A 2. Bundesliga record holder, Willi Landgraf is a giant at TSV Alemannia Aachen.
By Manfred Christoph
At 36, he may never have played a game in the Bundesliga, but that has not done anything to diminish Willi Landgraf's popularity at TSV Alemannia Aachen.
The right-back's hard work and fighting spirit have long since made him a terrace legend at Aachen, where he echoing cry of "Williiii" greets him every time he takes the pitch, and having made 482 appearances in the 2. Bundesliga, he has now etched his name into the record books too.
For while he made his UEFA Cup debut this year with Aachen after they surprisingly reached the German Cup final last season, Landgraf ensured his place in history a few weeks back as he surpassed 1970s Aachen hero, Jo Montanes, to become the player who has made the most 2. Bundesliga appearances.
And while most may regard the player as approaching the end of his playing career, he has still not entirely lost hope of making his top-tier debut. "Well you know, I am still young and I still have some chances of playing first league football," he joked to uefa.com.
An unknown quantity in European football, Aachen made a bright start to their maiden UEFA Cup group stage campaign with a 1-0 win against French side LOSC Lille Métropole before losing 2-0 at Sevilla FC in their second game. However, a win at home against FC Zenit St Peterburg on Thursday would be a major boost.
"In such a group stage you have to look to win your home games and we played against one of the top sides in the French first division," Landgraf explained. "I think we played decently and deserved to win."
The European campaign has seen a change of venue for Aachen, who have left their modest Tivoli stadium to play at the RheinEnergieStadion 70km away in Cologne. And while he may have seen it all in his long career as a footballer, the big stadium and the big occasion of European games have made their mark.
'Nothing to lose'
"You have to see all of this as something different from league matches," he said. "We are looking forward to such games and playing in the UEFA Cup - you just have to enjoy it. We have nothing to lose and can play as we like."
Having changed coach in the summer and said goodbye to half of the squad that took them past TSV 1860 München, FC Bayern München and VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach into last season's German Cup final, arguably Aachen have had little choice but to see things that way.
"The side has completely changed, but we have become stronger at the back," said Landgraf. "It is important to show a certain fighting spirit especially against teams like Lille who play really first-class football. They really have some superb players."
Having joined Aachen from FC Gütersloh in 1999, Landgraf's career has seen him play for 19 coaches and a colourful array of clubs. However, throughout that time he has never employed an agent and has done all of his professional dealing face-to-face. "I think that was the right decision," he explained.
That no-nonsense manner has already marked Landgraf out as a coach of the future, although perhaps not at Aachen. "The lads are already afraid of the time when I will be their coach," said Landgraf. Considering the commitment and effort he has demanded of himself as a player, perhaps that is no surprise.