German football is littered with so-called ‘forgotten clubs’ - Sides who once graced the top tiers, only to fall out of the conscious thinking of fans as time, inevitably, eroded the landscape of the beautiful game and formed something new, something now familiar. One of these clubs is Kickers Offenbach, who find themselves in the fourth division of German football - The Regionalliga Südwest, to be exact - Far from the booming Bundesliga, the television exposure and the eager eyes of football lovers all around the world. However, just because they may not be of much relevance in this day and age to you and me, it is worth delving into a fascinating history that is unique and generously inviting to the eternally curious mind.
Kickers Offenbach did, in fact, play a huge role in shaping football in Germany as it is today - Irreversibly contributing to the game becoming fully professional, rather than remaining a ‘noble’, unpaid hobby. The club was at the very heart of the Bundesliga Scandal in 1971, which saw widespread bribery and payoffs marring the transparency and ethics of football. Then-Club President Horst Canellas initiated the winds of change by reporting to the DFB after a player from another club demanded a cash bonus for defeating a relegation rival of Kickers Offenbach - Strictly disallowed in the amateur era. However, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye, leading Horst Canellas to collect evidence on his own in order to expose the culture of illegal payments and bribery that reigned in that era. Finally, almost fifty players from several different clubs, two coaches and six officials were found guilty of match fixing, but it was sadly too little, too late for Kickers Offenbach as the main antagonist in the whole saga, Arminia Bielefeld, escaped punishment until the next season, dooming Kickers to relegation.
Although this whole saga initially had a very negative impact on the still-young Bundesliga with attendance figures plummeting, it did lead to salary restrictions being removed and - Most crucially - The 2.Bundesliga also becoming professional, immediately leading to a decrease in match-fixing and illegal payments due to the fact that footballers in relegation-threatened teams did not face losing their livelihood and professional status when going down a notch in the German football pyramid. But as these things tend to work, the club responsible for this widespread change found itself in the second division, and facing a steady downward spiral characterized by financial woe and tantalizingly infrequent and short-lived returns to top tier football. Currently in the Regionalliga, Kickers Offenbach moved into the new Sparda Bank Hessen Stadium in 2012, and were ironically denied a 3.Liga licence the next season due to not meeting the financial criteria required to play in the German third division through being €9 million in debt. In fact, the situation was so precarious that Kickers faced insolvency, which would have meant restarting at the very lowest level of the football league system. However, despite all these mixed fortunes, the club is still one of the best supported lower league clubs in the world - And, strangely, the intriguingly dramatic nature of the club and its history might even contribute their ever-growing fanbase.
Founded on 27 May 1901 by a number of established local footballers who had decided to leave their respective clubs, Kickers Offenbach became one of the founding members of the Nordkreis-Liga in 1909, where they competed with moderate success until the outbreak of World War I. After the war, Kickers united with VfB 1900 Offenbach, entering the Kreisliga Südmain and subsequently winning the competition in 1920, 1922 and 1923. Before the reorganization of football in 1933 under the Third Reich, the club entered the Bezirksliga Main-Hessen and established itself as a mid-table regular, but found itself moved to the Gauliga Südwest where Kickers Offenbach immediately captured the division title, heading to the national play-offs for the very first time. Although the club struggled on a national scale at that stage, on one occasion being thrashed 6-0 in the semi-finals by Schalke (The dominating force in German football in that era), it was a highly successful time as Kickers won their divisional title five consecutive times between 1940 and 1944. However, the Gauliga Südwest was then split into the Gauliga Hessen-Nassau - Where Kickers played - And the Gauliga Westmark. The outbreak of World War II put an end to these leagues, though, ushering in a quite obscure decade or so of football for the club, leading to Kickers Offenbach having to play in the then-second division Regionalliga Süd as the age of the Bundesliga dawned.
A first taste of the Bundesliga finally came in 1968 as Kickers gained promotion, but it was to be an all-too-fleeting experience as immediate relegation followed. Kickers Offenbach would find themselves back in the top tier yet again in the 1970-1971 season, however, which saw a historic DFB Pokal triumph in 1970 with a 2-1 win over 1.FC Köln in the final, before the crushing Bundesliga Scandal and subsequent relegation, where the next seven years would be spent without much success in the 2.Bundesliga. Another trip to the top tier of German football lasted for only one season in 1983-1984, before 1985 started to bring the financial troubles that would go on to plague Kickers for much of the next three decades - The club was penalized points for their monetary troubles, which ensured relegation to the then-third-tier Oberliga Hessen. They recovered in a sporting sense by 1989, but were dealt a crippling blow by being refused a licence due to continued losses and financial irresponsibility. By the mid-1990’s, Kickers Offenbach had slipped all the way down to the fourth-tier Oberliga Hessen, losing in the 1994 national amateur championship final against SC Preußen Münster. Their return to the 2.Bundesliga in 1999 after a period of positive progression yielded a national amateur championship title, but their second-division adventure yet again only lasted one solitary season.
Things continued very much in the same vein for Kickers as the new millennium dawned, with a steady season-by-season improvement in the third-division leading to another disappointingly short stay in the 2.Bundesliga, with a three-year stint put to an end in 2008 thanks to a final day loss against fellow relegation battlers VfL Osnabrück. Kickers Offenbach performed with moderate success in 3.Liga for a number of seasons, before their investment in their new Sparda Bank Hessen Stadium lead to the refusal of a new licence, massive debts and the now-inevitable return to their spiritual home, the Regionalliga Südwest, where they started their post-war play. Kickers had well and truly come full circle, but their fans remain some of the most fiercely loyal in Germany, and one cannot help but wonder when that next spirited charge up the divisions will come for a new generation of football fans to make their acquaintance with this unique club.
The club responsible for initiating the movement to make football in Germany fully professional, stamping out match-fixing and all unsavory aspects that blighted the game in those early days when the men playing the sport they loved never knew whether relegation was going to mean the cut-off of their income finds itself far, far detached from the Bundesliga and its ever growing allure to the sponsors, the broadcasters and, most crucially, the global audience. But, while memory might fail us, the fact is that Kickers Offenbach will forever be etched in the history books, and one feels their rise from the obscure is an inevitable eventuality.
Do yourself a favor when the DFB Pokal comes around again; Look out for Kickers, and do anything in your power to have a look - Be a small part of German football history.