Stars, success and sell-out crowds. Until recently, this was what fans of Newcastle United, Kaiserslautern and Vasco da Gama had come to take for granted. As they sang the praises of famous names such as Shearer, Klose and Romario, few of these supporters would have suspected that a spell in domestic wilderness was just around the corner. Yet all it took was one disastrous season for this trio of footballing giants to slip into their respective lower divisions, and it was there – out of the limelight - that the process of rebuilding began.
Now, all three – and several more big names – are preparing to return to the big time. In Vasco’s case, their first season back in the top flight has already begun, with yesterday’s 0-0 draw with Palmeiras earning the Rio outfit their first point of the fledgling Brasileirão season. One of Brazil’s traditional titans, Vasco ended the last century as a genuine world power, famously eliminating Manchester United from the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000, having been crowned South American champions two years earlier. However, within eight years of coming within a penalty shootout of conquering the world, O Gigante da Colina were plummeting to Serie B for the first time.
A surprise 18th-place finish in the 2008 Brasileirão sealed their fate, although it was to Vasco’s credit that they refused to dwell on this crushing disappointment. Inspired by the likes of Elton and Carlos Alberto, their captain and star player, they ensured their stay in the second tier was brief with a title-winning campaign during which their huge potential was reinforced when a crowd of 81,904 – an all-time Serie B record – watched the club clinch promotion back to the top flight.
Newcastle United are another fallen giant whose fans played a key role in roaring them back to the top flight. In the season just past, the famously passionate Toon Army ensured an average attendance of 42,983, exceeding all but four Premier League clubs – with champions Chelsea among those left in the shade. A home record of 18 wins, five draws and not a single defeat says everything for the impact of such backing, although the Magpies were also indebted to some outstanding individual performers – most notably the Championship’s player of the season, Kevin Nolan – for their return to the big time. "We’re back where we belong," said Nolan. "This club doesn’t belong in this division.”
West Bromwich Albion, five-time winners of the FA Cup, are also looking forward to a return to the Premier League under Robert Di Matteo, while Cardiff City will become the first Welsh club to compete in the Premier League if they beat Blackpool in Saturday’s play-off final.
Like England, Germany is also preparing to welcome back a couple of familiar names into its top division after a 2. Bundesliga season dominated by two cult clubs: Kaiserslautern and St Pauli. The former, who as recently as 1999 were competing in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League after topping the Bundesliga the season before, go up as champions, having led the table from as early as the seventh round of fixtures.
As with their English counterparts, fans of this promoted German duo have proved to be extraordinarily loyal, and perhaps Bayern Munich and Co should beware. After all, the last time Kaiserslautern went down – after 32 straight seasons in the top flight – they bounced back immediately and, with Otto Rehhagel at the helm, went on to win the title in their first season back in the Bundesliga.
For French side Brest, this kind of miraculous feat is the last thing on their minds. After two decades flitting between their nation’s second, third and fourth tiers, simply being back in Ligue 1 is reason enough to celebrate for the Brittany outfit. After finishing second to Ligue 2 champions Caen, a team famous for developing stars names such as Claude Makelele, Paul Le Guen, David Ginola, Julio Cesar and Franck Ribery are preparing to return to the arena in which, during the 1980s, they regularly battled for supremacy with the likes of Marseille and Bordeaux.
Another club looking to recapture former glories are Liaoning Hunyong. The Jinzhou outfit won seven league championships in a nine-year spell between 1985 and 1993, and remain the only Chinese side to have won a continental title by virtue of their Asian Club Championship triumph 1989. Inconsistency on the field and financial problems off it have led to spells out of the top flight in recent years, but topping the second tier last season means that the ‘Liaoning Tiger’ is now ready to roar once again in the Super League.
Elsewhere, the Segunda Division season is reaching a conclusion in Spain with another former national champion, Real Sociedad, leading the charge back to the top flight. Levante are also on course to go up, although Real Betis and Celta Vigo – regular European participants during the past decade – look set for another season in purgatory. Torino, meanwhile, face going through the Serie B play-offs to determine whether they can join Lecce and Brescia in returning to Serie A.
Finally, in Argentina, Olimpo de Bahia Blanca and Quilmes are on the way up, but most attention is devoted to some major outfits in danger of going down. In the complicated Argentinian system that consigns teams with the worst three-year averages to relegation, Gimnasia, Rosario Central and Racing Club - one of the nation's 'big five' - have all been battling to avoid the drop. Most remarkably of all, River Plate find themselves in the position of needing an outstanding campaign next season to avoid the unthinkable ignominy of a spell in Nacional B.
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