Lichtenberg 47 (7:6, penalties) FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin
If 120 minutes of mud-slogged soccer had made him weary, Ümit Ergirdi showed little sign of it as he spritely jogged to the spot and prepared to take his team’s fifth penalty. He’d have to hit the back of the net to avoid instant elimination from the Berliner Pokal. The FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin captain and veteran midfielder stood in this exact spot over an hour ago, when his first-half penalty was scooped up with ease by Lichtenberg 47 keeper Niklas Wollert. Given he’s made over 300 appearances in the German 4th and 5th divisions, its unlikely such a high-pressure situation was anything new for Ergirdi. The whistle blew and he struck the ball from the penalty spot for the second time, opting now to send it tearing down the middle instead of low and wide like his first shot. And for the second time Wollert was up to the task, just managing to swat the attempt away and send the Lichtenberg squad and home fans into rapturous celebration.
For Ergirdi and his side, there was only disappointment. Though he’s surely faced such pressure before, this time it got to him, cutting off Viktoria’s cup run prematurely at the hands of an opponent from one division their inferior. Viktoria’s discontent can only be sharpened by the knowledge that they spent most of the match in the driver’s seat and looked sure to advance before stupendously collapsing under a late, impassioned surge from Lichtenberg.
Such an exciting game shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. This 3rd round Berliner Pokal matchup stood out on the fixture list. Lichtenberg 47, currently in a 3-way tie on points for second place in the Oberliga (5th division), were Pokal finalists in 2015/16. Viktoria, sitting in 7th in a crowded Regionalliga (4th division) table, were finalists a year ago. In fact, Lichtenberg was an early victim of Viktoria’s success last year, when 1889 knocked them out in the 2nd round. With two of the tournament’s best sides in recent year’s sparring, the day was heavy with the expectation of a thrilling bout. Despite the biting November cold and sputtering, gloomy drizzle that soaked the pitch and waterlogged the lightly overgrown terraces of the Hans Zoschke Stadion, 300 fans were in attendance. Their umbrellas ringed the stadium while the concession stands went through Glühwein at an impressive pace.
The miserable weather could have justified a subdued start to the match, but the action kicked off early. Viktoria looked a class above Lichtenberg from the beginning, dictating the match’s tempo and dominating possession. This translated into a goal only 9 minutes in, when winger Christian Hasse barreled into the box, rising over his marker to head a gorgeously lofted cross from wide right into the net. Already looking comfortable on the ball and happy to build slowly from the back, 1889 only doubled down on their patient approach after going up, unhurriedly working the ball forward from their defensive line, probing the Lichtenberg midfield and defense when possible but frequently recycling the ball back to continue possession and try again.
Lichtenberg, frequently hanging deep in their own side of the field, initially struggled to change this dynamic. They’d do a better job of winning the ball and scrambling forward as the half wore on, and they had both a goal rightly deemed offsides and hit the crossbar in the first period. Meanwhile, Viktoria’s sustained control rarely translated into concrete chances, and the closest they came to scoring again in the opening 45 minutes was Ergirdi’s saved penalty. The stopped spot kick, as well as near-murderous levels of chippiness and shared roars of frustration from the home team and supporters at the referee’s every decision lent the close of the half a crackling atmosphere, even if Lichtenberg’s play on the field left much to be desired.
The hosts could not manage to transform the electricity in the air to chances on the ground to start the second half. They saw a bit more of the ball than earlier, but had little luck in breaking down the Viktoria midfield, and more frequently than not ended up lobbing the ball over the head of their lone striker as soon as they got a hold of it. Viktoria’s grip on the game tightened when they doubled their lead in the 68th minute. A mental lapse in the Licthenberg backline saw the ball stripped away and laid off to Viktoria’s Abu Bakarr Kargbo, who was one-on-one with the red’s keeper and tucked the ball away with ease. By now things looked insurmountable for Lichtenberg 47. The excellent Hasse nearly added to his tally just three minutes later, when his deftly chipped shot was cleared off the line by a Lichtenberg defender. This close shave seemed to shake some life into the home side. Although they had never quite laid down against their more-powerful opponents, Lichtenberg pushed forward more and with greater venom than before. Notably, 1889 failed to adjust to this shift, as they neglected to manage the game and allowed enough space for Lichtenberg to hunt out cracks and bring the ball into attack.
Despite the game clock ticking steadily away, there was already a sense of possibility leading into Lichtenberg’s first goal in the 78th minute. A high cross from the left was headed down in the box, right into the path of Viktoria defender Tobias Gunte, who couldn’t help but watch in horror as he deflected the ball into his own goal. 2:1, and Lichtenberg was back to life. Viktoria responded by dropping as deep as physically possible, allowing the hosts to attack nearly at will, with increasing ferocity and fueled by the growing hope of their fans. With time slipping away and Lichtenberg looking dangerous, both teams and benches were animated, Viktoria trying to weather the storm while the home fans and players sought to make what was increasingly feeling possible a reality. Naturally, they did just that, executing the inevitable just one minute to full time, with center back Sebastian Reiniger playing the hero and cleaning up a headed cross, sending his bench rushing onto the field in a frenzy.
For all their momentum in the last 15 minutes of regulation, Lichtenberg looked rather tentative in extra time, and both sides seemed content to play things safe. An uneventful half an hour later and the teams lined up for penalties, knowing full well that the crazy game which saw fortunes tilt so drastically from one end of the pitch to another could now end in anyone’s favor. The first nine penalties were confidently taken, all ripping into their target and leaving the two keepers looking dumbfounded. Until, of course, Viktoria’s final go, when Lichtenberg’s keeper Wollert knew he once again had Ergirdi’s number and guessed right. Thanks to Wollert, the Lichtenberg fans will get to catch at least one more Pokal match this season. Given the wild afternoon at Hans Zoschke Stadion they’d likely be happy with a repeat of Sunday’s madness, albeit ideally with a bit better weather.