Fußballclub Union Berlin build for the future

Union Berlin, a side usually recognised as the city’s second biggest behind Hertha BSC, have growing ambitions. Ones that will see the Stadion An der Alten Försterei be given yet another face lift.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

There come occasions in life when you plan something to a tee, only for circumstances to change or for something to unexpectedly get in the way. To carry out your plans to the utmost detail, you require determination of the highest order. Compared to others, Union Berlin’s ardent support have the required trait in abundance. They also have the stories to show for it.

Back at the end of February, I visited the sublimely historic city of Berlin. On the cards was Union Berlin’s Saturday outing against SV Sandhausen at Stadion An der Alten Försterei. ‘Special’ is a word banded about too often nowadays, but the Union Berlin fan-base well and truly live up to the adjective’s meaning.

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Union Berlin 2 –  1 SV Sandhausen, Stadion An der Alten Försterei

In 2004, the club faced bankruptcy and required €1.5m to avoid going out of business. Their support rose to the fore by setting up a “Bleed for Union” campaign where fans gave blood and forwarded the money to the club. Another hardened fan, Dirk Zingler, stumped up the rest. He remains their owner to this very day.

Then in 2008, Union were faced with being thrown out of 3. Liga due to their infrastructure being at breaking point. The club couldn’t afford the sums required to bring Stadion An der Alten Försterei to the required standards, yet this is when the Die Eisernen once again showed their determination and backing for the club.

2,400 fans helped modernise the stadium in less than 300 days. Overall, a majestic 140,000 hours was offered by the volunteers and Union had a fresh new home. Regardless of their own areas of expertise, these fans managed to pull off the spectacular and that season, Union Berlin rewarded their support by being crowned champions of 3. Liga and being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga where they’ve stood since.

When standing on the terraces with the Union support, the sense of togetherness is unique. They know the sacrifices they gave to the club made a true difference, as they can see it all around them in the refurbished stadium. Yet, more improvements to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei are in the offing.

Plans were announced in June 2017 to increase the capacity of their alte Forsterei from 22,012 to around 37,000 by 2020. The €38 million reconstruction work, due to begin in 2019, will mean the stadium will hold a standing capacity of 28,692.

Seating capacity, meanwhile, will be increased to more than 8,000 seats to meet German Football League requirements for top-flight football. Union want the alte Forsterei, built in 1920 and set in the mesmerising woods of Kopenick, a Berlin suburb, to “keep its character and remain unique.”

In a statement on the club’s official website at the time, president Dirk Zingler said: “It was important to us that this historic place for our club grows to meet future requirements. We want a tight stadium with standing terraces.”

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FC Union Berlin fans.

Jon Darch, avid Union Berlin fan who heads the Safe Standing Roadshow in the UK, believes the club are preparing for a push for promotion.

“With the stadium currently bursting at the seams,” Jon Darch told Football Foyer, “almost always sold out at 22k and the new rule from the German Football League saying that stadia in the top flight must have at least 8,000 seats (the alte Forsterei currently has only 3,600), this expansion makes a lot of sense – given that Union naturally hope to get promotion one day.

“Given that average crowds have increased from under 10k to over 20k in less than 10 years, I don’t think there will be a problem in growing the average attendances again… at the very least, I can see the 28.5k terraces being sold out regularly, though maybe a few seats will be left unsold (at times).”

Still it’s worth bearing in mind that with extra capacity comes extra noise. This has potential to further strengthen the fortress-like atmosphere for the home side.

“Of course, as Unioner,” Jon Darch explained, “we don’t like being told by the authorities how we should enjoy our football and as standing is a core part of the club culture, the expansion will be almost exclusively additional terracing. From just over 18k standing capacity now, it will increase to 28.5k, which is 500 more than even BVB have in Dortmund!

“With 28,500 Unioner standing, I can’t see the atmosphere suffering. Hopefully we will just be even louder!”

Loudness is something the Union faithful see as the norm and, with the season just underway, they’ve sprung out of the blocks in confident fashion. Now coached by the experienced Urs Fischer, who holds two Swiss league titles and UEFA Champions League experience from his time at Basel, they seem to be laying out their ambition to knock it with the big boys of German football.

Having beaten Erzgebirge Aue 1-0 on the opening day, they earned a respectable 1-1 draw at recently relegated Köln, before disposing of Carl Zeiss Jena 4-2 in the DFB Pokal. Up next at the alte Forsterei is FC St. Pauli, who began the season in even better fashion with consecutive wins against Magdeburg and Darmstadt 98, respectively, before a disappointing exit in the DFB Pokal to Wehen Wiesbaden.

Having visited both the alte Forsterei and St Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion back in February, I’ll be keeping a close eye on their upcoming clash. Both teams offer unique elements of fandom, bouncing atmospheres, warm welcomes and wealth of character. True patrons of German football. Teams I long to revisit again soon.

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Groundhopper: The 100th Dutch Cup Final

One of the biggest dates in the Dutch football calendar saw Az Alkmaar up against Feyenoord in the KNVB Beker. Olav Sierag talks us through his recent groundhopper experience.

By Olav Sierag

Back in April, AZ Alkmaar played against Feyenoord in the 100th final of the KNVB Beker – the Dutch Cup. Every season it stands out in the Dutch football calendar as one of the highlights. A final is always a great experience. In The Netherlands the expectations are well known: a lot of buses on the highway, a sold-out game and loads of fireworks. Not only on the stands, also on the field.

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Dozens of buses arrived in Rotterdam.

This year Feyenoord should have been satisfied with every draw thrown their way, as they didn’t play a single away game. However, we should remember the fact they defeated PSV in the quarter final. Only a few clubs defeated PSV this year.

AZ wasn’t so lucky with their draws this season. With trips to cities like Sittard and Maastricht, they accumalated more kilometers than anyone else in the Netherlands. Fortunately the fans were rewarded with reaching the next round each and every time.

Like every year the final was played in De Kuip, one of the most impressive stadiums of The Netherlands. With a capacity of 51,117 it’s the second biggest in the country. In the past a lot of important matches took place in Feyenoord’s home, including several European finals, with Feyenoord – Dortmund the last one in 2002.

Nowadays, De Kuip isn’t the modern stadium UEFA search for. But the fans in Rotterdam don’t care about that. De Kuip is connected to the club. It breathes football. A sold-out match brings an intimidating atmosphere. It doesn’t surprise you that fans have protested for a while against the club’s plan to build a new stadium.

On the other hand, AZ were excellent throughout the 2017-18 season. Many people called them ‘the team which plays the most attractive football’ and considered AZ as a very talented team with a lot of potency. On the other hand Feyenoord had a disappointing season. Having been Eredivisie champions in 2017, they could not hold their standards this year.

Nevertheless, Feyenoord defeated AZ twice this season. In Alkmaar they dominated AZ, who had an off-day. In Rotterdam AZ was a bit unlucky not getting a 100% penalty. But as you know, in a final everything starts again!

Before the game the atmosphere on both sides was excellent. Combined with the fine weather it promised a great day for us. Accompanied with a lot of firework on the stands, the players entered the field. I am not a supporter of both clubs, but my seat was in the AZ end. We had nice places around the corner flag. Because of this I had a great view of both groups of supporters. On the left Feyenoord’s side, with Alkmaar fans to the right of me.

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A lot of fireworks from both sides when the players entered the pitch.

Despite this AZ did not reach the level they had played for the rest of the season. Yet in the first half, neither did Feyenoord, but they at least managed to score after thirty minutes to go 1-0 up at the half-time break.

A lot of scenario’s could have occurred in the second half. AZ nearly scored two goals with the strong attackers they possessed. Unluckily for them, Feyenoord made it 2-0 following a fine counter-attack. AZ battled hard to get back into the final, yet this wasn’t to be their year. In stoppage time, Feyenoord completed the victory and started the party by making it 3-0, and with that AZ lost their second final in two years.

A lot of disappointed faces sat around me. This wasn’t the final they expected. The great AZ everyone has been talking about, did not show up today. The 15,000 fans travelled back home in dire moods.

And the other side of the stadium? They celebrated the win until late.

All in all, a fine final. The game wasn’t spectacular, but Feyenoord made a great tifo with a lot of smokebombs. AZ also didn’t forget their fireworks and won the vocal battle in the stands. Next year will be the 101st final of the cup. Obviously I can’t say I will attend the final, but one thing is for sure: let’s hope we can enjoy many more finals in De Kuip!

Photos:

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Video compilation AZ:

Video compilation Feyenoord:

 

 

 

Groundhopper: West Country Derby at Twerton Park

Following a recent groundhop to Bath City’s Twerton Park, Peter Gubbins recounts the occasion and hails the historic view to be had from the stadium.

By Peter Gubbins

Back at the beginning of April, I bore witness to a high scoring yet one-sided game. 5-1 is the highest-scoring match I’ve seen and it was set in a picturesque stadium that is sat on a ledge overlooking the historical city of Bath. It was a breathtaking experience and lots of fun watching all the goals go in.

For a derby of sorts, the game was relatively one-sided in Bath’s favour; the scoreline backs up that statement. However, Gloucester scored the first goal, against the run of play, in the 24th minute but the Romans got back into it ten minutes later when Opanin Edwards hit the equaliser. Bath City extended their lead towards the end of the first half when Miles Welch-Hayes (who for me was the man of the match) scored in the 43rd minute.

Twerton Park is an amazing stadium, the best I’ve been to, and it holds a beautiful view over Bath with the main stand still in shot. I managed to get this view at half-time.

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On the right-hand side of the shot, where you can see a few black roofs of houses just outside the exit, that in fact goes down a steep slope to the main road where the city descends further towards the river. Twerton Park is one of the few flat areas on the slopes around Bath that aren’t near the river like The Rec.

In the second half, Bath was in complete control and went on to add a goal straight after halftime in the 46th minute through Tom Smith. Then, in the 57th, Antoine Semenyo added another before going on to conclude the victory in the 81st minute to round off City’s biggest win of the season.

On this performance Bath looked good going into next season and will surely improve defensively so as not to let in that early goal which was against the run of play. As a whole, the match was extremely entertaining and the location was one of the best. From now on, I look to pre-season for the next few matches before next season begins.

 

Groundhopper: Malmö FF

“When we entered the stadium we were met by a wall of baby-blue, all holding banners proclaiming Malmö’s championship titles and massive flags with the club’s crest. That’s an image I won’t soon forget.”

By Tim Blount

För helvete… KOM IGEN!!

I’m an American… I’ve been to plenty of football games. But football? As in a sport that’s actually played with feet? That’s something completely foreign to me. So, as a foreign exchange student in Europe, I decided I would dive right in.

I bought tickets to a Malmö FF match versus Dalkurd FF when Nick came to visit me during my last week in Sweden. Just a 15 minute train ride from where I stay in Lund, Swedbank Stadion lies not too far from the shadow of Malmö’s iconic Turning Torso building. We arrived to the stadium plaza an hour early and went straight to the team store to pick up some of the team’s baby-blue merchandise for souvenirs.

Donning our new colors like a pair of veteran fans, we grabbed a beer at O’Leary’s sports bar and rushed inside to make it to our section just in time for kick-off. We slid in with the Malmö faithful – a standing-room-only section with cheaper tickets and a rowdier atmosphere – for an ideal first taste of professional football in Europe. Armed with my limited knowledge of Swedish, we sang along with the chants I remembered from a Malmö hockey game, and faked our way through the ones we didn’t understand.

Dalkurd, last in the Allsvenskan coming into the game, stifled the home team defensively and connected on a 43rd minute goal despite not having possession for the majority of the first half. We were surprised to learn that Malmö, which has dominated the league historically, has struggled this season. Ignoring the team’s recent misfortunes, Nick prophesied a goal within the first fifteen minutes of the second half and a 2-1 comeback victory.

Malmö came out of halftime with furious pace, while Dalkurd seemed to be content to run out the clock. The visitors could only fight off the oncoming attacks for ten minutes before a long strike by Carlos Strandberg made good on the first part of Nick’s prediction and tied the game. The celebration was the most memorable portion of the game, as the crowd erupted in cheers briefly but quickly fell back into organized clapping and chanting.

Unfortunately, Malmö’s effort was not enough and Dalkurd hung on for a 1-1 draw. The body language of the players and fans let us know that it was more of a loss than a tie for the home team. A disappointing result did not mar an excellent fan experience, however, and we returned home with Malmö chants stuck in our heads until we fell asleep.

It was easy to infer, as a first time fan, that there is much more to football than displays of athleticism on the field. In fact, the atmosphere in the stands will prove to be much more memorable than the on-field product that day. When we entered the stadium we were met by a wall of baby-blue, all holding banners proclaiming Malmö’s championship titles and massive flags with the club’s crest. That’s an image I won’t soon forget. Additionally, the passion was unrivaled. I think the man leading the chants deserves a month-long vacation to repair his vocal cords.

After the match, we had several people stop us on the street to ask us the game result because of our jerseys. If not for my spotty Swedish, we might have even passed for regulars! While we will surely never truly live and die by Malmö’s successes and failures as their loyal fans do, I am grateful to have been accepted into the community if only for a day.


Tim Blount is part of a group of four university friends who run A Tinkers Damn blog. They created challenge lists for the purpose of conquering fears and engaging in new experiences. By documenting their progress online, they aim to inspire others to challenge themselves and take advantage of all life has to offer.

Tim’s visit to Malmö was 114. Experiencing a European Football Match.

Groundhopper: Tango and Football in La Boca

“We all have dreams, plans, bucket lists and after watching the Argentina ‘78 World Cup on television at a young age; South America was my number one place to visit before it was too late.”

By Tommie Collins

We all have dreams, plans, bucket lists and after watching the Argentina ‘78 World Cup on television at a young age; South America was my number one place to visit before it was too late.

My brother was in on the trip of a lifetime and the planning started two years ago. We eventually settled on Argentina and Chile, cue the outcry from some family members you’re not going to Brazil – it can wait…

The plan was to see some football, soak in the cities’ vibes and luckily for me a bit of cycling. We opted for March as it is still their summer and two weeks would suffice. The fixtures came out and the planning started on how to get tickets. There are numerous clubs in Buenos Aires with Boca Juniors and their rivals River Plate being the most famous.

We realised quite early that getting tickets for either of these clubs is a challenge and extremely expensive. Boca were home to Tigre on the Saturday, and due to the demand for tickets you usually have to go through legitimate companies to secure tickets ranging from £134 – £200. However, they do provide beer and transport but you still wonder how they justify the price.

Ticket please

We decided to leave it until we got there and take our chances. We visited Huracan on the Saturday morning to try and obtain tickets for their match the following day against rivals San Lorenzo. We had to join to become Socios (members) and show our passports, which we’d left at the apartment, meaning that game was off the agenda. So we had a quick Quilmes and headed for La Boca.

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Scouting for tickets.

In desperation I contacted the tour companies for Boca tickets but they had sold out. I was now regretting the fact that I hadn’t bitten the bullet and paid up. As luck would have it, I went to an ATM to take out enough money in case I came across a ticket, there was a guy in a Boca shirt and I asked him if he knew of tickets?

“Follow me,” he replied as we caught bus no 29 straight to La Boca, passing the impressive Alberto J. Armando (La Bombonera) to our right.

Our friend Santiago (he was Italian) knew everyone and the walk to the bar to meet our ticket guy took a while. The whole area was a sea of blue and yellow with couples dancing to the Tango in bar doorways. Shops were selling all kinds of Boca merchandise, there was a great vibe about the place – although we were warned to avoid at night! I must add that I never felt threatened or intimidated during any of the games I attended.

We were lead into a bar where Santiago’s friend quoted me a price of 2500 Argentinean pesos which I knew equated to approximately £100; I bit his hand off and agreed the price. He went on his way to get the ticket, that turned out to be a membership card. What happens is the fans are all members and they sell on their cards for inflated prices to foreigners who want to attend their games.

We waited a while having another beer, this time an Imperial that was smoother than Quilmes, not as nice but served in a glass similar to a jam jar. Santiago told us “Don’t worry the wheels turn slowly in S America.”

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Street football.

Our man came back, we sorted the money out by paying a guy who put it through his computer – it seemed legitimate? We were given our card and away we went towards the ground passing kids playing street football and as we got near to the ground the security checks started – six in all.

The police presence was high despite away fans having been banned in Argentina for a number of years due to violence leading to deaths amongst supporters. You could argue that it has sanitised the atmosphere, but it hasn’t and I suppose it’s testament to the ban that so many young people attend the matches.

When I got to the sixth check the guy said to me ‘passport’. I despaired and thought ‘oh no’ at the last hurdle – there was a standoff, I then muttered the word hotel, he grinned and signalled me through. He knew I was a foreigner (people from abroad are called foreigners not tourists in South America).

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Thumbs up.

I was through, I took a couple of photos and sprinted for the entrance, climbed the stairs and came out in the middle tier and what a sight, a proper old school of a ground, steep steps, no seats, fans crammed, steep stands with floodlights above the roofless stands and barbed wire fences – reminded of me of Stamford Bridge in the 80’s.

Passion

The singing was loud, all of the ground in unison with all ages joining in, there were some kids above me and it was great seeing these boys, I suppose their highlight of the week joining in and singing with passion, and no half & half scarfs in site. What tickled me most was kids clinging on to the fences but tied to them with jumpers and jackets in case they fell – proper old school.

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Old school.

To be honest the game wasn’t the best, Carlos Tevez was up front for Boca, Tigre seemed to huff and puff, also due to a platform sticking out from the tier I couldn’t see the goal, but I was happy to be there soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the sight of the locals loving every minute of it.

The opposite end was the main section of the barra bravas – the stand has the 12th man emblem on the terrace, also the away dressing room is situated underneath so the barra bravas go there a couple of hours before kickoff to sing and jump to create fear in the away teams mind. The match finished 2-1 to Boca.

We walked for a while and eventually caught a taxi back to San Telmo where we once again enjoyed a few cold Quilmes bottles. For any football fan that has had enough of the sanitised game in Britain, in the words of Jake Burns – Go For it.

Groundhopper: Fútbol in the Spanish Capital

Following a recent trip to the Spanish capital of Madrid, Gethin Boore recounts his visit to Alcorón’s Estadio Santo Domingo, AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque and Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

By Gethin Boore

A few months after a great weekend in the Basque Country, it was time to head over to one of the biggest footballing cities. Some might think Real and Atletico Madrid are the only teams from the city, but as you flick through other names such as Getafe, CD Leganés and Rayo Vallecano, you wouldn’t necessarily know they are based in the capital. This time I watched three games, one in the Primera Division, one in the Segunda Division and one in the Segunda B.

My first game was on the Saturday as I went south of the city to Alcorcón for their Segunda Division game against CD Tenerife. They were formed in 1971, and first reached the Segunda in 2012. They are well known for thrashing their community neighbours, Real Madrid, 4-0 in the Copa Del Rey in 2009, who included Raul, Karim Benzema and Marcelo in their team. They have remained in the Segunda since that first promotion in 2012.

The town is around twenty minutes from Madrid’s Atocha train station, and it was pretty quiet when I arrived with my Dad. There was about four hours till kick off, and we needed to make sure that we had tickets. As we arrived at the Estadio Santo Domingo, it struck me how many 3G pitches surrounded the main stadium.

When we arrived at the ticket office, it was closed, so youth games was our entertainment for half an hour or so and one game involved a Real Madrid Peña, in which they seemed to concede at least 12 goals within the first five minutes! Although all of the surrounding pitches were 3G, there was one which was basically just sand, and which was occupied by South American immigrants.

We got our tickets, and headed to an Alcorcón Peña, and it was more of a Tenerife territory. In amongst the supporters from the Canary Islands were English supporters from Manchester, who follow the Blanquiazules across various cities in Spain. They were with the rest of the Tenerife fans, and they were in full voice at the stadium too.

As soon as we sat in our seats, Tenerife were awarded a penalty, which was tucked away nicely in front of the away fans. The home atmosphere heated up a bit, and Alcorcón were awarded one as well, and it was 1-1. The second half was full of bad crosses really, and neither side threatened to score, and a draw was a fair result in the end.

Coming into the game, both sides were battling in mid-table, so the match itself always wasn’t going to be incredible. The ground was compared to Hereford’s Edgar Street, where one stand has two tiers, and that you can’t see the touchline. Everyone knows that the Primera’s style of football is much slicker than the Segunda’s, but what was comic was the awful standard of crossing.

The Sunday after featured two games. The first game was in the Segunda Division B Grupo 1 between AD Union Adarve and the leaders Fuenlabrada. That league is in the third tier of Spanish football, as there are four different regionalised divisions spread across the country, and neither of these sides have played in the Segunda. The name of the ground is Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque, named after… yes, the Vincente Del Bosque. It is located in Madrid’s business area, where the only stand faces four gigantic towers, which gives it a surreal setting, as it’s also not far from Plaza de Catilla and further on the Bernabéu.

It was a free entry to get into the game, and everyone had to squeeze into one stand facing the towers. Marca gave the crowd 1,000, including 200 odd Fuenlabrada fans and ultras, including one guy wearing Atletico Madrid’s infamous ultra group Frente Atletico t-shirt. The game itself definitely wasn’t the best, as it finished 1-1 with Fuenlabrada scoring first in the first half, before the home side made it all square in the second period.

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AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque.

We then had a Metro ride to the north-east side of the city to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid’s new ground, as they faced Athletic Club Bilbao.

This is a fixture that goes back to 1903, when Atletico were founded by a group of Basque students. Their colours were blue and white, before they changed to their traditional red and white strip, and they became known as Los Colchaneros due to their kit being compared to mattress covers. The two giants of Spanish football battled it out in the 2012 Europa League final, in which the capital side won 3-0, and Athletic were the last away team to play at Atletico’s old ground, the Vincente Calderon. The move to the new ground wasn’t something the fans agreed with, because of their switch from their traditional neighbourhood to the other side of the city.

The game itself promised not to be the best because of Atletico’s defensive style of play, but there was no need to play defensive, as the Lions were without their top scorer and legend, Artiz Aduriz. Los Indios won the game 2-0, with goals from Kevin Gamiero and the mad-man himself, Diego Costa. It was a significant win for Atletico, as they played with class, and if felt like they could catch the leaders, Barcelona.

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Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m someone that likes old-school stadiums, but I have to admit that the Wanda is something else. The atmosphere was brilliant, and so much better than what you experience in the Premier League. The one man that definitely helps the atmosphere is the manager, Diego Simeone, as he rarely stops bouncing around on the touchline.

So, Madrid, the capital of this football mad country, definitely didn’t disappoint. We ticked off three grounds, all at different levels, all completely different. However, there are loads of grounds to tick off in the city. Clubs like Fuenlebrada, Rayo Vallecano and Leganés are apparently all worth the visit, and I do highly recommend visiting the Advare and Alcorcón, and of course, the magnificent Wanda.

Again, another brilliant trip in Spain. On to the Community of Valencia next.

Also, if you want to know more about football in Madrid, head over to watch YouTube vlogger Roddy Cons with his channel TheTeamOnTour, where he goes groundhopping to various games in Madrid, from La Liga to the Tercera.

A Visit to FC St. Pauli: The Glastonbury of Football

Welcome all refugees, anti-homophobia flags, festival-like atmosphere and a few U-Bahn mishaps. Welcome to our match day experience at FC. St Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Welcome all refugees. Fuck the Nazis. Anti-homophobia flags aplenty. Less caring for the match result, more about the enjoyment that accompanies the occasion. Welcome to match day at FC. St Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion.

Upon approaching the stadium, graphically trippy images greet you along with the bolded Millerntor-Stadion print. With a polar vortex swallowing most of Europe, snow also surrounds the iconic stadium – increasing the mystical feel.

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Walking towards the Millerntor-Stadion

The Millerntor-Stadion, within a stone’s throw of the docks and renowned Reeperbahn red-light district, houses football’s most ardent left-wing followers.

Three decades ago, a following from St. Pauli’s squatting community were first seen behind the manager’s dugout. There they would chant against fascism and racism. From then on FC St. Pauli’s following became renowned for being punks, embodying left-wing beliefs, stating everyone would be welcomed at the Millerntor.

They adopted the skull and crossbones flag, which remains famously adorned across the club’s world-famous commercial juggernaut to this very day. With this came new supporters, who rejected the neo-Nazi vibes elsewhere in football during that period.

Over the years, the fans have also proven to be their beloved club’s saviours. When facing financial difficulties, they staged fundraising initiatives such as Drink for St. Pauli, where local landlords would donate 50 percent from each beer sold. Here, the club and fans are one – a close-knit community, the perfect hand to fit the glove.

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A club clear in their message. Image: @FootballFoyer

On the cards this particular day was a local derby against Holsten Kiel, a team situated the mere 30km from St. Pauli. I arrived early, a good two hours prior to kick-off. Yet this doesn’t explain the obstacles encountered that very morning.

Catching an early 7am train from Berlin towards Hamburg, all seemed to be going rosily, and as with such occasions – complacency kicked in and a slight bump occurred in my journey. Twenty-seven miles east of Hamburg, a minor accident happened further along the line. My train stopped, everyone was heading out – the train was going no further.

Hoping to step out into civilisation, I soon realised I wasn’t so lucky. Having got on the train in 2018, it felt like we got off in 1978. The place, called Büchen, seemingly had no businesses open. Taxis, with none in sight, felt like a made-up concept. The next train wasn’t due for a few hours and people seemed few and far between.

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A place where time stood still. Image: @FootballFoyer

I spot a little garage around 500 yards from the train station and head towards it. Upon entering, I spot a fellow stranded passenger. I introduce myself, explain the predicament, and to my content he explains he has a taxi booked which I could jump in on, heading towards a little town called Bergedorf. From there I’d be able to take the U-Bahn towards Hamburg. I gladly accept.

The saviour, an ukulele teacher, had a lesson to reach. Upon arriving Bergedorf, the taxi meter reached €80 – split between four, it didn’t seem too bad when accounting for the fact I was in real danger of missing the match.

Out at Bergedorf, into the U-Bahn station. I soon realised the misjudgement. The same German error message as seen at Büchen was showing up against the U-Bahn towards Hamburg. Whatever the incident, it was also affecting this line. Once again threatened by the possibility of missing the match, I call on yet another taxi.

Finally, this journey goes to plan and, in doing so, means I’m dropped in St. Pauli itself, with the Millerntor-Stadion’s rough edges in sight. Having arranged my ticket via FC St. Pauli’s Fanladen initiative, I head straight towards their base.

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The Fanladen base at the stadium. Image: @FootballFoyer

Founded 25 years ago, Fanladen St. Pauli is situated at the Heiligengeistfeld, not far from the middle of Gegengerade-Stand of the Millerntor-Stadium. The Fanladen is responsible for taking care of the fan scene and is the go-to meeting points for St. Pauli fans from across the globe.

They offer special assistance to local and international supporters who want to visit the famous Millerntor-Stadion. With a growing list of more than 200 fan-clubs worldwide, the demand for tickets is increasing.

But what makes this work so smoothly, is the fact they’re independent of the club, which means the Fanladen can represent fans without being under pressure of commercial or political needs.

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Numerous St. Pauli fan-clubs from across the globe. Image: @FootballFoyer

Despite being independent, the representatives and employees of the Fanladen are also members of different club committees in order to take care of fans’ interests. This close cooperation of the independent Fanladen and the club is one of the key structures making FC St. Pauli different from other clubs.

Upon entering their base, you sense the uniqueness. Inside, there’s a small soup kitchen to provide for the homeless. Tables are covered by stickers ranging from different fan clubs, to ones advocating the legalisation of marijuana and a call to arms in the fight against racism.

I receive my ticket, €13.50, and head out to witness the stadium and its surrounding area at close quarters.

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FC St. Pauli emblem on display. Image: @FootballFoyer

A huge stone club emblem stands like a shrine amidst currywurst, USP (ultra group) and Greenpeace stalls. I walk towards the famous Jolly Roger, a punk pub known for celebrating results – whether win, draw or lose – deep into the night. But upon entry I realise the bar is packed to the rafters, therefore I headed back out in search of another establishment to cure my thirst.

I find one just around the corner. A sign faces me upon entering, stating: “No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no antisemitism; no discussion.”

With the thirst cured, I made my way to the match. Another misjudgement occurred when I walked up a set of packed stairs, only to realise my ticket was at the other end of the ground. Having squeezed my way back down, I found my turnstile at the Nordtribüne end.

Out into the stand, I’m faced by the famous Südkurve. Renowned for their pyro demonstrations, I eagerly awaited what they had up their sleeves.

With the players making their way onto the pitch, the Südkurve kicked into action. Rastafarian colours emerge, accompanied by ‘stay rude, stay rebel’, split in two by the club’s emblem and edged by the revolutionary Cuban leader Che Guevara and a cannabis leaf.

As the match kicks off, I soon realise FC St. Pauli face a tough contest. Holsten Kiel pinged the ball around with confidence, demonstrating why they were placed six places higher up the table compared to their opponents.

Yet, against the early run of play, FC St. Pauli break, get the ball forward and it falls to left-midfielder Richard Neudecker, who finished with aplomb.

Here I realise Blur’s Song 2 is played after each home goal in celebration – whilst prior to the match AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells was also roared through the Millerntor-Stadion’s speakers. Nevertheless, the St. Pauli faithful had another thing coming if they believed this was the start of a positive victory.

Soon after taking the lead, the match turned on its head. In a quick five-minute overhaul, Holsten Kiel went from 1-0 down to 2-1 up, thanks to quick-fire goals by Kingsley Schindler and Marvin Ducksch.

The rapid Holsten Kiel comeback didn’t face the Millerntor-Stadion faithful. Sure, the goals fired up the visiting fans, who were finely orchestrated by three vocal front-men, still the home fans refused to be disheartened and seemed intent on pushing ahead with the festival-like atmosphere.

As half-time approached, a large heart shaped flag was unfurled to the back of our stand. Simple in design, but effective in message. Being an FC St. Pauli follower is all about the love, and certainly no hatred.

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Less of the hatred, more of the love. Image: @FootballFoyer

The visitors’ swift second-half start threatened to turn the match into a Holsten Kiel rout. FC St. Pauli, however, dug deep, holding their own and, in due course, brought about their just reward.

With a quarter of an hour left to play, the home side nicked an equaliser. The ball was flicked over the right-sided Kiel defender, onto the arriving left-footed half volley of Richard Neudecker. The ball rocketed into the net, hit so sweetly that ripples were felt 30km down the road in Kiel. St. Pauli were level. From this point on, you felt there could only be one winner.

As added time approached, FC St. Pauli were awarded a corner. An inswinging near-post ball is met by the head of Christopher Avevor – who had excelled throughout the match – and beats Holsten Kiel goalkeeper, Kenneth Kronholm.

The Millerntor-Stadion erupts as their side completed an emphatic turnaround. Their rivals were dead on their feet.

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Time to celebrate for the St. Pauli faithful. Image: @FootballFoyer

St. Pauli closed out the match. The party atmosphere increased in volume. No hard feelings were seen between both sets of fans – with all seemingly more than content at the footballing feast they’d been a part of.

To my regret, I had to catch a ride back to Berlin, therefore headed from the stadium just after full-time. Although I’m reliably told the St. Pauli faithful saw out the next few hours singing, dancing and celebrating, with David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and €3 Riesling a popular favourite at a wine bar adjoined to the stadium.

The Millerntor-Stadion offers a truly alternative footballing experience, with FC St. Pauli and their fans spearheading aims to bring peace to the game, whilst also being a competitive 2. Bundesliga side – and hopefully, a Bundesliga side once more in the near future.

As one fan, who was on his second visit to the Millerntor-Stadion, finely put it: “Everyone needs a home and I’ve found mine.”

Groundhopper: Basque identity against Spanish identity

In our first Groundhopper feature for a fair while, Gethin recounts his recent visit to the Basque Country, as he took in the San Mamés and Mendizorrotza, whilst also catching a brief glimpse of the Ipurua Municipal.

By Gethin Boore

The Basque Country, famous for its politics, pinchos and football. Four teams represent the Basque Country in La Liga, Athletic Club Bilbao, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alaves. All four of these clubs have supporters who want to be an independent Basque nation as there is various Basque flags proudly flown around stadiums. I went to Euskadi, as it is known in the Basque language, to see two matches and to discover how big football is in this region.

The first match I went to was at the famous San Mamés for Athletic Club Bilbao against the Swedish miracle men Östersunds FK. Athletic Club is undoubtedly the most political club in the Basque Country. They have a famous policy of only allowing players from the French and Spanish Basque and Navarre to play for the club, and football fans around Spain embrace this. Some players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have all departed from Athletic to join clubs in other countries, leaving fans frustrated as one supporter referred to Athletic Club ‘as the biggest club in the world’ and doesn’t understand why they would leave a club like this.

The admired rule resulted in success for Lehoiak (the Lions) as they are one of three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera Division, alongside Barça and Real Madrid. They are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football with several La Liga titles and Copa Del Rey cups to their name.

They usually appear in the UEFA Europa League, which is the competition I got to to see this glamorous club play in for the first time. Their opponents were Östersunds FK from Sweden. Located in the Northern part of the country and founded in 1996, the last few years have been incredible for them. In 2016 they were promoted to the Allsevenskan for the first time, and now, after a year in Sweden’s top division, they’re the only team from Sweden to be playing in a European competition this season.

We arrived in Bilbao on match-day and the second I arrived, I sensed that Athletic were playing at home. I wandered around the city looking for the Spanish football newspaper “Marca” and in every bar and shop there was an Athletic flag in the windows. It was clear that Bilbao is a football-mad city. As it was time to head towards the stadium you would pass the odd Athletic shirt and an Östersunds shirt in the city centre, and the atmosphere was building more every yard.

We finally arrived at the San Mamés. This was not the first time I have laid eyes on this incredible stadium, as me and my Dad wandered around the ground last year when we visited Bilbao for the first time, but Athletic were not playing at home, but even then, you could still clearly sense that the people of Bilbao live for the beautiful game.

When Athletic are at home, it’s ten times better. As kick off was getting nearer, more and more supporters would come out on to the streets. A huge street leads up to the stadium that is full of bars with Athletic flags, scarfs and memorabilia, which might be familiar for Wales fans who attended the game against the Basque Country in 2006 at the old San Mamés, which was located in the same site as where the new stadium is now.

Amongst the Athletic supporters were Östersunds fans. Throughout conversations we had with Östersunds fans, they were saying how proud they are of their team and their incredible story, which is similar to Eibar’s amazing story in La Liga.

With around half an hour to go till kick-off, it was time to head to the ground. In the vicinity of the old stadium, it was full and it was a big game, as Athletic were yet to get a victory in Group J. The other game in the group was in the German capital, as Hertha Berlin hosted Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. The last time Athletic Club and Östersunds met it ended in a 2-2 draw in Sweden. Athletic had also drawn 0-0 away to Hertha and lost at home against Zorya, so the only option was a win for Athletic if they wanted to keep their European hopes alive.

Inside the stadium, it’s even better, with the pitch as green as ever.

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San Mamés stadium.

In the first half, both sides came very close, and it was an even game. Athletic came the closest following Raul Garcia’s powerful that was brilliantly saved by the keeper. In the second half, Athletic Club took the lead thanks to veteran forward Artiz Aduriz’s header. The Swedes rarely attacked in the second half, and it was fair to say that Athletic deserved the victory.

Personally, I thought it was a great game, as there were many chances created, which added an extra excitement to the game, but what was really significant was the atmosphere. As soon as the club anthem was blasted out, there was non-stop singing, and the roar when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible. In the other game, Hertha won 2-0 meaning Athletic were third in the group and Östersunds sat first in the table.

As the city of Bilbao fell quiet, it was another brilliant Spanish football day out. It’s becoming a bit more than a hobby now.

On the Friday, we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Last year, I went to the Anoeta (Sociedad’s stadium) to watch them play against Basque rivals Alaves. The home side won 3-0 but the most standout thing that day was the Alaves support.

In Spain, not many away fans travel to watch their team play away from home, but Alaves brought at least 2000 supporters to the 2016 European capital of culture. It may be local for them, but the support throughout the day was incredible, both in the stadium and around the city centre.

It was also in 2016 I went to watch Osasuna face Real Betis. Osasuna is located in Pampalona, which is in the Navarre region. The debate about whether Navarre is in the Basque Country has been going for decades, but in the El Sadar (Osasuna’s stadium) there were numerous Basque flags proudly shown. The away side won 2-1 with a last minute goal.

Back to this year, and when me and my family were on the way to San Sebastian, we stopped at the town of Eibar. This is a very small town located right in the middle of the Basque mountains, but what’s so significant about this place is the football. Incredibly, Eibar has a team in the Primera Division, and has been on an incredible rise through the Spanish pyramid. Their promotion from the Segunda division in 2014 was the start of something special. They’ve been in La Liga for a few years now and have established themselves as a top-tier side.

Eibar is a club that’s linked with Scottish football. Their ultras group is called “Eskozia La Brava” which translates to Scotland the brave in Basque. They admire the passionate support the Scots have, and have a mosaic located in the town about the connection between the two sets of supporters.

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Ipurua Municipal Stadium

The ground is tiny for a club in such a huge league, but the club itself is very friendly. We asked the front desk in the stadium if we could go inside the Estadio Irpura. They politely said no, but did give us a free pin badge and a poster of the 2017-18 squad. In the town, there were many, many Eibar flags in windows, which shows the support this incredible club has. It was very clear what the team’s incredible journey meant to the town.

As we arrived in San Sebastian, we passed the Anoeta on the motorway going into the city centre, and there was work going on there. Ever since Sociedad moved from their old stadium (Atocha) the fans have complained about how far the pitch is from the stands. The club has taken notice of the situation and have a plan to move the stands closer to the pitch, which will complete in 2019.

In the town centre, it is clear that the people of Bilbao has more passion for their club than the people of San Sebastian have for theirs, but you would spot shirts and flags in bars and fake merchandises in tourists stores alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.

After a walk around the city and stuffing ourselves with Pinchos, it was time to watch my favourite Spanish team play; Real Betis. Me and my Dad watched the game against Getafe in an Eibar fan bar in the middle of the old town in San Sebastian. Betis thankfully came from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 to continue their strong start to the season. Another day in the Basque country, no game, but plenty of football involved.

On the Saturday, we departed from San Sebastian with a copy of “Marca” to recap the Betis game and to see what they had to say of it, and headed to the Basque capital, Vitoria.

The team located in Vitoria is Deportivo Alaves, and Liverpool fans might be familiar with this club, as they faced each other in the 2001 Uefa Cup final which ended in a 5-4 victory to the Merseyside club. Since that final, Alaves have been stuck in the Segunda Division and Segunda B.

However, in 2016, they were finally back in La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to lose to Barcelona in the last official game at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid’s old ground. Like Eibar, they’ve had a fairly slow start to the season, and are clearly missing their manager that was with them last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, who left for English side, Southampton.

My second and final game of the trip was at the Estadio Mendizorrota between Alaves and Espanyol. My first impression of the city of Vitoria is that it’s again, like Bilbao, football mad. It’s not a city that attracts many tourists, and there was a better vibe and atmosphere.

In the old town, many civilians were out enjoying pinchos, with most of them wearing Alaves tops. Every Saturday, it’s market day in the old town in Vitoria, and it was really busy. As it was match day, maybe a few more people came out than usual. After a few hours enjoying the pinchos in the Basque capital and a walk around the city, it was time to head towards the direction of the ground.

For this game, I went with my Dad, as usual, my sister, who went to the Sociedad-Alaves game last year, my cousin, Tom, and my uncle, Rhys, who went to the Athletic game as well. For a year, I’ve been non-stop chatting about the Spanish football results with Tom, and it’s clear that maybe he wasn’t very interested, so it was good to bring him to his first taste of Spanish Football and to realise why I love it so much

On the way to the ground, we stopped in a bar to watch the first half of the game between Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, which was the 16:15 game. The Alaves game kicked off at 18:30 local time, but there wasn’t exactly many people in the bar we were in.

As we headed closer towards the Mendizorrota, the atmosphere was building. In the distance, we could hear drums and people singing, and as we got closer, it was getting louder. Suddenly, as the Alaves team bus came through, something incredible happened. An incredible flow of pyros appeared out of nowhere, and all you could see was a wave of red and orange. The singing was loud as well, and it was something to inspire the team following their bad start.

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Alaves fans on the day.

A couple of weeks before this match, Alaves hooligans were caught in the spotlight. On a day when they were at home to Real Sociedad, Racing Santader ultras travelled from the Cantabria part of Northern Spain, to fight Alaves fans. Many videos went viral in the and the footage was brutal.

On match day in San Sebastian, me and my Dad spoke to some Alaves ultras and they kindly gave me a scarf. After the pyro show, we wanted to see if we could see them again, and within five seconds, we bumped into an individual that we met. He remembered us straight away, and he looked delighted to see us. He was with another person that either I don’t remember or wasn’t at the game against Sociedad. They took us to a bar in the middle of numerous apartments and introduced us to new people and people that were there last year. The group in fact have been banned from following Alaves away.

In the bar, there were loads of Alaves memorabilia on the walls, and chants were sung. After a good hour, it was time to head to the match. On the way, we were discussing how much we hate Real Madrid. I refer to Madrid as General Franco’s team, and so do they. We hate Madrid with a passion, and we forever will. As a Welshman, I should have a “soft-spot” for them because of Gareth Bale, but I don’t think there’s nothing that can change my opinion. As we said our goodbyes, we met up with Rhys and Tom and headed straight to the turnstiles.

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Gethin with Alaves ultras.

There’s something about the stairs that leads to the stands in some Spanish grounds. The concourse are quite low so you face up when you’re walking, and then just face the pitch, which is something special. I remember it at Levante, and the same here. In some concourse’s, you walk through the turnstile and you face the pitch straight away, such as Betis and Athletic.

Enough about concourse’s, we had a decent view from where we sat. It was an old-school ground, which might be reason for the incredible atmosphere. It was much better than Athletic’s, which was pretty special as well. As the players came on, there was a “tifo” in the Ultras with a picture of a young boy wearing an Alaves shirt with the numbers 1921, which was the year when the club was founded. It was brilliant, almost every person in the ground was chanting, and it was something else.

To make it all better, Alaves scored an absolute screamer to make it 1-0 within four minutes, and the roar then was something I’ll never experience again.

In the first half, Espanyol was by far the most attacking team, but they were reduced to ten men towards the end of the half. Still, Alaves had a few chances, and in the second half, both sides had good chances. Even though both sides attacked frequently, Espanyol definitely deserved to win and it was fair to say that Alaves were pretty rubbish and need to start performing better. Espanyol had a glorious chance to equalise right at the death, but the keeper’s heroics ensured Alaves secured the three points.

When the full time whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and the singing again couldn’t be stopped. It was a huge victory for Alaves, their second of the season.

This was sadly the end of another incredible Spanish football trip in the Basque Country. Football is a huge thing in this country and many people think that La Liga is rather dismal. Fair enough, that’s your opinion, but if you go to watch clubs like Alaves, Athletic, Betis and too many more to name, you soon realise that La Liga is much more than Barça and Real. In the Segunda Division, it’s so tight it’s actually astonishing. The Mendizorrota was my eleventh Spanish ground in total and my tenth in just over a year.

Once again, another top class Spanish Football weekend.

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