The major headline coming out of Germany these days (besides FC Bayern already winning the cup) is the rise of sponsored football. I witnessed this topic firsthand while coming back from a VfL Wolfsburg match last weekend – with new green scarf around my neck.
With the high-speed train jam-packed and late as always, I sat down next to the exit. A Hamburger SV fan saw what I was wearing and grumbled that he had to sit next to a Wolfsburg fan. After I explained that I was going to every stadium in the Bundesliga this year (this was stadium number six) he understood and explained his annoyance at my attire that night.
My fellow passenger was named Andre and he lived in a town outside of Cologne. Every time his beloved HSV played at the Imtech Arena, he hopped on one train, then another, and another, until he and his friends and family made it to the match. Then all the way back to North-Rhein Westfalia. Every. Single. Home match. He asked me about how many fans were at the game I had just attended. I saw Wolfsburg (owned by Volkswagen) play TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (fueled by money from SAP Co-Founder Dietmar Hopp). I told him the away section had maybe a hundred people if I were generous. Andre told me that would never happen with a traditional club like HSV. Every time a traditional club is away from home, the stadium is clogged with their loyal followers – support garnered over decades.
That’s when I told him I was going to see VfB Stuttgart the next day. Though he didn’t like The Schwaben, Andre was nonetheless pleased that I was going to experience what he said was a true German football experience. The kinds of conversations you’ll have in a high-speed train really make the experience worthwhile.
Though there are some traditional clubs who are doing very well, such as Borussia Dortmund, quite a few are having a hard time keeping up with the times. Stuttgart is one of them.
Not for a lack of trying, though. VfB made the 2013 DFB Pokal Finale and weren’t ripped to shreds by FC Bayern. They won the Bundesliga in 2006-2007 and were runners-up in that season’s DFB-Pokal. Not to mention they qualified for European competition three years ago.
Currently, however, the club is a distant shadow of these successful times. Long gone are the 50s, when they won the German championship and DFB Pokal twice. Modern stars keep running off to greener pastures (just ask Mario Gomez) and there have been five changes at head coach since the start of 2014 with the constant threat of relegation looming over their heads.
It was the same song and dance at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Sunday. Dead last in the Bundesliga and three goals in four home games. Not a darn point at home at all. Not one. No wonder it was easy for me to get into the home curve.
Being a Baltimore Orioles fan my entire life, I get it.
I still go to games if they’re first or last in the division or league. And up until these past couple of years, there were many games where we may as well have been playing in a basement. The ones who stick it out -and there were plenty in Stuttgart who do – have my utmost respect.
Coupled with a dreary first half performance against Ingolstadt and another nerve-wracking beginning of the season, the fans around me weren’t what I expected. Other than the Stuttgart keeper stopping a penalty in the 10th minute, where was the constant singing and chanting all around the fan section? Where were the shots coming from? The more VfB struggled and shots flew into the stands behind the corner flags, you just wondered what you were doing there. The half ended to empty grumbles and sighs.
If this was how we’ll play against a promoted side, we may as well pack it in now, the stadium seemed to say.
Just before the hour mark, Florian Klein let a shot rip from just outside the box. It was going far-post and Daniel Didavi jumped up front for the ever slightest of taps to ruffle the net. It wasn’t pretty at all but it counted. It didn’t matter if it were Didavi, Klein or if Jurgen Klinsmann came back and pushed it in decked out in his US Soccer shirt and khakis. It was 1-0. And the men in white said let there be life in Stuttgart.
Screams entangled us as our arms and hands went wild-looking for more friends. The clouds of confetti from the game programs sprinkled us with extra ecstasy. We were moshing as if Wacken: Open Air came to the Cannstatter Kurve. This is football. This is what I came for.
The Schwaben needed all the help they could get for the rest of the night. The ref refused to see anything the home fans saw and received a continuous one finger salute for the last 10 minutes. After going down to 10 men, the calls for the ref’s head grew louder until the final whistle. All that rage converted into the ecstasy only three points can bring. For the first time in five months, they managed three points at home and pulled themselves just out of the relegation zone.
A few fans noticed I was an outsider (they saw my beard and thought I was Irish until I showed my passport) and were so happy to see me. Immediate friends, we all sung “Wonderwall” as it blared out from the stadium loudspeakers arm in arm. And then one of them pulled me aside and told me how important this was.
“I love this club, but I hate them too,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just so hard to cheer for them. They [frustrate] me so much. They’re always struggling, but I will never leave them. They are my team.”
Photos by Kai Dambach