The spectators in the Commerzbank-Arena rise to their feet, as does Niko Kovac and everyone on the bench as Marco Russ takes his first steps back into professional football. "It gave me goosebumps," declared Kovac, describing the moment to the club’s TV broadcaster. On February 28th 2017, the DFB-Pokal witnessed a moment to live long in the memory of football fans everywhere, not just those of Eintracht Frankfurt. In the 90th minute of the game, Marco Russ made his return – 285 days after being diagnosed with a serious illness.
On 18th May 2016, Eintracht Frankfurt announced that Russ was suffering from testicular cancer. A tough battle was to follow. However, after two bouts of chemotherapy, the central defender was not only free of cancer, but also was able to get back onto the football pitch. After he made his return in the quarter-final against Bielefeld, it was his performance in the DFB-Pokal semi-final that completed the miraculous footballing story of Marco Russ. Subbed on in extra time with the score tied at 1-1 against Borussia Mönchengladbach, the 32-year-old converted one of the penalties that would send Frankfurt to the final via a shootout. As Frankfurt’s board representative for sport Fredi Bobic said to der Welt, it was a “fairytale”.
Marco Russ had returned to the biggest stage of professional football, even if he wasn’t in the squad that would eventually lose 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund in the final. His battle with cancer hadn’t changed who he was fundamentally, but it did teach him some important lessons, as Russ explained in an interview with ARD: “I do still get annoyed when we lose, but I can come to terms with it better than I used to, because I have a better perspective on what is important in life. Football cannot replace your friends and family.”
In 2011, the Hanau-born Russ was knocked out in the first round of the DFB-Pokal by the then regional league side RB Leipzig while he was representing VfL Wolfsburg. He fared much better in the 2005/2006 season, when as a 20-year-old he was part of the Eintracht team that beat Arminia Bielefeld 1-0 to get through to the final. Unfortunately for Russ, Bayern would win that game 1-0. Nevertheless, that game - in which 30,000 Frankfurt fans traveled to Berlin - has stayed with Russ to this day. After Bayern made it through to the final of this year’s competition yesterday, he now has a chance to put things right.
Almost two years after his cancer diagnosis, Russ is back to full strength and is a stabilising presence at the back thanks to his experience. He’s played 390 minutes of DFB-Pokal football until now this season - a mark that is unmatched by anyone else in the Frankfurt squad. And if Eintracht and Schalke need to go to penalties to decide who will go through to the final tonight, you can be fairly confident that Russ will step up once again. In football, as he’s known for a while now, you don’t actually have that much to lose.