There was plenty to smile about for football fans in eastern Germany between mid-April and the beginning of May this year. While RB Leipzig earned promotion to the Bundesliga, SG Dynamo Dresden and FC Erzgebirge Aue returned to Bundesliga 2, underlining the upward trend of football in the region.
RB Leipzig: the 55th Bundesliga side
RB Leipzig's celebrations knew no bounds when the final whistle blew on Matchday 33, their 2-0 victory over Karlsruher SC securing the Saxony club's maiden promotion into the Bundesliga. When the 2016/17 season kicks off, they will be the 55th club to grace Germany's top flight. Indeed, Leipzig will be the first side from the former East Germany to play in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus' relegation in 2009.
"By gaining promotion we've achieved our aim and now have the chance to test ourselves against the best clubs in Germany," said captain Dominik Kaiser. "For a footballer, there's nothing better than that." It was the third time head coach Ralf Rangnick has guided a team into the Bundesliga, having previously done so with SSV Ulm and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
Watch: Leipzig's wild promotion celebrations
Although the 57-year-old set his side up to play attacking football, the foundation for Leipzig's success was actually a rock-solid defence. RBL only conceded 32 goals all season, which was the best record in the division by some way. That is not to say the forward players did not stand out: Davie Selke was excellent and finished the season as the club's leading scorer with ten goals. "It was so emotional after the final whistle against Karlsruhe and we experienced just how happy the city and the region were with our promotion," said the striker. "I'm happy that we've finally achieved our primary aim as a group."
Leipzig fans can look forward to plenty of first meetings in 2016/17, as the club has so far only played competitive fixtures against FC Ingolstadt 04, SV Darmstadt 98, SC Freiburg, VfL Wolfsburg and FC Augsburg of the current top-flight participants. That means there will be 12 fixtures in the first-half of the campaign against hitherto 'unknown' opponents.
Dresden here to stay
Following two seasons in the third division, Dresden will be back in Bundesliga 2 in 2016/17. They strolled through the last campaign to secure promotion with ease, losing only twice all term and fully justifying the appointment of Uwe Neuhaus as head coach. Now the tradition-steeped club, who played in the Bundesliga between 1991 and 1995, are determined to establish themselves in the second tier, where they last featured between 2011 and 2014.
"I've never experienced a year like that," said Neuhaus of his side's ultra-successful season. "Here, the entire region has been infected with the Dynamo virus. Every promotion has its own story but the most recent one is always the nicest. You can't get enough of it. Next year it'd be even better…"
Cult club Aue
Aue followed hot on the heels of Dresden and bounced straight back up to Bundesliga 2, where they played from 2003-2008 and from 2010-2015. That achievement was somewhat surprising given the upheaval at the club in summer 2015. The key to Aue's success was their home strength and a resilient defence: they were the only side not to lose on their own turf all season, while goalkeeper Martin Männel kept 24 clean sheets. Furthermore, Aue equalled a third division record set by Eintracht Braunschweig by only conceded 22 goals all term.
"I'm expecting a very difficult season," said coach Pavel Dotchev. "If we can steer clear of relegation then it'll be a huge success. If we can do that then I'm 100 per cent sure that Aue can play an important role in Bundesliga 2."
Aue's achievements are all the more impressive given that the town only has a few more inhabitants than the 16,500 places that will be available in the Erzgebirgsstadion after its renovation. Football has a long tradition and is highly regarded in Aue and the surrounding area. It is a club with a chequered history but one that, according to Dotchev, is "a cult club and the best ambassador for the Erzgebirge area."
In that sense, the fans and those in charge at the club are hoping that modest little Aue's battle cry "We've come from the bottom, we've climbed up the shaft, Wismut Aue the new football power" will be heard regularly in professional football circles.