One of the wonderful things about the DFB Pokal, and indeed cup competitions in many countries, is that it gives teams from the lower leagues an opportunity to match themselves against teams in the top league. This is why you hear people talking about the ‘romance’ of the cups, because (especially if the lower league side is playing at home) not only do they get the benefit of a much larger attendance than they would normally achieve, which gives them significant boosts to their income, but there is also the possibility of achieving an upset against a side that does not take them seriously enough. During most seasons there seems to be at least one top league side that is put out by someone significantly lower on the ladder than they are and every now and then a smaller team goes on a cup run that sees them have considerable success. That is exactly what happened during the 2016/17 season to a 3.Liga side with the wonderful name of VfL Sportfreunde Lotte.
It was a wonderful season all round for Lotte because they were, at the time, playing their first ever season in the 3.Liga having spent the previous eight seasons in the fourth tier Regionalliga West. However, it was in the DFB Pokal where they achieved their greatest success. In the first round they were matched up against Bundesliga side SV Werder Bremen and, in front of a club record (and capacity) 10059 spectators, defeated them 2:1. In the second round they were drawn against another Bundesliga side, Bayer 04 Leverkusen (this time they had only 8763 spectators because Leverkeusen is 50 km further away than Bremen) and were able to defeat them 6:5 in a penalty shootout. In the third round their opponents were (then Bundesliga 2 side) TSV 1860 Munich and they once again prevailed, this time 2:0, which saw them drawn against Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. The initial fixture was cancelled due to a heavy storm in Lotte that flooded the pitch and the rescheduled engagement was held in nearby Osnabrück (in front of 15780 spectators). Perhaps that is why they were unable to produce their previous sparkling form and were defeated 0:3.
Despite the loss, their success during the cup run allowed them to significantly raise their profile within Germany, which must be handy when you come from the second smallest town in the 3.Liga. When I mentioned where I was going in the weeks leading up to this game virtually everyone had heard of Lotte (even if most of them may not have been able to find it on a map). In case you are similarly challenged, it is just over 12 kms to the west of Osnabrück in the northern part of North Rhine-Westphalia, close to the border with Lower Saxony, and has a population of approximately 14 000 people. Like the only smaller town in the 3.Liga, Großaspach (where I was two weeks ago) they still manage to punch above their weight with average crowds of around 2550 although this is almost certainly helped by their local rivalries with SV Meppen and VfL Osnabrück
One of the things that their cup run enabled Sportfreunde Lotte to do was to install under soil heating at their home ground (currently called the FRIMO stadium after a local manufacturer of tools and plastic components). They have been playing at the Sportpark am Lotter Kreuz, it’s original name, since it opened in July, 1986. It had only been expanded to accommodate 10000 people in time for the 2016/17 season because that is one of the requirements of the 3.Liga, so the game against SV Werder Bremen was the first time the east stand had been used. Although it is called a stadium it is nothing like the grounds at Paderborn or Magdeburg but it does have a lovely community feel, similar the grounds of Unterhaching and Jena. Before the game people nodded and said ‘Hallo’ and, as always, a few were amazed to have a visitor from Australia.
Prior to their DFB Pokal run their previous largest crowd had been 5604 set at the end of what had been a turbulent two seasons between 2011 and 2013 when they were in the Regionaliga West. It began in the 2011/12 season when they had, at the time, one of their most successful seasons ever and finished second in the league, just one point behind Borussia Dortmund’s second team. However, the end of that season finished in controversy because it emerged that three players from another team, Rot-Weiss Essen, had bet against their side in a game against Dortmund which they lost 0:4. Because of the ‘match fixing’ Lotte tried to make the case that they also deserved promotion however they were turned down, presumably because the Borussia Dortmund II team hadn’t actually done anything wrong, and the suggested option of having 21 teams in the 3.Liga for a season was thought to be unworkable. Despite the disappointment the following season was even more successful for Lotte and they finished first but were unable to navigate the playoffs to achieve promotion. After an away defeat 0:2 they were leading 2:0 at home to RB Leipzig in front of that record crowd but faded to a 2:2 draw which saw Leipzig promoted but Lotte spend another three seasons in the Regionalliga. (I will write more about that promotion and relegation system for the 3.Liga in a separate piece soon)
Getting to Lotte is relatively easy from Osnabrück, the R31 bus drops you only a few hundred meters from the stadium, although because the lights are not as big as some other grounds it is not necessarily easy to spot. However, if you are planning to go there using public transport on a Sunday be warned that the buses only run back every two hours and the first one after the game is at 5:01pm. It made me wish that I had brought my bike, or driven, but fortunately I had thought ahead enough to make sure that my train ride home did not leave until after 6pm. The opponents today were another second team, this time Werder Bremen U23s and I knew from my experience in Aalen that it was unlikely to be a large visiting fan contingent. It has been a difficult season for both sides, with Bremen sitting in last place on the table (until this morning when Röt-Weiss Erfurt had nine points deducted for filing for bankruptcy, which has guaranteed their relegation) and Lotte in 17th place still in danger of dropping into the relegation zone only seven points ahead of Chemnitzer FC who they had beaten 3:1 in the relegation six pointer the previous week.
Sportfreunde Lotte began with a 4-1-4-1 but with Wegner replacing the injured Rosinger and they wanted to get off to a quick start. They were using their age and experience to boss the play (something many teams have done to Bremen this season, particularly since Florian Kohfeldt was promoted to coaching the Bundesliga side). However, they needed to make sure that they were also careful at the back. In the 5th minute they were awarded a free kick deep on the right in Bremen’s half after a foul on Lindner. Lindner then sent a ball into the penalty area but Bremen were able to clear and begin a fast break. Kazior lofted the ball from half way to the Lotte penalty area, Langlitz misplayed it in defense, it fell to Jensen who passed it to Rosin in space and he slotted it confidently home. 1:0 Werder Bremen II.
The Lotte players and spectators looked shocked but began working hard to get back into the match. However, in the 10th minute a similar passage of play looked like it would put Bremen 2:0 up. Once again Langlitz mis-timed a ball and Kazior got away, this time though, when he slid the ball to Rosin, the same confident finish was not quite there and Buchholz was able to make the save. Seconds later the ball was up the other end with Lindner sliding a ball through toward Wegner but it was just too deep. A minute later Lotte had a corner but Bremen goalkeeper Oelschlagel was able to avert the danger. If anything Lotte were trying too hard at this stage, after some good play down the left Oesterhelweg over hit a pass into the center and Oelschlagel got to the ball first. They were also struggling with defensive errors in back, in the 16th minute it was goalkeeper Buchholz who mishit a clearance, giving the ball directly to Bremen but he managed to track back and recover from his own error. Already it looked like this was going to be an exciting game with more goals to come but we did not realize how accurate that prediction would be.
In the 21st minute yet another Langlitz mistake gave the ball back to Kazior who, this time, fed it to Jensen who pushed it out to Eggestein on the right but he hit his shot high and wide of the goal. Then, in the 26th minute a good run down the right by Lotte saw a cross high into the box toward the head of Wegner who was able to head the ball home, however he had pushed Vollert out of the way to get to the ball and the goal was disallowed. At this point tempers were starting to fray a little with one yellow card having already been shown to Volkmer for Bremen before, in the 27th minute, a fight almost broke out between Wendel and Eggestein. Fortunately the referee was able to calm it down. On 32 minutes another free kick for a silly trip by Bremen brought about the next goal. From the left Oesterhelweg sent a ball deep into the penalty box and Wegner rose, unchallenged, to head it home.
Just a couple of minutes later and Hahn was moving to clear a ball over the sideline on the Lotte defensive right when something seemed to give in his ankle or calf and he went down. Once the Lotte physio had made it to the sideline and they had moved him off the field play continued but it was clear something was wrong. The crowd applauded when he stood up but then when he tried to move he clearly could not put weight on his right leg. Both he and the physio signaled for a substitute and then spent most of the rest of the half working on the lower part of his leg before he was able to hobble back to the dressing room just before half time. Meanwhile on the field Wendel and Pires-Rodrigues for Lotte and Kazior for Bremen all received yellow cards as the game got scrappier. 1:1 at half time with, if anything, Bremen looking slightly the stronger but still with a strong possibility of more goals to come.
The half time interval was lots of fun as a spectator supporting each team was brought out to the center of the field and given three chances each to kick a football up a slide and through a hole at the top of a goal sized billboard. The idea was that the person with the most successful attempts would win a jersey but clearly they needed to pick better contestants as neither was able to get the ball to even go on to the slide on any of their attempts. In the end, they tossed a coin and the Werder Bremen fan won a Sportfreunde Lotte jersey. Meanwhile there were some men with small pitchforks walking around trying to fix any problems with the grass (this was necessary because the field was looking very soft and worn this late in the season). However the gentleman at the western end was looking very tired (he was quite elderly) and seemed to be using his tool to rest on rather than fix up the turf.
As the second half began, there was another yellow card for Bremen, this time for Jacobsen, and both head coaches removed players who looked like they were in danger of picking up a second yellow and putting their team down a player, but Sportfreunde Lotte looked like they were starting to get back into the game. This was confirmed in the 59th minute when another free kick was lofted into the box by Oesterhelweg and this time it was Heyer who was unmarked to head at the goal, Oelschlagel managed to make a great save, but the ball came back off the post to Rossmann (who had replaced Hahn) and he gleefully thumped it in. With each of the free kicks a group of Lotte players would run under the trajectory of the ball, dragging the Bremen defenders with them and leaving a couple of Lotte teammates largely unmarked, I guess it is inexperience for the younger Bremen team.
Initially, this seemed to give Lotte the confidence to push for more and two minutes later Oesterhelweg made another good run down the left and crossed high but Wegner was unable to get the ball in the right direction and put it wide of the goal. The game went back and forth for the next fifteen or so minutes with Bremen making two more personnel changes to try and get back into the match and Lotte making one to counter but it seemed as if the home side would at least hang on. Then, in the 82nd minute Lotte’s defensive frailty emerged again as a low cross from the right was missed by a number of defenders and came to Eggersglüß in the right hand corner of the penalty box. He had time to control the ball and take a shot which was going wide until Straith mishit an attempted clearance and deflected the ball into the bottom left corner. It seemed like Bremen would come away with a well deserved draw until, in time added on, some quick thinking down the left wing saw Oesterhelweg loft another high cross into the penalty area (Lotte had obviously done their homework on this Bremen weakness) and Lindner was there at the far post to bundle it home.
The majority of the 1567 crowd went crazy (a number of people had already left in frustration after the Bremen equalizer, which I can never understand) as did the Lotte players on the pitch. The referee blew the whistle for full time immediately after play was restarted and Sportfreunde Lotte had a valuable three points, lifting them one point above neighbors VfL Osnabrück and ten points clear of Chemnitz in the third relegation spot. I felt for the Bremen team (who I will be going to watch at home this coming Friday) because they have had a really difficult season and deserved to come away with something more from this match. Watching football in Lotte is a fun day out, particularly when it has an exciting finish as this game did.
You can watch highlights of the match here.