BIELEFELD -- A brace from Maximilian Arnold, and one each by Ivan Perisic and Luiz Gustavo secured VfL Wolfsburg a ticket to the DFB Pokal final for the meeting with Borussia Dortmund at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on May 30. Third-league leaders Arminia Bielefeld gave it their all, but still lost 4-0. But the supporters celebrated their heroes regardless.
When it was all said and done some 10 minutes from time, the Bielefeld supporters bid farewell to the away end. "You can go home," the packed Alm, one of the old classic grounds in Germany, sang. "We'll go home, but you have to stay here," the Wolfsburg supporters replied. Nobody cared. It was cup night in Eastern Westphalia, and how could the big-spending Bundesliga side even dare to spoil the party.
It was a mild late-April evening in Bielefeld, a small city some 100 kilometres to the north east of Dortmund, and the stage was set for a fourth cup upset in a row Bielefeld, who had beaten Hertha Berlin, Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach on their way to the semifinal of the competition.
Yet, the league difference became evident from minute one.
"We were tired after our defeat at Gladbach last Sunday," Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking later said. "But from Monday, I felt my lads wanted to qualify for the final."
That's how they played. Efficient, cold hearted, and intelligent -- sometimes beautiful.
Only eight minutes into the tie, Daniel Caliguri picked up a terrible pass from Bielefeld defender Stephan Salger, waited until just enough opposition players attacked him, and created a space for midfielder Maxi Arnold to find. The 20-year-old finished the move with perfection, and basically ended all dreams of a cup upset.
Luiz Gustavo was unmarked in Bielefeld's box at around the half hour mark. Set piece specialist Ricardo Rodriguez curled one of his trademark free-kicks into the box, Bas Dost -- without a goal in 11 consecutive appearances now -- headed the ball from the far post back into the middle, and the Brazilian was there to convert it. The Wolves were two goals up just 31 minutes into the match.
In recent weeks, Hecking's boys looked worn out from a long season. Deemed favourites to win the Europa League, they crashed out with a 6-3 aggregate defeat against Serie A side Napoli. Meanwhile in the German league, Bayern Munich ran away with the title and Borussia Monchengladbach have narrowed the gap on the Wolves to only four points.
Kevin De Bruyne struggled with a painful foot injury, got through the last Bundesliga match with injections, but has failed to spark Wolfsburg like he did earlier in 2015. Still, he initiated the play for the third, with Calgiuri setting up Ivan Perisic to extend the advantage. It was enough, and De Bruyne was allowed an early rest with Joshua Guilavogui sent on in his place. Shortly after, Arnold scored his second of the night.
Former Chelsea winger Andre Schurrle once again started the match on the bench, and saw his competitor Daniel Caliguri excel in his role. The 27-year-old half-Italian joined Wolfsburg from Freiburg in 2013, and his first season only won 10 starts. He has turned into a rather unlikely protagonist at the Volkswagen Arena. He sits on the wings, waits, finds the space, attacks his opponents with the ball, knows when to shoot and when to pass. He provided the assists for three of the four goals and played alongside Schurrle for the final 21 minutes, when the Germany international replaced Perisic.
Players like Caliguri, midfielder Arnold and defender Naldo might not the make the headlines like De Bruyne, Gustavo or even Schurrle but have turned this side into one of the most promising teams in Bundesliga. On Wednesday, they were uncompromising and walked into the final against Borussia Dortmund. It is their first trip to Berlin since 1995, having fallen at the last hurdle an astonishing five times since 1999.
"It's Jurgen Klopp's last game at BVB, and it will be highly emotional, but we want to win it," Hecking said after the match. At the away end, VfL Wolfsburg players joined their fans -- all of them dressed in the club colours green and white -- and their stars displayed their "We are going to Berlin" shirts, with all their names on it, and also the name of late Junior Malanda, who died in a road accident in January 2015. A small, but meaningful gesture.
It's 5pm, three-and-a-half-hours before kick-off on the Siegfriedplatz, an old square a short walk away from the 26,173 capacity Alm. It slowly fills up. For now, a few fans hang out in the beer gardens, or on the benches. A Newfoundland dog displays his Arminia Bielefeld scarf, his proud owners chat away with other locals as I sit down next to Sotiri, a Greek in his early 30s born in Bielefeld.
"Whatever happened to football?" is the first thing he asks. "Success," I reply. Sotiri nods.
Success has spared Bielefeld. And, from a certain point of view, that could be a major problem. It's not for Sotiri. "You have no choice. When you are born here, this is your club." He walks me through his fan history.
It's one where a 4-4 against Bayern Munich back in 1998 counts as much as a Champions League trophy for others. It's one where you attend games not to win them, but to live them inside the stadium, with endless support amid the dreariness that comes along with another defeat, another downfall, another unsuccessful relegation battle, another near bankruptcy.
Bielefeld play their games on the Alm. The German word for Alp might be a strange name for a stadium in East Westphalia, but the saying goes that it's the highest stadium in Germany because you need one year for the climb and one year for the descent. And in any case, despite the lack of any Alps the nearby town of Beverungen -- with passionate Bielefeld supporters living there -- boasts about having the most northern Almatrieb, when the cattle is brought into the stables from the hills in the autumn.
Still, the name did not last. In 2004, the Alm was renamed Schuco-Arena, following a sponsorship deal with Bielefeld-based window and solar panel manufacturers.
"These days they call everything Arena! Even our stadium," Sotiri says. "Figure it out: Bread and circuses, that's what football is," he concludes. When he leaves me, he is full of confidence despite all his melancholy. "We'll win it, and we'll win the whole thing."
I make my way to the stadium. Outside stalls sell bottles of beer for one euro and crowds anticipate the cup upset against Wolfsburg and the trip to Berlin less than one year after going down from the Bundesliga II in the relegation playoffs. Bielefeld beat Darmstadt 3-1 in the away leg, but lost the reverse fixture 4-2 at home and after extra time. They conceded the last goal in the 122nd minute. On Saturday, they could seal their return to the second league with three points against Holstein Kiel.
Having already taken three Bundesliga skulls against Berlin, Bremen and Gladbach confidence is high outside the stadium. "We are the bulls, and Wolfsburg are the toreros," a 55-year-old from Frankfurt tells me. "I always come here. I was born here. Why should I care about Eintracht Frankfurt?"
Oh the dreariness that comes along with another defeat, another downfall, another unsuccessful relegation battle, another near bankruptcy. It will never stop you from being a fan.
Of course, Bielefeld go down 4-0. Wolfsburg are too big of an opponent, but the stadium celebrates their heroes. They sing a vast repertoire of songs throughout the 90 minutes. They cheer their team, they prepare for Saturday. They are loud, and they are thankful for their return to the spotlight. They know that they will never win a major trophy and so they start chanting. "When we come back, when we come back to Bundesliga one, we'll win the Meisterschaft and compete in the UEFA Cup."
The UEFA Cup no longer exists, but Bielefeld does. That is all that matters to them. And deep runs like Arminia Bielefeld's this season are essentially what make the DFB Pokal such a thrilling competition.