Only the most prominent 1. FC Köln supporter refused to join in the fun on the stroke of five o’clock on Saturday. Eyewitnesses at the RheinEnergieStadion reliably claimed that Hennes VII, the four-legged football deity, bleated out a displeased “Määähhh!” as news of a goal from another stadium was read out over the public address system.
Bayern Munich had just conceded an equaliser to make it 2-2 away at 10-man Eintracht Frankfurt. Under normal circumstances, that turn of events would have done little to get fans in Cologne excited. But circumstances refuse to be normal this season. The champions’ misstep at the Commerzbank-Arena allowed Köln – yes: KÖLN – to close the gap at the top of the table to two points and allowed the faithful to connect with their inner John Lennon. Imagine. Imagine there is a heaven. “Deutscher Meister FC,” sang 50,000.
“It wasn’t jubilation, it was laughter,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger explained on Monday, in an effort to rebuff the popular stereotype that casts supporters of the Billy Goats as hysterical, reality-averse fantasists. “No FC fan seriously believes that his team are in a position to hunt down Bayern. It’s just an amusing thought. The fans are simply enjoying the fact that FC are currently playing well … after offering up mostly rubbish over the course of the last 20 years.” And who could blame them?
The 2-1 victory over Ingolstadt, a seventh game unbeaten, made it Köln’s best start to a Bundesliga season since 1963-64, the year of their first title. Coach Peter Stöger felt his men had coped well with the unexpected premise: “It’s new for us to talk about staying [in the top places] by winning a game. It’s a challenge you have to face. That’s not that easy, but the boys did very well.”
The next day, the Austrian sat at Sport1’s Doppelpass talk show and did one of the smartest things possible: he hardly talked and said even less. Repeatedly pressed on the secret of Köln’s success, the 50-year-old just smiled serenely and downplayed his considerable role in the team’s great run. Others might have taken the chance to talk tactics – Köln’s ability to frustrate better footballing sides with variable pressing methods is one of their most remarkable features – Stöger instead painted a picture of players given a lot of freedom “to do the right things on the pitch” and praised the squad’s collective ethos.
Judging by their super-solid performances so far, some good old-fashioned team spirit seems to go a long way. “Everyone has that special FC feeling,” Stöger said. Deputy keeper Thomas Kessler, Cologne-born and bred, told Süddeutsche Zeitung a few weeks ago that this team spend a lot of time together off the pitch, unlike in previous years. The culture of hanging out after training is so ingrained that players are almost embarrassed to stay at home with partners and families. “We’re having a lot of fun and joke about guys doing things with their girlfriends instead of the team,” Marco Höger said on Saturday. “We call that ‘having a concert at home’. That’s why we celebrated the goals that way.” Anthony Modeste’s two strikes in the first half were greeted by various players playing invisible instruments.
The Frenchman has got the whole team dancing to his tune these days. Seven goals in as many games have made the Blackburn Rovers legend the league’s most prolific forward. Maybe the secret isn’t such a secret after all: a hard-working, tactically astute team are lifted beyond mediocrity by virtue of a super-hot striker. Few teams can field an orthodox target man who’s as powerful and selfless as the 28-year-old who arrived in 2015 for €4.5m from Hoffenheim. “You can give it to his feet, you can hit him with a long ball or play a through-ball into space, he’s always available,” said Yannick Gerhardt. The 1.87m (6ft1in) tall athlete also doubles up as a fine defender, by hassling opposition playmakers and providing a quick escape route if Köln’s backline feel the pressure. Just dial up M for Mörder – Modeste is a killer in the best football sense. “He’s a machine,” said team-mate Dominique Heintz.
Born in Cannes to a family with roots in Martinique, Modeste took a long time to turn his considerable talent into useful numbers. A journeyman existence in France and Lancashire only evolved into a real career when Hoffenheim signed him in 2013. Köln were surprised they didn’t have to fight harder to buy him a couple of years later when Köln fan favourite (and occasional play-mate of Hennes VII) Anthony Ujah departed to Werder Bremen. “It wasn’t a complicated transfer,” said the general manager Jörg Schmadtke.
Modeste’s first season in Cologne (15 goals) was streaky but ultimately a triumph, and the current campaign could deliver more still. A new, improved contract in the summer until 2021, for a reported €2.5m per year, warded off what Modeste called a “megabucks” offer from China, and has seemingly concentrated his mind. “I think he feels he’s more under the spotlight now, and that he needs to deliver,” Stöger said on Sunday.
Like his coach, Modeste isn’t one for grandiose statements. He politely declined invitations to compare himself to strikers below him in the scoring charts, such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski. “I’m not at their level yet,” he said. If he can continue at this hit-rate, Köln will not only be in acute danger of finishing in the Europa League places (“We would take part,” Stöger said, with bone-dry humour) but also be forced to squeeze in a few dozen scouts from international top clubs in the home games. It’s a rather nice problem to have, though. Slowly but surely, Germany’s friendliest town is getting back onto the football map again.
• A 0-1 defeat at home to second-placed promoted/surprise contenders/destroyers of football RB Leipzig on Sunday was Dieter Hecking’s last game in charge for Wolfsburg. The Lower Saxons confirmed late on Monday afternoon that the 52-year-old had been relieved off his duties. Valérien Ismaël will take charge at VfL for the time being. 14th place in the table almost halfway into the Hinrunde was considered an unacceptable return for the manager who lifted the DFB Pokal in 2015. Widely seen as a calm, experienced operator, Hecking was unable to build a functioning side after the departure of Kevin de Bruyne; a good run in the Champions League in 2015-16 could only partially deflect the lack of consistent progress. In a league teeming with young, conceptual coaches determined to squeeze marginal gains out of their squads, Hecking’s old school style was ultimately shown up as outdated. The finger of blame must also point at sporting director Klaus Allofs, however. The €75m Wolves collected for De Bruyne weren’t that smartly reinvested, to say the least.
• The pressure is also beginning to mount on Carlo Ancelotti and his Bayern team. The aforementioned 2-2 draw at Frankfurt was considered unacceptable; “the attitude and everything else wasn’t right,” said Arjen Robben. In the first half, in particular, the Bavarians’ half-heartedness had reached new depths, allowing the hosts to shoot at Manuel Neuer’s goal almost at will. They played better in the second half, created enough chances to win and are still top of the table but the drastic drop in performance levels can no longer be overlooked that easily. Privately, Ancelotti has been told to push his stars a little more, as they struggle to adapt to a more comfortable life after the departure of Pep Guardiola. If Ancelotti doesn’t inject a bit of intensity his relatively poor league record (three championships in 20 years) might come into sharper focus soon.
• Bayern’s luck is that Dortmund, Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach all didn’t win either. The Black and Yellows only mustered a 1-1 draw against Hertha Berlin on Valentin’s day: Stocker, the Valentin in question, first scored and then received a nice (red) card, courtesy of a wild challenge on Matthias Ginter. Leverkusen slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Werder in another disappointing game, while Gladbach played a huge role in setting a new Bundesliga record of the unwanted type. Two penalty misses, from André Hahn and Lars Stindl, made it five misses from the spot last weekend. A root and branch review of German Elfmeterschießen prowess is becoming an urgent necessity.