It’s 3.30pm on a Saturday and I’ve got tickertape in my beer. This is a novel new football sensation for me, as is the kick-off time come to think of it. 3.30?
The Bundesliga is different, although the most profound experience for a British chap at a German game is an old, long-forgotten one: standing on a proper terrace, free to wander the length and breadth of it at your leisure – or, more accurately, squirm your way through it like a late-arriving concert-goer looking for the moshpit. But the option’s there.
It’s 20 years since the Taylor Report advocated all-seater stadia at British grounds and it’s curious to think that a whole generation of British fans have no clue what this great aspect of our footballing heritage is actually like. I’m old enough to have attended games pre-Taylor but it turns out that standing while spectating is a complex skill that can go surprisingly rusty over a lengthy period.
The opportunity to rekindle it came in Hamburg, at FC St Pauli, which is well established as the most rock ‘n’ roll football club in Europe. I’d hit town for a rock festival and, as luck would have it, one of the organisers had taken possession of a few of his absent friends’ season tickets. Would I be interested in utilising one of these usually impossible-to-get items? Do bears shit in the black forest?*
At ten to three we’re outside the ground – cutting it a bit fine, I’m thinking – when our host, Johannes, explains the traditional matchday drinking process. Alcohol at games is legal in Germany and they don’t mess about. “The great two-beer-per-half routine,” he explains. “It leaves you enough time to follow the game without leaving for the beerstand. And it's not that much so you won't spend most of your time queuing for a toilet.”
That festival, The Reeperbahn, was a full-on, late-night affair though, and after the previous night’s exertions a further onslaught of ale isn’t top of the agenda for the three foreign journalists in attendance. So we poor hungover souls stick with the one pint and nurse it like old men in a Yorkshire pub. Johannes looks at us as if we’re Martians.
"The mood inside St Pauli’s stadium is more like an illegal rave than the sedate fare you’d find at Arsenal these days: constant call-and-response chanting between the stands and perpetual motion from those on the terrace."
Actually two of the visitors are American, and I’m interested to see their reactions when it transpires that we’ll be standing; whether they realised such a concept actually existed, in fact. Sadly, they don’t throw up their hands in horror at the philistinism of it all.
“I’m just proud to be aware of the whole phenomenon of soccer, period,” says Pat, a dead ringer for Stephen Merchant but actually editor-in-chief of the fine music magazine Filter. “I grew up playing, my parents stood on the sidelines to watch. I think most Americans who really, truly give a shit about their teams do stand at sporting events. We have 40 whole hours of the work week to sit on our fat asses.”
Indeed, and we bumbling amateurs follow Johannes into the stadium a good 30 minutes early in order to secure his preferred spot near the front, and are then gently cajoled into a suitably non-obtrusive position by the amused regulars. I feel like a kid going to his first game again. But the terrace at Leyton Orient was never like this.
The mood inside St Pauli’s Millerntor Stadion is more like an illegal rave than the sedate fare you’d find at, say, Arsenal these days: constant call-and-response chanting between the stands and perpetual motion from those on the terrace. It’s always a bit awkward when it’s not your team, so I gesture quasi-aggressively, just to be polite, and chant along to anything in English. If I chanted along to anything in German my granddad would disown me.
St Pauli is a self-styled punk-rock football club but the range of songs bastardised for chants is intriguingly varied: after a few verses of ‘La-la-la-la-la, Saint-Pauli,’ for example, I realise that we’re singing along to the tune of Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon. As the players then emerge to the strains of Hell’s Bells by AC/DC I’m showered in tickertape and fail to notice a clump land in my pint until I start chewing on shredded magazine. We’re a stones throw from the infamous red light district so I’m really hoping it wasn’t a used porn one. Bet it was.
Looking back to that revolutionary post-Hillsborough era, spectators in the UK generally accepted the move to all-seater stadia given the huge attitude shift that came with it: no more fences, nicer toilets, nicer coppers. But a vocal pro-standing lobby has emerged in recent years and, having previously been utterly indifferent, I can now see where they’re coming from. The chaps around us clearly love the intimate intensity of being bunched up like commuters on the Northern Line, and the incessant cacophony they create certainly seems to stir the team.
St Pauli are newly back in the top league and go a goal down to a fluid Borussia Dortmund. But you can’t help but be inspired by this crowd and, against the run of play their promising young striker Rouwen Hennings nets a slightly fortunate equaliser. Dortmund look a bit stunned by both the goal and the tumultuous reaction and are hanging on until the break.
The St Pauli spectators’ half-time ritual? He with the strongest bladder gets the beers in, the others join an unfeasibly long queue for the tiny portacabin toilets, then everyone reconvenes for a lengthy sausage. While the latter is pretty impressive, I’m still babbling about being back on a terrace, like an old raver who’s taken Ecstasy again after 20 years. Johannes isn’t surprised.
“I definitely prefer to stand,” he says. “I’m too nervous to sit anyway. Standing with all the others is much more intense, loud, fun, and what is being a fan about? It's intense, loud, fun. Plus I love the choreography and all the jumping up and down – it’s impossible if there is a plastic chair cutting your knees and keeping you apart from your friends.”
"I’m showered in tickertape and fail to notice a clump land in my pint until I start chewing on shredded magazine. We’re a stones throw from the infamous red light district so I’m really hoping it wasn’t a used porn one."
Ironically we then manage to lose each other for the entire second half, as Johannes rushes back into the throng and we hesitant newcomers watch in horror as the crowd swallows him up, leaving us stranded at the back. We mooch around like missing sheep for a few minutes, then another hardy beer-laden soul ventures forward and I leap into the hole after him, as if hurtling through the Stargate.
Unfortunately my guide then stops just a few steps further down which leaves me awkwardly occupying a space that’s clearly been left for a couple of still-queuing-for-the-toilets girlfriends. No matter, they squeeze me off to the side and we all have a pretty jolly time despite Dortmund scoring a further two goals. That’s four pints for you.
I hook up with a disappointed but philosophical Johannes afterwards, and talk St Pauli, and their plans for a new stadium. Will they take the modern path and go all-seater?Heaven forbid. “Our new stadium will have more stands than seats,” he explains, “and no balcony, which would appear as a natural barrier between fans and ground. This will preserve a lot of our special atmosphere: intense, loud, fun.”
Indeed it has been, and the still-partying home supporters then spill onto Hamburg’s vibrant streets, the evening having only just begun. I, on the other hand, head back for a lie-down and the highlights, which are on at sevenish in Germany. All that standing can be a bit sore on the old soles.
* Actually bears pretty much died out in Germany 170 years ago, but yes, obviously I bit his hand off, in a very polite English way
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