Fall from Grace ⋆ An Old International

Fall from Grace

To anyone somewhat familiar with German football, the name 1. FC Kaiserslautern will ring some bells. The club have a long history: established in 1900, they won four German championships, all post-1945 (1951, 1953, 1991 and 1998), two DFB Cups in 1990 and 1996. In 1998 they managed to win the league after being promoted the season before – a unique feat. As German champions they reached the quarter-final of the Champions league 1999, where they were comprehensively beaten 6:0 on aggregate by Bayern München.

I have some history with Kaiserslautern. Just after the Berlin Wall came down my best friend and I were regularly playing football in the courtyard of his house. He chose 1. FC Köln as his team and I was 1. FC Kaiserslautern without any specific reason. With that settled, we even played Anstoss on his PC with the same teams. There I learnt the names Kadlec, Kuka, Ehrmann who were idols back then and seem to originate from a different period today, almost thirty years later. Having relatives in the Palatine region around Neustadt an der Weinstraße, the link with the club was made even stronger as these people spoke about Fritz Walter with awe and adoration. My birth place, Wernigerode is the twin city of Neustadt a.d.W. acquainting me with more people from that region and their club.

Arguably, their best periods were the 1950s with two league titles and two runner-up places and the 1990s with another two championships and two cups. Additionally, five of their team were part of Germany’s World Cup squad in 1954 and all of them played in the final in Berne against Hungary. They were: Werner Liebrich – he was widely accused of tackling Puskas badly on purpose during the group stage so as to injure him. Puskas carried the injury with him throughout the tournament. Fritz Walter – the boss, i.e. the team’s captain and Sepp Herberger’s most important man during the tournament and the match. Werner Kohlmeyer was a defender as was Horst Eckel. Ottmar Walter played as centre forward and was the brother of Fritz.

They are one of the founding members of the Bundesliga and have played in the top flight from its inception until 1996 when they were relegated yet still managed to win the German Cup. Their come back was greeted and they astounded anyone – and possibly themselves, too – when they won the league in 1998. In the 1990s Bayern won only four league titles (90, 94, 97 and 99). It was some vindication for Otto Rehhagel who has been fired by Bayern after just one season 1995/96 in which he reached the UEFA-Cup final, though it was the inevitable Beckenbauer who eventually led the team to success over the two legs, since Rehhagel was sacked before.

Their stadium, the Betzenberg used to be a fearsome arena for visiting fans and teams alike. In 1994 Dortmund came for a second round cup tie to Kaiserlautern and were beaten 6:3, the team never giving up, scoring just before full time to push the game into extra time, during which they fell behind once more. This initiated a strong reaction and Lautern scored three more to finish off Dortmund 6:3. Watching the match on television, one could feel the atmosphere of the ground creeping through the screen. The stadium was later overhauled and extended for the World Cup 2006 and has lately become a millstone for the club as it has to pay rent to the city of Kaiserslautern who own the ground.

Lately, they have made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As recently as February the city council of Kaiserslautern have lowered the rent for the stadium following a request from the club. For the third division the amount due is €625000, in the second division 2.4m. The original figure was €3.2m which is a hefty sum. It beggars belief that this amount has been due for the more than year considering that the club is in free fall since relegation from Bundesliga 2 in 2018. It explains however, why the club have lost money, figures are in the region of €5m per year.

In mid-June (15.) the club declared that they intend to go into a planned insolvency since the debt of the club have reached €24m and they are in danger of not being able to pay the salaries. The cause for this amount (yes, English readers may laugh about it but they haven’t possibly heard of the Swabian Housewive) were years, if not decades of mismanagement that always saw the club saved by the city and investors who have put in substantial amounts to keep the club afloat. However, the club being in the red is one thing, the other is the DFB turning a blind eye and granting clubs a free passage, i.e. no points deduction,[1] during the period of Corona. In other words: Kaiserslautern aim to get rid of their debt by playing the Corona card and declaring themselves bankrupt due to the pandemic. This is a bold move. Their debt is not due to Corona but due to years of poor management.

However, to do that it needs two parties: one club daring enough to push the boundaries and an association, a law maker to simply give its thumps up! To add insult to injury, the job centre now pays the players’ and coaches salaries, thus piling more pressure and misery on public finances in the region. The finances of many clubs in Germany’s third division are no beds of roses but bushes of stinging nettles. It makes this league a dangerous playground for clubs: too much to die but too little to live on. It requires good commercial nous and skill to earn a bob or two and actually make money in this division. Hence the aim of Kaiserslautern to get back up to the Bundesliga 2, i.e. the financial gravy train of television revenue, ASAP. This plan has neither worked last season nor this. Instead the club hover around in eleventh place with 47 points; they have nothing to do with promotion and are safe from relegation. It is a no mans land where they are.

Their story is one of poor management for years if not decades and has nothing to do with Corona. Within the German football community the wish that the insolvency does not go through is significant particularly since the DFB seem to turn a blind eye and once again abuse the idea of fair play so blatantly as they have just weeks prior to push for a re-start of the season.

This year, the club have just fêted their 120. anniversary and club legend Fritz Walter would be 100 years on October 31. In this very year, Kaiserslautern are in their worst crisis of their existence. It is a largely self made crisis and despite the club’s rich history, a sense of justice must prevail to preserve some reputation for anyone involved.

[1] Standard procedure is a nine point deduction. This would have put Kaiserslautern deep into the relegation zone.

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