Anderlecht, Hasi, Vanden Stock and the Nitrogen Cycle
“At the moment, Anderlecht resemble a WAG so caked in makeup that she can’t remember what she looks like. And deep down, under the façade, lies the real beauty”
RSC Anderlecht qualified for the Champions League. It should have been a battle with players running over broken glass to achieve what has become the equivalent of winning a trophy. Yet, Hasi’s XI whimpered over the line in a half-empty stadium with a lethargic, joyless performance. The fans (who turned up) protested with flares at the start of the match and some diffused out into the Parc Astrid perimeter more quickly than the smoke.
The game was played under the cloud of rumours of departure once the fog of protest had lifted. Players who brought the good times like captain Silvio Proto and fan-favourite Mati Suarez are expected to leave. Others like Defour and Praet will almost certainly move on to further their individual careers. Expect a massive clearout at Anderlecht as fringe players are moved on too. Loan signings like Buttner, Djuricic and Ezekiel will not return. All in all, the team will be unrecognisable.
However, perhaps most significant of all will be the departure of Head Coach Besnik Hasi. His popularity has been in gradual decline since the unlikely title win of 2014 due to inconsistency and defensive sloppiness and few at Anderlecht are likely to miss him. His typically brusque and staccato post-match responses and failure to confirm his position suggest the winds of change will be blowing through West Brussels.
To be honest, I’m not convinced the fans have a shortlist of realistic prospective replacements to hand. What may be more pleasing to Mauves’ fans is an ideological reboot. Hermann Van Holsbeek, Anderlecht’s Sporting Director, is responsible for the club’s transfer strategy and his record is very mixed. Some feel that a Head Coach who accepts the players he is given is not the model for the club. Club Brugge and KAA Gent both have large characters in their dugouts in Preud’homme and Vanhaezebrouck. Neither are shrinking violets and both have control over who comes in and who leaves. There is a belief that chairman Roger Vanden Stock doesn’t want such a character, such is his faith in Van Holsbeek.
Most of Anderlecht’s success comes from promotion from within. The fans want to see Anderlecht return to this model, having drifted away from it during Hasi’s reign. A team consisting of academy players like Dendoncker, Tielemans, Roef, Lukebakio, Leya Iseka, Kawaya etc is what the fans want and it makes sense financially too. John Van den Brom was appointed on the basis of his ability to work with young players and, to some extent, he did bring through Praet, Tielemans, Mbemba etc.
A situation where the man in charge of the first XI is also responsible for identifying targets and oversees recruitment is essential to reinvigorate the club. The disharmony amongst fans, the players and the negativity emanating from Anderlecht this year has been one of the constant threads of a self-destructive season. Who or what is responsible for the lack of unity has been the source of much discussion. Vanden Borre and his outspoken condemnation of team mates? Defour reliving his youth and carrying an air of fear around, stifling others? Proto or Deschacht, as senior players, not organising the defence properly and then pointing fingers? Praet constantly fuelling the fire of transfer rumours?
At the moment, Anderlecht resemble a WAG so caked in makeup that she can’t remember what she looks like. And deep down, under the façade, lies the real beauty. With one of the most successful academies in Europe, Anderlecht have created and maintained something to be proud of. They must play to their strengths and maximise this asset.
New signings will need to be made but personality and compatibility should rank as importantly as talent and ability. Jurgen Klopp recently stated that the most important thing in bringing a player to his club was that he ‘mustn’t be an asshole.’ Whoever comes in should have these wise words at the back of his thoughts when considering agents touting their wares.
The Anderlecht job should carry immense appeal and could attract excellent candidates provided it is made clear to them that they, and not Hermann, are in charge. A team in the Champions League qualifiers; a passionate support desperate to unify behind a united team; a Youth Academy the envy of many a richer club and some genuine talent waiting to be honed and used properly.
The fans want to be able to cry ‘We are Anderlecht’ with pride, defiance and unwavering loyalty but they deserve to see that reflected on the pitch and around the club. The Stereophonics once said ‘it only takes one match to burn a thousand trees’. However the Welsh Gravelmongers didn’t mention anything about the effect this has on soil fertility. By clearing out the deadwood and with the correct maintenance, Anderlecht could harvest an incredible crop of players. The question about Vanden Stock remains: ‘Hasi’ the courage to start again?
This game was a winner-takes-all relegation battle. The winner was guaranteed Bundesliga survival. The loser, a place in the playoff against Nuremberg, or worse. For Werder Bremen fans, this victory was their reward for their loyalty in the face of their team’s stuttering and inconsistent season and they celebrated it as though it was the league title itself.
I had already booked my travel to Hamburg, via Bremen, to go and see St Pauli on the Sunday before I considered going to this game. It seemed that it might be important, and it fitted nicely into my travel plans, so I ordered a ticket and made this ‘part 1’ of a weekend double-header. Just how important this match would turn out to be would become apparent over the coming weeks.
In the matches before this match, Bremen had won 6-2 at home to VfB Stuttgart and picked up a point in Koln with their first clean sheet of the season. Frankfurt had won three matches in a row, including an away derby victory in Darmstadt and an impressive home victory over Dortmund. The Kovac brothers have picked up some decent results since taking over at Eintracht since Armin Veh’s departure back in March.
Add to the mix Hoffenheim’s rebirth since Julian Nagelsmann took over from Huub Stevens and Stuttgart’s sudden capitulation, and the only constant down near the bottom of the league this season has been the inadequacy of Hannover.
Trains for this weekend were more expensive than usual, even booking well in advance, so it was either risking the night bus or paying a fortune for the train. The lucky recipients of my money were Flixbus (https://www.flixbus.de) – a new experience for me – and they took 21€ for my passage to Bremen from Brussels. That’s about a Euro for every minute of sleep achieved!
The bus left from Gare du Midi at 0115. It’s not the most pleasant area to pass time during the day so lurking with the pimps, crims and homeless was not unexpected at that time of night. Of course, since the security clampdown, just about every (legal) facility in the area is shut down at that time of night. I managed to look efficient and get on the bus quickly. I had hoped Brussels would be the origin of the bus but, alas, it had started out in Paris so was already two-thirds full by the time of my ascension. Although I found a double seat to myself, the aisle chair was populated seconds thereafter and the gentleman in the seat in front, who smelled of last night’s ashtrays, decided to recline. I was cramped in, whilst nursing sciatic nerve pain from a herniated disc and a recently impacted patella, and incredibly grumpy and tired.
Arrival at Bremen Hauptbahnhof couldn’t have come any sooner. I quickly found a toilet, got some sugary things from the Kamps bäckstube and a strong coffee before leaving my bag in the left luggage lockers. It felt good to be off of that bus.
Tickets and Accommodation
For just 14€ plus delivery, I was able to get a ticket in section 2a+4, which translates as the Ostkurve. Tickets can be bought from the club at http://www.werder.de/tickets/heimspiele/. When the ticket arrived, I do remember thinking ‘Why is it so long?’ I was staying in Hamburg that night in the Ibis City hotel; not because there’s nothing to see or do in Bremen I might add but because of the match the next day.
Knowing that I wouldn’t have a huge amount of time to be touristy, I decided to just stroll around the centre of Bremen in the morning, get some lunch by midday and then walk out to the stadium. Leaving the train station, crossing the wide road and strolling past the ubiquitous Irish pub and associated doorway dwellers, it takes around ten minutes before you reach the old town. After strolling around Böttcherstrasse, the area around the Markt, the Rathaus and the Schnoor, it was time to recharge my batteries with a draught Beck’s from the Beck’s café in the Bremen Markt. Whilst enjoying this beer outside, it hadn’t escaped my notice that the day seemed to be getting colder and the sky, greyer.
I had a sausage platter and a weissbier in the Hofbrauhaus before walking down to the river, via the Schnoor, for the walk to the stadium. You can spot it in the distance almost immediately. It is worthy of note that the Werder flag was flying from just about every landmark, balcony and shop window in Bremen. This is a one-club city and the unity and support was unanimous and, for a visitor, actually quite up-lifting.
The stadium is situated about 20-30 minutes walk away from the centre of Bremen and the station and the stroll along the river is very pleasant. There are vendors of bog-standard beer sprinkled along the route, incase you get thirsty, as well as some Trolley Trolls looking for your empty bottles to refund – it’s like a codependent deregulated industry in itself.
As I approached the stadium, I was aghast to hear a Bremen fan bar playing what sounded like ‘Three Lions’, by the Shitening Seeds. It turns out that Werder have adopted this as a fan song, with German lyrics of course. This, along with the adaptations of ‘Daydream Believer’ and, of course, ‘WunderWand’ by die Oase.
I absolutely love the look of this stadium from the outside. It was renovated between 2008 and 2011, removing the running track and adding the photovoltaic panels over the exterior chassis in a shape that looks like an upside-down dog bowl. Sci-fi writers from the 1950’s would recognise this as some kind of Alien Mothership.
The area immediately outside the ground comprises of a decent selection of snacks and drinks, although the further east you go, the less you can buy without a Werder Card. Yes, those bloody pre-paid efforts that you can only charge up with a round number of euros, thereby limiting, or dictating, your purchases to around that amount. As I’ve ranted before, these initiatives are fine for season-ticket holders but for the occasional fan, it’s an acutely neuralgic rectum.
Anyway, fresh with my beer, I sauntered over to the Ostkurve area, where there is a small fan area, with a barn-type structure for when it rains. There’s also a banking which the fans gathered on for a sing-song pre-match. It made for an exciting and enjoyable pre-match atmosphere. The club shop was very busy and there was a promotion on the ‘This is Osterdeich’ T-Shirts for under 10€. Given my lack of club colours, and the fact I was going to be on the Ostkurve, I felt that one of these T-shirts would provide an extra layer to keep out the chill and, coupled with a scarf, I’d blend in, for not much financial outlay.
Going into the stadium was easy. An electronic scan, up a few stairs before a quick pat-down, and I was in the food and drink area at the Ostkurve. The selection was reasonably good although there was one very long queue. And no, it wasn’t for the toilets. The one girl responsible for loading money onto these Werder cards was undoubtedly the rate-limiting step in the club’s match day takings for food and beverages. So I queued for one of these and was willing to spend 14€ as I saw this would get me two beers, a Bratwurst and a Pretzel (over 90 minutes). However, I got to the front and was told I could only load 10 or 15. As the only other cash I had was a 50€ note, and I didn’t trust my German enough to tell her to take ‘funfzehn and not funfzig’, I loaded a tenner on and it was one beer, a bratwurst and a pretzel.
In a way, that may not have been a bad thing because once your onto the fankurve, you’re going to struggle to get out and you’re certainly not getting your place back without a large friend to look after it for you.
Given the space-age nature of the outside of the stadium, the inside is a bit conventional and underwhelming. It’s good, but at the same time, fairly regular. It does, however, possess some top quality oldskool floodlights. Interestingly, the corporate boxes are at the top of the stadium and not in a little mid-height ring between tiers, as has become more of the norm.
Werder Bremen V Eintracht Frankfurt
The match, in isolation, was a fairly one-paced and repetitive event. Werder Bremen completely dominated possession and Eintracht were happy to let them. They had clearly come for the draw that would ensure their safety. For Werder, a draw would guarantee a relegation playoff place and a defeat, if Stuttgart won, would have resulted in automatic relegation. The circumstances, therefore, really did dictate the pattern of play.
Werder continued to make nearly all the play. Eintracht counters were generally well-read and intercepted by Vestergaard, who was colossal and kept the wayward Djilobodji in check. Werder struggled to find any penetration and Eggestein, Oztunali and Junuzovic were providing Pizarro with scraps. The build up, while controlled, was painfully slow and Frankfurt were executing their game plan well.
This general pattern continued for most of the match. Occasionally Wiedwald had to be wakened up by the occasional Frankfurt foray upfield and, for all Werder’s possession, Hradecky in the Frankfurt goal wasn’t actually all that busy. Clemens Fritz demonstrated an excellent passing range throughout the game but Werder’s wide men were unable to create.
Then, finally, on 87 minutes, the breakthrough came. Werder had forced a number of corners throughout the match and with two giant centre backs and Ujah now on the pitch, a good cross had to spell danger. While the goal was messy, it went in. In the stadium, Utah was credited as having scored but it was subsequently, post-match, attributed to the modern-day Carlton Palmer that is Papy Djilobodji. The goal-celebrations went on for what seemed like an eternity and Frankfurt’s players had a hollow, empty look about them.
Werder held on for the remainder of the match provoking mass celebrations, before the net at the Ostkurve that holds the fans in was ripped and a deluge of delirious supporters poured onto the pitch to celebrate. From my personal memory bank, the only similar thing I can remember is when Anderlecht won the title on the last day in 2014. This wasn’t a title win but to Werder’s fans, it felt like it. The Green White Wonderwall had, just, kept Bremen in the league. Bremen’s fans, while not the most vociferously vocal in the kurve, were supportive from all four stands, all 42000 fans, and not just from the cheap seats. It made for an interesting and excellent atmosphere. I would say that they’ll need to improve for next season or the same fate, or worse, may befall Bremen as their over-reliance on the ageing Pizarro is very apparent.
Now I left before most fans but I was still in the stadium at least 25 minutes after the final whistle and fans started to trickle out thereafter. I’d say about half of the stadium had spilled onto the pitch. Because they could. And why not? They had just saved their season. It says something about the closeness at the bottom of the league that Bremen finished the day in 13th position after starting in 16th. As for Frankfurt, if you’d said to them at the start of March that they’d finish 16th, I think they might have taken their chances. It’s going to be a big week for them in the playoff.
On the way back from the stadium to the station, the police had blocked off the riverside road so the fans walked down a busy shopping street, with trams, instead. One fan stopped me and asked me if he could buy my T-Shirt and how much I wanted. I thought for a second and said, ‘Well, I paid 15 euros for it, so you can have it for that.’ He handed over the money and I took off my T-shirt, which I had essentially hired for the match at a 5€ profit. The only other time anything like that has happened was when a cheeky Moroccan offered to give me his flag for my kilt after Morocco had just pumped Scotland 3-0 in St Etienne in the 1998 World Cup. That time, I refused.
There was drunken delirium in the streets of Bremen – it really meant a lot to people. I got the feeling the police would have a busy night and, while I was partially disappointed at not staying in Bremen to share the celebrations, I was so tired that all I could think about was falling asleep in my hotel bed.
Quality of match: ***
Stadium character: *****
Stadium atmosphere: ****
Ease of access: ****
Things to do around the stadium: ****
Conclusion: A weirdly wonderful stadium, pleasant town and supportive fans make this a great day out. The importance of the game undoubtedly heightened everything.
Strolling around the sanitised opulence of Central Hamburg, you can tell that this is a city that has done well for itself commercially. Like seeing the neighbour who wears the golf sweaters with the very small logo that says his jumper is worth more than your inheritance, the district of St Pauli could be forgiven for peering over the garden fence in envy. Yet, while their garden may not be so neatly trimmed, it is infinitely more fertile. In several ways, St Pauli is incredibly rich: culturally, artistically, historically.
The streets between the Reeperbahn and the Millerntor Stadion remind me of every small gig venue for up and coming bands and student-dense accommodation. A property developer may comment that it has seen better days, but it has an authenticity that complements any faded grandeur. Its offbeat nature is also not a carefully crafted, semi-boho middle-class one and it is not place to be seen having a croissant and macchiato with the bourgeois bored housewives.
Much has been written about St Pauli FC but seldom in a footballing sense. And in spite of all I had read about the various activities the club participates in and organises, there was a part of me that suspected that, in this day of commercial prostitution in football, they had become a front for selling skull and crossbones hoodies. I had to see it with my own eyes. I wondered if it would be laden with contradictions, like the Goth kids who dress up identically to their peer group to express their individuality.
As it turns out, St Pauli only bought back the rights to the skull and crossbones merchandising in November 2015 having sold it (what a ridiculous idea!) a few years previous under different stewardship. While the range inside the club shop is actually fairly limited, St Pauli’s commercial success in this respect could be attributed more to club ethos and some ‘little things’ than any kind of ‘alternative market cornering’.
As this match was ‘part two’ of the weekend, I took the regional train from Bremen Hbf on Saturday evening, which takes thirty minutes longer than the express. However, on this occasion, I prioritised thrift over time and the train chuntered into Hamburg after 85 minutes of stop-startness. I hadn’t really slept in over 36 hours by this point and had no intention of doing any sightseeing, writing or anything until the morning.
Tickets and Accommodation
Having foreseen my lack of lucidity upon arriving in Hamburg, somewhere cheap(ish) and easy near the station was a must. I couldn’t have handled navigating by foot or metro at this point. The Ibis Hamburg City (yes, one of those) was ideal in its proximity (10 minutes walk from the train station), its simplicity and its comfort and met my needs perfectly. After mustering the strength to check in and fall into bed, I landed on a remote control and Eurovision lubed its way onto my screen. I wasn’t in the mood for this, and fell asleep just after the German Pixie did her song.
I was fortunate enough to be given a ticket for the match by the club’s Media department, to whom I’m very grateful. However, they can be bought at https://www.eventimsports.de/ols/fcstpauli/de . Prices vary depending on seating/standing and where you are although it’s never too steep.
The Millerntor Stadion
A few years ago, in the midst of financial difficulty, the club promised to never sell the naming rights to the stadium. While the stadium itself is pretty decent, it’s the people in it who elevate it.
The stadium has a 29546 capacity, which is surprisingly large given its dimensions but explainable with the three stands having terracing on the lower tier (how it should be!). That there were Greenpeace ‘Chuggers’ milling around next to a Vegan Burger Van and the membership ticket collection office is a disused, graffiti-enhanced shipping container, lets you understand that this place is a bit…different. There were also a fair number of people looking for tickets but the match was very much ‘ausverkauft’.
The café by the main door has punk music blaring out at least two hours before the game and there is beer everywhere. Given the proximity of so many fabulous watering holes, people are drinking outside the stadium because they choose to and not because the remote out-of-town stadium presents them with no other option. Which brings me to this amazing contraption;
Words cannot capture my amazement at this…thing.
Once inside the stadium, in the main stand, you go up into a large food and beverage area which reminded me a little of the Fan Treff at The Allianz Arena. I quickly made my way up to my seat to have a look around.
Unsurprisingly, although quiet over an hour before kick-off, the standing areas fill first. Chairmen and Chief Executives from all round need to get on board with the fact that some fans want to stand. Sometimes if you take too much of an edge off of a knife, it is unable to cut.
The abundance of red and white tape around various parts of the ground made me a little concerned. There was so much of it, I feared that it may be structurally important.
The weather was tumultuous and ranged from bright to stormy and back again and the players and some fans would’ve been soaked through long before kick off. However, while their hoodies may have been dampened, their spirits were not. With a pre-match display looking like a big St Pauli Latte – like an anti-Starbucks caffeinated beverage – reminding me of a school friend who used to dress in 50 shades of beige, the fans were ready for an end-of-season jamboree.
The club also bade farewell to some players, including the impressive Lennart Thy and Sebastian Maier.
The entry to Hell’s Bells is fabulous – it seems so misplaced for the event but works perfectly and is entirely fitting for this club. I blame the camera work on the temperature – icicles were nucleating on my nasal hair.
It is worthy of note that the pre-match proceedings also included recognition of the excellent support offered to Kaiserslautern by their fans who had travelled over 600km to see them. They were behind their team throughout the day and contributed massively to the spectacle – a visit to South-West Germany could be in the pipeline.
St Pauli FC v Kaiserslautern: The Match
While you wouldn’t want to be late for any St Pauli match as you’d miss the build up and anticipation, this contest was pure entertainment and action from the first to last minute. St Pauli forced two corners in the first two minutes but immediately afterwards, Kaiserslautern played a lovely one-two with a beautifully weighted pass and their number 9, Lukas Gortler, slotted it past an outstretched arm. At that point, I thought it was going to be one of those ‘great club, shame about the team’ stories. How wrong I was.
Almost immediately, ‘Mr’ Ryo Miyaichi, who had a great game, was waxing on and volleyed a cross into the far corner after some good work from Sebastien Maier down the St Pauli left. Eight minutes in, one goal each and it looked promising for more to follow. Lennart Thy continued to look threatening and the Kaiserslautern defence didn’t deal with him at all well. It was fitting that he’d head St Pauli into the lead after 21 minutes at the far post past a flailing ‘keeper.
The downpour of rain and hail became torrential and the players on both sides deserve enormous credit for maintaining the standard of play in spite of the deteriorating conditions. Kaiserslautern looked good on the break but St Pauli continued to make most of the play. A few yellow cards were shown as the odd poor tackle and moments of indiscipline crept into the game – a bit of needle is always good to keep the testosterone flowing and the game competitive.
At half-time, I popped down for a hot coffee which was made far tastier by the chill in the air. It had been over 25°C two days previous and I didn’t come dressed for 10°C with a Baltic breeze. Looking around, it seems the fans are making the most of this match as August is a long way away. That said, at least they didn’t have to evacuate the stands due to a toy phone-pipe device being left in a toilet like some fans in Manchester. News of this had filtered through at half time.
Into the second half and blue skies had come to greet us. The football continued to entertain as Mr Miyaichi hit the bar from a nice break on the 49th minute before scoring a delicious drilled shot into the bottom corner on ’57. Had he placed the shot anywhere else, it would have been saved.
The match continued in a similar vein until Mr Miyaichi was substituted for Waldemir ‘Daniel San’ Sobota of Club Brugge notoriety. Shortly thereafter however, the substitute provided an excellent cross for Maier to clumsily bundle over the line to increase the scoreline to 4-1 St Pauli.
The game could have petered out at this point with the result no longer in any doubt but Kaiserslautern had other ideas and Jenssen rifled home a great goal almost immediately afterwards. 4-2. The referee, Wolfgang Stark, had a pretty good handle on the game and booked players when necessary but otherwise let it flow. He was actually cheered off at full time – can’t think of many occasions where I’ve seen that.
It wasn’t long before yet another wonderful goal flew in, scored this time by Buchtmann, curling into the keeper’s bottom left and polishing off what had been a very accomplished performance. St Pauli clearly haven’t been playing this well every week or they’d be a lot higher than fourth. Very few fans left early and instead everybody stayed behind to cheer on their team and the backroom staff from both sides. The depth of sporting attitude, mutual appreciation and commitment shown in this game was commendable given that it was a ‘dead rubber’ and seldom have I enjoyed a match so much.
After leaving the stadium, a pizza in a nearby ‘not-very-Italian’ restaurant was enough to set me up for the evening that followed, walking back into Central Hamburg and avoiding the shadowy characters from the Z.O.B.. Perhaps it was a unique pitch, perhaps it’s a local trick but the shifty beggar who kept addressing me as ‘Julio’ nearly got a boot in the Goolie-o for his persistance.
Coming back to my original question and contemplating the uniqueness of St Pauli, one thing is certain. The place is saturated in authenticity and the club’s overt political position on many issues is in agreement with the younger generation’s, ensuring that their support will continue to grow as long as the club maintain their stance. It’s not anti-capitalist but more pro-inclusivity and pro-community and the two need not be symbiotic.
I guess St Pauli’s principal challenge is to maintain progress on the pitch by ensuring that their principles don’t compromise their revenue stream off it. Paradoxically, it may be this contrary position to wealth accumulation that will be the greatest source of stability and revenue – a loyal, committed and growing fanbase of shared values. And piercings. Lots of piercings.
Quality of match: ****.5
Stadium character: ****.5
Stadium atmosphere: ****
Ease of access: *****
Things to do around the stadium: *****
Conclusion: It may not be the sexiest stadium on the scene, but St Pauli’s Millerntor is without doubt one of the most interesting and appealing in many other ways. It is fitting that its asymmetry and artwork characterise it.