Monday, 25 February 2013

A Neutral View of Köln v Union

I was navigating the second-hand household goods market in Berlin this weekend. A free washing machine and a very good value wardrobe were the fruits of my labour. Thankfully though, I was lucky enough to get in contact with Damon Main, editor of who was attending the game. 

"A native of the 'granite city' of Aberdeen with a passion for football, writing, photography and travel - Damon has spent most of his life watching the round ball game. From his first football match in 1978 to fulfilling a dream and watching Argentine football at the La Bombonera home of Boca Juniors, Damon somehow manages to combine his sense of wonderlust with his keyboard to bring readers"

Here is Damon's take on proceedings in Köln on Saturday lunchtime. 

At 11.15am it is very cold in central Koln - but that did not stop the welcoming party being in place at Köln Messe/Duetz station. By the ‘welcoming party’ we mean about 150 police complete with video cameras, police vans and all fully dressed in riot gear awaiting the football special from Berlin. At 11.39 the old Deutsche Bahn train pulls into the station and the songs, scarves and flags of Union Berlin fans celebrate arrival. They left Berlin shortly before 4am.

Union Ultra's - caught by the fuzz

Whilst FC Koln are new arrivals in the second tier of German football Union have been around in the league for a few years now. The current campaign is going quite well for Union and they sit in 6th position but some points off surprise front runners Eintracht Braunschweig and city rivals Hertha. 

Union are placed neatly behind FSV Frankfurt and today’s opponent’s 1.FC Koln. The club from the Rhine are the new arrivals in the second division having finished 17th in the top tier following a dismal campaign. The current playing squad is reflective of the drop with star player Lukas Podolski sold onto Arsenal and budgets adjusted accordingly.

Not that the team from the Rhein Energie Stadium are not used to a spell in the second division; they are known as one of German footballs foremost ‘yo-yo’ clubs constantly dipping between the top two leagues. With both clubs being in close proximity in league terms - if not geographically – the Saturday lunchtime game meant an early start for both teams and fans alike.

1. FC Koln v Union Berlin / Bundesliga II / Saturday 23.02.2013 / Rhein Energie Stadium / 42000 Zuschaeur

From the platform at Koln Messe Duetz all the Union fans are hoarded onto trams to the rear of the station for the trip to the westerly located ground. The former Mungersdorfer Stadium, in both its old and new format, has long been one of Germany’s premier football stadiums. Used during the 1988 European Championships its subsequent upgrade to a modern footballing arena saw the stadium host games at both the 2005 European Championships and more notably at the World Cup in 2006 where the 2-2 between England and Sweden occurred.

By 2005 it was retitled the Rhein Energie Stadium; the energy provider signing a deal to allow its name on the stadium frontage in exchange for substantial financial backing. The ground then  went from a traditional multi-sport theatre to one more modelled on the British design; that of rectangular shape with four distinctive posts in each corner much like a boxing ring.

Outside the Stadium

Speaking of boxing, the trams carrying the fans to the stadium were channelling in one by one as kick off approached, when a number of police vans sped by, towards the ground, at top speed. Suspicions that some sort of stand-off between police and rival sets of fans had occurred was later confirmed with a number of Union fans arrested. 

Given the weather front developing (snow, ice and a bitingly cold wind) the vast majority of supporters were indulging in more friendly means of warming up with bratwurst, fries, hot drinks and beers being downed by the dozen. Entering the stadium was fairly simple – no backlog of huge queues or small turnstile entrances just electronic ticket scanner gates with the formalities of a quick body search between fans and watching the game.

Although nothing new security inside German football stadiums has grown – some say excessively – over the course of the current season. The relegation of Koln to the second tier witnessed one of a catalogue of serious fan incidents that have led to a media and state backlash against more extreme forms of support. Specifically stewards were looking for fans carrying pyrotechnics and offensive banners; a strong part of the remit to clamp down on supposed poor stadium behaviour.

Union fans occupied the north end of the ground, at the opposite side from the tradition ‘Sud’ standing area of the more passionate red and white clad elements of the Koln support. On the pitch Union were playing in their away colours of deep blue – colours said to be representative of an early nickname of the club ‘schlosserjungs’ or metalworking boys. The blue colours are said to have been chosen being reminiscent of the blue overalls worn in the industrial districts of Berlin (the Eisern Union ‘Iron Union’ chants can be seen within the same theme).

Early exchanges are dominated by Koln with numerous crosses coming into the box directed towards new Koln striker Austrian Stefan Maierhofer. The forward man is though ungainly and uncomfortable failing to use his height to the advantage of his team. More threatening for Koln is defensive lynchpin Canadian International Kevin McKenna who at every corner and free kick tries to get on the end of balls into the box.

After a few threatening efforts it’s that man McKenna who eventually gets onto the end of a ball into the box to loop a header over Union keeper Haas. With the stronger arm the visiting keeper may have been able to keep the ball out but it had been a goal coming for some time.

The Union fans despite being congregated on mass are surprisingly quiet in the corner; instead it’s the home fans that goad the visitors from the capital in the face of the on-field domination.

By half time the snow is coming down in sheets and the ground staff are on clearing the lines of the icy snow around the penalty box. Things soon heat up in the second half though when Maierhofer belies his height to swivel in the box and fire past Haas and it looks game over.

Only after falling 2-0 behind to Koln do Union attempt to ‘have a go’ and appease the travelling fans but generally the Union side are dysfunctional from the midfield onwards and offer nothing. Conditions underfoot do not help things – its slippy and wet making ball control and slick passing tough – but you got the impression that even on a carpet of velvet Union would have trouble putting home keeper Horn under any sort of noise.

After the game Union fans trundle back to awaiting trams for the trip back to the city. Despite a few bowed heads I join them on a tram and as a group spirits seem surprisingly high despite what they have witnessed on the field and the long trip back home ahead that has to be negotiated. The trip to Koln for Union fans was one of the ‘must do’ of the season. 

Union ist eine Religion

1. FC Koln remains one of the most traditional sides and the Rhein Energie as well as the city of Koln still has a big pull. Moreover the availability of football special trains in Germany allowed fans to travel together as a group on mass allows supporters to mingle, drink and sing songs whilst travelling without effecting ordinary passengers. On arrival the massed ranks of supporters together at a point in time allows police the opportunity to organise logistics of travel for fans separate from home fans to get to the stadium safely.

Off the field the league table post game showed a Koln side only three points behind Kaiserslautern; with the Red Devils facing a crucial clash with Hertha Berlin on the Monday evening. Union meanwhile dropped to 8th place following the surprise victory of 1860 Munich away to leaders Braunschweig.

The fact that such traditional team names such as Kaiserslautern, 1860 Munich and Hertha Berlin can be mentioned when discussion second tier Germany football gives some indication of the competitive field Union Berlin need to negotiate if a place at the top table is to be reached. As fellow ‘Kult’ club St.Pauli showed when they reached the Bundesliga staying in the top tier is another matter.

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