The miracle of Darmstadt

Saved from insolvency in 2008, populist SV Darmstadt 98 pulled themselves up to gain promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015. On Saturday, their mainly terraced Merck-Stadion hosts champions Bayern Munich. Peterjon Cresswell visits Darmstadt and speaks to Adeline With of the local Fanprojekt.

This week, on the eve of the visit of Bayern Munich, a new book was made available in the club shop attached to the modest Merck-Stadion due to host the record German champions.

‘Das Wunder von Darmstadt’, its title a take on the famous ‘Miracle’ of Berne that saw West Germany win their first World Cup during the country’s swift post-war economic recovery, tells the story of this populist little club and its rise from obscurity, through near insolvency, up to the biggest supported league in the world.

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Darmstadt Fanprojekt/Peterjon Cresswell

It is one that has been followed with interest by Adeline With, who has been helping run the Fanprojekt Darmstadt since 2010. Fan Projects are common throughout Germany and each major club has one, a cross between a youth club and community centre, co-funded by the German FA in nearby Frankfurt and central and local government. Many German grounds have a ‘container’, usually a spray-painted hut, where these young fans meet on match days to co-ordinate choreography. Darmstadt’s is emblazoned with the club’s foundation date of 1898.

Adeline herself began following her local team in 2002. ‘My father, who is English, took me to my first match. There weren’t that many people there, the football wasn’t that good but I remember it as being lots of fun. We went quite a lot after that.’

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Merck-Stadion/Peterjon Cresswell

SV Darmstadt 98 had actually made the Bundesliga for two short seasons in 1978-79 and 1981-82, but by the 2000s the club had already allowed financial mismanagement to see them slip down the divisions.

Under old boy Bruno Labaddia, who had started his career at the Merck-Stadion before going on to score goals for Hamburg and Bayern, Darmstadt had clambered back to the third flight. Further fiscal shortcomings had then seen then club drop down to the fourth and nearly go out of business entirely in 2008.

It was then that fans and former club officials get together to salvage the situation – Bayern even came to play a benefit match.

Darmstadt’s fortunes then seemed to change with the arrival of Dirk Schuster. Arriving in 2012, the former East German international was coach as ’98 were spared 3.Liga relegation after their arch rivals Offenbach Kickers went into administration. A season later, a stoppage-time goal saw Darmstadt reach the Zweite.

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Das Wunder von Darmstadt

‘It was all a bit unreal,’ says Adeline. ‘The wooden benches became replaced by plastic seats, crowds went up from a couple of thousand up to twice, three, four times that.’

Even more incredibly, Schuster’s Darmstadt gained promotion from the Zweite in only one season. A second-half free-kick by Tobias Kempe saw the Lilies pip Karlsruhe to an automatic Bundesliga place by one point.

Once the celebrations had died down, reality set in pretty fast. ‘It was very much mixed feelings,’ explains Adeline. ‘On the one hand, it’s great, on the other, everything has changed. Most matches are sold out, ticket prices have gone up, in a way we’ve lost the little club we loved.’

All week, Adeline has been called by people she hasn’t seen for ages, seeing if she might have a ticket for the Bayern game. ‘We call them Event Fans,’ she laughs.

With Darmstadt enjoying a very solid start to their Bundesliga campaign, with a win at Leverkusen and draw at Schalke, anything could happen at the mainly terraced Merck-Stadion when Bayern arrive on Saturday.

‘Everyone wants to be there,’ says Adeline. ‘After all, we do really want to irritate the big clubs.’

SV Darmstadt 98-Bayern Munich, Merck-Stadion, 3.30pm, Sat Sept 19th

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