A lookback of Europe’s newly promoted champions


The football world is prepared to stop because of the global battle against COVID-19. That could deny Germany’s third-placed RB Leipzig a first Bundesliga title and the same club, along with fellow UEFA Champions League knockout round debutants Atalanta, a first European crown.

We don’t know what will happen, even the greatest minds on the planet are struggling to plot the potential impacts of the pandemic as it spreads across the planet. But what we do know is that there have been first-time winners before.

Some have even done it straight after coming up from the league below, going on to win the top flight at their first attempt.

Here are some of those first-time – and some cases only-time – champions among Europe’s elite leagues.

Germany: Kaiserslautern (1997-98)

It was a mix of age and experience at Kaiserslautern when they triumphed against the odds. Andreas Brehme had won the 1990 FIFA World Cup with West Germany while youngster Michael Ballack would go on to glory with the likes of fellow Bundesliga side Bayern Munich and then English Premier League club Chelsea.

Ballack was a newcomer at the start of the Die Roten Teufel’s (“The Red Devils”) campaign upon their immediate return to the top flight following their first ever relegation. They had won the second tier with a 10-point margin but nothing would prepare the fans for the ride ahead as they battled reigning champions Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga crown.

There was revenge on the mind for coach Otto Renhagel, who had been sacked by Bayern in the spring of 1996, and he got that on the opening day, courtesy of a 1-0 win in Munich. By the time that the teams met again in the new year, Kaiserslautern could open up a seven-point gap over the champions and they duly did that with a 2-0 win.

They secured the shock title win on the penultimate day with a 4-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg while the Bavarians could only draw at MSV Duisburg. That meant a four-point lead going into the final game and a first title headed to the Fritz-Walter-Stadion.

That was the end of the brief glory days, though. The club spent six years in the Bundesliga 2 before relegated in 2018 and have since dropped down to the third tier. Renhagel took Greece to victory in Euro 2004.

France: Monaco (1977-78)

This would not be the first time that the team would go on to win the French Ligue 1 title but they did it as debutants back in the late 1970s. They had won the double 15 years earlier but by the mid-1970s the team from Monte Carlo were a busted flush and had spent several seasons flitting between the top two tiers in France.

A new president, Jean-Louis Campora, changed their fortunes and they won the second division in 1977 before going on to win the top flight a year later. Delio Onnis, an Italian-born Argentine striker, was key to both feats, and their Coupe de France win in 1979. “El Tano” was the top scorer for each of the seven seasons he was with Monaco but never played for Argentina.

The Red and Whites have won the league eight times, most recently in 2017, and finished runners-up in the UEFA Champions League in 2004. No other team has won the French league at the first attempt since.

France: Saint-Etienne (1963-64)

For football fans of a certain vintage “The Greens” are synonymous with success, with the 1960s and 1970s seeing them win eight of their record 10 league titles.  Success was a part of the club even when they went down to the second tier as they won the Coupe de France the same season they were relegated in 1963.

They would win the second tier at the first attempt before kicking on to win the top flight the following campaign, kickstarting a period of seven more titles before 1977, and also finishing runners-up in the 1976 European Cup final.

Now the club are still in the top tier but Saint-Etienne are well off title-winning form. They did win the second tier again in 2004, though.

Netherlands: AFC DWS (1963-64)

The Amsterdam side Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk (“Amsterdam Football Club Strong Through Willpower”) lived up to their name – albeit briefly. 

Wearing their famous blue and black shirts the side won the league by two points, back in the days when it was two points for a win, from PSV Eindhoven, and with it entry to the 1964-65 European Cup. 

Against all odds they reached the quarterfinals of that competition.

The DWS forward Frans Geurtsen was in superb form as they won the Eredivisie title and again that following season when they proved it was no fluke by marching on in Europe and finishing second in the Dutch top flight. Geurtsen would again be atop the goalscoring charts.

AFC DWS are now a Sunday league side, playing in the sixth tier of Dutch football, although that was after a split in 1972 that saw the club merge with another to form FC Amsterdam. They are also the answer to the pub quiz question, “Who was the last Dutch team to win the league whose colors are not primarily red or white?” AFC DWS – remember the name.

Netherlands: Ajax (1917-18)

The World War I had seen football brought to a halt in much of Europe but not the neutral Netherlands and the Amsterdam side would benefit from that under the tutelage of English manager Jack Reynolds, winning the league after coming up in 1917.

The Manchester-born Reynolds pioneered the “Total Football” system that saw Ajax go on to become the country’s most successful side and Holland go close to winning the World Cup in three finals. Reynolds spent three periods in charge of Ajax between 1915 and 1940 and is still their most successful manager, having won eight titles.

As for the club, they have won another 26 and are set to win another this season and have been champions of Europe four times.

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