By Andreas Alf
Germany's 1. FSV Mainz 05 are walking on air. Only 12 months after being promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time, they are about to make their European debut. Indeed, success has come so quickly the club can hardly keep up with themselves.
Although Mainz's Bruchwegstadion has a 20,300 capacity, UEFA seating regulations, hitherto not a concern for the Rheinland-Pfalz team, restricted this to 10,400 - well below what they would expect for the first leg of their UEFA Cup first qualifying round tie against Armenia's FC MIKA.
However, help has come from an unexpected source, with local rivals Eintracht Frankfurt offering their 44,000-seat arena to further Germany's cause in Europe. "This is fantastic for us," said Mainz executive director Michael Kämmerer. It seems the 84km round trip to Frankfurt will be worthwhile if the extra support helps prolong Mainz's continental adventure.
It is a decade since Frankfurt, traditionally the region's powerhouse, played in Europe, and few Frankfurters would have envisaged upstart Mainz getting there before their own team returned, let alone using their stadium. Yet stranger things have happened in the past year as Mainz mania has gripped German football.
During that time 38-year-old Jürgen Klopp has become one of the league's most popular coaches because of his refreshingly open demeanour, while his side have developed from a bunch of unknowns into a group of highly-rated players. "We managed to avoid relegation in our first Bundesliga campaign and even ended up in eleventh position," Klopp said. "It feels like we've won a championship. I'm unbelievably happy and extremely relieved."
Fair Play reward
Klopp's enthusiasm grew when Mainz hit the jackpot by winning the UEFA Fair Play draw to gain entry to the UEFA Cup. But the coach is not getting ahead of himself. He is well aware that MIKA could cast a lengthy shadow across his club's day in the sun.
MIKA, however, do not have history on their side. They have only ever won one European tie and to compound matters, key striker Armen Shahgeldyan is doubtful through injury. MIKA coach Armen Adamyan takes charge of his first UEFA competition match, and admits the task ahead is daunting. "Our main challenge is psychological," he said. "We must not be afraid of our opponent. We can play decently if luck shines on us."
Mainz are unaccustomed to being favourites. Klopp's tactical excellence and versatile 4-5-1 formation caused some of the Bundesliga's top teams trouble last season, but the odds are against them repeating the feat. Few additions have been made to the squad, and the arrival of midfield veteran Otto Addo has been tempered by the loss of striker Conor Casey, out for six months after tearing a cruciate ligament last week.
"We know this season will be hard because euphoria has been replaced by expectation," Klopp said. But Germany's favourite underdogs will still be trusting in their unique spirit to confound the sceptics again. And they'll be taking the fans along for the ride. They have promised to pay the hotel costs of supporters willing to join them in Yerevan for the second leg. Mainz has long been known as one of the country's carnival capitals and the local side are providing more reasons to celebrate.
Additional reporting by Khachik Chakhoyan
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