Like so many bad ideas, it started off as such a good idea: a couple of nights as a football tourist in Düsseldorf.
You see, late-September piss-ups with my brother and my mate Stephen from back home have become a tradition. They’ve usually involved a few nights in Munich during Oktoberfest, starting with a quaint weißwurst breakfast and ending with being thrown out of a city Irish bar for over-celebrating a 93rd minute Scott Sinclair goal against Anderlecht.
But this year, my brother needed a breather. He’s pushing 40… he has kids… he’s training for a half marathon… he is rethinking the life choice of drinking 6 litres of beer in a couple of hours… he believes the €50 Oktoberfest premium for lap dances is extortion. He probably used one of those excuses.
In short: a football-tourist trio was now a duo, at least one and possibly both of which is given to drunken wandering. So things had to be reassessed. After some thought, it was decided that we’d head somewhere that’d allow us the possibility to go to a Bundesliga match. Düsseldorf was an obvious central choice that also had direct flights from Glasgow, so a plan was concocted: Friday and Saturday in Düsseldorf, Sunday drive to Bavaria and then a Monday at Oktoberfest – a fun time for ageing delinquents.
The Bundesliga has Friday night football and a card of around six fixtures on Saturdays. This meant that we would be exposed to 14 of the 18 teams, a lot of which play within commuting distance of our hotel. We didn’t know what the fixture list was going to be, but we hoped Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach could all fall into place. We also knew that Fortuna Düsseldorf had just been promoted and FC Köln would still be a decent day out despite them having recently been relegated.
Stephen booked his flights, I booked an Ibis and we waited to see how the fixture dice would roll.
The Friday evening fixture was an initial blow. FC Köln were in Sandhausen and Fortuna Düsseldorf were away to VfB Stuttgart. Not the first teams we would have wanted to see, but a decent fall-back option given that Düsseldorf was our base. But fuck it, we would just catch the Fortuna game in a sympathetic pub and get mad wae it.
The Saturday afternoon ties came out with Dortmund away to Hoffenheim and Gladbach in Berlin. This whole idea was gradually moving out of the ‘good’ category.
However, the Saturday evening tie was stauner-inducing: Schalke 04 at home to FC Bayern. It was essentially the third-biggest game in German football; a heated and hateful game between the past and the present-future of the country’s league football. Schalke were Bayern before Bayern were. Now they were, like the rest of German football, a Bayern feeder team.
But this tie came with its own problems: it was probably too big for us to get a reasonably priced ticket.
I spoke to friends in Germany and they told me: ‘no chance’. Or something like that… not sure, their English is shite. But it sounded negative, which I guess most phrases do when spoken with a German accent. Either way they definitely shook their heads.
Viagogo was talking €130 a pop for the standing section (face value: €15). And when it got nearer the time the Schalke website was no help; every colourful section on the Veltins Arena map was that depressing faded way that tells you: nae luck, ausländer. The Schalke v Porto Champions League match the midweek prior had plenty of tickets left, likewise the home tie versus Mainz the week later. But Bayern? Hunners of faded colours.
Reaching the end of the fixture card and realising that Bayer Leverkusen was also a no-go as they were playing on the Sunday, we began to branch out.
And so the Bundesliga was cut adrift. Liège is a 90-minute drive away from Düsseldorf and was the first outside possibility we looked at. But they were away to Anderlecht on the Sunday. Next: Eindhoven (in Holland), also a 90-minute drive, and home of PSV, of course. They were at home. And against Ajax. But on the Sunday.
Our resolve was to just go to Düsseldorf, watch the Fortuna game in a pub and then take the 45 minute train journey to Gelsenkirchen for Schalke-Bayern, in the hope that we could grab a less-than-Viagogo priced ticket.
We did that. Well, some of it.
Someone told me once that Düsseldorf was the fashion capital of Germany. So with that in mind, I packed my hoops (plus other stuff… wasn’t planning on shirt cocking. But then again, unplanned shirt cocking is also nice) and started the four-hour drive.
The city itself is interesting in that the lively section is kinda like a stag weekend town, but without the stag weekenders. There are basically three or four streets where the bars and clubs are and they all run parallel to one another. It was there that we found an outside TV to watch the Fortuna game.
The game didn’t really get going, but about halfway through the second half a guy at the other side of the table asks if we are Finnish. The question is confusing, but I wonder if me and Stephen had been loudly extolling the wonders of that Teemu Pukki brace against European giants HJK Helsinki… as is our wont. But it turns out that the guy had been listening to our conversation (ignorant) and hadn’t realised we were speaking English (racist idiot). He then has the brass neck to continue chatting to us. With this article in mind I soldiered on (WWII joke? You decide). I needed colour.
Sacha is his name (language spotting isn’t his game) and he is a Bayern supporter from Düsseldorf. His girlfriend is a local and Fortuna Düsseldorf supporter. They met one morning when they both missed the train to work. She left her husband for him. Fucking scandalous. Colour: tick.
They tell us about Fortuna’s history and how they last won the German league in 1933. They tell us to stop drinking the beer we are drinking and to instead buy the beer they are drinking: a Düsseldorf speciality from a brewery called Schumacher’s that comes in 200ml glasses. Apparently, the waiter ensures the beer keeps on coming every time you drain your teeny glass unless you cover it with your coaster. Stephen says this is just like Viva Brazil in Glasgow. But no one else knows what the fuck he is talking about.
The game finishes 0-0 and Fortuna definitely have the best of the play. It is a fun experience to be watching the game in such an environment: drinking on the street, amidst a row of bars, outside tellys and a whole city pulling for the team. Every incident is met with a stadium-sized groan or shout. Düsseldorf is a one-team city and everyone on that street, including me and Stephen, were willing them to score.
The city, however, is already winning for the season. After all, they were promoted to the Bundesliga at the same time their bitter rivals FC Köln were demoted to Bundesliga 2. The couple introduce us to some more people and they turn out to be Hansa Rostock supporters. One Hansa Rostock supporter (we will call him Hans) claims that his brother or sister-in-law (my confusion, I’m sure he remembered whether it was his brother or sister-in-law) has a house next to Henrik Larsson in Sweden. He also claims that he played fives with Andreas Thom when he was younger and that Thom’s last name is pronounced like ‘dome’, but with a ‘T’. Makes you think.
The couple tell us they are going to an 80’s rock party (seriously… not shitting you) and we, like the reporters in News of the World prostitution stories, make our excuses and left.
But the appetite is whetted. The game is afoot. And other such phrases.
The next day at lunchtime we are tucking into a Düsseldorf delicacy that Sacha recommended. It is sour meat covered in gravy with raisins on it and shaved almonds and a side of mashed-up apple. It is fucking foul. But maybe it is the meal we need if we are to do the impossible (well, do the slightly difficult) and get a ticket for the big game.
2:30pm and we head to Düsseldorf’s central station. We get ourselves some trainbeer and head to the platform for the ride to Gelsenkirchen. As soon as we climb the stairs we are met by a group of six Schalke fans. They shout ‘Celtic Glasgow’ at us and we go over. We tell them our predicament and they immediately go to work for us. Well, they put some feelers out on a Schalke ticket WhatsApp group. We ask if there is a bar we should head to as a good place to get a ticket and they tell us to go with them. We share our trainbeer and they hand over a plastic bottle of Jack Daniels and orange flavoured cola. It is fucking foul. But maybe it is the drink we need if we are to the impossible.
The train ride provides us with the chance to get to know the Schalke story. The fans tell us that the club is for the community of Gelsenkirchen and that Gelsenkirchen was a mining town. The fans are predominantly working-class and have a perceived cause. They are starting to seem fairly likeable. Their motto, however, which translates as ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ is slightly jarring.
They speak about Bayern with great disdain and won’t even utter the words ‘RB Leipzig’. They see themselves as the traditional club in Germany and the people’s club. They hate how Hollywood and privileged Bayern are, and I get some stick for the fact that I live in Bavaria. Bavaria wasn’t like the rest of Germany: it was stuck up and they hated it. As for Leipzig, they won’t even articulate their problem; it goes without saying.
They ask a lot about ticket prices in the UK and balk when Stephen tells them that when he lived in London he once paid 75 quid for a face-value Arsenal ticket. They only drink Veltins beer because it is the traditional sponsor of the team. They show us a wedding picture: it is one of the guys with his wife in full wedding clobber while behind them stands the rest of the group, holding up a Schalke banner and pyro; smoke and fire bellowing out from behind the traditional wedding scene.
‘We will get beat today. But we don’t come for the result.’
We get off the train and head for a tram. One of the guys in the group is in his 50s, over 6ft tall and nicknamed (I assume) Hightower. He meets a Bayern fan in the station and has to be dragged off him. Shit is getting started.
We get taken to church. Namely St Joseph’s Catholic Church in the working-class district of Schalke. The outside of the church is adorned in Schalke 04 colours and banners and just as we get off the tram we see supporters leaving the parish, bevvy in hand and home strips on their backs. ‘This is the weekly tradition’ we are told. They take us in and point out some stained glass windows, one of someone with a football at their foot and another of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Some of the group bless themselves and go light a candle. The couple that are left take us over to this display of Schalke 04-in-the-community, showing us what the club do for the people of the city.
It is all very surreal and overwhelming. A story I had no idea about; I just thought of Schalke 04 as perennial runners-up and the team that produces good young German players for other teams to buy.
Two minutes later and we are walking to the start of ‘the Schalke mile’: a long, straight road to the ground that includes several supporters’ clubs (including ‘the hooligan one’) and the former stadium. Our first stop is a place called ‘Schacht 6 Supporters Club’. I move to the front of the pub to get a photograph and as soon as I get back I am told that we have a ticket. I ask how much and I’m told €31. Fucking delighted, I get €40 out my wallet only to see that Stephen has already paid for both and they had cost €31 for the two, €15.50 each. Two tickets secured for the biggest game in the German league this season and for 50c more than the Schalke scarf I was just about to buy. And we were going to be in the standing section.
Veltins are on me, I say. With my eyes.
Another tram drops us at the stadium and seconds later Hightower is square-going another Bayern fan. We drop off a couple of our group that have tickets in the seating section and make our way to our place behind the goals. We buy beer in plastic cups and go through the doors to get our first view of the stadium: a modern masterpiece, built in 2001 and made alive by the pulsating blue masses on most sides of the pitch, their noise being thrown back at them by the closed roof above.
Pints downed, a helpful man appears with a keg on his back to sell us more. We were at our place on the terracing and we were being sold beer like it was hot dogs at a baseball game in the US. What civilisation is this?!
The stadium begins to fill and Stephen is given a shot of waving one of the massive Schalke flags. He fucks it up. Idiot. It is only then that I realise that the standing section there is a lot different from the one at Celtic Park. It has a capacity of about 10,000 and there is no bannister to lean against. Well there is, but only every five rows or so. Most of us are basically just standing on massive concrete steps with no support in front or behind us. If people want past, and you don’t want to start a domino effect, then you rely on the weight and balance of the others around you. It is fucking terrifying. I fear a goal. Stephen and I make plans for a meeting point for if we get split up (incidentally, the agreed meeting point was where we pissed outside the ground just before kick-off: a bit of grass literally just outside the ground, with a group of other fans, no one giving a shit).
The players are announced and the boos for Neuer are deafening. They are only eclipsed by the rawer emotion at the recent loss of Leon Goretzka. The Schalke fans give him hell. Chants are then started about the promiscuity of Manuel Neuer’s mother. Yasss.
Just before the game kicks off, a song for the miners is played over the PA system. The whole blue part of the stadium pays homage.
The game kicks off and it is a busted flush for Schalke. But the fans continue singing and waving their flags. There is an acceptance of their fate. Stephen and I are perhaps the most vocal in annoyance at the team: we are used to the high standards of being Celtic supporters, we can’t understand this acceptance of second best. But we are getting dragged into feeling for Schalke. The referee seems so pro-Bayern it’s unreal. We are outraged on Schalke’s behalf. But the fans are despondent. They knew it was going to be like this. It always is. We are new to it all.
Half-time happens and Stephen goes downstairs to get a round in. The Bayern fans start some pyro and their whole section becomes a pit of red fire. Even the Schalke fan standing beside me mutters that it looks cool. I ask him what he thought of the first half and he says ‘scheiße’. He misses Raul. The Spaniard was taken to Schalke hearts in such a big way, something which I would never have guessed. It seems he got the club in the way that Henke got us. He is even one of only few former players represented on the front of the stadium. I offer that it is such a shame that the club have not managed to keep a hold of some recent players. Neuer, Goretzka, Kehrer, Kolasinac, Meyer, Draxler, Matip, Sane… what a force! He palms that off and tells me that he just hates that they never have a go, just never get in Bayern’s faces.
The second half peters out, but with Neuer in the goals at our end the off-field stuff becomes more fun than the actual game. Manuel Neuer is a son of a bitch. Pass it on.
We leave our new friends with promises of Facebook-adding and they tell us they are dying to get to Glasgow for a game. They tell us that they always hope for Celtic in the Champions League but it never happens. I tell them we are only allowed Barcelona, Milan, Shakhtar and Benfica.
Walking away through Düsseldorf central station they start a chant where they ask Schalke to attack and assert that BVB are cack. Pretty downbeat fans when it comes to the performances of their first team, but a group that has what most clubs will never have – a reason.
And is heartening to think that every two weeks that group of guys will do the same thing: go to their church and then go to their temple.