Berlin – Every penalty shootout creates heroes and villains. The villain is often left standing on the penalty spot, looking emptily into a floodlit sky, as the hero runs to his team-mates with his shirt halfway over his head and eyes closed in ecstasy. Eintracht Frankfurt triumphed in a penalty shootout in the semi-final of the German Cup on Tuesday night, but the real hero was neither a goalkeeper who had made a decisive save nor a player who had slotted home the winning spot-kick. This time the hero was Frankfurt defender Marco Russ.
Russ made the long walk to the penalty spot to take the 10th kick in the knowledge that the previous nine had all gone in. His objective was simple; the task almost thankless. Miss and the tie was over; score and the penalties would keep on coming, giving someone else the chance to be the hero. He stepped up and side-footed the ball into the net, with Gladbach keeper Yann Sommer already gliding in the other direction. As the ball hit the net, Russ turned, celebrated quietly and walked back towards his team. Job done.
The score stood tied at 5-5 and the shootout moved on. The next two kicks were scored, then two were missed, and then, finally, two Frankfurt players stole the headlines, one with a save and the other with a goal. Frankfurt – and Russ – had reached the cup final, something that could not have been further from their thoughts a year ago.
Rewind to April 30, 2016, to the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor, the charming home of SV Darmstadt. With both Frankfurt and Darmstadt struggling to stay in the Bundesliga, Frankfurt’s come-from-behind 2-1 win prompted celebrations on the pitch and confrontations in Darmstadt city center after the game. But the real drama began to unfold. Frankfurt captain Russ was up for the routine drugs test. The results, though, were anything but routine and may have saved his life.
Around a fortnight later as Eintracht were gearing up for the first leg of the relegation playoff against FC Nürnberg, the club received notification from the German anti-doping agency that Russ had tested positive. The player was adamant there had been a mistake. But it was there in black and white: high levels of the growth hormone HCG – an indicator for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. However, more alarmingly, such results could also be a possible indicator for the development of a tumor. With this in mind, the drugs agency strongly recommended Russ to undergo a clinical examination.
Among the worry and confusion, Russ’s hotel room, home and locker in the stadium were searched by police who were looking for evidence of doping. Although apparently just following standard procedure in the event of a positive doping test, the timing of the police raids and the criminalization of the event was at best tasteless and bad timing. Naturally the club was infuriated, in particular trainer Niko Kovac, who was visibly simmering in interviews following the game.
It soon became very clear that this was not a case of for the drugs authorities, but for the oncologists as tests came back confirming everyone’s worse fears: a severe tumor. In the space of only a few hours, Russ had gone from focusing on trying to keep his beloved Eintracht Frankfurt, where he had spent the majority of his career, in the Bundesliga to being accused of doping, having his home raided and then diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Russ could have been forgiven for thinking about anything other than football, but the Nürnberg match remained at the forefront of his mind. So, the very next evening, after the club had officially announced his diagnosis, Russ led out Eintracht Frankfurt in front of 51,000 fans for the home leg of their relegation playoff against Nürnberg, who were looking to swap leagues with their opponents.
The game, as these playoffs usually are, was tight and tense. Frankfurt fell behind when, of all people, Russ inadvertently directed the ball into his own net shortly before half-time. Although Frankfurt pulled it back to 1-1 after the break, giving them hope for the away leg days later, they would have to travel without Russ. A second-half yellow card, his tenth of the season, meant he would be suspended for the return fixture.
He left the field to a standing ovation and must have wondered if he would ever play again. Only days later he started his road to recovery with an operation to remove the tumor, only hours before his team-mates travelled down the A3 to Nürnberg to keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga.
Thankfully for both player and club, both were a success. News of the successful operation came to Kovac before the game and his team did the job on the pitch, allowing Nürnberg no shots on target and stealing a 1-0 away victory to take the tie 2-1 and win their fifth relegation playoff in the last 20 years.
A chaotic and traumatic season had come to an end. As players flew off on holiday and the club planned for another year in the Bundesliga by extending Kovac’s contract, Russ withdrew from public view to concentrate on his recovery. By his own admission he barely left the house for three months, drifting between his bed and the sofa between courses of chemotherapy. He had given 100 percent for his club and now it was time to do the same for his health and his family.
The summer passed and, following his treatment, Russ appeared at the club’s season-opening celebrations. The chemotherapy had cost him his hair, but hopefully saved his life. As he signed countless autographs and soaked up the goodwill in the Frankfurt sunshine, there were even whispers of a comeback. The club, for their part, showed not only their belief in the player’s recovery, but also a touch of class by extending his contract, which was in its final year, to 2019.
The all-clear came in late autumn and Russ reset his focus on football, slowly coaching his body somewhere back towards full fitness. By the turn of the year he was back in training, to the delight of fans, team-mates and the public. His illness had taken a lot out of him and he had to knuckle down to get himself back in contention for the first-team squad.
Finally, on February 28, the big moment arrived. In the 92nd minute of Frankfurt’s cup tie against Armenia Bielefeld a noise began to swell around the ground as thousands of fans rose to their feet and flags were waved with renewed vigor. The reason: the illuminated no. 4 on the fourth official’s board, signaling the introduction of Russ for the final moments of the match.
It had been 285 days since Russ had left the same field to the sound of thousands of Frankfurt fans cheering his name, many with a tear in their eye, and he was now stepping over the white line once more, back into the hearts of the same public. Russ trotted on to the pitch and in that moment, just like the nine months previous, football ceased to be a game of results, but one of people.
Two months down the line and almost a year since the failed drug test in Darmstadt and the emotional roller-coaster of the relegation play-off, Frankfurt pulled off another crucial win on last week. Again Russ was on the pitch, having been brought on in extra-time for an injured team-mate. It has been a remarkable 12 months for the player and club. A trip to Berlin for the cup final against Borussia Dortmund and a potential top-half finish represents real progress for a club that looked set for relegation a year ago.
As Russ walked back from the penalty spot, having played his part in the success, he closed his eyes briefly, possibly giving a thought to the journey he has made over the last 12 months. He didn’t score or save the vital penalty but the significance of his contribution will have been lost on nobody.
The Guardian Sport