My first glimpse of the 1. FC Köln

“Holy shit, G! I see ’em! They’re right there!”

I’d done quite a bit of prep work to get myself to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in order to cover the Florida Cup. In addition to years of obsessively following the Bundesliga, studying the game, and frequently writing about  it, I had to execute everything required of a business trip, the type of which I’d simply never before made.

What I didn’t prepare for . . . indeed, wasn’t even aware I’d need to prepare for . . . was my response to actually seeing, live and in person, the club colors on the players and staff. My relationship to them had, to this point, always distilled through the distance of a screen. While I have to be thankful to the internet for making it possible to become a fan and member of a club nine time zones away, I’m always well aware of the distance, especially when I’m hustling to get a mug of coffee to my desk before a 6:30 a.m. kick-off. The separation, clearly, has not hindered my passion for the red-and-white, but it also has necessarily prevented getting the full experience.

I will definitely never forget the first time I went to Tiger Stadium to see the Detroit Tigers. Same for when I went to Monday Night Football at the Pontiac Silverdome for my first Detroit Lions game. I also saw my first Detroit Pistons game at the Silverdome, against Magic Johnson-era Lakers, which was memorable, not only for the game, but for the fact some guy wore a Larry Bird jersey to the game and ended up taking an ass-kicking. My first Detroit Red Wings game was actually in Carolina and was an exhibition game. It was a great time, if not necessarily a top-flight hockey game.

But, those are the sorts of memories that serve as cornerstones of an adult sports fan. There is nothing entirely grown up about being a sports fan as an adult. Those who can’t hear about sports without telling you how they “can’t stand sports ball,” completely miss the point.

And, fine. Fuck them.

That said, I would have been a bit embarrassed to think that I, now well into middle-age with two children of my own, would instantly melt into that schoolboy mode of, “WOW! There are my heroes!”

Even at my most excited/irrational, I know better to think of athletes as heroes, but the visceral response was still 100% authentic.

I was meant to be at the Sunday morning training session, but after being unable to get to the site due to road closures for the Disney Marathon, Sunday became a day of nervous anticipation and slight concern that maybe my plotting and planning had not been quite enough to make this trip a full success. I attempted to keep my mind from spinning out of control with anxiety by doing some shopping and having lunch. I wanted to get postcards to send to my boys anyhow. Getting that done before practice would prevent me from being unable to do it later, should Peter Stöger later see me observing the players and realize that I was precisely what the club needed, in which case, Sunday evening might have turned into an all-night strategy talk.

Again, I had to be prepared for any and all possibilities, right?

When we arrived at the complex for the training session, this time, without navigation, traffic, and road-closure issues, I could feel myself about ready to bolt out of my Sanuks. Once parked, I quickly got out of the car and realized immediately that I had left my proper camera back at the apartment.

FUDGE!

There was not even a slight consideration at returning, even though we weren’t more than ten minutes from parking place to the front door. We still weren’t sure where the team was located within what seemed to be a fairly sizable complex, nor could we be 100% sure that we could announce ourselves as “press” and walk in, just like that.

Not that there seemed to be anyone who’d stop us. There were plenty of fences and security barriers. For all the excitement of a marathon earlier in the day, the place seemed in general disuse at the moment. Somehow, central Florida was unaware that one of the 18 clubs from Europe’s best football league, as well as the greatest football club in the world, was conducting training. This is all that could explain a fair lack of vehicles in the lot and of people roaming the area.

Either that, or we were in the wrong place.

There was one guy, though, sitting on a bench. I figured to ask him, just on the off-chance he’d have an idea where the 1. FC Köln might be. It turns out that he did know, and he helpfully gave fairly specific directions as to how to walk from where we stood to the football fields.

It turns out that it was not the most-direct route to where we wanted to go, but it worked. It probably wouldn’t have been the right thing to do to tell us civilians to walk straight through areas that would normally be off-limits to the public, even if there was nothing to prevent us from doing so.

I struggled to maintain a balance between wanting to run, even in my flip-flops, and wanting to stay within discussion-range of my colleague Gerry, who was certainly excited to be there, too, but more as a general fan of the sport and league, rather than as an avid club devotee.

And then, my view, which had been obscured by foliage, suddenly opened to reveal what I was never fully sure I’d actually see until I was actually seeing it.

Taken moments after my first sighting . . . and that was enough to get me going.

My pulse quickened and my face broke into a grin that likely remained at least until I finally fell asleep that night.

The walk from that end of the practice area to where we settled to actually start watching (along the fence near the corner of that yellow building) was a bit of a blur, honestly. I don’t think I ditched Gerry completely, but I can’t promise that I didn’t.

Then, there I was, watching the guys stretch under the guidance of a World Champion. I explained to Gerry that Yann-Benjamin Kugel was part of the German national team that won the title in Brazil over the summer, partially because, “Holy shit! We’re right here with the EffZeh, and right there is a guy who was part of the World Cup victor!”

Stretching never looked as awesome, even with my dodgy phone camera.

The more-practical part, though, was simply that I felt it my duty to be the ambassador for my colleague. Gerry knows more about the game than I will ever likely know, but when it comes to my club, I suddenly was the expert. Granted, any of the several German fans also attending the session could have schooled me in a minute on just about anything, but names and jobs I could handle capably enough.

After the stretching, it was time to get loose. I have no way of knowing, but I have to believe that the chosen exercise for warming up was greatly inspired by being in the United States and training on turf normally used for American football. Split into two sides, the guys threw the ol’ pigskin around, trying to move it upfield to eventually throw it into a small football goal.

Palm trees, American football, and the Effzeh . . .

One of the first things you notice about these men is that their competitive nature does not sequester itself to match days. If the were playing a strange mash-up of football, rugby, and football, then they all wanted to be on the winning side of it. That the point was simply to get everyone warmed up for what was to follow was never even considered.

The non-green team had just scored. It seems like Zolli’s team should have had to fetch the ball, not Finne’s.

 

Of course, being highly competitive doesn’t immediately deliver skills, and it was immediately clear these guys had spent their lives working on becoming world-class with their feet. It seems a fair chance that some of the guys probably have seen NFL football, at least a little bit, but without being taught how to throw a spiral and then practicing it, even just by playing as a kid, something I have taken for granted for a long time suddenly became a skill I had developed.

Simply put, this overweight, middle-aged high school football official could easily have out-thrown anyone on the squad.

When I took this, I knew what was happening. I’ve since forgotten.

But you’d be surprised at just how quickly these guys can adapt their athleticism and general understanding of sport and space to make themselves effective. Besides, we all learned in the back yard that a spiral may have been the best way to get accuracy and distance on your throws, but it wasn’t the only way to get the ball through the air.

And these guys all had the strength and speed to make it work.

Anthony Ujah started seeking space to run down the flank, inviting teammates to loft the ball over the opponents marked with green.

And, just so it’s not forgotten what gave us success early this season, it’s a little “park the bus.”

The defense, with such a small goal to defend, continually collapsed to form a wall when the ball came forward, but that was not the only tactic used to deter would-be scorers.

Wimmer was up to no good. Ujah was having none of it.

Kevin Wimmer, apparently bored with keeping tabs on Ujah and his attempts at opening paths with his speed, did what he does in Bundesliga matches: put a body on his mark. He eventually just put his hands on Ujah and wouldn’t let him escape, which meant that the battle of wills eventually was to have either the striker breaking free for another run or with Ujah on the turf.

Ujah went down. Both guys laughed.

Even with the competitiveness, it was clear the guys were having fun with the activity. They also seemed to genuinely get along quite well, which is a good team characteristic to have.

 

Wimmer was not the only one quite assertive with his size, though. Kevin Vogt was pretty physical with everything he did, both in attack and in defending. His presence was undeniable. By the end of the day, I found myself referring to him as “RoboVogt.” It was truly a joy to watch him work so intensely on his preparation and then, as if just flipping a switch, becoming completely affable once it was time for a break.

The Kevins are pretty hands-on? Well, that’s fine by us!

After coach Peter Stöger put an end to the fun warm-up, the guys moved from the football with which I grew up to the football I have come to adore.

AH! The kind of footballs on which you use your feet!

Before getting running, though, the guys executed a three-way passing drill which baffled both myself and Yuya Osako. Whatever the rhythm of it was meant to be was lost on both of us.

This kid is about to be a mega-star. I’m sure of it.

Proof that RoboVogt smiles and not only after scoring against Dortmund.

The passing the ball between three players isn’t a difficult notion, of course. But every so often, two of the three members of the triangle were meant to switch places while the third point held the ball.

Matzelinho and Risse with flawless execution.

While most of the trios were running the drill by rote, Osako continually found himself out of place, which found him standing and laughing at himself each time he became aware he was in error. Of course, once he’s laughing, others are laughing, too.

I think you had to be there.

Which I was.

Teaching Gerry the art of the “selfie.”

Once things got exciting with the end-to-end drill, I was reminded at how unhappy I was to have not remembered my camera. Though I continued to bash myself on the head for the error, it was pretty heavily outweighed by what I was seeing. It wasn’t a match, of course, nor was I surrounded by tens of thousands at the holy grounds of Müngersdorf, well lubricated with pre-match Kölsch, but I was within a few feet of the touch line as the guys worked.

It was amazing.

Everyone knows the offensive production is a chief concern. While the scrimmage ran, Stöger continually implored the guys to press at full speed.  As you can somewhat catch in the video I took, the blown chance at a wide-open mouth was not meant to be an opportunity for a pause to ruminate on what had happened. Coach wanted everyone to quickly return to action going the other way.

Though, he might also have been a bit angry at the finish, too. Hard to say.

Here, have a pic of Dominic Maroh, because it’s one of the few from my phone that turned out okay.

It wasn’t quite an eleven-on-eleven scrimmage, rather some sort of drill with guys hanging out on the flanks, unmarked, in order to simulate counter-attacks (in my super expertise honed over absolutely zero experience with the strategic part of the game . . . my football is a billion times less-impressive than the non-spirals the EffZeh guys had been throwing . . . but, please, still follow my blog?).

Thomas Bröker seemed in pretty good health, considering the assault he took from Ralf Fährmann.

ACTION!

FIRE!

I kept hearing “TONY!” from coach, who was standing maybe a dozen feet or so to my left, but I kept hearing it after action on either end.

Eventually, I came to realize that he was also yelling at “ZOLLI!”

And, by “yelling at,” I should clarify that I mean it was usually either “Gut!” or “Komm!” Stöger seems to be one to encourage. I never saw anything that remotely bordered on chiding. As much as I’d gotten an impression from press conferences and touch-line demeanor that he’s just a cool, calm, and collected customer, it was completely reinforced in Florida.

Stöger 4 LYFE!

Now, how about I take a page from coach and let some images do the talking for a little while. Don’t fret. I’ll be back.

It really was end-to-end action.

Keeping in mind my level of expertise, it seemed to me that only three players were in the back row when action came their way. I wouldn’t read much into it. It could simply have been the design and nature of the drill to put the defense in “scramble” mode, but because there had been all the chatter about 3-4-3, I noted it.

Jonas ran his ass off.

You also couldn’t help but notice just how far forward Pawel Olkowski would push. Box-to-box, whether a defender or midfielder.

Ujah had to stay outside the cones and await the ball before he could join.

Among the more-amusing moments of the drill was hearing Yannick Gerhardt implore a teammate, to whom he’d just delivered a pass, to simply run around his mark.

You know, as if everyone in the team were as fast as YG31.

Gerhardt wants everyone to simply run as fast as he would.

I was sometimes distracted by a baby nearby along the touch line, regaled in last year’s home kit. The child (oh man . . . Luka or Mika . . . I suck for forgetting.) working on becoming a toddler so he could eventually join his and his parents’ favorite club as a player.

When it was RoboVogt’s turn to be in the flank awaiting his role in a counter, he flashed a warm smile in the child’s father’s direction and reminded them to “keep an eye out, yeah?”

I just like this picture. I’ve become a disciple of RoboVogt.

At what was literally the last action of the practice session, Jonas Hector ended up on the ground and stayed down, indicating a problem with his left ankle. Considering some of the bad luck with injuries from summer preparations, I was immediately alarmed.

What happens here? I have no idea . . .

. . . but Jonas stayed down a bit afterwards.

It turned out to be needless concern, though . . . fortunately.

When it was clear that practice was finished, G and I wandered over to the path that would lead the players from the training ground to their awaiting chariots so they could be whisked away from work and back to their hotel, probably for bathing and eating. After all, if coach were going to invite me to join his staff, I needed to make myself visible to him.

What I struggled with was an overwhelming want to ask every player who walked by if they’d be willing to participate in a photo with me. I’m too old to be fawning over celebrities, though it’s quite clear that I’m not too mature for such things. I did feel a paternal duty to make sure I appeared in at least one photo with Ujah for my son, for whom “Ujah” is pretty much the only footballer of any real import. It would be nearly criminal to not at least send Owen a picture of me with his favorite athlete.

Then again, could I disappoint the segment of Planet #EffZeh back in Germany, several of whom had already tweeted back to me in response to my reporting from training that it was expected I’d have pictures of myself with players?

I once worked in a sporting arena where celebrities were an every day reality. While I still get a little goofy remembering casual backstage chats with R.E.M. members Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, I mostly learned that they’re all just people and that you do better by them treating them as such.

But it was really, really cool to talk food and baseball with Mike Mills. REALLY fucking cool! Thanks Mike!

Anyhow, Gerry knew that the young sports fan barely contained within me was itching to attack, armed with my mobile phone, ready to be like a teenager at a One Dimension autograph session.

Don’t even THINK about it!

Yet . . . I really didn’t like the idea of bothering the players. They just got done working pretty hard. Shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy the relative anonymity of being in a country that wrongfully ignores the Bundesliga, by and large?

Yes, they probably should, but there’s Simon Zoller and quick prodding me in the back, Gerry!

The first of what turned out to be several over the week, though I did not complete a full-team collection.

It must have been clear I was never going to do it, so Gerry sprung into action and did the asking. Whatever it cost Zoller in energy, he seemed completely happy to oblige.

Or, at least he didn’t seem annoyed. That often passes for happy with me, I suppose.

If Gerry hadn’t asked I probably wouldn’t have ever gotten any pics with players, but once the seal was broken, I figured it was probably appropriated to introduce myself to Tobias Kaufmann and Maurice Sonneveld.

Kaufmann is Media and Communications Director for the club. He was kind enough to make sure I had the club schedule, treating me like a member of the working press, even though he knew I was also an unabashed fan. Without his help, I’d not have arrived to Florida without a clue as to what was happening when.

Sonneveld is the self-described “internet guy” for the club. He’s insanely humble about what he’s accomplished since taking on his role with 1. FC Köln. He’s the brains behind the Twitter hashtag we all use to talk #effzeh on that social-media channel. And now the club is again winning praise in the internet industry for their FC-Connect initiative.

Maurice is, in my book, an utter fucking rock star.

And I thought that even before he offered to arrange an brief interview for me with a player (guess who I immediately suggested . . . guy who speaks English, maybe? Happens to be the biggest non-cartoon celebrity in my house?)

So, I repeat here what I hope I said a thousand times to each of those two: THANK YOU!

Looking back, what started as a frustrating day turned out to be one to remember fondly, not only as the start of a brilliant week of being incredibly close to my club and the Florida Cup, but also as an unforgettable experience.

And that was just a few hours on Sunday!

 

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