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The magic of the DFB-Pokal: Bayern Munich scrapes by, while Eintracht Frankfurt is already out

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Knockout tournaments are one of the last sources of surprise in a competitive soccer world tilted ever more in favor of the already rich and powerful, and Germany’s DFB-Pokal is one of the best.

ULM, GERMANY - AUGUST 18: Michael Schindele of SSV Ulm and Goalkeeper Christian Ortag of SSV Ulm celebrate after winning the DFB Cup first round match between SSV Ulm 1846 Fussball and Eintracht Frankfurt at Donaustadion on August 18, 2018 in Ulm, Germany.
Michael Schindele and goalkeeper Christian Ortag of SSV Ulm 1846 celebrate after beating defending DFB-Pokal winner Eintracht Frankfurt in the opening round at the Donaustadion in Ulm, Germany, August 18, 2018.
Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Very, very few expected tiny Drochtersen/Assel from to hold mighty Bayern Munich at bay until the 82nd minute this evening when the two met in the first round of the DFB-Pokal in Lower Saxony, north of Hamburg. But that is what happened, and it was exhilarating. And Bayern was hardly the only team from the Bundesliga to struggle against small-town teams from the lower leagues.

That is the magic of knockout tournaments. On cup matchdays, unfamiliar adversaries meet on the pitch, and unfamiliar winners sometimes emerge. Across Europe, the odds in the major national leagues have tilted ever more in favor of the same handful of teams. Bayern has won the Bundesliga six times in a row, and most expect them to do so again. But Germany’s cup, the DFB-Pokal, is a different animal.

All respect to Drochtersen/Assel

Eintracht Frankfurt and Niko Kovac taught Bayern that lesson just last season. Having joined the team he beat, Kovac himself entered this, his first knockout match with Bayern determined not to make the mistake of overconfidence. He studied video of Drochtersen/Assel and fielded arguably his best starting lineup.

Kovac’s counterpart, 36-year-old Lars Uder, likewise did his utmost to prepare his team. He and team captain Sören Behrmann both attended Bayern’s friendly against Hamburg to look for “small details that you don’t see on TV.” Uder’s plan went off brilliantly. He told the press (AZ):

I am simply just proud. It was an incredible performance, an incredible game for us. It’s not a defeat. We didn’t anticipate losing only 1-0. My compliments to my team.

Kovac also praised Drochtersen/Assel for their impressive performance (FCBayernTV):

I have to say hats off to the opponent, how they played, with passion, with motivation. That’s what makes soccer what it is. Good luck, high praise, and the highest respect!

Bayern fans everywhere held their breath when Florian Nagel had what Kovac acknowledged as “a really good” chance in the 33rd minute, saved by Manuel Neuer. In an alternate universe, perhaps that shot goes in and the unthinkable happens.

Upsetting the upsetter: Eintracht Frankfurt out!

In Eintracht Frankfurt’s universe, the unthinkable has happened. The defending DFB-Pokal champion was unceremoniously knocked out in the first round by fourth-division team SSV Ulm. Frankfurt’s Jovic hit the post in the 37th minute, and the ball carried Ulm to victory. Steffen Kienle scored on a free kick as the second half began, and after weathering waves of attacks, Ulm broke loose on a counter and Vitalij Lux beat Frederik Rønnow for the 2-0. The champs had been KO’d.

Bayern and Frankfurt were not the only top clubs to be tested in the Pokal, Bayern surviving, Eintracht succumbing. VfL Wolfsburg scraped past SV Elversberg 1-0 thanks to a late goal by Ginczek. And mighty Leverkusen, for all its frightening speed, similarly escaped disaster against 1. CfR Pforzheim (a name for the CGBL if there ever was one!) with a penalty.

Only Werder Bremen and TSG Hoffenheim really convinced with resounding a resounding 6-1 victories respectively over Wormatia Worms (yes, that’s really their name) and FC Kaiserslautern (a 3. Liga side). Sometimes in soccer, of course — and perhaps more often than not — the results are exactly what you expect.

Small-town soccer and memories for a lifetime

Whether the games are an upset or business as usual, the beauty of the DFB-Pokal’s first round is that it brings the top tier of professional soccer back to its roots, the small towns and villages where the game is played on rough pitches in small stadiums before local crowds. If you watched Bayern’s game against Drochtersen/Assel, when the camera panned out, you were treated to a scenic view of a little stadium (Kehdinger Stadion) surrounded by trees, with a scenic row of distinctive German red-tile roofed houses in the distance.

That was Drochtersen. The club could have played the match at FC St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion in Hamburg and made a far bigger haul in ticket sales but wanted to play their “match of the century” at home before their fans. Drochtersen’s mayor said, “We wanted to stay in Drochtersen. We want a game for the people and the region that will live on in memory.”

And live on in memory it will! Lars Uder and his men put on the performance of a lifetime against the best club in Germany. Drochtersen/Assel looked more like Atletico Madrid in their extraordinarily well disciplined 5-4-1. Even for a fan of Bayern, the scenes were exhilarating: a Drochtersen player tapping the ball away from Ribery, stringing together a brilliant series of one-touch passes to launch an improbable counter, and of course Nagel’s chance against Neuer.

The result may just be a blip on Bayern Munich’s radar, as the club now prepares for serious challenges ahead, but for Drochtersen/Assel, their fans and players — they will remember this game for the rest of their lives. That’s the magic of the DFB-Pokal.