So having opened the doors to guest posts, something about London buses. This time my good friend Simon takes us through a match day experience in Germany’s capital. It is from a season or two ago and hints at a degree of prescience. Enjoy…
I write this having the day before witnessed a 5-0 home defeat by my German football team, Hertha Berliner Sport Club. The play in blue and white stripes, in a cavernous stadium which is barely ever full and are constantly plagued by financial and relegation worries. Much like my English team, Sheffield Wednesday. That is where the comparison ends however. A walkthrough of the matchday experience will explain how.
The classic matchday in Germany is centred around 3.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. Not too early to prevent you
a) having a late Friday night; or
b) finally getting round to go to the shops before they lock down for the rest of the weekend (Just try and buy butternut squash on a Sunday!).
Depending on how you’re feeling of course, you arrange to meet your chums at the S-Bahn station at around 12.30pm to hand out the tickets. Armed with open beer bottles you get onto a train which is already packed with people of all ages wearing blue and white merchandise of various sorts. I am particularly fond of the guys wearing denim waistcoats with patches and badges sewn carefully on, or the women (who tend to be middle aged) wearing ponchos with the club crest emblazoned across the front and back. And no, I have not missed a step in the process – in Germany there is no need to buy a train ticket before getting on board, as transfers to the stadium and back – and indeed onwards into the night – are included in the price of the matchday ticket.
Germans. Good at cars. Bad at fashion.
If a group of opposition fans boards your carriage, some sing-song banter with the home fans will probably ensue. As a Briton, following a German team, it can cause a quizzical reaction when I fail to understand and react to the jokes/insults aimed at me by the opposition fans. I try to explain that I (attempt to) speak German, but that some regional accents are impossible for me to understand, especially when all parties have had a beer… As a tip, if you subsequently suggest that as an Inselaffe (literally, an island ape, the German term for Englanders) you are looking for tips on how to take a perfect penalty, you have a sure fire way of breaking the tension from the earlier misunderstanding.
You arrive at the Olympiastadion S-Bahn station and when the doors open you are immediately greeted by a band of scruffy but polite men and women who ask to take your beer from you. It does not have to be full, in fact it is better if it is empty, for these people are Pfandpiraten (literally, “Bottle deposit” pirates) who collect 8 cents for each empty bottle they manage to collect and return to the supermarket. These pirates unfortunately do not have wooden legs or wear eye patches (actually some might), but at some less important games it seems they outnumber the police presence around the stadium.
On the way out of the station you may be asked for directions to the nearest stadium entrance/sausage stand/Jägermeister outlet by a group of worse-for-wear men who do not talk among themselves in German. This is, of course, the obligatory stag party or boys trip away. They are most likely to be English, Swedish or Norwegian, but they can come from anywhere really. The important thing is that one of them always struggles to walk, the others are slightly fed up of him in an embarrassed sort of way and would rather he had not made it out of the hotel (or prison cell) in the morning.
These drunk guys like football and realise that Germany is a pretty good place to watch it. Using Hertha as an example, for around EUR 15 to EUR 20 you get a ticket with unobstructed views, behind the goal and close to the Ostkurve, where the Ultras stand, sing and generate the atmosphere. A season ticket for such a seat for 17 home games is around EUR 300. Compared to the Premier League this is outrageous value. Especially when you see what is to come…
Glass very much half empty.
Time is ticking slowly and increasingly merrily by. From the city centre to the stadium station it takes a mere and very precise 28 minutes (very punctual). So even with chatting bollocks to the stag party in the station, you still have another two hours around the ground to – literally – soak up the atmosphere. By this I mean there are stalls dotted all around the place offering draught beer and freshly grilled sausages for EUR 2.50 a pop. If you dare to, schnapps of various types is also available. On an early or late summer’s day there is nothing quite like the smell of grilled meat (vegetarian options are not available) in the air, a cold beer in your hand, the sun on your face and the shared hope that Hertha will pull off a victory.
Even the location is rather interesting to look at… the Olympiastadion was designed and built in the 1930s during a shameful period of German history. Its striking, simple form is imposingly set in a leafy green park. If you look closely there are reminders to the historical sporting events which have taken place at the stadium, such as Jesse-Owen-Allee as a nod to the courageous 1936 Olympic sprint champion who stood up to his racist hosts. (I am still awaiting the construction of a statue to commemorate Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt during the 2006 World Cup final). All told, as is your wont, you can while away the remaining minutes before kick-off contemplating the weight of history on this city and country. Alternatively you can order a monster sized brezel covered in melted cheese and head towards the entrance-
Eventually you find which entrance gate you are meant to go through. You might have had to go through a police cordon manned (or indeed, “horsed”) by mounted police. But there is no aggressive stand-off between home fans, away fans and police. Everything is all-in-all very good natured. The limit to the incursion of your privacy on the grounds of security is a pat down once you past the security gates, and if you are wearing headwear (a sombrero perhaps) you will have to take it off to prove you are not smuggling fireworks into the stadium. (As an aside, when the city rivals, 1. FC Union Berlin came to visit in February 2013, their fans managed to get many a flare through security. Perhaps this time it was for the stadium visitors’ own health and safety as it was a chilly minus 15 degrees and we were indeed in need of the warmth. Or perhaps the union fans just hid them in places other than their hats…). Anyway, barcodes on the tickets and automated turnstiles mean the queue to get into the stadium moves quickly.
Once you are in the ground, you can buy yet more beer or sausages. Or brezel. Or mulled wine in winter. One litre of beer in a humongous plastic tankard is EUR 7 (plus EUR 2 deposit on your tankard which you get back when you return it for recycling). It is still incredible to me that you are allowed to drink in the stadium, let alone by the litre, (take that EPL and Champions League!!) and at a price which is comparable to a bar outside (and you take that too, Twickenham and NFL!!). I think the lack of naked aggression between the fans might be caused by the sheer volume of beer consumed…
I thought gherkins were the pride of the Spree???
Or it might be due to a different method of showing supremacy used by German fans. Instead of fisticuffs and other forms of violence (which I am sure does exist in sometimes in Germany, but which I have never personally been close to or even seen from afar), choreo is king and the only way to show the visiting fans who rules the roost. This is why you should be in your seat at least 30 minutes before kick-off as this is when the Ostkurve begins to go batshit bonkers. It all begins punctually and to a standard routine (ah Germans, Vorsprung durch Routine). A series of club songs are played over the stadium sound system, banners are gradually unfurled before the mass of thousands of fans begins to either sway and then “hop” in unison (the clip in link took place after the game but you get the idea). The climax is the song “Nur nach Hause” by Frank Zander (it sounds suspiciously like Rod Stewart’s “We Are Sailing” to me), as the whole stadium belt it out at full volume. Then as the teams come out onto the pitch, another song is played for a good old sing-along “Ha Ho He Hertha BSC” to which a banner is unveiled by the Ostkurve rowdy fans. This typically takes up the entire section behind the goal and must cover a good couple of thousand fans… I am not sure how they find the time to make the banner, such is its size. But then a seat in the Ostkurve costs only EUR 15 per game, and even less for season ticket holders which the hardcore fans clearly are. I imagine therefore that you can be a student (or unemployed such is the generosity of the benefits system) and still afford to come to the game. But each time you see such a noisy display of hope and devotion, especially when the big boys or local rivals come to play, it truly sends shivers down the spine.
Well, the rest is just football. Sometimes it is great, such as a 6-1 opening day win against Eintracht Frankfurt last season. Other times it is lamentable, such as a 0-5 defeat against Hoffenheim yesterday with comedic defending of tragic proportions (The link is really worth a watch. I still believe brown paper envelopes stuffed with hard cash might have been involved). But as a football experience, Hertha is top notch. The toilets in the stadium are also clean and plentiful. And goals are greeted with genuine glee, a reprise of “Ha Ho He” and perhaps a high five with your moustachioed chain smoking neighbour (smoking is allowed in the bowl, apart from in the family stand). What more can you want?
But to finish on a less certain note, perhaps, there are signs the English way of doing things is creeping into the game in Germany. Cash was temporarily removed the stadium’s forms of payment and it was necessary to use a plastic top-up-able charge-card to pay for food and drink. It was sold to fans as a way of reducing queuing for beer at half time, as there would be no need for anybody to count loose change. Some would argue the actual main reason was to earn a quid or two from the unused credit on away fans’ cards or those which mysteriously go missing in the laundry. However, in the end it just meant that you had to queue at another place to top up your card. In any case, a fan protest means cash payment was thankfully reintroduced. But what next?
Locking people’s cash into a plastic card which can then only be spent on stadium merchandise is one thing, but ownership of the club is another. A private equity house, KKR invested money in Hertha in February, and you see other clubs which have traditionally been fan-owned consider new corporate forms to increase their funding. Will the interest of financiers and their business acumen change the club’s relationship with fans, making them a commodity of the club rather than its soul?
Then more widely speaking there are Hoffenheim, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and lastly RB Leipzig, which in Germans’ eyes are “plastic clubs” with little organic fan-led history and which are owned by big corporations. These clubs can frequently outperform other similar sized fan-owned clubs in the transfer market and as such seem well placed to rise up the table and leagues. Will their success cause other clubs to break the bond of ownership with their fans? Will this then cause an Anglicisation of German football with increased focus on the bottom line? I have not yet been to any of these plastic clubs to watch a game and cannot say whether the matchday experience is any different there compared to Hertha. But I can say perhaps times are a-changin’.
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