Football is not always cherished in the right spirit.It attains its most passionate levels by feeding off bitter rivalries and it certainly thrives on Schadenfreude. There is too much violence, animosity, abuse and lack of appreciation. And, in a sense, football fans are hypocrites since they wouldn’t have it in any other way. To them, war is fun while peace is boring on a football field.
A stadium-hopping journey across Europe, took me to four iconic football venues in the cities of Barcelona, Dortmund, Milan and Madrid. To participate with, enjoy and observe the passion of European football fans from such close quarters was quite a thrilling experience.
Camp Nou was a battleground for the visit of the two Madrid teams. Santiago Bernabeu was a picture of hostility in their mission to overturn a 0-2 deficit against Wolfsburg in the Champions League. The San Siro was unexpectedly accommodating for the visit of defending champions and rivals Juventus –a sign of how uncompetitive AC Milan have become over the last few years.
However, among all experiences, the events that folded out in Germany stood out.
In one remarkable night in Dortmund, fans of both Borussia Dortmund (BVB) and Liverpool showed me what football can be. How football should always be. Not a sport that divides people and thrives on rivalries. But one that unites them and flourishes on mutual admiration. With passion for clubs devoid of hatred towards another.With the kind of mutual respect rarely seen in sport. With love for a team that doesn’t come at the expense of the opposition.
Or, as BVB’s own slogan says, ‘’EchteLiebe” (“Real Love”).It’s just a phrase to you till you visit and embrace the community spirit around the club. Match ticket, for instance, also doubles up as a free to-and-fro train ticket from nearby cities and airports – the little things which matter to the people.
On the train from Dusseldorf to Dortmund, there was no need to keep track of time or announcements to gauge proximity to the destination. Travellers wearing shiny yellow jerseys and scarves gradually increased and peaked by the time you arrived. Right outside the Dortmund main station is the city's football museum. On its big electronic hoarding, Liverpool fans were welcomed to the “German capital of football” – which, the cynic in me thinks, was a cheeky jibe towards the city of Munich, though the optimist in me reckons people of Dortmund truly believe so. And, as the night showed me, they have no reason not to.
The next message read: “Welcome, Reds. You'll Never Walk Alone! #RealLove”. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (or ‘YNWA’), one of the most famous and evocative anthems in world football, is one that is shared by the two clubs.When it was sung by 65,000 supporters before the match kicked off, it was a sight to behold. Goosebumps followed. YNWA isn’t the only bit that unites the two clubs today. Banners in support of each other’s causes over the years have built a great bond. And Jürgen Klopp, the current Liverpool boss and previously the Dortmund manager for seven years, is the key reason the German club is a major force today.
UEFA’s own official website called the match the “YNWA Derby”. A derby around a song along with such a pleasant welcome? I was forced to recheck: this indeed was a competitive match. It was the quarter-final of the UEFA Europa League, which is a second-tier European competition that had taken unprecedented importance due to the Champions League spot up for grabs and the stature of clubs participating in it this season.
Signal Iduna Park, BVB’s home ground, was only a short underground ride from the main station. A little footballing joy ride with multitudes of supporters in yellow – and some in red. An old Egyptian Dortmund supporter, who had lived in Dortmund for “many years”, was amused to find two Indians – me and my travel companion – during the journey. He was aware that football isn’t popular in India.
Outside the ground is where the real party began. Signal Iduna Park was the scene of one big carnival. It was chaotic. It was messy. It was loud. It was celebratory. It was marvellous. It was like no other stadium we visited. Fans would pick up bottles of beer at the entrance, sing along the way, and dump the bottles just outside the entry gates. You weren’t allowed to take those inside. Food and merchandise shops decorated the path to the stadium. Even a Liverpool merchandise shop was set up, which was a first: no other stadium dedicated a whole stall to the away team.
Later, with Reds rolling off chants and songs one after another and the home team’s own famous ‘Yellow Wall’ (the loudest Dortmund supporters occupying the South Stand) relentless in their singing and devotion, the match became a two-hour-long non-stop footballing concert. Sing when you’re behind. Sing when you’re ahead. Sing all the time. Never have events on the pitch felt so insignificant. At the Camp Nou, in between the deafening roars, a hush envelopes the stadium – almost as if the crowd is studying the game. But if football is worshipped and studied in Barcelona, it is truly celebrated in Dortmund.
My loyalties belonged with the traveling team but any apprehensions of wearing red colours in the home stands were quickly dismissed. I had realised I was in the midst of a special event. The last time these two sides played a competitive match was way back in 2002. It had been 14 years.
By the end of the night, you couldn't separate a Borussia Dortmund fan from a Liverpool one. Those in yellow wore red. Those in red bathed in yellow. Scarves were exchanged. Photos were clicked and shared, even over the head of stewards who separated the home and away ends. Conversations were made. Friends were made. The half-and-half scarves, usually the subject of derision, were perhaps tailor-made for this match. You could see them everywhere. The BVB fan shop too was flooded with Reds.
First leg of the tie left it nicely poised at 1-1. Before the return leg at the Liverpool city centre, the two sets of supporters united to sing a beautiful rendition of YNWA. And inside the stadium, they paid a joint tribute to the 96 fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough tragedy almost 27 years ago. It was an emotional night.
On the field, Liverpool looked to be heading out of the competition but rallied to score three goals in the last 25 minutes to knock Dortmund out – the most phenomenal of comebacks that will foreverbe etched in European folklore. It was just the icing on the cake. Or perhaps it was not: you would’ve ideally wanted BVB supporters to remember the trip to Anfield for the right reasons. Sport is cruel.
Even after the collapse, the shattered Dortmund players went towards their fans and thanked them for their support – a sacred ritual, common in Germany, which Klopp is slowly incorporating into Liverpool’s traditions as well.
This was a fantastic tie irrespective of the result. There really isn’t a party quite like a match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. Football needs more of these. Many more.