It was only four years ago that a great cloud of black smoke drifted across the Rhein Energie Stadion as FC Köln were relegated from the top flight.
Bayern Munich condemned them to their fate with a 4-1 win. The city’s prodigal son, Lukas Podolski, cut a sorry figure, trudging off down the tunnel for the last time in a Köln shirt.
Now hit the fast forward button to present day, where Köln are second in the Bundesliga. They are unbeaten so far and even earned a draw away to Bayern at the start of October. No wonder Podolski was gleefully tweeting that his hometown club were “Bayern hunters number one” at the weekend.
#BayernJägerNo1 ? #effzeh ??
— Lukas-Podolski.com (@Podolski10) October 15, 2016
Such is the current harmony that memories of that black cloud are fading fast. On Sunday, one of the architects behind Köln’s rise from the second division put forward an unusual reason for their success. “We’ve managed to take the piss out of ourselves,” said coach Peter Stöger. “We can mock ourselves.”
Stöger demonstrated that light-hearted approach when he dressed up as a referee for Karneval last year, having previously offered his glasses to an official after Köln conceded from a handball.
His squad also showed their sense of humour on Saturday when top scorer Anthony Modeste celebrated opening the scoring by forming a band on the touchline with four teammates. Modeste played an imaginary piano as Konstantin Rausch banged the drums. Leonardo Bittencourt was on violin duty, while Simon Zoller and Marco Höger completed the quintet as an in-joke was brought to a wider viewing public.
“If you are with your girlfriend instead of being out with the team then it’s said that a concert is getting played at home,” revealed Höger after the game.
That neatly captures both the team spirit and the way that everything in the city of Cologne is done with a nudge and a wink. The locals know how to have a good time. They love pouring out onto the streets each year for Karneval where they don fancy dress and get very, very merry.
Supporting 1. FC Köln is done in equal measure. You only need to see how supporters belt out club hymn ‘Mer stonn zo dir FC Kölle’ (We stand by you, FC Köln) – set to a rock-infused Loch Lomond – to understand the passion for the team.
And if that isn’t entertaining enough, the club marches out mascot, Hennes the goat, between 20 cheerleaders before every game. It’s little surprise the waiting list for a season ticket started six years ago.
Until now, the support has often been better than the team’s performances. The last 20 years have seen Köln suffer five Bundesliga relegations and appoint 18 different coaches. As German football icon and Bayer Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler said in 2007: “The best thing in Köln is always the half an hour before kick-off.”
How times change. In German national tabloid BILD on Saturday morning, Völler said that Köln could qualify for Europe this season. Such is the hype, the fans have already started singing about becoming German champion, as they did after Modeste scored his second goal on Saturday.
The supporters then made sure the players were aware they had moved within two points of the Bundesliga summit. As the scoreboard flashed an update that Frankfurt had equalised against Bayern, a thunderous roar went up from the 50,000 gathered in the stadium.
It was up to goalkeeper Timo Horn to calm the hype in the tunnel after Köln’s eventual 2-1 victory over Ingolstadt. “We are trying to stay up there as long as possible,” he smiled. “We don’t need to talk about the title or the Champions League before Matchday 30 [in April].”
The new level of expectation can be credited to the club’s step-by-step progress on and off the pitch. A boardroom overhaul in 2012 was pivotal. It included club legend Toni Schumacher being appointed as vice president, while Alexander Wehrle arrived as managing director a year later. Testament to their work came last month, with the club announcing a turnover of over €100 million for the first time in its history.
Despite that boon, sporting director Jörg Schmadtke hasn’t carried out spending in a lavish fashion. Renowned as one of the Bundesliga’s finest operators, he arrived in the summer of 2013 along with coach Peter Stöger, who had just won the Austrian title with Austria Vienna. Stöger and Schmadtke hit it off immediately, with Köln promoted in their first season at the club.
Since then, the two-time Bundesliga winners have re-established themselves in Germany’s top flight, finishing 12th in 2014/15 and ninth last season. Schmadtke put their progress in starker terms to kicker magazine in September. “We were a patient in an intensive care unit,” he said. “We had to endure an emergency operation on us. Today we are recuperating, having completed a course of rehab.”
That recovery has been accelerated by leader of the band Modeste – an example of Schmadtke’s shrewd signings. At €4.5 million the Frenchman, who previously flopped at Blackburn Rovers, became the club’s second most expensive recruit of all-time. It was a risk with Modeste having tailed off towards the end of his time at Hoffenheim.
But it doesn’t look like a gamble now. Twenty-two goals in 41 Bundesliga games for Köln underlines the remarkable value they found in Modeste. With the striker leading the division’s scoring chart with seven goals this season, it was a good thing Köln rejected an offer from the Chinese Super League this summer before tying him down to a new deal until 2020.
Still, Modeste is just one part, albeit an important one, of a side carefully developed by Stöger. While Köln were ultra-defensive at times in their first Bundesliga season under the coach, they have steadily evolved while retaining one of the best defences in the league. That achievement has also come while losing key players in Yannick Gerhardt (to Wolfsburg) in the summer and Kevin Wimmer (to Tottenham) in 2015.
The squad’s harmony has remained. So long as it does, talk will only grow about Köln returning to European football for the first time in 24 years.
Lukas Podolski is dreaming even bigger. “1. FC Leicester City” read one of his tweets in September, but the club won’t get carried away. The mantra of a popular video from sporting director Schmadtke remains: “Easy. Stay calm” were his words over and over again. In Cologne that’s easier said than done.