Bundesliga playoff: Heidenheim dreaming of the big time

In the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, on the banks of the River Brenz near the border with Bavaria, is a small town where people speak with a unique accent.

Heidenheim, population 50,000, is known for its manufacturing industry – machinery, packaging, bandaging, electronics, if you’re in those lines of work. If not, one might have visited Schloss Hellenstein, the late-medieval castle which towers over the town.

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But Heidenheim is also the setting for one of the most curious stories in German football, a story which has developed slowly, steadily but relentlessly over the past 26 years and which has taken 1. FC Heidenheim from the amateur leagues to the brink of the Bundesliga.

“It’s simply surreal,” said chief executive Holger Sanwald after Heidenheim booked their place in this season’s Bundesliga promotion/relegation playoff, capitalizing on Hamburg’s latest implosion despite their own 0-3 defeat to Arminia Bielefeld. “Sometimes, we have to run our eyes. But we know how to keep our development in perspective, and we’re happy about that.”

Holger Sanwald (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Weller)

Heidenheim’s Chief Executive Holger Sanwald has been key to the club’s ascension

Sanwald knows exactly where Heidenheim have come from because he’s been there every step of the way. The 52-year-old once played for the club but took over as chief executive at the age of just 27, gradually leading the club up through the leagues with patience, hard work and a broad network of medium-sized partners from the region.

“There’s no room for one-man-shows here. We’ve worked our way up to our current situation over the years,” said Sanwald. “There were always ups and downs but we always believed that we could continue.”

Climbing up the leagues

In 10 years between 2004 and 2014, Heidenheim progressed from the fifth-tier Oberliga to the second division, where they have since plateaued — although there have been special highlights in the cup. In 2016, they were beaten 2-3 by Hertha Berlin in the quarterfinal. In 2018, they lost to Eintracht Frankurt. Last season, they pushed Bayern Munich all the way in a 5-4 thriller at the Allianz Arena.

“We’re not a little village club,” insisted Sanwald in a recent interview with the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. “We have a budget of €35 million, which puts us in the top half of the division. We don’t need to make ourselves any smaller than we are.”

Heidenheim coach Frank Schmidt (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Weller)

Frank Schmidt has been Heidenheim’s head coach since 2007

Directly responsible for Heidenheim’s sporting ascent up the leagues is Frank Schmidt, who has overseen an incredible 467 games in his 13 years in charge, making him the longest-serving head coach in professional German football. The 46-year-old was only supposed to take over a couple of games back in division five, but he’s still there. “There is coach better suited to our FCH than Frank Schmidt,” says Sanwald.

Marc Schnatterer, Schmidt’s right-hand man

Having played almost as many games as Schmidt has coached is captain Marc Schnatterer, the veteran right-winger who joined the club in the Regionalliga in 2008 and has since scored 122 goals in 426 games — including one against playoff opponents Werder Bremen in a cup match.

For Schnatterer, now 34, promotion to the Bundesliga would be the perfect ending for one of Germany football’s most loyal professionals. When he finally hangs up his boots, he’s likely to take on another role within the club. That’s how it works in Heidenheim.

Heidenheim captain Marc Schnatterer (picture-alliance/dpa/U. Deck)

Heidenheim captain Marc Schnatterer has played more than 400 games for the club

But first, there’s an extraordinary season to finish, the most successful in the club’s history despite the unprecedented circumstances.

Heidenheim’s big chance

On the pitch, Heidenheim beat Hamburg twice and recorded the second best defense in the league as they finished third. Off it, the club put money from the sale of Robert Glatzel (€6 million to Cardiff City) towards the purchase of the Voith-Arena from the city council.

The small, multipurpose stadium holds just 15,000, the minimum capacity for a Bundesliga ground, and is sponsored by Voith, the local mechanics manufacturer whose engineers set up predecessor club VfB Heidenheim in 1910.

And it won’t be Bremen’s first visit there. In 2011, Heidenheim beat them 2-1 in the first round of the cup, although the northerners got their revenge in this season’s competition, winning 4-1. But neither side has ever played in the promotion/relegation playoff.

Since the re-introduction of the format in 2009, only three second division sides have prevailed: Nuremberg, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Union Berlin. Perhaps Heidenheim can make it four. It would just be another quiet step on their slow, steady journey.

Opinion: Milot Rashica must remain Werder Bremen's main man

If there was a piece of play that summed up Milot Rashica’s performance in his club’s biggest game of the season, it wasn’t his eye-catching early solo strike but the moment he managed to flick a pass through to Josh Sargent while on the turf surrounded by defenders.

The American striker latched on to the ball and chipped over the keeper for Bremen’s sixth of the day, further confirming that their great escape remains alive. They will play either rivals Hamburg or Heidenheim in the relegation playoff.

In itself, the goal had little meaning. But the fact that it came moments after Rashica’s wayward pass led to Cologne’s consolation was further demonstration of the mix of determination and skill that has made the 23-year-old such a hot property. RB Leipzig and a host of Premier League clubs are supposedly interested in luring him away from Bremen.

But it was far from the only one; he struck the post twice, drifted inside to torture Cologne’s defenders with direct runs and never stopped working despite the heat. And all that despite not being 100 percent fit.

Much as they have with coach Florian Kohfeldt, Bremen have been patient with Rashica this season. He started the campaign in great form with seven goals and three assists in his first 11 games but hadn’t scored in 2020. That dip in form has hurt Bremen badly. They’ve often looked toothless and blunt in the final third. But not on Saturday.

DW's Matt Pearson

Though Cologne were obliging opponents, a performance of similar intensity from Rashica and Bremen would make them difficult to beat in the playoff. But even if they do pull off a great escape, one that looked unthinkable a few weeks ago, they cannot allow their best player to leave if they are to progress.

Players of Rashica’s quality are rare in the bottom half of the Bundesliga and with money short for all but the biggest beasts, lucrative offers are hard to resist. But this season must serve as a warning to Werder that quality counts, and delivers when it really matters.

Neither Fortuna Düsseldorf, who allowed Bremen to breathe another day with a limp performance at Union Berlin, nor Paderborn, relegated two weeks ago, can boast a player of such ability or potential. 

He’s not the only one at Werder. Davy Klaassen, Maximilian Eggestein and Jiri Pavlenka are all too good to be stranded at the foot of the table while Kohfeldt was named coach of the year only last season. Rashica is the man that can make the difference though. He’s the player that can worry even the best defenders and turn games on his own.

Bremen’s faith in their young boss now looks to have paid off, but if they’re to avoid cementing a reputation as a club that floats around mid-table with the odd relegation battle thrown in, they need to show ambition.

Of course, Rashica’s wishes will play a part in all this and there can be little doubt he’ll want out should they fall in the playoff which, given their season so far, can’t be ruled out.

But this is a player of rare talent, albeit one who must become more consistent. A player whose energy, work rate and skill can spur on the rest of his team. Bremen’s first priority must, of course, be staying up. Keeping hold of Rashica should be second on the list.