SV Darmstadt 98’s rise to the Bundesliga

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In a fairytale story, newly promoted Darmstadt have risen three divisions in two seasons.

Two years ago, on the last day of 2012-13 season in 3.Liga, Germany’s third division, Dirk Schuster was ready for a huge game. The young coach was controversially fired by Stuttgarter Kickers in November 2012, almost immediately signed for struggling SV Darmstadt 98, and was preparing to host his former club in the ultimate relegation decider. Darmstadt needed to beat Stuttgarter Kickers in order to leapfrog them in the table and stay up at their expense. Any other result would see them going down to the regional league, and the very existence of the club would be thrown into doubt.

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Faithful fans – 14,000 of them – filled the stadium hoping to see a miracle, but Schuster lost. Darmstadt’s attack was the weakest in the league, and they couldn’t find the way past Stuttgarter Kickers, who took an early lead. Finally, Elton Da Costa scored the equaliser with six minutes to go, but it was way too late. The 1-1 draw condemned the Lilies, as they are affectionately known, to relegation to the fourth division.

If anyone told Schuster back then that just two years later he would celebrate Darmstadt’s promotion to the Bundesliga, he would have considered it to be a cruel and tasteless joke. And yet, the craziest scenario imaginable became reality. 

In fact, it is barely imaginable at all. You might have heard a lot of football fairytales in your life, but Darmstadt are the most improbable of them all. Their success truly defies all logic.

Schuster took the reins as manager when Darmstadt were in Germany's third division.

Schuster’s luck started to change when Kickers Offenbach were refused a 3.Liga license for financial irregularities, and Darmstadt took their place. They were clear relegation candidates at the start of 2013-14 season, and found the net just once in the first three matches.

But something changed in September, as they thrashed Duisburg 4-0 and Hansa Rostock 6-0 within a week. Schuster managed to find the right balance in defence, while at the other end, Dominik Stroh-Engel couldn’t stop scoring, and efficient Darmstadt soared up the table. They were assured of a third-place finish long before the season ended, meaning participating in the playoffs against Arminia Bielefeld – who had finished 16th in the second division.

Naturally, the Lilies were clear underdogs, and nobody was surprised when Bielefeld won 3-1 away in the first leg. The tie seemed well and truly over, but the return leg turned into one of the most dramatic matches ever seen in any division around the world. Watch the highlights yourself – they tell the whole story. Arminia were simply overconfident, and the visitors produced an incredible attacking performance to win 3-1 in 90 minutes, before Elton Da Costa sent an amazing shot into the net very late in extra time to make it 4-2 and secure promotion for Darmstadt on away goals.

With a budget of just Dhs20 million (€5m), the Lilies were unable to make quality purchases for their unexpected campaign in the second division this season. They had to be content with the likes of Tobias Kempe, who didn’t really impress at Dynamo Dresden when they were relegated to 3.Liga. The total value of all the players in Darmstadt squad was less than Dhs50 million (€12m), and they were widely expected to go straight down.

Remarkably, their statistics throughout the season fit those expectations. Darmstadt’s pass completion rate was the worst in 2.Bundesliga. Their percentage of tackles won was the worst in the league as well. They had significant problems in attack, scoring just 44 goals in 34 games, and 23 of them – more than half! – came from dead ball situations. In short, they were relegation material indeed. The thing is, though, that they finished second and were promoted.

If anyone told Schuster back then that just two years later he would celebrate Darmstadt’s promotion to the Bundesliga, he would have considered it to be a cruel and tasteless joke.

How is that possible? Nobody really knows. Darmstadt have nothing apart from exceptional team spirit. Schuster was a well respected centre-back in his playing days in the 90s, very prominent in the air despite being just 178cm tall. He starred for Karlsruhe, alongside Oliver Kahn, when they reached UEFA Cup semi-finals in 1994, winning 7-0 against Valencia in the process. He managed to build the team in his mould – one that never stops fighting, even though they are clearly inferior.

They might have lost most of the tackles, but they won the crucial ones. They might not have passed the ball well, but they were deadly on the counter attack and would take the only opportunity to kill off their opponents. And they are extremely tough to beat. The Lilies kept 17 clean sheets and conceded a league lowest 26 goals all season. That meant they lost just five times, and they got very lucky once again. The 59 points the Lilies won wouldn’t have been sufficient for promotion in any of the previous ten seasons! This time, with all the opponents wildly inconsistent, they were.

Marco Sailer is probably the man who defines Darmstadt better than anyone. The 29-year-old journeyman, who played in the third division for most of his career, is a striker who scored just once during the entire season. Nevertheless, he is a cult figure with the fans thanks to his extraordinary work rate. Sailer runs himself into the ground and helps out in the defence, while his only goal at Nurnberg was worth a crucial point. What’s more, he started growing a beard back in November, deeply disappointing his mother, and now James Harden should be jealous of him. “I could never have imagined I would pay in the Bundesliga”, Sailer keeps saying.

Frankly, none of the Bundesliga teams imagined they would have to play at Darmstadt’s Bollenfalltor stadium, which was built in 1921 and looks appropriately. Bild newspaper recently sent a correspondent to check out the facilities, and claimed that “their smell reminds us of sports lessons in school”.

“Darmstadt played at amateur level five years ago, and that is the level of the stadium. The grass was replaced a year ago, because there was no heating before, but the dressing rooms were not touched. There are Spartan wooden benches, aluminium hooks and school tables. The water in the showers is cold”, Bild reported, quoting Schuster – who claimed: “We always show the stadium to our potential players before they sign, so that they will see everything and decide whether they can deal with that”.

Next season, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund stars will have to deal with that, but Darmstadt will be extremely popular with the neutrals. They caught everyone’s eye with their incredible story, and even local rivals Eintracht Frankfurt welcomed them, merrily tweeting about the first derby about to be played in 33 years.

Yes, there were derby games before. Darmstadt were promoted to the Bundesliga twice in their history, in 1978 and 1981, and were immediately relegated on both occasions. Given their miserly resources, they should be expected to suffer the same fate again, but the Lilies have proved that they don’t live according to expectations. Schuster and his troops don’t give a damn about logic, and they should probably start preparing for Champions League qualification. That is a joke, of course, but weren’t their chances of two successive promotions supposed to be laughable as well?

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