DARMSTADT, Germany --
The accelerated rise of SV Darmstadt is something that wouldn't look out of place in a Hollywood script.
"We can't really understand what has happened here," says Tom Eilers, head of player licenses at the club and a central figure at the club since 2008. "We can't really believe that Pep Guardiola and Manuel Neuer are playing at Darmstadt. This is an incredible moment for the club."
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Eilers says this as Darmstadt lost 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich last week, the current German champions, and travel to Borussia Dortmund on Sunday (live, FS2, FOX Sports Go, 11:30 a.m. ET). But the fact is, four years ago, clubs like Bayern or Dortmund stopping by the club's ground, the cozy Bollenfalltor, would have been a distant fantasy.
In 2008 Darmstadt was on the brink of financial oblivion. There was an immediate change of board, promising a new era, and a claim that the club was in comfortable financial health. That was before the new regime was presented with a claim from the tax authorities for approximately $1.3 million. "This was something that would have sent us into insolvency," said Eilers.
Oddly enough, it was Bayern Munich, fresh from a defeat to Zenit in the UEFA Cup semifinal, that came to the rescue. Uli Hoeness insisted that the German champions participate in a benefit match that would raise around $500,000 for the fourth division club. "It was enough to keep us going until we found solutions," revealed Eilers.
Darmstadt bounced back with a solid return in the then-new nationwide third-tier in 2011. Two years the club got lucky again, and was spared relegation back to the regional setup in 2013 due to the financial problems besetting another club, Kickers Offenbach. Offenback were refused a license to compete, allowing Darmstadt to remain. It was something of a miracle escape.
A season later, the club found itself on the cusp of yet another miracle. Darmstadt had lost 3-1 at home to Arminia Bielefeld in the first leg of the third division playoffs, but managed to rescue the tie in the second, dragging the contest to extra-time to tie-break after a 3-1 triumph.
A return to the second division was on the line and with 10 minutes left, chaos ensued as Darmstadt looked for a goal. First, there was a strong penalty claim, which was turned down. Then after a succession of headers, the ball fell to Elton da Costa who brilliantly slammed the ball, on the volley, into the net. Darmstadt was in the driving seat, but had to face a late onslaught.
Moments later, Bielefeld earned a free-kick. The goalkeeper was up. The crowd was baying for a last-gasp winner. The ball cannoned agonizingly against the inside of the post before being booted out of the box. When the referee blew his whistle moments later, the relief was palpable: The Lillies had secured a spot in the second division for the first time in 21 seasons.
"It (promotion) was outstanding in every way for us," said Eilers. "Getting into the 2.Bundesliga was the best moment. It was the first step. The best thing about being the Bundesliga is that we're definitely going to have another year in the second division."
The events in Bielefeld, named as the "Miracle of the Alm" will be forever etched in the memories of those close to the club. Spirited Darmstadt went on to secure a second consecutive promotion, this time to the lucrative Bundesliga for the first time in 33 years -- and on a slim budget of around $7 million.
Increased broadcasting money meant improvements were facilitated made to the current pitch, while a new training pitch was built adjacent to the timeworn Bollenfalltor, a 17,000 capacity stadium mostly occupied by standing zones that curve around the pitch like something from the 1970s.
"The club is something different. It's not your ordinary German football club," says Nick Buck, an Englishman who is now part of Darmstadt's hard-working fan liaison department. "The club is small. The roots to decision-making are very small. Dirk goes straight to the president. We talk to everybody on first name terms. There's no Herr this, or Herr that, which is unusual for Germany."
Modesty, humility and diligence: The club's high-octane coach Dirk Schuster reflects these values. "Mentality beats quality," is one of Schuster's maxims. "We don't belong in the Bundesliga," was his honest assessment when Darmstadt secured promotion in May. There are no egos at Darmstadt and Schuster's squad is spilling its blood on the pitch. That attitude is reinforced across the club. The media room prominently displays a photo of some of Darmstadt's bloody and battered ex-stars.
Darmstadt are defying gravity as well. The likes of Paderborn and Eintracht Braunschweig have dropped straight back down a division, but Eilers adds that the club "doesn't mind being relegated." Schuster, who runs for 10 kilometers before every game, is optimizing the resources at his disposal. Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen have faltered against the Lillies, while Schuster's men, 10th in the table, have just beaten two-time Bundesliga champions Werder Bremen.
Borussia Dortmund and the 82,500-capacity Signal Iduna Park are next on the agenda for Darmstadt. "If we managed to stay in the first division, we'd really rewrite history," Buck thinks. And Darmstadt has already shown the football world that miracles really do exist.
At this rate, another chapter in this story will need to be written.