For a brief moment in time, the Olympiastadion is on fire. Flares rocket in and out of the Berlin stadium as red-and-white fire licks the 75,800 seats in the arena. Above the utter joy and chaos on the field and in the stands, a huge Jumbotron reads Deutscher Pokal sieger 1996 – 1. FC Kaiserslautern… “German Cup Winner 1996. 1. FC Kaiserslautern.”

On that historic day in 1996, Kaiserslautern won the DFB-Pokal for the second time in its history, triumphing over Karlrushe in a tight 1-0 game. It was their first trophy since 1991, and their first cup victory since 1990. Despite suffering relegation in the Bundesliga, the Kaiserslautern fans draped in Rhineland red stormed the pitch, donning jerseys, scarves, and more. Nothing could take away from the thrill and glory of the squad.

Twenty-eight years later, Kaiserslautern is on the same stage, playing in the same arena, with the same energetic fans. Die Roten Teufel will attempt to reclaim historical glory, challenging German giants Bayer Leverkusen for their third DFB-Pokal title. However, they’ll do it with an entirely new squad, a new playing style, and with their past successes behind them.

A fall from grace for FCK

Kaiserslautern has long been a giant of German soccer. It stems from the post-war period where their players made up the spine of West Germany’s victorious 1954 World Cup team. Kaiserslautern was a mainstay in the newly founded Bundesliga, seeing success in the Pokal, Bundesliga, and even across European competitions.

Despite suffering relegation in 1996, FCK bounced back in the 2. Bundesliga and immediately won promotion in 1997. They then stormed to a Bundesliga title the year after, the first (and only) time a promoted team won the Bundesliga right after. Despite a run to the 2001 UEFA Cup semifinals, FCK surprisingly neared bankruptcy.

Their economic woes stem from the 2006 World Cup. Kaiserslautern politicians and FCK members fought to bring the World Cup to Kaiserslautern, and they did. However, their renovation of the Fritz-Walter-Stadion to suit FIFA regulations cost a lot of money. The club had to pay for the renovation, which put FCK in severe debt and close to bankruptcy.

“With the knowledge of today, hosting the World Cup was the worst thing that could have happened to us,” FCK ultra Miguel Palmas told World Soccer magazine. “How can we pay that? When they drew up the contract [stadium rent], they thought Kaiserslautern would play forever in the Bundesliga.”

FCK sold several star players, the most notable being German great Miroslav Klose. After selling several key stars, Kaiserslautern regressed into mediocrity, ping-ponging between the second and first tier of German soccer. They ended up in the 3. Liga at one point, and although they gained promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, they’ve struggled in the second tier, facing relegation at several points in recent years.

Kaiserslautern’s shock Pokal run

Despite Kaiserslautern bouncing between relegation, mediocrity, and poor business moves from higher-ups, Kaiserslautern averages some of the highest attendances in the league. They compete with bigger cities like Berlin, Gelsenkirchen, and Hamburg with merely half or less of their population.

It’s not uncommon to see tifos, flags, and flares rocket in the Westkurve, the part of the arena where the ultras cheer. The noise and jeers from the fans make it a hostile place to play away games.

“I came here as a free agent and in the beginning, I came to one game. It was also a cup game against Koln, and the stadium was amazing,” Kaiserslautern defender Almany Touré told World Soccer Talk. “I was next to Ragnar [Ache]. When I saw these fans and how the game was. It helped me in my choice to come here. And now, we are in the final. So I’m very happy.

“We didn’t have an easy season with the league. But then, we made the final. We will try to do everything to make them happy after the game, so I’m really happy to play this final.”

The German giants, who played a huge role in developing German soccer, have suffered immensely. Since suffering relegation in 2012, Kaiserslautern has toiled in the 2. Bundesliga and the 3. Liga, going through financial woes and harsh losses. Kaiserslautern struggled in the relegation race this season, finishing 13th of 18.

However, amid mediocrity and the general gloom of the 2023/24 season, Kaiserslautern launched an incredible run towards Berlin and one of the biggest stages in German football.

After a regular 5-0 win against non-league side Rot-Weiß Koblenz, they advanced to face Bundesliga side Koln in the second round. A huge crowd of around 50,000 flocked to Kaiserslautern to watch Kaiserslautern take on the German heavyweight.

With Richmond Tachie’s strike in the 19th minute to put K’lautern up 1-0, the frenzied crowd suddenly realized they had a real chance of advancing to the third round. Flags waved from the stands as ultras pressed against metal gates to celebrate the goal. Kenny Redondo’s goal in the 47th minute elicited even more roars as supporters threw their hands up and the sea of red that packed the stadium began to swirl. A free-kick goal from Marlon Ritter made the game 3-0 for Kaiserslautern and the city of Kaiserslautern erupted.

A more beautiful sound would be hard to find.

Kaiserslautern went on to win the game 3-2, to the applause and chants of 50,000. With their 2-0 win against Nurnberg, flares went out and red-tinted smoke filled the air. The team accompanied the fans, singing team chants and thanking their rabid fans as they did every game.

A 3-1 win against Hertha and a 2-0 win against giant-killers Saarbrucken, both away, saw massive amounts of FCK fans travel for the fixture, outchanting home fans, and welcoming their squad with flares and chants after each game.

After the victory against Saarbrucken, which sealed their first DFB-Pokal final berth since that fateful night in 1996, the Kaiserslautern team donned celebratory T-shirts afterward. They read; “Ajo! 1. FCK Lautre is schun widder so!”

“Aye! 1. FC Kaiserlautern is like this again.”

Kaiserslautern is back.

A chance for Kaiserslautern in Pokal?

Not only would Kaiserslautern fans benefit from winning the DFB-Pokal final, but so would the club’s finances. Reports suggest the winners of the Pokal could receive $4.65 million in prize money, and they’ve already earned around $4 million for progressing to the finals. They’ll also profit from increased jersey sales, exposure to a global audience, and a renewed interest in Kaiserslautern’s outlying areas.

However, they will have to get past a dominant Leverkusen squad that hasn’t lost to German opposition since May 27 of last year. They have lost once this season. Their defense is frustrating, their offense is proficient, and they have a penchant for scoring last-minute goals.

“We have to look at how they [Leverkusen] play. Because yeah, they’re unbeaten [at the time of the interview]. That’s one,” Kaiserslautern striker Ragnar Ache told World Soccer Talk. “And they also have a lot of fast players, We also know that it’s going to be a game where we have to run a lot, because I think it’s going to be a game where they have the ball a lot, and we have to take our chances with the with the counters.”

Surely, a Kaiserslautern victory in the Pokal will ultimately boil down to their mentality. Can Kaiserslautern remain focused and unfazed in the face of such a tough opponent? How patient can they remain in their low block? And, of course, can they make the most of their limited opportunities and score?

“The cup is different than the Bundesliga,” Ache said. Ache scored 17 goals for Kaiserslautern throughout the season. “You see how many Bundesliga teams did good in the league? And then they went out in the cup.

“I think that it doesn’t matter, even though it’s a Bundesliga team, and they are unbeaten. The cup is different than the Bundesliga. Everything is different. The circumstances are different. We have a lot of fans, crazy fans, who are also coming to the game. And the atmosphere is going to be amazing.”

Photos: Imago