It seems that nicknaming your team The Red Devils is a surefire way to guarantee your club’s success. Manchester United seem the most obvious example, but there is a host of other teams who share this nickname. Al Ahly, America de Cali and Hapoel Tel Aviv have trophy cabinets overflowing with honors. AC Milan could be shoehorned into the list as well, as their two nicknames are Rossoneri and Il Diavolo. However, the team whose story I am covering today had the chance to join the others but experienced one of the biggest downfalls in Europe.
FC Kaiserslautern has existed (in one form or another) since 1900 and is considered one of the most successful German teams. Their pre-war history is peppered with name changes and various local and state championships, due to the decentralized nature of German football. By the time football in Germany was suspended due to the rapid advance of the Allies, the team was known as the 1st FC Kaiserslautern, having been called FC Palatia 1901 Kaiserslautern, FC Bavaria 1902 Kaiserslautern, FV Kaiserslautern, SV Phönix Kaiserslautern during their history.
The regime tried to enforce their outlook on all German teams and Kaiserslautern was no different. The team had to be declared “Jew-free” and register their members for the Hitler Youth. In the toxic and hateful climate of Nazi Germany the club tried to stave off attempts to unite local teams into one or two bigger clubs and managed to win their regional championships at the end of the 1941-42 season. Crucial to that would be the so-called Walter-Eleven containing brothers Fritz, Ottmar and Ludwig Walter. Before they could build on their success, many of the team’s eleven were sent to the frontlines.
After peace was finally restored to Europe Fritz and Ludwig, who had been captured by the Soviets in Romania, returned to find their club in a sorry state. Many of their former teammates had been killed, captured or were missing and FC Kaiserslautern was effectively dead. After the war, Germany had to effectively be rebuilt from the ground up and the brothers, headed by Fritz, began to do the same with their old football club.
Kaiserslautern was located in the French occupation zone, and their occupiers were reluctant to offer their vanquished foes many freedoms. Thus, all games would be played as friendlies, with the prizes being in most cases food and produce. In the so-called Kartoffelspiele (potato games) German teams would tour their immediate surroundings, playing each other and being rewarded with, you guessed it, potatoes (amongst other things). The organizers would offer this payment as compensation for the entertainment brought to the beleaguered population.
During those years, the Walter-eleven was a fan favorite and many were convinced they would go on to become a superstar team. After the war, German football continued to be organized in regional championships, with the winners facing each other for the ultimate prize. From 1945 to 1963 Kaiserslautern won the South West first league eleven times and won the German Championship two times, in 1951 and 1953. One year after their second championship two of the Walter brothers, Fritz and Ottmar would also become World Cup winners with Germany in Bern.
The strong performances and the club’s heritage saw them gain a place in the inaugural Bundesliga season. Their regional dominance experienced in the 1950s could not be replicated on a national level until the 1990s. Two DFB-Pokal victories in 1990 and 1996 and two league titles in 1990–91 and 1997–98 were soured by the team losing their Bundesliga status in 1995-96.
As the more keen-eyed amongst you have spotted, the second Bundesliga title of the team came in the season they were promoted back to the top flight, a feat you rarely see in football, especially in modern times. On the European stage, the team reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League once and the semifinals of the UEFA Cup twice during this time.
Big-name players graced the Fritz Walter stadium during those years, most notably Youri Djorkaeff. During the early 2000s, some of those big names proved to be flops, which saw Kaiserslautern’s on-pitch performances decline. Off the pitch. The club’s leadership was mired in scandal and the debts were piling up. Three years were spent battling relegation, until, at the end of the 2005-06 season the inevitable came. During this dark time, the club’s arguably best product, Miroslav Klose, made his debut for the club.
The relegation galvanized the fans and one thousand new members joined the fan base in the first two months of the club’s time in the second league. Another fairytale promotion and title win was not on the cards, however. After four years of second-tier football, Kaiserslautern won the Zweite Bundesliga at the end of the 2009-10 season and finished a respectable seventh the next season.
The second season syndrome would hit them hard in the 2011-12 campaign, FCK getting relegated with a -30 goal difference and only 23 points. Back in the second league, the team challenged for promotion for the next three years, without success. The next three years after that saw a decline in performances culminating in another relegation in 2018, which sent shockwaves through German football.
A solidarity payment from the German FA was arranged for the two teams relegated to the third league that year, amounting to 600.000 Euros. Even with that amount, financial trouble would follow the team for the first three years of their third league status. Last-minute talks with Luxembourgian property developer Flavio Becca secured a loan from his company, which enabled the club to pay for their license.
Last season, Kaiserslautern broke their mid-table status and managed to finish third, gaining a spot in the promotion playoffs. Their rivals, Dynamo Dresden, who finished sixteenth in the Zweite Bundesliga, were dispatched 2-0 on aggregate.
The upwards trajectory has continued this season, under newly appointed Dirk Schuster. Top performers Phillip Klement and Erik Durm (yes, that Erik Durm) joined in the summer, linking up with current top scorer Terrence Boyd and defensive stalwart Boris Tomiak. The team sits 5th after 20 games so far and maybe the Bundesliga will get their Red Devils back before too long.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sandra Behne / Bongarts