Two years ago, Hamburger SV came within seconds of a very first relegation from the Bundesliga. The Dinosaur, the only club to contest each and every Bundesliga campaign since its inception in 1963, were all but down.
A 91st-minute equaliser from Chilean international midfielder Marcelo Díaz succeeded in halting the 1983 European Cup winners from sliding ignominiously into the 2. Bundesliga. Whereas the Díaz strike kept them in the game, it was Nicolai Müller who scored the goal which maintained Hamburg’s unblemished top-flight status for the following season.
Two years on, Hamburg narrowly avoided being drawn into another promotion/relegation playoff battle again, while the club whose heart they broke in such dramatic fashion at the end of the 2014/15 season, Karlsruher SC, had befallen relegation to the 3. Liga.
It can be startling how the bottom can fall out of a football club when they suffer such a devastating near miss on their perceived promised land. Karlsruher were so close to a Bundesliga return; they could almost touch it, almost smell it. By the finest of margins, football clubs can be deflected from an upward trajectory to a downward spiral.
Karlsruher were one of the original line-up of teams for the inaugural Bundesliga campaign. In what was at times a controversial selection process, a relatively modest list of on-pitch achievements hadn’t hindered their claim to one of the sixteen berths for the 1963 launch of the new national West German football league.
While clubs such as Kickers Offenbach and Alemannia Aachen felt undeniably hard done by on the back of reasonably recent deeds done, and a pre-stratospheric Bayern Munich were discounted due to the reluctance of the league in admitting more than one club from the same city, Karlsruher made use of the benefits of their rise to prominence in the mid-to-late 1950s, and their prime geographical location, to secure their invite to the formation of the Bundesliga.
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Sat within the second largest city in the state of Baden-Württemberg, close to the French-German border, a city where the seat of the two highest courts of Germany can be found, Karlsruher were hand-picked to be one of the 16 seats of West German footballing power.
Karlsruher could, however, point to more than just an attractive location. As Karlsruher Fussball Club Phönix, they won the German football championship in 1909, defeating the defending champions – and early German footballing powerhouse – Viktoria 89 Berlin 4-2 in the championship final.
A series of amalgamations and mergers eventually led to the 1952 variation of the club, which is the one that remains in existence today. The repackaging of the club as Karlsruher SC marked a distinct upturn in fortunes, after a vaguely unremarkable four decades beyond that solitary title success.
The 1950s proved to be a boom time for Karlsruher, as they enjoyed a pronounced surge from the middle of the decade, a surge which carried the club into the early days of the 1960s. On three occasions they were crowned champions of the Oberliga Sud, each time going on to the national championships. In 1955, under the guidance of Adolf Patek, Karlsruher won the Pokal, defeating the mighty Schalke 3-2 in an absorbing final which went one way and then the other. A year later, they retained the cup, this time beating Hamburg in a belated final which didn’t take place until early August, by which time Patek, having led them to the final, had departed the club for Eintracht Frankfurt, to be replaced by Ludwig Janda.
Six weeks prior to their second Pokal success, Karlsruher reached the national championship final, where they faced Borussia Dortmund. At a packed Olympiastadion in Berlin, Karlsruher drew first blood, before Der BVB swamped their opponents to take the title emphatically. Despite the loss, high achievement in a relatively modest environment only served to make Patek an enviable commodity.
Patek would go on to build the foundations of the Frankfurt side which would go on to win the national championship and contest the iconic 1960 European Cup final against Real Madrid at Hampden Park.
Karlsruher remained competitive in the following seasons, coming close to further championship finals in 1958 and 1960, but regressed during the last three years of the Oberliga system, before the dawning of the Bundesliga. It had been a disappointing development, as when Janda stood aside in the summer of 1959, Karlsruher had pulled off a sizeable coup in securing the appointment of the Schalke championship winning coach Eduard Frühwirth.
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Having come so close to the 1960 championship final, it was felt that Karlsruher were on the cusp of something special, but having narrowly missed out on the championship playoffs in 1960/61, they suffered a pronounced dip the following season, only managing to finish in ninth position regionally. Frühwirth paid the price and was replaced with Kurt Sommerlatt, the man who would eventually lead them into the dawning of the Bundesliga.
In 1962/63, the very last season before the launch of the new national league, Karlsruher laboured to a fifth-place finish in the Oberliga Süd. An improvement on the disastrous previous campaign, but one which still left them outside the positions for a guaranteed place in the Bundesliga. It’s a mark of how unfortunate Bayern Munich were that they finished two positions and six points better off than Karlsruher, even managing five wins more, yet found the Bundesliga door slammed shut in their face, while Karlsruher were ushered in.
Despite the initial boost of receiving a Bundesliga invite, Karlsruher struggled from the very beginning of the new national league, spared relegation in 1965 only due to a league expansion from 16 to 18 teams for the 1965/66 season. After five seasons of toil, during which they changed their coach six times, they finally submitted to gravity at the end of the 1967/68 campaign, dropping into the Regionalliga after a wretched season when they were led by no fewer than four different coaches.
Karlsruher soon stabilised, however, winning the Regionalliga Süd at the first attempt but falling short in the end-of-season playoffs. They came desperately close to winning promotion back to the Bundesliga the following season.
After six seasons of frustration, during which they were largely consistent in the week-to-week regional league format, only to see promotion hopes unravel in the playoffs, Karlsruher embraced the 1974/75 birth of the 2. Bundesliga. Split into two divisions – north and south – rather than the unwieldy five divisions of the old Regionalliga system, it now meant that winning your respective league offered automatic promotion to the Bundesliga.
In a closely contested title race, Karlsruher clinched the inaugural 2. Bundesliga Süd by just two points, claiming with it a return to the top flight after a seven-year exile, thanks to the meticulous planning of Karl-Heinz Rühl, a man with no previous coaching experience before landing the job in 1973.
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Having successfully kept Karlsruher up in 1975/76, Rühl was unable to repeat the feat a year later, as the club was relegated once more, having spent much of the season outside the drop zone. Rühl departed for pastures new, yet it was also with a degree of unfinished business at the Wildparkstadion.
Karlsruher limped their way toward the end of the decade, yet as the 1980s arrived, so did brighter days. Promotion back to the Bundesliga was obtained in 1979/80, defeating Rot-Weiss Essen in a promotion playoff, and they marked their return to the big time with a 10th-place finish, at the time their highest-ever placing in the Bundesliga era.
Succumbing to relegation again in 1983, Karlsruher bounced straight back up in emphatic fashion a year later. In danger of becoming a yo-yo team, and unable to plug the gaps in a badly leaking defence, they befell the drop again in 1985. Within two years they were back for another go. This time, however, under Winfried Schäfer, the new Karlsruher were propelling the most positive and determined self-image since their 1950s heydey.
Avoiding the previous pitfalls of their recent yo-yo club status, upon their initial return to the Bundesliga, and then going on to navigate a way beyond the difficulties of second season syndrome, Karlsruher entered the 1990s on a solid foundation, cultivating themselves a comfortable mid-table niche. Schäfer’s eye for detail and his ability to create a unified side, which was mostly populated by workmanlike players, coupled with Rühl’s return to the club as a director shortly before the appointment of Schäfer in 1986, proved a potent concoction at Karlsruher.
The emergence of Oliver Kahn, Jens Nowotny and Mehmet Scholl through the Karlsruher youth system couldn’t have come at a better time, and even when Scholl was sold on to Bayern Munich in the summer of 1992, the club didn’t break its stride, going on to finish sixth in the 1992/93 season, clinching European qualification for the very first time.
With the addition of the Russian international Sergei Kiriakov and the up and coming Slaven Bilić, Karlsruher took to Europe like a duck to water. Breezing past PSV Eindhoven, they dismantled Valencia in the second round, winning the second leg by an astonishing 7-0 scoreline. Bordeaux and Zinedine Zidane were swept aside next, before Boavista were seen off in the quarter-finals.
In the semi-final, Schäfer’s side found themselves up against Austria Salzburg, managing to avoid the giants of Internazionale and their compatriots Cagliari in the draw. When Karlsruher exited Vienna with a goalless draw after the first leg, the impossible dream of reaching a major European final was in the palm of their hands. In the second leg, however, the Germans allowed the golden opportunity to slip from their fingers. Conceding an early goal to the unlikely source of Wolfgang Feiersinger, Rainer Krieg levelled the scores with plenty of time on the clock. Schäfer and his side were, however, frustrated in their attempts to procure the winning goal, eventually losing out on the away goals rule.
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It was a bitter disappointment, but not an initially mortal blow. Like Scholl before him, Kahn was sold to Bayern, and the funds allowed a degree of regeneration. Karlsruher continued to collect top half finishes in the Bundesliga over the following seasons, gaining entry into Europe again via the Intertoto Cup.
In 1996, the club returned to the final of the Pokal. Forty years on from their back-to-back domestic cup successes, it was Kaiserslautern who stood in their way, just one week on from their stunning Bundesliga relegation. Strengthened as Karlsruher were by the signings of Thomas Haßler, Thorsten Fink and Michael Tarnat, a demoralised Kaiserslautern should have been there for the taking. However, it was the Red Devils who prevailed, despite the sending off of their captain Andreas Brehme. Just as with the 1994 UEFA Cup, the 1996 Pokal was a massive missed opportunity to emboss a golden period in Karlsruher history with a piece of substantial silverware.
Still, Karlsruher bounced back to finish sixth in 1996/97, clinching more UEFA Cup football, but the following season marked the end of the dream. Despite a run to the last-16 in Europe, Schäfer’s side struggled domestically. When Karlsruher found themselves in the relegation places in late-March, their metronomic coach stepped down after almost 12 years at the helm.
Under Jörg Berger there was so very nearly a great escape. Having clawed their way out of the bottom three with one game to go, Karlsruher were beaten at Hansa Rostock on the final day, allowing Borussia Mönchengladbach the chance to leapfrog them to safety, which they duly did. The loss of their Bundesliga status, and that of Schäfer, took the wind out of Karlsruher’s sails. By 2000 they had slipped down to the third tier for the first time in their history, although they managed to ensure it was only for a one-season stay.
After several seasons treading water in the 2. Bundesliga, Karlsruher did rise again in 2006/07, winning promotion somewhat unexpectedly under Edmund Becker. In the first half of the 2007/08 season, Becker had Karlsruher flying high once more, at one point sat in second position and threatening an outlandish shot at the title itself, before fading away into mid-table respectability.
Sadly, they plummeted again during 2008/09. A bright start was soon undone by an autumn capitulation, and although they stayed in the fight for survival to the very end, relegation came calling once more. By 2012 they had dropped to the recently formed 3. Liga. Just as with their previous flirtation with the German third tier, Karlsruher made it a one-season visit, and came back strongly, culminating in that heartbreaking night against HSV in 2015, when they were a few short seconds away from another return to the Bundesliga.
Now the Bundesliga yet again seems light years away for Karlsruher, but they’ve shown many times over that they are a football club whose very essence is infused by an indefatigable propensity to fight back from the furthest reaches. Whether they can climb from the third tier as swiftly as they have upon their other visits or not, you wouldn’t back against them bouncing onto another assault on a return to the top flight, as soon as they have landed in the 2. Bundesliga again.