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The Revierderby

A 17 year old boy stands apart on the deep green grass. His mouth is wide, jaw muscles tightened into an aggressive roar. He pumps his arms up and down, the candescent glow of floodlights shimmering on his black skin. The response comes in the thunder of tens of thousands of voices. These people have always loved him; in this moment they worship him.

 

Germany is a country wrestling with itself. A decade in which refugees have arrived in their millions has given the far right the oxygen it needs to keep itself aflame. And yet the pushback is strong and relentless. In Germany's football stadiums, this clash plays out in a very visible place, and Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park is no different.


Around much of Europe, ultras frequently veer towards outright nationalism, but Germany is unusual in that the prevailing winds on the terraces tend to blow leftwards. Banners welcoming refugees and decrying the far right have gone viral on social media and are by no means unusual.


The Yellow Wall on a quieter day.

But it's not that simple. In his book Among the Ultras, James Montague speaks of the violent far right presence on Dortmund's famous Südtribüne, the Yellow Wall. He describes two neo-Nazis who had been banned and imprisoned, returning to the ground. 'The men arrived with members of the Northside hooligan crew and than demanded that the ultras shake their hand as a sign of fealty. A few men were later seen giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Sieg Heil”.'


Take a walk around Dortmund and you will notice the occasional sticker or graffiti celebrating Nazism. It is rare and all so at odds with the majority, and yet the problem is there, a tick beneath the skin of modern Germany, refusing to be dug out. On the terraces an uncomfortable peace for now, but it doesn't seem to be a truce that anyone will be happy with.

 

Derby day in Dortmund takes over the city. This is a one-club-town – Dortmund is Borussia, and Borussia is Dortmund. Walk out of the train station and the steps leading into the town centre are painted with yellow stripes. To the right of them, a fan shop proclaims, 'Welcome to the football capital'. Schalke come from just down the road in Gelsenkirchen, and in one of the world's great football cities, it makes for one of the world's great derby matches.


This is a part of the country that has felt neglect, overlooked and marginalised in the shadow of Berlin and Munich. But this is Germany's industrial heartland. Dortmund was largely destroyed by Allied bombs in the war and faced huge financial decline in the late twentieth century, but brims with pride and strength of will. And nothing channels that pride like its football club, one of the most celebrated in the world.

What you need to know

Germany's Bundesliga has become a largely pointless exercise, won for the last ten seasons by Bayern Munich, who have more Bundesliga titles than every other side in the country combined. Yet today, local rivals Schalke arrive for the Revierderby with Bayern struggling and Dortmund looking for a win that could take them top.


It's a chilly day, the first sharp nips of autumn hanging in the air. Even at 10am, the sounds of singing can be heard in the city centre, which already hums with fans in yellow shirts. With time to kill until kick off, I go to the German Football Museum. It's expensive at €19, but once inside it's easy to see where the money has gone. It's a beautifully crafted museum full of unique artefacts, such as the match ball from the 1954 World Cup final and replica trophies presented to the DFB. It celebrates German football's greatest moments while not avoiding its darkest. There is a lot here, not all that enjoyable to English fans.



A couple of hours later, the city centre is filling up. Fans are pouring out of the train station and the central Markt square is rammed. Songs are being sung, mocking Schalke's 4-0 defeat in their last meeting. Glass bottles cover the floor, the clink as they are knocked to the pavement a constant accompaniment to the buzz of chatter and songs.


I go to get lunch and by the time I'm done, the square is largely empty, the fans having moved up towards Signal Iduna Park already. There are still over two hours until kick off. I follow along, making the roughly two kilometre walk to the stadium. It can easily be done on the metro, but the walk takes only about half an hour and it feels like part of the experience.



It is not a beautiful city, by any means. I had come straight from Salzburg and Dortmund feels rather more like Swindon, but most people come here for this, the matchday experience. Walking through the city, banners and stickers celebrate the club's biggest ultra group, the Unity. These don't feel like vandalism, they feel welcomed by the city.


Noise increases as I approach the ground. From the Westfallenhallen metro station comes a stream of blue. Schalke fans are arriving, guided by barriers of riot police in full armour along a different path to the stadium. I get to the road alongside the stadium itself and a convoy of police vans rushes past, sirens blaring. They are heading to fortify the blockades between the two sets of fans up ahead. However, it all feels slightly unnecessary. There is no menace in the air, and when the police step aside to let the home fans cross there are no clashes between those who mix.



I approach the turnstiles and the body searches. They take one look inside my camera bag and give me a hard no. I'm directed to a more a senior steward who laughs when I speak. 'You English,' he says jovially, 'you always want to take photos here.' There is a bag drop off which costs 50c, and I try again.


I'm on the Nordtribüne, in the standing terrace to the side, directly facing the Yellow Wall. There is an hour until kick off, but the Südtribüne is already packed and it is an astonishing sight. One huge bank of faces, 25,000 of them, peer downwards, dressed in yellow and singing loudly, led by those at the very centre in Block 13. This is a ground that prides itself on being the best fan experience in world football and it is easy to see why. It couldn't be more different to the enveloping silence that filled it during a stadium tour I did yesterday.


As kick off approaches, the rain comes down. It is a heavy, driving rain, which seems to hang in the glare of the floodlights and soaks the pitch. Through the speakers blasts the kind of thumping guitar riffs that only German metal bands can produce. The Dortmund line up is read out, the announcer's voice screaming from the depths of his throat as the fans call back the names.



The rain eases off by the time the players come out. On the pitch are dozens of flags being waved. The Yellow Wall lights up with flares, orange and red. A stadium announcer warns against the use of pyro in a tone that feels very going-through-the-motions. The smoke drifts upwards and catches under the roof of the west stand, curling through the stadium until it is touching everything.


The terrace is packed. Elbows, shoulders, ribs all squashed tightly together. It smells of cordite and beery breath. Around ten minutes after kick off a fresh squad of riot police arrives in our corner, helmets on and mouths covered by bandanas. The fans sing and the Yellow Wall bounces, moving as one great mass. Drum beats roll thunderously around the stadium.


Dortmund legend Marco Reus goes down injured and the Schalke fans light up their pryo. On the cusp of half time, their team gets a free kick which goes hopelessly over. In the west stand, a man yells furiously at the away section, punching both middle fingers into the air, a voiceless howl into the vastness of the noise.


The match enters its final stages with still no goals. The weather is all over the place. More pyro is lit. There is sun, rain, smoke and fire; the sky full of everything all at once. On the pitch there is still nothing. The stands grow frustrated. The riot police shift on their feet and teams are dispatched to different parts of the ground.


Almost out of nowhere, a cross goes into the Schalke box and 17 year old Dortmund striker Youssoufa Moukoko rises up and heads it in. The stadium explodes. Beer goes everywhere. My head is suddenly soaked as limbs fly all around me. This is the moment everyone has come for. The terrace screams and rages and leaps.


A few moments later, Dortmund rush forward again. A sunbeam breaks through a gap in the west stand and shines directly onto Block 13, where a lone flare shines. Dortmund surge towards it, but the chance goes wide. Moukoko turns to the west stand and pumps his arms to urge more noise from them. They respond with passion.


The final whistle goes. A Dortmund fan sticks his fingers up at the Schalke fans, yelling violently at them. As though a switch is pressed, the spell of the crowd wears off and he realises a policeman thinks the gesture is at him. The fan smiles and waves sweetly, before going on his way.


Eighty thousand fans head back into the city singing and cheering. A young black boy - an immigrant from a Muslim neighbourhood in Cameroon - has given them a win over their most bitter rivals. For most it is only something to celebrate; for the unwanted minority it must be a very confusing win to enjoy.

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