For most people, the thought of embarking on an eight hour round trip across a border with multiple train connections and the inevitable malfunctioning air conditioning system on a stifling summer’s day to watch third tier German football is far from enticing. However, in late July last year I decided to do just that to take in FC Kaiserslautern’s opening game of the 3. Liga 2018/2019 season against 1860 München. A last-minute winner for Die roten Teufel (the Red Devils) in front of a fervent crowd of over 40,000 made it all worthwhile.
A sleeping giant
FC Kaiserslautern’s relegation to the third tier of German football last season marked another unfortunate chapter in this great club’s disheartening recent history. For a club that was crowned Bundesliga champions twice in the 1990s, a brief return to top flight in 2010 was however merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory dating back to when the club conceded its place amongst Germany’s footballing elite in 2006, finishing well adrift at the bottom of the Bundesliga table.
The sizeable turnout for Kaiserslautern’s opening 3. Liga match of the 2018/2019 season was nevertheless testimony to the fact that the club’s fans remain hopeful of a return to the big stage at some point in the near future. Die roten Teufel play their home games at the colossal Fritz-Walter-Stadion. The stadium, which holds almost 50,000 people, is perched on a hill close to the Hauptbahnhof and towers impressively over the city of Kaiserslautern. Notably, the ground hosted five games at the 2006 World Cup including Italy’s 1-0 win over Australia in the round of 16 which saw Francesco Totti net an injury time winner.
The club’s esteemed history, its dedicated fanbase and the imposing colosseum it calls home (for the time being, at least) would all seem to indicate that this is indeed a club that belongs in the Bundesliga. Die roten Teufel’s inconsistent and often disappointing performances in German football’s third tier this season would unfortunately suggest otherwise.
A promising start
And yet, the season had started so well for FC Kaiserslautern with that league-opener against 1860 München. Following a gruelling and meticulously-planned pilgrimage that started in France and took us through various towns and villages in south-west Germany, we finally arrived at the sun-baked stadium shortly before kick-off. Notwithstanding the club’s lamentable relegation at the end of last season, there was still that ever-present opening-day buzz in and around the stands.
The opposition that day, 1860 München, were another southern German team that had not had their problems to seek in recent years. 1860’s noisy and colourful travelling support to our right, however, and the formidable red wall of Kaiserslautern fans to our left, gave this game the feel of a top flight match between two heavyweight giants in full swing. Neither set of supporters showed any sign of feeling sorry for themselves.
The referee’s whistle was barely audible as the game kicked off with Kaiserslautern shooting to our right and 1860 München shooting to our left. An early chance fell to 1860 striker Antonio Grimaldi but his weak effort came back off the post and into the grateful arms of Kaiserslautern goalkeeper Jan-Ole Sievers. Sievers spent one season at Bolton Wanderer’s youth academy and is now, bizarrely enough, playing in the second tier of Japanese football.
The next chance would fall to the home team. Following some poor 1860 defending from a corner, the ball sat up kindly for Canadian defender André Hainault but his volleyed effort ricocheted off the back of Jan Mauersberger and harmlessly out of play.
Kaiserslautern striker Lukas Spalvis then spurned two glorious chances either side of half-time as the home side looked to make the break-through. First, the 24-year-old was sent clean through on goal but he failed to make a proper connection and his tame effort was easily blocked by 1860 goalkeeper Hendrik Bonnman. The Lithuanian international’s second effort did however deserve more, a thunderous header from twelve yards out that crashed off the bar before eventually being scrambled clear.
The home side, growing increasingly frustrated, introduced the jovially named Timmy Thiele up front. Thiele quickly adapted to the speed of the game and would play a huge part in the winning goal. With less than five minutes remaining, the German forward picked the ball up out wide from the impressive left-back Janek Sternberg. Thiele then drove to the by-line before composing himself to tee up the marauding Sternberg, who had continued his run into the box. Sternberg then swept the ball into the far corner with a first-time finish past the helpless Bonnman to send the red sea of Kaiserslautern fans behind the goal into raptures. The scenes in the nauseatingly steep stand to our left could be described as nothing short of pandemonium. In travelling to grounds across Europe, including Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, FC Basel’s St. Jakob-Park and Sparta Prague’s Generali Arena, I have seen few sets of fans celebrate a goal as frenziedly as the Kaiserslautern faithful celebrated Janek Sternberg’s late strike at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion that afternoon. The noise, fuelled partly by jubilation and partly by relief, was terrific.
A disappointing end
Kaiserslautern would see out the last few minutes of the game without incident to record a deserved 1-0 victory and make the perfect start to their season. Die roten Teufel have however since struggled for consistency as the season has progressed and currently sit in ninth place with two games remaining, the promotion places a lost cause. The club’s attention will no doubt now turn to a fresh push for promotion next season.
The only other Kaiserslautern game I have managed to attend was a 3-1 win away to local rivals Karlsruher SC at the ageing Wildparkstadion in the 2016/2017 season. That result, in the 2. Liga, coincidentally relegated Karlsruher to the 3. Liga and offered a temporary reprieve to a Kaiserslautern side that would ultimately suffer the same fate as their nearby neighbours the following season. Fast forward to this season and Karlsruher are one win away from securing promotion back to the 2. Liga. If Kaiserslautern are to emulate such a return to the second tier of German football at the second time of asking, their fans, coupled with a seemingly elusive level of consistency, will have an integral role to play.
An unlikely friendship
As a Kilmarnock fan, I will of course always have a soft spot for 1. FC Kaiserslautern. The affinity that fans of both clubs have for each other can be traced back to 1999, when the two clubs faced each other in a UEFA Cup tie. A Youri Djorkaeff-inspired Kaiserslautern side won comfortably on aggregate over two legs. While that defeat may have spelled the end of Kilmarnock’s European adventure that particular year, it did however pave the way for the beginning of an unlikely friendship that has blossomed ever since with fans continuing to visit each other regularly. Perhaps in years to come, Kilmarnock fans making the journey to south-west Germany will be seeing our friends take on the likes of Bayern Munich once again.