Living the Dream

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The thing about football…
the important thing about football…
is that it is not just about football.
Sir Terence “Terry” Pratchett

Football is a sport that touches many lives from all walks of life around the globe. The appeal of the world game can be traced to this inclusivity as well as the drama and inspiration experienced during what is an aesthetically simple looking game. The ball, the two goals, and the twenty two players are just the tip of the iceberg of what inspires such passion. Behind these components are the stories, the stories are what capture us and transform a simple pastime into an obsession.

Every season across the footballing world new stories are written, both heartbreaking and heart warming. Victories and losses in football equate to much more than acquiring or losing three points or a trophy, with a club’s survival often also on the line. The battle for existence within a competition is often as enthralling as the one that’s happening at the top end of a league.

Promotion and relegation is the vehicle of these intense emotions and sweat inducing contests. Countless football fans, clubs, and players sign up to take part in this masochistic practice every season and it’s glorious. This season – in some of the big leagues of Europe such as the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 – whole new fan bases from teams  that have spent the majority of their existence in the lower leagues have the opportunity to experience top flight football.

In the Bundesliga, SV Darmstadt 98 are currently sitting in thirteenth place at the half way point. It has been a long thirty three year wait for the club and it’s faithful supporters to once again grace the first division. For fans like, Arthur Schönbein it is something he never thought he would see again.

“I have been a fan since I was four or five years old,” the photographer for local newspaper Darmstädter Tagblatt told Football Central.

“My father was a fan. I went to games with him when we were in the Bundesliga in 78/79 and 81/82. He also played for the Old Boys team of SV Darmstadt 98.

“I never thought that I would see my team in the Bundesliga again. Never.”

The road to the Bundesliga was far from easy as the thirty three year absence would indicate. In 1991 they barely escaped relegation to the amateur Oberliga Hessen (the third tier) after Essen were refused a 2.Bundesliga licence due to their financial issues.

As recently as 2006/2007 the club entered it’s most precarious position after their own financial problems sent them to the fourth tier and facing insolvency. They escaped extinction through a combination of generous benefactors and the football world coming together which included a friendly with Bayern Munich.

More than survive, they thrived. It appeared that being on the precipice of the abyss sparked this modest team to achieve greatness. They won promotion to the now professional third tier in 2010/11 and this is when their story get interesting.

Initially they were to be relegated from 3.Bundesliga in the 2012/13 season. However fate once again intervened when fierce rivals Kickers Offenbach were refused a 3.Bundesliga licence after going into administration and relegated to Regionalliga instead.

The next season in one of the most dramatic promotion/relegation battles in German history, Darmstadt who finished third defeated 2.Bumdesliga side Arminia Bielfeld. After losing the first leg at home 1-3 the third division side was up against it but against all odds they sent the second leg into extra time and won 4-2 on aggregate.

A twenty one year absence from the second division had come to a remarkable end. For Darmstadt fans like Arthur, the “Miracle of Bielfeld” was “by far more emotional” than Germany winning the World Cup in 2014 or even reaching the Bundesliga.

The very next season, SV Darmstadt clinched automatic promotion with a 70th minute free kick by Tobias Kemp and the rest is history. Now SV Darmstadt fans for the first time in thirty three years are simply enjoying the experience.

“We are enjoying it,” said Arthur who with his friend published a book on a summary of the 2014/15 season called “Die Sonne Scheint (The Sun is Shining)”.

“Regardless of how it will end. Allianz Arena, Dortmund, all the big stadiums, all the world class players. Simply enjoying.

“The team does play well, always giving everything, that’s important. Will we stay in the league? I don’t know, but I will enjoy every match.”

For Italy’s Serie A newcomer, Frosinone, the story isn’t so different. Over a hundred years of tradition and life spent yo-yoing between the lower leagues of Serie D and C. Financial strife also threatened the existence of the club from the small town of 46,500.

In 1990, Frosinone was expelled from the Italian Football Federation after going bankrupt. This sent them down to the amateur ranks and what is now known as Serie D. Far from dying out, this is where their story was just getting started.

The Canarini spent the next four years in Serie D before winning their way back to Serie C. Over the course of the next twenty years they went back and forth between leagues giving their faithful an overexposure to the joys and trials of promotion and relegation. In 2006/07 they managed to reach Serie B for the first time in their history where they stayed for five seasons before being relegated once again.

It was a promotion of a different sort in the 2012/13 season that changed the club’s fortunes when Roberto Stellone – the youth coach – was handed the reigns of the senior team. After consolidating the side’s place in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione (C1) in his first year in charge, what came next was almost beyond belief for any of the hardcore you’d find at 9,680 seat Stadio Matusa.

Stellone led Frosinone back to Serie B in 2013/14 via the playoffs after narrowly missing out on direct promotion. As one of the favorites that year  winning promotion wasn’t such a shock but the exploits of this humble Lazio club in their return to Serie B is what had many scratching their heads and marveling at. In their first season back they finished second against all odds to win direct promotion to the Serie A for the first time in their 104 year history.

Although many clubs in open tier systems dream of reaching the top of the football pyramid some day, for many it feels like it’d take less time to build an actual pyramid. For Frosinone goal keeping coach, Salvatore Rosato despite the plan in place to move up the leagues, to actually do so was something else.

“I think for the clubs such as Frosinone and Carpi it is like a fairy tale,” Salvatore said.

“Even if it is the result of planning. The system of promotion and relegation is good for the football clubs otherwise we nor Carpi could ever play in the maximum campionato.”

He believes that smaller clubs should follow the example set by Frosinone and by doing so anything is possible.

“I think that small clubs should follow our example. Through our programming we could achieve incredible results, and believe me I’m seeing the light of what we can very well be in the top flight.”

Adrian Lee has been a Cherries fan since the 90/91 season when as a three year old his grandfather started taking him to Dean Court. This was back when Bournemouth were a third division side along with other current Premier League teams, Swansea and Stoke. For this devout Bournemouth fan who goes to every home game and the majority of away games he never thought he’d see his side take on the best in England on a weekly basis.

“I have limited memories from the earlier days,” Adrian admits.

“I’d never ever have thought we could reach the Premier League. It is almost impossible to do it without a wealthy backer and there was absolutely nothing attractive about our club.”

Located in the south west of England in the county of Dorset, Bournemouth is a modest-sized city of just under 200,000. The Cherries play their games at Dean Court, a modest-sized football ground that holds under 12,000. It doesn’t scream out to an investor like a Manchester or London club does but for Max Demin – a Russian businessman – it has ended up being a steal. This union was, for Adrian, the turning point for his club.

“Eddie Howe is obviously a very big factor in getting us where we are, but he wouldn’t be at this club without the financial clout of Max,” admitted Adrian.

“Although not a heavyweight investor, it was enough for the third and second tier.”

Demin reportedly paid around £850,000 for Bournemouth in 2011 when they were in the third tier of English football.

“Since we have reached the Premier League we have attracted US investors too.

“For all the hard work the management and players have put in, even a mention to Jeff Mostyn who kept the club alive, we wouldn’t have been able to make the leap without the financial backing.”

Being a lifelong fan, Adrian has seen and felt all the joy and hurt that following a club can put one through especially with promotion and relegation. Relegation is one of the worst feelings a fan can experience but a hurt that Adrian says is temporary.

“Relegation is horrible. I was with 1,600 fans who had travelled to Carlisle (the other end of the country, basically Scotland) to see us relegated there,” explained Adrian.

“It is a horrible feeling, but at the beginning of every season you have renewed hope, regardless of what happened the previous season.

“Promotion battles can be just as horrible but I genuinely cannot explain the elation when the away fans heard Sheffield Wednesday had scored a last minute equaliser against Watford to become Champions.

“It was genuinely spine tingling. It is a real shame that the USA and Australia don’t have promotion and relegation.  It creates additional excitement and nerves, punishes the teams who haven’t been good enough and gives other teams hope of bettering themselves.”

Now at the top, it is all about consolidation for Bournemouth. With a lucrative new TV deal kicking in next season survival has meant there is a lot more on the line than prestige.

“Safety,” was the answer Adrian gave when asked about expectations this season.

“Nothing else really matters this season. We have been up against it with injuries and some poor decisions, but the team haven’t stopped putting in.

“With the Premier League receiving a new TV Deal next year, I think that is the sole aim of the club. It’d be nice to cement our position and stay for a few years.”

With even the bottom club next year looking to recieve around £99 million, that initial £850,000 investment five years ago by Demin is looking like one of the shrewdest in sport.

It is the story of GFC Ajaccio of France which perhaps best signifies the fairytale of promotion and relegation. If you were casting the role of David – of David and Goliath fame – then you’d look no further than GFC. Running on a budget that is almost half that of the second lowest in the league, they’re defying all odds with their showing this season.

The Corsican club isn’t even the biggest club on the small island of Napolean Bonaparte’s birth, with rival AC Ajaccio pipping them in that respect. AC achieved promotion to the top flight back in 1967 with their most recent time in Ligue 1 being in 2013/14.

This season was the first for GFC to reach the top flight in their 106 years and was the fourth promotion they experienced in the last five years. The amateur club who’s Stade Ange Casanova holds, if you’re being generous, 8,000  was until recently an amateur club.

They’re now lying in thirteenth spot at the halfway point of the season having taking all the points against giants Lyon and Bordeaux along the way. Just don’t try telling former GFC player and coach Jean-Michel Cavalli that their place in Ligue 1 is a surprise though.

“It’s not a surprise because it is the biggest amateur club,” he insisted.

“One day it had to happen. And this means that with time and a philosophy you can get to build a club up to the elite.”

Time and opportunity seem to be the biggest factors in the success of these clubs. They and their loyal fans have gone through every test a sporting organisation can, including being on the brink of extinction and have come out all the stronger for it. Successes are how we measure teams but it’s the overcoming of hardships that builds clubs.

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