Mainz is famed for its annual carnival but its football has rarely been the cause for great rejoicing. Until now, as 1. FSV Mainz 05 threaten to supplant FC Bayern München in the history books.
Mainz had never even played in the Bundesliga before 2004 but have taken Germany by storm this season, starting with seven straight wins. On 25 September they prevailed 2-1 at Bayern and Saturday's 4-2 defeat of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim – the sensations of two years ago – equalled the best-ever top-flight start set by Bayern in 1995/96 and 1. FC Kaiserslautern in 2001/02.
Another victory against Hamburger SV on 16 October would give Mainz the record outright, but no one is getting carried away. In Munich, the Mainz fans waved a Bundesliga trophy with the inscription: "Don't worry Louis [van Gaal], it's only cardboard." And general manager Christian Heidel said: "We are not dreaming of Europe or eyeing the championship."
Realism is important. Mainz were German amateur champions in 1982 and finally reached the Bundesliga 22 years later. After two 11th-placed finishes they were relegated in 2007 before returning for 2009/10. There was hint of their potential as they reached the 2009 German Cup semi-finals and secured ninth last season, but focus remains on an imminent move from the Stadion am Bruchweg to a new 33,500 arena.
Heidel's own story is typical of how the club have been building at a sustainable pace. He has been with Mainz for nearly 20 years, and has done his current job unpaid for four of those, while the similarly down-to-earth Harald Strutz has been president since 2002.
The coach, Thomas Tuchel, was in charge of the Under-19 side until he replaced promotion-winning Jørn Andersen following Mainz's German Cup exit on the eve of the 2009/10 league campaign. Tuchel had never played nor coached in the Bundesliga, but did lead Mainz to the 2009 German U19 title. At 37, he is the youngest trainer in the top division.
Tuchel likes his squad to take responsibility for decisions and works on painstaking 'battle plans' for each opponent, sometimes changing as many as six players to fit the blueprint. "
He has an outstanding football brain, coupled with strong communication with the players," Heidel said.
He has blended experienced players like Nikolče Noveski, Bo Svensson and Miroslav Karhan with young talents Lewis Holtby, Eugen Polanski and André Schürrle – a Mainz product with four goals already this season. Schürrle's sale to Bayer 04 Leverkusen for next summer has already been agreed, not the first time the youth system has helped bring in useful revenue.
So can Mainz stay at the top until May? Well, neither Bayern nor Kaiserslautern won the league after their record starts. They were both pipped by a Borussia Dortmund side that again lurk in second after beating Bayern at the weekend. Heidel has a more pragmatic aim – a former motor salesman, he wants Mainz to move from being a "small family car" in the Bundesliga to a "mid-range saloon".
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