Rhine of Fire

Paul Whitaker brings us all the fun of the Rhine Derby

It was morning of the Rhine derby. Borussia Monchengladbach (BMG) were visiting FC Koln and I was standing on a building site in a quiet residential part of Monchengladbach. I was not lost, but on a pilgrimage to visit the site of BMG’s former home the Bokelberg and where, back in the spring of 1972 my dad attended his one and only german football match.

My dad was not a pioneering European football tourist, but more simply that he worked at nearby RAF Bruggen, on the german/dutch border. After a hard week maintaining Phantom fighter jets and helping keep the Red Army( not Manchester United’s hoolies but the Soviet Eastern bloc) out of Western Europe , him and some RAF pals fancied a Saturday of ‘fussball und bier’. Fortunately for them, Monchengladbach was just a short drive away and a BMG side sprinkled with german national team players like Gunter Netzer and Herbert Wimmer, were already a couple of seasons into what would be a decade of domestic and european success. ‘The Foals’ or ‘Die Fohlen’ as BMG are affectionately known, were arguably the second best entertainment to come out of 1970s Germany. With supergroup Boney M being the first, although my dad wishes to point out that this is the author’s opinion and not his.

For a few deutchmarks, my dad vaguely recalled a pleasant Saturday afternoon standing in a half full Bokelberg, watching BMG beat Duisburg 3-0 that would keep them riding high in the Bundesliga with rivals Bayern Munich. After the match, they headed back towards Monchengladbach’s old town area and the Waldhausener strasse, which was then popular with the british service personnel. A long sloping cobble- streeted avenue of bars, pubs that also included the ‘Lovers Lane’ club ( No 40-42), owned by a certain Gunter Netzer. Although Netzer did not score against Duisburg, his performance in midfield impressed the watching British contingent. It’s a pity there were no observers from the English FA, the following month an England national team were outclassed and beaten 3-1 by a Netzer-inspired West Germany in the 1972 European championship qualifier at Wembley,

Fast forward some 40 years later and the only evidence I could see of Bokelberg’s existence was a small stairway that symbolises its old Nordkurve or Northern terrace. Bokelberg’s existence also explained why BMG could not maintain its dominance from the 1980s onwards. Whilst Bayern Munich benefited from renting the 78000 seated Olympic stadium and keeping hold of their star players. The Bokelberg only had a 36800 capacity (including 8500 seats) and BMG could not compete financially with Bayern. Eventually Netzer, Wimmer and the other top players would leave the Bokelberg and 1979 signalled the end of BMG dominance in Bundesliga and europe . A solitary DFB (German FA) cup win in 1995 has since been the only highlight for a BMG club more often than not could be found in mid- table of Bundesliga. When Bokleberg inevitably lost its international status, BMG realised that to remain competitive and improve in Bundesliga, they would have to leave for a purpose built stadium with bigger capacity and match revenues.

BMG’s new home is Borussia Park and is located in the south east of Monchengladbach. To get there, I jumped on the number 17 bus outside the train station and it dropped me off right outside. At a cost of €85m BMG got an impressive modern 54,000 capacity stadium and training facilities which opened in 2005. For the BMG supporters or ‘Borussen’ who were naturally reluctant to leave the Bokelberg, they persuaded the club to retain standing sections for both home and away supporters AND affordable ticket pricing. A 14,500 capacity terrace was subsequently incorporated into the lower tier of the new Nordkurve . So, for a mind boggling €120 season ticket, Borussen now travel from all Europe and UK to stand safely on Nordkurve, eat bratwurst, drink beer and watch 17 Bundesliga fixtures.

I had arranged to meet up with BMG supporter liaison officer Thomas ‘Tower’ Weinmann, who had kindly allowed me to join him and the Borussen for the Rhine derby fixture at FC Koln. For anyone wondering what a supporter liaison officer does, please can I direct you to an interview with ‘Tower’, at In Bed With Maradona . I nipped into the clubshop to pick up a BMG polo shirt for my dad. Then after a whistle stop tour around and inside Borussia Park, it was down to the BMG Supporters FanHaus.

This former British Army barrack had been bought by the club and converted by supporters into a bar, merchandise shop and offices for the independant Fanprojekt Monchengladbach (FPMG). The FanHaus serves as a network and social club for its 5,000 FPMG members. The FPMG is the mouthpiece for the 800 official fan clubs and their 20,000 fan members against the club, the German Football Federation , the police and the media. The FPMG has been in operation in some form or another for 20 years and consequently BMG supporters are enjoying the benefits of terracing, cheap tickets, supporter influence on club boards etc. that british supporters can only dream about. The FPMG are never complacent about the threat of the new english disease (increasing ticket prices and influence of television on kick off times) and are actively involved in the nationwide supporter campaign ‘Gegen den Modernen Fussball’ or ‘Against Modern Football’.

Inside the FanHaus, there are signs of Borussens’ friendships with other clubs and supporters. Scarves, hats and shirts cover the walls with the most notable number coming from FC Carl-Zeiss Jena and Liverpool FC .The former East German club’s ties with BMG began as many Jena fans followed BMG before (and after) the Wall came down in 1989. The latter club from North West England has a particular friendship with BMG, which is fitting for two clubs that both have a big fan base and illustrious history. The special friendship between BMG and Liverpool began when the two clubs met in their glory days of 1970s. The two sets of supporters first met at 1973 UEFA cup final where BMG lost to Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate and again losing 3-1 in the 1977 European Cup Final. It was at the 1977 meeting where Liverpool supporters unveiled the famous banner “Joey Ate the Frogs legs, Made the Swiss Roll. Now he’s Munching Gladbach”. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the friendship between BMG and Liverpool came after the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. A delegation of BMG supporters flew to Liverpool to present the Hillsborough families with a cheque of 21000 Deutschmarks (approximately £8000). Every year since 1992 BMG supporters have visited Anfield during the Bundesliga winter break, to support Liverpool. This December about 50 BMG supporters went over for the Newcastle match.

Out the back of the FanHaus is a smart 5-a-side all weather pitch and a couple of containers that had been converted into youth clubs for the younger elements of the Borussen. The youth club were eerily empty and if they were anything like their English counterparts, they were most probably all out the behind the back of the FanHaus smoking tabs and passing round cans of special brew. More likely, they were already on their way to Koln and we had to get going ourselves.

We headed back to Monchengladbach, via a quiet residential street close to the train station where BMG’s ultras were reportedly gathering. The BMG ultras are the supporters who are independent of both the official fan clubs and FPMG. They are also instrumental in bringing fireworks, colour and atmosphere to BMG fixtures, both home and away. The main BMG ultra groups have imaginative names like ‘Obzession’,’ Begleitservice’ ,’ Sottocultura’, ‘Projekt Chaos’ and about 250-300 of them had gathered in a park. Many were sporting green and white hats that the FPMG and Ultras had sold at the home fixture against Werder Bremen, to raise funds. Suddenly from the middle of them appeared the ultra leader or ‘Capo’ ( the one you see at the matches with the megaphone leading coordinated chants) who gave them a short rousing speech, that started the chanting and the obligatory organised march towards the train station.

At Gladbach train station, the ultras joined other BMG supporters waiting for first of two official supporter trains to Koln. I also saw for the first time the large police presence that would be needed to escort the BMG supporters. Despite the large number of police, poor organisation led to overcrowding of the first supporter train and crowd congestion in walkways under platforms. Fortunately common sense prevailed in the shape of SLO Tower who asked a watching police chief to inform the waiting supporters, the departure time of second train. A brief announcement over the tannoy and the BMG supporters filtered away from the station walkway. We eventually got onto the platform to wave off the first supporter train to Koln.

As we waited in a nearby restaurant for the second train, we heard via the mobile phone grapevine of problems on the first train. The train operators in their wisdom decided the full supporter train would have to stop at each station en route to Koln. After an hour of this frustration in the overcrowded carriages boiled over and some of the train’s windows were put through.

We joined the second train for the hour journey to Koln-Ehrenfeld, stopping off at each station en route. Ehrenfeld is a minor station in Koln, but had one redeeming feature. It had a tram stop right outside its entrance that would carry the BMG supporters directly to Koln’s stadium. By the time we arrived at Koln-Ehrenfeld, the only evidence of first supporter train was a large police presence, BMG ultra stickers plastered on all the walls and bottle collectors filling bags with empty beer bottles.

The short tram ride to Koln stadium, took us past some Koln supporter pubs which explained the huge number of police vans either side of the tram we travelled in. The enormous police presence ensured no chance of opposing fans meeting, but at what financial cost?. Still there are more freedoms for german football supporter travelling to away fixtures, than dutch counterparts cross the border.

After a short walk from the tram station still under heavy police escort, we finally arrived outside the away section. I left Tower and BMG’s other SLOs who were ensuring the remaining Borussen were gettng into the stadium safely and went inside. At the risk of upsetting BMG supporters I have to say I like the look of FC Koln’s Rhein Energie stadium. The 51000 capacity modern stadium has two tiers in each of the four stands and all are very close to pitch. At each corner are spectacular towers that at night, look like columns of light.

Although I had a ticket (€16) for lower tier terracing, I was blocked from entering lower terrace by a ‘wall’ of Borussen. Giving it up as a bad job, I went into upper tier and soon found out why lower tier was blocked. I was just in time for the ‘pyro’ or firework display by the BMG ultras below me and what a sight it was.

Flares/fireworks are currently banned inside Bundesliga stadiums and there are heavy fines for anyone identified using fireworks. As such the BMG ultras appeared to go to elaborate lengths to hide the identities of their ‘firestarters’. There was no visible police presence immediately inside the section and any stewards were outside the fences. Ultra supporters climbed onto the fences, opened umbrellas and sported balaclavas to evade identification on police and stadium cameras. I was told by a supporter later at half time, that a cordon of ultras were also placed around the area where the ‘Breslauer Feuer’ is ignited. I understand this is magnesium powder which I recall from my chemistry lessons at school, was volatile stuff in a test-tube. Industrial quantities of the stuff are something else. I had not seen such huge flames and billowing smoke inside a stadium since the Rome derby in 2004-5, when Roma ultras used kiosks and police cars to get similar results. I asked the same supporter where they get they buy industrial quantities of ‘Breslauer Feuer’ from and there are apparently websites that cater for all your choreographical needs: Flags, flares, magnesium etc. One website in particular www.tifo.it seems a popular choice on ultra forum pages .

BMG naturally do not fund such illegal displays and all the ultra choreography displays are usually funded by selling of merchandise. Because of unofficial fireworks displays last season and today, all organised BMG choreography is banned at the Rhein Energie . So an illegal fireworks display aside, the only other coordinated display appeared to be those mass wearing of green and white hats.

It turned out to be a very one-sided Rhine Derby. The atmosphere in the BMG sections of the Rhein Energie stadium was great, helped in large part by a technically BMG outclassing a poor FC Koln side. The away section was soon bouncing with joyful goal celebrations.

Mike Hanke scored for BMG after twenty minutes, from just twelve yards out. Juan Arango scored the second ten minutes later with a finely struck free kick from thirty yards. Then twelve minutes into second half Hanke poked in his second and BMG’s third to complete the victory and empty the Koln parts of the Rhein Energie stadium. After third goal went in BMG supporters mischeviously waved white hankerchiefs at departing Koln fans and then waved house/car keys to say “You can drive Home”. At the final whistle the BMG players joined supporters in celebrations and BMG’s goalkeeper Stegen managed to get hold of the ultra capo’s megaphone to lead the BMG supporters in song.

If you want to see what it was like from the other side of the fence, please check out the BMG ultras photos of the day here.

Many thanks to Thomas ‘Tower’ Weinmann and Matthes Neumann at FPMG Supporters Club (www.fanprojekt.de) for allowing me to tag along with them, asking endless questions in English. And to Chris Bullock of ‘British Borussen Fan Club’ for additional information. If you want to know more about ‘British Borussen’, then email Chris at britishborussen@gmail.com.



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