The 2012/13 campaign is the 50th season in the history of the modern German Bundesliga, with Bayern Munich way out in front of the rest on 21 championship titles to date.
In all likelihood, the men from Munich will continue to add to their total in the years to come, but there is one record the Bavarians can never capture, and it could even plausibly be described as the most meaningful title of them all.
As in so many aspects of life, being first is always special – your first car, first child, first computer or first apartment of your own. In the German footballing example, the first-ever Bundesliga title went to FC Cologne, who thereby etched their name into the history books for ever. However, it was impossible to predict at the time what would happen over the next half century, in which the Rhineland club collected further trophies and scored plenty of goals, but have also shed tears in abundance.
Birth of an institution
Cologne has always been a football-crazy city, spawning a host of district-based clubs from the earliest years of the organised game in the late 19th century. However, the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth" meant none of the pioneers achieved major success, a situation Koelner Ballspiel-Club (KBC) and Spielvereinigung Suelz resolved to change by merging on 13 February 1948 to form 1. FC Köln, or FC Cologne in English.
The choice of emblem and colours for the new club illustrated great civic pride and identification with the city. One side of the badge depicts the city’s world-famous landmark, Cologne Cathedral. The other side features the colours red and white, the official municipal livery.
The confidence which prompted the founders to style themselves the best club in the city was by and large confirmed in the years to come. Just 12 months after coming into existence, the fledgling club under president Franz Kremer were promoted to the Oberliga West, the regional top flight and the highest possible level at the time, prior to the introduction of the national Bundesliga in 1963. Cologne went on to claim the Oberliga title no fewer than five times.
The making of a legend
In 1960, 1962 and 1963, the club commonly referred to simply and sparsely as ‘FC’ reached the final of the German championship, claiming the national crown once in 1962.
The foundation of the Bundesliga the following year was the vehicle for Cologne to become a marquee club in German football. Aside from winning the inaugural title, they gained valuable overseas experience with a run to the quarter-finals of the European Champions’ Club Cup.
Innovation and forward thinking was also an attribute of the club at the time. They were the first team in Germany to establish the position of a specialist goalkeeping coach, and the training facility was one of the most modern of its sort.
Despite the first-class environment and a billing as contenders for the championship year after year, the next trophy did not arrive until 1968 with a triumph in the German cup. But the drought was otherwise to prove a long one and included frequent brushes with relegation, before legendary boss Hennes Weisweiler arrived for a third spell at the helm in the mid-1970s.
Cologne won the cup again in 1977, and recorded a famous domestic double the following year. The cup returned to the Rhineland in 1983, but no other major trophy has made its way to the silverware cabinet since then. Nevertheless, Cologne’s history is peppered with moments of stunning success, especially on the European stage.
FC made it all the way to the European Cup semi-finals in 1979 where they were defeated by English champions Nottingham Forest, and just a few months later, they became the first German team to win a European tie against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, a remarkable 4-0 triumph which saw Cologne through to the UEFA Cup semi-finals. They went one better in 1986 and reached the final of the same competition, where Real Madrid proved just too good.
Germany’s triumph in the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ more or less marked the start of a severe downturn in Cologne’s fortunes. Star man Thomas Hassler was sold to Juventus for the then record sum of 14 million Deutschmarks (approximately €7 million), and although they made the 1991 cup final, they have never come close again.
In 1998, the Bundesliga founder members were relegated from the top flight for the first time, casting a shadow over the 50th anniversary celebrations. Cologne have earned the unwanted reputation since then as an “elevator club”, oscillating between the top two divisions without ever managing to re-establish their elite credentials.
More than just a club
The total of three championships and four cup triumphs means Cologne are not necessarily among the most successful clubs in Germany. But FC are more than just a club. Their lively history is packed with big personalities, both players and coaches, and a unique fan base.
Former Germany keepers Harald ‘Toni’ Schumacher and Bodo Illgner were both youth products, while FIFA World Cup winner Wolfgang Overath filled the office of club president from 2004 to 2011. The most famous son in recent times is Lukas Podolski, who came up through the ranks before spending three seasons with Bayern Munich, but returned as a celebrated prodigal son in 2009. The playing staff has also included world-renowned footballers such as Dieter Müller and Hans Schaefer, as Cologne comfortably remain within the circle of big clubs in their home country.
The story behind the club mascot, a billy goat who appears prominently in the modernised version of the emblem, could well be unique in world football. The goat bears the name Hennes, after legendary player, player-manager and coach Hennes Weisweiler, and the original beast was said to have been given to the club in 1950 as a joke at a rowdy pre-lent Carnival gathering.
But the joke evolved into a cult and an object of adoration. The club are nicknamed the Billy Goats nowadays, and the current mascot Hennes VIII is paraded at the stadium before every home game.
Thanks to the extraordinary collection of anecdotes, stars and characters, we can certainly conclude FC Cologne is more than just a club. Since 2004, fans and interested visitors have experienced the multifaceted history of the club for themselves in a museum at the stadium.
FC Cologne and its predecessor clubs have played in the same place since 1923, but in two different stadiums. The Muengersdorf Stadium, slated for renovation in 1974 in time for the FIFA World Cup but not completed until a year later, was torn down to make way for the state-of-the-art RheinEnergieStadion in 2004. The stadium was a venue for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.