Kianz Froese had already helped FC Saarbrücken into the semifinals of the DFB Pokal, the first time a fourth-division club had made it, but also has played a major role in the team's promotion to the third division for the first time in 10 years.
The plaza was full of hundreds of people, all enjoying beer or meals at the restaurants that lined the picturesque square in Saarbrücken.
Kianz Froese was on the hunt for a celebratory ice cream after his fourth-division club, FC Saarbrücken, had earned promotion earlier in the day. Strolling through the plaza Wednesday in what he figured was complete anonymity, a sudden swell of thunderous applause and cheers rolled over the former Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder. “FC Saarbrücken! FC Saarbrücken!”
“It was really nice,” he said, laughing. “It’s something I think that would only happen in German soccer.”
It’s been a remarkable season for the Saarlanders, who knocked off two top-flight Bundesliga teams in Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Köln, as well as two second-division clubs (Karlsruher SC and SSV Jahn Regensburg) to become the first fourth-division club in history to make the semifinals of the German Cup (DFB Pokal). They’re set to face Bayer Leverkusen, currently fifth in the Bundesliga, on Tuesday, June 9.
While their season has been suspended because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the governing body declared that Saarbrücken — which tops the Regionalliga Südwest with 55 points from 23 games, seven points ahead of their closest rival —would be promoted to the third division for the first time since 2010.
“We would have liked to have climbed the climb in the normal way and were well on the way there. But corona put a spanner in the works and the pandemic is not over yet,” Saarbrücken president Hartmut Ostermann told reporters this week.
The city erupted in celebration with the news, a spontaneous flag-waving car parade weaving through the streets, but it was an eruption of joy the players could not afford to soak up.
“Last night was pretty big, in terms of the party and the people. But we weren’t really allowed to do anything with anybody outside of our team,” said the 24-year-old Froese.
“Because if you catch corona now, then basically you can’t play in the semifinal … and obviously, that’s a game you want to play. It’s dangerous (to mix), you know? No one wants to risk it.”
The threat of missing out on facing Leverkusen, with a chance to continue their unprecedented fairy tale run, was made real after the celebration that followed their win over Düsseldorf in March. Nine Saarlanders, including Froese, fell ill after partying that night and were quarantined for two weeks.
The number of infections in the city of 200,000 that sits on Germany’s western border with France are low, but the team and staff still tested several times a week.
The challenge that awaits them less than two weeks away has increased in difficulty during their pandemic-forced break. While they were limited to fitness testing early on, and have since moved on to twice-daily training sessions, they haven’t played since that March 3 match against Fortuna.
Bayer will have played five Bundesliga games by the time their Pokal semi with Saarbrücken rolls around, giving them ample playing time to hone their squad.
“One hundred per cent” they have an advantage, said Froese. “Those players are … Champions League players. They’re basically the top — or very close to — the top teams in the world. Essentially, in terms of talent and players, you’re talking about guys who have ‘made it’ in the world of football.
“We’re going to go up against them without having played a game, but you know, anything’s possible in the world of footie. We believe that we can do it. We believe we can beat them.
“I think it’s possible that we do beat them, but 100 per cent, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be harder than all the other games. We’re going to have to do ‘our thing’ just a little bit better.”
In the quarter-finals, it took a mind-blowing performance from goalkeeper Daniel Batz — he’s now known locally as “God with Gloves” — to stop Fortuna. He made some key stops in the game, then became the first goalkeeper in Pokal history to stop four penalty kicks in a shootout.
Froese has a career-high 10 assists this season, including one that set up Saarbrücken’s only goal that game — and the four he’s recorded in the Pokal are a record for a non-Bundesliga player.
Making it this far in the Pokal has eclipsed the objectives set for the club at the start of the season.
“There used to be a chant that they’d yell at us when we were playing, as a motivator. It was: ‘Promotion or death’ (Aufstieg oder Tod),” Froese said. “They kept repeating it while we were in season, so I know there was no other way. The club wanted to promote this year. It had to be this year. (It was) like that from the first day of the season.
“The fans here are ambitious. Saarbrucken was once in first Bundesliga and second, so I think that’s … in the back of their heads. A lot of teams go from fourth, to third, to second all of a sudden. It’s not uncommon, and often very possible. And the Pokal runs show that if we’re beating like that, then basically we just need to stay mentally focused and together as a team, and maybe we can promote next season, too.”
Ironically, there is no guarantee Froese will be there to help. He hasn’t signed a new contract yet, and his current one expires at the end of this season.
“I don’t worry too much about those things anymore. When I was younger, I used to think more about it,” said the Winnipeg-raised Froese.
“It makes no sense for me to torture myself and say the future is going to be this or that. Until it’s there … it’s been proven in my life 100 times over now to not theorize.
“Relax and wait until it’s there. And when (the opportunity) is there, you take it. Know the way, work for the way, close your eyes and go. Patience.”
NOTES: Saarbrücken and Bayer Leverkusen will play at the Völklingen Hermann Neuberger Stadium, where the Saarlanders have been playing temporarily while their new stadium is constructed. It will be a “Ghost Game,” played without spectators, as per Bundesliga COVID-19 protocols. … The last time Saarbrücken made a DFB Cup semifinal was 35 years ago, when they lost 1-0 to eventual Cup winner cup winner Bayer Uerdingen in front of 32,000 spectators in the Ludwigspark Stadium. … Alphonso Davies and defending champions Bayern Munich play in the other semifinal the following day against league rival Eintracht Frankfurt. The DFB final is set for July 4 in Berlin.
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