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Dec 2, 2013

On the road

Chances are, you didn't follow Thursday's Europa League matches. There's no shame in that; many people all but ignore that competition. Not for nothing is "Thursday night, Channel 5" considered a taunting chant in England.

However, this Thursday, you missed quite a sight. When Frankfurt travelled to Bordeaux for their final away game in the group stage, more than 12,000 fans travelled with them. Yes, that's 12,000.

"There are clubs in Germany that may have more fans," Eintracht board member Axel Hellmann says, "but only few clubs are more active when it comes to travelling." He was so proud of his club's supporters that he did some digging and found out that 12,000 away fans should constitute a record for the admittedly young Europa League.

Like I said, it was an impressive sight. It goes without saying the Frankfurt contingent dominated the Stade Chaban-Delmas, the more so since most of them sported at least one piece of clothing in glaring orange.

It's not an official Eintracht colour, but iconography from "Clockwork Orange," the Anthony Burgess book and Stanley Kubrick film, is of special importance to parts of Frankfurt's support. One ultras group uses an image from the film as their logo, and another calls itself Droogs, after the rampaging gang in the novel.

Every once in a while, the Frankfurt ultras proclaim what they call "Orange Kaos" day, and then they wear something in that colour -- even binman jackets -- which are a fluorescent orange in Germany.

On Thursday, Orange Kaos coincided with a veritable mass exodus from Frankfurt to Bordeaux. That's a 710-mile trip. One way.

Normally, the visiting club is allocated five percent of tickets to a UEFA-organised game. In the Bundesliga, it's 10 percent. That means Eintracht were due only 1,600 tickets to the match in Bordeaux, but the French club increased the away contingent more than fivefold. One reason was that the interest from Girondins fans themselves was only lukewarm. A more important reason was that Frankfurt police told Bordeaux that the German fans would be coming anyway, with or without a ticket.

And so 8,500 Frankfurt supporters ordered tickets through Eintracht, another 2,000 got their tickets directly from Girondins and between 1,500 and 2,000 fans travelled to France on spec and then purchased tickets at the ground from regular offices, or maybe touts.

The old record, says Hellmann, was also held by a German club, Borussia Monchengladbach -- set away at Lazio in February -- when 10,000 Germans were in attendance. That's no coincidence, as travelling to faraway places is a much bigger part of German fan culture than is the case in many other major footballing countries.

I'm not talking about groundhopping, that pastime -- "obsession" might be more fitting -- of visiting as many different grounds in as many different countries as possible, although that, too, has become somewhat of a German speciality by now. After all, it is one of the very few countries to have its own groundhopping association -- you can only join if you have been to at least 300 grounds in at least 30 countries. According to chairman Tobias Plieninger, the association's most-travelled member has been to more than 7,000 grounds.

No, I'm talking about regularly following your favourite team to normal league games. It's alien to Spanish fans and almost openly discouraged in Italy. Even in England, the spiritual home of away support, it no longer comes as naturally as it used to. In October, the BBC reported that "away attendances have declined by 10 percent over the past five seasons," primarily because of the costs involved.

But as far as I can tell, the trend in the Bundesliga seems to be that watching away games is becoming more attractive, not less. As early as 1993, a publishing house from Essen put out a guide for travelling fans. It's still in print and now in its fourth edition.

Five years later, in 1998, the Cologne fan project began offering away season tickets. I don't know if they were the first club-related organisation to do this, but the custom certainly spread during the following decade. Eintracht Frankfurt had away season tickets by 2005 at the latest, Hamburg introduced them in 2006 and Dortmund has issued them since 2007, five or six years after the club's ultras had begun organising such tickets themselves.

Then there was the fan initiative "Pro 15:30", formed in 2001 and since renamed "ProFans." The original moniker referred to the traditional kickoff time for games on Saturday. The fans lobbied for less games on Fridays or Sundays -- let alone Mondays -- because these are very problematic days for travelling supporters. If you're from Bremen and follow your team to Augsburg on a Sunday, you might as well take Monday off, because you'll spend at least seven hours on the motorway after the final whistle.

So travelling is an integral part of fandom in Germany, and you can understand why. It's not only that you experience an unusually strong feeling of togetherness when you're standing on an away terrace with a few hundred, or even thousand, like-minded people, more often than not staring at three stands full of people sporting different colours.

It's also that nothing beats the atmosphere in a packed away block. True, there are many famous stands in Germany, from Schalke's North Curve and Kaiserslautern's West Curve to Dortmund's much-publicised South Stand. However, it's not as if every single fan in these stands is singing all the time or otherwise actively supporting the team. The vast majority just follows the cues it gets from the truly fanatical hard core.

But it's a different story when you're away from home. Then the atmosphere is so electric that you can see sparks flying, metaphorically speaking, because everybody in your block is totally committed. Otherwise, he or she wouldn't be there in the first place.

I once stood with travelling Saarbrucken fans (it's a long story) who sang their own version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" with such deep, defiant fervour and so unremittingly that I would still wake up in the middle of night with the song on my lips many months later.

And there might be another reason supporting your team away from home seems to be the hip thing. Back when I was at an age at which you do such things, my club happened to suck big time. At one point, I just grew sick of travelling all day and then standing in the rain on a terrace far from home only to see us getting hammered. It's the drive back home that really hurts, and I admire everyone who just grins and bears it.

But times have changed, not only for my own team -- which isn't half bad these days -- but for away teams in general. Three years ago, exactly one-third of all Bundesliga games -- 33.3 percent -- produced an away win. That was a record, but the numbers since then have been good, too. Last season's tally was 32 percent, and after this weekend's results, the figure currently stands at 29.4 percent.

Now consider that even a draw is normally a decent result for the visiting team, and you suddenly have the strange situation that the stats are on your side when you're a travelling football fan. You get the journey to a place you'd not normally see, you get the atmosphere and now, you're also increasingly likely to get a result.

It's more than enough to make you want to wear a binman jacket.