From Bayern to Gladbach, how Saarbrucken became the haunted home of cup terrors – The Athletic

By Raphael HonigsteinMar 17, 2024

Pokalschreck — blue and black,” said the pre-match banner at Ludwigsparkstadion. And that’s exactly how things went down. Again.

For the third time this season, third-division Saarbrucken turned “Pokalschreck” (terror of the cup) to dump a Bundesliga side out of the DFB-Pokal on Tuesday night. Borussia Monchengladbach were the latest top-flight victims, going down 2-1 courtesy of a last-minute winner from Kai Brunker.

Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich (2-1) and Eintracht Frankfurt (2-0) had already been despatched in previous rounds. One more win — in next month’s semi against Bundesliga 2 side Kaiserslautern— and they will contest the final in Berlin.

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“It’s a miracle — but also a bit of quality,” said Saarbrucken coach Rudiger Ziehl after the latest upset, for his side have mysterious form in this competition. Four years ago, when they were still in the fourth division, they also made it to the semi-finals, with a slightly easier draw.

They knocked out two second-division sides (SSV Jahn Regensburg and Karlsruher) and Bundesliga clubs Cologne and Fortuna Dusseldorf before being eliminated by Bayer Leverkusen. “Slowly but surely, we’re getting used to this,” captain Manuel Zeitz told reporters.

On the face of it, Saarbrucken’s serial underdog heroics aren’t easy to explain. They’re not a fallen giant of football but a relatively small side from the smallest federal state of Germany — city-state Bremen aside — without a corporate or personal sugar daddy in the background.

Saarbrucken’s Kai Brunker and Marcel Gaus celebrate against Gladbach (Andreas Schlichter/Getty Images)

Their turnover last season was €14million (£12m; $15m). In the league, they’re in solid if unspectacular ninth place, having struggled for goals all season after losing their main two strikers, Sebastian Jacob (cruciate ligament) and Patrick Schmidt (double leg break). Plans to sign reinforcements in January fell through as well.

What they do well, however, is defending. Their mid-table position in 3 Liga, courtesy of far too many draws (13), hides the fact they’ve only lost five games in all competitions this season. Playing them is extremely awkward, especially on their own pitch — if you can call it that. Budgetary constraints during the renovation of the municipality-owned 16,000-capacity stadium a few years ago have led to chronic problems with the undersoil heating and drainage. The turf regularly turns into a quagmire.

Third-division and lower sides always enjoy home advantage in the DFB-Pokal, which makes the poor state of the pitch especially pertinent to Saarbrucken’s exploits in the competition. In their semi-final run of 2019-20, they played their home games in Hermann-Neuberger-Stadion in Volklingen, a 6,800-capacity ground with one stand, a running track, mobile floodlights and changing rooms in the nearby sports hall. “I think teams were surprised to play there,” Zeitz told Kicker magazine a few weeks ago.

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Bayern’s visit to Ludwigspark in November nearly couldn’t go ahead due to the poor condition of the pitch and it was completely waterlogged in February, forcing this week’s replay of the cup game against Gladbach. And that game, too, quite literally, took place on shaky ground. The new lawn that had been laid for €200,000 a few weeks earlier also hadn’t absorbed the heavy rain of recent days very well. For a while, it looked as if the tie might have to be called off a second time; a few hours before kick-off, groundskeepers were still hard at work.

“We will adjust to the conditions,” Gladbach manager Gerardo Seoane had said before the game. His team actually coped much better than Bayern and Frankfurt, creating numerous chances against a side who were far more open than usual. “The boys were so up for it, so full of adrenaline, they really wanted to go for it,” Ziehl explained.

Bayern were knocked out by Saarbrucken in November (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

But in addition to defensive fortitude and making the most of home advantage, Saarbrucken have learned another trick that comes in handy on a wet and windy night under the floodlights: they score very late on in games. Brunker’s 93rd-minute strike from a riveting counter-attack was already the third winner in injury time in this cup run. Gladbach, like Bayern and Karlsruhe before them, had no time to react.

Next up: Kaiserslautern, of all teams. The “Red Devils” from nearby Rhineland-Palatinate, one of the traditional powerhouses of German football, and Saarbrucken used to be big rivals in the 1950s, but there hasn’t been a derby this meaningful in modern times.

That’s not the only reason this match will feel much bigger than the 2020 semi-final against Leverkusen, though. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Saarbrucken weren’t able to host any supporters at the Hermann-Neuberger at the time. The crowd will relish the occasion even more next month.

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“It might sound strange to say this as a second division side, but we’re the underdogs,” Kaiserslautern coach Friedhelm Funkel said in anticipation of another raucous night on uncertain terrain, “Saarbrucken are obviously the favourites.”

The manager probably meant that as a jinx, but his men will do well to keep their wits at the haunted home of the black and blue Pokalschreck. Another terrifying apparition awaits.

(Top photo: Andreas Schlichter/Getty Images)

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Munich-born Raphael Honigstein has lived in London since 1993. He writes about German football and the Premier League. Follow Raphael on Twitter @honigstein

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