A Whole Lotte Love: “Sports Friends” Sink Bayer Leverkusen & Become Cup Darlings

No matter how good your story of toil in Germany’s lower leagues, nothing will boost your Q-Rating among the Bundesliga-loving public like bouncing a Bundesliga side from the DFB Pokal Cup tournament.

With nods to current Regionalliga Southwest side FC Astoria Walldorf and Bundesliga 2 sides  SV Sandhausen and SpVgg Greuther Fürth for their victories over SV Darmstadt 98, SC Freiburg and 1.FSV Mainz 05 respectively, VfL Sportfreunde Lotte’s penalty-kick win over Bayer Leverkusen made the North Rhine-Westphalia club the Cinderella star of Tuesday’s Pokal action.

The “sports friends” entered the third division earlier this year. After winning the 2015-16 Regional League-West by 15 points, Lotte drew with and defeated SV Waldhof Mannheim to earn promotion. Lotte’s promotion and cup success have bookended a strong start to their first-ever third-division campaign. Ismail Atalan has his club sitting fourth in the table, trailing VfR Aalen solely on goal differential.

Over the last two years, this club has been writing a story that has no peer,” says the 36-year-old trainer. “This team is so good, they could train a bus driver.”

Lotte business director Manfred Wilke doesn’t think you can separate the players and coach so easily when discussing the recent successes.

Ismail Atalan has managed to forge a unit from the types he found here,” says Wilke. “We play a football in which the focus is on the team and not on an individual player.¨

The team-first mentality goes beyond the squad, too. Wilke has worked for 28 years to get the Sportfruende to this point, but is happy to patiently continue as they’ve been, rather than elevate expections in the wake of a famous win and a strong start in their new division.

¨Our goal is that we do not slip back down and rather to always stand in a secure position,” says Wilke. “Quite frankly, we do not know at all the fear of relegation. The last several years, we have always played near the top of the table.¨

Wins over SV Werder Bremen and now Leverkusen in the Pokal are unlikely to do much to help maintain a sense of humility with the players, but they can always take a look around them at the mostly empty seats when playing at home in FRIMO Stadium. The club had to renovate to expand capacity from 7,474 to 10,400 in order to comply with 3. Liga requirements, but the team continues to play before about 2,000 at a typical home game.

Of course, with the entire nation now aware of what the SV Sportfreunde Lotte is capable of achieving, the box office may see a bit extra action in coming weeks, maybe even bringing some outsiders to visit the small town of 14,000 for a bit of football tourism.

It’s cliche to say “If you submitted this story as a script, it would be rejected for being too unbelievable,” but the truth of Sportfreunde Lotte’s advance into the third round of the Pokal tournament is at least a bit stranger than fiction.

When Kevin Volland put Bayer ahead in just the 25th minute, it could have been regarded as the beginning of what is simply meant to happen when Champions League-level talent meets a group of players recently risen to a level where the top Bundesliga reserve squads play. After all, Leverkusen cruised to an 0:3 first-round win over Lotte in last year’s tournament.

Disinterested in what might be expected of them after falling behind to such a powerful club, Lotte came out of the locker room after halftime with notable determination that paid off relatively quickly. Right back Alexander Langlitz sent a high cross into the Bayer area, where the guests’ defense seemed a bit frazzled by Lotte’s attack. The end result was the ball deflecting off the hip of

Lotte keeper Benedikt Fernandez honored as Man of the Match for performance against his one-time club.
Lotte keeper Benedikt Fernandez honored as Man of the Match for performance against his one-time club.

Langlitz’s counterpart, Roberto Hilbert, for an own-goal.

Spurred by being again on even terms, the Sportfreunde pressed on, creating several chances that could have put them ahead in regulation.

Already on a yellow card just eight minutes after his 55th minute substitution, Tim Wendell made a needlessly sloppy challenge in the 79th minute that put the hosts at ten men. Even with the disadvantage in numbers, Lotte managed to get the 1:1 to the end of regulation by clogging passing lanes and simply out-hustling their Bundesliga opposition.

Upon the resumption of play in the first extra fifteen-minute frame, Bayer began to again look like a winner, finding spaces and creating chances, one of which was converted again by Volland.

Lotte was not fully convinced, though, pressing for an equalizer that eventually came in added time before switching sides. Forward Bernd Rosinger found Langlitz with a precise pass that was hammered home by the defender to send a jolt through the 8,763 in attendance.

The penalty shootout had plenty to offer: strong conversions, errant shots, a few saves, players cramping up, and finally the scrappy home underdog celebrating a scrappy home victory.

“I always believe in my team. I know what kind of character they have,” said Atalan after the match, “but I was a little bit surprised.”

Wednesday’s third-round draw brought Lotte their first non-Bundesliga side in the competition, though they will still face a well-known club when TSV 1860 München come to visit in February. The Lions of Bavaria reached the round of 16 for the second consecutive year by beating fellow 2. Bundesliga side Würzburger Kickers on penalties.

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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