Beer, meat and friends: My first German game
It doesnÃ¢ÂÂt matter what country youÃ¢ÂÂre in, Monday mornings after the Sunday before are never fun affairs.
Especially when that Sunday entailed a euphoric introduction to German football at Hertha Berlin vs FC Cologne.
Sebastien and Joscha, my guides for the day, met me on the tube before the game nice and early Ã¢ÂÂ 3pm for a 5.30pm kick-off.
Sebastien had been spinning a heady brew of Cologne hits and indie rock favourites at a party the night before and so wasnÃ¢ÂÂt up for the traditional three laps of the Ringbahn (BerlinÃ¢ÂÂs Circle Line) with the other Cologne fans.
He and Joscha did, however, have other important business to attend to.
With other Berlin-based Cologne fans they had prepared some banners the night before (the paintwork was good considering the state they must have been in) and had to get to the game early to meet the stadium security.
The Olympic Stadium on BerlinÃ¢ÂÂs western fringe is a majestic structure, as some of you will have seen first-hand at the 2006 World Cup. SebastienÃ¢ÂÂs memory of that event is hazy.
Ã¢ÂÂOh, I came and saw Italy versus someone hereÃ¢ÂÂ¦ oh yes, France, the final," he recalls.
"Did I see ZidaneÃ¢ÂÂs headbutt? No, I was busy getting the beers in!Ã¢ÂÂ
The place is steeped in history. ItÃ¢ÂÂs also rather exposed, and on a November evening, bloody cold.
Olympiastadion (banner not pictured)
With the banners stowed ready to be whipped out for the visiting team as they charged from the tunnel, it was time for a beer.
Sadly though, the Olympic Stadium only sells Carlsberg Ã¢ÂÂ a sin in a country blessed with more wonderful beers than you can shake a stick at.
Still, we slurped away and the pre-match DJ blew my mind with Eddy GrantÃ¢ÂÂs Electric Avenue, followed by David BowieÃ¢ÂÂs LetÃ¢ÂÂs Dance.
As I live not only in Brixton (home of the original Electric Avenue) but on the street David Bowie was born on, I took it as a good omen.
Next up, Sussudio by Phil Collins was the icing on an excellent cake.
Some background: both Hertha and Cologne had dismal starts to the season. Hertha punched above their weight last season to finish fourth in the Bundesliga, but that was definitely last season.
Shorn during the summer of their best players (strikers Andriy Voronin and Marko Pantelic, as well as defender Josip Simunic), theyÃ¢ÂÂve been leaking goals at the back, and scoring none up front.
With one win in 11 (the first game of the season) going into this match, they were well and truly rooted to the bottom of the Bundesliga table.
Cologne, the only team to have scored fewer goals this season than Hertha, arenÃ¢ÂÂt much cop either.
Star striker Lukas Podolski has scored only once this season and the team lovingly known as the GeiÃÂbÃÂ¶cke (the Billy Goats) have been flirting with the relegation zone.
Whispers concerning manager Zvonimir SoldoÃ¢ÂÂs future have so far been minimal, but a loss to Hertha would undermine him.
This was a Kellerduel, a basement clash, and even this early in the season a Sechs Punkte Spiel Ã¢ÂÂ a six-pointer.
The Cologne fans were out in force to support their team Ã¢ÂÂ and the main away section was quickly packed out with flag-waving, drum-bashing and megaphone-wielding fans in red and white.
Or, in one personÃ¢ÂÂs case, a bizarre turquoise shellsuit. Is David Icke a Billy Goat?
Icke. He kept goal for Hereford United, y'know
Although the Olympic Stadium is nominally all-seater, I donÃ¢ÂÂt think I went near my designated plastic pew once.
Everyone happily floated around, chatting away while drinking beer or what might have been mulled wine.
The Cologne fans had brought their famous carnival vibes and it was more like being at a house-party than a football match.
But with the clock ticking down to kick-off though, Joscha, Sebastien and I scuttled up to unfurl the welcome banner for the Cologne players.
I was a banner virgin. Never made one; never waved one; abstained, like some goodie two shoes.
Well, had I ever been missing out!
The Cologne fans greeted the tannoy announcement of each Hertha player with cries of Ã¢ÂÂArschloch!Ã¢ÂÂ (Arsehole!) and we waited patiently at the front of the tier above them, soaking up the roar.
Out from the tunnel ran the players and with earnest coordination us banner-bearers dangled our message over the front of the barrier. Ã¢ÂÂWO MIR SIN IS KÃÂLLEÃ¢ÂÂ it proudly stated in giant red Cologne dialect: Ã¢ÂÂWhere we are, is Cologne.Ã¢ÂÂ
Cue bedlam below us; vociferous chanting at us, fists pumping, cameras flashing, beers aloft.
It was the nearest IÃ¢ÂÂm ever going to get to being Mick Jagger and I thoroughly loved it.
Then the football. I canÃ¢ÂÂt remember much about the first half, other than the fact that both sides were bad, Cologne more so.
But we were too busy chatting and chanting to care. Hertha were attacking the goal in front of us and had the best openings, but a lack of quality in the finishing department did for their ambitions.
The second half was more memorable for several reasons.
Firstly, I sampled my first Bratwurst, or Stadionwurst as theyÃ¢ÂÂre dubbed at games.
For the uninitiated, IÃ¢ÂÂm talking about a foot-long sausage lolling jauntily from a tiny bread mitten.
It is meat fetishism at its most unabashed. Any notion of nutritional balance is jettisoned and the pork sword is celebrated in all its swinesome beauty.
I asked Sebastien about the ridiculously small bread, but he didnÃ¢ÂÂt understand what I was getting at.
Ã¢ÂÂIf it was bigger you could have onions as well,Ã¢ÂÂ I ventured. He looked back at me baffled: Ã¢ÂÂBut that would be a hot dog.Ã¢ÂÂ
World Cup 2006: A silly sausage. And a Stadionworst
I caused further consternation by smothering my Bratwurst in both ketchup and mustard.
Here, itÃ¢ÂÂs strictly one or the other (mustard on pretzels is also sadly a non-starter).
The second halfÃ¢ÂÂs other standout moment was the Flitzer Ã¢ÂÂ the stark-naked-except-for-a-hat streaker who scampered across the pitch to roars of approval from the crowd.
We mustnÃ¢ÂÂt encourage such behaviour of course, but youÃ¢ÂÂve got to hand it to the guy Ã¢ÂÂ it was bit-shrinkingly cold out there and he galloped through the Cologne defence with no fear for his modesty.
I can only hope that security gave him a blanket and some mulled wine to warm himself up with.
In the 79th minute, Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic did the decent thing and put the game largely out of its misery with a completely undeserved goal. We went bonkers, natÃÂ¼rlich.
When the final whistle finally came, we trooped from the stadium with glee, chanting at the moon and singing songs (I think) about chucking Hertha in the Spree river that runs through Berlin, pausing only to claim back the deposits on our plastic beer cups.
It was a fantastic night and in some of the blurrier moments, probably the most elated IÃ¢ÂÂve felt at a football match.
I wore the Cologne badge Joscha had given me home with pride, wolfed down a horrendous kebab that tasted like Christmas cake, then passed out.
For my first Bundesliga experience, IÃ¢ÂÂve got to say, I was blown away.
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