The first half of the 2008/09 Bundesliga season undoubtably belonged to the miracle team from the small village of Hoffenheim, who upset the whole form book by going into the winter break at the top of the league. This in itself was a surprise as their form in the last few matches was far from impressive, and the “game of the season” against Bayern Munich on the penultimate set of fixtures saw the team from Bavaria come out on top and close the gap to a single point.If their form in December was worrying, the first two games of the restarted season in late January were a serious cause for concern. An easy looking game away at bottom of the table Borussia Monchengladbach resulted in a hard earnt draw, and in their first game at the new Rhein-Neckar Arena, built with the millions of Euro’s from our friend Dietmar Hopp, against Bayer Leverkusen they were two nil down before the opening ribbon had fallen to the floor. Leverkusen went on to record a 4-1 win to complete an impressive double (they beat 1899 earlier in the season 5-2 in Nordrhein) to really open up the Bundesliga title race. Hertha Berlin’s defeat of Bayern Munich just over 24 hours later sent the team from the capital to the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in over a decade. It also allowed HSV Hamburg to jump into the top three to possibly create the most competitive season in decades with five teams (1899, TSV, Hertha, Bayern and Leverkusen) all in with a shout of glory.
With so many teams competing for top spot, big clashes would be occuring almost every week, and so seven days after Hertha went top, Bayer Leverkusen were due to take on TSV Hamburg, not at their intimate Bayer Arena, but at the 50,000 plus all seater LTU Arena in Dusseldorf.
Bayer had been one of the German teams of the early part of the decade, fighting for the title right up to the last day on a couple of occasions and reaching the 2002 Champions League Final in Glasgow where they lost to Real Madrid. They have one of the best attendance records in European football with their 22,500 capacity stadium sold out for more than 100 consecutive Bundesliga games. Plans had been in place for a number of seasons to redevelop the Bayer Arena to make it fit for their next assault on domestic glory but finances were never in place.
At last at the start of this season a decision was made to start on the necessary redevelopments to increase the capacity to over 30,000. However, this work would mean the stadium would have to be closed for a period of at least 6 months and so arrangements were put in place to move a few miles down the road to Dusseldorf for the second half of the season. Leverkusen as a town is essentially a suburb of Cologne, hanging on the end of the S-Bahn line. It is really only famous for one thing – Bayer AG. The giant pharmaceutical company was founded in the region over one hundred and forty years ago and has now grown to be the third biggest in the world with revenues of over £30billion and employing over 100,000 people. Their most famous brand is Aspirin but few people actually know that they used to market Heroin as a product that was a “sedative for coughs”. The company formed a sports club in 1904 that eventually became the club we know today as Bayer Leverkusen.
So why was a 50,000+ seater stadium just sitting ready and waiting so close? Well let’s go back five years to 2003 when Germany was given the 2006 FIFA World Cup. At that point a number of cities raised their eyebrows and thought – I’d like a bit of that action. The organising committee had a tough choice drawing up a final list of 12 cities and stadiums, so they set stringent criteria, one of which was that a 40,000+ seater stadium had to be either in place or under construction at the time of the bid. Cities such as Stuttgart, Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin were laughing but surprise packages such as Leipzig and Kaiserslautern were given the nod above the likes of Monchengladbach and Dusseldorf who had spent millions building brand new state of the art venues.
The main problem they faced in the choice for suitabel venues was not down to facilities, or even politics. It was simply one of location. Travel less than 20 minutes south from Dusseldorf and you arrive on the doorstep of the 50,0000 capacity RheinEnergie stadium in Cologne. Head just a bit further to the east and you will stumble across the impressive 60,000 seater indoor Veltins Arena, home to Schalke 04 and the awesome 80,000 plus home of Borussia Dortmund, thus underlining the claim in these parts that this is the heart and soul of European Football.
At least Monchengladbach had a relatively successful team who could play in their new stadium. The new arena there co-incided with a return to the Bundesliga and they have since filled it almost to the brim on every occasion. The same cannot be said for Dusseldorf as the club side their, Fortuna, regularly attract crowds of less than 5,000 in a huge stadium modelled on the Millennium Stadium, complete with multi-coloured seats and a retractable roof.
So, when Bayer Leverkusen rang Fortuna and asked if they could come and play every so often, the club were only too keen to agree. The LTU Arena is a superb one for football, having hosted the annual DFB Pokal Cup (the German equivilant of the Community Shield although featuring a few more teams) for the past few seasons.
I had been invited to a supplier workshop in Cologne, to co-incide with one of the major events in the Cologne carnival. I used to live almost on the Notting Hill carnival route so I was used to the incessant whistling noise created by the crowds and sound of tin cans being kicked across the street for two days but the Cologne one is something else. It actually starts on the 11th November at 11.11am, and carries on right through to the end of February each year, with the last biggest hurrah being the last Monday of the month where apparently the Germans get a bit “crazy” which is called Rosenmontag. I have seen German “crazy” before and it is not a pretty sight. Any football fan remembers the awful scene of the German Euro96 winners singing “It’s coming home” on the balcony in Berlin will know what I mean. So everything tied in very well. I got a trip out to Germany, the Bundesliga fixtures kindly delivered a top of the table game near to Cologne in a stadium that I had never been to, and I got to go wild and crazy wearing a silly outfit for a couple of hours. Marvellous. The only down side was Bayer’s flat refusal to issue me a press pass as they only issued them to “full time journalists from Germany”…I tried reasoning but some clubs think that they are more important than they really are…so step forward Bayer Leverkusen for winning the Jobsworth award for 2009 (so far).My plan for the day actually included initially a visit to the MSV Arena to catch Duisburg play at 2pm before I headed down the road to Dusseldorf. This really is an amazing area for football – An hour on an (albeit very fast train) could see you at any one of eight top division teams, and a further six second level ones. However, not for the first time this week I encountered “technical” issues on my plane and so Ryanair had to put their fanfare music on hold for a few more days as we touched down in Weeze an hour behind schedule, and more importantly, putting pay to my game at MSV.
I headed direct to Dusseldorf to take in the sights and sounds of their carnival Sunday, with all sorts of characters wandering around pissed early in the afternoon. My favourite was the Britney (the “Oops I did it again” phase) handcuffed to an angel who had no more on that a towel – a marvellous sight and one to stir the interest in the Cologne carnival I would be attending in less than 24 hours.
The fans making their way to the stadium had got into the spirit of things by dressing up as well, There was no actual theme, with characters such as Batman, Pink Panther, Spice Girls and Sir Alan Sugar (well it my just have been a grumpy middle aged man) making an appearance. The other noticable thing was the number of away fans who had made the three hour journey from Hamburg mingling with the Leverkusen fans. A fifteen minute U-Bahn trip deposited me at the awesome LTU Arena, and after a swift body search by a lovely hands on female steward I was tucking into a currywurst and a Alt beer.
Hamburg certainly had brought a fair number of fans, congrogated behind the north goal, and for most of the build up to the match outsinging the home fans. Hamburg, under Martin Jol had come into the game in third place, but knowing that a win would take them top. This is the team managed by the so-called Spurs reject Martin Jol (interesting that the two best leagues in Europe apart from the English is the Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga. And the two best coaches based on current form are? Mr Jol and the man who replaced him at Spurs Juande Ramos, now in charge at Real Madrid), who had also sold their best two midfielders in the first half of the season to Manchester City – Nigel De Jong and Vincent Kompany. DeJong’s transfer was laughable as City paid nearly £17m for his services, yet the release clause in his contract due to kick in in June 2009 would see him available for less than £3m.
Bayer Leverkusen 1 HSV Hamburg 2 – LTU Arena, Dusseldorf, Sunday 22nd February 2009
The LTU Arena
The game started with a heavy drizzle settling over the stadium, causing a number of early passes to go astray. Hamburg deployed a 4-4-1-1 formation that caused the Leverkusen back four problems from the first few minutes. The first goal, unsurprisingly came from the visitors as a pull back across the penalty area from Guerro was missed by the Croat Olic, and Jansen took one touch before drilling the ball home from the edge of the penalty area with 19 minutes on the clock. A few minutes later Jensen should have added a second when he pulled his shot wide from a similar position.
There was an undercurrent of nastiness on the pitch that led to a number of yellow cards but on the half hour mark a late challenge by Fredericks from Leverksuen went unchallenged and his low cross was brilliantly turned in by Helmes to level the scores. With time running out in the half, the home team at last started taking the game to Hamburg an where a decent centre forward away form going in in the lead.
At half time I headed down onto the concourse to do my bit for the environment by recycling my beer glass and trying to understand the thinking behind some of the customes people had on. A bear outfit – ok…A seventies outfit complete with huge afro – nice touch…A Boris Becker outfit complete with tennis racket – amusing….A Rudi Voller outfit (turned out it actually was Rudi)…and a Ruud Guillet – complete with blacked up face….Is this racist? even if it isn’t, it was a very strange choice of outfit.
The second half started slowly with few chances in the first fifteen minutes until a Leverkusen freekick flashed just wide on the 55th minute mark. A few minutes later it was the visitors turn to nearly take the lead when Olic took the ball around the keeper but his shot was cleared off the line. Five minutes later they did get their goal when Jensen found himself eiht yards out with the ball falling in front of him and he volleyed in to score his second.
Much as Leverkusen toiled they were no match for the hard working Hamburg team. Even when the visitors were reduced to ten men when Jerome Boeteng was sent off for a second yellow Leverkusen could not create a chance.
So with Hamburg sitting top of the pile, and becoming the fourth team to lead the Bundesliga in 2009 I headed back into Koln for a night of relaxation before those crazy Germans got their hands on me on Monday morning.
Anyone who knows me knows that I do not do wacky. I abhore any event that draws attention to myself in any way apart from a professional light. So anyone walking into the offices of a certain German software company at 9.30am on Monday 23rd February would not believe what they say. Mr Stuart Fuller dressed as a clown, complete with clown make up and a big bowtie. I did however have my second Kölsch beer of the day that was a sweetner to this enforced embarrassment. We had reserved seats at the carnival and arrived there just before midday. The streets were full of every conceivable fancy dress, and it was very good to see the young ladies of the city had really made an effort, and the almost artic conditions meant nothing to them based on the amount of flesh on display. Every few minutes a small glass of Kölsch would appear in my hand, a toast would go up and another beer would slip smoothly down. The parade started at one pm with a marching band and a float, on which middle aged men threw chocolate down on the crowd….Fast forward four fours and the last float drifted past, with a brass band and a middle age man throwing chocolate down – a bit of variation wouldn’t go a miss.
The Germans wanted to party harder and the opening bars of “Hey Baby” in the hospitality tent were enough to send them into raptures, and me back to the hotel, grabbing my kisses (If you have a heart on your cheek that means you want a kiss – I had 2!!) as I went. I counted up my sweets – enough to keep the Little Fuller’s happy, and a bonus 3 bottles of Jägermeifter for my nightcap…I am sure Swansea on Saturday will be just as welcoming to us English.
About the LTU Arena
The futuristic home of little Fortuna Dusseldorf has been built on the site of the historic old Rheinstadion, which was used during Euro88. It actually held nearly 56,000 fans and became synonymous not with soccer but American Football as it was home to one of the success stories of the new defunct World League of American Football. The new stadium was constructed initially with a view to becoming a host venue for the 2006 World Cup in 2002, and opened its doors in May 2004 after a €240m rebuild.
It is certainly futuristic with the multi-coloured seats offering an almost perfect view of the action, a retractable roof and heating below the seats to keep everyone’s legs warm. The stadium inside is very similar to the Millennium stadium although it only has two tiers, separated by a line of executive boxes. The stadium has hosted the national team on a number of occasions the last being in February when Norway were the visitors, as well as the annual pre-season Bundesliga tournament – the DFB Pokal. It is also a favourite for some of the biggest names in music in the world such as Coldplay and Oasis who are playing there this year.
How to get to the LTU Arena
The arena is located in the north west area of the city, on the banks of the River Rhine. The easiest way to get there is to take U-Bahn 78 from the Hauptbahnhof which runs every 10 minutes and takes around 15 minutes. The stadium is located just outside the main doors to the arena and travel is free for match ticket holders 3 hours before and after the game. If you are driving then the stadium is well signposted and parking is plentiful.
How to get a ticket for the LTU Arena
For Bayer Leverkusen matches, tickets can be purchased from their online portal via their home page http://www.bayer04.de or by phone on +41 1805 040404. Alternatively you can buy them from http://www.seatwave.com. Tickets start from €22 for a place in the standing area behind the goal to €42 for a top of the range seat. It is not clear yet what sort of attendances Bayer will get in the bigger arena.