September 23, 2017

Former Mainz Favorite Nikolce Noveski and Friends – The Ironman‘s Good-bye

Mainz05 legend Nikolce Noveski sent off with a Farewell Game worthy of his merits

Mainz 05 legend Nikolce Noveski sent off with a Farewell Game worthy of his merits

If you attempt to write about Nikolce Noveski, Mainz 05‘s Macedonian bulwark defender and longtime captain, you have to get over one story right at the beginning. Yes, he;s tied with Manfred Kaltz as record own goal scorer of Bundesliga and, yes, he is the only one to score two own goals in one game and in less than three minutes, to boot.

Then-time Mainz Sportsdirector Christian Heidel knew the reason: “He‘s always in the thick of things.”

He was. Noveski, six feet two and called „The Ironman“ for a reason, joined the Rheinhessians in 2004. When he left in 2015 he had 256 first tier games to his name and had captained the team for seven years. He was „El Capitano“, „The Silent One“, a living and walking legend, one of the most beloved players the Bunsdeliga club has ever had.

Fans had called for a farewell game right after he left the pitch for the last time on May 23 2015, but it took the authorities more than two years to finally arrange this official goodbye for their legendary captain. Thankfully, it was worth the wait.

On Saturday September 2, while elsewhere national teams were fighting for World Cup 2018 qualification, Mainz 05 fans took a pilgrimage to Opel Arena. It was day that couldn‘t have been fairer or more loaded with emotions. Where normally when a football game is turned into a family event sponsors erect their gazebos, merchandise handouts soon litter the place and different pop songs meant to animate customers pollute said customers‘ eardrums, this time something rare and unique took place: Mainz 05 had called on their captain‘s behalf and everybody came.

“Everybody” first meant an illustrious guest-list. There was Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp, long time Mainz manager and „Mainzer“ at heart, there also was his two times successor at Mainz and Dortmund last-year BVB manager Thomas Tuchel, there was Loris Karius, Liverpool goalkeeper, Lewis Holtby currently plying his trade at Hamburger SV but once a member of the famous „Bruchweg Boys“ in Mainz 05‘s superb season of 2010/11 when German international André Schürrle, TSG Hoffenheim‘s Adam Szalai and Holtby were rocking the league with the Zero-Fivers.

The guest who had come the longest way was Elkin Soto who took the plane from Colombia. With 160 Bundesliga games in nine years Soto is a Mainz legend in his own name. His story deserves an article of its own — suffice to say he suffered one of the cruelest injuries imaginable in 2015 when he ruptured about every ligament in his left knee. He had been on the verge of leaving the club possibly heading back to Colombia. He was practically still on the gurney when Mainz 05 offered him a one-year contract extension so he and his family were financially safe for the long rehabilitation. He now plays CM at Once Caldas, the club he once came from in Colombia. There be fairy tales.

There were local heroes like Mohamed Zidan, a notorious prankster off the pitch but the fans‘ favourite for the two times he played with Mainz. There were names Mainz fans will forever remember from the glorious days of the first time Mainz 05 was promoted to First League in 2004 like Michael Thurk who was inconsolable after the final whistle at that time because he had already signed with a different club not anticipating promotion (the faint at heart!). Manuel Friedrich who had once been Mainz‘ first international eve, was there. Dimo Wache and Christian Wetklo, heroic goalies of those days, also were present. Wache wore a shirt with the number of the games he played for Mainz on his back. 374, if you please, dear diary, 374!

Alongside those and other equally famous names to the local fans, those fans themselves had come by the thousand. Mainz 05 has a lively and creative fanbase who are currently in the process of renovating an old building in downtown Mainz to serve as a “Fanhouse” and took the opportunity to inform about and raise funds for their pet project. There was beer and Currywurst as the traditional football catering in abundance and when Jürgen Klopp, hauled on stage for an interview, said he still felt like “a Mainzer” and dreams of coming back to the 200-year-old city on the River Rhine after he retired from football, the cheers wouldn‘t stop. Klopp had announced before he would personally kick the ass of every Mainz 05 fan who had lived through the past 13 years with the club and wasn‘t present on Saturday!

The whole scene had the atmosphere of a very big family reunion. People queuing for autographs joked with the ex-players and shared memories, players who hadn‘t seen one another for years reveled in “just like old times” memories themselves.

And then there was the game. The whole event came by the caption “Nikolce and Friends” and thus one of the teams entered the pitch in white shirts , the other in red, but both bearing the same caption and Noveski himself played one half on either side.

To better handle the teams they shall hitherto be known by their managers‘ names Team Klopp and Team Tuchel and as Jürgen Klopp had noticed before the game “all the active players are on Thomas‘ team, but we will have more weight around the middle.”

Almost 13.500 fans filled the partially opened Opel Arena and they saw a fulminant beginning from Team Tuchel and a superb save by Dimo Wache. Those who had thought this was going to be a lame charity kick by overweight veterans rubbed their eyes. It was football‘s finest on an afternoon to remember. 05 stadium speaker Klaus Hafner and local comedian Sven Hieronymus did the double act in commentating, calling out a „nasty foul“ every time a player went down. Former Bundesliga referee Jochen Drees, now working the newly installed Video-Assisted-Referee system VAR, fully enjoyed the day, too. He and his linesmen were wearing black shirt with the number 4, Noveski‘s number, and the players put them through their paces, alright. At first it looked like Loris Karius with Team Tuchel would have a quiet day, when his team scored two goals in quick succession, but then Klopp‘s men came back with a vengeance and made it 3:2 at half time.

The break also was free from commercials but featured  local punkrock band Wilde Zeiten who played two of their old songs they had written for Mainz 05 in 2004. There wasn‘t a single fan in the stadium who didn‘t know the lyrics!

The second half saw Loris Karius warding off a shot with hand and feet like an octopus which earned him a „Did you see that, Simon Mignolet?“ from the stands, but had to succumb to second ball seconds later. Team Klopp had no mercy that day.

Players were subbed in and out at will, of course, and when Mohamed Zidan had had enough of a break he just snatched the display board and flashed his own number to be subbed in. His preferred victim to make way for him was Michael Thurk.

There was one thing players and fans alike wouldn‘t go home without: a goal by Noveski himself. Whenever the ardent defender approached the opposing goal, teammates and opponents alike tried to set him up for scorer position. Once when a free kick was given, a player even grabbed the ball and put it on the penalty spot, but Dr. Drees wouldn‘t have it.

In the end Noveski scored twice for either team. The second goal was a penalty Team Tuchel had been awarded while Noveski was playing for Team Klopp, but one of the players in white tore off his shirt and gave it to Noveski so he could score for the – then – opposing team. So, for the nitpickers‘ records he even had his obligatory own goal of the day. Only this time both teams avalanched the scorer to celebrate with him.

That the game ended 10:6 for Team Klopp escaped many of the fans‘ attention because precisely at 19:05 – the club‘s founding year being 1905 – the final marching order came for the captain. His number four was flashed as he was subbed out for the very, very last time and then all hell of a party broke loose. There were chants of “Noveski! Noveski!” all over the place, flags waving (the Macedonian among them as had been customary at Mainz 05 games for the years Noveski played), people cheering, tears flowing. Nobody noticed the final whistle of the game and it didn‘t matter anyway. Noveski had to do a lap of honour, of course, and everybody rushed down the stands to get a glimpse of the Ironman. And finally he had to do what he had always tried to avoid: to give a speech.

Noveski wasn’t nicknamed the Silent One for nothing. Words have always been scarce from him but this time he had some choice ones for the fans: “It is a great honour for me that so many came here today. It‘s proof of our togetherness.”

Mainz 05 added two more rituals to the ceremony. Local men’s choir Mainzer Hofsänger of national reputation intoned “You‘ll never walk alone” with the fans, but after that which may have been meant as the official conclusion of the day by the club‘s authorities, the fans called for him to climb the fence one last time. It‘s traditional after a home win that the fans call for their Man of the Match to climb up on the lead singer‘s pedestal and lead the fans in “the Humba,” a traditional carnival song, which, although it is sung all over Germany, originates from Mainz. And like in his active days Nikolce Noveski called to the fans “Give me an H!!” – “H!!”- “Give me a U!!’ – “U!!” – “Give me an M!!” – “M!!” and so on through B and A to the lines “We‘re singing Humba humba humba täterä…!!!” It was a fitting end for a very special career and a very special day.

Now, all this may just look like an anecdote from a provincial football club told by an enthusiast, but it comes at a time when football is steering faster and farther from such an event than ever before in its 154 years of history (counting from the FA‘s founding). A summer transfer window with previously unheard of sums spent has just been slammed shut in our faces, the transition from a game of, by and for everyone into the Billionaires’ Club (check out the new book by James Montague by that name!) is speeding up all around us. Events like Nikolce-and-Friends at Mainz that Indian Summer day at Mainz look like football‘s very own Riding-out-into-the-Sunset scene.

That’s because Nikolce’s day of honor had everything football used to have and still ought to have. Togetherness between players and fans, a love for the sport that proved thicker than the love for money, an element of fun and fairness that overrode rivalry, the ability to make fun of one‘s self, beer instead of champagne and unguarded emotions instead of hands covering lips …

It was a Farewell Game not only for Nikolce Noveski, one of the last (almost) one-club players who seem to be dying out around us, but at times it eerily looked like a Farewell Game for the kind of football most of us grew up with and grew to love.

The reality of Bundesliga looks grim for Mainz 05 at the moment—yet not for them alone. Smaller clubs which haven‘t caught the eyes of sheikhs and beverage producers yet, which are still run by members and make their sponsoring money from local business firms, are pushed to the side not only by the big fish in the pond, the likes of Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund and artificially raised Red Bull Leipzig, but by their own associations who are wearing glowing $ and € signs in their eyes wherever they go — such as when German FA DFB allowed the Chinese Sub-21 team to participate in Germany‘s fourth tier to prepare for the Olympics denying South-Western club FK Pirmasens promotion.

What we saw take place on September 2 in Mainz was OUR football. This day was arranged by the club authorities, mainly newly elected president Johannes Kaluza, the fans and the players. We are still here, we are still alive, football is still ours. Thank you, Nikolce! Danke, Nikolce!

Let the game go on!

Angela Römelt (Copyright for all pictures)

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Angela Roemelt, born in 1963, is a Catholic theologian, but her first religion is football. Raised on the stands of the now legendary Düsseldorf Rheinstadion and the equally legendary Mönchengladbach Bökelberg, the mother-of-four, practicing house wife and published author ("111 Gründe, die Seleção Brasileira zu lieben", Verlag Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 2016, regular contributions to @Unusualefforts) now divides her passion between Bundesliga darlings Mainz 05 and Ligue 1 juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain. Because... Variatio delectat, you know?

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