I apologise in advance for what I am going to do. One thing I really want to do during our time together is take you to the football. Believe me, it’s essential to an understanding of how Germans tick. Trust me on this one. Football is a source of national pride in a country which often finds national pride difficult to comprehend.
The national team are supermodels for the kind of look the country’s leaders want to project: young, dynamic, multicultural, fearless, and gracious in victory. Defeat is another concept they don’t understand. The Bundesliga, the country’s 18-team top league is also a poster for everything good about Germany: fan-friendly, affordable, inclusive, egalitarian.
All of this is true and so I dearly want to take you to a game. Unfortunately the first game on the calendar is Schalke 04 vs Borussia Dortmund. This is very much the exception to the rule because these guys hate each other.
Schalke are my local team. They play in Gelsenkirchen, a city eight miles from Herne. Dortmund are the team I love. Dortmund is twelve miles in the other direction. I lived there for ten years. Goddammit, the reason I came to Germany was to be near them.
Why do they hate each other? The question is not so much “why?” but rather “how?” There’s nothing quite like it in Britain. Liverpool against Everton is too friendly, too brothers-in-arms. Manchester United against Manchester City has too much raison d’être . Even Rangers against Celtic, nasty and vicious though it is, has some sort of misguided sense of higher purpose that Dortmund-Schalke just doesn’t have. They hate each other because they hate each other because they hate each other.
The nearest British equivalent would be in Rugby League: Hull FC against Hull Kingston Rovers. I once got to see the Hull derby live. Our guide was a Hull FC fan who explained that his club’s fans came from the more genteel side of the city, not like the bandit country on the other side of the river. We sat next to a large, half-naked man with a superman logo tatooed on his chest. He had to be physically restrained by four of his female relatives from killing the match officials with his bare hands. And this was the genteel side of Hull! At the other side of the pitch, the Hull KR fans were pulling at their chains and tearing strips of raw flesh from bones with their teeth. They hate each other because they hate each other because they hate each other. That’s Dortmund -Schalke.
If I had to answer the question “why do they hate each other?” I could only give one possible answer. Because in this region everybody hates each other. That’s not a good answer because it’s an overstatement: The people are friendly here, even the football fans. But the towns that make up the Ruhr region live in a deep-seated sense of isolation and mistrust of each other. People from Gelsenkirchen may go to Berlin on business, they may go to the North Sea on holiday, or to Switzerland or to Tahiti. But they never go to Dortmund. Or Herne even. They have no reason to.
One reason for this is historical: the cities of the region sprang from close-knit mining communities where people depended on their own kind for survival. The mentality can be insular. Another reason is that the Ruhr, like everywhere else in Germany, believes in a certain kind of patriotism: the kind that stops at the city limits. For Germans, home is not a country. Home is a city, a town, a village even. Here’s a challenge for you. Translate the German word “Lokalpatriot“ into English. I bet you can’t, but you know what I mean.
Many years ago, the Ruhr was known as “the land of a thousand derbies” because there were so many top teams from the region. Now there are only two left in the Bundesliga. And so they hate each other because they hate each other because they hate each other.
This is a problem because football violence is on the rise in Germany. You know these social problems you always hear about in Britain? We have them too. The game is tomorrow and the first arrests were made on Monday. Several dozen idiots from both sides had set up a fight some seventy miles away at Niederrhein Airport.
This isn’t the worst problem we face but it does point to a major difference between Germany and the UK: rebellious youth. Young people in Germany are fortunate compared to their European counterparts. They don’t face the high cost of leaving the nest that Britain’s young people do and there isn’t the same level of youth unemployment as in France or Spain. And yet in the UK, youth has often been the voice of reason during the past couple of years, preferring the status quo over the radical options of Indyref or Brexit for example.
Not so young people in Germany. The lads involved in the punch up at the airport were nearly all under 25. They would call themselves Ultras: “supporters” who will take the love of their club and their town as far as you want to take it with them. Apparently this is the largest youth movement in Germany.
There are plenty of others too. Every youth cult imaginable is here. The key is to rebel. Piss off the olds. Make a statement. And so they experiment with things designed to shock: fascism, antifascism, hooliganism, piercings, tattoos, punk, gothic, marijuana, alcopops and yes, dare I say it, Islam.
What do their parents think? Well tolerance, acceptance and liberalism are core to the German way of thinking so they just jolly well have to accept it. And most of the time it’s harmless enough. It can be quite nice even, like when you see groups of kids dressed up as Manga characters hanging around the front of the cinema before a new Japanese anime.
Life in Germany is colourful. I often get quite jealous when I hear the hobbies my students have: all kinds of weird and wonderful things I’d never even heard of. All I ever did was drink beer, go to the match and watch The Jerry Springer Show.
But in recent years things have taken a nasty turn. We had the hooligans against the Salafists, now we have the hooligans against the hooligans against the police. They hate each other because they hate each other because they hate each other.
Add to this large numbers of children of immigrants brought up on very different values and often isolated within their own diaspora, unable to properly express themselves either in German or the language of their parents and Germany’s youth has problems. When I came here at first I thought that the UK’s problems would scare the crap out of the Germans. Now I realise that the same is also true the other way around.
And if you want to see these problems in the flesh, then tomorrow the Schalke stadium offers the best seats in the house. It wasn’t always like this.
I am reminded that I am getting old and so now I must go to bed. Sleep well. Tomorrow is match day.