Of all the storylines poised to develop during the 2014-15 Bundesliga season — Is Dortmund’s spending spree enough to bring them level with Bayern? (No.) Will Robert Lewandowski come back to haunt his former team? (Yes.) Can Borussia Mönchengladbach or VfL Wolfsburg push for the Champions League? (No.) Will Hamburger SV remain terrible? (Yes.) — the one I’m most excited about is the promotion of little SC Paderborn 07. Can the mouse roar? (Maybe!)
I have a deep and long-held weakness for underdogs, and Paderborn is an underdog of epic proportions. The team plays in an itty-bitty stadium; it has a budget roughly equivalent to that of a Florida retiree’s; and its roster is full of has-beens, never-weres, and ex-convicts. It’s a underdog-lovers fever dream.
It also has a coach, André Breitenreiter, who knows exactly what he’s up against. He recently remarked that his players were the “biggest underdogs in the league’s history.” To put that in perspective, to date the worst team to ever play in the Bundesliga is the now-defunct (and awesomely named) SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin.
Founded in 1900 and disbanded in 1973, Tasmania never managed to win anything beyond a few local trophies. The team’s crowning achievement was just making it into the 1965-66 Bundesliga, and even that happened on a technicality. The team had failed to earn a promotion spot the previous season but was selected for the Bundesliga when Hertha Berlin had its license revoked by the DFB. Tasmania did about as well as you’d imagine a team would after being cherry picked for the big time: it earned a record-low 10 points and went directly back down the way it came.
You could read Breitenreiter’s comments one of two ways. The first is that he isn’t so much worried about relegation as he is trying to earn 11 points. (For all you math majors, that’s three wins and two draws.) But I think he’ll do that no problem. Rather, I think Breitenreiter was doing his best Jose Mourinho impression and managing expectations. The comparison isn’t as much a stretch as it might seem. At just 40, Breitenreiter is young, unafraid to speak his mind, and charismatic. He had a solid if unspectacular professional career, playing throughout the first and second Bundesligas — the kind of journeyman experience that often translates well into a coaching career. And he’s the kind of guy who will get this team to fight for him. With a little luck, they’ll turn Paderborn’s Benteler Arena into a proverbial fortress.
Or maybe a more apt metaphor would be prison — the kind of place other teams will want to escape from rather than play in. This won’t be hard to do. Süleyman Koç, a 25-year-old who started as a right-sided attacker against Mainz in Paderborn’s season opener, is an actual ex-con. He was arrested in 2011 for knocking over a bunch of small slot-machine casinos and was convicted of robbery and battery. On his release, he returned to his club SV Babelsberg 03, and proceeded to light up the Third League. Now he’s playing in the Bundesliga.
And while Koç has the resume, he’s not Paderborn’s only player you might not want to rumble with. Aside from Alban Meha — the Albanian midfielder who drives the bus that is SC Paderborn 07 and is something of a free-kick genius — the team is very much built for power.
Home games will be key for Paderborn this season. Moritz Volts, the former Fulham player, worked the BT Sport studio before Paderborn’s season opener and called the Benteler Arena a “tin box.” That seems fitting. It seats just 15,000 people. But while it may be small, it’s certainly loud, and it’ll be packed to the shingles this season.
After the team won promotion from the Second Bundesliga last year — something it did in style, losing just two league fixtures in 2014 — the club had an additional 7,0000 members sign up. The city of Paderborn has just 140,000 residents. SC Paderborn 07 is the smallest team in the Bundesliga, by far, but it probably has the league’s highest local per capita support.
Can the team stay up this season? Probably not. But who knows? If Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Mainz is any indication, it will probably earn more than 11 points. (If it weren’t for a last minute penalty, Paderborn would have won.) What’s for sure is Paderborn will play every match like a cup final. The players and fans alike will treat every goal like a miracle. And while winning and watching beautiful soccer is great, so is watching passion, so is hoping against odds. And that’s why I’m with Paderborn this year. It’ll be a long season, but let’s go. Auf gehts!