In 2017, the party-mad tourist mecca of Cologne celebrated the return of European football after 25 years. Fans of flagship club and three-time German champions 1.FC Köln swarmed Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, an invasion of some 20,000 causing kick-off of the Europa League tie to be delayed by an hour. An early goal by new signing Jhon Cordoba saw outbursts of celebration all round the ground until order was restored and the visitors return to the Rhineland with no points and a hangover.
Despite Köln’s 25-year absence from the European limelight, the passion had never really dimmed. The season that Köln regained top-flight status in 2013-14, crowds at the RheinEnergieStadion averaged a near capacity 49,000, a figure that has barely wavered since.
The man who took Köln up, former Austrian international Peter Stöger, then steered the Billy Goats to fifth place in 2016-17. The distraction of European football led to a dreadful start to the 2017-18 campaign but even if Köln stride out in the Zweite in 2018-19, support will barely diminish.
Cologne is rooted in the game. This is the site of Germany’s main sports university – the nation’s top football coaches all receive their training here. For 14 years, former Köln player Hennes Weisweiler, who later led his former club and nearby Mönchengladbach to four titles, headed the academy.
Centrepiece of Germany’s largest sports complex when created in 1923, 1.FC Köln’s stadium has twice been completely rebuilt (and renamed), most recently for the 2006 World Cup. City mayor Konrad Adenauer, later West German Chancellor during the post-war economic miracle, was behind the creation of a vast sports park on Cologne’s western outskirts, on the main road to Aachen.
In the aftermath of World War I, it created thousands of jobs and the Hauptkampfbahn (later Müngersdorfer Stadion) was key to Cologne’s unsuccessful bid for the 1936 Olympics, eventually awarded to Berlin. Yet Cologne’s first football ground wasn’t here but in Weidenpesch, near Nippes, north of town.
Weidenpescher Park staged two early German championship finals, in 1905 and 1910. This was the home of the city’s oldest club, VfL Köln 1899, who provided six players for the German national side before World War II. Though later overshadowed by 1.FC Köln and their modern-day city rivals Fortuna, VfL held out in the lower leagues until as recently as 2013.
A decade earlier, VfL vacated Weidenpescher, allowing for a flea market to be set up. The park retained its link with the nation’s football past – still housing Germany’s oldest surviving grandstand, a protected building, it was used by Sönke Wortmann to film his ‘Das Wunder von Bern’, the story of the 1954 World Cup.
1.FC and Fortuna were formed within ten days of each other in February 1948, Fortuna from a merger of three clubs, including VfL contemporaries Viktoria. 1.FC’s predecessors were Kölner BC 1901 and SpVgg Köln-Sülz. Both had enjoyed modest pre-war success, including regional West German titles, but 1.FC took the local game to a whole new level.
Inaugural winners of the Bundesliga in 1964, debut season of genial left-footed playmaker Wolfgang Overath, 1.FC was also where players such as Pierre (‘Litti’) Littbarski and Lukas (‘Poldi’) Podolski started their careers. Littbarski scored the only goal when 1. FC met Fortuna at the old Müngersdorfer in the 1983 German Cup Final.
Both clubs later fell on hard times, 1.FC bouncing between top and second flights, Fortuna sinking lower. Without the long-term financial backing of Jean Löring, a former Viktoria Köln player-cum-electrician and five-time Fortuna coach, the club all but went out of business.
Still playing at the Südstadion, by Pohlingstraße on the No.12 tramline, Fortuna gained promotion to the third flight in 2013-14 and are now looking to renovate their 15,000-capacity ground.
Köln-Bonn Airport is 15km (nine miles) south-east of Cologne, with its own railway terminal, on Germany’s high-speed train (ICE) network, linked to Frankfurt and other major cities. From Terminal 2, local S-Bahn Nos.13 and 19, and regional trains, frequently run to Cologne main station, Köln Hauptbahnhof (15min journey time, €2.80 single, €8.60 Tagesticket day pass valid until 3am the next day). A schedule can be found on the German Rail website.
There are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the stadium but at the ring road, the smart, four-star AMERON Hotel Regent, five stops from the ground, five from town, offers advance and half-board rates for major matches.
Hotels surround Köln Hauptbahnhof, ranging from the basic Ibis immediately below the Cathedral to the five-star, 150-year old Excelsior Ernst. Cheaper options nearby include the A&O Köln Dom, one of a chain of nationwide budget hotels/hostels, and the Station, a hostel with single and double rooms.
The local drink is Kölsch – a light beer served in a thin glass (or Stange). Scorned all over Germany for being weak and ladylike, Kölsch is, in fact, the perfect barhop accompaniment as it’s affordable, downed in seconds and won’t bloat you out.
Sample it at a lovely old bar such as the Weinhaus Vogel (Eigelstein 74). Towards at the end of the street, the Lapidarium (No.118) is more contemporary, charging entrance for big-match screenings, offset against your drinks bill.
Right on the Alter Markt, the Corkonian (No.51) is the oldest and most central of the Irish pubs. Away from the traditional taverns of Groß St Martin in the Altstadt, nightlife is concentrated along the ring road that envelops the city centre, with names given to each section, and little bar hubs by each.
The Belgian Quarter, Belgisches Viertel, is the most grown-up, directly west of the Dom. There Grünfeld (Brüsseler Straße 47) offers TV sports and serious table-football action. Nearby US-style Joe Champs stands on the ring road itself.
Moving south, the student-oriented Quartier Lateng, the Latin Quarter, is set around Zülpicher Straße, and Zülpicher Platz U-Bahn stop. Look out for Heimspiele, the best football bar in town, with several screens, Bundesliga I and II tables chalked up and a mural of 1. FC Köln newspaper cuttings. If it’s too busy, nearby Shamrock (Zülpicher Straße 34) is a decent choice.
The Latin Quarter mingles with the less studenty Südstadt, near Ubierring. The wonderful Ubier Schänke is not too bohemian to go overboard on match nights.