With promoted ASA Târgu Mureş closing on the Romanian title, UEFA.com's Steffen Potter recalls how Otto Rehhagel's 1. FC Kaiserslautern performed a similar marvel in Germany.
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FC Bayern München have a firm grip on the Bundesliga. It is getting ever harder to remember a time when they did not. Can you imagine a promoted team snatching away Bayern's title next season? A snowball's chance in hell, you say? That is what they said in 1997/98.
When 1. FC Kaiserslautern, founder members of the Bundesliga, were relegated in 1996 the fans' devastation was all-consuming. Surely they were too big to go down? A year before they had finished fourth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, and they were through to the German Cup final – a week after their fate was sealed, they duly lifted it for only the second time.
Down but not out. Two important things came together. Firstly, Otto Rehhagel was deemed surplus to requirements at Bayern; their loss was Kaiserslautern's gain. Secondly, the club managed to keep much of the squad intact, holding onto internationals like Michael Schjønberg, Miroslav Kadlec, Pavel Kuka and Germany's Andreas Brehme, he of 1990 FIFA World Cup-winning fame.
In essence, the team remained a top-tier side in the second division, winning at a canter and retaining a large fan base: their average attendance of 36,709 was higher than in the previous Bundesliga campaign. "It might sound stupid, but all the games we won in the second tier helped instil a winning spirit," Schjønberg later explained.
While they had been away Bayern had won the top flight by two points. The fixture list inevitably paired the reigning champions of the leading two divisions on the opening weekend. Less predictably, a Schjønberg goal ten minutes from time earned a victory that Rehhagel in particular would savour – he had not left Munich on the best of terms.
It was dismissed as a freak result, a typical early-season surprise. It was not. Lautern captured first place on matchday four and never looked back as Bayern chased gamely, futilely. They wrapped up their fourth title with a match to spare.
"Otto gave us our freedom on the pitch," recalled Olaf Marschall, a classic No9 who got 21 Bundesliga goals that term. "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."
There was also the Sforza factor – the missing piece of the jigsaw according to Marschall. Swiss midfield maestro Ciriaco Sforza had left Bayern for FC Internazionale Milano 12 months earlier yet was unsettled – and Rehhagel knew it. "When I was on holiday the telephone rang non-stop," he remembered. "When Otto wants something he will not leave you alone." He returned to Germany.
Sforza, who had spent two years at Kaiserslautern before joining Bayern, was the only real addition to the team relegated 12 months before, but he was enough. He pulled the strings in midfield, supported by Michael Ballack, who at 21 made his first 16 Bundesliga appearances that campaign, supplying much-needed guile.
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 realised that as long as they were solid at the back, somehow they would score." Some 70,000 people filled the streets of Kaiserslautern to celebrate the championship – a modern football miracle.