Newly promoted Hoffenheim are proudly sitting atop the German Bundesliga and pundits and fans worldwide are amazed.
They feel it’s an almost unique event, a newly promoted club starting the new season so well. Unfortunately these people haven’t gotten their facts straight, as they seem to have forgotten about Kaiserslautern.
Not many people will remember this, but back in the 1997-98 season, 1.FC Kaiserslautern actually won the league title in their first season following promotion. They actually did what many Hoffenheim fans secretly hope their club will achieve this season.
The Rhineland-based side, nicknamed “Die Rote Teufel” or “Red Devils", made history when they became the first and only German side in history to win the Bundesliga in their first season following promotion.
Unlike Hoffenheim, Kaiserslautern were big players in the transfer market, as they signed a few expensive newcomers. Their main transfer coup back in the day was the re-signing of Swiss midfield maestro and playmaker Ciriaco Sforza from Internazionale. They also strengthened their squad with Bulgarian international Marian Hristov, German winger Andreas Buck, and a young talent called Michael Ballack.
The Kaiserslautern side was an experienced one. In goal they had a seasoned goalie in Andreas Reinke. The normal back four had a lot of international experience, with players like Czech international Miroslav Kadlec and the tall Dane Michael Schjönberg.
Reliable and sturdy German defenders such as Harry Koch and Axel Roos completed the defence, whilst veteran player and former international Andreas “Andy” Brehme provided cover when needed.
The Swiss midfield maestro Ciriaco Sforza ran the midfield, ably assisted by Andreas Buck, Martin Wagner, and Brazilian winger Ratinho. A very young Michael Ballack made 16 appearances while Marian Hristov also had a big role to play.
Upfront, the attack was “marshalled” superbly by Olaf Marschall, who bagged 21 goals in 24 appearances. Jürgen Rische chipped in with 11 goals with Czech international Pavel Kuka and Marco Reich acting as the main back-ups.
But a team doesn’t win with a strong squad alone. You also need an able manager to make sure the tactics suit the players and to make sure the players get along. As it happened, Kaiserslautern had one of the best German managers ever at the helm during their league campaign in ‘98.
Otto Rehhagel was the man in charge in ’98. Rehhagel is the only person who, as player and as manager, has participated in over 1000 Bundesliga matches. This also explains his nickname “Kind der Bundesliga” or “Child of the Bundesliga.”
In the Bundesliga, he holds the records for the most victories (387), most draws (205), most losses (228), and his teams have scored the most goals (1473) and conceded more (1142) than any others.
He has popularized the phrase “kontrollierte Offensive” or controlled offence. He prefers a grass-roots approach to football, stressing the importance of at least two but mostly three big, strong headers in central defence. His defensive schemes often use a dominant sweeper or libero.
In defence Rehhagel usually prefers robustness and height over footballing abilities. In the period of all-round, fluid defence, many have criticized this as dated and anachronistic, but Rehhagel loves to reply that his success makes him right, as his surprising Euro 2004 victory with Greece once again proves his tactical ability.
On top of all that, the team had fortune on its side as well. They blitzed the Bundesliga, taking the top position on the fourth day with three wins out of four and never relinquishing this position.
At the end of the season, their record read 34 games played, 19 wins, 11 draws and just 4 defeats. Rehhagel had a fairly settled squad with some experienced and talented individuals to come in to cover.
This could’ve been the start of a period of success for Kaiserslautern, but this wasn’t to be. Rehhagel left in 2000 after a massive smear campaign and the team crumbled after his departure.
Kaiserslautern got into serious financial trouble due to the construction of a new stadium and incompetent management. The club couldn’t spend as much as they were used to, key players left, results dwindeled and they slid down the Bundesliga ladder.
In the 2005-06 season the team hit rock bottom, as they were relegated from the Bundesliga. Ever since that relegation, the rot has set in with the club fighting against relegation to the third division rather than challenging for promotion to the Bundesliga.
The fairytale at Kaiserslautern turned into a nightmare.
Hoffenheim will be hoping and praying for a much happier ending, even when that means they will not emulate Kaiserslautern's epic feat.