For the price of a Premier League ticket, or even a Republic of Ireland one, the football fan’s trip of a lifetime could be yours. That was the plan, at least, as three of us jetted off to Germany for a weekend of Bundesliga action (working title, läds on tour).
Images of Bayern fans protesting Arsenal’s £64 away tickets, or the chaos and carnival of 20,000 Cologne fans descending on the Emirates, were on our minds but did the Bundesliga’s promise of affordable tickets and a party atmosphere hold up?
The early indications were good. Cologne was selected as destination number one, less for their London antics than their cheap flights and proximity to Bundesliga rivals. There are seven top-flight clubs in the North Rhine-Westphalia region, six of whom are separated by less than 100km. On any given weekend, three of them would be playing at home.
The optimal combination of fixtures soon presented itself: Cologne at home on Friday, Schalke on Saturday, and league leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach on Sunday. The alternative choice is a combination of Borussia Dortmund, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Bayer Leverkusen. Between them, they make up five of the Bundesliga’s eight best clubs for average attendances, with the first four effectively full for every game.
It helps, too, that kick-off times are confirmed well in advance: German fixtures are currently made up to February 2020, compared to France and Italy (December), and England and Spain (January).
Still, only a few weeks beforehand, Ryanair flights from Dublin were booked for €41 return (Aer Lingus also fly Dublin to Düsseldorf). Tickets were bought on public sale — €33 for Cologne in the corner of the stand, and €41.50 for Schalke and Gladbach somewhat more central. Tickets start from as low as €14.50 in the sought-after safe-standing sections but even for a match against Bayern, the most expensive tickets won’t top €65.
Cologne is a beautiful city with its spacious, chic shops and spectacular cathedral, which even blinkered football tourists such as us couldn’t miss, being located beside the central train station. By comparison, the more industrial cities of Mönchengladbach (textiles) and Schalke’s home city of Gelsenkirchen (coal mining) must be grateful for the invention and codification of association football for getting any tourist commerce. Their cathedrals are Borussia Park and the ultra-modern Veltins-Arena but Cologne, again, provides the most beautiful — the RheinEnergieStadion.
The stadium is bound by four towers, like glow-in-the-dark versions of the Poolbeg Chimneys, if only they flashed red and white every time Shelbourne scored a goal. A scarf is an essential purchase, as everyone joins in whirling it along to the pre-match anthem, sung in the local Kölsch language, and on the rare occasions their team score a goal. The Südkurve terrace features a changing array of tifos, flags, chants, and two flares which are swiftly condemned by the announcer.
As for the game itself, against Hoffenheim, it ended with a Cologne lead cancelled out by a first-touch jokertor (substitute’s goal), before losing to a 98th-minute VAR penalty, their sporting director stepping down within minutes of full-time, and his stand-in replacement firing the manager the next day. The Bundesliga’s not bad for drama, alright.
The fans in pubs along Aachener Str. were appropriately resigned to their fate for a club on course for its seventh Bundesliga relegation in 23 years, but no less merry for their travails. Even in the second division last season, they maintained a close-to-capacity average attendance of 49,500. They chat about good times on the road and the bad — notably an ’80s away trip to Red Star where one fan, named ‘Mad Dog’, and with a tattoo to prove his ID, acquired his forearm-length scar from a knife-wielding Belgrader.
They may be the worst team of the six we saw but they certainly have the best atmosphere. It’ll only get better during the world-famous Carnival season, which runs from now until the end of February, and Christmas markets.
All three stadiums are located outside their city centres but there is a sense of a community travelling as one to their true centres. The 15-minute tram or shuttle bus was included for free in each ticket (even stretching to the half-hour return train journey from Düsseldorf to Mönchengladbach), while vendors were busy selling beer bottles outside the stations and grounds.
It was no different in Gelsenkirchen, where the tram takes you through the blue-and-white festooned Schalker Meile (Schalke Mile) to the scene of Jose Mourinho’s first Champions League triumph. Links to their coal-mining past are proudly prominent for a club with the second highest number of members in Germany at 155,000, almost two-thirds of the city’s population. With the concourse gates into the stands closed, all sound from the 62,000 fans would’ve been locked in but for the retractable roof being left open — I suspect moreso to vent the tarry smoke rising from agitated fans away from the players.
We're off! ⚽
A lively announcer led the torhymne (goal song), joined by a line of ten drummers in front of the deafening Nordkurve, and there were many goals to celebrate. Although it was a meeting with near neighbours Düsseldorf, away fans sat in full colour in the home sections and indulged in celebrating all three of Rouwen Hennings’ second-half equalisers in a 3-3 draw. The Schalke fans had a response each time, boiling the cauldron of noise even higher to roar their team to a victory which they merited but didn’t realise.
As Schalke fans regathered at the stalls surrounding the arena, one downtrodden supporter appeared to represent the rest as he described Schalke’s history of heartbreak and his “mixed emotions… frustration, anger, sadness, frustration” — which seemed rather consistent emotions in hindsight. Perhaps it explained why so many in the stands poured out before the final whistle — they could barely take any more.
Each club had a different local beer on tap, priced around €4 a pint, plus a euro or two for the reusable plastic glasses, which is refunded upon return. Drinks can be brought to your seat while food is unlikely to set you back much more than €3 — the cost of a bratwurst. Schalke only accepted a club debit card inside the stadium but it’s free and any leftover money is refundable.
The merchandise is reasonable too, with hats from €10 and scarves from €15. Splashing out on multiple scarves made up for the money left in my pocket due to there being no programmes on sale and the cost-effectiveness of our three inter-city journeys on graffitied trains, which totalled €22, between the low-cost FlixTrains and Deutsche Bahn.
Mönchengladbach, on Sunday, was a real treat. Gladbach are surprise Bundesliga leaders and a joyful watch. High-tempo gegenpressing, speedy attacks, and suspect to a counter-attack, their game with Werder Bremen was end to end and defined by spectacular saves from Yann Sommer, the midfield excellence of Denis Zakaria, and two goals from Patrick Herrmann in a 3-1 win. This time, the torhymne was purely instrumental, a unifier for locals and visitors among the 54,000 sell-out as it was used and abused for every goal or shuttle bus arriving throughout the day.
Gladbach’s true star man is Marcus Thuram, an electric attacker and son of World Cup-winner Lilian. He led the celebrations, using Herrmann’s jersey in a dance routine, while the goalscorer was beckoned into the Nordkurve to direct a victory chant. The crowd had sung and jumped, up and down, left and right, synchronised arms waving Gladbach forward, for the entire match, before emptying into the fan parks at either end of the ground, and were only still for a moment’s silence for their former goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who died last Sunday 10 years.
Could this league BE any more exciting?! pic.twitter.com/x1ccMLn3lj— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) November 10, 2019
The bond between the players and fans was most evident in those shared moments after games. Winners and losers giving ample time to the fans, joining the fun of the celebrations or mirroring the devastation. It’s a microcosm of what makes German football great — the value placed on the fans in running the club and allowing them to shape the matchday experience.
A fans-first policy, not for the lines on a profit and loss account, but because they are the club, the constant, in victory or in relegation, ‘til death or bankruptcy do us part.
We left having seen 13 goals, 11 trains, six sets of passionate fans, and four VAR interventions (two dodgy) in 48 hours, but having also spotted a Cork City hat and a soundboard of Irish accents. The secret might just be out.