For the eighth time in 10 years, the top-flight side prevailed in the Bundesliga relegation-promotion playoff. Markus Anfang may not like it but, for Holstein Kiel, it’s not the end of the world.
"The playoffs are a completely different competition. Anything can happen," said Markus Anfang, coach of second-division Holstein Kiel ahead of the two-legged promotion playoff against VfL Wolfsburg.
But after the Wolves followed up their 3-1 first-leg win with a 1-0 victory here on the Baltic coast, becoming the eighth Bundesliga side to preserve their top-flight status in this game in 10 years, it was hard not to feel that it was all quite predictable.
The Bundesliga’s playoff system was re-introduced in its current form in 2009 with the German Football League's (the DFL's) then-head of football Holger Hieronymus promising "a return of the excitement factor."
And at least for the Holstein Kiel supporters strolling along the city’s waterfront dressed in sailor suits complete with caps featuring the club logo, that was certainly the case. Because, almost a century after the Kiel Naval Mutiny sparked revolution in Germany in November 1918, Kiel has been enjoying its own sporting uprising.
Having only won promotion to the 2. Bundesliga last season, the "Storks," as they are known for their red socks, took Germany’s second division by storm before Christmas, ultimately finishing third.
"I think it's exciting! We like being the underdog," said lifelong fan Frank. "Wolfsburg get a final chance to save themselves and we get a last chance to go up after all," agreed Holger. "These are two extra games to be enjoyed," added Matthias.
Nobody would begrudge Kiel that. But while the prospect of earning a chance to measure themselves against Bundesliga opposition is romantic in principle, the reality is very different.
More a foregone conclusion than a playoff?
Since the re-introduction of the playoffs, only two second-division sides have prevailed and been promoted and, with respect, both occasions had caveats attached. Nuremberg hammered a financially ruined Energie Cottbus in 2009 and Fortuna Düsseldorf emerged victorious from a seven-goal roller-coaster against Hertha Berlin in 2012.
History suggests that, despite the Kiel fans’ excitement and Anfang’s optimism, "anything" can’t really happen. In fact, there is more truth in the first part of his statement: the play-offs really are a completely different competition.
In 2015, a Karlsruhe side with a budget of seven million euros was beaten in dramatic fashion by a Hamburg team with a combined wage bill of over 46 million euros.
This time around, the financial gulf between Holstein Kiel and VfL Wolfsburg was even greater. The Wolves, backed by owners Volkswagen to the tune of €60-70 million per season, have built a team worth almost €146 million, nearly 10 times the value of the Storks’ squad.
It’s a competition against a team from a different league, in every sense.
"It’s incredibly difficult because we’ve come into the second division and then straight into the playoff," said Anfang post-match. "Everyone knows our budget and everyone knows Wolfsburg’s. But Wolfsburg aren’t a measuring stick for us."
The economic discrepancy is only half the story. Twelve months ago, the majority of this Kiel side were playing in the third tier. Thirty months ago, Joshua Guilavogui and Maximilian Arnold were part of a Wolfsburg team which beat Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Champions League. The experience that money can buy can be decisive in these all-or-nothing games, even after a season as poor as Wolfsburg's.
"We had to go through an adjustment period in the first leg," admitted Anfang, referring to the defeat which made Kiel’s second-leg task even harder — although Kingsley Schindler's away goal and a series of wasted second-half chances certainly had given them hope that an upset was possible.
Brave underdogs take on Wolves
After all, coach Anfang’s offensive philosophy saw Kiel score 71 goals in this season, even out-scoring automatically-promoted giants Fortuna Düsseldorf and 1. FC Nürnberg. And it was easy to see why.
With David Kinsombi protecting the back four, covering every blade of grass with his long strides, Kiel’s front five were set loose to cause Wolfsburg problems. The absence of playmaker Dominick Drexler (12 goals, 11 assists this season) through injury didn’t hamper Kiel’s free-flowing football.
Top-scorer Marvin Ducksch shot wide from inside the box after lovely build-up play down the right, before Aaron Seydel dragged an effort wide after good work on the left. Again though, Kiel paid for their profligacy when Robin Knoche headed home Wolfsburg’s winner 15 minutes from time.
"They [the playoffs] attract a lot of public interest and they are interesting games for the fans," conceded Anfang. "But we keep seeing time and time again that there are differences when we play against a Bundesliga team. That’s just how it is.
"You can see from the results in recent years how incredibly difficult it is for a second-division side to win even though, in my opinion, we were the better team this evening.
"But we’re a small club from the north, so losing is no disgrace. I’m pleased for Wolfsburg; they were a bridge too far for us."
Markus Anfang's record and the football Kiel played this season may give some hope to Cologne fans; he joins the Billy Goats this summer
Moments earlier, Anfang had left the pitch to standing ovations at the end of his 21-month tenure in Germany’s northernmost state. Destination: Cologne, where immediate promotion will be expected with "FC."
Chants of “Markus Anfang!” rang out from all three home stands while banners carried messages such as "A coach with heart – thank you for a great season!" The grateful sailors from the waterfront will have shared the sentiment. "We’ve experienced so much in the last 40 years that I’d like to enjoy the second division a bit first anyway!" Franck had opined pre-match.
In Anfang’s words, "a Bundesliga side will always prevail" as long as the format remains the same. But Holstein Kiel won't be too upset. They can continue their modern-day uprising in the 2. Bundesliga on Germany's north coast.