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Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Witches' Cauldron: Live Football on Saturday


Last Friday evening I was suddenly offered a ticket for a game in the top German football league, the Bundesliga, on the following day. The really attractive thing about it was that it was a game between Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen.
I have been a fan of Leverkusen – in a rather desultory fashion – for years. It was, unusually for such fan decisions, a purely rational and empirical choice, based on two factors; firstly, the realisation that following football here in Germany would be more fun if I had a team which I supported and secondly, the purely pragmatic fact that Leverkusen was the Bundesliga team geographically nearest to me, less than half an hour down the Autobahn. So, as I had nothing planned for Saturday afternoon, I immediately accepted the offer and arranged to travel with my friends, Peter and Tim (both Schalke fans), to the game.
There was, as is usually the case in such things, a small snag. The game was in the Veltins arena in Gelsenkirchen, the home stadium of Schalke in the heart of the Ruhr area. More, the tickets were for the standing area on the Nordkurve (North Curve), the stand behind one of the goals which is the spiritual heartland of the most dedicated Schalke fans (comparable to the Stretford End in Manchester’s Old Trafford, or the Kop in Liverpool’s Anfield). And dedicated Schalke fans are the kind of people the etymologists had in mind when they invented the word “fan” – short for “fanatic.”
Schalke 04 is one of Germany’s oldest traditional clubs and, despite their failure to win major honours in recent years, the second biggest club in the country after Bayern Munich. Much of this tradition is founded on that staple of really good football clubs, a strong working-class ethos, based – in Schalke’s case – on the thousands of miners who spent their life digging coal out of the surrounding pits (most of which have now been closed). They have a first-class modern stadium, opened in 2001, which accommodates nearly 62,000 and has a roof which can be closed if it rains.
After consultation with Peter and Tim (who attend games there frequently), we decided that it would not be wise for me to wear anything which might possibly identify me as a Leverkusen fan, indeed the two were adamant that I should best wear a Schalke scarf as protective camouflage, otherwise a longer stay in a local hospital to recover from “accidental” injuries endured in the course of the afternoon would be more than likely. I had my suspicions that the two of them were just availing of the wonderful chance to wind me up and had to put up with all kinds of inevitable patronising comments about my “conversion” to faith in Schalke. However, arriving at the stadium, I realised that they had not been exaggerating.
The Nordkurve was a sea of royal blue, inhabited exclusively by hard-core Schalke fans. Clinging to my protective blue and white scarf and grinning nervously, I accompanied my friends to good positions right behind the goal. The atmosphere was electric; a feeling of united fandom, an immediate sensation of shared familiarity and friendliness, the deep binds of a dearly-held common cause, a shared, unquestioned and unquestionable tradition. The familiar Du rather than the usual formal Sie form of address was obligatory, since we were all, by definition, friends and blood-brothers and sisters here, united against a common foe. In this case, Leverkusen – my club. I tried to look as friendly and harmless as possible and resolved to keep my actual feelings during the game to myself.
The season has not been going well for Schalke; six points from nine games and the third last position in the table, the necessity of a victory was an extra source of pressure on their fans and the chanting and singing in the sold-out stadium had, for this reason, an extra edge. There are many different fan songs in Schalke and a true fan knows them all. And sings them too. Proud and loud. There were also the other usual small excitements of a good live atmosphere; a few minor scuffles between fans and a group of police moving through a fan block near us to the accompaniment of jeers, whistles and shouts of “wankers” and “pigs”, a dispute between a young man standing near me and two members of the private firm paid to take care of security which resulted in him being energetically escorted to the exit.
It wasn’t the best football game I’ve ever seen, but it was ok. Leverkusen, missing a few regular players through injury, seemed relaxed but then they could well be; in fifth place before the game began, they would be satisfied with taking a point away from home and could wait to take their chances. Schalke, looking for their first home win this season needed a victory a lot more but somehow this didn’t seem to have got through to the players. The tension on the Nordkurve rose, the fans chanting louder, jumping up and down in excitement. This had rather unfortunate consequences; a group behind us had consumed rather a lot of alcohol and began jumping up and down too, forgetting in the process that they still had plastic glasses full of beer in their hands. I suddenly realised that the first thing I’d have to do when I got home would be to put my beer-soaked jacket and jeans in the laundry. But I wasn’t complaining; like a Mossad undercover agent in an Al Kaida camp, I was just happy I’d decided not to wear my yarmulke.
Then after 65 minutes it finally happened. The Leverkusen half-forward, Sidney Sam, broke through the Schalke defence, took the ball straight towards the Schalke goal and … Three square metres of a frantically waving blue flag right in front of me blocked my view of the shot but I clearly saw the ball hit the back of the net.
“Goooaaalll!,” I cried joyfully …
The two meter tall, 120 kilo, blue-clad figure standing in front of me turned and looked at me suspiciously. I struggled to control my spontaneous joy, making myself look as neutral as possible and he turned slowly back again, not sure (fortunately for me) in the tumult whether he had really heard what he thought he had heard.
I spent the rest of the game fighting to suppress a large satisfied grin which continuously threatened to break out on my face. The desperation deepened and the deprecations concerning the parentage and private sexual practices of the Leverkusen players and fans and, particularly, the referee coming from the Nordkurve grew fiercer. It didn’t help, the game ended with a win for the guests, Leverkusen moved up to third place in the table, Schalke down to second last.
On the way home I tried to cheer my friends up by pointing out that of the three of us in the car one at least was happy. They responded by speculating about how I’d find my way home if they set me out on my own on the Autobahn. I reflected that I wouldn’t mind going back to the Nordkurve sometime to see another game. But, preferably, not against Leverkusen – I don’t know if my nerves could take that kind of immersion in the witches’ cauldron again. Perhaps against Bayern Munich; then I could honestly wave a blue flag and curse the opponents with the others – and maybe even rejoice in being there when die Lederhosen got their asses well and truly kicked. There’s always hope.

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