December 2, 2023

Written by Abijeeth


Miracles have always been a remarkable and welcome occurrence for men and women of every age all throughout history, regardless of development in the sciences and learning. People simply love to see a transgression in the laws of nature, well, at least as far as football is concerned. Millions of fans around the globe witnessed with bated breath, the ascension of Leicester City FC to the Premier League throne last year, rejoiced when Portugal lifted the Euros and some of them were on cloud nine to see teams like Wales and Iceland eliminating the favourites in due course of the tourney.

On the other hand, nobody could bear to come to terms with the macabre ending Chapecoense had to deal with, on the brink of writing South American club football’s most fascinating fairy tale story. In any case, miracles are a source of undying hope for many, it triggers us to think of the unthinkable and emotionally bonds us with the miracle-doer.

One such story that has been told and retold in every German household over the last two decades, is the story of the country’s Red Devils(the literal English translation of Die Roten Teufel), 1. FC Kaiserslautern e.V., in what was one of the most wondrous seasons the Bundesliga ever has had. It is no myth that Bayern are a despised club among many in Deutschland, the Bayern Dusel (Last Minute Bayern/ Lucky Bayern) is a commonly used term for the 25 time record champions of the Bundesliga, known to have lady luck to “shine” on them 24/7 since the 1970’s (probably due to the ability of the Bavarians to win games in the last minute and miraculously keep hold of the lead at the top despite losing games because our nearest rivals always happened to lose on the same match-day as well).

The Germans savoured this moment of embarrassment that FC Hollywood had to supposedly deal with, after having lost the title to a promoted team as defending champions of that season.

Ratinho and Sforza posing with the “Salad Bowl” or the Meisterschale in other words

And this was what made the 1997-98  season much more special. The Devils of Rhineland Palatinate had accomplished, what no other Bundesliga club has managed up to date: winning the title as a team promoted in that very season they bagged the Meisterschale. In fact, this put Lautern  up along with an exclusive company of very few clubs who have managed to perform the same feat in other European leagues (Nottingham Forest(1977-1978), Ipswich Town(1961-62), AS Monaco(1977-78),Saint Etienne(1963-64) and Door Wilskracht Sterk(1963-64)).

So what is Kaiserslautern’s Cinderella Story?

Apart from 3 German cup final appearances in 1972,1976 and 1981, since the inception of the Bundesliga in 1963, Kaiserslautern never managed to win something until the early 1990s, when they clinched the German cup finally in 1990 and the Meisterschale in 1991. Prior to that, there was quite a successful stint under coach Karl Heinz Feldkamp as he led the club to top 4 league finishes in all of his four seasons at the helm and a long run in a memorable 1982 UEFA Cup campaign in which they famously inflicted upon Spanish giants Real Madrid, their worst ever defeat in a European tournament up to date(a 5-0 win at home) in the quarterfinals before losing out to eventual winners IFK Göteborg.

Feldkamp would leave the Fritz-Walter Stadion later that year to coach Borussia Dortmund, only to return to the club again for the 1990-91 season to win the championship. But much of FC Kaiserslautern’s Bundesliga years were laden with mediocre mid-table finishes. After Feldkamp’s departure in 1982, they witnessed 7 changes for the post of head coach. Feldkamp returned to the club to lead them to the Bundesliga title in 1991, only to leave them for a second time to coach in Turkey at the end of the season and Kaiserslautern slipped yet again. A new low was reached under coach Friedel Rausch, as the club found themselves trying to beat the drop for the entirety of the 1995-96 season despite winning the German Cup.

Celebrations in the Fritz Walter Stadion after achieving the ultimate- Beating European giants Real Madrid.

The Red Devils sold star players like Ciriaco Sforza to Bayern(who would later move to Inter), Stefan Kuntz to Besiktas and Marco Haber to VFB Stuttgart in the summer before the season began. They lost as many games in their fortress as they had won(4) that season. The coach lost his job after a 0-0 draw versus Werder Bremen on Matchday 24, that rendered them a 17th place team. The season didn’t improve any further though and the club sank into the second division for the first time in the Bundesliga era.

The reins of the club were handed over to a reputed figure in German football, Otto Rehhagel, who was joining Lautern after being sacked by Bayern Munich in the 1995-96 season, reasons being a massive drop in league form that eased BVB’s run to the title that season and a feud with the players. It was under this man that they were to perform the aforesaid miracle. Otto is more popularly known to the football world as the man behind Greece’s run-up to the European Championship in 2004.

He injected new energy into this relegated 1. FCK team, which saw them comfortably getting back into the top-flight in 1997, winning the second division by 10 points ahead of VFL Wolfsburg. Their form at home was key to their promotion, winning 14 of 17 possible games at the Fritz Walter Stadion and sharing the spoils in the other three games. The club’s long stay Olaf Marschall had his career revived under Rehhagel by scoring 21 goals that season.

otto greece euros
Otto Rehhagel amid celebrations after winning the Euros with the Greece squad in 2004.

New blood was brought into the team at the start of the next season by the purchase of Brazilian midfielder Ratinho, Dortmund’s Thomas Franck and Odense BK’s Michael Schjönberg(who would become a mainstay for the Red Devils) to replace important players like Thomas Hengen and outgoing flops like Mark Schwarzer(you heard it right, the former reserve goalkeeper of Chelsea), Arilson and  Horst Siegl. The presence of veteran players like the celebrated German legend Andreas Brehme and the club’s then-best goalscorer Pavel Kuka, for instance, boosted the team’s confidence and led them back into the top flight.

The club only got better from then on. 27-year-old central midfielder Sforza, who had left for Bayern Munich, returned to the club from Inter Milan. A certain 20-year-old Michael Ballack, who would go on to become a legend in his own right, was purchased from Chemnitzer FC. Other important signings to reinforce squad depth included right midfielder Andreas Buck from VFB Stuttgart and defensive midfielder Marian Hristov from Bulgarian Levski Sofia.


ballack otto cameo
A young Michael Ballack making a cameo appearance for 1. FCK

Kaiserslautern were expected to secure safety for the next season at most, but Rehhagel’s team simply steamrollered the Bundesliga opposition all season. With sparkling offence and never-ending energy (half a dozen games were won in injury time), they cruised to the top of the table. Once again, a terrifically consistent performance at home(13 W-2D- 2L, joint-best attack in the league with 36 goals and an average of 2.41 points earned per home game) saw them top the table from match-day 4 until the end of the season.

But the key to a successful campaign was the massive improvement in their away form in contrast to previous seasons in the top flight, as they racked up 1.59 points per game away from home and conceding the least no. of away goals(20), to seal the second spot in the away form table, second only to Bayern Munich. Quite coincidentally, the season started with a 1-0 away win over Rehhagel’s former Bayern Munich team, a game that garnered lots of attention and support for the newly promoted side.

otto celebration kaiser
Otto Rehhagel amidst celebrations, gala and photo sessions after the memorable title win in 1998

Talking Tactics

Otto employed a 3-5-2 formation for almost all of the league games that year. He also made use of a 4-4-2 flat involving a sweeper for 6 games in total. The 3-5-2 was subtly varied into its offensive and flat forms. A 5-3-2 was also utilized in a cup game versus FC Saarbrücken.

In a typical 3-5-2 formation, Andreas Reinke was between the hoops for every league game. The back three comprised of Harry Koch, Miroslav Kadlec and Michael Schjönberg, all of whom played almost all of the games together, despite all of them being well past their primes back then(they were aged 29, 33 and 30 at the time respectively). When Koch was not available in the squad, like in games versus Hertha and Köln for example, Otto cleverly used Axel Roos(a natural centre back) and Oliver Schäfer(a natural right-back) in his place.

Axel Roos also surprisingly happened to be a regular for Otto’s side throughout the season but in a defensive midfield position. Schäfer was also utilized in midfield now and then, but he was a substitute for the most part. Brehme lent a helping hand to the team whenever it was essential, captaining the team in games in which 1. FCK did not have some of their crucial players.


otto formation
A typical unvaried 3-5-2 employed by Otto
A 3-5-2 offensive which involves Ratinho in a central midfield position and Sforza in a much deeper position on pitch. Andreas Buck was integrated on the right flank of the lineup in such cases.

The team featured Martin Wagner and Ratinho on the left and right flanks respectively. While the former was only occasionally tried out as an attacking midfielder, the latter could be seen in that role for almost 12 games. But it was Sforza who was a regular in the attacking midfield position and he also captained the team. His set-piece abilities gave 1. FCK the edge against their opponents in many games. Marschall and Kuka led the team up front as forwards for a majority of the games. However, in case of fitness problems or as a late option, Otto paired Rische alongside either of Marschall or Kuka.

Substitute players in Andreas Buck and Reich were also sent onto the field from the bench, late into the game or occasionally used as an option in the starting lineup, in which case one could see Ratinho and Wagner employed in central positions along with regular ones like Roos. In general, the midfield was very flexible as the players at Otto’s disposal were more than willing to let the coach utilize their versatility. In a 4-4-2 sweeper flat, Roos fell deeper into a central defender role and the back three of Koch, Roos and Schjönberg(very destructive by nature, using their physicality to drive out any danger) played in front of a sweeper in Kadlec.

A peculiar 4-4-2 sweeper flat formation used by Otto where Roos is used in a deeper position and Kadlec slips into the sweeper role

The collective effort of all the players involved in the roster made such a miracle possible. Kaiserslautern earned a name for scoring late winners throughout the season, hence the role of the bench players cannot be undermined. However, the consistent performances of players like Kuka(5 goals, 2 assists), Marschall(21 goals in 24 games), Ratinho(4 goals and 5 assists in 26 games) and Sforza(3 goals and 9 assists in 32 games) among others, played an important role in Lautern’s lead up to the title.

Looking back on a remarkable scoring record in 1997–98, Marschall was nominated for the German squad and took part in the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

“Otto gave us our freedom on the pitch,” recalled Marschall. “He told us the lineup; we did the rest. Everyone helped out in defence, even the strikers, chasing the ball as soon as we’d lost it. A bit like Dortmund when they won their recent Bundesliga titles. Otto had this incredible sense for how to build a team.”

Sforza was one player who pulled the strings of the Lautern midfield that season. He gave his opinion on his former coach Otto in the following manner:

“When I was on holiday the telephone rang non-stop, When Otto wants something he will not leave you alone.”

Sforza, though, said the credit should be all Rehhagel’s.

“He knows how to use the players at his disposal. With us, he knew we had to attack and play power football. With Greece [at UEFA EURO 2004], he realized that as long as they were solid at the back, somehow they would score.”

Wagner had many things to say about Kadlec and the team as well in general:

“Possibly the most important tactic was the implementation of Miroslav Kadlec as the ‘libero’, the sweeper at No 5, the independent man behind the defence. This was a special German success story in the national team. It was the key factor for success. Many saw Kadlec as the best libero in Europe, but a man that was very introverted and needed full support from the manager.”

“Everybody was a boss without being bossy, One player was fighting for the other without being jealous of their success. It was a mix of stars who remained grounded, nobody played the superstar. The result was an unbelievable shock for football in Germany.”


Miroslav Kadlec touted to be one of the best liberos of his time

Cue a party for the 80,000-population city that lasted a week. Kaiserslautern was a sea of red, the players banged drums on the roof of their open-top ‘truck’, and German football has yet to see a story quite like it.

Alas, the beautiful dream did not last long and the Cinderella story didn’t have a happy ending that it had to have. Kadlec left the club in the summer, along with Pavel Kuka and Andreas Brehme through retirement. Rehhagel failed to replace the departures like for like. The seeds of disharmony behind the scenes were already planted despite a respectable fifth place finish in 1998/99 along with a Champions League Quarterfinal appearance. A lot of back and forth ensued between Rehhagel, the club captain Sforza and the club’s CEO Jurgen Freidrich. The other members of the squad supported their captain.

The club allowed Ballack to leave for Bayer Leverkusen in 1999, much to the annoyance of the supporters, before captain Sforza publicly criticized Rehhagel and his tactics. Otto finally left in 2000 on back of a 5th place finish and a smear campaign. 1. FCK would drop into the second division once again within five years of time and the world would have forgotten a football giant. But the miracle story of Kaiserslautern’s 98 campaign is still an endearing bedtime story to many football lovers in Germany and Europe alike.

This article was first published on Bundesligaultras | 5th March 2017 |

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