My first Fußball experience: Wolfsburg vs. Hannover

Volkswagen Arena in Wolfsburg, Germany.

After spending quite a bit of time living in Germany and interacting with Germans, I think I've done a reasonably good job of learning about the culture and taking part in it whenever possible. I open my windows occasionally to let fresh air in (alright, it does get a little stuffy if you don't...), I eat pizza with a fork and knife, and my blood pressure begins to raise ever-so-slightly for every minute my train is late.

But, there has been one major omission on my German culture resume -- I had never been to a German soccer game before. My boyfriend Sven has promised me for a while now that he would take to me a game, and this past Saturday he finally made good on his promise, taking me to see Hannover face off against Wolfsburg (in Wolfsburg).

For those not in the know when it comes to German soccer, a quick primer is that the national league is called the Bundesliga. The league is broken into levels, with the first three leagues being considered professional. The first league is generally all that anyone outside of Germany would care about -- this is the league that international heavy hitters likes Bayern-München and Borussia Dortmund play in.

Wolfsburg is a town located in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) about an hour and 45 minutes from where Sven lives. Hannover is located in the same state, only about an hour away, so they are generally considered to be Wolfsburg's main rival (the other would be Braunschweig, which is located even closer to Wolfsburg, but they only just moved back up to the first league for the first time in nearly 30 years this year).

We set out for Wolfsburg late in the morning on Saturday, with Sven's friend Markus driving us. The game didn't start until 3:30 p.m., but we had some errands to run on the way, plus we wanted to wander around the stadium a bit.

Beyond wanting to experience a major tenet of German culture, I was also interested in going to a soccer game to compare it to my experiences at American sporting events, since we tend to take pride in the quality of our sports. My first big shock upon arriving at the stadium was how stupidly easy parking was. Granted, we got there early enough that parking shouldn't have been a huge issue, but there was a main lot about a five minute walk from the stadium that was completely free to get into.

That's right. Parking within minimal walking distance of the stadium was FREE. I commented to Sven and Markus that I couldn't believe how easy that was -- they on the other hand couldn't believe that people in the U.S. might pay $30 or $40 just to park for a sporting event.

We headed up to the stadium, and I had my first proper look at a German soccer arena. The actual town of Wolfsburg is basically ruled by Volkswagen -- in fact, the city was effectively built from the ground up by Volkswagen to house its workers in 1938. The company's headquarters are located there, as are many of its factories. The company has a major role in shaping every aspect of the city, and VfL Wolfsburg is no exception.

Wolfsburg gets some criticism among German soccer teams because of the role VW has played in building up the team. Many people claim the only reason the team is any good at all (currently, they are placed 5th in the first league) is because of the money they receive from VW to purchase top players from other clubs. It's similar to the criticisms levied against the Yankees in baseball in the U.S., with the notable exception that Wolfsburg hasn't consistently seen success the way the Yankees have.

Given this context, it should come as no surprise that Wolfsburg plays at the Volkswagen Arena, and that overall the stadium is quite nice and new looking. It wasn't necessarily as grand or architecturally intriguing as some of the U.S. sports stadiums, but it definitely didn't look dated to me at all.

Since we arrived before the stadium technically opened, we bummed around a bit, checking out the team store and then getting some food at a cafeteria at the stadium. Around 2:30, we headed in to the stadium.

It was here that I hit a rather disappointing roadblock -- they wouldn't let me in with my camera. Markus has warned me before that this could be a problem, because of rules against bringing professional photography equipment into the stadium, but American stadiums have similar rules and I had never had problems there. I do have a DSLR camera, but it's nowhere near top-of-the-line, nor do I have a telephoto lens or anything like that. Still, they wouldn't budge, so I had to check it at the entry gate and claim it after the game. It was pretty nerve wracking leaving it behind, but they assured me it was safe with them (and I suppose it was nice that they even offered that as an option, rather than telling us to bring it back to the car).

So, unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from inside the stadium beyond the few that I took on my phone. Compared to U.S. stadiums however, I would say arena looked a little... utilitarian inside. It had food vendors, sure, but in the U.S. it's common to see statues or other sports-themed artwork, blurbs about the history of the team, different types of food areas depending on what people want to eat and if they want to sit, etc. The setup in Wolfsburg was simple and straightforward, no frills or surprises.

One major downside of this was that it meant we really had no respite from the cold. We went into the stadium an hour before gametime, and the game itself would take a little under two hours. That meant we had about three hours of sitting in the freezing (~20 degrees Fahrenheit or so) cold, with no chance of escaping beyond brief trips to the mercifully heated bathrooms.

The Supporters of VfL Wolfsburg. Notice all of the Supporters signs.

Our seats offered us a nice view of the field. We were a bit right of midfield, toward the section reserved for Wolfsburg Supporters, made up of the different fan groups that dedicate themselves to supporting their team. This is one part of European sports culture that is extremely different from U.S. sports. Supporters (also called Ultras in Germany) are more than fans of a team. They do things like organize elaborate, choreographed displays (called Choreos in Germany) to show their spirit, as well as constantly sing, chant and shout during the game itself. There's usually one person who directs the Supporters, shouting through a megaphone to organize chants or songs. This is entirely a labor of love for them, and they may spend thousands of euros of their own money on signs, flags or other coordinated displays.

Since Hannover is so close, there was also a decently sized contingent of Hannover Ultras at the game. The two groups basically attempted to out-sing and out-chant each other during the course of the game.

Having heard a lot about how passionate European soccer fans can be, even to the extent of violence breaking out, I was curious to see how high tensions would be for this rivalry game. Everything seemed quite tame however -- lots of chanting and singing, but only one rogue flare let off by the Hannover fans, who were quickly admonished over the loudspeaker system.

One of the biggest differences between the experience at Wolfsburg and my experiences at U.S. sporting events was the overall experience of being at the game.

American sports stadiums have massive, arresting HD screens with colorful graphics. Between plays, there's always pulsing music, fun video segments or games for fans to partake in -- something to keep people's attention. When players are introduced, there's a huge fanfare, often including music and pyrotechnics. When people for whatever reason decide they need a break from the game, there are often a wide variety of food choices to scope out, or other entertainment options (perusing the team stores, signing up for a raffle, etc.).

Unlike American sports, once the action started, it didn't stop for the next 45 minutes.

At Wolfsburg's stadium, there were two small-ish (compared to the U.S.) screens that were used primarily to show the actual game or replays associated to it, in addition to the standard pre-game segments. But overall, the production was pretty basic. And should you get bored of the game and decide to go for a walk around the stadium, don't expect to see anything more than the same food stands replicated throughout the arena.

Part of this difference makes sense when you think of how soccer is played compared to the two most popular U.S. sports, football and baseball. In soccer, the clock never stops, outside of halftime. That means play is happening constantly -- there are no media timeouts, no time spent waiting for a new team to take the field. They don't have many of the frills of U.S. sporting events because there's no need for it. And if you decide to take a walk around the stadium in search of a specific food stand located on the other side of the stadium, you're going to miss a huge chunk of the game.

In the end, the spectacle of German soccer does not come from flashy player introductions or the thrilling halftime show. The spectacle is entirely the players and the fans (namely, the Supporters). There are no musical interludes during the game, but that doesn't mean the stadium is silent -- German Supporters are more than happy to fill the stadium with their songs, chants and shouts. In a way, it's a purer form of sport than we see in the U.S.

Wolfsburg ended up losing the game 3-1, and although it would have been more fun (and more rewarding, given the cold) to see a win, I really loved the experience of finally getting to see a German soccer game. I'm certain it won't be my last, especially since I now have a Wolfsburg scarf of my own. I just hope the next game sees temperatures above 20 degrees Fahrenheit -- I'm not yet enough of a die-hard Fußball fan to willingly submit to that experience again.