Sometimes things don’t quite work out to plan. With my flights, hotel, and ticket to Borussia Dortmund all booked, all I had to wait for was the tickets for Köln’s match the following day to go on sale and I’d be set. It was only then, when idly trawling through the back news pages of Köln’s website that my limited German alerted me to why tickets weren’t on sale – they’d sold out three months ago. This shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Köln were top of the league and playing 2nd placed MSV Duisburg in what was a local derby of sorts. True, their stadium, just completed ready for the world cup the following year, held 50,000 fans, but Köln were averaging 38,000 and this was turning out to be the match that would settle the title. I had to look round for alternatives. Rot-Weiß Essen were one option. Not too far away, but not too enticing either. They were submarine deep in relegation trouble and doomed in what would be a black year for the three Rot-Weiß clubs in the division, with all three getting the opportunity to get better acquainted with their more modest regional rivals the following season. More enticing were Alemannia Aachen, tugging grimly to the coat-tails of the promotion race and playing in a tight traditional ground, located just north of the city centre. What’s more, it was a city I’d considered visiting anyway, with cathedral that made it on to the very first list of UNESCO world heritage sites, and a small but picturesque centre. It would have been bigger, but Aachen was the point where Germany’s finger in the dyke of the western front failed, allowing the allied waters to flood in. To be honest it was slightly disappointing. Sure it looked pretty enough, but I went on a Sunday, and pretty much everything is shut on a Sunday in Germany, so it was all a little too quiet. In some ways it’s better than having busloads of ugly tourists getting in the way and getting on your nerves, but at other times, as pleasant as the calm was, you half expected an old warden to come out and berate you for walking on the streets that he’d only cleaned that morning. To be fair, everything in England used to be shut on Sunday too not so long ago, until shops realised that the fine for opening was far less than the profits they’d make if they opened, so they all just opened anyway. I strolled up to the ground, which was about twice as far away as it looked on the map, in an area far too posh to have a football ground on its doorstep. I was starting to have doubts that I was even on the right road as it felt that wrong. I was sure if I asked directions then the householders would just ridicule my question. “A football ground? Here? Are you mad? Look at our lawns and Audis in the driveways. Do we look like football supporters round here?” But there it was, with the first few fans turning up. With the gates not yet open I clambered up a grass bank at the back of the south terrace, to try and get a look at the stadium. Various fences had been erected with the specific aim of stopping anyone who’d climbed the bank from peering in and getting a view, but thankfully they weren’t thorough enough. Aachen’s Tivoli is certainly a ground rather than a stadium, being only covered on two sides, and only seated on one, but it was trim and had an intimacy that made you wish you could be there when it was full, as it had more or less been for most games that season. It looked bigger than its 22,000 capacity, especially with a sizeable terrace at the opposite end, curiously divided by a wide yellow diagonal gangway, as if wearing a sash to audition for the part of Virgil Tracy in Thunderbirds. With the ground not open yet, I had a quick shufty round the portakabin club shop, purchasing a few items, and then made my way back to the station, for it was not there that I’d be watching a match today. The internet is good for many things. Not just communication, nor the opportunity to visit eye-opening websites liable to completely wreck your computer and send your bank details to drugs cartels in Colombia, but also the ability to purchase items and services with an ease previously unimaginable. There wouldn’t, for example, have been any way of shopping around for a cheap hotel and flight to Cologne at my local travel agent, normally manned by people unable to comprehend that somebody might want to go somewhere other than Magaluf for two weeks in July, and there certainly wouldn’t have been any way of buying a ticket for Köln v Duisburg. Now, thanks to the simplicity of eBay, I was able to bid for any of the number of tickets for the game being offered for sale. I did have Aachen as a fall-back option, after a club official had kindly offered to reserve a ticket for me, but I had to guiltily make an excuse for not taking up the offer when, to my surprise, I won the second bid I went for. It wasn’t all plain sailing. It was German eBay for a start, which naturally was in German. I spoke no useful German and the seller, who’d clearly been using the same ludicrous Babelfish translator as me, spoke no English. But somehow I got him to agree to post to England and we arranged a bank transfer, and for a total of something like £50 all in, I had the “Top-spiel!” ticket as advertised in my hands. It was a comp, which was a bit annoying to tell the truth, but his selling history had him down as selling a variety of items, not tickets, so he didn’t seem like a tout. He, with Babelfish’s help no doubt, wished me “good laughter” for the match, and seemed decent enough. Last summer, twenty one students from Kuala Lumpur set a new world record for the number of people who can fit inside an old style Mini-Cooper. One can only assume they’d been a to a big football match in Germany by public transport to pick up tips. People are crammed on to trams in a manner that would have veterans of the Tokyo Metro wilting in the crush, and as the desperately waiting fans at Rudolfplatz squeezed aboard, you felt that if everyone breathed in at once then the carriage would split at the seams. Such cosiness isn’t perhaps too bad in the depths of winter, but in the apron of summer you have to choose who you wish to be squashed against with care. A packed tram on a hot day takes on its own microclimate. Botanists could have planted tropical plants on the U-bahn, had there been room, and it only lacked the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas to complete the tropical feel. The solid mass of the tram was even less appreciated by those unfortunate enough to be trying to board at later stops. Their protestations that they clearly had to be let on were matched by what I can only assume was the German for “if you even try it, I’ll slam the doors on your genitals”. Even a naked Keira Knightley would have been turned away if she’d tried to squeeze in, but given the fondness some German fans have for badges on their denim waistcoats it’s just as well, as she’d have emerged with her skin looking like the surface of the moon. The tram eventually disgorged its load a few hundred yards from the newly-named RheineEnergy Stadium. Fans stepped out, gasping for air as if plucked drowning from a pond, and enjoying the air’s comparative coolness to a degree that bordered on the erotic. But all was quickly forgotten as fans made their way across the field towards the stadium. From the outside the stadium is blocky but imposing. Like a girl in a badly lit nightclub, it has the ability to look both ugly and stunning depending on the angle from which viewed, but inside it’s another stadium which is just how a stadium should be. Four covered stands, each with two tiers, with the corners of the lower tiers filled. Simple, but totally effective. What any stadium needs is good fans to fill it. It may not have been an ordinary day, but on this showing Köln had very good fans. Surprisingly, despite there being a designated away section, there were also various fans in Duisburg blue dotted about in the sea of red in the home stands. No doubt the Bundesliga’s online ticket purchasing system makes buying tickets for the “wrong” part of the ground easy, but nobody appeared to bat an eyelid. As the stadium filled and kick-off approached, a man with a guitar took stage on the pitch and, miked-up, started to sing. Typically it’s something that makes my heart sink. Now I’ve heard this a few times before. The worst was possibly at a Spurs v Nottingham Forest match about 20 years ago when Chas ‘n’ Dave where removed from their formaldehyde preservation tank and allowed to unleash one of their terrible songs upon the public. Unlike their 1981 cup hit, blessed with Ossie Ardiles’ “in de cup for Totting-ham” line, this song had no saving graces and the applause was because it was finished, only for Chas ‘n’ Dave to misread this as an encore and start the song again – the same song. Sure enough, when that ended, they paused, and started playing it for a third time. Only the intervention of the teams coming back on the pitch, probably as an act of mercy rather than half-time being over, stopped them. One other time was at NEC Nijmegen, when a female singer sang away, and a mate I was with, without any discernable shame or embarrassment, identified it as the Netherland’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest and named the singer. In a country famous for exporting its cheese, it was appropriate. But this singer at Cologne, to be fair, did the business. True, I won’t be out seeking his song “Viva Colonia” to download to my iPod (not least because I don’t own one) but he really got the crowd going, even if the song did sound like it was written under the influence of Guinness rather than Kölsch. Then, as the game kicked off, with the party about to get into full swing, it was if someone had decided to get the evening going with their compilation of Morrisey B-sides. The first half was so sterile that you’d have let babies eat food off of it, and very quickly the Mexican waves started, pretty much the hallmark of a game where the fans have to make their own entertainment. I found myself looking at the distinctly German advertising hoardings, wondering just what constitutes humour in a packet of Funny-Frisch potato crisps, and just who was Jack Wolfskin? And how had someone who’d sounded like a small boy who’d jumped from the pages of a medieval fairy tale end up running his own business? One or two members of the crowd started to get on my nerves. A few just stood unnecessarily at regular but baffling intervals, as if in the need to stretch their legs after just reading a scary report into deep-vein thrombosis. One made it easy to dislike him, not just by standing up in a similar manner, but by also wearing a baseball cap backwards – in Europe you might as well be wearing a badge saying “I’m the sort of person everything is dumbed down for” – but he insisted in tunelessly playing a small horn as well, despite lacking even the merest degree of competence at doing do. Had he been nearer I’d have been tempted to hurl small pieces of my currywurst in his general direction. Luckily the second half was a huge improvement, unless that is, you were an MSV Duisburg supporter. A few minutes in, a through ball played in Lukas Podolski into the left of the penalty box. He fired across the keeper low into the bottom corner to put Köln 1-0 up, and there was no looking back. Seeing how to score, they repeated the exact same move three more times, each time with the same result for an emphatic 4-0 win. The title was signed, sealed and delivered, but strangely there didn’t appear to be any trophy. Instead the Köln players did a lap of honour with a glass of beer – not the usual 1/3rd of a pint Köln stange, but instead from a glass about the size of a human leg. Rather like with their football today, beer drinking is apparently very much all or nothing in Köln. Empty spaces had appeared in what had previously been blue & white occupied seats long before the end, but remarkably hundreds of Duisburg fans stayed in the city to down their sorrows afterwards. They had been promoted after all, so it was hardly a disaster. Quite why some Duisburg fans decided to sing “Show Me the Way to Amarillo” into the small hours was less clear, but does perhaps show that thanks to TV, terrace songs can travel very rapidly. I might have been at the two biggest league crowds I’d ever seen two days in a row, but that, coupled with being offered the almost surreal sight of being able to see both England and continental Europe at the same time from my plane window on the flight home, showed how surprisingly close we were. I envied Köln’s promotion to the top division, dreaming of Reading doing the same, and thought that I should try and get back to Germany for some football soon, without at the time imagining quite how soon both would come true. Aachen’s Tivoli – lowering the tone of the neighbourhood in the best way. Viva Colonia! A mass of scarves on the home terrace as 1 FC Köln prepare for kick-off. MSV Duisburg still didn’t look ready two hours later.