I always liked Dietmar Demuth. I liked his dry humour, his no-nonsense glower, his occasional ranting and raving on the touchline, his whole body tensing as he roared at a referee for a poor decision, or at one of his charges for a misplaced pass. I liked how he lined up his Babelsberg team, with Anton Makarenko an Benjamin Kaufmann rampaging down either flank, supplying ammunition for the big man in the centre, Markus Müller – it reminded me of a 3.Liga version of Chelsea in 2004/5, with Robben and Duff dissecting defences for Drogba to leather the ball home.
OK, it wasn’t really like that at all: last season, Babelsberg escaped relegation far too narrowly, and lost in the Brandenburg Cup final to Falkensee-Finkenkrug, thereby losing out on participation in the lucrative DFB Pokal. Demuth was sacked after five stable years in charge, and I was shocked. More so when his replacement was announced: Christian Benbenneck. Who? Wikipedia didn’t even know. Before too long, he had a Facebook page and was doing live Q&A sessions with the 03 fans – but was it a naive attempt to ingratiate skeptical followers, or a confident display of transparency and a declaration of a clear vision for the future of the club?
That, of course, remains to be seen, but after watching Babelsberg’s 2-0 win over an unadventurous Darmstadt on Saturday and Benbenneck’s assured and phlegmatic deflection of aggressive grilling from the a couple of hacks in the post-match press conference, I am leaning towards the latter. He exuded authority by virtue of a thoughtful, softly spoken air – quite a contrast to the bombastic nature of his predecessor. “That’s your opinion,” he said to a journalist who claimed Babelsberg didn’t have a chance until the 63rd minute, “we don’t have to agree with each other.” As Benbenneck’s boys were 1-0 up by the 32rd minute, he restraint in not forcing the argument was admirable.
On the pitch, Babelsberg also look different. Makarenko and Dominik Stroh-Engel have departed, but reinforcements have arrived. Süleyman Koç has rejoined the club – he of one of the most incredible stories of the stupidity of footballers of recent years. In 2011, he was arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment for his role in a series of casino robberies. He’s serving the remainder of his sentence in open prison, and has been given a second chance by Babelsberg. Phillipp Kreuels, an attacking midfielder with excellent technique and an eye for a defence-splitting pass and Daniel Reiche, a central defender arriving from Duisburg, who will take over Stoh-Engel’s captain’s armband, are amongst the most eye-catching of the newcomers.
Kreuels and a fellow newbie, the left back Aaron Berzels, combined for the opener. It was perfect in its simplicity: a deep free kick launched towards the far post, Berzels arriving late to power it home. Typically, I had marked Berzels down as looking like Babelsberg’s weak link – his forward runs down the left flank were often optimistic to the point of naïveté, and his frustration at his teammate’s inability to ping crossfield passes a la Steven Gerrard’s wildest dreams directly onto his toe illustrated a lack of understanding with his new teammates. That said, the Babelsberg back four were solid all afternoon – greatly aided by the absolute lack of invention from the guests. “We deserved to lose… we had no penetration in the final third,” said the defeated Darmstadt trainer, Kosta Runjaic.
The introduction of Christian Essig added a mobility and unpredictability to the Babelsberg attack, and the second goal soon followed: Markus Müller broke free down the left, whipped a dangerous ball into the six-yard box, where Süleyman Koç was sliding in to charge home. It was a goal full of vim and vigour, thoroughly deserved for the home side, and the crowd’s reaction suggested that no ill will is borne against Koç for his misdemeanours.
Essig’s 34-minute cameo provided plenty of interest – his free-kick that squirmed through Darmstadt goalkeeper Jan Zimmerman’s hands was disallowed for reasons unknown, and then he picked up a last-minute yellow card for a pointless lunge in the centre-circle, before somehow contriving to turn it immediately into a red. When Benbenneck was questioned on the incident, his reponse was telling in its superficial diplomacy: “This year, I’ve decided not to criticise refereeing performances… but I’m annoyed by the red card.”
On the whole though, the positives far outweighed the negatives for the Filmstadt boys, and there is plenty to suggest that repeating last year’s survival is the least that this team could achieve.