Saturday, 9:30am: Five Delights of the Bundesliga (from Abroad)

For this article, I am blatantly (and delightfully!) ripping off Daniel Gray’s lovely, lovely book Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football. Before I say anything else, please make a note to read Gray’s book. It’s one of my favorite football reads this year, and one I’ll certainly reread. And re-reread.

The conceit behind Gray’s little book is to celebrate the “unchanging delights” in football—little things that remain the same despite the colonizing power of big, bad “modern football.” Gray writes mini-essays on 50 such delights, focusing on his local English context. His topic list is impressive, ranging from the expected (“The first day of the season” or “Singing”) to the surprising (“Seeing a ground from the train,” “Catering Vans,” “Sunday score pages,” or “Watching people get player autographs”). Regardless, Gray’s handling of each topic is sheer joy sprinkled with poetic lines and observations of tiny, yet surprisingly insightful elements of modern football.

So I figure, why not do the same for German Fußball? And, here’s my twist: I’ll share delights from the perspective of a Fußball lover writing from abroad, from the U.S.A. at 9:30am every Saturday morning. Finally, instead of 50 delights, I’ll shoot for a modest five, and perhaps add to the tally in the future articles.

Football Evangelism

Back when I first gave my heart to the Bundesliga in 2010, I was almost embarrassed to mention the league. The topic might come up when sharing my favorite sport or the fact that I wrote about the Bundesliga. Sometimes, the word itself, Bundesliga, would trip people up. (“Bunde-what?” said my grandma.) I would sheepishly grin and simply explain that I loved “all things German football.” But somehow saying this was even weirder (“Why German football?” or “Like the NFL?” or worst “How did you get into that?”), as if I was obsessively following and geeking out about all levels of German football, domestic and international. Just weird.

These early conversations felt vaguely like introducing other Americans to an unknown religion with Germanic proper names. Over time, I got used to talking about the Bundesliga, especially as the popularity of the Premier League and Champions League grew and more people around me seemed to be aware of football in general. Soon, the conversation took on an evangelical character, in which I presented the Bundesliga gospel to the Premier League sinners (may God absolve their souls).

You know, trading the agony of Aresene’s Arsenal for the stability and excellence of Bayern, or Man U’s Glaser travails for Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, or the misery of the Magpies for Hennes and Köln.

Americanization Tactics

One of the delightfully odd things about following the Bundesliga in the U.S. is the TV coverage. Here, Fox Sports carries the league mostly on the FS1 and FS2 cable channels (you can also watch on the Fox Soccer Matchpass website/app). And let’s just say that Fox Sports has never had the easiest job of selling the U.S. on the Bundesliga.

Think about it: the German Bundesliga isn’t an obvious fit for the American market, unlike the English Premier Leaguewhich, you know, English—Mexico’s Liga MX (the most watched football league in the U.S.) or even Spain’s La Liga (Messi! Barça! Real Madrid!) or Italy’s Serie A (Oh, the romance! CR7!). Not to mention the Champion’s League, which is like the favorite lunchtime past-time of a certain segment of the population. No, the Bundesliga evokes foreignness—I dare you to ask your uncle Phil to pronounce the names of all 18 German cities in the Bundesliga; certainly, not as romantic as trying to pronounce their La Liga or Serie A equivalents.

Fox Sports has had an uphill battle, my friends.

The network has tried many tactics to “Americanize” its coverage. First, the league itself helped out with the now-forgotten “Promo Team” videos depicting an American marketing team brainstorming ways to market the Bundesliga in the U.S. The videos were supposed to be humorous, but instead mostly underscored the tricky reality: how in hell do you make Americans love the Bundesliga? Fox Sports has tried all sorts of tactics to promote the league, from promos, content videos, and, of course, the cramped beer cellar studio (errrr, closet).

“Well, at least they gave us a closet down here.”

In general, the network has tried to “Americanize” the league; however, Fox Sports seems to have settled on a more effective strategy lately—simply letting the league promote itself (“football as it’s meant to be“). In this more naturalistic vein, the league makes no apologies for itself, nor does the it attempt to over-explain itself to perceived American yokels. Americans are invited to come love the league family as it is.

However, vestiges of the old “Americanization” strategies remain, and delightfully so. My favorite? The awkwardly funny promotion spots at the end of studio sessions when the likes of Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Thiago, Claudio Pizzaro, Timo Werner, and Timothy Chandler point at the TV camera and say things like “You are watching the BUNDESLIGA” (all-caps of course), “NOW!,” “Only on Fox-SPORTS!” etc. These spots are so awkward, they’re funny—coloring our Bundesliga stars with the humanity of broken pronunciation, as well as speech rhythms and intonations not made for English. Touching.

My Stecktabelle

A pre-assembled 2018-19 Stecktabelle.

Yes, I have one. Thank you, kicker. Right now it stands on my desk, like a freshly-minted advent calendar. Who knows how bent, warped, and misshapen the paper concoction will become by the time May rolls around. (Anyone care to place an over-under bet on how many tiny paper club crest cutouts I will lose by season’s end?)

Here’s my assembled Stecktabelle for 2019-20, reflecting resulting after MD1 in the Bundesliga.

I try to imagine how my Stecktabelle counterparts in Germany dwell in their German houses, surrounded by German things, German sounds, and German smells. Whatever. Who knows? Perhaps there’s no difference at all. However, my guess is that a Stecktabelle on display in Pittsburgh, PA in the U.S. is akin to an NHL calendar on display in Dortmund. An oddity, yes. Rare? Of course. And also hard to explain to spouses, even spouses who know that you’ve been obsessed with this Bundesliga thing for almost a decade. I promised my wife that my Stecktabelle will eventually be out of sight soon. I’m thinking office desk. Sound good?

Snail mail Sonderheften

I’ve worked on learning German for a number of years. One of my first German goals was being able to read kicker, 11Freunde, and Sport Bild. These days, I’ve achieved the goal. Barely. Yes, I still need google translate or my pocket German-English dictionary, but I can mostly pick through these publications. Every late summer, I get kiddo-at-Xmas-waiting-for-Santa giddy while waiting for die Sonderheft (i.e. the season preview) issues in the mail.

Once I painstakingly translate various online order forms, I place my order and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You see, snail mail from Germany really is snail mail. Most of the time, I finally receive my Sonderheft with mere days to spare before the season begins. Usually, the 11Freunde Sonderheft even arrives after the season has already started. By this point, the August transfer windows or injuries have pitted many a Bundesliga roster.

But these shipping delays are beside the glorious point: in my hands, I can hold a physical artifact connecting me to Germany, to the Bundesliga, and to what will be preoccupying me for the next nine months. This physical contact is the point. To read what is being read in Germany. These print magazines are like video game portals to other dimensions; everything from the ads for betting sites or weird meat-substitute products, profiles of non-star players, coach soundbites, logs of minute records, and the little bonuses (like a fridge magnet) all tether me more strongly to the Bundesliga.

It takes the physicality of the print magazine in my hands to achieve this effect. Through my palms, I feel connected.

BVB on the Radio (I swear!)

No, I do not have Sirius Radio. But, yes, I have a smartphone and bluetooth connection in my car, which means I can listen to the live BVB match broadcast from my car. The voices of Nobby Dickel and co. stream out, as if I was listening to a live radio broadcast of my local Pittsburgh Pirates, Penguins, or Steelers. The effect is electrifying, far more so than watching BVB matches on Fox Sports (all 34 matches are shown on TV here). I think it has to do with the intimacy that audio has in occupying one’s head space and conjuring up visuals. That is, I work harder when listening to something; I’m more involved, almost as a co-creator in the experience.

Plus, the crowd noise is amplified magnificently, easily engulfing my car, creating feelings of tense excitement.

Of course, I mostly watch the matches on my TV. And besides, my German isn’t good enough to keep up with the manic commentary of live matches without the visuals. However, when I must “settle” for the BVB radio feed, my experience of the match is intensified. It holds even greater sway over me. Maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll roll my windows down when you pull up next to me at a traffic light, and I’ll let you hear Nobby’s cascade of German words and sounds.

Saturday, 9:30am

In places like Germany and England, football days and start times are sacred. Of course, the matchday sprawls across Friday, Sunday, and Monday, but it’s that traditional Saturday start time that signals football. Thankfully, it’s this time slot that the largest number of matches is clustered around. Gray’s book title itself (Saturday, 3pm) plays on this fact; in a mini-essay of the same name, he narrates: “As I write, it is three o’clock on a Saturday and I am on edge. I should be somewhere else.” As for 3pm, Gray explains: “this is football time.”

My football time is Saturday, 9:30am. Bundesliga time in the Eastern Standard Time zone. Our buttermilk pancake breakfast has long since been eaten (the boys wake up early, even on weekends). I’m down to the last mug of morning coffee. By this point, we’re already into a few morning chores. But the boys know that when about 9:15am rolls around it’s no more PAW Patrol, Sponge Bob, or kids movies, but it’s daddy’s “soccer time.” So Fox Sports. A little pre-game coverage, when they have it. Double-check the fixture list on the kicker app. Glance at the standings on my Stecktabelle. On big matchdays, I’ll sometimes put another match up on my desktop computer, and maybe another on the laptop. American sports bar style. However, these special Saturday mid-mornings, devoted purely to Bundesliga watching, are rare. On one hand, this mid-morning time slot is just perfect for the football, leaving you the rest of the day for the usual weekend concerns. On the other hand, at 9:30am it’s not everyone in the house is doing their own thing, or that I can perpetually keep the 9:30-11:30 time slot every single Saturday during the season. Oh, hell no.

As is fitting, life usually gets in the away of the Fußball. At best, I keep half an eye on the boys, and another half on the Bundesliga. On these mornings, I pray the boys can find ways to play peacefully for half a football match. (Please, please, PLEASE!) I try to complete chores in the proximity of the TV. At worst, we’re running errands we’ve been putting off for a week (curses!). So I resort to sneaking the kicker app on my phone. But usually I’m driving, so no checking for big blocks of time. Yes, I’ve been known to get very grumpy on these outings—edgy, itchy, as if in slight withdrawal. It’s not pretty for Saturday sacred time gets punctured.

Over the years, I’ve learned to temper my grumpiness when life gets in the way of Saturday, 9:30am. Even during the busiest weeks, I manage to catch a good solid chunk of match time. (At this point, you’re probably screaming, “Watch the replay on Fox Soccer Matchpass, fool!” To which I reply: “Nah, I’ve tried this.” Believe me, I’ve tried. But it’s not the same; indeed, what matters here is the 9:30-11:30am time slot, not simply watching the match footage whenever.)

To friends, I call Saturday, 9:30am “my NFL” or “my college football.” It’s my one sacred time for watching sports in the form of the Bundesliga. In this, I’m really a one sport person, especially in terms of what I commit to. With a full life—marriage, kids, work, house, all else—and limited cognitive bandwidth, I’m noncommittal to following other football leagues (even my Spurs in the Premier League) or other sports. Sure, I love the NBA or MLB here in the U.S., but I don’t treat these sports with the same routinized viewing habits as the Bundesliga.

Saturday mid-mornings now and will forever mean Fußball for me.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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