That was the reaction from some of my friends and family when I told them I’d paid for a four day trip to Germany, based solely around watching as much football as possible.
Together with my Tranmere-supporting buddy Matt, we set out on our Bundesliga journey. Matt came down from Birkenhead, and I was coming up from Bath, so we met in the middle at Birmingham before flying out to Düsseldorf first thing Friday morning. Matt had combed the fixture list, scouted the best dates and flights, and put the whole thing together. He’s a veteran of the overseas football adventure, so I was lucky to have him guide me through it all.
Upon arriving in sunny Düsseldorf, I managed to fumble my way through all the secondary school German I could remember to order lunch, before finally dropping off our gear at the Holiday Inn. Our attention soon turned to our first match of the trip; Eintracht Frankfurt against Fortuna Düsseldorf, about an hour and a half train journey from our host city.
Everything on the trip had been smooth sailing so far but we were about to stumble into our first problem. As we arrived at Düsseldorf ’s station we saw our direct train to Frankfurt had been cancelled. We still had hours to spare before the 8.30pm kickoff so it wasn’t an issue to catch a different train. However, a glance at the departure boards indicated something was seriously wrong, as any train that passed through the Frankfurt area was severely delayed. Consequently, the majority of trains returning to Düsseldorf had been cancelled as well, or were delayed significantly into the early hours of Saturday morning.
We had a tough decision to make: Should we persevere and try to get to Frankfurt, even if the journey there takes double the time and we might not make it home until 3am? We had already booked both train and match tickets as well, so it would essentially be money lost.
Ultimately, we decided it wasn’t going to be our day and resigned ourselves to the fact we weren’t going to make the 150 miles or so south to Frankfurt.
However, we were not to be deterred, and so, with adventure still in our veins we settled on another plan. We stepped off our train in Cologne and Matt had found that a local team had a game that night, in Germany’s fourth tier Regionalliga West division. We would not let a transport hiccup ruin our trip on it’s first day, and thanks to a short search on Google Maps, we had committed ourselves to finding this game in the eastern part of Cologne. We boarded a tram in that direction, with the promise of live football still very much alive.
Along the way we stopped into Cologne’s famously gothic cathedral, found Köln legend (and former Arsenal favourite of mine) Lukas Podolski’s ice cream shop, and sampled a few of Cologne’s famous Kölsch beers from the century-old Früh brewery.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, the 6,214 capacity Sportpark Höhenberg stadium, home of FC Viktoria Köln. As we stepped off the train and made the short walk to the turnstiles among the local fans, decked out in black, red and white, I was struck by this charming ground in the Cologne suburbs. It was a swift tree-lined stroll to the stadium and the floodlights from neighbouring 5-a-side pitches pathed our way.
FC Viktoria Köln, originally established in 1904 and finally formed over decades of mergers with other local sides, were hosting SV Lippstadt 08, visitors just east of Dortmund and about a two hour drive away. Despite my disappointment at not seeing the Bundesliga game we had originally planned for, I was extremely keen to see what a German lower league game could offer. After having seen my fair share of lower league and non league matches this year, I was interested to see how the German experience compared.
We joined a small line to purchase our tickets and paid €9 for admission. We were pretty certain we’d paid for the standing section but once we got into the ground, there appeared to be no way to access that area, and all the stewards pointed us towards the grandstand when we showed them our tickets. Like most non league games, we weren’t assigned individual seats so we set up camp pretty close to the halfway line, all the while hoping a season ticket holder wouldn’t come by to kick us out.
Before kickoff, I took the time to browse the Viktoria fan shop, a little trailer set behind the grandstand, home to a host of replica shirts, scarves and all the other club-related items you would expect at almost any other club. I used up the extent of my broken German with the helpful lady in the trailer, to buy a club badge to pin to my jacket (a fair €3), to show my allegiance to the home side for the evening. Viktoria’s badge appealed immediately, with it’s distinctive and dominant red V, and it gave me a very V For Vendetta-vibe. In the meantime Matt had purchased more beers so we settled in for the game.
Drinking beer at a sporting event in the UK isn’t uncommon, particularly if you’ve ever been to the rugby or cricket, but holding a pint at the football is another thing entirely, a forbidden act in this day and age. It did feel good and the Germans are smart enough not to abuse the privilege. It’s a shame that there are too many idiots at home who can’t be responsible, and y’know, not be massive dickheads.
As the teams emerged from the tunnel and filed onto the pitch, Lippstadt’s away support burst into life. There couldn’t have been more than 100 of them who had made the trip but at least 40-50 of their group created such an incredible noise for such a small group. Armed with a drum, some flags and flares, and even a firework released just before the referee began the game, Lippstadt’s support really raised the bar for atmospheres at lower division games.
The match began and it was evident early on that these were two fairly even teams. Viktoria began the night top of the league and were riding a winning streak, but third placed Lippstadt were keen to assert themselves, with an effective press and pacey counter attack.
What most impressed me was both team’s dedication to playing fast, fluid passing football. This was a world away from the playing style I am used to seeing at most English lower league games. Viktoria and Lippstadt were committed to keeping the ball on the deck and playing it out from the back, and the crowd would audibly groan when the home goalkeeper couldn’t find a nearby option, opting to send the ball long instead. Matt and I both agreed that either of these sides could present some problems to a few established League Two teams back home.
The first half flew by and after a day’s intake of German beer, I needed food – I was ready for my first currywurst. I dashed down the steps out of the grandstand, to the small beer and food tent outside and paid a couple of euros for this plastic dish of diced-up sausage, coated in a spicy brown sauce. The currywurst was as good as advertised and the perfect half time meal for my first game of German football. I mentioned to Matt that from that point on, all I wanted to eat was currywurst, and I was only half joking.
The second half got underway and Viktoria grew with confidence, and were soon rewarded when they took the lead. Just fifteen minutes after the restart, substitute midfielder Hamza Saghiri made a late run into the box and was on hand to crash the ball home. A low cross from the right flank was missed by the Viktoria centre forward but Saghiri was there to pick up the pieces and make it 1-0 to the hosts. He had only been on the pitch for two minutes! The fans around us rose in celebration and the particularly vocal home supporters to our right really made themselves heard. It was fully deserved for Viktoria and I was happy we were treated to a home goal.
Viktoria increased the intensity and should have extended their lead multiple times in the second half. The attack was led by the young German winger Kevin Holzweiler, a diminutive presence who caused havoc in the Lippstadt defence. Due to his size (5’4), trendy haircut, pace and trickery, he reminded me a lot of Swiss international and Liverpool winger Shaqiri, and in my beer and currywurst-addled state, that is what I deemed to call Holzweiler for the entire game. He was seriously impressive though, regularly cutting onto his favoured left foot to curl in a shot. He came close too, crashing one against the crossbar, with a big oooooooh resounding from the fans.
With 15 minutes left and Lippstadt struggling to match Viktoria’s energy, the crowd rose to applaud the return of their captain Mike Wunderlich, who had come back after a long injury. Wunderlich (great name) got a huge reception from the locals and he had a late chance he couldn’t convert, but the fans loved him anyway.
The referee blew the final whistle and we applauded both teams for putting on such an excellent and competitive show, a deserved 1-0 win for the home team. The quality of football was much better than we could have anticipated, and as I mentioned previously, it was a vast improvement over some of the play I’ve seen at a similar level in England. The technical ability and dedication to possession was pleasing on the eye, and both Viktoria and Lippstadt played the game the right way.
So, I hear you ask, what happened in the Frankfurt game you missed? Oh, just a 7-1 annihilation of Düsseldorf, that saw Frankfurt forward Luka Jović, just 20 years-old, score five goals in one game.
Nothing to write home about then.
Still, despite that result and our inability to be there to witness it, I was very much comforted by the game we did see, and Viktoria Köln can safely add two more fans to their supporter base. We successfully turned what could have been a disaster into a triumph, and it was an outstanding way to begin our trip.