Bayer Leverkusen vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2011.
This trip to the heart of Germany could not come quick enough. This would be my first trip to Europe for a Chelsea away game in around two years; the enjoyable jaunt to Atletico Madrid was the last one. A mixture of work commitments and lack of finances have contrived against recent trips. Additionally, there are other destinations which, if I am blunt, have not tempted me.
Others fancied a return trip to Valencia or an excursion to Genk in this autumn’s mix of games, but for me there was only one choice – Bayer Leverkusen. I booked my flight way back in August and gleefully counted down the weeks and days before I would be away.
There was an extra special dimension to this trip. My old friend – in fact, my oldest friend – Mario is now living in nearby Bergisch Gladbach and we had often spoken about meeting up should Chelsea play any of the nearby Bundesliga teams to his home city in the Champions League. I have spoken about Mario previously, ahead of my momentous trip to Turin with Chelsea in 2009.
“In June 1975, I stayed in the Ligurian resort of Diano Marina on my first ever family holiday abroad. At that time, I had seen Chelsea play three times at The Bridge and I was hooked. Relegation in May of 1975 hit me hard, possibly even more than the loss of my idol Peter Osgood to Southampton a month before my first ever game the year before. At the age of nine, my Chelsea life had already taken a battering. We had a great time in the Italian sun. My parents had visited the town back in the ‘fifties and had regaled me with stories of its charm. All well and good, I thought, but I needed a diet of football, even on holiday. I was aware of a few of the Italian clubs – I had recollections of a Juventus vs. Derby game being shown on TV ( 1973 – the Juve forward Pietro Anastasi stood out ) and I had bought a Juventus magazine on a day trip to Genova.
During the last few days of the holiday, we became friendly with the guy on the beach who hired out deck-chairs and pedalos. His name was Franco and his German wife Hildegard was often on the beach with their two children Mario and Sandra. I could not speak Italian and Mario could not speak English. But Mario owned a yellow and black plastic football and, for what seemed like hours on end, we played football at the water’s edge, the warm ocean lapping at our feet. I remember Dad even took a few magical seconds of us on cine film. I wasn’t a bad footballer, but little Mario, only six, was sensational.
And so our friendship began.
Our two mothers had swapped addresses and I was told to write to Mario soon after our return home. I still have the little postcard and a letter which Mario wrote back to me. I must have mentioned that I was a fan of Chelsea – of course! – but also a fan of Juventus and my favourite player was Franco Causio, the moustachioed winger. Mario replied that he too was a Juventus fan, but liked Roberto Bettega, the young striker.
I guess we had been so devoid of communication skills that this was not already established out in Italy.
So – Mario was a Juventus fan. Perfect. Over the next four years, our letters zipped across Europe as regular as clockwork. He sent me letters that were 100% full of Juventus results and news, often with Panini stickers illustrating his words. I did wonder what he ever thought of Chelsea, mired in the Second Division at the start of all this. I remember Causio and Bettega combining to defeat England in Rome in 1976. That match had extra resonance due to my friendship with Mario. How proud I was when Ray Wilkins became a regular in the national side. This was proof for Mario that my team wasn’t completely rubbish! Butch became a beacon of hope!
Throughout this period, Juventus were dominating Italian football, with players such as Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Causio, Bettega – how those names trip off the tongue – Cuccureddu, Boninsegna, Benetti and the youngsters Tardelli and Cabrini. Juve were in their pomp. Chelsea, by the time I visited Diano Marina again, in 1979, were back in the Second Division and Wilkins was soon to be sold to the hated Manchester United. On that visit, Mario’s family presented me with a black and white striped cotton shirt, and I was proud to wear it. I have no doubt I took him some Chelsea things.
We visited Italy in 1980 and 1981 too, each time going back to the same town, but his father had since moved on to work at an expensive hotel, the Gabriella. During the 1981 holiday, we heard that none other than Roberto Bettega was to stay at the hotel…a few weeks later, a signed Bettega photograph arrived on my doorstep. Whenever we met up, Mario and myself played football and talked football. I bet it amused our parents. In 1981, I met Mario’s friend Tullio, a boy from Juventus’ city of Torino – and yes, you’ve guessed it, he was a Juventus fan too. I have a photo of the three of us, posing on the beach beneath a Union Jack. Sadly, on the 1981 trip, we were also to learn of the cancer that would cause much worry for Mario’s mother. In July 1982, with an Italian team containing six or seven Juve players, the team won the World Cup in Spain – and I was happy for my Italian friends.
The letters between Mario and me reduced over the next three years…but every now and then, Mario would send me a letter detailing his hopes for Juve’s new players. The 1983 European Cup Final loss to Hamburg hurt us both. Then, towards the end of my first year at college, I sat down to watch the 1985 European Cup Final between my Juventus and Liverpool. What unfolded over the next three hours would haunt me to this day. However, the sense of disgust and sadness could easily have been so much greater. Unbeknown to me, Mario had a ticket for the ill-fated neutral section ZZ adjacent to the Liverpool fans. Thank God, Mario had a lot of schoolwork that week – he was sixteen – and so mercifully did not travel to Brussels. Around fifteen members of his local Juventus Club all returned safely.
That summer, I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass and spent ten wonderful days in Diano Marina. Tullio was there too – the days were spent sunbathing, playing football and I was invited back to Mario’s house for lunch and an evening meal each day. Hildegard, his dear mother, was still undergoing treatment for cancer and I will never forget her hospitality. Her smiling face will live with me forever, as will her willingness to make me feel at home.
Sadly, Hildegard lost her brave battle with cancer a few weeks before I visited Mario, Franco and Sandra in 1986. I felt the loss – their house missed her busy nature and her “good eats” translation of the Italian “buon apetito” before each meal. My friendship with Mario and Tullio went up a few notches over the next few years. I had a real wanderlust period after leaving college and was forever travelling around Europe on the trains.”
I last saw Mario, in his home town, in 1988. Well, as luck would have it, Mario now lives around 20 miles from Bayer Leverkusen’s stadium. After the draw was made, we soon spoke on Facebook about the game and I was so pleased when he offered me the chance to stay with him and his family for the three days.
As the days crept past, Mario and I spoke more and more on Facebook and my excitement rose.
The Liverpool game on Sunday came and passed, work on Monday was endured and lingering last minute arrangements were made. Due to the very real threat of fog, I gave myself an extra hour to drive up to Stansted airport. I only had three hours sleep on Monday night.
Tuesday 22nd. November.
At around 1.45am in the very small hours of Tuesday morning, I was off.
Germany – here I come.
My trip to the airport went well. I was buoyed by a couple of cups of coffee and my mind was soon wandering, looking back on all of the other Chelsea European trips, looking ahead to the imminent new one. I painstakingly counted the number of previous games…Moscow 16, Rome 17, Madrid 18…Leverkusen would be number 19.
And this would be my fourth Chelsea game in Germany, after previous appointments in Stuttgart, Bremen and Schalke. I personally love Germany; a frequent visitor in the wanderlust years of my youth, I have visited it on many occasions. Great beer, tasty food, decent people. Superb.
As I drove around the M25, I remember thinking to myself –
“There’s not a bit of this I don’t like.”
The planning of the flights, the talk amongst friends of the accommodation options, the anticipation, the final sense of excitement, the car trip to the airport, meeting friends, the thrill of a new city, the beer, the laughs, the camaraderie.
Chelsea in Europe Rule One; it is often the case that the actual football often gets in the way of a perfect trip.
By 5.30am, I was sat in the airport reading the current edition of “CFCUK” when I heard my mate Daryl’s voice.
Daryl and his brother Neil, plus a few other Chelsea friends, were on the same flight as myself.
Thankfully, the threat of delays due to fog did not materialise and we were soon in the air. Daryl, Neil and myself had been together on our first ever Chelsea away game in Europe way back in 1994 on that memorable venture to Jablonec to see the Viktoria Zizkov game. That was from Stansted, too. Remember, that was Chelsea’s first European away game since 1971. Rarely have I ever been more excited about a Chelsea game. Superb. We spoke of our vivid memories from that crazy two day trip. It is hard to believe that Chelsea is the same club now, with our support spoilt by constant exposure to Champions League footy year after year.
The flight only lasted an hour. I was sat next to Tim from Bristol and attempted to have a power nap.
We touched down at Koln-Bonn airport at 10.30am.
We strolled through the arrival gates and there was Mario, with his arm outstretched, greeting me after a gap of 23 years. Daryl and Neil were off to meet up with Alan, Gary and Rob in Dusseldorf.
Oh boy, it was superb to see Mario once again. He was wearing the Chelsea / Juve scarf I had sent him two years ago.
Mario’s lovely wife Gabi was waiting in the car outside the airport and it was constant chatter from all three of us on the twenty minute drive back to their house. Mario updated with news of their three boys – Reuben 10, Nelson 5 and Valentin 15 months – and it was just lovely to be chatting away after all so many years.
Back at Mario’s house, Gabi went out to collect Valentin from the kindergarten while Mario and I sat at the table, drinking cappuccinos and reminiscing about our childhood and the routes that our lives have taken since our last meeting twenty-three years ago. On that occasion, in March 1988, I had called in to see Mario, Franco and Sandra during one of my crazy months on the trains. I slept in the lounge of their house, on the sofa I think, and I can remember Franco fussing around me, making me a cappuccino and preparing some sandwiches for my onward train trip. Meanwhile I had a morning shower in a bathroom that stunningly looked out onto the Mediterranean Sea. It was a cold but supremely sunny Italian morning, with deep blue skies over the Med. It was a moment that I will never forget.
Mario spoke about his footballing career as a player with the local Dianese and Imperia teams, but also of a very promising career as a referee. Mario was always a better player than me and it came as no surprise for me to learn that he had enjoyed some degree of success in his youth. After he moved to Germany in 1997, Mario continued to play football in the regional leagues, but also continued his career as a referee. He told me that he was the linesman at a game which featured Rot Weiss Essen, a team that used to play in the Bundesliga, against the reserve team of Borussia Moenchengladbach. The attendance was over 8,000 and he told me the story of how his first decision of the match – an offside decision against the home team – was met with a massive roar of disapproval from a few thousand rabid fans behind him.
We laughed as he told me how noisy the crowd was.
The stories of football continued all morning and I realised that this was just so typical of what had happened on every occasion that we had met, from the ‘seventies through to the ‘eighties – two young lads consumed by football, by players, by personalities.
Mario also updated me with news of his father Franco – a Genoa fan – and his sister Sandra. Franco had been with Mario for the recent Leverkusen versus Valencia game.
Gabi returned with Reuben and Nelson, the elder boys, and we ate hot dogs for lunch.
In the afternoon, I walked down to the little village of Moitzfeld in order to take a few photographs of the local area and to have a few moments by myself. I was feeling weary as I walked back to his house.
Chelsea in Europe Rule Two; power naps are good. Very good.
We had a lovely meal in the evening and we then continued our conversations about our lives, our families, or friends and our jobs.
Mario opened up a few bottles of kolsch – the local beer of the Cologne area – and the talk returned to football. To finish the night off perfectly, we stayed up to watch the Serie A highlights on German TV.
Football. Always football.
Wednesday 23rd. November.
I was up at 8.45am and Mario was soon making me a morning cappuccino. He kindly volunteered to drive me into Koln. The weather was overcast, with murky low-lying clouds enveloping the trees which lined the autobahn into Germany’s fourth largest city. The blue road signs overhead reminded me of where I was; in the dreamy world of a Chelsea match day, it is easy to forget the location. The hard consonants of the local place names soon reminded me of my locale.
On the twenty minute drive, Mario enjoyed telling me about his love of Depeche Mode and we exchanged a few stories of the band. I’ve seen them three times. He has seen them five times. At the first concert, way back in the small Ligurian coastal resort of Pietra Ligure, the lead singer Dave Gahan dried himself down with a towel and threw it straight at Mario, standing but three yards away. Although around twenty fellow fans lunged at Mario and tore it into twenty pieces, Mario still owns a strip from that concert a quarter of a century ago.
He has also seen them in Milan, Koln and Dusseldorf. The three concerts in Germany all took place during the pregnancies of his three boys and Mario clearly puts a lot of importance into this. They are easily his favourite band. All of the way through his dialogue, I was itching to tell him that Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans.
I looked over to see his reaction.
“Really? Chelsea fans. Oh. Great.”
“What about Martin Gore?”
“No – I don’t think he likes football”
It was my turn to smile.
We approached Koln and away in the distance were the twin towers of the massive Gothic cathedral, dominating the misty city skyline. As we crossed the massive Rhine, for some reason I was reminded of Philadelphia, crossing the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
By 10.30am, I had said my goodbyes to Mario and was walking through the pedestrianized streets of the busy city centre.
This was my time. A few hours of solitary confinement. Echoes of days when I travelled around Europe on the trains and found myself in a new city. I aimed for the magnificence of the Dom and took a few photographs. We stayed two nights in Koln for the Schalke game in Gelsenkirchen in 2007, so it was a familiar sight. Nothing but impressive, though.
I spent an hour or so walking around the Christmas market and the shopping streets to the south of the cathedral. I couldn’t resist some German food; a tasty wurst with very peppery sauerkraut was just fantastic. I followed this up with a frothy cappuccino. I stood at a table, nursing the coffee, watching the passers-by, looking out for fellow Chelsea fans. They were starting to gather together in small groups. I had the first couple of glasses of kolsch in the Europa am Dom Hotel while I waited to meet up with San Francisco Pete and his mate Mike. A Depeche Mode song was playing and I thought of Mario.
I picked up the local paper and reviewed the previous night’s games. I looked up just in time to catch a sighting of an infamous Chelsea fan from the good old bad old days. He was grinning at the size of some steins in a nearby shop; his hair cut in the same style as in years gone by and was wearing a green bomber jacket and jeans. He was with a little band of mates. Hicky was in town.
Pete and Mike soon arrived and joined me for a beer. They had driven over by car. The next few hours were spent flitting in and out of various bars with a few mates. I met up with the newly-arrived Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil – and then the Nuneaton trio of Neil, Jokka and Jonesy – but then sped off with Pete and Mike down to The Corkonian in the Altstadt to pick up Mario’s ticket from Cathy.
Chelsea in Europe Rule Three; the sighting of several police vans means that an Irish bar and some Chelsea hoodlums are not far away.
Plenty of faces there. In a quiet corner, I spotted that green bomber jacket. I bumped into Andy and Josh, the Californians, who had been in town since Monday. Michelle and Joe from Chicago were also in the bar. The Beltway Blues were basing themselves in Leverkusen itself, but most of the Chelsea were using Koln as HQ. I then back-tracked to the other bar on Am Hof for a beer with the boys. I was beginning to wish I could be cut into several pieces, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, so I could simultaneously spend time with different groups of friends. Back amongst my mates, there was talk of the CPO, the shame of the 39th. Game, the way our club is going…the same old gripes and the same old moans.
We decamped into another bar for a few more beers and the chat continued apace. Good times with great mates. Jonesy spoke about the recently-departed Jim Lewis who played a part in our championship season of 1954-1955. Because of his amateur status, Lewis never received a penny in his Chelsea career, nor even got a suit, along with the professionals in the squad, to mark the championship win. Alan suggested that Villas-Boas should explain about Jim Lewis, playing in a championship-winning team without payment, to the team before the game. One suspects that several players would simply not believe it.
In search of food, we sped down to the Christmas market in the Altstadt – sausages on sticks for me! – and I then went back into The Corkonian to catch up with Andy, Josh, Joe and Michelle. Time was moving on and I had arranged to meet Mario outside the stadium at 7.30pm. After another tasty beer in Heumarkt, we quickly decided to take two cabs to the stadium. The price was 30 euros – no worries.
We bundled in the cab and we were on our way…Josh in the front, Andy and I in the back with another Chelsea fan whose name escapes me. Too many beers. Too many beers for Andy too, who had to take extraordinary measures while the cab was momentarily stopped on the autobahn.
We got to the Bayerena at around 7.45pm and Mario was waiting for me outside the away section. I thankfully had no problems getting my camera inside. Mario and I positioned ourselves centrally in the lower tier. Flags were draped over the top balcony. Josh had a great seat in the front row of the upper tier. Beth was a few rows behind us.
So, after 36 years of friendship, Mario and I were able to watch our first ever Chelsea game together. Bloody superb.
The Bayerena has been recently redeveloped. The team played in Dusseldorf while a new tier and a new roof were added. It’s a reasonable stadium, if a little anaemic. I found it odd that the hard core home support were located directly opposite us in a corner, rather than directly behind the north goal.
The Champions League flag was waved as the teams stood and the Champions League anthem was played.
Let’s go to work.
I was surprised that Fernando Torres was not in the starting line-up. After only a few minutes against Liverpool and with an away game with presumably space to exploit behind defenders, I was amazed that he did not start. Michael Ballack was wearing a facemask and I couldn’t help take plenty of photographs of him. Clearly Leverkusen is not one of Germany’s iconic sides, so I give Ballack credit in returning to one of his previous German clubs. Shades of Gianfranco Zola’s famous return to Cagliari. The first section of the game was a turgid affair. After about twenty minutes, with hardly a chance created, Mario exclaimed –
“Why don’t they want to play!?!”
On 38 minutes, Drogba burst clear down the right and slammed the ball over the bar, with other options available.
Mario’s reaction was classic –
After a heavy intake of beer, it took me twenty-five minutes to realise that Jose Bosingwa was over on the far side in the left-back berth. I remember he played there against Lionel Messi in “that” game in 2009, but my addled mind could not work out why Ashley Cole was not playing. A shot from Mata for Chelsea and a header from Michael Ballack which rocked the crossbar for Leverkusen were the only real chances in the rest of the first-half. The game was warming up, but only slowly.
Soon into the first half, a cross from Daniel Sturridge was played in towards Didier Drogba. To his credit, he spun and just managed to evade the attentions of two Leverkusen defenders. Although he lost balance, he was still able to turn the ball in at the far post.
From a few rows in front came a text message from Alan –
And I replied –
The Chelsea choir sang his praises and we began making a little more noise.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”
A Daniel Sturridge shot was our only goal-bound effort though and the home team had more of the ball. On 57 minutes, Herr Ballack did well to twist his body to attempt an overhead kick from twenty yards out which Cech did well to save. Soon after, another shot from Ballack was blocked by Cech. I thought back to the chance that Cech saved from Ballack in the first leg at The Bridge and it was quickly turning into a battle of the masked men.
On 65 minutes, a strong run and shot from Studge but the ‘keeper saved his effort.
The Chelsea choir was mid-way through a proud and defiant rendition of “You are my Chelsea, my only Chelsea” when Sam, out on the left, clipped a ball over for the substitute Derdiyok to head in, with the Chelsea defenders racing back to no avail. The goal was a blur, but our defence seemed to be completely stretched and out of position.
The mood now grew tense within the 1,500 away fans. A cross from substitute Malouda on the left found Drogba unmarked, but his weak volley did not trouble Leno in the home goal. In the closing moments, we watched aghast as a chipped corner found the head of Friedrich who somehow was able to rise unhindered amongst a cluster of blue shirts. The ball tantalisingly arched past the despairing dive of Cech and into the net.
The home fans roared and we were shocked into a stony silence.
There was no time to retaliate and we were defeated. After all of the losses I have endured as a Chelsea fan throughout the years, I should not have been too fed-up, but there was genuine disappointment that this latest game had ended in (self-inflicted?) defeat. Our defending for the goals was poor and we didn’t seem to have the determination and fight of previous campaigns.
To add insult to injury, only six players could be bothered to trudge over to us in the south-west corner of the Bayerana to thank us for the thousands of pounds we had spent in support of our team.
Mario and I shrugged and slowly began our walk back to where Mario had parked his car. Unlike on his previous visits to watch Leverkusen, there seemed to be more traffic than usual on this particular night. A few sympathetic texts came in and Mario and I spoke of a few more childhood memories to keep the spirits up. We returned to the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, speaking of obscure Juventus players such as Domenico Marocchino, Guiseppe Galderisi and Pietro Paolo Virdis and more famous ones such as Liam Brady and Paolo di Canio. Talk of our childhood love of football proved cathartic and the time soon passed. I also did my best to explain to Mario about the SayNoCPO campaign of the past month or so.
On our return home to Mario’s house, we watched the Champions League highlights and we shared a few more bottles of clean and crisp Gilden kolsch.
Thursday 24th. November.
The last day of Chelsea trips are strange affairs. Trips usually take the form of –
Day One – manic beer guzzling, boisterous behaviour and bar-hopping, late into the night.
Day Two – sightseeing, nursing of hangovers, the match, more refined drinking.
Day Three – OK, let’s get home.
However, on this most atypical of Chelsea trips, I was quite content to make the most of my last day with Gabi and Mario. I awoke at 9am and Gabi soon made me bacon and eggs for breakfast. A lovely visit with Valentin to Gabi’s parents then followed, before we had pizza for lunch with all the boys. In the afternoon, Mario dropped me off at the nearby town of Bensberg while he returned to do some work from home.
I spent around two hours in Bensberg and enjoyed walking around the town’s shops, buying a Leverkusen scarf for myself (I always try to pick up a souvenir of our opponents on foreign trips), plus chocolates and cakes for my mother and Judy. At the top of the town is the castle – or schloss – which is now, typically, a top-end hotel. At the bottom of Schloss Strasse, I spent a while inside the local church, a lovely structure with superb stained-glass windows. It was with regret that I could not attend the wedding of Gabi and Mario in June 1999, due to lack of finances, so it felt right and proper that I was able – at last – to visit the church where they were married in 2011.
At 5pm, Mario took me to Koln-Bonn airport and we bade each other a fond farewell. Gabi was otherwise engaged with Reuben and Valentin, but young Nelson accompanied us on our twenty minute car ride. I can see the twinkle in the eyes of Mario’s dear mother Hildegard in the face and eyes of Nelson.
Mario dropped me off at Terminal B and I shook hands with little Nelson and gave Mario a big hug.
It had been a fantastic time in Germany and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Our flight was unfortunately delayed, so I did some more shopping; pumpernickel, cheese, the usual suspects. Beth and Dave from Toronto were on the same flight home. We touched down at about 8.45pm and I was able to drop Beth off at the Prince of Wales pub at West Brompton just in time for last orders at 11pm. Ironic that for a few minutes, my journey home had taken me to within a mile of The Bridge.
I returned home, eventually, at 1.30am; three whole days of friendship and football.