In this May 13, 2018 photo, Holstein Kiel player Rafael Czichos (center right) celebrates with Stephen Lewerenz (center left) after scoring his side's fourth goal during the match against Eintracht Braunschweig. Holstein Kiel faces a two-leg playoff against VfL Wolfsburg, for playing in the first league Bundesliga on May 17, 2018. (PHOTO / AP)
With a stadium too small for the Bundesliga, Holstein Kiel nevertheless dreams of playing in Germany's top division for the first time.
Five years after securing promotion from the fourth division and only one after progressing from the third, the northern German club is on the verge of another promotion to complete a fairytale ascent to the Bundesliga.
"It's something special, something historic," Kiel coach Markus Anfang said. "It's possible of course - we're in the competition - and we'll do everything we can to achieve it."
Five years after securing promotion from the fourth division, the northern German club is on the verge of a promotion to complete a fairy-tale ascent to the Bundesliga
Before mixing with Germany's top clubs, Kiel will have to get past Volkswagen-backed Wolfsburg in a two-leg playoff. The winner of the games in Wolfsburg on Thursday and Kiel the following Monday will play in the Bundesliga next season.
If Kiel did make it through, it will likely have to find another ground in which to play after the German soccer league ruled that its 10,000-capacity Holstein-Stadion is too small for Bundesliga games. The league wants stadiums to hold at least 15,000 supporters in the top division, 8,000 of those seated.
"We still hope that our home games can be played in Kiel if we get promotion," Kiel commercial director Wolfgang Schwenke said. "Thirty-four away games after a sensational promotion would be unfair."
Kiel fans lined up for tickets to the games and excitement in the port city of 250,000 inhabitants is palpable. It's been a long time since a soccer team from Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's most northerly state, generated national headlines.
The club's heyday was between 1910 and 1930 when it won six Northern German championships. Kiel defeated Karlsruher FV with a penalty from Ernst Moeller to win its only German title in 1912. It finished runner-up in 1910 and 1930 and just missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga in 1965.
In this May 13, 2018 photo, supporters of Holstein Kiel enter the stadium, prior to the match against Eintracht Braunschweig. (PHOTO / AP)
This season, Kiel has the advantage over Wolfsburg after finishing third in the second division with a 6-2 rout of Eintracht Braunschweig. Wolfsburg only avoided automatic demotion from the Bundesliga with a 4-1 win over already-relegated Cologne, its first victory in four games.
Anfang began his coaching career with Kiel in September 2016 and led the side to promotion in his first season.
"Up to now, we've gone into every game to win it, and that's what we'll do against Wolfsburg," the former midfielder said.
Whatever happens, Anfang will not be coaching in the Bundesliga next season. The Cologne-native has already agreed to take over his hometown club following its relegation. Anfang and assistant Tom Cichon signed three-year deals with Cologne.
Last season was Kiel's first in the second division in 36 years. The team finished with the best attack, scoring 71 goals in 34 games. It lost only six of those - another best-mark in the division.
Wolfsburg could only win six of its 34 games in the Bundesliga. It scored 36 goals, just over half of Kiel's total, albeit in a tougher division.
It will be Wolfsburg's second playoff for survival in as many years, underlining the club's fall in stature in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015. Wolfsburg won the German Cup and finished runner-up in the league that year, securing a spot in the Champions League, but it has struggled since, particularly in the last two seasons.
Wolfsburg's troubles are encouragement for Kiel.
"For us, it would crown the last two years if we could manage it," Anfang said. "We believe in it."