European Football

The miracle of Darmstadt

DarmstadtIt is a city of 150,000 people in the state of Hesse. It is the home of the European Space Operations Centre as is known as the “city of science”. It was also influential during the art nouveau period. But in 2015-16, Darmstadt will also play host to Bundesliga football.

SV Darmstadt 98 have been around for a long time (they were not founded in 1998…), but in football terms they seem to have come from nowhere. Not entirely true, because when they begin the new campaign and pit their wits against the likes of Bayern Munich, Dortmund and Schalke, it will be the third time they have appeared in Germany’s top flight.

You have to go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s to trace Darmstadt in the Bundesliga. In 1978, Darmstadt won the Southern section of 2.Bundesliga to claim promotion. But in 1978-79, they struggled to adjust and finished bottom of the table. In 1980-81, they went up again, boosted by the goals of Hans Neumann and Peter Cestonaro. After another brief stay, they settled into mediocrity at a lower level, but almost climbed back to the Bundesliga in 1988, losing a play-off to Mannheim.

By 1997, however, poor financial management had set the club in decline and they were playing in the Hessen Oberliga. Despite a revival, in 2007 they were relegated back to the Oberliga for financial reasons. It was no mean feat that they avoided bankruptcy, but since 2010-11, their fortunes have changed.

They won the Regionalliga Sud in 2011, beating off the challenge of Stuttgarter Kickers and Hessen Kassel. This gained them entry to the reconfigured Liga 3 where they came up against teams like Carl Zeiss Jena, Arminia Bielefeld and Kickers Offenbach. In their first season, they troubled nobody but in 2013, they finished in a relegation spot. There was a twist as Offenbach were denied a licence and so Darmstadt were reprieved. There’s been no looking back since.

Darmstadt have been managed by Dirk Schuster, an East German by birth who played for the old DDR and the reunified Germany, since 2012. Schuster – probably unwittingly – pulled off something of a master-stroke when he signed Wiesbaden striker Dominik Stroh-Engel in the summer of 2013. Stroh-Engel had been a journeyman footballer for most of his career and at 26, he was not a talent waiting to happen. But he scored 27 goals in 2013-14 as Darmstadt surprisingly reached the play-offs for a place in 2.Bundesliga.

It didn’t look good after the first decider with Arminia Bielefeld. Over 16,000 packed into the eminently uncomfortable Böllenfalltor Stadium to see the visitors win 3-1. Surely, it was all over for Schuster’s men? In the return game, Darmstadt were 3-1 up in 90 minutes, so extra time followed. Bielefeld pulled a goal back, so 2-3 would have sent them through. But in the final minute of extra time, in fact into added time, substitute Elton da Costa, a veteran Brazilian midfielder, scored to give his team a 4-2 win.

Amazingly, Schuster repeated the trick in 2014-15 and took Darmstadt to second place in 2.Bundesliga. The Böllenfalltor was packed to its reduced capacity of 16,000 as Darmstadt faced Hamburg’s St. Pauli. The game, and the season, was decided by a free kick from Tobias Kempe, one of Die Lilien’s (the Lilies) most consistent performers in 2014-15.

Stadion-am-bollenfalltor

Victory meant Darmstadt achieved the impossible – from third to first level in just two seasons. A more resourced Hoffenheim did something similar in 2007 and 2008, but Darmstadt have been successful through relative prudence and hard work. There has been no big purse for Schuster to play with – his budget is around EUR 5m, and Darmstadt are limited to around 15,000 at their home ground, so they will be a poor relation in the Bundesliga. Off the field, the club has been grateful for the support provided by chemical company Merck in starting to bring the stadium up to contemporary standards.

The Bundesliga may find Darmstadt an uncomfortable venue and some of their players may be a shade unconventional. Take Marco Sailer, a popular folk-hero who dons a beard that makes him look decidedly biblical. – he hasn’t shaved since November. In many ways, Sailer epitomises the Darmstadt way. When asked what was the team’s secret by Focus magazine, Sailer commented: “We are really cool group. We run and run, we are strong and we have a big will to win. Sure, we play the occasional high ball and that makes it difficult for other teams to play against us.”

Nobody gave Darmstadt a chance in 2.Bundesliga and it will surely be the same as 2015-16 gets underway in August.

Darmstadt 98 start the season on August 15 with a home game with Hannover. On September 19, they play host to Bayern Munich. It’s a long way from those Oberliga days…

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