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Trap and shoot

“Isn’t that Jens Lehmann limbering up in maroon tracks?” Olga, my escort from Goethe-Institut, asked me, really excited. She is a huge fan of the giant German goalkeeper who had replaced Oliver Kahn as Germany’s first choice in the Klinsmann regime, but now fallen out of favour with current national coach Joachim Low.

I turned my gaze to the lush Olympiastadion pitch, in that brilliant Saturday afternoon sun, where the visiting VfB Stuttgart squad were warming up ahead of their Bundesliga tie against Hertha Berlin. “Yes, it’s Lehmann indeed,” I assured Olga and realised she was already busy clicking away with her digital camera.

That’s when it clicked. This was for real. I was actually at the iconic sporting edifice in Berlin, which had hosted the 1936 Olympics and far more recently, the World Cup 2006 final made infamous by the Zidane head-butt.

I had never thought much of Lehmann even when he was the Gunners’ goalie, but this was not on TV, he was in flesh and blood, right in front of my eyes. So was the towering Mario Gomez, and Hitzelberger, the Stuttgart skipper, very much part of the German national team. This had to be a high point of my trip.

From travelling to the stadium on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz station to the controlled, yet smooth entry through the turnstiles, grabbing a bite of Bratwurst (the typical Berlin fried sausage), finding your seat and settling down to enjoy the game, what strikes you is the unbroken thread of order.

The Germans guzzle an absurd quantity of beer, and this beerfest continued throughout the match. However, barring the high-throttled baying for the opponent team’s blood (I guess that’s the universal language of football fans the world over), there wasn’t anything untoward anywhere in that huge, Gothic cauldron. Even after the final whistle, supporters of Hertha Berlin, the home team, which won 2-1 — quite an upset against fancied Stuttgart — were disciplined and restrained in their celebration. The travelling fans from the Southwest in red-and-black, were not afraid to get into the same coach with the blue-and-white flag waving Berlin fans.

A huge chain of effort, of course, goes into creating this sense of security inside and outside the stadium. There are scores of massive German Shepherd Dogs everywhere, straining at the leash held by beefy security personnel clad in orange vests. On the edge of the pitch, alert security-squad girls keep a hawk eye on the crowd, their backs turned to the action. In the alleys too, there are roving police guards, watching out for the slightest hint of trouble. No wonder, there are so many jersey-clad, scarf-waving women (often unescorted) and children in the crowd. Hooliganism in the Bundesliga is history.

Hertha fans aren’t too fond of the Olympiastadion, I was told, because they are too far away from the action, with the athletics track circling the football pitch. The grapevine has it that the club is proposing to build a cosier soccer-only stadium in the heart of Berlin. At the site of the Templehof, the older airport in the German capital, that received its last flight on October 31. They are building a gigantic airport on the outskirts and till that is ready, Tegel, the main commercial airport, remains the only touchdown point in the German capital. Out in the middle, Hertha’s victory was well-deserved and just fruit for their industry, which camouflaged their limited resources. Stuttgart, always the better team on paper, wasted a clutch of chances, with Gomez the most profligate culprit.

The biggest story in German football is the fairytale run of rich village club Hoffenheim, backed by software pioneer Dietmar Hopp, which now tops the Bundesliga standings. It has rendered a new dimension to the traditional polarisation in the country of Bayern Munich and non-Bayern Munich fans. In Hoffenheim, the Germans seem to have found a new David to pit against the perennial Goliath Bayern. So, even during the Berlin-Stuttgart tie and during half-time, when the giant screen flashed match scores across the country, Hoffenheim leading drew the loudest cheers, matched only by the resonant jeers that greeted Munich’s fallow struggle against Karlsruhe.

Catch ’em young

According to executive chairman Heribert Bruchhagen, Eintracht Frankfurt selects 20 best young footballers aged 12 every year. The kids are selected from in and around Frankfurt and the region of Hessen by the club’s talent scouts, and then put through a structured development routine. Almost 60 per cent of all the young players making the cut come from immigrant families, from countries like Poland, Romania and Turkey. Unlike some other Bundesliga clubs, Eintracht doesn’t have a boarding school system.

“It’s difficult to deal with the psychological problems many youngsters face. So, instead of having a residential academy, we provide them with a shuttle bus service to ferry them to and from their respective hometowns,” says Bruchhagen.

The club management also advises the academy trainees to focus on a dual career and not neglect their studies. At age 16-17, the boys are separated from the men and given intensive training to help them reach the next level. “We select three players from this elite pool every year and give them a three-year contract,” Bruchhagen says.

Eintracht doesn’t have outreach programmes in developing countries like Bayern has but plans to set up one in Burdwan! “Such overseas academies or clinics are often the way forward for clubs from England or Holland, like Man U or Ajax Amsterdam,” the Frankfurt chairman quips.

Bruchhagen, whose squad is now languishing in the bottom half of the table, is on principle against moneybag owners of clubs. “The concept of foreign ownership like Chelsea and Man U is against the essential grain of the German character. It may be the quickest way to become famous, but most German fans won’t accept it,” he stresses.

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