Thursday, 8 June 2017

Disturbing Fans No. 1: The Bell Ringer From Hell

Just because I'm a quiet fan doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the effort that other supporters put into their noise. The first in an occasional series.

Schalke's bell-ringer from
 hell (pic: The Quiet Fan)
In 2005 I took my father-in-law, Gerd, to his first game since 1947, when as a teenager he’d seen Helmut Schön play in the small stadium opposite his house. For my birthday he'd bought me two tickets to the German League Cup Final at the newly renovated stadium in Leipzig, and begrudgingly agreed to come along "if you can't find anyone else". As it happened, I couldn't, and so we drove together from his home in Dresden to the outskirts of town and took the specially laid-on shuttle tram to the freshly rebuilt World Cup stadium.

There was a reason my father-in-law hadn't been to a game for 57 years. Although he likes to watch football on television, happily moaning from the safety of his sofa, his view of humanity at large has been shaped by growing up in 1930s Germany, and then fleeing Dresden from the post-war Soviet
occupants after he was almost caught disseminating pro-democracy literature. In other words, he's naturally suspicious when large crowds follow a single cause.

The German League Cup was a briefly extant pre-season tournament featuring the top six sides from the previous Bundesliga season. At the time, the now defunct broadcaster Premiere was offering decent prize money, so the clubs started to take it seriously. Schalke 04 and VfB Stuttgart were the two finalists, and although it was a Tuesday night in early August, a significant number of fans from both clubs had made the long trip east.

The attendance and atmosphere was boosted not just by curious locals, but a hardcore of several thousand Lokomotive Leipzig fans - ascendants of the DDR titans who reached the 1987 European Cup Winners' Cup final, but at that time playing way down the German pyramid following post-communist insolvency. Their followers were proudly determined to bait the Schalke core and stake a noisy claim to territory that was once theirs.

I ushered Gerd safely through the crowds to his seat, bought him a sausage, and we read the slick tournament brochure trying hard to convince us that coaches, players and fans really did care about this trophy. The row of seats in front of us remained empty until a couple of minutes before kick-off. Although we weren’t in the quietest section of the ground, we certainly weren’t mixed in with any of the three fan factions. Until, that is, a man in his mid-50s, wearing a German number 13 shirt and a small plastic blue pork pie hat, bustled his way into the seat three down to our left and begin vigorously ringing a tassled, hand-held bell while emitting a virtually incomprehensible, but continuous, roar that made it fairly clear he was behind the lads from Gelsenkirchen.

The bloke who had the misfortune to be sitting in front of him looked around, bemused, but perhaps hoped that the fan would soon burn out and calm down. Gerd shook his head at what he clearly believed to be a victim of excessive alcohol. The game began, and The Man With The Bell stood to his feet, resoundingly clanging his toy every time a Schalke player touched the ball, all the while keeping up a stentorian, guttural howl.

This fascinating display lasted for five minutes until the bloke in front had had enough and turned around, yelling at Bell Man that the ringing was right in his ear. Bell Man completely ignored him, too besotted with Schalke or too blotto on alcohol to care. A row of men behind me, who were already bored and complaining that the game was fourth division level (they were right), amused themselves by encouraging the ringer to hold the bell a little lower, closer to the irritated fan's ear. Bell Man turned and grinned, delighted to have his own fan club.

In the tenth minute Schalke’s Kevin Kuryani scored, and Bell Man celebrated accordingly. He stood and rang and roared for maybe another ten minutes until the bloke in front of him lost it again, more or less telling him that if he didn’t shut up he was going to belt him. Meanwhile the men behind me jeered, “If you don’t like the noise, go to church, you idiot” (presumably not a church with bells).

The Bell Man did move, however - to the seat directly in front of myself and Gerd. “Neeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiin!” I heard my father-in-law groan, but compared with the previous threat of violence this was not a protest that was going to move our passionate friend.  And although the mediocre game, which remained 1-0, did eventually subdue Bell Man’s fervour, the ringing endured in tandem with my father-in-law’s shaking head right up until the final whistle. For a man in his 70s, he made a remarkably quick exit from the stadium.

“Well, that was your first game since 1947,” I said on the drive home, “And I’ve a feeling that it’s going to be your last as well.” Still in a kind of speechless stupor, Gerd muttered something about “40,000 brain-softened proletarians” and stared at the road ahead. In 2014, however, I did manage to lure him to a Major League Soccer game in Washington DC. No cheap comments, please - there are a number of vocal fan groups at DC United games. I made sure we sat in an almost empty section on the exact opposite side of the stadium.

"I quite enjoyed that," he said afterwards. Not quite as fervent as the bell-ringer from hell, but as close as he's come to enthusiasm for football in the 22 years I've known him.

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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