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My love letter to the Bundesliga: savoring the unique atmosphere of German football

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Going to Bayer Leverkusen’s home-opening against SC Paderborn surprisingly gave me the latest reminder of why the Bundesliga is the best league in the world.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen v SC Paderborn 07 - Bundesliga
The Bayer Leverkusen fan bus rolls into town and is hailed by the fans, August 17, 2019.
Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Finding a place to park your car near the BayArena can be a hopeless mission. Located on the long street Bismarckstrasse in the middle of Leverkusen, the BayArena is in the midst of German suburbia. Leverkusen can almost be considered as a suburb of Cologne — quite frankly, a very bland suburb. After 20 minutes of hopelessly driving around the industrial town in the very heart of Nordrhein-Westfalen, we finally found a parking spot a 20-minute walk from the stadium.

Walking towards Leverkusen’s 30,000-capacity BayArena is a unique experience. In contrast to their neighbors in Cologne, the stadium is not very big, so it could remain in the middle of the town. Nearby teams such as FC Köln, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Borussia Dortmund all have stadiums that hold 50,000 or more. They are therefore logically located far outside the residential areas. In Leverkusen, however, you will see residents with Bayer Leverkusen shirts and scarfs leaving their houses for a short two-minute walk to the stadium.

On the way there, I see many people wearing highly talented shirts with the names Kai Havertz and Stefan Kießling, Die Werkself’s own Fussballgott, on their back. People are either gathered at the bar or already on their way to greet the player bus with a beer in their hand. Fussball is back for another season.

The fans greet the player bus as it drives down Bismarckstrasse. It is a recent tradition that began started on the 32nd matchday of the 2016/17 season, when Leverkusen was deep in the relegation zone. Before their crucial game against rivals Schalke 04, thousands of fans welcomed the team and escorted them to the BayArena in a gesture of solidarity. The town of Leverkusen always has the team’s back, relegation or no. When I was in the middle of the welcoming party, I could barely see who was in front of me through the pyro smoke. To my own surprise, Leverkusen’s fans became my latest reminder of how much I love the Bundesliga.

Die Werkself

The Bayer fans call their team Die Werkself, which in English can be translated to the “Factory XI.” The club was founded in 1904 by employees of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, whose headquarters are in Leverkusen. Much like VfL Wolfsburg, Leverkusen’s recent success is not a result of a rich past or the advantages of a big city but rather a result of the funding from their main sponsor, Bayer. In consequence, Leverkusen’s supporters are relatively limited. The Ultra section is one of the smallest in the league, and yesterday the club was unable to sell out the stadium for the first game of the season.

Another reason for the limited support is the fact that Leverkusen is a relatively small town alongside historically massive football cities. Cologne and Dortmund have one of the biggest supporter groups in the country and are two clubs that historically have enjoyed more success than the factory club.

In modern times, Leverkusen has been much more successful than big brother Köln. The club has managed to reach the Champions League group stage on plenty of occasions in the 21st century, even reaching the final in 2002. Though not as historically wealthy as their neighbors, Bayer Leverkusen has nonetheless been in the Bundesliga every season since the start of the 1980s. After watching the bland suburb of Leverkusen come alive on matchday and the fans giving their players a hero’s welcome, I realized they have every right to be there.

The best fans in the world

Football is nothing without its fans. The CIES Football Observatory confirmed that the Bundesliga boasts the highest attendances in world football. I considered myself very lucky growing up in Brussels, which is just two and a half hours away from towns like Mönchengladbach, Cologne, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Düsseldorf and, of course, Leverkusen. I was also very lucky that my father shared the football-bug and was willing to buy tickets and drive to the stadiums.

My first live game, however, was not in the heart of West Germany. My father, also a Bayern fan supporter, took the whole family to the Olympiastadion in Munich to watch Bayern batter Dortmund 6-2. I’ve been a Bayern fan ever since.

It pains me to admit that the atmosphere in the Ruhr or Rhine district feels significantly more authentic than in Munich. Bayern, naturally, attracts a lot of tourists to their games, and the atmosphere in Munich, albeit very good, has more the feel of a super-club. Although the quality of the players is not even close, the fan atmosphere in other parts of Germany can give even non-football enthusiasts goosebumps.

The average price for a seat in a Bundesliga stadium is just €26. Hence, it is easy for working-class individuals to go to the games. As industrial hubs, the Ruhr and Rhine districts consist of mainly working-class people. One often sees two or even three generations at a football game, and the crowd is generally quite diverse in terms of gender.

As a young kid in love with the beautiful game, I fell head over heels in love with the Bundesliga. Going to a game, whether or not Bayern was playing, was and still is one of the best feelings in the world. The passion, the noisy songs, the Ultras and the general excitement of seeing other individuals so committed to their team is something truly fantastic. Looking over 45,000 Cologne fans when they put their scarves over their heads and sing their version of the old Scottish folk song, Loch Lomond, but replacing the words with “FC Kölle” is almost euphoric. Looking upon the “Yellow Wall,” standing section in Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion with room for 25,000, feels like looking at the 8th wonder of the world. No other Western European nation can match the feeling of going to a German football game, the Bundesliga fans are simply second to none.

A diverse culture

Germany is a country made up of many historical states. Hence, even today, every part of Germany is different.

One team that epitomizes the diverse history of German football is recently promoted Union Berlin. Union, which played Leipzig in their first-ever Bundesliga game, is a unique club in so many ways. When the cult club was in a desperate financial situation, the fans built it a new stadium themselves. Union has an atmosphere that only a German club could produce. Located in Köpernick, Eastern Berlin, the unique fan and club initiatives over the last two decades are a fresh exception to the modern state of football elsewhere.

The Union fans celebrated the 50th birthday of the club by gathering the night before inside the stadium they built. As soon as the clock struck midnight, flares were lit in unison.

The atmosphere at the stadium on matchday is also unique. Cheap beer, easy chants, and loyal fans who would rather keep their unique club culture than win trophies. The club realizes that the fans are the reason they exist. Union is a club that is entirely driven by the fans.

Union protested their debut match against RB Leipzig by staying silent for the first 15 minutes of the game: the family-driven club against the multi-billion company that happens to own a football club in Leipzig. It’s a match-up that can only happen in Germany.

Staying true to the fans

Modern commercialization has killed some authentic footballing atmospheres. Prices in the Premier League have discouraged many supporters from going. Player salaries have made football players distant from average supporters. Transfer fees have split leagues between the elite and everyone else.

In Germany, the fan culture is still vigorous, and it plays a big part in the actual dealings of football clubs. The DFL is well-aware of the fact and is striving to preserve that culture as the league strives to remain competitive. Sure, you might be able to watch more superstars by going to an English football game. But when I joined the Leverkusen fans down the Bismarckstrasse listening to them signing “Leverkusen allez, Leverkusen allez, Leverkusen allez” on repeat, watching the supporter’s excitement for yet another season in the German top-flight, the thought that I could watch more superstars somewhere else never crossed my mind.