Friday – MSV Duisburg vs Alemannia Aachen
I was stood on the terrace at Duisburg on Friday evening, trying to justify to a bemused English-speaking Duisburg fan why I, like many others, come to Germany to watch football. He was surprised, given that he saw England as the home of football, that so many sought their football elsewhere. He recalled to me the great days of English football in the 80s; the games between Liverpool and ‘Gladbach particularly, and the atmosphere at Anfield – where he has wanted to visit since.
I explained that English fans come to Germany to remember football how it used to be, before commercialism and foreign billionaires changed English football. Football used to be about fan culture, drinking, smoking, having a good time with your mates – oh, and the result. Gone are the terraces, the culture and the freedom, now football in England is no longer a game for the fans, but a playground for the rich and powerful.
In Germany, despite commercialism in certain aspects the fan culture and identity remains. Whilst Germany also has large seater stadiums, fans still hold power and their opinion matters. It’s for this reason that whilst football has no doubt been modernised in Germany, its fans remain at the centre of it. It’s for this reason that I went to Germany, to experience how football should be, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I stayed in Düsseldorf for my trip, and I’d recommend it for anyone not sure where to go. I don’t think there is any other region in Germany that has so many teams. In the immediate area there is Düsseldorf, ‘Gladbach, Leverkusen, Köln, Dortmund, Schalke, Oberhausen, Duisburg and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten (see this map for more details). All are within easy travelling distance, and it also means that you have a selection of games to choose from. There is also the added bonus that Düsseldorf has a great nightlife for travelling parties and neighbouring Köln is also a good place to visit. Düsseldorf is easily accessible, with very good transport links within the city meaning it’s easy to get where you want to go easily and quickly.
Having arrived Thursday night, and spent Friday morning visiting Köln, I was in need of a footy fix for the evening. Duisburg were at home to Aachen, so I caught the train north to Duisburg who I knew wouldn’t have sold out their 30 000+ stadium and so a ticket would be easily obtainable. From Duisburg Hauptbahnhof it’s a short train journey to Duisburg-Schlenk – from which it is a 10 minute walk to the ground. I picked up a terrace ticket for €9 and got a beer in the ground for another €3.
The ‘ultras’ fangroup sit directly behind the goal, and made a decent noise given the small attendance of around 13 000. Duisburg fans were very friendly, and even bought me several beers once I told them I was a Leeds United fan. They are a good club, who perhaps overachieve given their size. They won 3-2, having taken the lead and then come from 2-1 behind. On the way back, police had closed the local station for a short while whilst the Aachen fans caught their train, so if you visit you may encounter a similar delay, but it’s not a huge problem. Trains from here went straight back to Düsseldorf as well.
Saturday – Schalke 04 vs VfL
For Saturday, I had got lucky and acquired a ticket in the sold-out Veltins-Arena for the game between Schalke and Wolfsburg. Gelsenkirchen is an hour’s journey from Düsseldorf, and costs €11 single fare on the train. If you carry a match ticket, you can use local transport for free also – excluding the fast ICE trains, so check which type of train you are getting on. Unluckily I had to collect my ticket at the ground, and so had to buy a local fare for the journey to the ground. To get to the ground, you simply get a train to the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) and then get a tram to the Veltins-Arena from the underground station within the main station. There are plenty of trams and I found the ground very easily accessible…there’s a lot to be said for German efficiency. The Veltins-Arena stop is minutes from the ground, so it’s impossible to go wrong to or from the stadium. The arena is simply breathtaking. I’ve been to Old Trafford, Wembley, the Emirates and the Millennium Stadium, but none match the Veltins in my opinion. Perhaps it’s the lack of terracing, but I found the stadium and the football to be exactly how modern football should be. I think many English football fans prefer old stadia to new generic bowls, with the sense of history and retro feel you get at the older grounds in England. Whilst I agree, I also think this feeling comes from the type of modern stadia in England and how it is used, rather than irrational English adoration for piss-soaked toilets at Stockport.
I got to the Veltins-Arena early to soak up the pre-match atmosphere, and I wasn’t disappointed. I sat above the corner of terracing housing the Wolfsburg fans, in a stand which had a fair mix of both home and away fans. Could you imagine two sets of fans sharing the same stand in England? Probably not.
Yet there was no sign of trouble. Nor was there any hassle from stewards telling you to sit down every two minutes. I was allowed to stand, sing, drink and smoke if I wanted to, without some jobsworth telling me I couldn’t. The only disappointing aspect of the whole thing was that you have to buy a pre-pay card from within the ground to pay for your drink/food – often the case in modern German grounds. Whilst this probably works well for those attending regularly, for ground hoppers like myself it just meant I paid €5 for a card, just to order a beer.
The view in the ground is superb, but more importantly so is the fan culture. Both sets of fans never gave up; they never stopped chanting until sometime after the final whistle. Again, comparing to the dwindling atmosphere in most English grounds, it was a rare sight. I can only wish that such fan culture develops again in England, but the powers that be simply don’t appreciate the benefit of such a crowd. I paid €40 for the ticket in the Veltins-Arena, which, whilst quite expensive, is still relatively cheap given it was a big game and I was sat in the more expensive seats. The game itself was settled by a solitary goal from Jurado – harsh on the travelling Wolfsburg who had been dogged defensively – but the class of Raúl and the genius of Farfán gave Schalke the three points. Whilst I don’t want to review the game, I’ll just say that from a fans point of view, it was a superb game with superb supporters in a superb stadium.
Another difference with English football is that fans arrive early to create an atmosphere before kick-off, and stay long after the final whistle to applaud the players and enjoy the party. Whilst I walked away from the Veltins-Arena to catch the tram back to the station, the fans could still be heard in full voice. Again, I enjoyed a flawless journey back to the main station via tram where I boarded the train to Düsseldorf without any trouble.
Sunday – Bayer Leverkusen vs St. Pauli
Sunday was without doubt the most anticipated of my journey. Leverkusen hosted St Pauli, whom I’d followed since I saw them by chance in Oberhausen some 18 months ago. I also saw Köln and Düsseldorf that weekend, but I’d picked St Pauli as my team. Not due to political ideologies, but because it was easier to join in with chanting that’s quite often sung in English. Whilst I enjoyed the two previous games, it was nice to watch a game where I had a biased opinion.
This was a big game in the Bundesliga for both clubs, for different reasons. Leverkusen still hold hopes of catching Dortmund who have stuttered in recent weeks, and Pauli are fighting a huge relegation battle.
It is a 20 minute train journey from Düsseldorf, costing less than €5 to Leverkusen-Mitte station. From here, it’s a short picturesque walk through a park and down the banks of a river to the ground. It is signposted, so again it’s impossible to get lost. The BayArena, whilst not as big or as breathtaking as the Veltins Arena, is a great stadium. The attendance, whilst officially a little over 30 000, wasn’t particularly impressive but the atmosphere was good. My ticket was €22, cheaper than most top-two tier English games. You can also print your ticket for the game at home and take it with you (Print@Home), which makes it easier for those travelling to the game without having to worry about receiving a ticket. Again, you’ll need a pre-paid card to purchase food and drink in the ground. You also pay a €5 deposit on the card and the beer is €3.50. I’d say this pre-paid card idea is the only dislike I have of modern football in Germany.
Yet again the two sets of fans mingled together without problem, and there wasn’t a steward or police officer in sight. Perhaps if you treat people like adults, they will be inclined to act like adults?
Whilst I’m undoubtedly biased towards St Pauli, it was a good performance despite losing 2-1 and I felt they were unlucky to not leave Leverkusen without a point. I’d estimate that Michael Ballack’s wages are higher than the entire wage bill at Pauli. Whilst at times the skill and ability of Leverkusen showed, they were largely kept quiet by a resolute Pauli defence that was missing many regulars. Leverkusen’s ultras were good, although the North Stand behind the goal wasn’t full and only really joined in with songs after the goals for Leverkusen. Both sets of fans supported their team with constant noise from start to finish, and then after the final whistle. Leverkusen fans didn’t get agitated with their team (even when they went behind) and Pauli fans applauded their team as if they had won at the final whistle, despite relegation now almost a foregone conclusion unless some form is found immediately. A chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ echoed around the stadium from the Pauli fans as the players came over to applaud, many giving their shirts to fans. It is this loyalty that I believe is lacking in England, proven by the stories in the English media about players and managers criticising the fans over the weekend. Fans recognise the effect of a positive atmosphere, and in turn this is recognised by the players and the management of the club.
It is this fan culture that attracted me to Germany. The Bundesliga is quickly becoming recognised again as a great league. On the pitch it may not have the players like Torres and Drogba or Messi and Ronaldo, but the quality is increasing and they are able to attract players such as Raúl. German clubs, perhaps excluding Bayern, don’t have the same budget as Premiership clubs, so their focus is on developing young talent. Quite rightly too, in my opinion. It is a sustainable business plan, which allows club to run within their means, rather than at huge losses like the vast majority of English clubs.
German football is a welcome break from the all-seater, quiet stadiums in England, from over-zealous policing and extortionate pricing structures that alienate many families. Next week it’s back to Elland Road – to pay over the odds, to be told to sit down and to be treated like a second class citizen just because I decide to spend my Saturday afternoons watching football rather than shopping in B&Q.
Scott Stubbs (@stubbsylufc)