As we begin season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton.
So then, second game into the season and I’m already doing one of my patented overseas trips. In season one it was Ajax, last season it was Dortmund and this season I wandered over to Berlin to watch Hertha. I don’t see any reason to hang about, I love watching football in other countries and I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin. This was a very easy decision to make, especially post-Edinburgh when I need a bit of a break from comedy.
Also, let’s be honest: German football is AMAZING. The product on the pitch is excellent, of course; but it’s the fan culture and atmosphere that really blow my mind. My visit to the Westfalenstadion last season was a genuine life-changing experience as it made me feel like a kid again, wandering around the stadium before the game wide-eyed with wonder, and then having the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I saw the Yellow Wall for the first time and heard how loud those fans could sing.
More and more British fans are cottoning on to the German football phenomenon at present, especially as it is so cheap to go and spend a couple of days out there watching football. I’ll go into cost details a bit more in a while, but let’s just say that it was cheaper for me to fly to Berlin, stay in a nice hotel, eat in good restaurants and buy a match ticket than it would be for me to get a train to London and watch a team like Arsenal. For me, that’s a real no-brainer. I’ve harboured ambitions of going to every German stadium in Bundesliga 1 and 2 for quite some time, and I’m now going to definitely make that dream a reality.
I’ve got a wishlist of places that I wanted to visit first in Germany. The top three are Dortmund (done), St Pauli (obvious really, me being a punk fan and all) and Hertha. Berlin has always fascinated me as a city, with one of my most vivid childhood memories being the fall of the Berlin Wall (as I imagine is the case for many people of my age). Then as I grew up and got into other things like music I realised what an important city it was for art and culture, and the more I’ve read about the place the more I wanted to visit. Having an interesting football team play in one of the most amazing football stadiums in the world just happens to be an excellent bonus.
I find myself drawn to Hertha as I imagine being a fan of them isn’t a million miles away from being a fan of Leicester City, just they happen to play in an enormous global landmark. Both sides aren’t ever likely to be enormous influences on the game itself, but they’ll yo-yo through the leagues and have the occasional stab at Europe. Indeed, Hertha (like my beloved Leicester) have suffered financial hardship, good top flight runs and a stint in the third tier. It certainly makes for a more interesting history than boring old Bayern or Manchester United.
As with my trip to Dortmund, I would not be travelling alone. This time we had a smaller crew though, so I’ll introduce you to them:
Darren – obsessed with Pick and Mix and the TV Series “Dream Team”, the man formerly known as wrestler Mad Man Manson is a bodybuilding enthusiast with a love of knowledge, top trumps and musical theatre. He owns even more football shirts than I do. I am 99% sure he was meant to be at work for the trip and just told his colleagues he was popping out to pick something up. Darren supports Manchester United and Bohemians from his native Ireland.
Jon – my business partner in PROGRESS Wrestling, Jon used to be my agent and we’ve been mates ever since. He’s a handy lad to have around in Germany as he lived there as a kid and speaks the language. He’s also been to Berlin before so knows a bit about the place. I sense he’s now getting the bug to go and watch random games all around the world just like me, as he’s got a big wishlist of places to visit. Jon supports Woking, although as a kid would watch Fortuna Dusseldorf with his Dad who doesn’t like football at all.
I took charge of organising things for the trip. Because of all my comedy work always being at weekends, we had to do a midweek trip. That played in our favour, as flights were cheaper. I decided to get a VERY early flight on the Tuesday morning (6.30am from Stansted) and then a late afternoon flight back on the Wednesday so we could explore the city a bit more. I won’t write about the day we had exploring as it was after the game, but suffice to say that Berlin is beautiful, is full of excellent and friendly people and I’ll be returning with my wife and daughter in the future to see even more of the place.
Flights booked, I asked for some help from my friend Mark on hotels and other tips. Mark happens to be a Hertha supporter who I know from my early days in comedy. He now works for my old university in Leicester, and makes a few trips each year to the German capital to watch football. He advised on the hotel – the Energie in Charlottenburg – which was a great tip. A single room is MASSIVE and costs about £40, and it’s in a handy location near the S-Bahn and a few stops from the stadium to the west and the city centre to the east.
Then came buying tickets. Purchasing them for Dortmund was quite tricky, with passport details being required and bank transfers and the like. Much easier for this game, just a regular credit card process and you collect them on match day. You can’t get any tickets in the Ostkurve (essentially the popular end where the Ultras are) but I managed to get three tickets in block P6 which is right next to it. If that wasn’t awesome enough, they were only 28 Euros each including booking fee. That is quite spectacular. It’s a lot more expensive to sit by the side of the pitch, but we were happy enough in the corner.
The flight out meant staying in London at Jon’s on Monday night so we could head to Stansted together at 4am Tuesday. Darren got up and drove from his place near Worcester at 1am, the crazy fool. We all met up in the airport, realising we had to board just as Jon was desperately trying to buy breakfast. He’d have to wait. On the plane though, I achieved the holy grail. Check this out:
That’s right. Two empty seats next to me so I could stretch out and go to sleep, and then three empty seats across the aisle from me. The plane wasn’t exactly empty, so no idea why this happened. However, I couldn’t sleep (too excited) so played games on my iPad instead. Not entirely sure why there’s a lifejacket in that picture, by the way.
We were flying into Berlin Schonefeld airport, which is one of those places that the budget airlines use. Luckily, it’s not a hundred miles outside of the city centre like they often are, and it’s a simple case of getting a travelcard and using the S-Bahn station. Using public transport is seriously cheap in Berlin, 7.40 Euros getting you travel across zones A, B and C for the day – akin to zone 1-6 in London. So about a fiver to use rail, tram, underground and bus for the day. We took the S-Bahn to Sudkreutz station and then walked about a kilometre to our hotel, stopping for lunch on the way in an American diner where we had our first experience of awesome customer service.
The waitress that looked after us spoke in German to Jon, and asked him questions about London and complimented him on his language skills. Jon asked where the toilets were, and she told us – in German – that we had to go out of the restaurant, turn left, walk half a kilometre, turn right… when she noticed we were trying to remember the instructions she laughed and told us she was joking.
Food was good in there. Jon had something called a Dutch breakfast, which seemed to be just a huge collection of cheese and meat. Having decided that he wasn’t eating carbs at present, Jon would find it quite difficult to avoid bread over the next day. Bread is the staple part of a German diet, it would seem. More on that later on.
We then checked into our hotel, having a nice chat with the guy at the reception desk. He let us check in early so we could then walk Darren to his place (about half an hour away) and then return to have a sleep before the game. We all needed it, that was for sure. It was decided that we would get the U-Bahn to Darren’s hotel later on, then walk the couple of km to the Olympiastadion and eat as much food at the ground as we could.
One thing I noticed when inside the U-Bahn was that German football fans can drink responsibly. If you see an English fan drinking out of a glass bottle on a train you tend to expect the worst; in Germany people can drink beer and be sociable and stop when they’ve had enough. We would pass a few Hertha fans and you’d see them having a beer on the way to the game but all were behaving themselves, just relaxing after work and before the match itself.
I was glad that we walked to the stadium, because the route we chose meant that it looms up in the distance, the two towers with the Olympic rings suspended between them highlighting the magnificent structure. The closer you get, the more enormous and impressive it seems, even though most of the ground is actually sunken down.
We walked past some caravans that were parked up on the main road, all adorned with Hertha flags and posters. As it was so early everywhere was quiet and we wondered what they were for. We walked up to the massive east gate and got our bearings; there are two entrances, south and east of the stadium. You enter through turnstiles there rather than at the block where you’re sitting, presumably as the Olympiastadion is such a historic and beautiful building that attaching gates to the outside would ruin it.
With the gates still closed, we got ourselves a schnitzel each from a vendor outside. I love schnitzel, it’s something that I dearly wish we had in the UK more. For a couple of Euros I got a massive schnitzel served in a bread roll. You needed the bread as it had come straight from the frying pan and without the roll my fingers would have melted. My mouth still wears the scars from the burning now. Totally worth it though, that was one hell of a schnitzel.
The three of us waited for the gates to open with everyone else, observing as people went around and collected up any used glass bottles – just like they did on the train we used in Dortmund last year. A few Köln fans came along to queue up when it would have been better for them to head for the south entrance. They were lightly mocked by the Hertha fans, but in a good-natured way. Everyone was smiling and there seemed to be no real animosity.
Once inside the gates – and after being searched by the most pleasant steward that I have ever met – we decided to walk around the entire stadium. This might be one of the best ideas that I have ever had, because this is no regular football ground.
Designed by Werner March for the 1936 Olympics, this is the place where Jesse Owens won his medals in front of a no-doubt very annoyed Hitler. After the war the whole complex became the headquarters of the British military occupation forces. Because of what the stadium had signified in the past, there was a debate in 1998 of what to do with the complex; should it be torn down and rebuilt? Should it be left alone?
As it stands, the stadium itself has been renovated at a cost of over 200 Euros. This happened in time for the 2006 World Cup, but the authorities were keen to keep the surrounding area intact as well. This means that – as with all of Berlin – there is no shying away from the actions of the past as they look to the future. My impression of the German people is that they are always keen to point out and apologise for the mistakes of their predecessors, and it often makes me think about how the British are nowhere near as candid at admitting when we have been wrong. Nobody in that stadium this week was responsible for what happened in the 1930s and 40s, but there is a collective sense of apology that you pick up on as a visitor to Germany. The information boards around the stadium highlighting the actions of the Reich and how they applied to the Olympiastadion don’t shy away from any tricky issues.
It’s eerie seeing how much stuff is still intact, including the diving and swimming pools that look like they haven’t been touched since the end of the Olympics.
Then there is the Maifeld, which Jon accurately noticed had cricket equipment on it. Some research tells me that the Berlin Cricket Club has been playing there since 2012, and the British Army used to hold parades and the like there. The Reich used to hold huge May Day celebrations there, and during the Olympics it was used for equestrian events. It’s looked over by an imposing grandstand, huge horse statues and massive towers.
The iconic arch at the east end of the stadium is called the Marathon Gate, and you can walk right up to it on the outside. As we did so, I could peer through the fence and see the Ostkurve starting to fill with fans. just like most German stadiums, there are huge banners hanging over the advertising hoardings: a huge “OSTKURVE” one took up most of the end we would be sitting in, but also one above where we would be sitting read “COMMANDOS”.
At the Marathon Gate you can take pictures of the memorial to all those who won medals during the 1936 Olympic Games. I did so, as did many of the visiting Köln supporters.
One final thing on the architecture outside: It’s easy to understand why there are no food concessions, turnstiles or the like built into the walls of the ground. With it constructed out of huge, solid blocks rather than metal it would be a shame to spoil it. It really makes you realise how faceless new stadiums are when compared to something so awesome.
Even the fan shop has a strange feel, as it is within the walls of the stadium but is not the usual cavernous space that most clubs would have set up. I bought myself a club track top for 40 Euros, which isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of football merchandise.
Before we took our seats we walked past the away fans areas, and saw as the polite stewards asked the Köln fans to unfurl their banners and flags before letting them take them in. Can you imagine a British club letting fans in with dozens of huge flags or banners? I can’t. Once again, German fans can be trusted to behave. Indeed, the Hertha club officials even assisted the Köln fans in putting a huge “refugees welcome” banner up high above their end. The away support was magnificent – I’d say that there was around 5 to 6 thousand of them. Not bad for a long journey on a Tuesday night.
Hertha operates both a cashless card system – I got one to go with my collection – but most stalls took cash as well. Darren got himself pick and mix, obviously (12 Euros worth) whilst me and Jon opted for Bratwurst – in more bread, of course – for about 3 Euros. It was fantastic. We then all got drinks, but were disappointed that our plastic glasses weren’t special collectable ones like at Dortmund. It’s still the same system, 2 Euro deposit per cup, which you claim back at the final whistle.
When we reached our seats I claimed my superstition based one. I have a thing about the number 13, and I had deliberately chosen seats in row 13 of block P6. In addition to that I had seat 13, and to my left was a perspex fence and the brilliance of the fans in the Ostkurve. You had that mass of singing, clapping, swaying, jumping humanity just there, and then the other-worldly, surreal, massive stadium ahead of you. I sent my wife the picture from the start of this blog and she told me it looked like something out of a video game. It’s a great mix of colours, with the athletics track changed to blue to reflect the club colours over the traditional red for running lanes.
As the teams were read out, I enjoyed the usual German tradition of shouting the player’s surname after their first name is announced. I thought about the players in the Hertha side that I knew anything about.
Obviously there is former Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou who is doing a decent job there, plus Swiss players Valentin Stocker and Fabian Lustenberger. I was also aware of striker Vedad Ibisevic, and was told that he had gone a mammoth 25 games without scoring a goal. He had just signed for Hertha from Stuttgart but was of course looking for his first goal.
I noticed that there were literally no kids anywhere near us. It feels unusual to be watching football without children around, and it’s even stranger seeing people smoke in a football stadium after having years without it.
The teams made their way out and it was shown on the big screens. Because they have to come down a massive flight of stairs, an escalator has been built in to ensure that the players don’t go falling down the steps and get injured before they’ve even started. Once they started arriving on the pitch the noise level was cranked right up. The Hertha fans started swaying, then singing quietly, then jumping up and down as one giant moshpit. It was quite a sight, and even with the stadium only just over half full they made more than enough noise to fill the place.
A few minutes after kick-off it became apparent that Kalou is a lot more hard working than I remember him being, with him looking like he should have won a penalty and chasing everything down. Also impressive alongside him was Japanese midfielder Genki Haraguchi who had a great understanding with full-back Mitchell Weiser, both of them full of running Hertha are an exciting team to watch, playing the game the right way and full of pace. The referee wasn’t helping them though with some poor decisions, ranging from the penalty that never was to giving free kicks for the slightest contact on Köln players. Yuya Osako in particular went down very easily on more than one occasion, drawing the ire of the Hertha faithful.
The Ultras would start complicated clapping-based songs that seemed to be conducted by a couple of fans at the front of the Ostkurve with megaphones. I’d love to do that, it’s like being the conductor of the coolest orchestra ever invented. I kept reading the banners high above us, spotting one very prominent anti-homophobia one. Once again, we can learn a lot from these fans.
The first decent chance of the game fell to Köln midfielder Kevin Vogt – linked to Leicester last summer – with a header from a few yards out. Then after about half an hour Leonardo Bittencourt went even closer, hitting the post with a great shot from outside the box. The one drawback of the athletics track is that it is hard to see what is going on from a distance as well as some other stadia; it’s also hard to hear the away fans when the home fans are so close by and so loud. Vladimir Darida had a goal chalked off for Hertha for offside before Marcel Risse went close for the visitors.
After those chances for the away side, Hertha started to take control. As half time approached, we joked that we surely couldn’t come to Germany and not celebrate a goal with the away fans again. I’m glad we brought that up, because Timo Horn was forced to make a smart save from Ibisevic after a corner as Hertha pushed forwards. On 43 minutes there was the breakthrough, and maybe me doubling up my lucky number 13 helped out Ibisevic. Full-back Marvin Plattenhardt crossed from the left and the Bosnian stopped to flick a header past Horn from a tight angle. The Olympiastadion went INSANE. 25 games without a goal and that unwanted record was finished.
The mood was buoyant as went into half-time. The fans in the Ostkurve sat down for the first time during the game whilst everyone (apart from us) stocked up on beer. In front of us were three fans who seemed desperate to get into the Ostkurve, trying to echo everything that was going on from the other side of the glass. It did make me wonder how you do get a ticket in there, as there were a few empty spaces. It’s not a standing end like Dortmund or other German stadiums, with the Olympiastadion a rarity in that it is permanently all-seater. The capacity is 74,475 which makes it the largest all seater stadium in the country, which is what the stadiums in Dortmund and Munich have to be for international or European matches. Apparently a temporary stand can be constructed over the Marathon Arch if the capacity needs to be improved for certain fixtures, I bet that looks awesome.
During half time the club put on live interviews on the big screens, as well as having their mascot shoot t-shirts into the crowd with a gas-powered gun. A chap a few rows back caught one perfectly with one hand as he drank beer with the other. Well done that lad.
At the beginning of the second half both sets of fans unfurled huge banners. I don’t think they were linked to each other and my German isn’t great (Jon wasn’t there to translate). I think the Köln one was something to do with refugees, all I could see of the one in the Ostkurve was the words “NOT ALLOWED”. I think it may have been anti-racism but would love to know what it said if anyone knows. When they had made their show of the banners, the fans at the front of the Ostkurve carefully tore them up to get them out of the way. It’s amazing seeing the co-ordination that the Ultras have, raising certain flags at certain times to ensure that everyone has a good view. One guy at the front had a microphone and a PA system and was delivering something very impassioned at the beginning of the second period. I find it fascinating to watch and want to learn more German so I can one day join in a lot more.
Kalou had two good efforts at the start of the second period as Hertha looked to build their lead. At the back Niklas Stark seemed determined to keep the visitors out, excellent in the air and deceptively quick. He made his fair share of great challenges, but not as impressive as the goal-line clearance that Weiser made from Köln substitute Yannick Gerhardt just after the hour mark. You won’t see many better defensive blocks than that, it was wonderful.
During breaks in play, the big screens would flash up score updates. In the first half Wolfsburg took the lead against Bayern at the Allianz Arena to a massive cheer – because much like Manchester United in this country, nobody seems to like Bayern in Germany – but in the second half we learned of a comeback. Robert Lewandowski equalised and it was met with boos. As Bayern went 2-1 and then 3-1 up a couple of minutes later, it became obvious that something special was happening as Lewandowski claimed a ludicrously quick hat-trick. Just nine minutes after his first, he claimed his FIFTH goal and the result was applause from the fans hundreds of miles away where we sat. Five goals in nine minutes has to be saluted, even if you play for a team that nobody seems to like.
We had a long break in play after an injury to Kevin Vogt, the Köln midfielder eventually being carried off on a stretcher with a suspected broken cheekbone. Interestingly, nobody booed or whistled whilst he was being treated. Everyone was respectful and his departure from the pitch was met with polite applause from everyone.
Darida had a decent chance for Hertha but Horn made another good save, before Anthony Modeste had a golden opening at the other end but sent his header way off target. Modeste didn’t look too mobile up front pretty much on his own, struggling to make an impact with Stark always sticking close to him. That said, Köln continued to push on, trying to get an equaliser and making things nervy for everyone in the stadium. But Hertha remained organised and then in injury time they grabbed aa second.
With the visitors piling everyone up front, a quick break from Hertha substitute Alexander Baumjohann caught them off guard. He slotted a wonderful pass through to the on-rushing Ibisevic who finished calmly and put the result beyond doubt. That would be the last kick of the game, and a deserved win for an impressive looking Hertha side that briefly lifted them up to fifth ahead of Wednesday’s Bundesliga fixtures.
After the final whistle we saw yet another difference between German and English football. The entire Hertha squad came and celebrated in front of the Ostkurve, singing songs with the fans and saluting them. It was like they’d won a cup, rather than just a regular home game. It’s no wonder that the fans feel so proud of their team, because you genuinely get the feeling that the players treat their supporters as a true extension of their squad. The whole “twelfth man” cliché is used a lot in the UK, but in Germany it is genuinely true.
So the Olympiastadion is a beautiful arena with a storied history, and the fans who attend games there are some of the loudest, proudest and best that I’ve ever seen. Watching a game in such an iconic structure is something that everyone should try and do at least once, and I have no doubt that we’ll be back again at some point as Berlin is such a wonderful place to visit.
As we left the ground, I bought myself a giant cheese pretzel and Jon got another two schnitzel. We walked past the caravans that we’d seen earlier on and they had now sprung to life, with loud music playing from them and fans congregated around them drinking and celebrating. As someone who usually curses them being on the road, I’ve never appreciated caravans more.
Yet again, Germany demonstrates that it is the best place to both eat meat products and watch football. I’ll never tire of visiting there, and would like to thank the people of Berlin – all of them – for making us feel so welcome. Credit to the Köln fans for being excellent, and may Hertha have a fantastic season. Those guys in the Ostkurve deserve it.
Hertha BSC 2 (Ibisevic 43, 90) vs 1 FC Köln 0
Cost: Ticket approx £22, flight £60, hotel £35, schnitzel £2, bratwurst £2, pretzel £2, drink £2
Fun Factor: 10/10