By Leo Linden
Though they have roots stretching back to the early 1900s, FC Koln has only existed in its current form since the end of World War II. Despite being a relatively newer club in the German football system, Koln came out of the gates in impressive fashion once the country organized a domestic league. But after spending almost all of their time until the turn of the century as a top-flight stalwart, Koln have faltered in recent seasons. For the past couple of years, it looked like they would be able to re-establish themselves in the top half of the Bundesliga, but this season has been a disaster for Die Geißböcke (The Billy Goats), and if they don’t act quickly, they will be back in the second tier with a major hole to dig themselves out of.
Founded as a merger between two older sides which folded, 1. FC Koln officially began play in 1948 in the Oberliga West, one of the top regional leagues in the country. By 1954, they had captured their first title in the league, and they tacked on four more (winning all four iterations between 1960 and 1963) before the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.
After their success in the Oberliga West, Koln were selected as one of the 16 founding members of the league, and they made good on that choice by the German Football Federation, winning the first-ever Bundesliga title by six points. Though they were able to hang near the top of the table for the next couple of decades (which included many second-place finishes), Koln found it difficult to repeat their title run.
They were able to produce in the DfB-Pokal, however, lifting the trophy in 1968 and 1977, with the latter setting up one of the best campaigns in club history. In the 1977-78 season, Die Geißböcke won the domestic double, edging Borussia Moenchengladbach in the league on goal differential and winning the Cup while allowing just a single goal in the competition. However, since then, Koln has managed just a single trophy, winning the 1982-83 Pokal in a local derby final against Fortuna Koln.
After narrowly missing league titles in 1989 and 1990 and finishing runners up in the cup in 1991, Koln laid to rest the club’s golden age and began a sharp decline. Before the turn of the century, Koln were relegated, and they have been riding the line between the top two flights in the years that have followed. Since their initial relegation in 1998, Koln have had five different stints in the 2. Bundesliga, with the most recent ending in 2014.
When Die Geißböcke most recently returned to the top flight (for the sixth time in history), it looked like they were trending up. A 12th-place finish in 2014-15 was followed by an even better ‘15-‘16 campaign that saw Koln finish ninth. Then, last year, the club did even better, finishing fifth in an incredibly tight race behind the top four. The result might have been misleading, however, as while they qualified for the Europa League, Koln were closer to the relegation zone than the top four at the end of the season. Those fears have been realized this season, as with European football on the schedule, the side appears to be stretched way too thin.
Last season’s catalyst was French striker Anthony Modeste, who smashed in 25 Bundesliga goals, third-best in the league behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski. However, with Koln smelling their last chance at a big payday for the 29-year-old, Modeste was strangely loaned to Tianjin Quanjian of the Chinese Super League this offseason in a deal that could be worth €6 million up front and an additional €29 million if the Chinese club exercises its option to
The loss of Modeste has rocked the club, and though they brought in Jhon Cordoba to pick up the slack, the 24-year-old Colombian — who has started seven of 10 Bundesliga matches — has yet to tally in the league this season. The side has scored just four Bundesliga goals (despite ranking mid-table in shots per game) so far and only one in three Europa League contests. The result is that Koln sit bottom of the table in both competitions without a win in either, and while going out in Europe might be slightly embarrassing considering their group contains BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade, the side’s issues in the Bundesliga are much more alarming.
Without just two points to their name, Koln are in deep trouble of letting their season slip away before the winter break. The defense has been just as miserable as the attack, allowing a league-worst 19 goals so far this season. The starting center backs, Dominique Heintz and Frederik Sorensen, lead a unit that has allowed more than 16 shots per game, also second-worst in the league, and the leaky backline doesn’t seem to have any let up. Highly touted 24-year-old keeper Timo Horn has been constantly under pressure all year, and he simply hasn’t been able to keep the onslaughts out.
Further ahead, the midfield has been reworked this season and can’t seem to get any continuity going, and if manager Peter Stoger can’t find some soon, his four-year tenure at the club will come to an end. Matthias Lehmann, Milos Jojic, and Leonardo Bittencourt simply haven’t been able to get their gears ticking despite each possessing a solid pedigree. The lone standout on the team so far has been 19-year-old homegrown midfielder Salih Ozcan, and while he has yet to produce a goal for his side this year in five league
That puts Koln in a less-than-favorable position, as they are currently counting on a teenager to lead their engine room, while their holdover veterans from last year are faltering. There’s little doubt that the side will be making a swift exit from the Europa League given its poor form in that competition, but that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Koln must now buckle down and find a way to start grinding out some results. At the moment, they are only five points out of 16th place (the relegation playoff) and just six out of 15th and total safety. For a side that finished in fifth last year, it certainly isn’t an impossible mountain to climb. If, however, their miserable form doesn’t improve, Koln will again find themselves wading through the 2. Bundesliga. It’s a position they have been in before, but for a club trying to again establish itself as a Bundesliga mainstay, it’s not a welcome sight.