FRANKFURT, Germany -- The third goal was the embarrassment. Late in the first Champions League game in Eintracht Frankfurt's history, their first game in a top-tier European competition in 62 years, Sporting Club Portugal led, 2-0. Then Sporting's Pedro Porro picked up a ball on the right flank.
By at least one measure, Eintracht Frankfurt is the worst team ever to play in the Champions League. No other club has finished 11th domestically, as Eintracht did last season, then taken a place among the giants of the sport. But even down two goals, a draw didn't feel out of reach for Eintracht until the 82nd minute, when Porro started to move down the sideline.
Rafael Borre tried to shoulder him into the Heineken ad, but Porro accelerated past. He lofted a rainbow of a cross in the direction of Nuno Santos, who two-timed the ball into the right side of net without breaking stride. The goal was breathtakingly casual, the kind that a first team might score against a bunch of u16s in an improvised scrimmage. Watching from a box at Deutsche Bank Park, Eintracht executive Philipp Reschke hung his head. "We don't belong in the Champions League," he'd say later.
An influential member of the four-man supervisory board that runs the club, Reschke had been uneasy even before the game began. He knew that a terrible showing would undermine the substantial progress Eintracht has made in the past decade. "We don't want to become, as we say here, 'cannon feed.'" he said. "We don't want to end up in fourth place, with zero points, and two goals scored to 21 allowed."
Eintracht is in the midst of a long-term strategic initiative to reclaim its position as one of Germany's-and even Europe's-most prominent clubs. It constructed an impressive new headquarters. It opened commercial offices in New York and Shanghai. It announced plans to expand the capacity of Deutsche Bank Arena, already one of the nation's largest, from 51,000 to 60,000.
Across Germany, such efforts have been applauded-especially with traditional powers Schalke 04, Stuttgart and Hamburg languishing at the bottom of the Bundesliga, or out of it entirely. "It's great to see that a club with such a heritage and a history is back on track," said Carsten Cramer, the managing director of Borussia Dortmund. "It's good for German football. They have a history and heritage and emotional environment."
But because of a surprising run through last season's Europa League that included a landmark 3-2 upset at Barcelona in a quarterfinal leg, Eintracht's opportunity on the field has come ahead of schedule. While the marketing side of the club is poised and ready, the team sheet that Oliver Glasner puts out each week remains a work in progress.
In the opening minutes against Sporting, Eintracht played like they belonged, nearly scoring twice. "We felt great," goalkeeper Kevin Trapp said. "We felt confident. But we learned the hard way that if you have chances to score and you don't score, at this level you pay the price."
Sporting tallied their three goals on five shots. They hardly seemed to break a sweat. "You need that to win in the Champions League," said Sebastian Rode, who previously played at Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. "You score, you play easy, you score. And then it's finished."
Eintracht currently sits sixth in the Bundesliga. A 6-1 thrashing by Bayern Munich to start the season seems a good indication of how far they remain behind Germany's elite. Asked about that gap, sporting director Markus Krosche lifts his eyebrows. Then he talks about his players in a way that not many sporting directors of Champions League clubs would do.
"Maybe they are not even ready for every match in the Bundesliga," he says. "They will make mistakes, and we have to accept that. We have to be willing to help them become better players. Better in the football, in nutrition, in their mentality. To help them be professional."
That is Eintracht's mission, he explained. The challenge is not to get distracted by the wins and losses along the way.
Whose glass of wine was it? Nobody knew. It sat there, untouched, on a white tablecloth inside a suite at Deutsche Bank Park.
Not that it really mattered to the nonagenarians and octogenarians who were in the process of standing up to head outside for the start of the game. Among them were three of the six surviving members of the Eintracht team that played against Real Madrid in final of the 1960 European Cup, one of the most famous matches in the history of world football. "I stopped drinking a while ago," said one with a laugh. "It can't be mine." A moment later, he changed his mind. "Oh, I'll have it," he said.
The suite was a gift from the club to the players on that team. Their fame has faded in recent years, even in Frankfurt, which is one of the reasons that the club wanted to honor them. "I don't get recognized often anymore," muses Egon Loy, now 91, who played in goal against Real Madrid. "Sometimes people might say, 'I think I know that name.'"
Another reason was to remind Eintracht's supporters, and even its players, that the club has a claim to a place in Europe's highest echelon. Eintracht was already an important name in the sport when it took the field in Glasgow that May, with 127,000 spectators in the stands and some 70 million more watching on television. Ten goals later, seven of them by either Ferenc Puskas or Alfredo DiStefano, Real Madrid's two legendary stars, they were the 7-3 loser. But over the course of two hours of football at a level that nobody had previously seen, Eintracht Frankfurt had grown into the second-biggest club in the world.
For the next few years, Eintracht went most everywhere that the sport was played. "We were what was called a traveling club," says Matthias Thoma, the club historian, and the curator of its museum. "We made world tours, we made American tours, we made South African tours. Everyone wanted Real Madrid, but they were too expensive. So they booked us instead."
When the Bundesliga was founded in 1963, Eintracht Frankfurt was a charter member. The first year, they finished third. But over time, that 1960 European Cup proved to be an inflection point. Real Madrid went on to dominate Europe. Eintracht? It hasn't even won the Bundesliga. "And yet," says Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German international, "they enjoy a huge level of identity with the people. That makes them accountable. It makes them work harder. They're a big club, the biggest club in a very important region."
What makes a big club? The term is used throughout football indiscriminately. Some clubs are big because they have had historic success, even if that was decades ago. Others sell millions of shirts, or they have the backing of a billionaire or a national investment fund. Dortmund's Cramer offers a simpler definition. "The more people you reach, the more hearts you open, that's a big club," he says. "Eintracht Frankfurt is able to reach many, many people."
To take advantage of that, you must remain relevant. At the end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s, Eintracht fell into 2. Bundesliga, Germany's second division. When it happened again after a disastrous 2011 season, the directors brought in Axel Hellmann. A successful corporate lawyer, Hellmann had been working on the club's non-profit side, overseeing the business of 19 other sports, from table tennis to darts. He had a vision for restoring Eintracht's glory. "We needed to improve in the areas of sport, marketing, digitalization and internationalization," he says. "To close the gap between us and the top clubs in the Bundesliga on every level."
Simply put, he understood that succeeding on the field meant succeeding off of it. "While others were saying, 'Can we just play football?' Axel was sending the message that it didn't work that way," says Reschke. "We have to build a big administrative building. We have to run our own stadium. We have to care for our sponsors. We have to celebrate our hundredth birthday with a big party for our supporters. All of that will have an effect."
The change has been dramatic. From 2010 to 2014, Rode played 94 games for Eintracht. Then, as so many of the Bundesliga's top players tend to do, he left for Bayern. After that, he spent two seasons with Dortmund. Going to the Champions League year after year, participating in meaningful games with the whole country watching, he had the chance to experience what a big club felt like.
When the opportunity to return to Frankfurt emerged in 2019, Rode was intrigued. In truth, he hadn't played nearly enough at Bayern or Dortmund. At Eintracht, he would be a centerpiece of a team that was again playing in Europe. Still, he was concerned about returning to the apathetic Eintracht he knew.
What he found was a club that had been transformed. "It was only five years," he said. "But suddenly it had 300 employees, when it had only been half that." Eintracht's previous goal had been simply to stay in the league. "Maybe 10th in the table was considered a success," Rode said. "But the club had developed in the time I was gone. It had a lot more ambition."
The turning point had come only a few weeks before Rode returned, when Eintracht upset Bayern Munich to win the DFB Pokal, Germany's domestic cup. The trophy, the club's first of any kind since 1988, provided tangible evidence that gains that had been made.
Hellmann saw it as an opportunity for more.
"I had the feeling," he says, "that we could achieve something big."
A different cup on a different tablecloth, this cup gleaming gold. It was the end of the spring of 2018, the flowers blooming along the Main River. The table at Casa Isoletta, on the southern edge of Frankfurt's Sachsenhausen neighborhood, was in a festive mood. The DFB Pokal trophy had been placed in the middle, where everyone could see it. Eating and drinking around it were some of the club's top executives: department heads, board members, everyone who'd played an important role in the final against Bayern that had been won a few days before.
Around the room, beating Bayern was being celebrated as the culmination of Hellmann's plan to restore Frankfurt's relevance. Hellmann stood up and said that it wasn't that at all. It should be perceived not as a reward but an opportunity. "We cannot take this trophy, hug it, say 'Oh, how wonderful," and relax," he said. "We have to use it, because we have a unique chance to build on it."
Hellmann sounded less like a board member than a coach at halftime. Everyone knew that the Cup win had put Eintracht directly into the group stage of the Europa League. "So let's use that to rise up to the next level," he exhorted.
Beating Bayern gave Eintracht a foundation. Hellmann has pushed the club's executives to continue building on it, even during a pandemic. "It continues to drive us on," he says. "There's no other club in recent years that has had a similar kind of dynamic development."
From about 35,000 paying members only a few years ago, it now has more than 100,000. "That can change political structures in a city like Frankfurt," says Reschke. The surge in membership helped convince the city to approve the construction of the new headquarters, adjacent to Deutsche Bank Park, and then to allow the club to take commercial control of the stadium itself. That, in turn, led to the seven-year, $40 million naming rights deal in 2020.
That first trip to the Europa League, in 2019, ended in a semifinal loss to Chelsea. Last year, everyone connected with the club was determined to see it go even further. "For us," Hellman said, "the bond of energy between the fans, the local region, the staff and the players is crucial."
For April's quarterfinal at Nou Camp, some 30,000 fans traveled from Frankfurt, though only 5,000 tickets had been allotted for them. They marched down Las Ramblas clad all in white and found their way into the game. The noise they made inside led both Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona's manager, and club president Joan Laporta to complain that it felt like the game was in Frankfurt. Filip Kostic scored twice, Borre added a third, and Eintracht held s 3-0 lead after 90 minutes.
During a furious Barcelona rally in extra time, those 30,000 fans in black and white were louder than the 70,000 around them. As much as Trapp in goal or the defense, they kept the ball out of the net. "They create so much emotion, and that creates so much drive, it enables them to do things that you wouldn't think they could do," says Klinsmann. He reports that he watched every one of Eintracht's Europa League games with a passionate interest, though he has no connection to the club. "Because of the energy," he says. "It's wonderful to see."
Around football, players have noticed. "There are much more interesting teams around the world," Rode says. "But Eintracht wanted to be part of this. And it's a good ambition, because then players feel the same-you want more. And with that kind of thinking, who knows what may be possible?"
Eintracht doesn't yet have the economic engine to challenge for the top of the table. "We can't compete for players with Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Leverkusen and Leipzig," Krosche says. "That's just the reality." Only once has it spent more than 10 million Euros on a player. That was Luka Jovic, who was immediately flipped to Real Madrid for 60 million. The club doesn't have decades of Champions League payouts like Bayern, or 80,000 fans in the stands like Dortmund, or the corporate backing of Bayer Leverkusen or RB Leipzig. "So we need to do a better job of scouting," Krosche says. "We need to be earlier in the market."
By the time that it became clear this summer that Kostic, their star attacking midfielder was headed to Juventus, Krosche already had identified and signed an under-the-radar replacement: Randal Kolo Muani of Nantes. His arrival gave Eintracht 12 outfield players aged 23 or younger, so former German World Cup hero Mario Gotze-who'd played nine years for Dortmund and three for Bayern-was convinced to return to the Bundesliga from PSV Eindhoven as an elder statesman. It was only possible because Gotze was convinced that the attitude at Frankfurt had evolved in the two years he'd been out of Germany.
"And I get to play in the Champions League," he said.
Glasner arrived before last season, after first leading Wolfsburg into the Champions League. "He's a different kind of coach," says Krosche. "And here, he has a different kind of job. To work with the young players. To help them make the next step and accept that they will make mistakes along the way."
Those mistakes showed up again in Eintracht's next game after the loss to Sporting, which happened to be against Glasner's former team. (In true Bundesliga fashion, the managers of both teams were competing against their old employers: Wolfsburg's manager is Niko Kovac, who managed Eintracht from 2016 to 2018.) Again, Eintracht squandered chances. Again, they were made to pay. Wolfsburg poked home a header in the 60th minute and hung on.
At that moment, Eintracht was failing in both competitions-back in 11th place in the Bundesliga, just four points above relegation, looking outclassed everywhere. Rode understood what was needed. "I have experience playing with players like Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller, Lewandowski, Xabi Alonso," he said. "In the locker room, I could speak about this experience."
He told his teammates that he appreciated that they were overwhelmed by the idea of playing in the Champions League for the first time in the history of the club. But those 90 minutes should have taught them a lesson. Now they knew what to expect. "We have to do better," he said. "We can do better. And then we will see what happens."
The following Tuesday, Eintracht was in Marseille for its second Champions League game. The same night, Bayern Munich was winning a heavyweight battle with Barcelona. Liverpool was snatching respectability from the jaws of disaster against Ajax. Tottenham's thin veneer of confidence was getting shattered in Lisbon. It hardly needs to be said that, for most football fans around the world, Eintracht-Olympique Marseille wasn't exactly top of mind.
And yet, there may not have been a more meaningful outcome for any club. The game hinged on a single moment, as games occasionally do. Jesper Lindstrom, a 22-year-old Danish winger who is one of Glasner's projects, took a pass from Kolo Muani and surged forward. The ball left Lindstrom's foot and ended up past goalkeeper Pau Lopez.
Though the evening was marred by uncharacteristically bad behavior by its supporters, including at least one who made a Nazi salute, Eintracht suddenly appeared a worthy Champions League representative. "Even if we didn't win a single game, our special brand of passion would have shone through for a lot of fans in Europe and around the world," Hellmann says. "But now we have won a match. We've shown that we can be dangerous as underdogs and outsiders, and without pouring a heap of money into the team."
Eintracht has three points, the same as Tottenham, their opponent in Matchday 3. More important, perhaps, Olympique Marseille has none. One potential route back to continental competition next year would be to maintain third place in Group D. That would put it back in the Europa League-"our most beloved Europa League," Reschke says-and set up another run. For the moment, though, the more glamorous possibility has supporters giddy. "People fall in love with the idea of reaching the knockout stage," Reschke says. "Because it's not impossible."
Glasner relishes the tactical challenge of beating the best teams in the world. But Reschke knows the odds. "Our focus has to be the Bundesliga," he insists. "And getting back to Europe in whatever way possible."
And if Eintracht somehow ends up advancing? He manages a smile.
"We ride the wave," he says, "for as long as we can."