Infamous Army

“I don’t know whether my men frighten the enemy…” the Duke of Wellington is reported to have said “…but they certainly frighten me.”

I am sitting on a train heading into Dortmund. Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund’s managing director, may well share the Iron Duke’s opinion. Over 80,000 people are heading to the stadium for today’s game against Cologne and not all of them are good guys.

Things are going well for Dortmund, thanks for asking. We now have a suspect in the bombing case. It turns out that the guy who tried to kill our team by blowing up the bus is not an Islamic jihadist, nor is he an incensed fascist. Crucially, also not a hooligan wishing to strike a blow in the name of our rivals. This would have started a very nasty turf war –either that or stoked the fires of one of our existing feuds. Like I say, we are not all good who follow this club.

No, the apparent motive was to make a quick profit by short-selling shares in the club after murdering its most valuable asset, thus sinking the club’s stock price. If that makes sense to you. It makes no sense to me. If only hope that if he really does think so clinically that he sees none of the more humane side of human nature — traits such as mercy and compassion — for a very long time.

On the football field, we are on a roll. Since the blast we have been firing at will against opposition defences. Frankfurt and Moenchengladbach picked the ball out of the net three times each but no win was sweeter than away to Munich.

We went down there in the cup semi-final. It was always going to be close and after 70 minutes the game descended into a strange kind of nonaggression pact. It was then that our French midfielder Ousmane Dembélé saw no sense in shadow boxing and threw the sucker punch. Munich did not get back up. Munich 2 Dortmund 3. In three weeks’ time we will travel to Berlin to play in the final.

On the train the mood is good. It is some three-quarters of an hour until lunchtime and most of the fans in the carriage are drinking beer. My eye settles on a dark-haired girl in her early twenties wearing bright yellow trainers and sitting on her boyfriend’s lap. She has a bottle of in each of her hands, he has a butt cheek in each of his. In Paris or Milan this would be considered unladylike but in Dortmund a girl like this is a prize.

Everyone is there at the game. The Chief is organising supply lines for the troops from the beer stand to the battlefront. The Sarge has a new war wound, the result of a miscalculation involving several glasses of beer and the step in a pub doorway. There are Scots in kilts, Hungarians with clinking bottles, tough-looking Poles, Irish, Norwegians, Swiss, Japanese in karate headbands, Englishmen with accents.

Accents are one of the things I miss most about living in the UK. Germans have them too of course, the sing-song of the Rhineland, the clipped vowels of the Ruhr, melancholic Saxony, the Bavarians with their own version of a southern drawl. But I miss British accents. Not what foreigners call a British accent you understand. I can listen to Benedict Cumberbatch or Stephen Fry any time I like. But real British accents: Lancashire burr, Yorkshire twang, Geordie lilt, West Country hum. I don’t get to hear them every day and sometimes that makes me sad.

There are British accents aplenty whenever Dortmund play. Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Norwich, Telford, Dundee. The Lakes, the Valleys, the Borders. At least four categories of Yorkshire brogue, although I know full well that the White Rose County has infinitely more dialects than that.

Before the game I swap stickers with a guy from Sheffield: I think I’ve told you before that football fans are sometimes a little eccentric. Hundreds of them make the journey from the UK every weekend to be here and most of them are repeat bookers. The guy from Sheffield has been coming for two decades now.

We are a truly international community. There are even some Germans here. Wearing the black and yellow of Borussia Dortmund we are one nation under God. “God” wears the number seven shirt and answers to the name of Ousmane Dembélé.

Wellington would have approved. When it came to recruiting then he wasn’t too fussy about where his men came from. Of the “infamous army” that took the field at Waterloo less than half of the troops were British –and even 6,000 of them were German, drawn to Britain by dynastic ties and the prospect of a pay day. Long before the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, soldiers understood the importance of free movement of labour. Most of the great armies of Wellington’s day were formed in this way: Patriotism is nice but business is business.

So it is with modern-day players of course. Mercenaries, so they are called. Around half of Dortmund’s team are German, depending on how you define that particular adjective. Incest is another feature of modern football, particular in Germany: At least two of Cologne’s players have previously been at Dortmund. The fans of the two clubs also become similarly incestuous and the groups have signed a friendship pact. In the visitors’ block fans fly our black-and-yellow, in the home block fans fly the red-and-white of Cologne.

It stays friendly on the pitch, too. Both sets of fans cheer Cologne defender Neven Subotić when his name is read out. A Bosnian Serb who fled to Germany as a child to avoid the war in Yugoslavia, his football career took off in America before he returned here when he got a professional contract with a German club.  He speaks Serbian, German and English fluenty and holds Serbian and American passports.

At 28 years of age he is a man of the world, a veteran by football’s standards. Subotić won two league titles and a national cup while at Dortmund and is still hugely popular with the fans. His defensive skills were seen as crucial to the team’s success during his years here. The fact that he has lost none of his ability and does his job particularly well today is easily forgiven by the home crowd. “Mercenary” is a negative word but it need not be so.

There is no way past him. Dortmund have the ball in the net after fourteen minutes; a Gabonese foot connecting with a Japanese through ball, but it is ruled out for offside. Subotic nearly turns the ball into his own net by mistake but a teammate blocks and saves his blushes. And as for God in the number seven shirt? Well on the seventh day God rested. He is left on the substitutes’ bench during the first half in order to recover from his miracle-working in Munich. When he comes on in the second, it is too late for his magic. A rolling juggernaut has been stopped. Dortmund 0 Cologne 0.

The fans are happy. As the home team trudge off looking physically exhausted, Dortmund’s infamous army chant the name: “Neven Subotić!” and wave him over to their block. The other players have long since walked off down the tunnel.

The journeyman Serb is alone in the middle of the pitch, a servant to many and a traitor to none. He applauds the crowd, returned for a brief moment to his adoring family.

For one precious moment are all black and yellow. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.


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One thought on “Infamous Army

  1. Sounds more like a foreign legion (or if you prefer – Legion Etrangere). The French used to have a natty line in headwear in that context.


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