Berlin (AFP) – Werder Bremen are treating the Bundesliga relegation/promotion play-off “as a gift” in their fight to stay up, but for spirited underdogs Heidenheim, Thursday’s first-leg behind closed doors is a chance to “believe in the unbelievable”.
Last Sunday, FC Heidenheim, from a small town of 50,000 inhabitants in south-west Germany, finished above fallen giants Hamburg, who were chasing a return to the top-flight following their 2018 relegation, to claim third place in the second tier and qualify for the play-off.
The first leg is in Bremen on Thursday with the return leg next Monday at Heidenheim, who hope to join Arminia Bielefeld and Stuttgart in claiming promotion to the Bundesliga.
The play-off is the highest Heidenheim have ever been in Germany’s league pyramid.
“For most people, this is the chance in a lifetime. We can create something extraordinary. I believe in the unbelievable,” said head coach Frank Schmidt.
The 46-year-old took over at Heidenheim on an interim basis in 2007 and has been head coach ever since.
He has taken them from the fifth division to the verge of the Bundesliga.
Under Schmidt, Heidenheim won the 2013-14 third division title on points difference from RB Leipzig, who are now one of Germany’s top clubs and into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Schmidt says there will be scenes of “utter madness” if their promotion is confirmed next Monday.
The Heidenheim coach says he likes to “let the mosquitoes fly backwards” when he celebrates, wildly pumping his fists in the air in a manner reminiscent of Liverpool’s German coach Jurgen Klopp.
“But I am not a dreamer,” he insists as “the miracle” would require “an incredible amount of work” and “a lot of passion” to beat Bremen.
Heidenheim are thinking big, even if their squad budget of 35 million euros is dwarfed compared by the 55 million euros of Bremen.
“We are no longer little ‘FCH’ and we aren’t a village club,” said Heidenheim’s CEO Holger Sanwald recently.
However, the odds are against them.
Since the relegation play-off was reintroduced in 2009, the second-league team has only won three of the eleven play-offs.
The most recent success was FC Union Berlin, who came up last season via the play-off and sent Stuttgart down.
Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt is relieved to have two more chances of Bundesliga survival.
His side sneaked into 16th place – third from bottom of the table – with a shock 6-1 home win over Cologne last Saturday.
“We’ve been through many lows, so these two games are a gift to us,” Kohfeldt said Wednesday.
“Heidenheim can do things that could be dangerous for us, but I don’t have the feeling that anyone here is taking things too lightly.”
As Bremen sports director Frank Baumann admitted, “it’s basically a better feeling to have the decision in our own hands again”.