Thursday, 14 April 2011

European Football Weekend in Germany

Fußball's coming home 

Spurs fan Thomas Newman does what every football fan should do at least once in their life; take in three football matches in three days in Germany.......

FC Köln vs Hannover 96

The idea was spawned one drunken night out that we should travel abroad to see how football is done on the continent.  Two of us, Danny ‘Hitman’ Heppenstall and myself, planned to take in three games over a weekend and the let the airline prices and fixtures dictate what this would be.  We ended up flying EasyJet to Cologne on Friday morning to see the match there that evening, to be followed by fixtures at Schalke on Saturday and taking in a 2nd division fixture at Arminia Bielefeld on Sunday.

After the ridiculously early flight, meaning a 3am departure from home, and checking into our ‘cosy’ hostel, we headed out into Cologne to soak up some German culture.  Cologne is dominated by its Cathedral which towers above you as you leave the central station, and was a nice place to wander, especially around the Old Town.  Already there were FC Köln fans about, draped in club scarves and shirts, despite KO being hours away.  We treated ourselves to what we had anticipated almost as much as the football- German beer, and we weren’t disappointed.  The local Kolsch was excellent even if you had to make sure you ordered 500ml and not the ‘half for the lady’ 300ml.  However the beer and the early start had taken its toll and, due to the 8.30pm KO we sensibly, and very out of character, headed back for an afternoon kip.  Someone must have heard of our weakness though and we were kept awake by FC Köln fans and a very noisy drum- seemingly right outside our room.  At one point the volume of noise made us both consider if we had any glass in the window at all.  That’ll teach us to be softies eh?

However, we awoke relatively refreshed and headed out for some pre-match food and beer.  Cologne has plenty of local pubs and we opted for one on the river front in the Old Town which served a very enjoyable variety of Kolsch called Sion.  Revitalised we eagerly headed off to the match.  Transport, as we found everywhere in Germany, was straight forward and efficient.  Leaving the train station near the ground we followed the throng out into the night.  There really seemed to be a great atmosphere everywhere.  Fans of both teams travelled together and songs broke out all the way to the ground.  And what a ground.  It rose up in front of us, its concrete exoskeleton was magnificently illuminated by a pillar of light in each corner.  Night matches always seem to have a special atmosphere and this was to be no different.

All seemed to be going well on our first visit to a European ground, apart from the what we discovered to be the Germans obsession with making you put money on to a card to use to buy beer or food in the stadium, something which, uncharacteristically for the Germans, means they have to inefficiently employ people to both top up cards and sell the food, whilst ensuring you end up queuing twice?!?  Anyway, we were shown to our seats by the ever helpful but childishly amusingly named Koch-licher Security at the stadium.  I’m not ashamed to say I giggled.  We sat high up above the terraced area which had a great atmosphere.  I was particularly impressed by the chanting from the Ultras in the terraced section of both the home and away fans; they never seemed to stop bouncing or be quiet for a moment. Two guys on a raised platform stood above the home fans with a drum and their back to the game conducting the crowd like two crazed, skin headed, Simon Rattles. 

Our elevated position near the top of the stand gave us a great opportunity to soak up both sets of fans and their energetic support for their respective teams, no matter who was winning.  FC Köln were playing high flying Hannover 96 who were exceeding expectations by sitting in 3rd place in the Bundesliga, some eight places above FC Köln, although Köln were on the back of five straight home wins which offered some hope.  FC Köln went ahead when the Portuguese midfielder, Petit, cracked a low drive into the corner from a free kick just outside the area which livened up a slow start to the proceedings.  Lukas Podolski then got into his stride and in the second half he expertly rounded the keeper and finished from a tight angle to put the game out of Hannover’s reach.  He then expertly teed up Novakovic for an easy finish when he had every right to shoot himself before a Navakovic header for his second put the game to bed in the last minute.  The crowd stayed long after the final whistle to applaud the team’s 4-0 victory and finish their beers.  There seemed no rush to leave the stadium after the game like there is in England- probably helped by the out of town location and transport links that aren’t ridiculously overcrowded.

The crowd eventually headed off and we followed them to some great bars in the old part of Cologne.  The numerous local Brauhaus’ provided a great opportunity to sample more of the abundant local speciality, Kolsch.  We headed to the local square where we ended up in an oddly amusing pub where a jukebox type arrangement gave the punters an opportunity to pay to listen to classic pop and rock songs performed by two mechanical German figures playing the tuba and accordion, which delightfully included cheeks puffing in and out in time to the music. Very strange.  We ended up in an Irish bar, where we watched the match replay on TV with the locals who were celebrating FC Köln’s sixth straight home win.  We eventually headed to bed giddy with the prospect that tomorrow might be just as good, and possibly even better.  Schalke here we come!

Schalke 04 vs Eintracht Frankfurt

After watching FC Koln on Friday night we had an early start to get to Gelsenkirchen to watch Schalke on Saturday afternoon for the next instalment of our journey.  We took a train through the urbanised Rhine-Ruhr district which supplied us with a constant stream of light industrial areas for us to savour.  After attempting to check in at the wrong hotel (I mean what do they expect if they have two hotels in the same city that start with the letter I ?!?) we dropped our stuff off and headed out.  The room was sold to us as a twin but actually turned out to be a double with two duvets- we knew even then that if we were to have any sort of comfortable night’s sleep without the fear waking up in the middle of the night to find your male travelling companion seemingly staring you directly in the eye, we were going to have to be drunk.  The area around the train station was filled with fans filling up on beer and bratwurst before the match.  Schalke songs were played on a tannoy system from one pub and the fans seemed in good spirits for the match. Everywhere we went there always seemed to be a number of twenty plus stone men sporting magnificent mullets whilst wearing faded denim jackets covered in club badges; a look which would definitely add to the fan experience in the UK.  Also the sheer lack of numbers of leather trousers at English grounds disappoints- we have a long way to go to catch up, and I mean a long way.

Again the sheer volume of blue and white being sported by everyone we came across was amazing except for one group of ‘Ultras’. Apparently called ‘Gelsen-szene’, which was emblazoned on their lapels, they got on the same tram as us, bizarrely dressed in black jackets with ‘SECURITY’ written in big white letters on the back, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t the security for the stadium due to the way they attempted to almost break open the tram door during the miniscule delay between tram stopping and doors opening.  Apart from a few rogue fire crackers thrown by some of these guys at the train station there was no real sign of trouble and we got to what was another excellent stadium, the Veltins Arena.  The sheer amount of space around the grounds with areas to drink local beer, eat oversized pretzels and to meet other fans put English grounds to shame- maybe an English World Cup may have provided us a few more stadia like these and that would have been no bad thing.  The stadium was breath-taking.  We sat high up and admired the suspended four-sided TV screen that Paul Robinson had attempted to bring down to earth with a particularly lofted clearance during the defeat to Portugal at the 2006 World Cup.   Schalke are clearly a club who know how to milk the commercial aspect of the game to the nth degree.  Every offside, corner and minute which was divisible by one was greeted with an advert on the aforementioned screen.  The locals had obviously grown oblivious to this but I frustratingly found myself getting distracted from the match by its incessant interrupting. 

I was particularly looking forward to watching Raul, someone who has seemed to have graced the football since European football started coming to my pubescent attention in the mid nineties.  Raul looked like he had lost a bit of pace (not a surprise now he is 33) but he did show one piece of amazing vision when executing a blind reverse pass which sliced through the Frankfurt defence and another cheeky display when, with shades of Gary Crosby and Andy Dibble, he hid behind the Frankfurt goalkeeper and nipped in front to win a penalty when the keeper placed the ball to kick it long.  Jurado duly converted making it 1-0.  Frankfurt managed to find an equaliser in what has to be a goal from the furthest distance I have ever seen. From probably at least fifteen yards in his own half (I later read the distance was 72m) Georgios Tzavellas launched a hopeful ball forward to Theofanis Gekasin heading towards the Schalke goal.  Manuel Neuer drifted towards the attacker who put and foot out to control it....and missed.  The ball bypassed everyone and creeped into the other side of the goal, absolutely unbelievable.  Schalke still managed to get what was probably a deserved winner when another Greek made a dramatic impact.  Angelos Charisteas, famous for scoring the winning goal in the Euro 2004 final, scored when a long Neuer kick bounced kindly off a defender for him to score with what was probably his first touch of the match.  The result was good news for Schalke coach Felix Magath who seemed to have been under pressure before the game but received a hugely positive reception from the home crowd when introduced at the start of the game.

After the final whistle we stayed to soak up the post match atmosphere and spend the rest of the money we had placed onto our KnappenCard- the strange currency used inside the Veltins Arena instead of cash.  A couple of extremely drunk fans did attempt to cause some trouble but it was isolated and stewards and police always arrived in time and in numbers more than enough to quell a small uprising in a Middle East dictatorship.  There seemed a high number of female riot police officers who looked like they would be at home in a live action version of Shrek and capable of more damage than The Thing.

We headed back to the hotel, where we ended up meeting five Danish guys who had come to watch the match as well and were heading to see the cult that is St.Pauli the following day.  Incidentally they had paid 250 Euros to see that match, which although it did include access to the VIP section and free drinks, seemed particularly extortionate.  The delightful conversation included references to their love of Championship/Football Manager, and they even bizarrely mentioned their fond memories of Paul Warhurst in the early editions of the game- being described as the ‘ the ultimate substitute’ due to being able play in any position on the park! Paul Warhurst wasn’t a name I thought I would hear again in my life- let alone from some Danish guys in Germany.  Despite our desperate urge to eat we were convinced by the idea of ‘just one more beer’ on numerous occasions and even Sambuca.  Bad idea at 6pm.  One by one the Danes fell by the wayside until four of us were left.  We headed into town for more drinks and after some surprising prolonged Danish confusion over us wanting to get a sandwich from Subway and not get on the Subway, we found a nice bar where we continued to drink the excellent Kolsch.   This was not their first trip abroad to watch football and we discussed the excellent atmosphere that we had experienced at the match.  They agreed that it was such a contrast to the somewhat sedate atmosphere that you can sometimes experience in England, especially when the home team is losing.  However, soon enough, like skittles, another Dane went down, they had been drinking since 10am and claimed to have had ten pints before the match even started.  Hardcore.  They were even complaining about the quality of the Veltins beer compared to Carlsberg- something we had no intention of doing when comparing it to piss weak Carling so prevalent at grounds in England.  We ended up drinking Vodka and Red Bull to stave off the inevitable kebab and bed, but we couldn’t put it off forever.  A good time was had by all but another early start and the Bundesliga 2 awaited for us....       

Arminia Bielefeld vs TSV Munchen 1860

We awoke on Sunday in Gelsenkirchen around 8pm absolutely broken and seriously questioning the need for that final pint in the hotel bar after our night out.  There was no time for feeling sorry for ourselves though and we showered and headed straight to the train station to continue our weekend of football.  We were heading to Bielefeld where we were going to get our first experience of the Bundesliga 2.  A change of train at Dortmund where my travelling companion nearly broke down under the weight of the night before was swiftly followed by a miraculous recovery after he purchased and ate what can only be described as a giant pretzel filled with cream cheese.  I felt worse just looking at it and can only imagine what possessed him to consider it as a hangover cure.   Give me a fry up any day.

I have to admit that I was expecting Bielefeld to be a little like an English, post industrial northern town but was surprised to see that it was actually very cosmopolitan.  The beer filled Brauhaus’ of cologne had, slightly disappointingly, given way to cosmopolitan cafes and restaurant-bars.  However, KO was at 1.30 though so there was no time to sight see.  On to the underground we ventured where, yet again, we encountered hoards of scarf sporting locals drinking the local beer out of bottles (in this case Krombacher). The stadium is only a couple of stops out of town and we headed up into the daylight to see what awaited us.  The ground was older than the World Cup inspired stadia of Koln and Schalke and was more akin to those in England.  Tickets were required and the choice was an easy one and, despite our still fragile state, we were going to join the locals in the terraces- a bargain at 12 Euros.  The atmosphere and the ground really seemed to raise our spirits though and we were soon necking Krombacher from plastic cups proudly wearing our newly purchased Arminia Bielefeld scarves, our decision somewhat influenced by an attractive vendor in the club shop.

Arminia Bielefeld sat rock bottom of the Bundesliga 2, with a measly thirteen points from twenty five games.  Despite the clubs lowly position a healthy attendance of around twenty thousand had turned up, and there was only a small, but extremely passionate, away crowd of a few hundred.   However an horrendous playing surface, made mostly of sand, combined with both a goalkeeper who fumbled everything, and an early away goal for TSV Munchen 1860 soon silenced the home crowd.  And that was the way it stayed.  The crowd seemed to know that that was the end of the match as a contest and the Bielefeld players responded accordingly.  They were clearly lacking confidence and it looked at times that they had never played with each other before.  Passes were misplaced and good runs ignored and despite a decent work ethic the gulf in class was obvious.

On a brighter note the second half allowed us to take a closer look at the opposition goalkeeper, who seemed to be a slightly balding man with clown like pantaloons on his bottom half.  On closer inspection of his name on the back revealed him to be none other than ex-Crystal goalkeeper, Gabor Kiraly, known to me as ‘The Clown’.  He looked like he was still in the same shapeless tracksuit bottoms as his days in England but it was impossible to tell if he was any better than I remember due to the distinct lack of efforts on his goal.  In fairness though, Bielefeld did come out of the second half a little better but it also seemed inevitable that TSV would score again, and they did, twice. And at a canter as well. The home fans were so unimpressed they cheered the third Munchen goal as if it was one of their own and the match was spattered with sarcastic clapping- something I have never seen at home.  After the whistle a few Arminia Bielefeld players, led by the lone crowd favourite and seemingly cult hero, Rudiger Kauf, sheepishly came across to applaud the fans but they were met by a chorus of boos and finger insults, and retreated back towards the changing room with their tails firmly between their legs.  Even our friend Kiraly turned to the crowd at the end and I half expected him to raise an apologetic hand on behalf of TSV Munchen for beating Arminia so easily, but he was understandably probably far too embarrassed at the ease with which he had seen his side win.

The terrace experience at Bielefeld actually turned out to be slightly disappointing.  Although it was lively at first the opening goal turned it into more of a place to chat and share beers than support the team, but perhaps this was to be expected considering their perilous position in the league.  Post match beers followed and I was also reminded of the pain of standing for such a length of time.  When we finally returned to town, like two old men we headed for the nearest bench to rest our weary feet.  Maybe all seater stadiums are the way forward after all, especially to a couple of unfit thirty-ish year olds.

We headed back to the station to catch our train back to Cologne for our flight the next day, taking time to avoid eye contact with a weird man chasing after a very angry girl.  Some things are universal, it was the sort of sight that you could see in any town centre back home.  On the way, probably due to our brand spanking new scarves wrapped proudly around our neck, we were asked by a number of people what the score had been, there seemed to be genuine interest in the local team but little surprise when we gave the score- despite a brief look of incredulity when one local presumed Bielefeld had won 3-0.

Back in Cologne, we were provided with the opportunity to reflect on an excellent weekend of football which we did over some final pints of excellent beer in a great place called the Beer Museum - although the exhibits seemed to be much more interactive and enjoyable than most museums I have been to....   

- Feel free to comment below - 


Andy said...

Ah, the delightful stadium currency conundrum.

Many teams do it but just as many don't. St Pauli want to do it but their supporters are currently saying "no".

Part of it worked when I was at Augsburg - once I had my card there was no waiting around for a beer. But getting money added to the card was a pain.

tjnewms said...

To be fair if you're only going for one match its a pain but if you're a season ticket holder then it makes more sense as you don't have to mess about with money- you can just top up once every few games. Swings and roundabouts...

Jimbob said...

A great read. Yep the cards are pain. Trying to work out how much to put on them is never easy. I've lost count of the times i've stood at the bar, ordered two drinks and burgers and found i didn't have enough on the card.. because they whip off money for the glass deposit too.
Still, it's all part of the fun and I wouldn't miss it for the world! Did the Cologne Friday/ Schalke Saturday thing earlier this season and it was great!