On an even Kiel

In the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside, we were happily snuggled up in , just round the corner from Hamburg’s Altona station.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Botega, obviously a parody name as it couldn’t be any further away from being Spain both geographically or culturally, at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left at midnight the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

14954398355_d46c482456_zWhy, I hear you think.  Why indeed.  Two words my learned friend. DFB Pokal. The magic of the German Cup. It does funny things in all parts of Germany as our last 36 hours would  attest to.  Life is all about experiencing something new and that was what this weekend was all about. So whilst we flew into Hamburg, the more refined European Capital of Sin, our destination was 100km north, close to the Danish border in Schlosweig-Holstein. The newest, trendiest, fashionable name on the European Football Weekends map, ladies and gentlemen, is Kiel.

Kiel doesn’t rate highly in many of the guide books about Europe, let alone one for the Danish borders region. Comments like “a gritty urban sprawl”, “when brochures flag up the first pedestrian street in Germany, you know tourist authorities are struggling” , “The city centre is unlovable but unavoidable” and finally, “It’s OK” you know the weekend isn’t going to be high on culture.  But who needs museums, architecture and theme parks when you have football, great company and a couple of beers? Kiel would be our new best friend.

Home to the German navy, it can boast a population of around 240,000, a Subway and two breweries.  That’ll do us.  Panama? Suez? Venice? Call those canals? Kiel, my friend is the standard-bearer in this area, boasting the world’s busiest man-made canal in the form of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal.  Still not enough to convince you?  Then how about this. The German Cup had thrown up a tasty tie, pairing Regionalliga Nord Holstein Kiel against struggling Bundesliga 2 side 1860 Munich.  That was enough to have Stoffers leap into organisation mode and before you could say Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (a genuine word which would score you over 1.2 million points in Scrabble)  we had booked flights and hotels.  I have no idea how it happens; no sooner have I tentatively agreed to going on one of these trips than the confirmation emails start to appear in my inbox.  With my previous jaunt to Germany two weeks previous still fresh in the memory (and the liver) I had to stretch to a box of Milk Tray as well as the regular Petrol Station Flowers to appease the Current Mrs Fuller.  She knows the bond I have with the German Cup though so she did what every good wife does – made me a packed lunch for the train to the airport, told me to give her three rings when I landed and not to return with:-

a) a crap tattoo with another girl’s name on it
b) a communicable disease other than one that was related to beer; or
c) someone else’s pants (again)

She’s funny about those things.  She was of course heartened to learn that Danny and Kenny would also be coming but was suspicious when I threw in a fourth name alongside Stoffers.  We would be joined by Facebook’s own Ofer Prossner, making his debut on the annual German Cup EFW.  Ofer, Malta’s most famous Larry David look-a-like had been living close to Stoffers and Kenny in Berlin for the last few months and had grown so attached to Kenny’s free Wi-Fi that he couldn’t bear to part with it for the weekend.

The good news, Stoffers triumphed when the draw was made,  was because the game between Holstein Kiel and 1860 was being played on the Sunday, we would have time to grab a game as well on the Saturday.  Really? Do we have to? Sigh..ok then. This was supposed to be a weekend of long meetings, discussing the annual issues of the European Football Weekends company and high on the agenda were items such as “Is it really difficult to get tickets for the Sud Tribune at Dortmund?”, “How do I get to the Bernabau?” and “Where is the best place to sit in the Nou Camp?” Matters like these don’t just answer themselves on the Internet these days and as we took our duties as founders, administrators and general European football experts very seriously, so it was determined to convene our AGM on the train to and from Kiel.  With beer liberally added.

Stoffers was pacing nervously outside the arrivals gate at Hamburg airport when Danny and I arrived.  He is Mr German Efficiency 2011 after all.  He had a whole host of different plans for the day depending on the exact minute of our arrival.  Fortunately, all of his hard work was wasted as Plan A was invoked at 11.04am on the dot.  We would be going to the ball. A swift change of trains at the Central Station, a bag full of beers (when it Germany and all that) and a slice of pizza for breakfast later and we were in Ron’s 22.

14954064122_d9f81fbf1c_zJust forty-five north of Hamburg (so close that there is still some credibility in Ryanair referring to the airport here as “Hamburg”) lays the medieval city of Lübeck, birthplace of marzipan, home to the internationally acclaimed Museum of Theatre Puppets and once capital of the Hanseatic League (the forerunner of the Human League).  A perfect destination for a romantic weekend with the one you love.  In fact I had once brought the Current Mrs Fuller here to enjoy a cup of Glühwein, a nibble on a gingerbread man and a ride up the canal.  The city is full of old buildings, pavement cafes and ringed by waterways – a German Venice if you will (travel writers, please don’t steal that – think up your own original taglines!).  We wouldn’t see any of that though, with the railway station on the edge of the city centre and the Stadion an der Lohmühle even further out. After all, seen one canal, seen them all, right? Whereas football grounds, on the other hand…

VfB Lübeck 1 Goslarer SC 0 – Stadion an der Lohmühle – Saturday 16th August 2014
Two teams struggling for form, with a 100% beaten start to the season.  Never going to be a classic, right?  Absolutely.  It was hard to find one thing to write about in terms of the game itself.  The goal perhaps?  Maybe, although when Finn-Lasse Thomas’s shot hit the back of the net with eight minutes to go, Danny and I were on a bus on our way back to the pub.  Such was the disgust of our actions that Thomas was booked for angrily confronting Stoffers wanting to know where those “Englischers” had gone (that last bit may not be quite true).

14954415645_7158b69938_zHowever, let’s not do the club, the fans or even the stadium any disservice here. Admission was 6 Euro (SIX).  Cheaper than a bag of Emirates popcorn or a nodding bobblehead of David Gold.  For that we got to have a drink with the Ultras in their clubhouse (by mistake), stand with the Ultras on the terraces (another mistake) and enjoy a few beers (definitely no mistake).  The whole Ultras thing was a big mistake but hey, we’d all had a drink so let’s just move on.  Talking of moving on, we were on a tight Stoffers deadline to get a train to Kiel for our big Saturday night out.

We weren’t going to have a traditional Saturday night either.  Oh no. It seemed news of our impending arrival had spread like wildfire through the great and good of Kiel.  Now here was a first.  Someone who not only wanted to meet us, but to cook for us.  Obviously we have EFW groupies who send us saucy messages all the time, with promises of marriage and pots of cash in embargoed African bank accounts belonging to dead despots.  But this one was genuine.  An invite to dinner from Kiel’s most famous Football-loving Chef, Matthæus Arminius Kilius.  Who were we to argue? So after a quick change in our luxury apartment overlooking a tug boat pumping out the toilets of a cruise ship, we jumped into a complete stranger’s car and headed to the Kiel suburbs.

Matthæus loves his football, you couldn’t fail to notice that when you walked into his flat.  Football paraphernalia covered every surface.  His wife, Frauke, didn’t seem to mind sharing her bath with a plastic duck in the colours of every Bundesliga team, or laying on her Holstein Kiel bedspread. He’d cooked us a local dish with smoked bacon, green beans, potatoes and a big pear right in the middle.  German hospitality at its finest.  An hour later and we were sampling some of the delights of the gritty urban sprawl as the guide book had told us to expect.  Who needs baroque buildings when you have three different types of local Flensburger Pilsner.

Sunday morning and we were in the pub again at 11am.  Time for a Full German.  Like a Full English but with a beer it hit the spot perfectly.  The Palenka pub was a stopping off spot for the Kiel fans on their journey to the stadium so it would be rude not to join them, accompanied by a few German riot police to keep us company.

1860 Munich, had brought a few hundred fans and they were doing what German fans love to do on a Sunday lunchtime – standing on a petrol station forecourt drinking beer.  We were immediately singled out as being “foreign” because we were drinking Paderboner beer – the English equivalent of Fosters.  Does anyone really choose Fosters when given a choice of beers?  Really?  Same with Paderboner which made us look a little bit silly.  Then a chap walked passed with a pair of home-made trousers made out of old Kiel football shirts and immediately our street credibility rose.

Holstein Kiel 1 1860 Munich 2 – Holstein Stadion – Sunday 16th August 2014
We took our spot in the away end as the teams emerged.  The game had Pokal upset written all over it, with 1860 not enjoying the best of starts of season so far.  Two defeats in their first games had the fans hopping mad, so they hoped that a win against Liga 3 Holstein Kiel would give the squad a welcome boost before they returned to league action at Heidenheim in a week’s time.  The fans struck up their soundtrack for the afternoon, accompanied by drums and huge flags, all choreographed by a single chap with a megaphone sitting atop the perimeter fence.

For all of the hazards that standing on an open terrace with some hard-core fans brings, during the afternoon we saw the worst of the worst.  Someone had left a programme on the floor.  Not exactly a small, inconspicuous item, weighing in at A4 in size, yet we lost count with the number of people who stepped on it and slipped.  One chap took his humiliation, embarrassment and anger out on it by trying to kick it which led to him slipping again.  Of course we didn’t laugh. Much.

14820048790_7f2e2fa190_zWith just eight minutes on the clock, a great run to the byline saw the ball pulled back to Kiel’s Siedschlag who smashed the ball home.  Instead of groans on the away terrace we all just bounced up and down a bit and sang abusive songs about those bastards in Red (apparently).  1860 simply didn’t look like scoring until just after the hour mark when their Austrian forward Rubin Rafael Okotie equalised.  Ten minutes later and he put 1860 ahead, converting a penalty after he had been brought down from behind. Game over.

The final whistle brought some good-natured thigh slapping, the sound of flesh on Lederhosen filling the air.  A row of blonde female riot police kept the home fans back with minimal effort to let us grab the only taxi in the rank, quite literally, and we headed for the Kieler Braurei, the one tourist attraction that we all wanted to visit in our 24 hours in Kiel.  Craft beer is the home-brew of the 21st century but without having to use your best jumper to keep the beer warm in the airing cupboard.  The brew house was certainly worth the wait and we had soon sampled our way through most of the menu.  Alas, we had a train to catch so we grabbed a takeaway and headed for the station.

15006114692_83aa8797de_zIn the grand scheme of things it had been a pretty good weekend. Whilst the rain was lashing it down outside the bar back in Hamburg, we were happily snuggled up inside.  Whilst thrill seekers had headed for the seedy delights on offer on Reeperbahn for centuries, or the lurid window displays of Herbertstrasse where literally anything can be bought, we had chosen to mingle with the locals.  Bar Bodega at 10pm on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly rocking when we arrived but by the time we left the locals were linking arms, swaying from side to side as Danny led them in a chorus of “No ney never”.  These were our new best friends.

After an emotional farewell at Altona, we headed to the airport where our beds for the night awaited.  By night I obviously mean 4 hours which Danny spent sleeping in his shoes, “just in case there was a fire” Of course at 5am on Monday morning he couldn’t remember any of the events from the night before, the sign of a great night.

Until next season Germany.  Be good, don’t go changing.

Kampf der Titanen

Real Madrid v Barcelona? Old skool. PSG v OM? Past its best even with the added “pzzazz of Monsieur Beckham. Celtic v Rangers? Had its day. Lewes v Eastbourne Borough? Getting closer. But none of these currently tick all the boxes as the most anticipated games in recent years. The most talked about domestic game these days in Europe is in Germany. After years of dominance of the Bundesliga, in the past couple of seasons Bayern Munich have had to play second fiddle to Die Schwarzgelben, Borussia Dortmund. The domestic champions for the past two seasons have risen from the financial flames into a majestic young phoenix managed by one of the best young managers in the game, and of course, the biggest average club attendance in Europe.

8481854617_9188ce3131_bUnder Jürgen Klopp, Dortmund have become one of the most watchable teams of their generation, with an emphasis on counter-attacking play which saw them cruise to the title over the past two seasons. Last season in front of 75,000 in Berlin, and millions watching across the globe, Borussia Dortmund destroyed Bayern in the DFB-Pokal final to take their first domestic double.

That final was a watershed in German football. In fact Ribéry’s goal in the 25th minute of the final was the first that Dortmund had conceded in the whole tournament, and it was a surprise that they only finished with five goals. The King was dead, long live the King. Or were they?

Bayern Munich were a wounded animal, and came out of the blocks firing with aggression. Just one defeat in the league conceding just 8 goals in 23 games (and scoring 60), cruising into the Champions League Quarter Finals and hardly breaking into a sweat in the DFB-Pokal. Who could stop them? Well, how about Dortmund again? The draw for the DFB-Pokal had paired the two titans in a duel to the death in Munich. Surely Dortmund couldn’t slay the Kraken in its own nest? And to add a little bit more spice to the occasion, it was Bayern’s 113th Birthday. No doubt they would put on the best birthday party ever. After all, apart from trousers, what else don’t the Germans do well?

So how can the invincibles become even more immortal? How about snapping up the world’s most in demand coach? Pep Guardiola will hopefully be walking into the Allianz Arena dressing room in July to meet a record-breaking team if current form is anything to go by. Bundesliga champions? Almost certainly. European champions? I think only one or two teams may have a say in that. Perhaps they should already have that title. Once again the huge burden of expectation that goes with hosting the final played heavily on the side’s performance last May against Chelsea.

But for all their dominance this season Dortmund have come back at them again and again. Many saw their heavy home defeat to Hamburg earlier this month as a sign than Jürgen Klopp had not taken the opportunity in the January window to strengthen the side. But just seven days later and after an arduous Champions League game in Ukraine they emphatically bounced back with a win against 4th place Eintracht Frankfurt where the 3-0 score line hardly did justice to their attacking domination.

There are few people who would turn down a chance to see this game, and fortunately I’m not one of them. I know that few of you will believe this but I had been asked to be in the city for work purposes, along with Ben before I even took a glance at Soccerway to see what Kenny Legg would call “tinpot” action was in the agenda. Of course tickets had all been snapped up within minutes of going on sale. It’s hard enough to get tickets for the visit of a club like Hoffenheim or Freiburg, but for a cup quarter-final against Dortmund, well you’d have more chance of a passing game from Allardyce. But sometimes you need to call in those favours that have been in your wallet for years.

photo (3)“I owe you one” said Bernd, our German regional manager. The date was 7th November 2005. He’d joined the company a few days previously and on a visit to London I’d taken him to the pub after work for a beer. I bought the first round before I had to leave. “I owe you one” he said and I wasn’t going to forget it, saving it up, with interest. I nearly cashed it in a few years ago at Oktoberfest when I needed him to translate the drunken advances of a young Bavarian girl in her Dirndl that had exposed a bit too much German flesh. But Google translate came to my rescue. Now was the time to call in the favour.

After he had laughed at me for a good three minutes on the phone he realised I was serious. I could make life very difficult for him on a weekly basis by putting the wrong exchange rates into his commission sheets (“oh sorry, I thought you were reporting your figures in Belorussian roubles”) but he didn’t need much further encouragement. One hour later he rang and said he had the tickets. We were now quits after 7 years 3 months and 19 days in my book.

I’d been to the Allianz on a number occasions but never to see Bayern. I came in July 2005 when West Ham were the visitors to the newly opened stadium to commemorate the 1965 European Cup Winners Cup Final (kids – ask your Dad) when the Hammers beat 1860 Munich at Wembley.

Bridget and her big jugsA few months later I was back to see a Bundesliga game as 1860 once again were the visitors. That was actually the last time CMF was here too. In fact she is still immortalised in a picture to this day as a reminder of her trip. A search in Google for “Big Jugs” (kids don’t try this at work) will throw up a smiling photo of her, resplendently posing in front of two large jugs of beer in the Hofbräuhaus. Filthy minds the lot of you.

In 2006 I was also back with Football Jo for the most eagerly anticipated FIFA World Cup game between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Few wanted to miss that, and along with the Iran v Angola game in Frankfurt, it was the ticket nobody really wanted. However, it was actually a great day out in the sunshine with a 2-2 draw played out in almost constant noise of the two sets of fans.

So I was keen to return to the stadium, with the outside pulsing red. It is one of the most stunning stadiums from the outside in the world with its iconic architecture. None of your prefab flat-pack stands here. We are talking about a giant white tyre plonked in the middle of the German flatlands, next to the motorway. A tyre that is lit up at night and must have caused significant accidents on the road by people trying to take a picture whilst driving at 100mph…or was that just me in the World Cup?

8514941579_f28981bde5_bSo work finished, time to put on my party dress, or to be more precise my leiderhosen and head up to Schwabing-Freimann. Bernd doesn’t normally “do football” and so it was a bit cruel of Ben and I to tell him to expect water cannons, a giant birthday jelly and to bring a toilet roll. In return he procured blankets for the first time. Ben was disgusted. “I may be a southern softie, but I am no way having a fanny blanket”. Suffice to say that by the hour mark he was tucked up under his fleece comforter.

I can try to get you excited by the fact the stadium was constructed with 120,000 metred cubed worth of concrete, 22 000 tonnes of steel or has 2,874 foil panels but you don’t want to hear that. You want to know about the beer, the sausages and of course the crackling atmosphere. Ok, you’ve got it.

Bayern Munich 1 Borussia Dortmund 0 – Allianz Arena – Wednesday 27th February 2013
Did it live up to the hype? Oh yes. The Arena was rocking from the moment we entered the stadium and walked up the 134 (!) steps to our seats. Dying of thirst we tried to get a beer but were faced with the old “Arena Card” issue again. I did try to use my Dortmund one left over from two weeks ago but were met with a “look”. Best move on Stuart. The away team had filled their corner of the stadium and were making a fair racket. At the other end the Bayern fans told us all to stand up, sit down, jump around and basically act like a loon for 90 minutes. As if we needed an excuse!

Weakened teams in the cup? Not in Germany. Bayern didn’t have the French wizard, Ribéry, but apart from that were at full strength. Dortmund had their talisman Lewandoski back in the side, with the impressive Reus, the man who has constantly said no to the overtones from Munich, playing behind him. Sitting on the half way line I could see Dortmund were lining up 3-4-2-1 (Michael Cox will be proud that I paid attention) which Bayern had a more traditional 4-4-1-1 line up, with Arjen Robben floating around in the “false 9” which basically meant getting the ball and not passing to anyone. I still cannot understand why any coach lets him get away with such selfishness. It’s not as if he is a game changer in big matches after all.

8514861901_7d47d263a7_bBayern looked the most likely to break the deadlock early on, with the Dortmund keeper having to be quick on his toes on a number of occasions, as despite playing with three centre-backs and little cover on the flanks, Bayern found the easiest route into the danger zones by simply going straight through the middle, the visitors desperately missing Mats Hummels.

Despite having a soft spot for Dortmund, especially with their style of play being easy on the eye, but you could clearly see why Bayern were having such a fantastic season. Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger were pulling the strings in midfield, breaking up the Dortmund counter-attacks time and time again. With just two minutes left in the half they finally broke the deadlock. A Bayern corner wasn’t cleared, a very rash challenge was made in the area on Mandzukic and the ball rolled kindly to Robben who took one touch and smashed the ball home from 20 yards (we can say smashed as the speed gun behind the goal registered it at 118kmph). Told you he was a big game player.

The second half saw Dortmund come back into the game, with Neuer being called upon to be quick off his line to deny Reus. Dortmund brought on Schieber and Blaszczykowski, a man who has bankrupted many a family as children have his name put on the back of their shirts but Bayern simply closed the game down. Robben actually tracked back, making a solid 5 across the midfield to stop the counter-attacking threat. Despite three minutes of injury time providing some opportunity for the visitors to attack, Bayern held on, breathing a sigh of relief that they had finally beaten their new rivals for only the second time in the past six meetings.

8515977646_a1d0863414_bWe stayed for the three cheers, led by their overgrown teddy bear mascot and began the cold and wet walk back to the station. Despite a sell out crowd and a new rivalry, fans from both teams mingled without an issue and the transportation was expertly orchestrated, meaning by 11.30pm we were back in the bar, toasting a happy birthday to Stern des Südens and wishing for more work nights like this. From the luxury of the Allianz Arena to the homely Reachfield Stadium in the space of 72 hours. We know who we are