Well what can you say about an away trip to your greatest rivals in one of the best cities in the world, where you come away with a win after fielding your almost second string team? Quite alot actually, so here goes, without the need to rely on cheap Top Gun (or The Mobiles for those who remember their one hit wonder in 1982) song titles. This was always going to be the pinnacle of England’s away trips for the past few years – well certainly since Amsterdam in 2006. I am not going to dwell on the history of games between these two great foes, but I think there was enough in the payback bank from Wordl Cup 1990, Euro Championship 1996 and of course Munich in Septmber 2001 to ensure that this was more than just a friendly.
As soon as the game was announced, and the venue confirmed as Berlin the anticipation from the fans was immense. The German FA allocated nearly 8,000 tickets for England Fans and most were snapped up well in advance, ensuring that the atmosphere was going to be tip top. But it wasn’t all about the mouthwatering game. Berlin itself was a great result as a venue. The new capital of Germany is one of the youngest in the World (prior to the wall coming down in 1989 the capital of West Germany was Bonn), as well as one of the most hedonistic. Meaning that whatever the visitor is looking forward, he (or she) will find it somewhere in the city. One only has to mention the words Kit Kat Club to many visitors to draw a knowing smile (go on you know you want to Google it now – just wait until the children and your boss is out of the room though).
There are a number of great things about Berlin including:-
- There is no real centre to the city which means that crowds are dispursed and never too busy
- There is history galore, and most of it is free to see
- There is of course German beer and sausages
- It’s full of German women who are not backward at coming forward
But there are a number of bad things too:-
- There is no real centre to the city which means that attractions are in places quite afar apart
- There is a lot of “sensitive” history that does attract the wrong type of visitors
- Too much beer and sausage makes you very poorly
- It’s full of German women who are sometimes too forward
So a bit of a balanced scorecard really, although most people who visit the city vow to come back time and time again. I had been on three occasions before and captured its forever changing face. In 2000 I surprised CMF with a birthday day trip to the city and we wandered around Europe’s largest every building site that today is the impressive Potsdamer Platz development. Three years later I was back to see a game at the Olympiastadium which at the time was in the midst of its huge upgrade in time for the World Cup finals in 2006, and finally I was here on a day trip with Football Jo so that she could stock up on some dody DVD’s. I had a good idea of the bits to see and the bits to avoid and this would come in useful later in the day.
As the days counted down before the game, more and more of the first choice players pulled out. The Manchester United trio of Ferdinand, Rooney and Wes Brown were already declared injured before the squad was announced but it came as no shock when firstly Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard pulled out of the squad after playing a full match for their clubs a few hours before. Unsurprisingly there was no place for Robert Green, despite him putting in a fantastic performance at home to Portsmouth in front of Capello. Instead he went with the 38 year old David James, Scott Carson who hadn’t played since the Croatia home game twelve months previously where he had a nightmare, and finally Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who had been between the sticks for the previous few games in which Man City had performed so badly. Hart was ruled out after City’s game at Hull on the Sunday, but instead of Green he called up Paul Robinson who must have thought, along with 99% of Blackburn Rovers fans that his international career was over. With no place still for Michael Owen there was alot of specutation as who would start up front from the quartet of Defoe, Crouch, Bent and Agbonlahor, whilst the central midfield pairing of Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick would start for the first time together.
I had managed to snare my flights on a rumour, twenty four hours before the fixture was officially announced. So I wsa flying on at 7am on the day of the game direct to Berlin Tegel, returning twenty four hours later. Dagenham Dan and Shents Bull were flying out with me and I managed to arrange a lift to Heathrow with Dan, although the pick up from Embankment at 4.30am did mean another night where I got to say hello to the milkman as I left the house. This was going to be my first visit to Terminal 5, and first impressions were very positive and you can see how it took so long to build, although they could have improved the painfully slow security process surely.
The airport had a heavy police presence since this was a game that was going to be too tempting for a number of the “old faces”. In general the police that you find at the airports are very personable and will try and have a joke with you – especially in Dan’s case when he was recognised straight away for his heinous crime of being a Dagenham and Redbridge fan. We passed through the terminal after security very quickly, including a full english pit stop. We had turned down a Wagamama’s Full English early on, not exactly relishing the tought of sausage, bacon and wasabi, as well as Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food offering that at £20 was a tad overpriced, and settled for the Express Full with a guarentee of fifteen minutes.
Fast forward ninety minutes and we were exiting the tiny terminal at Berlin’s Tegel airport and boarding a bus that would take us down to the city centre. Tegel is so small that you can walk from curbside when you exit your taxi to jetty which connects the plane in less than thirty steps. This means that the airport can get incredibly congested and it still retains the Eastern European feel today, although there are now firm plans to demolish the airport in 2012 when the new Berlin Brandenburg airport opens in the south east corner of the city. The bus deposited us outside Zoo Station (made famous by U2 in 1991 as the title of their opening track of the Achtung Baby album) and we headed around the corner so the boys could drop their bags off, and we then started on some sightseeing. I took them on a circular route from Potsdamer Platz along the wall route to the Brandenburg Gate and down to Checkpoint Charlie. We had also picked up a few more visitors on the way including Young Joe, who when he discovered I wrote a blog insisted that I refer to him as Gypsy Joe. I cannot possibly comment on why he liked to be called this, although we did lose him a couple of times as we passed building sites that needed a driveway completed.
After a brief souvenir stall stop at Checkpoint Charlie (where we filled up our passports with genuine East German and Soviet border stamps) we went for lunch at one of my favourate spots in the city – the Play Off Bar and Diner which is located in the Arkadan shopping centre at Potsdamer Platz. Now what is so special about an American diner in a shopping centre you may ask? Well I have been a regular visitor over the years for four main factors. Firstly they are one of the only bars in the city that served Schwarzbier, or “black beer” which is addictive once you have tried it once; secondly they serve huge portions of bascially every type of meat known to man; thirdly it has TV’s dotted around the location showing sport from all over the world, and finally because of the waitresses. We are not talking in the Hooters league here, but they are above average for German women. OUr particular waitress, Steffi, took a shine to Dan and myself straight away and flirted like mad, and kept “squeezing” past us to get to other tables, taking the opportunity for a quick feel as she passed. She was certainly not backward in coming forward and I think things could have got a bit messy if we had stayed for a few more Schwarzbiers in more ways than one.
Berlin was gearing up for its annual Christmas market, with many of the stalls being set up around Potsdamer Platz. Most were not yet open but some of the sweet stalls were, including the infamous “let’s dip all of the fruit we can find in chocolate and put it on a stick” stall. One of the stands was a Milka stand, selling a variety of purple cow products. Being brave after my Black Beers I went up to the pretty maidens behind the desk with Shents and asked “Do you know where anywhere sells chocolate”. In a response that brought me straight down to earth I had one of those moments where you wish you were somewhere else.
“Are you English people so stupid you cannot see? We sell chocolate here – now do you want some or are you going to sod off?” In one of the biggest climb downs known to man, and with my support crew now in hiding around the corner I handed over my €2 for a bar of Milka with chilli beans in. I could have at least got something I liked! In preparation for the change in temperature that was due to kick in at the weekend, the local authorities had installed a real snow slope where for €1.50 you could speed down in a tyre. Only Gypsy Joe and Shents were brave enough to venture down the slope, and their girly screams were enough to have the rest of us heading into the U-Bahn in fits of laughter.
We headed off back to Zoo after the alpine experience as the boys were fascinated by the Erotik superstore and museum that is located across the road from the station. It was here in April 2006 that I nearly walked into a scene from a porno – although not the kind that either CMF or myself would want to watch. I was there with Football Jo as I have already mentioned and she wanted to try and “out porn” her brother so she wanted to look in the “special” section of DVD’s. Now coming from the most liberal country in Europe where hardcore porn is shown regularly on state TV before the watershed and they have monthly magazines such as Golden Shower Monthly and Bukkake Bonanza, the special section really caters for a minority of the market, and Jo was in her element. I was desperate for the bathroom and noticed a Gents in the corner so I headed in that direction. As I was about to push the door open, three young men with leather pants and very tight t-shirts emerged, swiftly followed by a middle age suited man who looked a little bit flustered. On seeing the potential for a new “trick” they smiled at me and I headed back to the same arms of of Stacheldrat und Vanillepudding section (use Babel fish if you want to know!) where Jo was, much to her amusement.
After a thirty minute giggle we felt the need for some more culture and so we headed east to Alexanderplatz, which was the centre of the East German universe. Slap bang in the middle of the square is the Fernsehturm, built in the late 1960’s and one of the tallest freestanding structures in Europe at 368metres. The viewing platform at 204metre is a great place to get a view of the whole city and Shents and I were the only two brave enough the 30metres a second lift and the magnificent panoramic views. So we did what all English football fans would do in this situation – we headed for the bar and had a beer. Time was getting on, and we headed off down Under den Linden for a final bit of culture before heading off to the stadium.
Oh what it’s like to follow England abroad. The train was packed with fans from both countries. The Germans being quite drinking their litre bottles of beer, and the English full of toneless songs which started off fine such as “God save our Queen”, “Rule Britannia” and then progressed onto “Ten German Bombers” and other great songs taken from the Xenophobics greatest hits cd. We pulled into the station next to the stadium and within a few minutes we had passed through the various security cordons, been given our free programmes and stocked up on warming food and drink as the temperature started to fall.
So what more can I say about the stadium? It is truly magificent and history seems to seep from every brick. During the 1990’s the stadium was taken apart block by block, completely cleaned and replaced. A huge roof was put in place as well and the stadium was ready to host the World Cup Final in 2006. England had been given the upper and lower tiers either side of the Olympic torch platform, and the view of the action from my seat in the upper tier was very impressive. The teams emerged to a “raise the flag” that Mr Perryman would have been proud of, although we couldn’t actually see what the message was. Christians entering the Coliseum perhaps? Well ninety minutes would decide whether we would exit battered and bruised or carried on the shields of the vanished.