Not only on the Rhine do you rub your eyes: what happened to FC? Cologne have not been more successful and consistent than this season for three decades. For older fans, the unconditional offensive is like balsalm. For younger ones it is a promise.
By February at the latest, it became clear to Cologne football fans that something would be possible like it hadn't been for a long, long time. The daughter of Steffen Baumgart, FC coach, published a video on Instagram from the corona isolation: The recording showed her father shouting down the opponent in front of the television and shouting his own players forward. The massive dog stood up several times and presumably tried to calm his raging master with all his paws. Demonstrably in vain.
Even without their head coach, Cologne won 1-0 on the sidelines against SC Freiburg, a surprise candidate for the Champions League. And how: 19-year-old Jan Thielmann had put the ball past new national player Nico Schlotterbeck with his heel on the center line, ran away from him, put it across the penalty area to Anthony Modeste, who naturally took the ball directly and circled it into the corner. It was a surgically effective counter. After this 21st matchday, FC was only two points behind a place in the Champions League, just one point less than in the entire previous season.
What had happened to the club that had taken fire brigade coach Friedhelm Funkel out of football pension the year before and kept the class with oh and nosh over the relegation? How could an almost identical squad suddenly be within striking distance of the gold standard of football competitions?
After the undeserved 0-1 defeat against Wolfsburg on matchday 33 - only a few times since the start of the survey in the Bundesliga has a team had so many goals without a goal - the Cologne team said goodbye to a possible participation in the Champions League. But the Conference League playoffs are already certain, the Europa League is still possible if Union Berlin does not win against Bochum. The advantage of the Europa League would be to be able to start directly in the group, which means more games and more income. But, as can be heard from many corners of the fan base, it doesn't really matter; Europe is Europe.
FC has had a great season. You can put that into simple data, because the club from Cologne's green belt has set several records in the recent past. Most importantly, the club has scored the most points in 30 years. Yes, this is no mistake and no exaggeration. thirty years. Back then, FC ended up fourth; Jörg Berger was the coach, Bodo Illgner kept goal with world champion glory, Pierre Littbarski bent his legs around the ball and Frank "Otze" Ordenewitz put him in goal. But after that it went downhill, in 1998 the former permanent guest of the European competitions took the elevator between the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga.
The beginning of the now ending season was one like many before. There were doubts, but a faint hope that at least we could have a relatively quiet year in the Bundesliga. Too often, however, new coaches, sports directors or someone else had pulled up at Geißbockheim and boasted that everything would be better now, that they would bring the club back to its old glory, of course with exciting football in the medium term. Nobody has managed that over a first division season. Baumgart does. Because an entire season in which the team delivers almost consistently, can pull through their own style almost regardless of the opponent, even dominates against top teams like Dortmund or Leipzig on good days with pressing and constant pressure - you haven't seen that in Müngersdorf for a long time . There is no restraint, there is only one direction, forward.
When Baumgart started at FC, he still had something to show: he also distracted himself. "There is no quiet season in Cologne," he said humbly, regardless of whether he was successful or not. It's simply about acting as a unit with everyone in the club and "making the people of the city proud". The longer the season lasted, the more frequently it became apparent, in addition to the team's new self-confidence, the knowledge of human nature with which the Rostocker had dropped his anchor on the Rhine.
Baumgart recently gave an interview, where he answered in the way you can only do it when you get involved with people. "In this city, the club is the biggest focal point," he said. "We can talk about carnival, about the cathedral, but the biggest thing in this city is this club. And it also unites the city." That's not the case everywhere, really all Cologne fans are here, even the dogs are named after the players. "And now people have the chance to see the club where they always wanted it to be." No one talks like that who drives up to the training ground like some of his predecessors and then disappears back into the chic Hahnwald or hotel.
In the past few decades there have been enough examples of where big promises and plans have led. One story in particular has often been told, but is indicative of the failings of the past. When Michael Meier returned to Cologne as manager of Dortmund in 2005, he missed the "elitist arrogance" at Geißbockheim of the past, when it smelled of past titles right into the players' cabins. Like in the late 1980s, when he won the runners-up championship with the up-and-coming Christoph Daum. Meier wanted to revive those times with expensive players, but was dismissed in 2010 for lack of success. Volker Finke, the Freiburg icon, inherited a mountain of debt and was unable to assert himself with his long-term ideas for squad development. And the elevator always called to the second division.
After that came comparatively quiet years in which FC under sports director Jörg Schmadtke and coach Peter Stöger presented themselves as stable in the 1st Bundesliga and emotionally qualified for the Europa League in 2016/17. The city dreamed of a more successful future given the constantly positive development of the team. But at that time, a stable defense at the back, Anthony Modeste in the best shape of his career at the front and weakening competitors at the right time helped. Striker Modeste went to China ahead of the following season, Jonas Hector was injured early in the season and many more followed. The evil took its course, Stöger and Schmadtke were dismissed, Cologne was relegated and everything started all over again.
Baumgart had signed for both leagues last season, when FC could easily have been relegated. After relegation, sports director Horst Heldt was dismissed - who, it is said, initially wanted to sign Thorsten Fink, but was overruled internally - and Jörg Jakobs stepped in again, the squad planner, who is said to have played a decisive role in the previous European Cup entry. Some say that the sports director at the time, Jörg Schmadtke, also failed because Jakobs didn't have the backing in Cologne.
The almost relegation squad from 2021 stayed together for this season, but at Heldt's previous instigation three key players were added free of charge: Mark Uth, a man behind the top with vision and stable smell, the swirly Dejan Ljubicic, who at times reminds of Thomas Müller and himself developed into an offensive all-purpose weapon. Last but not least, Marvin Schwäbe was also signed for the goal. Baumgart was self-confident from the start, never talking about a first team, but about the importance of each individual. Significant how he respected the merits of FC homegrown Timo Horn in goal and made Schwäbe number 1 at the right moment. He played a big part in the excellent second half of the season - because of Cologne's offensive style of play, opponents regularly appear in 1-on-1 in front of his goal. Schwäbe often remains the winner and thus saves points.
The emphasis on the importance of the whole squad is not just phrases, which earns Baumgart respect from fans and team. The players regularly pay it back with decisive actions, most recently in the spectacular home win against Mainz, when three goals followed from a 2-0 deficit after a triple substitution. Also exemplary: The transformation of Benno Schmitz. For a long time, the right-back was hardly considered suitable for the Bundesliga, allowed himself to be bought off too often and was only used due to a lack of alternatives. Now he is called "Cafú" in FC circles because of his runs and crosses. Speaking of which, it's hard to believe, but: In the five top European leagues no team has hit more crosses per game this season than Cologne. They top the rankings ahead of Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Inter Milan.
If you take the current season as a benchmark, there has obviously been a learning process in the management and in the club's environment. Baumgart was offered the job after a selection process. The new combination of managing director Philipp Türoff and sports director Christian Keller was installed with great care and in advance. After taking office in 2019, President Werner Wolf - a former managing director from business - initially attracted attention with at least clumsy decisions. For example, in the farce about a new media director, who was sawed off again before he started, or in the early contract extension of coach Markus Gisdol after a series of defeats. Everything seemed to be the same as always at Geißbockheim: brief periods of rest were followed by supposedly cleansing chaos. But stability almost never.
But in view of the best season in decades, a similarly weak following season as 2017/18 is hard to imagine. When Baumgart was asked before the season finale in Stuttgart about his route for the Europa League game, he replied: "Just full throttle forward, that's the important thing." Words that really everyone understands. Of course there is a lot more work behind it, but it doesn't take place on the microphone.
Those over 40 still remember the times when Cologne played for international places as a matter of course. For them, qualifying for Europe is also balm for childhood and youth memories. The younger ones long to experience this for themselves: Baumgart "fills a gap that has existed for a long time here in the club and in professional football in general, makes pithy statements," said Stephan Schell, spokesman for the Ultras "Wilde Horde". "It's nice to have someone who can do it with simple means." In addition to the success that can be counted and the energy on the pitch, this down-to-earth, simple speech by the coach has reconciled the Cologne fans with their club. And lets them dream of a sunnier future. If they show a bystander the final table, they will be able to say almost ironically this summer: "We missed the Champions League."
But apparently there is a certain realism in Cologne despite the success. "The Conference League is getting so awesome," was the headline in the "Express", the city's largest tabloid, which is not known for its reserved headlines. And when journalists asked Baumgart how the Kölner Bank in Stuttgart would deal with the chance of the Europa League and the intermediate results from the other stadiums, they were once again explained the Cologne game principle, which worked extremely well. "They can't interest us," said the coach, demonstratively irritated: "Because we have to play forward." It's that easy now at FC.