The opening round of 2.Bundesliga fixtures weren’t kind to the FC St. Pauli fans. An away game to start the season against one of the sides relegated from the top division wasn’t going to be an easy task for their team. Add to that a four-hundred mile trip to Stuttgart if they wished to be there to witness it and all taking place in an unpopular Monday night slot for the benefit of TV. Despite all this, close to four thousand FCSP supporters were packed into the corner of the Mercedes-Benz Arena and I was one of them.
I may have travelled twice as far as those coming from Hamburg, but I probably had the better journey as a short and reasonably priced flight from Manchester deposited me in Germany’s sixth largest city on the afternoon of the match. Situated in the South, Stuttgart is the capital of the country’s third largest state, Baden-Württemberg, and is probably best known for its automotive industry – the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are both situated there. It is also home to VfB Stuttgart.
Thanks to a successful period in the 1950s – two national championships and two cup wins – VfB were one of the original members of the new Bundesliga in 1963 and have won the title three times – 1983/84, 1991/92 and 2006/07. They’ve generally occupied a position in the top half of the table and only spent two seasons in the mid-1970s in the second division. However, the last few years have seen that change and in five of the last six campaigns they have ended up in twelfth place or below. This run of poor form culminated in seventeenth place last season and relegation for the first time in forty years.
The prospect of life in 2.Bundesliga didn’t seem to have put the fans off as, four hours before kick-off, there were fans in VfB shirts all over Stuttgart city centre and rumours of a sold out stadium. On my train from the airport two supporters have already cracked open a couple of short, fat bottles of Astra beer. Once outside I see more and more VfB fans and can hear some far off chants of ‘Sankt Pauli’. The last time I was in Southern Germany, it snowed. Not today though. It’s hot. Very hot.
The city’s many grassy areas are full of people sunbathing and others taking advantage of the many fountains around the Schlossplatz to cool off. Despite being in somewhat of a valley, Stuttgart feels wide-open. The centre is heavily pedestrianised with more than it’s fair share of green spaces. Whilst it does suffer from that which afflicts seemingly all modern cities – an overabundance of building works and cranes – it still has plenty of traditional German charm and nowhere more so than Schillerplatz. Apart from the shopping area that now surrounds it, the square named after Friedrich Schiller, a German writer, doesn’t look as though it has changed in the last few hundred years – although it looked very different the next day with a flower market set up on it.
Back in the present day, I head up to Bad Canstatt and find a nice spot in the sun which serves my favourite German beer. I spend a bit too long getting refreshed having convinced myself that I will have enough time to check in to my hotel and then get to the ground.
Arriving at the Mercedes-Benz Arena twenty-five minutes before the start, I thought I’d have sufficient time to find the away section, get a drink and a bratwurst and pick up a programme. Unfortunately it takes me twenty of those minutes to walk around the stadium, past a police van that is blocking part of the walkway and reducing the flow of fans to a shuffle – it has been duly tagged with a St. Pauli sticker by someone who’d already gone by – follow a sign that leads away from the ground and round a few blocks of offices before I come across the turnstiles and finally find myself on the terrace with no drink, food or programme and the match about to begin.
I’m currently enjoying an eight match unbeaten run following St. Pauli, but this will be my first away game. At the Millerntor, I’ve witnessed seven wins and one draw and I hope that continues tonight. It will actually be the second time I’ve seen Stuttgart play. At my first game of German football, three years ago, I saw them win away at Hertha Berlin by a single goal scored by Christian Gentner – a member of the 06/07 title-winning side and now the club captain. Curiously enough, the Berlin manager that day, Jos Luhukay, is now in charge of Stuttgart – their seventh manager since that game, although Huub Stevens has done it twice in that time.
As I was rushing to make it to my block on time, I don’t see much of the outside of the stadium, but I like what I see of its innards. I may be packed away in a corner, but it’s a great view of the action. The away concourse is a bit minimal, but then again what away concourse isn’t.
VfB Stuttgart v FC St. Pauli starts in a typical way. The home side with the possession and the away team looking to counter attack. Although curiously the first chance of the game comes from a reversal of these roles when Stuttgart put Terodde through on the break only for the St. Pauli keeper to save with his legs. Soon after, the away side shows how to counter perfectly, turning a VfB attack into one of theirs. Sobota picks out the run of Picault perfectly whose cross is volleyed home by Bouhaddouz. A goal on his debut for the former Sandhausen forward. One nil to St. Pauli and arms and legs everywhere in the Gäste block.
With the day still not having cooled off any, it is hot and sweaty on the away terrace and I’d hoped to have gotten covered in beer at the goal celebration, but sadly no cups go up in the air and I remain being steadily cooked like the German sausage I never manage to acquire.
Their could and perhaps should have been more St. Pauli celebrations. Another breakaway sees Picault’s shot saved. A Bouhaddouz header flies just past the post. Then those players combine again, the former setting up the latter who hits the post and the ball rolls teasingly along the line and away. At half-time, though, the lead is still just a single goal.
Both sets of fans have banners displaying their views on Monday night games and, like the one the VfB fans in the Canstatter Kurve unfurl referring to Red Bull Leipzig in the second half, I imagine neither of them are complimentary.
In this game of two halves, the second belongs to Stuttgart and the home side are having more and more of the ball and putting St. Pauli under pressure. A Sama header from a corner hits the crossbar. Up the other end, a corner for the away side isn’t cleared and pings around the Stuttgart box before the home side manage to break with Maxim running down the left, he cuts in and curls the ball into the far corner of the goal for the equaliser.
With only minutes left of the game, Stuttgart have St. Pauli pinned back. Maxim sets up Insua whose shot takes a deflection and looks to be heading wide until Gentner sticks out his leg. Gentner, the club captain. Gentner, the Bundesliga winner in 2006/07. Gentner, the reminder of better times. Gentner, whose outstretched leg turns the ball into the goal and wins the game for Stuttgart. The final whistle blows and my unbeaten record following St. Pauli is no more.