How Monchengladbach vs. Cologne became one of Germany's best rivalries
The Ruhr valley, the densely populated industrial area in the west of Germany which roughly stretches from Duisburg to Dortmund, is widely regarded as the heartland of the domestic game and home to the most heated rivalries. A 2002 book about football in this region carries the title "In the Land of a Thousand Derbies" in which Dortmund vs. Schalke is the best known rivalry.
However, there is another region, almost literally just around the corner from the Ruhr valley, in which hot-blooded derbies are just as commonplace: the Rhineland. Although people from the Ruhr area generally scoff at the notion, football is just as passionately felt in that region along the river Rhine, which runs from Dusseldorf in the north to Cologne in the south.
Actually, it's hard to say where the Ruhr valley ends and the Rhineland begins. When you drive through Duisburg towards the Dutch border, you cross the river Rhine. That's why some people claim the city for the Rhineland rather than the Ruhr valley.
But even if you exclude Duisburg, the region has plenty of local animosities. The website derbys.org refers to no less than four different clashes as the Rhine Derby or the Rhineland Derby.
There's little doubt, though, which one is the big one. It's 1. FC Koln (Cologne) versus Borussia Monchengladbach. Saturday's game will be the 117th competitive encounter between the two rivals, who were once compared to Batman and the Joker by the "Rheinische Post" newspaper; the idea being that the clubs are sworn enemies and yet somehow alter egos of each other.
There is certainly no love lost between Koln and Gladbach. Last season, Gladbach's Norwegian midfielder Havard Nordtveit stated: "Putting it in somewhat exaggerated terms, we can get relegated but we must not lose against Koln." And Koln's Jonas Hector was just as succinct: "For our fans, this is the match of the year."
And yet there are some strange things about this derby. For one, the two clubs cannot be called close neighbours (their grounds are 35 miles apart), which is why both have older, more natural rivals. For example, you can travel from Monchengladbach to Dusseldorf in just 20 minutes. And for a while Borussia even crossed swords with a truly local rival, Rheydter Spielverein.
Rheydt is a borough of Monchengladbach and while the local club now plays at the lowest rung of the amateur game, they used to be quite good. In 1953-54, coached by a man from Cologne called Hennes Weisweiler, Rheydter Spielverein competed alongside Borussia Monchengladbach in the Oberliga West, then one of the five regional leagues that formed the top level of the German game.
Koln had lots of potential local rivals, too. There was Preussen Dellbruck, from the east of Cologne, who reached the semifinals of the national championship in 1950. Dusseldorf would have made for another fine competitor, because the two cities nurture a famous rivalry. And Bayer Leverkusen are based just a stone's throw across the river Rhine.
However, Koln's peculiar history may explain why it was Gladbach that eventually emerged as their fiercest rival. 1. FC Koln came into being when two Cologne clubs merged in February 1948. The aim was to establish one premier club in the city (hence the "1." prefix), a side that would be able to contend for the highest honours.
Not unlike Bayern Munich a couple of decades later, Koln thought and acted nationally, even internationally, rather than regionally, which was still the norm throughout the German game in those pre-Bundesliga days of the 1950s.
And so Koln established early rivalries with teams that competed with them for the Oberliga West title or the national championship, such as Borussia Dortmund. Gladbach just didn't matter in this regard. Until the restructuring of the league system in 1963, the club only once finished in the top half of the Oberliga West table.
It was, ironically and crucially, a man born and bred in Cologne who changed all that. In 1964, a few weeks before Koln -- to nobody's surprise -- won the inaugural Bundesliga season, Weisweiler took over Gladbach, then in the second division.
Part of the reason was that Weisweiler saw some potential in local kids such as Jupp Heynckes and Gunter Netzer. But his decision was also a pragmatic one: taking charge of Monchengladbach allowed him to keep his other job -- handing out coaching badges at the German Sport University in Cologne.
Under Weisweiler, Gladbach became a force to be reckoned with. In 1965, while Koln finished runners-up in the league and also lost an epic European Cup quarterfinal against Liverpool, Borussia won promotion to the Bundesliga. And during the ensuing years, power gradually shifted. Koln never fulfilled their promise to become the league's all-conquering team. During the decade that followed, the domestic game would be controlled by Bayern -- and Gladbach.
Understandably, Koln resented this development. Competing with Dortmund or even Dusseldorf was one matter, finishing behind a club many people from Cologne (which was then almost six times the size of Monchengladbach) considered an upstart from the boondocks was another one altogether.
Gladbach, meanwhile, may have fought Bayern for silverware, but they never lost sight of Koln. "The reason was that we had a coach who lived in Cologne," former Gladbach player Christian Kulik said in an interview last year. "He really stirred us up. Beating Koln was more important than the games against Bayern."
In 1973, the two rivals contested arguably the best cup final in German football history, won by Borussia when Netzer brought himself on to score a wonder goal in extra time. Two years later, Weisweiler left Gladbach to coach Barcelona.
He was back barely one season later, though, to take over none other than his hometown club Koln. In 1978, he led the team to a celebrated double. The Bundesliga title that year was decided by the narrowest margin in history: just three goals separated the team in first, Koln, from the runners-up. Second place? Gladbach.
Once the rivalry had been entrenched, not even Weisweiler's untimely death in 1983 or the fact that both clubs began to struggle badly in the late 1990s could cool the passions. The two proud clubs were even relegated within one year of each other (Koln in 1998, Gladbach in 1999) and then won promotion in consecutive seasons (Koln in 2000, Gladbach in 2001) almost as if they could live neither with nor without each other.
While some like Kulik believe things have softened between the two clubs -- "The rivalry was bigger in the old days," said Kulik -- there are others who think differently. Two years ago, Gladbach vice-president Rainer Bonhof, once a teammate of Kulik's, said: "This is the derby! From my point of view more so than even the Ruhr derby between Dortmund and Schalke."
Perhaps nothing better illustrates how contentious this rivalry is at present than a job held by a single man: a goat guarder.
You may have seen Koln's famous living mascot, a male goat called Hennes. The name indeed goes back to Weisweiler, who happened to be Koln's player-manager when the club received the original goat as a good-luck charm in 1950.
The current mascot is Hennes VIII, on duty since 2008, used to live on a small farm but now he resides in the Cologne Zoological Garden. Whenever a derby is imminent, a plainclothes security man watches his every step.
"Of course Hennes is safe, even outside the zoo's opening hours," says Koln managing director Alexander Wehrle . But he adds: "Still, we don't want to take any risks."
It is a wise decision. In August 1970, one of the goat's predecessors died an unnatural death. The official inquest found that Hennes II met his fate through wounds inflicted by a stray shepherd dog. But some Koln fans are still convinced that their cloven-hoofed mascot was poisoned by Gladbach supporters.
Another reason why Koln had better protect their good-luck charm is that they will need every help they can get this weekend. Only three points separate the bitter rivals at the moment, but Saturday's game will be played at Gladbach's ground. And in the past 24 years, Koln have won only one single "match of the year" away from home.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.