As an American studying and working in Germany this year, I’ve been on a quest to visit the home grounds of every Bundesliga club this season. With my trip to Darmstadt, there was only the Audi Sportpark of FC Ingolstadt left to visit. And while Darmstadt made headlines for their aged Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor being in disarray coming into their long-awaited return to Germany’s first division, there’s just something that won’t leave me about the home of the Lillies — even after I finished my circuit around the 18 Bundesliga grounds about a month ago,
I had to purchase my ticket through an unholy source since all the normal tickets are scooped up in person by club members. And since Darmstadt is a two-hour bus/train ride away, I had to get my ticket through people who knew people like me would pay a little extra to see this damn team in that damn stadium in any damn weather. Damn it.
So what a surprise when game day arrived and what do you know? It was raining. And not just raining. It was in that air where it was not quite cold enough for snow, but enough to point and laugh at your ever-increasing misery with each sloppy step in the drippy-droppy existence of this Saturday afternoon. Just a few degrees colder and it would have been much more pleasant, picturesque snow. But nope. We gotta keep it miserable. This is winter in Germany, mid-February, by the way, for the uninitiated.
After taking the tram to the stadium, I had to look all around tp get my bearings, to ride the wave in the direction where Darmstadt fans were walking. Follow the crowd, right? Turns out the stadium was obscured by some trees and not honking trees like redwoods. Just regular trees that dot your local street. So what laid behind those trees? Behind the curtain of bark was concrete. Just concrete. Oh and a place to get some sausage, beer, and scarves.
Yeah. That’s really it.
The rain grew a bit more intense. It tried soaking through the jacket, just laughing at me. Laughing at everyone here. “Let me rain on your misery parade some more!” said the man controlling the weather.
But people here weren’t miserable. Laughs, joy, beer all around. This is winter in Germany after all; laugh about it! They may have miserable weather mixed with a miserable history, but they’re used to it. So you might as well get a few laughs in when life allows, especially in the dreariness of existence. It gets existential fast under the right conditions.
Oh but let’s see what happens when Albert Camus builds a stadium. No Algerian beach a la L’Etranger, no Sisyphus and his boulder. The Böllenfalltor is something you’d see in the lower tiers of the game. Outside of the VIP area where you can actually sit and have a roof over your head, it’s standing room only. For much of the ground, the bowl is dug into the earth, with a wall on the opposite side, hastily carved into a hill to throw in space for a few extra thousand. This really shouldn’t be here. It’s an eyesore. Just a pain.
Inside the bowl, everything was a disgrace to a top division side in the Bundesliga. The pitch looked barely adequate for a Sunday league match, draped with soggy mud carpet in front of the goal to give the keepers something to wear for the whole 90 minutes.
And then, consider the dugouts for the teams. They’re far off the field, plopped in front of the VIP area and are just metal benches covered by those cheap covers you might see at a local youth tournament or college game. It gives the young millionaires from opposing teams something to think about when they leave their individual cushioned seats behind. This is where many of them came from, and all it takes is a few dismal performances up top to permanently set one’s ass on cold, unforgiving steel. Let this trip just be a daunting reminder of that, the precarious nature of professional athletics.
When I made conversation with new friends for the next 90 minutes, they knew exactly what I thought of the stadium without me having to say anything. I tried to put a polite spin on it considering who was around me but I was cut off. “It’s a scheiss stadium. You can say it,” they said. I don’t think we need to translate that.
The rain would not let up when the starting 22 came out on the field. Not even 20,000 people were there. In any other, most any other Bundesliga stadium, that would be horrifying and be a cause for panic from ticket sellers. But it’s bursting at the seams in Darmstadt. As it should. They haven’t been in the top league in over 30 years. My scarf, as do the others from the day’s brothers and sisters in blue, talk about “Südmeister” of the past, not “Deutscher Meister.” This was a team destined for the fourth league less than three years ago and only remained in 3.Liga due to the financial situation of rival Kickers Offenbach, who took Darmstadt’s place in being demoted because of money (or rather, the lack of). But the Lillies, thus pardoned, wasted no opportunities to get up to the Bundesliga through two consecutive promotions. Something odd happens in these parts. And it’s no wonder that it’s reflected in the stadium.
Coach Dirk Schuster’s SV Darmstadt 98 aren’t known for beautiful football, but they do enough to stay out of the relegation zone. That’s exactly what led to their first goal about a half hour in. A save off the line flew up in the air, and Sandro Wagner, having his most productive season ever, headed it in from point-blank range. Not pretty, it’s scrappy, but it puts goals on the board. The Lillies — they do enough. Until the second half. Then Bayer Leverkusen came back (an own goal by SV98 captain Aytaç Sulu and a 77′ Julian Brandt game-winner) and took all three points back to the Werkself plant. And Darmstadt lose six players due to yellow card accumulation for next week’s match against Bayern. Blech.
But the fans around me aren’t too concerned. They were still in the Bundesliga at that point and look like it may very well stay that way into next year. There’s nowhere near as much pressure on the team and the players as there is at Bayern or Dortmund. There were smiles and laughter in the face of defeat.
It’s OK, we’ll get ‘em next time, they seemed to say. See you in a couple of weeks come rain, rain and more rain.
Sky will never break their coverage for a press conference in Darmstadt, unless someone is hired or fired. The Lillies just continue to exist as the team that just…does. In a stadium that’s nearly 100 years old, in a city that “was used as practice before [the Allied bombings of] Dresden” as one fan told me, they’ll keep chugging along. They know they’ll never win the Bundesliga or DFB Pokal at this rate. But like Camus implied of Sisyphus, though he shall never win his eternal struggle with the boulder, at least he’s doing something.
And the Lillies will always have that squished and squashed audience at the Ballenfalltor as they push that boulder of a ball towards the goal of a Bundesliga or DFB Pokal title. But the fact that they’re this far up the hill in such a short amount of time is nothing short of spectacular.
The ball will roll back down one day. It’s just a matter of time. The fans here know that the ball will roll down the hill again. That’s how it always has been and always will be here. How far next time will be anyone’s guess, but for now, let’s just enjoy the view from up here, mud-caked goals in the rain and all.
Photos by Kai Dambach
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