My soul…well, the sports-fan part of it…is a ridiculous romantic.
The DFB Cup is probably the most-romantic event in my sports scope, with the opening round holding the greatest opportunity for the rarest conditions to swirl into a storm, out of which emerges a victorious group of amateur footballers who’ve managed an upset of a giant club and stomped their boots firmly into a place in German football lore.
When the first-round draw for this 71st edition of the competition was announced, I found myself at Google Maps virtually cruising the area around the stadia of some of the lower-level clubs of which I had been completely unaware only hours prior. I may even have dreamed of a day when I’ve somehow fallen into piles of money and time and utilize some of each to take a late-summer tour of some of those areas in the flesh, perhaps stringing together several venues near enough to one another for a long weekend of hopping from venue to venue with the slightest hope of one of them joining the ranks of first-round matches that bring smiles to lips of those who recall them.
Well, perhaps not to the faces of fans of the upset clubs, but the rest of us, for sure.
The field of 64 consists of all the prior season’s 18 Bundesliga teams but only 17 of the second-league clubs this time, as Dynamo Dresden fans earned their side a ban from this year’s competition through some naughtiness in Dortmund in their second-round cup tie with the BVB back in October 2011. The vacancy left by the ban of Dynamo was left to the Württemberg football association to fill, which brings the tournament its largest underdog in the form of Neckarsulmer SU, having finished second in the Württemburg Cup to Heidenheim.
With the top two leagues taking 36 of the tournament slots and another four reserved for the top four finishers in the prior season’s 3. Liga competition, 24 slots go to representatives of 21 regional associations, with the three largest (Bavaria, Westphalia, and Lower Saxony) sending two clubs. While the champions of those regions’ cup competitions traditionally gain the nomination for the DFB Cup the following year, in some cases the cup winner is qualified by their place in the third division, allowing for cup runners-up or even semi-finalists a shot at the national tournament. This year, FC Nöttingen (North Baden), SC Wiedenbrück (Westphalia), SV Lippstadt (Westphalia), and BSV Schwarz-Weiß Rehden were all benefactors of such circumstances. Further, FV Illertissen earned a bid from Bavaria as the highest-finishing amateur side in the region, with the two clubs ahead of it being second squads of 1860 Münchenn and Bayern München, respectively.
Among the 24 regional representatives are seven first-time participants in the national tournament. Neckarsulmer SU, FV Illertissen, SV Lippstadt, FSV Optik Rathenow, SV Schott Jena, SG Aumund-Vegesack, and Sportfreunde Baumberg are each looking forward to what is undoubtedly the biggest match in their club history. SV Schott Jena could be said to be receiving the biggest draw, playing host to Hamburger SV, though Eintracht Frankfurt (Illertissen), TSG Hoffenheim (Aumund-Vegesack), and Bayer Leverkusen (Lippstadt) all have the appeal of offering top-league competition coming to play. Further, the slight disappointment of not drawing a top-flight club was lessened for Neckarsulmer by getting a second-league team with the tradition and following that FC Kaiserslautern brings with them.
If any club has good reason to complain about the draw, it might be SC Freiburg, who will have to travel over 900 kilometers to the north-east to face TSG Neustrelitz Saturday, which is nearly 250 km longer a journey than any other club will need to plan for the first round.
Those are one-way numbers, by the way.
Several clubs will not travel that far in one direction for their opening-round match. Fortuna Düsseldorf gets the award for shortest road trip, unlikely to need to stop for lunch on their 120 km drive to SC Wiedenbrück. FC Kaiserslautern (Neckarsulm), Bayer Leverkusen (Lippstadt), Hannover (Hamburg), Eintracht Braunschweig (Bielefeld), FSV Mainz (Köln), and 1. FC Köln (Trier) all get runners-up ribbons for keeping it under 200 kilometers each way.
Physical distance is not the only way to measure separation between clubs. If you list clubs in order of finish last season in their respective tiers, using points to break ties between clubs who finished in the same spot in their respective tables, you can also measure the gap in quality of the teams relative to the entire field (not adjusted for off-season squad and leadership changes, naturally).
By this measure, the closest match-up would also be the lone first-round match where the home team finished ahead of their guest. Due to having been relegated for failing to meet financial requirements, MSV Duisburg flipped below the top 32 clubs who would be expected to take to the road for the cup openers, moving FC Erzgebirge Aue up one spot to turn their first match from a home game to a road trip. By luck of the draw, the Zebras drew SC Paderborn, above whom they finished by one point last season.
While Aue lost a home match, they did gain a bit by getting a slight drop in class of opponent…though, only slight and maybe only just maybe. Aue will travel to face VfL Osnabrück, who they narrowly avoided having to face in a relegation battle by securing 15th place on the last match day of the season, leaving Dynamo Dresden to successfully defend their place in the second league. Considering the early season struggles of Paderborn (no points and no goals scored to five surrendered) compared to Osnabrück’s early success (six points and four goals scored to none allowed), perhaps Aue should have found some way to sneak a little money to MSV Duisburg to help them maintain their status.
Other match-ups you could consider as fairly even considering their placement in my non-scientific ranking list:
- SSV Jahn Regensburg : 1. FC Union Berlin Both clubs played in the second league last season, with Regensburg earning one of their rare points in their one-season second-league appearance when hosting the Berliners in November.
- Preußen Münster : FC St. Pauli St. Pauli left it until the last few weeks of last season to separate themselves from the battle to avoid the relegation-playoff spot. Münster, on the other hand, looked to cruise into a top three finish in Germany’s third division before dropping below the promotion zone a few weeks before season’s end and being unable to return.
- 1. FC Heidenheim : 1860 München Heidenheim seems to be a team on the rise, having played a fairly strong season in the 3. Liga last year and among the favorites for promotions this year. The Lions from München are also considered to be favorites for promotion fairly regularly, despite now entering their tenth consecutive season in the second division. The tendency of 1860 to misfire unexpectedly always leaves open the possibility of a first-round upset.Also, whatever the outcome this weekend, the teams can commiserate over last year’s tournament, in which both teams were shown the door at the hands of VfL Bochum. Heidenheim dropped an 0:2 to Bochum in last year’s opening round, while 1860 made it to the third round before being dismissed by a 3:0 margin.
- Arminia Bielefeld : Eintracht BraunschweigI nearly left this one out, simply because I think the gulf between these two is somewhat large. Yet, the appeal of a match-up of clubs who each finished second in their respective leagues last season to earn entry to the next class is a nice bit of symmetry that deserves at least a note. So, there…noted.
Of course, if you speak of the tight match-ups, you have to acknowledge those that, on paper, would seem to be insurmountable, even if, for the romantics, it simply calls your attention to the games to watch in order to potentially witness something magical.
You’d probably assume, as did I, that the Neckarsulmer : 1. FC Kaiserslautern match would offer the largest gap on my aforementioned, semi-imaginary (I have it, but have no idea how to turn it into a graphic I can share, so you’ll just have to trust me or make one yourself!) ranking chart. Only 43 clubs sit between the recent Verbandsliga club and the Red Devils who lost their promotion bid to TSG Hoffenheim.
I won’t list all those match-ups with wider gaps, but here are some of them:
- Schott Jena : Hamburger SV While Schott Jena is likely excited to be hosting the Bundesliga’s longest-tenured club as debutants, they now (because they’ll certainly have read this by match time) know they would be the tournament’s biggest upset by at least one measure. There’s a wide gulf between winning the Thüringenliga and falling just short of a spot in European competition. Even so…
- BSV SW Rehden : FC Bayern München The gap between the two clubs on the list ranks as only the 28th largest gap in the first round, but once you account for the gap Bayern has put between themselves and the teams meant to be their peers in the top league, no club faces a giant quite the size of the one coming to Rehden for a Monday night prime-time match to wrap up the opening round on national television, no less! Interestingly, Rehden’s first and only other appearance in the club came ten years ago, when they welcomed Allianz Arena’s other tenant, 1860 München, to a cup match, losing 1:5 to the Lions. Bayern, on the other hand, is perhaps the victim of the tournament’s greatest upset of all time, making their matches always something to watch. Nothing falls as hard as a giant.
- SV Wilhelmshaven : Borussia Dortmund If Bayern is the clear number one among the big dogs in Germany, Dortmund is no worse than number two, with plenty of evidence they may be closer to a 1A for now, having won consecutive titles before Bayern’s triple last season, playing their rivals closely in last year’s Champions League finale and defeating the Bavarians last week in the DFL SuperCup. Wilhelmshaven avoided being relegated at the end to last season from the Regionalliga Nord thanks to league champion Holstein Kiel earning a spot in the 3. Liga. This is decidedly not close to surrendering a late goal in Wembley to just miss a chance at being UEFA’s best.Still…did you see that photo up there? Wilhelmshaven has it going on. Bringing a huge club to town for a day is a bonus.
- FC Nöttingen : FC Schalke 04The second-largest gulf on the rankings comes courtesy of this match-up, with 55 slots separating the clubs. Nöttingen is coming off a fourth-place finish in Oberliga Baden-Württemberg, while Schalke is coming off a summer packed full of notable player signings, signalling they may be preparing for a serious run in Europe as well as taking a crack at the top. As this will be the first real competition with consequence with Jens Keller now having been given the permanent gig as coach, you can expect the Royal Blues to want to show their goods, even against a team from a much-lower tier.
Despite all of this, I’ve barely scratched the surface of interesting views of the first-round match-up about to be played over the next four days in Germany. If you’re similarly romantic about sports, I encourage you to sort through some of the match-ups and find a way to catch some of the play this weekend. If nothing else, it’s a good way to get you through this final week before the Bundesliga gets rolling.
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