Category Archives: Soccer Wandering ’22

An opening night in eastern Berlin

Friday, Aug. 5, 2022: Berlin, Germany

SV Lichtenberg 47 2, Germania Halberstadt 1

My European vacation was drawing to a close but I lingered long enough to catch the opening night of the Regionalliga Nordost in Berlin.

This is the fourth division level of German soccer, the highest level organized regionally, and perhaps the hardest to advance from, with five regional leagues sending four teams to the national 3. Liga through a nearly incomprehensible rotating playoff system.

It was a pleasant summer night in Berlin to wander from the U-Bahn past the former Stasi headquarters to the Hans-Zoschke-Stadion, a grass-growing-through-the-concrete relic of East Germany and the comfortable home for the neighborhood football team, itself a survivor of East Germany’s lower leagues.

The game presentation, such as it is begins with AC/DC’s Thunderstruck cranking through the PA, giving way to a nicely paced, enjoyable-to-watch game of soccer.

I didn’t have to wait too long for a goal, as in the eighth minute the home squad’s Efraim Gakpeto, loosely mark, headed in a corner, punctuting the moment with a multi-flip somersault celebration.

His joy was well-earned — on a Crash Davis-esque note, this 30-year-old, after a career playing in various sub-regional leagues in and around Berlin, was playing his first game at the fourth-division level.

The Halberstadters were off to a slow start, but they began to find their footing from the 20th minute on, consistently getting the better of the ball, without producing much goal threat.

Halberstadt, in black, is on the counter during the first half against Lichtenberg 47.

Only to see Gakpeto punch up his Hollywood storyline even more in the 35th minute, pouncing on a rebound to secure a brace in his Regionalliga debut and give the home team a 2-0 lead.

Halberstadt came out strong in the second half, eventually rewarded in the 61st minute when Jessim Jallot with a rocket from the corner of the box.

It was a nice treat for the Halberstadt ultras, all 20 or so who made the trip.

In the game’s last ten minutes, Halberstadt pressured for what seemed like it would be an an inevitable goal, but the desperate defense of the home team did not break, with some moral support from the 668 fans on hand.

The crowd, a demographic weighted toward cigarette smoking people of my middle-aged generation with the tattooed hard-man aesthetic that I lack, got louder and harder as the end neared, spurring their club to defend desperately and successfully.

It was a great evening of football played with pace, passion and what I thought was a decent level of quality. But the 17 matchdays that took place before I began to write up my notes tell me that the Regionalliga has a lot more to offer: Lichtenberg has only won twice more, putting them in a relegation battle, while Halberstadt hasn’t won a game all season and seems all but doomed to go down to one of the Oberligas next year.

Reunion time: The first day of the season was a reunion time for club members who were very social with each other, but football-savvy enough to bring on the “Lichtenberg, Lichtenberg” chants when the game warranted it, particularly during the late-game defense.

Culture shock: The pfand shouldn’t surprise me any more in Germany, but it took me a little bit to process how to work the deposit token one gets when one orders a beer. Eventually I eventually figured it out, getting my Euro-per-cup deposit back through a system that keeps the plastic-cup litter under control.

A game summary (in German) is here.

Game highlights are here.

We’re going to Berlin

Saturday, July 30, 2022: Berlin, Germany

VFB Bochum 1848 3, FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin 0

‘Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin’

‘Berlin, Berlin, we’re going to Berlin’ — that’s the song football supporters sing on the terraces during games in the DFB Pokal, the German cup. Though I didn’t hear it today, perhaps because this first round match actually took place in Berlin, between two squads that were highly unlikely to be in Berlin for the final in May at the Olympiastadion.

A Pokal match was on my bucket list for the summer trip to Germany, and the weekend of the first round of the German cup competition found me in the Hauptstadt.

Would there be a match in Berlin? Well, there had to be.

A charming aspect of the German cup is that the first round is always hosted by the lower seed. Which means the big-shot Bundesliga teams must travel to play the lower seed, playing in a lower-league environment.

After the top 40 spots are filled with first, second, and a handful of third division teams, the balance of the tournament is filled with winners of each regional cup competition. Berlin is its own region, ergo, it would have a team hosting a Pokal match,  (In addition to its two first-division teams, who hit the road).

Stepping up for Berlin this year was FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin, which won the 21-22 Berlin Cup, a bit of a consolation prize for a year in which it was relegated after one season in the national third division.

Now preparing for a return to the regional league, Viktoria presumably had even fewer resources to bear to field a roster in its Pokal challenge, but it still carried the stadium lease it signed for its single season in the national competition, hosting the game at the East German museum piece that is the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Stadion.

It’s a somewhat dilapidated edifice epitomizing the vast gulf between socialist aspirations and outcome, in which the East German national team and Stasi favorites Dynamo played literally next to the wall that kept East Berliners from slipping to the West.1Both sides that merged to make today’s Viktoria were in West Berlin.

The groovy light stanchions really tie the room together.

The setting has been improved, as the fortifications next to the stadium have been replaced by a park.

They’re only allowed to sell 10,000 tickets at the 20,000 seat venue, which appears to be minimally maintained amid redevelopment plans moving along at Berlin’s typical snail’s pace.

That limit is of little concern, as Viktoria appears to be primarily a youth and development club without a huge fan base for its senior squad.

And only 5,573 tickets were sold for this sunny Berlin Saturday afternoon, the clear majority to Bochum fans who either traveled 300 miles from the Ruhr or have moved to the capital.

The Bochum ultras provided much of the show, filling up the stands behind the south goal with singing and choreographed smoke displays in the team’s blue and white colors.

Bochum supporters make smoke during the Pokal match against Viktoria Berlin in July 2022.
Bochum’s supporters make themselves known behind the south goal.

But Bochum garb dominated in the main stands as well, which were conflict-free, leaving the riot police that had been dispatched to the game with little to do.

Bochum as a club is more used to second-division life in the shadows of nearby Shalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund, but was a tough out after winning promotion to the 21-22 Bundesliga and was never in relegation danger.

So there was a wide gap between the two teams, but not so wide that the game was uncompetitive, though if Bochum had better finishers the score would have been much uglier.

The Berliners were able to control the ball for periods and mount a bit of pressure. Their forward Moritz Seiffert was fast, and appeared to be a dangerous outlet that the Viktorians tried to use several times.

He was fast enough to ask, ‘Why is he in a Regionalliga?’ The answer perhaps showing in an inability to shoot or cross advantegiously after he gained position.

Bochum missed several opportunities early on, before scoring in the 19th and 22nd minutes to remove most doubt, the second goal coming  from Takuma Asano, who would go on to make a bigger impression on German football fans in November, when his late goal for Japan gave the team a World Cup win over Germany.2Though he hasn’t scored for Bochum since.

It was a pleasant sunny afternoon of football, with some touches of quality despite the early season rust in what turned out to be one of the higher points of the season for both squads, now facing relegation fights in their respective leagues, though Bochum won its second-round match and host a Pokal derby Feb. 8 against Borussia Dortmund.

A Soccer Sunday in Slovenia

Sunday, July 24, 2022: Ljubljana, Slovenia

NK Bravo 1, FC Koper 0

I didn’t go to Europe this summer to watch soccer — but I still managed to get three games in, all in venues still radiating communist-era vibes.

That run started in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was delighted to find that late July was late enough for the second round of the country’s first-division soccer league, the PrvaLiga.

NK Bravo player and FC Koper player contest the ball in a soccer match.
NK Bravo’s
Mark Španring tries to control the ball against FC Koper’s Luka Kambič. Credit: NK Bravo

And first-division squad NK Bravo was at home the weekend I was in town.

Bravo is not the dominant club in Ljubljana — that status probably belongs to Olimpija, which styles itself as inheritors of the tradition of the Yugoslav-era club of the same name.

Bravo tells a more modest story about itself1If you trust Google translate — the club launched in 2006 with a focus on developing young players, and as those young players aged they joined the league system, rising up the pyramid until qualifying for Slovenia’s first division in 2019.

Unlike their crosstown rivals that play in the late-model stadium used for national team games, Bravo plays in a more humble venue, Park Šiška, the stands of which carry that retrofuturistic socialism vibe that still lingers in parts Slovenia, more than three decades after Yugoslavia became former.

View of south end of Park ŠIŠKA
A view of the south end of the Park Šiška stadium. Credit: Hockeywanderer

It still does its job. It was searingly hot in Ljubljana that week but the thoughtful architect provided for a covered grandstand, making conditions tolerable, for fans at least.

The game itself was quite enjoyable to watch at a pretty high level of quality, for a reasonable 10 Euros at the gate.

Bravo came out of the gates cool, calm and collected, testing the squad from Koper, forcing keeper Adnan Golubovic to make spectacular some saves.

Koper which found its way into the game later in the first half, and Bravo seemed to fade; Bravo keeper Matija Orbanić saved the day with a fingertip save on the rebound of a Koper shot that hit the crossbar.

As halftime neared, a turnover at midfield led to a quick Bravo counter in which two sharp passes got the ball to trailing midfielder Almin Kurtovič in the box, and the 22-year-old beat the keeper for what proved to be winning score, greeted by loud goal music and a screaming announcement.

That was the only goal, but I thought the game was fun to watch, with attacking football and good passing.

Reunion: The first home game of the season was a get-back-together occasiion for most of the 750 people in attendance. I’d describe the crowd as fairly chatty through most of the game, though the audience rose to the occasion when the game demanded it. In the first half, sitting on the south end of the single stand, I thought I heard organized, ultra-style rhythms coming from the north end. It turned out to be five kids with a couple of Thundersticks.

Partly cloudy: vaping is a thing at Slovenian soccer games.

Sound as ever: I believe they added amperage, but not sound quality, to the original Tito-era PA system.

History lesson: Park Šiška was originally known as the Railway Athletic Club and the stadium is in fact wedged between two railway lines that meet to its south.

Game Summary

Game Recap (in Slovenian)