BERLIN — Little-known Heidenheim has seemingly come out of nowhere to reach the Bundesliga, a remarkable success for a town of just 50,000 inhabitants in the south of Germany.
Two injury-time goals propelled Frank Schmidt’s team to promotion as second-division champion on Sunday.
Heidenheim will be the 57th team to play in the Bundesliga since the league’s formation in 1963.
Twenty years ago it was playing at fifth-tier level as part of Heidenheimer Sportbund, a local sports association that has 25 departments today including baseball, boxing, fencing, swimming, tennis and gymnastics.
The current-day soccer club Heidenheim was formed in 2007 when it separated from the Sportbund as a stand-alone entity under the auspices of the German soccer league.
Schmidt, who was born in Heidenheim, took over as coach that same year. He has since become the longest-serving coach in German professional soccer.
As a defensive midfielder, Schmidt had helped Heidenheim clinch promotion from the fifth tier to the fourth in 2006. He previously made 76 appearances in the second division for Alemannia Aachen and Waldhof Mannheim before spending the last three seasons of his career playing for his hometown club.
Schmidt was appointed Heidenheim coach — initially on interim basis — on Sept. 17, 2007. He steered the club to promotion to the third division in 2009, then the second division in 2014, before Sunday’s remarkable ascent to the Bundesliga. Every promotion was achieved as league champion.
In 1994, Schmidt was part of the fourth-tier TSV Vestenbergsgreuth team that shocked German champion Bayern Munich 1-0 in the first round of the German Cup. He almost stunned Bayern again in the quarterfinals of the German Cup in 2019, when Heidenheim eventually bowed out with a 5-4 defeat in Munich. Bayern went on to win the competition.
Heidenheim will get more chances to upset the Bavarian powerhouse next season. Few opponents will relish facing Schmidt’s tireless team.
Forward Tim Kleindienst’s late winner clinched promotion on Sunday. Kleindienst finished as the second division’s top scorer with 25 goals, while Jan-Niklas Beste, who set him up and scored the scored the equalizing penalty, contributed 13 assists and 12 goals.
Heidenheim had the second-best attack (67 goals) and the second-best defense (33 goals) in the division, where it had the best record at home.
“We only had four defeats, were the best team at home and collected many points away,” Schmidt said. “We more than deserved it.”
Schmidt credited his players' attitude and morale for coming from two goals down against Jahn Regensburg on Sunday to clinch the win they needed for automatic promotion.
“FC Heidenheim has developed an extraordinary mentality in the last years – and you could see that again today,” Schmidt said.
The coach also praised club chief executive Holger Sanwald, who took over in 1994 when the club was competing at amateur level.
“He took over in the Landesliga. If he hadn't taken people along with him, it wouldn't have been possible,” said Schmidt said of Sanwald before also paying tribute to deceased board chairman Klaus Mayer.
“He’s certainly up there mega happy as well,” Schmidt said.
Sanwald in turn singled out Schmidt for his achievements.
“It’s indescribable what kind of coach we have. We couldn’t have done it without him,” Sanwald said. “I offer him a statue, he doesn’t want it. I offer him a contract till retirement, he doesn’t want it – that’s Frank.”
Schmidt joked he turned down the statue because “at some point someone will pee on it, and I don’t want that.”