On the other side of the continent, they were supposedly playing a match, the outcome of which would determine the significance of what I was watching in front of me. At first, the crowd reacted with vague disinterest to what was going on in directly in front of them, their faces probably glued to phones, fully expecting a 0 to convert to a 1 as someone 1,400 kilometers dashed their Champions League hopes. The fans didn’t start the match in full voice, their call-and-response to the introduction of their team a little lackluster. Towards the end, the announcer would tell us we weren’t even a capacity crowd, missing that mark by nearly a thousand patrons, and it seemed as if a lot of fans were merely going through the motions of watching their team bow out. It was cold, after all, and a Wednesday night, and getting home from the stadium was going to take a while thanks to huge amounts of construction on the roads surrounding the city.
And of course, just under 20 minutes in, Lionel Messi scampered through the defense to latch onto a nifty Ivan Rakitic throughball, round the keeper, and tuck the ball away. You could be forgiven for staying at home if you were a Bayer Leverkusen fan.
But let’s rewind, let’s go back to the beginning, when I first stepped foot in Leverkusen or, no, let’s go even further back, to when I was washing dishes in the morning. We’ll arrive in Leverkusen soon enough. The dishes were left over from the night before and I was hurriedly trying to get them clean before jumping on a train to head to the suburbs where my penya president was waiting to give three of us a ride to the stadium. My 2 year old was playing in the living room, happy to have heard the news that a good friend of hers (and that little tyke’s father) was coming over to take care of her while her own father ventured out to watch a soccers. I needed to get things ready for her, make sure there was lunch available, make sure that—oops, I sliced my finger open on the knife I was washing. I cursed out loud a few times as I ran the cut under water and then applied pressure with a paper towel. My darling daughter called out from the living room to ask me what happened, Daddy?
And so I departed for the train station with my still-bleeding finger wrapped in a bandaid featuring a stork dressed as a doctor. Because who has normal bandaids when you can have ones toddlers will enjoy? It wasn’t bleeding much, but it was a slight concern given the number of hours between my exit from my house and my return. I was expecting to be gone for 14 hours, so hey, who needs the tip of their middle finger during that time? I sent a smiling selfie to Twitter to say I was headed to Leverkusen and I bought my subway ticket on my phone. There are no turnstiles to enter public transportation in Germany, just a system where ticket checkers appear at random and you need to have a valid ticket or you get a 60 euro fine (up from 40 a few months ago).
On the train out to Hofheim, a suburb of Frankfurt, I met up with one of my companions for the day. Let’s call him Henrick. He’s a 27-year old student, the son of Catalan immigrants to Germany, a native speaker in German and Spanish whose “second” language in school was English. He’s a nice resource to have when your own German is the equivalent of a big question mark and your Spanish keeps sputtering into half German nonsense without warning. Oye, me puedes dar die salz, bitte? As a Frankfurt native and a student who is rather constantly on his phone, it is surprising to me that Henrick doesn’t have a public transportation account linked to his phone, as I do. One stop from our destination, the ticket inspectors appear from behind me and Henrick decides right now, in this moment, is the time to fess up to them that he doesn’t have a ticket. Or, well, he does, he has a monthly pass, but we’re outside the city zone where it’s valid. I’ll probably always wonder why he initiated contact with them, why he didn’t just wait literally 45 seconds to see if they wouldn’t reach him, but he doesn’t and his excuses about not realizing that it was outside the zone fall on deaf ears and he’s issued a 60 euro fine.
So we wait for our penya president at Hofheim, me with a bleeding finger and Henrick trying to chain-smoke his away anger at the injustice of it all. I’m just getting over a cold and the slight cough I have left over makes me sound like I’m the one who’s been smoking steadily for the last 30 years. When, let’s call him Carlos, finally arrives in his family sedan, Henrick has gone through all the steps of grieving I’ve ever heard of at least twice.
From there, the trip is easy, a 2 hour car ride north on the autobahn. Our little VW is passed like it’s standing still by a whole fleet of Audis even though when I check over Carlos’ shoulder, he’s pushing 140km, but we’re not really in a hurry and Carlos is a family man. He checks his phone a few times while driving, but refuses to actually text. He, Henrick, and, let’s call him Lars, a Dutchman from the border town of Enschede who is friends with Carlos through their children, chatter in German and I catch about a tenth of it. I watch the gorgeous German countryside slide by in the sun, which is finally out for the first time in a long time. My finger stops bleeding and we’re going to have an awesome day.
Our first site of the stadium is down the streets of Leverkusen just after we exit the autobahn. It’s brilliantly modern facade set against a background of drab industrial housing whose streets were nearly deserted of pedestrians seemed indicative of a thwarted attempted at renewal by the area’s major employer: Bayer. There were plenty of cars, of course, but I’m used to a more vibrant Germany where there is constant foot traffic and a sense that the economy is going ever upwards. Leverkusen felt drab, depressed, just not poor.
We parked next to the stadium just after 2 and I hopped out, wrapping myself in my coat. Then I stepped in dog crap. Welcome to Leverkusen. I noticed it after a couple of steps as we headed for the train station, but I was wearing my boots and I knew that it wouldn’t come off for a while. Henrick and I laughed that this day could just go ahead and stop with the negative things. We’d be okay with that. Here we were a few hours from home, standing in the cold and going god knows where to enjoy a few beers before the game and I wasn’t nearly as excited as I had been when I woke up in the morning or even as I sat in the car as we passed by quaint villages.
Our plan was to find the other penya members and have a few drinks before the game, so we headed to the train station next to the stadium in order to go to downtown Cologne, which is a just a 20 minute or so ride away. Unbeknownst to me, apparently you can use a match ticket as your local train pass on matchday, which is useful knowledge going forward and very nice to know considering our earlier encounter with the ticket inspectors. Or, anyway, we think it was valid from the stadium to Cologne central station. No one ever checked, so we never had to find out. Instead, we visited the industrial enclave that is Leverkusen, which even has a stop called Leverkusen-Chempark. It is exactly what it sounds like: a chemical factory complex. Just beyond that were a few fields divided up into gardening allotments, known in German as a kleingarten or schrebergarten, and flying above one of the allotments was a big Confederate flag. Maybe the chemicals nearby were getting into the ground and causing some sort of strange psychosis that manifested itself as racist American revivalism.
And then we were in Cologne, looking up at the grand cathedral next to the central station. We were here to attend a decently sized gathering a hundred or so cules from around Europe in the basement of the Gaffel brewery restaurant. There was an ESPN Deportes crew there to film the presidents of the various penyas sing the himno and beat on a drum my own penya had provided. There was a group from Poland with an absolutely glorious flag, a handful from Slovakia’s Penya Barcelonista Eslovaca dels Alts Tatras, and a slew of Belgians hailing from Gent and Knokke-Heist. And there were Germans aplenty hailing from Stuttgart, Berlin, and even one guy from Kaiserlautern. Wolfsburg and Munich were likely represented as well, but they either didn’t bother with hanging their flags up or didn’t bother attending at all. There were a few Greeks there as well, but it was unclear whether they had made the trip specifically for this or simply happened to live in the area. One of them put on a Santa hat with flashing LED lights and led constant chants mentioning Madrid’s mothers.
I ventured outside for a little while to see the local (and famous) Christmas market, but found myself mostly in a touristy mess that I wasn’t totally prepared for. The temperature was steadily dropping and now that it was dark, there was no respite from the cold simply by turning to face the sun and everyone around me seemed to be perusing stalls of Christmas ornaments while sipping on mulled wine, their calm holiday shopping in marked contrast from the football chants that were still ringing in my ears. I snapped a few pictures, considered purchasing a mug, didn’t purchase the mug because I was unsure of the stadium rules, and returned to the bar just in time to leave for the stadium with everyone else.
We banged our drum and took pictures in front of the cathedral of the whole group. We banged our drum in the central station. We pushed onto a double-decker commuter train that, had it not contained us, would have been moderately empty. Instead, we filled the aisles and stairwells and tried to let people on and off at the stops. I met a few people from Barcelona who were in town for the game, the focal point of a winter vacation to western Germany that had been spent entirely in Cologne, a city where I felt I had seen everything after just a few hours earlier this year. At the stadium’s station, we all piled out and sang our way towards the visitor’s entrance where I bought one of those commemorative half-Leverkusen-half-Barcelona scarves.
Then Henrick and I made our way to our seats and the goalies started to warm up. The seats around me, the away section, were completely filled while the home fans were straggling in as we moved closer to kickoff. I was in the second row (officially row 3, but there was only one set of seats in front of me) right down at the corner flag. Our view of the other end was only slightly obstructed by the iron railings meant to keep the rowdies in check—a need that may or may not have been borne out by the large number of Schalke ultras stickers plastered onto most available surfaces. The seats just on the other side of our little pen were much nicer than our own, which were metal and completely bolted to concrete slabs that the home fans didn’t have to deal with. Given the modern feel of the outside of the stadium, all neon and white metal, the away section felt like an industrial accident waiting to happen.
On the field, Ter Stegen took a few shots, while Bravo and Masip kicked a ball around, and then the starting 11 did a small run out through some cones. Kaptoum and Samper put in by far the most work, their coltish exuberance in marked contrast from the subdued buildup from Messi, who was right behind them going through the paces. The team entered the tunnel again and re-emerged for the Champions League anthem. There was that distinctive thrill of seeing a major European competition, that first time awe of the moment, but it quickly passed when the game got started. 5 minutes in and we were all aware that this was going to be a slow night at the opera. We were missing some key singers, after all, and our tenor seemed like his voice was cracking. It wasn’t there and they were attacking with intent.
And then that Rakitic pass. And that Messi feint, almost imperceptible, but you know it had to have happened become everyone in the stadium fell for it, the goalie most of all. And so it was 0-1 and maybe we were going to be in for a better night. And then it was 1-1 and maybe we weren’t. The PA system completely drowned out everything else screaming “TOR!” as the word flashed on the screens. Maybe I’m used to different approaches to sports, but the screens didn’t show replays of anything, they just showed the score and the team crests. Sometimes they showed the clock, but certainly not always and that was weird because there were no clocks anywhere else either.
It was probably a terrible game—it seemed it—but this was my first Champions League match and it was fun to watch the kids get learned something fierce about European competition. Kaptoum was a livewire, his running was good and we all agreed by the time he went off that he’d had a good game. Nothing spectacular, but he’d put in a solid shift and had almost scored. Samper was all over the place, Munir was dreadful until late in the second when he decided that defense was maybe something worth playing and Sandro slotted into the left hand side for a few good minutes. Sandro himself was busy up front and looked like he knew what was going on; Munir not so much. Adriano was a nightmare on the right, constantly out of position and constantly trying to make up for it, often stranding Bartra. Vermaelen was only slightly better, his off-the-ball movement rustier than a nail in flooded mineshaft.
That’s the great thing about live matches: you can watch a player when the ball is on the other side of the field, when the camera isn’t on him. That’s what’s fun. Messi walked a lot in the second half, in a way that said “Hey, coach, this is dumb, take me off.” In the first half, he’d made the subtle, intelligent moves that put him in the position to burst forward on a run, like with what released him for his goal. He lost that spark in the second half and coupled with Munir’s insistence on being terrible, there was no pressure on Leverkusen up front for long spells. That translated to rather intense pressure on our midfield and back line as Leverkusen pushed further and further forward.
And Ter Stegen: he had 9 saves, which is a Barcelona Champions League record or something, but for 2 fantastic saves—one on Chicharito after Vermaelen got left for dead and one on, I think, Çalhanoğlu—he was dreadful. I counted 4 times he hoofed the ball out of the back straight to a Leverkusen player with no Barça player anywhere nearby. One of those attempted passes should have been turned into a goal, but Kevin Kampl lost his bearings at the crucial moment and subsequently lost the ball. Ter Stegen is clearly good at what he does, both in terms of shot stopping and distribution, but this was not his best match for the latter, even if it may have been for the former.
The minutes ticked on and the crowd became more vociferous, but it wasn’t to be and they bowed out, the team fighting each other after an errant shot was deemed selfish by Chicharito. He pointed to where he’d made a run, but it had actually been covered by a defender: the shot seemed to be the correct decision. Barça were actually on top in the second half for a little while after Mehmedi went off and Kießling entered, but by 90 minutes it was clear that Leverkusen should have run out winners. Unfortunate for them, but a good test for the Barça youngsters.
We filed out of the stadium, our drum boisterous again while the Germans around us merely sulked silently on their way home. There were no curses and no hateful looks. Maybe everyone was just a little too cold for anger. It had dropped to below freezing just after halftime when the expected low was several degrees above that. We drove home through the darkness, the autobahn lit up ahead of us by headlights. There were semis hauling goods to and from factories and stores. Beyond the lights, where we couldn’t see, there lay the villages and towns that can be so picturesque in the soft light of day. I fell asleep against the backseat window.