From on the goalline at the south end of the Hermann Neuberger stadium, Daniel Batz looked straight ahead. To his right, the trees that line one side of the small arena were silhouetted against the night sky. Behind him, and to his left, a hush fell over the 6,000-odd packed across the uncovered terracing.
Batz was facing his 11th penalty of the evening. Four had been saved, one in ordinary time, and three more in a marathon shoot-out. Now Batz faced the umpteenth moment of suspense from two and half hours of epic Cup-tie.
Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jorgenson stepped up to take Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 10th penalty of the shoot-out. He needed to score. He aimed for the bottom left-hand corner of Batz’s goal, the keeper anticipated, and tipped the effort on to his post, and to safety.
With that, FC Saarbrucken, of Germany’s Southwest Regional League stepped joyously into history, the first club from the fourth tier to reach a German Cup semi-final in 85 years.
On Tuesday night, in the same rustic Hermann Neuberger stadium, they will meet Bayer Leverkusen, fifth in the Bundesliga, dreaming of a fairytale journey to Berlin next month for a final against Bayern Munich or Eintracht Frankfurt. Saarbrucken’s is the Cinderella story of the European football season so far.
But the bigger story of this sporting year has been driven by events, and a pandemic, which in the case of Saarbrucken, threatened to end their adventure a few days after the ousting of top-flight Dusseldorf on penalties, part four of a Cup run that has featured underdog triumphs against two clubs from the Bundesliga first division and another two from the second tier.
But for the Cup, Saarbrucken’s players would all be off duty by now. Their league season was declared closed weeks ago. They have not played a match since losing 1-0 in the Regional Southwest league to Walldorf on March 7, four days after Batz’s long night of heroics against Dusseldorf.
In between then and now, their footballers have shared a community’s fears. Saarbrucken is in Saarland, right on the border with France. That frontier was partially closed at the height of the coronavirus crisis, as French health services feared being overwhelmed by a climbing rate of infection. Germany contained the spread more effectively, but to be in Saarland was to know the very real dangers of the virus.
Last month, elite Bundesliga football returned, a global symbol of Germany's relative success at managing the disease. All team sport in France was meanwhile cancelled until at least August.
FC Saarbrucken learned that the return of ‘normal’ activity in Germany was limited; fourth division football ceased for 2019-20. Happily, they were leading the Regional Southwest division after their 23 completed games. That qualified them, under the emergency ruling, for promotion.
“It would have been better to do it on the pitch,” said Batz, 29. But he is entitled to feel Saarbucken have earned their rise to division three of the German pyramid. The club finished second in their league in 2015 and 2019, third in 2017, and topped the Regional Southwest table in 2018. Always, though, they were thwarted, in terms of promotion, by failure in the play-offs.
All which might have suggested that Saarbrucken have a problem with knockout ties. The magical Cup run has offered a firm answer to that idea. This is a team who can hold its nerve. Way back in August, Jahn Regensburg were beaten 3-2 via a last-minute goal, after Saarbrucken were 2-1 behind in the 77th minute. That earned the meeting with Cologne, who came back from 2-0 behind before Saarbrucken again won with a 90th minute goal.
The last-16 tie with Karlsruhe went to penalties; in the endless quarter-final with Dusseldorf, Saarbrucken conceded late in normal time, after Batz had saved his first penalty. By the time he had saved his fourth, in the tie-breaker, he knew how close it had been. Three of those saves were finger-tipped onto a post.
There can be no crowd for Leverkusen’s visit, because of Covid-19 restrictions. So the trees along the east perimeter of the Hermann Neuberger stadium will be lonely witnesses. Leverkusen will be far more match-ready, too, having played five Bundesliga games since the restart.
Saarbrucken have not played for more than three months. “I think that’s actually an advantage,” claims their manager, Lucas Kwasniok. “He’s always seeing the positive side,” smiles Batz, the lucky charm of a goalkeeper.