Just one year on from the bitter disappointment of the second relegation in their history, four-time Bundesliga champions Werder Bremen are back at German football’s top table, bouncing back at the first time of asking.
Like the last time they went down, in 1979/80, Bremen have stormed straight back after just one season in Bundesliga 2, with a canny resemblance to their last promotion, which augurs well for their first campaign back in the Bundesliga.
Bremen ended the 1980/81 season with a different coach to the one they started the season with, Otto Rehhagel replacing Kuno Klötzer in April with promotion anything but certain. This time, Ole Werner took over the reins in November after Markus Anfang had started the season in charge, and Werner has transformed their fortunes in the same way Rehhagel did to get them across the line 41 years ago.
“We want Bremen to do more than just try to stay up when we’re back in the Bundesliga,” team manager Rudi Assauer said amidst the 1981 promotion celebrations, and his ambition was justified as they finished fifth on their return to the top flight.
Bremen fans can now hope history repeats itself in 2022/23, as one of the league’s founding members look to re-establish themselves as a leading light of German football.
Watch: The best of Werder under Werner
Bremen came 10th in the inaugural 1963/64 Bundesliga season and just 12 months later, in the year of the city of Bremen’s 1,000th anniversary, the club’s so-called ‘Team without stars’ were crowned Bundesliga champions. They have since won Germany’s top division three times, a feat bettered by only Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach, just Bayern can count more runners-up finishes than their seven – and they missed out on the 1982/83 and 1985/86 titles only on goal difference.
Those near misses both came during a memorable 14-year spell under Rehhagel, who really put Bremen on the map both at home and in Europe, making them the most tenacious challengers to Bayern during that period. Rehhagel won two Bundesliga titles (1987/88, 1992/93), finished runner-up four times, claimed a pair of DFB Cups (1990/91, 1993/94) as well as the 1991/92 UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup.
There were other stunning European successes, such as the 5-1 demolition of Diego Maradona’s Napoli – the reigning champions – in the 1989/90 UEFA Cup, and Rehhagel also guided Werder into the freshly rebranded UEFA Champions League group stage – the first German club to do so – in 1993/94.
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He oversaw the development of the likes of Rudi Völler, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Dieter Eilts and Mario Basler, taking their fledgling promise and turning them into world-class players. While his Euro 2004-winning Greece side were chillingly pragmatic, Rehhagel’s Bremen were doted with a healthy dose of panache. “In this business, there is only one truth,” he said. “The ball has to go in the net.”
Next to guide Bremen to glory was Thomas Schaaf, who played his whole career at Bremen and was a cornerstone of ‘King Otto’s’ side. He took charge late in the 1998/99 season to save his beloved club from relegation and went on to orchestrate a famous 1998/99 DFB Cup final win over Bayern and emulate his former boss with 14 successive years on the Weserstadion bench.
Best known for putting together a brilliant side that were undisputed top dogs in Germany in the 2003/04 season, Schaaf’s exciting, unstoppable attacking trio of French playmaker Johan ‘Le Chef’ Micoud, Croatian forward Ivan Klasnic, and Brazilian goal-getter Ailton, who would finish the season as the Bundesliga’s leading scorer, were setting tongues wagging all across the continent.
After claiming top spot in the table on Matchday 16, they never relinquished their grip thanks to a 23-game unbeaten run, scoring more goals than any other side, and clinching the title in style thanks to a 3-1 win at Bayern with two games of the season to spare.
Bundesliga 2 outfit Alemannia Aachen were then beaten in a thrilling 3-2 DFB Cup final win, and Bremen had the first – and to date, only – double in their history. “It was more than something special,” said Schaaf. “The way we did it, the football we played… it was exceptional.”
Schaaf returned to try unsuccessfully to save Bremen from the drop on the final day of the 2020/21 campaign, but his previous achievements belong in Bremen and Bundesliga folklore, and now it is the turn of Werner to restore Werder to their rightful place – not just in the Bundesliga, but back on the European map.
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