Last year, I went to the opening day of the Regionalliga Nordost to watch FC Carl Zeiss Jena (an almost local team) take on VfB Auerbach. After a very successful season, Jena found themselves promoted to the 3. Liga, which also contains Rot-Weiß Erfurt, FSV Zwickau, Chemnitzer FC and Hallescher FC who are all within easy travelling distance for me. While I also watch Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga games, I thought to myself: “Why not see if you can get to a variety of 3. Liga games throughout the season and check out what the experience is like?”
So here we go.
Hence on Matchday 1 of the 3. Liga season, I found myself on a train heading to the city of Halle, in Saxony-Anhalt, which is about 35 klm (22 miles) north of Leipzig. It has a population of about 240,000 people, making it the 31st largest city in Germany just ahead of Magdeburg to the north, who are also the biggest football rivals of Hallescher FC. Like most places in Europe, Halle has a history dating back over a thousand years and has been the site of famous battles, religious debates, and interesting music. In particular, Halle is famous for the production of salt (the name Halle comes from a Celtic word for “salt,” while the Saale River, which flows through the town, is named for the Germanic root for the same substance).
In some towns, you get a sense of the importance of the football team from the moment you enter due to stickers, graffiti, and other signage making it clear who the local favorites are. I must say that Halle has some of that, but either the authorities work hard to clean it up, or there is not as much interest in this team as I have seen elsewhere. Perhaps because I arrived in town just under 5 hours before the match there were not a lot of locals wearing the red and white colors either, but that changed later on during the day. What is interesting about this team is that, during the years before the reunification of Germany, Hallescher used to be known as Chemie Halle (there are still a lot of supporters who keep this memory alive in their signs and shirts). Back on September 28, 1971 they were due to be playing the second leg of a UEFA Cup match in Eindhoven and a fire broke out in their hotel room, leading to the death of one player and seriously injuring a number of others.
A relatively easy (and well-posted sign!) walk from the main train station, the old town is pretty impressive, with a huge market square and some lovely medieval towers and churches. Like much of this part of Germany, it is celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s beginning of the reformation of the Christian church and there is evidence of that everywhere. Even the university here is called the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg and dates back to 1694. The town’s other favorite son is the classical music composer Georg Friedrich Händel and there are a lot of statues, buildings and other sites dedicated to him.
I asked at the Tourist Information Office on the Market Square for directions to the Erdgas Sportpark, Hallescher’s home ground, and was told I could catch either the number 3 or the number 8 tram heading south and get off at Kantstraße. Because I still had lots of time, I decided to walk instead and this was made easier by following the other fans who were starting to head in the same direction. In all, it took about half an hour to walk the 2 kilometres (1.3 miles) to the stadium and I found myself among the local fans, enjoying the festive atmosphere.
The stadium can hold 15,057 fans, but on this day we were told the crowd was only 6,057, the bulk which were in the Fankurve and Badkurve standing areas on the northern side of the ground. There didn’t seem to be a lot of SC Paderborn supporters down in the visitor’s corner, but they made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. All of the people I spoke to were really friendly and somewhat surprised to find an Australian among them. Even in the 3. Liga, it is clear that shirt manufacturers are making money, as I counted 10 different variations of the team jersey just in the section of the crowd in the Badkurve where I was standing — none of them being the one worn by the team during the match. This tally didn’t include ordinary t-shirts or polo shirts of which there were even more, many of them with statements on the back making fun of the rival 1. FC Magdeburg.
At the front of the Fankurve, a number of masked fans (I guess they did not want to be identified in case they were subsequently banned) lit flares and set off smoke that filled that end of the ground. Subsequently, none of us saw the penalty award which came just a minute into the game. It had cleared enough to see Benjamin Pintol convert and the crowd were ecstatic at being 1:0 up.
It became clear very quickly that Hallescher were playing a longball-style game, while Paderborn were pressing high and trying to use their forward’s pace to break quickly and create chances. On the fourth minute one of these saw Ben Zolinski put away a good shot for Paderborn from just outside the area into the top left corner. The next ten minutes were fairly scrappy as both teams pushed high in defense, at one stage all 20 outfield players were gathered in a rectangle from the center circle to the western touchline for a Paderborn goal kick. Then, on 17 minutes, Paderborn were awarded their own penalty and Marc Vucinovic converted to make it 1:2 to the visitors.
At this point in the game, Hallescher were looking bereft of ideas. They were not getting a lot of knockdowns from the long balls up the middle and when they did they were being caught offside. It wasn’t helping that Hallescher’s Petar Sliskovic was giving away free kicks every time he jumped for the ball, eventually he was given a yellow card, apparently for repeatedly allowing Paderborn players to run into him and fall over while he was off the ground focused on heading the ball. It felt like the only thing keeping Hallescher in the game was the performance of goalkeeper Oliver Schnitzler who made a series of great saves. However, just as it looked like half time might help the team to regroup, another quick break from a good through ball, put Dennis Srbeny away and Schnitzler could not stop him from putting Paderborn up 1:3 at the break.
The negative feeling among the Hallescher crowd at halftime was not helped 15 minutes in to the second term when Sven Michel was able to slot away for Paderborn and make the score 1:4. Passes were going to nobody, the defense seemed to have trouble finding anyone with their clearances and occasionally had trouble clearing the ball at all. At one point Halle’s right back, Tobias Schilk, was yellow carded while standing well away from anyone waiting for a Paderborn player to take a throw in (I suspect that it was for something he said and, even more, that it might have been a racially loaded term, but it was not clear). The only hope was that Paderborn would tire and that Hallescher could find an alternative to thumping the ball high down the middle.
Amazingly, both those things happened.
On 59 minutes, Hallescher had substituted on Braydon Manu and Hilal El-Helwe for Mathis Fetsch and Martin Röser. Suddenly, the team seemed to find a bit of width and used speed on both flanks. In the 73rd minute El-Helwe headed home one cross from the right. Immediately from the restart Sliskovic was able to put away another. The score was now 3:4 and the crowd were sensing the possibility of at least a draw. After a couple of other close shots, in the 84th minute a cross came over from the left and Manu was able to smash it home. Both teams pushed for a late winner, although it was clear that the Paderborn players were very tired, but in the end both teams had to be satisfied with a quite thrilling 4:4 draw.
I doubt very much that every 3. Liga game that I go to this year will be as exciting, but I certainly came away really pleased that I had been there for this one. Maybe the level of skill or tactical nous would have been higher if I had been watching a Bundesliga or 2. Bundesliga game but it was still a great chance to visit a new town and experience a fun game of football among some passionate fans.