Corruption, Power Struggles, Insolvency – The Cautionary Tale of Kaiserslautern

Oh, Kaiserslautern. I was hesitant to write about FCK because they are truly a giant of the game, a household name that was once the shining light of German football. I assumed most people had at least a vague idea of what had happened to the club, the mismanagement that led to this once-proud institution teetering on the brink of obscurity, and the architects of its downfall, so writing about it felt unnecessary.

Recently, however, turmoil encompassed the club anew and I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. A new power struggle flared up within the organization and its resemblance to what had transpired just a decade earlier is simply uncanny. History seemingly repeats itself quite often in Kaiserslautern. Before we can examine what’s plaguing the club now – or, still (trouble never fully subsided) – we have to look back at the catalyst of it all because everything started when die Roten Teufel (the Red Devils) were at the very top.

Most people familiar with the Bundesliga will surely have heard of the “Miracle of Kaiserslautern” at some point. What few people know, however, is that there was also a different, lesser-known Miracle of Kaiserlautern that perhaps served as a precursor to what would later become one of German football’s biggest fairytales.

In 1990, Lautern were battling relegation from the Bundesliga. Desperate and with their backs to the wall, they turned to Al-Ahly coach Karl-Heinz Feldkamp, who had already once coached Lautern successfully, guiding them to the UEFA Cup semi-final in 1982. With their old coach back at the helm, the Red Devils found their swagger again and survived, while also making the DFB-Pokal final where they faced then-cup giants Werder Bremen, who had already featured in the final the season prior and would do so again the following year. A Bruno Labbadia brace and a strike from Stefan Kuntz sealed Lautern’s unlikely triumph – it was the club’s first-ever Pokal success.

Buoyed by survival and their upset victory over Bremen, Feldkamp’s men were in inspired form throughout the 1990/91 season, culminating in yet another extraordinary achievement: pipping the mighty Bayern to the Meisterschale (Bundesliga trophy) by three points. It was the club’s first top-flight title since 1953, back when the Bundesliga didn’t even exist yet. That was the first, minor Miracle of Kaiserslautern, the infinitely more well-known one took place just a few years later, in an eerily similar manner.

By the end of the 1994/95 season, Kaiserslautern had fully established themselves as one of the better teams in the Bundesliga. After a runners-up finish the season before, fourth place and UEFA Cup qualification beckoned. But that 1995 summer proved to be disastrous. Two of Lautern’s star players, Stefan Kuntz and Ciri Sforza, were lured away by Besiktas and Bayern, respectively, and it had massive consequences. Heading into the winter break of the 95/96 season, just one point separated the Red Devils and the relegation zone. This time, though, there was no Feldkamp to save them and Kaiserslautern, one of the Bundesliga’s founding members, were relegated at the end of the season for the first time in club history after more than 60 years of continuous top-flight football.

However, just a week later, they were on their way to Berlin for the DFB-Pokal final, where Karlsruher SC awaited. It might not sound like a mouthwatering clash, but Karlsruhe were coming off a decent top-half finish and certainly the favorites going into the game; plus, it was a derby. Incredibly, Kaiserslautern pulled off another upset, just like they had done six years earlier, winning the Pokal thanks to a fortuitous free kick before the break from Martin Wagner that went through the legs of both Thorsten Fink and goalkeeper Claus Reitmaier, who, ironically, left Lautern for KSC only two years prior.

Lautern players after beating KSC (Bongarts/Getty Images)

Nobody knew it at the time, but a month before the DFB-Pokal final was due to be played, something happened that would change German football forever: Otto Rehagel was fired by Bayern. To this day, Rehagel is one of the country’s most decorated coaches, having led Werder Bremen from second-division obscurity all the way to European success in the space of a mere decade – he would later achieve international renown for winning the Euros with Greece. In total, Rehagel boasted two Bundesliga promotions (one with Dortmund in 1976), three Meisterschalen, three DFB-Pokal honors (one with Düsseldorf in 1980), and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup on his résumé. And then he suddenly rocked up at Kaiserslautern in the 2. Bundesliga. Better yet, as a player, he made over a century of appearances for the Red Devils and he was in charge of Bremen when they were beaten by Lautern in that iconic 1990 cup final. It was the perfect fit, a match made in heaven.

Under his tutelage, FCK stormed to the 2. Bundesliga title. They easily disposed of most things thrown at them and they did it with quite a bit of swagger, too. Rivals Frankfurt and Mannheim were both demolished 5-0 and by the end of the season, the two closest promotion competitors, Wolfsburg and Hertha, were left in the dust, with Lautern sitting a whopping ten points ahead of them at the top of the table.

Back in the top flight, Kaiserslautern invested significantly in the squad in order to be competitive. The prodigal son, Ciri Sforza, was brought back for what was at the time a massive fee north of €3m, and a promising youngster by the name of Michael Ballack was also signed, although he was still too raw a talent to play more than a peripheral role. Furthermore, Marian Hristov joined from Levski Sofia. Funny side note: when Lautern reached the Pokal final again in 2003, Hristov was shown a red card and suspended for three cup games. When he joined Wolfsburg in 2004, he was still banned for two matches, but apparently nobody – not even Hristov – remembered, so he played against Köln’s reserves in the first round; the reserves were, predictably, later awarded a 2-0 win despite Wolfsburg running out 3-0 victors on the day.

Hristov wasn’t the only interesting character at Rehagel’s Lautern. Goalkeeper Andreas Reinke is one of a select few players in recent history who can claim to have won two Bundesliga titles without ever having played for Dortmund or Bayern. The side also featured Miroslav Kadlec, father of former Leverkusen player (and FIFA cover star, at least in his native Czech Republic) Michal Kadlec, and Lautern legends Harry Koch, the father of Leeds player Robin Koch, and Axel Roos, who spent 22 years with the Red Devils, making senior appearances in three different decades (four decades if you count youth games). Up front was none other than Olaf Marschall, one of the Bundesliga’s biggest cult heroes. The forward played for both the GDR and the German national team and he is the third-highest goalscorer in FCK history if Transfermarkt is to be believed.

As fate would have it, Lautern had to travel to the Olympiastadion in Munich for the first game of the season to take on the defending champions – and Rehagel’s former employers – Bayern. Obviously, nobody expected them to come away with anything from this game, but they defied expectation – something they would make quite a habit of that season – and snatched three points right from underneath the Bavarians’ noses. They did it in style, too. They weren’t afraid of, or impressed by, their star-studded opposition and played their own game; the 1-0 scoreline was by no means undeserved.

Rehagel and Sforza after humiliating their former club (Gunnar Berning/Bongarts/Getty Images)

On matchday four, Schalke, the reigning UEFA Cup winners, visited the Betzenberg, Kaiserslautern’s majestic stadium that towers over the city like a medieval castle. Not fazed by the Royal Blues’ recent continental exploits, Lautern, completely undeterred, smashed three past Jens Lehmann and consolidated their place atop the standings. A few months later, Bayern came to town in what was already dubbed a title-decider. On a frosty December evening, Lautern completed their extraordinary double over Bayern with a 2-0 win.

Throughout the campaign, Kaiserslautern were only beaten four times – twice in each half of the season. Funnily enough, the only top-half team to defeat Lautern that season was Leverkusen, the other losses all came against smaller opposition. They eventually tailed off a bit towards the end of the season – which included a spell that saw them win only once in eight games – but that just made for an all the more exciting finish. A 3-2 win over Gladbach, in which Olaf Marschall singlehandedly overturned a 2-0 deficit, set up a penultimate matchday that would go down in Bundesliga history.

Lautern had the chance to clinch the title against Wolfsburg if Bayern dropped points versus Duisburg. That man Olaf Marschall struck again, twice, and a goal apiece from Martin Wagner and Jürgen Rische sealed a dominant victory. Bayern were still playing, though, and their game was still very much in the balance. Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t find the goal they needed. Thus, Kaiserslautern became the first and to this day only promoted team to win the Bundesliga. It wasn’t a fluky triumph either, it was thoroughly deserved, they led the league for 31 out of the 34 matchdays.

Once the celebrations of one of the biggest achievements in German football history died down, things turned sour quickly. Rehagel became increasingly powerful – someone even coined the term “Ottocracy” – and he soon exercised his newfound influence by signing one of his favorites, problem child Mario Basler, a former Lautern youth product. Officially, the club claimed to have paid 500,000 marks for the injury-prone midfielder, who was suspended by Bayern for starting a fight in a restaurant. In reality, the deal amounted to much, much more – it was the beginning of the club’s self-destructive financial mismanagement.

Lautern actually paid Bayern 2.3 million marks and Basler pocketed 3.5 million as a ‘loan’; it was essentially a signing-on fee. That wasn’t the end of it though; not only did the justice system get involved in a bid to uncover the club’s dodgy dealings, but Basler of course also commanded a substantial wage. In 2003, by which point the then-33-year-old spent more time on the treatment table than the pitch, he still made €150,000 a month. A couple of years earlier, he was paid a handsome 25,000 marks for a two-minute cameo against Rangers in the UEFA Cup.

Mario Basler, the first of a whole host of ill-advised signings (Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Eventually, Rehagel left and club legend Andi Brehme was brought in, but not as a regular coach; no, that would have been the obvious thing to do. Instead, Reinhard Stumpf also joined, with the two operating as co-coaches. This inevitably caused friction since the two didn’t see eye to eye, and for good reason: Brehme was first among equals, he picked the starting eleven on matchdays, whereas Strumpf trained the team during the week. How anyone thought such a constellation could work is beyond me. This gambit quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster – and a very expensive disaster at that.

One of the star players signed by the club was none other than French World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff. Brehme and his ostensible MVP didn’t really get along, though; the Frenchman apparently refused to learn German, and by all accounts, he was only there to collect his fat six-million-a-year paycheck, rarely training and not showing up in games. The financial and sporting deadweight was frozen out by Brehme, but bigger trouble was brewing: in 2002, both coaches were fired within a matter of weeks.

The two people operating in the background who were signing off on these unfeasible deals and making these untenable managerial decisions soon stepped into the spotlight. Quarrels between CEO Jürgen Friedrich and chairman of the board Robert Wieschemann were made public and eventually, the latter fired the former on live television. Although Wieschemann later retracted his statements, citing health issues as the reason for his incoherent and dangerous comments, he later resigned and Friedrich was still forced to leave. Pressure had been mounting on Friedrich and disillusionment was rife when he re-signed Sforza for a third stint in a deal that cost the club more than €7m without ever consulting the board.

Former Adidas CEO René C. Jäggi was hired to sort this mess out, but Lautern were already in dire straits, operating on the brink of bankruptcy. An accounting firm looked into the club’s finances and found that Jäggi’s predecessors had committed tax fraud; the club owed €9m. The situation soon escalated and once again things had to be settled in the courtroom. Wieschemann accused Jäggi of intentionally trying to ruin the club so that he could then acquire it for chump change; Jäggi denied these claims, obviously. According to the club’s own accounting, it had liabilities of at least €50m in the summer of 2003; that figure didn’t even include the coaching dismissals, later expenses like new signings, or the taxes they purportedly owed.

In the end, it could only be determined that €1m in taxes was actually withheld. However, Lautern had already paid the initial fee of €9m and Jäggi had made a non-negotiable agreement with the tax office, meaning that they couldn’t even ask for their cash back; the money was gone. Ex-CEO Friedrich was sentenced to two years in prison. After he got out, he began working for a player agency, the same agency he had close ties with, and paid excessive commissions to, during his time at the club, which resulted in Kaiserslautern having the biggest concentration of players from a single agency in the Bundesliga.

Despite the ruling, the financial predicament was far from resolved. In fact, the biggest setback was yet to come. As one of Germany’s footballing cathedrals, the Fritz-Walter-Stadion (colloquially referred to as Betzenberg) was chosen as a host venue for the 2006 World Cup. Kaiserslautern, being an ambitious club, planned on redeveloping and expanding their home ground in time for the showpiece event, which also meant shouldering the expenses. Long story short, they simply didn’t have the financial means to support such a massive undertaking – and the subsequent yearly expenditure of €9m that stadium maintenance would have necessitated – and had to be bailed out by the city. €80m it cost the club to modernize their stadium, the city of Kaiserslautern eventually bought it for €58m. 

Unfortunately, by the time the World Cup came around, enthusiasm for the tournament had been dampened massively in the city – FCK had just been relegated after years of seemingly endless personnel turnover, with every new hire proving more incompetent than their predecessor. Jäggi jumped ship and even though Lautern were now debt-free, they soon found themselves hovering around the relegation zone to the third tier. Things had to change.

Stefan Kuntz – saviour or pariah? (Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

In 2008, with relegation all but confirmed, club legend Stefan Kuntz returned, this time as CEO. His arrival and concrete plans for the future lifted everybody’s spirits. They pulled off another miracle, despite having the odds stacked against them, by picking up eight points in the last few games of the season and staying in the second division.

The celebrations didn’t last long because dark clouds were again looming on the horizon. Another battle for influence between CEO and chairman broke out. This time the guilty parties were Kuntz and Dieter Buchholz. Again, the club was in desperate need of money. Again, taxes had not been paid. Rinse, repeat.

So, what did Kuntz do? He straight up ignored all the fiscal babble and assembled a completely new squad despite the lack of liquidity. Lo and behold, his plan actually bore fruit; Lautern returned to the Bundesliga in 2010. In the midst of the promotion euphoria, Kuntz blackmailed the board, as one does, telling it to hire his buddy Fritz Grünewalt to handle the club’s finances. The board was skeptical of Grünewalt’s qualifications and denied Kuntz’s request, so he threatened to quit if his man didn’t get the job. Wary of losing the chap behind their recent success, the board caved. Grünwalt got the job, Kuntz stayed, and straight back to the second tier Lautern went.

Then rumors began to spread that Kuntz was in bed with a player agency and profiting from transfers (sound familiar?). The FCK CEO categorically denied these rumors, of course, and even threatened legal action, but his reputation began to crumble. Lautern squandered any last smidgen of goodwill they still enjoyed when they failed to deliver on the promise that the money received as part of a ‘fan loan’ initiative – with favorable interest for supporters – would be pumped into the youth academy.

FCK was once again debt-ridden, the supporters had turned on their club, and Kuntz went from hero to pariah in the blink of an eye, his legacy forever tarnished. His departure engendered further personnel turnover that saw high-ranking positions filled with people who had never before worked in the sport – a recipe for disaster – and in 2018, the inevitable finally happened: Lautern dropped down to the third division for the first time in the club’s 118-year history. Then-chairman Patrick Banf summed up the situation astutely in an interview with SWR: “In the past ten years, Kaiserslautern always lived like a Bundesliga side, but, unfortunately, they rarely played like one”.

Lautern players after the club’s infamous relegation (Thomas Starke/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Fast forward to today and it’s fair to say that the 3. Liga hasn’t been kind; this is now their third season stuck there – the initial goal was to bounce straight back up. Last year, Lautern requested that the stadium rent be lowered to aid their search for potential investors, and with a little bit of money available, they were keen to make a promotion push this season. That never materialized. Instead, relegation to the semi-professional Regionalliga remains a distinct possibility heading into the decisive phase of the season.

Head coach Boris Schommers was sacked in September after just two games. Jeff Saibene, the man who condemned Lautern to 3. Liga purgatory in 2018 and Schommers’ replacement, has now also been fired following a 20-game spell in which he only picked up three wins. To be fair to Saibene, he only lost five matches during his time in charge, but the vast majority of his games finished in draws which is just not good enough when you’re dangling one spot above the relegation zone.

Former Braunschweig and Würzburg coach Marco Antwerpen has been brought in to steady the ship, but here’s where everything comes full circle again. Sporting director Boris Notzon was not involved in the installation of Antwerpen and his presentation was headed by the chairman of the board Markus Merk without CEO Soeren Oliver Voigt. Merk stated that the board’s decision to hire Antwerpen was made for “the good of the club”, but the club statute states that the board cannot make appointments of that nature. In other words, if the board felt that the sporting director and CEO were not doing their job properly – which Merk implied in the press conference – they would have been well within their rights to relieve the two of their duties, but they cannot make managerial appointments on their behalf.

It has become pretty clear that CEO Voigt will not be involved in sporting decisions going forward. One of the club’s investors, Guiseppe Nardi, who insists that he has an amicable relationship with the club, basically revealed as much in an interview with SWR. “Mr. Voigt has plenty of other tasks as CEO”, Nardi said. “It would be preferable to have someone else who is solely concerned with the sporting side of the club.” That person could well be Merk, who is allegedly scheming to increase his power within the organization, but as of right now, he is still only running for re-election as chairman at the upcoming board election. He is a very interesting character, though. A lifelong FCK fan, Merk fell in love with officiating as a child and he eventually became the youngest-ever Bundesliga referee. The six-time German referee of the year and three-time IFFHS world referee of the year undoubtedly has the club’s best interests at heart, but his methods are certainly questionable.

Former player Thomas Riedl, who was part of that legendary 1998 squad, is of the opinion that this chaos could threaten the very survival of FCK. “It’s not simply about avoiding relegation, it’s about the existence of the club because I believe that, with the way the club is structured now, dropping into the Regionalliga would be fatal”, he told SWR.

If Lautern were indeed to drop down to the fourth tier, the lack of TV money and the potential loss of sponsors would be devastating, perhaps terminal. In June of last year, they again filed for insolvency. The insolvency proceedings commenced on September 1 and were concluded in October. At the beginning of December, €20 million in debts was wiped off of the club’s limited company, 1. FC Kaiserslautern GmbH &Co.KGaA, rendering it debt-free. However, the registered association, 1.FC Kaiserslautern e.V., still owes some €5m in debts. According to reports, they have already come to terms with Quattrex, to whom they owe the majority of the money, on an agreement that will see the club pay it back, but it’s still completely up in the air where these funds will come from; one thing is certain, FCK doesn’t have the capital to pay off these debts out of its own pocket. Additionally, the club still owes money to its supporters from a second ‘fan loan’, which has to be paid back next year.

On the pitch, Lautern have been pitiful. The lack of natural leaders in the team has been bemoaned by supporters and pundits alike. The fact that Jean Zimmer, who only just returned to the club on loan after a four and a half-year absence, has been named captain is perhaps emblematic of the club’s struggles. Nevertheless, Antwerpen’s reign got off to the perfect start: a 2-0 win away at hated rivals Waldhof Mannheim – the first three points of the new year, and only the fourth victory of the season. That leaves Lautern hovering just three points above the dropzone, but it’s surely a step in the right direction.

It’s a shame to see what has happened to a club with such a proud history. Rendered soulless by rapacious profiteers and paralyzed by delusions of grandeur, the name Kaiserslautern has become a joke, a laughing stock in German football, yet also a cautionary tale of what will inevitably happen if you fly too close to the sun. Can the new Merk-Antwerpen regime truly turn a corner? That remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it, that’s for sure.

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