Köln v Schalke, Bundesliga
Sunday 19th February at Rhein Energie Stadion
Köln is an interesting city that means different things to different people. For some, it is the Cathedral City, with Köln Dom dominating the skyline. Others consider it to be Carnival City, with seemingly half of the German adult population getting dressed up and parading its streets next weekend. However, in footballing terms, Köln are probably best known for providing a platform for the likes of Podolski, Littbarski and Toni Polster. The presence of club mascot, a real goat named Hennes VIII, at every home match, chomping fruit, is also a humorous pre-match ritual, as much as it is a rather pointless and bizarre oddity.
In recent years, Köln have been consolidating their position in the Bundesliga, following years of yo-yoing to and from the Bundesliga 2. Under the stewardship of Peter Stöger they have stabilised and look like an outside shout for a Europa League place, largely thanks to the goalscoring of Anthony Modeste.
Getting There and Tickets
Köln is well served by public transport and is something of a hub in the West of Germany. Köln-Bonn Airport lies just to the south of the city and both Köln Hbf and Köln Messe-Deutz train stations handle a large volume of national and international trains; both the ICE and Thalys from Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam serve Köln although there are cheaper and slower rail alternatives as well as Flixbus cheap bus travel.
I was travelling by car from Mainz, which is itself an interesting motorway journey, traversing wine valleys and offering up some decent views. This takes just under two hours to drive (roadworks included). There is parking available next to the stadium as well as a car park next to the stadium tram stop although, if you’re early enough, there is on-street parking in the nearby Müngersdorf residential area. The biggest difficulty this presented, in our case, was getting out of this area towards Aachener Strasse, as all roads seem to funnel into one and the person with the biggest BMW X5 pushes their way through.
The stadium is served by the line 1 tram. From central Köln, you can get on at Neumarkt and Heumarkt (sounds like the German Jedward) and return transport is included in your matchday ticket. The ‘Rhein Energie Stadion’ stop is, as the name suggests, right at the front of the stadium and the journey takes about 20 minutes.
Köln home matches generally sell out, especially against nearby teams (Gladbach, Leverkusen, Dortmund and Schalke are all fairly close by) or Bayern. Tickets can be bought online at https://www.fc-koeln.de/en/fc-tickets/single-match-tickets/matchday-overview/heimspiele/ and either collected at the stadium or printed at home. If you print at home (as I did – I’m not hugely enthused by ticket collecting) then you must give the name of all ticket holders at the time of booking for the public transport, although I have never seen this checked and cannot see how one could on jammed metropolitan transport.
Despite having passed through Köln several times, I’ve never taken the time to properly appreciate the city. My first ever Bundesliga match was at Bayer Leverkusen and I spent the night in Köln and that day, by quite some distance, rates top of the “we drank far too much” charts of any football outing. This time, however, I had my twelve-year-old daughter in accompaniment and I was driving home so drunken debauchery was out of the question. This did mean that I was able to appreciate the Köln Altstadt better than before, with its vibrancy and eclecticism. There are a plethora of Brauhauses and Gelateria dotted around the place and the city feels lived-in and non-ornamental.
The Rhein Energie Stadion
Most stadiums don’t make breeze block an architectural feature in the way that this one does. Yet, for all that is ugly about it, there are some points of real character and functionality.
The pillars and cabling are eye-catching: I can just hear the architect now, gesticulating wildly about the “industrial retro” theme. However, the way they illuminate as darkness approaches is decidedly funky.
While the stadium looks like four discrete stand-alone tribunes, they are all interconnected in the bottom tier. The roof resembles four perfectly interlocking trapezia and lets in some light during the day. Depending on the source, the stadium’s capacity seems variable but on this day, the official attendance was 50000 (which is a sell-out).
The pre-atmosphere within the ground was all generated by the Schalke fans, who marched in gesticulating defiantly towards the Köln fans. Schalke do always bring an excellent travelling support and add volume and colour to the occasion. However, shortly before kick-off, Köln fans found their places and their voices at the same time and a rousing cacophony ensued for the rest of the match.
The security check was more for show than to actively look for anything, at the Ost tribune entrances anyway. The Schalke fans were searched, presumably for missiles or pyro, upon entering the terracing as well as when they approached the turnstiles. In terms of catering, the standard sweet and savoury pretzels in addition to regular beer and bratwurst is available inside the ground and there is no need to fart about with topping up cards: you can hand just hand over 7 euros for a beer and sausage costing 7 euros! However, one negative, albeit a pet hate of mine, is the presence of the ubiquitous ‘pulled pork’. This hipster meat is one facet of globalisation German Football could do without. Boiling cheap cuts of meat, smothering them in sticky gloop and charging a premium for the privilege might be fine for shopping mall dwellers but it really is the Millennial prawn cocktail.
So, faces fed and watered, we took up our chilly seats (far too soon before kick-off thanks to the impatience of my daughter who thought walking off our ice cream with a stroll beside the Rhein was a terrible way to pass the time). Köln’s other major misdemeanour, along with providing a platform for pulled pork, is the anaemic cheerleader performance beforehand. I’m sure there’s a time and a place, but a freezing pitch in February in Köln really isn’t it, in front of a largely ambivalent audience. I’ve played music in pubs before and you know when you’re no longer providing entertainment and are nothing more than a hindrance to conversation. I felt sorry for the cheerleaders in a way as their performance may have been amazing but it seemed nobody cared. Sack the agent!
Köln’s pre-match anthem is to the tune I know as “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” but I’m sure it was probably written by some medieval German composer. This seemed to wake the fans up and, to be fair, they were brilliant from this point on. There was plenty of banter flying between the fans and it was charged enough to matter but not some kind of hate fest.
There is a lot of “Scheiss-ing” in German football these days and this match was no exception: “Cologne, Cologne, die scheisse vom Dom”; “Scheisse null vier” etc etc. All that was missing was the “Scheisse RB” banner, although there were wordier complaints about the can sellers emanating from the South Stand.
1.FC Köln v Schalke 04
The match itself was a fairly entertaining spectacle. Köln are not normally a team who excite but are decent defensively and have an excellent centre-forward. Their performance this season has exceeded expectations although they have stuttered a little in recent weeks.
Schalke, on the other hand, seem to be the team of perpetual disappointment, given their income stream. Markus Weinzerl has now found a 3-1-4-2 system that he seems to like but he is populating it with lesser but hungrier players in many cases. While they have been unlucky with some injuries e.g. Embolo, they have found the habit of turning leading players from “smaller” clubs into journeymen. This year Schopf, Burgstaller, Caligiuri amongst others have taken the place of more gifted individuals to improve the net output of the team.
Anybody who turned up to this match late would have missed the first goal as Schalke exploited a weakness down Köln’s right and crossed for Schopf to score within the first minute. Schalke’s passing was generally crisper and more dangerous looking, despite them having less possession. Goretzka, in particular, was a constant threat with his pace, control and running ability from the centre and, to me, he looks wasted playing so deep. If ever there was a player ripe for a transfer to a club with a coach who’ll use him more effectively, it’s him.
Schalke also dominated in wider positions, with professional whinger Konstantin Rausch having a hard time, and Kolasinac dominating down Schalke’s left. However, Köln were knocking at the door as the half evolved and, but for some poor final passes from Osako, could have created far more. Then, within a few minutes, Modeste (who hadn’t received a decent pass all day) picked up the ball outside the box and curled an effort into the bottom corner. The Köln fans were delirious, partly from joy and partly from surprise as the goal hadn’t looked likely. Modeste then received a perfect pass from Osako two minutes later that he really should have buried in the back of the net but delayed his shot and the chance was gone.
While there were no more goals, there was plenty of incident during the second half. Standout players for Köln were Subotic, who oozed class in defence, and Modeste, who will surely go to a Champions League club next season (or an English or Chinese club waving their chequebook) and plunder more goals.
For Schalke, the aforementioned Goretzka shone. Not a fan of Bentaleb who was alongside him and would much prefer to see the guile of Meyer in there, assuming Weinzerl persists with his current system. The Schalke back three exuded experience and, while they may have been fortunate a few times, they caught Köln offside a ridiculous number of times.
A draw was a fair result by the final whistle and both sets of fans will have gone home content. I say gone home, but should add the word eventually as where the Ost and Sud tribune meet there is bottleneck preventing the rapid evacuation of fans. This, coupled with the kamikaze manoeuvres in attempting to leave the environs of the stadium, slightly shadowed the positivity of the match and the whole experience.
The Rhein Energie Stadion is one that needs ticked off: it has interesting architecture, an underrated atmosphere and is situated in a city overflowing with things to see and do. I would return to see them play another team in Nord Rhein Westphalia, as the heightened atmosphere is worth the slightly inflated ticket price.
- Quality of match: ****
- Stadium character: ****.5
- Stadium atmosphere: ****.5
- Hospitality: ****
- Ease of access: *****
- Things to do around the stadium: *****
- Overall: ****.5