Borussia Mönchengladbach: The Golden Years of a German Football Behemoth

If I were to ask you to name a dominant team in the Bundesliga featuring German World Cup champions, who would you name? Probably Bayern, right? Whilst it is true that Bayern has hoovered up most of the German talent over the decades, their vice-like grip of the Bundesliga came under serious threat just as their dominance was beginning to take hold. At the height of the Bayern squad that contained Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, Borussia Mönchengladbach made the 70s their own.


Founded on the first of August 1900, and originally called Borussia München Gladbach, which I find amusing, to say the least, the early years of the 20th century saw them reach a few local finals and acquire the gravel pit called De Kull. It was on that gravel pit that the future Bökelbergstadion would be built in 1919. In the whirlwind landscape of the early days of football, their exploits in the regional and national cups propelled Gladbach to public consciousness and ensured that they had enough support to not fade into obscurity.


An even bigger challenge was to follow, as the Austrian painter introduced his leadership model to Germany and sport became a tool of the state. This tool would be reshaped following the model implemented in the arena of German politics, namely consolidation and strengthening in one figure. This meant that the club merged with another local club, the future FC Mönchengladbach, and like many other clubs excluded Jewish players from their roster and youth academies.


The Troubling Demise of Borussia Mönchengladbach


The city of Mönchengladbach is located next to the Dutch border and its streets saw the German army move west and soon enough, allied bombers started moving east. The city was heavily hit by the Allied bombing campaigns, which included incendiary devices on several occasions. After peace was re-established in Europe, the club saw itself inhabiting a ruined city and a stadium that had been hastily converted to produce tanks. A rebuild was in order and the club duly went to work climbing up the divisions, with a few hiccups here, but an upward trajectory nonetheless.


Their first crowning achievement came at the end of the 1959/60 season when Gladbach knocked out reigning champions Hamburg in the semi-finals of the German Cup and proceeded to defeat Karlsruhe 3-2 in the final. As the Bundesliga was formed in 1963, Borussia had their aim: ascension to the top flight of German football. During the mid 60 key figures for their future success were to join the club, namely Jupp Heynckes, Günter Netzer and Hennes Weisweiler.


Weisweiler, whose name was actually Hannes, had previously tasted success with FC Koln and their goat mascots are named Hennes to this day. Another nickname formed during this time was that of the Fohlenelf, or the Foals eleven due to the young age of the squad, only 21 years on average, and their carefree and uninhibited playing style. The climb up the divisions was completed year by year and in 1965 they gained promotion to the Bundesliga together with their future rivals Bayern.


Their first season in the top flight saw them add Berti Vogts to their ranks and coach Weisweiler introduced a playing style that offered considerable freedom to his players. This high-risk, high-reward approach culminated in a string of heavy defeats, with a 7-0 loss to Werder Bremen remaining the club’s worst home loss to this day. The upside of this approach could be seen in the next season when the Foals scored 70 goals and beat Schalke 11-0, improving their 13th-place finish by five spots.


Their flashy and offensive style drew the attention of other, higher paying clubs, and Borussia could not keep hold of their star man Heynckes, who was sold to Hannover 96 for a then world record fee of 275.000 DM, he would, however, return to the club just three years later. As the 70s began three Danish players came into the squad, namely Ulrik le Fevre, Henning Jensen and Allan Simonsen and Borussia would lead the Bundesliga table for the first time in their history on the 31st of October 1969.


Welcome to the Mad History of Tyrolean Football


In the grand table of teams who spent the most time leading the Bundesliga table, Borussia Mönchengladbach is currently third only behind Bayern and BVB. At the end of the 1969/70 season, they hadn’t relinquished the top spot and won their first title. The next season, a head-to-head race with Bayern saw the Foals come out on top again, with Borussia nearly having their title hopes derailed by the “goal post break of the Bökelberg”.


As you might have guessed by the precise and very German title, it describes a game between Werder Bremen and Gladbach, where the goalpost of the Bremen outfit broke and the game had to be abandoned at 1-1. After the game, the German FA decided that replacement goalposts were now a must for all clubs and controversially awarded a 2-0 win to Werder.


Another, even bigger controversy, would take place one year later in the European Cup in the “can-throwing game”. Playing in the 1971-72 edition of the European Cup as the two-time German Champions they came head-to-head with Inter at the Bökelbergstadion. With Borussia leading 2-1, Roberto Boninsegna was hit by a Coca-Cola can that was thrown from the stands.


Despite the game eventually finishing 7-1 for Gladbach, UEFA’s disciplinary commission decided to schedule a replay and fine Borussia. Luggi Müller would later recount how he saw the visibly empty can hit Boninsegna and he fell to the ground. The Italian player tried repeatedly to stand up, with the Inter staff pushing him down. He was eventually stretchered out and was seen winking to his teammates.


In the return leg in Milano, Inter won 4-0, and the replay of the first leg finished in a goalless draw. The Italian Magazine La Stampa published a report from a doctor who stated that the soda can caused a concussion on the player. The can itself stood in the museum of Vitesse Arnhem until 2012, when Borussia brought it back to the club. In 1973, Borussia won their second DFB Pokal, with Günter Netzer scoring on his last appearance for the club before moving to Real Madrid.


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The loss of Netzer could not be softened and the club lost the Bundesliga three times in a row to Bayern, as well as the 1973 UEFA Cup. In 1975, however, it all clicked and they won both the league and the UEFA Cup. Weisweiler’s exploits with this team did not go unnoticed and at the end of this season, he followed Netzer to Real Madrid. In his place, Udo Lattek came in and carried out a shift in the team’s philosophy, adding a higher degree of defensive security and organization.


Equipped with this new playing style, the Foals, now more mature and self-assured, won three titles in a row, but tasted disappointment on the international stage. In their first season back in Europe’s top competition, they made it to the quarter-finals, where Real Madrid awaited them. In the first game, held in Germany a 2-2 draw was all that Borussia could muster, after leading the game 2-0. Still, hopes were high for the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.


The second leg ended one all, but not without controversy, as Gladbach scored two goals that were ruled out by the referee. The first one was ruled out for an alleged foul in the build-up and for the second one, referee Leonardus van der Kroft overturned the goal for an offside position not signaled by the linesman. The next season, the disappointment would be even bigger, as the team made it all the way to the final.


Sadly for them, a Liverpool team at the height of their dominance could not be beaten, but nonetheless, Alan Simonsen brought his Ballon d’Or back to the club as a sort of consolation prize. In the 1978-79 season, Borussia would attempt a new record, namely winning the Bundesliga four times in a row, but despite finishing level on points with FC Köln, their inferior goal difference meant that this record would not be achieved. Consolation came one season later, in the form of the 1979 UEFA Cup, but by then the core of the Foals had either aged out and moved away.


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Udo Lattek left the club and Jupp Heynckes and Berti Vogts went into retirement. Heynckes’ retirement however was to be spent at Gladbach, as their new manager. Under his tenure he had to navigate a changing landscape in German and world football, where youngsters started moving away faster and faster and the number of truly talented players who became one-club men started to dwindle, as Lothar Matthäus would prove, transferring to Bayern in 1984.


During Heynckes’ time in charge, Borussia and the manager himself were named the champions without a title, coming second best in the 1980 UEFA Cup and missing out on a league and cup double in 1984. The financial situation of the club and their small stadium meant that they could not capitalize on their 70s golden age and were soon overtaken by Bayern and Hamburg as the new German powerhouses.


The team went from dominating the league for a decade to sporadic title challenges during the ’80s and ’90s, winning the DFB Pokal for one last time in 1995, to relegation at the beginning of the 2000s. Today, they are efficiently run, fan-owned and focused heavily on youth development and data-driven recruitment, having helped to uncover raw gems like Marcus Thuram, Kouadio Koné and Granit Xhaka, but a repeat of their glory days in the 70s seems highly unlikely. 


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Thomas F. Starke / Bongarts