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Mar 3, 2012

Are you sitting comfortably?

When I went to see my first-ever Bundesliga game, I was well-prepared. I had my scarf and a cap and also a bandana-like piece of cloth I wore around my wrist. I knew every player on our team and I even had a vague idea of who we'd be playing against. But most importantly, I had a small, beige-coloured folding chair.

Well, to be more precise: my sister's boyfriend Niko had it, because it was his duty to carry that contraption from my sister's flat to the ground, all the way through the city centre. At the time, it didn't occur to me that Niko must have been a tad embarrassed. After all, he was not only walking next to a fourth-grader who was so excited he literally forgot to breathe occasionally, but he was also lugging a wooden chair across town. However this piece of equipment was absolutely vital to the whole operation.

We had tickets for the terraces, and even though the ground was not as well-filled and our stand not as packed as it would be in later decades, I was simply way too small to see anything but the backs of grown men without outside help. That's why we had the chair.

When we got to the stand, we found ourselves a nice crush barrier, my sister unfolded the chair. I stepped on the seat, grabbed the barrier with my little hands and was ready for action, safe and protected. At least that was the plan. But after a dozen or so minutes, we scored the first goal and a wave of surging bodies cleanly swept me off the seat. Suddenly I found myself about three yards from my sister, her boyfriend, the crush barrier and my chair. It was ... fantastic!

You probably wonder why we didn't simply buy tickets for the seated areas for a ten-year-old's first Bundesliga game, as this would've clearly made things easier. I don't remember the exact reasoning behind opting for the terraces, though I can make an educated guess. Namely that it's just what you do. I mean, you don't go to a football game and then sit down, right? That would be daft, wouldn't it? The old, the frail, and the posh may sit during a game, but for anyone else it's obviously out of the question.

Or wait. Hang on, I think I have to rephrase that. It's just what you used to do. You didn't go to a football game and then sit down. That would've been daft. The old, the frail and the posh sat down during a game, but for anyone else it was out of the question. To do so would have been even more embarrassing than hauling a folding chair and a primary schoolboy in need of oxygen across town.

That's better. I had to put those statements into the past tense, as very many of the people who attend games today don't have first-hand knowledge of this era anymore. I realised this a few months ago, last April, when I was interviewed by a student from Brighton. He was trying, he wrote by way of an introduction, to "understand the experience and atmosphere enjoyed in Germany whilst watching top-flight football matches due to safe standing. As well as how the modern safe standing works and is implemented within modern stadia."

'Safe standing' - you'll see in a minute why I put that in inverted commas - has become a topic again in some other European countries, especially since the Scottish Premier League allowed its clubs to look into 'safe standing schemes' in their stadiums last December. Whenever I follow such debates it always strikes me that many people who loudly voice an opinion don't really know what they're talking about, as they are too young to remember when standing was the norm, and not an exception.

This is the case even in Germany, although we do still have terracing. Three weeks ago, I was on St. Pauli's north stand, standing in front of my seat a few minutes before the game between the hosts and Bochum kicked off. It was a rather cold and windy day, from time to time I would get snowflakes in my eyes as I was clutching a beer and watching the Bochum ultras below us.

Then, as the game began, everybody behind me sat down. I looked around rather sheepishly for a few moments and stared at the brownish plastic seat behind my legs; it was covered in snow. When the first people began to angrily gesture towards me, I slowly sat down on the very edge of the ice-cold seat and stared at the pitch through the snow that was blowing in towards us, feeling like a lab-rat in an experiment to see how inappropriate creatures could behave.

A couple of days earlier, at the Holstein Kiel vs Borussia Dortmund cup game, people had done the sensible thing in sub-zero temperatures - they kept standing all through the second half simply to preserve at least a semblance of blood circulation in their legs and feet. But now I was forced to sit down with the rest of the herd. And this was St. Pauli!

Then again, I do know I've been spoilt beyond belief. One of the questions the Brighton student had was: "When modern terracing was first introduced, how different was it to the more traditional terracing seen across football during the 60s, 70s and 80s?" I suppose my answer must have come as a surprise to him. Because I'm still walking up the same stairs I climbed as a boy in early 1977 to get to our spot, I'm even grabbing the same rail. Then I'm walking across the same concrete steps until I reach the place where the people congregate every two weeks. A few yards to my left is the exact same crush barrier from where I saw my very first game. The only difference, really, is that I no longer have to take a folding chair with me.

That's why I put 'safe standing' in inverted commas. Standing was never unsafe in Germany - unless maybe you were standing on an unsteady chair and didn't expect people to celebrate when a goal was scored. The rickety wooden stands with few and feeble barriers that used to be common in England almost into the 90s were a thing of the distant past as early as the 70s in Germany. I have stood - and I'm not making this up - on a crowded terrace on crutches, as my foot was in plaster, and felt perfectly safe. (The date was March 14, 1995, and there was no way I would've missed the Lazio game.)

In fact, one reason I have an aversion to the seated areas is that I have stumbled over the seats in front of me as everybody jumped up to celebrate a goal on two different occasions, while I have never once fallen down in 35 years on the terraces.

So it's not like we introduced 'safe standing', we just kept standing - despite the repercussions of the Taylor Report that investigated the Hillsborough stadium disaster. I've written about this before - for instance in "A league with a social conscience" in 2007 - so let me just briefly say that, contrary to popular belief, the Taylor Report did not say that terracing was the reason for the disaster or that standing accommodation as such was unsafe.

We kept standing for many different reasons. Some of us felt we needed the terraces to have cheaper tickets for young or less well-off fans. Others thought we needed them to preserve the traditional match atmosphere. Me, I simply believe it's the only proper way to watch a football game. I'd buy a ticket for the terraces even if it were more expensive than one for the seated areas, or if I were the only person on that terrace.

That's a major reason I try to avoid the press stand - it's a bums-in-seats ghetto. In the late 90s, when I took my friend Dick Johnson, a Boston boy, to our terrace, he told me that he and his friends made a point of standing during New England Revolution games, although they obviously had seats at the Foxboro Stadium. I just nodded my head, because, well, of course they would.

I guess now, 15 years later, I can no longer say "of course", because while we kept the terraces, the standing areas have nonetheless dwindled over the years. In 1987, there was standing room for 32,527 fans at an average Bundesliga game. Ten years later, the figure had been cut in half, to 16,683. And in 2007, it was 10,294. (Remember that this figure is skewed by Dortmund's gigantic terrace.)

There is a fan campaign in Germany to keep ticket prices down. It was originally called "Kein Zwanni für nen Steher!" - a colloquial expression meaning people should not have to pay 20 Euros or more for a standing-area ticket. However, the campaign has now changed its name to the more general "Kein Zwanni - Fussball muss bezahlbar sein", football has to remain affordable.

Spokesman Marc Quambusch points out: "We are concerned about ticket prices in general, not just for the terraces. After all, somebody who only occasionally goes to a game has to be very lucky indeed to get a standing-area ticket at all."

In brief, even in Germany, not very many people are still used to standing during a game. This was hammered home to me five days ago. Now that I live 300 miles from my home town, I don't travel to every game anymore. When I can't make the trip, my son uses my season ticket to take a friend with him. It's a different friend every time, as many people are eager to savour the atmosphere of the terraces. Or so my son and I thought.

But on Sunday evening, a couple of hours after the final whistle, he called to indignantly inform me what Benne, his 23-year-old company on the day, had said. "It was great. But can't we take a seat next time? It's more comfortable."

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