There are moments in football that underline its greatness, its ability to deliver generation-defining moments, stir emotions to an extent no other sport can. These moments are often fleeting, but the ephemeral joy or despair is a drug that should be bottled and placed on the chemist’s shelf next to the methadone.
Toni Kroos’s head-in-hands after putting Germany 3-0 up on Brazil after not even half an hour was one such moment, his simple pose embodying the emotions of practically the entire football-supporting world. The earth-shattering nature of that result, or that half of football, is probably unrivalled in the history of the game, but you don’t need a 7-1 in a World Cup semi-final to prove how life-affirming football can sometimes be. Let me stray outside of this blog’s remit for a moment…
SV Darmstadt 98 are, measured by their own ambitions, a pretty average club. Long part of the German football fabric, the club was beset by financial difficulties and have only recently clawed their way back into the realms of professional football. Promotion to the 3. Liga in 2011 was a long time coming, but they struggled at that level for two seasons, only being saved from relegation in 2013 due to Kickers Offenbach’s financial meltdown and forced demotion.
There’s no doubt, then, that Darmstadt were the surprise package of the 2013/14 3. Liga season. Finishing a respectable fourth in the Hinrunde, Darmstadt then took more points in the second half of the season than eventual champions 1. FC Heidenheim. Their automatic promotion hopes were ultimately only scuppered by a 1-0 loss at RB Leipzig with a handful of games remaining. In a league of so much mediocrity, it’s often a charging, in-form side that puts in a final spurt to reach the promotion or playoff spots. Darmstadt took their chances and beat the likes of Hansa Rostock and Wehen Wiesbaden by a comfortable margin to the promotion playoff. They would be pitted against DSC Arminia Bielefeld, the third-worst team in the 2. Bundesliga, over a two-legged playoff.
Ironically, Arminia themselves had just come off a ludicrous winner-takes-all relegation showdown in Dresden. The Ostwestfalen conceded a 0-2 lead before Kacper Przybylko “ended the madness”, as Kicker put it, and nudged Bielefeld into the playoff at Dynamo’s expense – and by doing so provoking Dynamo’s infamous “you have one hour to leave our city” banner aimed at their own players.
Spirits were obviously high in the Arminia camp, and it showed with a confident performance in the first leg at Darmstadt’s barely third-tier-worthy but still incredibly charming Böllenfalltor stadium. With Bielefeld 2-0 up by half time, and with the away goals rule in effect, they looked to be home and dry, especially after substitute Sebastian Hille truly embraced the term “route one” and put his side 3-1 up.
I could describe what happened in the return leg, but in truth it was 90 minutes of repeating “they couldn’t, could they?” in an almost demonic mantra. I kroosed for the first time when Jerome Gondorf rifled in an absolutely glorious strike with the kind of aplomb that would have been impressive on the training ground, let alone with ten minutes to go in a promotion playoff. If that wasn’t enough, Darmstadt could very well have won it in normal time, with two great chances in quick succession and a point-blank Ortega save from Aytac Sulu.
And so it continued in extra time. Long throw from Darmstadt, nodded on, clear handball from the Bielefeld defender but not seen by the referee, ball breaks loose, Ortega palms a Landeka shot onto the post to save Bielefeld’s skin. More kroosing. It was like a cartoon, the footballing equivalent of some sort of ridiculous Tintin escapade.
But, as in all good crime stories, there had to be a twist. With ten minutes to go in extra time, a cross comes in from the right-hand side and the hero from do-or-die playoff rehearsal in Dresden, Kacper Przybylko, shanks a shot past the flailing Zimmermann in the Darmstadt goal. To all intents and purposes, that was it – Bielefeld would stay up, Darmstadt would end their dream season with a respectable third place but ultimately in disappointment.
But that wasn’t it: In stoppage time of extra time, Darmstadt pour forward in search of a winner. The ball is pumped into the box, nodded down on the edge of the area and Elton da Costa, brought on as a substitute for Gondorf just after the Bielefeld extra-time goal, sets himself up for a volley. Sometimes you can kind of tell when a player is winding up for what Germans call “a full-risk effort” that the shot’s going to have some legs. This was one of those moments. Da Costa strikes it true, almost at hip height, and the ball screeches through the packed penalty area and past a helpless Ortega into the Bielefeld net. In unison, the 2,000 or so Darmstadt fans behind the goal enter that state of I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself ecstasy – gloriously captured on the TV broadcast thanks to Darmstadt having the good grace to score their winner at the right end of the ground.
It was an astonishing match, perhaps the most dramatic I have ever seen. As the Football Ramble put it in their 2014 World Cup wrap, classic matches cannot simply be end-to-end affairs. There has to be a tactical edge, some sort of sounding out between the teams. In a classic boxing match, the boxers don’t necessarily go at it hammer and tongs right from the off, they take time to identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
What made it all the more dramatic was the key difference between the German and English playoff systems. The English playoffs are merely contested by promotion candidates. Sure, a playoff final loss can hurt a lot (just ask Preston fans), but imagine if, say, this season QPR’s Championship playoff final victory had relegated Derby County from the Premier League. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about. But that’s exactly what happened to Arminia Bielefeld – and in perhaps the cruellest and most astonishing way it could ever have happened.
And that’s why I love football.
The explosion of noise, jubilation and relief from perhaps one of Germany’s largest one-club city could be heard throughout the Bundesrepublik. SG Dynamo Dresden had, by the skin of their teeth, done it. They’d stayed up. Players danced and celebrated in front of a jubilant K block terrace, bearing t-shirts reiterating the club’s pledge to keep their head above water for two seasons before really “giving it a go” in 2013/14.
In truth, Dynamo’s second season after promotion from the third tier ought to have been much more comfortable than it turned out to be. They wandered almost blindly into the relegation mire and were arguably only saved from the ignominy of direct relegation due to the hopelessness of Regensburg and Sandhausen. Away form was an issue and the points that Dynamo had picked up on their travels the season before, leading to a comfortable 9th-place finish, were sorely missed.
So it came to a two-legged tie against perennial playoff participants VfL Osnabrück. Since the playoffs between Germany’s top-three tiers were reintroduced in 2009, the club from the Friedensstadt have been involved on three out of five occasions, both as a 2. Bundesliga club trying to avoid the drop and as a 3. Liga side striving for promotion, contriving to lose every single time. Indeed, Osnabrück were Dynamo’s opponents two years ago when the Dresden club achieved an unlikely promotion back to the second tier after an outstanding end-of-season run-in.
The first leg, on a balmy Friday night at Osnabrück’s chocolate-box Stadion an der Bremer Brücke, went the way of the home side. Both sides looked on equal footing, with Dynamo desperately searching for that oh-so-important away goal. Shortly before half-time, with the match finely poised, Osnabrück attacking fulcrum Gaetano Manno slipped a cross-cum-shot in at Dynamo keeper Benni Kirsten’s near post. Kirsten, son of Dynamo legend Ulf, could certainly have done better, despite the fact that he was unsighted. However, the ‘keeper atoned for his error by saving a vital second-half penalty from Timo Staffelt, awarded after a handball from Dynamo captain Bregerie. Incredibly, it was Kirsten’s 5th penalty save of the season, including two in one match in a vital home win over Paderborn as the regular season drew to a close. Despite the efforts of Idir Ouali and the rather blunt Pavel Fort, Dynamo failed to find the net. Nevertheless, overturning a one-goal deficit was considered doable, but a two-goal defeat away from home without troubling the scoresheet would have been disastrous.
Every Dynamo fan knew what was at stake in the return leg. Relegation to the unpopular German third tier would not simply have had sporting implications, it may have also threatened SG Dynamo Dresden’s very existence. The club had only survived their 2009/10 promotion season after a €2 million cash injection from city authorities, a favour they may think twice about granting again in the future.
The primeval roar that greeted the players onto the pitch was merely a taste of things to come. Fans often refer themselves rather self-assuredly as the “twelfth man”, but in Dresden’s case this is often true – especially on a night like this. The Osnabrück players were visibly affected by the raucous atmosphere and attempted to play it safe, rarely venturing forward in the first half with much intent. On the half-hour mark, just as there appeared to be a tiny glint of nervousness in the Dynamo support, Cristian Fiel picked up the ball on the right after good work from Ouali and proceeded to lash the ball into the top right-hand corner with vengeance. It was a goal of tremendous quality that left ‘keeper Riemann rooted to the spot. What’s more, it was a microcosm of the situation the Osnabrück players found themselves in – almost completely powerless to stop this highly motivated Dresden side, buoyed on by 30,000 frenzied fans.
The second half provided much of the same, although a noticeably less-frantic Dynamo pushed and probed and waited for their opportunity to tip the tie in their favour. The away goals rule meant that even the slightest mistake could have left Dynamo needing two more to win, but any Osnabrück attack was defended resolutely. Perhaps their only clear opportunity came shortly before Dynamo’s first goal, when Kirsten appeared to bring down Zoller in the box. Referee Gagelmann waved play on and Dynamo had just about enough time to remove their hearts from their mouths before Fiel’s spectacular opener.
As in the first leg, Gaetano Manno was a constant threat for the guests with tricky footwork and clever runs. However, on many occasions support was sorely lacking from his teammates. It seemed only a matter of time before Osnabrück’s frail defence crumbled, and sure enough on 71 minutes substitute Tobias Kempe breaking through on the right and crossing. Eventually the ball fell to Idir Ouali, almost an ever-present in the Dynamo side this term, who made no mistake from 6 yards to edge Dresden in front on aggregate. Despite a few customary scares late on, Osnabrück failed to make a breakthrough and Dresden were left to celebrate survival in front of a sold-out Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion.
The bright orange light of the flares pierced the night air and the week- or even month-long tension that had built was released like the cork on a champagne bottle. An attempted pitch invasion and a few isolated bangers were almost immediately prohibited by players, officials and, yes, fellow Dynamo fans and all were left to UFFTA the night away safe in the knowledge that 2. Bundesliga football would be returning to the Florence of the Elbe next season.
Nu Dynamo, nächste Saison aber risch!