MOVING ON UP ON THE EASTSIDE
With most soccer fans around the world counting their sick, personal and vacation days in anticipation of World Cup, there was some unfinished business in Germany beyond the sky boxes of the new multi-million dollar arenas.
This past weekend, Energie Cottbus took part in the thing that makes soccer as it played in the various leagues and divisions across the planet truly The Beautiful Game – the joy of promotion vs. the agony of relegation.
Leading the way was venerable captain Gregg Berhalter, a local fan favorite and respected around the league for leading by example, as he did on Sunday. But more about that later…
"I like the traditional soccer format better," he told YA. "[It] is more of looking at the whole season and seeing where you stand and that's special because the games in August count just as much as the games in May."
"That's what's amazing, when you think about teams not getting promoted on one goal or not going down on one goal. Every goal, every point counts and that's what's amazing."
On Sunday, the plan was simple for Cottbus: win and a team from Germany's far east goes back to the Bundesliga; lose or draw and you more than likely will continue playing the likes of Unterhaching and Paderborn instead of Bayern Munich and Hamburg.
It was no different two years ago when Cottbus missed out on promotion on goal difference on the last day of the season or, on the other side of the coin, when the Easterners were saved the express ticket down to the Regionalliga by the above-mentioned one goal after a grueling ten-month long 2004/05 season.
In the 2002/03 season, the roller coaster started when Cottbus were relegated after three years at Germany's top level, which means Berhalter truly has seen it all in four seasons since he made the move from Crystal Palace.
"Going up is more of a good kind of pressure. Going down, there's still pressure because you still have to perform. But when we did actually stay up, it was more like 'we had a really bad year'."
"And after going up now, everybody is just ecstatic, the whole town and everyone."
The three previous games going into Sunday, the Brandenburg side missed out on taking care of business early, earning two points out of a possible nine. Most of the pundits around the country, this one included, wrote it off to the pressure of having Greuther Fürth, SC Freiburg and Karlsruher SC nipping at their heals. Maybe we were wrong.
"I think it was lack of pressure," says Berhalter. "We were too lackadaisical going in. We didn't have the absolute feeling that we needed to do it that game and I think that hurt us a bit."
Nonetheless, the game against 1860 Munich – in front of the largest crowd in Cottbus' 40-year history – featured the look of a team that had suddenly come to life. The first 20 minutes belonged to the home side; 1860 didn't have a chance. But then it happened.
The guests scored on a precision counter attack and several hundred miles to the south, Karlsruhe were leading and were heading to the Bundesliga instead of the good guys.
Fourteen minutes later, Paderborn scored in Karlsruhe to equalize, Fürth were losing in Freiburg, who were now on the way up.
Scratch that: Karlsruhe back on top three minutes later with chants of nie wieder (never again) 2.Liga making their way through the crowd.
Cottbus, not to be deterred, continued to be spurred on by their vocal and passionate fans. Three minutes before half time the referee pointed to the spot after Slobodan Komljenovic was called for a handball following a Sergiu Radu cross from the right.
"I was supposed to take it," Berhalter explained. "It's between me and Kevin McKenna and he just told me: 'You take it.'"
And there was never a doubt as the North Carolina product put a bit of extra pepper behind the ball; it flashed high, down the middle and over a diving Michael Hoffman.
"I just wanted to make sure it went in."
The 1-1 halftime score line left Cottbus on their way to the Bundesliga, but only by a hair. With Karlsruhe and Freiburg both winning their games, the three contenders were all even on points and only Cottbus' goal superior goal differential had them on the way up to the penthouse.
In the second half, it wasn't even a contest for 1860, and ultimately, for the teams that finished fourth through sixth in the league.
The hosts came out of the break completely unwilling to let this one slip away, and goals by Vragel da Silva and McKenna made sure of it.
After the final whistle, the real fun started for all involved as most of the crowd joined the celebration on the field and the surrounding streets.
Cottbus, at the end of the day, is a sleepy medium-sized town in the shadow of Berlin. It suffers from high unemployment, while much of its youth – as in most of the towns in Germany's East – are forced to move away to make their way.
But on this day, it was different, and I am sure this feeling will last through the summer up until the new season kicks off in August,
"It's kind of unique when you can make a whole region really proud and Cottbus is basically only known in Germany because of the soccer," Berhalter reflected. "I think it's special."
"It's a special feeling. To see what it means to the people is really great."
The only heartbreak of the day was that Berhalter would not be following his promotion at the club level with a well-deserved inclusion on Bruce Arena's squad for Germany 2006.
"Of course I'm ecstatic and [this promotion] is one of the best points of my career, but on the other side, not [being selected] is worst part of my career…It is still really difficult for me."
However, the result on Sunday reminds soccer fans the world over what it means when 'every goal and every point counts'. The same fans should be happy that there are still fairy tales where nice guys don't finish last.