When my brother and I first dipped our toes tentatively into the Bundesliga water back in October 2011, it was supposed to be nothing more than a spontaneous one-off adventure. Our aim was simply to see some foreign football with a few beers and giggles thrown in for good measure. There was no hint of any burning desire to look beyond that solitary trip.
Fast-forward to May 2017 and it’s strange to see how things can change.
Our latest visit to Germany would be our 18th and would take us up to our 70th match and most significantly to our 50th different stadium. We had never intended to travel so extensively around the country, but it’s fair to say that what could quite conceivably have been a passing fad had developed into something of a weird obsession. We’d also grown increasingly fond of the lower leagues that we’d discovered were the graveyard for many a fallen giant, re-emerging phoenix, and hidden gem that may not have initially pricked our attention. This quest had helped shift our focus away from the bright lights of the top division and to look at a far broader spectrum of fixtures when formulating our future battle plans.
As had become the norm, we rose at the crack of dawn to catch a Friday morning flight to Hannover, then after a brief stop at the “96” club shop we caught a train east to Leipzig. It’s here that we would be based for three days during which we’d visit some of those lesser-known teams that were each steeped in an intriguing history that warranted further investigation.
The evening game took us to Lokomotive Leipzig in the Regionalliga Nordost. Theirs was one of the distinctive names we recalled from having spent our childhood with noses buried in Panini sticker albums and Rothmans Football Yearbooks. Their subsequent demise had granted them an almost mythical status so their rebirth and recent rise through the pyramid made them a must-see attraction.
Our sense of excitement was rising as we took the tram in a south-easterly direction to the Bruno-Plache-Stadion. Upon arrival we were greeted by a gloriously retro bowl-shaped venue that can’t have seen a painter’s brush nor a handyman’s spanner for several years. We purchased cheap tickets for the Fankurve but having realised it was only populated by a group of feisty youths we instead made our way to the crumbling Gegengerade to join the more decrepit masses.
The guests were bottom-placed Neustrelitz and the game was only 30 seconds old when one of their centre-halves over-hit a simple square pass which resulted in his skeletal defensive partner clattering comically into the metal advertising hoardings while attempting to keep the ball in play.
Unfortunately, this would act as a sign of things to come as they then had their goalkeeper sent off and ended up 3-1 losers. It had been an enjoyable experience amongst an attendance that tipped just over 2,000 of which the away contingent quite literally numbered zero.
We headed back into town afterwards and polished off some of the local Gose beer; a speciality that’s so sour-tasting that the barman in the Kildare City Pub had to check that we hadn’t taken leave of our senses before agreeing to fill our glasses.
Saturday saw us make another trip to the suburbs but this time to the north-west to see the afternoon clash between BSG Chemie Leipzig and Brandenburger SC Süd 05 in the Oberliga Nordost-Süd. The Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark was another charmingly old school ground that looked almost intentionally ramshackle with its combination of weed-ridden derelict terracing and bucket seats that if they weren’t already condemned via a binbag covering were barely fit for the purpose of bearing a human’s weight. The absence of any official public lavatory was also a notable oversight so any available secluded shrubbery would have to do.
Chemie had been DDR champions in 1964 only to fall into oblivion alongside many of their peers from that era. The current incarnation sat at the top of the league so it was clearly a huge game, although the healthy crowd had little to cheer early on as the home side went into the break a goal down following a sub-standard opening. However, the second half saw a rip-roaring comeback and despite missing a penalty they romped to a 3-1 victory that raised the prospect of a Leipzig derby against Lokomotive for next season.
The remainder of the day was initially spent watching RB Leipzig beat Hertha BSC in the Topspiele on TV. The bar dwellers around us seemed to be split between loving and loathing the controversially funded Bundesliga high flyers. We then went to the illustrious Bayerischer Bahnhof Gasthaus and Gosebrauerie, where the host beverage bore equally limited resemblance to beer but had a flavour that was distinctly citrusy compared to the previous night’s Lucozade tang.
With our regional league flirtations behind us we would spend Sunday in Chemnitz for a matchup in the 3. Liga, which involved an hour-long train journey into the relative wilderness that lies towards the Czech border. As good fortune would have it, it was a day that saw the 50th anniversary of Chemnitzer FC winning the DDR title under their erstwhile guise of FC Karl-Marx-Stadt.
The celebrations and choreography paid a fitting tribute as a handful of survivors from the 1967 team cautiously made their way onto the pitch to salute the fans. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else on display that was worthy of praise or nostalgia as visitors Preußen Münster finished clinically to run out 3-0 winners at the soullessly named Community4you Arena. Though admirably compact and bijou it was the sort of generic concrete stadium that is quickly forgotten. After the match we rode the bus into the city centre and had a couple of traditional ales at the Turm Brauhaus before taking a train back to Leipzig.
Monday was arguably the standout day of the long weekend as it would see our German stadium count hit the big 50 at a game in Braunschweig that was of massive importance at the top of the 2.Bundesliga. With a few hours to kill we fed and watered ourselves at a small wirsthaus ahead of a bracing walk to the Eintracht-Stadion. It was also a unique occurrence in that we’d be standing in an away section for the first time ever, although as a Hannover 96 enthusiast I was more than willing to masquerade as a Union Berlin fan if it meant not having to feign interest in their arch-enemies.
Once we’d found our entrance it soon became clear that in order to look authentic we’d have to join in with the ritualistic chanting, hand-clapping and general merriment that was inevitably destined to last for the entire duration of our impoundment.
We took to the task with awkward aplomb, but it wasn’t to be a happy ending as Braunschweig proved too powerful when easing to a 3-1 win. The only consolation was the attitude of the Union supporters whose volume had raged unabated throughout. Their dream of promotion had been left in tatters, but they are not a club that needs to succeed to thrive as their final repetitive chorus of “scheiße zum liga eins” would suggest.
Looking at the largely obscure stadia that remain unticked on my wish-list; it’s a sentiment that I might need to echo if I’m ever to chalk up another 50.
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