The 1. FC Köln officially translates their most-recent marketing motto into English as “Just Different.” The word “Spürbar” would normally indicate that the difference is noticeable, rather than just “just,” but like so much about what is great about German football, much is lost in translation when moving into the broader world of “modern football.”
Hence, “Just Different” has worked well enough for the club’s international audience.
But then on Monday, the club announced that Jonas Hector had agreed to a two-year contract extension and would stay at 1. FC Köln for the coming season, and “just” was not nearly enough to explain to the uninitiated why a player with Hector’s national-team pedigree would make such a move.
As the vast majority of attention is laser-focused on just a handful of the most-powerful clubs in Europe, getting Bundesliga newcomers to even learn of the German game’s traditions and values is a difficult proposition. Even in Germany itself, there are many fans who believe the safeguarding of traditions like the 50%-plus-one are preventing the Bundesliga from better competing with the top European leagues and should be set aside. While the protests against this season’s testing of Monday-evening fixtures have garnered headlines, there are still many who see such scheduling as a practical matter in pursuit of greater television revenues and, hence, better resources for keeping pace with La Liga and the English Premier League.
Yes, for a moment on Monday, all but the most-hardened football cynics were in sync with the football romantics fawning over Hector’s move. Even the majority of Köln fans, after weeks of rumors connecting the star fullback to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, were under the assumption that Hector would not be among the players retained for the (not yet 100%-secured, but awfully damned close to absolutely certain) trip to the second division.
After defensive midfielder Marco Höger last week became the first major FC figure to publicly state he would remain at the club even through relegation, perhaps some wondered whether Hector might follow. But with Höger being a native-born Kölsche Jung, it was easier to understand the appeal for him, which brought names like Marcel Risse and even Timo Horn into the discussion.
— Marco Höger (@MarcoHoeger) April 18, 2018
(Above: “If it must be, also through fire” comes directly from the 1. FC Köln hymn played as the players enter the pitch at every Köln home match.)
But Hector? Sure, he turned down the opportunity to even discuss things with FC Barcelona, but he’s from small-town Auersmacher in Saarland. He’s no native-born Köln Boy.
So with so many big clubs (allegedly) interested, why would Jonas Hector, who is a mortal lock to be on the plane to Russia as a part of Joachim Löw’s national-team squad, choose to detour his flourishing career into Germany’s second division?
“1. FC Köln allowed me to take the path from the regional league (fourth division) to the German national team. I am very connected and thankful to this club and feel very comfortable living in Cologne,” said Hector in the club’s official announcement. “It would have been no problem for me to switch to another club after this season, but it would not have felt right. We had many talks in the past few weeks and I had enough time to think about it. The decision for me is clear: I belong to FC and I want to go into the new season with this team and with these fans.”
Thankful to this club? This team? These fans? Usually you’ll hear these phrases used in a player’s farewell letter left behind as he moves along to a bigger club and payday, not in an explanation of sticking with the football equivalent of a sinking ship.
And don’t wait for Hector to take a full-page advertisement in Köln’s largest newspaper to deliver a “Bitte!” to the presumed gratitude of the city the way Zlatan Ibrahimovic did in Los Angeles before he had played even a minute in a Galaxy uniform.
Like his chosen club, Hector is also a bit Spürbar Anders.
Unlike the vast majority of players who get even a glimpse from die Mannschaft boss Löw, Hector was never a product of a major club’s youth academy. While most players of his caliber aspire to move to the systems of bigger clubs in a drive toward a career in football, Hector stayed at his hometown club SV Auersmacher from his earliest footballing days into his late teams, fuelled by a burning desire to . . . play in the fifth division?
“Back then, I simply didn’t want to leave,” says Hector about having remained at his small club for so long. “I had played at SV Auersmacher since F-youth and wanted to play at least one Oberliga season.”
Nobody would have batted an eye had a teenaged Hector left his sixth-division club to develop at a bigger club. It would have been expected of anyone with his talent. It wasn’t that Hector lacked aspiration or vision. It was that he knew what he wanted as a footballer and had his own ideas on how to get it.
“We are finally going to win promotion,” said the then-19-year-old of his decision to stick at Auersmacher, “and it is not certain that the conditions anywhere else are what I need to perform well.”
Spoiler: Led by Hector, Auersmacher won the Verbandsliga Saarland title in 2009 and moved to Oberliga Südwest for the 2009-10 season.
After fulfilling his Oberliga dreams, Hector was ready to transfer for his next challenges. He chose Köln with the city’s proximity to his hometown, friends, and family certainly factoring into his decision.
Whatever Hector’s Köln equivalent of “an Oberliga season!” is, he apparently doesn’t feel like he’s finished with the FC, despite having played in Europa League, becoming one of Germany’s most-reliable options since the World Cup win in Brazil, and even scoring a game-clinching penalty in the European Championships against one of the games greatest legends, Gianluigi Buffon.
In the end, Hector is just wired differently.
I think this is the moment of the Match day. True display of class and a touching moment from Jonas Hector. Bittencourt was distraught, he needed a shoulder. Hector? class act. #Effzeh #KOE #Koeln #Hector pic.twitter.com/oaOTF2hbYy
— Anna Dragičević🔵⚪🐻 (@hahoAnna) April 24, 2018
“Jonas is an exceptional player and an extraordinary person, which is something you no longer see too much of in professional football these days,” says Köln sporting director Armin Veh. “That he has chosen to continue on this path with us despite being a German international player is a telling testament to that. Jonas’ commitment to FC is a superb signal to the team, the club, and the fans.”
Everyone is going to receive their own message from that signal. The cynics already are fluctuating between “he’s doing this to help the club get a bigger transfer fee” and “he’s an idiot,” while the more-romantic football lovers beyond Köln tend to fall along the line of “we’d have loved to have him at our club, but have nothing but respect for this move.”
Among the FC faithful, though, it’s a reminder of what has kept them so strongly attached to a club with so few of the moments that catch the eye of the modern football fan. And that reminder will vary for each individual, whether their memories of the club date back to the days of Köln being the first-ever Bundesliga champion or are fresh enough to know Lukas Podolski only as the club’s biggest international fan. Regardless of how they viewed the use of “Spürbar Anders” as a marketing tool while also trying to adapt to the business realities of modern football, they’ll remember that among the many reasons they love their FC is because it is simply different from the others.
But not “just” different, “notably” different.