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.