Relieved Rufer backs Werder Bremen to respond after 'horror' Bundesliga season

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There was joy and relief as the final whistle blew at Voith-Arena on July 6… Werder Bremen had somehow managed to preserve the club's Bundesliga status by the skin of their teeth.

Four-time German champions Werder survived a dramatic promotion/relegation play-off against second-tier side Heidenheim on away goals following the 2-2 second-leg draw.

After a goalless stalemate in the opening leg, Werder were pushed to the brink by Heidenheim, who restored parity via Tim Kleindienst's 97th-minute penalty but Ludwig Augustinsson's goal three minutes earlier ensured the visitors' place in Germany's top flight next season.

It capped a forgettable campaign for Werder, who scraped into the play-off with a 6-1 thrashing of Cologne on the final day of the 2019-20 coronavirus-affected season after finishing just a point above the automatic relegation zone as Fortuna Dusseldorf and Paderborn went down.

Rewind back to 2018-19 and Werder had managed a joint-best domestic campaign since finishing third a decade ago – eighth position.

"The last weeks have been a horror because I've had sleepless nights," former striker Wynton Rufer – who won four major trophies during his time in Bremen, including the 1992-93 Bundesliga title – told Stats Perform News.

"Last season, they had probably their best season in probably 10 years, just missed out on Europe. They were able to retain most of the squad and then add to it with top-quality signings and despite that, just had a horror of a season. A lot of injuries at the start but to play as badly as they did, we're just so grateful they managed to stay up."

Florian Kohfeldt's Werder had looked set for automatic demotion, having spent matchdays 21-33 in 17th place.

But Werder – who hold the record for most seasons in the Bundesliga but have not lifted the trophy since 2004 – fought to avoid a similar fate to that of rivals Hamburg and Stuttgart, relegation to 2.Bundesliga.

Hamburg were relegated in 2017-18 and capitulated as they missed out on a return to the top tier in 2019-20, while Stuttgart – demoted in two of the past four seasons – secured promotion this term.

"You can see how difficult it is with Hamburg and Stuttgart," Oceania Footballer of the Century Rufer said. "Stuttgart came up now but it didn't happen straight away. I believe their budget for the first division was similar in the second division because of their big sponsor. In Hamburg, it was the same story where they didn't really have to have much of a lesser budget for the second division because of their billionaire part-owner.

"But with Werder Bremen, if they had got relegated even though it's the 10th biggest city in Germany, they don't really have the support through a sponsor or individual. Their budget this season is about €150million, it probably would've went down to €50-70m and 150 people would've probably lost their jobs. For the city, it would've been a total disaster."

Rufer knows the club and city of Bremen better than most, having spent six successful years at Weserstadion.

Prised to the club by legendary boss Otto Rehhagel in 1989, New Zealander Rufer won the Bundesliga, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup (1992), two DFB-Pokal trophies (1991, 1994) and as many DFB-Supercups (1993, 1994), while he was the Champions League's top goalscorer in 1993-94.

"It was obviously a very special time," Rufer said. "A big opportunity came when Otto Rehhagel tried to sign me over two seasons. He finally got me in the second season [from Grasshoppers].

"It was a big move for any player. Werder Bremen at that time, they'd just won the Bundesliga two years previously. The year before they made the semi-final of the European Cup. They were kicking the ball around with the big boys.

"I had the opportunity to go and play there. It was amazing. I was able to quickly establish myself, played really well and scored goals. Played in European Cups – the first season we knocked out UEFA Cup holders Napoli. Diego Maradona leading that Napoli side. It was a pretty special time. I was fortunate to be a starting member all those seasons and in those big games."

Rufer has also frequently travelled to Bremen to celebrate the anniversary of the club's successes, while he convinced United States star Josh Sargent to join the North German outfit in 2018.

"I've had the opportunity to be like a scout in most Decembers," Rufer added. "I've been going to Florida to look at American players because that market has grown a lot. I managed to convince Josh Sargent to sign for Werder Bremen, even though Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City were all after him. I was able to convince his family to sign with Bremen because he'd get game time and that's happened, despite almost getting relegated."

So, where to now for Werder in 2020-21? After their narrow escape and disappointing season, 37-year-old head coach Kohfeldt will remain at the helm.

"Apart from Dortmund and Bayern Munich, who you know will be up there again… the rest of the league are just battling away to qualify for Europe and stay up," Rufer added.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they went through now and qualified for Europe next season. They put on a fantastic season two years ago. It was the injuries at the start of the season. They would've looked at that now. It might sound crazy but I don't think they have to change a lot. It's trying to keep the squad together as much as possible and hopefully those big guns don't have those injuries.

"It will be really interesting to see how it pans out. Any particular changes to the squad, I don't see it too necessary. Also with coronavirus, they probably won't be in a financial situation anyway to make too many changes."

While Kohfeldt will return, Werder great and the club's all-time leading scorer Claudio Pizarro will not after retiring at the age of 41 following four spells in Bremen.

Pizarro won six league titles across two separate spells at Bayern Munich, while he also spent a season playing for Chelsea in the Premier League.

"It's been absolutely phenomenal to see what he's achieved in the Bundesliga," the 57-year-old Rufer said. "Incredible to have a player like him at the club, a legend of the game. It's sad. Claudio has been an incredible servant to the Bundesliga and Werder Bremen. To find another legend like that, it would be a coup for anyone."