Our first day in Germany involved some last minute heroics to salvage the start of our trip, and it ended in a fascinating and competitive game at the home of FC Viktoria Köln.
Our second day, Saturday, began in a more relaxed style. Matt and I had tickets booked for FC Schalke 04 versus Werder Bremen later that night, so we were in no rush at all. With Gelsenkirchen, home to Schalke, roughly 30 minutes away by train, we had the majority of the day to explore our base of Düsseldorf. Matt knew the city very well from previous visits but I was keen to explore what the old town had to offer.
We filled up on the all-you-can eat breakfast at the hotel before strolling into the city. Naturally we stumbled across a huge sports store just minutes down the road, and couldn’t resist exploring the contents within. I’m a sucker for sports shops and thankfully I was in good company. Matt found a Borussia Mönchengladbach home shirt in the sale, the lovely Kappa edition from last season, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get it, especially since we had a Gladbach visit on our schedule for Sunday. I was tempted by many items as well but managed to hold onto my willpower, saving my cash for later.
We continued on, stopping to see the Königsallee canal and some of the views from the shores of the Rhine. Chelsea versus Man United was the day’s early game, so Matt and I found a bar to watch that and enjoy a couple of Altbiers, Düsseldorf’s famously historic dark beverage of choice.
Lunch was also in order before we departed for Gelsenkirchen and Matt, knowing my love of pizza, knew of a nearby place that he’d proclaimed to be one of the best in the city, if not Europe. I have to admit, Matt delivered on his promise, it was a truly excellent pie and exactly what I needed to soak up those Altbiers.
Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof was our next stop, via a store in the station for a couple of cold train bevs to enjoy on our journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England or Germany, drinking cans of lager on the way to the football is exactly the same in every language, and looked down upon by those not participating in exactly the same way too. Especially when you’re an idiot like me and drop a third of your can onto the seat next to you. In my defence, the train did move suddenly. I blame the driver.
Our train pulled into Gelsenkirchen soon enough and we began to see floods of fans converging in our direction, decked out in the blue and white of Schalke. I was also pleased to see a great deal of green as well, as the Bremen fans appeared to have travelled in good numbers, and more importantly, in good spirits.
A short tram ride from the station dropped us at the doorstep of the enormous Veltins-Arena, Schalke’s 62,271 capacity home, opened in 2001. Matt and I took a quick lap of the modern ground before settling on a couple of beers and some match day gear. As is my custom with new teams and new stadiums, I picked up a pin badge for my collection, and quickly donned it onto my jacket. I also grabbed a scarf, basic with blue and white stripes, that Matt keenly observed I could also wear to Tranmere games. His comment cemented my decision, and I gladly handed over the €15, safe in the knowledge that the scarf would see repeat service.
One aspect of the German football experience I was most excited to see was the fan’s commitment to the club colours. Nearly every person in attendance was wearing at least some item of clothing to show their support, be it a scarf, hat or shirt. Many fans even go the extra mile and have their shirt printed with their favourite player’s name, which is something I really love to see at every game I attend. I can happily spend hours scanning the crowds before kickoff to see all the different kits from years past, as well as the famous (and not-so-famous) names that adorn them. This vibrant sea of colour the fans create is something the Americans do really well, as do Germany, but there are large groups of fans in England and Europe that don’t really go for it, which is a shame as I think it enriches the experience, aesthetically at least.
To that effect, purchasing a scarf was the very least I could do. Matt was already wearing a Schalke shirt from a previous visit, and I was very tempted to drop money on one too, but I had already decided to save my cash for Sunday’s game at Gladbach, and their stylish Puma kits this season.
With just over half an hour to go before kickoff, we made our way to our seats. Schalke’s home is sublime for viewing angles, and there didn’t appear to be a single bad view in the house. When we initially booked our tickets months before, the game had been very popular and as a result, Matt and I were set to be separated by a couple of rows. Thankfully it only lasted for most of the first half, as a couple of empty seats nearby were left vacant so we took possession of those for the majority of the evening.
As soon as you settle into the Veltins-Arena, you cannot miss the awesome sight of Schalke’s Nordkurve. Home to approximately 16,000 fans in the dedicated standing section, complete with giant flags, and generating the loudest atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. The roar is deafening and Schalke’s stadium roof helps that wall of noise reverberate around the entire arena. It really was a spectacular scene to witness and the fans kept up the noise for the entire game.
Unfortunately, the game developed into quite a dour affair, with both teams lacking a player with the creative spark to captivate the audience. I was very keen to see Schalke’s emerging American star Weston McKennie, as well as the Moroccan Amine Harit who I watched during the World Cup, but neither man was especially effective on the day. The majority of build-up attacks from both teams would fizzle into nothing, or result in a shot high and far over the goal.
Eventually, it was the visitors who struck first, and against the run of play. Bremen hadn’t looked much of a threat as the end of the first half neared, when suddenly midfielder Maximillian Eggestein received a pass on the edge of the Schalke box. The talented 21 year-old German controlled the ball in one smooth motion before using his right foot to lash a shot past Alexander Nübel in the Schalke goal to make it 1-0 to Bremen. Nübel was making his first start for Schalke and the 22 year-old keeper was not helped by Eggestein’s shot bouncing into the turf before he dived, making it harder to stop.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Schalke faithful, conceding just before the break, and sadly their team couldn’t muster much of a response after the restart. Austrian striker Guido Burgstaller had the best chance for the hosts, when he beat his defender down the right wing, putting him one-on-one with Jiří Pavlenka guarding the Werder goal. The angle was acute and ultimately Burgstaller’s low shot was saved well by Pavlenka, who used his legs to deflect the ball just wide of the post for a Schalke corner.
Ten minutes later, Eggestein struck again to put the result beyond Schalke. When the youngster received the ball, there appeared to be no imminent threat, but he swiftly shifted the ball onto his left foot, dragging the ball away from Schalke midfielder Nabil Bentaleb and into space. It was all the room Eggestein needed to get a shot away, a low drive into the far corner beyond Nübel’s outstretched palm, and just like that it was 2-0 to Bremen.
Their remarkable away support, slightly to the right and opposite of where we were sat, exploded in celebration. The 5,200 who travelled were a very lively and active bunch and despite being dwarfed in size by the immense home support, the Werder fans certainly made themselves seen and heard in their glorious emerald green. Sat there in my blue and white scarf, it was hard to begrudge their joy and the Bremen boys had been methodical and precise in their performance, if not spectacular. Green is also my favourite colour, so they win some points there too.
Schalke had a few half-chances in the remaining minutes, but not anything clearcut, and by the final whistle they appeared exhausted from the sheer effort of chasing the game. Sadly, it was not a very memorable performance from either side and not even Eggestein, with his well-taken brace, was particularly dominant or extraordinary over the course of the whole game.
Having said that, it was still an extremely memorable day and the atmosphere created by both sets of fans will stay with me for some time. As we left the Veltins-Arena behind and efficiently boarded our trams and trains back to Düsseldorf, I could still hear the songs and chants from the crowd echoing in my ears.
We spent the rest of the night in the bars of Düsseldorf enjoying a few more Altbiers, plotting the next day’s journey to see Borussia Mönchengladbach, game three on our trip.