Why I love football

There are moments in football that underline its greatness, its ability to deliver generation-defining moments, stir emotions to an extent no other sport can. These moments are often fleeting, but the ephemeral joy or despair is a drug that should be bottled and placed on the chemist’s shelf next to the methadone.

Toni Kroos’s head-in-hands after putting Germany 3-0 up on Brazil after not even half an hour was one such moment, his simple pose embodying the emotions of practically the entire football-supporting world. The earth-shattering nature of that result, or that half of football, is probably unrivalled in the history of the game, but you don’t need a 7-1 in a World Cup semi-final to prove how life-affirming football can sometimes be. Let me stray outside of this blog’s remit for a moment…

SV Darmstadt 98 are, measured by their own ambitions, a pretty average club. Long part of the German football fabric, the club was beset by financial difficulties and have only recently clawed their way back into the realms of professional football. Promotion to the 3. Liga in 2011 was a long time coming, but they struggled at that level for two seasons, only being saved from relegation in 2013 due to Kickers Offenbach’s financial meltdown and forced demotion.

There’s no doubt, then, that Darmstadt were the surprise package of the 2013/14 3. Liga season. Finishing a respectable fourth in the Hinrunde, Darmstadt then took more points in the second half of the season than eventual champions 1. FC Heidenheim. Their automatic promotion hopes were ultimately only scuppered by a 1-0 loss at RB Leipzig with a handful of games remaining. In a league of so much mediocrity, it’s often a charging, in-form side that puts in a final spurt to reach the promotion or playoff spots. Darmstadt took their chances and beat the likes of Hansa Rostock and Wehen Wiesbaden by a comfortable margin to the promotion playoff. They would be pitted against DSC Arminia Bielefeld, the third-worst team in the 2. Bundesliga, over a two-legged playoff.

Ironically, Arminia themselves had just come off a ludicrous winner-takes-all relegation showdown in Dresden. The Ostwestfalen conceded a 0-2 lead before Kacper Przybylko “ended the madness”, as Kicker put it, and nudged Bielefeld into the playoff at Dynamo’s expense – and by doing so provoking Dynamo’s infamous “you have one hour to leave our city” banner aimed at their own players.

Spirits were obviously high in the Arminia camp, and it showed with a confident performance in the first leg at Darmstadt’s barely third-tier-worthy but still incredibly charming Böllenfalltor stadium. With Bielefeld 2-0 up by half time, and with the away goals rule in effect, they looked to be home and dry, especially after substitute Sebastian Hille truly embraced the term “route one” and put his side 3-1 up.

I could describe what happened in the return leg, but in truth it was 90 minutes of repeating “they couldn’t, could they?” in an almost demonic mantra. I kroosed for the first time when Jerome Gondorf rifled in an absolutely glorious strike with the kind of aplomb that would have been impressive on the training ground, let alone with ten minutes to go in a promotion playoff. If that wasn’t enough, Darmstadt could very well have won it in normal time, with two great chances in quick succession and a point-blank Ortega save from Aytac Sulu.

And so it continued in extra time. Long throw from Darmstadt, nodded on, clear handball from the Bielefeld defender but not seen by the referee, ball breaks loose, Ortega palms a Landeka shot onto the post to save Bielefeld’s skin. More kroosing. It was like a cartoon, the footballing equivalent of some sort of ridiculous Tintin escapade.

But, as in all good crime stories, there had to be a twist. With ten minutes to go in extra time, a cross comes in from the right-hand side and the hero from do-or-die playoff rehearsal in Dresden, Kacper Przybylko, shanks a shot past the flailing Zimmermann in the Darmstadt goal. To all intents and purposes, that was it – Bielefeld would stay up, Darmstadt would end their dream season with a respectable third place but ultimately in disappointment.

But that wasn’t it: In stoppage time of extra time, Darmstadt pour forward in search of a winner. The ball is pumped into the box, nodded down on the edge of the area and Elton da Costa, brought on as a substitute for Gondorf just after the Bielefeld extra-time goal, sets himself up for a volley. Sometimes you can kind of tell when a player is winding up for what Germans call “a full-risk effort” that the shot’s going to have some legs. This was one of those moments. Da Costa strikes it true, almost at hip height, and the ball screeches through the packed penalty area and past a helpless Ortega into the Bielefeld net. In unison, the 2,000 or so Darmstadt fans behind the goal enter that state of I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself ecstasy – gloriously captured on the TV broadcast thanks to Darmstadt having the good grace to score their winner at the right end of the ground.

It was an astonishing match, perhaps the most dramatic I have ever seen. As the Football Ramble put it in their 2014 World Cup wrap, classic matches cannot simply be end-to-end affairs. There has to be a tactical edge, some sort of sounding out between the teams. In a classic boxing match, the boxers don’t necessarily go at it hammer and tongs right from the off, they take time to identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

What made it all the more dramatic was the key difference between the German and English playoff systems. The English playoffs are merely contested by promotion candidates. Sure, a playoff final loss can hurt a lot (just ask Preston fans), but imagine if, say, this season QPR’s Championship playoff final victory had relegated Derby County from the Premier League. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about. But that’s exactly what happened to Arminia Bielefeld – and in perhaps the cruellest and most astonishing way it could ever have happened.

And that’s why I love football.

 

Brdarić’s new boys streets ahead of Regionalliga favourites

After somewhat of a false dawn for the reborn Regionalliga Nordost last year, a season in which RB Leipzig cantered away with the title, the second edition has delivered more of an even playing field for those hoping for promotion to the relative riches of the 3. Liga. Given the illustrious names whiling away their time at Germany’s fourth tier, including European Cup Winners’ Cup winners FC Magdeburg and multiple East German champions Carl Zeiss Jena, you’d be forgiven for not recognising this season’s true pacesetters. Here’s a look at business end of the season so far.

Entering the winter break with a lead almost akin to Keegan’s Newcastle, TSG Neustrelitz are undoubtedly the surprise of the season. Neustrelitz may have been everyone’s dark horses for promotion at the start of the 2013/14 season, especially after taking SC Freiburg to extra time in the first round of the DFL Pokal in August, but the job that former German international Thomas Brdarić has done in the picturesque Mecklenburg town is no less impressive. Seven points ahead at the time of writing, TSG president Hauke Runge has already announced that Neustrelitz will be applying for promotion to the 3. Liga next season, a quite astonishing development considering Neustrelitz were nothing more than a mid-table 5th division side in the relatively recent past.

Even with its weekly highlights show just before the main Bundesliga highlights and ailing former Bundesliga clubs trying to tread water (including, in the past, Bielefeld, Karlsruhe, Rostock, etc.), promotion from the 3. Liga is not the great reward everyone may imagine it to be. Indeed, no less than four teams in the Regionalliga Bayern didn’t even bother to apply for promotion last season. The standards, both financially and in terms of infrastructure, are high – including a 10,000-seater stadium and floodlights that are suitable for TV.

Neustrelitz’s unrelenting form saw them quickly rise to the top of the table in place of early-season pacesetters Berliner AK. An unbelievable run of straight victories stretched from the piercing heat of mid-August to the knee-shattering, half-frozen turf of December. Thirteen victories in succession have given the Mecklenburg club a serious shot at making the step up to the third tier. Perhaps north-eastern Germany, with train stations from Usedom to Wismar daubed in unmistakable blue and red Hansa Rostock graffiti, may get a second representative in professional German football.

Hot on Neustrelitz’s heels are FC Magdeburg – a club that (*favourite stat klaxon*) have never been relegated for sporting reasons in their entire history. Magdeburg have been stuck at this level ever since failing to qualify for the newly created 3. Liga by a margin of just four goals in 2008. The team that took their place? Eintracht Braunschweig – football can be tough sometimes. With a relatively new stadium and one of the region’s largest supports, everything seems to be in place for the club from the Saxony-Anhalt capital – only sporting success and, importantly, money have been missing.

One aspect of FC Magdeburg that certainly isn’t missing is goals. The league’s second-top scorers have well and truly left behind the days of arrow-based humiliation at the hands of their own supporters and with Christian Beck, signed from league rivals Germania Halberstadt in January 2013, they have a striker who can seem to get his head on anything and more often than not pop up with a crucial goal. Under manager Andreas Petersen, Magdeburg looked to have settled down after seasons of mediocrity – a playoff spot could certainly be a possibility. Magdeburg travel to Jena and then to Neustrelitz’s Parkstadion in consecutive away matches in March, and this could prove decisive for the promotion race.

Perhaps the only other promotion contender, bar any miracle runs from mid-placed sides, in this season’s Regionalliga Nordost is Carl Zeiss Jena. The Jenenser were the only side to put up anything resembling a fight to RB Leipzig last season, and after going from perennial 3. Liga promotion hopefuls to relegation to the Regionalliga in just one nightmare season a couple of years ago, they will be looking to make a return sooner rather than later.

That being said, things are all change behind the scenes at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld. Belgian millionaire Roland Duchâtelet, whose other investments include Belgian clubs Standard Liège and Sint-Truiden as well as Charlton Athletic and one-time Real Madrid-slayers Alcorcon, has purchased 49% of Carl Zeiss for a one-off payment of €2 million. A further €4 million has been pledged over the next four years. Duchâtelet’s plan is for Jena to make a return to the 2. Bundesliga within five to seven years. It’s an ambitious target, but with Jena city council recently approving the construction of a new stadium to replace the ageing, and often sodden, Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, things could start falling into place for the Zeisser.

Then again, financial deliverance from a single individual can often end in tears, forced relegations and balance sheets redder than Vincent Tan’s fucked-up dreamworld. Given their money troubles of the past, Zeiss fans are all too aware of this. Jena president Rainer Zipfel called Duchâtelet’s an “opportunity the club would never have again”, but one of the leading ultra groups – Horda Azzuro – have announced they will no longer be actively organising any support in protest at the move. Could Carl Zeiss Jena, the former works club of the optical systems giant based in the city, become the next Hoffenheim?

On Red Bull and apathy

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On many occasions have I sat down at my desk to write about RB Leipzig. The almost universal source of hate and scorn in German football is a universal source of frustration and keyboard bashing in myself.

A recent interview in 11 Freunde (#143, October 2013) with Energie Cottbus vice-president Wolfgang Neubert, Dynamo Dresden managing director Christian Müller and Erzgebirge Aue president Lothar Lässig brought it all to a head. In it, the trio lament the rise of RB Leipzig and the relative degeneration of the rest of the region, i.e. the former East Germany. No money, no prospects, no top-tier football – with RB flashing the cash and aiming for the stars just around the corner. To me, most of what they say epitomises the senseless, self-pitying and irritating attitude of most football fans when it comes to RB Leipzig.

Their claims are mostly lies, damn lies and (poorly researched) statistics. Is it RB Leipzig’s fault that, in Aue, sponsors “cannot come up with €6 million just like that”, as Lässig points out? No, probably not. The decline of many towns and cities here is a social issue. Aue is a tiny mining town smaller than places like Goole or Lewes, no wonder there’s no money there. Another bone of contention are Müller’s allegations that “RBL have almost forty U-16 players” and are soaking up talent all over the reason by offering lucrative deals to young teenagers. A a club managing director, Müller perhaps should have heard of DFB regulations limiting clubs’ squad sizes to 20. Attracting talent is certainly part of the RB mode, they admit that themselves. But what’s the difference between them allegedly (the club’s youth director has since publicly denied the claims) offering big contracts to youth players in Dresden or Jena and Toni Kroos being poached from Rostock by Bayern at the age of 16? That’s the way the world goes round.

Whenever the criticism rears its ugly head, there are always a few key arguments. RB typifies the commercial influence in our game, sure, but that doesn’t mean it should be the sole source of people’s ire. Case in point: the ultras at Borussia Dortmund (Ultras von die Amateure) recently announced a boycott of the match between BVB II and RB Leipzig on the grounds that the club is simply a commercial venture. Does that make it any different to BVB, a club that was floated on the stock exchange in 1999? Anyone who witnessed the BVB’s unashamed self-whoring in and around Wembley at the Champions League final will know that the “BVB brand” is just as lucrative.

Earlier in the season, MSV Duisburg fans travelled to Leipzig and proceeded to have a barbecue in front of the stadium instead of going in to support their team. This is it! This is exactly what annoys me. RB Leipzig was set up by Red Bull to increase the brand presence, surely everyone knows that? In spite of this, RB Leipzig still enjoys a relatively high, and perhaps for most quite surprising, level of support in the city. What are your protests going to do to change that? This is football, something that has long since revolved around making filthy lucre (or rather losing it, as Duisburg fans know all too well). Your absence from the away block is not going to make it go away.

It surprises me that people take the issue of RB Leipzig so seriously. Then again, football has become so vitriolic that it perhaps was only a matter of time. You want to criticise? Go ahead, by all means, but the moment you walk into Rewe and pick up a can of that Austrian energy drink to relieve your hangover you invalidate your argument. Better still, invest your energy in making sure things stay the way you want them to be at your own club. Become a member, have a say in what happens, engage in club-fan policy.

I cannot identify with RB Leipzig: The sanitised support, contrived “ultra” culture, the free tickets, the branding, people that just go along because they want to see “good” football – none of it really fits my perception of what the game is about. But neither do those people who dress up like condoms to form a T-Mobile logo in the Allianz Arena every Bayern München home game. Of course, I’m free to say that it’s all shit and I hate it – it’s my opinion after all all –, but in the end does it really have an effect on my existence as a football fan?

In Salzburg, Red Bull descended like a vulture on the carcass of SV Austria Salzburg and built their Red Bull Salzburg brand out of the ashes. That was unforgivable to most football fans around Europe, but here in Leipzig there is no “victim”. Plus, if every single football fan despised the company for what they did in Austria, why do RB Leipzig attract five-figure crowds on a regular basis? The sooner football fans come to terms with the fact that there’s almost nothing they can do about RB Leipzig, the better. Maybe then we can all move on.

When Karl Marx met the Old Lady

FCK fans en route to Turin. Photo courtesy of cfc-fanpage.de

FCK fans cross the Brenner Pass en route to Turin. Photo courtesy of cfc-fanpage.de

This is a first-hand account of FC Karl-Marx Stadt’s (now Chemnitzer FC) trip to Turin to face Juventus in the UEFA Cup 1989/90 written by Tino Richter. It has been translated from German with the kind permission of www.cfc-fanpage.de, where it was originally published.

It was autumn ’89, people had other stuff in the minds, not football. But in Chemnitz, all the talk was of the UEFA Cup. Until now we only saw it on TV. Sure FCK once played on the European stage, but back then we were all in nappies. Now, though, things were different. After the first couple of successful matches for our sky-blue heroes in this amazing competition, the draw was to take place for the next round. Just as always in Chemnitz, people were complaining before the draw was even made: “As long as its not Prague or some fucking place like that”. Fortunately, it wasn’t. The next victim of FC Karl-Marx Stadt would be… Juventus. The Old Lady, an Italian institution versus our beloved FCK. The city was gripped by UEFA Cup fever. Even though only 10,000 people trudged down to the Gellertstraße for Oberliga matches, suddenly everyone was interested.

There were people in Chemnitz who didn’t even know where FCK played, but everyone knew Juve. The border was becoming increasingly porous and we soon came to the conclusion that we had to be there in Turin, regardless of what it took. We go to every single fucking away match in the Oberliga and then let this trip simply pass us by? Never. Rumours spread that a football special was being organised for the trip south. We would have gone by car, but the 15 West marks we had to our name wouldn’t even have got us to Austria. After a home match in the Oberliga, there was a meeting between those involved in planning the trip, people who didn’t have a clue and the proper fans. As always at FCK, nothing was properly organised. It went to and fro – no one really knew what was going on. At some point a list appeared with some names on it. There were already quite a few on the list that we didn’t know, and a few that we did. My mate and I have former FCK keeper Michael Kompalla to thank for getting on that list. The trip was supposed to cost 800 Ost marks, a month’s wage. It was a lot of money, but fuck it: A month without food is better than a week without FCK.

Then all we had to do was make sure we got a ticket for the football special. First things first, we had to get passports and, of course, passport photos for the visa. Shit, passport photos? Where were we supposed to get those done? It wasn’t like it is now where you can pop down to the supermarket and get ‘em done on the machine. Polyphoto was the magic word. So off we went. But wait, we forgot that it wasn’t just football fans that wanted a passport, the entire population of Chemnitz did too in preparation for a potential border opening. The queue was worse than the queue at the grocer’s when they had bananas in. No chance.

Then we had an idea – we had a bit of West German money left over from the odd job on the side in the garage and we were able to buy our way forward a few places in the queue. Just like now I suppose. My mate had some time off and joined the queue for both of us. I was at work and could come by every now and then in one of the cars we had in to repair to check whether we might be in with a chance in the near future. As I said, at some point we had all our papers sorted and the next trip meeting was to be held at the Sportforum. We had to fill out visa forms for Austria and Italy – line for line as dictated by Peter Müller and co. – awesome. As we handed in the mountain of paperwork, our names were crossed off on the list. I asked what it all meant, the response was “None of that matters now” – of course, I’d completely forgotten that the border restrictions had been lifted. The nightmare task of getting the passports and visas approved in East Berlin is probably best left to the club to explain – Peter Müller would be more than happy to oblige, I’m sure.

Tuesday 21 November, around 5pm or so – meeting point at the station. This was the big day – in an hour we’d either be on the train or at home in tears. No one really knew whether the paperwork had gone through properly. I finished work and had a couple of beers to calm the nerves. Then I went up to the man holding all of our passports on the platform. I told him my name, and he began flicking a thick pack of permits like a fucking magician. Was mine there or wasn’t it? He went through about half of them before pulling mine out and holding it aloft. I was going, so were some of my mates – others had to stay behind. We were in absolute ecstasy, while those left behind cried like babies. I still get mad thinking about how many loyal FCK fans had to stay behind, their place taken by privileged party members and that ever-present Stasi mob.

The journey began. We had a sleeper compartment, plus room for all of our food and drinks. The schnapps bottles were opened and the beer started flowing. First stop was the border – open at that point but still very much fortified with guard towers and minefields. It was a pretty strange feeling; a few weeks ago this was the death strip, but now we were just casually passing through. We’re off to see our club, just like always, so we though “fuck the border, forever FCK”.

First station on the other side was Hof. Two Bavarian border policemen wished us luck, even though they didn’t really know what was going on. We slept a little and our express train rolled through Bavaria and into Austria. At some station or other – the name escapes me – there were these two officials who were relatively intelligent for Austrians. They asked us where we were coming from and then tried to understand what we were saying. I reckon they probably still don’t know to this day what our city was called.

Before long we reached Innsbruck and had an hour to spare – time to stock up on supplies. Oh wait, we had only changed our 15 Ost marks into lira and of course no one would take that stuff here. We had to look elsewhere. A staff member at the station drove a pallet full of crates of beer along the platform and parked it next to our train. We felt sorry for him, that poor guy. The thought that he would have to carry all of that heavy stuff into one of the Austrian trains gave us an idea. Two guys went down to the vehicle, while the others stood at the window. We heaved all the crates through the window – into the FCK Express of course. We hid a few crates in our compartment, before the police appeared at the door. They were on the lookout for stolen beer and had the impression that it may be here in our wagon. We responded with complete bafflement of course, saying that we were merely passing through and didn’t really understand what they were saying. Another FCK fan in the train suggested that they might like to quietly fuck off, we weren’t here to go skiing, we were off to see FCK.

Finally we started moving again. Steffl was the name of the beer if I remember correctly. It was alright and lasted until we reached our destination. Our FCK Express meandered through the Alps, the bright sky matching our sky-blue scarves. I still have a picture – leaning out of the train as we chugged around a curve, the perfect blue of the sky with snow-capped mountains in the background and FCK flags adorning our carriages; amazing. After traversing the Alps we reached Milan, and couldn’t go any further. The Italian railways were on strike – quite rightly, no doubt. But FCK was waiting for us. What were we going to do??? While we waited we sang songs on the platform at Milan station with some crazy Italians. Neither of us knew what the other was saying, but at least we were loud. While this was happening, some of the unwelcome party members on the train unfurled an East German flag out of the window and were subsequently photographed by some Italian journalists. Shortly afterwards, we made it painfully clear to these unwanted guests how things were going to work from now on. The flag soon disappeared.

Finally we got the news we had all been hoping for – the driver had got a special permit from his trade union to proceed just for us. The focus was on FCK and its fans and that’s how things were going to remain for a while. Our train rumbled onwards and soon reached our final destination, Turin. It was late afternoon and the floodlights were already on – not at the stadium, at the Stationi Torino. The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree, hundreds of journalists, Italian TV and loads of Juventus fans gave us a welcome that still brings tears to my eyes this day.

We were there – the famous Chemnitz fans arriving at the heart of Italian football. It was mental. Interviews in every language under the sun. Before I knew it I had a Juventus scarf around my neck. Italians are emotional people and we felt that we fitted in. Our arrival was broadcast live on Italian TV. We were in luck, our personal reporter could speak German well and explained more about us than we did about ourselves. After all, news of the fall of the Iron Curtain hadn’t passed Italy by or anything and the Italians were happy to be part of this huge shift in the European landscape.

We swapped everything. Anything that had an East German emblem on it was swapped. One FCK fan ripped his passport apart and swapped every page for a scarf or a pennant – unbelievable. Juventus had organised a few buses at the station to take us to the ground – probably about ten in total for the 460 FCK fans. Out of the hustle and bustle of the station and into the buses to the ground – that was the plan. But we wanted a tour of the famous city, and it was chaos. Getting 10 buses through the awful Torino traffic was impossible. I suppose it was late afternoon, commuter traffic, European match that evening and, of course, the temperament. At some point 3 of our buses stopped next to a park. No idea where the other buses got to. We were supposed to take a look at a museum “or something”.

As always, our part of the group decided to go for the “or something” and headed into the pedestrian zone in the city centre. There we saw a friendly Italian guy with a pair of tongs in his hand, selling roasted chestnuts. What the hell was this stuff? We gobbled up the entire grill and then the seller started calling for his mother – Maria or something her name was. The next stop on our tour was the newsagents. Aha! Here we could buy some postcards. When we came back out, the newspaper stands were empty. How the journalists got that picture of us in Milan in the papers three hours after it was taken is still a mystery. One of our group flicked through a top-shelf mag, lamenting “this isn’t a programme.” “Forget the birds, today FCK needs us!” shouted someone else.

Onwards we went through the pedestrian zone, past a jewellers watched by eagled-eyed Carabinieri. We started counting the zeroes on the price labels – a 25 with 7 zeroes after it, no way. So that bloke from Bavarian radio was lying to us when he read out the exchange rates every week. 1 Ost mark was 1,000 lire, so that means that necklace costs…never!! We decided to forget the maths and walk on. It was almost time for the big event. Across the street with our big FCK flag and into a huge traffic jam. The Italians were honking their horns like there was no tomorrow. We danced around on the roundabout with our flag as if no one else was there. One driver forgot about the jam and joined in. He climbed on the roof of his car with a massive Juventus flag, while others began singing with their flags and scarves. They were all crazy – just like us. We would have loved to have stayed but it was time to head to the stadium. Whether those Italians ever got out of that traffic jam I do not know.

On the way to the stadium we saw a few shops barricaded up. Of course, Juve were playing and there was always something going on. Somehow we made it there. The Stadio Communale di Torino, one of the most famous in Europe, was expecting us. It was a huge concrete bowl with rows of seats in every direction; the walls plastered with AS Roma and Inter graffiti. Now, however, it was time for FCK. The Italians were really friendly towards us, and we swapped scarves and badges all night. In our block was also a delegation from Juve’s city rivals – I think they might just have been crazier than the Juve fans. The stadium wasn’t very full, but the noise could have filled several. We were welcomed by the home fans in our block and a group of Italian women came over to present us with flowers. Some of us would have preferred it if they had stayed, but that wasn’t why we were here.

Suddenly the noise became deafening as the Juve fans joined to sing the club song. The volume was indescribable. During the song the home curve was bathed in a bright orange glare. It seemed to me as if every fan in the curva had one in the hand. You couldn’t see anything but for flares and smoke.

Soon it was time for the real show to begin. 0-6 or 0-7, whatever happens it doesn’t matter, at least we’re here. As the match progressed things started to change, the Stadio Communale grew quieter as FC Karl-Marx Stadt showed the Old Lady how to play football. The only Juve fan still making a racket was the coffee seller in the away end – but he soon shut up after he was told that none of us wanted any fucking coffee. Then the silence was broken – 1-0 for FCK in Turin. We saw nothing, but as the team ran back towards our end, arms aloft, we knew what had happened. For me and my 459 companions in the away terrace it was bedlam. The rest of the stadium was in shocked silence. No-one, not even us fans, thought we even had a sniff of hope against one of Europe’s best defences. The fog enveloping the stadium became thicker and thicker, some Juve fans called for it to be abandoned – no wonder given the scoreline.

The rest is history I suppose. A shame to lose, but the performance from our sky-blue heroes was incredible. As we left the stadium and got back on the buses, we celebrated as if we’d won. On the streets we were surrounded by enthusiastic Italian fans who followed us to the station and gave us all these presents for our trip home. Our compartment was full with bottles of wine. A friend of ours came in to the train clutching a bag of oranges; never have I laughed so much.

The journey back was pretty uneventful – the bottles were empty and we were correspondingly tipsy. I think the first signs of life from our compartment came when we reached Rosenheim. Some searched the station for any other football fans and came back with a green and orange scarf. No idea what team that was, maybe it was just from some passer-by. That was it, back to normal. Just before we reached Hof we were asked to close all the windows and the doors were locked. Hundreds of people from Saxony and Thuringia had been shopping in West Germany and wanted to get home. They were squeezed into the station at Hof as we went through, and of course we didn’t want to take any of them with us on the FCK Express. Quickly we gathered together some rubbish, put it in a box and threw it out the window at their feet hoping there might be a bit of action – but nothing happened. None of them were prepared for seeing a train full of football fans travelling back home on a Thursday afternoon. A group of party agitators came on board wanting to teach us how to behave shortly before we got home – they just couldn’t help themselves. In our wagon things finally escalated and we got the entertainment we were looking for – just like a proper away match.

It was a crazy autumn. Our beloved FCK had to take a back seat for a bit, as the political situation had a firm grip on our lives. Upon our return, the first thing to do was enjoy the reception by the welcoming committee in the pub. There was only space for six around a table, but there must have been thirty around ours: “So come on, how was it?”

Dynamo live to fight another day

Picture courtesy of Unterwegs in Sachen Fußball.

Picture courtesy of Unterwegs in Sachen Fußball.

The explosion of noise, jubilation and relief from perhaps one of Germany’s largest one-club city could be heard throughout the Bundesrepublik. SG Dynamo Dresden had, by the skin of their teeth, done it. They’d stayed up. Players danced and celebrated in front of a jubilant K block terrace, bearing t-shirts reiterating the club’s pledge to keep their head above water for two seasons before really “giving it a go” in 2013/14.

In truth, Dynamo’s second season after promotion from the third tier ought to have been much more comfortable than it turned out to be. They wandered almost blindly into the relegation mire and were arguably only saved from the ignominy of direct relegation due to the hopelessness of Regensburg and Sandhausen. Away form was an issue and the points that Dynamo had picked up on their travels the season before, leading to a comfortable 9th-place finish, were sorely missed.

So it came to a two-legged tie against perennial playoff participants VfL Osnabrück. Since the playoffs between Germany’s top-three tiers were reintroduced in 2009, the club from the Friedensstadt have been involved on three out of five occasions, both as a 2. Bundesliga club trying to avoid the drop and as a 3. Liga side striving for promotion, contriving to lose every single time. Indeed, Osnabrück were Dynamo’s opponents two years ago when the Dresden club achieved an unlikely promotion back to the second tier after an outstanding end-of-season run-in.

The first leg, on a balmy Friday night at Osnabrück’s chocolate-box Stadion an der Bremer Brücke, went the way of the home side. Both sides looked on equal footing, with Dynamo desperately searching for that oh-so-important away goal. Shortly before half-time, with the match finely poised, Osnabrück attacking fulcrum Gaetano Manno slipped a cross-cum-shot in at Dynamo keeper Benni Kirsten’s near post. Kirsten, son of Dynamo legend Ulf, could certainly have done better, despite the fact that he was unsighted. However, the ‘keeper atoned for his error by saving a vital second-half penalty from Timo Staffelt, awarded after a handball from Dynamo captain Bregerie. Incredibly, it was Kirsten’s 5th penalty save of the season, including two in one match in a vital home win over Paderborn as the regular season drew to a close. Despite the efforts of Idir Ouali and the rather blunt Pavel Fort, Dynamo failed to find the net. Nevertheless, overturning a one-goal deficit was considered doable, but a two-goal defeat away from home without troubling the scoresheet would have been disastrous.

Every Dynamo fan knew what was at stake in the return leg. Relegation to the unpopular German third tier would not simply have had sporting implications, it may have also threatened SG Dynamo Dresden’s very existence. The club had only survived their 2009/10 promotion season after a €2 million cash injection from city authorities, a favour they may think twice about granting again in the future.

The primeval roar that greeted the players onto the pitch was merely a taste of things to come. Fans often refer themselves rather self-assuredly as the “twelfth man”, but in Dresden’s case this is often true – especially on a night like this. The Osnabrück players were visibly affected by the raucous atmosphere and attempted to play it safe, rarely venturing forward in the first half with much intent. On the half-hour mark, just as there appeared to be a tiny glint of nervousness in the Dynamo support, Cristian Fiel picked up the ball on the right after good work from Ouali and proceeded to lash the ball into the top right-hand corner with vengeance. It was a goal of tremendous quality that left ‘keeper Riemann rooted to the spot. What’s more, it was a microcosm of the situation the Osnabrück players found themselves in – almost completely powerless to stop this highly motivated Dresden side, buoyed on by 30,000 frenzied fans.

The second half provided much of the same, although a noticeably less-frantic Dynamo pushed and probed and waited for their opportunity to tip the tie in their favour. The away goals rule meant that even the slightest mistake could have left Dynamo needing two more to win, but any Osnabrück attack was defended resolutely. Perhaps their only clear opportunity came shortly before Dynamo’s first goal, when Kirsten appeared to bring down Zoller in the box. Referee Gagelmann waved play on and Dynamo had just about enough time to remove their hearts from their mouths before Fiel’s spectacular opener.

As in the first leg, Gaetano Manno was a constant threat for the guests with tricky footwork and clever runs. However, on many occasions support was sorely lacking from his teammates. It seemed only a matter of time before Osnabrück’s frail defence crumbled, and sure enough on 71 minutes substitute Tobias Kempe breaking through on the right and crossing. Eventually the ball fell to Idir Ouali, almost an ever-present in the Dynamo side this term, who made no mistake from 6 yards to edge Dresden in front on aggregate. Despite a few customary scares late on, Osnabrück failed to make a breakthrough and Dresden were left to celebrate survival in front of a sold-out Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion.

The bright orange light of the flares pierced the night air and the week- or even month-long tension that had built was released like the cork on a champagne bottle. An attempted pitch invasion and a few isolated bangers were almost immediately prohibited by players, officials and, yes, fellow Dynamo fans and all were left to UFFTA the night away safe in the knowledge that 2. Bundesliga football would be returning to the Florence of the Elbe next season.

Nu Dynamo, nächste Saison aber risch!

Paradise lost

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Naming a city’s main station “Paradise” is quite an audacious move. As you cruise through the Thuringian Forest and the picturesque Saale valley and roll into Jena Paradies station, that’s exactly the sight that greets you. Paradise is subjective I suppose, but unless you’re a fan of Eastern European-style, uncovered bowl stadiums and huge sets of floodlights, there are probably more attractive places to spend the afterlife.

Every lamppost and spare piece of wall in Jena city centre contains a clue to where loyalties lie in this city: FC Carl Zeiss Jena. The Zeiss name is inextricably linked with Jena’s fortunes. Backed by the huge Carl Zeiss precision engineering company, East Germany’s largest state-owned combine, FC Carl Zeiss Jena were one of the most successful sides in East Germany – even reaching a Cup Winners’ Cup final, which they lost to Dinamo Tblisi in Düsseldorf. The links are so strong that the name was kept after the reunification. Carl Zeiss is Jena, Jena is Carl Zeiss.

Nowadays FC Carl Zeiss Jena (FCC) find themselves in the fourth tier of German football after relegation from the 3. Liga last season. Sporadic periods of 2. Bundesliga football and one DFB-Pokal semi-final in Dortmund are the most FCC fans have had to cheer about since reunification. Today FCC would host FSV Zwickau – a “best of the rest” clash in the Regionalliga Nordost for the honour of finishing the season a distant second to runaway leaders RB Leipzig.

The walk from Jena Paradies to the Jena’s home, the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, would have been pleasant if it hadn’t been colder than Thatcher’s heart. After a quick five-minute stroll through the Paradies park, which gives the station its name, the stadium’s enormous floodlights soon come into view. Like so many grounds in the former East Germany, the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld is a largely uncovered bowl with one main, covered tribune. It undoubtedly has its charm and on warm afternoons with the sun on your back and a cold beer in your hand, it’s a pleasure to watch football there. However, the biting wind sluicing down the valley made memories of previous spring or summer visits to FCC seem very far away indeed.

The Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld’s days appear to be numbered after the European Union approved subsidies for new stadiums to be built for Thuringia’s two largest clubs – arch rivals Rot-Weiß Erfurt and Carl Zeiss Jena. The memories of European nights under the floodlights when FCC sent teams such as Valencia and AS Roma packing, and more recent spells in the 2. Bundesliga, are etched into the substance of this place. Going there is almost like a trip back in time, back to patchy TV broadcasts with crackling commentary when teams from the former Eastern Bloc were almost exclusively referred to as “crack outfits”. My hope is that, like in Dresden and Halle, the new stadium retains part of the character that makes the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld special.

Today was not only the meeting of traditionally two of East Germany’s most successful sides, it was also a long-awaited reunion between two of the region’s most colourful and active fan scenes. The last meeting between the club’s first teams at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld dates back to 2004, and the friendship between the Zwickau ultras Red Kaos and Ultras Dynamo from almost universally hated Dynamo Dresden adds extra spice.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this match day would have a somewhat different meaning for the Jena fan scene. A founder member of ultra group Lost Boyz Jena lost his battle with cancer at the age of 36 the week before. Prior to kick-off, a group of players presented Lost Boyz members with a wreath, which was laid in front of the Sudkurve, while a fellow fan held aloft a single flare. Despite the niggling rivalry between the two groups of fans, the ceremony was well respected by the vast majority of Zwickau fans present. Irrespective of footballing loyalties, 36 is no age. RIP. It was clear that the rest of the match would be overshadowed by the loss, and Jena fans spent the rest of match without any organised support – in stark contrast to the vocal, hyperactive Zwickau fans directly opposite them.

FSV fans greeted the sides onto the pitch with a colourful mixture of smoke, which the wind soon dissipated. The melodic style of the Zwickau’s Red Kaos ultras, who go through their repertoire in almost no consideration of the way their team is playing, may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s no doubt that the group of 200 or so active supporters put everything into supporting their team. The downside of the understandable lack of organised support from Jena was that, aside from one corner of the ground housing the Zwickau fans, the atmosphere never really got going. Aside from a handful of exceptions, ultras have become the key component in atmospheres in German stadiums and – like ‘em or hate ‘em – when they’re missing, the atmosphere is poor.

The freezing conditions left their mark on the match, as did the high winds. Almost every period of possession was punctuated with a bobble, followed by a 50:50 and the inevitable crunch. The referee was kept extremely busy by several tough challenges from both sides in the opening half an hour. FCC appeared to be enjoying success down the flanks against the narrow Zwickau defence. Intelligent runs from Tino Schmidt on the left and René Eckardt on the right created overlaps and space, which was duly exploited by Jena’s pair of full-backs. However, the swirling wind didn’t lend itself to quality crosses and chances were squandered.

The source of Zwickau’s success this season was clear to see. With one of the tightest defences in any of Germany’s top four leagues (having conceded a mere five goals in 16 league matches prior today), the compact and robust shape at the back gave the deep midfield a platform from which to form quick, penetrative counter-attacks. After twenty minutes, Jena lost possession in the Zwickau half and Davy Frick was given acres of space to push forward and play in Steffen Kellig, who crossed for André Luge at the far post to put the delirious Westsachsen in the lead.

Jena looked short on ideas and didn’t seem to be able to penetrate the Zwickau back line. Indeed, after half time, it was Zwickau that looked more likely to extend their lead. They continued to defend well and ventured forward in numbers. Kellig rattled the bar, Yeboah-style, with a raking 18-yard drive after 50 minutes. For the home side, Timo Schmidt was perhaps the only person capable of making anything work, but he was isolated on the left wing, often dropping deep to pick up the ball in centre midfield too. It almost looked as if the huff and puff from Jena was to be in vain, but with just a minute left on the clock Yves Brinkmann broke forward and was clumsily brought down by Zwickau centre-back Christoph Göbel. Matthias Peßolat proceeded to convert the spot kick and deny FSV Zwickau what would have been a thoroughly deserved three points.

Should RB Leipzig successfully negotiate the Regionalliga playoffs at the end of the season, Jena and Zwickau should be among the favourites to make a return to professional football next season. Hopefully their fans will have thawed out by then.

Gallery (Flickr link):

FSV Zwickau and Red Kaos

Note: This article originally appeared on http://www.inbedwithmaradona.com on 14 March 2012.

Perhaps the greatest enemy of any group of active fans or ultras in Germany isn’t, as you might, a rival group or even in a direct way the police. The greatest adversary of these groups, the thing that really does the most damage, is the Stadionverbot, or banning order. The term may be familiar to many UK football fans as a measure used to prevent out and out hooligans from attending matches or travelling to England away games, but the way they are handled in Germany is fundamentally different. They were originally conceived at the start of the 90s as an extension to club-specific banning orders and can be issued by a club or by the Deutscher Fußball Bund in the event of the following:

  • that preliminary court proceedings are opened,
  • of a person being arrested or banned from a certain area and there is an additional suspicion that the person concerned wanted to perform a criminal offence
  • of weapons or other dangerous objects being seized or confiscated
  • of actions or behaviour which violates human dignity
  • of a severe violation of the stadium regulations

and are usually issued for a period of between three and five years.

As stated on www.profans.de, the problem with these regulations is that there is often no circumstantial evidence, such as CCTV footage, against fans suspected of such an offence. The police simply announce that they are investigating a fan, the fan is then represented by the club’s fan support project (practically every club worth mentioning in Germany has one) and, without any circumstantial evidence, it is one person’s word against the other. Herein lies the issue: Who can exert more pressure when it comes to a Stadionverbot being issued by a club or by the DFB, the police or the fan support project? And so these banning orders have become a stick with which the DFB and the police can beat ultra groups and fan scenes with – often without any trace of evidence.

One of the most hotly-disputed examples of the recent past involves the fans of fifth-tier FSV Zwickau, and more precisely the ultra group Red Kaos. Zwickau is a small city in south-west Saxony probably best known around the world as home to the Trabant. The football team, FSV Zwickau, enjoyed great success in the early stages of the East German Oberliga, winning the title in 1948 and 1950 and then three cups through the 60s and 70s. However, they were not selected as one of the “elite” clubs by the GDR ruling party and therefore spent the 80s as a yo-yo team bouncing between the first and second tiers. Despite a few seasons in the 2. Bundesliga in the late 90s, the club has suffered from the same problems as most other former Oberliga clubs – lack of investment – and now find themselves in the fifth tier.

Despite the level of football on offer, FSV Zwickau has one of the most active ultra scenes in Germany. The ultra group is known as Red Kaos and has been around since 1997, making it also one of the oldest in Germany. Their tifos and constant support are well renowned around Germany and they are also leading campaigners for tolerance, respect and freedom in football stadiums. Back in 2010, a friendly was organised with BSG Chemie Leipzig, another club with a large ultra movement, without any police or security being present. The aim was to show that being an ultra does not automatically mean that you are a hooligan hell-bent on causing riots – a fact often lost on most mainstream media outlets. In March 2010, FSV Zwickau found themselves in severe financial difficulties; so severe in fact that withdrawal from the league was threatened if a relatively-minor outstanding payment of €2,800 wasn’t made to the league authorities. The debt was cleared and it was announced that the majority of the funds had originated from the FSV fan scene, mostly down to the fundraising efforts of Red Kaos.

Fast-forward a year or so to the end of the 2010/11 season and FSV Zwickau seemed to be on stable financial footing, albeit without much sporting success. A new stadium was being planned to replace the ramshackle Westsachsenstadion and the club would be moving out in order to facilitate the planning and construction. The last match at the old WeSa would be against Borea Dresden. Of course this meant the end of the Zwickau fan scene’s home as they knew it. As Red Kaos themselves stated in their post-match press release: “Block E has been our home for the past 14 years […] This is where we have experienced all the ups and downs, made an active contribution to the development of our FSV and given football in Zwickau an unmistakable character.” Red Kaos obviously wanted to bid farewell to the place where they had formed in their own special way. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

According to the Red Kaos statement, the night before the match around 80 fans had had a party in and around their fan block (Block E). “This had been cleared with the FSV board and wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, after all it’s our home and we regularly go in and out.” In the morning, the club officials inspected the pitch and the terracing and requested that a few items be covered up and a few empty cans and other rubbish be removed. Again, no problems from their perspective either and this was carried out immediately. Then the police requested that all fans leave the block whilst they checked sleeping bags and tent bags, probably in the hope of finding pyrotechnics. A rumour went around that the police had indeed found fireworks (something strenuously denied by Red Kaos) and that they wanted to close Block E for the match. Presumably under huge pressure from the police, FSV director Gerhard Neef notified the fans that Block E would indeed remain closed for the match.

This was obviously an absolute disaster for the Zwickau fans. Months of time, money and planning had been for nothing and they believed they had been robbed of the one final chance to bid farewell to their home. This was something they were not just going to lie down and take, especially after the effort and dedication they had shown to help the club in its time of need. Around 100 ultras gathered outside the main entrance and decided to enter the block anyway, even though they had been “allocated” another block by the police. In the papers the next day, the talk was of “hooligans” and “rioting” despite there being nothing of the sort. “In terms of our reaction,” the Red Kaos statement continues, “we made a conscious decision to act without using any face masks or ANY sort of violence whatsoever. We didn’t want a riot. We just wanted to be in our block.”

The referee called the match off, with club officials and directors blaming “so-called fans” and promising to prosecute all involved. Sure enough, around 30 banning orders of between 2 and 3 years in length were issued by the club (again, surely under pressure from the police), all of which involving members of Red Kaos. The treatment of any group of fans in this manner is at best questionable, but to dismiss young, active fans who have made a vital contribution to the clubs existence – both in terms of active support and financial support – as “rioters” and “so-called fans” and treat them with such disregard is beyond the pale.

As a result of almost half of their number being unable to enter the stadium, Red Kaos have decided to discontinue all active support inside the stadium until the bans are overturned. But this doesn’t mean that Red Kaos just sit at home whenever FSV Zwickau have a match to play. They still travel to each match, lending their support through gates or fences or from hilltops beside stadiums. “We will continue to dedicate ourselves to the club because FSV is our life”. Somewhat paradoxically, FSV Zwickau are having their most successful seasons in recent years and are currently on course for promotion to the Regionalliga (fourth tier). They even knocked out holders and big fish in small pond RB Leipzig out of this year’s Sachsenpokal regional cup competition, the winners of which qualify for next year’s German Cup. All of this is being achieved without Red Kaos, and maybe the club officials and directors prefer it that way; it’s less trouble for them after all. Obviously, dedicating your life to a football team as ultras do should not mean that you are entitled to do what you want, but there is a worrying increase in the extent of the repression and power exerted by the police and those in charge at clubs in Germany and other European countries. It may not be for everyone, but there’s no doubt that ultras and active fan scenes represent the lifeblood of football clubs. Ultras liberi.