The first time I literally cried with joy at a German sight was the first time I saw the Rhine in 2007. The second time was when I saw Timo Hildebrand at the concession stand at PPL Park in Philadelphia Wednesday night. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That sublime moment was just the pinnacle of a 24-hour, 1100-mile journey to see my beloved FC Schalke 04 at the club’s first exhibition match in the United States since 1963.
When I told everyone I was finally going to see Schalke play, some of my colleagues just didn’t get it. “You’re flying to Philadelphia just for a soccer game?” No, not for a soccer game. For a soccer team, rather a football club, with a tradition and culture that, although I was relatively new to it, had swept me up and accepted me as one of its own. A club I would defend to the death, so what was a little trip to Philly.
With Gazprom jersey and Schalke scarf at the top of my overnight bag, I took off Wednesday morning for a day of travel that would turn into what could only be called a comedy of errors that would delay my arrival at PPL Park until 7:33 p.m for the 7:30 kickoff. I sprinted to the stadium and could tell from the announcer that the game had started, but just barely.
Now I’m used to Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, which was built with a soccer fan’s mentality. There you enter above the seats, so that no matter where you are (just arriving, at the concessions, on the way to the restrooms), you can still see everything that’s happening on the pitch. PPL Park, on the other hand, is built more like an American football stadium — tall and cavernous with seats above you and small gun-turret hallways with quick glances to the pitch. I rushed to find my section but was sucked in by the first glimpse of Royal Blue kit. Rushing forward, I first saw Lewis Holtby, then Sergio Escudero and Astuto Uchida. Next, there was American international Jermaine Jones and, ah, at last, Raúl – his last time in the familiar blue and white. It was as if my television had come to life, but this wasn’t an early weekend morning and this wasn’t Gelsenkirchen. I was finally seeing MY club.
I did finally make it to my seat where the nicest Philadelphia Union fans welcomed me, peppering me with questions about Schalke, like “Was this the usual starting 11?” Yes and no. Kyriakos Papadopoulos hadn’t made it, nor Jefferson Farfan, nor Julian Draxler and Benedikt Höwedes, who were kept in Germany to prep for the Euros. But most of the rest were there, even super-sub Teemu Pukki. I gave a half-muted shout of “Pukki!” when I first saw him, a salute to my Twitter friends who laugh and retweet me every time I make that same tweet during a weekend game. Lars Unnerstall was in goal, and I knew he had made the trip (a friend in Gelsenkirchen tweeted me info on who was making the trip and who wasn’t). But I also knew that my favorite keeper had also come. Christian Fuchs and Holtby had both shared New York City photos on Facebook that included Mr. Hildebrand. Maybe he’d be subbed in for the second half.
Just as this was not only about the game, it also began to occur to me that it wasn’t just about the players anymore either. Schalke fans in the U.S. had been reaching out to each other on Facebook and Twitter, sharing a familiar cry — “I’m going! Are you?” I saw Andrew and Jennifer Easton with their young son, Lukas — all decked out in Schalke gear — who had driven down from Baltimore for the game. And I met Michael Theobald, originally from Frankfurt and now living and teaching in New York City. I also caught up with fellow Bundesliga Fanatic contributor, Anne Gillies. While a Mainz supporter, she is also a big fan of Holtby from his time with her club, and made her own long journey to Philadelphia from Michigan.
And we virtual friends were not alone. There were a lot of Schalke fans there. The Schalke 04 website reported that 21 fans had made the trip from Germany. But many of the other fans there that night were from the U.S. I hope it sends the message to the Bundesliga that there is growing support here for the quality football the league provides and that we will see more and more German teams visiting our MLS stadiums soon.
As I wandered about grabbing photos of the game and of the fans in the familiar Gazprom jerseys, one fan stopped me when he saw my own jersey. I explained that I was writing a piece for Bundesliga Fanatic. “I’m a huge Schalke fan, you should know,” he told me. I smiled and said, “Me too. I flew in from Missouri just to catch this game.” His friend laughed and said, “She wins.” That night, we were all winning.
Well, all of us except Schalke 04 actually. The Union went up by one early in the game on a fierce strike by Lionard Pajoy. Then Schalke’s Escudero netted the equalizer 20 minutes later. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was taken out of the first half after a nasty run-in with Union keeper Chase Harrison, and it was reported he was taken to the hospital for a possible concussion.
Overall Schalke saw a number of substitutions with almost all of the roster getting some playing time. The guys looked exhausted, and jet leg no doubt played some part in Wednesday night’s game. The match would slog on at 1-1 for almost all of the second half until a last-minute goal by the Union’s Chandler Hoffman, in a windy downpour, ended the game 2-1. The Union remain undefeated against international teams, 4-0, with previous victories over Celtic FC, Chivas de Guadalajara and Everton, with another friendly match against Aston Villa upcoming.
But the real pinnacle moment for me happened right after halftime. I had spent intermission visiting with my new Schalke friends, who were moving around to find better seats (there were, unfortunately, many available). I declined their offer to join them, preferring to return to my own seat, saddened a bit to see Unnerstall still between the posts as the second half got underway. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be for me to see my hero Timo play.
And then, there he was. Standing in line at the concession stand. I don’t remember speaking but I heard myself say “Timo?” He turned, and I asked if I could get a photo. “Sure,” he said and turned toward me. I grabbed the shot and told him, “Thank you so much. I am a huge fan and I love that you’ve signed on for another 2 years. And I’ve been a fan since you were at Stuttgart….” Well, that’s what I said in my head. I think I did manage to croak out a ‘Thank you so much” and then wandered off in a bit of a daze.
And that’s when I noticed it. The swelling in the throat, the warm glow in the cheeks. Just like the Rhine. Pure, overwhelming joy. Oh yeah, it was totally worth the trip.