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A stone's throw from Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund lies the former mining town of Bochum. The pride of the town is its football club, VfL, where - unlike their close neighbours - success doesn't come in spades and is never taken for granted. By Dave Aalbers
The smallest of the three clubs in the area, VfL Bochum always views the good fortune of its larger brothers with a dose of healthy jealousy. Over the past few years, the town and its club have been hit hard, going down in more than one way, but the Bochumer will always get up again.
“If you’re talking “Echte Liebe” [true love], well, then this club has much more to offer than the other two combined.”
Cross the Dutch border and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Ruhr Area, which is packed with huge warehouses, steel bridges and giant chimneys. The only colour popping up from the monotone gray scenes is the ubiquitous graffiti. But when you enter Bochum, rather than the wall scrawls it’s the blue-and-white scarves that add a dash of colour to the overall gray palette. “No, this is not a picturesque, vibrant city,” VfL’s manager Gertjan Verbeek admits. “The Allies bombed Bochum flat, because this is where the German war industry was located. Everything was rebuilt after the war. It is clearly visible that during the rebuild beauty lost out to speed.”
It was the mining industry that rose Bochum to prominence. Verbeek is not the kind of manager who only knows the way from his apartment to the stadium grounds. The 53-year-old Dutchman likes to gain an in-depth knowledge of local culture, that much becomes clear quickly.
Without pausing, he continues: “The last mine was closed down in 1973. VfL is a real Traditionsverein [club of tradition]. People in this region endured a lot in the past, which also means they’ve built character. The destruction of war, the crisis in the mining industry, it’s left gaping holes in the community. Yet they still manage to gather round a cause, put their shoulders to the wheel, no matter how much misfortune they suffer. A true Bochumer never gives up.”
Former Dutch international Rob Reekers joined VfL Bochum when he was twenty, going on to play there for nine seasons. Agreeing with Verbeek, he reminisces: “In my playing days (1986-1995), that mentality stood out clearly. They would talk about unter Tage. It refers to the fact that people were working in the mines, below daylight.
“I was there before the Bosman ruling, so each club could only sign three foreign players at any one time. There’d be a large number of local players populating the dressing room. It really shaped my young character: you want to earn money, you work hard for it. Here in the Ruhr Area people are a little more direct than in the rest of Germany. They make no fuss and go straight to the point.”
The VfL Bochum fans have endured their fair share of hardship in recent times. Until the 1990s their team had played at the highest level for over twenty years, earning themselves the nickname ‘die Unabstiegbaren.’ And when they were relegated, Bochum would always bounce back within the year — until the 2010 relegation, that is.
As usual, VfL fought hard, but a third place was not enough to clinch a spot in the Bundesliga. That proved a knock-out blow, a knot in the string of the perfectly functioning yoyo. For four years after, eleventh in the second Bundesliga was the highest ranking for Bochum: a groggy boxer trying to regain his footing.
That is why the club’s director of football, Christian Hochstätter, believed the team’s tactics had to change. “We didn’t feel like we were making any progress. So we wanted a trainer who was not one of the usual suspects, who would take a refreshing attitude to the team and the club,” he said.
And if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve got the right man in the self-willed Verbeek. “A man who can build a cabin with his own bare hands just has to be creative,” Hochstätter thought.
The somewhat moody but mostly single-minded Verbeek appeared to have the key to success in his hands. VfL Bochum had a great start to the season, even leading the pack for a while. As a result, Verbeek suddenly had another duty on his hands: tempering everyone’s expectations.
“People here are like that, taking the smallest spark of hope and clinging to it. It gives them the feeling they’re taken seriously. Unfortunately, disappointment is quick to follow. Locals will then tend to say: ‘Ich bin ein Malocher’ [I’m a labourer]. They carry a big burden on their shoulders, but they keep plodding on.”
As you stroll around the Rewirpower stadium, a few German stereotypes catch the eye immediately: beer and Bratwurst are the drink and snack of choice. All around the club’s home ground you will see its slogan: ‘Hier wo das Herz noch zählt’ [Where the heart still counts]
Where other football clubs have long embraced commerce, VfL Bochum has no other choice but to do things the traditional way. A development that grew out of necessity, but it’s second nature to the Bochumer.
“People here are used to making the most of life with the smallest of means,” Verbeek analyses. “We try to translate that mentality to the football pitch. When you work hard, playing to win, the fans will be realistic. They will not accept it if we play with our heads down.”
Playing with the heads ducked does not seem much of an option in this league, anyway. Before the match, the gritty voice of Herbert Grönemeyer echoes over the tannoy. The Bochum-born singer wrote the song Bochum about the simple, industrial beauty of the town. Their long absence from the top league has forced VfL Bochum to be creative with its means. Over the past few years income from sponsoring and television rights has dwindled: “The longer you play in the second Bundesliga, the tighter your finances get,” is the manager’s sober realisation. Apart from that, there’s a string of clubs in the league for which Bochum is no financial match: RB Leipzig, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Union Berlin, Kaiserslautern, SC Freiburg and Paderborn.
Whereas VfL Bochum has no alternative but to stick to tradition, their neighbours Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund literally have a wealth of options.
“We’re a bit like Charlie Brown, the eternal underdog,” Verbeek wryly notes. Where just a few miles down the road their neighbours boasted matches against clubs like Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Real Madrid, Bochum lock horns with Heidenheim and other clubs of a distinctly lower caliber.
That is why VfL’s manager believes it makes no sense to compete with their more successful Bundesliga neighbours. “In terms of finances and numbers of fans, it’s an uphill struggle, we shouldn’t even think about trying. We will just have to do it differently. There’s a lot of appreciation from our peers, too. Whenever we travel to other clubs, like Leverkusen or Mönchengladbach, they have a notable interest in our way of doing things.”
Christian Schmitfranz, the contact person of the Fan Initiative Bochum, stresses the point that a club sandwiched between two footballing giants may find it hard-going.
“When I used to train at my own amateur club, I was often the only one wearing a Bochum shirt,” Schmitfranz reminisces. “My team mates would all wear Dortmund and Schalke shirts. Imagine what things are like for boys growing up these days. They have two options: either they support a struggling Bochum or they support one of the clubs enjoying Bundesliga and Champions League successes. Not a choice that will take long to make, I’d guess.”
But for 29-year-old Christian, choosing for Schalke or Dortmund was never an option.
“Schalke likes to market itself as the people’s club, using labels such as Kumpel Club or Malocher Club, all terms dating to the mining age. Yet their main sponsor is Gazprom, a company whose product – gas – was the very undoing of the mining industry,” he explains.
The charm offensive started by BVB (Borussia Dortmund) does not sit well with the true Bochum supporters either. “Dortmund has come up with the slogan ‘Echte Liebe,’ an attempt to sell the club as being sympathetic in contrast to the financial superpower FC Bayern [Munich]. The difference, however, is that Bayern has worked hard and fair to achieve success. The titles Dortmund won between 1990 and 2002 are based in debt and red figures. Any other club faced with the financial crisis of 2005 would have slipped down to amateur levels. If that’s Echte Liebe, I’d rather stay single.”
So Christian’s mind was quickly made up in Bochum’s favour. “VfL is exactly the club Schalke pretends to be: a simple, normal football club,” the born Bochumer explains. “When we buy tickets at the stadium, we will strike up a conversation with the players about the next match. When we’re having a beer at the Bermuda Dreieck, we will have a debate with former players about the good old days. Here in Bochum we don’t put out the red carpet for the pros. If you’re talking Echte Liebe, well, then this club has much more to offer than the other two combined.”
When the question is put to him, Reekers – still one of the club’s heroes, according to the fans – says it’s a huge disadvantage for Bochum to be wedged between Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen. “It affects the size of your fan base, but also income from sponsors, not to mention the fact that talents prefer signing a contract with the bigger clubs,” the fifty-year-old former assistant manager of FC Augsburg and Hertha BSC explains.
“Take SC Freiburg. They’re located at a fair distance from other clubs. Their talents tend to stay on and as a result the club has managed to survive for years now. Even now, they’re challenging for top position in the second Bundesliga. For Bochum, however, it’s much more of a struggle to return to the top flight or even to survive.”
Of the nine years that Reekers played for VfL Bochum, only one year was spent outside the top flight of German football, which means he fought frequent battles with the club’s big neighbours. “At Bochum we did not cast jealous eyes at Schalke or Dortmund. In fact, it was more like the opposite. We always went onto the pitch like ‘we will show them.’ We may have a lower quality team, but we can definitely beat them. A regular starting line-up and a better team spirit, that’s what we relied on.”
In 1989 Reekers achieved immortality when he scored the only goal away at Dortmund.
“That’s something that will stick with the fans forever,” the former Dutch international says, smiling.
The hard core of the VfL Bochum fans is not very large, what with their two big neighbours. “Where matches would sell out regularly when the season started, you’ll now see many empty seats around the stadium,” Bochumer Christian says before kick-off.
But the Ostkurve, behind one goal, is packed and doesn’t stop making noise. The terraces on the long sides are filled to a decent level, but on those behind the other goal fans are few and far between.
“When the results are good, people start taking an interest in the club. But when things are going badly, only a small contingent of real Bochumers remain loyal.”
In that light it was less than exceptional that in 2012 Opel decided to sign a sponsorship deal with Dortmund rather than with the ailing Bochum. That looks like the logical thing to do for the car manufacturer, but it isn’t — not if you know that the Opel plant had been located in Bochum for over 50 years and employed a large number of the city’s inhabitants.
The decision did not go down very well with local fans and the company’s employees. “They won’t support VfL but they will add to the millions the BVB players are already earning!”
In 2014 the last Opel Zafira rolled off the line at the Bochum plant and more than 3000 people in the Ruhr Area lost their jobs, yet another big blow for the town.
Even though Bochum is not the biggest club of the Ruhr Area, Verbeek enjoys the way the Germans immerse themselves in the game. “Football is a much more intense experience here. Take such things as Panini player cards and autograph hunters, for example; they’re on the brink of extinction in the Netherlands. Selfie shots, that’s what the Dutch do these days.
“But here, you wouldn’t believe the amount of fan mail I receive asking for my autograph or the number of people mobbing the players’ bus hoping for their idols to sign their sticker albums. It’s simply incredible. Engagement with Bochum is at a much higher level. Total involvement, full identification. The club is essentially the people’s second life. You’re either a VfL fan or you’re not. I’ve heard of families torn apart over one member supporting VfL Bochum and the other Borussia Dortmund.”
Odds are slim that Bochum will return to the top flight of German football soon, let alone achieve the levels of success enjoyed by Schalke 04 and Dortmund. Yet Verbeek shrewdly keeps hope alive in the hearts of the club’s fans: “They have a great grasp of reality and know full well that the club has limited resources to work with.”
“But there’s definitely room to hold out hope for the occasional success,” he continues. “Bochum had some for a string of years.”
The club having had a six-year spell in the second Bundesliga, Verbeek understands the fans’ yearning for promotion. “Success doesn’t come in spades here, so we have to distinguish ourselves otherwise: take a creative way to training, playing, developing youngsters.”
If Bochum does the trick once more, there’s no one who knows better than Reekers the enormous release promotion will mean to the fans. In 1994 the Ruhrpott team, with Reekers, were crowned champions of the second Bundesliga. Verbeek recalls: “It was then that I found out how hungry for success people in Bochum must have been all that time. Bochum fans had certainly not been spoiled for success for a while. But the ground was packed and later there were 10,000 people cheering us on the town’s main square. You could feel the release.”
Christian Schmitfranz realises that the changes at VfL will come in fits and starts. “The town has had to reinvent itself a number of times before and it always has.
“Actually, the same goes for VfL, we’ve had to change tack too over the past few years. As long as we can taste the change, the fans will follow us on the course taken by the club. Bochumers are used to hard work and putting their back into something.”
Hope springs eternal and that goes for Bochum too. No matter how many blows the club is dealt, it always scrambles back to its feet. A few more seasons like this will hurt the VfL Bochum fans in their guts — but they will take the hits, go on and in the end get back up on their feet again. They will never give up because “Ich bin ein Malocher.”