They used to be the major talking point of the nineties.
No doubt, Germany’s World Cup glory at Italia ’90 and the subsequent European silverware when football came home in 1996 effectively grabbed the headlines in those days but there was one story in particular that stood out more than any other in Germany: Kaiserslautern in 1998.
A side winning the Bundesliga after gaining promotion just a year before is some story.
When Otto Rehhagel guided the minnows to the first tier of German football after an excellent campaign in 1996-1997, not much was expected by the fans.
Avoiding a turbulent season and the drop was, in fact, all the Betzeboys put on their bucket list.
Many even feared a cameo appearance and an immediate return to the lesser division given the daunting task at hand.
But König Otto upset the odds and took the West German outfit to unimaginable heights.
In a similar fashion as he had done with Werder Bremen five years previously and with Greece six years on, he took the German league by storm to finish above Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen at the top of the table.
The likes of a young promising midfielder in the name of Michael Ballack honed his skills at the Betze alongside Michael Schönjberg, veteran Andreas Brehme, Harry Koch and the Brazilian Ratinho who all played a pivotal role in that successful campaign.
But no player was more influential than striker Olaf Marschall whose 21 strikes in 24 appearances laid the biggest foundations for glory.
And truth be told, not even the most optimistic FCK fan out there imagined a similar outcome.
In club football it was undeniably the greatest exploit since Hellas Verona had clinched the Serie A title in 1984 and until the Premier League title came Leicester City’s way in 2016.
But as a newly-promoted side, the magnitude of that achievement eclipses the one they had comfortably accomplished seven years before when they won the title in 1991.
However, as so often happens in football as well as in life, rise is often dramatically succeeded by fall.
And if 1998 was the greatest year in the club’s history, things quickly turned sour in the two decades to come. The fairytale swiftly turned into a nightmare.
These days they’re a club stuck in the bottom half of the 2.Bundesliga with more potential for relegation than promotion.
Last season, for instance, they flirted with the Regionalliga for most of the time and were only a whisker away from falling even further away from the footballing landscape. Survival was hanging in the balance since the turn of the year. And there was no talk at all about promotion.
Eventually they stayed put, finishing five points above 1860 Munich, another fallen giant.
So how has it come to all of this? And why?
How has it been possible that a club of a similar stature, with a such a decorated history, an enviable fan base, historic former players including the likes of Mario Basler, Brehme and Klose as inspirations, a great stadium with a capacity for nearly 50,000 fans, a vaunted academy and an important city that hosted the 2006 FIFA World Cup, only lives off memories?
‘Damals in 1998, gewannen wir die Bundesliga als Aufsteiger…”, back then in 1998 we won the league as a newly-promoted side people in Rhineland-Palatinate proudly recall these days if you bump into them in the streets.
And sadly for them, they have no choice but to sit on their laurels and look back on the remarkable heights of yesteryear with a mix of pride, nostalgia and hope. ‘Why us?’, ‘ We will be back one day!’
And needless to say, football in der Pfalz isn’t only a pleasant distraction. It is the main attraction.
Kaiserslautern is home to the largest US military community outside of the USA and if you didn’t know it already, in K-Town you can pay with Dollars too.
Besides, one of the best referees in football history such as Markus Merk and one of the most famous German players of all time Fritz Walter are two sons of the city and it was in K-Town that eventual winners Italy failed to win their only game of the 2006 FIFA World Cup after an unispiring 1-1 draw in the group stages against the USA.
So how has a city, used to the big occasions like the Bundesliga, World Cup, Champions League and UEFA Cup, come to see only Zweite Bundesliga matches?
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they used to celebrate Bundesliga titles, Uefa Cup qualifications or at the very worst, Bundesliga safety.
The supporters’ love for the club has remained undiminished and thus at the end of last May a 1-0 victory over FC Nürnberg was met with an explosion of joy and happiness across the city as it guaranteed the club’s safety for one more season. But not that safety, of course. It only meant that they would steer clear from another fall from grace, the third division.
To sum it up, way too many mistakes were made on the market in the aftermath of that spectacular title-winning season.
The majestic signings of French world champion Youri Djorkaeff from Inter Milan and Taribo West did not have the desired impact. And thus, the club’s deep pockets became increasingly thinner as financial problems hit the Red Devils.
And to the disgust of the fans, the house irreversibly came tumbling down by the mid-2000’s.
In the four seasons after clinching the title they finished twice fifth, eighth and seventh respectively. Which at the time was their familiar territory.
Fans were satisfied to see their players in the upper part of the table. Finishing above Bayern was like punching above one’s weight. It was unthinkable given the Bavarian’s financial muscle. The 1991 and 1998 seasons had only been two one-off’s.
However the stark warning had yet to come and the steady decline started to take off during the 2002-2003 campaign when a Miroslav Klose-inspired Kaiserslautern stuttered to safety by finishing 14th, while a year later they ended up in 15th place and in 2004-2005, despite Klose’s departure to Werder Bremen, they claimed an improved 12th place finish.
In hindsight, it’s fair to say that managerial instability and monetary issues proved fatal and only a year later they were relegated following a 2-2 share of the spoils against VFL Wolfsburg away in the last game of the season.
A game they needed to win to send the hosts down instead. It was the beginning of the end.
At the time, unlike today, the third-from-bottom club wasn’t granted a relegation play-off but would be sent to the Zweite Bundesliga with immediate effect.
Ever since, die Roten Teufeln have been a persistent fixture in the lower class of German football if you count out the 2010-2011 season when they finished seventh in the Bundesliga before tragically dropping down again and haven’t been seen since.
That season they got off to a flying start after finishing Bayern Munich off in style (2-0) on home soil but the Bundesliga joy was short-lived.
To deepen the club’s misery, German broadcast RTL claimed that from February to June 2008 the club did not pay the rent to play at the Betzenberg, a stadium they were forced to sell to the council back in 2003 following a lack of money and the inability to survive otherwise.
Likewise, over the years the absence of cash left the club with no choice but to part prematurely with Tim Wiese, Halil Altintop, Marco Engelhardt, Florian Fromlowitz and Kevin Trapp.
It’s also no secret that Kaiserslautern have been bleeding talent as their coveted academy hasn’t been keeping up with the losses as it usually used to do.
And the shortage of good players being churned out resulted in a negative sporting and financial impact on the club.
Defender Willi Orban has been the exception to the norm although immediately after bursting onto the scene, he left to join RB Leipzig, the new emerging force of German football.
As things stand, it’s fair to say that things took an irreversible turn for the worse after the emergence of financial powerhouses like Leipzig or Hoffenheim in Germany.
Hence, the number of clubs they can’t go toe-to-toe with keeps mounting instead of falling. The gap looks indeed unbridgeable.
If twenty years ago the most talented young German players were recruited by the unrivaled Kaiserslautern or Karlsruher SC academies, now they join Hoffenheim’s youth system to develop their raw talent instead. Bayern Munich-bound Niklas Sule’s case is testament to it.
That said, three years ago they finished third and only missed out on the first-tier after losing the play-off to the new riches of 1899 Hoffenheim. And that’s the closest they came yet in their pursuit to get back to their spiritual home, the Bundesliga.
All in all, since the 2006 relegation, the club has been run like a tight ship off the pitch and as a consequence the on-field displays have been terrible for most of the time.
Ideally, the club needs to embark on a huge squad overhaul to have any chance of promotion but they can’t and thus it’s likely they will be involved in another dogfight come next year.
The most famous name playing for the club these days is Hungarian attacking midfielder Zoltan Stieber, a poor man’s Franck Ribery. And the presence of Nigerian Mister Nobody Osayamen Osawe epitomises the club’s cruel decline.
The speed with which they went from feast to famine is alarming.
Yet, a whole city is frustrated and according to insider voices the worst is yet to come as the debts keep increasing while the rich investors keep looking away instead of stepping in to save a club that once belonged to the aristocracy of German football.
And to get a measure of how deep they have fallen, at the end of the nineties even the mighty Bayern Munich hated to play in Kaiserslautern due to the home fortress they were and the hostile reception they faced from their fanatic home supporters.
But the days of the Bavarians, Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund travelling to K-Town for a Bundesliga game and the good old World Cup and Champions League days are long gone and not sure if they are ever going to come back in the same way again.
Maybe new manager Jeff Strasser from Luxembourg will get them flying again before long but the order is tall, very tall.
Featured photograph: Wikipedia