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RB Leipzig and AK Berliner 07

Leipzig and Berlin Weekend: 3-5th November 2017

RB Leipzig v Hannover 96 and Berliner AK 07 v Chemie Leipzig 

It had been, without doubt, our best laid plan.  Unlike previous excursions, dreamt up between copy-paste “report writing” and semi-lucid lesson planning, this idea was conceived in the height of summer: long days, long sleeps and longing for some football.  Since swapping the cultural void of the West Midlands for the empathy void of Budapest, Szug Tszemples was ready for another kaleidoscope of kultur in Eastern Germany, a central destination for both of us, with a strong gravitational pull enhanced by very cheap air fares.

We had identified Union Berlin v St Pauli as our focal point for the weekend and would base any other matches around this. However, with 2. Bundesliga, the match could have been any time between the Friday at 1800 or late on the Monday, so we had to be flexible.  With the Union match selling out during the members pre-sale, we had to choose between risking getting a ticket at the last minute, possibly seeing nothing or paying exorbitant prices, or taking in another game in Leipzig. We examined our priorities, which were taking in a game or two and having a good scoop, meaning we bit the bullet and ordered the RB Leipzig v Hannover tickets.  I had visited the Zentralstadion once before (on a press pass) and was keen to sample what was on offer as a fan.

I can feel the cloud of disappointment of the beer-bellied, double-denimed “Scheisse-clan”, sweating out their Krombacher saying “you should go to Lok or Chemie Leipzig and avoid this Scheisse.” Yes. OK. That argument has been done. You go and see who you like and I’ll do the same. I respect your stance, but I don’t have to adopt it.

So, with Leipzig sorted for the Saturday and Berliner AK 07 on the Sunday (thanks Groundhopper app), we would meet for a few beers on the Friday night in Berlin. Or so we thought.  Air Berlin’s demise only a couple of weeks beforehand meant that my trusted sidekick would need to find an alternative means of transport, and the most affordable was a sleeper train from Budapest to Dresden.  This meant that, while I was having pork done twelve ways and Weissbier denser than osmium in the Alt Berliner Bier Salon on the Friday, intrepid Szug was bunking up with some deaf pensioners and a few crusty travellers for the night.

Expecting to be regaled with romanticised tales of the discovering the iron tracks behind the Iron Curtain, my weary accomplice sought only to anaesthetise his sleep-deprivation and aftertaste of pish, Twiglets and body odour with some cool Pils.  It may only have been 0850, but we had both been awake for hours, so it felt like going for a lunchtime beer.  We found a little bar, seven minutes walk from Leipzig Hbf called Kneipencafe Optiker, open from 6am.  This place was a find: 1.30€ for a half litre of unidentified but very decent Pilsner, comfy chairs and a convivial, if smoky, atmosphere.  A couple here and we were in severe need of food.  My bladder had decided that it was full for the rest of the day, and our planned bar route became more of a “this place’ll do, it must have a toilet” navigation system.

Our next stop was Dhillon’s Irish Bar – surely it would be serving breakfast – where we were served the most repugnant Staropramen.  Whether it was poorly rinsed cleaner or simply stagnant beer, the barman’s explanation that Staropramen has herby notes wasn’t swallowed, and neither was the corrosive liquid in my glass.  To be fair to him, he replaced it with some generic Pils which was less contaminated before we moved on to Prime Burger, which was a very good feed for a reasonable price.

We checked into our B+B Hotel at this point.  It was very centrally located and cheap enough (33 euros each) and Szug had to wash off the smell that had diffused from his bunk buddies in the communist-chic compartment from the night before.  Armed with our tickets, we strolled the fifteen minutes or so out to the ground, stopping off for a quick beer en route at a street-corner pop-up bar, before making our way towards the perimeter of the stadium.

Having both been raised in a country with puritanical views towards alcohol, the openness with which people were drinking, around children, and not becoming the abusive bigoted misogynists that we are told alcohol brings out, was reassuring.  A bigoted misogynist forms his views in sobriety and that is where and when the re-education must take place. That they are more likely to share these views after drinking is not the root of the problem, and is analogous to building bricks over weeds, without uprooting the weeds, and expecting the weeds not to come through. This is the same country that tolerates mass expressions of bigotry (Orange Walks) under the guise of free speech, allows (and almost promotes)  segregation of kids on the basis of their parents’ religion for their schooling, yet prohibits alcohol being sold at football (but not rugby) matches. I wonder which is more regressive?

The ground itself is one of my favourites, with the exterior walls, main gate, obelisk and embankments from the old ground still very present.  The walk across the bridge from top of the old terracing to the new stand inside the bowl is pretty cool.  Our seats were right up the back of the upper tier, which was excellent as we had a fantastic view of both the pitch and the city of Leipzig, as well as being able to stand up and not obstruct anybody’s view.

The beer in the ground isn’t too expensive, with 0.5litres being 4€, +1€ deposit for the handled drinking vessel.  At half-time we indulged in some of the Glühwein, which was surprisingly wonderful and was like a big fermented cuddle in the cold.

The atmosphere in the stadium ranged from okay to decent, but certainly didn’t hit the levels of my previous visit here against Schalke.  That said, Hannover didn’t bring a huge support in spite of their relative proximity, and the “Kind must go” banner away from home shows that things are going better on the pitch than off it for Hannover just now.

The match itself was interesting, although was defence-dominated until Hannover made the breakthrough through Jonathas after 56 minutes.  Leipzig, having played away in Porto during the week, brought on Forsberg and Keita around this point, and their attack started to look far more multi-faceted.  Goals from Poulsen and Werner ensured that the hosts squeezed out a deserved victory. Discovery of the game for me was Ilhas Bebou, Hannover’s number 13, who threatened the Leipzig match throughout the match and was unlucky not to score himself.

A strategic decision to eat soon after the match may have been ill-conceived, as our very nice but very heavy dinner from Auerbach’s Keller expanded into every available space in our stomachs, meaning the beer wasn’t going down quite so easily.  After a stroll out of the centre towards KillyWilly’s to watch the rest of the BVB v Bayern game, the refreshing abrasion of the cool air was having a diminishing affect on Szug, who started doing the head-nodding one and a half pints in.  Well, he had barely slept the night before and we’d been drinking since 9am.

Like two old men that couldn’t hack it, we jumped on a tram back to the Hauptbahnhof and were in bed before 10 o’clock.  I have, however, discovered that the “start early, finish early” strategy tends to work best for me and brings forth all kinds of benefits: easy getting ‘home’, most acute arseholery takes place after midnight and, in terms of hangovers, late drinking always makes me feel worse the next day than heavy drinking.

Feeling quite refreshed the next morning, we had booked two tickets on the early train to Berlin as tickets were cheaper and had a similar, although less intense day ahead.  Szug’s scepticism about not booking a seat and sitting in the restaurant carriage was quickly alleviated when he saw that, for the price of a seat reservation and a Starbucks, he could have a cooked breakfast and beverage on the train.  It is a pleasant way to spend 75 minutes on a train, coupled with searching for “bars open near Berlin Hbf”.

This search proved none too fruitful, and after dumping our bags in a locker at the train station (where we would return for our train to the airport), we found a nice bar near the Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linten serving a Berliner Kindl at around 10am.  From here, we saw a bizarre commemoration of the Russian Revolution en route to the Augustiner Keller, where we blindly ordered some sausage and cabbage with a decidedly average beer before heading off to the Poststadion.

This stadium is located around ten minutes walk from the Hauptbahnhof, although you really need to know where it is or you’d never find it.  The ground is in the middle of a residential area, next to some trees and astroturf pitches (used by the public). The ‘main’ stand has some wonderful Art Deco features and the tiny hut selling the tickets, adjacent to the ground, made me inexplicably happy.

All amenities, such as food, drinks and toilets, are located outside the stadium, so if you need once you’re in, keep hold of your ticket if you’re planning a pit stop.  There seemed  more toilets at the end of this stand, incidentally, than in the whole stadium at Anderlecht.  Ten euros seemed a reasonable price to watch some Regionalliga football.  I was told, by Wikipedia, that Berliner AK 07 have attracted a large Turkish following and, while I don’t know what constitutes large, the ‘young team’ certainly matched that description.

In opposition were Chemie Leipzig, and I was curious to see what their following would be like and how the event would unfold.  The atmosphere had the kind of community feel that I associate with Junior Football (semi-pro) and it was rather warming.  We took our seats so as to minimise pillar obstruction at the goals, as it was free seating, and sat down with our beers, like pigs in poo.  The match featured some moments of skill and crudity in equal measure – just what you’re looking for from a match at this level.  Berliner AK 07 were, however, well worth their win and cruised to a three goal victory without much reply from the Sachsen visitors.

A leisurely beer at an anodyne motel opposite the Hauptbahnhof was had, before a mad dash to print off tickets and get our ridiculously busy train out to Schoenefeld Airport, for our journeys home.  This weekend was more of a triumph of adaptability than excellent planning, and demonstrated Germany’s general hospitality towards the football fan as opposed to the increasingly frequent presumption of criminality and suspicion today’s fan endures elsewhere.

 

 

Borussia Beehive has a sting in the tail

“Borussia Dortmund seem to see themselves as some sort of custodians of the pure; ‘verein’ of the commoner; the Jedi battling against the Empire.”

The debate regarding the legitimacy and compliance of RB Leipzig’s membership within the construct of the Bundesliga has been done to death.  I’ve addressed this in more depth in my review of RB Leipzig v Schalke.  To summarise, the complicity of the football-starved people of Leipzig (Lok and Chemie have their place and their attraction, but you can’t blame fans for wanting some ‘big-time’ football) should not be taken as sinful; they have not provided the fertile ground for the ascension of RB Leipzig – the Bundesliga and DfL have.  If anything, they are being exploited as part of a marketing vehicle; satiated in the way that the UK population are placated with Strictly and X-Factor.  RB Leipzig may be exploiting that fizzy beverages and football are the bread and circuses of the day.

The Best of the Sudtribune

Borussia Dortmund seem to see themselves as some sort of custodians of the pure; ‘verein’ of the commoner; the Jedi battling against the Empire.  However, while Borussia Dortmund fans rightly win plaudits for their vibrancy and the club clearly respects them reciprocally, it is impossible to ignore the hypocrisy that tinges some of these ‘protests’.

A word about these ‘protests’ first of all; it is important to separate hooliganism from making a statement.  The former act of protest, the belligerent reception gifted by some fans, was a bunch of silly little boys  using RB Leipzig’s loopholed compliance of the ’50+1′ rule as justification to act like thugs.  They filmed themselves throwing beer and flares, taking a few steps forward with that starfish body language that says ‘come and have a go’, then, when the police moved in their direction, they hid their acne-riddled, bum-fluffed little faces with scarves and hoodies, trying to earn their stripes as a bona-fide ultra.  Yawn, yawn.  Would they have been so “courageous” had it been a team like Dresden, Rostock, Magdeburg or Halle?  I think not.

The actual protests with any significance or meaning – those inside the ground – were brilliantly done.  The whole world sees the messages that adorn the Südtribune every two weeks and this way millions can see and discuss the view of the fans without the club’s reputation being stained by these idiots.  It may be coincidence, but the last time I attended a Dortmund game, there was also a disturbance involving hooligans and police, although Eintracht Frankfurt were the visitors in town that day and this mindless act of violence took place next to Reinoldikirche.

That German Football fans seem united in their disapproval of RB Leipzig is evident and, by all means, have an opinion on them as a club.  However the real problem is that the Bundesliga have allowed them to participate in the competition having only 17 members (with voting rights), whilst actively discouraging, via prohibitive costs and not allowing any voting rights, any fan participation on how the club is run.  Outside Germany, this is not uncommon but the Bundesliga, perhaps to the chagrin of certain clubs, have stood by the ’50+1′ rule, in principle anyway.

Borussia Dortmund, like other clubs in the Bundesliga, have corporate links – surely it’s what helps keep them competitive? Without the corporate involvement of Evonik, Signal Iduna, Puma etc, they would be accompanying the nobility of their principles with mediocre football: Mario Götze et al are not social revolutionaries.  Nor do they claim to be.  But Borussia Dortmund fans seem to have the piety to claim great levels of integrity as a club that simply do not withstand scrutiny.

The club has well over 100000 members who have first refusal on tickets, that they can procure via a horrendous call centre (online free sales only occur, on occasion, for cup games).  This protectionism, rightly or wrongly, does make it difficult for the football fan from elsewhere to attend their games, providing fertile ground for the enormous numbers of black market Dortmund tickets exchanging hands for exorbitant amounts on viagogo and other resale sites.  Some of these members are fleecing people on a fortnightly basis.  Dortmund has become a football tourism temple – nothing wrong with that per se – but this is being exploited by its members to the extent that they are making a hefty markup on tickets.  Are these the same fans that claim the moral high ground over RB Leipzig fans?

The irony of the retro scoreboard being used (one assumes, to mock the lack of history of their opponents), being sponsored by Brinkhoff’s, may be lost on some but corporate participation also takes place at the corporately-renamed Signal Iduna Park.  The Dortmund fans should protest against the DFL for not clamping down on Red Bull by all means, but those throwing the stones (some literally) may find that they need to get their own glass house in order first.

Football clubs can be a great vehicle for good when their fans support them properly.  However, fans should remember that the opposition fans are really just people, like them, who enjoy football and enjoy all that surrounds it.  Banter and friendly rivalry is part of that, but violence never should be.  If RB Leipzig are the Voldemort of the footballing world, BVB are certainly not the Harry Potter or Dumbledore they claim to be.

 

 

 

 

RB Leipzig v Schalke 04

RasenBallsport Leipzig v FC Schalke 04: Bundesliga 1

Red Bull Arena, Leipzig, 3rd December 2016

“going to watch RB Leipzig was a little like watching someone try haggis for the first time: you’re not sure you like the idea but the product is far better than you expect”

It seems that everybody has an opinion on RB (that’s ‘RasenBallsport’; or ‘Lawn ball sports’ – nothing to do with an Austrian beverage company associated with aviation) Leipzig: many complain about how the club is run, its absence of heritage and ‘soul’ and its franchise-like nature whereas others sprinkle terms like ‘a breath of fresh air’ or ‘refreshing’ – an accusation that certainly couldn’t be levelled at the sponsor’s signature beverage.

First view of Red Bull Arena
First view of Red Bull Arena

It really depends what you look for in a football club.  For every person that is wowed by West-End Musical ‘Wicked’, there is somebody who disdainfully comments on how far from Frank L. Baum’s vision this aberration is.  Either way, you can’t argue about the entertainment provided.  Same goes with RB Leipzig.

Beautiful Riverside View
Beautiful Riverside View

Let me oversimplify the RB Leipzig history and you can make up your  own mind about them, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t already.  Think of the Oberliga (Fifth Tier of German Football) and RB Leipzig’s “origins” as a baked potato contest.  RB Leipzig bought over a baked potato, scooped out the filling and kept the skin, filling it with lardons, spices, steroids, some of the original potato and expensive ingredients and competed against some humble potatoes.  Their potatoes were unsurprisingly superior and then the process was repeated in each subsequent league.

However, when you steal the ingredients from a fellow competitor – let’s say, your sister (RB Salzburg) – then resentment can breed and other competitors may complain that the competition is not fair.  RB Leipzig’s rise to the Bundesliga has been expected, even if this season’s early form has caught many off guard.  I remember as ( newly promoted to Bundesliga 2.) Leipzig threw money, 8 million euros, at Anderlecht for Massimo Bruno, who went from playing Champions League football to being a loanee to Salzburg and a bench-warmer at Leipzig last season.  None of their rivals could take such an expensive punt in this way at the time.

RB Leipzig Sektor B Fankurve filling up
RB Leipzig Sektor B Fankurve filling up
RBL fans arriving
RBL fans arriving
Lothar and chums about to melt beside those heaters
Lothar and chums about to melt beside those heaters
Geis and Balls
Geis and Balls
RB Leipzig warming up
RB Leipzig warming up
Schal shakers
Schal shakers

However, perhaps the best people to ask about RB Leipzig would be the inhabitants of this beautiful city, starved of success for so long until recently.  They didn’t seem overly concerned by the big teams coming to their city, bringing armies of fans and trade.  I cannot speak for the people of Leipzig, but it doesn’t look like they are being taken for walking wallets to me (although they can buy their tickets from http://www.dierotenbullen.com/eintrittskarten.html.)

Getting There

While I could have taken a train to Leipzig, taking seven hours and one change from Brussels, flying to Berlin proved to be the cheapest option by some distance.  Due to the early take-off, I had to take a taxi to the airport (through Uber). When my driver appeared, the taxi registration plate, Audi badge and thick glasses suggested I was in for a quick, aggressively-piloted passage.  I’m not convinced his glasses didn’t have filters in them to block out ‘Give Way’ signs and solid white lines.  As predicted, I arrived at the airport before you could say ‘get out of my way’ and in plenty of time for the flight.

However, the tardiness of my outbound flight meant that my well-laid plans were ruined.  The lateness seemed to be caused by the washing and oiling of the wings, which I presume was to prevent the accumulation of ice.  However, the extent of the lateness and the lack of communication was wholly unacceptable and the cheap Irish flight provider disappointed here.  Add to that the pointless standing outside, in sub-zero temperatures, before the aircraft is even there and you have a disgruntled passenger.  No-frills is one thing but no-sense is another.

Main Entrance to the Stadium
Main Entrance to the Stadium
Love an evening kick off
Love an evening kick off

Arriving at Berlin Schoenfeld airport belatedly meant that my ticket to see Hallescher FC v Werder Bremen II would go unused as I would never get there on time.  So, in the meantime, I checked the Deutsche Bahn website to find alternative connections and decided to head to Leipzig around 1430 and spend some time in Berlin.  During this deviation, I took in 45 minutes of action at SV Lichtenburg, in East Berlin, at the Hans Zoschke Stadion.  With a capacity of 10000, the 142 fans in the stadium enjoyed some agricultural football with a community ambience.  This was, however, a little too Hipster for me if I’m honest and I took the S-Bahn to Berlin Sudkreuz for the ICE train to Leipzig.

My old trick of not booking a seat and having a beer in the buffet car for less money worked again and the journey was painless and smooth.

Leipzig

Whilst almost all of my preparation had focused on the stadia, the football and sorting out transport, it had slipped my mind that German cities undergo a transformation in December thanks to the Christmas Market.  Disembarking in Leipzig is a fairly grand experience: the station (apparently the world’s largest by floor area) is elegantly maintained while maintaining the multi-storey functionality one finds in many a Hauptbahnhof.  After crossing the road and the tram lines, you enter a city that is a stylish delight and perhaps hasn’t exploited tourism as much as it could.

The architecture reminded me of Hanover in many ways although I would say Leipzig is a prettier city.  There are several references to Leipzig’s pride of place in Saxony, which always reminds me of being called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in France, ignoring the inconvenient truth that most Scots do not have these origins.  The city is one I would revisit for a city break with my wife, even in the absence of a football match, and is characterful and generally intriguing.

Schalke always take a sizeable and vocal support and they were both visible and audible throughout the city centre.  However, the biggest assault on the senses was surely perpetrated by the cloud of aromas produced by glühwein and pork.  For anyone looking for indoor festivities, the Auerbachs Keller is a delight and serves pork and potato 27 different ways.  While vegetarians may end up disappointed, this place is where Faust, by Goethe, is set and there is a certain grandeur about it and the food and drink were of excellent quality whilst remaining moderately priced.

My hotel for the night was located west of both the city centre and the stadium.  It was the kind of area that had ‘slum’ bars, and graffiti, tattoos and piercings were the accessories du jour.  I moseyed on in my Parka jacket, Soviet-style winter hat, looking like a fish on a bike, until I found the Hotel Merseburger (merseburger hof leipzig). My single room was perfectly adequate, if unspectacular, and was a little pricey at 57€, but I think Schalke fans had booked all the best affordable spots beforehand.

The Red Bull Arena

This stadium in many ways was characteristic of the whole visit in that I was surprised by just how much I liked it.  The setting beside the river and set back a little behind the indoor arena is inviting and once lit up, the stadium looks spectacular in the distance.  Formerly known as the Zentralstadion (until 2010), it has a capacity of 44959 although it feels much bigger than this.

Upon arriving at the stadium, the number of people hanging around outside, drinking beer on the steps was notable. I slalomed between them and the strategically placed Kaufmann bags that were receptacles for empty beer bottles towards the main gates and the media entrance.  Bizarrely, upon going through this gate, there is a road with a large queue of traffic (turns out they park under the ground) and a big wall to enter the stadium grounds that screams communist architecture.

Upon being given my pass, the lift  to the left ascends to level 5, the upper-tier path that is set back a little from the perimeter of the stadium itself and is a thoroughfare for the upper-tier fans.  Crossing a bridge takes you into the stadium concourse where the food and drink is sold.  Walking through to section 19, you do get a genuine wow moment at the view.  Being in the back row was perfect and, while some will be reaching for the oxygen masks, the elevation offers a fabulous perspective of the whole stadium.

The snacks and drinks range was fairly good and a beer and currywurst would set you back 7 euros.  The arching long side stands  offer a pillar-free view while the behind-the-goal stands only have a single tier: expect expansion in this regard in the not too distant future.  The Leipzig fankurve is being the goal in Sektor B. For all the talk of a plastic club, these fans made a decent racket all game.  No, they didn’t throw pyro, their flags were a little ambiguous and they didn’t intimidate.  The stadium, like the town (as mentioned earlier), reminded me of Hannover’s HDI Arena in some ways.

The players coming out to music from the Rocky films is rather twee, but each to their own – it isn’t 2 Unlimited or Die Elf vom Niederrhein though.  The RB Leipzig fans produced a glittering tifo, which looked a little ‘Eurovision’, and probably emptied the local stationary store’s stock of shiny paper.  It did seem a little like it was devised by somebody ‘corporate’, whereas Schalke’s fans bounced and sung ‘Schalke null vier’ to most recognisable melodies.  Although my favourite of the day was ‘auf geht’s Leipzig gies a goal, gies a goal, gies a go-oh-oal’; well, that’s what it sounded like to my Scottish ear.

Looking back towards the stadium
Looking back towards the stadium
Stadium at night
Stadium at night

RB Leipzig v Schalke ’04

You can say what you like about the administration of the club, but Leipzig’s fans come to see football; and it’s excellent, entertaining football.  After the abbreviated minute of silence (although the Gelsenkirchen word for silence must be ‘applause’), the match got under way and within twenty seconds, Leipzig had a penalty.  It looked like a foul in real time from up in the gods but the TV replay beside me showed that Werner tumbled into Fahrmann in the Schalke goal and the keeper was furious.

RBL XI
RBL XI
Schalke XI
Schalke XI

Werner recovered from his momentary loss of balance to coolly slot the penalty in the corner.  Leipzig could then have had a couple more before five minutes had been played.  Schalke were all over the place and the pace, power and directness of Leipzig was too much for Naldo and Howedes in particular.  The brought a few chants of ‘Lawn  ball olé’ and the stadium was noisy and charged with excitement.  The atmosphere would be lauded elsewhere, and it’s certainly no worse than the likes of Frankfurt, Munich or Bremen.

Make no mistake: Leipzig are not going away.  They may not maintain their current form all season but they have some real gems in their squad in players like Keita, Werner, Poulsen, Forsberg and Burke.  For all of the ‘buy young players to sell them on’ articles I’ve read, I have yet to see any acknowledge that maybe Leipzig are buying young players to develop and keep so that they can challenge for the league.  Even the most cynical fan has to admit the advertising provided by Leipzig reaching the Champions League is more lucrative in the long term than cashing in on players.

Thereafter, the game evened out and Schalke probably deserved their equaliser when it came, with Kolasinac tapping home a rebound after Gulacsi spilled the ball.  The sprinklings of Schalke fans outwith the ‘away section’ was very noticeable at this point.  The Schalke fans contributed massively to the occasion and ensured that the atmosphere remained lively, even during lulls in the match.

A talking point during the match had to be the conduct of Timo Werner.  He caused the Schalke defence all kinds of problems with his pace and power but has a cynical and cheating edge to his game.  It’s not OK and his manager needs to sort him out.  The second half kicked off in much the same way as the first and RB Leipzig were ahead within a couple of minutes.  Forsberg’s inswinging free kick was met by Schalke’s goalscorer, Kolasinac, who had now scored past both ‘keepers.

After retaking the lead, Leipzig continued to make most of the play and looked more likely to score – Schalke’s impotence up front (Max Meyer is never a striker) meant attacks seldom had a focal point.

The 42558 (ausverkauft!) capacity crowd was announced but some seats were empty between the Schalke fans and the home support, presumably some kind of fresh-air force field.  Those aquamarine seats look like leftovers from a communist swimming pool and the stadium would be given a lift if they were replaced.  However, one wonders what kind of advert would replace them?  I’d expect it would be a load of bull.

Leipzig continued to create most of the chances and the game opened up in the latter stages as Schalke chased for an equaliser. However, the Royal Blues remained second best for most of the encounter and when the whistle was blown, few would argue that it was not deserved.  Not even the most ardent anti-RB Leipziger.  For all the accusations of being an advertising construct, the team are hungry, well-drilled and able and the fans are far livelier and more engaged than they are given credit for.

To summarise, going to watch RB Leipzig was a little like watching someone try haggis for the first time: you’re not sure you like the idea but the product is far better than you expect and, even though you know what’s in it, you can’t help enjoying it.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ****.5
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ****
  • Overall: ****.5

Verdict: Fabulous stadium, great team, underrated fans and beautiful city. 

 

 

Borussia Mönchengladbach v Bayer Leverkusen

Saturday 27th August 2016

Borussia Mönchengladbach v Bayer Leverkusen – Bundesliga

The first league match of the season is the most keenly anticipated moment of the year for many football fans. It is the singularity, the point at which everything is possible. The habitual grumbles of a few months ago fade into the distance to be replaced by excitement and intrigue and cold, hard realism is temporarily suspended.  How will the new players (if your team has made any signings) complement the existing side? How will the team cope without their captain, seduced by the ‘new challenge’ of earning a telephone number salary in England?

B+W
B+W view from 6A

If ever it was needed, this match embodied everything that’s great about the Bundesliga and reignited my love of live football.   I was more intrigued than excited in advance of the match, expecting an interesting contrast of styles and formations and a few goals. Borussia Park is not a new venue for me, although I’d never been  with my daughter in accompaniment, but I’ve never left thinking “that wasn’t worth the effort.”  No review or write-up of the match was planned: this was simply meant to be a day out.  All photographic credits go to my daughter. More pictures of the stadium and its environs can be found here.

Borussia have spruced up the area around the stadium to include a beer garden and more food and drink outlets, bringing it more in line with similarly sized grounds in Germany.  This is especially welcome given the distance from central Monchengladbach to the stadium.  It was a challenge for those guys who wear those denim gilets with all of the patches sewn on to keep them on with the temperatures soaring well above 30°C.

I had arrived around ninety minutes before the match, and pulled into parking P5, which I had learned from previous visits was a good compromise between distance from the motorway and the post-match march back to the car. Having been in parking P3 once before, when it had taken around an hour to get away from the stadium, I was wise to the traffic situation.

It takes around 10 minutes to stroll from the parking, past the hockey stadium, towards the Nordkurve area via a few sausage and beer stalls. A quick perusal of the club shop followed this, where we discovered that most household items can be branded and packaged as club merchandise. Sadly, the famous musical bottle openers playing ‘Die Elf vom Niederrhein’ were nowhere to be seen.

There is a cash machine around the West Stand, which is convenient as the food and drink trade seems very much a ‘cash only’ system.  We decided to get a bratwurst and a drink once we were in the stadium so that we could take it to our seats in the shade.  This turned out to be a schoolboy error.  In the upper tier of the South-East corner of the stadium, there is one food and one drinks stall. Unsurprisingly on such a hot day, people were in need of liquid refreshments. The food area was almost empty, with staff loitering around, whereas the drinks bar had a queue of at least fifteen frustrating minutes length (queues should be measured in time, not length) from one hour before the game, throughout the game and  shortly thereafter. Really somebody ought to have reassigned some of the food minions to assist the beverage buccaneers who were the personification of hot and bothered.   They should consider investing in the ‘Beermaster’, which dispenses six beers at once (St Pauli Review).

So, alcohol-free Pils and cola in hand, we marched up to the oxygen-sparse seats in section 6A, above the travelling support (who were relentless in their rhythmic backing). It’s easy to forget just how good the atmosphere can be in Germany and a certain 12 year-old loved it.

When the teams were announced, I was left slightly perplexed by the Borussia selection whereas I could’ve named Leverkusen’s XI beforehand. Opinion will continue to remain divided on Andre Schubert when the bench looks stronger than the starting eleven. Add to that the omission of Hazard, who scored a hat-trick in midweek in a Champions League qualifier and a few furrowed brows were to be seen.  However, as ever, if the team wins then the selection is always more justifiable.

BMG XI
BMG XI
Leverkusen XI
Leverkusen XI

Schubert seems to favour what I’m going to call the “3-5-2 pentagon” and, on paper, it doesn’t look like it should work. The midfield pentagon consisted of two defensive midfielders in Strobl and Kramer (who didn’t look particularly fit), two wide players in Traore and Wendt and Stindl as an attacking midfielder. Mo Dahoud hasn’t had much of a look in so far.  Leverkusen look like they should play 4-2-3-1 but are shoehorning players into a 4-4-2, despite Chicarito’s injury-enforced absence.

The pre-match proceedings at Borussia are always entertaining and the scarf waving today actually had the desirable side-effect of circulating some cooler air around.  The obligatory mascot – a foal – must have sweated his or her body weight into that furry suit in the relentless heat, which had led to people bringing towels to the game. This was new to me but the wisdom and foresight involved in taking this measure is undeniable.

The Match

The heat was always going to be a factor but both teams dealt with its oppressiveness fairly well. Leverkusen’s pressing high up the pitch left huge gaps in between Tah and Leno that looked ripe for exploitation with Leicester-style balls over the top.  However, this isn’t really Borussia’s way although selecting Hahn to play centrally suggested that exploiting the high line with his pace was always an option.

Leverkusen strangled possession but there was a stodginess to their play.  For all the pace of Bellarbi, Kampl and Volland, they couldn’t find the space to capitalise on it. Perhaps Schubert’s nous has been underestimated.  For all that the home side had less of the ball, there was far more fluidity and pace about their attacks and these yielded the majority of the best chances throughout the match.

Leverkusen seemed to miss having a bona fide centre-forward like Kiessling (or even Drmic) to provide an outlet for their wingers.  Volland disappointed and, with the plethora of wingers in the Leverkusen squad, he was clearly signed as a supporting striker.

I missed nearly fifteen minutes of the first half, taking my daughter to the toilet and getting us drinks. Yes, even during the match, the queues were enormous. People really do drink more when it’s hot! However, we were back in plenty of time to see Andre Hahn’s opener which, unsurprisingly, came about due to the Leverkusen high line. To be honest, it looked like he just put his head down and struck the ball and wasn’t concerned too much with placement.  For Gladbach though, to go into half-time one up was a bonus given that they had spent most of the match in their own half. Döp Döp Döp…..

The second half became a feistier affair, with stray tackles flying in here and there and the “needle factor” ramped up.  Gladbach and Leverkusen both had opportunities to score although the home team’s fluidity and movement remained superior.  Leverkusen’s substitutes seemed to offer more of the same, with Mehmedi and Brandt unable to provide the required spark. Pohjanpalo was then thrown on for the injured Aranguiz, and two minutes later, after a frenetic scramble, the Finn equalised. It was not entirely undeserved.

Ghostbusters Green
Ghostbusters Green

With the scores level and the players tiring, surely now Schubert was going to bring on a fresh-legged attacker? The biggest surprise was that he waited another five minutes before removing the tenacious, but exhausted, Hahn for Thorgan Hazard.  Within a minute, the Belgian had threaded through a perfectly weighted pass for Lars Stindl to dispatch beyond Leno. 2-1 Gladbach, the Ghostbusters Green stadium absolutely rocking.  Noise levels reached a new high.  Again, a through pass between the defence and keeper did Leverkusen.

Borussia then had chances to further extend their lead before suffocating the match, ensuring that they took all three points from a very tricky fixture.  The quality of movement, touch and passing was, at times, outstanding.  The atmosphere came and went in waves  but even during its troughs, it remained miles better than anything I’ve experienced in other countries.  I’ve missed the Bundesliga and a 12 year-old girl has discovered it. Good times.

 

 

Werder Bremen v Eintracht Frankfurt

Werder Bremen v Eintracht Frankfurt: Bundesliga

Saturday 14th May

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.

Non-relegation celebrations
Non-relegation celebrations

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.

Getting There

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.

Bremen

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.

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The Weserstadion

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.

The Dog Bowl
The Dog Bowl
Why don't more clubs do this with solar panels?
Why don’t more clubs do this with solar panels?

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.

View from the banking after the game
View from the banking after the game

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.

Weserstadion from my spot
Weserstadion from my spot

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.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: ***
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ****
  • Overall: ****.5

Conclusion: A weirdly wonderful stadium, pleasant town and supportive fans make this a great day out.  The importance of the game undoubtedly heightened everything.

 

St Pauli: Uniquely Different or Alternative Commercialism?

St Pauli FC v FC Kaiserslautern: 2. Bundesliga

Sunday 15th May

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.

Hamburg in the evening
Hamburg in the evening
Rathaus
Rathaus
Hamburg ist Braun Weiss
Hamburg ist Braun Weiss
Average St Pauli Mitglieder
Average St Pauli Mitglieder
Think Differently
A Different Tradition
The St Pauli Celtic thing
The St Pauli Celtic thing
More St Pauli and Celtic links
More St Pauli and Celtic links

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’.

Getting There

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.

Stadium from the Underground Station
Stadium from the Underground Station
Front Door
Front Door

DSCN0970

It didn't stay 0-0 for long
It didn’t stay 0-0 for long
You're famous boys
You’re famous boys
This reminds me of someone's handwriting
This reminds me of someone’s handwriting

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.

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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.

St Pauli were founded in 1910
St Pauli were founded in 1910

DSCN0996 DSCN1000 DSCN1002 DSCN1003 DSCN1004

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

Kick Off
Kick Off
Corner to St Pauli - note the rainbow flags
Corner to St Pauli – note the rainbow flags
Woohoo - Song 2 plays when the hosts score
Woohoo – Song 2 plays when the hosts score

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.

Another flag for the Sellik of Hamburg
Another flag for the Sellik of Hamburg
Putting Pauli in the 'Che'd
Putting Pauli in the ‘Che’d
Ever Surrender: arrest us now.
Ever Surrender: arrest us now.

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.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ****.5
  • Stadium character: ****.5
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: ****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *****
  • Overall: ****.5

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.

 

 

Eintracht Frankfurt

Eintracht Frankfurt v FC Ingolstadt: Bundesliga 1

Saturday 5th March 2016

Growing up around Glasgow, the name ‘Eintracht Frankfurt’ was synonymous with their 7-3 defeat in the 1960 European Cup Final against Real Madrid at Hampden Park.  My parents’ generation frequently brought it up as a moment of crowning glory for Glasgow.  The name, however, invokes images of defeat for me.  I saw Eintracht play last May but they were outclassed by Borussia Dortmund and they struggled again today against less illustrious opposition.  Without the goal threat of the talismanic man-bun that is Alex Meier (Bundesliga top scorer last season), Eintracht had set their phasers to stun.  No goals in the past two Bundesliga games did not augur well either.

It turns out, as I prepare to upload this the morning after the match, Eintracht manager Armin Veh has just been sacked. The fans got what they wanted: ‘Armin Out’ was their chant, before shaking all about, doing the Hokey Cokey and turning around.

Arena Walkway
Arena Walkway
Full time
Full time

Getting There

I was given a press ticket for this game so I didn’t need to worry about buying one.  However, the club website for tickets is: https://tickets.eintracht.de/default.php. I had arrived at Brussels Midi Station earlier than I needed to, giving me time to grab coffee and a pastry.  I walked up to the platform to take the Thalys train to Koln, my intermediate destination before changing train for Frankfurt.  My return fare for the whole journey was 77 euros, booked through Belgian Rail, SNCB as usual.  You can take the Megabus as well if you don’t mind arriving and departing in the middle of the night but, in this case, the bus was only about 10 euros cheaper.   Then, an announcement came over saying there was an 11 minute delay.  I had a 17 minute window for the connection in Koln, so was beginning to feel nervous.  These 11 minutes became 15, which became ‘about 20, which, in reality was 45 minutes.  They really should have managed my expectations better: I could’ve gone for a coffee instead of pacing back and forth like a metronome on the cold platform.  The Thalys train ride itself was fine and comfortable although I still think the Deutsche Bahn ICE trains are better.

Having clearly missed my connecting train, and not having a flex-ticket, I went to the ticket people to ask what to do.  I was told that, because Thalys is a private company and nothing to do with Deutsche Bahn, I’d need to buy a new ticket but that I should write to Thalys to ask for the difference to be refunded.  I was also told that, had I missed my connection because a Deutsche Bahn train was running late, my ticket would still have been valid.  Raging.  So, I paid for my single to Frankfurt, which I’ll be contacting Thalys to reimburse me for.

Not having reserved a seat on this new connection, I spent the hour and ten minutes on the ICE train in the café car.  So, instead of paying to reserve a seat, I got a ‘breakfast burger’ containing omelette, bacon and cheese (which was far better than anticipated), and a small beer for just over 5€, guaranteeing my seat to Frankfurt.

My plan of taking a quick tourist bus around Frankfurt to get an overview of the city was abandoned due to my lateness so I went straight to my accommodation, the Pension Alpha – the perfect place for the Beta male (http://www.pensionalpha.de).  I arrived to be told that my room had suffered from water damage and wasn’t available but that I could have another room, with a toilet (on another floor!) instead for a 25% discount, meaning my room was only 30€.  The omens weren’t promising.  The hotel ‘manager’ showed me to my room which was so far underground, the room didn’t need central heating due to its proximity to the Earth’s molten core.  I was basically in staff digs that had had a spray of polish and a quick vacuum.  Well, I wasn’t going to start trawling Frankfurt for better for the sake of one night and it was only 200m from the train station.  Sigh.

View from my seat
View from my seat
The 'floating' TV
The ‘floating’ TV
Teams coming out
Teams coming out

Frankfurt

The area around train station is often the ‘earthier’ part of town and Frankfurt is no exception.  I went for a quick stroll to the ‘Romer’ area, which is an ‘out of place’ square that time forgot in the middle of a modern Metropolis.  After a hearty serving of bratwurst, pommes and weissbier, I was ready to head to the stadium.  It was noteworthy that a small lady at an adjacent table had ordered the equivalent of a Frankfurt mixed grill, containing schweinshaxe, bratwurst and schnitzel.  The nearby abattoir must be a large local employer. The city has U-Bahn, S-Bahn and trams so it is easy, in principle, to get around.

The Commerzbank Arena

Flag Fans of the Curve
Flag Fans of the Curve
Pre-match optimism
Pre-match optimism
The Ingolstadt Loyal (since 2004)
The Ingolstadt Loyal (since 2004)
In the distance, between the trees and skyscrapers, is the main entrance
In the distance, between the trees and skyscrapers, is the main entrance
Commerzbank Arena roof, from the gangway
Commerzbank Arena roof, from the gangway
The cable guy
The cable guy

From Frankfurt Hbf, the stadium is less than 10 minutes away via the S-Bahn (S7,8 or 9).  Finding the platform, via the network of urine-scented tunnels, can take a few minutes as it isn’t well signposted.  The short journey is actually a rather frustrating experience.  The stadium has a designated stop – Stadion – but it is nearly a kilometre past the stadium so you watch the stadium disappear out of view as the train trundles by, before alighting.  There are no barriers as such so I consider the ticket I bought (having no match ticket at this point) to be a superfluous 3 euro splurge.

Upon alighting the train there are some beer and sausage stalls – I recommend getting one here as it’s a bit of a hike to the stadium and this may make it more pleasurable.  These facilities are found at regular intervals down the forested path, liberally sprinkled with urinating men around the periphery.  I arrived at what looked like the ticket office and main entrance.  I was to collect my ticket here.  I was told by the ticket office worker that she didn’t have a ticket in my name and that I should go to the main entrance.  ‘Great, where is that?’ I replied.  I was told to ‘ask the man in the yellow jacket’ as she was busy. So, like a good boy, I asked the man (steward) in the yellow jacket where the main entrance was.  Of all the possible answers I had considered, ‘I don’t know’ was not one.  Surely that’s in day one of steward-training?

I then found a diagram that suggested that the main entrance was miles away.  That couldn’t be right, could it?  I was starting to panic.  I like to arrive at geek-o-clock, early enough to photograph the place almost empty and scope out what’s on offer.  I wouldn’t get to do this now.  I asked another steward where the main entrance was and he said ‘about 5 minutes to the right after the tunnel.’ He lied, managing my expectations as well as the guy at the train station.  It was about 30 minutes walk.  I turns out the Commerzbank Arena has  huge boundaries and grounds with an area almost as diffuse as the nearby airport.  Having marched against the flow of people to get to the main entrance (it is now 15:10), I collect my ticket and join the massive queue at the turnstiles.  Between getting through the turnstiles and getting to the stadium is a good ten minutes of forest walk as well.  I jog along, a little painfully due to my dodgy hamstring, and arrive in my seat at 1525, exasperated but relieved.

The 51500 capacity arena looks rather like a concrete bowl from the outside but is far more impressive once you’re in.  The roof structure is unusual.  The club describe it as a ‘steel-rope-membrane-inner-roof’. There are pillars supporting a yellow disc, covering the circumference, and what looks like a semi-opaque canvas-like roof extending from it.  Inside this, above the pitch, there is a scaffold, supported by pillars from the top of the stand.  This scaffold is joined to the suspended TV via cables.  This can give the impression that the whole pitch is covered but it is not.

The stadium reminds me a little of the HDI Arena in Hannover and is a bit like an upgraded version of something similar.  There is only a small band of away supporters but given Ingolstadt’s rapid rise from obscurity, that’s not surprising.

The toilets were in plentiful supply and was all rapid and efficient.  The queues at the snack outlets are pretty intimidating and entropic.  They operate a card system but there are floating beer and cola suppliers for card holders to reduce the queues.  That said, there was no way I could have bought a card, topped it up, queued for food and got back to my seat within 15 minutes.  I could have hob-nobbed in with the press but I’d rather experience these things as a fan, not staff.

Eintracht fans making a good noise behind the goals – it’s a ‘beery’ atmosphere around the ground here: like T in the Park but with better beer.

Eintracht Frankfurt v FC Ingolstadt

Seferovic with a spring in his step.
Seferovic with a spring in his step.
Free kick to Eintracht
Free kick to Eintracht
What happened next?
What happened next?
Corner for Eintracht
Corner for Eintracht
Corner for Ingolstadt
Corner for Ingolstadt

The match itself was interestingly competitive, if not beautiful.  Marco Fabian established himself as a go-to player early on for Frankfurt and he does have a good touch.   He is not, however, the 20 goal per season striker they need.  Frankfurt started brightly but on the 7th minute, the referee blew for a penalty for Ingolstadt after an accidental handball in the box.  It was unlucky, but probably correct.  Hartmann dispatched the penalty confidently despite the wild howling of the home fans.  Their small band of supporters looked delighted.

I think I’ve worked out why Eintracht are struggling in the league – they’re not very good and do lack ‘next level’ quality everywhere! Hradecky just kept them alive with a save on 32 minutes and Ingolstadt looked the better team in the first half.  They were simply more composed and threatening.

My notes from the rest of the match are largely composed of criticisms of Haris Seferovic, Eintracht’s Swiss centre forward.  Continually being caught offside, heavy on his feet, blowing several chances at goal and then blaming his teammates or shouting at the linesman, he epitomised everything that was wrong with Eintracht.

Marc Stendera, the Football Manager ‘wonderkid’,  left me wondering what the kid was all about and he was substituted at half time.  Only Fabian ever showed an guile or creative spark and the narrowness  made it easier for Ingolstadt to defend.  Eintracht looked like the newly promoted side for much of the match.

On the 64th minute, Hradecky made a fabulous save from a header at a corner down low, which I would cite as the catalyst for the Eintracht revival.  Ingolstadt were weakened by their substitutions and the expulsion of Pascal Gross, whereas Eintracht grew and grew and finished the match camped in Ingolstadt’s half.  Marco Russ headed home a deserved equaliser and the home side continued to press.

 

 

When the 40000 attendance at the match was announced, there were boos echoing around the stadium.  Perhaps a more regular Eintracht watcher could explain that – I’ve never heard the attendance figure booed before.

In the end, Eintracht couldn’t find their way past Ingolstadt thanks to a combination of attacking ineptitude and defensive resilience from the visitors.  The final whistle is greeted with jeers, howls and choruses of ‘Armin Out!’

Upon leaving at full time, I march purposefully to the train station via the direct route, and upon hearing the station announcer saying that the train at platform 10 goes directly to Frankfurt Hbf, I gleefully hop on, only to sit there for nearly twenty minutes.  I do, however, arrive on time in central Frankfurt to eat a quick Burger Kaiser before hitting the pub to watch Dortmund v Bayern play out a goalless draw.

What did I learn?  It’s an interesting stadium but, if you need to get your ticket from the main-entrance, don’t take the train as the station is miles away.  The Eintracht fans seem like they have the potential to be excellent given a more entertaining spectacle on the field. However, the current team look a long way away from this objective.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: ****
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: **** (if drinking and eating counts)
  • Overall: ****
 

Hertha Berlin

The stadium also has a quality, built-to-last feel about it: this is no corrugated iron shoebox and, despite its flaws, you can’t help loving its majesty!

Hertha Berlin v Wolfsburg: Bundesliga 1

20th February 2016

Imagine the Colosseum was converted into a fully functional and modern football stadium.  Hertha Berlin’s Olympiastadion feels like a useful monument, like you have modern comforts in a classic historical environment.  A lively home support camped out into the East end of the stadium and cheered on their team creating a lively yet relaxed atmosphere.  It was very different from a typical Bundesliga experience.

Getting There 

Some people place self-imposed, imaginary limits on themselves. ‘All the way to Berlin for a game of football between two teams you don’t support,’ and similar comments echoed around my listening chamber.  You can do it folks, and it is much simpler than you might imagine.  Although Berlin is further from Brussels than most German destinations, three cheap flights a day to Schoenfeld Airport meant that you can have return flights from Brussels for 24 euros.  Upon arriving at Schoenfeld Airport after an easy 80 minute flight,  a 20 minute train ride takes you to Alexanderplatz in Central Berlin for 3.30€.  The stadium can be reached via the S-Bahn trains or the Underground, line 2, and is about 20 minutes by underground from Central Berlin.

Tickets and Accommodation

Hertha Berlin seldom sell out their home matches and, except for the games against Bayern or Dortmund, you can generally pick up tickets at the stadium on the day, provided you bring ID.  Alternatively, print-at-home tickets can be bought from https://www.eventimsports.de/ols/hbsctk/en.  This process is very easy and is simpler than most clubs’ ticketing portal.  Tickets are available from 15 euros and I paid a whopping 17 euros for mine.  All in all, I got flights, transfers and a ticket for less than 50 euros.  I hear that gets you a pie and a scarf in the Premier League these days.  I also got an amazing deal at the Ramada Hotel (http://www.ramada.com/hotels/germany/berlin/ramada-plaza-berlin-city-centre-hotel-and-suites/hotel-overview) for just under 50 euros, which was uncharacteristically decadent but worth the splurge.

Berlin

This was my first trip to Berlin and I found it quite a moving and soulful city.  While Munich is very victorious, grandiose, elegant and triumphant, Berlin is characterful, melancholy and apologetic.  Perhaps the freezing rain accentuated these feelings but it’s a wonderfully interesting and energised city I would like to visit for longer.  Everything seems very much laid bare and there is a certain honesty and openness that, given its turbulent 20th Century history, I perhaps wasn’t expecting.

The Olympiastadion  

Zum Olympia Stadion
Zum Olympia Stadion
Die Alte Dame
Die Alte Dame
Die Twin Tauers
Die Twin Tauers

The stadium itself is so simplistic and iconic but is very well laid out.  The large tiled area in front of the turnstiles, which also doubles up as a car park of sorts, is lined with stalls with food, drink and Hertha accessories like you’d expect.  There’s also the often forgotten bonus of clean toilets next to this facility.  Everybody seems to enter via the turnstiles at the front of the stadium which were well staffed.  I had problems getting the scanner to read my ticket and the steward was about to send me to a special entrance when a lady, who looked like a mature club-mascot, showed me some folding trick with the ticket that the scanner liked and granted me access.

The area just inside has all kinds of food available, beer can be bought in 300ml, 500ml or 1 litre jugs and there is even some karaoke or cabaret taking place.  Half a litre is 4.20€ and a litre is 7.50€.  There was a very relaxed feeling to it all and the tension that often accompanies these kind of games seemed absent.  A word of warning though: while a one litre serving of beer means less trips to the bar, it doesn’t do anything to decrease the frequency of ‘comfort breaks’.  I hadn’t factored this into my ‘time-saving’ purchase.  The stadium also has a quality, built-to-last feel about it: this is no corrugated iron shoebox and, despite its flaws, you can’t help loving its majesty!

A capacious oval
A capacious oval

DSCN0878 DSCN0880 DSCN0881 DSCN0882 DSCN0887 DSCN0892 DSCN0893 DSCN0894 DSCN0895

I was in section 41.1 and had decided, as usual, to get a seat near the back.  I could have had my pick to be honest.  Like in any stadium that has a running track, if you are behind the goals then you are pretty distant from the pitch.  However, from such an elevation, most views are unobscured.  That said, the pillars do spoil the vista somewhat (although I’d rather have a roof than no pillar on a day like this).

There are some helpful beer and ‘stadium punch’ minions who come to magically fill up any empty glasses although the kiosks selling beer and sausage are frequent and efficient.  Hertha, to their credit, have not abandoned paying for food and drink in cash and have both a club card and cash system, which means infrequent fans don’t have to spend 10 euros to get a drink.  The toilets are large and well-maintained as well although I felt like I had done a lap of the track by the time I found them.

A special word of praise has to go to the Hertha fans, who were unflappably supportive and generated an excellent atmosphere despite the stadium only being 60% full and the rather staid match on offer.  They made the match for me.

Food and toilet area
Food and toilet area

 

Hertha Berlin v Wolfsburg

The match itself was a fairly forgettable encounter with a draw probably being the correct result.  The absence of shots on target was a disappointment although I have to admit to having never watched Hertha play attractively.  That said, despite Hertha’s 3rd position in the table, Wolfsburg looked the stronger team throughout and both teams will probably accept the outcome as a decent point.  Dardai’s achievements at Hertha this season can be mirrored by Hecking’s underachievement at Wolfsburg.  While Hertha have been frugally built and, being honest, looked like possible relegation candidates on paper, Wolfsburg are still trying to fill a Kevin de Bruyne shaped void.  Julian Draxler is a very talented player but hasn’t performed as consistently as de Bruyne did and was peripheral throughout this match.

Both Ibisevic for Hertha and Kruse for Wolfsburg looked a little isolated and, while Schafer and Kalou both took their goals well enough, the lack of creativity was frustrating to the fans braving the miserable weather.

At the end of the match, there was no ‘subway scramble’ of fans leaving after 83 minutes to get a quieter train.  The normal end-of- match stampede or cramped stairwells are not to be found here.  Some people milled around, getting more food and drinks, whereas others headed back for the train or underground.  It all had a fluency and ease to it that was added to the laid-back feel of the event.

The underground back to Berlin was busy but not cramped.  Upon leaving Alexanderplatz, I stumbled across the Hofbrauhaus.  This seemed like the perfect place for a final beer accompanied by a large piece of animal.  The beer and food were brought out suspiciously quickly but I was too hungry to care and the fatty Schwein was being devoured.  I should’ve gone back to the hotel at this point, but some friendly Arsenal fans visiting friends came and sat at my bench and, all of a sudden, that extra beer or three seems like a good idea.  They playfully mocked their own support but assured me that if you like quiet and comfortable football then the Emirates is the place to be.

For my flight, accommodation and match ticket, I could barely have got into the cheap seats in the Emirates.  From opening my eyes and ears at the game, it seems like a lot of fans were over from the UK for the match.  Makes you wonder, if the Premier League is ‘the best league in the world’ why were so many English fans in Berlin?  Hertha Berlin  could be the ideal destination to go to for a weekend away: great city, fantastic stadium, an excellent atmosphere and fans are treated like they matter.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ****
  • Overall: ****.5

 

Hannover 96 v Mainz 05

Hannover 96 v Mainz 05: Bundesliga 1

Saturday 6th February 2016

Oi mate, I can see the pub from 'ere

Hannover was the heading.  It was an express journey, meaning I didn’t get to alight at the usual stops along the way like ‘Merry’, ‘Tipsy’, ‘Arrogant and loud’ or ‘Steaming’.  That is the normal route to a Hannover.  I’m sure that won’t be the last playful use of this name.  ‘Who are you going to see?’ the traveller asked.  ‘Hannover’ I reply.  ‘Sechs und Neunzig?’ he proposes.  ‘Just the Neunzig please, I’m very tired.’  I could, and probably will, go on.  The numbers embedded in the club names are seldom omitted and commentators refer to clubs by their number e.g. Hannover 96, Mainz 05, Schalke 04 and so on.  Today’s game, therefore, was ‘96 v ‘05.  Relegation-threatened Hannover against mid-table Mainz.

Getting there

Health Warning: This part is wildly self-indulgent and long-winded.  If you want the ‘radio edit’ about the stadium and match, scroll down. 

The hours between 0330 and 0530 bring to the fore the extremities of humanity.  In daily life, the ‘normal’ masses dilute these polarities.  However, at this time of day, instead of ‘Where’s Wally?’, it’s more of a ‘There’s Wally!’  From the deliriously drunk to the seriously shady, lovers’ quarrels to ‘couldn’t-care-less caretakers’, the night amplifies the diversity of life.

I discovered that I can cycle from my house to Gare du Midi in Brussels quicker than the disrupted tram service can take me there so, on a crisp but dry morning, this seemed like a pleasant option, especially given the very small margin for error in the tram schedule.  I ended up allowing much more time than required for two reasons: my ‘lateness paranoia’ and because my health hadn’t been good all week and I wasn’t sure my of my capacity to cycle.  If anyone ever tells you they have gall bladder problems, sympathise.  It hurts!  I had contemplated not coming to this game despite having paid for my train and hotel because of this and my absence from work.  However, I asked myself ‘What would Jesus do?’ and decided to walk amongst the sinners.

‘Sometimes you don’t know a person until you walk in their shoes’ it is said.  Well, modify ‘walk in their shoes’ to ‘ride their bike’ and I got to know my son a little better.  I know that he needs a new saddle, that’s for sure, if he ever wants to father children.  My barse was, and still is, reminding me that this is a prioirity upon my return.  I won’t let what happened to the bike afterwards cloud my experience, merely inform and influence future bike parking solutions.

I waited twenty minutes for the cafés to open at the station (0545, for future reference).  Having tried to remain inconspicuous among the ‘characters’ of the station, I was glad of the coffee.  My feeling of self-assurance, bordering on smugness, brought on by my punctuality, quickly evaporated.  The platform was like having to navigate an assault course of suitcases, snowboards and excited travellers.  Not paying the five euro supplement for a seat reservation didn’t seem so clever now.  It is the Saturday at the start of the Carnival week after all: the busiest holiday of the year for snow-seekers.  I did notice the ticket prices rise rapidly after I spent 58€ on mine.  I got mine via this link: https://www.b-europe.com/Voyager

So, the ‘fun fun fun  of the Deutsche Bahn’ had started.  Realising everybody else had reserved a seat (probably worth the 5€ in hindsight), I scoped around for a seat that wasn’t reserved from Brussels.  I found a seat that was reserved from Aachen to Frankfurt and, despite a few suspicious sideways glances, I got comfortable.  I didn’t matter that the seat wasn’t ‘Mainz’ (search engine optimisation subtlety at its best).  This would do until Aachen, which isn’t far from Koln, and I could tolerate standing for a short while: it’s not like my feet were ‘Aachen’.  Some poor lady, with her family, had reserved the seat next to me (I’m sure she didn’t stipulate the seat next to the eurofootballstadium guy, but you follow).  With the train this busy, I wasn’t going to head to the toilet for a Clark Kent change out of my trackies and hoodie and into, well, jeans and a hoodie, as this seemed somewhat inconsiderate to my fellow passengers, not to mention the risk of losing my seat.

So, as the train pulled into Aachen, I decided to go to the canteen car, order a coffee and then change in the toilets into my slightly less homeless-looking outfit that I would wear for the rest of the day.

The train arrived at Koln on time – I only had a thirteen minute layover so I needed this level of punctuality – and the Berlin train was on the adjacent platform, waiting to whisk me to Hannover.  Upon boarding, I found what looked like it must be the only unreserved double seat on the train.  Bingo!  The idea of having a beer crept into my head, despite my relative physical fragility and the hour, just because I was in Germany and wasn’t driving.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

I glanced out of the window, admiring the uniformity of the pylons, juxtaposed with the diversity of graffiti seldom seen outside the proximity of train tracks, on the canvas of well kept grass.  The ICE trains are cool – they are very quiet, smooth, comfortable and even tell you how fast they are going.  I am imagining how I would make their advert, with Vanilla Ice (as the middle-aged man he is now) giving you a tour of the train, rapping out its features and occasionally nodding along approvingly to ‘Ice Ice Baby.’

It’s the sense of discovery and adventure that excites me and keeps me young.  New places, new events, always learning.  Our rate of learning decays with age.  When you are a small child, everything is new, you are always learning and every step is a discovery.  We lose this as we ‘settle down’.  Some people call it ‘growing up’ but I prefer the term ‘growing old’.  I don’t want to ever grow old, even as I age.

A lady tells me I’m in her seat in Dusseldorf but then she sits elsewhere noticing a free ‘table seat’.  Despite the awkwardness, this could work out well for me as nobody else will ask for my seat.  I continue to peer out of the window like a diligent sentry in the hope that I catch sight of the occasional stadium from the train.  I was one of those kids who went on car journeys with their parents who actually enjoyed ‘looking out of the window’ as an activity and the only time I got bored was when it was dark.

At Duisburg, the other available seat is taken but I cannot complain. So far, I have seen three people in Dortmund colours get on at various stops, including one who came from Belgium who I saw on the first train.  They are away to Hertha Berlin today.  Should be a good game, I noted, in advance of the bore draw.

There is a big drama in Hamm – someone has made a pig of the reservations. The lady whose seat I have asks for it back – turns out the table seat wasn’t free –  and I am without a seat from Hamm to Hannover.  I really should’ve reserved a seat.  The train is swarming with Dortmund fans going to Berlin (I say ‘swarming’ as they look like wasps, not with the David Cameron-esque connotations).  I have a friendly chat with the server in the catering car, who is over-complimentary about my level of German and we discuss what languages are learned in school and for how long etc… By my reckoning, I need to make this beer last just under one hour.  Actually, leaning on these leather bolsters is helping my back, which gets sore when I am seated in the one position for too long.

I just saw a plate leave the catering car: sausage, egg and cucumber! File that under the ‘stuff left over in the fridge’ section of the menu.  Why cucumber?

Hannover

Upon exiting the station at Hannover, I came out into a wide square, a main shopping street and the ice rink and ‘Wurst’ hut.  It’s cleverly designed, with the high street on two levels, a bit like Covent Garden for those who have been there.  It’s quite unusual, for me anyway, to see this outdoors.  I locate my hotel within ten minutes.  With it being too early to check in, I head to a nearby bar, called the Barvarian (in Lower Saxony, fittingly) that looks welcoming for some food and a drink.  It’s charming and rustic but not so unauthentic that it looks like a chain pub.  They do that thing that some Irish bars do where they use non-standard words for the male and female toilets, leaving me lost.  I go in and spot the urinals, validating my guess.  It’s not clever – just show the universal male and female signs and embarrassment will be avoided.

Lunch was a burger in a pretzel instead of a regular bun and some sauerkraut prepared three ways.  I checked into the Cityhotel Thuringer Hof, which was perfect for my needs.  A single room with en-suite toilet and shower for 39€.  A stroll through the park, past a parade and some beautiful buildings, and the stadium was in sight.   The city has a nice feel to it and, while I wouldn’t come here on holiday, it’s a nice place to spend the day.

Stroll through the park
Stroll through the park

The HDI Arena

While the HDI Arena is situated about twenty minutes walk from the main train station (unusual nowadays), it is in the middle of a park next to a river and a lake so you don’t feel like you are in the city at all.  There are plenty of food and beer stands around the stadium before you go in, as well the excellent looking Nordkurve bar: with its massive screens and plentiful bench seating, it reminds me of some bars on the ski slopes.

Nordkurve bar next to the stadium
Nordkurve bar next to the stadium
HDI Arena
HDI Arena
North Entrance
North Entrance
Through the security to the front door
Through the security to the front door

Picking up my accreditation was easy enough – thanks again to the club’s media department for this – and after being subjected to a fairly thorough search (I wasn’t being complemented on my German this time), I went through to the Press room.  Tickets can be bought at https://ticketing27.cld.ondemand.com/online/index.php3?shopid=104&wes=empty_session_104&language=1&nextstate=2

Or, at least, I tried to to go to the Press Room.  The security dude told me, politely yet assertively, to put my camera away.  Maybe he was concerned about me taking photos in the press room.  While there were snacks on offer, I had just eaten so I proceeded directly to my seat in the press tribune.  I am reassured by the fact that I’m assigned an actual seat, knowing that I’m in the right place, and not having to find a space.

Leaving the press room takes you out into the the food and beverage concourse behind the stand where various beer and pretzel combinations are on offer.  They operate a system, like Munich, where you collect a card which you top up from a stall.  It’s better than tokens, put it that way.  Four euros for a half litre of beer is reasonable although I didn’t sample it myself so cannot vouch for the quality although I expect it will be excellent.

Oi mate, I can see the pub from 'ere
Oi mate, I can see the pub from ‘ere
Hannover don't play in blue, so why blue seats?
Hannover don’t play in blue, so why blue seats?
Sudkurve
Sudkurve
Nordkurve 90 mins before kick off
Nordkurve 90 mins before kick off
The choir get installed into their perilous perch.
The choir get installed into their perilous perch.
Fun with flags
Fun with flags
The pubs are suddenly quiet
The pubs are suddenly quiet
Some people have dressed up as empty seats here
Some people have dressed up as empty seats here

It’s fairly steep and I had to get the old legs pumping to get up to the back row.  The stadium is without doubt an interesting one.  While it has the cauldron look, there isn’t too much distance between fans behind the goals and the goals themselves. It’s not that up close and personal, but it certainly isn’t Roma.  Sneaking a few photos in, in case I’m told to put the camera away, I scope the safe standing on the bottom of the Nordkurve and a small pocket of unsafe standing at the top, with some reassuring red and white tape around it, where I’m guessing the band will be situated.  The seats all have plenty of leg space and the rail in front for leaning, which I like.

It was a schoolboy error leaving the hat in the hotel.  I’m torn between just tolerating it (like a man, grrr) or putting my hood up like a homeless Jedi.  Not sure I’m won over by the seat colours.  Trivial, I know, but with the team playing in red, green, black and white, why have predominantly blue, some red and white on the seats.  Just cheapens the look a little.

The club media representative, Oliver, has just come up to me and welcomed me, which is very nice.  He apologises that the ground won’t be full.  The 52000 capacity stadium is nevertheless about 80% full.  Oh well, doesn’t mean it won’t be a good day.  You get the sense that the club are trying to do everything correctly and by the book as though they are being watched and someone is waiting for them to slip up.

The goalies come out to some loud music and to the almost ubiquitous (in Germany anyway) applause and adulation.  Interestingly, all of the fans seemed to be coming in and out of only two entrances, behind either goal.  I was curious to see how that works at the end.  There was also a large ant-army of fans on the top of the West Stand – you do get a fabulous view of the city from up there.   People ended up not evacuating en masse at the end but milled around a little.  Perhaps the central location of the stadium means that less people drive and are concerned about ‘missing the traffic’.

Twelve minutes before kick-off, the fans have woken up at both ends.  The Hannover boys are making a decent racket. ‘Sechs und Neunzig: Alte liebe’ plays and the scarves go up, ready for battle.  I swear some of these flag wavers must find a mechanical arm: it’s relentless.

Scarves for the Anthem
Scarves for the Anthem
The supporters wield their woollen swords, ready for battle.
The supporters wield their woollen swords, ready for battle.
Is this just the club marketing dept seeing who doesn't yet own a scarf?
Is this just the club marketing dept seeing who doesn’t yet own a scarf?
Hannover hangs over
Hannover hangs over
Jolly good game sir.
Jolly good game sir.

Hannover 96 v Mainz 05: The Match

This was the third time I have seen Mainz in a year but I’ve never been to their ground.  I’ll need to correct that soon. I find them a team who are well suited to the counter attack for the most part.  I had, however, never seen Hannover so I was looking forward to seeing how they play.  Badly, is the best answer to that based on today’s performance.

IMG_0600.jpg

A yellow card in the second minute for a deliberate foul by Bell got us under way.  Neither of Hannover’s newly acquired forwards looks the slimmest: Almeida and Szalai should have strength on the ball.  Hannover have some tidy looking players in midfield but look lightweight defensively and Mainz exploited this.

IMG_0601.jpg

Twenty minutes in, neither keeper had a save to make.  Hannover looked weak down their right with Mainz making ground easily there.  And then, Mainz scored a beautifully worked goal with Jairo rolling it into the corner after some good work down the Hannover right.  Muto did fabulously well to pick out Clemens when it looked lost and brought shame on the house of Sakai, before Clemens poked the ball into the box set up Jairo.

On ’32, Mainz nearly doubled their lead with Latza, who was excellent throughout, volleying wide.  Then, two Hannover players tackled each other, like schoolboys.  Mainz kept causing problems down the Hannover right every time.  The two Japanese boys were passengers. The Home Bears are not happy.  Mainz kept drifting right then moving the ball to their left where Hannover were absent.

To address this, Salif Sané came on after only 35 minutes to the Hannover right midfield and immediately won the ball.  Sané’s positional nous however seems counterbalanced by his passing ability.  That said, he plugged the hole well.  The Mainz front four are all skilled players who are constantly moving.  Hannover’s three attacking players are not so dynamic.  Sané’s introduction has made it less easy for Mainz though.   Hannover lack quality and look like relegation candidates based on this performance.

In the second half, Hannover had clearly been told to play the long ball.  However, after 52 minutes, Szalai got a shot on target.  Granted, it was a lethargic daisy cutter, but more than was managed during the first half.    Muto then had a thirty second spell where he beat 2 players, played a fabulous pass and then was booked for a rash tackle.  He is a tidy player.

After an hour, Hannover looked down an out and beaten.  The brought on number 9 to play at 10 but the rest of the team were still at sixes and sevens.  On ’67, when the ball fell to Szalai in the box he looked surprised and was too slow to react.  Then on ’70, a chance fell to Almeida but he hooked wide.  However, it did give the quality starved home fans something to shout about.

The changes opened the play up and it became an exciting end to end game.  Mainz nearly doubled their lead on ’73 but the scramble was cleared.  Sub Jhon (no typo) Cordoba played through Frei delightfully but again Jairo’s final touch eluded him.

On ’79, Karius made a very good save from Almeida – his first real contribution to the game. A minute later, Cordoba broke away and was scythed down on the edge of the box but then a sand wedge of a free kick ensured that the opportunity was spurned.  Mainz continued to look superior and on 89th minute no 27 ratted the crossbar with a delightful curling shot that had Zieler watching. Corner at the last – could Hannover’s giants equalise?  Straight into Karius’s hands.  Summed up Hannover’s match really.  Scramble at the death also went unconverted leaving the home fans discontented but the result itself was about right.

I was able to stroll back to my hotel and dump by bag to head out and watch Scotland lose at rugby.  After this, I went to bed.  Well, I was up very early that day.  And it was worth it.  Some vocal fans in an excellent stadium watching their struggling team.  It’s what being a football fan is all about.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: ****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ****
  • Overall: A very solid ****
 

Borussia v Man City

Borussia Monchengladbach v Manchester City

UEFA Champions League Group Match: 30th September

In light of the introspective post-mortem regarding the Premier League Clubs’ surprisingly predictably poor performances and results the night before, the interrogation light was burning into the soul of Man City for their trip to Borussia Monchengladbach.  It was one of two Bundesliga/Premier League clashes, with City’s quiet (it’s hard to be noisy with a langoustine in your mouth) neighbours and Wolfsburg playing out the other match.  Could the Bundesliga boys batter the Manchester boys and rub more salt in the gaping coefficient wound?

Well, no they couldn’t but in Borussia’s case, they were unlucky and Hart-broken by the end.  It was a fantastic football match.  The notion of going was really only conceived on Monday morning, taking the tram to work at an hour so early that it was almost hallucinogenic.  I checked my phone, checked my permission status with my very patient wife, and snapped up one of the last tickets from Borussia’s own website (see earlier Borussia reviews for details).

I’d hasten to point out that this is not a Borussia blog.  However, they are my closest Bundesliga team and I’ve grown to really like them; it’s a great club!  When Wednesday came (doesn’t have the same ring as Saturday, does it), I hopped into the car, pre-rush hour for a chilled drive and a playlist of Roxette, Roxanne by The Police, Rockin’ Robin and the theme from Rocky III.  This was a genuine sequence of songs on the radio.  I just couldn’t get the link.  Nevertheless, I rocked up to Borussia Park in good time, despite heavy traffic around Leuven hoping to rock out to Granit and Die Elf vom Neiderrhein and really hoping the players were confident and not bricking it.

'Sun'chengladbach
‘Sun’chengladbach

It was a beautiful evening, if a little breezy: Borussia Park is very much out in the open.  Around the stadium – even nearly three hours before the game – fans were hanging out having a UEFA-enforced alcohol-free beer.  For what it’s worth, I quite like alcohol-free beer and was driving anyway.  It seems tragic though that fans have to change their habits and suppress and sanitise what is part of their pre-match ritual so that the corporate nuggets can drink their free, self-righteous champagne or ‘Heineken’.

I was Garnock Academy Sports Champion 1995. Surely you'll let me in?
I was Garnock Academy Sports Champion 1995. Surely you’ll let me in?
Ooh, but I came alone :(
Ooh, but I came alone 🙁

Since my last visit (5 weeks ago) to Borussia Park, a lot has changed.  I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks Favre should’ve stuck it out a little longer and results would’ve picked up.  Seems a shame. However, since Favre left, Borussia – under the guidance of Andre Schubert for now – have started winning.  Pivotal to this upturn in form, in my opinion, is the redeployment of Lars Stindl as more a free-roaming trequartista than a holding midfielder with defensive responsibilities.  Mo Dahoud has been given a chance and, so far, seems to be improving with every game alongside Xhaka.  Raffael has become the main striker, as opposed to Favre’s preference for a partnership.

So, to see only one change in the XI from the last two matches was unsurprising.  City, on the other hand, started the season in great form but had a couple of consecutive defeats coinciding with the absence of Vincent Kompany among others.  The return of Hart and Silva would also provide Pellegrini with some options.

Having had my bratwurst, pommes und pils (alcohol frei) I made my way to my seat in section 20A.  It was the back row.  Once I got there I looked and saw something looked different – seats in the Nordkurve.  I feared for the effect this may have on the atmosphere – another UEFA ‘put your balls in a Pepsi cup’ sterilising initiative. My fears, however, were unfounded.  The atmosphere was, at times, as good as it gets.

Look at that sky!
Look at that sky!
Seats in the Nordkurve!
Seats in the Nordkurve!
A quick photo between Gazprom ads.
A quick photo between Gazprom ads.
Fill me up, buttercup
Fill me up, buttercup
Choreo
Choreo

One thing that does irritate me though is the liberal attitude to smoking.  The spherical lady in front ensured that I had passively smoked about 10 cigarettes throughout the match.  She even burned her accomplice on the side of the face with her oral light saber, striking down his dark side as he brought her copious bratwursts.

The constant interruption of UEFA sponsor adverts was a pain. Bloody Gazprom…  It did not however, spoil the atmosphere.  The scarves were waving and the fists were pumping in time to the music.  City fans wont be used to this kind of thing.  Then there was the Choreo, which looked fabulous.  I held my black rectangle aloft, sneaking a bit of footage before all 46000 pieces were scrunched up and lobbed into the air before kick-off.

The gentleman, and that is the most appropriate word, who did the announcements in English sounded like he was doing overtime from making ‘English as Foreign Language’ videos.  In his 1950s BBC voice, he sounded like he had been plucked from a colony to extol the Virtues of Blighty’s Empire.

The Match

The statistics do not paint the full picture.  In the first half, Borussia were excellent.  Xhaka was assured, Hermann very dangerous and they had a guy up front who looked a lot like Raffael but played more like Ronaldo.  Pity his finishing wasn’t up to the standard of the now portly Brazilian.  Demichelis and Otamendi couldn’t handle him, they played very high up the pitch and were caught out over and over.  Joe Hart made a number of outstanding saves from Raffael and Hermann, not to mention a penalty save.  He kept City in the match.

Hart doing a Grobbelaar
Hart doing a Grobbelaar

City for their part, looked most dangerous whenever Aguero was near.  He is a genuine class act and his touch, strength and overall game was excellent.  He missed a couple of chances and Sommer made a point blank save from about 2 yards but the first half belonged to the home side.  Sterling worked hard, De Bruyne had an off night and Silva looked only half-fit.  Yaya Touré was hooked at half time for Fernando, the Ivorian having a ‘nightmare’, according to the stadium announcer.  He had been poor.

For all that Borussia were good in the first half, Pellegrini deserves credit.  Every substitution he made had a positive effect for City. Fernando’s introduction at half time allowed them to control the match.  Yet, Borussia still had attacking intent and, in the 54th minute, Stindl finished a cross from the right low to Hart’s left and Borussia were 1 up.  Scenes!  Borussia Park was bouncing.  Xhaka also had a strike that came off of a City arm in the box but no penalty was given.  It was a decent shout from my view.

From this point on, however, City dominated.  Borussia worked very hard for the first hour and players were tiring.  Passes were looser, tackles less assured, Raffael increasingly not being found.  City looked stronger and it wasn’t a great surprise when Otamendi spanked home a half-clearance via Christensen.  There was panic and confusion as there was doubt as to whether the Demichelis header was over the line but Otamendi got on with the game instead of hounding the ref and got his reward.

City continued to press and control and Borussia, despite bringing on Hahn and Traore, couldn’t keep possession.  The full backs started to really struggle and the back line was stretched.  When the penalty came for city in the dying minutes, it seemed so cruel and undeserved.  A draw would’ve been a fair result, but Aguero’s fall was rewarded with the penalty.  He was never going to do a Raffael. Too good.

When City look back on this rarest of away wins, gratitude to the goalie should be foremost in their minds – Hart was outstanding.  It is a group of death but life has been breathed into Man City’s chances of success in the Champions League and resuscitated  the much maligned coefficient.

Borussia, for their part, will be disappointed but expectations, especially since the draw, have been more about enhancing reputation and getting the CL experience.  A double header with Juventus will be approached with excitement and not fear.