The Barcelona players realized it as soon as they warmed up, whistled on their home turf by an Eintracht Frankfurt contingent that would grow to 30,000 inside the Nou Camp at kick-off. “I really believe it affected the result,” says Axel Hellmann.
Hellmann is the fan spokesperson turned board in Frankfurt. You could see him smiling at the edge of the pitch, reveling in the next moment, and who could blame him. Barcelona won in their own stadium, a second Europa League semi-final in three years for their club.
“Winning is usually impossible for a team like Eintracht Frankfurt,” says sporting director Markus Krosche. “It was a great day for Frankfurt, a great day for German football. Winning as a German team in Barcelona is not normal. These are memories you will never forget.”
22-year-old winger Jens Petter Hauge’s face lights up as he revisits it all. “I will remember that night all my life,” he said. “The atmosphere in the locker room, the feeling at Camp Nou afterwards when we were celebrating with our fans, it was incredible.”
For club keeper Kevin Trapp, the experience has been described as cathartic given he was the man between the posts in Paris Saint-Germain’s infamous 6-1 loss to Barcelona in 2017. was a special situation for me,” he admits.
“But it was a different game, a different Barcelona.”
Frankfurt won three before a late comeback rattled the nerves. “Barcelona were clear favourites,” added Trapp. “But we all believed.” It took more than that. “It’s one thing to believe in it and it’s another to actually go out there and do it,” Hauge continues.
What makes the Eintracht Frankfurt story so remarkable is that it really shouldn’t be happening. Star striker Andre Silva was sold last summer. They are ninth in the Bundesliga, that night in Barcelona their only win in eight games. Europe was their salvation.
“Normally in the Bundesliga, especially at home, we have a lot of opponents who defend very deep, so we have to find solutions in the last third of the pitch,” Krosche explained. “There are closed spaces and it’s not that easy, the opponents play in transition.”
Against Barcelona, and even before that against Real Betis, the situation was different. “There were more open spaces. Opponents are more attacking so we can play on transition and that’s a lot easier in football than finding solutions in the final third.”
Coach Oliver Glasner’s counter-attacking game seems perfectly suited to beat the best. In October, they inflicted the first of Bayern Munich’s only two home defeats this season. “He has a clear plan and is the best at analyzing the opponent,” Krosche adds.
Haug agrees. “We showed we can beat anyone. We won in Munich, we won in Barcelona. His system works well against tough teams.” Trapp respects that. “He always has a plan. It’s good to have a coach who knows what he’s doing. He transmits confidence.”
It’s the most prosaic reason for Frankfurt’s success in Europe, but some club members believe there’s a more romantic explanation. After all, Eintracht Frankfurt played their part in perhaps the most famous European Cup final of all in 1960.
It is remembered as the apotheosis of Real Madrid, winning 7-3 thanks to three goals from Alfredo Di Stefano and four from Ferenc Puskas. But Frankfurt’s role in this famous game is only part of why European nights are woven into the fabric of the city.
“It starts with the history of the club,” says Hellmann. “Eintracht Frankfurt, which dates back to the 1950s, is an international club. It is an open-minded city, a financial centre, so many people from abroad feel welcome and at home in Frankfurt. is deep in our DNA.
“In 1951, we were the first club after World War II to play in the United States. The Germans weren’t welcome at that time, but we were building bridges around the world. It’s so inherent in the structure of our club International competition is warmly accepted by the fans.
“So many things come together to make the club’s unique DNA. Eintracht Frankfurt is not just a football club. We have 52 teams in different sports, with over 100 nations represented. We have over 100,000 members. There are no borders here.”
Trapp notes that when Frankfurt play in Europe “it’s something special here”, with Krosche stressing that “the fans love the competition and live the competition”. Taking 30,000 to Barcelona was remarkable but in keeping with that tradition.
Fifteen thousand fans once traveled to Bordeaux to watch their team. Similar numbers have swept through Milan and Rome in the past. It’s part of Frankfurt fan culture. “Fans travel everywhere, making the impossible possible,” says Trapp.
As they prepare to face West Ham in the semi-finals, there are clear similarities between these mid-tier clubs with huge support and aspirations for more. West Ham owners are childhood fans. Hellmann has been a member of Frankfurt since he was three years old.
The difference is that Frankfurt fans retain control of their club thanks to the 50 plus one rule that is popular at many Bundesliga clubs. While their Premier League counterparts dream of billionaire takeovers, Frankfurt – the Eagles – want to soar in another way.
“We believe football is more than a sport and more than a business, it’s a living community,” says Hellmann. “That’s one of the reasons why 50 plus one is a good rule because it gives supporters the chance to run their own club with their decisions.
“The most emotional part is that they are involved in the football, in the pricing policy, in the seats. I think it’s a healthy and balanced concept in football. You can bring the money and the passion together. is what the club culture of Eintracht Frankfurt is all about.
“I would say that titles and placements in the league are not the most important thing. The most important thing for the people who support the club is that they feel pride and dignity and that they feel feel authentic. This is the highest goal you can have. .
“We all want to win, we all want to win the title. But that’s not the highest goal you have in sport. The highest goal is to do it the right way, with fair- play, with the participation of the fans and the full recognition of the region.This is our philosophy.
Growth is still possible.
“Six years ago, when we again avoided relegation, we took the decision to invest in infrastructure after 15 years of non-investment. We took over the stadium which was in the hands of the city, of so that new sources of income have appeared. We have invested in the youth department. .
“The club is on another level at the moment.”
Trapp echoes that sentiment after seeing it for himself since returning from PSG for his second spell at the club.
“When I left Frankfurt it was a club fighting not to be relegated. The facilities here are much better now than before, the infrastructure, everything. Also the goals have changed. You aim for more high now for different goals. This club has grown.”
There are limits, of course. Silva’s sale was neither the first nor the last.
“It’s not that easy,” says Krosche. “On the one hand, when you succeed, everyone is happy. That’s what you work for. But when you achieve something big like we did in the Europa League, it’s natural that our players arouse the interest of other teams.
“At a club like Eintracht Frankfurt you have to decide if a player should leave or you can convince him to stay. It’s not easy because the impact of coronavirus has been huge on our income. It was a big challenge to deal with this situation.
“One of our sources of income is transfers. If the development of the player is faster than the development of the club, we have to find the right number. It’s part of our history to find new players and to develop them. develop. It’s part of the business and we have to be prepared.”
But in the meantime, there is potential for glory.
“It’s all about us now,” says Hauge. “We have to create our own history and make sure the next generation of Frankfurt fans will remember our names.”
The Norwegian arrived from AC Milan but he hasn’t experienced anything like this before. “Here, it’s something else,” he adds. “The fans are amazing, even when we struggle in games I still have 55,000 people supporting me.”
West Ham won’t be allowing as many entries into the London Stadium on Thursday night, but that won’t be the end of the adventure with the return home to Frankfurt. Win it there and it’s Sevilla and a first European final in 42 years.
“If we achieve that, I can promise you a lot of people will join us in Sevilla,” Krosche adds.
“I don’t know how many people will stay in Frankfurt.”