After a long winter break, the return of the Bundesliga last weekend was the footballing equivalent of a handful of Christmases and birthdays come all at once. Nine matches over the weekend finally marked an end to a month without top-level German football.
Hardly able to wait for my first match of 2016, I made the trip from Mainz to Ingolstadt to usher in 2016’s Rückrunde.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of Ingolstadt. Before Bundesliga football arrived in the city last year, it was a place better known for producing Audi cars, much like Wolfsburg is with Volkswagen. As a reasonably old city – having been established over 1200 years ago and featuring a lot of medieval architecture – it provides a setting for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Otherwise, I had absolutely no preconceptions about what would await me in the small Bavarian city, other than a football club who have somewhat erroneously, based on their history and pedigree, found themselves in the top tier of German football.
Formed in 2004 and backed heavily by Audi money, you quickly get an impression of the sort of club Ingolstadt is. Bayer Leverkusen (formed in 1904) and VfL Wolfsburg (formed in 1945) are often pilloried for being backed by large companies, flouting the 50+1 rule, and having a somehow inferior ‘plastic’ culture and support compared to ‘traditional’ clubs. Whether that is for right or for wrong, they are clearly a lesser evil than the newer additions to Germany’s footballing ranks: Ingolstadt, Hoffenheim (who, as has been well documented by now, did exist in 1899, but somehow didn’t do anything of note until investment secured them a berth in the Bundesliga in 2007), and perhaps worst of all, RB Leipzig.
Whereas Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have some sort of discernable history and fanbase, Ingolstadt are just nothing. Their stadium, the Audi-Sportpark, fits 15,800 fans and is yet another of the ugly, functional, lower-league stadiums which dot the German landscape in places such as Wiesbaden, Offenbach, and Halle, among others. Built recently to support movement away from crumbling old grounds and done with only relatively small investments to hand, clubs have had to move to these soulless arenas which don’t even provide space for enough people to be worthwhile, compared to bigger stadiums at this criticism might similarly be levelled, Mainz’s Coface Arena among them.
From the outside, the Audi-Sportpark isn’t awful. The façade on the side of the stadium is quite attractive, and the club have designed the space outside quite well so that there’s a lot of space to congregate before heading into the stadium itself.
Inside, it’s a different story.
The stadium is so small that you have to question whether anyone has ever found it somewhat imposing. The toilets and catering facilities are very basic. That the architects and builders responsible for the Audi-Sportpark have somehow designed a stadium which is equally as soulless as the club it houses is an incredible achievement which definitely deserves some sort of recognition.
For many people, German football is somewhat at odds with English football and is its logical opposite. Germany’s packed terraces, in-stadium sales of alcohol, and more prevalent fan culture all appear completely at odds with the supposedly more-commercial product of the English game.
I’m not so sure this is the case.
Both models have their positives and negatives. In particular, the German derision of the money with which the English game is laden would only really begin to carry some sort of element of realism if Germany didn’t struggle with it, too.
For better or for worse, you don’t tend to get an absolute nothing such as Ingolstadt or Hoffenheim in the top flight of English football, with absolutely no history at any discernible level of the game and, essentially, one backer bankrolling the club’s rise. These projects tend to reach their limit lower down the English footballing pyramid. Ingolstadt are indeed the antithesis of this stereotypical image of German football, continually failing to sell out their miniscule stadium (the attendance of 13,800 or so was the second-lowest attendance Mainz have played in front of in their Bundesliga history.
Ingolstadt also offers no actual beer to away fans. Mainz fans had to make do with alcohol-free beer before taking to the terraces. Therefore, this area of the trip to the Audi-Sportpark can’t be fairly reviewed. It wasn’t the biggest issue. After all, I was there for the game and not the atmosphere, which the Ingolstadt faithful weren’t forthcoming in providing anyway.
Ahead of kickoff, when the stadium announcers read out the home fans’ team, it was difficult to discern the surnames of players that the Ingolstadt fans were supposedly shouting back – the stand was largely hushed, and so it remained throughout the game’s ninety minutes.
Fortunately, Mainz’s fans made up for this somewhat with loud singing throughout and two excellent choreos which, although causing view of the pitch for a handful of minutes to be obscured, mean I have finally, in my nineteenth game of the season, been part of a choreo in a German stadium. I’d been worried that this wouldn’t happen, given that the atmosphere in Mainz’s block when away to Köln in November, my previous away game with the club, was relatively quiet. In fairness, this was partly due to the fact the ultras didn’t get into the ground on that occasion.
The Mainz fans’ performance was one which wasn’t equalled by either side on the pitch, in what has to go down as one of the worst football matches I’ve watched in my life, let alone this season. Ingolstadt’s style of football isn’t easy on the eye in the slightest – quite the opposite, in fact – having scored just eleven goals in the Hinrunde.
As a quick reminder, this makes their attacking ranks notably worse than Darmstadt (who scored 17) and Hannover (who scored 18), neither of which are known for competent attacks. Mainz were dreadful too, showing the same sort of laboured performance which got them a measly point at home to Stuttgart and a thumping away to Hertha towards the tail end of 2015, rather than the exciting play which took them on an amazing run through November, which put the Nullfünfer in eighth place come Christmas.
Yunus Malli, the Turkish international strongly linked with a move to Dortmund in recent weeks, missed an early chance after good play by Jairo Samperio gifted him a shooting opportunity in the middle of the area. Malli’s shot only found the back of teammate Danny Latza’s legs, but even then his shot was aimed straight at goalkeeper Ramazan Özcan. Ingolstadt were then denied a debatable penalty after Gaetan Bussmann, making his Bundesliga debut for Mainz, appeared to handle the ball in the area.
It was, on balance, probably a mistake not to give the penalty, and perhaps this played on the mind of referee Florian Meyer later in the half as, when a loose ball struck Stefan Bell’s hand in the area, completely unintentionally, he eventually gave the Schanzer a penalty. This was an appalling decision, given that it was clear Bell was moving his hand away from the shot and had it next to his body, but Moritz Hartmann tucked the ball past Loris Karius from the spot to put the home side into an eventually telling one goal lead.
Martin Schmidt was magnanimous after the game, claiming Mainz “couldn’t use the penalty as an excuse” for a substandard performance, as it was a game “we wanted to win, and not just earn a point.” He later reportedly tore into Meyer behind closed doors, saying “today he managed to steal the points from us, after he didn’t succeed in Darmstadt,” referring to Mainz’s match with Darmstadt in October, where Meyer gave a similarly baffling penalty to Darmstadt, but Schmidt’s side emerged victorious anyway.
The second half was drab with Mainz on the front foot but Ingolstadt defending resolutely, and perhaps the only good opportunity of the half was squandered by another poor refereeing decision. Suat Serdar, on as a substitute for the woeful Christian Clemens, strung a sumptuous pass through Ingolstadt’s rearguard towards Yoshinori Muto, who really only had to apply the finish to rescue the guests a point. Jhon Cordoba, running in support of the Japanese forward, was deemed to be offside during this play by the assistant referee, much to the chagrin of Mainz’s players and Muto in particular.
Really, though, Mainz didn’t deserve a point for the game. Perhaps the reason for Schmidt’s and Mainz’s fans ire is that Ingolstadt didn’t, either, having won the game thanks to a penalty which wasn’t a penalty. Either way, and in spite of all my negative thoughts towards Ingolstadt, I’d thoroughly enjoyed the away day. As mentioned, Mainz’s fans were excellent throughout, and the Bundesliga was finally back.
FC Ingolstadt 04 1:0 1.FSV Mainz 05
Ingolstadt: Özcan; Da Costa, Matip, Hübner, Bauer; Roger; Groß, Morales (Christiansen, 68.); Hartmann (Bregerie, 90+2.), Kachunga (Lezcano, 63.), Leckie.
Mainz: Karius; Brosinski, Balogun, Bell, Bussmann; Baumgartlinger, Latza; Clemens (Serdar, 80.), Malli (De Blasis, 85.), Jairo (Muto, 71.), Cordoba.
Groß 52., Morales 60., Latza 79., Cordoba 88.