So, recently myself and nine other lads embarked on a winter beer and football-filled break to Berlin. After a couple of days of Currywurst, Schnitzel, some awful British dancing in German nightclubs and some choice words with some fellow tourists (yes, they were West Ham fans) Saturday came and we excitedly scurried off to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, home of Die Alte Dame (the Old Lady).
The moment you stepped off the train you could feel a difference in fan culture. There were food tents, beer and music as fans of Borussia Mönchengladbach and Hertha Berlin stood side-by-side drinking Germany’s finest lager inside the fan park with not a hint of trouble. As far as I am aware, fan parks are few and far between in the UK, probably because after a few drinks, our fan culture can turn nasty, and fast. Only the Stadium of Light in Sunderland offers a fan park (correct me if I am wrong).
Football in Germany is affordable for the average fan and it attracts a completely different atmosphere around the ground. These fans haven’t had to spend a fortune to watch their favourite players live; and they can still have a great day out without having to worry about their bank statement at the end of the month.
As we strolled into the stadium, we were immediately offered a beer to take to our seats – the novelty of being able to drink beer as we watched the game meant we bit their arm off at the offer and off to our £12 (yes just twelve pounds for a top level match) seats we went.
Straight away the locals took to us, shook our hands, and helped us get amongst the atmosphere and teach us a few songs. It is just a totally different feel to that of a game in England. Looking down in awe of the ultras who bounced in unison to the rather odd tune of ‘in the navy’ was a surreal but amazing footballing experience.
The first thing I noticed during the game was that three rows in front of us were three Gladbach fans leaping up and down as the visitors took the lead. Once again not an ounce of trouble as the Hertha fans watched on with their hands over their eyes, as the hosts succumbed to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of a magnificent Borussia side.
Rewind a few years and travelling a little closer to home, I was at the Boleyn when the Hammers tackled Manchester United during the Avram Grant era, the Irons flew into a 2-0 lead, but fell to defeat thanks to a Wayne Rooney hat-trick. When the third Red Devils’ goals went in, a group of Asian fans leaped up in the East Stand upper tier. After a few minutes of bottles (plastic, of course but that isn’t the point) and abuse thrown their way they were escorted out of the ground. Therein lies the major problem with British fan culture.
Of course, it is good to have a friendly rivalry from time to time, but to actively seek to injure or hurt someone is, in my opinion, totally irresponsible and stupid. And of course recently there was the event at White Hart Lane, which saw a West Ham fan stabbed on his way to the ground. Once again a mind-numbingly stupid overreaction just because he/she wears a different colour shirt to you on a match day.
It would be naïve of me to suggest that there isn’t any football violence in Germany, in fact a quick Google search will tell you there is from time to time, but what I must add is that my experience during my time out there was of a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
And I must also stress that, in all my years of going to West Ham home and away, I have witnessed little violence. However, what remains as a regular occurrence is witless abuse towards opposition fans excused as ‘banter’. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be an away fan sitting amongst home supporters at any club, even if you paid me!
On the flip side though, I am sure as a nation we can be proud at how we reacted to the tragedy in Paris with the mature and poignant response when France took on England at Wembley. The fans at HQ that day were a testament to what English fan culture can be, and if we can maintain that sort of standard on and off the pitch I am sure we will see a change in the way we, as fans, are perceived around the world, both politically and socially.
The thing that struck me most though about the game in Berlin was the sheer passion and unwavering support by the fans for their players. Despite falling to a heavy defeat, the Hertha players received a standing ovation for their efforts, whilst after the Berlin players trudged off the home fans also stood to applaud Gladbach off the pitch too, a terrific gesture.
I distinctly remember, turning to my pal and saying if this was Upton Park, or anywhere in England for that matter, the ground would be empty had the home team been smashed 4-1. Heck, some of our fans leave when we are winning!
This isn’t just a rant about football fan culture in the UK, or having a pop at West Ham fans, but there is certainly a lot the English game could learn from Germany. Of course the obvious one is on the economic side of things, but as fans we cannot do anything about that, the clubs have us over a barrel and they know it.
As football fans we need to show how mature we can be on a consistent basis. Fans in Germany are allowed to take drinks to the stand, they sing and have a good time, and sometimes if you’re really lucky they may share it with you on the train home. Our problem in England is there is always a small minority that let our culture down, and unfortunately that minority can and do make a big noise and a major effect on how we are perceived as a nation.
It’s not just West Ham, it is every club, and every club has its share of moronic fans. And they have a negative effect; this article isn’t going to change that fact. But it may well act as a ‘look at what you could’ve won’ in true Bullseye style.
I do firmly believe, that the positivity from the stands, as well as investment into young German players, plays a major role in the success that ‘Die Mannschaft’ have enjoyed in recent times, and it is a bandwagon that the British must follow if it is going to taste success.
Touching on youth development briefly, before I bring this rather long-winded rant to a close, what frustrates me greatly is as soon as a young prodigy breaks through at a lower level Premier League or Football League team, a club like Chelsea or Manchester clubs flexes their muscles to strike a deal to secure their services, and then just ship them out on loan, or worst still, stick them in the reserves – which completely stunts their growth as a player.
Looking at the German model will tell you that by investing in youth and actually playing them, they will fare better. The German Football Association invest heavily in youth facilities and that is why you are seeing them bringing through players like Marco Reus, Julian Draxler and Thomas Müller, who are now well and truly thriving on the world stage.
But that debate is for a different day, for now my message is for football fans in England to stop thinking it’s the 80s, by all means enjoy a few beers but allow our boys on the pitch to do the talking and not our fists off of it. And I urge you all in your lifetime to soak up a live German game if you can to experience what I did, as it really does give you a different perspective on English football.
Because let’s face it, picture a world in which you can take a plastic tankards to your seat in England and have a pint with your friends whilst watching the game; what could be better than that?
Come on you Irons.