BY MARK GODFREY
In this most western of West German cities, Aachen – a favoured seat of medieval king Charlemagne – you’ll find the home of ‘Die Kartoffelkäfer’ (Potato Beetles), or TSV Alemannia Aachen to give them their proper title. Having reached the dizzy heights of the Bundesliga a decade or so ago, the club descended rapidly back to the local Regionalliga West and the fourth tier of German football. Nestled tightly up against the Belgian border, this ancient, Roman spa town of around a quarter of a million people is not renowned or synonymous with footballing success – think Plymouth or Brighton as a similar-sized non-achiever.
This week, I was able to spend a bloody-freezing evening at their 32,000 capacity New Tivoli stadium – one whose construction in 2009 cost around 50 million Euros and played a significant role in bankrupting the club a few years later. It was undoubtedly a good set up; shiny, new, well-designed, but obviously built on far too much giddy ambition based on the club’s previous history and regular support. But it was exactly that support that I found myself paying perhaps a little too much attention to given I’d just stumped up 15 Euros for a seat for the Bitburger Cup quarter-final with Middle Rhine League side – and virtual villagers – Borussia Freialdenhoven.
The first thing that struck me on my approach to Tivoli was the various groups of scruffy-looking punters swigging cans of local brew openly on the street, with six packs (of beer) and full carrier bags clearly visible. No Polizei to be seen,I noted, but there was probably no need for them to be. It’s often been said that foreign fans have a better grasp on alcohol consumption and behaviour while under its influence than those from our islands, and while these were only small gatherings in the shadows of Tivoli’s towering stands, there appeared to be little potential for trouble.
Once inside I headed straight for the refreshment kiosks, and from my previous experience of German football, I knew this meant beer and sausage. The purchasing of said unhealthy items had dual purpose; firstly, it had been a while since I had savoured the delicious taste of currywurst and fries and while the temperature was hovering perilously close to zero, I really fancied a chilled lager – even if it was the overpriced, watered-down version on offer at a football ground. Secondly, I wanted to do some people watching; a semi-interesting way to waste 45 minutes of alone time before kick-off.
I was expecting the usual hordes of giant-moustachioed, sleeveless denim wearing badge and patch collectors that are seemingly omnipresent at German stadia. However, in the section where I was chowing down at least, I was to be disappointed. Plenty of yellow and black merchandise-wearing middle-aged men, wrapped up tightly against the elements and families eagerly beavering around the concourse, but archetypal German fans? Keine.
Pre-match sustenance devoured, I took my seat dead on halfway and a quick glance to my left revealed a packed home end – a full standing area and to be generous, a miniature version of Dortmund’s colossal Südtribüne. The crowd was bouncing, in that way we’ve come to expect of German fans to bounce, and sing and hug and shout. Imaginative flags and banners waved, brightly coloured and decorated with whichever logo or slogan its owner had chosen to dedicate to Aachen’s cause. These people are self-styled Ultras, but in a different and seemingly non-threatening way compared to the Italian originals or the growing Balkan variety. Not only did they sing and jump in choreographed unison but there were banners that directly espouse “Freundschaft und Zussamenhalt” (friendship and cohesion). Whether that sentiment extends to opposition fans as well as their own, I don’t know, but I got the feeling this fan culture was different to our own in England in that respect.
Or maybe these guys were re-appropriating the term Ultras. I dare say there were a few more angry types sprinkled among those badly singing their rather shitty curse-free songs and “Olé Olé’s”. The type that like their beer a bit stronger than the rest, stand far too close to the drummer than is necessary and think that if you don’t buy the fanzine then you’re some kind of “fucking asshole”, or worse, a Dortmund/Schalke/Cologne fan.
In England, there is a small but growing fan movement committed to greater harmony between clubs, governing bodies and fellow supporter groups but in Germany, they seem to be light years ahead as we see regularly when comparing the two countries. The Germans appear to have largely shed the more unsavoury, antagonistic supporter traits that we in England have become all too happy to cling onto. Tribalism is one thing, but vitriol, spite and hatred are entirely different.
Back with me in the ‘expensive’ seats, they were ready to join in the co-ordinated chanting, although there was a little too much heady mix of cigar smoke and Brut for my tastes.
The game itself was wholly one-sided; Aachen – with a few Arjen Robben, Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller lookalikes/wannabes – running out more than comfortable 3-0 winners against their grossly inferior opponents. As Newcastle-born Kris Thackray entered the fray late on, the crowd began to urge their team forward to garnish their superiority with a couple more goals. Frantic cries of “Schiess” from young and old punctuated the final ten minutes as one more communal rendition of “Alemannia Aachen, du bist mein Stolz und Liebe” reverberated around Tivoli. As added time approached, a decent proportion of the 3,500 in attendance began to make an early dash for the exits. Some things are the same wherever you go.