The remarkable story of Bundesliga minnows Darmstadt

It’s around half ten at night in a cramped press room at Darmstadt’s Jonathan Heimes Stadion in south-west Germany.

The press conference has just finished following a 1-1 draw against Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. At the back stands a tall, smartly dressed figure clutching a bottle of beer. Markus Pfitzner is Darmstadt’s vice president and he cannot help but smile after his team’s late equaliser.

A few hours earlier, Pfitzner spoke to The Set Pieces outside the stadium in the Darmstadt VIP area, which is a rather large tent.

There, he extolled the virtues of the club he’s supported for nearly 40 years: “We’re one of the last kind of islands where there’s a bit more heart and soul.”

Darmstadt’s 17,000 capacity stadium embodies that. A bowl-shaped ground with just one covered stand and the rest terracing, the metal caging around the tunnel helps preserve an old-school feel in contrast to the countless slick, modern arenas in Germany.

“Every other week, there’s water pouring down from the wall,” says Pfitzner.

In terms of infrastructure, Darmstadt can’t compete with the rest of the Bundesliga. Last season, Dirk Schuster was coach and Sascha Franz his assistant. Their fathers, both ex-coaches in their mid-seventies, were in charge of first-team scouting.

As for signings, Schuster’s role resembled that of an English manager: “When Dirk was still here, he was basically doing it all.” Sporting director Holger Fach was only installed earlier this year.

Pfitzner explains that Darmstadt have to be ‘a bit more creative’ when buying players. “In the past, we tried to pick those who have not been successful in the past one or two seasons and they get a chance to prove themselves and show that they can do it.”

Although they were one of ten Bundesliga clubs to break their transfer record this summer, Freiburg’s Immanuel Höhn only cost them €750,000. You won’t be surprised to learn that they have the smallest budget in the division, securing an improbable survival on a reported total of just €15 million last season.

The story of Darmstadt presents a stark contrast to the business of newly promoted RB Leipzig. Merely mentioning the name of the club backed by Red Bull prompts a sigh from Pfitzner.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the idea to use a football club as a marketing tool. This is not how I look at football. Yes, we have to face reality. It is what it is. It’s just not my kind of model that I would buy into.

“They do an amazing job. They have a very strong team but this summer, they invested nearly €50 million and we are like: ‘Oh come on, can we spend 3 or 4 [million]?’

“There are other examples where individuals have supported a club but at least they have been with the club over the years.”

Leipzig are learning what it’s like to take Bayern Munich’s crown as the most hated club in Germany; albeit a different kind of hatred, with Bayern loathed primarily for their success.

Pfitzner notes that if it weren’t for Bayern, the Darmstadt miracle may never have got off the ground.

Back in 2008, the club were close to bankruptcy in Germany’s fourth tier. Bayern weren’t exactly at the peak of their powers in Europe, and were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Zenit St Petersburg in the semi-finals. That was excellent news for Darmstadt.

They had already requested a friendly against Bayern in the hope of raising enough money to help clear their debts. Bayern called them the morning after losing in Russia. With no UEFA Cup final on the agenda, the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribéry travelled to Darmstadt in May.

It turned out to be a bit one-sided: Bayern won 11-5 in front of a crowd of 20,000. But on this occasion Darmstadt were the real winners, raising around €200,000.

“Without that game, we would not be where we are right now,” says Pfitzner.

After the game, Schweinsteiger said Darmstadt were ready for the second division. It wasn’t long until the catalyst of that friendly was to propel them up the leagues.

It was only five years ago that Darmstadt eventually escaped the fourth tier but, in the summer of 2013, they were relegated back down from the third division. A lifeline arrived when Kickers Offenbach failed to receive their competitive licence for the third division, with Darmstadt handed a reprieve.

They made the most of their second chance, winning  back-to-back promotions to reach the Bundesliga after a 33-year absence.

When you ask Pfitzner what the most special moment has been in the last few years, he picks the first of those promotions. Simply saying that Darmstadt won the third division’s relegation play-off doesn’t do justice to what Pfitzner describes as ‘that night in Bielefeld.’

“We’d lost for 20, 30 years all the important games,” he says.

It looked like it was going to happen again. Darmstadt suffered a 3-1 defeat at home to Arminia Bielefeld in the first leg, appearing to end their hopes of promotion. But this is where a man called Jonathan Heimes comes in.

Heimes was a promising tennis player from Darmstadt, but aged 14 he was diagnosed with cancer. He went on to raise hundreds of thousands of Euros for charity, inspiring many through his DUMUSSTKÄMPFEN campaign, which literally translates as ‘You have to fight.’

Through this work and his support of Darmstadt, Heimes developed a close bond with the club’s players. Former midfielder Tobias Kempe even got one of his sayings ‘Es ist noch nichts verloren’ (“Nothing is lost yet”) tattooed on his arm.

Perhaps no moment brought them closer than the return game at Bielefeld. The night before, Schuster handed out wristbands to the players from Heimes bearing the message DUMUSSTKÄMPFEN. They were worn by the team during the match the following day.

Remarkably, Darmstadt led 3-1 after 90 minutes. Pfitzner can still remember seeing players point at the wristbands after they conceded in Bielefeld. Arminia ended up scoring another in extra time but so too did Darmstadt – a winner in the 122nd minute.

Pfitzner still sports one of the bands, along with many others around the stadium. Heimes lost his life to cancer in March this year at the age of 26, having fought the disease three times. The club decided to honour him earlier this month by renaming their stadium after him for the season.

“His ideals are still around,” says Pfitzner – a statement which rings true around two hours later against Hoffenheim. In the final minute of injury time, Denys Oliynik prodded home the equaliser at the Jonathan-Heimes-Stadion.

“This is the typical Darmstadt spirit that we saw today,” said Pfitzner with a sigh of relief in the press room. His club may not be the biggest but they certainly do fight on.

——

Christian Pulisic says he’s happy with the game time he’s getting at Borussia Dortmund amid speculation linking the winger to Liverpool.

The USA international, who turned 18 earlier this month, came on as a substitute in Dortmund’s 3-1 win against Freiburg on Friday.

His current contract runs until 2019, but Pulisic isn’t concerned with rumours about his future.

“I’m absolutely focused on the season, performing well and winning games with our team,” he told The Set Pieces.

Pulisic also praised Thomas Tuchel, describing his coach as unbelievable to work with.

The remarkable story of Bundesliga minnows Darmstadt
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