While RB Leipzig are catching the attention in a closely-fought Bundesliga title race, Cologne are flying under the radar. Their Danish defender Frederik Sörensen tells DW's Jonathan Harding that's just how they like it.
Anthony Modeste's 12 league goals have stolen a few headlines as the carnival club flirt with the top four, but Leipzig – and to a lesser degree Hoffenheim and Hertha Berlin - are the ones taking center stage. Not backed by an energy drink company, led by a young coach, or located in the capital, Cologne occupy a position away from the glare of the spotlight. But there's an argument to suggest that they are the biggest surprise of them all.
Cologne’s return to the giddy heights of the top four has been achieved in a very different fashion to the way the club have succeeded in the past. The eras of Wolfgang Overath, Hennes Weisweiler and Rinus Michels were full of flair, flash and scandal, but were eventually weighed down by the club's growing sense of expectation. In 2016, the club faces a realistic chance of returning to the European stage for the first time since 1992. Pivotally, expectation remains low.
“It’s important not to expect to win every time. We lost twice this year and we didn’t play well in both first halves, but there’s always a new game and you have to learn from the loss,” Cologne defender Frederik Sörensen tells DW.
"We're playing better against the 'smaller' teams. I think it’s a mental thing we have improved,” added the 24-year-old.
Sörensen is a formidable part of the league's second best defense, but, like many in his team, remains a relative unknown. From Copenhagen to Cologne via Serie A, Sörensen is a talent too few know about – he hasn’t even been called up to the Denmark squad yet.
“I learned a lot in the school of defense in Italy. I became a man there,” he says. “I think we [at Cologne] have a very good team spirit. I know we always talk about team spirit but I think it’s one of the most important things you can have in football. If you’re not a team, you can’t achieve your goals during the season,” Sörensen says modestly.
“I don’t like to talk about myself,” he adds. “If I didn’t have my team, I couldn’t play as well.”
At the moment, Cologne couldn’t be playing much better. Their improvement is all the more remarkable given the club’s desire to retain their traditional roots – FC is the fourth biggest club in Germany – and develop sustainably both on and off the field. As the focus on their football intensifies, it is Cologne’s ability to make it about more than the sport that makes them so successful.
“He [head coach Peter Stöger] sees us as people before he sees us as footballers,” says Sörensen.
No one is talking about Cologne because a team reaping the benefits of stable development doesn't make headlines in the modern age of football. There’s a plan here but it’s not sexy enough. Yes, Modeste's goals have elevated the club, but this campaign is built on the progress made in the previous two seasons. The team has grown. The 'o umlaut brothers' (Stöger and Jörg Schmadtke) have steered this club to old heights using a new formula.
"Many of us know each other off the pitch. In the games, we just know how we’ll react and I think it’s also important that we know the person behind the footballer,” Sörensen said.
When asked whether Cologne could be considered “Ice Men”, the man nicknamed “Ice Man” responded with the tiniest hint of a smile: “Not yet. We have to play a little longer together to be cooler.”
How much longer will that be? How much better can Cologne get? And can expectations really be kept low if their excellent form continues? If Sörensen is anything to go by, Cologne look like they’re going to follow Leicester City and keep flying under the radar.
“We like sometimes to have the underdog role, but we have to get used to that [the favorite role]. When I played at Juventus, it’s not easy to know that everyone wants to beat you. It’s not easy for your head, and it’s not easy in the game,” says Sörensen.
“The fans are talking about it [Europe]. You can’t not think about it. It would be a big achievement for the team, but we have to finish the job.”
“If we keep winning, of course we make a lot of pressure for ourselves but that’s something we control. When Christmas comes and you’re in the top four, it’s important to speak about how we want to react.”
Watching this group in training, in the Bundesliga, in the media, it feels like only a positive reaction is possible. The reason? There’s no pressure on them and that's exactly the way they like it.