For four long years between 2006 and 2010, Kaiserslautern were languishing in the German second division, even almost dropping into the third tier in 2008 but for a final-day rescue act which saved die Roten Teufel (the Red Devils) from arguably the lowest point in their 110-year history.
However, since former Germany international and UEFA EURO 1996 winner Stefan Kuntz took over as chairman in April 2008, the four-time German champions have been steadily on the rise. After spending two further campaigns in the second division, FCK were promoted to the Bundesliga at the end of last season and have since impressed with their exuberant style of play.
"The club were in crisis and had gone through a lot of ups and downs, but it survived and began to rebuild with a new squad. It was always clear that this club was going somewhere because it went about its business in a professional manner," said co-captain Srdjan Lakic on his 2008 arrival at the Betzenberg, the hill upon which Lautern's intimidating Fritz Walter Stadion proudly stands.
Successful top-flight return
The club has certainly gone through an incredible transformation since Lakic first joined and, following the signing of young coach Marco Kurz in summer 2009, FCK crowned a season of all-round improvement with the second-division title and subsequent promotion to the top flight.
Kurz's charges quickly adapted to life in the Bundesliga, and currently rank in 12th spot after 14 matches and last weekend's 5-0 thrashing of UEFA Champions League participants Schalke. Already six points clear of the division’s bottom two, much of Lautern’s success is down to one of the strongest attacks in the German top tier. What is more, over half of their 25 league strikes so far have come courtesy of the club's Croatian trio: striker Lakic and midfield men Ivo Ilicevic and Stiven Rivic.
“I'm delighted with the goals I've scored, but I've been working hard and I'm always looking to improve,” said Lakic, currently third in the Bundesliga top scorers' chart with nine goals. “The goals are simply a result of that. If I can stay fit and healthy, I know I belong at this level. I want to maintain my current level of form, maybe even improve upon it.”
Ilicevic in the spotlight
Lakic's compatriot Ilicevic, initially signed on loan from Bochum in July 2009 but now a permanent member of the squad, has also surprised fans and experts across Germany with five goals and five assists this term. “The coach has worked with me a lot and I feel the support of the club, the coaches, the players and especially the fans. I know I still have plenty of room for improvement and I need to be more consistent, but I'm working hard on that and I am making progress,” the 24-year-old told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
And though new signing Rivic missed much of the early part of the season owing to illness and injury, Lautern's third Croatian has been a fixture in Kurz's starting line up since his comeback on Matchday 12. “When I walked out in front of almost 50,000 people for my debut against Stuttgart, the atmosphere was incredible. The fans are going to be a huge help as we bid to avoid relegation this year,” said the former Croatia U-21 international.
Bilic taking note
The trio's excellent performances have not gone unnoticed by Croatian national coach Slaven Bilic. Ilicevic and Lakic have already had a taste of senior international football, while Rivic is also tipped to pull on the red-and-white chequered shirt before long. Still the 25-year-old is keeping his feet firmly on the ground: "I'm not thinking about that at the moment. I have to prove myself with FCK first, everything else will come naturally."
Lakic, on the other hand, cannot wait to make his international debut having been called up to the squad in mid-November. "I knew that if I kept on performing well and scoring in the Bundesliga then it would happen one day. I really enjoyed being part of the squad against Malta, even if I didn't get to make an appearance. I'll be working as hard as I can to get back in the frame," the 6’1” striker told FIFA.com.
Ilicevic, for his part, has already made that step. He made his debut for the Vatreni in a friendly match against Norway on 12 October, having previously been called into the squad for 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers against Ukraine and Andorra in September 2008.
“Of course every player dreams of playing for their country, but your club has to take priority,” said the German-born midfielder. “You can only recommend yourself for the national team with good domestic performances.”
Though his thoughts remain focused on FCK for the time being, the 24-year-old could not hide his desire to represent his homeland in Poland/Ukraine in two years' time: “We want to qualify for EURO 2012 and at the moment we're on the right track. Playing in a tournament like that would be a dream come true.”
Ilicevic also paid tribute to his Croatian club colleagues Lakic and Rivic, who he believes will be a firm part of the national set-up sooner rather than later: “Both of them are great players. I've learned a lot from them and I have a lot of respect for them both. They're very important to FCK and I'm sure they will be for the national team too before long.”
And if the Croatian triumvirate can continue to combine as well as they have been in the Kaiserslautern attack this season, surely national coach Bilic will have little choice but to reunite the trio on the international stage?