German club Alemannia Aachen advanced to the third round of the UEFA Cup, the first ever second division club to accomplish that feat. Dieter Hecking's side pulled it off with a 2-0 win in Athens.
Aachen's Simon Rofles (r.) during his team's win in Athens
You can always depend on a Cinderella story in the world of sports. This year in European club soccer, Germany's Alemannia Aachen are providing it. They pulled off a surprisingly easy 2-0 victory against AEK Athens to advance to the third stage of the UEFA Cup.
The location of the triumph was also historical. AEK play in the Olympic Stadium where this past summer the world's best athletes competed for gold medals. AEK have top quality players on its roster, including Greece's international goalkeeper, Chrysostomos Michailidis. How could a second division club from the outer reaches in Germany beat an opponent like that?
Well, the cards all fell into the right spot for Alemannia. AEK played poorly in the UEFA Cup group stage. Coach Fernando Santos' squad had not managed to win a single point. Off the field, management was struggling to keep the club afloat.
Soccer fans know no boundaries
Yet 700 Aachen fans made the journey from the cold of Central Europe to the Mediterranean. After the final whistle blew, they had plenty of room to celebrate, only 5,000 came to see the match on Wednesday in a stadium that holds 74,000.
The hero of the Aachen crowd was captain Erik Meijer, the scorer of the first goal. Meijer has become a cult figure in Aachen and he spoke for the whole town after the game, "I dreamed we would advance. Now we've done it and we deserved it."
Coach Dieter Hecking reacted modestly to the accomplishment, "We weren't lucky. We were just the third best in our group." But third place was sufficient in the newly introduced group stage of the UEFA Cup to move along to the next knock-out stage.
Stuttgart win their group
Christian Tiffert (l.) scores the go-ahead goal for Stutgart.
Along with Aachen, first division side Stuttgart advanced to the next round. They finished atop Group G after beating Dinamo Zagreb in Stuttgart, 2-1. Schalke 04 have also qualified for the third round.
All in all, German soccer fans can be proud of their teams. In European competition, six clubs (only one has dropped out so far) will be playing either in the UEFA Cup or the elite compeitition of the Champions League. Yet, at the beginning of the season, not many people would have put their money down on Aachen to be playing European soccer in 2005.
That they will be doing. "It isn't normal to come so far," Meijer told the Aachener Zeitung, "and we did it by playing good soccer and not with luck." The Cinderella aspect probably didn't hurt either.