The players and coaches of Saarbrücken aren’t making the typical hopeful pregame predictions one might expect from heavy underdogs as they prepare to play Bayer Leverkusen in the German Cup on Tuesday.
“If you are honest, we have no chance,” midfielder Tobias Jänicke told the German news media.
“We lose 99 out of 100 games against Leverkusen,” Coach Lukas Kwasniok said. Winning, he said, would be like the “rebirth of Jesus Christ.”
Saarbrücken plays in the fourth tier of German soccer, the Regionalliga Südwest, a circuit whose very name hints at its marginalization. Yet somehow it slowly and steadily — and altogether surprisingly — advanced to the Cup semifinals, something no team at its level had ever done. Its opponent on Tuesday is Leverkusen, a club that sits in fifth place in the Bundesliga, one Europe’s biggest leagues.
In addition to better players and better coaches and better facilities, Leverkusen has also arrived in the semifinals with an advantage that Saarbrücken cannot overcome: With the recent restart of the Bundesliga, Leverkusen has had five games to get back in form. Saarbrücken’s players haven’t had a game in three months. (The German fourth tier simply decided to end its season when the coronavirus outbreak hit.)
Kwasniok, the team’s coach, sought a silver lining when this was pointed out to him. “We’ve had the longest preparation any team has ever had for a game,” he said.
Although the game will be played at Saarbrücken’s stadium, any home-field advantage beyond the site has been lost, too. At the moment, as at all matches in Germany since the return of soccer last month, no fans will be allowed.
It took a series of unexpected events for Saarbrücken to defy the odds and get this far. Teams from the fourth division do not even get automatic admission to the German Cup, so Saarbrücken first had to win a qualifying event last year just to earn a place in the field.
Once that was secured, it opened with a win over a second-tier side, Jahn Regensburg, on a goal in added time. Next it conquered its first Bundesliga team, F.C. Cologne, with a goal in the 90th minute. Then it beat Karlsruher on penalties before knocking off a second Bundesliga team, Fortuna Düsseldorf, in extra time.
The oddsmakers rate Saarbrücken’s chances of advancing to the final at about 17-1, a bit better than the “99-1” and “second coming of Christ” estimates of the team’s own players and staff.
Should they somehow do the impossible, though, they would advance to a final on July 4 at Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Their opponent would be Eintracht Frankfurt or, more likely, mighty Bayern Munich.
Over the weekend, Kwasniok watched league-leading Bayern throttle fifth-place Leverkusen in a Bundesliga game.
“What was your main finding?” he was asked.
“It’s good that we only have to face Bayern in the final,” he said with a laugh.
Don’t expect Leverkusen to ease up or send out a weakened team. “We will not use this semifinal to give a game to players with little playing time,” Leverkusen Coach Peter Bosz said. “We want to use this semifinal to reach the final.”
Bosz has a big squad to choose from. The transfer value of all of Saarbrücken’s players is about three million euros, according to estimates on the player evaluation website Transfermarkt. Leverkusen has 20 players worth at least that much, though one of its best talents, the attacking midfielder Kai Havertz, will not play Tuesday because of an injury.
Kwasniok acknowledged that the huge gulf in talent would be nearly impossible to overcome, but, for at least one more day, he was permitting himself a chance to dream.
“Leverkusen’s biggest advantage is their quality,” he said. “We have many small advantages. The stadium, the general conditions, our outsider role, or the fact that Leverkusen had to play against Bayern three days before the game.
“Maybe I’m just talking myself into it, but I also want to believe in it.”