Football is about winning trophies. Whether you are a player, a coach, or a club, silverware is what matters, and it is no coincidence that the clubs with the most trophies are also often the most famous.
- FC Kaiserslautern are certainly a club that fall into this category. The Red Devils* have celebrated four German Championship triumphs as well as two DFB Cup victories in their more than 100-year history. Yet theirs is a special case, since it is not just the actual number of honours that makes *Lautern stand out. In a far stronger sense it is the countless number of anecdotes and stories associated with club from the western German Republic.
These are stories for which the script could only have been written by football, as the old adage goes, and Kaiserslautern boast a veritable treasure trove of them.
Birth of an institution
The early years of the Rheinland-Pfalz outfit were by no means uneventful. Established on 2 June 1900 by 22 local young men as FC Kaiserslautern, the club merged with FC Palatia and FC Bavaria just seven years later. This was the prelude to their first name-change to FV Kaiserslautern on 1 March 1909.
It was not until 23 years later that FV adopted the name it bears today, and the rise of a legendary football club began. On the pitch, Lautern went under the radar of German football for half a century, and it was only with the emergence of Fritz Walter in the 1940s that the club was thrust into the limelight.
A schoolboy once described Fritz Walter as ‘the founding father of Kaiserslautern.’ To be sure, the city in the Rheinland-Palatinate existed long before Fritz Walter drew the world’s gaze to it. However, it is widely agreed that the footballing genius played a large part in ensuring the name of his hometown would gain worldwide prominence.
The making of a legend
In 1951 and 1953, Walter, by this time honorary captain of the German national team, helped bring the national championship to Kaiserslautern, assisted by the likes of Werner Liebrich, Werner Kohlmeyer, Horst Eckel and his own brother Ottmar.
They were successes that preceded the famous ‘Miracle of Bern’ a year later in 1954, when Germany lifted the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time. By this point, there was not a football fan to be found who was unfamiliar with the name 1. FC Kaiserslautern.
It was little wonder that Lautern were chosen as one of the founding clubs of the Bundesliga in 1963, nor that they played in every top-flight season until 1996.
And while those intervening three decades were a barren time for the club in terms of trophies, the legendary Betzenberg – the club’s home – played host to some stunning spectacles during that period. In October 1973, Kaiserslautern overturned a 4-1 deficit inside half an hour to eventually rout Bayern Munich 7-4, and more memorable encounters have followed to this day.
At the beginning of the 1970s came another landmark moment for the club. After years of struggle in the lower reaches of the table and some nail-biting relegation clashes, European qualification was finally secured for the first time. A 5-0 victory over Real Madrid on 17 March 1982 in the quarter-final second-leg of the UEFA Cup, which sent the team through to the last four, is an unforgettable piece of FCK folklore. That semi-final appearance remains to this day the club’s greatest success on the European stage.
*Die Pfälzer *matched that feat with a run to the semi-finals of the 2001 edition, two years after advancing to the last eight of the UEFA Champions League.
That memorable participation in Europe’s premier club competition was made possible by one of their most historic Bundesliga campaigns. After relegation in 1996, FCK were back in the top flight just a year later, and ready to rewrite the history books. A team including 1990 FIFA World Cup winner Andreas Brehme, Ciriaco Sforza and a young Michael Ballack strode to the league championship in 1998, becoming the first newly-promoted side to win the Bundesliga.
“It’s the greatest performance German football has ever witnessed,” raved Germany’s 1974 FIFA World winner Gunter Netzer at the time. The erstwhile German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Kaiserslautern fan since his schooldays, has famously professed his loyalty, saying, “FCK is the club I have followed since I was a kid.” And former club captain Stefan Kuntz is on the record as saying, “I’ll live and die for this club.”
Various national team stars have been discovered at Kaiserslautern, including Miroslav Klose, who in September 2013 equalled Germany’s all-time goalscoring record of 68 goals, jointly held with the legendary Gerd Muller. “Kaiserslautern is and always has been a club close to my heart,” said the 2002 FIFA World Cup runner-up.
A host of respected coaches have also plied their trade at die Pfälzer, among them Otto Rehhagel, Karl-Heinz Feldkamp and Eric Gerets.
It may now be some years since the club with the ninth-highest points total in Bundesliga history last lifted a trophy, but even though they continue to flit between the top two divisions, Kaiserslautern and their stadium have lost none of their legendary status. Indeed, there are few places where, as well as trophies, so much football history has been written.
Since 1920, FCK have played their home games at the Betzenberg* *Stadium, renamed the Fritz Walter Stadium in 1985, and in the intervening years it has become more than just a ground. The stadium is still colloquially referred to as the Betzenberg and is known far and wide outside Germany, having become a landmark not just of the city but also the surrounding area.