I had to duck out of the television station early last night. Our class got to attend the taping of the Austrian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” But I had more important places to be than watching Austrians try to win large sums of money; it was my first Champions League game. I simply could not miss that.
It certainly felt like I was missing something, though, headed towards the BayArena from the main train station in Cologne. I didn’t see anyone else with anything black and red or Bayer related on the train for not one, not two, but three stops on the big S-Bahn. We were nearly outside the city limits by that time. It were as if I were the outcast, a football fan, in the middle of Germany for goodness sakes! I thought I wasted all the money on a ticket to a game that already passed for a while.
But there was soon another worry walking towards the stadium: where was the black and red? Sure, I didn’t do much to help, considering my blue jeans and my grey athletic shirt, but at least I tried to fit in by wearing my Leverkusen scarf. Most everyone else who got off at the station in Leverkusen wore nothing related to the team in any way, but were headed towards the arena. Filthy casuals as the nerds would say.
The blue men group supporting the Italian side were definitely in full voice an hour before the match, as their cheers and shouts could be well heard around the ground as the growing number in the local drug company logo trotted towards the pitch. Hardly anything more than murmurs and collected conversation. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t? They may have had no reason to fear the night’s outcome despite coming back home down one goal in the tie.
Even the Nordkurve wasn’t full less than 30 minutes to kickoff. What was going on? The Lazio fans were letting the crowd hear it, overpowering anything the Leverkusen section could throw their way. And I was right above it as well. It didn’t feel like a proper environment in Germany, ready to watch their home team fight for glory.
Turns out they were just waiting for the team song to blare over the loudspeakers. By the time the first “unseren SVB” flew out from the vocal chords of everyone around me, I knew it was going to be alright. Everyone made it on time. Not early, but on time. And then the Champions League anthem was overtaken by the Nordkurve. They were ready. Ready for a victory.
Knowing they needed a goal to stay alive, the fans were on the refs case from the start. Any perceived advantage was met with hisses and shouts that should not be translated. This was to make it to the group stage, for another 12€ million, for international prestige.
It didn’t help that Leverkusen missed their early chances, just as they did last week in Rome. After a half hour we were sitting, watching, just waiting for something to go on frame. It was looking like a repeat of the disappointment of last week until the 40th minute, when Hakan Çalhanoğlu gave Bayer the lead. The cheers rang out, but it was more a sigh of relief. Cheers fell to claps after a few moments. They now had a 1-1 tie in the series. But the goal was soon forgotten, knowing that they needed more to end the night in 90 minutes.
Just after the halftime break the Bayer fans threw their arms up in the air, knowing they could really celebrate, having enough to make it to the group stage. As the clock crept closer to 90 minutes, they could feel it coming ever so slowly. They just needed to hold on, with two second half goals giving Bayer a 3-1 aggregate lead over Lazio.
Then Lazio mounted an attack with less than 10 minutes to go. The stadium took one big breath and waited. A Lazio goal could end everything here. But the storm passed nearly as soon as it began and the songs started again.
And with the 3-0 coming with two minutes to go, it really was celebration mode. High fives, cheers, smiles all around. What a time to be alive.
Veteran Bayer forward Stefan Kießling hopped all around like a kid on Christmas morning after the final whistle. While the fans’ voice echoed his enthusiasm, there wasn’t much pandemonium in the stands. They knew what was going to happen. They knew this night would end in victory. And after the final thank you to the Nordkurve’s support, Bayer headed to the dressing room with a spot in the group stage of the greatest European competition and some extra millions in their pockets. The fans walked back through the night without much fanfare, except for the ticket booths crammed with people throwing down their cash for Champions League tickets for the fall.
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