“Why don’t you go off and watch some sport somewhere?”
It was September 2011 and this advice was usually reserved for the days when my girlfriend wanted me out of the house. However, on this occasion it was her inspired response to my twin brother and I wondering how best to avoid frittering away the excessive amount of holiday we each had to use up before the end of the year.
I’d never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth so her suggestion was graciously accepted and the plans for a footballing adventure began to take shape.
The brainstorming session that followed was both creative and chaotic as ideas ranged from a simple jaunt around England to a highly unrealistic trek through the darkest outposts of Europe.
We were sure that a middle ground could be found and after studying various maps and fixture lists we eventually hit upon an obvious destination: GERMANY.
This decision was to prove the catalyst for a dramatic transformation that would see two 40-year-olds from London switch their focus away from the domestic game that they’d once loved but had grown increasingly disillusioned with. Neither of us are religious, but we were about to convert to Bundesliga.
German football had first caught our attention at a very young age and I actually started supporting Nottingham Forest off the back of their epic European Cup encounters against the likes of Hamburg and Cologne. Since then we’d always admired the Bundesliga from afar as its reputation for attacking football, full houses and general fan friendliness set it apart from some of the supposedly more glamorous leagues.
The pre-Christmas trip of 2011 was largely a voyage of discovery as our knowledge of stadia leaned heavily on vague memories of World Cup 2006 and our player recognition was limited to those we might have seen play in the Champions League. Our grasp of the local geography was equally primitive as it revolved around family excursions to the Black Forest in the mid-1980s and the odd boozy city break within the last decade.
It was therefore entirely fortuitous that we stumbled across a series of 6 games in 8 days that were all scheduled to take place in and around the densely populated state known as North Rhine-Westphalia.
With the strategy agreed we set to work on the organisation; with the division of labour dictating that I’d sort out the hotels and the match tickets while my brother booked the flights and trains.
The internal travel arrangements were helped by the excellent DB Bahn website that allows you to book all of your significant journeys in advance. The act of obtaining match tickets was painstaking to do on-line and with hindsight I should have simply contacted all the ticket offices directly. It was only a week later when the airmail envelopes started arriving that I knew for certain that my patience had been rewarded.
The packed itinerary took in visits to Mönchengladbach, Cologne, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Mainz and Leverkusen. We’d both been to see a lot of English football over the previous 30-odd years but the match-day experience in Germany was on another level.
The initial difference that really stood out was the type of supporters and their positive mind-sets, many of whom would accumulate at the stadium two hours before kick-off to merrily consume beer and bratwurst. Not only was the age range far more diverse than what you’d commonly see in England but the male and female split was much more even. Another surprise was that the home and away fans were happy to mingle together with barely a hint of sinister undercurrent. They were there to cheer on their team unconditionally and seemed intent on enjoying themselves whatever the result.
The atmosphere inside the grounds was similarly eye opening as the pre-match anthems and choreographed scarf waving built up perfectly to the main event. The military-style chanting and drumming from the terraces would become relentless throughout and helped create a vibrant intensity that made every game feel momentous. Once the final whistle was blown the bond between players and fans was evident, as both teams would immediately head towards their respective followers to celebrate or commiserate.
The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly Borussia Dortmund against Olympiakos at the Westfalenstadion. The “yellow wall” may have been damaged by UEFA seating regulations but the occasion itself had been magnificent from start to finish. We’d also particularly enjoyed paying 10 Euros each to stand behind the goal at the Coface Arena in Mainz although our ability to blend in was hampered by not knowing the words to any of the songs.
Our only obvious lowlights involved our choice of places to stay as we soon realised that killing a few hours in Gelsenkirchen is difficult while killing a couple of days in Dortmund is torture.
Away from the games we tended to seek out the nearby Brauhäuser whenever the opportunity arose (we preferred Altbier to Kölsch) and regularly indulged in the appropriate porcine cuisine of schnitzel and boiled pork knuckle.
Such was the overall enjoyment gained from our inaugural tour that a repeat installment the following year was inevitable, by which time our intelligence had expanded exponentially due to the weekly highlights shows on terrestrial TV. The matches we saw at Hannover, Wolfsburg, Bremen, Hamburg, St. Pauli and Düsseldorf had been no less compelling and had cemented our affection towards our new favourite league.
The annual pilgrimage was soon pencilled in for 2013; by which time the 4 live games per week on satellite TV meant we were already watching more Bundesliga than Premier League. The need for a further change of scenery continued and this time we were determined to head south, so when the fixtures were finalised in mid-October we were relieved to see that our wish had been granted.
This would be our most ambitious project yet, with 8 games in 10 days that were spread across Bundesliga, Bundesliga 2 and DFB Pokal.
Our flight was booked for the end of November and we could hardly wait…
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