Tales of the unexpected
Looking back on the past nine months of Bundesliga football, it somehow seems as if I found myself on a radio show or a podcast every other week, yet could rarely say anything more substantial than how unbelievable it all was.
But that's what it was like, week in and week out, as Europe's most unpredictable league proved once more why some people love it and others are frustrated by it. I mean, I wouldn't want to be a Bundesliga bookie, not when a team that had only ten points after the first half of the season is, as we speak, still in the Bundesliga while a team that had 26 has been relegated.
The final round of games on Saturday may have lacked the touch of the surreal that has been so common this season, but it nonetheless nicely exemplified many of the main stories of this campaign. Giving respect when and where it's due, let's start with new league champions Borussia Dortmund.
The fact that Dortmund have been in first place since October sometimes makes you forget how unlikely their triumph has been. This is a club that was as good as bankrupt six years ago. This is a squad whose most expensive member cost less than €4.5 million. This is a team whose oldest outfield player is 26. And in their final game of the season they also reminded you that, despite dominating the competition and winning the league by seven points, this is a side that found it laughably easy to create chances ... but then encountered incredible problems trying to convert them.
Take Jakub Blaszczykowski's miss of the season away at Freiburg, a wasted chance that will make more highlight reels than even the greatest of goals. Or take that supposedly speciality of the Germans, penalties. Dortmund converted only one all season - and that didn't count. When Nuri Sahin was forced to retake this penalty, it was saved by Hoffenheim's goalkeeper Tom Starke. The same happened with the next four spot-kicks Dortmund were awarded. On Saturday, Frankfurt's Ralf Fahrmann even saved two of them in one game.
Amazingly, Dortmund have now missed six Bundesliga penalties in a row, because Sahin wasted one on the penultinmate day of the previous season too. The league record stands at seven - also, bizarrely, set by a successful Dortmund team. (Between November 1963, when Lothar Emmerich was denied by the 'keeper, and January 1965, when Gerd Cyliax hit the post.) However, when you take into account that the current Dortmund side also missed two penalties during a domestic Cup shootout in Offenbach in late October, it seems a safe bet to predict that this unusual record from the 1960s will not stand for too much longer.
Besides not being able to convert penalties, Dortmund also hit the woodwork no less than 22 times. And yet only Bayern Munich found the target more often. That's amazing. Fittingly, the referee ended the game against Frankfurt on Saturday, which had begun late due to all the ceremonies, as soon as Lucas Barrios had scored Dortmund's third. Frankfurt didn't get to kick off again, which means that a Dortmund player had the very last touch of the ball of the entire season - and that he scored a goal with it. A perfect end to a perfect campaign.
Perfect from Dortmund's viewpoint, of course. Because while the home fans celebrated their unlikely heroes, the Frankfurt supporters waved away their own players when they tentatively walked over to the away stand ten minutes or so after the final whistle. It was somehow fitting that Frankfurt set a record in that game for the fastest red card in league history - young Marcel Titsch-Rivero had been on the pitch for 43 seconds when he was sent off for a professional foul - because a lof of what's happened with and around Eintracht since December beggars belief.
A week before christmas, a Theofanis Gekas strike defeated none other than Borussia Dortmund and Frankfurt - with 26 points - seemed to be well on course for a Europa League slot while Gekas himself led the scoring charts with 14 goals. But then the roof fell in and Eintracht didn't find the net again for 734 minutes. It tells you a lot about how strange this season has been that Frankfurt's scoreless streak was broken when a defender by the name of Georgios Tzavellas netted his first ever Bundesliga goal. Against the league's best' keeper, Manuel Neuer. From a distance that set a new league record - 79.8 yards.
This freak goal befitted a freakish Frankfurt season, though it couldn't stop the rot, as Eintracht won only one meagre game in 2011.
That came against St. Pauli. It may seem logical now, with hindsight, that only Pauli were worse or more unlucky or both than Frankfurt in the second half of the season, but it shouldn't be forgotten that this team was the toast of the league as late as mid-February!
At that point, St. Pauli had just sensationally won the derby away at Hamburg. It was the team's third victory in a row and with only a dozen games left in the season, Pauli were in 12th place, nine points ahead of Gladbach and six points ahead of Stuttgart. Back then, very few observers would have predicted that St. Pauli would not win another game all season and lose the plot so thoroughly that they conceded eight goals in their final home game.
While Frankfurt and St. Pauli thus found statistically improbable ways to collapse, Gladbach and Stuttgart miraculously managed to come back from the dead. Well, you could argue that at least the Swabians' Houdini act was not entirely unexpected. My very first column this season - published in September and already entitled 'The bizarro world of the Bundesliga' - dealt in part with the strange fact that Stuttgart always botch the first half of a season big time, only to bounce back like world-beaters under a new coach.
Yet Stuttgart seemed to have run out of such miracles this season. Two weeks after the above-mentioned column, Christian Gross was fired. But then his successor, Jens Keller, did not at all turn things around, as I had predicted. He lasted only two months, then Bruno Labbadia came in. He lost his first domestic game in charge 5-3 and his second 6-3.
When the league went into hibernation, Gladbach had ten points, Stuttgart twelve. Just as you don't go down when you've got 26 points in December, you don't stay up with numbers like that. In a normal league, that is. In Germany, however, Stuttgart metamorphosed from the second worst team into the fourth best after the winter break and won nine games. And Gladbach, hitherto woefully inadequate, were suddenly a perfectly respectable top-flight team and won eight.
And so it went on and on in the league where anything goes. See, I'm already more than 1,100 words into this column and haven't yet mentioned surprise teams such as Hannover and Mainz. Or, for that matter, Wolfsburg and Bremen - who expected to be where Hannover and Mainz are now but ended up in the relegation fight instead.
I guess the surest sign that this has been another mind-boggling campaign is that we all have our own Team That Surprised The Most. Besides the ones I have already listed, you could also make a case for Cologne - top four material when playing at home, the worst of the whole lot when playing away from home. Or Freiburg. Or Nuremberg.
But when pressed to come up with just one name, I have to say that no team defied my expectations as completely as Kaiserslautern. On Saturday evening, I stared at the standings for minutes on end but just couldn't get my head around the fact that the Red Devils finished in seventh place. Ahead of clubs such as Hamburg, Bremen, Stuttgart, Schalke and Wolfsburg.
One has to bear in mind that Kaiserslautern opened the campaign with two unexpected wins, one against Bayern Munich, and then seemed to run out of steam slowly but steadily, as newly-promoted teams will often do, just look at St. Pauli. At one point, Kaiserslautern went eight games without a win and by early March found themselves in 17th place.
That should have been that, but Kaiserslautern managed to pick themselves up when football logic suggested they were gone. Somehow - and I really don't know how - the tradition-laden team from Palatinate won seven (can't believe this myself, but it's true: seven!) of their last nine games.
And while no one was looking, the Red Devils quietly climbed past friend and foe and were for all practical purposes home and dry with two games left in the season. Now you know why Louis van Gaal had a favourite expression during his 21 months in the Bundesliga.
"Unglaublich", he would say again and again - unbelievable.