Eintracht Frankfurt’s run to the Europa League final has captured the imagination and been nothing short of miraculous, claiming the scalps of Barcelona, West Ham and Real Betis en route to Seville.
Despite languishing rather precariously in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table, Die Adler have stormed the continental scene both on and off the pitch, with players and fans working in unison to catapult a club forever on the cusp of greatness — but regularly coming up short — to greatness.
Go back to the days of Tony Yeboah and Andreas Moller. Despite their flourishing form in Hesse they will forever go down as nearly-men, squandering the 1991/92 Bundesliga title on the final day of the season to an already-relegated side. You’d be a brave man to mention Rostock in any Apfelwine-pub in Frankfurt.
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The psychological scar tissue from that final-day capitulation still runs deep at the Waldstadion, three decades later. As does their semi-final defeat to Chelsea in the 2018/19 Europa League season. Heralded as a generational squad meticulously assembled by Adi Hutter, they travelled to London with a justified self-belief.
A 1-1, first-leg draw in Germany underlined the prevailing notion of the time: Frankfurt were a serious contender. One only has to discern their 30,000 travelling fans to Catalonia last month to picture the scene in London. Their fans stormed the capital; their players channelled that energy and delivered at the Bridge.
Another 1-1 draw at Chelsea saw the game go the distance, and Maurizio Sarri’s men ultimately won on penalties. And just like that, Frankfurt’s dreams were dashed. The popularity of their progress ultimately left them ripe for poachers, and Europe’s elite descended on Hasse like a Black Friday sale across the pond.
Four key men were plucked from Frankfurt — including one current star who left and returned — so where are they now?
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Frankfurt appearances: 77
Left for: West Ham
Current club: Ajax
Sebastien Haller played like a man possessed in 2018/19. Here was a forward who didn’t carry the silky, rhythmic dancing patterns so synonymous with Frankfurt icon Jay-Jay Okocha, or the explosive power of Yeboah, but his intelligent link-up play and back-to-goal mobility made him the perfect complement to Luka Jovic.
That season alone the Ivory Coast international scored 20 goals and provided 12 assists across all competitions, but his quasi-target man metrics show exactly why Luka Jovic flourished so well alongside him; Haller finished that Europa League campaign with the most aerial duels won (56), the third-most lay-offs (25) and fifth-most flick-ons (36) — it was a big-man-little-man partnership for the ages.
Under Hutter, though, Frankfurt were so much more than hit-and-hope merchants, instead using the contrasting styles of their players to great effect, proving one of the most fluid and eye-pleasing teams to watch in Europe that campaign — and then, West Ham came knocking for Haller.
Seen as the man to finally rid the club of its striker stigma, Haller was captured for big bucks and was expected to elevate the club to the lofty heights their fans craved in a capital awash with Champions League-chasing teams. The Hammers, though, simply didn’t know what to do with Haller — they signed a player on impulse rather than with any semblance of strategy.
He thrived in a two-man partnership at Frankfurt, but David Moyes expected him to lead the line as a lone marksman (though he was simply picking up the debris from Manuel Pellegrini’s scattergun approach to transfers). It backfired. Instead Michail Antonio was repurposed as a centre-forward and Haller was sent to Ajax for a fraction of the price they paid. A move that has worked out for all parties involved.
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Frankfurt appearances: 93
Left for: Real Madrid
Current club: Real Madrid
While Haller was often seen as the silent workhorse in Hutter’s attack, Jovic was the headline-grabber, a man who knew the back of the net like the back of his hand. A tally of 27 goals and seven assists in all competitions across that 2018/19 season saw Jovic’s stock skyrocket and naturally alerted Europe’s covetous few.
The Serbia international was one of two players in the Europa League that term to hit double digits (10), alongside eventual ‘Golden Boot’ winner Olivier Giroud (11), while he actually scored the most goals from open play (eight). He was a potent, penalty-box assassin, and Florentino Perez wanted a chunk of the action.
His form provoked Real Madrid to sanction a king’s ransom for his signature, but it’s one of the many Galactico moves that may go down in infamy, with Jovic struggling to recapture his form in Frankfurt, prompting a loan back to the club last season — but he once again finds his place on the Bernabeu bench this term.
Frankfurt appearances: 100
Left for: AC Milan
Current club: AC Milan
Jovic was the goal-getter while Haller the final-third fulcrum, and Rebic was the missing piece to the attacking jigsaw that tied the whole equation together. The Croat offered a healthy dose of improvisation, skill and trickery that worked well alongside the physical presence of Haller and instinctive finishing of Jovic.
The 28-year-old, though, was certainly no laggard in the goals department. He bagged 10 goals that season in all competitions and registered a further six assists, showing his value in an frontline that consisted of three elite forwards. And then, of course, AC Milan came chasing for the versatile attacker.
Rebic is considered a legend at Frankfurt after his brace in the 2018 DFB-Pokal final win over Bayern Munich put the Bavarian behemoth to the sword and delivered unlikely silverware for the club. Now at Milan, Stefano Pioli’s sleeping giants are on the cusp of doing something similar in Serie A this term.
Frankfurt appearances: 65
Left for: Greuther Furth
Current club: Greuther Furth
Jetro Willems rose to meteoric prominence at Euro 2012 as the youngest player to feature at a European Championship at the time, at 18 years and 71 days of age. He remained at PSV Eindhoven post-tournament, forever getting linked to Europe’s top clubs, and Frankfurt eventually tested Lampen‘s resolve in 2017. Willems was another who played a key role in that 2018 DFB-Pokal triumph, having the unenviable task of marking a player known as the ‘space interpreter’, Thomas Muller.
He stood up to the task with merit, and the following season he was utilised as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades player, even playing central midfield at the San Siro in the last 16 win over Inter Milan, a 1-0 triumph in the second leg. Following that, though, he never really managed to push on. A loan move to Newcastle followed in 2019/20, but an ACL injury cut short his stint and he now finds himself at Greuther Furth, recently suffering the ignominy of relegation.
Frankfurt appearances: 57
Left for: Kortrijk (loan)
Current club: Eintracht Frankfurt
Bit of a bonus ball. Tuta may just be one of the most under-appreciated Brazilian defenders currently strutting their stuff in Europe right now. Signed from Sao Paulo in 2019, Tuta left that summer with the likes of Jovic, Haller, Rebic and Willems, though only out on loan to little-known Belgian outfit Kortrijk.
The Brazilian returned from that spell in West Flanders and has since established himself as one of the most indispensable players in Frankfurt’s current set-up, forming an integral back-three alongside Evan Ndicka and Martin Hinteregger.
So, along with the millions of bucks accrued from Frankfurt’s fire sale in 2019, one departure has benefitted the club beyond any financial gain.