Four weeks ago, my column about relocating to a football diaspora mentioned the North German club Holstein Kiel and noted in passing that their fans and players are known as the 'Storks'. The resourceful Soccernet editors thereupon illustrated the piece with a picture of the club's mascot, a stork called Stolle, which prompted a reader to remark: "I would have guessed Holstein Kiel's mascot to be a cow."
He meant no disrespect, I hasten to explain. Kiel, as noted, is in Schleswig-Holstein, hence the club's official name, and that region is famous for a breed of cattle - the Holstein or Holstein-Friesian cow, if you must know.
While one can indeed spot quite a few storks in this part of the country, it is unlikely that Holstein Kiel's nickname directly stems from the region's indigenous fauna. The origin of the moniker is shrouded in the mists of time, but there are two theories. The first traces the nickname to a local pub; the second says it stems from the red socks and white shorts traditionally worn by the players, as the most common stork in Northern Germany is marked by its red legs and white plumage.
In most walks of life, it wouldn't be particularly flattering to refer to someone as a long-necked wading bird, but in football it's different. Because football, like many other sports, just loves nicknames. In England, the home of the game, we have the 'Owls' (Sheffield Wednesday) and the 'Magpies' (Newcastle and Notts County), the 'Canaries' (Norwich) and the 'Robins' (Bristol City and Swindon Town), the 'Gulls' (Torquay) and the 'Seagulls' (Brighton & Hove Albion). Oh, and the 'Bees' (Barnet FC).
Barnet's nickname leads me to the inspiration for this column: the other day I was sub-editing a piece about Borussia Dortmund and noticed that an esteemed colleague of mine from England was referring to the team as the 'Bees'.
Perhaps it's a mistake that was easy to make, considering the abominable mascot that has been stalking the club's fans and players for the past six years is a bee. Still, Dortmund are not the Bees. In fact, the club doesn't have a real nickname.
Well, you can get away with 'die Schwarz-Gelben'. But that's merely descriptive, as it means the black-and-yellows. And it's by no means used exclusively: you'll often hear the term used for other clubs playing in these colours, for instance Dynamo Dresden or Alemannia Aachen. Both clubs regularly refer to themselves as 'die Schwarz-Gelben'.
In Germany, it's not rare to find a club without a real, proper nickname. Dortmund's neighbours Bochum don't carry a traditional one. The same goes for Essen, another Ruhr area team. In the top flight, we also have Bremen, Freiburg, Hoffenheim, Mainz or Augsburg who don't really have a nickname in the narrower sense of the word.
Of course those teams are known by other expressions, not least because writers - and particularly bad writers - are obsessed with synonyms. Some terms coined by the media have become quite common, such as 'Breisgau-Brasilianer' for Freiburg and 'Kiez-Kicker' for St. Pauli. Breisgau is the region around Freiburg - the term was originally used for the team from the early 1990s that dazzled the country with technically good, offensive football. Kiez, on the other hand, is a colloquial word for a neighbourhood, and in Hamburg it has come to denote the red-light district of St Pauli.
However, such expressions are rarely, if ever, used by the clubs themselves, because they haven't evolved organically (and are often just daft). A strange exception is 'Werkself', literally meaning plant or factory XI. For a long time, this synonym for Bayer Leverkusen was both meant and understood to be derogatory. But at one point Bayer made the very smart move of actually embracing all those pejorative names.
Five years ago, they registered 'Pillendreher' ('pill makers') as a brand name, last year they copyrighted 'Vizekusen' and they have tried the same with 'Werkself'. That didn't work for legal reasons, but the name was put onto the players' shirts and is now used with something approaching pride by the team's fans.
Which is only fitting, as the world of labour and local industries is a common source for nicknames in England, where you'll find 'Potters' (Stoke) and 'Glovers' (Yeovil), 'Mariners' (Grimsby) and 'Saddlers' (Walsall), 'Tractor Boys' (Ipswich) and 'Cobblers' (Northampton). Oh, and the 'Blades' (Sheffield United).
The latter team carries this nickname because Sheffield is famous for its steel and thus cutlery and knives. The German equivalent would be Solingen, often called the Klingenstadt - city of blades. But is the most famous local club, Union Solingen, known as the Blades or at least the Scissors? No. It's another club that doesn't have a nickname at all: they are just 'Union'.
Then again, maybe we can explain the lack of nicknames in Germany by the fact that so many of our clubs already have long official names and carry sometimes flowery epithets such as Union - think of Werder, Eintracht, Hertha, or even Latin ones like Borussia, Fortuna, Alemannia, Victoria. Werder is an archaic German word for a small piece of land in or close to a river. Eintracht means unity. Hertha is a woman's name and in this case refers to a steamship that used to cruise the river Havel in Berlin. Borussia stands for Prussia.
A side benefit of long club names is that they lend themselves to abbreviations. In England, I can only think of QPR. But in Germany, we have BVB and RWE, HSV and FCB, SGE and FCA, S04 and FSV, MSV and KSC and so on. And in contrast to, say, MUFC these abbreviations are not just put on banners - they are commonly used in everyday conversation and thus constitute some kind of nickname.
Then, as noted, we also use a team's colours to generate an alternate name, though the custom isn't quite as widespread as it is in Italy. In fact, there are some traditional nicknames relating to a team's kit which are rarely heard outside inner circles and, when used elsewhere, almost mark you out as an anorak.
For instance, in Munich, Bayern are 'die Roten', the Reds, and 1860 are 'die Blauen', the Blues, but reporters will almost never use those terms. Hamburg have been known as 'die Rothosen', red shorts, for ages, but only supporters use this term, while journalists now tend to use the annoyingly stupid 'Liga-Dino', dinosaur of the league - the idea being that Hamburg are the only club that has never played outside the Bundesliga since it was formed. However, dinosaurs are clearly extinct.
Hamburg's case is peculiar because red is not one of the club's official colours of blue, white and black. Bizarrely, another club to use the abbreviation HSV also use red in their semi-official nickname even though it's not a club colour: Hannover are known as 'die Roten' within the city, though black, white and green are the colours.
For reasons unknown, Hannover's players have been wearing red shirts for almost as long as the Hamburg players have been wearing red shorts. Maybe this explains why the media stick to HSV and 96, respectively, and are reluctant to use 'die Rothosen' and 'die Roten'.
I guess the shortage of real, classic nicknames in Germany shouldn't come as a surprise, considering even our national team isn't known by a nickname. Die Mannschaft, which is often used by foreign media, doesn't qualify, because it merely means 'the team' and, when you use it in a conversation, will probably yield the reply: "Which one?"
As I mentioned during the World Cup, there was a campaign last year to create a moniker for our national team, but it didn't produce anything of lasting value. The name that won the poll was 'die Adler' - the 'Eagles', from the German coat of arms - but nobody uses it.
It seems nicknames just aren't very important to us. Annual English guides such as Rothmans Football Yearbook or the Opta Football Yearbook always listed a team's nickname among the vital club information, but Kicker doesn't do this, neither in its season guide nor in its yearbook.
By the same token, when you look up a football club on the English-language Wikipedia, the box on the right-hand side that presents the basic data always lists 'Nickname' between 'Full Name' and 'Founded'. The German version, however, doesn't have that line at all.
But, thankfully, we do have some pure nicknames - 'Billygoats' (Cologne), 'Lions' (1860) and 'Wolves' (Wolfsburg), 'Foals' (Gladbach, from the young team that won promotion to the Bundesliga in the 1960s) and 'Zebras' (Duisburg, from the striped shirts). Then there are 'die Roten Teufel', the 'Red Devils', of Kaiserslautern and die Kleeblätter, 'Clover Leafs', from Furth.
Personally, I've always liked 'die Knappen' as a term for Schalke, because it's one of the few German nicknames to stem from the world of work - a Knappe is not a squire, as your dictionary probably claims, but rather a young miner.
Sadly, the term seems to have gone out of fashion, as I rarely hear it now from commentators. The same goes for 'die Schlosserjungs' ('Young Metal Workers'), a nickname for Union Berlin. These days, 'die Eisernen', the 'Iron Ones', is more popular.
And of course we have a club with one of the most intriguing nicknames of all, namely Nuremberg, known with elegant simplicity as 'der Club'. The team was so overpowering at the beginning of the 20th century that people in Bavaria began to refer to Nuremberg FC as 'the club', a reverential contraction that later spread across the whole of the country.
That was, incidentally, also the golden era of Holstein Kiel, who haven't won a national trophy since 1912. But who knows? Now that I'm moving up north, maybe the 'Storks' will at last spread their wings and fly again.