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FC Kale: ships, sprouts, and the collapse of a leafy green empire

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Die Sprouts have had a steady record of dominance in the computer generated Bundesliga, despite hard times in the past. Read about their glorious history.

FC Kale
Jefferson Fenner/Bavarian Football Works

What do an Englishman, a shipyard and World War II have to do with one of the best teams in German football? Well, just ask the fans of FC Kale, and they will tell you that it’s everything about the club.

Located in Kiel, a major shipbuilding city and the capital of the province of Schleswig-Holstein, FC Kale rose to prominence in the mid-1980’s and have remained in the top flight of the Computer Generated Bundesliga ever since.

But as they enter this season with lowered expectations, debate is raging in the German football media as to whether FC Kale’s fanbase will remain as loyal as they have been in the past. When the salad eventually gets tossed, what happens to Kale is the subject of wide speculation. The club is no stranger to the lower leagues, but after a run of top flight Fußball since 1981, this may be one of the most historic collapses in the league’s history.

Beginnings: an English game

FC Kale was founded in 1889 by an Englishman named Johnathan Wright. Wright, from the city of Nottingham, came to Germany with fellow British iron-workers to work in one of the largest cities in the ship building industry. En route to Kiel, Wright met eight other English football fans and they established their own club, known as the Kale British Ship-Workers Football Club. No one informed Wright at the time that his destination was spelled Kiel, not Kale. When and whether Wright discovered the misspelling is a matter of club lore.

Kale soon began to swallow up smaller teams of the early league, becoming one of the largest clubs in northern Germany, even rivaling the great teams from Hamburg. The club’s name was shortened to FC Kale, despite the incorrect spelling, as KBSWFC seemed too long even to the club’s German fans. Many of the ship workers played for the club and the original crest was a red anchor, representing the industry as well as the color of the city flag. This design element is reflected in the current club logo, redesigned in 2015, though some claim it symbolizes the team’s sinking ship since then.

1920—1970: FC Kale who?

From 1920 to 1936, the football at FC Kale was nothing extraordinary. Their highest finish was fourth in the Holsteinliga in 1928, while their lowest point was in 1933, when they barely survived relegation in 9th place out of 12. At that point, the British founders of the club sensed the impending danger of the next decade and fled Germany in 1938. The club was dormant from 1940-1945, as Hitler excluded them from the Gauliga on account of their non-German origins. Most of the players either joined the German Navy or built the ships the sailors used.

After the war, the British founders returned to Kiel to find it bombed out by the Allies. A few players had survived, though, and in a strong gesture of rebuilding and reconciliation, revived the club. When the Bundesliga began in 1963, FC Kale started in the 3. Bundesliga. From 1963-1969, Kale was a mostly mid-table side. But, in the 1969-70 season, FC Kale, led by two 18-year-olds in sweeper Maximilian Schleiermacher and striker Janik Baumeister, ran the table and earned promotion to the 2. Bundesliga.

1971—2010: Budding success

The season after they earned promotion, FC Kale went all the way to the semifinals of the DFB-Pokal, where they lost on a questionable penalty decision to FSV Frankenstein. Both Schleiermacher and Baumeister were called up to the German national team for the 1974 Computer Generated World Cup. From there, lured by the fame of FC Kale’s stars, young German players flocked to the club, establishing the club’s tradition of relying on mostly homegrown players.

By 1976, FC Kale had made it to the 1. Bundesliga, winning their first DFB Pokal in 1978 and their first Bundesliga title in 1981. The team won its second Bundesliga title in 1988 and really emerged as a powerhouse by the early 1990s. This was a period of sublime soccer superiority under new manager Eckhard Lutz. Lutz’s men won two Bundesliga titles, three Pokals, and in 1998, achieved the ultimate accomplishment by winning the Champions League.

This period also witnessed a budding rivalry: from 1994-1995 to the 1997-1998 seasons, FC Budz and FC Kale alternated as champions. That rivalry persisted throughout the 2000s, although FC Kale was somewhat eclipsed at the top of the Bundesliga table by the Budz and other upstart clubs.

2010s to today: a new leaf

By 2010, hipsters across Europe took note of the FC Kale’s healthy name, tradition of homegrown talent, and welcoming atmosphere. Soon FC Kale became a beacon for Pride-flag-waving, Antifa-supporting, anti-corporate socialist youngsters in Germany and in the footballing world. The fans took it upon themselves to build their new arena using supplies provided by now defunct local shipyards and the remnants of old barns. The resulting Kale Arena is a monument to all things green. Every food item sold at the grounds was vegan and fair trade; the only beer sold is a $15 IPA at 8.7% ABV; and instead of drums, the music of Avicii (Rest in Peace) filled the stands. The product on the pitch was decent. The Sprouts won their most recent title in 2015 in front of a sold out crowd.

When club legend Eckhard Lutz, who had assumed the role of club president for the past ten years, at last retired after the 2015 season, the club experienced a growing pains. Few corporate sponsors were interested in FC Kale, which seemed unpalatably green, and in an era of big money signings, a the club’s traditional reliance on homegrown talent began to reach its limits, as the crop of prospects diminished. In 2016, the club finished 9th place in the Bundesliga, their lowest finish since 1986.

The hipsters abandoned FC Kale and moved on to new clubs, like FC Budz in East Germany, RRK 90 Luty-Gland, and others. Buoyed by the support, the Budz won the next two league titles. All competitions between the two clubs are now bitter affairs. In Kiel, they call it the “Fair-Trade, Organic, Locally Sourced, 100% German Derby” — in the tiny town Budz, they just call it the Kräuterkrieg, the “War of the Herbs.”

The future of that rivalry, however, is now in jeopardy. 2017 saw FC Kale finish even lower on the table, 13th, as most of the homegrown talent has wilted or been plucked by bigger-name clubs. At Christmas of 2018, FC Kale are bottom of the table on five points and most fans and pundits believe the club will face relegation or worse, consolidation. A new sponsorship deal with Whole Foods may blossom into something more. But only time will tell whether FC Kale can sprout anew or will wilt away.

Jake Fenner/Bavarian Football Works