This article was originally published on the blog Adventures in Bundesliga.
It’s the morning after the night before and we’re back at Frankfurt’s main train station. After the previous evening’s race against time to get to the Commerzbank Arena following an S-bahn cancellation, we’re hoping today will go according to plan. Standing on the platform, we watch the screen steadily counting down the minutes to our transport’s arrival. Three minutes to go. Three minutes later it still reads three minutes. It turns out to be a very long three minutes, at the end of which we are presented, not with our train, but a blank screen, a foreboding announcement in German and a platform steadily emptying of our fellow travellers. Speaking to a local, the train has indeed been cancelled, our second in two days. So much for German efficiency! After a coffee and a grumble, we manage to locate an alternative train and, a little later than desired, we’re on our way to Darmstadt.
During the summer, when I’d set about planning this trip, I had never even heard of Darmstadt. Anxiously awaiting the DFB’s decision on the actual dates of the Bundesliga’s English week games, I was hoping to be able to catch two matches whilst in Frankfurt. The Rhein-Main derby, between Eintracht Frankfurt and Mainz, was a definite, but for the second game I had four others in mind; Hoffenheim v Freiburg, Kaiserslautern v Union Berlin, Sandhausen v 1860 Munich and SV Darmstadt v FSV Frankfurt. After the announcement of the dates, my list was whittled down to a straight choice between Kaiserslautern or Darmstadt. Kaiserslautern was a team I had heard of, having won the Bundesliga title in the late 90s with players such as Michael Ballack, Andreas Brehme and Ciriaco Sforza. Darmstadt, on the other hand, were completely new to me. With my travelling companions, Jeff and Chris, entirely happy to leave the decision in my hands and having noted it would take twice as long to get to Kaiserslautern, I chose convenience and the Hessen derby of SV Darmstadt and FSV Frankfurt.
Arriving in Darmstadt five hours before kick-off gives us the chance to have a good look around the city. First stop, the Waldspirale. A Hundertwasser-designed apartment complex that looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. Perhaps the only thing stranger than the building itself is the fact that it’s in the middle of a normal residential area surrounded by housing blocks, an area of allotments and an Aldi store. Then onto the artists’s colony at Mathildehöhe, for a helping of art nouveau, before stumbling by chance onto the SV Darmstadt fan project. Inside we get talking to one of the organisers who, when he finds out we’re from Manchester, tells us he has recently been over there with a group of young Darmstadt fans, not to see either United or City, but FC United of Manchester, the supporter owned club formed nearly ten years ago after the controversial takeover at Manchester United. We then head to the schlossplatz for a bite to eat and watch the football fans start to gather in front of the former town hall-turned brewery. Suitably fed, it’s time to venture over to the newly titled Merck-Stadion am Böllenfaltor, pausing only for a drink at the Grohe brewery along the way. As we walk, we’re passed by a great many bicycles. This is nothing out of the ordinary in Germany, where cycling is a far more prevalent form of transport than in the UK. What is out of the ordinary though is turning the corner to the ground and seeing bike after bike after bike after bike lined up at the side of the path. The idea of going to a football match on a bicycle would never have crossed my mind.
Going from the Commerzbank Arena to the Böllenfaltor, though, is a bit of a culture shock in itself. With only one actual stand and three sides of a bowl, it’s minimal at best, but in an era of identikit stadiums, it has a certain vintage charm about it, which I can’t help but like. Having been promoted to the second tier of German football in the summer (courtesy of an injury time goal which beat Arminia Bielefeld on away goals in the promotion/relegation playoff), the stadium needed renovating ahead of the start of the season in order to gain a licence, but you’d be hard pressed to spot any changes as, apart from adding some extra seats, most appeared to be behind the scenes, such as improving the media facilities and undersoil heating.
Taking our place with the mass of home fans on the gegengerade, I look around for the Ultras. With the bowl shape of the ground, the fans behind the goal are quite a distance behind the net. Add to that the presence of a large inflatable beer bottle getting in the way, and it’s no surprise that the Ultra De Lis (Darmstadt are nick-named The Lilies) have housed themselves in the end block of the main stand, their flags already in the air. Throughout the match the crowd make a tremendous noise, singing about their beloved Lilies, doing call and response chants of SVD with various parts of the ground and bouncing up and down. Even on the gegengerade, there are pockets of fans bouncing along with the Ultras on the other side of the pitch.
The game kicks off and it’s the away side who start the brighter, pinning Darmstadt in their own half, but in the 16th minute it’s the home side who make the breakthrough. Kempe sends a corner into the box and Bregerie leaps the highest to head the ball into the net at the unguarded far post, giving the already noisy Darmstadt fans even more to sing about. From there, the home side take control and top scorer Stroh-Engel has two chances to double their lead, first denied by the FSV keeper and then by the post.
On 32 minutes, Darmstadt double their lead. Kempe’s corner looks to be heading straight for Klandt, the Frankfurt keeper, but electing to punch when he really should catch, he completely misses the ball, allowing Aytac Sulu, the home team’s captain, to smash it into the goal. Wearing a black mask, either because of a facial injury or a superhero complex, Sulu wheels away to celebrate leaving Klandt to kick his post in disgust. Only two minutes later, Darmstadt have a third and it’s a case of another corner, another goal. Kempe, once again, floats the ball over for Sulu to attempt a volley. Despite missing his kick, he manages to direct the ball to Gondorf whose shot from outside the area deflects off a defender before nestling into the bottom corner.
Half-time comes and the home supporters are delighted. The FSV fans still wave their flags, but at 3-0 down in a local derby, it feels more like an act of surrender. After the break, Darmstadt sit back and allow the away side to have possession. Sadly for their fans in the crowd, Frankfurt struggle to create anything, with any decent chances still coming to the home side. The game livens up again in the last ten minutes, a rare FSV chance is put wide and Darmstadt respond immediately with a volley from Heller rattling the crossbar. In the 85th minute, from yet another corner, the home side have a fourth. This time Kempe’s corner is flicked on at the near post and who should appear at the far post, charging in to head home? None other than Darmstadt’s masked marvel, captain Aytac Sulu. With two goals and an assist to his credit, if Sulu didn’t have a superhero complex before the game, he may well have one now.
The final whistle is blown and brings an end to the away side’s torment. We stay and celebrate with the Darmstadt faithful, applauding the home side on a well-deserved derby victory. As we leave, another adventure coming to an end, we pass the inflatable beer bottle. Having started the game standing tall and defiant, it is now head bowed and deflated, much like the Frankfurt side and their travelling support.