One of my long-term ambitions as a football fan has been to stand on the world-famous Sudtribune at Dortmund, the largest terrace in Europe and arguably the most impressive sight in the whole of football. This weekend, I fulfilled that ambition as I travelled to Germany for Borussia Dortmund vs. Wolfsburg, a ticket secured right in the heart of the best stand in the whole of football. This is the story of the Sudtribune, along with pictures and videos to try to go some way to providing an insight into what I believe is the greatest football experience possible.
I arrived in Dortmund early on match day, picking up my ticket from a hotel after listening to a taxi driver tell me the story of how the Manchester City fans the week before had been “the drunkest people he had ever seen” and laughing as he sang the Yaya/Kolo Toure song. At no point during this time did he look at the road, making it hard to enjoy this part of the trip. The game didn’t kick off until 3:30 pm, and with the time around 12pm I decided to go into the stadium early to take some pictures of it while it was empty and watch the Sudtribune fill up.
As I found my way to the entrance of the stand, it was clear that the stand was very much not empty. While the other three sides of the stadium were deserted, the Sudtribune was already 3/4 full and demonstrating their large range of chants. I spotted someone with an equally awed expression as mine and noticed he was wearing a Crystal Palace scarf. The Holmesdale Fanatics are extremely good by English standards, but this was a whole new level. A full three hours before the game started, there was a better atmosphere than during the vast majority of Premier League games all season. Huge flags in the colours of yellow and black waved everywhere you look, while 30,000 scarfs twirled simultaneously during certain stages of songs.
I was already hugely impressed, but things were about to get a whole lot louder. The Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper ran out on to the pitch to begin his warm-up. This stage of a game is usually greeted by polite applause, but that was not the case at Signal Igunda Park. Earlier this year I was at the Carling Cup Final as Liverpool won their first trophy for several years, and the noise made by the BVB masses for the Dortmund stopper was louder than that which greeted Anthony Gerrard’s missed penalty and Liverpool’s victory. An hour remained until the game began, and the stand was full to bursting and bouncing in unison. Every time the feet of the Dortmund supporters hit the ground, the entire stand would shake.
The Wolfsburg supporters had arrived by this stage, a group of around 500 dwarfed in the capacity crowd of 81,000. They did their best to make themselves heard, but it was like trying to prevent a tidal wave with a sheet of kitchen roll. Most fans will proclaim themselves as the best in the world, only Dortmund can say they are telling the truth when they do so. This was the second time I had witnessed their fans, the first being the Champions’ League group stage game against Manchester City. In Britain we are used to away fans being loud while the majority of home supporters are quiet. I had wondered if perhaps the same would be true of Germany and whether the Dortmund fans at home could match the highly impressive away gathering at the Etihad. I need not have worried.
As kick off approached the chanting got louder and louder, imagine the noise of Leeds United winning the Champions League at the same instant Millwall won the Premier League and England won the World Cup and you’d be somewhere close to a realistic comparison. The first name of each Dortmund player was bellowed by the stadium announcer, the surname roared back by everyone in the ground. As part of my research into the trip I had learned that every set of German fans was currently taking part in the 12:12 protest, proposed changes to the way supporters are treated met with an angry reaction. The plans include the kind of thing which English football fans have become familiar with, reduced away allocations, searches for supporters upon entering the grounds and games being moved for television. As a result of these proposals, the supporters of every club agreed to stay silent for the first 12 minutes and 12 seconds of every game.
I did not think this could work in practice. I had witnessed for myself in the summer how difficult it was to persuade fans to protest something they are not happy with, and it is a struggle for many sets of supporters to stay quiet even during a minute’s silence for a former legend or famous public figure. Without falling into the cliché of talking about the organisation of Germans, the preservation of fan culture is clearly high on the agenda of the German public, as the stadium went from a cauldron of noise before kick-off to deadly silent as the first ball was kicked.
Dortmund are an extremely good side, and my own personal tip to lift the Champions League at the end of the season. They began the game quickly; creating several chances which I was certain would break the silence. It was not the case, the BVB supporters staying silent as Wolfsburg struggled to contain wave upon wave of yellow and black shirts. It took just six minutes for Dortmund to take the lead, the superb Marco Reus scoring a free kick from a frankly ridiculous angle. Even this did not break the 12:12 protest, the goal politely applauded like a point at Wimbledon, rather than the mayhem I knew would result from a goal after the protest period had been completed.
Dortmund kept up the high standards of play, almost doubling their lead on at least one occasion. By this stage all eyes had turned to the stadium clock, which was slowly counting up to the magical 12 minute and 12 second mark. I knew it was going to be special, getting my camera ready to record the moment. At 12:02 the crowd counted down from ten, a buzz of excitement rippling around the ground. The count reached “DREI…ZWEI… EINS”. Mayhem followed. The air was filled with yellow streamers, balloons and even more flags that had been on display before the game. The crowd punched the air and screamed “BORUSSIA! BORUSSIA! BORUSSIA!” as if their lives depended on it. Several years ago I worked at an airport and would often hear planes taking off, the noise that made was nothing compared to this moment of madness from the Dortmund faithful. Hopefully the video below will go some way to demonstrating the craziness which resulted from the shackles of support being released.
These twelve minutes and twelve seconds were the last time you could hear yourself think, unrelenting support demonstrated for the remainder of the game and throughout half time. Dortmund hardly ever lose at home, and it is not difficult to see why. As an opposition player there can be few more intimidating sights in football, perhaps behind only John Terry handing your wife his mobile number. It is a wonder teams don’t walk out of the tunnel, look up at the stands and instantly forfeit. However on this occasion, the visitors would be rescued by a crazy decision by referee Wolfgang Stark, a man who is about as popular with Dortmund fans as the Schalke squad.
A shot on goal from a Wolfsburg player was blocked on the line by Schmelzer, the ball quite clearly hitting the player’s leg. Even from up in the top of the Sudtribune I could see it wasn’t a penalty, and clearly the 29,999 loyal Dortmund fans with whom I was sharing a stand would concur. Mr Stark did not see things the same way however, giving a penalty and showing a despairing Schmelzer a red card. If you’ve never stood in the middle of thousands of angry German ultras (and let’s face it, you probably haven’t), it is a daunting and impressive experience. My GCSE in German told me the song they sung in some way involved Wolfgang Stark’s mother; thankfully for those easily offended I could not translate it further than this.
While professional footballers will always be expected to score a penalty, having to do so in front of an angry Sudtribune is perhaps one occasion where a miss could be excused. The Brazilian Diego made no mistake from the spot however, levelling the scores with a calm penalty which sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. Manchester United or Arsenal letting a lead slip at home would surely have resulted in a mixture of silence and anger; however Borussia Dortmund continued to back their team without pausing for an instant. Even as the Wolfsburg players ran to celebrate in front of them (greeted by a shower of beer), the chanting began again as the home hordes urged their side to somehow find a way to win and keep up the pressure on their rivals as they attempt to win a third Bundesliga in a row.
Five minutes later, Wolfsburg were celebrating again, as yet another Brazilian found a way to beat the Dortmund keeper. It was a superb strike, but there was more than a hint of offside in the build-up and once again unimaginable levels of fury were directed in the direction of the match official, who was probably wishing he was somewhere far away. These goals in the 36th and 41st minutes put Wolfsburg in a commanding position to take an unexpected victory, making the extra man count quickly. Half time arrived without any further goals, with a steward rushing on to the pitch to hand the referee Stark an umbrella. I was confused as to the purpose of this, until he reached the tunnel area and several litres of beer were poured in his direction. Having seen just how much Germans loved beer the night before, this was no small sacrifice.
The end of the 12:12 protest had been the most memorable moment so far, but half time was to provide perhaps the most unexpected. Small children on the pitch at half time of a football match has become a familiar sight for those who attend matches, with the overawed youngsters usually taking a couple of quick penalties or passing the ball to a mascot in some kind of over-sized animal costume. Not in Germany. Not in Dortmund.
The children waved to the Sudtribune, and began one of the strangest and yet extremely joyful things I have ever witnessed. They began to sing “Jingle Bells” in perfect English, as the Dortmund fans linked arms. As they reached the chorus, the entire stadium joined in with familiar Christmas tune and bounced up and down. Minutes earlier the stadium had been wishing all sorts of unfortunate accidents to occur to the referee, and now 30,000 people were bouncing up and down and singing about Santa. It shows that while Dortmund fans dearly love their team and want to see them win, they have not forgotten that watching football is supposed to be fun.
Despite being 2 – 1 down and down to ten men, Borussia Dortmund came out the better team in the second half. Attacking the yellow wall, how could they not? The pressure applied and the unwavering support soon had a reward, a foul in the box giving one of the many talented Polish players at Dortmund a chance from the spot. Blaszczykowski made no mistake, scoring the second penalty of the game and levelling the scores. Unimaginable scenes. The stand shook so much I felt as if it would surely collapse, beer went flying through the air, flags waved and small flares were ignited, although they resembled sparklers rather than the more visually impressive but more dangerous Italian version. I have a video of the goal, but honestly a thousand cameras could not really do it justice. Borussia Dortmund scoring a goal at the Sudtribune is an experience every football fan should have once.
Sadly the Dortmund fight back could not last and I did not get to witness a winner which would probably have sent the stadium into orbit. Indeed, it was Wolfsburg who were to have the last laugh. The ten men of Dortmund were caught out with just over 15 minutes remaining, Dost breaking free and finishing calmly in a one on one situation. With BVB desperately needing a win to keep up with Bayern Munich I thought this could be the stage the support quietened, but instead the opposite happened. They rallied their team for one last push, declaring their Echte Liebe (true love) for Dortmund. A goal never came despite frantic activity in the box and the frenzied home fans urging their side onward to claim at least a point.
One thing which was notable was the fact that not a single Dortmund fan left their seat as the game moved into injury time. Football stadiums in England often empty with 85 minutes on the clock, especially if the home side are not winning. No danger of that here, as the wonderful Dortmund fans applauded their side off the field despite losing to the team in 14th place. With no offence intended to Arsenal, you cannot imagine the same happening at the Emirates should they dare to lose a game. The Dortmund players walked over to the Yellow Wall at full-time, clapping the fans and raising defiant salutes. They may be a mile behind Munich in the league, but they aren’t giving up.
Meanwhile in the far corner, the Wolfsburg players celebrated a famous victory. The players linked arms and raised them several times, each one drawing a louder cheer from the fans who had made the journey. There is real respect between players and fans in Germany, something which is badly missing from the average out of touch Premiership footballer.
I left the stadium feeling as if I had had a religious experience. I knew it was going to be good, but it was beyond all of my hopes and expectations. German football is an example to us all, that being a football fan does not have to mean a life of suffering. I believe that the money in football means it can no longer be called the beautiful game, but Borussia Dortmund are certainly a beautiful team. If you are a football fan and get the chance to go, do it. It may just be the best thing you ever do.