“Of course it was a slow death. Kaiserslautern is knocked down. But getting back on its feet can be a nice thing to do.”
Martin Bader, FC Kaiserslautern Sporting Director
It was a moment as inevitable as it was heartbreaking. As referee Guido Winkmann sharply exhaled into his whistle to signal the end of the game, seconds after Fabian Klos’ stoppage time winner for Arminia Bielefeld, 1.FC Kaiserslautern’s fate was sealed. They had been relegated to the third tier of German football for the first time in their history, the darkest day in their 118 year existence. That they had let a two-goal lead, courtesy of Sebastian Andersson’s brace, slip away at the Bielefelder Alm seemed inconsequential. Klos’ goal was the final nail in a coffin built over the course of two decades, as one of Germany’s proudest football institutions finally succumbed to persistent mismanagement on and off the pitch.
The writing had been on the wall from the first kick of the 2017/18 campaign. After a poor start to the season that had reaped just two points from seven games, Norbert Meier was given his marching orders, eventually replaced by former Luxembourg international Jeff Strasser. A member of the FCK side that had reached the UEFA Cup semi-final in 2001, Strasser was well acquainted with German football, but could only point to his five years at Fola Esch in his native National Division as experience. Nevertheless, his reign at the Betze began with a bang, as Greuther Fürth were dismantled 5-0 to give the Red Devils their first win of the season. Sadly, that’s as good as it got for Strasser, as Kaiserslautern would fail to win another game at home before his tenure came to a premature end following a suspected heart attack during a match against Darmstadt the following January.
By then Kaiserslautern were rooted to the bottom of the table, and the appointment of Michael Frontczek did little to convince supporters that their side could avoid an unprecedented relegation. Frontczek, part of the Germany side that finished runners-up at Euro ’92, had experienced inauspicious coaching spells across the country, with only a thirteen month stint in charge of FC St. Pauli approaching anything resembling success. Even so, the former Manchester City full-back’s arrival sparked a mini-revival as FCK won two on the bounce for the first time all season. It proved another false dawn and, despite some impressive results including a 4-3 victory over Union Berlin and a 4-1 win at Duisburg, the reds were unable to lift themselves from the foot of the league. With relegation confirmed, the spectre of liquidation loomed large over the club. It’s a far cry from the jubilant scenes that greeted the final whistle at the penultimate game of the 1997/98 season, where a 4-0 victory over Wolfsburg saw one of the great stories of modern football reach its climax.
Since their foundation in 1900, Kaiserslautern have established themselves as one of Germany’s great traditional football clubs. Their Westkreis-Liga victory in 1909 was followed up with eleven Oberliga Südwest titles in twelve seasons during the ’40s and ’50s, making their mark on the national league with their first championship in 1951 following a 2-1 victory over Preußen Münster. The club would then contest three of the next four national finals, earning their second title in 1953, before four members of their squad – including the legendary Fritz Walter, whose name would later be adopted by the club’s stadium – led West Germany to the World Cup in Switzerland. With their reputation suitably enhanced, FC Kaiserslautern were invited to become founding members of the newly established Bundesliga in 1963, and would spent thirty-two years in Germany’s top flight, lifting the Meisterschale in 1991. Their relegation in ’96 under Friedel Rausch was unexpected, particularly since the club went on to lift the DFB Pokal days later, but rather than acting as the catalyst for decline it provided the club’s directors an opportunity to reflect, and would spark into life one of German football’s most extraordinary stories.
Rausch, having spent three year at the Fritz-Walter Stadion, moved on to Austria, and in his place arrived Otto Rehhagel, recently jettisoned from Bayern Munich on sour terms, having built his reputation with a cabinet load of trophies at Werder Bremen. The appointment of Rehhagel was a coup, but even the most optimistic FCK supporter could not have predicted what would follow. The Red Devils cantered to the 2. Bundesliga title the following season, finishing ten points ahead of second placed Wolfsburg, and outscoring the rest of the league thanks to the exploits of Euro 96 finalist Pavel Kuka and veteran target-man Olaf Marschall. Rehhagel had proven his nous in the transfer market ahead of the promotion season, bringing Brazilian winger Ratinho and Danish defender Michael Schjönberg in for a pittance, but it was his recruitment and tactical tinkering the following season that would see magic flourish in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Ahead of their first season back in the top flight, Andreas Buck and Marian Hristov were brought in to provide silk and steel to the Kaiserslautern midfield. Promising youngster Michael Ballack arrived from Chemintzer for less than 220,000DM, while Kuka’s international teammate Petr Kouba came in on a free. Rehhagel’s masterstroke, however, was to bring Ciricao Sforza back to the Betze. Sforza had become a fans’ favourite during two seasons in the early 90s, before losing his way in spells with Bayern and Inter. At a bargain price, he injected creativity into the midfield. With Miroslav Kadlec moved into a sweeper role, FCK were able to play a more fluid style of football, and the team saw dividends from the opening day.
The script had dictated that Rehhagel would return to his former club for his debut, and few gave the newly promoted side much chance of getting a result at the Olympiastadion. Instead, a late goal from Schjönberg secured all three points, and from there the Red Devils never looked back. Ironically it was another of Rehhagel’s former teams that condemned Kaiserslautern to their first defeat of the season, as Werder left the Betze with a 3-1 win. That would be the first of just four defeats all season, with an astonishing league title wrapped up with that victory over Wolfsburg. Kaiserslautern’s resurrection was complete.
“I remember the Bundesliga title. After the game I stood on the pitch and dug a piece of it to plant in our garden. Later in the city hall for there was a massive celebration. It was so packed and hot I almost collapsed in the heat.”
In a strange twist of fate, Kaiserslautern’s second Bundesliga title would set the ball rolling for twenty years of bad luck and worse decisions. The following season, Rehhagel and Sforza would fall out amidst a recruitment policy that failed to adequately replace the crucial experience brought by the likes of Kadlec, Kuka and Andreas Brehme. A Champions League quarter-final appearance papered over the widening cracks behind the scenes and, with the dressing room supporting their captain, Rehhagel was forced to leave. By now Ballack had been sold, much to the chagrin of supporters, as young talented players were sold off in favour of mercenary stars. FCK slowly began to slide down the league table.
In the meantime, Kaiserslautern had been chosen as one of twelve hot cities for the 2006 World Cup. In order to comply with FIFA regulations, it would mean expanding the Fritz-Walter-Stadion. In a city of under 100,000 inhabitants, at a club whose attendances maxed out at 40,000, the addition of 10,000 seats to the stadium held severe financial implications. Regardless, the club ploughed on, eventually being forced to sell the stadium to the city in order to stave off bankruptcy two years later. That sale meant that the club were now renting their ground at a cost at an annual cost of €3.2m – an affordable cost provided the club remained at the top level and were regularly competing for European football. Weeks before the beginning of the World Cup, FCK were relegated to the second division.
“When it came to being named a World Cup host city the club, the country, and the politicians all wanted the contract for Kaiserslautern. Also, many fans certainly wanted a World Cup in the city! At that time nobody could have guessed the consequences of expanding the stadium over the next few years.”
In a bid to escape financial ruin, the club continued to throw good money after bad, wasting millions on players incapable of mounting a serious promotion bid, and entrusting the job to a series of incompetent managers. In 2009, sporting director Stefan Kuntz finally found his man, and Marco Kurz took Kaiserslautern back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt. Despite a good season in their first year back, the Red Devils were relegated again in 2012, and this time there would be no swift return. With Kurz gone, the cycle of chancers in the dugout began again, with more and more money being spent in a bid to stave off the pressure of the stadium cost. Having challenged towards the top end of 2. Bundesliga in their first few seasons back, the team began to falter under the burden of uncertainty, and by 2016 they were facing insolvency. A deal was struck with the governers of Rhineland-Palatinate to reduce the rent on their home ground, but even then the club were forced to sell their youth academy to ensure they would not fall behind on payments.
The decision to sell off such a valuable asset seems decidedly short-sighted, particularly given how fruitful FCK’s academy has been over the last twenty years. Not only used as a way to foster incoming talent like Ballack, it’s brought through a raft of homegrown youngsters that have gone on to thrive at the top level. Miroslav Klose, the all-time World Cup top scorer, was brought through the youth ranks having joined from Regionalliga side FC Homburg, while Paris Saint Germain’s Kevin Trapp, RB Leipzig’s Willi Orban, Frieburg’s Dominique Heintz and Stuttgart’s Jean Zimmer all came through the Kaiserslautern academy. The frustration for supporters has been the club’s inability to hold on to its own. With the exception of Klose, all those listed left the Betze before turning 23 and, in the case of Ballack and Trapp in particular, have gone on to enjoy successful career. Meanwhile the powers that be at FCK have preferred to spend money on inferior players. Given the obvious talent at the academy, and the potential revenue stream it provides, selling it for a quick buck is madness.
“The only constant at Kaiserslautern has been our fans and serious mistakes in our management. After a year of joy, there are usually two bad years. You think it can only get better, then suddenly you’re in division three.”
The money raised by the sale of the academy ran out in March 2018, leaving FCK with a serious dilemma. Vaunted as one of the most traditional anti-commerical clubs in the country, flying in the face of despised Johnny Come Lately’s like Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg, it now looks as though, barring an incredible upturn in form over the next few seasons, outside investment is the only thing that can save Kaiserslautern and its beloved stadium from oblivion. Should a backer come in, the club would have to re-jig their membership structure, whereby the football club and the business entity are separated to allow the purchase of shares in the company side of the operation. While this would be anathema to the supporters, sadly it is the result of twenty years mismanagement. Once again a football club has been ripped apart by the reckless actions of those at the top.
Back on the pitch, the Red Devils maiden season in 3. Bundesliga has so far provided little for the fans to cheer. A narrow victory over 1860 Munich on the opening day was followed with a draw at Sonnenhof. On 7th August, Preußen Münster arrived at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, and Martin Kobylański’s stoppage time winner inflicted Kaiserslautern’s first ever defeat in the third tier of German football. That 2-1 defeat providing a stark mirror image of the 1951 meeting between the two sides, when glorious victory was the prize on offer. Since that defeat, the team’s inability to string together results has left them languishing in midtable, while Frontczek appears to have lost certain sections of the support with his increasingly erratic press conferences.
The decline of a famous and highly-regarded football club is hardly a new story, with Leeds United in England having fallen to the third division due to financial mismanagement, and only now looking likely to mount a challenge back to the Premier League. Indeed, fellow founding member of the Bundesliga Eintracht Braunschweig find themselves bottom of Liga 3, with Karlsruher and 1860 Munich also fighting it out in the third tier. For Kaiserslautern though, there’s a sense they find themselves in a terminal predicament, unless a helping hand finds its way to the Betze. In the meantime, with 25,000 FCK supporters still turning up to cheer on their team, there is still fight in the devil.
“We are always fighting! Of course there is hope. Take a few victories in a row and you’re back on top. The fans are still behind their club.”
Thanks to Christian from FC Kaiserslautern fansite Der Betze Brennt for providing the fans view for this piece. You can keep abreast of goings on at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion through the prism of the supporters by visiting Christian’s site here.