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Apr 19, 2011

Red, white and usually feeling blue

Regular readers will recall that every once in a while I used to let you in on what my workmates were up to. You may, for instance, remember Maurice, the die-hard Cologne supporter. Or The Schalke Fan, who would rather watch a re-run of a three-year-old crime series on TV than follow a crucial Germany game at the European Championship.

This might be the right moment to introduce you to a tall, young lad named Patrick. He is smart and nice and, apart from a tendency to suffer freakish football injuries, manages life well.

There is just one problem. He supports Rot-Weiss Oberhausen.

This, I'm sure you'll agree, is not an enviable situation at the best of times, but right now his allegiance is a particularly heavy load to bear. On Sunday, Rot-Weiss took the lead three times against last-placed no-hopers Bielefeld and still couldn't celebrate what would have been only their second win since November. Consequently, the team is facing relegation from the Second Bundesliga.

Things are so bad the club now finds itself featured on late-night comedy shows. Two weeks ago, the television host Stefan Raab replayed a scene from a sports show in which Thomas Helmer, the former German international, botched his introduction to the match highlights because he couldn't remember how many points RWO have won.

"Well, to be honest," Raab said after the laughter at Helmer's mishap had died down, "nobody really gives a damn how many points Oberhausen have."

The sad truth is that Raab wasn't joking. After all, this is a club that drew less than 4,500 fans on opening day last August. A club that hasn't sold out its ground since a cup quarter-final in 1998; a club which, in the mid-80s, attracted a crowd of only 800 in the Second Bundesliga - on two different occasions.

This indifference isn't just a pity, it's also unfounded and improper. Why? Because Rot-Weiss are a pretty interesting club. Really. Just think of the plastic beer mugs story.

Like many other German clubs, RWO have taken up using higher-quality, solid mugs instead of the old, cheap and thin-walled ones. And like the other clubs, Oberhausen print images onto those mugs, pictures of the players or the club's logo, and use a container-deposit system under which you pay an additional sum you'll get back when and if you return the mug.

The idea, of course, is that a club will pocket some sizeable extra money if the fans don't return these containers but take them home to start a collection or use them in their household. However, normally this plan doesn't work in the away stand, because why would a Bielefeld or Berlin fan keep a mug with another club's logo?

Oberhausen solved this problem in a manner that was as ingenious as it was controversial: They used mugs in the away stand that said "F*** RWO"!

Against Bochum, in September, the travelling support took 600 of those mugs back home with them, which made Oberhausen 216 Euros. "We earned even more extra money on that day," says club president Hajo Sommers with a grin. "There were many Bochum fans who threw their mugs at our players after the final whistle, so we got to keep the deposits from those while still getting the mugs back."

As you will have guessed, there are many Oberhausen fans who don't like the idea of mugs sayig "F*** RWO" at their own ground and some of them asked Sommers to step down. However, such a bizarre stunt probably befits a club whose mascot is a mangy mongrel called Underdog.

Underdog was introduced in 2009 to underline Oberhausen's outsider image. However, his predecessor Cloverbear wasn't mothballed, thus leaving the club with two mascots, neither of which are exactly self-explanatory. (RWO carry a cloverleaf in their badge, but I don't know where the bear element comes from.)

I guess it's becoming clear by now that this club is a pretty strange beast. And it's never been any different. Consider the fact that RWO's history goes back to a merger in the 1920s. Back then, SV Oberhausen and SV Styrum joined forces to become SV Oberhausen-Styrum. Now, the unusual bit is that one part of the medieval settlement Styrum belonged to Oberhausen, another part to Mülheim. SV Styrum came from the latter area and even competed in the Mülheim city league, which means that the merger technically united clubs from two different municipalities.

Or think of the manoeuvres Oberhausen's powerful club president Peter Maaßen would fall back upon in the 1960s. Maaßen was a passionate and vociferous opponent of the idea of a nationwide professional league, the Bundesliga. One reason for his aversion to the plan was that RWO were a poor club and always lost their best players to richer teams. That irked Maaßen mightily and he feared things would get worse once the game went openly professional.

However, agitating against the formation of the Bundesliga wasn't the only action he took to stop the loss of talent. When winger Jürgen Sundermann, later a famous coach and almost a local boy (he was born in Mülheim), moved to Viktoria Cologne in 1962, Maaßen had had enough. He decided that if he could not keep well-known players like Sundermann in Oberhausen, well, he simply had to make sure they remained unknown. To this end, Maaßen stopped informing his players if they were called up to a representative team and quietly binned letters from the German FA.

Unfortunately, these tricks weren't the only ones the president was up to. Despite Maaßen's initial attacks on the Bundesliga, he quickly switched into 'if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them' mode once the new league had become a reality and decided RWO had to be a part of the top flight, no matter how.

In the summer of 1969, Oberhausen finally fulfilled Maaßen's dream and won promotion to the Bundesliga - the dawn of the club's brief glory days. The team stayed unbeaten during the first five weeks and even briefly led the league. In the following season, forward Lothar Kobluhn scored more goals than any other player in the Bundesliga (and that includes Gerd Müller), while his striking partner Hans Schumacher found the net four times in one game, an unforgettable 8-1 rout of Hamburg.

But one day after the end of this season, the Bundesliga bribe scandal broke and it transpired that Oberhausen were among the clubs that had paid other teams to lose. Even though the club was not automatically demoted by the German FA, Oberhausen were eventually relegated in 1973 (and haven't been back since). Kobluhn would not be handed the trophy due to the Bundesliga's top scorer until 2007, when a local fishmonger with friends in high places did some lobbying for his most famous customer.

Maaßen, meanwhile, was suspended. Despite his wrongdoings, the club made him honorary president, yet an era many people would remember as golden had come to an end.

By all accounts, Maaßen, known as 'The Pasha', was a not pleasant person. But he was definitely a charismatic character. And that's another thing you have to like about Oberhausen. There is something endearing about all the misery and mayhem that seems to follow this club, because it invariably involves colourful people.

In May 2008, for instance, the current president Hajo Sommers accepted a wager from striker Julian Lüttmann and promised to make an appearance as a streaker if Oberhausen would win the home game against Erfurt and secure promotion back to the Second Bundesliga.

"We've got women and children in the stands, so I'm not going to streak completeley naked," Sommers explained. "I'm a professional stripper, so I always have a G-string ready."

He was only half-joking. Sommers runs a revue theatre and occasionally acts himself. A few years ago, he starred in a Hamburg stage version of "The Full Monty", the famous South Yorksshire comedy about a group of unemployed men who start a male striptease act.

However, in the end Sommers didn't get to streak, because the game against Erfurt ended in a scoreless draw. I'm sure many fans were disappointed, but I'm equally sure they took it with equanimity - how to deal with setbacks is one of the first things you have to learn when you support this club.

Because despite the cloverleaf in their crest, luck really isn't something RWO have had a lof of in their history. Just look what happened to Lucy.

Lucy was a goose, introduced by RWO in late 2003 as a real-life good luck charm. She followed the home games from the running track, wearing a red-and-white scarf around her long neck. Initially, her presence seemed to work wonders, as Oberhausen actually came close to being promoted to the Bundesliga.

However, in the following season the team reverted to type and slipped down the standings. The results got so bad the club clutched at the last straw - Lucy was banned from the ground. It apparently made no difference, though, and Oberhausen went down to the third division.

But someone must have borne a strong grudge. A few months later, on October 20, 2005, a trespasser broke into Lucy's goose shed, beheaded the poor animal and, bizarrely, took the head with him. The killer was never found.

P.S.: Maurice, the Cologne fan, is no longer my workmate, because he has fulfilled his life's ambition and now works for his favourite club. And The Schalke Fan is also no longer around. He too works, in a roundabout way, for his club. I wonder if this is a good omen for Patrick - or a bad one.

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