The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

I’m for the Hamburgers!

Posted by steigs on February 1, 2008

The Bundesliga is about to resume after its mid-winter break.  Bayern Munich (aka FC Hollywood) are in first but still felt the need to make plans to bring in a new coach, virtually American Jurgen Klinsmann, at the end of the season.  One of the teams lurking just behind the perennial champions is Hamburg FC. 

While a stint with Hamburg didn’t work out so well for Benny Feilhaber (now warming the bench for relegation-meat Derby County), the team has also been a rumored destination for Michael Bradley, a goal-scoring machine in Holland who is looking to move on after this season. 

I’ve had a fondness for Hamburg since a stop there in August ’01.  Want to learn more about the only never-relegated team in the Bundesliga, the city’s tawdry red light district, friendly fans, and what John Denver song a whole stadium of German soccer fans was singing along to….read on after the jump!

Hamburg – August 2001 

I expect to find a scruffy port, bars packed with rowdy sailors and ships all along the waterfront.  Hamburg is not actually on the north coast of Germany B it sits about 70 miles inland, at the confluence of three rivers B but it has always been a port.  Once upon a time, Hamburg was part of the Hanseatic League, home base of merchants extraordinare throughout the Middle Ages and Reformation and beyond.  Today it is Germany=s second largest city in population, with nearly 2 million people.


On a sunny cloudless late summer day, the downtown is hopping and modern-looking, thoroughly rebuilt after World War II bombing raids leveled it.  Through complicated riverine engineering, the Aussenalster and Binnenalster. a pair of modest lakes B large ponds really B sit right in the heart of the city.  I manage to find a free table at a café amid the bustle and sample the local beer.  Every city in Germany seems to have its own favored local brew.  As a result, traveling the country can feel like a brew pub tour.  (There are more than 1,000 breweries in Germany.)  There=s a street festival going on B people meander through rows of food booths and stop to watch the street performers, enjoying the clowns and buskers.

I move over to the nearby Reeperbahn, the legendary red light district where the Beatles honed their remarkable act.  Ah, now this the port town I expected to see B bars, strip shows, porn shops…and elegant restaurants?  Clearly the Germans don=t feel as much need to segregate their sleaze as we Americans do.  I stroll along the main street of the area, the Reeperbahn that gives the district its name and find that in the daylight it feels rather sad, not racy.  I eventually pause at a bar supposedly favored by the Beatles all those years ago and toast the memory of John Lennon.  The Reeperbahn, I find, reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, except the beer is of a much higher quality and the music, I=m afraid, sounds much the worse.  They could use another Beatles.

As befits a port, Hamburg has a good soccer tradition.  Hamburger SV is, like Hertha Berlin, one of the respectable teams of the Bundesliga.  They even took a turn at the top in the late 1970s and early 1980s, picking up a European Championship in 1983, but then fell back to the middle of the pack.  They point with pride to the fact they have never been relegated from the top division, the only Bundesliga team able to make this claim. 

This is impressive but not as impressive as it would be in England or Spain.  The Bundesliga, you see, only dates back to 1963, meaning it is decades younger than the other major European leagues.  Prior to that, German teams competed primarily in regional leagues with a bit of playoffs at the end to determine a national champion.  Germany is quite large by European standards and transportation for teams was a challenge in the old days, much as it would have been in the US if we had tried to have a true nationwide baseball league before World War II.  Teams also worried that their fans would be less interested in seeing teams from other regions, instead of traditional rivals, and that attendance would fall.  (Once the Bundesliga started, of course, they quickly found new rivals to add to their local derbies.) 

I hop the light rail to catch HSV, as they are often called, play Kaiserslauten.  (It was a disappointment to discover they aren=t generally called Hamburger B I could really root for hamburgers.)  Kaiserslauten are from the southwest of Germany and, once upon a time, provided the stars of that 1954 World Cup team.  Now they are a run-of-the-mill team in the Bundesliga.  HSV play in a new showplace of a stadium named, in rather American fashion, the AOL Arena.

As I=m getting off the train amidst the HSV-bound crowd, a cloud of twenty-somethings decides to adopt me.  In various stages of drunkenness, it is hard to tell whether they are more astonished that I am an American tourist in their hometown or that I=m an American who knows about their soccer team.  Luckily, they all know at least a little bit of English.  I=m strongly encouraged to help them consume a rather potent concoction of hard liquor and cola.  My ability to do this seems to seal a collective decision to bring me along to the game.


After a few minutes walking with this gang I=m hit with a sudden wave of nostalgia B I know this behavior.  It=s like I=ve gone back in time to my college days and I=m headed to a football game on a sunny California Saturday afternoon, caught up in a web of teasing and drinking with my friends.

There are six of them, clearly long-time friends, a mix of college students and aspiring tradesmen.  Michael, the easiest to talk to, resembles the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, earnest with glasses and skin-headed.  Sven is the friendliest, perhaps because he is the most drunk.  Marco, also skin-headed, sports a Roman-style AS.P.Q.R@ tattoo.  They are talking fast and I have trouble keeping the names of the others straight.

Sven proudly announces he helped do the electrical wiring for AOL Arena, a name they universally detest.  AWe went from Volkspark [i.e. AThe People=s Park@] to AOL Arena.  Commerce!@ spits out one.  At the stadium, I make a move towards the ticket booths but, lo and behold, they have a spare season ticket and they insist I use it to sit with them.

At first we join the other ultras in the standing section behind one goal.  But it=s very warm B in the 80s B and the sunshine is right on us so the boys make a collective decision that it isn=t a good afternoon to stand for the whole game.  Time to look for seats in the upper deck. 

From up high, we get an excellent perspective on the sparkling, almost new stadium.  It holds about 55,000.  We are up in the third tier of seats, the second being the now inevitable corporate luxury boxes.  The boys take turns talking of America to me, a place none has yet visited.  In their minds it is a land of rampant violent crime and blessed with an abundance of beautiful women, both notions with at least a trace of truth I suppose.  New York and Los Angeles are the places they are most curious to visit.  I find it difficult to persuade them of my reasons for leaving my native California to live in Washington.  After all, California is clearly a paradise of some kind.  Sven, however, is horrified by notion of a drinking age of 21.

They have never heard of my team, DC United, but do know a bit about the MLS, largely because German legend Lothar Matthaus, the captain of the 1990 World Cup winners, played a rather half-hearted final season with the Metrostars.  Sven says he=s got a Colorado Rapids jersey at home, a gift from a traveling businessman father.  Today, though, they are all wearing their white HSV jerseys.  They spend a few minutes attempting to teach me their songs, which seem to involve directing HSV to go forward.

The pregame show is bizarre, at least to me.  The cast of a local production of AGrease@ run out to do a medley as an ad for their show.  I decide it would be churlish to complain of having traveled an awfully long way to see Germans sing AYou=re the One that I Want.@  The crowd is happy, though.  Then a German cover of John Denver=s ATake Me Home Country Roads@ B currently a German chart hit, I find B comes on over the PA.  The crowd, maybe 45,000 strong, starts singing along.  It is surreal.  I have a suspicion I might well be the only one in the whole stadium who has actually been to AWest Virginia, mountain mama@ and have trouble keeping a straight face, puzzling the boys.


The game begins.  The visitors are in blue, their alternate jersey, and have the better of the game at the start.  Possession of the ball is shared relatively equally; results are not.  Whenever Kaiserslauten B a wonderfully German-sounding name, isn=t it? B get a chance they cash it in.  With only ten minutes gone, Kaiserslauten=s oddly-named Brazilian forward Lincoln makes a nifty turn to shake free of a defender and hammers a shot home.  1-0, Kaiserslauten.

Five minutes later, Lincoln is given a slick pass and converts again.  2-0, Kaiserslauten.  Uh oh.  The boys are grumbling and try a song.  Our upper deck neighbors fail to join in and they give up.  About 30 minutes into the game, a winger on Kaiserslauten attacks along the end line.  Instead of making the standard cross in front of the goal he somehow threads a shot with no angle right past the HSV goalie.  3-0, Kaiserslauten.  It=s a rout.

My new friends are deflated, barely saying a word.  Their team looks horrible and I suspect the combination of heat and alcohol is sapping their strength.  I rush off and buy a round of beers in an attempt to cheer them up but it does little good.  At least HSV doesn=t quit.  Not once but twice before half-time HSV players manage to beat the goalie only to have well-placed defenders clear the ball off the line.  Tough luck.

The half-time goes by quickly with a low-key discussion among the boys.  There is no consensus about which part of the HSV team is most at fault, although there is a general agreement all could be doing better.

In the second half, HSV come out fired up, perhaps out of embarrassment.  Kaiserslauten, up 3-0 on the road, shift to a cautious mode of play, happy to milk the clock.  Ten minutes into the second half, HSV makes them pay, scoring on a nicely-delivered header.  3-1, Kaiserslauten.  I receive a bone-crushing round of hugs.  There is hope!  The boys perk up and venture on a round of songs.

Fifteen minutes later B with only 20 minutes left in the game B HSV manage another goal, on a similar cross and header move.  3-2!  We might pull it off!  We=re all standing now, even up in the nosebleed seats, complaining about every call which goes against the home side, willing HSV on.

There are some near misses in the remaining minutes.  But HSV never finds that third and tying goal.  The game ends 3-2, Kaiserslauten.  Not a good omen, losing in such a manner at home early in the year.  The boys are depressed and wiped out after a long day of partying and the roller-coaster emotions of the game.  We part as friends at the light rail station.

I return to the Reeperbahn in the cooling summer evening, thinking it might improve when the sun goes down.  I locate Osborne, a soccer bar recommended by my Rough Guide, on a back street, near where the Reeperbahn neighborhood gets sketchier.  Hookers are lined up to solicit customers on certain of the side streets.  I find it is much harder to maintain an ironic amusement about a red light district when it is this open and direct, when simply walking on the street merits a series of solicitations.  It is no longer just sad but closer to grotesque.


I quickly duck into Osborne, a dark cave of a bar with a handful of televisions.  It also boasts a comprehensive and truly remarkable collection of team scarves from all over Europe decorating the ceiling.  I suppose the renown of the Reeperbahn ensures that many visiting fans find their way here.  The evening Bundesliga highlight show is on and I find a bar stool.  There is little interest in the HSV game, despite it being a lively, high-scoring affair.  The fans here, you see, root for Hamburg=s other team, the team of the punks and the drunks of the Reeperbahn, St. Pauli. 

Ah, St. Pauli B if only I=d been able to work out a schedule that would have had me in Hamburg for one of their home games.  They lack the history of HSV, only reaching the Bundesliga in 1977, and are just as often found in the lower divisions as in the Bundesliga proper.  They make up for it in attitude.  Here=s how the Rough Guide puts it:

AThe St. Pauli district is home not only to scores of brothels and seedy strip-joints, but also to cheap housing attracting students, anarchists and the >alternative lifestyle= brigade.  In most cities this crowd spend their Saturdays walking dogs on strings, hanging around in alternative record shops, or sleeping.  In Hamburg, for some reason, they=ve acquired an interest in football.  St. Pauli, ignored and unfashionable, forever scrapping it out in the lower leagues, fit the bill B the small community fighting the eternal struggle against corporate capitalism.@

They=re a leftist lot, St. Pauli, priding themselves on not being racist or Nazi.  A chant of the fans goes, ANever again fascism, never again war, never again Third Division.@  (Good to have your priorities straight B peace and then promotion.)  The club president is one Corny Littman, who runs a theater on the Reeperbahn.  He is also an out B very out B gay community leader.  St. Pauli have adopted the skull and crossbones for an insignia as well.  In American football terms, St. Pauli are perhaps the equivalent of the Raiders if they were based in Berkeley and if they had the failure-littered track record of the New Orleans Saints. 

This season, St. Pauli has made one of its periodic returns to the Bundesliga and had played this afternoon down in Munich against mighty Bayern Munich, current champions of not just Germany but all of Europe.  The highlights suggest it was Bayern Munich=s game from the get-go and the final score is 2-0 in favor of Bayern Munich.  There was, however, a potential handball in the box against Bayern Munich which went uncalled, costing St. Pauli a prime chance to score off of a penalty kick.  A clear case of favoritism is the verdict in Osborne.  The powers that be never give St. Pauli a break.

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