Cologne is the carnival capital of Germany. And just like the fans of Mainz 05 a couple of miles up the Rhine River, the supporters in Cologne are known for a certain airiness and cheerfulness. With their nationally famous songs, the carnival atmosphere is transferred into the stadium all season, and not only during the festive season.
However, the team puts a damper on the joyful atmosphere nowadays as the club is struggling to relive the glorious old days when the club was considered to be the German Real Madrid. But the days when world champions like Wolfgang Overath, Pierre Littbarski or Thomas Häßler played for the club are long gone now. After a couple of years in the second division, the FC, as the club is commonly called, is currently trying to establish itself in the Bundesliga again. These days, the fans put their high hopes in one of the most coveted players in Germany and Europe to leer at bigger goals. Local hero Lukas Podolski is considered to be the personification and the face of one of Germany’s most popular clubs.
The Rhein-Energie-Stadion was reopened in 2004 after a complete renovation of the former outdated Müngersdorfer Stadion. The 50,000 seater was awarded one of the best stadiums in the world by the International Olympic Committee in 2005 and hosted a couple of matches during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The stadium serves as the stage for many well-known singers and bands as well.
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Sausages, pretzels and roasts from the spit are the delicacies within the hallways of the Rhein-Energie-Stadion. On the drinks front, besides the usual beer, soda or coffee selection, you can enjoy a chai latte, if you want to call that a highlight. But if you’re looking for a more extraordinary food choice than the average Bundesliga range, there are a couple of vendors right before you walk through the turnstiles at the main stand. Bear in mind, you can’t pay with cash inside the stadium so you’ll have to get a so called justpayCard, pay a deposit and charge it.
The atmosphere in the Rhein-Energie-Stadion is considered to be one of the best in the league. In derby games against rivals Mönchengladbach or Leverkusen the diehard supporters on the southern terrace perform fan choreographies that are worth seeing before the match. Even during the many (not long gone) dark years in the second division, it was not unusual to sit or stand in the midst of 40,000+ spectators. And all those carnival songs let you sway back and forth anyway.
The stadium lies next to the sports department of the University of Cologne, surrounded by competition sites for various kinds of sports. The complex is encircled by residential areas and the city forest. Bars are in walking distance and the worth visiting city center with its famous cathedral is only a couple of stops away.
If you’re eager to enjoy a few drinks before the match, there are a couple of bars on the Aachener Straße around the tram stop "Alter Militärring". Those are still within walking distance to the stadium. Another opportunity provides the bar with the meaningful name "Doping" on the premises of the Sports University. From there, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the arena.
Well, the fans. Lighthearted and joyful are the most obvious terms to describe the people of the country’s carnival capital. On the one hand the football fans are taking themselves not too seriously but on the other, the supporters are lusting for an eager feeling of success. A journalist and FC-fan once compared his fellow supporters to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Always hoping, always waiting for deliverance. While the Witnesses aim for the apocalypse, the FC-fans hope and wait for a victory in the Champions League final, despite the fact that the club recently played numerous years in the second division and is still struggling to avoid yet another relegation. However, the fans are not waiting for that Champions League success like you would wait for a lottery win or true love. The fans are waiting for that Cup like you would wait for the bus. Always looking down at their watches.
But is there a better feeling than hope and anticipated pleasure?
The easiest way to get to the stadium is by tram. There is a direct line (the red No. 1) from the city center to the stadium’s stop "Rheinenergie-Stadion". With your match ticket you’re allowed to ride the tram for free. The football atmosphere will catch you as soon as you enter the tram as it is crowded by fans singing their way to the stadium. If you arrive by car, there are a couple of parking areas within walking distance north and south from the stadium. With prices under 5 Euros, parking doesn’t hurt your wallet. But try to arrive early as the Aachener Straße is the main connection between the city center and the autobahns. Hence, leaving your parking space after the game can easily challenge your patience.
You can buy tickets from 16 to 63 Euros although it is almost impossible to get your hands on one of the 16 Euro tickets for the standing terraces if you’re not a member of the club. Plan your trip with 30 to 50 Euros per ticket. This puts ticket prices above the Bundesliga average and makes the Rhein-Energie-Stadion one of the more expensive stadium experiences in the Bundesliga.
For the neutral spectator, a visit to a match of an unsteady team is always a bit of a risk. You probably won’t witness great football but if the team is having a good day or in derby matches, the lighthearted and cheerful atmosphere lets you sing along with those carnival songs easily. And if the team doesn’t do you the favor, still the best thing about visiting a FC-match is the hour before kick-off until the team steps on the pitch, like a well-known football commentator once said. Visiting a game around the festive carnival season will be a perfect prelude for later celebrations in the city irrespective of the result.
Sitting on the players’ benches, standing in the locker rooms or walking through the stadium hallways, the Rhein-Energie-Stadion offers tours through the arena’s underbelly and the club’s own museum. Among many exhibits from the bygone glorious days, the museum also holds the main character of one of the most tragic days in the history of the club. In 1965, after a goalless European Cup match between Köln and Liverpool, a coin had to decide which team would advance to the semi final. On a rainy night over a neutral ground in the Netherlands, the coin landed vertically in the mud of Rotterdam. The repeated coin toss denied Köln what presumably would have been the club’s biggest success.
Besides the museum, there are opportunities to host conferences, meetings or any other kinds of events and get-togethers in the stadium. The club maintains the relationship to their supporters not only through a diverse and above-average range in the world of social media, but also by providing fans who can’t undertake the journey to an away game, the opportunity to watch the match in the stadium’s restaurant.
The Rhein-Energie-Stadion is a beautiful and not too oversized football ground in one of Germany’s most visited cities. The fans are merry, the atmosphere is cheerful and the team, well, they are trying hard to meet the expectations. A visit to the stadium and the city can easily become a memorable experience. And if you can’t make it to Cologne to watch the FC this season, book a trip to London around May next year. Why London? Silly question. Wembley Stadium will be hosting the 2013 Champions League final.
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