Mainz 05 0 Hertha Berlin 2 (7th Feb 2015)
The very first foreign football match I intended to see was a game at Mainz. Back in the very early 1990s, Reading were due to go on a pre-season tour of the region. At the time I’d not left the country since a trip to France in the late 1970s, but armed with a Berlitz pocket-guide to the Rhine Valley, I was looking forward to the trip. Then I called the club for details, and rather disappointingly found it had been cancelled weeks before.
It would probably have involved a match at Mainz’s Stadion am Bruchweg, not far west of the main railway station. Mainz have since moved out, but the stadium still stands, in use for reserve teams games in Bundesliga 3, even if the B team’s 1250 average hardly tests the ground capacity.
Reached via worn grassless furrow across a park through a housing estate, the Stadion am Bruchweg is a boxy but characterful 20000 capacity ground, but even the recent rebuilding just to get it up to that size wasn’t enough for a club wanting to stay in the Bundesliga top flight, rather than just get there. For that, they had to move to a new place, 1.5 miles further out west, where the town abruptly stops and gives way to open fields.
One of the things that looked appealing in the tiny pages of the Berlitz guide was the annual carnival in Mainz. I’d have originally gone at completely the wrong time of the year for it, and I was actually about a week too early for it this time round too, but the city’s main square in the small but agreeable old town was clearly gearing up for something. Lots of people in traditional costume were milling about before dancing and twirling batons as the band played and drummed. Surprisingly “Those Were The Days…” appears to be a traditional German folk song now, but the mini-skirted baton-twirling and flag carrying girls would probably be thinking “those were the days we caught hypothermia” as the temperatures struggled to breach zero.
Personally, I realised in Mainz’s centre that I’m just not really a high-brow person. Firstly, as much as I tried, I couldn’t maintain fascination with the Gutenburg Museum. As significant as the invention of printing was, I couldn’t help but consider the possibility that a museum would have held my interest longer even if had it been devoted to Gutenburg’s (almost) namesake Steve, star of the Police Academy films, rather than the history of printing. Worse, I also found it impossible not to be amused by the cafe on the square named “Hintz and Kuntz”. I really should have grown out of that sort of thing by now.
The Coface Arena, now in its fourth year of use, is reached by a short free bus ride from the main station. In fact it took longer to walk from the bus stop to the ground than it took to get to the bus stop, such is the German fondness for having public transport links no nearer than about half a mile from the stadium. It may have been cold, but at least it wasn’t raining, or the walk through featureless fields would have been grim indeed.
Despite being new and effectively a single tier on all four sides, it manages to avoid the dreariness of being a Riverside Stadium or St Mary’s clone. Part of that is through keeping all four stands separate, but avoiding bleak open corners by filling the gap with large glass walls. There’s liberal use of Mainz’s red all over the stadium, inside and outside, and including colouring the home terrace itself red. Holding over 14000, this one end was clearly the most popular part of the ground, and not just because it was cheap to stand there. The terrace gave the ground a focus that it would have lacked had all four sides been seated. It gave a bit of soul to what could have been another cold corporate stadium. As an English fan, where the authorities still seem determined to stamp terracing out entirely, I could only look on with envy.
At 350 miles, the same distance as Exeter to Carlisle, I didn’t expect too many Hertha Berlin fans to make the trip down. A good several hundred had made the journey though, to a man decked out in identical blue and white hooped hats. They would have the most to sing about this afternoon.
For Mainz, the person who enjoyed himself most was probably the operator of a small remote-controlled airship, who had his very mobile advert whizzing up and down and around the stadium before the game. The pre-match singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, scarves aloft from all, was probably the high point for the home crowd. Something of a tradition before many German games, it seems odd to think how common the same song used to be around English grounds.
Mainz would definitely be architects of their own downfall. They weren’t awful by any means, but coming off the back of a 5-0 win here v Paderborn just a week earlier, it was very much a Keira Knightley kind of performance from them – all rather pretty but with almost nothing up front.
Half an hour in, and it started to go wrong. Hertha had already flashed one shot just wide a few minutes earlier, but a bit of suicidal dithering on a backpass from the Mainz keeper allowed a Hertha player to close him down. A badly judged lunge for the ball from the keeper did no more than take out the feet of the Hertha player, for a very clumsy penalty and red card.
Just before half time it got worse. A break into the Mainz box was blocked, but the ball came straight back to the feet of the same player. A second shot was fired in. Two defenders slid in to cover, only to see the ball go between them both and onto the post. The bounce took the ball into the middle of the six yard box, presenting an open goal tap in for 2-0.
The second half looked to be a routine job of soaking up the pressure from Hertha, until they too had a player sent off. This time it was just for a second yellow in the middle of the pitch, with the Swiss Fabian Lustenburger letting down the traditional cool and clam image of his countryman by have a complete schoolboy strop at his dismissal.
There then followed a furious 15 minutes or so where Mainz sensed the comeback was on, but all they could manage was a few scares and scrambles, and the time ticked by. The ever-growing trickle of fans departing early towards the buses showed the belief didn’t last long. There was time for a bit more scarf holding and singing from the Berlin fans in celebration, as the clock ticked down. A huge slice of joy before their moral sapping five and half hour journey home. With my temporary home being Frankfurt for the weekend, my journey was thankfully shorter.