Travels With The Chels – Stuttgart

It’s an irony that the media perception in this country is of Joe Public hating the Germans, which is generally untrue.

You still get the odd soul for whom the mantra; “Jerry bombed my Grandad’s house” has coloured their view for the majority of their lives.

Then there’s those who gorge on right-wing press stories of bad mannered Germans’ holiday traits, but most people born after the 60’s, and whose experience of the Second World War is limited to tales of heroic parents/grandparents’ fight against tyranny, have absolutely no axe to grind.

In fact, show a Chelsea fan a European away trip against German opposition and the most likely response will be a quick trip to the nearest no-frills airway website to book up for a happy couple of days with genial hosts, good food, excellent transport infrastructure and that most important element of any European tour – really cheap booze.

So it came to pass that the morning of Tuesday 24th February 2004 found me and my flatmate at Kings Cross, bound for Heathrow to catch the afternoon flight to Stuttgart. We’d been lucky to get a return flight for about £70 quid each, although we would have to change at Frankfurt, and a 3-star hotel with breakfast that worked out at about £20 per night, and were looking forward to meeting up with other friends at the airport.

Although it was a fairly uneventful flight, with lots of Lufthansa hospitality and a short wait at Frankfurt, we couldn’t help notice as we flew over Europe that there seemed to be a fair amount of snow around and once we reached Stuttgart you could still see little banks of it.

We booked in to our nice comfy hotel with the assistance of my pidgin-German and headed out for a meal in the adjoining Italian restaurant. During the meal, it had started to snow again during and we made good use of the fresh fall by enjoying a snowball fight on the way up to the sports bar further up the road from our hotel.

There was quite a party under way as this particular Tuesday happened to be Shrove Tuesday, and the bar was full of celebrating locals. We subsequently proceeded to get absolutely off our faces on the excellent local vodka, served in the traditional continental measure.

We woke (eventually and slightly hung-over) to a grey, snowy morning. It was my flatmate’s birthday and I’d organised a surprise – I’d written to Franco Zola, out in Cagliari, to ask if he’d be kind enough to send me a signed photo to give to my friend as a present, having explained we’d be in Stuttgart for the game. The little man duly obliged, and my friend was delighted.

In view of the dreary weather, we had a walk through the Koenigstrasse and found an English bar where we spent most of the day before returning to the Italian restaurant next to the hotel before setting off for the game.

Earlier that morning, we’d armed ourselves with a bottle of the local vodka, €7 euros at a time when the exchange rate meant it cost about £5, and re-distributed it into a harmless plastic bottle with some Sprite or similar. Unfortunately for us the charming and friendly but insistent German Police told us we couldn’t take the bottle into the ground, but we could finish it before we went in.

Well I tried, I really did, but having already had quite a lot to drink I decided I’d rather not get completely intoxicated and ruin the trip. So after a few half-hearted swigs I regretfully poured it onto the ground.

The Gottlieb Daimler Stadium was still undergoing renovation ahead of the 2006 World Cup when we played there, but was still miles better than the behemoth that was the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and there was another surprise. You could get a drink in the ground.

Not just in the ground. They would bring it round to you. In your seat. You could sit there and drink beer and watch the game. Now, regular readers of this column will have worked out by now that I’m not much of a beer drinker. But on this occasion, I was jolly well going to have one. Just ‘cos I could. And it would keep out the cold.

If I’m being honest, the game was a bit of a blur after the all day drinking, in spite of the buttress of Italian nosh, and it was settled by a Fernando Meira own goal midway through the first half. We met up with our other mates back at the hotel after the game, having bunked a free ride on the Metro.

They’d been unable to get tickets through the club and had sourced them through an amenable German and had eventually ended up sitting in the main stand, just behind Franz Beckenbauer. We proceeded to drink with assorted other Chels fans who’d arrived that day – including the legendary John Terry’s Barmy Army – until the bar shut at 2.30am, at which point a number of us went on drinking with private supplies until 5am. So, roughly 16 hours spent drinking then. What a good advertisement for Brits abroad.

Unsurprisingly, although we found ourselves back in the bar off the Koenigstrasse the next day ahead of our evening flight, I didn’t fancy a drink and decided to catch up on my sleep instead. Cue another photo-op of me dead to the world (see: Travels with the Chels – Lazio).

The really scary thing about this trip was the flight home. It had got even colder during the course of the day, and when we reached Frankfurt it was seriously snowing, with a rough approach to the runway. So it really didn’t help when our other mates started muttering about Munich. We had a two hour wait between flights and when we got on the plane, it had to be de-iced, which didn’t do much for my state of mind. We finally got back to Heathrow and arrived home safely.

Unfortunately precarious finances have prevented a return to Germany for Champions League games since that time. However, like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. I went to Leipzig last month to visit Baby Big Nephew, who is currently living out there. That fine city has a shiny new stadium built for the 2006 World Cup. And in 2009 a new team, RasenBallsport Leipzig was formed to play in it.

RasenBallsport is actually an alias of Red Bull, although DFB regulations regarding ownership and sponsorship prevent them from being known as Red Bull, or the firm owning more than 49% of the club. However, that doesn’t stop them from throwing money at it and according to my nephew, they are aiming to be in the CL in five to six years time.

I’ve been past the stadium on a tram, and it’s very impressive – a bit like Eastlands, which was ironic as we were playing Citeh that weekend. Leipzig is a fantastic city, with some excellent cheap accommodation, together with inexpensive bars and restaurants.

The culture vultures will love it, also if we played them before the end of October, we could fly into the tiny Altenburg airport (literally a shed, makes Naples look like Terminal 5) courtesy of Ryanair.

So, I think we should all agree to make a date for that sometime around 2016.

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