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A day at the Kartoffel Lord - Derek on his first Dortmund experience

09.11.2010, 10:29 Uhr von:  Redaktion

Suedtribuene prematchHow does a US-boy cope with Dortmund dice games? What is a Kartoffel Lord? Do you really need to hang out with fans after the match, if you want to experience culture the day after? And how does it feel like to be in the Westfalenstadion for the very first time? Derek, who contributed to our now legendary World Cup Diary, was in Dortmund for the Wolfsburg game. Here is what happened.

If you're a Dortmund native or otherwise a German-speaking (or residing) fan reading this piece, you may have a bit of a challenge ahead of you. This is because the most striking impression from my first and thus far only trip to Dortmund and Westfalenstadion was how completely indivisible the team and its supporters are. Naturally, having met people who devote countless hours, unpaid, to spreading the gospel of BVB -- Schwatzgelbers like Web, Steph, Peter, and Matthias -- there's some risk of "selection bias", but I did not get the sense that their devotion to the team is particularly unusual. When Saturday arrived, as advertised, the town turned black and yellow and converged on the stadium. It became clear that BVB and its performance are an integral part of Dortmunders' lives and their identities as Dortmund residents. Their devotion was fierce -- shown in their joy at a victory over Wolfsburg and their solidarity backing the "Kein Zwanni" movement -- these are fans willing to deprive themselves of a derby to preserve the special place their football culture holds in their lives and those of their children.

I am, of course, not from Dortmund, nor Germany, nor Europe. I am an American. I never served in the military in Germany, as some American fans have, nor had I traveled to the Stadion for other purposes, as had Kenny and the particularly rabid "Planet Dortmund" Scottish contingent (who now seem as devoted as any Dortmunder ultras.) My connection to Dortmund is, thus, in many ways artificial and irreparably so. To be a BVB fan is a choice I had to make that most in Dortmund have programmed into their chromosomes. As a result, there could not help but be a voyeuristic quality to my visit. Though my heart rate rose and fell and my eyes widened at same points of the game as my neighbors high in Section 37, there was an unshakable feeling -- and not only from the language barrier -- that it was their triumph that I was sharing in, and not vice versa. But it was a spectacular visit all the same.

So, if the reader is a Dortmund native or a die-hard Schwarzgelb who has exulted in European championships, stood freezing in the Sud singing names like Sammer and Moeller and Ricken until hoarse, watched financial missteps quell Czech wonder-duos, cheered a dagger through the hearts of '03+1 and taunted them with a chartered aircraft, tolerated bizarre feathery sleeve decorations and day-glo shirts instead of yellow, and learned never to search for "Sebastian Kehl" on YouTube before making the mistake, he or she will have to pardon the naivete. For perspective, Jurgen Klopp arrived to the team before I did, and Tamas Hajnal is an old-timer.

But a Dortmund fan I am, and at the request of schwatzgelb, I volunteered to share my experiences visiting the city and stadium. If the reader is curious as to how I became a Dortmund fan, it is "documented" in a brief interview I gave to the Schwatzgelb folks before the Wolfsburg game. Essentially having no existing connection to Dortmund, and not believing in "fate," it was, admittedly, largely a random choice, one made after realizing that the Bundesliga was ten times as entertaining as watching Wigan lumber up and down the field before conceding a fourth goal to some random billionaire's vanity project. The Bundesliga seemed fast-paced, wide open and exciting -- not a top heavy league of Michelangelos and El Grecos of the simulated foul, as in Spain or Italy, and not dull like the EPL. But I needed a team, of course -- it's no fun otherwise. Enter BVB. Factors influencing my selection included the following (none of which are invented post hoc, believe it or not): my ancestors lived near Dortmund before emigrating to the English colony of Pennsylvania . . . in 1720! I was a fan of Tomas Rosicky. Their colors were that of my youth team (which eventually spawned a US International, so don't laugh!) I preferred Evonik to Gazprom (who doesn't?) and, importantly, Dortmund was (at the time) an up-and-comer with a strong tradition, but a hill to climb.

This last point is critical. I don't "jump on bandwagons", as we say in America, and simply back a winner. I wasn't about to follow Bayern simply because they show up in the Champions League, parade around with Franz Beckenbauer at Oktoberfest and are peripherally associated with Sarah Brandner. My team would not be a glamour team -- at least not right away: it would be a team built from the ground up, hard-working, and playing attractive football. As Steph informed me, had I tuned into the Bundesliga a couple of years earlier, a search for attractive football would have led me well clear of Dortmund. So, perhaps it's a good thing I waited as long as I did. BVB was well-Kloppified when I found them.
Cable television and spotty Internet feeds can only sate the football fan's appetite so much, however, especially given that the Westfalenstadion is legend: perhaps the finest football venue in the world. I had to see it for myself. My initial trip to Dortmund actually was planned for the spring of this year. Sadly, it would have to wait. My trip was lost in a cloud of ash spewed forth by the Icelandic volcano that paralyzed European air traffic. (I don't remember the name of the volcano, but I think it's Icelandic for "DFB-Pokal.") I had a ticket to see Borussia take on Hoffenheim that I had to forego. And, perhaps it was for the best, as the result was a somewhat disappointing late draw that seriously damaged the side's outside chance for a Champions League berth, and left them with a serious injury to Mohammed Zidan. The weather looked nice, however.

Subsequent events confirmed that the volcano was indeed a stroke of luck (perhaps it's the Icelandic for "da Silva free kick in injury time",) as over the summer, through pieces covering the US team's briefly exhilarating but ultimately just brief run in South Africa for schwatzgelb, I was able to make e-mail contact with a couple of the folks you regularly read here at the site and on the larger German-language affiliate. I picked up a ticket to the Wolfsburg game on 11 September and made plans to say hello to the schwatzgelbers at the end of a brief European holiday that saw me visit gorgeous Ljubljana, Slovenia and taste the gorgeous beers of Munich (and little Aying) in Bavaria.

I arrived in Dortmund on Friday via the ICE, and stayed at a hotel quite near the station. I ventured into the city center for some food and drink and browsed the shops that afternoon. This included the BVB Superstore. I left empty-handed, but if I owned a dog, surely all of my BVB-branded canine-outfitting needs would be met.

In the tiny sliver of Dortmund that I visited, I saw a modern city, smaller than Munich of course, but somehow less artificial. It is not a tourist center, but a living, breathing, functioning city. Sadly, the wars of the 20th century cost both cities much of their history, but the lovingly restored churches of Dortmund retain their beauty, and the modern central square was full of families and life, even in a light rain and chilly air. I have to admit that I wanted to bop over the head whichever brats had decided to cover the town in graffiti, but that's sadly a theme common to virtually every city in Europe or America. The penalty for youth caught with spray paint cans should be no FIFA '11 for a year. The spray paint industry would be out of business in a month.

Also, "Kartoffel Lord"? What the heck is that? I didn't dare.

That evening, it was off to the Kreuzviertel for a rendezvous with the Schwatzgelbers. Mathias, Web, and Stephan, along with Kenny and the Scots, had gathered outside a local Stube to watch Hoppenheim take on our friends mit keine Schale, Sch****. A loss for the blue/white left them without a point on the year. Clearly a fantastic result, one that was more enjoyable with each empty glass. The hospitality of my Dortmund friends was tremendous and the beer hit the spot.

As an aside, unfortunately, as I had discussed with Web before, the decline in the number of Dortmund breweries is real shame. Some American breweries still brew the famous Dortmunder Export style, but it seemed like a simple pils was typically the beer of choice for most drinkers in the two pubs we visited. Still far better than mass-produced InBev or SAB Miller swill (e.g., American Budweiser), but probably not the finest Dortmund could produce. America is undergoing a craft beer renaissance, with smaller breweries popping up all over the country. If the same happened in Dortmund, I might try to emigrate.

The evening ended with a completely unintelligible dice game. Apparently, this is a Dortmund tradition, but lubricated with Dortmund beer, I felt like it would have taken a Fields Medal to decipher what are probably relatively simple rules. It's safer than darts, I suppose. I don't think I wagered anything, but it was comforting all the same to wake up the next morning with both kidneys. . . .

Rote Erde - fans meeting upAnd the next morning was gameday! I met Web by the Kreuzviertel bar to stroll over to the stadium and the surroundings quickly turned black and gold. The crowd was much younger than one would expect for an American game, I think. Ticket prices play a role, but there is also the distinction between professional and "college" sports in America. Many American universities have what are effectively junior professional teams, although the players are "officially" unpaid university students -- policing these rules ends up a full-time pursuit. College sports (specifically American football and basketball) in America garner a rabid following, with "tailgate" bacchanalia lasting all weekend, face-painting, mascots, fan clubs, alumni boosters, and general obsession for some. Sound familiar? Similar energies are at play in Dortmund, but with academic institutions focused on . . . well, academics, attentions are turned toward the professional team. There is the enthusiasm and passion of the college game with the more universal appeal of the professional game -- fans aren't excluded because they didn't go to a given school. The team in a passion shared by the entire community.

I was quite flattered by a brief radio interview and video interview for Schwatzgelb, the latter from videomeister Peter and the former from his son. Peter kindly showed me around the stadium before the game, giving me excellent views of the field and the massive Sudtribune. A lasting impression was meeting an older woman who was standing in for her husband at the game. In his 80s, he had a medical condition keeping him from the game, but his wife volunteered to go in his stead, ensuring that the family had a presence. I hope he is better now, and was able to see the win over Bayern -- that is devotion.

Back to the Sud. It is massive. My only point of comparison was the "terrace" for my hometown "Philadelphia Union," and the difference was exponential. The Union are a new Major League Soccer team, a franchise, as are all MLS teams, but with a committed group of "ultras" called the "Sons of Ben" -- Ben being Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia's favorite son, or more appropriately, the father of the city and perhaps our country as well. The Sons were instrumental in bringing a team to Philadelphia, and, so, their passion is unquestioned. They, too, dutifully pack the southern end of our 19,000 seat stadium, stand, sing, wave flags, and give the likes of David Beckham what he called an authentic European experience. But the Sons occupy perhaps 20 to 25 rows of seats. The Sudtribune seemed simply gigantic by comparison. A monolithic, singular, teeming wall of humanity. It was the Sons of Ben in Excelsis, truly a monument to fans love for their team and the sport in general. It must be truly beyond words for the Dortmund squad to play for these fans -- not to mention the thousands of others all over the stadium standing, sitting, cheering, singing -- especially for hometown boys like Sahin and Grosskreutz.

And that's a nice lead into the highlight of the trip -- the game itself. Perched high in section 37 in the southwest corner, I watched goals by Sahin and Kagawa vanquish a star-studded Wolfsburg side with Dzeko and Diego looking threatening (especially when Diego kicked Sebastian Kehl in the shin -- no card) and everyone else looking lost. Much of it was Dortmund, however -- Schmelzer barreled down the left side with confidence, Kuba returned with his usual energy, Kehl played well, Barrios gave the defenders fits, and the two goalscorers, Kagawa Shinji and Nuri Sahin, were simply masterful, especially the latter. IT was a signature performance for Sahin, who is making the case this season that he should be considered one of the premier players not only in Germany, but the world. Guus Hiddink should really wake up.

A 2-0 result and three points led to a celebration, and thanks to the hospitality of the Dortmund faithful, I can't say I was ever without a beer in hand, or at least on offer. Of course, this took its toll the next day, as a somewhat pallid, perspiring visitor must have perplexed the staff at Dortmund's excellent Stadtmuseum (really -- people talked it down, but it's quite nice,) but the celebration was worth the price paid. Just a wonderful, welcoming community of celebrating fans.

As I type, the team's run of terrific form has slowed a bit: their most recent match was the Pokal loss to Offenbach, and that followed two draws, one disappointing (PSG) and one uplifting (Hoppketeers), and a needlessly close win at Cologne and Nobel Laureate Podolski. It is a long season, and BVB is in fine shape to make a run at a Champions League spot and perhaps more, provided they can start turning possession into goals. There is much to be done in the Europa League, but moving beyond the group stage is still possible. The team needs to get healthy, and a win at Mainz (who kept us company by bowing out of the Pokal), would do wonders for the campaign. I hope to attend another game this spring, or perhaps next fall. It's not cheap to fly across the pond, unfortunately. All the same, I can be certain that the Schwatzgelb faithful and the Planet Dortmund boys will be representing us all well throughout the season, and I look forward to more thrills ahead. Wir sind Borussia!

Derek, October 2010 published on 09.11.2010

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