ESSEN, Germany -- The final whistle sounds and TC Freisenbruch's players visibly sag in dismay. In the first half of their season they won all but one of their 18 fixtures, losing none and conceding only four goals in the process. But now, in their first game back after the winter break, they have been beaten at home. There is much for the managers to ponder. All 384 of them.
Freisenbruch are a ninth-level German amateur side based in an unremarkable suburb of Essen, but there is nothing unremarkable about the way they operate. For a modest fee of €5 a month, anyone in the world can become one of their managers, gaining access to an innovative interface that will be familiar to anyone who has ever played the "Football Manager" series of games. It allows them to have a direct say in anything from team selection to the price of the beer outside the club house.
Striker Jorn Parakenings missed two easy chances in the first half against Rellinghausen. Regardless of whether the physical coach, Mike Mollensiep, has faith in him to improve, it will be those 384 managers watching at home who will decide whether or not he keeps his place in the team. They pay their money and the overwhelming majority make their choices. And therein lies the beauty, and perhaps the flaw, of this scheme.
"Some people think it's perverse," says director Peter Schafer, smiling, "but I think it's open and transparent. Everyone knows where they are."
Schafer is one of the visionaries behind the scheme, implemented at the start of this season as an imaginative way of preserving the club's future. In the past, the city of Essen had paid for the maintenance of the Waldstadion Bergmannsbusch, their curious amphitheatre-like home, but eight years ago the club was left to fend for itself. They swiftly dropped down the divisions.
"The board had to decide if the club was finished, or if there was anything crazy we could do to save it," Schafer told ESPN FC. "We wanted to do something crazy. We planned it for two years, one technical guy, one financial guy and me, the football guy. And this is what we came up with."
When a manager logs on, they are greeted by an appealing and intuitive interface. A dashboard provides them with reminders, alerts, news, videos and, of course, details of every player.
No ninth-tier footballers can ever have been so lovingly packaged for the public. Freisenbruch's collection of players -- like Maurice Peus the postman and carpenter/defensive midfielder Marvin Schadhof -- are given the full celebrity treatment, with individual pages listing their personal details, statistics and even, in some instances, video interviews. But the most coverage is given over to coach Mollensiep, once on the books of mighty Bundesliga outfit Schalke, based 15 km up the road.
Every week, Mollensiep is recorded telling the managers how he thinks the team should play and which players he would choose, were it his decision. But it is not. The real managers have until 5 a.m. on match day to drag and drop their favoured players into position, and Mollensiep has to obey the will of the majority. Given Freisenbruch's extraordinary success in the first half of the season, the system seems to work. However, in the days before ESPN FC arrives in Essen, Mollensiep announces that he will leave the club at the end of the season.
"Mike told us how much money he wanted available for the next season," said Schafer. "It was too much to bring a fast decision. We told him that the managers would have to decide it in April, when we exactly know the budget for 2017-18. He knew this timeline already but four days later, he told us he wanted to leave the club at the end of the season."
"Because of the concept, the club has to wait until April to know the budget for the next season," said Mollensiep. "For me that´s too late. But I understand the club's decision and so we will try to keep being successful together until I leave.
"But most of all, I want to work in a club where I can make all the decisions."
You can certainly see Mollensiep's point. If the short-term power of the manager when it comes to team selection is daunting, it's nothing compared to the power they wield when it comes to contracts. At any point in the season, they can log on and drag and drop players into one of two piles: Retain or Dismiss.
Any player who finishes the season with less than a 60 percent approval rating will be released without question. Attacking midfielder Kuvinthan Yogarathnam is philosophical about his 58 percent score, acknowledging that in any football team, futures are determined by performances. But he is an unused substitute the following day and if he can't get on the pitch, he can't win over that crucial two percent.
Had he not already decided to leave, coach Möllensiep would be vulnerable as well. Managers can register their faith in his abilities at any time, rating him from 0-100 percent. If he ever drops below 15 percent, he is instantly dismissed. Unsurprisingly, he has spent most of the year in the 90s but news of his impending departure dragged him down to 72 percent.
To help the managers in their decision-making, the players wear GPS tags, games are recorded and uploaded to the website and statistics are carefully maintained by the Schafer and a small band of volunteers. Midfielder Marvin Schadhof currently leads the way for bookings. "He is like a small boy," says Schafer. "He always wants to come home dirty."
"I just try to give my best," protests Schadhof.
Even training routines are filmed and analysed. If, for example, you wanted to find out how Heiko Basel, Freisenbruch's 30-year-old midfielder, has performed in shuttle runs, his scores are only a couple of clicks away.
But the powers of the managers are not just limited to football. They can vote on anything from ticket price (currently €3) to opponents for preseason friendlies. The latter causes Schafer the biggest headache as he has to provisionally book two opponents, informing both clubs that confirmation for one of them can only come after a vote. But most decisions are relatively simple. Recently, there was a vote for a new item in the club shop and the managers decided that they wanted scarves. Then there was a vote for a design, and the managers duly made their call. And thus, on a small trestle table outside the club house, scarves are now available for sale.
As well as their online managers, Freisenbruch have their own traditional supporters, residents of the surrounding streets and tower blocks. On Sunday morning, they amble over to the clubhouse and greet each other warmly. Thanks to the votes of the managers and the hard work of club volunteers, they can buy Stauder beer (the local brew), bratwursts, those aforementioned green club scarves and, most curiously, crime thriller paperbacks set at their own football club.
Supporter Patrick Schmidt makes a 200 km journey down for every home game and happily pays his €5 to help pick the players. "Most of the time I don't agree with the coach," he says. "It's nice to have his video but I know some of the players and I've been watching for years, so I have my own opinion."
At 11 a.m., after a team-talk from Mollensiep and a rousing war-cry from attacking midfielder Christian Cronberger, the players line up on the steps that lead down to the pitch, a gritty, unforgiving reddish surface of colliery spoil.
It's a real battle. A combination of eagerness from Rellinghausen II (who have brought four first-team players with them in an effort to topple the leaders) and the treacherous surface sees players slamming into each other with eye-watering force. Freisenbruch are marginally the better team, but they can't get their usual game going and they look intimidated by the desire of Rellinghausen's players.
"This happens a lot," says assistant coach Adrian Bullik. "Everyone wants to beat us now."
At half-time, Mollensiep is angry with his players, accusing them of losing all the battles in the middle of the pitch. As two large containers of cake (an odd choice for a half-time snack) sit untouched next to his tactics board, he unloads his fury on his team and then starts to build them back up again, encouraging and cajoling them.
The second half is better but tempers begin to boil over. Rellinghausen's manager explodes with rage at the referee, calling him something that literally translates as "a s--t whistle," and he is sent from his dugout.
Freisenbruch continue to press for a goal but chances are few and far between. With 20 minutes left, 41-year-old Mollensiep brings himself onto the pitch to no avail. As his team push up, gaps emerge at the back. With two minutes left on the clock, Rellinghausen score on the break. From up above the pitch, their manager shouts himself hoarse with joy.
The result ends Freisenbruch's excellent unbeaten run and the mood in the dressing room afterwards is sombre. A handful of the players stick around in the clubhouse, sinking beers and playing a complicated dice game called "Shocken." Mollensiep leaves soon after the full-time whistle.
It's clear that Mollensiep will have his own ideas on how to bounce back from this disappointment. He will have come to his own conclusions on who to drop and what to change. But at TC Freisenbruch, those decisions are not his to make. Here, it is the supporters who wield the power.
"I'm sad and I'm disappointed that the team has lost," said Janina Mockenhaupt, who is both a team manager and a multi-tasking organiser behind the scenes. "But I don't want to change the team. It's a good team!"