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Tales of the unexpected

A few weeks ago I was whiling away the time on a message board. Suddenly I noticed somebody had left a note for me about these Soccernet columns. 'It's a shame that German football isn't as interesting on the field as off it,' it read.

That was meant to compliment me, yet it got me thinking. Is our football un-entertaining? For starters, what makes football entertaining? Suspense? In this regard, we're doing all right.

Last year, the title-race wasn't decided until the final quarter of an hour. In 2001, the matter was settled AFTER the nominal end of the season, in stoppage time.

In 2000, a mere seven goals made the difference, and Leverkusen were in the running until eighteen minutes from time.

In 1999, the third relegation spot changed hands five times during the last 900 seconds of the campaign, and Frankfurt stayed up because they managed to score three times after the 80th minute. (Please make a mental note of that.)

But maybe suspense isn't what constitutes entertainment. Maybe it's goals? On that count, the Bundesliga could have a problem, because in the season just past there were only 821 goals (72 less than last year).

But, and here's the punchline, this translates into 2.68 goals per game, which is still way ahead of England (2.63), Spain (2.62), Italy (2.58) and France (2.20). In fact, the Bundesliga has led these leagues in goals-per-game every season for the last thirteen years! I'm not pointing this out to suggest you all relocate to Germany and sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' with a fake Teutonic accent.

On the contrary, I'm bringing up these stats only as an introduction to the main story ­which is that our entertaining Bundesliga has bitterly disappointed almost everyone in 2002-03.

And it's not just the fans who feel they got a raw deal.

There's only three clubs which can be really happy with this season: Stuttgart (for reaching the Champions League with a bunch of underpaid cub scouts), Hamburg (for getting into Europe after the coach was as good as fired and the side flirting with relegation as late as mid-November), and Bochum (for finishing in a stunning 9th place and briefly leading the league for the first time in their entire history).

Not even those teams that celebrated when the final whistle came can be thoroughly content: Bayern waltzed through the league but spent every day thinking about their European debacle; Leverkusen and Kaiserslautern had abysmal years that reflected neither their ambitions nor their potential; Hannover should have been safe months ago but gave away lead after lead; Gladbach, beset by injuries, had to fire their beloved coach Hans Meyer and would probably have been doomed without the services of Chelsea's Mikael Forssell.

And that's not even mentioning the clubs that underachieved really badly: Bremen and Hertha, and especially Dortmund and Schalke, who both proved that a lot of money and talent is not enough to win hearts or points.

Our entertaining Bundesliga has bitterly disappointed almost everyone in 2002-03

So, where was the entertainment? I'll tell you where: in the Second Division. You may know that Frankfurt have joined Freiburg and Cologne in the promotion spots (there are no playoffs).

But I take it for granted you're not familiar with the details. And since those details make for one of the most unlikely football dramas ever, I'll give them to you right now.

With four games to go, Frankfurt and Mainz were level on points, and Fürth were three points behind. Those three clubs fought out the crucial third place in this league. On May 4, Fürth won away, and then Mainz beat Frankfurt with an 89th minute winner from Benjamin Auer. Now Mainz were three points clear of Fürth and Frankfurt, with three games left.

A week later, both pursuers won, while Mainz travelled to relegation-threatened Ahlen. There, they fell behind 2-0 after eleven minutes but scored three without reply to capture the lead ­until there were 27 seconds left on the clock.

Ahlen's Zepek fired a volley past Mainz's goalkeeper to tie the match, and two minutes later (the clock now read 91:36), his team-mate Chiquinho headed home the shock winner.

It meant Mainz, Frankfurt and Fürth were level on points and separated by only three goals going into their penultimate games. Those were played last weekend, and Fürth twice failed to hold onto a lead, while Frankfurt won 2-0 and Mainz triumphed 5-1. Now it all came down to those two teams.

Frankfurt had scored 53, conceded 30, while Mainz had scored 60, conceded 38. In short: Frankfurt led by a single goal, but should the teams end up with their goal differences being equal, the higher number of goals scored by Mainz would have given this club the edge. At halftime on the final day, May 25th, Frankfurt led 3-1 at home against Reutlingen, Mainz led 2-0 away at Braunschweig (both goals scored by Benjamin Auer).

Bayern: More of this, we're afraid.
Bayern: More of this, we're afraid.

Thus Frankfurt were still hanging on to their one-goal lead, but during the next fifteen minutes, the roof fell in: Auer scored two more to put Mainz ahead 4-0, while Reutlingen inexplicably found the net twice to make it 3-3 at Frankfurt!

Suddenly, Frankfurt needed four clean goals, and the players lost belief. Mainz missed a few sitters to increase their lead, but it didn't seem to matter - until the 80th minute.

That's when Braunschweig scored a soft and seemingly meaningless consolation goal. It was now 4-1 to Mainz, and Frankfurt still needed three goals in less than ten minutes. In the 83rd minute, the substitute Bakary Diakité made it 4-3 to Frankfurt. The clock read 89:31 when the same player made it 5-3.

As the game in Braunschweig ended, the Mainz players huddled around a man with a mobile phone who told them Frankfurt had just won a corner two minutes into injury time. When the ball sailed in, Alexander Schur nodded it past the keeper and his club into the Bundesliga. The clock said 92:32. Trust me, it was quite entertaining.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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