Samstag, 25. April 2015

When Friday comes ... (Bundesliga in the style of James Montague)

Spring in the Mainz area is a plesant time. An abundance of trees and rapeseed, blooming like they'd get paid for it, accompany the way to the stadium. The fans travel the distance on foot or by bike. Busses carry them within sight of the brand-new arena coated in the club's red and sporting the main sponsor's name.
Fan-made graffitis are another note-worthy sight on the way. They shout the name and year of founding of the club I'm about to see play to the world: Mainz 05. FSV, Fußballsportverein Mainz, founded in 1905.

The crowd are equally pleasant minded. Two hours before kick-off fans and spectators of all ages, weights, sizes and temperaments mill around the stadium. Beer and Curry-Wurst add to the festive mood and are available everywhere in and out of the gates. Inside you have to pay by debit-card. I join one of the queues for „Aufladen“ and upload 10 Euros on my shining, red „Fankarte“. I will need them, the prices range around 3 Euros for beverage. I pay 6,70 for an apple-soda and some french fries.

Before the game fans in the opposing clubs's attire mingle freely without a trace of aggression. The bright blue of Schalke 04 and the red-and-white of Mainz 05 mix over plastic cups and passionate discussions. Mainz is 11th in the league and still tinged with a slight fear of relegation. Schalke exited from the Champions League and aspires to go back to European level asap. The  05- fans I meet are hopeful but realistic. "Schalke is favourite, of course. But a draw would be fantastic."

Football in Germany is big business. Inside the gate a well organized fan-shop sells everything a Mainz 05 logo can be placed upon. Caps, scarves, cups and plates, wallets, shirts and garden-gnomes ... you name it.
What they don't sell is batteries. My camera's expired shortly after I enter the stadium and I realize I have to rely on my mobile from now on. Reduced quality inevitable, but the exitedly-friendly atmosphere is catching, I grumble very little.
Twenty metres to the left the USM, the Ultraszene Mainz, have their booth where they sell  their own stuff. No garden-gnomes here but scarves and buttons dedicated to the Ultrà-movement, magazines and stickers.
"We are special", Norman tells me. "We don't wear this stuff you can buy over there. It has the sponsor's brand all over. we don't support entega, we support Mainz 05."
Norman is in his late twenties and a prominent figure in the USM. While we are talking people come by, clap his shoulder, wave a greeting. He nods and smiles in return. Most are like him, twenty- or thirtysomethings. Some are much younger. Boys and girls of about 16,17. They are the "Subciety", the Ultrà's youth academy . It's their job to sell the stickers and buttons at the booth. They act very polite around "their elders", none of them looks drunk.

Elsewhere they do. It's clear that beer has been flowing for some time before the match.

I meet Uwe who is on his way to put up his fan-club's banner near the pitch. His gaze is slightly unfocused, but his good mood is highly visible.
"I was at the university", he tells me, "and seeing what a gorgeous day it is I told me mates to come around for some beer at 4:30. We have been sitting outside in the sun since then, but we still have some crates for after. We'll have to celebrate keeping the league!"
Uwe is confident Mainz can beat Schalke. "They've been really poor lately and we won away to Freiburg last Saturday, that gives the team a hell of a boost."

The stadium seats 34.000 and most of them are already there. The game is sold out due to it's being a Friday night in spring, which means fine weather, no rain, no mud on the roads to the stadium, the team has been playing well, lately, under a newly appointed manager and the club has put some effort into luring people to the stadium like special sales for families.
Tonight's game is a "top-game", thought. Tickets have gone up for the occasion.
I'm in the happy position of having a seasonticket to the stands. They fully deserve the name because you really do stand there. German football stadiums still haven't joined the all-seat-politics of the English FA and the south stand is packed with fans in red-and-white. Opposing kits are not allowed here, it's the "red wall", the home of Mainz 05 supporters. Down low next to the pitch, which is sto respofforespondingt spanning from the ground almost to the roof to prevent objects thrown reaching the players, Norman and the Ultràs are preparing for battle. They have two leadsingers with megaphones and a drummer to keep pace to the songs. Banners and flags are everywhere, most of them handmade to superb standard. Red, white and gold are prevalent and the ancient heritage of the city of Mainz even shows in a group of fans showing a large banner with the letters SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, Moguntia. They shout the ancient name of 2000-year old Mainz with much fervor. "Mo-gun-ti-a!!!"

I have to climb up the stairs right to the top trying not to knock over beer-cups. Stewards in yellow vests are keeping the stairs clear of fans by the use of grim faces and expressive body language. But the fans are good humoured and scramble out of the way only to come back to their positions once the steward has patroled away.

Opposite the Schalke 04 fans have their lair and make ready to produce a tifo. I share a cup of beer with Marvin and Julian, two young and high-spirited supporters balancing next to me on the top of the stairs while the steward is busy elsewhere. "Schalke fans are great, usually" Marvin says. "They'll be sure to give us a show. and look how many they are." It's true, the away-block is packed and there are still people coming in. It's a four hours ride from Gelsenkirchen-Schalke and it's clear the blue-and-white crowd have high hopes for their team tonight. 

A number of rituals have to be observed before the game starts. The stadium commentator cracks jokes and repeats the names of sponsors in a steady rythm. He hails every stand   to responding shouts and includes disabled persons in a commentating climax, making sure both teams would be absolutely unable to go to a decent game without them. The Ultràs are getting impatient and start a chant of their own "Mainz Null-Fühünf!"
After several songs with the fans passionately joining in highlighted by "You'll never walk alone" with scarves raised the teams enter to a deafening mixture of music and roar. The Schalke supporters rise to the occasion with a sea of blue and gold flags under the cover of which some flares are lightened. 

"This is forbidden" Julian explains. "Mainz 05 will have to pay a high fee for  this. They should prevent stuff like this from even entering the stadium. But It looks great, doesn't it."
The sparkle of gold under the flags and the slowly dispersing smoke over the stands certainly add to the evening's atmosphere. Nobody pays much attention to the commentator mildly reproaching the supporters for this act of rebellion. Compared to what I have seen in stadiums elsewhere in Europe, mostly to the east, this is a very harmless affair, anyway.

The game itself looks like a harmless affair, as well. Schalke clearly superior drives the ball onto Mainz's keeper Karius with much gusto - only to see their efforts come to nothing by two outstanding saves from the young keeper. The crowd cheers, first in shock, then in awe. I hear one of the boys beside me mumble "if we score tonight it will be by coincidence."
Before me two elderly fans are standing. Heinz and Hans, they may be father and son, early fifties and mid-seventies. Both are wearing Mainz jerseys and caps and Hans is passionately disapproving with almost everything the players do. "This is so poor!" he screams at the players 100 metres below. "Don't  you have any eyes. You just gave this ball away for NOTHING!." His beefy arms are working like a windmill to make his point.
It takes Mainz 20 minutes to come dangerously to the opponent's goal for the first time. They are spirited, no doubt, but run high risks when in possession of the ball which makes Hans' face turn purple. But after half an hour a deftly turned in corner by 05's golden boy, Johannes Geis, earns a finish from CB Stefan Bell and it's 1:0 for Mainz. A jingle announces the home-goal and crowd and commentator plunge into a well rehearsed antiphony. "Mainz ..." - "One!!!!" - "Schalke ..." - "Nil!!!!" - "Danke!" - "Bitte!"
After the second goal he will double the "Danke" as will the fans their "Bitte".
Schalke are nonplussed by the host's lead. They are clearly the better side, more controlling, build up the better pressing - but they are one goal down, and within some minutes it's two. Another corner, from the right this time, another assist by Johannes Geis and another finish by Stefan Bell. The south stand is having a field day.
At Half Time people are collapsing out of exhaustion and beer consumption while others are rushing down to get fresh supply. The queues at catering are long, some will not make it back in time for the second half.
A quiz takes place on the pitch to entertain the crowd. It includes some kicking balls at the goal, too, and the winner ends up with a Samsung tablet worth 400 Euros, the commentators audibly emphasizes. He also announces several sponsors doing special sales and will be offering bicycle checks for free to fans the next matchday.
Flooodlight has been turned on by now and the game resumes action.

Behind me a couple of Asian fans, Japanese or Korean judging by the fact that highly efficient and popular Mainz players Shinji Okazaki, Ja Cheol Koo and Jo Hoo Park hail from those countries, are clutching their iPhones like Hans and Heinz their beer cups. Heinz tells me that there are many fans from Asia in the stadium, now, since the Asian players have become so good. "They come from Frankfurt or Düsseldorf", he tells me. "Many Japanese business there, and they just LOVE Okazaki and Koo."
They have reason to, tonight. Although still being inferior in technics Mainz 05 manages to keep Schalke 04 away from their goal with a mixture of fighting spirit, excellent positioning and sheer luck. And each time a shot of theirs hits the bar, narrowly misses the goal or is prised from their feet by a Mainz defender Schalke's confidence visibly drops. 
Hans is still yelling abuse at his own team. Some of the credit must go to the pitch, though, which seems to be very slippery. That doesn't keep the hot-blooded fan from screaming "Du Flasche!!!!" at the top of his voice when Mainz forward Yunus Malli lands flat on his belly for the third time. Being called "a bottle" is serious abuse in German.  
With ten minutes to go and Schalke's finishing now bordering on pathetic, fans in the grandstand start leaving to the jeering of the "real" supporters who clearly are going to savour this night to the dregs. After two minutes of injury time gallantly controlled the players raise their arms in triumph: Mainz 05 has defeated Schalke 04! 
Julian and Marvin have left with the final whistle, but Hans and Heinz and several thousands more stay around to a joyful and vociferous celebration. Brace-scorer Stefan Bell is asked to climb the fence to lead a ritualistic chant with the fans, Heinz explains to me. "They are doing the Humba!"
Seeing my slightly perturbed expression he adds: "It's a carnival song. Humba Täterä. The player says a letter and the crowd repeats it. Listen!"
Sure enough, Stefan Bell, balancing on the platform with Norman and the Ultràs, intones the first letter of the word "Humba": Give me an H!"
"H!" roars the crowd.
"Give me a U!"
"Give me a  Never-second-league!"
This is a creative addition by Mr.Bell and the fans love it. "Never-second-league!!!"
Having spelt the whole word fans and players plunge into singing the full song "Humba Täterä" which is loud and joyful and nonsensical as befits a carnival song. The fiesta being in full swing I try to find my way down to the exit without slipping on smashed plastic cups. I also try not to imagine what it would be like to stumble now and roll down the about 40 concrete steps.

Outside the night is flashing red-and-white from the stadium, blue from revolving lights on police cars and awash with joy and party-spirit. I don't see many Schalke fans. But I hear they were not happy with their team's performance, not at all.

"Now, if Hamburg beats Augsburg today and Paderborn Bremen we may even go to Europa League, still" a female fan rhapsodizes, but her friend beside her is less enthusiastic. "Oh, no, not Europa. We were so poor last time, we'd be the laughing stock again."
Tonight the laughing is on Mainz's side, though, and the fans vanish into the night, heading for ther busses waiting for them in line. It's no mean feat to transport 34.000 people from the middle of the fields to the main station, but if anyone can do it it's a middle-sized German club known for its notoriusly good spirits: Mainz 05 - the Karnevalsverein.

Samstag, 11. April 2015

Why football???? A Happy Easter Column

There are some things a person has to do in life to be able to say: I have lived! Surf the Niagara Falls. Climb the Eiffel Tower! Nutmeg Lionel Messi! Imagination unlimited. But to tweet simultaneously about football and Jesus definitely belongs on my list of those things. I did just that. Once.
Once is enough.
In the end I blocked two people, one on football and one on Jesus. May they live happily ever after, I don't want to be informed about it.
What is it that makes football as important as faith? That the fact that we can't agree upon a certain fact - or dogma - renders the person who uttered this conviction unbearable in my timeline? In either case?
It was Match Day today. A double match day. Mainz 05, my local club, played Champions League approaching Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga and my be"hated" Paris St.Germain played the Coup de la Ligue final against Bastia. Modern football with its differing time-tables we fervently oppose in Germany made it possible for me to watch both games.

So, here's a walk on the thin edge between liturgy and ... well, liturgy.


A thousand years old. Stood through the horrible bombing on Feb 27th 1945. Just to look at it makes Mainz citizens feel better.

Four years old. Built after lengthy discussions with farmers who wouldn't sell their acres. Still eyed a bit askance by fans who mourn the old and spirited Bruchweg Stadium. Yet, to drive by it on the highway and see it standing in all its red glory (LED-bulbs at night!) makes Mainz fans feel a lot better.

Places you go to to be connected with a higher value. Something greater than you and your daily sorrows and the nagging question which is better: the new iPhone or Samsung? Or what is Putin really up to? Places to forget about these things. Places to put them into perpective. Politics, bills, x-rays - they're all important,. but still - there's more to life than reality. 

"Jo, ho! All together! Raise the colours high! Heave, ho, thieves and beggars! Never shall we die!"

Never's a big word. We'll all die, sooner or later. You sooner, me later, as the old Klingon saying goes. But the colours, ah, the colours they will remain. Our dead are mentioned in the stadium. Minutes of silence are kept. Our dead still belong to us, they are never forgotten.

("I love it when a plan comes together!" Not exactly what Mathias Grünewald had in mind when he designed the Isenheimer Altar.)

And also the living.
Belonging, that's the key word. Being connected with those who were before us, those are around us and those who may be above us ...

You'll never walk alone!

The entrance of the clergy is much the same in football and church, so I'll just insert a football pic here, mainly for copyright reaons (I don't habitually take pictures during entrances in church).


Intermediation. What Martin Luther was so irritated about. Do we need priests to intercede for us with God? Do we need players to connect us with victory and glamour? Luther was fiercely opposed to it. Poor baby! ask yourself, what elates you more - a protestant service or a football game?

Pyrotechnics are evil! They cause thousands of deaths per year! (They don't!) No rational creature can be in favour of them.

Unless it is the Holy Sepulchre, most holy christian cathedral in Jerusalem during orthodox Easter Vigil service. Thousands of candles burning very close to one another, catching fire from one another, blazing, burning, fueling our feelings, our craving for light and warmth and power.


Pure ration must not prevail!

At least not always and everywhere.
Just a couple of days before the game versus Leverkusen, Bayer04 had lost to Bayern München in the DFB-Pokal quarterfinals whereupon exit Bayer 04 Leverkusen from this competition. Tempers were running high since it was a being kicked out per penalty shooting and Bayer-player Emir Spahic had lost his after the game and reacted to the understandably annoying fact that friends or relatives of his were banned from entering the pitch by making his point with fists and headbutting rather than words and gestures.
Mayhem in the media. Logical consequence: Spahic will never again wear the hallowed red-and-black of the most traditional club of Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Shame be upon him! The aggressive beast!

 The fans obviously thought otherwise. The banner reading "Emir, one of us" was shown throughout the game at Mainz. Sportschau commentators scoffed it due to professional requirements.

He, who is without sin among journos and managers, he, who never at least WANTED to headbutt a fellow man (the one slipping into the last vacant parking spot right in front of you, as a randomly chosen example), he, who never chose his words in an article or commentary to raise a laugh from the audience on the prize of hurting a fellow-human's pride or reputation, he may go and throw a stone at Emir Spahic. 
As a theologian I can take it easy, I can just quote the gospel according to John, chapter 8.
We, as the fans, who mostly share neither suits nor car models with the managers and are very, VERY seldom listened to by as many people as the average journalist, but who care deeply about our clubs, maybe, because it's the one thing we allow ourselves to really and truly care about deeply in life, we know that feeling when frustration gets the better of you, when next-door's bully - e.g. Bayern München- steals the show AGAIN. We know you do things then you wish you hadn't done the day after. And we don't judge those who fall prey to their emotions.
We are not the management. Be that advantage or disadvantage.

My home
My love
My club

The end, at least yesterday at Mainz, found me with the losers.  Despite a gallant run after their first goal in min 78. my red-and-white boys left the pitch defeated. I can't say I was surprised. Most of the time the game looked like a meeting of a club fourth in the league and aspiring for the Champions league and a club twelfth in the league with a nervous glance at relegation places - which is exactly what it was. We could have caused Leverkusen more grief, though, if we had woken up sooner to the revelation.

Thus the big screen showed no mercy, either with the likes of Emir Spahic or with us lowly fans.
And our beautiful Johannes Geis, our crown prince of set pieces and free kicks ...

... took the opportunity to show another side of his most lovable character (not to mention his most lovable outward features) in being once again the first of the players to walk up to the stands after the game to hail the fans. At a score of 0:3 we had started singing those songs which don't deal much with winning but emphasize on loyalty and sticking-together-through-the-wind-and-the-rain, and this didn't go unnoticed with the likes of Johnny Geis.
He's clearly bound for more royal ventures than Mainz.
Blast it!

But this is the greatness we connect with. Be it in the Coface Cathedral or the St.Martin's Stadium downtown Mainz. Loss, defeat - we don't savour them, we hate them, but they are part of life, part of a greatness we can't really escape from. All life ends in defeat. Better know it now and be prepared. Better not to face it on your own.

Which is what Easter is about.

And football.

By the way - Paris St.Germain won their cup-final. So, it was the correct line-up, after all. Good Friday in the afternoon, Resurrection in the evening. Hallelujah!