Leverkusen is not the sort of town where you expect to find a Champions League football team. In fact you would think the town's football team would be punching above its weight just reaching the second tier of German football, let alone being members of the Bundesliga since 1979.
Looking at a map of the town you realise that it's actually made up of small villages which don't really connect in the unnatural way that characterises new towns. The town centre is pretty much just one slightly run down sorry looking street and a sparkling new shopping centre.
Leverkusen’s existence as a town is down to one reason and it is the same as why its football team has been so successful: the town is the headquarters for Bayer, the multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company. Check your bathroom cabinet and it's likely that you will have something they produced. Having the backing of a company as big as Bayer clearly helps.
I stayed the weekend in Cologne, which is to Leverkusen what Reading is to Bracknell. I did wonder what 1. FC Köln fans feel about their local rivals being so much more successful despite coming from a much smaller town. It was probably best then to keep quiet that I was planning to watch them play.
The train journey from Cologne to Leverkusen takes just twenty minutes, making Cologne the perfect base for catching a Bundesliga game: ticket availability apart you are guaranteed a game every week of the season. The train will take you past the huge Bayer works, complete with its own train station, to remind you of the influence the company has over Leverkusen. From Leverkusen station it is a pleasant twenty minute walk through a local park to the stadium.
On the way I was stopped along with 20-30 other fans to let some Hoffenheim fans walk through which seemed a bit over the top seeing as Bayer Leverkusen v Hoffenheim seems as close to Reading v Watford as the Bundesliga can get.
At the stadium there were about a dozen policemen/women by the away end. Their batons were very prominent which felt unnecessary and bizarre considering fans were walking past them holding glass bottles. You would think if the police need to put on a show of force then glass bottles would be banned from the stadium area. Maybe German football fans can be trusted not to waste good German beer.
The BayArena is the fifth smallest stadium in the Bundesliga with a capacity just over 30,000. But for its roof it would be just another of Germany’s many dull new stadiums. A renovation towards the end of the last decade saw a spectacular new roof built. It almost looks like a spaceship and dominates the stadium in a way I have never seen in a roof before.
Upon entering the BayArena I was met by two surprises. Firstly, the toilets in the concourse were pink portaloos, which must get interesting with boisterous away support. Secondly, the matchday programme was being given out for free which is a clear example of German football clubs looking after their fans. With my limited German I could tell that there was nothing interesting in it and that it was just a glorified team sheet. There were no interviews with the manager or players.
If you needed your cliché ridden interview fix then you could buy the club's monthly magazine. If however all you really wanted was the squads for both teams and the fixture list then the Bayer programme was perfect. I would love Reading to do the same next season but it will never happen.
Nor will they follow Bayer’s and German football's sensible ticket pricing. At Reading we have the option of two ticket categories: the Upper West and the rest of the stadium. At Bayer Leverkusen fans get the choice of six categories as you can see below from the club's stadium plan. This gives fans real choice.
I would love to have bought the cheapest ticket so I could have stood with the ultras but they're sold out for every game. It is these tickets that we are always told about but what is never said is how limited they are. Only around 10-15% of tickets were in that category at the BayArena and it's a similar case at other German clubs. The rest of the tickets are comparable in price to your average Championship club.
Here in England we are not surprisingly envious of such cheap tickets, but there is an unspoken deal between those fans and the club. Every fan in those areas will loudly support their team all game and I mean all game. It's a level of support you never see in England. The fans earn their right to those cheap tickets and the rest of the fans who pay more accept it because they know those fans create the atmosphere.
Like all German clubs, Bayer’s ultras were behind the goal. Is that something Reading fans should look at if they want to improve the atmosphere? The huge flags that both sets of supporters waved were impressive but they must be annoying for fans behind them.
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With 2-3,000 home fans and 500 away fans constantly singing there was a decent atmosphere for what was an end of season game. You don’t need a Dortmund style yellow wall to create a good atmosphere. Just a few thousand fans who consistently sing. The rest of the BayArena was just as passive as any Madejski crowd, the only difference being that over half the crowd were sporting some form of club merchandise, even if only a scarf.
I sat in the upper tier in what was equivalent to the Upper West at the Madejski. My ticket cost £26 which seemed a fair price for the view at a Champions League club. I sought out a pre-match beer in the concourse but found that you could only pay on a prepaid stadium card. This seemed a bit of a con and one I had experienced before at the Allianz Arena.
Just one minute into the game a bell sound, like you hear at train stations, was played over the stadium tannoy to indicate a goal had been scored in another Bundesliga game. The whole stadium turned to the two giant screens to see that Wolfsburg had taken the lead against Borussia Dortmund.
These announcements continued throughout the game and the fan next to me was loudest when goals against Bayern Munich and Hamburg were announced. Some fans will like the idea of goal updates being announced. Personally I found it annoying and distracting.
If I thought that was naff then I was in for a shock when we got to the 15th minute. Suddenly a loud glass smashing sound was played over the tannoy and simultaneously an advert emerged on the big screens showing an Adidas football smashing glass. This would happen again on the 30th, 60th and 75th minutes of the game.
If anything proved the myth that football in Germany is not as commercialised as here in England then that was it. I cannot imagine the outrage and derision if a club tried that here. I hope it never catches on.
Goal updates and Adidas adverts aside, the first half was not that memorable. Leverkusen took a while to get going which was perhaps not surprising as they went into the game with only a slim chance of finishing third and had already secured at least fourth place. Hoffenheim were in a similar position with regard to reaching the Europa League.
Just before the first half came to a close Leverkusen took the lead. Hakan Çalhanoğlu fired in a free kick from distance which should have been a comfortable save but Oliver Baumann got his positioning all wrong and was too slow to react. I felt my football wisdom confirmed as I had already felt that Baumann was a weak link.
In the second half Leverkusen upped their game and just after the hour killed the game through Stefan Kießling. They could have scored more but their victory was never in doubt. On a couple of occasions Çalhanoğlu and Karim Bellarabi showed some outrageous skill that left Hoffenheim confused and the crowd purring.
With 13 minutes to go, Leverkusen’s captain Simon Rolfes was taken off so he could get a standing ovation on his final home appearance before he retired. Rolfes is a club legend and he got a great reception. The announcer though clearly felt it was not emotional enough as he started playing the Gladiator Now We Are Free song. If DJ Megaparty is reading this then please do not copy this at the Madejski!
At full time with it being Leverkusen’s last home game of the season there was a lap of honour. The players stayed in the centre circle at the end of the game and were each given a t-shirt with "Danke (thank you) Fans" on it. They then all held a giant banner, shown below, with another message of thanks.
They then slowly walked towards the ultras. Rolfes and two other players set to leave the club, Gonzalo Castro and Stefan Reinartz, were called forward by the ultras. They climbed into the stand and took a microphone off a fan before leading some chants.
All this lasted less than the ten minutes that Reading fans are always told they have to wait before our players return for their end of season lap of honour. I have never understood why we are forced to wait. We do not really need the reserve players and the players’ children to come out onto the pitch. In future I would like to see Reading copy Leverkusen and do a lap of honour straight after the game.
Overall I was left with the feeling that there is not much difference between German and English football. As I witnessed, German football is just as commercialised but importantly they have a limit.
In Germany the clubs and fans seem to work together. The fans support their teams either through club merchandise or organised ultra-groups. In return the clubs have sensible and affordable ticket pricing. This gives you the sense of football clubs which still have a community feel and are not just businesses. Too many English clubs have lost sense of that important part of their existence.
All photos have either been taken by the author or by Christof Koepsel from Getty Images. The BayArena stadium plan has been taken from the official Bayer Leverkusen website.
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