The decline of Kaiserslautern, the German giants who helped shape the national football scene

The decline of Kaiserslautern, the German giants who helped shape the national football scene

Twenty-one years since winning the Bundesliga, 20 years since reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, and 18 years since Alavés denied them the chance to face Liverpool in a UEFA Cup final, Kaiserslautern were able to celebrate a little again at the end of last season.

Bayern Munich provided the opposition, just as they had during the dramatic 1997/98 Bundesliga title race. There was a sellout crowd at the historic Fritz Walter Stadium, witnessing an end-of-season friendly with a jaded Bayern, who completed a German double two days previously. That didn’t matter, as the most important action of the evening was taking place off the pitch – in the inbox of Michael Klatt, the club’s head of finances.

At some point during the 1-1 draw, he saw a message pop up that he had been anxiously hoping to receive for months – a message from the DFB’s headquarters in Frankfurt that the four-time German champions would get a license to play in the third tier next season. A club with one of the richest histories in the land could breathe a sigh of relief that they would again be allowed to visit the lesser lights of Meppen and Sonnenhof Großaspach. 

The German licensing system for clubs is strict and demands financial probity. A secure financial footing is something that Kaiserslautern have seemingly always been striving for in the past 20 years but never managed to find. Ironically, it was an attempt to compete with Bayern at a time their rivals were known as “FC Hollywood” that first sent Kaiserslautern on the slippery slope to a long and steady decline.

While the Munich club have gone from strength-to-strength since, Kaiserslautern are the club that feel like a long-running soap opera with turmoil on the pitch and near-constant backroom conflict. Mistake after mistake, mismanagement and misfortune have left the club that has a special place in football history – having provided five players in the team who won West Germany’s first World Cup in 1954 – well and truly on the brink.

Frederik Paulus, a journalist who also writes for the Der Betze Brennt, a Kaiserslautern club blog, says: “It feels like there is a curse. The club has huge financial problems that could only be solved if we are back in the second tier or ideally the top flight, but we aren’t and we are trapped in a vicious circle. It’s like the club is dying bit by bit.”

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The star signings of Youri Djorkaeff and Mario Basler in 1999 were symbolic of the downturn in fortunes that would follow. Within a couple of years, Djorkaeff was being left on the substitutes’ bench for refusing to learn German. Basler, who is remembered as much for his smoking and drinking as for his undeniable footballing talent, provoked one of the first of a steady stream of questions about the club’s finances when it was revealed he was paid a secretive five million Deutschmark signing-on fee that Kaiserslautern tried to hide on their books as a loan.

A reformist club boss, René Jaeggi, promised to get to the bottom of the issue by bringing in auditors, who duly uncovered widespread tax evasion. Players had been paid via foreign bank accounts, and a €9m fine from the German tax office was added to the club’s debts, which had mounted to around €50m by 2003.

Several backroom supremos with seemingly honourable intentions to turn the club’s fortunes around have come and gone over the fruitless decades since. None have succeeded and glory on the pitch has remained elusive. Relegation from the top flight in 2005/06 was a shock for a club that had previously only ever spent one season outside the Bundesliga, but aside from a fleeting two-year return between 2010 and 2012, they have remained in the lower leagues since. Indeed, current CEO Patrick Banf gave a sombre assessment after taking over in 2016: “We’ve checked all the accounts and there is no money there. This club has lived like a Bundesliga side for the past ten years in all regards but very rarely played like a Bundesliga club.”

Even things that were supposed to lift the mood of the club, like hosting a few matches at the 2006 World Cup, ended up turning against them. The local council owns the stadium that thrones over the pretty and modestly sized city (with a population just under 100,000) from the Betzenberg hill. They bought it from the club for €58m in 2003 in an effort to help them get out of debt.

In a move that has to be filed under ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’, it was developed into a 50,000-seater stadium, which was wonderful for the World Cup, but proved excessive for the German second tier, even for a team with such loyal support. The club contributed over €20m to the expansion, which altogether ran significantly over its initial budget. An annual rent of €3.2m was demanded from the club by the council, whose own finances were getting strained by the stadium – and this would prove to be an added financial burden away from the riches of the top flight. 

Landing a seventh-place finish in the club’s first season back in the Bundesliga in 2010/11 proved another wasted opportunity. When they found themselves dragged into a relegation battle halfway through the following campaign, they headed to the transfer market in January 2012, and the new signings seemed to disrupt the spirit left in the squad. It left them bottom of the table with a squad featuring future internationals Kevin Trapp, Willi Orban, Sandro Wagner and Nicolai Jørgensen.

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That period came under former club legend Stefan Kuntz as CEO. He was initially well received as a moderniser, but when he stepped down in 2016, Kaiserslautern were in as much financial disarray as when he started. One of Kuntz’s cornerstone ideas to help tidy the finances over had been to borrow money from the fans in 2012 in a special issue of fan bonds. Some €6.5m was raised, which the club promised to invest mostly in its academy and pay back in 2019, when everyone hoped the team might be doing better. Questions were raised about just how much actually went into youth development, and by the time 2019 came around, Kaiserslautern’s on-field position was worse than ever.

Veteran Turkish midfielder Halil Altintop couldn’t prevent an experienced Kaiserslautern side finishing bottom of the 2. Bundesliga table in 2017/18. Of the 31-man squad that suffered relegation, only five players would remain at the club the following season, including the third-choice goalkeeper and a bit-part midfielder. The fans made it clear they were staying around, though. Some 1,500 had travelled to see them relegated from the second tier at Bielefeld, with banners stating: “Wherever you go, we are coming with you. Love doesn’t recognise football divisions.”

Another 1,500 fans came to watch the club’s first pre-season training session ahead of life in the third tier. Their opening home match of the season, against fellow fallen giants 1860 Munich, attracted an attendance of 41,000 – the third largest ever recorded in the division. Kaiserslautern’s attendances remained the best in the league at over 21,000 on average. Paulus states: “[It feels like] The loyalty of the fans is the last thing left of the club. People come to matches and are annoyed, they criticise, but they still come as that is what a club like Kaiserslautern is made of.”

Kaiserslautern eventually finished ninth last season, a comfortable mid-table position but below expectations for a club desperate to escape the third tier. Paulus says the club embraced the idea of putting together a squad packed with young and hungry players, but overlooked some of the experience and physical presence required for the rough and tumble nature of third-tier football. Set pieces are an important source of goals at that level, but one statistic that summed up Kaiserslautern’s shortcomings is that they had more corners than any other team in the league – 199 – but scored just two goals. 

As has been the case far too often, the most dramatic action seemed to occur off the pitch. Yet again there was a big plan to rescue the club. A disincorporation, or spin-off, is a pretty dull technical corporate manoeuvre in most circumstances. In the context of German clubs and their restrictions on investment and structure, the idea of taking the team out of the more bureaucratic structure of the sports club to form a separate company is a big liberalisation and makes it much easier to attract outside investment. It is the path Bayern took in 2001 and played a major part in their superclub status.

Kaiserlautern’s leadership certainly thought it was a plan that ticked all the boxes for a club desperately in need of money. They released statements saying the move should allow them to attract €50m to €60m within five years. Banf said he was aiming for Kaiserslautern to be doing as well as Werder Bremen by that stage. The measure was approved last summer, and the club started a search for investors seemingly brimming with hope.

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As the season wound down, Kaiserslautern were still looking. Mikhail Ponomarev, the Russian club president of fellow third-tier side KFC Uerdingen, had been linked. Time was not on their side, and some €12m was needed to meet the licensing requirements to ensure Kaiserslautern could compete in 2019/20 without being automatically relegated to the amateur leagues. This included a €6.7m bill for repaying the money borrowed from fans in 2012.

The club turned to its fans again to raise over €3m from another set of bonds and a crowdlending initiative. Bayern kindly agreed to play their former foes in the end-of-season friendly, helping to raise a handy €750,000 by visiting the ground that is believed by many to be where the famous anti-Bayern chant, “Take the Bavarians’ lederhosen off!” was born. 

As the clock ticked down, Kaiserslautern eventually found a man to save them. Flavio Becca, a property millionaire from Luxembourg who has bankrolled Dudelange’s unlikely Europa League qualification, lent the final €2.6m needed to secure the license. He promised to invest €25m over the next five years – with only one condition, which duly turned the moment of relief and celebration into a summer of conflict and farce.

Two competing rescue options emerged in the past spring that deeply divided Kaiserslautern’s board. Michael Littig, who is also an influential figure in local circles of Germany’s governing CDU party, led the discussions with Ponomarev. He then veered towards a proposal from unidentified local investors who would supposedly cough up €250m to the club. This was approved in early May, and the club released a statement on their homepage saying that the offer from Becca – favoured by Klatt and Banf – had been turned down as a result.

Quattrex, a fund that had been financing the club, said a week later it was against the offer of the regional investors and would not lend the club any more money – thereby likely provoking insolvency – unless Becca’s offer was instead accepted. It subsequently was, despite strong opposition from Littig, who is totally against Becca’s proposal to take ownership of the Fritz Walter Stadium.

As an indication of the raw battle for power, Becca made his proposal contingent on Littig resigning. An anonymous club member than formally asked for Klatt and the other two board members who had voted for Becca to be suspended for accepting this condition.

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Paulus says there could be a political element to Becca’s feud with Littig. While the CDU are in charge in Berlin, Kaiserslautern is a city governed by the opposition SPD party, and Paulus says unconfirmed rumours have done the rounds that the local council may be interested in getting Becca to take on and develop abandoned publicly-owned buildings in addition to him taking stadium ownership.

What is for sure is that the dispute has split the fans into two camps. Paulus explains: “Fans are aware the club needs money to survive, but Littig had a role overseeing the club’s operations and was voted into that by the fans. Some fans want to turn down Becca’s money to keep the club’s integrity but others think the need for money is more important and favour Becca.”

The saga is testing Kaiserslautern’s identity and traditions to their core. For instance, Paulus says Die Roten Teufel fans have traditionally been strongly in favour of Germany’s 50+1 rule guaranteeing fan control of clubs. The management have sought to reassure fans that no investor could take a controlling influence, but the dire financial situation is starting to raise some questions. He adds that some Kaiserslautern fans are annoyed at having strictly followed the 50+1 rule and seen their club continually decline while others that are exempt – or creatively apply it – like Bayer Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig are enjoying life in the top flight.

Paulus says all the behind-the-scenes bickering has left Kaiserslautern fans feeling “annoyed and stressed”. “All the fighting at the top is draining the enthusiasm for a lot of fans, which is a huge shame. Friends who know you are a Kaiserslautern fan just ask you about investors or such instead of the actual football. It’s horrible.”

Despite no end in sight to Kaiserslautern’s troubles, there remain reasons for hope. Newly-promoted Union Berlin and Paderborn – who the season before last were in the third tier – have shown that it is possible to get to the Bundesliga these days on a modest budget. Paulus says the key to next season will be trying to convert the potential of the squad into enough quality to earn a promotion, and is reasonably confident they are close to finding the mix of young, ambitious players with the experience they need.

In the long-term, the fans could do worse than look for inspiration from the club’s past. With Kaiserslautern having played such a big part in the Miracle of Bern, West Germany’s surprise 1954 World Cup win that did so much to shape the nation as a major football power, Paulus says: “Kaiserslautern has already shown it’s a place where football miracles can happen, so perhaps we just need another miracle.”

By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham

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