Taking the Kaiser(s) out of Lautern: 1.FCK’s free fall into the 2. Bundesliga

A bookie in Las Vegas once shared with me his thought that one should NEVER bet with their heart — only with their wallet (go figure). Well, as a loyal and passionate 1.FC Kaiserslautern fan, even I must admit that all bets are off in terms of our club’s ability to avoid relegation this Bundesliga season. The fat lady has sung and it definitely is not the Betzelied (our traditional club song) or any other tune we FCK fans would enjoy hearing. With four matches remaining in the 2011/12 season, the Red Devils have amassed a meager 20 points (3 wins, 16 loses) and are 7 points behind second to last placed Hertha BSC and 15 points behind Freiburg, whom the Red Devils were neck-in-neck just with 30 days ago. While the Rheinland-Pfalz region, where 1.FCK has a cult following and is second to maybe only Riesling wine in terms of popularity, comes to terms with the third relegation in the club’s 112 year history (all within the last 16 years), I thought it therapeutic (so I am glutton for punishment) to reflect on what went wrong and “what if … “.

Less than 5 weeks ago, I firmly believed that Kaiserslautern could and would scratch and claw its way to safety. Beyond hoping for a lot of lucky breaks and many bad performances by FCK’s closest competitors, I drew up my own ‘reality-based’ keys to success (aka relegation avoidance) and posted them on my Real Futbol site:

Stick with Marco Kurz: This is NOT the time to hire and fire. If anything, think long and hard about the future of GM Stefan Kuntz and his recent player acquisitions, but don’t mess with Kurz. He brought them back to the Bundesliga in 2010 and has great chemistry with his players. THE REALITY: Well, the Red Devils ignored my thinking and dismissed Kurz two weeks after my post, installing Krasimir Balakov in his place, the team’s 41st coach in 91 years, as the relegation fireman. Since the Bulgarian’s arrival, the team has lost four straight games and managed a total of 2 goals. While I understand the politics of sacking a losing coach, there is the risk of a new hire not only alienating your loyal fan base (as has been the case with Balakov) but for that person to have so little time and resources to affect a turnaround that change for change’s sake is bad management. Case in point, of the 9 Bundesliga coaching changes that have occurred during the 2011/2012 season, only two teams, FC Freiburg and slowly but surely Hoffenheim, are better off under the new leadership.

Practice a more than ‘one trick pony’ approach to offense: Hoping to convert goals from set pieces and ‘pray for rain’ style kick and rush football alone will not break the goal drought. Orchestrate attacks from the flanks and take advantage of the midfield speed and youth up front. THE REALITY: I made this recommendation as a subtle attempt to wake up attacking midfielder Christian Tiffert who has been a major disappointment this year with one goal assist compared to a league leading 17 in 2010/11.  In Tiffert’s defense, FCK lost all of last year’s offensive weapons with Srdjan Lakic, Erwin Hoffer, Jan Moravek and Ivo Ilicevic all playing elsewhere, and none of the team’s off-season attacking acquisitions (Itay Schechter, Dorge Kouemaha and Richard Sukuta-Pasu) have shown any reliable goalscoring ability.

Consistency is vital, stop changing the recipe: Anyone watching Kaiserslautern this year would attest to a great degree of inconsistency on the pitch. Midfielders have been swapped on numerous occasions, many have tried (and failed) upfront and now even the starting goalkeeping position has becoming a point of controversy. My suggestion — pick a starting XI that is dedicated to the cause and willing to go to battle together and ‘just do it’. With that said, selecting a more aggressive, dual attacker formation during home games is a wise strategy. If FCK fans show up to the remaining home games, the ’12th’ man, along with the more attack-minded formation, can really make the difference and hopefully turn draws into desperately needed 3 point victories. THE REALITY: None of this has happened … the scoring drought continued and the team’s leading scorer in the Rückrunde is defender Florian Dick. (In fact, FCK defenders have accounted for 5 of the team’s total 15 goals, only one less than all the attackers put together). Adding injury to insult has left the team completely decimated headed into their 2nd to last home game versus Nurnberg. Tiffert, Kouemaha, Schechter, winter-transfer bust Sandro Wagner, and Jan Simunek are hurt and my pick for most valuable player of the campaign, Florian Dick, has to sit out with 5 yellows.

Don’t cry over spilt milk: Or as my economics professor used to say, ‘sunk costs are sunk’ – what happened yesterday is irrelevant, the past investments you made in players, the great players you lost … all that matters not is the present. Don’t make decisions based on what you did yesterday! THE REALITY: I reckon that FCK’s decision in hiring Balakov is an example of how they are moving on, but it was a pretty poor decision if you ask me. I do agree that since our fate has been sealed, we should look ahead, especially from a management and player standpoint, to what kind of team we want to assemble in 2012/13.

Fandom- 1.FCK Herzblut: FCK fans are the truest, most loyal fans in the world. We bleed red and white and ‘would walk 500 miles and 500 more’ to not only support our boys but also see them fight their way to safety this year. Remember Fritz Walter, remember Klose, Kuntz, Rehhagel, and the miracles of ’91 and ’98! THE REALITY: That was then, this is now, and I have to say the fans I have talked to and heard from have mostly accepted the club’s fate and are gearing up for the 2. Bundesliga. With the exception of St. Pauli’s fans, who seem to have blown their chance at the top flight, FCK fans will once again be the most raucous and loyal supporters in the land. During the team’s last relegation campaign, fans started the ‘Herzblut (heart blood) initiative which was a  physical and symbolic (merchandising) show of support for the squad and their efforts to make it back the first division. It’s time for Herzblut “The Sequel.”

Change starts at the top: In 2008, FCK legend Stefan Kuntz rode in on his white horse and saved the day. He assumed his post as GM and, along with new coach Kurz, began a dramatic turnaround that ended with 1st division promotion in 2010. Well, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since and much of the gloss has worn off. Kuntz has publically admitted making transfer move ‘judgment errors’ and has criticized himself for not hiring a director of sports operations to spearhead talent acquisition. How long before his head on the chopping block? The FCK board of directors has slated a ‘come to jesus’ meeting in June …

Life in the second division: Fast forward to August 2012. FCK and Berlin are back as is Düsseldorf, after losing the relegation play-off to Köln. The same goes for St. Pauli which will be giving the other 2nd tier heavyweights a run for their money. Coming in freshly promoted from the 3rd tier will be SV 1916 Sandhausen and VFR Aalen and potentially Chemnitzer FC. While keeper Tobias Sippel has already indicated he’ll be sticking with the team, what about the others. Frankly, based on the horrific showing in the Bundesliga, it might be a good time to rebuild … yet again. Speaking of Herzblut, I will support my Red Devils till the bitter end, and when the going gets tough, the tough go to the Betzenberg. Enjoy the video of 1.FCK’s Westkurve in action.

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