November 22, 2017

Different, Not Less! Mainz 05’s Rise and (Hopefully Prevented) Fall in the Bundesliga

Mainz 05 isn’t like the others, Mainz 05 is different. When the club from the capital of Rheinland-Pfalz first was promoted to Bundesliga in 2004 the local rockband Se Bummtschacks (check them out, by all means!) launched a song called „Wir alle sind Mainzer“ (we are all from Mainz), some of the lyrics ran:

„Natürlich sind die andern alle größer als wir, doch, ehrlich gesagt: wen interessiert das hier. (…)Wir kommen über euch und ihr werdet sehen, unsere Art zu leben, werdet ihr verstehen.(…) Wir sind nur ein Karnevalsverein.“ (“Of course, all the others are bigger than we are, but, frankly speaking, who cares around here? We will come upon you and you will see and learn to understand our way of life: we are just a carnival’s club.”)

The song’s last sentence alludes to an insult aimed at the club from a city of approximately 250,000 inhabitants and roughly 2,000 years of history situated on the left bank of the River Rhine opposite the bank metropolis of Frankfurt am Main. Because Mainz is famous for its annual carnival parade bringing twice as many visitors as the town’s inhabitants to fill the streets on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, competing football clubs labelled them “just a carnival’s club,” meaning: not to be taken seriously.

That it was the other clubs coining that phrase is easily proven by the fact that no real “Meenzer” (born and bred Mainz citizen) would say carnival. The festival is “Fastnacht” in the local dialect.

But the people of Mainz are good-natured. They have seen tribes and tourists come and go in their beautiful town, taste the wine that grows in the vineyards around it, and come over time to love the town, the people, and the football club. It’s an intrinsic part of “Fastnacht” to make fun of oneself. Karnevalsverein, carnival’s club, was the name Mainz fans adopted with a smile and a heartfelt “Helau!” (a traditional carnival cheer).

Mainz 05’s first spell in the top flight lasted only three season. Led to its greatest achievement by its charismatic manager Jürgen Klopp (now playing his trade at Anfield Road), Mainz 05 had to taste the bitter bread of the 2.Bundesliga again for two season until Klopp’s successor Jörn Andersen, and later Thomas Tuchel (now coaching Borussia Dortmund) led the „Nullfünfer“ (Zerofivers) back into the Bundesliga in 2009. And in the following 8 seasons, Mainz has never occupied a relegation place in the table.

Until, it seems, April 2017.

While these words are written, it hasn’t happened yet. Mainz 05 is sitting 15th in the table, just above Augsburg on goal difference. The next games will be crucial for the men in red and white, and not only their fans but football supporters all over Germany and countries attached by love of the game rather than natural borders, are asking themselves: how could this happen to Mainz 05? It’s just scarcely a year since the club proudly announced qualifying for the Europa League competition for the second time in its history.

What has gone wrong?

Since Thomas Tuchel left Mainz 05 in summer 2014, after leading the club to its first Europa League qualification, the Zerofivers have entered a time of changes. Danish top-manager Kasper Hjulmand didn’t succeed in conveying his visionary football to the down-to-earth carnival club and was sacked in February 2015, when relegation zone loomed nearer and both the Europa League and the DFB cup had already been exited from in a fashion leaving much to desire.

Hjulmand’s successor was the former sub-23 manager Martin Schmidt. Schmidt and Mainz 05 seemed a match made in heaven. The Swiss is anything but your run-of-the-mill Bundesliga manager. Looking like “a neanderthal just back from the brook catching trouts” (a quote from a German sports radio station), extremely open-minded, friendly and well-acquainted with Mainz and her people, the former adrenaline sports man and FC Raron (Switzerland) player had successfully led the amateur sub-23 team to 3. League and now was spirited away to help the first team avoid relegation.

Schmidt did just that, and in the following season 2015/16, managed to reach place 6 in the table, which meant direct qualification for Europa League. Mainz fans gave the team a resounding reception when they came back from the decisive game in Stuttgart on the penultimate Matchday 33.

That same summer another Mainz 05 face left: Sports Director Christian Heidel. A figure of unparalleled integrity in German professional football, Heidel had raised Mainz 05 from the cradle of the lower leagues and instituted a special style, which made the club from Rheinhessen known all over Europe. Part of this style is impeccable manners. Mainz 05 have never been known for feeding transfer rumors or toying with possible or probable contracts before pen had been put to paper. Mainz 05 was as reliable in business as anyone could ever wish for in a baker or banker.

Heidel leaving for Schalke 04, as it turned out, was a harder blow for the club than the losses of either charismatic coaches, Klopp and Tuchel. At first it seemed that new sporting director, Rouven Schröder, who arrived from SV Werder Bremen, was a worthy successor and that Mainz would and could do well on the European stage.

However, the Europa League wouldn‘t be just coke and cookies for a comparatively small club everybody knew in the “shadow of the cathedral” („Im Schatten des Doms“, a popular carnival‘s song, inevitably played before games). M05’s squad wasn‘t big enough to replace injured key-players on short notice, and some of those key-players were droolingly coveted by bigger clubs. Although the team‘s display against the likes of AS Saint-Etienne and RSC Anderlecht in the group stage spoke of existing quality, the red-and-white-boys exited the competition in the first stage and, since DFB cup also saw them ousted early, staff and supporters were confident staying in the Bundesliga midfield was an attainable and worthy goal for this season.

Many in Mainz believe the turn for the worse began when top-scorer Yunus Malli was sold during the winter break to aspiring, but impressively failing European would-be giant VfL Wolfsburg. The successful Malli had been linked with other clubs who had their mouths watering for him for over a year.

Mainz fans had been feuding in battle royales about whether the Turkish international was an overrated poser or an underrated genius. Be that as it may, his departure marks the moment things began to go awry for Mainz 05. Since the start of the Rückrunde in January 2017, Mainz 05 has only won two games and been sliding towards relegation zone with increasing speed.

Prior to the home match against Ingolstadt on April 02, Mainz supporters had been scratching their heads over their team‘s display. The formerly lively and creative team turned into a sluggish and dispirited handful of players, who almost seemed to be disinterested in the game at times. Opinions differed as to who was more to blame — the team or the manager.

Week after week, game after game, supporters, journalists and club authorities — simultaneously engaged in a war of the roses over the new club structure and who should be president– discussed the same topics in the local newspaper, on Facebook and in countless charming wine bars and cafés in downtown Mainz.

Questions swirled, like what was wrong with the team? Why was Martin Schmidt obviously not succeeding in getting through to them? Was it the number of young players assembling no less than 20 different nations (public training at Mainz sounds like the United Nations), who had never encountered relegation fight before? And above all: was Martin Schmidt still the right man at the helm to weather this storm?

The underwhelming display in Ingolstadt concluded in an unheard scene for Mainz. After the final whistle, M05 manager Martin Schmidt sat on the bench motionless, his players sitting or standing around, clueless, hopeless, fervor-less. Then the lead singer of the Mainz Ultràs jumped the fence, encouraged by defender Giulio Donati, he joined the players in a circle and talked to them. The picture went viral on the internet this very same night. The fan urging the team on, talking the spirit back into them! That’s Mainz 05!

Against newly promoted and heavily money-backed Red Bull,(aka Rasenballsport) Leipzig, the Zerofivers lost 2:3 the following Wednesday, but after a gallant fight and were mostly unlucky. The old spirit seemed back in the team and in the town and on Facebook threads: „Mainzer stehen immer wieder auf!“ (“Mainzers always get back onto their feet!”)

Still, although this following Saturday in Freiburg again saw the boys in red-and-white put up a fight, the football deities don’t look favorable to the southwest of Germany. Much – and not always fairly – criticized keeper Jonas Lössl had been replaced by homegrown talent Jannick Huth and it was just his ill-fated involuntary sweep to defender Danny Latza’s head that gifted Freiburg’s joker Nils Petersen, who was only subbed in minutes before. This moment was decisive: a 1:0 goal. Because Danny Latza was lying in his own box, holding his aching head, Petersen wasn’t offside when his ball hit the net.

Again defeated by luck just as much as their opponent, Mainz 05 came back home that night in a very subdued mood, indeed. Manager Martin Schmidt alighted from the bus without glance nor word to the small group of fans who had assembled to express their solidarity with the team in the face of a seemingly ill-meaning fate. The media were having a field-day foretelling his sacking the following Sunday.

Yet on that day, Palm Sunday as it was, Sports director Rouven Schröder turned the premature “Crucify him!” into an albeit slightly sober “Hosanna!” and declared Martin Schmidt Mainz 05 manager “at least until the end of the season.” Met with diverse reactions from the public, Mainz 05 had proven again that we are different.

Sack the coach with just six matches to go? Not in Moguntia Aurea, the only city north of the Alps possessing the title of Sancta Sede from the pope.

Things are different here in the shadow of the 1000-year-old cathedral and the looming pillars of 2000-year old roman buildings, and although there is still much frowning and doubtful faces among the supporters in the town less feverish about football than, say, Dortmund, Schalke, or even neighboring Frankfurt, the general mood is: Mainz 05 is all but done!

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Angela Roemelt, born in 1963, is a Catholic theologian, but her first religion is football. Raised on the stands of the now legendary Düsseldorf Rheinstadion and the equally legendary Mönchengladbach Bökelberg, the mother-of-four, practicing house wife and published author ("111 Gründe, die Seleção Brasileira zu lieben", Verlag Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 2016, regular contributions to @Unusualefforts) now divides her passion between Bundesliga darlings Mainz 05 and Ligue 1 juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain. Because... Variatio delectat, you know?

1 Comment

  1. I truly enjoyed reading this today. It isn’t often that North American followers of the Bundesliga are able to get the perspective of a fan of a club outside of Munich or Dortmund, so it was refreshing to read this and learn a bit more about a club that we all should be hoping doesn’t experience relegation this year. While I am not a fan of Mainz, they certainly are a club that I hope has many more years in the Bundesliga ahead of them. Thank you, Ms. Roemelt!

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