About eight years ago I was asked to give an interview on Radio Dortmund. As part of the celebrations surrounding the sixtieth anniversary of the town twinning between Dortmund and Leeds, the local radio station wanted to hear from British people living in the city.
There were three guests in total. Myself, a Yorkshireman and a Cornishman were chosen because we had different motives for coming to the city. I came there, according to the official narrative, because of football. Contrived though this narrative is, it is essentially true. The Yorkshireman came because he was offered a job while the Cornishman came because he fell in love.
Of the three stories, the female presenter was most intrigued by the Cornishman’s. One day, many years ago while he was working as a fisherman he happened upon a young German student who was visiting the area on a cycling holiday. You can probably guess what happened next: She had a flat tyre and he gave her a lift home, addresses were swapped, letters were sent and some months later our Cornish friend said goodbye to the southwest of England and hello the smoke of the Ruhr. As we cut to the commercial, all of us in the studio were touched.
A week later at the official function the three of us met again. We had distinctly mixed views about the experience. I enjoyed telling my life story very much but the Cornishman was much more sceptical.
“I tell you what”, he said “I didn’t half get in trouble when I got home.”
“I thought you told a lovely story”, I told him.
“My girlfriend didn’t think so”, he replied. “Wanted to know why I spent so much time talking about my ex-wife.”
Except in the most exceptional of circumstances, expectations rarely match reality. For all its many qualities, life in Dortmund can be a romance killer. Dreams are made to be broken and yet both myself and the Cornishman are still going strong. As we near the end of my story, I hope you’ll indulge me by allowing me to examine my relationship with Germany and ask what my expectations were when I first came here. What were my hopes and dreams back then — and what has reality done to dash them?
To do this we need to go to the place where it all began. It’s a name you’ve heard before. Today we are going to visit my first love and my last. Welcome to Dortmund.
We’ve picked the right weekend to come if you want to talk about hopes being thrown to the wall. Borussia throw away a 4-0 half time lead against the Gomorrhans to draw 4-4 and all hell breaks loose. The crowd are crying blue murder and are all for ripping the heads off the visiting supporters. They’ll have to step over our players first — but as the final whistle blows you get the sense that they would quite happily do just that, stamping down on the goalkeeper’s nuts as they go.
You can say what you like about Dortmund but they certainly take their football seriously here. As the referee runs for cover and the police surround the away supporters, the stadium turns into a black and yellow hornet’s nest. 4-4 is not a draw. 4-4 is abject humiliation for the home team. To top it all, they finish with ten men as Spiderman picks up a red card. As the away team take deserved applause, the home team have nowhere to run.
Honour dictates that the players must stand and take it. They look distinctly nervous, and faced with flying beer cups and smoke bombs they have good reason to. Only a thin metal fence separates them from twenty-five thousand fans who are baying for blood. Only a thin metal fence and Winni who, at the tender age of sixty-five is too old to be afraid of angry young men. As the masses boo and hiss, he charges into the thick of them and has to be physically restrained. Like I say, in Dortmund football is a serious business.
It was ever thus. The first time I came here was April 1st 1996. My first ever holiday without my parents. The reason I can remember the exact date has less to do with my finely tuned memory and more to do with the local radio station. As the four of us crossed the Dutch border into Germany in Frank’s battered old camper van and were able to pick up German radio, Frank’s mood swung from placid concentration to unfettered jubilation.
The three of us in the back, buoyed as we were with Dutch beer and a pre-rolled joint picked up in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, were utterly confused and thoroughly at a loss to explain why the van was swerving from side to side so suddenly. Once he regained his composure, Frank was good enough to explain this somewhat unexpected outburst.
Borussia Dortmund, the man on the radio had said, were to be reinstated in the European Champions’ League. The week before they had been eliminated after losing to Ajax Amsterdam but Ajax, said the bulletin, had been thrown out of the competition for financial irregularities. Dortmund would take their place and face a relatively easy semi-final against Panathinaikos of Athens.
News travelled fast. As we drove into the city, black-and-yellow neon flags were hanging from just about every window. I remember looking out of the window and being distinctly intimidated.
I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the day. Frank spend most of it in a state of delirium, babbling away in mixed German and English to anybody who would listen — buoyed by good news, a happy homecoming and the end of a three-month abstinence from German beer. We saw the stadium, had chips and mayonnaise, went to a German off-licence piled with crates and crates of pilsener. We went to a pub, then another pub, then another. By the end of the day, as I lay down to sleep on the floor of Frank’s bedroom, I thought I was going to die.
The next morning the penny dropped. Something wasn’t right. Something apart from my stomach. I asked Frank if Germans ever played tricks on the first day of April and ach du Scheisse!
You don’t joke about things like that in Dortmund. The reporter who broke the “story” became the first man since 1812 to be executed with the guillotine. They had one here you know, during Napoleon’s time, in the church square. It can still be pressed into service if you insult our team. Now it’s me that’s kidding but they do love their football here — that’s the joy and the tragedy of the place.
I fell in love with the city instantly, but it took six years before I came back. This time my route was slightly circuitous, via the University of Sheffield, two years in France and an extremely ill-advised three weeks working in a Dutch sun awning factory. Other things remained constant. Once again I crossed the border buoyed by Dutch beer and a pre-rolled joint from a coffee shop in Amsterdam.
I had resolved to visit Frank whatever happened and it’s a good job I did. It might have been our first meeting in four years but it was to our mutual benefit. Frank had a teaching job in Dortmund that he didn’t want, and a PR job in Berlin that he did. I had no job and was quite conspicuously at a loose end. A deal was very quickly done.
And so I went from building sun awnings in the Netherlands to teaching English in Dortmund. When I wrote my CV as part of my citizenship application I left out the whole Dutch sun awning bit, so please don’t tell Mr Pfister. I stayed in the city for two years and started going to the games. Without Frank.
It’s no fun watching football on your own. Dortmund have always had a pretty good team but you still usually need good company and quite a lot of beer to make it palatable. One thing that hasn’t changed in the last twenty years is that the players are still overpaid brats. The first season was a tough one and I think that if we hadn’t thumped the bejesus out of AC Milan in the UEFA Cup then I would have turned round and gone back to Britain.
4-0 and I was there. Paolo Maldini, the greatest defender the world has ever known was in the Milan team that night — and I saw him crap his pants. Shocked and stunned he was, as a black-and-yellow shirt flicked the ball over his head and pick it up behind his back.
It’s not quite true that I chose Dortmund for the love of a football team but it’s the best summary I can think of. I could make decisions like that when I was twenty-three but I very much doubt that I would do it now.
I’ve fallen out of love with football a little bit for one thing. See “brats, overpaid” and “blood, baying for”. The man who flicked the ball that night was the biggest brat of the lot. My relationship to Dortmund has always been more Richard and Liz than Romeo and Juliet.
More significant though is that with age, passion turns to pragmatism. After two years in Dortmund I found a better job in nearby Bochum and moved there. After four years there I fell in love, or thought I did, and moved back to Dortmund. When I split up with my girlfriend, the homecoming was more than adequate consolation.
I don’t watch the games alone any more. A short time after the thrashing of Milan I met The Chief. I say “met” The Chief but what I mean is that The Chief saw me and realised that I was always at the games and always alone. Unbeknown to me, I was raised as an issue at the next supporters’ club meeting and, with an air of formality that I have since learned he detests, he asked me if I wanted to join.
I am still there and proud to be so. If I could give one piece of advice about living in a foreign country it would be keep doing the things you like doing back home. Sooner or later you’ll find friends. In Germany it’s a cliché that if you want to make friends then join a club but there is no smoke without fire.
I don’t live in Dortmund any more. Two years ago I was the one who did the shocking and stunning when I moved to Herne. I now live just six miles from the Gomorrhans. I open my curtains and all I see is blue-and-white, but it’s handy for work and it’s a lovely ugly town full of good-natured, open-minded alcoholics. I’ve fitted in quite well.
I don’t miss Dortmund, but I still love it like hell. Like Liz and Richard it’s a love-hate thing that will have no end. It’s nice to be able to walk away, even if after yesterday’s game the main street in Herne felt like the longest street in the world. The Gomorrhans are more than entitled to a good laugh but no matter, I can do the walk of shame with my head held high.
I still love our crazy, idiotic game. The Germans call it the most beautiful waste of time in the world. The players may be brats and some of the fans may behave like they’ve escaped from the local zoo but if I want to find good people then all I need to do is look over my left shoulder or look over my right. It’s the people who make it and that’s all that matters.
And that’s it. Dortmund and Germany fulfilled my modest expectations years ago. For all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams this is still a wonderful life. The bar has been raised since I first set eyes on Germany; this is all real and priorities change. I’ll never again move to another country for the love of a football team but I’m glad I did it once in my life. Modest though my ambitions were, it does me good to remind myself of humble beginnings.
The team should do that from time to time. Woe betide them if they don’t beat Leverkusen next week.