An Englishman in Berlin

Will Hertha swing me?

Titus Chalk ist neu bei 11FREUNDE. Für zwei Monate hospitiert der englische Journalist bei uns – und erzählt von seiner Sicht auf die Bundesliga. Noch auf Englisch. Aber langsam legt er seine Scheu vor dem Deutschen ab.  An Englishman in Berlin
Rain, wind, cold. I could have stayed in England for that. But then I wouldn’t be at the start of a fascinating adventure, would I? And when everything else around you, not least the language, is different, a wet slap in the face from the weather on the walk to work is reassuringly familiar.

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This is the first day of my two-month stay at 11FREUNDE a magazine that has occasionally appeared in my office in England like a rare map to hidden treasure, to be poured over and deciphered in tiny snatches – pictures, headlines and captions pointing to a story, buried because of my very basic German (Ich versproch euch, dass am ende mein Verweilen werde ich in der Lage ein Blog auf Deutsch zu schreiben!).

I am an English journalist from Haymarket Publishing in London, where I contribute to all sorts of football publications, from match-day programmes for the English Football Association, to magazines such as Champions, the official UEFA Champions League magazine and 4-4-2, a popular glossy magazine. But coming to do work experience at 11FREUNDE is a whole new challenge: it is a magazine with a strong identity, smart readers and about a world of football I don’t know that much about.

So let me start by unloading my preconceptions about German football for you all to comment on, and by trying to explain what the English imagine about football here in this country.

Firstly, not many English football fans get a chance to watch the Bundesliga. It is broadcast on ESPN UK, who show up to five live German games a week – an impressive number – but the channel costs Sky subscribers (who already pay almost £40 per month for sport) an extra £9, and only reaches approximately 750,000 homes. That means for most fans, the only German club football they see is in the Champions League or Europa League, and even then most will only discover a German team if they face British opposition (as both Stuttgart and Wolfsburg must in this season’s Champions League). When it comes to German football, we tend to be preoccupied by the national team, our traditional nemesis at European Championships and World Cups. It is a one-sided rivalry (I understand Germany care more about beating the Netherlands) that is too often stirred up by populist British media for all the wrong reasons. The undeniable and brilliant success of the 2006 World Cup though may have led to a softening of attitudes (I hope so), though we will only know for sure if the two nations meet in the knock-out stages in South Africa (and it goes to penalties).

The weekly drama of the Bundesliga then remains slightly mysterious. We’ve heard of Bayern, Bremen, Wolfsburg and the other big boys, even Hoffenheim made headlines in the UK last season, and we strongly suspect that St Pauli must be cool (pirates!). The propaganda that the Premier League is the world’s most exciting league rings in our ears though and we tend to believe that the quality of the football being played in Germany is lower. I look forward to discovering for myself whether this is true or not – though I’m not sure if a trip to Hertha Berlin at the moment will swing me.

What does excite us about German football though is everything that goes on around it – for many English fans it is a glimpse of how football could have been. What it is important to understand is that unlike the way in which the German game has evolved organically, 1989’s Hillsborough disaster marked an abrupt catharsis for English football. After decades blighted by hooliganism, bad policing, and weary stadia, with English teams banned from European competition, something had to change. The Taylor Report which followed Hillsborough, combined with the birth of satellite television (1989) and the founding of the Premier League (1992), radically transformed what went on inside and around football grounds, as well as the demographics of the fans attending games. The Taylor Report ushered in all-seater stadia, removed fences, and drastically improved safety at games – but it also meant you could no longer have a beer in your seat (only in the stadium concourse). The result was a more family-friendly middle-class environment, more marketable than what came before 1989, and certainly more palatable to corporate sponsors and guests – »the prawn sandwich brigade,« as Manchester United legend Roy Keane called them. But while the Premier League could attract great players with its highly commercial model, something may have been lost.

English fans now cast a romantic eye over to Germany, where they know you can still stand at games, where a ticket doesn’t cost a small fortune (the average mid-range season ticket in the Premier League last season cost £590), and where someone with a Zapfhahn will come and fill your beer up for you. It is such a seductive image of the game, that groups such as the Cheshire 1. FC Nürnberg Fan Club from the north west of England travel to Germany expressly to sample the Bundesliga utopia.

What fascinates me as a typical English football lover then is German football culture. Luckily, I have come to 11FREUNDE, a »Magazin für Fußballkultur«, where I hope I can discover what really makes German football, and its fans, tick. You can help me along the way with suggestions, advice and comments – and why not tell me what your impressions of English football are? I might not have all the answers, but perhaps there might be a few mysteries I can help solve. When it comes to explaining the contents of meat pies, the popularity of Bovril and England’s inability to take penalties though, I really can’t help.