The Bundesliga's forgotten team
It is, as the saying goes, a funny old game. Not too long ago, asking people for their team of the season produced numerous different replies. Many named Bayern, of course, as they will finish the domestic campaign with tons of records, some perhaps for the ages.
Others said Dortmund, for their image-boosting European heroics. Quite a few people also nominated Freiburg or Mainz, for collecting more points and playing better football than their budget should allow for.
Or how about candidates such as Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, two newly-promoted teams that outdid expectations so thoroughly that one seemed assured of survival with many weeks still to come while the other toyed with - gasp! - Champions League football?
Even Augsburg and Hannover 96 were names you would have heard uttered, the former for a most astounding reversal of fortunes after the end of the winter break, the latter for being in or near sixth place during most of the season while also remaining unbeaten in the Europa League until late February.
But now, as we approach the 30th round of games in the Bundesliga and the semi-finals in Europe, there is but one team that can - figuratively speaking - sit back, light a cigar and, with a broad, satisfied grin, say: "Well, that's been a heck of a ride, hasn't it?"
That team is VfB Stuttgart. Like I said, it's a funny old game.
Some of the clubs listed above, the likes of Hannover, Mainz, Düsseldorf or Frankfurt, have begun to find the going a bit rougher of late. Augsburg and Bayern, meanwhile, will only judge their season by what happens in the next few weeks. In Augsburg's case, they can still go down and you won't call a relegated side a team of the season, even if they have put up a great fight.
As regards Bayern, for all their greatness so far - and maybe because of it - there are still a few horror scenarios that could come true. (Some of them so scary for Bayern fans that I won't even mention them here.) Dortmund and Freiburg, finally, have put in excellent seasons by their own standards - yet the public is unlikely to share these clubs' enthusiasm if the former should get unceremoniously knocked out of the Champions League by Real while the latter misses out on the European slots.
Stuttgart, in marked contrast, have had many very tough months. The football was often uninspired, all those Europa League games put a terrible strain on a squad that wasn't particularly deep even before injuries hit, the press was critical of the team's performances and the fans were unhappy with the board, especially with president Gerd Mäuser. Oh, and money was comparatively tight.
As late as March, the local newspaper Schwarzwälder Bote said: "The atmosphere at the games is as grey and dismal as the weather." It went on to quote Oliver Schaal, a fan spokesman, as saying: "It's no longer fun watching the games. The fans cannot recognise 'the Stuttgart Way' preached by the board. We cannot see that this way is being filled with life. The worst thing is that we cannot see a sporting perspective."
But on Wednesday night, the bruised and battered team without perspective treated those fans to a tremendous game. In the DFB-Pokal semi-final, Stuttgart defeated Freiburg 2-1. It was a closely-fought match in which VfB prevailed deservedly but also needed a lot of willpower, particularly in the closing stages when legs began to tire and Freiburg, with twelve games less under their collective belt, increased the pace.
Stuttgart held out, though, and reached the final in Berlin. Their opponents will be Bayern, which means that VfB are already assured of Europa League football again next season. True, it's not a competition their fans are especially enamoured by. In fact, the Stuttgarter Zeitung recently said: "In Stuttgart, the Europa League has been a misunderstanding for years now. VfB are fighting to qualify for an entire season - and then they realise with sadness that hardly anyone is interested."
But qualifying for Europe does constitute sporting success and on Wednesday night it became almost palpable how much the players and the supporters relish the fact they have achieved such success in the face of adversity. And then it also became audible.
"For two and a half years, we've only been repairing things," coach Bruno Labbadia said on television, referring to the fact he had to assemble a competitive team even though his budget has been cut considerably. "Yet we didn't get relegated and have made the Europa League for the second time." With thinly veiled sarcasm, he added: "At the moment, I can't deliver the Champions League."
It was the second time this season that Labbadia complained about a lack of appreciation on the part of the media and, one can presume, the fans and the board. Back in October, he said: "I'm not surprised that they are getting a new coach here every few months." He added: "Coaches are not other people's garbage cans."
Labbadia, Stuttgart's eighth coach in the last ten years, was talking about himself, but you could also understand his words in a broader sense. Because VfB Stuttgart were the Bundesliga's forgotten team this season. Even when the club lost the first four games after the end of the winter break to find itself "in the dirt", as business manager Fredi Bobic put it, meaning near the drop zone, nobody outside of Swabia felt this warranted a major story.
When Bremen or Hamburg embarrassed themselves, the cameras immediately came out in droves, but Stuttgart were the side nobody appeared to really care about, let alone appreciate. Until Wednesday night. The way Labbadia and his players celebrated the win together with their fans made you realise this was more than just a cup victory, no matter how crucial. It was a deeply satisfying gesture of defiance.