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Jun 28, 2011

The land of a thousand derbies

About nine years ago, somebody named Andrew sent a mail to ask if I would be interested in writing columns for ESPNsoccernet, dispatches from Germany about, well, whatever happened to catch my fancy.

Or maybe not literally whatever happened to catch my fancy, as Andrew added the pieces should, ideally, meet two conditions. First, they should have at least a fleeting connection to football. Second, they should tell foreign readers a bit about that mysterious country known as Germany, its mores and rites, tribes and regions.

Andrew has long since left the Soccernet building - to explore the world, I gather - while, 240 columns later, I'm still trying to meet his requirements as best I can.

I'm confident I have usually delivered on the first count, despite the odd piece about cyber vandalism, David Hasselhoff, or the origin of family names. I'm not sure, however, about the second stipulation.

Sometimes I wonder if my references to American national pastimes, English writers exiled in Italy or scabrous Dutch rock bands haven't over the years outnumbered attempts at enlightening you about Teutonic traditions. If that's the case, the height of the summer break seems a good time to rectify this wilful neglect. So let me tell you a bit about German geography and cultural differences between various parts of the country.

This subject is not as far-fetched or arbitrary as you may think. Because, after having spent all of my life in the greatest football region in Germany (perhaps the entire world), I'll soon be moving to what must be described as a wasteland. A place so desolate and barren in terms of football that only Bayern Munich supporters seem to eke out a, no doubt miserable, existence there.

But let's start at the beginning. I was born in the Ruhr area in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the western most federal state in Germany, bordering the Netherlands and Belgium. I have never lived anywhere else, which also means the farthest I've ever lived away from a Bundesliga ground was 20 miles. Mind you, that was more than three decades ago, when Borussia Dortmund were in the second division; I was going to school in Unna at the eastern edge of the Ruhr area, so that Bochum was temporarily the nearest top-flight stadium for me. For the last 20 years, though, the distance has been a mere five miles.

If we confine the description to larger places you may have heard of, then the Ruhr area - Ruhrgebiet - is loosely defined as the heavily populated and once heavily industrialised region between Duisburg to the west, Dortmund to the east, Recklinghausen to the north and Witten to the south. As regards size and population, think Greater London - only with a lot more motorways cutting through the area, vertically and horizontally.

This latter aspect is important because it means that, despite its sprawling dimensions, you can traverse the Ruhr area easily and quickly, provided you avoid the rush hours. And that means you have no less than seven clubs almost literally on your doorstep that have, at some point, played Bundesliga football. There were many Saturdays in the 1980s, with my own team playing away from home, when I decided to go and watch a top-flight game at 2.45pm and was standing on, say, the Bochum terraces in time for the 3.30 kick-off. (Despite modern claims to the contrary, the same went for Dortmund or Schalke, where getting tickets was no problem whatsoever in those years, in the pre-football boom era.)

Apart from the well-known clubs, there are also countless smaller teams in the Ruhr area, teams whose names still carry a certain mystique because they have some ancient claim to fame. And so there were also many lazy Sundays in my youth spent watching clubs such as Schwarz-Weiss Essen, Westfalia Herne or DSC Wanne-Eickel.

This concentration of clubs makes for intense rivalries, which is why a book on football in this part of Germany carries the title: "In the Land of a Thousand Derbies". And from this it follows that football is important here. Very important.

When I talked to Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp a while back, he said this was actually one of the reasons he had signed with Dortmund. "I was attracted by the fact football takes centre stage here," he stated. "This is the most emotional football region in Germany, vastly different from any other in the country."

He paused ever so briefly, then he tossed in the following aside: "The biggest difference, I guess, is to Schleswig-Holstein." Klopp laughed at that and Borussia's press officer, who was sitting in on the interview, grinned broadly.

I'm not sure if they noticed, but my smile was at best perfunctory, probably sour, while I wondered if Klopp might be psychic. How the heck did he know? Was it written on my forehead? Or was he really just making a joke, not knowing he'd just uttered my cue?

Schleswig-Holstein is the northernmost state in Germany, bordering on Denmark and the Baltic Sea. It's the second smallest of our states and one of the least-populated. (Berlin alone has more inhabitants than the whole of Schleswig-Holstein.) It is also the only of the so-called "old federal states" - meaning parts of the former West Germany - that has never had a single team in the Bundesliga.

The two most famous clubs in Schleswig-Holstein are probably THW Kiel and SG Flensburg-Handewitt. If you've never heard of them, it's because they are giants and eternal rivals in team handball.

As regards to football, two clubs you may know are Holstein Kiel, nicknamed the Storks, and VfB Lubeck. Both have had seasons in the 2nd Bundesliga, but are currently playing in the 4th division. Kiel were champions of Germany in 1912 and losing finalists in 1910 and 1930; Lubeck's biggest-ever success was qualifying for the promotion rounds to the Bundesliga in 1969. (Lubeck played Oberhausen, Freiburg FC, the original village club Alsenborn, and Hertha Zehlendorf from Berlin. They drew one and lost seven.)

This place, Schleswig-Holstein, is going to be my new home. It means in the future I will be living 80 miles away from the nearest Bundesliga ground. (Before you ask, I'm moving there on my own free will and looking forward to it very much. Though it has to be said that health considerations are playing an important role.)

In an old column - "The Cologne Paradox", August 14, 2008 - I related how Cologne always used to strike me as totally alien back in the 1980s, because there were no football bumper stickers on the cars and no club pennants in the windows. The second part of said column -published on August 26, 2008 - then explained how much Cologne has changed since those days and that it has become a true football city.

Schleswig-Holstein, by comparison, feels like one large Cologne-in-the-80s to me. You can literally drive around all afternoon without seeing a car that has any kind of club insignia - unless it's summer and you encounter tourists from the Ruhr area flocking to the sea - and I spotted only one single flag in a garden: a Hamburg flag.

Hamburg, HSV, qualify as a local club for the people here, as the team plays, well, only 90 minutes down the road. But that doesn't mean there are many Hamburg fans around. Firstly, I suspect there aren't too many football fans to begin with. Upon learning what I do for a living, my new neighbour told me: "I must say I know nothing about football and don't care for it at all." In the Ruhr area, you have to search long and hard to find somebody who not only feels like this but then also has the guts to admit it.

Secondly, most of the people in Schleswig-Holstein who have a little bit of interest in the game appear to be supporting Bayern. Yes, I know that this is a tired, old cliche. And I'm your first witness when you need someone to testify that both of the two famous sayings - "Bayern don't have fans, they have customers" and "Bayern fans don't come from Bavaria" - are rubbish. I mean, I have shared stands with true and devoted Bayerns fans and couldn't understand a single word they said, so thick were their Bavarian accents.

But it's still true that in all the houses we inspected, looking for one to buy, the boys' rooms had Bayern posters on the walls, not Hamburg or Werder pennants, let alone Kiel, Lubeck or Rostock stuff. These are all clubs within driving distance, but I doubt the teenagers here have ever seen a professional game. Instead, they support a team that is more than 400 miles away yet always on television. You can find this deplorable, but siding with a glamourous club is common behaviour the world over in regions where football does not, as Klopp put it, take centre stage.

It'll be interesting to see how strong the culture shock is going to be. The few times we've been in Schleswig-Holstein in the past couple of months were more like brief holidays, when everything that is different is nice rather than irritating. The jolts, I don't doubt, will come in everyday life.

In the Ruhr area, it's the easiest thing in the world to strike up a conversation with strangers. All you have to do is remark on yesterday's football game. But how do you do that up north? I might have to read up on team handball. Or sailing. In any case, I'll keep you updated, if you don't mind.

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