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 By Uli Hesse

Darmstadt's improbable rise to the Bundesliga

Almost exactly one year ago, we covered a small, unfashionable club by the name of Darmstadt 98 and looked at the history of its hopelessly outdated ground, the Bollenfalltor.

The reason for the piece was that third-division Darmstadt were about to host second-division Arminia Bielefeld in the first leg of the promotion/relegation playoffs and that the match -- which Darmstadt lost 3-1 -- could have been one of the last big games ever staged at this venerable stadium.

Not quite. Two days ago, on Sunday, the Bollenfalltor witnessed an ever bigger game. This time Darmstadt were playing St. Pauli with promotion not to the 2.Bundesliga on the line, but to the Bundesliga instead. After 71 scoreless minutes, the hosts won a free kick 28 yards in front of goal. Midfielder Tobias Kempe stepped up, took a look at the three-man wall, inhaled deeply and curled the ball into the top corner for the winning goal.

When the final whistle rang 20 minutes later, thousands of delirious fans invaded the pitch until the field was a sea of blue and white. Two days after their club's 117th birthday and following a 33-year-absence, Darmstadt 98 had been promoted to the Bundesliga.

There have been a number of surprising promotions in recent years, just think of Eintracht Braunschweig, Paderborn and the club we looked at last week, Ingolstadt. But it's safe to say that Darmstadt's rise from rags to riches -- or whatever passes for riches at this notoriously impoverished club -- is the most unlikely success story of the past 15 years.

Darmstadt are not the first team to win back-to-back promotions and move from the third division to the top-flight in only one year. For some weird reason, this was almost common between 1994 and 1999, when no less than five clubs pulled off this feat (1860 Munich, Fortuna Dusseldorf, Arminia Bielefeld, Nurnberg and finally Ulm).

Manager Dirk Schuster took the reins of Darmstadt back when they were in Germany's third division.
Manager Dirk Schuster took the reins of Darmstadt back when they were in Germany's third division.

But there are a number of details that make Darmstadt's rise special, almost unprecedented. This century, only Hoffenheim have moved from the third division to the top-flight in just one year, but they had what Darmstadt never had -- money.

Also, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Darmstadt haven't gone from the third division to the first -- but from the fourth! To understand why this is so, we have to turn back the clock to a day when the tears flowed as freely in Darmstadt as they did on Sunday. Only these weren't tears of joy. That day was May 18, 2013 -- the Sunday on which this whole crazy story began.

It was the last match-day in the third division and Darmstadt were playing Kickers Stuttgart. Whoever lost this match would be relegated to the fourth division. A draw was enough for Kickers but, depending on other results, probably not for Darmstadt.

The hosts fell behind early, but with only six minutes left, veteran Elton da Costa, a Brazilian, levelled the score. The players looked towards the bench. Was this enough? No. Coach Dirk Schuster informed the team that Dortmund's reserves were leading 1-0, which meant that Darmstadt needed the full three points.

The team threw everything forward. Da Costa hit the post. Aytac Sulu clattered the crossbar. Then came the final whistle. The players in blue shirts sank to the ground. Many of them were sobbing uncontrollably. Schuster, always an impeccable sportsman, congratulated the opponents and never mentioned that his team had been denied a clear penalty for handball.

"I suppose we now have to radically rebuilt the team," he told Kicker magazine, which was the first indication that he intended to stay at the helm despite going down. Only ten days later, Schuster extended his contract. Meanwhile, Darmstadt's board of directors issued a statement that was headed: "We'll get up again -- and we will be back!"

Dominik Stroh-Engel has been a major factor in Darmstadt's success since joining the club in 2013.
Dominik Stroh-Engel has been a major factor in Darmstadt's success since joining the club in 2013.

The statement admitted that relegation was a setback, but it also alluded to the fact that Darmstadt had been at a disadvantage. "Darmstadt 98 has paid a bitter price for acting with integrity and responsibility," the directors declared. They added: "We have pointed out to the authorities that other clubs' continued economic mismanagement shouldn't come at the expense of Darmstadt 98. We won't accept injustice and inequity."

The background to this complaint was that Darmstadt had been very careful with money, spending only what it earned, while other clubs went into debt to sign expensive players.

Twelve days after the statement was published, the German FA informed Kickers Offenbach, notorious over-spenders and many millions in the red, that due to financial irregularities the club would not be granted a license for third-division football. Although the team had finished four points above Darmstadt, they were relegated to the fourth level.

Suddenly Schuster's men were back in the third division.

To say they made the most of this stroke of luck would be an understatement. The drama of the relegation fight, the tears on the last day and then the reinstatement to the third division welded the team together. Oh, and Schuster also made a deal which wasn't too shabby.

In the summer of 2013, Darmstadt signed a tall, lanky striker by the name of Dominik Stroh-Engel on one of those free transfers that are a club specialty. It's not as if Schuster had to ward off competition to get his man. The 27-year-old Stroh-Engel had been around quite a bit and even made three Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt as a young man.

But his career never got off the ground. When Darmstadt signed him, Stroh-Engel had just scored a measly three goals in 34 games for Wehen Wiesbaden in the third division. Under Schuster, he -- and there is no other term for it -- went through the roof.

Forward Marco Sailer is one of the fan favourites at the Bollenfalltor.
Forward Marco Sailer is one of the fan favourites at the Bollenfalltor.

In 2013-14, Stroh-Engel set a new scoring record for the third division by finding the target 27 times. Even he didn't know why and how this happened. "No matter what I did, the ball almost always went in," he told the weekly Die Zeit, adding: "The last time I scored so many goals in a season was in youth football."

His goals took Darmstadt all the way to the playoffs against Bielefeld which triggered last May's club profile. At the Bollenfalltor, the players known as the Lillies (after the fleur-de-lis in the crest) were beaten 3-1 and the dream was as good as over. "The third goal didn't exactly increase our chances," Schuster said after the game with the sort of expression that told you he thought the journey had ended.

But three days later, in a return leg played under the away-goals rule, his team put in one of the most inspired performances ever seen from any team at any level. With 11 minutes left, midfielder Jerome Gondorf rifled an incredible first-time shot from 25 yards into the top corner to give Darmstadt a 3-1 lead and send the game to extra time.

In the 110th minute, Bielefeld pulled one back. Schuster's team needed a fourth goal. As crazy as it may sound, this goal came one minute into stoppage time. It was a left-footed volley from 20 yards out. And the scorer was none other than 34-year-old Elton da Costa.

However, the game still wasn't over. Two minutes later, Bielefeld's fullback Arne Feick headed the ball goalward, but it struck left-hand post of Darmstadt's goal and deflected out. Shortly thereafter, at last, Schuster could race onto the pitch with outstretched arms and his fingers pointing at the sky.

Despite winning promotion, the club didn't change its prudent ways. During the offseason, the state granted the city of Darmstadt considerable funds to be used to gradually rebuild the decrepit Bollenfalltor into a proper, modern stadium. Additional help came from the local chemical company Merck, which acquired the naming rights for 300,000 euros.

But hardly any money was put into the squad. Darmstadt went into their first second-division season in 21 years with one of the smallest budgets in the league. In July 2014, Kicker magazine predicted that Darmstadt "will be fighting for survival until the last day of the season." Two weeks later, Stern magazine said that "avoiding the drop would be a sensation."

Darmstadt stunned experts and onlookers alike by achieving promotion to the Bundesliga.
Darmstadt stunned experts and onlookers alike by achieving promotion to the Bundesliga.

But again Schuster's bunch of rejects and no-hopers -- epitomised by Marco Sailer, whom Focus magazine dubbed "Germany's wildest professional" because he hasn't shaved since October -- overcame all odds. After a stunning 3-0 win at home against Nurnberg, just relegated from the Bundesliga, on matchday 11, the Lillies climbed into fourth place. They never again dropped below this position and were promptly termed "the love of the [football] romantics" by the press.

Still, Schuster never spoke of promotion and instead liked to call Darmstadt "the small Gallic village," referring to the indomitable Gauls from the comic strip series Asterix. He seemed to have a point, because his key player Stroh-Engel, who started the season on fire, scoring on each of the first five matchdays, suddenly didn't find the target anymore. Without him the team found it very hard to score and at one point, Darmstadt drew 0-0 three games in a row.

But somehow the Lillies hung in there and ground out results. With four days left, they defeated promotion hopefuls Kaiserslautern 3-2 and climbed into third place. One week later, they travelled to another promotion candidate, Karlsruhe.

After 66 minutes, the hosts won a corner. Darmstadt's defence cleared the situation and the ball reached the 29-year-old Marcel Heller, whom Schuster had signed from the third division. Heller took off in his own half and raced down the left wing, past Hiroki Yamada and into Karlsruhe's penalty area. He reached the edge of the six-yard box and then, surrounded by three opponents, pulled the ball back for Tobias Kempe, who knocked it in from close-range.

It was the goal that put Darmstadt in second place. For good, as we now know, because two weeks later, Kempe scored again to defeat St. Pauli and clinch a fairy-tale promotion.

"I only realised what has happened when I woke up this morning," Sailer, wearing a blue wig, told Sky Germany on Monday. "The city is exploding." Asked who had partied the hardest during the night before, Sailer replied: "Oh, our coach was very prominent." Then, in an attempt to explain his hoarse voice, he added: "But you know, us players always follow him."

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.

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