Wrestling, rejection & unemployment: A tale of three Bundesliga keepers
In Monchengladbach back in May 2007, a 22-year-old goalkeeper by the name of Michael Rensing made his first league appearance of the season for Bayern Munich. The regular No. 1, Oliver Kahn, was nearing the end of his career and Rensing was being groomed as his successor.
On 50 minutes, you could see why the club had such high hopes. A great Peer Kluge strike from 16 yards should have made it 1-1, but Rensing was there and turned the shot around the post. At the same time 250 miles away, VfB Stuttgart's Timo Hildebrand was only rarely called into action as his team celebrated a comfortable victory over Mainz.
Hildebrand may have had some time to reflect on where his career was going, with his eighth season at the club set to be his last. Also still in the title race were Werder Bremen, and on the day after Stuttgart's win, they played away at Hertha Berlin. There had been a debate over Bremen's goalkeeping position during the preceding weeks.
After Tim Wiese had been sent off against Espanyol in the semifinal first leg of the UEFA Cup, Bremen's coach, Thomas Schaaf, decided to replace him with Andreas Reinke for the following league game. The idea was to give the stand-in some playing time ahead of the return game against Espanyol. However, Schaaf's plan wasn't popular with Wiese, who said: "Nobody understood this decision. I didn't, either."
In the end, the whole debate proved short-lived. Reinke made a costly mistake against Espanyol, and when Bremen took to the field in Berlin, Wiese went between the sticks. Werder won 4-1 and remained in contention. Although it's the oldest adage of all that football fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, we may safely assume that on this weekend seven years ago, none of those three men expected his career to derail as thoroughly as all of theirs eventually did.
Imagine telling Rensing in May 2007 that he would soon be a reserve keeper in the second division. Imagine warning Hildebrand that unemployment beckoned. And what would Wiese's reaction have been had you said he was going to flirt with a new career in professional wrestling because he wasn't wanted in football anymore?
All three men would have laughed in your face and quite rightly so. But as they say, it's a funny old game.
Rensing's downfall began with Bayern's infamous 5-1 defeat at Wolfsburg in April 2009. Jurgen Klinsmann replaced him with the veteran Hans-Jorg Butt, who promptly conceded four goals in 34 minutes away at Barcelona but was the new No. 1 until Louis van Gaal followed Klinsmann. The Dutchman put Rensing back between the sticks, but following a defeat away at Mainz in August 2009 during which Rensing gifted the opposition a goal, Van Gaal benched him and it became apparent the young man's future lay elsewhere.
He finally signed with Cologne after a six-month wait for a new club, and although he did well, the club didn't offer him a new deal upon relegation. A move to Bayer Leverkusen then followed, but when Rensing realised he would never be more than Leno's stand-in, he moved 20 miles up the river, joining second-division Fortuna Dusseldorf.
A few hours before the first game of the new season in July 2013, Dusseldorf's coach, Mike Buskens, told Rensing that he would be only the No. 2 goalkeeper behind Fabian Giefer. That's when Rensing lost his nerve, jumping into his car and driving off. Fortuna had to ring their No. 3 goalkeeper at home and ask him to come to the training ground as quickly as possible.
It was probably the low point of Rensing's strange, tumultuous career. Dusseldorf were about to release him from his contract and it's doubtful whether he would have quickly found a new club. But Rensing apologised and ruefully accepted the role of the benchwarmer. At the end of the season, Giefer left Fortuna. The club replaced him with former Schalke keeper Lars Unnerstall, but during the preseason preparations, it was Rensing who won the shirt with the No. 1. After more than a two-year wait, he was finally regularly playing league football again.
Don't look for him when Fortuna play away at FSV Frankfurt next Saturday, though. In mid-November, the club suddenly announced that Rensing was suffering from "problems with his back muscles" and he has been on the sidelines since. Last Wednesday, he attempted a comeback, but his back hurt so much he had to break off the training session.
The story of how Hildebrand ended up on the game's scrap heap is even more bewildering than Rensing's fall from grace. After winning the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007, he joined Valencia on a free transfer. That was the beginning of the downward slide, although his time in Spain wasn't quite as disastrous as it's now made out to be. In 2010, Hildebrand told 11Freunde magazine: "I fought against relegation. I sat on the bench. I sat in the stands. And yet I lifted the Spanish cup and played one of my best games ever, against Barcelona."
However, since Hildebrand couldn't really win the battle for the No. 1 shirt against Santiago Canizares, he lost his place in the Germany setup and didn't make the Euro 2008 squad.
In late 2008, Hildebrand dissolved his contract in Valencia and went back to Germany to join Hoffenheim, but in the 2009-10 season, he began to openly criticise the team, which didn't sit well with the club.
"I spoke out in public maybe two or three times," the goalkeeper told the Suddeutsche Zeitung toward the end of that season after Hoffenheim had announced they would not offer him a new contract.
"I think it's part of my responsibility to take a stance. Maybe that gave a false impression -- along the lines of: 'Hildebrand is always griping'. That impression is totally wrong."
He didn't get any attractive offers for around half a year before signing with Sporting Lisbon in September 2010, but it was another ill-fated move. Hildebrand stood no chance against Sporting's iconic goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, and didn't see action in a single league game. He left Portugal after the end of the season and was unemployed again.
His next chance was a temporary job at Schalke which led to a proper contract and even a brief spell as the team's regular keeper. But a combination of injuries and error-strewn performances saw him lose the No. 1 shirt yet again. In the summer of 2014, Hildebrand found himself between jobs once more until Eintracht Frankfurt asked him to lend a helping hand.
However, Kevin Trapp has been doing some light running exercises again since last week and is expected to return after the end of the winter break, leading to rumours that Hildebrand is going to join a Major League Soccer team in January.
First, though, there's the matter of Frankfurt's next game.
On Friday evening, Eintracht play away at Hoffenheim. It will be a special game for Hildebrand, even though he'll probably only watch it from the bench. After all, Hoffenheim is where it all went really wrong for him and it's also where it went wrong for Wiese. He, however, won't even be in the stands let alone on the bench. Wiese is still under contract at Hoffenheim until June 2016 but has been freed of all duties.
After seven seasons in Bremen, Wiese joined Hoffenheim in the summer of 2012. As he later disclosed in an interview with Bild, he'd also had an offer from Real Madrid, saying: "I spoke to Jose Mourinho on the phone and gave the matter some serious thought." In the end, he decided to stay in Germany.
Initially, it seemed he had made the right choice as Hoffenheim coach Markus Babbel made him the captain before he'd played a single game for the club. It was a premature move -- Wiese's first game was an embarrassing first-round cup defeat at the hands of fourth-division Berliner AK.
This ragtag group of students and semi-professionals beat Hoffenheim 4-0 and Wiese's disastrous mistake which led to the final goal marked the beginning of his strenuous relationship with the fans and the press.
He has always been a rather flamboyant and extroverted goalkeeper, an alumni of the Kaiserslautern school of goalkeeping run by Gerald Ehrmann, a former Bundesliga keeper. Ehrmann's charges are often goalkeepers who rely on their physical presence and prefer spectacular diving saves to sound positional play.
Few players exemplified this approach better than Wiese. It made him, the high-profile signing, an easy target when Hoffenheim, the former village team that had been carefully and patiently built, imploded during the season. In December, the team sank into the relegation zone and Wiese lost his place in the starting XI. In March he was suspended for disciplinary reasons and became part of a group of players who had to train on their own and were openly called surplus to requirements.
Most of the other players in this group, for instance Matthieu Delpierre, Eren Derdiyok and Edson Braafheid, have since joined new clubs. But Wiese is still technically a Hoffenheim player. In January 2014, the club paid him a considerable sum, but not to dissolve his contract, as it was first claimed.
As club CEO Peter Rettig said: "We have found a solution where we go our separate ways but which still leaves us options."
It means Wiese is now on substantially reduced wages and doesn't even live in the Hoffenheim region anymore, but if he decides to continue his career in football, his new club has to pay Hoffenheim a transfer sum.
That, however, seems very unlikely. "You have to be realistic," Wiese said in November, a few days before he made a brief appearance alongside a tag team from Samoa in a wrestling ring.
"My last game was against [Eintracht] Frankfurt, more than one and a half years ago. So I don't expect to make a comeback in goal."
It just goes to show -- enjoy your career while you can, because tomorrow it could all change.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.