How Eintracht Frankfurt are once again soaring high amongst Germany’s big guns

How Eintracht Frankfurt are once again soaring high amongst Germany’s big guns

IT’S RARE THAT a football club is a perfect representation of the city they reside in. But Frankfurt meets the bill. For years they held an albatross around their neck, with a staid, sedate reputation for being Europe’s primary financial hub. That stereotype meant they were never the flavour of the country, with tourists and students preferring Berlin and Munich.

The multi-cultural community in Frankfurt has always been burgeoning, a haven within an inclusive country. It is a similar story with the city’s football side, with their DNAs interchangeable to the extent that they may be born from the same gene pool. The club’s crest draws from the city’s coat of arms itself. Eintracht translates to harmony in English, and there is plenty of it here. Within a city lies football, and within Frankfurt lies Eintracht.

The club runs several sporting teams but their football side is by far the most prominent. The best days of Eintracht, if we go by trophies, came in a brief, two-decade stint. This period saw a sole German Championship triumph in 1959, along with four DFB-Pokal wins in 1974, 1975, 1981 and 1988. If we add their 1960 European Cup and their 1980 UEFA Cup wins, it’s clear that they were once a German power. In recent times they haven’t been as consistent, dropping into the 2. Bundesliga on four occasions since 1995. Crucially, though, they managed to bounce back up within two seasons after every relegation, proving that they do belong to the top tier.

The most recent relegation took place in 2011/12 but, spearheaded by Armin Veh, they bounced back to the top tier, finishing sixth, a significant achievement. They finished top of a comfortable group in the Europa League in 2013/14 but fell to Porto on away goals, courtesy of an 86th-minute equaliser, in the round of 32. In 2014/15. they finished ninth with the help of top scorer Alexander Meier. He finished ahead of his illustrious peers to win the Golden Boot but a leaky defence, conceding 62 goals, was the side’s doom as they fell short of the European spots. They were in need of a spark.

And so 2015/16 provided it, but only at the end of the season. A miserable season saw them lose 16 games and win just nine, and with 36 points they finished three ahead of the directly relegated Stuttgart and a point behind safety. They ended up in this position courtesy of a failure to beat Werder Bremen on the last day, conceding an 88th-minute winner. That led them to the relegation playoff against the second tier’s Nürnberg.

Almost 50,000 filled the Max-Morlock-Stadion to watch Nürnberg take on Frankfurt in May 2016. The top-tier side were in a tough spot as the home leg finished 1-1 despite the best efforts of their fans, who made the stadium shake with passion. Marco Russ had scored an own goal; the same Russ who had been diagnosed with a severe tumour after failing a drugs test few days prior to the game. His blood had shown elevated levels of the hormone hCG, which either indicates the use of anabolic steroids or a cancerous disease.

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While he showed bravery in leading his troops out in the game, his own goal was a cruel twist of fate. Despite that, they pulled back a goal through the 21-year old Mijat Gaćinović, who had played a bit-part role in the squad after joining from Vojvodina in the summer. But he stepped up when needed and ensured the game would be on an even keel in the second leg.

Despite the home side boasting an away goal, Frankfurt were dominant but were unable to find a chink in the tight Nürnberg defence. That was until the 66th minute, when Gaćinović played the role of the hero again, skipping past half-hearted challenges in the box to cross it to Haris Seferović, who tapped it in. It stayed 1-0 and safety was secured. That Frankfurt manager Niko Kovač comforted the distraught opposition players was symbolic of the way the club and their manager sought to go about their business. The German Football Federation awarded him the season’s Fair Play Award, but the real reward was safety.

Frankfurt’s conservative approach in recent times was led by Heribert Bruchhagen, who, at 69, was a veteran board member. But he was too pragmatic, and the club needed to show ambition. Bruchhagen’s departure saw a triumvirate of leaders take over, including deputy chairman Axel Hellmann, vice-president since 2001 and financial director since 2012, Oliver Frankenbach, finance chief, and Fredi Bobic, who worked with sporting director Bruno Hübner and was formerly one of the league’s most respected strikers. It was a unique structure; a clear shift from the past.

Near-relegation can either mean two things. It can be a wake-up call, forcing clubs to restructure so that they avoid the scramble that is the dogfight. It can also be a sign that the club is destined to face the drop sooner rather than later. But this can be decided by choice, rather than fate. Eintracht took their future into their own hands. It took a summer of savvy recruitment to push them away from the threat of relegation into the welcome hands of possible European qualification.

They lost some regulars from the previous season, while Stefan Reinartz was forced to retire at 27 through injury, moving into data analysis. A negligible €3m was spent on new players – some sort of self-imposed transfer inactivity – which went in contrast to the almost €11m raised by sales. It was an inauspicious start for Bobic. The club chose to rely on the loan market, with Kovač making outstanding use of the squad he already had at his disposal. Taleb Tawatha was the most expensive signing, from Maccabi Haifa for €1.2m – coming in as a bit-part player – while their winter signings included youngsters such as Anderson Ordóñez and Marius Wolf for tiny fees.

Their two best signings of the summer were from Real Madrid, whose success will have given Frankfurt a solid chance of snagging future players from the Spanish giants. Real fans may not have seen much of Omar Mascarell and Jesús Vallejo previously but they soon saw their promising youngsters excelling in Germany.

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Mascarell moved on a permanent three-year contract while Vallejo joined on a season-long loan aimed at accruing game time. Niko Kovač branded the latter “scandalously good” – quite the praise for a 19-year old in his first season in a top tier. He contributed to a tight defence as arguably one of the best deals of the season, and despite his return to Madrid and subsequent lack of regular action, it should not detract from his talent.

By 20 December 2016, the end of the Hinrunde, they were fourth in the table. That they were only 10 points behind leaders Bayern was significant considering they finished a full 52 behind them in the previous season. They did finish a full 40 behind them once the Rückrunde closed, but that was courtesy of a sudden loss of form. After they won their first two games of the Rückrunde, pushing them to third, they would win just one of their next 15 games.

A side that had beaten Borussia Dortmund and drawn to Bayern was now conceding four goals to Mainz after leading 2-0. They finished the league with a comeback from two goals down to finish 2-2 against the league’s newest powers, RB Leipzig. They still had the chance to finish the season on a high in Berlin, where they faced Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final. Their early season magic, however, evaded them, and they fell 2-1. They finished 11th in the league, six points behind Freiburg, whose European qualification spot was taken from Frankfurt’s loss in the final. It was fate, cruel fate, but the beauty of football is in the ability to bounce back.

There were 12 new signings and nine departures in the off-season; it was controlled chaos but it made up for the previous season’s inertia. It was in line with Frankfurt’s international reputation, with an eclectic group of foreigners assembled to take the club forward. They picked up talent from all corners and of all ages, and it’s taken them to fourth place after 22 games this season.

While it is still early days, they have continued their form from the Hinrunde. With three wins in five games, they lie at the centre of a fierce fight for the Champions League spots. Bayern are 20 points adrift – sure to be the champions – but the next 10 sides are all separated by just eight points. 

Frankfurt combine solidity, flair, experience and youthfulness in equal parts – it is one of the reasons they do so well. Lukáš Hrádecký, their goalkeeper, has been a stand-out for several reasons, and with an expiring contract in the summer, one hopes Eintracht can extend his deal. David Abraham, Timothy Chandler and Makoto Hasebe are underrated, experienced cogs of the team, while Alexander Meier remains a fußballgott in these parts having been at Eintracht since 2004, racking up 118 goals in 334 games. At 35, injuries have seen him relegated to the sidelines but, for once, his absence is not causing any problems. The credit for that goes to the club’s scouting department.

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Sebastien Haller was consistent for Utrecht prior to his move, and has taken his game to the next level with 12 goals so far. He’s been supplemented by Kevin-Prince Boateng, a character that the game cannot do without, and for whom Frankfurt remains the ideal home. Simon Falette has integrated into the defence smoothly, Marius Wolf is now proving himself to be an astute addition, while Carlos Salcedo and Ante Rebić are both racking up the minutes. Jetro Willems, once a hyped full-back at PSV, has been impressive too.

The rest of the squad comprises of serviceable players, including the now fully-recovered Marco Russ, Gelson Fernandes and Jonathan de Guzmán, all in their 30s. They’re supplemented by those in their mid-20s; Taleb Tawatha, the now bit-part Mascarell, Branimir Hrgota and Danny da Costa. Marco Fabián, one of their best players last season, has been troubled by injuries all campaign, while Marc Stendera, once a big talent, has not recovered from his injuries last season. Young talents like Luka Jović and Aymen Barkok have been forced to learn from the sidelines. In essence, Eintracht have a little of everything, and this extends to more than just stylistic niches.

On first glance there are more foreigners and dual nationals than Germans in the side, from the USA and Israel to Azerbaijan and Japan, and plenty in between. There’s a Nelson Mandela too, the 18-year old namesake of the great South African. In all, there are players from 17 different countries, and that’s discounting those eligible for a second nation.

Their essence is drawn from the cultural melting pot that is Frankfurt. In other words, Eintracht is simply an extension of the city. There’s a juxtaposition in how they remain inclusive of players from around the world, seeing as Germany has always been home to immigrants and foreigners, while Bayern, the best club in the country, continue to stock-pile natives. They remain the team with the most players from Asia and America. By tapping into untouched markets, the blurring of cultural lines has given Eintracht their own identity, a reason why the sleeping giants may now be waking up.

A good scouting system targets distant markets rather than well-known ones, looking for cheap gems that could yield profit in the future. In that regard, Eintracht remain top of the mark. Gaćinović was brought in for cheap from mid-table Serbian side Vojvodina, Tawatha came from Israel, Anderson Ordóñez from Ecuador and Daichi Kamada from Japan. In Kamada, the Frankfurt brand will have undoubtedly spread in Japan. Eintracht know their limitations, but they also know what they can maximise on. Cheap punts skews the win-lose balance in their favour, and it’s an integral part of their structure.

Their recent revival has stemmed from the appointment of Niko Kovač in March 2016. He took over from the struggling Armin Veh with survival the only remit. Once achieved, he was allowed to remodel and fashion the side into a well-organised, disciplined side. He inculcated a new team spirit, utilising all he had at his disposal to ensure success.

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He has also been tactically aware, shifting to a three-at-the-back formation when it returned to vogue, making his side more stable. Flexibility is a standpoint of his philosophy, and along with his assistant and brother, Robert Kovač, he sought to improve the individuals at his disposal. It was not champagne football, but it was methodical.

After losing the excellent Bastian Oczipka to Schalke along with the aforementioned Vallejo, one may have assumed Frankfurt would slip down the table, continuing from the previous season. That has not been the case. Kovač has managed to shore up the defence to the extent that they boast the second-best record in the league, conceding just 25 goals in 22 games. In addition, the dependence on a striker has shifted from Meier to Haller, and the rest of the attack has shared the goal-scoring burden.

Eintracht’s excellent away record is again one of the best in the league, with 21 points eclipsing the 14 they earned on the road last season. Their record at home has not been as consistent in relative terms, but it is certainly easier to remedy their form at the Commerzbank-Arena given their raucous support. It makes their season a paradox compared to last, but it also equips them well for the rest of the campaign.

This is a hard-working side – systematic yet entertaining, dynamic yet solid. Kovač’s motley crew of grafters contain unlikely heroes across the pitch, with most of them having a point to prove. It’s keeping them going for a little longer, but what really separates Eintracht is their structure off the field. Peter Fischer, their president since 2000, was re-elected in January, keeping the city’s values in line with the club. Eintracht had denounced the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) as “incompatible” with the club’s values. In his own words, Fischer lauded the diversity of the club.

To add to that, they were the first Bundesliga side to sign a female scout in Helena Costa. It may not mean much but it’s an example of how the club strive to set themselves apart from the rest. In the logjam that are mid-table sides, there is no point in being one of the crowd.

The 2016/17 season was a tale of two halves but it finished with disappointment. The lessons, however, have been learnt. Doubts justifiably remain over their ability to last until May, and that is why Eintracht will remain underdogs in the race for Europe. Fittingly, they used to be called Launische Diva – Moody Diva – for their unpredictability.

That’s unlikely to ever change. Their downturn in form may have helped towards keeping Kovač in Mainhattan, but if Eintracht finish strongly he may not stay for long. He’s been linked with Bayern, but that will come later. The goal now is to finish as high as they can, even if that’s an unimaginable second. Eintracht are flying high, a nod to their Die Adler nickname. If they continue to soar, the sky is their limit. Eintracht Frankfurt is an example of a well-run football club, a symbol of the city, and a model for others to follow.

By Rahul Warrier

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