Words by: Daniel Magner & Tom Sparks
With top flight football in the UK taking a bit of a battering at the moment, disgruntled fans who are either priced out of going or are distressed at the lack of atmosphere. A weekend doesn’t seem to go by without talk of walk-outs, bed sheet banners and mock funerals, is it then any great surprise that more and more people are going abroad to get their football fix?
Our search for the ‘Beautiful Game’ is over a year old now, and although it’s been mainly focused on the non-league world, where we have had some unforgettable experiences, and met some amazing people, we like so many football tourists wanted to see how our European neighbours do it, see why so many people are flocking to the continent, and see whether it lives up to the hype.
The first game of our German trilogy, was at Rot Weiss Essen of the fourth tier, about an hour by train from our base in Dortmund. Arriving we see what is the undeniable sight of a group of football fans, congregated in of all places the car park of a petrol station, distinguishable by the scarves tied around their wrists and forearms, which I think is a cracking look. Many also hold flagpoles of different lengths, one has a large drum.
After some train issues, our silver haired cab driver drops us off further up the road, the same road that a group of the club’s Ultras have commandeered, led by the drum, as they make their way to the ground.
We have to collect our tickets from the club fan-pub, a nondescript single storey building close by, not much to look at from the outside, but entering it’s a smoke filled, knitted bottle carrier, scarf and sticker covered football cave, where fans can meet and drink before the match.
Red megaphone in hand the Rot Weiss Essen Capo climbs the fence, bangs his chest, and turns his back on the game kicking off behind him, beside him one of the biggest flags sways back and forth “Ultras-Hooligans”. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate on anything other than the man at the front, the hype man, the conductor, his gravelly voice organising the crowd, starting every chant.
“Need one of them at the Emirates” says Tom, I think every ground could do with one. It’s a notion that seems so alien to British football fans, but is commonplace on the continent and the rest of the world. He’s mesmerizing in a totally platonic, heterosexual way, it’s hard to remember there is even a game on, and although I have no idea what he is saying, his actions speak volumes, as he pumps his fist towards the crowd, demanding more volume, more singing.
We spend the match amongst the “hardcore” as one fan had put it, on the Westkurve and spend 90 minutes mouths wide open at the level of support. The game became almost secondary, as we were enveloped by the singing, the flags and the warm welcome the locals gave us.
With a slightly fuzzy head, and the proposition of an early Saturday kickoff, the shorter trip to nearby VfL Bochum of the 2.Bundesliga, was a lot less eventful and reconfirmed that German football fans love a pre game beer on the train. We got our day underway with a breakfast of champions, curry sauce smothered sausages under a mountain of mayo covered chips.
Inside the angular, flyswat square floodlight rewirpowerSTADION after a fleeting meeting with a giant blue mouse, we managed to find a place on the heaving Oustkurve, the home of the Ultras and marvelled at rendition of the club anthem, the constant motion of the flags and the ice cool Capo, shades on, blue megaphone in hand, perched on top of the fence directing the crowd.
Not content with being affordable, friendly and having a stand out atmosphere, football in Germany adds another string to its bow, it’s innovative as well. Having spotted a man with a knitted bottle holder around his neck at Essen, one VfL fan has taken it to the next level, like the leap from Sputnik to the Apollo program. The ‘thing to carry your beer in’ race is happening in front of us, we are part of it, as we see a man with a knitted pint carrier. I can just about get my head around the bottle, which just about makes sense with its small opening, and it being naturally a bit more contained, but the balls to wear a full and open container about your person, in a crowded public area, well frankly it’s mind blowing, we have a lot to learn from the Germans.
Last but not least, the weekend culminated in a Sunday evening on the world famous ‘Yellow Wall’ the Südtribüne of the Signal Iduna Park.
There is not an adjective in my vocabulary that can do this living, black and yellow mountain justice. The landing at the top of our entrance, gives us both a moment not just to take it in, but also to comprehend the fact that in less than an hour 26,000 people, us included, will be standing, safely, to watch the game.
As the opening bars of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ start, the next few minutes are ones I will have difficulty ever forgetting. 80,000 people, scarves out above their heads, flawlessly sing a song that is not in their first language, the whole pitch is covered with people whose choreographed flag flying adds to the spectacle, its hairs up on the back of your neck kind of stuff.
Despite the level, be it the fourth or the first, along with the compulsory beer and sausages, two things were a constant, the atmosphere and the welcome. I’m sure there a down sides to German football, I know they have there own fair share of protests, banners and walkouts, but from our four day trip, we have left only wanting only more. If you are in search of the ‘Beautiful Game’, Germany would not be a bad place to start.