“You are with family now!” bellowed Philip Bartels, founder of the BVB Pittsburgh supporter group, as we walked into the Foundry Table + Tap, a joint a couple blocks away from Heinz Field, Pittsburgh’s 68,000 capacity NFL stadium.
I was with my 8 year son and “Rosicky” (his English name) a BVB diehard from China studying at a New Hampshire college to become a football coach back in his home country. We had met Rosicky a couple hours earlier by the Carnegie Science Center. As the truism goes, football is a universal language, and soon Rosicky and I were chatting about everything BVB and football as my son tagged along.
At 8pm, Borussia Dortmund was playing SL Benfica at Heinz Field.
Because my son was at a full-day summer camp at the Science Center (across the avenue from the stadium), after I picked him up, he and I simply stayed by the stadium in the hours leading up to the football match. Four hours before kickoff, knots of BVB fans were already walked around the stadium. An hour later, seemingly hundreds of BVBers strolled the area around Heinz.
Rosicky showed me an announcement for a BVB fan meet-up at the Foundry, so all three of us walked over to the joint.
Inside the front door, Philip and other BVB fans all cheered us and welcomed us to the roped-off area by the bar for the fan gathering. Free food awaited us. My picky son sniffed at the spread, but Rosicky and I grabbed plates. I ordered a local double IPA (so American, I know!), then started chatting with my fellow BVBers.
Quickly, it was apparent that almost all the BVB fans were not from Pittsburgh. They’d traveled to Pittsburgh just for this match from places like New York City, Toronto, New Hampshire, Boston, Cleveland, Buffalo (NY), and elsewhere. These (mostly) guys glowed in the pleasures of beer, food, fan fellowship, and finally a chance to see our beloved club play in-person.
Also present was Fabian “Borsti” Ludwig, a superfan well-known in Dortmund circles and even profiled in Klaus Martins’ documentary Wir die Wand. (Yes, Ludwig had his well-known “Borsti” banner draped from a front-row railing inside Heinz). Rosicky chatted excitedly with “Borsti,” while I tried to make the rounds with my hungry son in tote.
Many of the fans I met have been with BVB since the 1990s and early 2000s. They spoke of falling in love with footage of the Yellow Wall, of family connections to Dortmund, of randomly stumbling upon BVB on TV one day, of Christian Pulisic, of the 2013 Champions League, of the 1997 Champions League, of the club’s special fan culture, or of a formative visit to the Westfalenstadion. The reasons were complex and varied.
I also met Dean Salle, from Bremerhaven Germany. Dean studied in the Cleveland area as a foreign exchange student (his former teacher, Stephanie, a BVBer and warm conversationalist was also present), so he was familiar with this part of the U.S. Dean was impressed by the sheer number of BVB supporters congregating before the match. It surprised him. He didn’t expect BVB to garner such a following in this region. He was pleased by the love everyone showed for BVB, having only positive things to say about the American soccer.
Outside, the Foundry I briefly met Sebastian Walleit, a fan liaison working for BVB. Walleit buzzed excitement, but also looked tired. He explained it had been an exhausting couple days in Pittsburgh full to the brim of events.
My son needed food, so as Roman Weidenfeller, Patrick Owomoyela, and Lars Ricken strolled up the Foudry to meet with fans, my son and I scrambling to find food. At least we met bumblebee Emma on the way out, snapped a photo with her (thanks, Rosicky!) and got a signed postcard.
If you’ve ever attended any sort of professional football match in the U.S., you’ll know that the event is largely an occasion for all football fans to show up. And show up wearing all manner of football kits. My friends and I like to joke about this. In these pre-match hours, my son and I kept a running tally of every type of kit we saw. By far, BVB kits outnumbered everything else (perhaps by a count of 2-to-1). Of these BVB kits, Pulisic’s #22 shirt was by far the most popular, especially with the kiddos. Next on the kit tally were SL Benfica, USA, and die Mannschaft kits. Also popular was the Riverhounds (my local USL side), a smattering of Columbus Crew shirts, then a huge array of everything else (Premier League, La Liga, Liga MX, PSG, various national teams, etc.). We also saw shirts for Bayern, Schalke (I kid you not!), SC Freiburg, and St. Pauli.
Bundesliga marketers, are you reading this?
In America, every football match is a party of us football lovers, who live in a country where football will probably always play second fiddle on our bustling national sporting scene. And this second rate status is okay. For this reason, our football matches (of any kind!) tend to have a slight family reunion feel—of warm acquaintances simply celebrating the presence of everyone else. A sort of collective bubbling up of a vibrant subculture in which everyone can celebrate their passion for football. The BVB-Benfica friendly was no different. Conversation was easy, friendly, and very fluid between strangers. Yes, Pittsburgh tends to skew very friendly in this regard, but the open feel of conversation before the match started was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Football matches do this to us American fans.
After some ballpark-styled hotdogs, my son and I waded through the sea of football shirts (mostly yellow!) to our seats. Because attendance was so low (16,000+ bought tickets), our tickets were upgraded to the lower bowl. In all directions, we spotted other “soccer families” from our neighborhood in the stands. Our section was full, given that it was the backdrop for the TV cameras. Elsewhere, the stadium was sparsely filled. However, the endzone (American football) became a de facto supporters end for the vocal and standing fans, mostly BVBers. Improvised chants and claps occasional burst out from this area with “Borsti” frequently leading the action.
What can I say about the match itself? It mostly sounded like an American baseball game: a constant murmur rippling everywhere, snatches of conversations, fans gazing toward the field, the usual concession stand food and beverages. Usually this sort of thing is lovely and pleasant during swelteringly humid summer baseball games. And for simply enjoying the play of elite athletes on the grass in front of us, it was perfect. Look, everyone knew this match was meaningless results-wise; we didn’t need to will our team to win; we didn’t need to become co-participants with our team in that wonderful interdependent circuit between fans and players. Instead, we could attend to the experience of appreciating this thing that many of us have staked parts of our lives on.
One of the unspoken advantages of watching football in-person is that the experience humanizes the game, especially the seemingly distant celebrity players. It’s easy to scream “You rubbish sh*t!” at them when watching on TV or simply throw up your arms in disgust, but I find it harder to do this in the presence of the speed and skill of live football. Television mediates our gaze, in this sense, by dulling the speed and skill on display.
In-person football always looks so much harder to me. Take something like passing, which is seemingly simple. During the BVB-Benfica match, my naked in-person gaze picked up on the variety of excruciating difficult passing angles, passing weights, ball spin, and the receiver’s different type of touches. Sure we see these things on TV, but somehow we don’t. Or at least I don’t. They’re abstracted on TV, until you see someone like Maxi Phillipp, Mario Götze, Mo Dahoud, Ömer Toprak, Christian Pulisic, and especially Abdou Diallo do them exquisitely in-person.
Seeing these little things is one of the reasons we still need to attend live matches, even international friendlies.
The match itself was actually pretty exciting. Dortmund scored twice in the first half, thanks to a Philipp brace—although he was offside for his second goal. BVB’s final 3rd play scintillated at times—we ooohed and aaahed at the slick movement and tricks. Pulisic is fast as hell and supremely skilled on the ball, Philipp constantly menaces in the final 3rd, Diallo could be the Mats Hummels replacement BVB need, Götze’s football intelligence is sublime, and Marwin Hitz’s keeping didn’t impress my son.
But you probably already knew these things; they are commonplace for us BVBers. Let me assure you that they are also true in person!
Humorously, we were treated to a penalty shootout, which Benfica won 3-4. The crowd was its loudest during these 10 minutes. We almost had a proper football atmosphere. Benfica got an away team treatment, while BVB earned all the cheers during the shootout.
Despite the small crowd, football itself won in Pittsburgh. Its always does whenever the football family can simply gather in America for a match like this. Sure, I would love to see many, many more fans packed into Heinz (organizers: next time, give us a Friday night, please!), and, sure, I would have loved to meet more BVBers specifically from Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, despite its cultural underground status in a place like Pittsburgh, football burns with intensity for us fans thousands of miles away from our clubs, who must each work individually to carve long-distant meaning out of our fandom. We try. We mostly do, which is why the American football community is unique. We are few, but we care.
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