Borussia Dortmund 2 Hansa Rostock 1 (21/05/2005)
My first match in Germany of any kind was a pre-season friendly for Reading v Reutlingen. Played in a small village outside Ulm – which has a cathedral which laughs at Cologne’s Dom and calls it a midget, being 530’ high, with 768 steps to the top which turn your legs to quivering jelly – the game was a 0-0 draw of such awfulness that people’s hearts were stopping through boredom.
This proper game was to be rather different. There’d be about 80,000 more people there for a start. While other clubs might like to claim to be the biggest in the world, the fact that a club in Germany usually gets more fans in week-in week-out tends to be brushed under the carpet. While yet another sub-mediocre season may have seen Dortmund’s crowds dip down to a mere 71,000 this year with them in the relegation zone, they were comfortably ahead of all others averaging 77,000 when I was there, in a year when an outside chance of an UEFA Cup place was the best they could hope for.
Borussia Dortmund’s ground is almost the perfect football stadium. It’s completely enclosed and rectangular, with every seat as near to the pitch as probably possible in such a large stadium. Totally simple and unfussy, without ever looking boring, and free of flamboyances of an architect showing just how wonderful he is because he got a new French Curve for his birthday. And best of all, the entire of one end is a terrace. Not a little piddly one either, a giant one where those at the top are given oxygen and leaflets warning about altitude sickness. It makes the Kop look like a fourth division cowshed. So what if the inclined glass wall at the back makes the roof look, from the back at least, like the lid of a cheap 1980s record player – a bit of retro Grundig kitsch never hurt anyone.
Certainly the people of Dortmund are very proud of the place. The Dortmund tourism site, admittedly not blessed with an overflowing variety of options, names the stadium as its top tourist attraction, while the “things to do” page suggests going to a match there. The best park in the town is, surprisingly enough, the Westfalia Park that surrounds the stadium. Parks are something of a feature of German stadiums. Often planned as part of sports parks in the hyperinflation days of the 1920s, when it was thought that Germans needed alternate ways of keeping fit other than pushing their daily earnings around in a wheelbarrow, a stadium was usually the centrepiece. Naturally the designers, who would probably never go there themselves and always live in worlds where it never rains, considered a 15 minute walk through the park from the station as perfect.
The terracing had long since sold out by the time I came to buy a ticket – an internet purchase via a German speaking friend, but my ticket was opposite, one seat from an aisle, or so I thought. Certainly I was one seat from the edge of the fairly wide block, but rather than an aisle, there was just another block of seats to my left, with a handrail separating the two blocks. Not only did this handrail serve absolutely no purpose, it was just the perfect height for being directly between my eye-line and the near goal. Short of putting a spike in the middle of each seat as a tribute to Kaiser Wilhelm, it’s hard to think of a more useless and annoying fitting to add to a stadium. It’s only possibly function was to pacify the fears of some anally retentive stadium manager who fears their orderly blocks of seats might be ruined if someone was to move from their designated block into another. They demand a barrier to prevent such movement, thus allowing them to get on with ironing their socks and sharpening their pencils to exactly the same length. Naturally, the best way round the problem of having it block my view was to move to a vacant seat in the next block, so it didn’t work for that reason either. Even getting to the row was bad enough as a man and his son were in my seat due to some ambiguous row numbering. It took about 20 minutes, the help of two stewards and about 100 people around them telling them that it really was those two that were wrong, and not all of them, and that their two places were the two achingly vacant seats directly in front of them.
Exposure to German football had always been limited for me, but I first saw some when one cable channel in England covered it for a short while. I hardly knew any of the players, but I liked it a fair bit. The players just seemed much more ambitious and would routinely shoot from distances that would have fans here groaning in frustration. The obvious difference is that fans in Germany don’t mind because the shots are often on target, whereas in England a shot from 35 yards usually has more chance of finding the elixir of eternal life than finding the top corner. It must be something either taught very early of just in the genes, as a young Dortmund player, just 17 years old with a handful of games under his belt, scored one of the best goals I’ve ever seen from just about that distance. I could help but think that young Marc-Andre Kruska, if he can do that at 17, must have a bright future ahead of him, although with my eye for talent he’s probably now playing for Augsburg Reserves in the regional leagues.
Kruska’s was the equalising goal early in the second half. The already relegated Hansa Rostock had surprised everyone, including probably themselves, by taking an early lead in front of the packed south terrace. It was not what the yellow-clad hordes had wanted. It had been some kind of flag day beforehand, with nearly everyone there holding up a banner flag on two poles, as if they’d set out originally to go on a trade union march, and decided to go to the football instead. Naturally, their own strike made the brothers happy.
It was a very open game, with Hansa Rostock and their fans determined to enjoy their last afternoon of Bundesliga 1 football for at least a year, but with the probing of Rosicky pulling the strings in midfield, and Koller blundering about and looking as dangerous as an elephant in a kindergarten up front, Dortmund were always the most likely to leave happy. And that was how it turned out, with Koller thudding the ball in from close range to give Dortmund the points, and the majority of the 80,500 fans, including myself, enjoyed the glow of victory. I’d enjoyed the day. A good match. I’d got myself a good scarf as a souvenir – albeit acquired with some difficulty as despite asking for the alt-Deutsch scarf in my very best German pronunciation, the woman in the kiosk still looked at me with a look of incomprehension as if I’d asked her if her feet were made from Sauerkraut. Even the less than inspiring train journey through the limited greenery of Westphalia viewed from the train’s top deck (you just have to go on the top deck, you just do) didn’t bring me down. I pulled into Cologne station is good spirits, only to find the city swarming with Borussia Meonchengladbach fans celebrating staying up, and went off to find some good spirits of my own.