The Night Leverkusen Came Alive
Football. There is nothing quite like football. There are pictures scattered throughout the abundance of family albums of me kicking a ball when I could hardly walk. Since being a small foetus, I have lived and breathed the beautiful game. There are 3 main things in life for me – family, travel and football! I’ve forever been a die-hard Chelsea fan, but I spend every other Saturday at the People’s Pension Stadium supporting the other love of my life: The one and only Crawley Town. Every weekend two and a half thousand people support the small League Two team alongside me, and ever since I discovered the lower leagues, I have learnt so much about one of the basic foundations of my life. I will not bore you with all the details, as I do with all my other football loving friends, but football has often been the reason behind the greatest nights of my life. One of which was Tuesday 27th August 2019. After 90 minutes and many flares, Crawley beat a Premier League side for the first time in their 124 year history. Once I got home that evening, I sat on my bed and all I could hear was the deafening tinnitus in my ears created by the three thousand fans in the packed terrace around me. I turned over to begin the sleepless night that ensued and then it hit me…
To experience football and travel the world simultaneously, that sounds like the dream!
5 months later and I had still not seen a foreign football match in the flesh. For someone who adores both football and travel, that was perplexing. It was a rainy Thursday afternoon and life at that time was looking as grey as the skies above. Writing this in April, a full two months after when this is set, I feel prepared to discuss this point in my life. There had been underlying issues ever since the start of my GCSE’s 8 months before. I can remember it like yesterday – on the 12th May I was on top of the world and by the 14th I had hit rock bottom. I had never experienced anxiety like it - it somehow got to the point where I was rushing out of packed classrooms to be violently sick. As the spring continued, each exam was chipped away but still the anxiety still did not surrender. Even once the 6 torturous weeks of exams had finished, I was not in the best place. Throughout the next three months, my mother and I went on a 10 day mega-trip around the exquisite Alps, I joined the youth ranks of Crawley Town as an upcoming goalkeeper and I secured a fantastic job. Working for a MasterChef champion lifts you back up; however, I was still living a life tainted by anxiety and depression. I had a Jekyll and a Hyde – extrovert Jack was fine, but the Introvert was not. This meant that not many people could see it, let alone know about it. Despite the days getting darker, my confidence began to shine brighter as the autumn flew by. By Christmas, I truly felt my life was back to normal again. New year’s eve quickly past, even though I can only remember the espresso martini’s in the early hours, and we were in a new decade. The excitement of the 20’s beginning was short lived though as halfway through the miserable January, an avalanche threatening to take be back down to the foot of the mental mountain I climbed hoved into view. The surreal point was that I could not see the avalanche, I could only feel it coming. Then on that rainy Thursday the avalanche struck. The following week felt like I was rapidly sliding into a lower place than ever, trying to latch onto any snag positivity to pull me back up.
This is where I introduce two very good friends of mine. One is Sam, probably the lankiest man I’ve ever met and the second is Matt, another very lanky man! Standing at a whopping 6’4” and 6”3’ respectively, I have known these gentlemen for just under 6 years. The Wednesday after the avalanche, whilst waiting for our lift home, Sam and I got talking.
Within 3 weeks we were standing, passports in hand, preparing to board the 06:50 flight to Düsseldorf. After hours upon hours of deliberation and ticket sites, we had chosen Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs Borussia Dortmund at the stunning BayArena as the game we would witness. Football. Travel. Spontaneity. This was my idea of heaven! Walking up to the ground, there was unequivocal sense of excitement brewing. Towering over the sea of black and yellow stood the illuminated battlefield for that evening. Built in 1958, the BayArena has become the prominent figure of the Leverkusen skyline following its €70 million rejuvenation back in 2009. Being a small industrial town sandwiched halfway between the two German heavyweights of Cologne and Düsseldorf on the River Rhine, Leverkusen is only really recognised for two things – Its football club and the scientific organisation Bayer which gives its name to the club. Formed in 1904, Die Werkself has a strong, interlocking history with the pharmaceutical company, with the first ever squad consisting fully of Bayer employees. Currently sitting in a respectable 5th position and playing in red and black throughout their 116 year history, the team have only ever won 2 major accolades in the form of the illustrious UEFA cup and the national cup. German football has a history of having some of the best football in Europe, and this was greatly exhibited with Leverkusen’s opponent that evening. The imperious Borussia Dortmund. Famed for its ‘yellow wall’, The Westfalenstadion is the home of Dortmund and a monumental 81,000 spectators that provide one of the most unique atmospheres in Europe – only a stone’s throw from Leverkusen itself in the adjacent Ruhr Valley. Originally, we were meant to be within the passionate away fans however, due to complications with the delivery of our tickets, we had been given free home tickets. After intense security checks, we were allowed into the ground. Despite it being over an hour till kick off, the 5,500 Dortmund ultras were still in fine voice seemingly drowning out the music blaring out the 30,000 seater stadium’s speakers.
Suspended 60 feet above the hallowed turf, the famed metal halo watched over the ground as more and more spectators seeped through the entrances. I should probably add some explanation at this point. Attached to the stadium’s vertebrae by several dozen metal cords and boasting an almost 50 metre diameter, the now distinct metal ring is the main symbol of the modernised arena. This stadium was truly one of the most incredible I have ever been to – mainly due to its ability to place itself under the atmospheric façade often seen more in the gargantuan leviathans of European football, despite its relatively small capacity. As the volume of spectators began to increase, so did the voice of the Leverkusen ultras. For people who are not avid football fans reading this, the term ultra is often associated to the most passionate fans – sometimes even drifting into the unfriendly realms of hooliganism. English ultras are typically seen as the booze-loving middle age men who, from the first whistle to the last, will sing the loved anthems of their club and occasionally swear at the other team’s supporters. Once you hop across The Channel, everything changes. Megaphones. Flares. Smoke. Before we entered the ground, we were clueless of what section of the ground we were going to be watching this title tussle from but that quickly changed after I was vigorously pat down and checked for weapons. Where most English ultras are harmless, foreign ultras have a higher tendency of posing a threat if they catch even the slightest whiff of disloyalty – thus resulting in my half-Dortmund half-Leverkusen scarf being frantically hidden under my coat. Due to more ticket complications the day previous, I wouldn’t be watching the match stood next to Sam and Matt – instead speaking to them through a large metal fence built purposefully to separate the ultras from the slightly less bonkers fanbase. Despite not being standing with my mates and being in a slightly less atmospheric part of the ground, I was just happy to be finally witnessing foreign football.
After talking to the boys on the other side of the metal bars, I stood up in order to find a better view due to the fence blocking arguably the most important part of the pitch – the goal! As I turned to walk away I was confronted by a very thick-set man, accompanied with a full face of tattoo’s and a heavily forested beard. Before I could even comprehend the situation, a plethora of German vocabulary penetrated my eardrums. I looked down to see the yellow, Dortmund half of my scalf hanging out the bottom of my coat. I never really get scared when travelling, but that split-second petrified me. More thumping Germanic words left the heavily-inked man’s mouth to which I could only nervously mutter back “sprechen sie Englisch?”. Thankfully he replied with a yes thus allowing us to have a proper conversation. He glanced over my shoulder to Sam and asked for his ticket. Scared out of my mind I nodded to Sam and he consequently handed the creased piece of paper over. He sharply looked back at me and handed me the ticket. “You walk round to gate SD1 and show the woman this ticket and you will be let in” the man informed us. Why did we never think of that? Thankful to still have my life intact I quickly scampered to the exit of my section, whilst also offering to buy the generous gentleman a beer at half time for his help. Displaying the creased document, the steward had no suspicions and let me into the famous Nord Kurve - the terraced stand the Leverkusen ultras call home. As I joined the boys, one man and his guitar stepped onto the pitch and the two sets of fans proceeded to vocally erupt.
I believe that within the 4 minutes that followed, every household along the Rhine could hear the tumultuous BayArena. The acoustic but powerful anthem of the club, aptly named ‘Leverkusen’, rang around the Nord Kurve whereas a heartfelt rendition of ‘You Never Walk Alone’ was belted from the away fans. Not a single ball had been kicked yet and the battle for supremacy was already underway. There was something very special about being immersed within the sea of protruded scarves and noise. Different country, same common love. Football. Before we could really appreciate the collective symphony we had been in the midst of, a monumental sheet of plastic came over our head. Despite the immediate confusion, I knew exactly what this was. This was a tifo. ‘Tifo’ – originally deriving from the Italian term tifosi – is a phenomenon often seen in football involving large banners and plastic sheets to create a piece of art. This art is very rarely to insult the opposition but instead to demonstrate the pride of the city in which the club is based. It was only till we left Germany itself did we learn of what the tifo looked like that evening… And it was sensational!
Before the hairs of my arms could return to a relaxed position, the Dortmund ultras threw another blinding ingredient in the atmospheric cauldron. Pyrotechnics. Simultaneously, as if it had been rehearsed, 500 orange flares lit up the southern section of the ground subsequently amplifying the already booming wall of sound. I turned to Matt and all he could say was “wow, just wow!”. We were probably 100 metres away from the screen of orange and we were beyond mesmerised – just imagine how sensational it would be to be within it! Over the next 5 minutes we just stood in admiration of the Dortmund fans, as did the rest of the stunned Nord Kurve. Once the pyrotechnics had ceased, we were already a full three minutes into the game. As much as we were supporting the team in red and black, we were here to witness two players in yellow in the flesh. One was 20 year old Jadon Sancho, the future of English football and the second was Erling Braut Håland, The most inform footballer on Earth. After a stellar beginning of the season at Austrian giants RB Salzburg, the Norwegian striker was acclimatising perfectly at the Ruhr Valley outfit – scoring 6 goals in a combined 72 minutes of football. A truly mind-boggling statistic. His records don’t end there, however. At just 19 years of age, the Leeds born goal scorer was the first teenager ever to score in 5 consecutive Champions League matches – the true pinnacle of European sport – aswell as holding the overall world record for the longest standing long jump for a 5 year old! This record has been his since 2006. It was 3rd vs 5th under the lights in Leverkusen, and no one could have predicted what happened over the course of the following 2 hours.
Leverkusen had a nervy start. The threat from both the young Dortmund starlets was evident from the outset and for the first 10 minutes, Leverkusen’s Finnish goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký was receiving a pummelling. Dortmund as a team play with such a high tempo which has sent reverberations through the teams around them, thus changing the way other teams play football. This has made the German football league how it is today. High attack and minimal defence, therefore causing highly entertaining matches aswell as fantastically unique atmospheres. Still stunned silent from the pre-match pyrotechnic display from the away team, the Nord Kurve was getting twitchy. Up stepped two men, a drum and a megaphone on to a platform protruded from the carcass of the stand. Once the drum started and the ringleader’s song was being blown out of the multiple speakers scattered around the stand, the once electric buzz from the Leverkusen fans was reinvigorated. From this point onwards, Leverkusen began to grow into the game despite still being haunted by Dortmund’s superior pace and class. On the mark of the 21st minute, Kevin Volland was played through on goal thanks to a sumptuous pass from Nedem Amiri… The ground seemed to fall into silence, as if it was match point at Wimbledon. With the weight of 31,000 fans on his shoulders, The German striker stroked the ball into the bottom corner generating huge celebrations throughout the ground. The 30 foot flags were waving. The drum was pounding. The symphony of songs was being sung throughout the whole town, let alone the arena. This lasted approximately 90 seconds as Dortmund’s Mats Hummels cannoned a header into the top corner with ease. The BayArena was shunted back into a deftly silence. The following 15 or so minutes were rather similar to the first 10 - Dortmund’s relentless siege continued against Die Werkself who were clinging on for dear life. Just as the game seemed to slow down and the home fans found their voice once more, after a tap in for Leverkusen was rightfully chalked off for offside, the ball rebounded out of the Leverkusen box and up stepped the experienced debutant Emre Can.
I would hazard an estimate that he was 35 yards from goal. Seconds after the German midfielder cushioned the ball with his right boot, he penetrated the ball with cantankerous venom. Time seemed to slow down to a crawling pace with the 30,000 packed inside the arena falling into a deafening silence. In what seemed slow motion, the ball just hung majestically in the air soaking up the limelight. The Finnish goalkeeper was at full stretch, but his efforts came to no avail. It felt as if the frantic nature of the occasion had been suddenly resumed as the ball finally struck the back of the net, with the rambunctious raptures of the away fans sending shockwaves throughout the Leverkusen ultras. The pyrotechnics were back and so was the sombre mood within the Nord Kurve. The reaction from the fans around us was a surprising one. There was no shouting and no swearing – only the sense of mild inconvenience. In every sense of life, there are moments where all you can do is appreciate perfection – and that was one of finest strikes of a football I have ever witnessed. Even his Dortmund colleagues were shellshocked with every single player standing, immersed in awe and confusion, with heads shaking. Can’s slice of magic proceeded to set a relentless precedent up till the brink of half time. As the referee signalled an extra minute of an already entertaining first half, Leverkusen managed to finally catch a break. Leverkusen’s teenage prodigy Kai Havertz stood over a free kick on the far side of the pitch. It was an impossible angle to have a shot on Dortmund’s goal so a cross into the penalty area was the only viable option. After a lengthy delay, Havertz whipped a slightly overhit ball into Dortmund’s heavily guarded box which soared over all potential targets. However, thanks to an acrobatic hook back into play from brawny centre back Jonathan Tah, Kevin Volland squirmed his volleyed attempt past all Dortmund obstruction for his second of the evening. The score was evenly poised at 2-2 as a hiatus was called to the madness – a score no Leverkusen fan was complaining about. Dortmund should have had seven!
Travel has an extraordinary power to bring people together - some of the most memorable people are met through the magic and uncertainty of exploration. During the half-time interval, A Leverkusen superfan by the name of Johannes approached us. Probably standing at about 5”4’ and equipped with jet black glasses, Johannes was the complete opposite of the tattooed powerhouse that helped us out earlier that evening -small and with an ambiguous look of a finely polished businessman. We got talking about life in the UK and the teams we supported, and to my surprise he actually had an impressive knowledge of my beloved minnows Crawley Town! In the 15 minutes of half time, I think I learnt more about the club than I would have in any book! Throughout the second half that followed, both Johannes and I discussed his personal life in nearby Cologne whilst keeping a keen eye on the battle in front of our eyes. It would be a tall order for the second half to be as eccentric as the first, but oh wow it delivered!
The beginning of the half was surprisingly quiet, the only excitement coming courtesy of a Jadon Sancho goal which was then disallowed by VAR. This was one of the more interesting things I witnessed throughout the experience. Ever since its induction into top-flight English football, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR for short) has been a highly contentious topic of debate. Many cynics hold deep hatreds for the system as it seems to take an age to make a visually simple decision. Within German football, this could not be any more different. Due to the stereotypical yet normal nature of classic German efficiency, the decision was overturned in seconds. As the storm calmed, the team in red and black slowly grew back into the game and within 10 minutes they were on the front foot. Multiple chances arose but the clinical execution was not there. The tension within the Nord Kurve was simmering away however one defining moment would surely cause the suspense to boil over. And that moment came in the 62nd minute of the fiercely contested grudge match.
Leverkusen talisman Kevin Volland was having a night to remember – he had scored two and, along with Hrádecký between the sticks, was keeping his team in the contest. I reiterate, Dortmund should have had several! However, this was Volland’s turn to be provider as he scythed an exquisite ball between the two perplexed Dortmund defenders to put the youthful gem Kai Havertz through on goal. During the half time interval, I wanted to see how Johannes viewed Leverkusen’s star man from a fan’s perspective. Contrary to all the foreign hype, the Cologne born Johannes replied with what he called the harsh reality. This season, Havertz had been underperforming with him often lacking composure in front of goal. With only 4 goals in the 20 games up to that point, this was his chance to restore faith within the Leverkusen admirers. He seemed to have all the time in the world as every spectator fell back into a deep silence. Like Emre Can’s sublime effort earlier that evening, time slowed to a crawling place. Pacey forward Moussa Diaby had joined him in attack and was ready to tap in the easiest goal of his career, if Havertz was to play the selfless option. But the starlet only had his eyes on one prize… his 5th goal of the campaign. As the ball left the 20 year old’s foot, the apprehension within the Nord Kurve was nothing short of palpable.
The ball squeezed past the outstretched leg of the goalkeeper and powerfully cannoned of the post back into open play. Kai Havertz had missed a seemingly unmissable opportunity. The Leverkusen players threw their arms up in anger and innumerable swear words came from around, with Johannes breaking his refined persona subsequently becoming a swear jar’s dream! As the cries of despair came from the Nord Kurve, The Dortmund midfield collected the ball and started their ruthless descent on the Leverkusen goal. The football was simply sensational. As the team in yellow approached the vulnerable defence of Leverkusen the ball was being played around as if it were a pinball. Into Can, then flicked into Sancho followed by a discrete pass back into the German goalscorer who played Rafael Guerriero through 1 on 1 with the stricken Lukáš Hrádecký. In the space of 3 short seconds, the vindictive attack of Dortmund had dismantled the seasoned defence of Leverkusen. Intricate magic had never been made to look so simple. As the ball rolled gently past the helpless goalkeeper, the home end of the BayArena once again plummeted back into a void of silence. Along with the 10,000 spectators in the Nord Kurve, I truly believed that this was Leverkusen’s last glimmer of hope being diminished. The despair continued as yet another Leverkusen goal was ruled out for offside. We had witnessed an astonishing 8 goals however only 5 of them had counted. The football adoring town had been plunged into a deep depression. The only notable sound for miles around was coming from the boisterous fans from the Ruhr Valley - and the raucous Dortmund’s fans represented the brutal way they played for the 10 minutes after their inevitable breakthrough. As the 80 minute mark was passed, many fans had settled for their dejecting loss. Despite their valiant assiduity, Leverkusen seemed to be down and out attempting to weather an unstoppable storm.
With 9 minutes to play, Kevin Volland touched a fizzing pass from Havertz on the edge of the Dortmund penalty area. The yellow defence managed to scupper the ball from the striker’s feet, but it only succumbed to the lone, Jamaican substitute Leon Bailey. Bailey was another player in Johannes’ bad books, after his erratic nature has caused him to often lose games for Leverkusen. Despite his newfound reputation and thanks to a lapse in Dortmund concentration, The Jamaican winger casually placed the ball into the empty bottom corner thus causing utter pandemonium. The atmosphere was eccentric. All of a sudden, Die Werkself were on the front foot and quickly pressed forward as the game got back underway. Multiple overhit crosses were being injected into the now petrified Dortmund box… Then one hit the jackpot!
As the floated delivery flew through the air, time once again slowed dramatically. I think 31,000 fans, regardless of their loyalties, drew one simultaneous breath. The ball fell beautifully for Leverkusen captain and club legend Lars Bender, whose glancing header was destined for the far post. From the moment his head connected with the ball, the keeper stood no chance. The only question now was would the headed attempt squeeze inside the post. It was touch and go looking at the ambiguous telemetry. As the ball hit the inside of the post and rustled the side netting, the BayArena and the rest of the industrial town descended into uproar. I have experienced some very important goals in my lifetime, but I have never seen a fanbase go so crazy. Johannes was crying whilst also hugging me and famed German beer was soaking me from head to toe. A smattering of fans within the Nord Kurve ignited flairs as the foundations of the ground vibrated due to the 25,000 home fans simultaneously bouncing in ecstasy. I felt a large arm pull me back through the mayhem to a quiet corner of the stand. It was the tattooed man who helped with our tickets just 2 hours before. Like Johannes, tears were flooding down his artistic face. “Lars never scores a goal” he screamed in his fluent but thick accent. We had witnessed a slice of history for this club, which most fans would never forget. Leverkusen survived the final Dortmund threats to reach the final whistle. They had achieved the unthinkable to secure the result of their season! As the stupefied and dazed yellow wall filtered out the stadium, the heroic Leverkusen squad squatted down in front of us to appreciate the 10,000 strong terrace sing a heartfelt version of “Wie sind die Bayerlöwen’. I had never cried at a sports event in my life, but that soon changed as the celebrations ensued. Once the squad went back to the dressing room and the last of the flares extinguished, we said goodbye to Johannes and the unnamed tattooed ball of muscle. As we walked back to the local train station, all our speechless beings could do was reflect on the insanity that just occurred.
Despite that evening being one of the greatest experiences of my life, I didn’t just want to write about a very exciting football match. I hope the non-football fans have endured the match to be still reading at this point. I have one simple message to all my readers – travel is the perfect antidote! During the 3 hours we were at the stadium, all my dejection with the world disappeared. As the skies got blacker, life seemed to become brighter! I want you to take one thing from this blog. If you are going through a stressful period where you are worried about work, bills or just life in general, take some time out and do something that excites you! For me, that’s experience – such as the German football match – but your tipple may be art, music or literature. In times of difficulty, trust what you love and who you love as when both come together, they will guide you through any storm.