If you’re new to the Bundesliga, or perhaps not new but have not heard this story, it’s worth knowing the wild ride “Traditionsverein” 1.FC Kaiserslautern went on during the late 90s. Trust us. It’s a tale that left a strong mark on recent German football history. Ready? Here we go …
Two years ago, the footballing media lost it’s collective mind when the Premier League’s Leicester City came from nowhere to win the league. The Foxes reminded us of other similarly unlikely champions, like Derby County or Nottingham Forest. Some commentators mentioned other clubs around Europe pulling off this feat, but almost no one mentioned a little club from Germany, who did the same.
Popular media doesn’t like to think of the German league as anyone other than Dortmund and Bayern, but we need to go back to the one and only time a club game up from the second league. 1.FC Kaiserslautern won the league a year after being in the lower leagues. Unlike Leicester City, whom never won or placed very high in the league, Kaiserslautern had won the title in 1991, and finished runners up to Bayern in 1994. So we’re not exactly talking about a complete football “nobody,” but still this tale is remarkable because of FCK’s incredible turnaround.
This side had some international players, like Miroslav Kadlec, and Michael Schjonberg, as well as steady German defenders in Harry Koch and Axel Roos. Plus, Andreas “Andy” Brehme provided cover when needed. The midfield was manned by Andreas Buck, Martin Wagner, and Ratinho, a Brazilian. Also helping out in the midfield was Marian Hristov, and a very young Michael Ballack. The best in the midfield was Ciriaco Sforza Up top was the great Olaf Marschall who had 21 goals in 24 appearances, Jurgen Rishce had 11, and the backups were Pavel Kuka and Marco Reich.
The manager for this was Otto Rehhagel, he’s the only person at the time to have 1000 matches in the league. He coined the term controlled offense, and a strong defense that had a sweeper or a libero, with one or two big headers in the defense. They were using the same type of system that Dortmund played in their title run awhile back, all players pitching in on defense and moving back and forth to fill spots. Some have called that the Total Football that the Dutch and Barcelona used.
In 1996, the club was relegated to the second league. However, Rehhagel, who was just fired at Bayern, kept the first division squad together, and they won the second league at a canter. Next, FCK came up and surprised everyone in the 1997-98 Bundesliga season. What could have been looked at as an early season surprise, the club rushed up to the top on the fourth day, capturing three wins out of four. They wouldn’t relinquish the spot the whole season. They’d play 34 matches—win 19 matches, tie 11, and lose only four (!).
The first match set the season off, Rehhagel, who had been fired from Bayern years before went into the Olympiastadion and beat the previous season’s champs with an 80th minute goal from Danish defender Michael Schjonberg to win 1-0. They made it to the winter break beating Bayern twice and keeping a clean sheet in both matches in the league. However, they did have two losses in that time, a 3-1 loss to Bremen on September 27, and a 2-1 loss to Wolfsburg on November 22. April was a boring month for the club, they won only one match a 3-2 win over Galdbach, in which Olaf Marschall got the hattrick. The run in to the end of the season, Kaiserslautern got revenge for their earlier loss to Wolfsburg, by beating the 4-0 in the second to last match of the season. The scoring in the match was paced by Marschall who had a brace, Martin Wagner, and Jurgen Rische rounded out the scoring.
But this story has an unhappy ending. It seems that even in this moment of ultimate success, Kaiserslautern was seemingly cursed.
What should have been a period of success, ending in crippling defeat, they’d finish 5th place the next couple years, and enter the UEFA Cup. Then there was the typical internal conflicts and a massive smear campaign against Rehhagel caused him to quit in 2000. They incurred massive debt due to mismanagement, and the construction of the new stadium. They were relegated finally in 2005-2006, and the rot has set in the club. The success of the 1997-98 side has become a nightmare.
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