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Miracle at Darmstadt: Defying the Odds

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Marco Sailer (waving flag), David Salfeld and Dominik Stroh-Engel (left arm extended) celebrate with fans inside Bielefelder Alm on May 19, 2014. SV Darmstadt 98 knocked out DSC Arminia Bielefeld on away goals to return to the 2. Bundesliga.

Marco Sailer (waving flag), David Salfeld and Dominik Stroh-Engel (left arm extended) celebrate with fans inside Bielefelder Alm on May 19, 2014. SV Darmstadt 98 knocked out DSC Arminia Bielefeld on away goals to return to the 2. Bundesliga.

SV Darmstadt 98 is a financially modest club located in a city where science reigns. The groundwork for establishing a formula unfolded despite the club's near relegation. The club had Dirk Schuster as their manager, who came on midseason during the 2012-13 campaign.

During that campaign, a new captain who, months earlier, nearly quit football to focus on being an automotive salesperson, joined the club. On Feb. 3, 2013, Aytaç Sulu, a center back who two years earlier guided VfR Aalen to the third division, debuted for SV Darmstadt 98 in a scoreless draw against Wacker Burghausen.
Sulu provided stability in a backfield for a club that often struggled defensively.

Within a month, SV Darmstadt 98 went from preparing to fourth division football to another season in 3. Liga. Sulu became the club's captain, and it would not be long before the club ignited a big bang across the footballing landscape.

Capitalizing a Second Chance

Sulu was the captain, but what unfolded in the following season was a turnaround thanks to a critical player who established a record few experts even imagined.
Arriving from SV Wehen Wiesbaden in the offseason, Dominik Stroh-Engel shook off early jitters in the first month. That included a penalty miss during a shootout in the DFB-Pokal match against Borussia Mönchengladbach, which SV Darmstadt 98 still won 5-4 after a scoreless 120 minutes. What unfolded was a new scoring standard in 3. Liga. Stroh-Engel recorded a hat trick in his team's fourth match to guide the club to a 4-2 victory at SpVgg Unterhaching on Aug. 17, 2013.

More scoring unfolded on Sept. 21, 2013, when Stroh-Engel notched four goals against 10-man Hansa Rostock in a 6-0 victory - all coming following Mustafa Kucukovic's 13th-minute red card. A month later, Stroh-Engel added another hat trick against Preußen Münster to bring his goal tally to 14. Stroh-Engel scored when the stakes mattered and recorded a goal in seven straight matches, including the lone goals in three consecutive games. In that period came a record-breaking goal on Mar. 14, 2014, when his goal at Hansa Rostock was his 23rd goal, breaking SV Sandhausen Regis Dorn's single-season record.

At season's end, Stroh-Engel had 27 goals in 3. Liga. Others contributed even when Stroh-Engel was not the primary scorer. The leading goalscorer had received a red card in a late-season match at Preußen Münster. Nevertheless, Michael Stegmayer capitalized on a penalty kick, and Sandro Sirigu added a late insurance goal for the 2-0 victory.

Earlier in the season, following Stroh-Engel's first hat trick at SpVgg Unterhaching, Milan Ivana scored the lone goal against the eventual champions FC Heidenheim on Aug. 24, 2013. SV Darmstadt began that season with a scoreless draw against eventually-relegated Elversburg but endured a three-game losing streak in November 2013, having started with a 2-1 loss at Wacker Burghausen despite playing a man up. Ultimately, SV Darmstadt 98 won 21 games and amassed 72 points.

More importantly, its third-place finish meant the club had a chance to reach 2. Bundesliga.

A key acquisition during the summer of 2013 for SV Darmstadt 98 was forward Dominik Stroh-Engel, having come from SV Wehen Wiesbaden. Stroh-Engel scored 27 goals in 2013-14 3. Liga, a record that still stands to date.

A key acquisition during the summer of 2013 for SV Darmstadt 98 was forward Dominik Stroh-Engel, having come from SV Wehen Wiesbaden. Stroh-Engel scored 27 goals in 2013-14 3. Liga, a record that still stands to date.

The Two-Legged Epic

Only DSC Arminia Bielefeld, 16th-place in the 2013-14 2. Bundesliga, stood in the club's way. DSC Arminia Bielefeld hoped to stay up after a season in which its club's notable victory was a 4-2 win at home to Fortuna Düsseldorf. In contrast, the same club also lost both matches to FC Energie Cottbus, who had the fewest points during 2. Bundesliga. SV Darmstadt 98 hosted the first leg on May 16, 2014. After 33 minutes, the club trailed 2-0. Ivana scored a critical goal in the 65th minute before Hille's 85th-minute goal all but confirmed Arminia Bielefeld's safety ahead of the second leg three days later.

Matching at least a 3-1 scoreline was daunting, but Stroh-Engel ignited the club's comeback. Work still had to be done, but Hanno Behrens, a defensive midfielder who had four goals during the campaign, back-heeled a 51st-minute goal to put the club in striking distance. Though Felix Burmeister quickly replied for Arminia Bielefeld, SV Darmstadt 98 still needed the third goal to at least force extra time.

Cue Jérôme Gondorf, who had last scored for the club on Mar. 29, 2014, against Hallescher FC. He had assisted on Stroh-Engel's goal earlier, and in the 79th minute, Gondorf's right-footed shot put the series on its head. Extra time would decide the final 2. Bundesliga spot and no scoring occurred in extra time until Kacper Przybyłko scored in the 110th minute. As the match approached stoppage time, Arminia Bielefeld was safe.

Cue in Elton da Costa, who had been the club's primary substitute. In the first minute of stoppage time, SV Darmstadt 98 pressed forward, and after a scramble, da Costa took a shot deflected off that went past the goalkeeper into the net. The club had the all-important away goal, and the players celebrated before Arminia Bielefeld went on one last hurrah, first via a free kick and then via a corner kick. After the corner kick sailed past the opposing goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, the final whistle blew.

Schuster helped guide SV Darmstadt 98 back to 2. Bundesliga after 22 years.

Miracle at Bielefeld

Cult Hero's Scoring When it Mattered

MatchdayDateOpponentResult

26 (2012-13)

Feb. 17, 2013

SV Wehen Wiesbaden

1-0 (W)

38 (2012-13)

May 18, 2013

Stuttgarter Kickers

1-1

11 (2013-14)

Sept. 28, 2013

@ FC Saarbrücken

1-0 (W)

36 (2013-14)

Apr. 25, 2014

Rot-Weiß Erfurt

2-1 (W)

37 (2013-14)

May 3, 2014

@ SV Wehen Wiesbaden

1-0 (W)

2. Bundesliga P/R Playoff

May 19, 2014

@ Arminia Bielefeld

4-2 (W)

Proving the Experts Wrong

Schuster masterminded an unlikely story. Many experts had predicted an immediate return to the third division, especially since da Costa left the club. What unfolded over ten months proved the club's promotion to 2. Bundesliga was no fluke.

After a historic scoring season, Stroh-Engel continued in the club's season-opening match against SV Sandhausen, who finished the game with ten men. A 35th-minute red card from Timo Achenbach paved the way for Stroh-Engel to score the match's lone goal. Stroh-Engel scored in the teams' first five games and would lead the team with nine goals.

SV Darmstadt 98 stood atop the table after seven games, with the captain Sulu scoring in both halves (along with an assist) in a 4-0 victory against FSV Frankfurt in a match where Tobias Kempe also had two assists. Timely scoring was proving crucial for SV Darmstadt 98, but in the 2014-2015 season, so was defending. SV Darmstadt 98 would have tied for the fewest goals allowed during the campaign at 26 goals.

Nevertheless, SV Darmstadt 98 suffered its worst loss two weeks later after the 4-0 victory. Joel Pohjanpalo's hat trick saw Fortuna Düsseldorf securing a resounding 4-1 success. The lone bright spot in that match was Kempe's 46th-minute goal, one of four goals the midfielder scored that season. As the season progress, SV Darmstadt 98 established itself as a contender for a Bundesliga appearance with a 16-match unbeaten streak.

Two weeks after the club's first loss to Fortuna Düsseldorf, Kempe capped the scoring in a 3-0 victory against FC Nürnberg. Perhaps the most resounding result occurred on Mar. 13, 2015, when Sulu's two goals in four minutes capped off a 5-0 rout of FC Union Berlin. The dream seemed to be in jeopardy on Apr. 24, 2015. Behrens had put the club in front after 77 minutes, and at least one point seemed likely. However, SV Darmstadt 98 conceded a goal from Luka Klostermann two minutes later before a 90th-minute goal from Fabio Coltorti haded the club a 2-1 loss at RB Leipzig.

Survive, Get Help, and Thrive

Next up for the club was its closest challengers in FC Kaiserslautern and Karlsruher SC, the former whose manager was Runjaic. Winning was imperative, but the club also needed other results going their way. SV Darmstadt 98 did their part on May 2, 2015; despite going down a goal after 13 minutes, SV Darmstadt 98 scored twice in four minutes. Behrens's 40th-minute goal provided insurance as the club secured a critical 3-2 victory. On the following day, FC Erzgebirge Aue, who would later suffer relegation, secured a shocking 3-1 win against Karlsruher SC with two goals from Stefan Mugosa.

A day before its next match on May 9, 2015, SV Darmstadt 98 was the beneficiary of another result. This time, it was FC St. Pauli, with Jan-Philipp Kalla and Marcus Halestenberg, securing a 2-0 away win at FC Kaiserslautern. Kempe helped make sure the club took advantage of the result, with his 66th-minute left-footed goal securing the vital win.

SV Darmstadt 98 would be in the driver's seat to reach the Bundesliga. Despite losing its penultimate game at SpVgg Greuther Fürth and Karlsruher winning 2-0 at Eintracht Braunschwieg, FC Kaiserslautern were held to a goalless draw at FC Erzgebirge Aue. SV Darmstadt 98 still controlling its destiny ahead of the season finale at home against FC St. Pauli.

However, while its match remained scoreless, Karlsruher SC led 1860 München at home after nine minutes on an own goal, and the lead went up 2-0 after 69 minutes. Simultaneously, FC Kaiserslautern was also up 1-0 against FC Ingolstadt. As is stood, SV Darmstadt 98 would have stayed in 2. Bundesliga.

Cue Kempe, who launched a free kick to put the club on the cusp. FC Ingolstadt, who also qualified for next season's Bundesliga as champions, provided an additional lifeline with a tying goal. When full time completed, SV Darmstadt 98 achieved a dream few imagined.

Hanno Behrens (#17) jumps onto a pile of personnel during SV Darmstadt 98's match against FC St. Pauli on May 24, 2015. The 1-0 victory secured the club's return to Bundesliga after a 33-year absence.

Hanno Behrens (#17) jumps onto a pile of personnel during SV Darmstadt 98's match against FC St. Pauli on May 24, 2015. The 1-0 victory secured the club's return to Bundesliga after a 33-year absence.

Dirk Schuster consults with defensive midfielder Peter Niemeyer prior to SV Darmstadt 98's match against Hannover 96 on Aug. 15, 2015 at Stadion am Böllenfalltor. This match, a 2-2 draw, was the club's first Bundesliga match in 33 years.

Dirk Schuster consults with defensive midfielder Peter Niemeyer prior to SV Darmstadt 98's match against Hannover 96 on Aug. 15, 2015 at Stadion am Böllenfalltor. This match, a 2-2 draw, was the club's first Bundesliga match in 33 years.

A Long Wait Turned to Promise

After 33 years, SV Darmstadt 98 had returned to the Bundesliga. The Hessian club began its Bundesliga foray with a decent start. After nine games, SV Darmstadt 98 stood in ninth place as the club started the season, drawing their three opening matches in August 2015, with the first result finish 2-2 against Hannover 96. Having received a yellow card in that first match, Sulu made amends as SV Darmstadt win its first Bundesliga game in 33 years. An eighth-minute goal at BayArena was all the scoring SV Darmstadt needed to succeed at Bayer Leverkusen.

The result represented a theme in which SV Darmstadt performed better away from home. Sulu also added a vital stoppage time goal to snatch a much-needed 2-2 draw at Borussia Dortmund. Nevertheless, following a 2-0 win at Augsburg, SV Darmstadt had its mettle tested to avoid relegation, but the low point during that campaign occurred on Dec. 12, 2015, when Hertha Berlin won 4-0.

Eight days later, the club opened the scoring against Borussia Mönchengladbach with Marcel Heller scoring in the 28th minute. A golden opportunity arrived due to a man advantage stemming from the dismissal of Granit Xhaka in the 38th minute. The club managed a tying goal from Sandro Wagner in the 67th minute, but Oscar Wendt's 86th-minute goal consigned the club to consecutive losses.

The Emotional Critical Juncture

March 2016 began a deciding period for SV Darmstadt 98 if it remained in the Bundesliga and an emotional period. A former youth tennis champion, Jonathan Heimes had been battling cancer since 12 and had been one of the club's most loyal fans, even having celebrated with the team during its promotion to the Bundesliga. Heimes died on Mar. 8, 2016, and as a gesture of respect, Merck gave up its stadium naming rights in Heimes's honor for the 2016-17 season.

Playing next season in the Bundesliga took on more critical meaning, especially since a scoreless draw against Mainz 05 marked the first of four successive draws. The club dropped to 15th in the standing and needing wins were vital, but SV Darmstadt 98 blew a 2-0 lead, and Alfred Finboggason scored the tying penalty.

The club managed to lead at Vfl Wolfsburg with a goal from Wagner in the 82nd minute. That was until Andre Schürrle scored three minutes into injury time. In a season where relegation seemed possible, SV Darmstadt 98 achieved consecutive wins needed, including its maiden win against a former Bundesliga champion.

It had been 29 years since the club last met Hamburger SV, when its opponents won a Round of 16 DFB-Pokal match on Mar. 7, 1987. SV Darmstadt 98's last visit to the Volksparkstadion had terrible memories, which occurred in the Bundesliga - a 6-1 humiliation on Nov. 14, 1981, where six different goalscorers, including Felix Magath and Horst Hrubech, scored before Peter Cestonaro's consolation goal in the 78th minute. So much changed in 35 years, but for SV Darmstadt 98, history unfolded. Sulu headed in a Konstantin Rauch pass to put the club ahead after 38 minutes.

Needing another goal, the club went up 2-0 on a Gondorf left-footed shot. Despite allowing a late goal from Lewis Holtby, SV Darmstadt 98 secured its first-ever win against Hamburger SV. A week later and another victory occurred, with this match coming against FC Ingolstadt, last season's 2. Bundesliga winners. Rausch and Wagner scored to give the club its first home win since Sept. 22, 2015.

One classy moment featured SV Darmstadt 98 fan Jonathan Heimes celebrating with players following its promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015. Helmes died on Mar. 8, 2016, and the stadium was renamed in his honor during the 2016-17 season.

One classy moment featured SV Darmstadt 98 fan Jonathan Heimes celebrating with players following its promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015. Helmes died on Mar. 8, 2016, and the stadium was renamed in his honor during the 2016-17 season.

Another Season Assured

For Wagner, the 2015-16 season saw the center forward enjoy of his best seasons. Before coming to SV Darmstadt 98, Wagner spent the previous three seasons with Hertha Berlin SC and its reserve team. In his last season with Hertha Berlin SC, Wagner scored zero goals. Wagner rediscovered a scoring touch with 13 goals before the club's penultimate match at Berlin's Olympiastadion. That figure included a pair of goals in earlier 2-1 victories for the club (home to Werder Bremen on Sept. 22, 2015, and at Hannover 96 on Jan. 23, 2016).

His 14th goal proved the most vital for the club to ensure safety, despite trailing 1-0 after 14 minutes. Gondorf equalized after 24 minutes, but the club was also attempting to fend off Eintracht Frankfurt and 1899 Hoffenheim to survive. Another goal would surely help, and cue in Wagner, whose 82nd-minute goal put SV Darmstadt 98 in striking distance. It would be Wagner's last significant contribution in that season. Five minutes later, he received a red card and was ineligible for the club's season finale at home against Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Nevertheless, SV Darmstadt 98 secured its first win at Berlin's Olympiastadion since Apr. 19, 1986, with the 2-1 victory. With results elsewhere, the club would play next season in the Bundesliga. When the 2015-16 Bundesliga finished, Schuster won Bundesliga Manager of the Year.

Konstantin Rausch (#34) celebrates with teammates and fans inside Berlin's Olympiastadion following a Bundesliga match on May 7, 2016. The club's 2-1 victory in the penultimate matchday secured another season in the Bundesliga with one game to spare.

Konstantin Rausch (#34) celebrates with teammates and fans inside Berlin's Olympiastadion following a Bundesliga match on May 7, 2016. The club's 2-1 victory in the penultimate matchday secured another season in the Bundesliga with one game to spare.

Road Successes

Round (Date)OpponentScoreVenue

4 (Sept. 12, 2015)

Bayer Leverkusen

1-0

BayArena

6 (Sept. 22, 2015)

Weder Bremen

2-1

Stadion am Böllenfalltor

9 (Oct. 17, 2015)

FC Augsburg

2-0

WWK Arena

15 (Dec. 6, 2015)

Eintracht Frankfurt

1-0

Commerzbank-Arena

18 (Jan. 23, 2016)

Hannover 96

2-1

HDI-Arena

20 (Feb. 7, 2016)

1899 Hoffenheim

1-0

Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena

29 (Apr. 9, 2016)

Hamburger SV

2-1

Volksparkstadion

30 (Apr. 16, 2016)

FC Ingolstadt 04

2-0

Stadion am Böllenfalltor

33 (May 7, 2016)

Hertha BSC

2-1

Olympiadtadion

Seeking to Fight Again

Darmstadt 98 would be preparing for a second straight season in the Bundesliga without its mastermind. Schuster became the manager of FC Augsburg on June 2, 2016. His replacement was a somewhat familiar face that came on June 10, 2016 - Norbert Meier, Manager of the Year in 3. Liga, as he guided Arminia Bielefeld with the 2. Bundesliga title, erasing the pain of the promotion-relegation defeat from 2014.

Meier could not replicate the magic that Schuster orchestrated as one of the few high points came courtesy of Sirigu's 90th-minute goal to defeat Eintracht Frankfurt at home. Following that victory, SV Darmstadt 98 suffered a deflating defeat at Borussia Dortmund. This match featured Christian Pulisic scoring the match's third goal. More misery unfolded due to Peter Niemeyer's sending off as Borrusia Dortmund proceed to add three more goals in 10 minutes in a 6-0 victory.

The club sacked Meier on Dec. 5, 2016, after a 2-0 home defeat against Hamburger SV (interestingly, nine days before FC Augsburg sacked Schuster). Former German international Torsten Frings became the interim manager to guide the club back on track.

In a season where the club dedicated its stadium to its most loyal fan, SV Darmstadt 98 hoped for a footballing pardon from another person - that individual being Barack Obama, whose only European club he follows is SV Darmstadt 98. Unfortunately, another low point unfolded on Jan. 28, 2017 – a 6-1 defeat at home to FC Köln.

Lasting Memories

A Brave Fight as Life Continues

SV Darmstadt 98 avenged the earlier loss to Dortmund by winning 2-1 on Feb. 11, 2017. The same scoreline also occurred a month later at the same stadium, with Mainz 05 losing the match, which saw each team finish with ten men.

The club failed to replicate its road successes this time, avoiding defeat only twice. The lone road win, coming once again at Hamburger SV, was part of a three-game winning streak that had ignited hopes of another survival bid. However, Bayern München's 1-0 victory on May 6, 2017, extinguished SV Darmstadt 98's hopes of a third straight Bundesliga season.

The formula to survive relegation worked in the previous term, but no big bang could happen. There was some consolation in the 2-2 draw at Borussia Mönchengladbach. The man who scored both goals in SV Darmstadt 98's Bundesliga return against Hannover 96 in 2015, Heller scored the club's final Bundesliga goal to date, doing so in the 90th minute to avoid defeat. For so long, part-time players made the club integral during the 1970s. Various players helped resurrect a club that nearly went bankrupt. After relegation, the club had two consecutive 10th place finishes before a fifth-place finish in the 2019-20 season, three points behind FC Heidenheim for a playoff.

As of the 2020-2021 season, SV Darmstadt 98 began its fourth straight season in 2.Bundesliga. In a city where science dominates the landscape, SV Darmstadt 98 had achieved its big bang on its return to the Bundesliga. Most notable was that the club made its success through modest financial means. Thought its recent Bundesliga stint lasted only two seasons, SV Darmstadt 98 hopes to continue to search for the formula to make another return.

One thing is sure: the club is no longer fighting to survive, but now had discovered a formula to survive against the odds.

We’re playing in Johnny’s living room now, which is a motivation in itself. We want to stay up again this season, and this connection will spur us on even more. Every Darmstadt fan who identifies with us identifies with Johnny too.

— Aytac Sulu, speaking to Bundesliga.com following the death of Jonathan Heimes in 2016

Goosebumps are Guaranteed

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