Quick trivia question. Where did Diego Maradona play his first game of football for a European club? For those of you who are, perhaps, a little younger, in the era before Messi and Ronaldo (and even still sometimes today) the debate over the best footballer of all time usually came down to Pele of Brazil or Maradona of Argentina, both of whom won World Cups for their respective national sides, as well as being champions at club level. Given where I am writing from today it should come as no surprise to read that Maradona’s first game for FC Barcelona came in a friendly at the somewhat obscure home ground of SV Meppen, the Hindenburg Stadion, in the north west of Germany on August 3, 1982.
The fact that it was Maradona was not originally part of the deal. In that year SV Meppen were celebrating their 70th anniversary and Gerd van Zoest, the manager of the football division at Meppen at that time, contacted UEFA and asked for a big opponent to play for a celebratory match. Just a short time before FC Barcelona had declared themselves available so, when they were offered that option, Meppen very willingly stumped up the cost of 50000 Deutsch Marks to make the game official. A short time later FC Barcelona were able to announce that they had signed Maradona for a world record fee, at the time, of $7.6 million. Suddenly, the ticket office at SV Meppen was unable to cope with demand. Officials flew to Barcelona to confirm which players would be attending and sure enough Maradona, as well as ex-Gladbach star Allan Simonsen, Spanish striker Quini – even the injured Bernd Schuster, traveled to the Emsland and sat on the bench.
Although the ground could officially hold only 18000, records say that there were 22000 people for the game (and anecdotally there are claims up to 30000). Fans were sitting right on the field, and up in the branches of trees surrounding the ground. Before the game police escorted Maradona out on to the pitch and he performed his warm up routine, dribbling, juggling the ball and dancing through the other players and spectators (you can still see this in some of the documentary footage of the game). Ultimately the match went as expected, FC Barcelona ran out convincing winners 5:0 with Maradona scoring the opening goal, a penalty, after only 13 minutes. After the game there are stories of all the Barcelona players, including Maradona, eating bratwurst with some of the local officials and players.
35 years on and Meppen is still a quiet little town and that is doubly so on a Sunday when todays match, against Karlsruher SC, is taking place. Fortunately, it is a relatively easy walk out to the stadium, nowadays called the Hänsch-Arena, about 20-25 minutes to the north of the train station. However, on other days the number 2 local bus goes out in that direction. At midday there were already a large number of fans heading out towards the wooded area north of the town. Many of them had gathered in groups outside a supermarket across the road from the ground, others were waiting outside the stadium, buying tickets, scarves, hats and shirts. There was a good feeling among the crowd, after the matches on the Saturday SV Meppen were sitting in 12th, on the same number of points as Karlsruher and the fans were clearly feeling positive about their chances.
SV Meppen are working very hard to make sure that their team is part of the community. It is noticeable that their team photo was taken in the center of the town rather than in front of the grandstand at the stadium as many teams are. The match day programs are handed out for free as you enter the ground and, perhaps because they noticed how many notes I was taking, a match official even gave me a print out of the team sheet before the game. At half time there was a mention of a birthday and lots of advertising was shown on the scoreboard for other community events. This feeling is clearly reciprocated by the local people, as shown by the stickers and flags of the team which feature prominently around the town. This might help explain part of the reason why Meppen, which ranks 18th in the 3.Liga in terms of the size of the cities/towns that the team represents, ranks 5th in terms of the crowds that they attract.
An advertisement during the warm-up showed the parade through Meppen’s streets back at the beginning of June and reminded the fans of how SV Meppen came to be in the 3.Liga this season, as they were one of the three clubs (Carl-Zeiss Jena and SpVgg Unterhaching were the others) promoted into the league for 2017/18. The 3.Liga is the lowest ranked national league in Germany, below it are the Regionaligas, and to win promotion you not only have to win your respective Regionaliga but, because there are 6 of them, you then also have to defeat one of the other winners in a pair of home and away playoff games (Meppen defeated SV Waldhof Mannheim). It is sometimes noted that one of the areas where teams need to adjust after promotion is that they have had a season of winning and a culture of success that does not always happen so easily in the new league and it is hard to deal with more frequent defeats, however SV Meppen seem to have been dealing with it well.
Immediately before the game there was a moment of silence in memory of the young referee Steffen Mix. It was wonderful to see all of the players, the officials, and the fans from both clubs stand respectfully remembering a man who had been a target of abuse (as todays referee and linesmen would be at various times during this game) but had tried to be an example to others. Sadly, Mix had died just a week before in a car accident near Hessenthal (about 60 klm southwest of Frankfurt) after refereeing a game between FC Pipinsried and TSV Buchbach. He had been a referee with a potentially bright future; back in 2015 he had refereed a friendly under-20 international between England and the Netherlands. Once the silence was over there was a round of applause and then the fans resumed their songs and cheering.
As play began it was clear that, especially going into an international break, both teams were being very cautious. In the first 20 minutes it felt like the instinct for all of the defenders was to play balls back to the goalkeeper and it was this that led to the first incident of the game. In the 6th minute, as a consequence of a bad back pass, Karlsruher’s Uphoff found himself outside of his area with Kleinsorge bearing down on him. Despite the goalkeeper and Bader’s attempts to clear, Kleinsorge found himself with the ball on the top left of the penalty box. He attempted to lob the rapidly retreating Uphoff who managed to get back far enough to knock the ball up in to the air and, when it came down, the onrushing Wagner was not quite able to score. This led to some shouting from Girth who clearly felt that Kleinsorge should have passed rather than aiming for glory.
One of the notable things about the football in the 3.Liga is the presence in most teams of a pair of tall central defenders who tend to be able to win most of the high balls that come through, either pumped in from deep or crossed in from the wings. Both teams fit that description today, with Vidovic and Gebers for SV Meppen and Gordon and Pisot for Karlsruher SC doing a good job of stopping anything coming over the center. Perhaps the thing that distinguishes them from the players in the higher divisions is the weakness of their distribution skills when they have the ball on the ground. All four had instances during the game where they put their teams in jeopardy because of a poorly directed, over, or under hit pass out of defense and both teams tried to exploit that by using their attacking players to harass them at every opportunity.
What we also seemed to be getting a lot of was head tennis, ball after ball being launched into the air with players heading the balls back or trying little flicks and knock backs. This sort of play can look quite fancy but generally one of two things was happening for both sides through most of the first half. Either the flicks and passes were misdirected or the understanding between the teammates wasn’t quite working, because much of the play seemed very disjointed. Domaschke in SV Meppen’s goal had very little to do from a shot stopping perspective and both goalkeepers struggled a little with their kicking, putting a number of balls directly over the sideline. It was often a relief when passes stayed on the ground or players ran with the ball and the 0:0 half time score was not surprising, but somewhat disappointing.
The second half began with a lot more attacking nous being displayed than had been on show in the first. After just a minute a good ball from midfield put Fink through for Karlsruher SC and he shot just wide to the left. Both sides were showing a lot more attacking verve now and the ball was going end to end. Near the 50th minute Wagner for Meppen made a good tackle in midfield and the burst forward toward the Karlsruher goal. He looked up and sent a ball out wide on the left of the box to Kleinsorge who, surrounded by players, slipped a pass back to Granatowski just outside of the box who powered a shot straight past Uphoff in the goal. 1:0 to Meppen and the majority of the 7 183 people in the crowd were cheering madly.
SV Meppen seemed to be brimming with confidence and it was not long before they scored a second goal. Sure enough, in the 60th minute Lorenz (Karlsruher SC) was dispossessed by Jesgarzewski wide on the right and the ball fell to Granatowski. He set off on a winding run toward the box and then sent a ball through to the charging Kleinsorge on the edge of the 6 yard box and he knocked it into the corner of the goal. It seemed like Meppen were on top but just after the restart Lorenz, who had made some of the most dangerous runs for Karlsruher SC during the game, was found by a deep ball by Gordon from the halfway line. He took the ball to the goalline and then, when he cut back, was brought down Senninger in the box and the penalty was awarded. Fink, who has scored more goals than any player in the 3.Liga stepped up and hit the ball low to the left hand corner of the goal but Domaschke got down to his right and kept the ball out. Föhrenbach, following through, could not put the ball away and it broke to Meppen who sent the ball to Kleinsorge bursting down the right. He crossed the ball in to Girth who tucked it away, but he had been offside and the goal was disallowed.
The game continued backwards and forwards for the next 25 minutes. Both teams were throwing themselves into the game without any real clear chances to either. Schwartz, Karlsruher SC’s coach, made a number of changes to try to get a goal, bringing on Stroh-Engel for Fink and Camoglu for Muslija. After Posipal (SV Meppen) received a yellow card for a bad challenge he was removed for Ballmert to protect the lead. In time added on Gordon managed one last shot on goal for Karlsruher but Domaschke was able to make another good save with one hand. As the whistle blew fans all around the ground (except for the Karlsruher SC supporters at the western end) celebrated another good victory for SV Meppen which put them up to 7th in the table.
It seems fitting that one of the last songs played before the game began was ‘Let Me Entertain You’ by Robbie Williams. While the first half didn’t really go anywhere, the second was full of end-to-end action, a bit of controversy, and one absolute cracker of a goal. There may not have been a Diego Maradona on the pitch today, or a ‘hand of God’ incident, but the crowd still got value for money.
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