A selection of giants who have unexpectedly lost their place in the top tier
Marseille fans can be excused for having had high hopes in the summer of 1979. Rumours that they were about to sign the young prodigy Michel Platini from Nancy turned out not to be true, but the squad was impressive nonetheless, with two national team stars in the classy defender Marius Trésor and the multi-talented winger Didier Six. Marc Berdoll, another member of France’s squad at the 1978 World Cup, had been in superb form over the previous two seasons, scoring 32 goals. That summer, the club added Témime Lahzami, a technically gifted Tunisian who was supposed to add speed and trickery to the powerful attacking line. A first title since 1972 seemed well within reach.
The opening game in July was breathtaking. Marseille played some scintillating football in a 3-0 win over Brest, with Berdoll, Six and Témime all getting on the scoresheet. The second match was away at Paris Saint-Germain, and Six was impressive once again, scoring on the counter after 11 minutes. However, Abel Carlos equalised with a free-kick that went through the wall and Dominique Bathenay scored the winner for PSG with an outrageously free header. That was the first sign of things to come – this Marseille team were totally incapable of defending.
It was even more evident in the next fixture, when Platini went to Stade Vélodrome with St Etienne. Berdoll opened the scoring and Six found the net for his third match in a row, but Les Verts ran away with an easy 5-3 win. A week later, l’OM conceded five goals again in a terrible 5-0 defeat at Nancy and it became apparent that the title aspirations were unrealistic.
As defeats mounted, fans started to look for scapegoats. Témime was one of them, as the 30 year old failed to come to terms with European football. He went home in December, having played eighteen games in which he scored three goals. Six was treated even more harshly, his attitude and commitment constantly questioned. The long-haired wizard became the most hated figure in the city.
Between November and January, Marseille took just one point from eight games, conceding 23 goals. The situation became critical, but relegation with such a strong squad still seemed an impossibility. That’s probably the reason why the coach Jules Zvunka, a popular former player, managed to keep his job until February, but he was eventually fired after losing on penalties to second-division Cannes in the cup. The 58-year-old Jean Robin, who hadn’t worked in the first division for 16 years, was called upon to steady the ship and in his first game in charge, Marseille kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw at Nîmes, but such success was short-lived.
Trésor remained a fans’ favourite despite all the trouble. When he was absent, the situation became even worse, as a modest Valenciennes showed when thrashing Marseille 6-3 at the Vélodrome, scoring three times inside the first 19 minutes.
Three home wins in succession enabled Marseille to leapfrog Lyon into 18th place, which would have meant a relegation play-off, and that offered a sense that the corner might have been turned. The next game was at Lyon, though, and l’OM lost 1-0 to slip back into the drop zone. They stayed there until the end, taking just one point from their final six fixtures. Relegation was confirmed in the penultimate week when they lost 1-0 to Nantes, who were crowned champions.
The humiliation was far from over, as a disheartened side was torn to pieces by rock-bottom Brest. Having scored just 28 goals in 37 previous fixtures, the outsiders smashed Marseille 7-2. “L’OM are dead,” said the headlines. All the key players departed in the summer, and things could have got even worse for the financially stricken club. They were very nearly relegated to third division in 1981 after going into administration, but reserve-team youngsters won the final few fixtures to keep them up and save the club from extinction. Marseille were back in Ligue 1 by 1984.
This was one of the most exciting teams Fiorentina had ever assembled, as the Cecchi Gori family who acquired the club in 1990 built a remarkable squad. Gabriel Batistuta signed in 1991, proving sceptics wrong to become a force in Serie A, even though the Viola finished 12th in his first season. He then got top partners to play with.
The temperamental German midfield dynamo Stefan Effenberg was supposed to be the leader. The Danish maestro Brian Laudrup arrived alongside him from Bayern Munich after starring for the victorious Denmark side at Euro 92. Francesco Baiano, a revelation at Zdeněk Zeman’s Foggia, was the perfect striker to team up with Batigol. Fabrizio Di Mauro was bought from Roma to add steel to the midfield. Another interesting prospect was the Argentinian playmaker Diego Latorre, likened to Diego Maradona by some in his homeland.
Hopes were extremely high and many fans believed that the team was capable of challenging for the Scudetto; qualifying for Uefa Cup was a minimum target. Fiorentina’s start was very promising. Latorre struggled for playing time with only three foreigners allowed, but the others found their feet almost immediately. Under the experienced coach Gigi Radice, Fiorentina played marvellous attacking football, taking the league by storm.
A 7-1 win over newly promoted Ancona, with Di Mauro and Laudrup scoring braces, served as an appetiser. Fiorentina then lost 7-3 at home to Milan in an extraordinary game, but Fabio Capello’s team were obviously in the league of their own, about to run away with the title. The Scudetto might not have been feasible for the team from Florence, but second place most certainly was.
They thrashed the 1991 champions Sampdoria 4-0 with braces from Baiano and Batistuta, won 2-1 against Roma and then achieved their most cherished result: a 2-0 win over Juventus, who were particularly hated for having signed Roberto Baggio from them.
At the Christmas break, Fiorentina were third, just a point behind Inter, having scored 29 goals in 13 games. Relegation wasn’t even a consideration. But everything changed at the beginning of 1994. On January 3, Marcello Lippi’s Atalanta arrived to play on a frozen pitch at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. It was a poor game, decided by a lucky goal for the visitors, and Vittorio Cecchi Gori was enraged. Rumours of his tense relationship with Radice, who was very close to his father, Mario Cecchi Gori, had circulated in the city for a while, but nobody could imagine that the end would be so abrupt. Vittorio came to blows with the coach and fired him there and then, leaving the team in disarray.
Aldo Agroppi, named to replace Radice, was a popular figure in Florence, particularly because of his anti-Juventus views. But he had been working as a television pundit for a couple of years by this time and it was immediately clear that he was unable to manage a team of superstars. Thrashed 4-0 by Udinese in his first game in charge, Agroppi was lost and Fiorentina took just two points from the following five matches, plummeting to 14th place.
Fans were also troubled by refereeing decisions. A lot of the Fiorentina support believed the football federation wanted to see them relegated because Cecchi Gori and Agroppi criticised it at every opportunity. To make matters worse, Viola supporters used an Italy friendly against Mexico that was staged at Artemio Franchi in March to voice their displeasure with the federation, chanting “Messico, Messico”. From that point on, the situation was described as a personal war between Cecchi Gori and the federation president Antonio Matarrese. It is open to question, though, whether such an atmosphere was to blame for poor results.
Eventually, Agroppi was sacked in late April, after losing 3-0 at Juventus. He managed to win just two of his 15 games in charge, but the situation didn’t improve under the club legend Giancarlo Antognoni who took the reins alongside Luciano Chiarugi for the last five fixtures. Fiorentina failed to win the first four, and slipped into the relegation zone. On the penultimate weekend, they were outraged to see Milan’s defence parting like the Red Sea to enable relegation-threatened Brescia to score an equaliser at San Siro – that was seen as proof that everything was corrupt.
Going in to the final round of games, Fiorentina’s fate was out of their hands. They needed to beat Foggia, and did so emphatically – Batistuta and Baiano scored first-half doubles in a brilliant 6-2 triumph that offered a reminder of their form at the start of the season. However, with Brescia also winning and Udinese taking a controversial point at Roma, that wasn’t enough. Fiorentina went down despite scoring 53 goals – the fifth best attacking record in the league.
Laudrup left for Milan, but Cecchi Gori managed to keep the rest of the stars in Serie B and Fiorentina were immediately promoted. Even so, the 1992-93 season left a big scar on the collective memory of Viola fans that is still felt today.
One of the most iconic pictures in Bundesliga history is that of Rudi Völler trying to console Andreas Brehme, who is weeping uncontrollably. The two close friends, World Cup winners in 1990, played against each other in an improbable relegation battle between Bayer Leverkusen and Kaiserslautern. A dramatic equaliser, scored by Markus Münch with eight minutes left, meant that Völler’s team stayed up in the very last game of his career while Brehme’s Lautern went down.
It was a desperate ending to the season that started with Kaiserslautern fans dreaming of the title. They had finished fourth in 1994-95, just three points behind the champions Borussia Dortmund, and were expected again to fight at the top end of the table, despite losing the Swiss star Ciriaco Sforza to Bayern. Claus-Dieter Wollitz was signed to reinforce the midfield, and the squad was already strong with the Czech pair Miroslav Kadlec and Pavel Kuka, the Germany international midfielder Martin Wagner and superb goalkeeper Andreas Reinke, not to mention Brehme.
It was a very strange season for Lautern. It’s hard to say that they constantly under-performed, and some of their statistics were actually among the best in the league. They only lost 10 out of 34 matches – just three teams had fewer defeats; second-placed Bayern had 11. They conceded 37 goals, the third-best record in the league. The champions Borussia Dortmund let in 38; Bayern conceded 48.
The problem lay in Kaiserslautern’s inability to turn draws into wins. They scored just 31 goals – the lowest tally in the league – not because they played defensively but rather due to woeful finishing. With just six wins all season to go with an all-time record of 18 draws, they were doomed because Germany switched to a three-points-for-a-win system in the summer of 1995. Had two points been awarded for victories, Lautern would have survived.
It’s difficult to blame the management for failing to react in time in such circumstances. Kaiserslautern won just two of their first sixteen games, but their football was more than decent and they were never outplayed. The habit of conceding late goals, as in a dramatic 3-2 loss to Bayern when they were the better side, was considered to be pure bad luck. The feeling was that things would eventually sort themselves out, because the team appeared too good to be in a relegation battle.
Every time the position of the coach Friedel Rausch seemed in danger, the team picked up a good result and he kept his job. In addition, Kaiserslautern performed brilliantly in the Cup, beating Schalke and Leverkusen on the way to lifting the trophy. By the time that happened, though, the team was relegated.
Rausch was finally sacked in late March, with the team next to bottom after 23 games. His replacement was the defensive-minded Eckhard Krautzun, a well-travelled coach, but inexperienced at the top level. “I will be considered God if we avoid relegation,” he said, misunderstanding the very soul of the club. Playing for a point like ordinary outsiders was the last thing Lautern needed, but that is what they got most of the time.
In the end, a win at Völler’s Leverkusen was needed to avoid the drop and Kuka put the Red Devils up after 58 minutes. Then, after Olaf Marschall was injured and Lautern put the ball out of play, Leverkusen refused to return it, scored and Münch celebrated wildly.
The town went into mourning, but the fans were jubilant just two years later. Kaiserslautern named Otto Rehhagel as coach the following season, were immediately promoted and sensationally won the title in 1998. They conceded 39 goals that season, two more than they had in 1995-96.
This was the best time to be a Boro fan. Never had the city experienced such excitement. The team was promoted to the Premiership in 1995, just in time to inaugurate the new Riverside Stadium in the top flight. The Manchester United legend Bryan Robson was the manager and the combination of his name and Steve Gibson’s money enabled them to make thrilling acquisitions. The Brazilian wizard Juninho Paulista arrived from São Paulo in October 1995, and in the summer of 1996 Fabrizio Ravanelli, fresh from winning the Champions League with Juventus, was signed for £7million. Emerson, a powerful and technically sound box-to-box dynamo, completed a £4m move from Porto.
The build-up to the season was extraordinary, with exciting friendlies against top teams such as Juventus and Internazionale. Every Middlesbrough supporter remembers the first game of the season against Liverpool, as do the players: “That was the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced,” said Curtis Fleming. The match was of highest quality, played with stupendous tempo, and Boro came back three times to equalise, with Ravanelli completing a hat-trick on his debut.
The next two home fixtures brought some more scintillating attacking football. West Ham were beaten 4-2 and Coventry thrashed 4-0 with Ravanelli and Juninho scoring braces. Boro were just four points off the top and Uefa Cup qualification seemed a very realistic target, especially after they won for the third time in a row at Everton.
Then everything came crashing down. The defence was not up to standard and the team proved to be extremely fragile mentally, especially after Nicky Barmby left for Everton in October having fallen out with Robson. Boro endured a 12-game run without a win and were annihilated 5-1 at Anfield before making a dreadful decision. With most of their players down with flu, the management chose not to show up for the game at Blackburn on December 21, believing they had the right to do so under the circumstances. The FA thought differently and left the Teessiders further adrift at the bottom of the Premiership by deducting three points.
Juninho continued to give his utmost on the field, but other stars started to misbehave. Emerson went awol to Brazil at Christmas. Ravanelli, disappointed with his new team, openly criticised it in the Italian press on a weekly basis and said as early as January, “I reckon we’ll be relegated. I’m almost certain of it.”
His compatriot Gianluca Festa was signed from Inter to strengthen the defence, which worked to an extent. Boro enjoyed a great run in March, going seven games unbeaten and giving themselves a great chance of salvation. The team’s potential was evident as they reached both the FA Cup final and the League Cup final. But they only won once in their last seven fixtures, including a draw at Old Trafford after they’d taken a 3-1 lead.
Drawing 1-1 at Leeds on the final day of the season sealed their fate and Boro were relegated despite scoring 51 goals in 38 matches, Ravanelli responsible for 17 of them. The fans were angry with the FA for the points deduction which they considered unfair – but for that punishment Middlesbrough would have finished 15th instead of 19th. However, in retrospect they were much more disappointed with the team itself. All the big names left in the summer, but Boro were promoted back to the top flight immediately in 1998.
Atlético Madrid 1999-2000
This was definitely the best squad ever to be relegated from the Primera División. With three crucial members of the 1996 double-winning team – the goalkeeper José Molina, the centre-back Santi and the striker Kiko – still going strong, they also had the Czech midfielder Radek Bejbl, Spain defender Carlos Aguilera, the Argentinian full-back Jose Antonio Chamot, the promising schemer Ruben Baraja and the outrageously talented playmaker Juan Carlos Valerón on their books. Very promising acquisitions were made in the summer of 1999, when the prolific Dutch goalscorer Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink arrived from Leeds, Paraguay’s defensive stalwart Carlos Gamarra signed from Corinthians and the young left-back Joan Capdevila joined from Espanyol. This team was supposed to fight for the title and expectations couldn’t have been higher.
The man given the responsibility to take the stars to the top was Claudio Ranieri, who arrived immediately after thrashing Atlético 3-0 with Valencia in the Copa del Rey final. That was probably the biggest reason for the fans to worry. They remembered the desperate adventure of Arrigo Sacchi during the previous season, when everything went wrong, and the double-winning Radomir Antić had to return to replace him in the middle of the season. Now another Italian came along. Could he make it where Sacchi failed?
The answer was negative from the very beginning. On the first match day, Atlético were sensationally beaten 2-0 by their neighbours Rayo Vallecano at the Vicente Calderón and the situation only got worse. Hasselbaink had a superb season, but other than that everybody underperformed. With no points from the first three games, all hopes of the title were gone by September.
There was new hope in late October, when Hasselbaink scored two brilliant goals at the Bernabéu to lead Atlético to a famous 3-1 derby win over Real, which turned out to be their last triumph against Los Blancos until 2013. Those celebrations were short-lived, though. Amazingly, Atlético managed to lose to nine-man Athletic and to eight-man Valencia. They scored every week but were incapable of keeping a clean sheet, which proved to be their downfall in the first half of the season.
Relegation still seemed absolutely unthinkable. Atlético were well above the drop zone in December when the real disaster struck. Just hours before the game against Oviedo, the president Jesús Gil and his board were arrested and suspended pending an investigation into misuse of club funds and tax evasion. The government appointed the administrator José Manuel Rabi to run Atlético’s day-to-day operations to prevent immediate bankruptcy. Rumours circulated about illegal contracts signed by some of the stars who received tax-free money under the table. With those payments stopped, their motivation dipped and the second half of the season was desperate.
Ranieri resigned in late February, with the team in 17th place. Antić was recalled once again to save the club, but he was helpless this time. He failed to win any of his 11 league games, and the team sank like a stone. Winless since January, Atlético were relegated two weeks before the end of the season.
They managed to win their last fixture at Mallorca, after Antić had left, but that was hardly relevant. Hasselbaink scored exactly half of the team’s 48 goals and he was the only one to emerge with any credit from the fiasco. It’s hardly surprising that he was the man to score in Copa del Rey final against Espanyol as well, but Atlético lost 2-1.
It took them two years to recover, both professionally and financially, and return to the Primera División.
Universitatea Craiova 2004-05
Spare a thought for Mihăiță Pleșan. In 2004, the 21-year-old midfielder was considered to be one of the brightest prospects in Europe. After scoring an absolutely majestic Maradona-style goal and helping Romania thrash Germany 5-1 in a friendly, he was supposed to move to a big league, and received – according the player himself at least – a very decent offer from Arsenal who had just finished their invincible season. The Universitatea Craiova president Dinel Staicu, though, refused to sell him.
Staicu wanted to win Universitatea’s first title since 1991, and he looked to have the side to do so. Mircea Rednic, who had taken Rapid Bucharest to a surprise title in 2003, came to Craiova in the spring of 2004, and finished the season strongly. Before the new campaign, Universitatea brought in a raft of players from overseas whom the club’s board assumed to be superior to those from the local league, but their true value was far from certain.
Rubenilson, who played alongside Rednic at Standard Liège about a decade beforehand, was the star acquisition. “I want to help the team to become champions,” the Brazilian said on his arrival, but critics suggested he was a 32-year-old journeyman who had spent most of his career playing second-division football in Belgium and Spain, as well as having a spell with the Israeli minnows Maccabi Petah Tikva.
There were also the former international striker Ionel Ganea, the promising forward Mircea Ilie, not to mention Pleșan, and fans bought into Rednic’s promises. Pre-season went badly, though, and journalists close to the team didn’t really believe in the side. But they could never have imagined what was about to happen.
The season started with a disastrous spell of five games without a win, culminating in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Steaua. At that point, Staicu sold the team to his rival Adrian Mititelu, who disliked Rednic and sacked him at half-time when the team were losing 2-0 at CFR Cluj. That surprisingly helped, as Universitatea came back to win 3-2 with two goals by Pleșan, but chaos followed when Mititelu decided that he had been cheated by Staicu and refused to buy the team after all.
A bizarre week ensued in which no fewer than seven coaches took charge of the team and Rednic was eventually reinstated. By the time he came back, Staicu had sold some of the under-performing stars and the squad kept changing on weekly basis, with the president constantly bringing in cheap players from Universitatea’s second-division satellite club CSM Reșița.
It was an absolutely extraordinary season even by Romanian standards. Universitatea used 53 different players in 30 matches, some of them taking part in just one or two games. The situation was hopeless and the team won just once after October. There was still an element of disbelief after relegation was confirmed, bringing a 41-year stint in the top flight to an end. Fans lit candles to mourn the loss.
Rednic resigned before the fiasco was complete and the season ended with two spectacular defeats, 5-0 at Dinamo București and 6-0 at home to Oțelul Galați. As for Pleșan, he has never fulfilled his potential. The only team he played for outside Romania were the Russian outsiders Volga and he now turns out for SC Universitatea Craiova, a new club built on the remains of its proud predecessor after it went out of business in 2012.
Real Zaragoza 2007-08
July 2007 was a very unlucky month for Roberto Ayala. Three days before scoring an own goal in a 3-0 defeat to Brazil in the Copa América final that ended his international career, the Argentinian centre-back backtracked on his decision to sign for Villarreal and moved to Zaragoza instead. It turned out to be one of the worst decisions he could have made.
The Villarreal deal was agreed as early as February. Ayala knew that his seven hugely successful years at Valencia were coming to an end and chose to continue his Primera División career at their ambitious neighbours. When Zaragoza came calling, ready to pay the €6m buyout clause in his new contract, though, his head was turned. They urgently needed to replace the Barcelona-bound Gabi Milito and his experienced 34-year-old compatriot was considered the ideal solution.
It’s easy to understand why Ayala thought that Zaragoza were a more attractive project than Villarreal. They were historically a much bigger club and they’d finished sixth in 2006-07, qualifying for the Uefa Cup. Victor Fernández, the coach who had masterminded the sensational Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph in 1995, had done a tremendous job in his second spell at the club and the squad appeared strong enough to make the step up to qualify for the Champions League.
Diego Milito, Gabi’s brother, stayed at the club, having scored 23 goals the previous season, ably assisted by Pablo Aimar, one of the best and most exciting playmakers in the league, and Andrés d’Alessandro, who was one of the many Argentinians hailed as the new Maradona. César Sánchez, the goalkeeper who had left Real Madrid in 2005 because of the emergence of Iker Casillas, was very solid. During the summer, Zaragoza added the Brazilian striker Ricardo Oliveira from AC Milan and persuaded the midfielder Matuzalém to break his contract at Shakhtar Donetsk. Francisco Pavón, of the ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ galacticos project at Real Madrid, arrived as well, and so did two central midfielders from Atlético Madrid, Peter Luccin and Gabi. This was the most expensive squad in Zaragoza history. “The club is taking firm steps forward, significant investments have been made,” Ayala said. “We should at least retain our position from last season and hopefully improve on it.” Everyone felt exactly the same.
The start was good. In September and October, Zaragoza won five games out of seven, only losing at Barcelona and Atlético. But a much tougher spell followed, with the defence unable to keep a clean sheet and Ayala desperately out of form. Remarkably, they took the lead in seven of nine matches but couldn’t win any of them. Fernández was hastily and controversially fired after the team drew 2-2 with Mallorca to leave them just two points above the relegation zone. Reports suggested he had lost the dressing-room, but more worrying was the fact that the owner, Agapito Iglesias, tried to influence his decisions.
Javier Irureta, a much more cautious and defensive coach, who had been hugely successful at Deportivo La Coruña but failed at Betis and had been jobless since, was brought in to try to rescue the season but things just got worse. He was duly sacked after losing four games in a row. Irureta hasn’t had another management job since.
In came the veteran coach Manolo Villanova. Zaragoza still had the sixth-best attacking record in the league and beating Atlético on Villanova’s debut was a promising new start. They never found any consistency, though.
Ayala scored an injury-time winner against Deportivo to lift Zaragoza out of the relegation zone with three weeks of the season to go, but they only took one point from those remaining games and went down despite scoring 50 goals. Their total of 42 points would have been enough to stay up in any of the previous nine seasons, but luck wasn’t on their side.
As for Villarreal, they had their best season in history, finishing runners-up to Real Madrid, 35 points ahead of Zaragoza.
Gamba Osaka 2012
Is it possible to get relegated with the best attack in the league and a positive goal difference? Gamba Osaka proved that it is. Their record at the end of the 34-game season read 67 goals for, 65 goals against. To put things into perspective, the champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima found the net 63 times. Niigata, who finished in 15th place, two points ahead of Gamba, and thus were safe, scored just 29 goals.
It was a bizarre adventure for Gamba, one of the top clubs in J.League history. Under Akira Nishino, they finished in the top three eight times between 2002 and 2011, winning the title in 2005, lifting the Emperor’s Cup in 2008 and 2009 and claiming the Asian Champions League in 2008.
In 2011, they’d finished third, just two points behind the champions Kashiwa, and hopes were extremely high ahead of the new season after some promising purchases were made, including the Brazilian striker Paulinho, one of the most prolific scorers in Japan. The club made a significant mistake, however, in failing to offer Nishino a new contract and turning instead to the former national striker Wagner Lopes. It turned out that he didn’t have a licence, so he became assistant to the well-travelled Brazilian José Carlos Serrão.
Their start was disastrous. Gamba took just one point from their first five fixtures, conceding 12 goals in the process, and that was enough for Serrão and Lopes to be shown the door. The assistant coach Masanobu Matsunami, a club legend as a player, took the reins and started well with two superb wins, but the team never found any sort of stability.
Under Nishino, Gamba had been famous for their attacking flair and gung-ho style. That continued in the 2012 season, but the goalkeeper Yōsuke Fujigaya, an important figure for years, was dreadfully out of form and his defence didn’t offer much support. Results were highly unpredictable. The Brazilian striker Leandro had a good season, as did his partner Akihiro Sato, but fans never knew what would happen at the other end.
Gamba thrashed the bottom side Sapporo twice, beating them 4-0 and 7-2. They enjoyed phenomenal 5-0 away wins over high-flying Urawa and Nagoya. On the other hand, they were also beaten 6-2 at home by Kashiwa and 5-0 at Kashima.
Gamba only lost three of their last 16 fixtures and found the net in 23 consecutive games. Sensationally, that wasn’t enough. They needed to beat Júbilo Iwata on the last day of the season to stay up, but conceded a goal five minutes from time to lose 2-1.
Tears were soon forgotten, though. Just like Kaiserslautern, Gamba were immediately promoted back to the top division and won the title in extremely dramatic fashion the following season. Sometimes, relegation can be a blessing in disguise.