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Fortuna Düsseldorf are aiming for a Bundesliga return and they're doing it in style. - © IMAGO/BEAUTIFUL SPORTS/Axel Kohring
Fortuna Düsseldorf are aiming for a Bundesliga return and they're doing it in style. - © IMAGO/BEAUTIFUL SPORTS/Axel Kohring
2. Bundesliga

Fortuna Düsseldorf: Who are the Bundesliga 2 giants aiming for a top flight return?

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A household name worldwide due to the business centre they play in, Fortuna Düsseldorf are targeting a return to the Bundesliga for the first time since 2020 and they’re doing so with style…

History

With one of the most interesting names in German football ‘Düsseldorfer Turn- und Sportverein Fortuna 1895 e.V.’, Fortuna were founded - as the name suggests - in 1895, but neither with their current name nor for football purposes. Instead the ‘Turnverein Flingern 1895’ (Flingern gymnastics club) was born on that date. In the following 16 years, the city got its first football clubs, Düsseldorfer Fußballklub Spielverein and Alemania 1911 Football Club. The word Fortuna emerged in 1912, when, a year after its foundation, Alemania renamed itself to Düsseldorf Football Club Fortuna 1911. Rather incredibly, it wasn’t because of Fortuna - the Roman goddess of fortune and good luck, but because of a horse-drawn cart from a bread factory called Fortuna that caught the eye of the founders.

Those two teams merged in 1913, and six years later Turnverein Flingern 1895 joined them to form the multi-sports club we know today. Both of the founding football clubs played in red and white stripes, leading to today’s kit and logo, and the instantly recognisable ‘F’ that takes pride and place comes from the team’s gymnastic routes. The father of gymnastics, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, created the motto ‘frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei’ ("fresh, pious, happy, free") with the four Fs later becoming one in the club’s logo.

Watch: Fortuna Düsseldorf stadium experience - one of the EURO 2024 venues

With Fortuna Düsseldorf fully formed it was time to get to action, and things went well, with the team becoming German champions in 1933. They would later win two DFB Cups in the Bundesliga era, but the huge highs were coupled with massive lows. Bundesliga regulars for nearly all of the 1970s and ‘80s, Fortuna dropped to the third tier in 1993, and after bouncing all the way back up to the top, they went even further to the fourth in 2002 amid financial difficulties. As ever, the bounced back up and have played three Bundesliga seasons since that nadir, but they’ve been stuck in the second tier since their 2020 relegation.

Key players

Christos Tzolis

The top scoring team in the league with 69 goals going into Matchday 34, much of that is thanks to star forward Tzolis, who has 18 for the season. A Greek international, English readers may recognise the name as the 22-year-old is signed to parent club Norwich City.

Having spent last season on loan at FC Twente in the Eredivisie, the youngster may well find himself back in the Premier League next season should the Canaries get promoted, given he’s in the midst of his best goalscoring campaign to date.

A winger by trade, the Thessaloniki-born No.7 is at his best coming inside and darting into the box and causing all kinds of trouble with his instinctive finishing.

Watch: Fortuna Düsseldorf's top 5 goals in 2023/24

Yannik Engelhardt

Having spent his early career in the third division, mainly with Freiburg’s second team, Engelhardt is thriving since his step up to regular football in Bundesliga 2. A traditional No.6 who even wears the No.6 jersey, the 23-year-old makes things tick in the middle of the park for Fortuna, and also operates as the safety blanket to allow a crop of talented forwards in front of him to get to work.

A Germany youth international, Engelhardt did enough to be called up to Christian Streich’s Freiburg first team, but was only ever an unsued substitute in matchday squads in the top tier. Freiburg signed him permanently from Werder Bremen last year, but in swooped Düsseldorf to offer the midfielder regular football, and he’s thrived ever since.

Shinta Appelkamp

A symbol of the city of Düsseldorf, Appelkamp was born in Japan to a German father and Japanese mother, making up part of the city’s diaspora of Japanese citizens due to the historical and hugely beneficial ties between Japan and the city. Düsseldorf has a Japanese garden, schools and clubs, while Fortuna’s official website is available in both languages.

Appelkamp joined the side from Japanese outfit Mitsubishi Yowa aged 14 and has grown in importance ever since his first-team debut in 2020. Only three players in Bundesliga 2 have more assists this season than the midfielder’s 10, and he has three goals on top of that. A fan-pleaser with some silky skills and excellent link-up play, the 23-year-old will be one to keep an eye on if he graduates to the Bundesliga.

Assist machine Appelkamp is adored by Fortuna supporters. - Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

Florian Kastenmeier

One of only seven Bundesliga 2 stars to feature in every single minute this season, Kastenmeier’s ever-presence and dependability has been key in their promotion push. Now in his fourth season with the club, the 26-year-old is a cult hero, and key in them having one of the division’s best defensive records.

The shot-stopper made himself a hero in January when he won a DFB Cup shoot-out for Fortuna against St. Pauli to book the team’s first semi-final since 1987. Two weeks later when he made an error to drop points against Karlsruher, fans showed how loved he is by serenading him with support post-match.

Commenting on the scenes, captain Andre Hoffmann said: "He's given us so much this season in the league and also in the cup. And the way the fans have built him up - outstanding! I've never experienced that before. He's always at the limit. It's crazy, that's why we love him too.”

Foruna fans certainly won't forget Kastenmeier’s cup heroics any time soon. - IMAGO/Moritz Mueller

Coach: Daniel Thioune

Thioune didn’t make it to the Bundesliga during his two-decade playing career, but he appears destined to as a coach. Don’t take our word for it either. Bayer Leverkusen’s Xabi Alonso told him as much after the teams' DFB Cup semi-final. “He came straight to me after the game and wished me good luck and said we’ll see each other again next year,” Thioune revealed.

A former midfielder, Thioune clearly has an overview of the pitch with Fortuna possessing the league’s best attack and one of its most solid defences. The 49-year-old from Osnabrück spent most of his career playing for his local side in the second division, and in 2017 he took his first senior management job by coaching the team. Taking over a team in relegation danger, he secured safety and then the season after promotion from the third division. 

Thioune (r.) has won over many onlookers this season, including Alonso (l.). - IMAGO/Weis/TEAM2sportphoto

Departing for Bundesliga 2 side Hamburg in 2020, that stint only lasted a year before the club called time on Thioune, but it looks like they may well come to regret.

Fortuna’s sporting director Klaus Allofs said of Thioune upon his 2022 arrival: “He brings a lot of energy and passion. He has shown in his previous jobs that he stands for intense football and he can overcome difficult situations.”

Thioune, though, certainly isn’t about all-out attack, showcased by his side’s brilliant defensive record, and his comments after a 4-3 defeat to Paderborn in February. “It was fairground football,” he commented. “We got what we deserved.”

Watch: Best of Fortuna Düsseldorf fans

How the season has panned out

Having just missed out on promotion with a fourth-place finish last season, Dusseldorf were looking to go one further in 2023/24 and the signings of Engelhardt and Tzolis certainly signified that the club’s ownership were in on the plan. They lost their top scorer from five of the previous six seasons, Rouwen Hennings, and with the campaign in its infancy, there were fears they might struggle to replace him.

However, a 5-0 away win over Elversberg on Matchday 4 signalled that things were probably going to be alright, and that proved to be the case as the club’s crop of forwards stepped up with back-to-back 3-1 wins in the aftermath. There were down periods in September and November, and then at the turn of the year everything collapsed. Fortuna went on a five-game winless run to start 2024 and it looked like their promotion push was over. Getting back to basics with a draw against Elversberg on 10 February , they then strung together a six-game winning run that has the side firmly back in the promotion picture.

Watch: Fortuna Düsseldorf 2-0 Eintracht Braunschweig - highlights

It’s also impossible to look at Fortuna’s season without mentioning the DFB Cup, where they made their first semi-final in 37 years. Beating second tier rivals along the way, their journey was ended by Bundesliga champions Leverkusen at the start of April, but they’d already created a bond with supporters to put them in good stead for the rest of the season and beyond.

Stadium

Düsseldorf's Merkur Spielarena has the fourth-highest capacity in the second division, and ninth in all of Germany at 54,600. The Arena has gone through various different names and guises, and has been used for far more than football over the years given the size of the city it’s located in and that it possesses a retractable roof. This summer its name will revert to the Düsseldorf Arena as one of the hosts of Euro 2024.

This season Düsseldorf and the Merkur Spielarena broke new ground by announcing the ‘Fortuna For All’ project, making a selection of matches completely free in a campaign to give back to supporters and unite the city. So far it’s been a huge success, with the three selected games all being played at capacity with incredible atmospheres. Ticket requests have also gone well into six figures for each match, boosting a stadium that previously had an average attendance of 38,000.

Watch: Fortuna's free football fan festival

Did you know?

During Fortuna’s 16-year Bundesliga stay in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they finished in third place twice. In December 1978 they beat Bayern Munich 7-1, a result which still stands as a record away defeat in the league for the European behemoths.