch after seven poor games.

“If we were in 'Make a Wish', I would like to promote to the second division”

Rot-Weiß Essen fans now love Dabrowski. Also because he loves people, as he tells in Sven Pistor's “Simply Football” podcast. And to this Love It also means that he wants to continue developing players and sometimes allows them to make mistakes. Rot-Weiß Essen is today considered one of the strongest teams in the league and also one of the youngest. In the 3-1 victory over leader Jahn Regensburg at the beginning of February, the team was just over 23 years old. Three under-19 players were on the field.

Symbolic of Christoph Dabrowski's human resources policy: demanding and encouraging. After the first four games of last season, left back Felix Herzenbruch was involved in four goals conceded. The jump from the regional league to professional football was initially too big for him. By the end of the season, Herzenbruch was a regular player, a great player and second captain.

He still hasn't gotten a new contract; was not enough to meet RWE's objectives in the future. Christoph Dabrowski does not hide these objectives: in the press conference after the match against MSV Duisburg, the coach, asked by FOCUS online, said how he assessed the chances of promotion after the 4-1 victory and with a game remaining in Saarbrücken : “Look at the league, what's happening. It's really difficult to make predictions. “We still have seven games left and 21 points are up for grabs.”

When asked if anything was still possible, he let himself be drawn out of his reserve: “The fans should enjoy the victory in the derby and, for me, they can also dream. We want to win games. If we were in 'Make a Wish' I would like to win seven games, add 21 points and be promoted to the second division. But we are in the third league and not in 'Make a Wish'.”

However, it was there, the report immediately cited the kicker. Essen wants to return to the second division, ideally this season. Where they were last in 2007. After a rollercoaster of decades that led to the Oberliga Nordrhein in 1998, the club apparently finally reached the end: in 2010 they declared bankruptcy and RWE no longer gave a damn about anyone.

Striker Doumbouya played for the first time in the district league

What happened on Hafenstrasse? Why does the club of Helmut Rahn, “Ente” Lippens and Horst Hrubesch seem to be back in a good place in football after years of chaos, when there was sometimes no money in the coffers to pay the players? Players like midfielder Viktor Sapina, defense boss Felix Götze, brother of world champion Mario, or goalkeeper Jakob Golz, who could play a key role in at least every team in the second division, apparently feel so comfortable on Hafenstrasse I don't want to leave.

Or Marvin Obuz: According to, the 22-year-old from Cologne is ranked first among Rot-Weiß Essen's most valuable players and ninth in the entire third division. 1. FC Köln hesitates, but they have to do it. There is reportedly little appetite. In the third division he is one of the best assistants, he is famous on the Hafenstrasse and in Cologne general manager Christian Keller is skeptical about whether players like Obuz can “help”.

Dabrowski apparently continues to develop each player, which is currently a prime example: burly striker Moussa Doumbouya (26) first played in the regional league after fleeing Guinea in 2017 and is now a regular player in the third league. Noteworthy: Although players like Götze and Obuz are his most important players, coach Dabrowski advises them to play immediately in the second league.

Ron Berlinski is the prototype of the Malocher association on Hafenstraße

The 25-member squad exudes team spirit and cohesion, the team always bounces back even after setbacks and has become a fixture in the 3rd league. Everyone runs for everyone, it doesn't matter who comes in and when, everyone gives their all. Striker Ron Berlinski is the prototype of the Hafenstraße: this season he has a difficult time against Moussa Doumbouya and Leonardo Vonic. But the fans and the manager can always rely on one thing: that he will hand over his last shirt to RWE, and he always will. good for a decisive goal.

Like the 2-1 victory in the first leg in extra time against today's rival, Arminia Bielefeld. Berlinski, 29, a veteran of the team, worked three and a half years ago as a mechatronic engineer for commercial vehicles and played as an amateur soccer player in the Westphalian league. Berlinski said in an interview that he did not expect to reach professional football at 26 years old. But then an offer came from SC Verl and, after two successful seasons in Ostwestfalen, RWE arrived. It is not yet clear whether he will get a new contract at Hafenstrasse. Either way, in two years, with his irrepressible commitment, he has become a cult figure in the Malocher association on Hafenstrasse, where he would like to stay.

Players like Berlinski, who give everything they have for the club, have become a trademark of RWE. That is not a coincidence. “For years, when we hire new players, we make sure that, in addition to their sporting attributes, their character traits also match,” says general manager Marcus Uhlig (53) in an interview with FOCUS online. “This year we have a team of impeccable character on the field,” Uhlig said.

When he took over in 2012, he found the once proud Rot-Weiß Essen, from which legends such as the 1954 World Cup final scorer Helmut Rahn and European champion Horst Hrubesch were born, “in a sporting illness.” The bankruptcy of 2010 was already over, but “the club had sometimes forgotten that it was a sports club and also had to evolve in the sports field,” says Uhlig. Here, says the general manager, that on July 1 he will hand over his position to Marc-Nicolai Pfeifer of 1860 Munich after the season, “maybe it could contribute to a change.” All the energy was concentrated on the sport.

“We want to be among the top 25 in Germany again”

The turning point came with promotion in 2022/23. It remains to be seen whether Rot-Weiß Essen will still have enough to make the next jump to the second division this season. In any case, the club is working on its return to the big stages, as Uhlig revealed to FOCUSonline: “We want to be among the top 25 in Germany. We want to position ourselves in such a way that we have the prospect of being in the second league and can maintain it. And the “impossible is also possible,” says Uhlig: promotion to the Bundesliga. “Yes, we want to return to where RWE belongs. One of the best in Germany. And “if things go wrong again, we want to set up the club so that it doesn't get dismantled again,” says Uhlig. The mistakes of the past should not be repeated, says Uhlig.

After last year's turbulence, the club is now “very healthy,” says Uhlig, and the dream of the second division is not over yet this season: “No club can escape promotion. You always have to be able to afford a promotion,” Marcus Uhlig tells FOCUS online. The city of Essen, the fourth largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia, with almost 600,000 inhabitants, will also play an important role in this new increase. It owns the Hafenstrasse stadium. If the side wings were expanded, the stadium could accommodate 35,000 spectators instead of the current 19,200. RWE could also play international matches.

In the coming weeks, an innovative decision will be made for the club: at the end of April, the city council will decide whether to allocate around one million euros to a “detailed architectural plan” for the expansion of the stadium. “When you decide something like that, you usually build it,” says Marcus Uhlig, “unless you find an eight-winged butterfly.”