Der Club: A day out with the Nürnberg Ultras
In 2014 I attended my first FC Nürnberg game. This article covers my first experience of German football. As it was written 3 years ago, there are a number of points that are no longer accurate: FCN now play in the 2nd Bundesliga, Per Nilsson is now plying his trade at F.C. Copenhagen and if my wife is reading this, I don't smoke. Enjoy!
FC Nürnberg was founded in 1900 by a group of gentleman that decided that the new fangled sport of football was better suited to their sensibilities than the other imported game of rugby. Thanks to those fine fellows, a generous Scotsman, his equally generous girlfriend and a whole heap of luck, I found myself winding my way toward the Franken Stadion. Following the crowd of excited fans, I was finally getting a chance, after two years, to see a Bundesliga match in my adopted city. I couldn't have chosen a better day to do it. Although the sun flirted with the idea of gracing us with its presence, there was a radiance among the fans heading towards the game that more than made up for the lack of sunshine. Today was going to be interesting. "Der Club" were hosting Borussia Dortmund, last years Champions League runners up and current leaders of the Bundesliga. Although the surrounding fans attempted to remain realistic, I sensed they felt they could really do some damage to the lads from North Rhine-Westphalia.
As we queued at the entrance gates, my "Club" guide talked me through some basic history and what I could expect. Although I attempted to listen, I couldn't help but be distracted by the surrounding scenes. Unlike the Scottish and English football matches I had seen in the past, I noticed how few police seemed to be around. I was especially confused by this as I could see that some Dortmund fans were queuing alongside the home fans. In England, this would certainly not have occurred, but it appeared that this was nothing out of the ordinary. We quickly found ourselves at the front of the queue, through the gate and standing outside the stadium. “Fancy a beer?” my friend asked. I considered saying no, but then remembered I was no longer under the thumb of the rabid consumerism of the English Premiership. Whereas back in England I could easily end up forking out ten quid for two beers, the round came in at a pleasant €7.20. I could get used to this.
The pre-match noise was easily louder than I had heard in other stadiums, a distinct change from the rather muted experience of most pre match grounds back in blighty. When we finally entered the stadium I was greeted by an unfamiliar sight. All I can say is flags, lots and lots of flags. Giant flags moving rhythmically from side to side, smaller flags following suit and banners so big, they required two people to hold them. A few years ago, a certain football manager ridiculed opposition fans in England for attempting to create an atmosphere by waving little plastic flags. I wondered what he would make of the cacophony of colour I was now witnessing.
Our tickets had brought us to the standing section, and although my guide had reassured me prior, I still felt slightly odd holding a beer in one hand and smoking a cigarette in the other. Wanting to capture the pre-kickoff atmosphere, I took out my phone to make a video. As I did, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“I wouldn't do that.” said a bald headed fan as I turned round.
“Why?” I inquired.
He pointed at a group of the nosiest fans next to me, sectioned off by protective perspex glass.
“Ultras” he said knowingly.
I turned to my guide and he informed me that the Ultras were the super fans of Nürnberg, and didn't appreciate outsiders videoing them.
“How do you get to be an Ultra?” I asked.
“You have to be a season ticket holder for a very long time, then you have to be asked”. I got the feeling I wouldn't be joining them for a while.
As the teams took to the pitch, the crowd grew louder and louder. Having sung the team song, accompanied by highlights from Nürnberg's past on the big screen, the noise continued. In England, we follow a similar tradition, but as the game kicks off the crowd takes to their seats and the songs are generally sung as a reaction to what occurs on the pitch. Within the confines of section 7, no one stopped singing. There was continuous chants, imploring the team to score, spurring the team on or simply to insult the away support in front of us. Occasionally the chants would turn to boos, as refereeing decisions went against the team, but generally the songs had little to do with the on pitch action. I began to realise that the game was almost a sideshow to the performance of the Ultras. Led by three or four men with microphones and loud hailers, the real action was to be found as part of the mass of people next to me. I noticed a number of people, eyes fixed on the Ultras, perhaps wishing to be part of the collective of vocal support. As the match went on, and I heard song after song, there were no songs for any particular player on the pitch. Whereas in Britain, favoured players or opposition players/managers will be signalled out with a chant or song, the Ultras and their companions sang about the team. MY guide pointed out that in Germany there is a belief that players are simply temporary recruits, the real continuity is the club and the fans.
Then, as the first half was closing to an end, Dortmund won a free kick just outside the box. Marcel Schmelzer stood over the ball as whistles and shouts emanated from the stand. The referee blew and Schmelzer fired the ball over the wall. Goal! The flags dropped and the chants stopped. Then, as if nothing had happened, and we were still at 0-0 the flags were again unfurled and the supporters redoubled their efforts. This would have been a queue for venting frustration and focus anger at players and manager had we been in England, not so here. Instead, the lower tier, that we stood in, called upon their friends in the stand above. A series of choreographed chants rang out, as sections of the stadium took it in turns to sing. Amazing.
Having stocked up on beers at half time, and unable to spot a single pie in the whole of the snack stand, we returned for the second half. I looked at my beer and then the crowd around me and concluded I better at least neck half of it. Should Nürnberg score, I would be in the compromising position of explaining why I had spilled the majority of my beer on the burly bloke in front of me. As I attempted just this, Nürnberg won a freekick. No matter, I thought, We haven't done anything with them all day. I couldn't quite see who was taking it, the flag in front blocked my view. I couldn't quite see the ball as it was flighted into the box. I didn't see Per Nilsson's inch perfect half volley go rocketing into the net. I didn't see any of this, but I felt it. As the ball hit the net, I was flung unceremoniously forward, and my beer related prediction came to pass. My full pint went directly into the guy in front, and as I attempted to regain my feet, I came eye to eye with a damp looking Club fan. Before I had time to apologise, he grabbed me round the neck and embraced me in a celebratory bear hug. I think I had been accepted.
As the game played out, nails were bitten down to the nub and worried looks were shared. They needn't have worried, in fact, a glorious chance was provided to us right at the death, a chance that was gloriously skied from a two or so metres out. No matter, the referee blew for full time and we patiently waited for the team to make its way around the stadium to thank the eternally loyal fans. As we poured out of the stadium, my guide questioned me on the experience:
“What did you think?” he asked.
“Noise and flags, mate. That's all I could see!” I replied.
“Will you come back?” he asked hopefully.
“You better believe it!” I declared as we wandered for the exit.