While a disappointing season could turn into a disastrous one for Schalke if they fail to beat MSV Duisburg in the German Cup final, the second-division 'Zebras' are not giving up hope of making club history.
Hats off to the zebras; they are blue and white, apparently
Saturday's German Cup final is Schalke's last chance to get back into European competition next season, after flying to the Champions League semi-finals but flopping into Bundesliga mediocrity. A troupe of lesser-known underdogs, however, are now standing in Schalke's way, with their own dreams of returning to the big leagues.
MSV Duisburg's eight-place finish in Germany's second division this season was respectable, but nowhere near sufficient to fulfill their ambition of returning to the top flight of German football. An admittedly unlikely victory against Schalke in Berlin, however, would catapult them straight back into European football. Who needs that pesky Bundesliga?
That's not to say that Duisburg are strangers to the Bundesliga. The Ruhr valley's blue and white Zebras - they're a rare breed not indigenous to the Serengeti - were in Germany's top flight when it assumed its current guise in 1963. The two-goal hero from Germany's 3-2 World Cup final comeback against Hungary in 1954, winger Helmut Rahn, led the line. The trophy cabinet may be rather bare, but that's not for want of trying.
Fourth time's a charm?
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Duisburg have missed three shots at the German Cup to date. In 1966, playing against the mightiest of all German carnivores, Bayern Munich, the Zebras pounced for an early lead. However, "the Emperor" Franz Beckenbauer - who scored the last goal of the game - and friends ran out 4-2 winners.
Fast forward to 1975, and it was Eintracht Frankfurt spoiling the party for Duisburg, lifting the cup after to a 1-0 win. In the 1998 Cup final, again against Bayern Munich, Duisburg took the lead yet again - and went on to lose. German international Markus Babbel - who's just coached Hertha Berlin back into the Bundesliga - equalized and then another national team regular, Mario Basler, broke Duisburg hearts with an 89th-minute winner.
Lengthy European absence
Having burbled around between the first and second divisions for the past few decades, Duisburg haven't had a taste of European football in over 30 years. But not unlike Schalke this season, the last time they were in continental competition, they put on an improbably good show.
In only their second UEFA Cup campaign, Duisburg charged through to the semi-finals in the 1978/79 season, only to draw Westphalian rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. Hertha Berlin squared off against Red Star Belgrade in the other semi; Gladbach smashed Duisburg 6-3 on aggregate - sealing the deal with a 4-1 away win in the second leg - and went on to beat Red Star in the final. One of Gladbach's key players, German international Ewald Lienen, would later play for and coach Duisburg.
The Zebras are underdogs against Schalke on Saturday
Lienen joined Duisburg in the twilight of his career, during dark days for the club. The Zebras had languished in the second division ever since 1982, until veterans like Lienen and Lothar Wölk helped bring them back into the top division in 1991. Coach Willibert Krämer, apparently channeling Sir Alex Ferguson's alter-ego, was adamant that he didn't need kids to win.
"For me, there are no old and young players, there are good and bad footballers," Krämer said after his side secured promotion. "So long as these guys deliver the goods, and until the younger players surpass them, they will play. I have absolutely no doubt that they will also deliver in the top flight."
Alas, Krämer was mistaken, and Duisburg bounced straight back down; they have been yo-yoing back and forth ever since. Many a top coach has tried, without success, to rekindle the near-glory days: Pierre Littbarski, Freidhelm Funkel, Rudi Bommer and Peter Neururer all held the reins before Croat Milan Sasic took over in 2008.
Down, but still dreaming
Sasic may not have managed to bring the side back into the Bundesliga yet, but a German Cup final win on Saturday would not only write club history, it would provide the kind of financial windfall that might be the catalyst to improve Duisburg's league fortunes as well.
Coach Sasic says it's OK to dream of another dousing
"It would be sad, if people weren't allowed to dream, especially football fans," Sasic said of the admittedly unlikely prospect of cup glory. "Emotions are necessary; euphoria can be a positive thing, provided it's also tempered with a bit of realism. And in any case, we've now come so far that victory is a realistic possibility. We're all dreaming together."
Duisburg's run to the final hasn't been the rip-roaring giant-killing saga you might imagine. The Zebras have only faced two top-flight sides, and neither Cologne nor Kaiserslautern can really be considered Bundesliga heavyweights. Still, facing consistently erratic Schalke in the final, Sasic has every right to dream of an upset.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between Duisburg and a fairy-tale return to European football is Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, playing his last ever competitive game for the club he has represented and adored since the age of three. Perhaps it's best to keep dreaming, rather than dwelling on that prospect.
Author: Olivia Fritz/Mark Hallam
Editor: Toma Tasovac