Football fairytales, much like all fairytales, take the listeners and the spectators to a place where injustice rules but justice prevails. Against all odds Cinderella comes out on top, marries the prince, gains the throne or wins the title.
When Leicester City won the Premier League last season media reports were rife with the term “football fairytale”. The underdog, with but a part of the budget the big spenders have access to, who by some miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, beats them all and carries away the princess …err, the league.
But football fairytales happen even when there’s no princess involved. Even when a league is not won. There’s one happening in the Bundesliga right now. It’s just not clear yet if it will have a happy ending.
SV Darmstadt 98, founded in 1898, are one of the so-called traditional clubs in Germany. The club’s crest is a white fleur-de-lys on a blue field, which also figures in the coat of arms of the city of Darmstadt, in the Southern Rhine-Main-Area, Germany. That crest prompted fans to nickname them “The Lilies”. They primarily played in the second and third tiers until 1978, when they were promoted for the first time. Football wasn’t the absolute money spinner then that it is today, and the men from Southern Hesse weren’t professionals in the monetary sense. Most of them had to work “normal” jobs while training in the evenings, which earned them another nickname: after-work-footballers. Unsurprisingly Darmstadt finished last that season.
The “Darmstädter Modell” was not only based around amateurs, it also included an ancient stadium without floodlights, located in a city reluctant to invest into football. When Darmstadt 98 managed to get promoted to the top tier again in 1981, the club went deeply into debt to meet the DFB’s obligations for the ancient Stadion am Böllenfalltor (floodlights!). Unable to invest in new players, Darmstadt 98 was relegated again. In the following years, the club slowly glided towards the lower leagues. In 1993 the Lilies were relegated to the fourth league and thus out of German professional football. By 2008 the club played down in fifth-tier Oberliga Hessen – and was broke. Insolvency seemed inevitable.
But Darmstadt 98 is the fairytale club. Like the bluebirds came to Cinderella’s aid the fans flocked to their Lilies in need. It wasn’t only the fans: German all-time champion FC Bayern München held a fundraising game at the Böllenfalltor. To boost their income, Darmstadt 98 auctioned off a place in the team, won by club’s own tax accountant for €2860. In total they raised €200, 000. That’s fairytale material for many long winter nights by the fireside.
Oh, yes, Bayern won 11-5. The tax accountant provided the assist to Darmstadt’s fifth goal.
But the Lilies were saved and promoted to Regionalliga. The tide had turned. 2011 saw Darmstadt 98 back in the third division. The club that had been so close to extinction was clawing its way back into professional football and they were not going to go down again, no, sir!
Those were hard years. Several coaches were needed to keep Darmstadt up. In 2012-13, they finished third from bottom and only escaped relegation because Kickers Offenbach – who had finished a secure 15th – were refused a license for the following season due to financial irregularities. Some good witch of the South-East was watching over the men in blue and white.
2013-14 was to be the year, their year, that saw the Lilies finally attend the ball, bathed in a glittering spotlight. They kicked Borussia Mönchengladbach out of the DFB-Pokal, winning 5-4 on penalties. More significantly, they finished third in the table, earning a place in the promotion playoffs – a chance to move up to 2.Bundesliga after escaping regulation to the 4th league the year before.
They lost their home game 3-1
2000 hopeful supporters – as many as were allowed by the DFB – accompanied their team to “the Alm” at Bielefeld. For those who weren’t able to attend, a public broadcast was permitted, as far more than two thousand people wanted to watch. All of Darmstadt, actually. The faithful fans were rewarded with a game fully entitled to go down in football history.
Darmstadt 98 began that game with verve and power, quickly putting Bielefeld’s backs to the wall. After 90 minutes they had won by exact the same margin they had lost three days before – 3-1. Additional time was needed.
In minute 110 Bielefeld scored to make it 3-2. All hope seemed to be lost for the Lilies, yet somehow, the players remained undaunted. In minute 122, within injury time, when the game already might have been over, substitute Elton da Costa scored the fourth goal for Darmstadt, securing promotion. The entire town went crazy. 4000 had been watching at Karolinenplatz and more than 10,000 celebrated in the city center until the wee hours. Cinderella had won the ball.
Don’t we wonder now and again what happened to Cinderella and her prince after the ball? Did they live happily ever after, have seven children and never bicker at all? Well, Darmstadt 98 did provide a sequel to the fairytale.
Nobody expected much from the 2014-15 season. Visiting teams often felt their jaw hit the pitch when they first entered the stadium. DFB had demanded the club install a turf heating system, increase the number of toilets in the building, provide a roof for spectators in wheelchairs and replace the wooden benches with plastic seats. Local chemical and pharmaceutical company Merck had won the rights to sponsor the stadium, and the ancient venue now proudly bore the name “Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor”, fans refusing to give up the traditional name which had seen the miraculous resurrection of a club almost clinically dead.
But visitors still felt like a time machine had hurled them back to the 1970s. Darmstadt 98 is an open-air museum for traditional football culture. And it’s alive. The stadium still seats only 17,000 among which are 11,000 stands. For standing. Less than half of those are roofed. It’s almost always sold out.
Again Darmstadt defied expectations. They began the 2014-15 season forcing Bundesliga’s vice-champions-to-be VfL Wolfsburg into penalties in the DFB-Pokal. By week 11 they were in fourth and remained in a similar position for the rest of the season. After the 34th and final game they were second. The newly promoted old-fashioned club with the smallest budget in the 2nd league had marched on to first division. Almost one year to the day after Darmstadt fans had celebrated their team’s promotion they met again to party even harder this time. Bundesliga! Bayern München would play at Böllenfalltor, enjoy the showers which sometimes ran only cold, squeeze into the locker rooms which allegedly resemble a high school gym! The fairytale continued.
But then came the part of the tale we rarely see. The team and manager Dirk Schuster came back from a well-deserved holiday in Majorca to furrowed brows at Lilies Headquarters. How would DFB view the ancient stadium now? Would the club be able to meet their requirements? Would there be money left to buy players fit to play at Germany’s highest level? Wouldn’t Darmstadt go down again just as quickly as they had risen? After all, in 2013-14 underdogs SC Paderborn had been surprise-promoted to Bundesliga, only to finish last that season, then find themselves relegated to the 3rd league in the next.
DFB went rather easy on the vintage club, only requiring that press accommodation be increased and modernised. For the rest Darmstadt 98 was patted on the back and told to calm down and plan for a new and bigger stadium once they’d come back down and resettled into the 2nd league. The Bundesliga adventure could begin, and the surprise guests could count on a warm welcome. There were very few football fans in Germany who did not hope Darmstadt 98 might, against all odds, prevail.
Manager Schuster knew he had to build from scratch. When a transfer target visited he showed him the stadium, disclosed the club’s limited finances and described the bleak outlook for the lowest of underdogs Bundesliga had seen in years. Only if the player identified with all this was he let on board. What the Lilies needed more than money was a close-knit band of brothers ready to go down fighting.
The face of Darmstadt 98 became Marco “Toni” “Fear-the-beard” Sailer. Bald and lengthily bearded, the fans loved him to pieces. Together with angel-faced top scorer Dominik Stroh-Engel – his 27 goals in the 3rd league set a new record in 2013-14 – captain Aytac Sulu, Sandro “pit bull” Wagner up front and Christian Mathenia, the young keeper who’d just helped Mainz 05’s U23 team reach the 3rd league, he set out to a stormy sea.
With three draws and one win in Leverkusen, the Lilies stood 11th in the table. Bayern München, who had once played such a crucial part in saving the club, handed them their first defeat. On May 14 the season came to its predictable end with Bayern on top, and Darmstadt 98 in 14th, having lost 14 games – only one more than Champions League qualifier Borussia Mönchengladbach. The Lilies sat also two places above Eintracht Frankfurt, formerly the biggest club from the biggest city in the state of Hesse. Cinderella had won the ball a third time.
You can spin a tale only so many times. Darmstadt’s second year in Bundesliga saw the glitter flaking off. The reality of modern football, which seemed to have lost its grip on the small club in blue and white, sharpened its teeth. Dirk Schuster, the miracle’s architect and German Manager of the Year 2016, went to FC Augsburg. After leaving, he expressed his belief that Darmstadt 98 had reached their zenith with their promotion to Bundesliga. It was bound to be downhill from there. The players from that miracle season were also lured to greener pastures. Keeper Mathenia went to HSV, top scorer Sandro Wagner to TSG Hoffenheim and fans’ favourite Sailer left for 3rd tier team Wacker Nordhausen on a free transfer. The band of brothers dispersed.
The new manager at the Böllenfalltor was Norbert Meier, of all people. Two years prior he had seen his Arminia Bielefeld side lose to Darmstadt 98 in that magical playoff game. Now he faced a mission impossible. With a market value of €28 million to Bayern München’s €580 million, the Lilies stood with their backs to the crumbling walls of Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor.
Wait, it wasn’t called that anymore.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 season Darmstadt’s stadium was renamed again. That’s nothing unusual. Neighbouring Bundesliga midfielder Mainz 05 had just changed their stadium sponsor from Coface to Opel. What was unusual was that Darmstadt’s new namesake – for a year the venue will be the Jonathan-Heimes Stadion – was a young fan. Jonathan Heimes was a Darmstadt fan, nothing more and nothing less. What marked him as special was the cruel fact that he suffered from cancer, fought the disease, motivated others to fight, founded a non-profit organisation to support children suffering from cancer, inspired the team in the fight for promotion to the 2nd league and died in March 2016 aged 26. He was an inspiration to the whole Darmstadt 98 family (and beyond) and it is more than appropriate to put his name to the place where his beloved club will fight once more.
As winter break approached Darmstadt 98 was last in the table, having won just two games. Meier left the club at the beginning of December. Interim successor Ramon Berndroth (a name rarely heard in German football banter) has now been replaced by former German international Torsten Frings. Two matches into Frings’ first position as manager, and his side have recorded a goalless draw and fallen 6-1 to Köln. Darmstadt remain last in the table.
There’s still nearly half a season to play, and Darmstadt have come back from worse in their history. So if football journalists really want to share a football fairytale, they should bypass the nouveau riches of Red Bull Leipzig and visit Darmstadt instead. They are still the belittled and bedraggled (almost) after-work-hours footballers, playing in a stadium that doesn’t really meet even the 2nd league’s requirements. But they have a shine to their name they owe no one but themselves. The Lilies’ story is the true fairytale.