“You must be strong,” he said as we sat in the bar in downtown Köln near old fat-fingered men with mustaches sipping tiny glasses of beer. The rest of the contingency consisted primarily of rowdy young meatheads shouting partisan anthems for their favorite team.
My co-worker – he of the ‘strong’ comment – had invited me to attend the 111th Derby match between FC Köln and Borussia Mönchengladbach, one of the great rivalries in the German Bundesliga. Both teams sat at the bottom of the table, though FC Köln had been slightly more successful at getting the ball over the goal line and so hovered in the second to last slot.
The excitement in the bar was palpable and spontaneous demonstrations of team allegiance abounded with deafening, thick, throaty singing that shook the tables and rattled glasses. Sprinkled among the crowd were a couple of tables with fans from the opposing side. Sitting near the hall to the bathroom, we witnessed these poor shlubs as they made their way through the crowd to empty beer-soaked bladders.
And how did the faithful howl. It had to be a humbling experience walking through the throng of jeers. On occasion, a Gladbach fan would make a snide comment and the jeers would escalate to a slap on the back of the head. Tense words would be exchanged and eventually fists would be lowered.
In the days leading up to the match, my co-worker told me about the tense rivalry. While at the bar, I attempted to find out what really happens. Are there hooligans? Cop cars lit on fire? Urine water balloons thrown at opposing fans (a la Guatemala)? Given the hype, I was really expecting some good, old-fashioned excitement.
“The people, they sometimes behave in an unrelaxed manner,” was his only reply.
So we had another beer and continued watching the antics of folks at the bar. While there we discussed FC Köln and their supporters, their key player Lukas Podolski and their extensive songbook. But I kept trying to find out the definition of ‘an unrelaxed manner.’
In the past city officials have had problems during the derby games and so no beer or alcoholic beverages are served at the stadium (you can get non-alcoholic beer, but why?). Bars for three kilometers (or something like that, fact check please?) around the stadium are not allowed to serve alcohol before the game either.
After almost getting in a fight with a random couple at the bar, we boarded the tram headed for the stadium. There I came to understand the true consequences of the alcohol ban at the stadium. The tram was stacked with heavily inebriated bodies singing loudly and once again berating visiting fans, but no violence.
During the game, the only violence to be found was in the back of the Köln net, which Gladbach fairly pummeled with four goals. A once optimistic, rafter swinging crowd was reduced to a head-shaking mass of early leavers streaming out of the stadium.
“But we have the board meeting on Wednesday, so surely things will change,” my friend said optimistically.