An exile investigates the Bundesliga and beyond
It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, Monday mornings after the Sunday before are never fun affairs.
Especially when that Sunday entailed a euphoric introduction to German football at Hertha Berlin vs FC Cologne.
Sebastien and Joscha, my guides for the day, met me on the tube before the game nice and early – 3pm for a 5.30pm kick-off.
Sebastien had been spinning a heady brew of Cologne hits and indie rock favourites at a party the night before and so wasn’t up for the traditional three laps of the Ringbahn (Berlin’s Circle Line) with the other Cologne fans.
He and Joscha did, however, have other important business to attend to.
With other Berlin-based Cologne fans they had prepared some banners the night before (the paintwork was good considering the state they must have been in) and had to get to the game early to meet the stadium security.
The Olympic Stadium on Berlin’s western fringe is a majestic structure, as some of you will have seen first-hand at the 2006 World Cup. Sebastien’s memory of that event is hazy.
“Oh, I came and saw Italy versus someone here… oh yes, France, the final," he recalls.
"Did I see Zidane’s headbutt? No, I was busy getting the beers in!”
The place is steeped in history. It’s also rather exposed, and on a November evening, bloody cold.
With the banners stowed ready to be whipped out for the visiting team as they charged from the tunnel, it was time for a beer.
Sadly though, the Olympic Stadium only sells Carlsberg – a sin in a country blessed with more wonderful beers than you can shake a stick at.
Still, we slurped away and the pre-match DJ blew my mind with Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue, followed by David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
As I live not only in Brixton (home of the original Electric Avenue) but on the street David Bowie was born on, I took it as a good omen.
Next up, Sussudio by Phil Collins was the icing on an excellent cake.
Some background: both Hertha and Cologne had dismal starts to the season. Hertha punched above their weight last season to finish fourth in the Bundesliga, but that was definitely last season.
Shorn during the summer of their best players (strikers Andriy Voronin and Marko Pantelic, as well as defender Josip Simunic), they’ve been leaking goals at the back, and scoring none up front.
With one win in 11 (the first game of the season) going into this match, they were well and truly rooted to the bottom of the Bundesliga table.
Cologne, the only team to have scored fewer goals this season than Hertha, aren’t much cop either.
Star striker Lukas Podolski has scored only once this season and the team lovingly known as the Geißböcke (the Billy Goats) have been flirting with the relegation zone.
Whispers concerning manager Zvonimir Soldo’s future have so far been minimal, but a loss to Hertha would undermine him.
This was a Kellerduel, a basement clash, and even this early in the season a Sechs Punkte Spiel – a six-pointer.
The Cologne fans were out in force to support their team – and the main away section was quickly packed out with flag-waving, drum-bashing and megaphone-wielding fans in red and white.
Or, in one person’s case, a bizarre turquoise shellsuit. Is David Icke a Billy Goat?
Although the Olympic Stadium is nominally all-seater, I don’t think I went near my designated plastic pew once.
Everyone happily floated around, chatting away while drinking beer or what might have been mulled wine.
The Cologne fans had brought their famous carnival vibes and it was more like being at a house-party than a football match.
But with the clock ticking down to kick-off though, Joscha, Sebastien and I scuttled up to unfurl the welcome banner for the Cologne players.
I was a banner virgin. Never made one; never waved one; abstained, like some goodie two shoes.
Well, had I ever been missing out!
The Cologne fans greeted the tannoy announcement of each Hertha player with cries of “Arschloch!” (a***hole!) and we waited patiently at the front of the tier above them, soaking up the roar.
Out from the tunnel ran the players and with earnest coordination us banner-bearers dangled our message over the front of the barrier. “WO MIR SIN IS KÖLLE” it proudly stated in giant red Cologne dialect: “Where we are, is Cologne.”
Cue bedlam below us; vociferous chanting at us, fists pumping, cameras flashing, beers aloft.
It was the nearest I’m ever going to get to being Mick Jagger and I thoroughly loved it.
Then the football. I can’t remember much about the first half, other than the fact that both sides were bad, Cologne more so.
But we were too busy chatting and chanting to care. Hertha were attacking the goal in front of us and had the best openings, but a lack of quality in the finishing department did for their ambitions.
The second half was more memorable for several reasons.
Firstly, I sampled my first Bratwurst, or Stadionwurst as they’re dubbed at games.
For the uninitiated, I’m talking about a foot-long sausage lolling jauntily from a tiny bread mitten.
It is meat fetishism at its most unabashed. Any notion of nutritional balance is jettisoned and the pork sword is celebrated in all its swinesome beauty.
I asked Sebastien about the ridiculously small bread, but he didn’t understand what I was getting at.
“If it was bigger you could have onions as well,” I ventured. He looked back at me baffled: “But that would be a hot dog.”
I caused further consternation by smothering my Bratwurst in both ketchup and mustard.
Here, it’s strictly one or the other (mustard on pretzels is also sadly a non-starter).
The second half’s other standout moment was the Flitzer – the stark-naked-except-for-a-hat streaker who scampered across the pitch to roars of approval from the crowd.
We mustn’t encourage such behaviour of course, but you’ve got to hand it to the guy – it was bit-shrinkingly cold out there and he galloped through the Cologne defence with no fear for his modesty.
I can only hope that security gave him a blanket and some mulled wine to warm himself up with.
In the 79th minute, Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic did the decent thing and put the game largely out of its misery with a completely undeserved goal. We went bonkers, natürlich.
When the final whistle finally came, we trooped from the stadium with glee, chanting at the moon and singing songs (I think) about chucking Hertha in the Spree river that runs through Berlin, pausing only to claim back the deposits on our plastic beer cups.
It was a fantastic night and in some of the blurrier moments, probably the most elated I’ve felt at a football match.
I wore the Cologne badge Joscha had given me home with pride, wolfed down a horrendous kebab that tasted like Christmas cake, then passed out.
For my first Bundesliga experience, I’ve got to say, I was blown away.
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I have sadly had to leave Berlin behind, but before I returned to dear old Blighty, I dug in in front
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