I was last in Düsseldorf back in 2003 when I waited for a lift outside Dusseldorf’s Hauptbahnhof with my gay mate Karsten as we both made our way to our mutual friend Dorothee’s wedding. Ok, get the sniggers out of the way. I am a friend of Dorothee. My return in 2012 was for football purposes only. Ok, well football, sausage and beer.
When choosing the Friday night game in advance for this mini German/Dutch tour I really wanted to visit some new grounds or stadiums. It’s an important distinction to make in Germany. It’s getting to the stage where most German teams in the top 2 divisions have moved into new stadiums (Schalke 04, FC Bayern, Mainz, Gladbach, Augsburg, Dresden, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim) or had existing grounds renovated (Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen, Nürnberg, Hannover 96, Hamburger SV, Hertha Berlin, Borussia Dortmund, and FC Koln for example) into state of the art stadiums. It’s stadiums rather than grounds these days as the basic yet atmospheric grounds get replaced by new stadia. If you want a slice of german football ground of yesteryear you need to get yourself to Karlsruhe, Saarbrücken, Münster, Siegen, Oberhausen, Jena, Borussia Dortmund II’s Rote Erde or Darmstadt. This week I even saw that Schalke’s old Parkstadion is still in use for certain games with one huge bank of terracing left.
Düsseldorf is a funny place. An organised Hauptbahnhof backs onto the main city centre. A short walk from the Königsallee with it’s expensive shops and home to the 54,600 capacity Esprit Arena named after the main sponsors and clothing company Esprit who have Head Quarters near Düsseldorf and Kowloon after being established in the 1960s in San Francisco where founders Susie and Doug Tompkins initially sold there fashion lines from a VW Camper van. The Stadium is located a fair way out of town and is on the same site as the previous Rheinstadion in the middle of the massive Düsseldorf Messe trade and exhibition centre.
It’s also probably known for being the biggest city in Germany (especially a West German city) without a top flight football team for quite a while now. Last season’s promotion meant that the 2012-2013 season would be Fortuna Düsseldorf’s first in the 1. Bundesliga since 1997. If you have a small poke back into their history you would find that they’ve had a pretty turbulent journey. The biggest period of stability seemed to be back in the 1970s and 1980s with 16 succesive Bundesliga seasons between 1971 and 1987 including dishing out a 7-1 pasting to Bayern Münich (which still ranks as their biggest away defeat), two German Cup wins in 1979 and 1980) and a narrow 4-3 extra time loss to Barcelona in the 1979 Cup Winners Cup Final thanks to Klaus and Thomas Allofs and coach Hans-Dieter Tippenhauer. But since relegation in 1987 and the start of this season the club only played 5 of the next 25 seasons in the top flight and in 2002 sunk as low as the 4th level of Overliga (now the Regionaliga). They were even sponsor by German punk band Die Toten Hosen for two years. But in 2009 they were promoted from the newly formed 3. Liga into the second division. They finished 4th in the first year back in 2nd division, 7th the next but were then promoted last season in where towards the end of the season the crowds began to flock to the Esprit Arena and fill it for the first time since Depeche Mode were in town.
It should be for me a story of a once fallen giant coming back to prominence in a city that desperately needed a top flight football team. But for me something’s lacking about the place. The new arena is a wonderful facility but it looks like a office block/factory from the outside. It reminded me of Vitesse Arnhem’s Gelredome We had a bit of drama before kick off. 8 of us set off in two taxis from the hotel in Derendorf. 4 of us arrived. The other 4 in the other taxi got stuck in traffic and had a driver who had no stomach for trying to get nearer than a mile to the stadium. A few nervous phone calls later and everything was good. I desperately needed a sausage after all the beers but they’d run out of bread rolls to go with it. A German top flight club who run out of bread rolls doesn’t deserve a top flight status in my book. It was a very poor show.
So, we took our seats high up on the second tier. We had to wait until 12 minutes and 12 seconds into the game for the first breath of atmosphere as both sets of fans respected the 12:12 protest against the DFB’s proposed new regulations in eradicating some parts of Fan Kultur. But even after this period it was the Eintracht Frankfurt fans who made most of the noise. Oddly enough it was the referee who changed the course of the game. It was obviously heading for a bore draw when he rather harshly sent off ex Gladbach forward Karim Matmour for a second yellow offence and then the stage was set for Eintracht to display little fighting spirit as the fortunate Fortuna profited greatly from a mix of extra space and poor defending to race into a 2-0 lead at half time and 4-0 at full time, greatly pleasing the rather plastic home supporters around me who up until the sending off had displayed not much of a desire to support their side. There wasn’t much humility shown as the goals rained in on the scoreboard. It reminded me of when Torquay have been cheated at Home Park a few times.
A romantic part of me hopes top flight football in Düsseldorf is there to stay for the city’s sake but a large part of me also thinks that in some ways they don’t really deserve it. After all, the fans have hardly turned up in huge numbers for many years since the mid 1980s. If they get relegated again I can’t see that more than 25,000 would turn up. They certainly aren’t a Mönchengladbach who averaged nearly 50,000 in their last 2nd division season or a Schalke 04 or a Borussia Dortmund. But then again should we really be surprised? Most German football clubs worth their salt are from cities built on manufacturing, heavy industry and engineering. Düsseldorf has ThyssenKrup but it’s better known for it’s Marketing and Advertising or Finance than the more blue collar industries so much more prevailent in Münich, Stuttgart, Hannover, Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen. Lets not forget that when the new stadium was built they switched from the Rheinstadion to 7,200 capacity Flinger Broich/Paul Janes stadion without really filling it. Even 51% abusers Hoffenheim used Waldhof Mannheim’s decent sized Carl Benz Stadion until their stadium at Sinsheim was completed.
Still I get the feeling that German football is somewhat at the crossroads in it’s life cycle. Does it embrace the TV money and Oligarchs like we’ve shamelessly done in England or does it remain true to it’s roots? In Düsseldorf’s case there’s not a huge amount of roots to refer back to, or bread rolls for that matter. The only way I’ll be going back is if Torquay play them in the Europa League.