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Survival at Darmstadt: Seeking the Footballing Formula

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

SV Darmstadt 98 players celebrate with fans inside Stadion Böllenfalltor in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2016. The 2015-16 season marked the club's first foray in the Bundesliga in 33 years.

SV Darmstadt 98 players celebrate with fans inside Stadion Böllenfalltor in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2016. The 2015-16 season marked the club's first foray in the Bundesliga in 33 years.

Darmstadt FC

Thirty-three years is an eternity in football, especially for a city known to many as "City of Science." After all, the city is home to Merck, a giant German pharmaceutical company, along with a site of recently-discovered metals.

Nevertheless, for all the recognition Darmstadt had in science, football hardly yielded anything noteworthy. The city's footballing history dates back to 1898, but two separate one-year stints in Germany's Bundesliga were what SV Darmstadt 98 achieved in the 20th century. Financial issues plagued the Hessian city, with 2008 being the tipping point as the club stood on bankruptcy's door.

Nevertheless, SV Darmstadt 98 discovered the formula to achieve what many thought would not happen. After years languishing in Germany's lower divisions, SV Darmstadt 98 made an exciting promotion to 2. Bundesliga in 2014 and followed that with a second dramatic promotion to the Bundesliga in the following year. The consecutive promotions also came as the club had been spared relegation in 2013 despite a 16th place finish in 3. Liga, along with surviving potential bankruptcy.

Pioneering Into the First Foray

SV Darmstadt 98 began playing football back in 1898. A second division club throughout its history after World War II, SV Darmstadt 98 became an integral semiprofessional club during the 1970s. The architect of the club's ascent was Udo Klug, who began his first full head coaching job during the 1971-92 season. That campaign featured 82 clubs split across five regions, with SV Darmstadt 98 participating in Regionaliga Süd, including FC Nürnberg and TSV 1860 München.

Klug guided the club to the division title as SV Darmstadt 98 finished one point ahead of Karlsruher SC. That title came on the final day of the season on Mar. 25, 1973, when the club defeated Wacker München 2-1. Another round robin with the other four regional winners would determine who would play next season in the Bundesliga. In the end, SV Darmstadt could not win the group and the automatic promotion as the club finished second behind Rot-Weiß Essen.

Klug spent over five seasons coaching a team whose part-time players also held second jobs. Two of those players included Gerhard Kleppinger and Edwin Westenberger, with the former an insurance salesperson and the latter a butcher. The successes allowed Klug to leave the club on Nov. 9, 1976, and become the manager of Kickers Offenbach, the main rival to SV Darmstadt 98.

Klug's replacement continued the club's success, and in the 1977-78 season, SV Darmstadt 98 achieved a historic season in which the club scored 90 goals and won 26 games. Co-leading in scoring in the Regionaliga Süd was Peter Cestonaro with 27 goals. That tally included a hat trick Cestonaro record in a 4-1 victory on Feb. 17, 1978, against FC Bayern Hofburg. Second in scoring for the club was Manfred Drexler, a defensive midfielder whose 21 goals were sixth-most overall. That total included a hat trick Drexler achieved at Stuttgarter Kickers in a 4-1 victory on Dec. 12, 1977.

SV Darmstadt 98 finished five points ahead of FC Nürnberg to qualify for its first Bundesliga appearance. During that 1978-79 season, the club's notable results included a sweep of VfL Bochum, who eventually finished eighth in the Bundesliga. However, the first season offered a harsh lesson for the club. The sweep against VfL Bochum was only two of seven wins for SV Darmstadt 98, with the victory at Bochum being the club's lone road victory.

Defense proved costly as the club allowed a league-high 75 goals and an immediate return to the second division. The coup de grace for SV Darmstadt 98 came in its season finale on June 9, 1979 - a 7-1 humbling defeat against Stuttgart, where Bernhard Metz's 83rd-minute goal prevented a shutout but offered little consolation in a match where George Volkert and Dieter Hoeneß each scored twice.

One and Done

Considered one of Asia's premier players, Cha Bum-Kun played only one game for SV Darmstadt 98, having done so on Dec. 30, 1978, against VfL Bochum. The one game played was because Cha, 25, needed to fulfill compulsory military service for the Republic of Korea.

A Second Chance Before the End

Drexler left to join FC Schalke after the club's relegation, and Cestonaro stayed on with the club. Cestonaro helped the club return to the Bundesliga two years later as the club featured another leading goalscorer in the Regionaliga Süd of the 1980-81 season. A year after scoring 11 goals, Horst Neumann recorded 27 goals: most in the division, including hat tricks at home against VfR Bürstadt (5-0 victory on Aug. 21, 1980) and ESV Ingolstadt (9-2 victory on Sept. 11, 1980). SV Darmstadt 98 won 24 games that season to return to the Bundesliga.

Neumann left the club to join Hannover 96 as Cestonaro led the team with 17 goals, seventh-most in the 1981-82 Bundesliga. His notable match came on Feb. 13, 1982, when Cestonaro scored a hat trick in a 4-4 draw at Werder Bremen. Although it had home draws with Hamburger and Stuttgart, SV Darmstadt 98 managed five wins. Like four years earlier, the defense let the club down as it gave up a league-high 82 goals and had an immediate return to the second division. After the club finished in 17th place, Cestonaro left the club to join KSV Hessen Kassel.

The club lingered at mid-table for the next four seasons before the 1986-87 season. In that season, SV Darmstadt 98 won 20 games, including a 3-1 victory to Hannover 96. Bruno Labbadia led the club with 18 goals, the fourth-most in the league. Dropped points against three eventually-relegated clubs (Eintracht Braunschweig, Viktoria Aschaffenburg, and KSV Hessen Kassel) meant SV Darmstadt 98 finished fourth, two points behind FC St. Pauli for a relegation-promotion playoff.

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The club got another chance to reach the Bundesliga thanks to a third-place finish in the 1987-88 campaign. This time, it was 16th-placed SV Waldhof Mannheim that SV Darmstadt 98 sought to defeat to reach the Bundesliga. In the first leg, the club overturned a 2-0 deficit with three goals in 10 minutes. Gu Guangming's 73rd-minute goal secured the first leg victory. SV Waldhof Mannheim responded in the return leg, and Alfred Schön and Peter Lux had the club leading 2-0. SV Waldhof Mannheim would have stayed up had the score stay that way until Uwe Kuhl's 88th-minute goal meant the series remained level on aggregate.

The deciding third game would decide the final spot - that coming in Saarbrücken's Ludwigsparkstadion. Nothing separated the sides after 120 minutes as neither team scored. Penalties decided the outcome, with the pivotal moments coming in the seventh round. Willi Bernecker's skied-high miss for SV Darmstadt proved costly as Bernd Klotz's winning kick spared SV Waldhof Mannheim from relegation.

SV Darmstadt 98 never garnered any momentum, even with former East German international Jürgen Sparwasser acting as club manager. Despite a 17th-place finish during the 1990-91 season, SV Darmstadt 98 stayed up due to Rot-Weiss Essen unable to procure a license.

One of SV Darmstadt 98's notable players was Bruno Labbadia, seen here during a 2. Bundesliga match at Hertha Berlin SC on Nov. 17, 1984. Labbadia scored 44 goals for the club and would also coach the club between 2003 and 2006.

One of SV Darmstadt 98's notable players was Bruno Labbadia, seen here during a 2. Bundesliga match at Hertha Berlin SC on Nov. 17, 1984. Labbadia scored 44 goals for the club and would also coach the club between 2003 and 2006.

Going Up or Staying? The Shootout

Life Below the Second and Third Divisions?

Luck ran out eventually in what became a long season due to Germany's reunification. The 1992-93 season 2. Bundesliga featured 24 clubs, included four relegated from last season's Bundesliga: Stuttgarter Kickers, Hansa Rostock, MSV Duisburg, and Fortuna Düsseldorf. That meant that seven clubs would suffer relegation to Germany's Oberliga (third division).

The 46-game season saw SV Darmstadt 98 win nine games, including a sweep of Chemnitzer FC (who finished in seventh that season) and a 3-0 home win against Hertha Berlin SC. Nonetheless, road struggles proved to be the club's undoing. Early on, the club endured the first of two 11-game winless streaks. The first streak (the opponents outscored SV Darmstadt 98 27-7) began on July 11, 1992, when the club lost 5-0 at Hannover 96. In three games during August 1992, the club lost 4-1: home to Fortuna Köln on Aug. 12; away at SpVgg Unterhaching on Aug. 16; away at Fortuna Düsseldorf on Aug. 26.

SV Darmstadt 98 finished the season with a four-game losing streak, and the 2-0 loss to SV Meppen on June 6, 1993, became the last game for the club in 2. Bundesliga for 21 years. Now SV Darmstadt 98 would begin life in the third division, where the club contested its matches solely from Hessen, Bavaria, and Baden-Wütternberg. These matches included SpVgg Unterhaching, FC Augsburg, Kickers Offenbach, and Bayern München's reserve team.

SV Darmstadt 98 seldom made gains during the next five seasons, even with Buchmann undergoing a second stint. During the period between 1993 and 2008, the club suffered three relegations. The club would have immediate returns with three fourth division seasons. One of the notable players from the 1980s, Labbadia later guided the club to consecutive fifth-place finishes.

Financial issues tested the club for the next two years as Labbadia's successor signed players from another club. Gino Lettieri did not last long, and Kleppinger started his second stint with the club. Kleppinger fought valiantly but could not prevent the club's third relegation in the third division since 1998. In the following season, financial issues nearly ended the club's existence. On Mar. 8, 2008, insolvency proceedings had begun for the club. It would need the formula to stay in existence.

Action Away at the Parkstadion

The Unlucky Seven and the Farewell

The 1992-93 2. Bundesliga season featured 24 teams due to German reunification that allowed East German clubs to integrate. As a result, seven clubs were relegated to the third division, including SV Darmstadt 98.



SpVgg Unterhaching







Eintracht Braunschweig







VfL Osnabrück







Fortuna Düsseldorf







VfB Oldenburg







FC Remsheid







SV Darmstadt 98






Clearing the Way to 3. Liga

The 2007-08 season marked a critical turning point for SV Darmstadt 98 as the club had been winning in the fourth division, although owed debts amounting to 1.1 million euros. The club found ways to avoid bankruptcy with help from the fans, highlighted with a friendly match against Bayern München. The debts lasted between 2007 and 2010, but the club had paid off the debts in the end.

Furthermore, the successes also reflected SV Darmstadt 98 as a trending club locally. Germany's domestic cup competition offers 21 regional championships for clubs outside the top two divisions, with SV Darmstadt 98 contesting in the Heesenpokal (German: Hessian Cup). Before 1999, only the club's reserve team had won this edition once (1966); the senior club last reached the title game in 1971, losing 3-2 to Rot-Weiß Frankfurt.

Since 1999, SV Darmstadt 98 won six Hessenpokals, including three straight from 2006 to 2008. The 2008 edition was unique because it occurred at home - a 2-0 victory against Viktoria Aschaffenburg occurring nearly six weeks after insolvency proceedings began against SV Darmstadt 98.

Even with winning the fourth division in the 2007-08 campaign, SV Darmstadt 98 had dreams of returning to a new third division created - the 3. Liga. With Germany's league system undergoing another overhaul, the club remained in the fourth division. Qualifying for 3. Liga was just the beginning, but the club had to fend off relegation in the fourth division proved uneasy under Kleppinger and Zivokin Jusic.

During the 2008-09 Regionaliga Süd, Elia Soriano led the club with 12 goals, tied for 10th most in the league. The campaign featured notable home draws against the respective top two teams: FC Heidenheim and KSV Hessen Kassell. Still, SV Darmstadt 98 also lost 1-0 to TSV Großbardof, who finished 17th and suffered relegation. A similar form unfolded in the following season when the club won only seven games, all of which came home. During a season where the club's notable win was a victory against FC Nürnberg's reserve team, SV Darmstadt 98 also lost 1-0 away to FC Bayern Alzenau, who finished with the fewest wins in that campaign and suffered relegation.

Even the 2010-11 season began with a disappointment when the club lost 2-0 at home to SC Pfullendorf. Those losses became a distant memory as the season progressed. Competing against most reserve clubs, SV Darmstadt 98 finished four points ahead of Stuttgarter Kickers, who only managed to draw 1-1 against Wormatia Worms in its season finale to win the division. Oliver Heil led the club with 12 goals during the season, including a season-ending hat trick in a 4-0 victory against FC Memmingen on May 28, 2011, to give SV Darmstadt 98 the title.

Early 3. Liga action

Life in 3. Liga as Another Chance Beckons?

The 2011-12 season marked the club's debut in the recently-formed 3. Liga and the club enjoyed a decent start. The first resounding victory occurred on Aug. 13, 2011, against Arminia Bielefeld. Not only did Marcus Steegmann and Matthias Heckenberger put the club up 2-0 after 17 minutes in a 5-1 victory, but the club found itself with a two-person advantage following red cards issued to Patrick Schönfeld and Onel Hernandez.

Perhaps the club's signature moment came on Jan. 21, 2012, when Heil was one of four goalscorers in an emphatic 4-1 home victory against the eventual champions SV Sandhausen. Nevertheless, despite having a goal differential of plus-4, SV Darmstadt 98 only managed 14th place. The notable defeat came late in the season on Apr. 14, 2012. Despite playing a man advantage due to a 50-minute red card from Alban Ramaj, SV Darmstadt 08 could not overturn a deficit as it lost 2-1 FC Carl Jeiss Zena, one of the three clubs relegated at season's end.

Runjaic guided the club back to the third division but left on Sept. 2, 2012, to become the MSV Duisburg manager. His replacement Jürgen Seeberger lasted just over three months as the club sank to 20th place. On Dec. 17, 2012, SV Darmstadt 98 fired Seeberger after a 3-0 loss at Preußen Münster. The new manager was a journeyman player whose career included stints at Eintracht Braunschweig and FC Köln.

Dirk Schuster became the club's manager on Dec. 28, 2012. Schuster had recently coach Stuttgarter Kickers. Now, the goal for SV Darmstadt 98 was to avoid relegation as the club languished in 20th place. Including its season-opening result on July 21, 2012, against SpVgg Unterhaching, SV Darmstadt 98 recorded six scoreless draws.

Those draws amounted to dropped points as the club attempted to avoid relegation. In the club's penultimate match, Marcus Steegmann provided the club a vital away victory at the Steigerwaldstadion. His hat trick gave a crucial 4-2 away win against Rot-Weiß Erfurt, and the result set up a simple scenario against Stuttgart Kickers.

One of the two teams would survive relegation, and the other would play fourth-division football next season. SV Darmstadt 98 needed to win to stay up but trailed most of the match due to a 12th-minute goal from Kevin Dicklhuber. The club was in danger when Elton da Costa, who came in for Hanno Behrens, scored the tying goal in the 84th minute. There was still time, but the 1-1 draw did little to console the home crowd. Even after defeating 4-0 to SV Wehen Wiesbaden, winning the Hessenpokal afterward, SV Darmstadt 98 would return to the fourth-division yet again.

Or would they be spared?

On June 3, 2013, DFB denied Kickers Offenbach a license due to debts owed. As a result, SV Darmstadt 98 received a reprieve and voided relegation. Luck had given the club another chance. It would take another formula to get SV Darmstadt 98 on Bundesliga's door, and the club had the manager do so.

Players walk onto the field at Stadion am Böllenfalltor on Mar. 3, 2013 between SV Darmstadt 98 and Hallescher FC. SV Darmstadt 98 lost this match 2-1 as the club finished 14th in the 2012-13 3. Liga.

Players walk onto the field at Stadion am Böllenfalltor on Mar. 3, 2013 between SV Darmstadt 98 and Hallescher FC. SV Darmstadt 98 lost this match 2-1 as the club finished 14th in the 2012-13 3. Liga.

Historic Decider

The 1988 playoff between SV Darmstadt 98 and SV Walhof Mannheim remains the only relegation-promotion playoff for which a penalty shootout decided the final spot for next season's Bundesliga.


© 2020 Antonio Martinez

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