Braunschweig are ending 28 long years of first-division abstinence. The club from Lower Saxony had fallen off people’s radars, but the Lions have no shortage of history - good and bad.
Time for a quick quiz: of the 18 teams in the German first division right now, which nine have won the Bundesliga? Bayern, Dortmund, Bremen, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Mönchengladbach and, er…um…are you sure that’s nine?
Yep, nine is the correct number. The 2013-14 season sees the return of Bundesliga founding member and 1967 German champion Eintracht Braunschweig to the fold.
The Lions are an unusual outfit in a number of respects. The vast majority of the squad is German and has no experience whatsoever with first-division football. Those facts among others have 40 percent of fans in a recent poll carried out by the Bild newspaper predicting that Braunschweig’s stay among Germany’s footballing elite will be a brief one.
Even their coach Torsten Lieberknecht is talking down his team’s chances for survival.
"Staying up would be an even bigger surprise than getting promoted last season," Lieberknecht said in a pre-season interview with kicker magazine. "We need to approach this season with a mixture of anticipation and humility. The Bundesliga is a gift for Eintracht."
Humble words indeed, considering that the Lions had a promotion spot in their paws for the entirety of last season. But this is a club with a history of the out-of-the-ordinary, one where unusual occurrences have become part of standard operating procedure.
Braunschweig was one of the 16 clubs selected to form the Bundesliga in 1963, and they didn’t have to wait long for success. They ran out champions in the new league’s fourth season, setting a record for the fewest goals conceded that would stand for more than two decades.
Their supporters also established a reputation for fanaticism. One fan walked 328 kilometers from Braunschweig to the decisive match in Essen, arriving at the stadium twenty minutes before kick-off.
But in 1971, a host of players were involved in a match-fixing scandal that resulted in two suspensions and 15 fines. In 1973, Eintracht were relegated and would spend the coming decades yo-yoing between divisions.
1973 was also the year Braunschweig broke a German footballing taboo, becoming the first team to play a season with jersey advertisement. The sponsor was Jägermeister. The club got around an official prohibition on kit ads by changing their logo from the traditional lion to the schnapps company’s trademark stag.
The additional revenues, however, didn’t suffice to reverse the Lions’ sporting decline. High-profile signings such as Paul Breitner in 1977 were a bust, and by the 1990s, Braunschweig had drifted down to the third-division regional league.
The 2006-7 season was a crucial one for the club. Braunschweig ran through a record five coaches in that campaign, yet still managed to qualify for the new nationwide third division on the final day of the season. A further relegation to division four would have also certainly consigned the former Bundesliga champions to professional footballing irrelevance.
Instead, since Lieberknecht’s appointment in 2008, Eintracht’s fortunes have been on the rise. In 2011, the team rewrote the record books in the third division. Only two seasons later, they made the leap from division two to the top flight with relative ease, finishing well ahead of bigger clubs like Cologne and Kaiserslautern.
The team that achieved promotion was in some respects a throwback to the Bundesliga winners of 1967. The Lions were very stingy in defense, pulling out a number of narrow wins and topping the second-division table for 21 weeks, before being overtaken by Hertha Berlin.
The heart-and-soul of the team is forward Dennis Kruppke, who’s been with Braunschweig since 2008 and has notched 58 goals in 164 appearances. The squad also features last season’s second-division scoring champ Domi Kumbela, who found the net 19 times.
The Lions don’t have the money to spend big, and thus their new acquisitions come from teams like Augsburg, Freiburg and mid-table English Premier League club Norwich. Still, Braunschweig did notch up a major personnel success this summer when they fended off advances from Werder Bremen for coach Lieberknecht.
But Eintracht may find it far more difficult to stave off top-flight competition on the pitch when play resumes in August. Even their commercial manager admits that they enter the season as relegation candidate number one.
Too old, too slow?
Some of the advance pessimism is surely hot air intended to take pressure off the team, but at the same time Braunschweig have their work cut out for them if they want to avoid the fate of Greuther Fürth and Fortuna Düsseldorf last season.
Although they cruised to promotion, the second-division competition was mediocre last season, and Braunschweig’s form noticeably tailed off toward the end of the season. Eintracht went down meekly in what was effectively the title-deciding match against Hertha in early April and won only two of their final seven matches.
It’s questionable whether either one of the regular two keepers is up to the standards of the top flight, where the game is played at a much faster pace. Moreover, Kumbela needs to come back from injury and will turn 30 during the season, while talisman Kruppke hits 34.
Some worry that Braunschweig will become a new version of hapless Fürth. That probably won’t happen. At very least the Lions can count on hyperactive support from their fans, and the derbies against their hated local rivals Hanover promise to generate no shortage of heat.
So it wouldn’t be surprising to see Braunschweig get off to a fast start. But age, inexperience and lack of depth could take their toll as the season wears on, as they did last season with Düsseldorf. They, too, returned to the top flight after years in the wilderness, only to go straight back down to division two.