On Friday evening, a venerable football ground steeped in tradition will stage its biggest game in more than a quarter of a century. It also could be one of its last.
The ground is commonly known as the Boellenfalltor. It opened back in 1921 and has been the home of Darmstadt 98 ever since. On Friday, the team will meet Arminia Bielefeld under the Boellenfalltor's outdated floodlights in the first game of a two-legged playoff for the last spot in the Second Bundesliga.
I suppose you are familiar with Arminia Bielefeld but have never heard of the Boellenfalltor or Darmstadt 98. That's understandable. In the past 20 years, their name has never appeared anywhere on a fixture list of the second division, let alone the first.
But that doesn't mean Darmstadt are one of those teams (of which there are many at the moment) that have come from nowhere to rise through the divisions, such as Hoffenheim, Augsburg, Paderborn, Sandhausen, Aalen, Leipzig and Heidenheim.
Darmstadt are different, at least for German football fans who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s. Yes, the team played only two seasons in the Bundesliga during those years, but it left an indelible impression, thanks to the "Feierabendprofis" (After-Hours Pros), the last part-timers to compete in the Bundesliga.
And so the name Darmstadt resonates deeply with many fans and conjures up pictures of days gone by. The same goes for the Boellenfalltor, with its spacious and often rainswept standing areas, the ancient poplar trees that rise behind the north stand, the old-fashioned running track and the even more old-fashioned floodlight towers.
In fact, the ground is maybe a bit too tradition-laden. There were serious doubts whether Darmstadt would be allowed to stage the home leg of the playoffs here. In April, the club signed a provisional contract with the Coface Arena, the stadium of FSV Mainz, so it would have a place to play in case the German FA considered the Boellenfalltor unfit for such a big game.
Those fears proved unfounded, because two weeks ago Darmstadt received permission to stage the home leg at, well, home. "We are very happy that we can play the game at our Boellenfalltor stadium," club president Ruediger Fritsch said, "particularly for our fans, the city and the region." However, some major investments will be needed if Darmstadt should manage to defeat Bielefeld and return to the second division.
The Boellenfalltor needs a bigger pitch, more space for television, under-soil heating, more fire escape routes and a few other things. The city, which owns the ground, has granted funds of around 200,000 euros to finance what it knows are only stopgap measures. The long-term plan is to replace the creaky old ground with a shiny, modern stadium. It would cost between 25 million and 30 million euros. The city can't afford this, let alone the club, so Darmstadt would have to hope for help from the state. Truth be told, money has always been a problem here, which led to the concept of the After-Hours Pros in 1978.
Darmstadt is a city of roughly 150,000 people. It lies 20 miles south of Frankfurt and Offenbach, 20 miles east of Mainz, and 30 miles north of Mannheim. That's a lot of football competition for what has always been a small club, even though it's one of Germany’s oldest. (The "98" in the club's name refers to 1898, the year of foundation. In contrast to a few German clubs that boast even older dates, Darmstadt's roots were of a football team, so they have indeed played this sport since 1898.)
Darmstadt's players are known as the Lillies, after the fleur-de-lis in the club's badge, which in turn comes from the city's coat of arms. For most of their postwar history, the Lillies were a second-division side. Even during the pre-Bundesliga era, they spent only one single year in what was then the top flight in their region, the notoriously competitive and tough Oberliga Sued.
In the early 1970s, Darmstadt became an established side in the southern tier of the Second Bundesliga under popular coach Udo Klug. In fact, Klug did such a good job that he was approached by a bigger club, Kickers Offenbach, in November 1976. Darmstadt allowed their coach to leave midseason and replaced him with a 40-year-old man who'd had some success with a local club. His name was Lothar Buchmann, and his face would soon become one of the more readily recognisable in German football. (Thanks also to his penchant for distinctive glasses.)
The players Buchmann inherited from Klug were not full professionals; they all held down regular day jobs or were students. Defender Edwin Westenberger was a butcher, while Gerhard Kleppinger was an insurance salesman. They worked from early in the morning to early afternoon and then held their training sessions. This setup wasn't unusual at the time. The lower division was technically a professional league, but many of the smaller teams were little more than semipro.
It was just too much of a risk for both club and player to go fully professional if, like Darmstadt, you had limited resources and an average attendance of only 6,000. What's more, clubs of Darmstadt's size had no delusions of grandeur. They knew they wouldn't get promoted to the Bundesliga, because they shared the southern tier of the Second Bundesliga with giants such as Nuernberg, Offenbach, Karlsruhe, 1860 Munich and VfB Stuttgart.
Yet 18 months after Klug had left for such a bigger team, Buchmann pulled off the impossible and got Darmstadt promoted to the Bundesliga. But then what? The players weren't under any illusions. They knew their chances of having a long and successful career in the top flight were small. They also knew the club didn't really have the funds to support a whole squad of full professionals. Still fresh in many people's minds was the story of Tasmania Berlin, a small team that was put into the Bundesliga for political reasons in 1965 and went bankrupt a few years later.
And so the Lillies decided to stay semipro. Of course this made money matters easier but complicated everything else. Ahead of the 1978-79 Bundesliga campaign, Buchmann wanted to hold a 10-day preseason training camp in Bavaria. But his players had to ask their employers for a holiday, and it wasn't easy to find dates on which everyone was available. In the end, the squad left Darmstadt in the first week of July without midfielder Willibald Weiss. He was a mathematics teacher, and the school term hadn't ended yet.
Needless to say, Darmstadt won more friends than points that season. But although they lost one home game 6-1 and another 7-1, they were far from hopeless. They beat Moenchengladbach, who went on to win the UEFA Cup that season; they drew 1-1 away at Bayern Munich; and when they defeated Bochum in late December, they started a 25-year-old South Korean forward who would go on to become a Bundesliga legend: Cha Bum-kun.
Who knows, maybe Cha, who already was a big star in Asia, could have helped the team stay up. But in a great ironic twist, the Lillies' first proper professional (Cha was supposed to get 500 marks for every appearance plus 1,000 marks for every victory) played only this one game for the club. He still had to do five months of military service, and the South Korean army flatly refused to discharge him early. By the time he had fulfilled his patriotic duty, the Lillies had been relegated.
And so Cha eventually made his name elsewhere, in Frankfurt and Leverkusen. The same went for some Darmstadt players who realised they did have what it takes to be more than just an after-hours pro. Manfred Drexler joined Schalke; Kleppinger went professional with Hannover 96. Even Buchmann's assistant became famous: Klaus Schlappner would take Waldhof Mannheim to the Bundesliga (and keep them there).
And the Lillies? They briefly returned to the top flight in 1981, under coach Werner Olk, but although they went professional this time, their stay was again very brief. The last hurrah came in 1988, when Darmstadt finished third in the second division and met rivals Mannheim, the 16th-place team in the Bundesliga, for a playoff of epic proportions.
It was one of only three such relegation/promotion playoffs that went to a third game at a neutral ground. And it was the only one to be decided by a penalty shootout. Darmstadt were leading 3-2 when their (Mannheim-born) sweeper Karl-Heinz Emig stepped up. He was his team's fifth taker and only needed to convert his spot-kick to take the Lillies back to the top flight. He missed. Mannheim eventually won the shootout 5-4 and stayed up.
Five years later, Darmstadt were relegated from the Second Bundesliga. They haven't been back since.