Wednesday, September 12, 2012
A story of shattered dreams
Stephan Uersfeld, Germany Correspondent
"My goal is to play in the Champions League with Cologne," Lukas Podolski said after ending his three-year stint with Bayern Munich. The Cologne boy had come home and was ready to help take the club to the next level.
Fast forward three years, to September 2012: Podolski has gone and Cologne, the three-time German champions, have taken only one point from four league matches. They are now in the second tier. Instead of playing Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke or Werder Bremen, they had played Eintracht Braunschweig, SV Sandhausen, Erzgebirge Aue and Energie Cottbus. And they had only managed one goal, at home to Sandhausen.
But problems at Cologne have not been confined to the pitch - off it, things have spiralled out of control.
Transfer deadline day is hectic even in Germany. When the name Kevin Pezzoni appeared on the final transfer list of the summer, the information could have easily passed unnoticed on an evening when Cologne lost 1-0 to Cottbus. Straight after the match, though, Cologne coach Holger Stanislawski admitted: "Things have happened that prevented Kevin from playing football at this club."
And so the story began. A story of shattered dreams, disappointment turned violent, contradictions and a bizarre phone call.
Pezzoni had signed for Cologne in January 2008, having emerged from the Blackburn Rovers youth academy. "I want to win promotion and want to firmly establish myself here in Cologne," he said. At the age of 18, he had captained Germany's Under-19 side and had already made his debut for the Under-21 team that would win the European Championship in 2009.
He became a regular for Cologne, featuring in 68 of 102 matches in his first three years in the Bundesliga. With the arrival of Stale Solbakken as coach, though, his luck slowly took a turn for the worse. He was relegated to the bench and, when things went downhill in early 2012, he became a scapegoat for Cologne fans.
Pezzoni was attacked during the city's carnival in February, suffering a broken nose. "This has nothing to do with the carnival," Claus Horstmann, the club's chief executive, said. "No matter how frustrated fans are, boundaries of togetherness are crossed when our players are attacked. We condemn this villainous deed and expect the offender to be held accountable."
The club also had other problems to solve at that time, including trying to extend Podolski's contract, getting rid of director of football Volker Finke, firing Solbakken, attempting to avoid relegation and coping with a fan club run wild - the "Wilde Horde", a Cologne supporters' club, had attacked a coachload of Borussia Monchengladbach fans at a motorway service station.
They were also left rudderless when, in November 2011, Cologne legend Wolfgang Overath stepped down as president. In May 2012, they were relegated.
Holger Stanislawski, looking for a new job after a short stint with Hoffenheim, was appointed coach in May. He stated: "People said: 'Don't do that to yourself.' It was always: 'At Cologne, you have to cope with the press. The club is in turmoil, the president has resigned. Look at the drunks. Everything.' And I thought: 'This is an interesting task'."
Stanislawski turned the squad around - 13 players left the club, but Pezzoni stayed. In a recent interview with Welt am Sonntag, Pezzoni recalled: "Stani called me during my holiday and explained how he wanted to build a new team. It is a great feeling when somebody all of sudden tells you: 'I'm counting on you, Pezzo. I'm backing you.' I nearly broke into tears that day. And I thought: 'Everything will be just fine.'"
But with only four matches of the new season played, he had to admit that it wasn't. And the club's stance seemed to have changed. Somehow, that was all down to Benny, the 21-year-old chairman of a small Cologne fan club. Benny had travelled to Aue to see Cologne get beaten 2-0. When he got home that Monday night, he started a Facebook group called "Pezzoni & Co aufmischen", which translates as ("Rough Pezzoni & Co up").
"Alcohol was a factor," he said in a call to TV phone-in host Domian. He went on to say that he had a criminal record for mixing it with the Levis (Leverkusen supporters) and Gladis (Gladbach supporters).
He was identified by the club the next day, despite claiming on the TV show that they had already identified him. He is no longer a Cologne member, anticipates a longish stadium ban and faces criminal charges. His Facebook group quickly resulted in hatred being unleashed against Pezzoni.
The evening after the Aue match, a group of people gathered in front of the player's flat. "Pezzoni, come out - we'll mess you up," they shouted. Pezzoni told Welt Am Sonntag that he drew the curtains. But the next morning, a note that read: "Be careful when it gets dark" had been left under his windscreen wipers.
Pezzoni spoke to Stanislawski and told him he feared even playing a bad pass during a match. The club reacted. Pezzoni was released from his contract - by mutual agreement, the club said. "I only had 15 hours, and had to prepare a team for a league match," Stanislawski later explained. "You really need more time."
The player left town, and the discussions began. Does Cologne have a violence problem? What can be done to stop the Ultras? But what was left of the Ultras spoke out against the offenders in an open letter and accused the press of inflaming the situation. The letter was largely ignored by the popular media.
The Pezzoni case fell into the middle of a cold war between supporters' groups and the German football association, the German football league and parts of the German media.
Football analysts said there was a new phase of violence. The footballers' VDV union said players could be killed. The Leverkusen chief executive Wolfgang Holzhäuser claimed Andre Schurrle had left his flat in Cologne and moved to Dusseldorf. Schurrle denied it.
And Pezzoni? In his interview with Welt Am Sonntag, he claimed the club wanted to get rid of him. "I had the feeling an unpleasant issue was solved the easy way," he said. "To me, it feels like the club was waiting for a cheap opportunity to get rid of me. I never wanted to cancel my contract."
Cologne were quick to deny that, and said they had always tried to protect Pezzoni. They said, in a press statement, that the attack on him at the carnival had been solely down to private circumstances. In a text message, he had thanked the club for its support, the statement added.
The club even considered taking legal action against Pezzoni for breach of a non-disclosure obligation. But president Werner Spinner said: "For us the Pezzoni case is closed. We will now concentrate on our great team."
"I will try and find a new club as soon as possible," Pezzoni said, "and show everyone I am a good player."
Podolski now plays for Arsenal, who have Champions League football, while Cologne - for whom that was the target not so long ago - face a fight to avoid sinking into obscurity after their turbulent recent past.