From battling Barcelona to Germany's third division: Kaiserslautern's downfall a story of overextension and mismanagement
As the 3. Liga season prepares to resume, Andy Mitten profiles the slide of a title-winning club and speaks to the players who were there during the peak years
Barcelona, managed by Johann Cruyff, were favourites to win their first European Cup in 1991-92.
Holders Red Star Belgrade were banned from playing at their home because of the Yugoslav wars; English champions Arsenal and French champions Marseille were knocked out in the group stage; Italian champions Sampdoria were playing in the competition for the first time.
The only other team from one of football’s five major leagues was German champions Kaiserslautern, based in the smallest city to host Bundesliga football that season. Germany’s Red Devils, the team known as FCK, were also making their European Cup debut.
They couldn’t have been more unfancied. Few had expected them to become German champions in 1991, though the team from a city of 99,000 in southwest Germany close to the French border did have a rich football history having been champions in 1951 and 1953, plus runners-up three times in that period.
Five FCK players, more than any other club and led by national team captain Fritz Walter, won the 1954 World Cup in the ‘Miracle of Berne’ match played in the rain when West Germany came from behind to beat Ferenc Puskas’ all-conquering Hungarians.
A display about the ‘Miracle’ in Dortmund’s football museum explains that the game gave Germany its identity back after the Second World War in an era of rebuilding and denazification. Germans were defeated and ashamed. Football gave them some pride back, and Kaiserslautern’s Fritz Walter was an integral part. Football fans all over Germany still refer to rainy football weather as ‘Fritz-Walter-Wetter’, as it had poured down in Berne.
Former Denmark international Bjarne Goldbaek was a member of the 1991 team. “Kaiserslautern were the only Bundesliga club who wanted me,” he tells The National of his 1989 transfer from Schalke who had bought two Russian players to fill their foreigner places and had to make room.
“I’d respected Kaiserslautern as opponents and hated going there as a player because of the atmosphere. They were known for getting big home wins, but it was a backwater, a small city near the French border. I spoke German but when I arrived I found the accent so strong I wondered if I was in another country. Jets from the nearby military base zoomed overhead day and night.”
Known as K-Town to some of the 54,000 Americans who live around it (the largest concentration of Americans outside America), the city is close to the vast Ramstein Air Base which is HQ for NATO and US forces in Europe.
“It felt like living in Idaho,” laughs Uwe Kemmer, now a director at Schalke, but who grew up nearby. K Town was especially busy during the first Gulf War when Goldbaek signed.
People loved us all over Germany. We weren't Bayern Munich - they wanted the underdogs to win
- Bjarne Goldbaek
“In 1989, I joined a club with a strong aura who were proud of their history,” he says. “FCK won the domestic cup in 1990, lifting spirits in the area, a working class industrial region where jobs were starting to be lost to Asia.
“We’d won the cup but our ambition was to finish mid-table and that was realistic since we’d fought to avoid relegation the previous season.”
FCK started 1990-91, the last season before German reunification, well.
“We were near the top and everyone expected us to fall,” Goldbaek recalls. “And they kept waiting. Our coach Karl-Heniz Feldkamp pushed us and pushed us. He kept saying, ‘You can win the league! You can do this!’ If the players hadn’t started to believe, we did. People loved us all over Germany. We weren’t Bayern Munich, they wanted the underdogs to win. We went to Bremen and were applauded off the pitch. It seemed we had fans everywhere.”
Bayern hadn’t helped themselves. Their new midfielder Stefan Effenberg, who wasn’t short of confidence, dismissed FCK, saying: “We will win the championship because the other teams are just too dumb. Kaiserslautern can only do throw-ins and corners.”
FCK answered him by winning the league with 48 points, three more than Bayern who had beaten them home and away.
“We felt like super stars in the town,” says Goldbaek. “The football club is a huge deal there. It’s what people live for. You walk through the streets and people tell you that they’re going to the game. We had a strong connection with fans, we knew many personally.”
The Fritz Walter Stadium sits at the top of the city like an impenetrable castle. It’s also known as Betzenberg or ‘Mount Betze’. Apart from Bayern Munich, no one else had beaten FCK in that title-winning season.
After knocking Bulgarian champions Etar out of the first round of the European Cup, FCK would need that strength at home when they played Barcelona in the next round. The first leg was at Camp Nou.
“I had an injury but told the club doctor to give me whatever medication he wanted because I was desperate to play,” says Goldbaek, who was made dizzy by strong anti-inflammatory tablets. He still didn’t make the starting line up.
“I watched the game and then came on. Barcelona were a passing machine and so much better than us. They were so good that I said to my wife: ‘I would play there for free just to see how good I can be’. The football under Johan Cruyff was like a chess game. We didn’t get out of our half for 20 minutes.”
Impudent winger Txiki Begiristain, now Manchester City’s director of football, scored twice as the game finished 2-0. But it wasn’t all Barca.
“Hoffmann hit the post,” Stefan Kuntz, Kaiserslautern’s German international and current under 21 manager, points out via email. “We knew then there was a small chance in the second leg if we had our crowd behind us.”
Goldbaek singles out Kuntz, the striker who later equalised for Germany against England at Euro 96 and also scored Germany’s fifth penalty, as vital for FCK. “Not our most skilful player, but the most important. He was the heart, the engine of the team. He could win the war for us. He was our Roy Keane.”
Kuntz emphasises the collective effort. “We had great team spirit and big hearts together with ambitious players. We also had a belief that after winning the first Bundesliga title, then everything is possible when we played.”
Kaiserslautern’s home was not just a fortress in appearance.
“They were famous for beating big teams at home. They beat Real Madrid 5-0 in 1982," Kuntz says.
After a late equaliser, the public address announcer would say things like: ‘It’s 1-1 … and it’s now the 80th minute,” says Kemmer. “The stadium would take this as another signal to make hell for the opponents. It was called Germany’s highest football mountain to climb. Opponents hated it and the partisan, intimate crowd.
“Games last for 90 minutes,” the saying went, “except at Kaiserslautern. There, they last until the home team has won.”
These Red Devils had their own Fergie time and Kemmer, whose father travelled to Barcelona for the first leg, knew the value of that support well. In the first game of football he saw in a stadium, Kaiserslautern were 1-4 down to Bayern Munich at half-time. They won 7-4.
“We decided that the only way we could beat Barcelona was to drag them into a fight,” Goldbaek says. “We had to have 1 v 1 battles with them all over the pitch. We couldn’t let them settle.”
The fans set the scene by lighting a hundred flares at the front of the west terrace before kick off, a move that had since been copied by other German teams ahead of huge games. Kaiserslautern was the benchmark for pyrotechnics at German football grounds and the ground looked like it was on fire.
Hotic scored twice as FCK led Barca 2-0 after 49 minutes. They needed one more goal, just as Manchester United had seven years earlier after also losing 2-0 in a first leg at Camp Nou. United got it. And so did the Germans.
“I scored the third goal to put us ahead,” recalls Goldbaek. “And I had a one on one to make it four. I could see the headlines with my name. I’ve never taken drugs but I was on a complete high. We were playing so well that we thought we had them in our pocket. The crowd was so loud, so aggressive and motivated. I could have played for three hours that night.”
Millions watched on television in Germany and Spain, captivated. Battered Barca, with all their world class stars, were going out of the competition but with seconds left Bakero headed the crucial away goal from a Ronald Koeman free-kick.
"We were devastated,” recalls Goldbaek. “So disappointed, but also proud,” says Kuntz.
“The president came into the dressing room after the game and said: ‘You did Germany proud’. Maybe, but we still lost,” states the Dane. “The president also told us that we should go back onto the pitch because the fans had refused to go home. We did. I still wonder what would have happened if we’d held on and where my own career would have gone.
"I have spoken to Michael Laudrup about that game several times and I can remember more about that game than any other in my career.” And it’s some career given he also played for Chelsea, Fulham and Copenhagen.
“Kaiserslautern could have scored six or seven,” admitted a young Pep Guardiola. “We literally didn’t have a shot in the whole game and even after Bakero’s goal Zubizarreta had to make two more saves. I remember Zubi saying in the dressing room, “after winning tonight we’re destined to win the European Cup.”
After the final whistle, Bakero was phlegmatic in victory: “There is no such thing as a miracle, we simply fought right to the end.” For his part, coach Johan Cruyff was honest in his post-game reaction: “We played our worst game of the season but the luck was with us at the decisive point.”
It was such a big event that the Catalan daily Sport ran a 25th anniversary special about Bakero’s goal. As did Barca’s official website, writing: “José Mari Bakero’s goal in Germany is one of the most famous in the Club’s entire history. The midfielder’s late, late effort hauled FC Barcelona back from the brink of elimination in the tie with the Bundesliga side and kept them on course for their first ever European Cup title.”
For Kaiserslautern, they were out, but they continued to be a powerful Bundesliga force, finishing fifth, eighth, second and fourth in subsequent campaigns. They scouted well, especially from Scandinavia and they had a good youth system.
They were relegated in 1996 – the year they won the domestic cup again. FCK came back at the first attempt and then became the first promoted German club to win the Bundesliga in their first season back, 1997-98. They went into the 1998-99 Champions league as champions, with Bayern needing to qualify to reach the group stage as they’d been runners up, just like Manchester United, the team they’d meet in the final.
“The board members made unbelievably bad decisions
- Stefan Kuntz
No team won more than FCK’s 13 points in the group stages, but then they met Bayern in all-German quarter final. The Bavarian won home and away. FCK haven’t played a Champions League game since, though, inspired by Youri Djorkaeff they knocked Spurs out if the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup.
In 2006, FCK went down.
“Overspending,” is Goldbaek’s verdict. “They tried to compete with Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen and spent heavily in the transfer market. They bought badly, with players who were over the hill. And then the city so invested in football invested even more in football.”
Despite being a small city, Kaiserslautern’s politicians decided they wanted it to become a venue for the 2006 World Cup finals. Like Elche in 1982, which built a 52,000 capacity stadium it didn't need, the Fritz Walter was expanded at great cost so that it held 49,000.
It looks more like a fortress than ever, an exposed concrete cube. It’s a fantastic football ground. But it was too big and too costly.
“Their old ground held 35,000 and that was perfect," says Kemmer. "It was full and the fans were so close to the pitch. Many Germany stadiums had running tracks and didn’t have the closeness of Kaiserslautern. They kept that when they expanded, but it was all too expensive.”
K-Town hosted the USA’s 1-1 draw with Italy and four others games, but the debts from the redevelopment crippled the club. They went down in 2006, came up for two seasons in 2011-13 and dropped back for a six-year spell in the second division.
“Unlike in England, there are no parachute payments,” says Goldbaek. “Kaiserslautern kept a big budget as they tried to get back into the Bundesliga. They finished 3rd, 4th, 4th and almost went back up. In one play off game they lost to Hoffenheim. The Bundesliga wanted them back, the atmosphere, the name, the crowds.”
It didn’t happen. FCK finished 10th in the second tier in 2016, 13th in 2017 and were relegated to the third division in 2018.
“A couple of bad transfer windows, the money drying up and the team pushing for promotion became one fighting relegation,” says Goldbaek.
They were favourites to win the third division last season and were easily the best supported team with average crowds of 22,000 in a league where the average is 8,000. They finished ninth.
This season was even worse. Best-selling newspaper Bild used a huge picture of FCK”s home terrace, the second biggest in Germany after Dortmund, in their pre-season guide. They were in with other fallen big clubs like 1860 Munich, Duisburg and Braunschweig. None can muster half of FCK’s 44 Bundesliga seasons.
They were still able to attract a league crowd of 36,000 for an early season home game when optimism was higher, and they knocked Bundesliga side Mainz out of the cup in front of 40,000 at home, but their form has slumped. They haven’t won a league game in 2020, their last victory at Bayern Munich’s reserve team in December in front of 3,000.
They used to beat Bayern Munich’s first team. Germany’s third tier is the highest level that a reserve team can play, with Bayern’s the only team at that level in a league.
There are half a dozen fallen giants from the old East Germany in there who have also fallen, the likes of Hansa Rostock, Carl Zeiss Jena or Chemnitz. Clubs from cities that have struggled with the switch to the free market since reunification.
Higher up, the Bundesliga is increasingly populated with corporate-owned teams with smaller fan bases and limited history such as Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg or the RB Leipzig.
They irk traditionalists and major cities like Stuttgart, Nurnberg, Dresden or Hamburg miss out on Bundesliga football, but the company owned clubs are superbly run on the lines of the successful, streamlined businesses which fund them. Hoffenheim’s recruitment has been superb.
Stefan Kuntz came back to FCK in 2016 and was chairman for two years. Now he’s the coach of Germany’s under 21s.
“The people who followed me had no expertise in football,’ he says. “The board members made unbelievably bad decisions in sport and the supervisory board also.”
And how they are paying for it: Kaiserslautern are 14th of the 20 team league, two points above relegation. Crowds dipped to 15,000 before the lockdown, but they can still take 4,000 to away games.
Liga 3 restarts on Saturday after the lockdown. Kaiserslautern go to Magdeburg, who are one place below them in the table. The Red Devils could be in the relegation zone by the end of the weekend staring at the prospect of regional fourth tier football.
“It saddens me greatly,” says Goldbaek. “People have heard of Kaiserslautern because of the football team. It gave the city identity after so much industry left. I was so happy there, every home game was a party and we were successful. Now, everyone wants to beat them, fans are split because they’re understandably not happy, former players weigh in with opinions. It’s a difficult, self-destructive environment to work in.”
Even the Bundesliga’s emergence from lockdown offers little hope. Playing behind closes doors will hit lower league clubs harder as they are dependent on gate money, none more so than the biggest of the lower league clubs Kaiserslautern.
Updated: May 29, 2020 06:00 PM