There’s quite a story developing in German football at the moment, as Regionalliga Sudwest (fourth tier) club, Saarbrucken prepare to do battle with Bundesliga opposition tomorrow in the DFB Pokal (German Cup) semi-final. And a Canadian is central to the plot.
The little club from the Saarland has become the first club club from outside the top three leagues to reach this stage in the national cup competition’s 85-year history. They will enjoy home advantage (as all fourth division German clubs do in this competition up until the final, traditionally played at the Olympic Stadium, Berlin) over Bayer Leverkusen, cup winners in 1993, as they attempt to reach their first final.
And central to proceedings is a Canadian international who saw MLS service with Vancouver Whitecaps before heading to Germany and Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2017.
Havana-born Kianz Froese’s 2 Canadian caps were won against Ghana and USA in 2015 and 2016 respectively, and in fact he has some ‘previous’ at Stade Saputo, assisting Darren Mattocks opening goal in the 2015 Canadian Cup Final second-leg, a game that ultimately ended 2-2 and aggregate defeat for the Bleu/Blanc/Noir.
The Canadian has assisted 4 of Saarbrucken’s 7 DFB Pokal goals in the current campaign, a record for a non-Bundesliga player.
It will be a tall order for Froese however if he is to become the second Canadian-ever to win the German Cup after Paul Stalteri with Werder Bremen in 2004. Even should Die Molschder get the better of Leverkusen, either Eintracht Frankfurt or mighty Bayern Munich await in the final, which of course means that Canadians could meet face to face in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium with Alphonso Davies currently starring for Bayern.
But as well as the various levels separating the semi-finalists, the lower league club must also contend with another huge disadvantage; tomorrow’s will be their first match in 94 days, since they lost 0-1 in a league match at Astoria Walldorf on 7 March. Leverkusen by contrast have no fewer than five Bundesliga games behind them.
Saarbrucken have been in quarantine for the week leading up to the game and have not even been able to play a friendly.
Froese admits they will not know if they are match fit until kick-off.
“When we play the game we’ll be able to see it,” the Canada international told BBC Sport. “We will see during the game.
“We’ve only played against each other. Essentially 11 v 11 games in training.”
Saarbrucken’s run to the cup semis has been littered with extraordinary moments - two last-minute winners in 3-2 victories, both set up by Froese, followed by two penalty shootout wins.
“We’ve had four big celebrations,” Froese said. “Every cup win is something you don’t expect. A fourth division team beating second league teams, first league teams, twice. Every time you do it, it’s a new emotional whirlwind.
“The feelings after winning every game get more heightened. These are feelings you can only experience in sport. Moments like this, we will carry with us for our entire lives.”
Goalkeeper Daniel Batz has saved six penalties, including a DFB Pokal record four in one shoot-out against Fortuna Dusseldorf, during Saarbrucken’s unprecedented run.
They have beaten two Bundesliga (1FC Cologne & Fortuna Dusseldorf) and two second-tier teams (Jahn Regensburg & Karlsruher) in their four games. Unlike the US Open Cup, where lower level clubs start out in the early rounds, only teams in the top two flights automatically qualify for the DFB Pokal.
Consequently and surprisingly Saarbrucken had only played one German Cup game between 2013 and 2019, and had to win last season’s Saarland Cup to qualify for the current tournament.
Should they prevail by winning the cup, or lose to Champions-elect Bayern Munich in the final, they will qualify for Europe for the first time since being entered into the inaugural European Cup competition in 1955/56, when they represented Saarland, the only time the state provided an entrant (it joined the Federal Republic of Germany soon after, on 1 January 1957).
Even then the minnows almost pulled off a seismic shock. After winning a topsy-turvy encounter with Italian giants AC Milan 4-3 at the San Siro despite at one point trailing 1-3, they were still in the driving seat in the return leg at 1-1 when disaster struck with only 15 mins to go. That was when defender Theodor Puff put through his own goal. The Saarlanders were unable to recover and ultimately conceded twice more in the closing stages, putting a glossier look on the Italians’ victory than actually deserved.
Saarbrucken’s compact Hermann-Neuberger-Stadion (6,800 capacity) has been sold out for the last three cup games...
“The fans were a great help during the last game,” said Froese, who is out of contract at the end of the season. “It’s unfortunate but we all have to play games without fans.”
Batz said: “It’s disappointing for our fans. We will miss them. My family and friends are always by my side - in my head and in my heart. And the fans will be too. There will be no atmosphere - like a training match.
“Bayer Leverkusen play with no atmosphere [during recent games] so it’s more an advantage for them.”
Saarbrucken are selling ‘ghost tickets’ for the game, with funds going to help the club’s youth teams
Saarbrucken have never won a major trophy despite finishing as German runners-up twice - in 1943 and 1952 - and finishing top of France’s Ligue 2 in the aftermath of World War II in 1949 (although they were not counted as champions being a German team).
They spent five seasons in the Bundesliga, most recently in 1993.
Kianz Froese said: “We all feel extremely grateful to be part of the club’s history, to be here in this moment.
“We’re just focused on one game - 90 minutes. We’ve got to give our all, fight and see what happens. The odds are in their favour. We’re the underdogs. It’s nice to make history and do things which haven’t been done before. Everything is achievable and to be played for. That’s the mentality we’re going into the game with.
“This is the biggest game of everybody’s career.
“I think there’s a chance. There’s always a chance. Bayer Leverkusen are a very good team. We think we can win. How we do it is up to the coach.”
Can the fairytale end like all good fairytales inevitably do?
Only time will tell...
Either way, one Canadian has certainly enjoyed the ride. “It’s been unreal for the whole team to be part of history coming this far,” said Froese.