Given the influx of money into Football’s top leagues in the last decade, it is hard to imagine any of the biggest (aka richest) teams ever not sitting pretty at the top of their respective tables. The thought of a Manchester City, Real Madrid or PSG ever facing relegation is unfortunately confined to the dreams and fantasies of their rivals. However, before the turn of the century, such occurrences did actually take place. In this country alone, you only have to look to League One to find a number of ‘top’ sides now languishing in the third tier.
Ipswich Town were rightly considered to be one of England’s best teams in the late 70s and early 80s. Under Sir Bobby Robson, they won the FA Cup in 1978, the UEFA Cup in 1981, and finished second in both the 1980/81 and 1981/82 seasons. More recently they had a brief spell in the Premier League, where George Burley guided them to a fifth placed finish in 2000/01, even beating Inter Milan 1-0 at home in the UEFA Cup. However, the side from Suffolk have fallen on hard times, and now are struggling again to sustain a serious playoff push in League One.
Sunderland have had a similar unfortunate tale. Division One regulars throughout the 80s and 90s, they spent a few seasons zig-zagging between the Premier League and the Championship between 1999 and 2005, before sticking around for 10 seasons in the top flight. They often flirted with relegation, and finally succumbed to it at the end of the 2017/18 campaign. Their woes have been captured on the brilliant ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die‘ documentary, which has followed their back to back relegations, and their subsequent fight to climb out of the third tier.
While not necessarily a historically huge team, Wigan Athletic were still Premier League regulars for eight seasons. Under Roberto Martinez they won the FA Cup in 2013, beating the financial might of Manchester City, and even entered into the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Cup. They currently sit rock bottom of League One, having faced numerous financial issues over recent years.
Of course, this issue is not isolated to our fair shores. Take a look across Europe, and we can find similar examples, such as Deportivo La Coruña; La Liga champions in 2000, but now play in the Segunda División B. Another very interesting case is 1 FC Kaiserslautern, the twice Bundesliga champions, who now find themselves in real bother in the 3. Liga.
It’s hard to imagine now, given their sustained dominance over the last decade, but there was a time when Bayern Munich were not guaranteed Bundesliga champions each year. It used to be a reasonably competitive league, especially in the 1990s. During that decade, five different sides were crowned as Champions; VfB Stuttgart (1991/92), Werder Bremen (1992/93), Bayern Munich (1993/94, 1996/97 and 1998/99), Borussia Dortmund (1994/95 and 1995/96) and Kaiserslautern (1990/91 and 1997/98). While they were still the most successful side, it was far from total domination by the men from Bavaria.
Going back over 50 years, and Kaiserslautern’s place in German football’s history is highlighted by the fact that five of the 1954 World Cup winning side came from their ranks. A first league title was won in 1951, and a second added just two years later. They were founding members of the first Bundesliga season in 1963, but their supporters would endure a long wait to add to their trophy cabinet. They conspired to lose three German Cup finals and a UEFA Cup semi-final during the 70s and 80s, before overcoming the hoodoo in 1990, as they beat Werder Bremen in the DFD Pokal final.
If fans were happy that their side had finally secured some silverware, then they would’ve been overjoyed that the next trophy arrived under a year later. This time they went one better, finishing 3 points clear of their rivals Bayern to lift their first league title in 38 years. The DFB Supercup was also secured, where they again overcame Bremen, this time 3-1. It seemed like they were set up to become regular attendees at the top table of German football, and a period of success might be on it’s way to South West Germany. However, the next few seasons saw them coming close, but not quite close enough.
The 94/95 campaign saw them finish just one point off of Bayern, and the following season they ended up 4th, 3 points off top space behind Dortmund, Bremen and Freiburg, with Bayern a distant 6th. Try as they might, Die roten Teufel continued to fall just short. They were victorious for the second time in the final of the DFB-Pokal in 1997, but this success was tainted. A disastrous season saw them only win 6 times in the league, and they were relegated with a whimper. At that point, they were one of only four sides who had never dropped out of the Bundesliga, having been ever present since it’s inception in 1963.
Their stay in the second tier was brief, as they successfully managed to bounce back as 2. Liga champions at the first time of asking. It was clear that a side with the prestige and history of Kaiserslautern had no place in anywhere but the Bundesliga, so it was no surprise that they finished 10 points clear of second place VFL Wolfsburg to get back to where they belonged. This was all achieved under the guidance of the vastly experienced coach Otto Rehhagel, a man who’s CV boasted the likes Bayern, Dortmund and Bremen, to name just a few.
While many fans would’ve been content with just staying put in the top flight, and slowly establishing themselves again, it is safe to say that no-one could have foreseen what was to happen next. They accomplished a feat that has never been achieved before or since; winning the Bundesliga title the season after being promoted. True, the side was built on players with top flight experience, so was hardly starting from scratch. Still, that it is the only time it has ever happened clearly indicates what an achievement it was.
The feat was helped by a player who would go on to achieve so much in German football. A 21 year old Michael Ballack made his first appearances in the Bundesliga under Rehhagel, who signed for Kaiserslautern after they’d gained promotion. He was slowly introduced to the team, making 16 appearances in the league winning side. He became a regular in the side defending the title, and played a part in their run to the semi-finals of the Champions League, where Die roten Teufel where stopped from reaching the final by their old friends from Bavaria.
Like many emerging German talents, Ballack was tempted away by the promise of fame and fortune of Munich, and would go on to establish himself of one of the brightest players of his generation. There would be other huge names that would join Kaiserslautern, as they looked to establish themselves as a permanent challenger to Bayern and Dortmund. A young Miroslav Klose‘s professional career began in earnest at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, where over five seasons he would score 50 goals in 144 appearances. Klose stayed until 2004, before cementing himself as one of Germany’s greatest ever strikers at Bremen and Bayern.
Another player who joined while Kaiserslautern were at the top was Youri Djorkaeff. Having played for Monaco, PSG and Inter Milan, and having a hand in helping France lift the 1998 World Cup, his signing in 1999 was seen as a show of power by the side from Kaiserslautern. He was joined by Mario Basler, who was coming off of the back of three trophy-laden years with Bayern, even putting them ahead in that night in Barcelona in the Champions League final. These star signings, plus the emergence of future greats such as Klose, should have helped to establish the side from the Rheinland-Pfalz as one of the major forces in Germany.
With hindsight, this period can now be seen as the beginning of the end of Kaiserslautern’s time at the top of German football, as all their hard work quickly began to unravel. By 2000, Rehhagel had resigned. Despite a very strong set of results as manager, he found his position untenable due to what was happening off the pitch. Internal conflicts with the hierarchy, arguments with his players and a smear campaign all contributed to the end of his time in charge.
The star signings also failed to make the lasting impact that was hoped of them. Djorkaeff was soon being left on the bench, for the bizarre reason of refusing to learn German. He would be off in 2002, where he declined the advances of Liverpool to instead join Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers.
Basler didn’t fare much better himself, as while he, Djorkaeff and Klose helped Kaiserslautern to the semi finals of the UEFA Cup in the 2000/01 season, his reputation of a smoker and drinker soon began to interfere with his football. He did, however, become one of the first people to properly raise a number of questions about the financial situation of the club, when it was revealed he was paid a signing on fee of 5 million Deutschmarks. Not in itself unheard of, but the club tried to hide this cost on their books as a loan. Not common practice for a well functioning and well run club.
As is common in these situations, it was turmoil off the pitch that then, in turn, caused issues on it. The financial situation was beginning to unravel, as auditors uncovered widespread tax evasion. It transpired that debts had grown to €50 million by 2003, with players being paid through foreign bank accounts.
Results on the pitch began to suffer. They finished 14th in 2002/03, 15th in 03/04, 12th in 04/05, before suffering another relegation in 2006. This time there was to be no immediate bounce back, with Kaiserslautern staying put in the 2 Liga for four seasons. There was a then a brief upturn in form as they gained promotion in the 2009/10 campaign, and finished a credible 7th the following year. However, this respite was short lived, as they soon slumped to yet another relegation, finishing dead last in the 2011/12 season.
It doesn’t look like the situation will be improving anytime soon. In 2016, CEO Patrick Banf stated that ‘We’ve checked the accounts, and there is no money there.’ Even during this period of decline, he stated that ‘this club has lived like a Bundesliga side for the past ten years…but rarely played like a Bundesliga club.‘
The club are now certainly looking down rather than up. The end of 2018/19 saw them drop into the third tier for the first time. It was then touch and go that they would be able to play football at the following season, given that the system for obtaining a license to play in Germany is rather more strict than it is in this country. One was secured, but it hasn’t done much good, as they could only manage a mid-table finish. At the time of writing, following a 2-0 defeat to Unterhacing, Kaiserslautern sit just above the relegation zone, with only 2 wins out of 15 in this campaign so far.
It would appear that this former giant of German football may well be resigned to playing in the lower leagues for the foreseeable future, especially given their dire financial situation. However, all hope is not lost. Over the last few seasons in Germany, both Union Berlin & Paderborn have risen from the third tier to the Bundesliga, with Paderborn even achieving back to back promotions. So faith remains that Kaiserslautern may one day be able to regain their status as top tier regulars once again. For now, however, they are just another example of a formerly big side who now find themselves looking down rather than up.