Excitement was running high at BAK when the Berlin cup final was won three months ago. They had just defeated SC Gatow and qualified for the DfB Pokal – any German amateur footballer’s dream. And in that dream, they would play against a big-ticket team and maybe even end up killing that giant.
Their giant turned out to be Hoffenheim. Not at the top of their wish list, but at least a Bundesliga team. The first thing most people associate with Hoffenheim is how they elbowed their way up from the nether regions of Southwestern German football to the top flight, based purely on the money they received from their patron, former SAP CEO Dietmar Hopp, and the fact that they used a sound device at their home games to block out chants from away fans directed at Hopp. Also, in contrast to clubs with an accomplished tradition, they lack a broad creative fan base willing to travel much, so the away section of the Poststadion was not exactly bursting.
But BAK are also still struggling to attract more fans to their home games. The club stabilised over the last years and is slowly but surely creating more professional structures, but establishing the club as Berlin’s number three is still a challenge. In the end, they were probably satisfied with an attendance of 1,468 people.
So while the giant wasn’t the most ferocious creature, it had a good record in the cup: Hoffenheim managed to get to the quarter finals four times in the last five years. To get past BAK, they brought along their latest additions, Tim Wiese between the sticks, as well as strikers Eren Derdiyok and Joselu, who form the vanguard of their €87m team.
Deduct a little over 98% of that and you get to BAK’s market value. The team lost a number of key players who ensured them a solid seventh place in last year’s Regionalliga season, among them former Union midfielder Björn Brunnemann, and their captain Murat Doymus. High hopes now lie on 20-year-old central midfielder Philip Malinowski, key to helping Union II achieve promotion to the Regionalliga last season. The transfer is part of BAK’s strategy to snatch up highly dedicated players who just happen to lack perspective at their current clubs.
Given the odds, BAK coach Jens Härtel naturally called the match a “bonus game”, but one he still wanted to win. He could take comfort from the cup’s history of giant killing in Berlin: Hertha II (1993) and Union (2001) hacked and slashed through an entire army of Goliaths, all the way to the Olympiastadion. If he had stayed an extra year with Union back then, Härtel might have seen it done first hand. But that does not mean he is short of a philosophy on how to kill a giant. Before the game, he pointed out three requirements – let’s see how they worked in practice.
Number one: the giant needs to underestimate you. That’s hard to assess in today’s overanalysed football landscape. Hoffenheim did spy on BAK, but it didn’t look like they were able to use any of their insights throughout the game.
Number two: don’t fear the giant and give ‘em all you got. Fear controlled them during their narrow cup defeat against Mainz two years ago, but if you believe BAK striker Metin Cakmak’s words ahead of the game (“Hoffenheim are not Barcelona”) it was not an issue on Saturday. And Cakmak led by example. Early on in the game he got elbowed in the head but kept playing with a bandage that held back the bleeding. By that time he had already put one behind Wiese, a brilliant volley from the edge of the box that crashed from the crossbar into the net, three minutes in the game.
But Cakmak and his teammates didn’t stop there: instead, they sent wave after wave towards the Hoffenheim goal. Throughout the entire game, the first league team was only able to create danger from set pieces, hitting the post after one, but most attempts were easily picked up by BAK’s dedicated defence who then quickly turned defence into attack. Consequently, the second goal came from defender Justin Gerlach at the half hour mark, and Kevin Kruschke added a third only ten minutes later. Philip Malinowski gave the assist to both goals, fooling the Hoffenheim defense with simple through balls.
Waves of excitement rose through the stands at half time – the giant was faltering mightily. But he was not broken – until three minutes into the second half. Tim Wiese sent a goal kick directly to head-banded Cakmak who accepted the gift with pleasure. When the bleeding got too bad in minute 64, Cakmak had to be taken off, but by then, he and the entire team had done their part. They kept on pushing and had more chances but at that point it did not matter anymore.
Hoffenheim coach Markus Babbel called the defeat highly justified and after being prompted on it at the press conference mentioned, that “I’m finding Berlin less and less appealing these days”, right before he was almost hit in the face by a microphone which to him was “the last straw” that day. BAK will stay grounded but are naturally curious to see who comes next.
But wait – there were three factors in Härtel’s philosophy on how to kill a giant. The third one was luck. But they didn’t seem to need that today.