The only game in town
Derbies have been in the news a lot lately over here, in Germany. Often for the wrong reasons, such as when visiting Dortmund fans hurled flares onto the pitch and even fired some into the home stands before the Ruhr derby away at Schalke.
Similar scenes played out on Friday, when old rivals Hannover 96 and Eintracht Braunschweig contested a top-flight game for the first time in 37 years. This match was marred by crowd trouble, too, as it wasn't only tempers that flared.
However, the most amazing -- and in some sense purest and most traditional -- derby of all was sandwiched between these two highly-publicised games. It garnered hardly a headline outside the city it was staged in.
I said "purest", because the two clubs' headquarters are less than a mile apart -- and from both it's just a ten minute walk to the ground where the game was played.
I said "most traditional" because the two clubs first met on the field of play in September 1902, which means that this particular derby is older than even the fabled Nuernberg vs Fuerth rivalry.
I'm talking, of course, about the Munich derby between 1860 and Bayern.
Last Wednesday, the two clubs played an exciting game in front of a sell-out crowd, under floodlights and amid an atmosphere for which the term "electric" is woefully inadequate.
Yet you probably haven't heard anything about this game, because it took place in the fourth division. The opponents were Bayern's and 1860's reserve teams. This tie is now the only true derby in town. It is also a wonderful trip into football's past and a painful reminder why that past will never return.
The two clubs' first teams haven't met in the league since April 2004. And for quite a few years, not even the reserve teams played each other, because Bayern were in a higher division. But since the summer of 2011, Munich finally has a derby again, as 1860 II and Bayern II both compete in the Regionalliga Bavaria now, one of the five tiers that form the fourth level of the German league pyramid.
Reserve teams of professional clubs are allowed to play as high as the third division, meaning they cannot win promotion to the Second Bundesliga. In the old days, they were known as the "Amateurs", now they either carry the suffix "II" or are referred to as the "Under-23" side. That's because the rules say that at least eight men on the pitch have to be Under-23 players.
Many football fans are not happy about the fact that the professional clubs' reserve teams are allowed to play competitive league games at all. They have many arguments against the practice, and most of them are sound. But as I made my way towards the floodlights, I couldn't help but thank the powers that be for the reserve team rule because otherwise one of our oldest derbies would no longer exist as a proper contest.
Even if 1860's first team should one day be promoted back to the Bundesliga, they will never again meet their rivals on roughly equal footing, the way it used to be until Bayern moved into the Olympic Stadium in the early 1970s.
But the reserves, that's a different story. Bayern probably have the more promising talents and went into last week's game as league leaders, but the gap isn't gaping. After all, 1860 have a reputation for producing good players (just think of Fabian Johnson, Moritz Leitner or the Bender twins).
The reserve team rule also means that the Munich derby can be staged where it should be staged -- not in the vast Olympic Stadium and not in the Allianz Arena on the outskirts of town but right in the heart of the city, in the legendary Gruenwalder Strasse ground.
It's a municipal stadium, but most people consider it 1860's spiritual home. It's also the ground which the two rivals shared between 1925 and 1972, when the Olympic Stadium opened. For almost half a century, this place witnessed all the big games involving Bayern and 1860.
One of the stadium's many endearing features is that, like an English ground, it's situated in a residential area, which is why one of the classic Gruenwalder Strasse images is that of people watching the games leaning out of their kitchen windows. Another claim to fame is that this is the ground in which Monty Python filmed "The Philosophers' Football Match".
However, on this night both eggheads and comics are in short supply. The police have classified the tie as a high-risk game, which is why there are more uniforms than replica shirts in front of the ground trying to separate the two sets of fans. It's a hopeless job, as both camps approach the ground from all directions, many coming straight from the office or dinner at home.
It makes you understand why the great hope of 1860's support -- that the club will one day return here -- is unlikely to ever become reality. The city has repeatedly stated that it cannot permit the staging of big, professional games at the Gruenwalder Strasse because the security situation is a nightmare.
Once inside, you notice the second major problem. The game is officially sold out, but there are only 12,300 on hand. Large parts of the West Curve have been closed off and are empty, not to keep Reds and Blues apart but because the steps are liable to collapse. It would take a lot of money indeed to bring this place up to modern standards.
However, on this night all of that only adds to the charm and the sense of time travel. And did I just say "only 12,300"? Of course it's a terrific crowd for a fourth division game. Not that you would notice that this is supposed to be a low-profile lower division game, though.
Kick-off is delayed by 10 minutes because there are too many people still outside. For a moment you think it's because the security checks are so thorough that they take up more time than usual. But once the referee blows his whistle, you realise what a foolish thought that was because the game has to be stopped almost immediately, as fumes from dozens of flares waft across the pitch. No sooner has the air cleared than two blue smoke bombs are heaved onto the field. The referee and the players, most of them barely more than teenagers, stop and stare, waiting for the tumult to subside. It's now 20 minutes past kick-off time and we still haven't properly started.
Having finally run out of ammunition, the 1860 fans allow the game to begin and instead start hurling abuse at the Bayern supporters, who are technically the visitors tonight. They won't stop singing songs you cannot possibly reprint here for the next 105 minutes.
On the pitch, Bayern's reserves resemble a miniature version of the first-team. They enjoy the bulk of possession and pass the ball around with the calm confidence of players who know they are wearing the shirt of one of the biggest clubs in the world. The Reds take a deserved lead and appear to be in command, yet somehow you sense that we've only just begun. And indeed, two Bayern blunders gift 1860 two great chances. At half-time it's 1-0.
The second half can't begin according to plan, either. Now the Bayern stand is aflame with flares and a large banner informs the Blues that Giesing, the working-class district around us, will forever burn red.
Who knows, it may have been the moment that turned the game.
Because after having impassionedly watched this colourful display, 1860's players figuratively roll up their sleeves and look like a different team in the second half. They are not as cultured as their opponents, but now they are much more aggressive and give the Reds much less room. Almost immediately the Blues intercept an awful pass and level the score.
Now it's a football game, a proper derby that could go either way. The reason it will eventually go 1860's way is that their goalkeeper makes a string of good saves while their offensive players link up for the best move of the entire match. It splits open Bayern's defence and striker Mike Ott, born in Munich to a German father and a Filipino mother, has the composure to coolly slot home from 10-yards.
Cue bedlam. Dozens of 1860 fans run down the stairs and begin to scale the fence that surrounds the pitch. If this was a game between the senior sides, we'd surely have a full-blown pitch invasion now. The referee is reluctant to continue the game, because he's unsure whether or not those people will stay on their side of the fence. They do and we play on.
The only two things that are missing now to make the final stages thrilling are a great chance to tie the game and maybe a red card. The first comes when Austria Under-19 international Kevin Friesenbichler misses the far post by inches, the second when an 1860 player mows down an opponent as if auditioning for the World Wrestling Federation.
And then it's all over and we walk back to the subway station across broken glass. There are some minor fisticuffs between Reds and Blues, but most attacks remain verbal. "We are the city's number one!" some 1860 supporters triumphantly sing.
Are they deluded? No, they have won a derby.