The Slow, Painful Death of the Stuttgarter Kickers

In the idyllic suburb of Degerloch, surrounded by acres of woodland and hills, rests a piece of German football history. Sitting in the shadow of the nearby TV tower, the Waldau-Stadion, home to the once-great Stuttgarter Kickers, has stood the test of time for well over a century.

Germany’s oldest stadium has housed the Kickers for 115 years, but the glory days of yesteryear, when the likes of Bayern München and Hamburger SV came to visit, are merely a fading memory nowadays. The Kickers celebrated their 120th-anniversary last year, but in truth, there was little to be happy about; they had just kicked off their sophomore campaign in the amateur fifth tier, the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg.

When the Kickers were relegated to the Oberliga for the first time in club history at the end of the 17/18 season, fans and pundits alike predicted them to bounce back straight away – after all, they had played professionally in the 3. Liga just a few years prior. Since then, however, things have not gone to plan. Despite topping the table for much of the season, the Blues slipped down to second and had to battle it out with Bayern Alzenau and SV Röchlingen in a mini-league with promotion to the Regionalliga on the line. Since all three games ended in stalemate, Alzenau were promoted on account of having scored the most away goals. Heartbreak for the Kickers and they’ve been unable to get out of the mire ever since.

The writing had been on the wall for some time; the club’s star was fading fast, but even this sense of inevitability surely didn’t ease the pain of the supporters, who watched on helplessly as the club’s atrophy set in. 20 years ago, the Kickers were still in the 2. Bundesliga, a decade earlier, they were traveling up and down the country as a member of the first top-flight campaign after German reunification. Although always in the shadow of VfB, they were a worthy opponent for their more illustrious city rivals who won the league that year.

In many ways, the 91/92 season was indicative of what was to come. While VfB Stuttgart triumphed, the Kickers were relegated. These days, the two couldn’t be further apart. Newly-promoted VfB are flying high in the Bundesliga, whereas the Kickers look like they will miss out on promotion to the Regionalliga for the third year running.

As the smaller Stuttgart club, the Blues have always had a backs-against-the-wall, underdog mentality. They are the city’s family club; a close-knit community, playing in a stadium that holds just over ten thousand people. But that never stopped the Kickers from ruffling a few feathers. In 1987, they reached the final of the DFB-Pokal, squaring up with the mighty HSV. After taking a shock early lead, they were eventually overwhelmed by the former European champions, losing 3-1 in a packed Olympiastadion. The following season, they were promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in club history. One of the side’s best performers that year was Niels Schlotterbeck, the uncle of current Bundesliga players Keven and Nico.

Prior to Stuttgart’s promotion campaign, a certain Christian Streich left the club to join SC Freiburg in what was the start of one of German football’s biggest love affairs. A few years earlier, the Kickers gave someone by the name of Jürgen Klinsmann his first taste of professional football before he eventually headed across town to join VfB; in the 90s, Freddi Bobic followed down that same path.

From the top left clockwise: Schlotterbeck, Streich, Bobic, and Klinsmann (Kickersarchiv)

The Kickers’ stint in the top flight was short-lived; they finished 17th and went straight back down, but before long, they returned for round two. After a solid start, things looked promising for the Blues heading into matchday 12 of the 91/92 Bundesliga season where a monumental task lay before them – what they did on October 5, 1991, would go down in the annals of Kickers history. The minnow from the Southwest traveled east to face a Bayern side struggling to find its feet. They marched into the old Olympiastadion and gave Bayern a whooping for the ages.

The away side was already up by two goals after just over 20 minutes, thanks to a double whammy of sumptuous strikes from Czech defender Karel Kula and Marcus Marin (not related to Marko), whose 22 goals the previous season were the main reason the Kickers were in this position in the first place. Andreas Keim, another defender, then made it three in the 64th, before legendary striker Roland Wohlfarth pulled one back eight minutes later. But Jupp Heynckes’ dejected, injury-ravaged Bayern were unable to mount a comeback. Dimitrios Moutas piled on the misery late on, after a shambolic attempt at an offside trap blew up in the Bavarians’ faces.

As chants calling for Heynckes’ head echoed through the Olympiastadion, the newly-promoted Stuttgarter Kickers celebrated their unlikely triumph. It was Bayern’s biggest home defeat in over half a decade and left the Bavarians a precarious 12th in the table, just two spots above the Kickers. 1991/92 is widely considered the worst season in Bayern’s Bundesliga history; they only finished 10th and battled against the drop for much of the campaign. Despite this gargantuan feat – which the Kickers may never repeat or surpass – and the early signs of promise, their season ended in disappointment as well. They finished 17th once more and were relegated back to the 2. Bundesliga never to return to the top flight again.

Things went from bad to worse when the Blues slumped to 15th in their first season back in the second division and then dropped down even further, to the Regionalliga, the following year. Hope was restored when they bounced back quickly and came fifth in 1997, but, as soon became apparent, it was nothing more than a false dawn. The Kickers returned to their mediocre ways and flirted with relegation for three years before the inevitable finally happened and their fate was sealed.

The Regionalliga wasn’t kind to the Stuttgart outfit and they never even came close to challenging for promotion. They did, however, qualify for the 3. Liga’s inaugural season in 08/09, but that immediately ended in utter disaster. Thoroughly outclassed and unable to pay back a loan – which resulted in a points deduction – they finished the term dead last, a whopping eleven points from safety, and were unceremoniously dumped back into the Regionalliga, now the fourth tier. Something had to change; the Kickers simply had to hit the reset button. Fortunately for them, a glimmer of hope was right around the corner.

With an overhauled front office, staff, and squad, the Kickers wanted to return to the professional ranks within three years. A young team, mainly comprised of academy products and former players, impressed but too often flattered to deceive, missing out on promotion – by quite some distance – in the process. After adding a few more experienced heads, the Kickers turned their fortunes around, finishing second. The following season, in the spring of 2012, they went one better and returned to the 3. Liga.

Former coach Horst Steffen with the famous TV tower in the background (Deniz Calagan/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Despite some initial struggles back among the quote-unquote ‘elite’, it seemed to be the start of a new era. The Kickers played exciting football – Jürgen Klopp described their style of play as “brave, determined, and tactically astute” following a DFB-Pokal clash in 2014 – and they were gradually getting better and better. Although an eighth-place finish was nothing to write home about, the Blues soon built on their solid 13/14 season and actually began challenging for promotion, coming fourth the following year.

With wind in their sails and a subsequent promising start to the 15/16 campaign, they seemed to be well on their way to establishing themselves as a good 3. Liga side. After an impressive 1-0 win over pacesetters Magdeburg, the Kickers were once again sitting pretty in fourth. But not for the first and certainly not for the last time, things suddenly took a turn for the worse. As if possessed by black magic, the Kickers’ form inexplicably nosedived and what followed was a rotten 15-game winless run that saw them lose 11 times. They plummetted from 4th all the way down to 20th.

A slight upturn in form offered some cause for optimism, but the universe wasn’t done playing its cruel joke just yet. When the final whistle blew in their last game of the season, the Kickers seemed safe from relegation. However, Wehen Wiesbaden were still playing – and still fighting for survival themselves. Wiesbaden, leading 2-1 against already-relegated VfB Stuttgart II, needed one more goal to stay up and, incredibly, they got it in the 94th minute. Thus, the Kickers were relegated in the cruelest way possible – not on points or even goal difference, but on goals scored.

The club never recovered from losing its professional status. Following a battle to stay in the Regionalliga, the Kickers’ reserves program, which was now playing just a division below the first team, was shut down in a bid to reallocate funds elsewhere, mainly into the youth setup. These cost-cutting measures didn’t have the desired effect and the Kickers were relegated to the fifth tier for the first time in 2018, just two years after last kicking a ball in the 3. Liga.

Even though, as alluded to earlier, it felt somewhat inevitable, this development still sent shockwaves through German football. Playing in the semi-professional Regionalliga was bad enough for a club of the Kickers’ stature, but dropping down to the amateur Oberliga Baden-Württemberg was incomprehensible. It, therefore, came as no surprise that bouncing straight back up was a desideratum. However, climbing out of regional divisions, be it the Oberliga or even the Regionalliga, is easier said than done since, more often than not, only winning the championship is enough to earn promotion and, as mentioned already, the Kickers have been unable to achieve that.

After coming second in their first-ever Oberliga campaign, the Blues only sat in third when the 19/20 season was canceled – much to the chagrin of the Kickers, who fancied their chances of turning their fortunes around – after 20 games due to COVID-19. This time around, with just 13 games played, the Kickers already looked well on course to better their points tally from last season, but then the Oberliga had to be suspended again due to the pandemic.

Kickers supporters have been through hell in recent years (Deniz Calagan/Bongarts/Getty Images)

What the future holds is unclear. Oberliga officials have stated that a return to play in January 2021 is “unrealistic” and that the current 42-game format is “unfeasible”. Initial proposals of splitting the league into a promotion and relegation division seem to be the preferred way forward, but nothing has officially been announced as of yet. One thing is for sure, though, the Coronavirus outbreak has left a lasting mark on the Kickers and lower league German football as a whole.

Back in March, then-CEO Marc-Nicolai Pfeifer, now at 1860 Munich, told DPA that the break in play posed an “existential threat” to the club. The Kickers had already missed out on income in the “low six figures” just a few months after the start of the pandemic and you would imagine that the problem has only been exacerbated since then, despite employees taking pay cuts and donations from supporters.

The past few years have been a cocktail of misery for a club that prides itself on its tradition. Realistically, the Kickers are still in with a shot at promotion, but recent history dictates caution. In these uncertain times, one thing is fairly evident: if the Blues fail to get out of the Oberliga in a rather expeditious manner – we are talking in the next couple of years – then we could well be looking back at the Stuttgarter Kickers as a thing of the past.

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