With the winter transfer window closed in most countries and the leagues at midpoint in the season, now is a great time to look at who could be promoted across the world. Brentford and Norwich are leading the way in the English Championship, and in Germany’s Bundesliga 2, Holstein Kiel and Hamburg have the advantage. In Spain, Espanyol and Mallorca look poised to return to La Liga and Mario Balotelli’s Monza are keeping pace with Empoli at the top of Italy’s Serie B.
However, some of the more interesting stories are coming from teams with smaller reputations. In Turkey, Istanbulspor are making waves as the team are currently second in the Turkish 1.Lig, ahead of clubs like Altinordu and Bursaspor. In this article, I will tell you about five teams fighting for promotion that no one is talking about.
Readers of the site may recall that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Istanbulspor. Last year they made an appearance in my article Five Tourist Cities With Obscure Soccer Teams, as the Istanbul-based team were located in 13th at the time of writing and finished in 12th. Since then, Istanbulspor have had a major renaissance and are currently second in Turkey’s second tier. They have scored more goals than anyone else in the 1.Lig with 43, and only four teams have conceded fewer.
In the winter transfer window, Istanbulspor dipped into their pockets to further their chances of getting promoted. They bought 23-year old Croatian goalkeeper Marin Ljubic from Hajduk Split in Croatia, and did it for less than half of his $550,000 market value. They added youth players from Super Lig teams Trabzonspor, Rizespor, and Alanyaspor, as well as journeyman striker Mirkan Aydin.
If Istanbulspor did earn promotion, that would be their first top-flight appearance since 2005 and would make them the sixth team from Istanbul in the Super Lig (barring relegation). With Turkey’s traditional three of Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray all in massive debt combined with the European ban of Trabzonspor and defending champions Istanbul Basaksehir inexplicably battling relegation, now is as good a time as ever for Istanbulspor to get promoted and become Turkey’s next big team.
SpVgg Greuther Fürth
If you are an American looking for a team to cheer on and you don’t want to support a traditional team, Greuther Fürth are the team you are looking for.
Located in the Bavarian city of Fürth, Greuther are the three-time champions of Germany. However, all three trophies occurred before the founding of the Bundesliga in 1962, and Greuther have only played in the Bundesliga once, in 2013. They were immediately relegated. However, that could soon change. Greuther are currently fourth in the league, just one point off of the Relegation/Promotion playoff. (In Germany, the bottom two teams from the Bundesliga are relegated, the top two in the Bundesliga 2 are promoted, and the third-worst team in the Bundesliga play a home-and-away playoff against the third-best team in the Bundesliga 2).
But why should Americans in particular support Greuther Fürth? Simple: Greuther have many players that are eligible for the US Mens’ National Team. For a starter, they have 22-year old former German youth international Timothy Tillman. A US citizen, Tillman was born in Germany and played for Germany at youth level. After being sold by Bayern Munich to Greuther for just $55,000, a senior level call-up for Germany doesn’t look too likely for Tillman. However, Tillman continues to get experience with Greuther and would be a great option for the US senior team if Greuther get promoted. Then there is Joel Bustamante, the Spanish-born Mexican youth international who is also eligible for the US, and could choose to play for the US after getting his start with FC Dallas before being sold to Greuther.
But the player that US fans should recognize is Julian Green. Green was a big deal in America, being selected for the 2014 World Cup over American legend Landon Donovan when Green was just 19. Granted, he played just 15 minutes in the whole tournament as the US were eliminated in the Round of 16 by Belgium, but he was impressive. He grabbed a goal with a fantastic volley past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois that put the US back in the game with just 13 minutes left shortly after coming on in a match where the US couldn’t get started offensively. He has gone on to be capped 15 times by the US, most recently in 2018. Oh, and he’s the last US Men’s player to score in a World Cup game. Unfortunately, Green’s Bayern career never developed and after multiple loan moves, he was sold to Greuther. Green has now played 100 games for Greuther and is enjoying a sensational season, involved in one in every five of Greuther’s goals. It’s only a matter of time until Green is back on the US’ squad as well as the first tier, and why can’t he do it with Greuther?
Grasshopper Zürich aren’t a smaller team if you are Swiss, but if you aren’t Swiss, chances are you haven’t heard of them. Founded over 130 years ago in 1886, Grasshopper are commonly regarded as Switzerland’s most successful club. They have won the Swiss league 27 times, most recently in 2003, and are also the 19-time champions of the Swiss Cup.
However, in the 21st century things went seriously downhill for Grasshoppers as they were nearly relegated in 2011 and finally were for the first time in 68 years in 2019. They also haven’t played in their own stadium since 2007 due to various issues and have won just three trophies this decade. Last season they looked sure to return to the top flight after second-placed Vaduz lost to Kriens. Grasshopper needed just a two goal victory to be promoted. However, they lost in stunning fashion to the at-the-time fifth-placed Winterthur, losing 6-0 after going to the half just 1-0 down.
However, Grasshopper are currently first in the league after beating previous first-placed Thun. The unlikely heroes of Grasshopper’s promotion chase? Wolverhampton Wanderers of the English Premier League.
Grasshopper were sold in April of 2020 (a few months before the season ended and they weren’t promoted) to Jenny Wang, the owner HK Holdings, based in Hong Kong. She is married to businessman Guo Guangchang, the owner of Wolverhampton. Because of this, Wolverhampton have loaned four players to Grasshopper and sold another one, midfielder Ming-Yang Yang. It will certainly be very interesting to see where this relationship leads: will we see Fabio Silva on loan in Zurich next year? Probably not, but it’s exciting to think about.
Ibiza, a famous holiday location in Spain, have a soccer team that was founded just five years ago but are already in the third tier of Spain, the Segunda Division B.
Last season Ibiza nearly stunned all of Spain while playing FC Barcelona in the Round of 32 in the Copa del Rey when they led after just nine minutes and had the advantage until the 72nd minute. Unfortunately for Ibiza, they conceded in the 94th minute, but it was still an incredible performance. Somehow in the 2021 Copa del Rey they managed to do almost the exact same thing, leading first tier Athletic Bilbao after twelve minutes before allowing an equalizer in the 52nd minute and losing in the 91st.
Ibiza are currently leading the Segunda Division B Group 3 B, but the league is just as complicated as the name suggests. It is almost impossible to get information about the promotion system this year, but as far as I can tell Ibiza are currently on their way to qualify for the promotion playoffs.
If they earn promotion to the Segunda Division (not the Segunda Division B), Ibiza can become the next Mallorca, work their way up the ladder and eventually reach La Liga. Similarly to Turkey, the traditional order of teams has been upset with big teams reporting massive debt (Hi, Barcelona). Ibiza can wreak havoc in La Liga.
All joking aside, Spain, please fix the lower divisions.
FC Ingolstadt 04
Back to Germany for our final team, this time in the third tier. It’s hard to believe that just four years ago Ingolstadt were in the Bundesliga, and are now currently in the Liga 3. Founded in 2004 after two other teams from Ingolstadt merged, Ingolstadt 04 obviously don’t have a very long history but they climbed to the top very quickly. Unfortunately, they fell back down just as quickly.
It took Ingolstadt four seasons to make it to the second tier of Germany, and whilst they were immediately relegated back to the third tier, they made their way back to the Bundesliga 2 and became fixtures. For the next five seasons Ingolstadt stayed in the Bundesliga 2, winning the league in the fifth season. Die Schanzer’s had a good squad for their first season in the Bundesliga, with the likes of Brighton’s Pascal Groß, Norwich’s Orjan Nyland, and Hertha Berlin’s Matthew Leckie. The team finished 11th, but the following season everything crumbled after manager Ralph Hasenhüttl moved to RB Leipzig. Hasenhüttl is currently regarded as one of the best managers in the Premier League.
After Hasenhüttel left, Ingolstadt were immediately relegated. The following season in the Bundesliga 2, they sold 15 players including Pascal Groß, who had played 165 games for Ingolstadt. Things continued to get worse and, in 2019, they finished 16th in the second tier and lost the Promotion/Relegation playoff. Last season Ingolstadt finished fourth, narrowly missing out on promotion but are currently second this season, behind Dynamo Dresden on goal difference. Things are looking good for Ingolstadt, and with a talented young squad, they are on pace to return to the Bundesliga 2.
Not all of these teams will be promoted as it is just midway through the season, but all of these teams are looking very good when it comes to league standings. Regardless, hopefully you’ve found a team that you can support for the remainder of the season. Please let me know if you would like a part two or an edition for teams battling relegation!
Image Courtesy of Electromotive, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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