16th place, Bundesliga
By Daniel Rubens
One of Germany’s most storied and successful clubs, Werder Bremen have fallen on hard times. The Northern side has won the third-most domestic trophies of any team in Germany and was playing in the Champions League as recently as five years ago. Since then, however, Die Werderaner (the River Islanders) have slipped into mediocrity, which is now threatening to turn into disaster, as the Bremen-based side has just three games remaining in its season to find a way out of major trouble.
The club was initially founded in 1899 as Fussballverein Werder by a group of 16 high school
By 1920, the club had grown, with interest in other activities, which led to its rebranding as Sportverein Werder Bremen. Within two years, Werder became the first side in Germany to hire a professional coach, but that didn’t lead to any national success, as they generally fell one step short of qualifying for the country’s football championship by losing in the Northern regional playoffs.
Things changed when German football was rearranged under the Third Reich in 1933. Now separated into one of 16 first-division leagues called Gauligen, Werder achieved its first major accomplishments, winning the Gauliga Niedersachsen three times in four years and playing in the national tournament as a result. However, as World War II evolved, the Gauligen were made more and more local, and by 1945, after one more wartime title and the Allied victory, Werder were temporarily disbanded along with many others throughout Germany.
That didn’t last long, as the club re-formed by November 1945, and they again participated in a playoff tournament that year. Over the ensuing decade-and-a-half, Werder steadily established themselves as one of the two premier clubs in Northern Germany, along with Hamburg, which led to the gradual development of a rivalry that’s still heated today (called the Nordderby).
Their regional success finally reached a national stage in 1961, when Werder won their first DfB-Pokal title, beating Kaiserslautern 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen. The honors kept coming, as Werder were charter members of the Bundesliga in 1963 and won the title the following year. They would finish second in 1967-68, but the River Islanders then experienced a sharp drop into the bottom half of the table. The club attempted to stop the rot with a handful of high-priced signings, but these backfired, as they became derisively known as “The Millionaires” and proceeded to fall victim to relegation after the 1980-81 season.
Quickly, though, Werder’s fortunes turned around. They were promoted the following season (the only time in their history they’ve needed to be) by winning the 2. Bundesliga in the first year of Otto Rehhagel’s extended reign at the helm of the club, then finished second in 1983, 1985, and 1986 before breaking back into the winner’s circle in 1988. They then won the DfB-Pokal again in 1991 and followed that by taking home the European Cup Winners’ Cup, to this day Werder’s greatest continental success.
Rehhagel led the side to another league title in 1993 and another cup win the year after, finally leaving for
His departure left Werder in a big hole, and they quickly slipped back into the bottom half of the table. By May of 1999, they were flirting with the relegation zone, and longtime defender Thomas Schaaf — who spent 17 seasons as a player for the River Islanders — was tasked with saving the side from the drop. He did that and more, lifting the club to safety on the final day of the season and helping win another cup title shortly thereafter.
Thus began another long and successful managerial reign at Werder. Schaaf once again brought the club stability and led it straight back up the table, leading to a sensational double in 2003-04 in which they topped the Bundesliga by six points over Bayern Munich (with Brazilian forward Ailton leading the league with 28 goals) and defeated Alemannia Aachen in the DfB-Pokal final. They would play in the Champions League in each of the next five seasons, although the River Islanders never made it past the Round of 16 (they did make a UEFA Cup final after dropping down to the lesser competition in 2008-09,
But over the next few years, the River Islanders again fell down into the lower depths of the Bundesliga table. A 14th-place finish in 2012-13 saw the end of Schaaf’s lengthy run with the club, and they appeared to have stopped the slide as Robin Dutt led Werder to 12th place in 2013-14 and Viktor Skrypnyk lifted them two more places the following season.
This year began with a lot of promise after the previous two seasons brought the club back to respectability, but after a decent start in which they won two of their first four games, Werder fell off a cliff. The River Islanders lost five games in a row to slip into 16th for the first time, and after winning two of their next three games, they proceeded to win just one of their next 11. They stopped the bleeding with back-to-back 4-1 wins in March over Leverkusen and Hannover that lifted Werder to 13th, but a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Bayern sent the club back into a spiral.
Now, with just three games remaining, Werder find themselves in serious trouble. They currently sit in 16th, the relegation playoff place, two points from safety. However, they are still in danger of slipping into the automatic relegation places, as they sit just a point above Eintracht Frankfurt and must play them on the final day (albeit at home). They face Stuttgart this weekend, the side perched two points ahead of them, so a loss could see Bremen slip well away from safety. They have their destiny in their own hands, but if Werder is to continue its lengthy stay in the top flight, they’re going to need to act fast.