An exile investigates the Bundesliga and beyond
I have sadly had to leave Berlin behind, but before I returned to dear old Blighty, I dug in in front of the telly for a marathon weekend of iconic German football programmes.
It was like A Clockwork Orange without the Beethoven – a dizzying crash course in what square-eyed German fans soak up at the weekend.
My viewing schedule was packed. Friday night would bring second division Bielefeld v 1869 Munchen. Saturday would mean Germany’s ‘Konferenz’ of live matches, highlights programme Sportschau and chat show Aktuelles Sportstudio. Sunday would produce the popular Doppelpass, Bayern Munchen v Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg too if possible (it wasn’t – I broke down), then a selection of regional bulletins that night. That’s a lot of football.
As in England, Sky hold the rights for most of the best football, so flicking on the television to begin my viewing stint felt vaguely familiar, especially when the pre-match bombast kicked in.
It's a worldwide meme now: the sexy montage with an accompanying epic score or indie-rock anthem, that announces with glee the football event of the weekend. I didn’t need to speak great German to understand that the guy giving the voice over was VERY EXCITED INDEED about the action to come.
He needn’t have got quite so worked up. Both full matches I watched started out well, at a decent pace with neat some neat football on display, but the second halves were turgid.
It’s at such moments that commentary can make or break your viewing experience. Sadly, my German was still too ropy to understand all that was being said, but I missed having a second person in the commentary box, something apparently tried in Germany but ruined by the unpopular Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
I’m a big fan though of the avuncular ex-player or manager, dishing out scathing criticism to ex-colleagues mixed with technical analysis gleaned from a lifetime in the game. Germany, I’m afraid you’re missing out there.
Overall, punditry seemed less prevalent during matches – is there a generation of unemployed ex-players in Germany hanging out on street corners causing trouble? – shown by the hosting of shows from pitchside rostrums rather than studios. On the plus side, you get a sense of the cracking atmosphere at Bundesliga games, with plenty of drum-wielding, flag-waving shenanigans going on in the background; on the down side, no studio means no sanctuary for pundits.
Come half-time, I want authoritative, cogent criticism from guys who really know what they’re talking about. Now, that’s the dream scenario – not all pundits are good at explaining how the game is played, even if they were exceptional players or managers themselves – but it does bring a level of interest to a programme that is lacking from German coverage.
What did impress me though was the bringing together of the opposing managers at the end of matches to watch replays of specific incidents in the game and to discuss them together.
I don’t know whether they trotted out anything other than platitudes, but I do know you wouldn’t get Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez cheerily chatting away after a Manchester United vs Liverpool match – unless of course Rafa could bring his ‘dossier’ of Fergie’s transgressions and read it out to from start to finish. It was an extremely civilised conclusion to the matches’ hostilities – and to a satisfying first night's viewing.
My sensibilities were greatly perturbed on Saturday afternoon, when I was subjected to the Konferenz for the first time. Much more like a radio format, the show bounces around between live games, sticking with a match only until a goal crops up in another game, which it then cuts to.
I found it a brain-meltingly awful concoction that even the slightly equine, if not unattractive, bottle-blonde anchorwoman could not redeem. To sum up: German viewers pay to watch not live sport but almost live sport?
A goal from a moment ago, and then another, and then another, until steadily you slip minutes adrift in the space-time continuum and become untethered from reality. I felt myself sliding into an alternative, hellish dimension like Marty McFly in Back to the Future II.
The problem with the Konferenz is that it completely devalues the currency of football, and that currency is goals. As Nick Hornby writes in Fever Pitch: “Goals have a rarity value that points and runs and sets do not, and so there will always be that thrill, the thrill of seeing someone do something that can only be done three or four times in a whole game if you are lucky, not at all if you are not.”
The elusiveness of goals fills us with tension and anticipation, a hope that someone can deliver us such a precious treasure. Simply stringing them together, minute after dizzying minute turns a loving, tender tryst between fans and footballers into an exhausting pornographic goal orgy. I felt dirty afterwards.
No chance of a let-up though: highlights show Sportschau directly followed the live action, at 6pm on terrestrial TV. Now that’s quite a coup – and something German fans have lobbied hard to preserve.
With going to live games so affordable in the country, I’m not quite sure how it works, but it does. When ITV’s attempt to do the same in the UK floundered, wasn’t that largely because a significant number of fans were still travelling home in the early evening?
Still, Sportschau marches gloriously on, despite not having much in the way of the analysis, which left me a little nonplussed. To be fair, I was still in shock from the Konferenz, but nonetheless, it was a shame not to see defenders circled and shamed for being out of position or arrows drawn on screen showing the intelligence of the strikers’ runs.
Aktuelles Sportstudio, on later that evening, seemed similarly bereft of that style of punditry, with interviews and magazine stuff on instead. Both shows, plus Dopplepass the next morning, play out in front of studio audiences, something I find fairly puzzling. Surely there are better places to be on a Saturday night in Mainz than a ZDF studio?
As my weekend ground on, and my vaguely hallucinatory state of mind deepened the longer I spent in front of the telly, I started to wonder if in fact Germany had only one football audience, on a marathon of their own, bussed from studio to studio to clap politely throughout – with only the lure of a Sunday morning Weissbier on the Doppelpass set to keep them going.
I was hoping for more gags from Aktuelles Sportstudio. I can’t really explain why, but I had prepared myself for fun at that time of night. What with the Torwand and all, I had got it into my head that the show was a procession of village fair style entertainment, augmented by German maidens in traditional dress and perhaps some merry japester popping up to play accordion occasionally.
FEATURE: The Torwand, German football's legendary hole-in-the-wall
This was not the case. There was regrettably not even a Third Eye-style slot to inject some levity, making the wait for the Torwand seem excruciating. It was a manager, not a player, to boot, up against some utterly hopeless plonker from the audience. Very disappointing when I had been hoping for Gunter Netzer-like heroics.
Almost as much a part of Germany’s football furniture as the Torwand is Udo Lattek, who sat majestically through Sunday morning’s Doppelpass like a wizened old statesman. Beamed live from the gleaming, cavernous lobby of a Munich airport hotel each weekend, the show boasts a panel of guests chatting football, whilst a crowd of Bavarians supping breakfast beer nestle admist towering indoor palm trees.
Lattek is the show’s stalwart panellist, but sadly the once brilliant manager has become something of a joke. His fellow guest, Werder Bremen manager Thomas Schaaf, winced a little with what looked like disbelief furrowing his brow at each of his interventions.
The impressive Doppelpass audience seemed to be enjoying themselves though, but that may have been fuelled by the breakfast-time boozing, something I don’t think you'd ever see on English television. Despite joining them in drinking Bavarian Weissbier for breakfast (with pretzels, Weisswurst and sweet mustard – delicious!), Doppelpass felt interminable – a lot like my football marathon.
It did thankfully come to an end, despite me suffering severe a near-meltdown after Sunday’s live games, with regional broadcasts from around the country. These I thoroughly enjoyed, perhaps because of the euphoria that was washing over me at being so close to the finishing line after almost 16 punishing hours of viewing.
There's no real equivalent to programmes such as Sportclub and Sportplatz in the UK, where local news coverage seems perpetually under threat from cut-backs, though the BBC’s new Late Kick-Off show might bridge the gap.
I was amazed again to see an audience in attendance for Sportclub – they just can’t get enough – and probably preferred RBB’s Sportplatz for its merciful brevity. It was illuminating to see a feature on Hertha Berlin’s youth set-up, and even better to see highlights from women’s club football – something that very rarely gets on British TV.
Turbino Potsdam’s match had a great turnout of several thousand – though clips of Bayern Munich’s ladies in action were more entertaining. Two or three ultras, with at least twice as many flags and banners between them, provided colourful support in a largely empty stand. Now if that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
More features from An Englishman in Germany:St Pauli, politics and fighting (good and bad)Football's legendary hole-in-the-wall50+1 adds up to fan involvementBeer, meat and friends: My first German gameBring on the German experience
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