What do you do when you’re an American girl hopelessly in love with a football team playing 5000 miles away and followed by people who speak a language you don’t? You fly across the ocean and join the party, of course. I could have made it easy on myself by enjoying a sport actually popular in my country and with a professional team closer than three hours away, but hey, where’s the fun in that? I didn’t even manage to fall for a team popular in its own country. Oh no: I chose an upstart club in a small city known mostly for its yearly Karneval and funny hats. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and I followed mine all the way to Mainz, Germany, home of the Bundesliga club 1. FSV Mainz 05. A second division side for most of its history, Mainz is only just starting to make a splash in the German top flight. One (literally) enormous symbol of the club’s rising star is its brand new stadium, the Coface Arena, just opened in July. I was lucky enough to be present at the very first Bundesliga game played at the shiny new ground, where I witnessed a lively Mainz earn a 2-0 victory over last year’s runners up Bayer Leverkusen. The experience was a whirlwind of color and sensation, but I will try my best to recall the events of the day.
The first step of attending a football match is acquiring tickets. I knew Mainz’s opening game in their new stadium would be a sell out, so I needed to be absolutely certain I acquired the best tickets I could for my one and only chance to see my club play. My friend Christian, who lives in Mainz and loves the club, suggested that when tickets went on sale to club members, I should post a request at the largest and most active fan forum for Mainz supporters, located at Kigges.de. At this point I had completed my epic preview post for Mainz’s season and I entered the forum holding it up in front of me like some kind of proof that I belonged, that I was, oddly enough, a true Mainz fan even though I couldn’t even post in German. The response was instantanous and overwhelming. I posted before I went to bed one evening; when I woke up, I had an offer from a kind Mainz fan to purchase tickets on my behalf, and half an hour later there were tickets in my inbox. My head was spinning with delight and surprise at how easy it had been. I was on my way! And I had standing tickets on the brand new enormous terrace, where I would be surrounded by over 11,000 singing fans. Additionally, the forum readers loved my article – they showered praise on me, sent me emails, friended me on Facebook, and sent the article’s pageviews through the roof. There was curiosity about how I had come to find the club, but no suspicion or hostility, only welcome. I felt immediately like I was part of the Mainz family.
So I set off on my grand adventure. Before Mainz, me and my traveling buddy Sarah spent time in Nürnberg, München, and Chiemsee, enjoying good beer, good bratwurst, and the occasional lederhosen sighting. Then we boarded a train from Nürnberg to Mainz. We arrived the day of the game around noon. The first thing I saw when I stepped off the train was a family with two small children, all four of them decked out in Mainz gear. There were more fans wandering the station, as well as a few traveling Bayer Leverkusen fans, and a strong police presence, though they mostly seemed to be enjoying the sunny weather with the rest of the peaceful fans. As we had a few hours before kickoff, Sarah and I decided to wander around the small city for a little while. It being Sunday, the town was quite sleepy, but very pretty and charming. I delighted in every Mainz jersey or billboard sighting. We found a place to eat a buffet brunch, then headed for the bus stop and hopped on the one that was bursting at the seams with red jerseys and scarves. On game day, a match ticket allows you free access to all public transportation, so we didn’t even have to dig out any Euro coins. On the short ride I spoke to a cute German boy wearing a Soto jersey – he said he had a “little” English, but typically, it was excellent, and I had fun asking him questions and telling him about how I had found the club. This bus took us back to the Hauptbanhof (main station) where we disembarked and joined the massive red queue for the free shuttle service to the stadium. The frequent buses meant we were on one within minutes and zipped on our way. We had about a ten minute walk through fields from the shuttle stop to the stadium, which loomed red and gleaming over the surrounding rural landscape. I couldn’t stop smiling as I took in the many different Mainz-themed outfits around me, the first and only time for a while I will be among such a community. One of my favorite sightings was a very small boy in a Holtby jersey riding on his father’s shoulders. I imagine Holtby was a bit of a hero to many little Mainz boys last year!
My first stop was the Mainz fanshop because I shamefully did not have any swag and wanted to fit in during the game. I bought a jersey and a scarf and we hurried into the stadium, but a little bit of dawdling to ooh and ahh at all the shiny Mainz things (not to mention a long line at the checkout) meant that we had missed the lineup announcement and the terrace was already packed. My friend Christian told me later that when the Leverkusen lineup was announced in the customary way, with each player’s first name called out, the crowd gave them all the last name “SCHÜRRLE!” Thus Mainz welcomed home their hero from last season with all the love that he had earned. We made our way up up up the stairs to the very top of the terrace and burrowed our way into the crowd, ending up roughly four rows from the back. Despite the distance, the view was breathtaking. The stadium’s glass corners gave the space a unique open feeling, and the capacity crowd glowed red with Mainz apparel. The atmosphere was already buzzing, and as kickoff approached the crowd carried out a bit of classic German choreo. We all lifted our scarves, a ritual I have seen on television but never taken part in. We also put together a “tifo”, and though I didn’t have a piece of paper myself I watched as everyone around us raised red, black and gold that I later saw came together to make the letters FSV in a big, glittering display. Then the players came out and the match kicked off.
The match itself is something of a blur. I was trying to watch everything at once while absorbing the phenomenal atmosphere. The ultras broke into song regularly, and while I didn’t know the words I “la la la”‘d along to the tune as soon as I picked it up. I clapped and cheered and watched in delight as Mainz took the game by the throat, bursting into Coach Tuchel’s trademark fast pressing football and pinning Leverkusen back. There were many close calls and I nearly toppled forward off my step twice in my excitement. Once again I couldn’t stop smiling. This is what I had read about, heard about, seen on tiny streams on my laptop. Those streams cannot hold a candle to the technicolor, surround sound display I got at the Coface Arena. The 30k+ fans banded together to show the team we supported them, despite and because of the recent troubles (the club having crashed out tragically the week before in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League). When Sami Allagui pounced on a mistake by Leverkusen keeper Fabian Giefer and lashed home a shot from an impossible angle, the crowd erupted in joy. What a start! Allagui, touring member of the Bruchweg Boys of last season, had staked his claim to full membership this season with a goal that came from alert, lethal speed. Sami! ALLAGUI! hollered the stadium. A dream start in the Coface Arena. Mainz controlled the match for much of the 90 minutes, and while I got nervous that we would concede an equalizer in the last 20 minutes from one of the many conceded free kicks, suddenly a low cross from Marco Caligiuri in the corner right in front of where I stood was deflected into Leverkusen’s net by their own Omer Toprak and it was 2-0. Mayhem! Delight! FSV… MAINZ! shouted the giddy fans. It was fitting that the crowd got to shout the name of the team to the skies because it had truly been a team effort, a victory borne of everything that made me fall in love with the club in the first place. The final whistle blew and it was official – three points to Mainz!
I had hoped beyond hope that I would get to experience what came next – the humba! This traditional, bizarre German celebration originated in Mainz itself, so it’s a special treat to take part at this club. The team sent Allagui, hero of the day, directly into the crowd (as the Coface has no fence to climb like the Bruchweg did) while the team made itself comfortable on the grass. We all did the same, sitting down in the extra space (inexplicably) vacated by a small percentage of the fans. Allagui acquired a megaphone and began shouting “Give me an H!” and we obligingly gave him each letter, until he reached “Give me an A!” “A!” and team and fans alike leaped up and started dancing like idiots, singing “Humba humba humba täteräääää”. The nonsensical chant is somehow a perfect way to express the jubilant joy that the community feels after a thrilling victory. The relief and happiness in the team was evident in how the players bounced and hugged each other giddily. A win that no one but the most loyal fans predicted was the perfect antidote to the recent misfortunes. Mainz was once again rocking to the beat of their young, beloved squad.
Still riding the high of that incredible experience, I reluctantly filed out of the terrace with the rest of the fans. We wandered around the loop for a while, peeking in at the emptying stadium and observing all the happy faces that mirrored my own. I stopped at the fan club booth and the man I spoke to recognized me from the forum! We chatted about my visit and about his epic journey to see Mainz unfortunately lose to Romanian side Gaz Metan Medias. He told me that a few hundred loyal Mainz fans ponied up the cash and took the long trip to show their support – sadly the result was not as hoped, but their love for the club is no less. He kindly gave me a copy of the beautiful fan-made Mainz magazine – I better start brushing up on my German!
We headed to the biergarten to find my friend Christian and his girlfriend Pam. It took some doing to find them in the still-celebrating crowd (beer continued to flow freely) but find them we did, and we walked around the stadium some more. We headed for the fanshop again, but before we went inside, Christian said “Look, it’s Sami.” I turned around and sure enough, there was Sami Allagui (and Zoltan Stieber!) emerging from a side door like they were just any folks, wandering right through the fans. Never one to be shy in such situations, I made a beeline for Sami and babbled something at him about being an American who loves the club and congratulations and good luck. He had a bit of a deer in headlights look – I don’t think his English is very good! – but he said thank you a few times and kindly posed for a photo. I was still boggling about that when I spotted Marcel Risse! The previous scenario repeated itself, with Marcel a little less frightened-looking but not much more comprehending. His smile is just as sweet in person as it is when he’s celebrating goals (may there be many more this season!). And thus it came to pass that I met two of Mainz’s main men thanks simply to lady luck.
My jersey didn’t yet have a name printed on it, and Pam suggested that I should now get Allagui as I’d seen him score and had the good fortune to meet him. I had my heart set on a certain name though, and a few minutes later my jersey proudly proclaimed SZALAI, #28. Adam Szalai was one of my favorite Mainz players before his tragic ACL tear in February, and as I couldn’t get my other favorites (Holtby and Schürrle having moved on), I felt Szalai struck a nice balance of recalling the brilliant season just past but also looking to the future when he will become important for the club once again. Plus, it’s just a really cool name. It only took about 15 minutes before a guy called me Mrs. Szalai in the stadium bar, and there are worse nicknames to receive!
At said bar, we caught the second half of Bayern’s shocking loss to Gladbach. Another person from the Mainz fan forum approached me and greeted me, extending his welcome. I was very touched that the fans had so clearly embraced their random American compatriot. Christian mentioned that usually manager Christian Heidel would come down to the bar at the Bruchweg Stadion for a drink among the fans after a match, and sure enough a little while later Pam told me that she had spotted none other than Heidel himself outside! I dithered a bit about going over – he was in a suit and drinking with other suits – but Heidel is a personal hero of mine and I knew I’d regret not speaking to him. I approached him awkwardly and once again babbled something about how impressed I am by how he runs the club and congratulations and good luck, and he smiled and nodded and thanked me, obviously just as nonplussed as the players were to be accosted by an American girl. I was, if possible, even more thrilled to have met him than the players. Heidel is a Mainz legend; he managed the club on a volunteer basis for a whole decade, while running a BMW dealership, and then took a full time paid role and has spent another decade maneuvering the club where it is today. It was an honor to speak to him, even if just for a moment.
I really couldn’t have asked for a better day: standing tickets, a thrilling victory, good company, and meeting a few of my idols to round things out nicely. Until now, being a Mainz fan on the wrong side of the ocean had felt a bit lonely; now I can think back to this day and know that I am part of a vibrant, joyous community. No matter what the club’s fortunes are moving forward, it has earned an unshakeable place in my heart.