A momentary lapse of appreciation

Matt Nation’s enjoyment of sixth-tier football in Germany has taken a hit. A long bike ride to the game was just the start of an afternoon of play-acting, clumsy football and dodgy sausages

Just as titles are proverbially won or lost on wet weekday evenings against the league’s dunces, cycling to a football match into a headwind without a handkerchief will make you reconsider whether you attend sixth-tier football because you like it or because you’ve not got the resources to do anything else. After 15 miles on a blustery trunk road, not even the most carefully placed boys’ brigade blow will prevent your cuffs from looking like they’ve been overrun by a battalion of molluscs. Getting to this game has made you look and feel disgusting. Your willingness to turn a blind eye is thus slightly lower than it might otherwise be.

Suddenly, €4 to get in doesn’t represent a cheap afternoon out, but the same amount you used to pay to watch Bundesliga football. The aroma of the sausages doesn’t make you groan with pleasure as though the bloke in the apron is massaging your shoulders rather than selling you a pig’s cartilage; they just smell like somebody else’s sports kit. The chap blathering on about teams full of players called Buttje and Ditschi is no longer a welcome insight into bygone era of cap-tossing and trumpety music; he’s just a silly old bugger who should be playing with his grandchildren on the swings rather than invading your personal space.

The drying mucus starts to harden and your tolerance levels plummet even further. For a start, there’s the players. They’re not  bad, but they’re badly behaved, and they even do that badly. In the Bundesliga, you merely see players throwing themselves to the ground and then banging the floor repeatedly, like a wrestling referee calling a fall. Here, you can hear them bellowing too. Which is wrong. Pain doesn’t make people immediately start bellowing. You only start bellowing when you jump out of an aeroplane or try to silence unruly children. When you’ve been kicked up a pitchside tree, when they have to remove you from the pitch using a mop and bucket, you haven’t got the strength to bellow. A whimper, at best, is all you’re capable of.

But everybody – referee, opposition, spectators – falls for it. Then intolerably bad behaviour becomes intolerably good behaviour. Every tumble causes the game to shudder to a halt. There are more stoppages than in Joey Barton’s wage packet after a night out with the lads. And every time, the ball’s kicked into touch and then sidefooted back whence it came. It’s like watching bar billiards. And everybody, even the old guy who used to watch Erwins and Wilhelms disembowel each other every week, starts applauding. If you weren’t so embarrassed about the state of your cuffs, you’d go up to the sausage-seller and analogise some sense into him. “I’m not as good at eating sausages as I thought, so now I’m feigning tummyache. Tell you what, if you give me another one, for nothing, then apologise and give me 50 cents, everybody’ll clap. Whaddaya say?”

Even at half-time – which, because of all the throw-ins, takes nearly an hour to come – there’s no respite. Because then the subs come on. These players aren’t good enough to get into a sixth-tier team. Nationwide, there are several hundred teams at this level alone. So, nationwide, there are several thousand players, at this level alone, who are better than the bench-warmers. But even the duffers get squad-membership money, club sports bags, personalised tracksuits and oversized, snot-resistant anoraks that they probably wear to the amusement arcade afterwards. And that’s obviously enough. They’re unwilling to do anything – doggies, one-twos, falling over without bellowing – that might make them less bad. One player is talking to his Uncle Gerd. Another is doing stepovers around a stationary ball like a puppy that’s not yet opened its eyes. The goalkeeper is taking penalties against his civilian mate. And the remaining two are nutmegging each other and then happy-slapping their own face when they succeed. You might as well be standing in the local shopping precinct.

Common sense says that you ought to cut your losses and, in an attempt to relieve the tension, go and knock on an old lady’s door and ask her for a tissue and whether she’s got any firewood she needs chopping. Yet you stay. Ten minutes later, you wish you hadn’t.

The linesman, a frail teenager with feet that weigh more than his legs, flags for offside. Immediately, he’s confronted by the offending forward, an enormous, protein-rich 30-something with the body language of a storm cloud. He doesn’t say anything, he just stands there, for a full 30 seconds, eyes throbbing and lips and nostrils growing more moist by the second. The last thing you saw that was as silently terrifying was a sign outside a bikers’ pub that said: “We don’t report burglars to the police”. You can almost hear the linesman mentally composing his letter of resignation to the local FA. You snort in disgust. Another up-and-coming official falls by the wayside because one Saturday afternoon in a field in a Lower Saxony suburb which even bus drivers don’t stop in, a grown man took exception to his opinion. For the first time ever, you leave a game early.

Of course, like brewer’s droop or a touch of the sniffles, it won’t last. Next week, when your jacket’s back from the cleaner’s, everything’ll be different: €4 will be the price of a pint, the sausages will smell as attractive as your girlfriend, and you’ll be wincing when players bellow and whooping like a beer-hall compere when the goalkeeper kicks the ball into the hedgerows in sympathy. But this week, you’ve seen football through the eyes of what the powers-that-be have started referring to you as – a fold-my-arms-and-entertain-me consumer – rather than through the eyes of a fan. It wasn’t pretty. Maybe you should leave the bike at home and take the bus in future.

From WSC 267 May 2009