Eintracht Braunschweig makes improbable return to Bundesliga 28 years after being relegated

Eintracht Braunschweig isn't letting one defeat spoil the joy of returning to the Bundesliga after 28 years in the wilderness.

A third-division side just four seasons ago, Braunschweig dominated the second half against Werder Bremen on Saturday, but a moment of inexperience allowed the visitors to steal in for the winning goal with less than 10 minutes remaining.

Yet the Braunschweig fans stayed long after the final whistle, singing, chanting, jumping up and down in appreciation of the effort made by their side, buoyed with the joy of being back in Germany's top division.

Also known as Brunswick, the small northern city east of Hannover has a population of around a quarter of a million people.

Saturday's loss was a bittersweet moment for supporters at the sold-out 23,000-capacity Eintracht Stadium, where a large banner proclaimed "Something was missing for 28 years" before kickoff.

"For many players and for me it was the first game in the Bundesliga," said Braunschweig coach Torsten Lieberknecht. "The loss hurts, but this day has shown that we want to meet this incredible challenge, and that we can meet it, too."

Braunschweig, promoted as runner-up in the second-division last season, hadn't played in the Bundesliga since June 8, 1985, losing then — like Saturday — 1-0 at home, albeit to champion Bayern Munich.

Braunschweig has made several important contributions to German soccer since it was founded as Football and Cricket-Club Eintracht Braunschweig on Dec. 15, 1895.

It was one of the founding members of the German Football Federation in 1900, went on to win the North German Football Championship twice (1908 and 1913), and the succeeding championships on several occasions, culminating with the club being asked to take part in the newly formed Bundesliga in 1963.

Braunschweig won the Bundesliga in 1967, its only national title to date, but became caught up in a game manipulation scandal in 1971, when several players accepted third-party payments to improve their performances — prohibited under league rules. Playmaker and West Germany international Lothar Ulsass was among those suspended.

The club is best known, however, as the first to introduce jersey sponsorship to the league in 1973, when Braunschweig sported the Jaegermeister logo. The shirts became ubiquitous in Germany.

Based in the nearby city of Wolfenbuettel, the company behind the alcoholic drink paid Braunschweig 100,000 German marks to carry the deer's-head logo that year, though it didn't prevent relegation on the last day of the season — its first from the Bundesliga.

Braunschweig bounced back the following season and the sponsorship continued until 1987. Today, because it has an alcohol content of over 15 percent, such sponsorship would not be allowed.

Guenter Mast, chief executive of the family-run Jaegermeister company, was clearly a Braunschweig fan. He made possible the club-record 1.6 million German mark deal to buy West German international Paul Breitner from Real Madrid in 1977. Breitner did not settle in the team, however, and returned to Bayern Munich the following season.

Braunschweig was relegated again in 1980, re-promoted again the following season, but arguably its darkest period came after the third relegation in 1985, when the years were spent between second- and third-division soccer.

Braunschweig was facing the prospect of fourth-tier soccer in 2008, but Lieberknecht was appointed with three games remaining and he helped the side clinch 10th-place with the last game, enough for a place in the newly formed nationwide third-division the following season.

The affable coach is widely credited with Braunschweig's resurgence in the years since, winning the third-division to gain second-division promotion in 2011 and then securing Bundesliga promotion last season.

"After 28 years back in the Bundesliga, every game is a highlight. Every opponent is a challenge," the 40-year-old Lieberknecht told Kicker magazine earlier this month.

According to the Braunschweiger Zeitung newspaper, Braunschweig's overall budget is just $49 million — the same amount Bayern Munich paid Borussia Dortmund for Mario Goetze in the offseason.

The club's budget for player wages is $20 million, the lowest in Germany's top-division. Bayern's players reportedly earn $186 million.

"We were still in the third-division four years ago. Now I'm talking about clubs that are in a whole other world for years," Lieberknecht said.

Some 36 years later, Breitner's transfer in 1977 remains the club record for the equivalent of about $1.1 million.

German-born defender Lars Christopher Vilsvik was expected to become Braunschweig's new record signing for about $1.3 million from the Norwegian team Stromsgodset, but he was reportedly unable to agree personal terms with the club.

Lieberknecht knows his club is the firm favorite to be relegated at the end of the season.

"We in Braunschweig try to contribute more to the romantic part," he said. "But we have something in our chests and we want to surprise."