In this life
You’re on your own
And if the elevator tries to bring you down
(“Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince)
If you ask most people who they think of when you mention Bavarian football, the inevitable answer will be Bayern Munich. And quite rightly so, given that Die Roten have lifted 30 German championships and six European Cup/Champions League trophies. They are by far the most successful and well-known club within Germany and one of the leading clubs globally.
But the state of Bavaria does not just start and end with Munich. While Munich is the Bavarian capital, sitting proudly in the south near the Alps, the state extends north of this. And it is to the north of Munich sits the second largest Bavarian city – Nürnberg.
Any discussion about Bavarian football should therefore not overlook Nürnberg and its football team – 1. FC Nürnberg. In fact, if you were having this Bavarian discussion just prior to the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963, you would end up discussing FC Nürnberg in much more detail than Bayern. Because, contrary to what many may think, German football did not start with the formation of the Bundesliga. Competitive football had been played in Germany since the early 1900s, although seriously impeded by two world wars and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. But following on from the devastation of World War One, there was one dominant team in Germany – FC Nürnberg.
From July 1918 to February 1922, FC Nürnberg went 104 games unbeaten. That level of dominance was translated into winning five of the eight national titles held after World War One (1920, 1921, 1924, 1925 and 1927). And not a goal was conceded in each of those five final wins. On top of that, FC Nürnberg played Hamburg in the 1922 final – a game that had to be cancelled due to darkness after over three hours of play at 2-2. This was followed by a replay that also went into extra time and also had to be cancelled when FC Nürnberg were reduced to just seven players, substitutes not being allowed in that era. In a strange form of compromise, the German FA awarded the trophy to Hamburg provided that they then renounce the title as a show of “good sportsmanship”. And so no trophy ended up being awarded in that year.
Such success earned FC Nürnberg the nickname “Der Club”, reflecting their dominance of domestic football at the time. Bayern Munich meanwhile had to wait until 1932 to claim their first national title – five years after FC Nürnberg lifted their fifth. It was clear during the 1920s who the dominant power was in both Bavaria and Germany as a whole.
FC Nürnberg continued to enjoy some success during the subsequent Gauliga and Oberliga periods before the Bundesliga, claiming three more German championships. Given their status and renown, they were included in the original teams to form the new Bundesliga in 1963 and lifted their one and only Meisterschale in 1968. Incredibly, they followed that championship win by being relegated in the very next campaign and the following 26 seasons saw them yo-yo between the top two divisions, never reaching any higher than 5th in the Bundesliga.
The mid-nineties saw things go from bad to worse for Der Club. The 1993/94 season saw them relegated down to the Bundesliga 2 and then just two years later drop for the first time ever into the Regionalliga Sud, playing teams such as TSF Ditzingen, KSV Hessen Kassal and, ironically, a Bavarian derby against Bayern Munich II. Luckily, FC Nürnberg were only to spend one season in third tier purgatory before returning straight back to the Bundesliga 2 as regional champions. A then relative newcomer to the world of management – Felix Magath – was brought in a coach and oversaw a second successive promotion. In just two seasons, Nürnberg had gone from an all-time low back to the top table. Now they just had to ensure they stayed there.
Which brings us nicely to the 1998-99 season.
Going into this season, Kaiserslautern were the surprise defending champions, having pipped Bayern Munich by just two points. But this was a Bayern Munich squad boasting famous names such as Oliver Kahn, Markus Babbel, Bixente Lizarazu, Lothar Matthäus, Steffen Effenberg, Mehmet Scholl and Giovane Elber – they were never going to let themselves fall to a repeat of second place. They opened a clear gap between themselves and the rest early on in the season and never looked back, eventually claiming the Meisterschale by an impressive 15 points ahead of Bayer Leverkusen. This campaign was going to have to look to the relegation fight in order to provide any end-of-season excitement.
Remembering that the Bundesliga has 34 matchdays, after Matchday 30 it was looking pretty clear that Borussia Mönchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt were heading for the drop. But the third relegation spot was a developing struggle, with VfL Bochum in that 16th spot with 29 points, only six points behind Schalke in 10th. A number of teams could get dragged into the dreaded 16th spot over the final four games, each looking nervously over their shoulders.
Matchday 31 saw Schalke win while Eintracht Frankfurt won at Werder Bremen to give themselves a chance of starting a great escape. 16th spot was now down to five teams separated by just five points – Eintracht Frankfurt (28) VfL Bochum (29), Werder Bremen (32), FC Nürnberg (33) and VfB Stuttgart (33) with three game remaining.
Matchday 32 and over 44,000 fans packed into FC Nürnberg’s Max-Morlock Stadion for the Bavaria Derby against the rampant Bayern Munich. A win could all but guarantee safety for Der Club. Although the game was only 11 days ahead of Bayern Munich’s infamous Champions League final against Manchester United, their team still started Babbel, Matthäus, Effenberg and Scholl. But perhaps with the final in mind, Bayern seemed to hold back somewhat and FC Nürnberg claimed a vital 2-0 victory. But the same weekend saw Eintracht Frankfurt continue their revival, beating Borussia Dortmund, to claim the 16th spot from Bochum and keep the relegation battle tense.
Matchday 33 – an incredible game at Parkstadion saw Eintracht Frankfurt go down 2-0 to Schalke after just 14 minutes before turning the game around and claiming their third successive win 3-2 – the great escape was now definitely in full flow. Bochum were thrashed by Bayern to finally join Borussia Mönchengladbach on the journey downwards. FC Nürnberg meanwhile were playing a “six-pointer” away at Hansa Rostock and with six minutes left, Rostock led a tense game 1-0. Then up stepped Heiko Gerber whose header leveled the scores to all but guarantee FC Nürnberg Bundesliga survival. A huge sigh of relief went around north Bavaria as they moved up to 12th place with four teams below them in danger of final day relegation – they were almost mathematically safe. Almost.
Bundesliga going into Matchday 34
- Werder Bremen -5 goal diff 38 pts
- FC Nürnberg -9 goal diff 37 pts
- VfB Stuttgart -8 goal diff 36 pts
- SC Freiberg -9 goal diff 36 pts
- Hansa Rostock -10 goal diff 35 pts
- E. Frankfurt -14 goal diff 34 pts (Relegation spot)
- VfL Bochum 29 pts (Relegated)
- B. Mönchengladbach 21 pts (Relegated)
Relevant Matchday 34 fixtures
FC Nürnberg v SC Freiburg
Eintracht Frankfurt v Kaiserslautern
Stuttgart v Werder Bremen
Bochum v Hansa Rostock
Matchday 34 – the most exciting relegation day in Bundesliga history. A day for watching your team’s game with your ear glued to a radio. A day of terrace rumours swirling around. A day of playing safe, then having to push forward, then playing safe again as news filtered through to benches and onto the pitch. Definitely not a day for the faint of heart.
Minute 6: Stuttgart 1 – Werder Bremen 0
Stuttgart draw first blood on the day as Bobic heads his eighth goal of the season.
Minute 28: FC Nürnberg 0 – Freiberg 1
Nervousness at Nürnberg as Ali Gunes shoots Freiberg into the lead. Still, even an FC Nürnberg loss would require the other four teams below them to get results and so no need to get too stressed yet. But still…
Minute 35: FC Nürnberg 0 – Freiberg 2
Ali Gunes heads a second for Freiberg, who have leapfrogged Stuttgart and FC Nürnberg and look to be heading for Bundesliga safety. Frustration for FC Nürnberg fans as they start to realize that this game could be escaping them and that they need to rely on results elsewhere. But Frankfurt and Rostock are still tied so not too traumatic yet.
Minute 37: Bochum 0 – Hansa Rostock 1
Oliver Neuville grabs his 14th goal of the season and suddenly they have a vital lifeline. FC Nürnberg fans groan into their radios as they realise that now they have slipped from 12th to 15th. The gods seem to be conspiring against them but at least Frankfurt are still goalless.
FC Nürnberg 0 – SC Freiburg 2
Eintracht Frankfurt 0 – Kaiserslautern 0
Stuttgart 1 – Werder Bremen 0
Bochum 0 – Hansa Rostock 1
Half-time live table
- VfB Stuttgart -7 goal diff 39 pts
- SC Freiberg -7 goal diff 39 pts
- Werder Bremen -6 goal diff 38 pts
- Hansa Rostock -9 goal diff 38 pts
- FC Nurnberg -11 goal diff 37 pts
- E. Frankfurt -14 goal diff 35 pts (Relegation spot)
- VfL Bochum 29 pts (Relegated)
- B. Mönchengladbach 22 pts (Relegated)
Minute 47: Eintracht Frankfurt 1 – Kaiserslautern 0
Drama at Deutsche Bank Park!! Chen Yang’s shot suddenly puts Frankfurt ahead and equal on points now with FC Nürnberg. Suddenly goal difference has become a focus as fans work out that the current scores mean FC Nürnberg still have a two goal advantage.
Minute 68: Eintracht Frankfurt 1 – Kaiserslautern 1
A quiet 21 minutes is broken by a penalty decision in Kaiserslautern’s favour. As the other four teams’ fans listen intently, Michael Schjönberg buries it and a collective cheer of relief sweeps around FC Nürnberg fans.
Minute 70: Eintracht Frankfurt 2 – Kaiserslautern 1
Just as FC Nürnberg fans began to relax, another whisper starts around the terrace. It turns out that Frankfurt have immediately struck back and regained the lead through a Thomas Sobotzik header. Still, only 20 minutes left and the two goal cushion remains.
Minute 71: Bochum 1 – Hansa Rostock 1
Just as FC Nürnberg fans absorb the reversal from Frankfurt, another beacon of hope arises. Stefan Kuntz equalizes for Bochum with a header from a corner and so now Rostock have slipped a point below FC Nürnberg and Frankfurt. No more sweating over possible goal difference permutations.
Minute 74: Bochum 2 – Hansa Rostock 1
It is all happening now – more good news for FC Nürnberg and Frankfurt fans as Rostock appear to be falling apart. Peter Peschel puts Bochum into the lead with just 16 minutes left with a beautifully taken free-kick. What a difference three minutes can make!
Minute 77: Bochum 2 – Hansa Rostock 2
The Bochum game is starting to resemble a basketball game! A third goal in the space of six minutes sees Rostock equalize through Victor Agali from a tight angle. But with thirteen minutes now left, Rostock still need to find another in order to jump above both Eintracht Frankfurt and FC Nürnberg.
Minute 80: Frankfurt 3 – Kaiserslautern 1
Another goal at Frankfurt courtesy of a fantastic piece of skill from Marco Gebhardt! They are securing a victory while closing the goal difference gap by one more against FC Nürnberg – now just down to a one goal cushion. Frankfurt are looking safe as long as Rostock don’t score in the remaining 10 minutes.
Minute 82: Frankfurt 4 – Kaiserslautern 1
The third goal in 12 minutes for Frankfurt, this time from Bernd Schneider and suddenly FC Nürnberg fans pay attention. Having felt safe for so long, despite losing, they now realize that Frankfurt have equal goal difference to them and equal points, and have scored more goals during the season to give them the advantage. With the fourth goal, Frankfurt are now above FC Nürnberg! But Rostock are still tied and in the drop zone.
Minute 82: Bochum 2 – Hansa Rostock 3
Just as the FC Nürnberg fans do the mental arithmetic described above, drama!! Slawomir Majak heads Rostock into a lead! They have come back from 2-1 to get two goals in five minutes. Horror hits the FC Nürnberg fans as they realise that the Frankfurt goal and the Rostock goal, scored at practically the same time, have thrown them two places down into the relegation spot for the first time today. They need a goal desperately!
Minute 85: Nurnberg 1 – Freiburg 2
It called for a hero – and one stepped forward. As FC Nürnberg frantically seek the goal to get them back above Frankfurt, Marek Nikl gets it with a header from a corner. Pandemonium in the Max-Morlock Stadion – FC Nürnberg’s time in the relegation zone lasted just three long minutes. Five minutes left and FC Nürnberg have saved themselves, so long as Frankfurt can’t grab one more. And they couldn’t score yet again – could they?
Minute 89: Frankfurt 5 – Kaiserslautern 1
After hearing of FC Nürnberg’s goal, cruelly dashing those brief thoughts of safety, Frankfurt throw everything at Kaiserslautern. And then it happens – with just one minute left, a breakaway sees the ball bobble out to Jan Aage Fjörtoft who has the composure to slide it past the onrushing keeper. Frankfurt fans embrace each other while the news filters through to Nürnberg. Disbelief amongst Der Club faithful. They now need another goal again, or for Kaiserslautern to score, or for Bochum to score. 10 goals around the grounds in the last 21 minutes – unbelievable swings in emotion.
FC Nürnberg craft one final chance – Marek Nikl hits a long-distance shot that the Freiburg keeper can only parry onto the post. Two FC Nürnberg players rush to the ball – this is the moment – but they shoot tamely straight at the keeper.
The final whistles blow around the four respective games and realization starts to sink in. What seemed almost impossible at the start of the day has happened – FC Nürnberg have been relegated. 12th ninety minutes ago, with a three point cushion, they now sit 16th. And they were only in the relegation place for four minutes of the ninety. Football can be a cruel mistress at the best of times, but she was in a particularly sour mood this afternoon in Bavaria.
FC Nürnberg did rejoin the top table a couple of seasons later, but have been a yo-yo team for a number of years now – too good for the Bundesliga 2 but not quite good enough for the Bundesliga. This means that their fans have experienced a constant diet of thrills and spills, which it could be argued is preferable to just being a consistently mid-table Bundesliga team. But I doubt that any time on that roller-coaster ride will ever match the afternoon of May 29, 1999. If ever someone needed a large, cold stein of Bavarian beer, it was a Nürnberg fan on that evening. A reminder that a relegation battle can be every bit as exciting as a title race and of the importance of having relegation as a risk in a season – take away relegation (European Super League – are you listening?) and take away half the excitement of the game we love.