I can’t imagine any coach of any team anywhere saying anything otherwise, but head coach Peter Stöger has assured everyone, even though we are back in the big time of the first division, the 1. FC Köln is not taking Saturday’s match against Oberliga side Freie Turner Braunschweig lightly.
I, however, AM taking them lightly. This works, primarily because I will be at a safe distance from Eintracht-Stadion and, even were I capable of making arrangements to make the 12-hour flight and get into the match, nobody in their right mind nor anybody in charge of anything important is going to listen to the fat, jet-lagged guy yelling from the stands in broken, heavily accented German about how the match should be a walk-through for the 1. FC Köln, even if they could understand what it was that I’d be yelling.
And, let’s face it, if I suddenly appeared at the match Saturday, my energies would not be channeled toward encouraging team personnel to under-estimate their opponent strictly because they currently play a few divisions below them on the German football pyramid. Frankly, I hope it is true that nobody takes the match or opponent lightly. It makes for better football-watching for me (assuming I can figure out how to get my FC-TV subscription running again).
Either way, I’ll still be hoping to be in my bed by the 6:30 a.m. PST kick-off, though the recent sleeping patterns of my
second son informs me it is more likely I’ll be trying to source a stream while also putting cartoons on the TV for the boys. Whether I’m awake or not, I do expect a decisive victory.
I am under no obligation to take the opponent as seriously as Stöger wants his players to or asserts they did all last season.
““We achieved things last year because we never entered a match taking things lightly or arrogantly. When we didn’t win, then it was because we weren’t good or the opponent was better, but never because we took it lightly,” said Stöger Thursday in his usual stone-faced manner. “There are always surprises, but we want to work to ensure that none occur in Braunschweig. And if one does come to pass, then not because we went into the match taking it lightly.”
While most of the players will likely retain some of the humility that comes from not being in the top league available, some of that will also naturally have been eroded by the success of last season and the fact that the players are all, now, Bundesliga players. I think it’s miles easier to say the right things in these situations, but not so simple to actually convince oneself that FT Braunschweig actually has a chance at beating 1. FC Köln.
Which is exactly why teams like FT Braunschweig actually DO have a chance at beating teams like 1. FC Köln.
It happens every year. Rather, I at least feel secure enough in that assumption that I’m not going to research it. It seems safe to say that if there has ever been a year where all 18 Bundesliga clubs and survive the first round of the tournament, then it is rare.
Sidebar: I’m bracing myself for someone to correct me here.
Here in the US, the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament is the closest thing we have to what’s about to happen this weekend in Germany, except there are far more match-ups pitting 1-, 2-, and 3-seeds against 16-, 15-, and 14-seeds than there are the less-enthralling 8-versus-9 or even the 7-versus-10. By my count, just seven of the 32 matches will be contested by clubs playing in divisions directly above and below one another. There is one fixture between two 2. Bundesliga sides, which is always a bummer, I think, but that’s just one! Otherwise, it’s mostly big underdogs getting a visit from a club in a professional-level league.
Did I mention some/many of the clubs are amateur sides? No? Well, they are.
Sidebar: Sorry for stating the obvious to you people who already know this, but I’m also hoping to drag some of my non/less-knowledgeable newcomers into this ‘German football madness’ thing I’ve come to adore.
All of this means that, for the most part, the only right outcome would be for all 18 Bundesliga sides to cruise into the second round and for the majority of the second-division sides to also survive.
It just (probably?) never happens that way.
And that’s because, as much as a coach can motivate and prepare his players for the task, it’s simply not possible for players to fully convince themselves their opponents can be their equal, even for just 90 minutes, even boosted by the inspiration that comes from having earned the right to host such a match by winning a regional tournament the year prior. It’s a rare occasion for most of the host clubs (the top 32 sides are all drawn as visitors to the lower-level clubs, which just adds to the charm, for me) to gain entry to the tournament, the occasion of which is often the lone match their players will ever contest against world-class footballers in a match that matters. That can provide a lift.
Simon Zoller, who reached the semifinals last year with second-division 1. FC Kaiserslautern, illustrates this phenomenon a quote about Saturday.
“For us, it is all about advancing. Naturally, the guys from Braunschweig are all highly motivated.”
This definitely signals an awareness, but, for me, doesn’t remotely indicate any sense that Braunschweig being “highly motivated” is much more than something of which to be aware for Zoller and his teammates.
And I KNOW that every single player in the club is aware that Bundesliga sides always lose, meaning someone is going down this weekend. Certainly, the players who were around last year are fully aware that primary rival Borussia Mönchengladbach lost to Darmstadt on penalties last year. Another of of Germany’s more-storied clubs also dropped out in the first round last year when 1. FC Saaarbrücken knocked SV Werder Bremen from the tournament.
Saarbrücken was playing in 3. Liga at the time, but finished dead-last and was relegated at season end.
So, yeah, we could lose Saturday. It happens, and no amount of awareness can obscure the deep-seated belief in the minds of most of these players that their quality advantage will ultimately assure the result favors them.
I’m fairly certain Stöger is aware of this gap between stated awareness and the reality of what’s ingrained in a professional athlete’s head, which is why he’ll continue to hammer the point from now until he’s done coaching.
As for Zoller? Well, he may not even be travelling with the team. If he stays home and 18-year-old Lucas Cueto travels in his stead, it won’t similarly indicate that Stöger’s actions are also not quite in step with his words.
Then again, I don’t imagine that if Saturday’s match was instead for a semi-final spot and against, say, Bayer Leverkusen, that the Zoller-or-Cueto question would even on the table.
Even with the risk of having Fortuna Düsseldorf fans relishing an early exit for us at the hands of a team back-stopped by the son of their head coach — Daniel Reck, Oliver’s son, is a goalkeeper for FT Braunschweig — I can’t be moved, and I don’t imagine for a second that players or coaches are worried about that piece whatsoever.
I could just be projecting my own mind-set onto everyone else. I don’t believe the Effzeh will lose Saturday. I don’t even believe it will ever appear that the match is anything but under the full control of Stöger and his selected eleven, even should those eleven not closely resemble the squad chosen next weekend for the Bundesliga opener against Hamburger SV (or even if it does, for that matter).
That said, I want the win, desperately. It’s been a long summer-plus since the 1. FC Köln has played a meaningful match, and as much as I enjoyed Germany’s World Cup victory, it doesn’t touch my club passion.
“I cannot recall ever having had such a long period without competition,” said Stöger with a sigh. “It has been tedious.”
Tedious is a great word for it. I feel it, Pete (can I call you Pete?). I’m with you.
But you’ll have to deal with my inability to consider this a risky fixture and my presumption of a victory.