As armour-clad riot police swung truncheons in a vain attempt at staving off the tens of thousands of euphoric Eintracht Frankfurt fans who stormed the pitch, Socceroo Ajdin Hrustic was in the thick of the unfolding chaos, trying his best just to keep his clothes on.
This was the kind of moment the 25-year-old has wanted all his life: his team had just sealed their place in the UEFA Europa League final, their biggest accomplishment in decades, after beating West Ham United 3-1 on aggregate. Even before the final whistle, Eintracht’s ultras had spilled from the stands onto the field, crouching behind advertising hoardings, waiting patiently for the big moment.
What came next was a blur. The white shirts were suddenly everywhere – some scaled the goal frame and straddled the crossbar, others lit flares and paraded triumphant banners. A few went straight for their heroes and, rather boldly, tried to steal the jerseys off their backs as a memento.
Violence broke out around them like spot fires. Two visiting supporters were arrested for performing Nazi salutes. Some players pleaded with the masses to go back into the stands. Police needed dogs to help calm the scene and keep the Frankfurt fans away from the travelling West Ham contingent at the other end, which would have taken this unseemly sight in an even darker direction.
Hrustic, who played the final eight minutes off the bench, just stood there and soaked the madness in.
I just remember people trying to take off my shirt, my shorts, and even my shoes, he told the Herald and The Age.
It was all right. They didn’t do anything to us – they’re just proud. They live it, so they just came across and told us how proud they are, and they hugged us. Obviously, they did try and steal a shirt or two, but why not? They deserve it because they’ve been behind us for the whole period.
The craziest part? Thursday morning’s (AEST) Europa League final, between Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers, could make all that look like child’s play.
The Spanish city of Seville, which is hosting the match, is bracing for pure carnage. It would be tough to find two clubs with more rabid, passionate fans than Rangers, whose supporters literally shook Ibrox to its foundations when they qualified over RB Leipzig and are renowned for leaving a trail of destruction wherever they go, and Eintracht, whose average home crowd of 48,000 makes them one of the world’s most followed teams. Each has been allocated only 10,000 tickets, but the expectation is that many, many more times that number will travel from Scotland and Germany, inundate the city’s watering holes, and square off on the streets.
You’ve got two games in one, basically – one on the football pitch and one around the pitch, Hrustic said.
Our fans are a different level. You don’t get it around every corner, to be honest. Not every club is like this. It’s something I can explain and tell you about, but I think you’ve got to come across and live it yourself to really understand what it means. I’ve got goosebumps talking about it now, so it’s something big.
In Germany’s Bundesliga, where the 50+1 rule ensures members will always have a say over their club’s affairs, teams such as Eintracht Frankfurt are the ultimate reflection of their communities. Hrustic admits they simply wouldn’t be where they are without their fans, whose vocal support he says has helped them win games at the death and overcome challenges that would otherwise seem insurmountable.
Undefeated throughout the Europa League so far, Eintracht have claimed the prized scalps of Olympiacos, Real Betis and Barcelona to stand on the cusp of footballing glory. At the famous Camp Nou for last month’s quarter-final, a ticketing quirk allowed their fans to buy up 30,000 seats. Spanish newspapers called it a shameful invasion of Barça’s hallowed turf.
It’s a dream, Hrustic said. I was there, and I managed to step foot onto the pitch, and we had about 30,000 fans who travelled to Barcelona. After the game, half the stadium was dressed in white, and it was our fans – in Barcelona. It was insane.
Hrustic knows exactly what it feels like to commit your entire life to the beautiful game, just like they have. When he was 15, his parents sold their home in Melbourne to help finance his ambitions of a professional career in Europe.
Now he is the only Aussie seeing regular minutes in one of the world’s top five leagues – although as a bench player who has started only 10 games this season, it’s not quite as regular as he’d like.
Still, if he gets on the pitch against Rangers, he’ll be the first Australian male to feature in a major European final since Mark Schwarzer’s Fulham were beaten by Atlético Madrid in 2010.
My family have given up everything, Hrustic said.
Their friendships, their families, everything – even their home, where you sleep, eat, every day. That’s the biggest sacrifice, where you realise what they’ve done for me to get to this point, to play the Europa League final for now, or play in a World Cup. If I’m honest, it is the biggest moment of my career so far.
Watch football’s biggest superstars in the , and Finals this May on Stan Sport. in Champions League – ad-free, live and on demand on Stan Sport in 4K and 9GEM on Sunday 29 May from 4:30am AEST. in the Europa League Final (May 19) and in the Conference League Final (May 26) – all matches streaming ad-free, live and on demand, only on from 4:30am AEST.