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May 13, 2008

Deriving pleasure from pain

Lately, the nice guy manning Soccernet's newsdesk has forwarded innumerable e-mails to me. And, er, both of them wondered why I went incommunicado in February. Well, part of the reason is that I have published another book in this country and was forced to bring a low- scale PR tour into line with my day job. (Excuse the cheap plug.)

Anyway, the final week of the Bundesliga season, not to mention Whitsun, seems to be a good time to return from the dead. It's also an occasion to reflect on the trappings of success.

In Germany, Bayern have won the league and Cup double yet again, but what people will remember most is the team's debacle in St Petersburg. This may miff Uli Hoeness big time, but Bayern are certainly not alone in being cursed by their own dominance.

In England, only the Champions League final will decide if it's been a really good season for Manchester United or Chelsea - even though both teams have been amazingly consistent, if you look at it objectively. In Spain, Bernd Schuster is by and large still only a probationary Real coach, despite winning the Primera División.

In Italy, Inter will spend the summer wondering what went wrong yet again in Europe regardless of whether or not they have the Scudetto to caress. In France, Lyon are... well, yawn.

I partly know how these clubs - and their fans - look at the world. In the mid-to-late 90s, my own team rather suddenly became a superpower of sorts. Or thought it had done so, which hastened the decline.

Anyway, I recall a phone conversation I had with Andy Lyons, of 'When Saturday Comes' fame, around that time. In the course of this chat, I mentioned that I had mixed feelings about my club's success, that I - in fact - had the impression that winning, which was supposed to be so thrilling, was actually taking the thrill out of the game. Somehow. At least for me.

The instant I said that, I realised I probably sounded a tad smug. Like one of those Bayern fans I met in the gent's room of Berlin's Olympic Stadium three weeks ago, during the interval before the Cup final's extra time started.

Their team had been literally seconds away from winning before a really stupid goal (from their point of view) tied the match. Yet not a single one of the sixty or so supporters who hopelessly overcrowded the toilet was in the slightest way upset. Instead, they were joking. Yes, joking.

'They got what they asked for,' somebody told me in a heavy Bavarian accent. (The ten minutes I spent in this gent's, incidentally, convinced me the theory that Bayern fans don't come from Bavaria is plainly wrong.) 'Yeah, we were begging for that goal,' someone in Lederhosen - really! - agreed and added: 'Dortmund deserved that equaliser. They were the better team in the second half.'

Understand - these fans were talking among themselves, they had no idea I was from Dortmund. Finally, just as I was about to leave the room, I overheard someone say: 'Ah, what the hell! Luca Toni will score another one.' And, as you may know, that's exactly what happened.

Back to my conversation with Andy Lyons a decade ago. Like I said, I suddenly suspected I sounded like a fan of a club so huge that winning has become second nature and is taken for granted so much that only truly big wins jar you - or, and this is the point, defeats. Did I sound like someone who secretly prays for a string of defeats to make things interesting again? In brief, had I turned into a nutcase?

But then Andy said: 'I know exactly what you mean. It was the same with Everton, ten years ago. And from my own experience I can give you this advice: enjoy it while it lasts - because it won't last for long.'

Most of the next ten years proved him right. And even though those years were often pretty tough and the football too often ugly, I don't really rue the fact we have become a more normal club again.

The Cup final was a case in point. For us, it was a big, big occasion - for Bayern it was business as usual. (When, as part of the pre-game rah-rah, their own announcer rattled off Bayern's previous Cup victories, he had to read from a paper to get it all right.)

Let me illustrate this with a story.

For the Dortmund fans, it wasn't easy to get tickets as the demand vastly outnumbered the supply. Your best bet was to buy tickets from Bayern fans, which is also how I ended up at the wrong end.

Now, a friend of mine secured his presence in Berlin by winning an auction on eBay. The thing is that this auction was for a special kind of ticket - one for a disabled supporter. Which meant that the ticket was in effect for two people, namely a disabled person and his or her helper. And so my friend took part in - and won - another auction. For a wheelchair.

I took a photo of my friend and a pal of his (who was in the wheelchair, wearing a Dortmund shirt) at the Olympic Stadium. It shows them earnestly talking to an usher about where there was room for them. Then I lost sight of the duo. As it later turned out, that was because the exceedingly friendly ushers figured they'd rather watch the game in the Dortmund stand and allowed them to move over to the other end.

The next day, I called my friend on the phone to hear how it went. 'Oh, it was cool,' he said. 'When the game was over, we left the wheelchair at the ground because we have no use for it anymore.' I was just about to imagine what the cleaning squad must have thought at the sight of a lonely wheelchair when my friend said: 'Well, of course there was a problem when we scored. Because the idiot really did jump out of the chair to celebrate!'

As it turned out, it wasn't too big a problem. My friend explained the situation to the ushers, who had been understandably surprised at the sight of such a sudden healing. And they just loved the story.

The same went for the genuinely disabled supporters around them, who all kept telling the (largely Berlin-based) ushers that somebody who went to this length to watch a game was a true fan and that you'd only find such commitment in Dortmund.

Well, you'll also find it in many, many other cities and at many other clubs, of course. But I do wonder if somebody who supports Bayern - or Chelsea, or Real, or Lyon - would have done something as crazy as that, unless a Champions League final was at stake.

And why should he, really? For the guys I literally rubbed shoulders with in that sticky gent's there will be another final, another trophy next year. Or, at the latest, the year after that.

So, if you happen to support a smaller club and envy the big dogs - don't do it. They have more silverware, but you have more fun. And better stories to tell. Even if you lose to another Luca Toni goal.


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