This article was brought to you by Halb Vier as part of The Away End. Inspired by the resurgence of print based football magazines, Halb Vier is a new fanzine focussing on the joys of German football, be it the stadiums, the fans, the beer or the even the action on the pitch.
On 27th June, Fortuna Düsseldorf had their fate in their own hands. An away win at Union Berlin would have seen Uwe Rösler’s outfit live to fight another day in a play-off against the team finishing third in the 2. Bundesliga, with a Bundesliga spot at stake. Fortuna, however, put in a dismal performance and were beaten 3-0 in the capital. And yet, they could have been rescued. Fellow play-off hopefuls Werder Bremen needed a home win. They hadn’t managed one in the Bundesliga for nearly ten months. In fact, they had scored the grand total of league one goal at their Weserstadion in all of 2020. Then, FC Köln came along.
The Cologne outfit had only pride to play for. To put it lightly, they seemed in no mood to help their local rivals from Düsseldorf. Werder cruised to a 6-1 victory and ended up securing their top-flight status by seeing off Heidenheim in the play-off. Fortuna Düsseldorf, however, were down and couldn’t really complain after their horror show at Union. They would have been naïve to expect much from FC Köln, anyway. The two cities and their football clubs have been at odds with each other for longer than anyone cares to remember. This is the story of how a city rivalry spilt onto the football field!
Unmistakable. The minute you set foot outside Cologne’s main train station, it’s impossible not to see the gigantic cathedral, the Kölner Dom. It stands over 500 feet tall and is one of Germany’s most-loved tourist hotspots, attracting over six million visitors a year (in non-Covid times, that is). It’s easy to see why – it’s literally on the station’s doorstep, going inside is free, and there’s usually no line to enter the building, which is decorated in stunning fashion. The giant medieval church serves as evidence of Cologne’s massive role in European cultural history. Düsseldorf cannot boast such significance throughout the ages. As the name gives away (Dorf is German for ‘village’), the modern-day metropolis was a rather modest place until the 19th century, but the city’s growth since then has been spectacular and Düsseldorf and Cologne, both located on the banks of the Rhine, are now worthy competitors for each other.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia can stake a very good claim when it comes to Europe’s most football-mad area. Their representatives in the top three tiers of German football can host half a million raucous spectators in some of world football’s finest football arenas. Storied football clubs are ten a penny here. Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen all have experience playing in European finals. Other powerhouses (past or present) include MSV Duisburg, VfL Bochum, Arminia Bielefeld, RW Essen, Alemannia Aachen and, of course, Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Köln. Regional trains are sights to behold on a Saturday, football supporters wearing blue, yellow, red or white nursing large bottles of beer en route to following their team home or away. ‘The land of a thousand derbies’, as a nickname for the area goes.
Every club will have friendly ties with one other side and a rather more frosty relationship with many others. For example, there’s no love lost between Fortuna and nearby MSV Duisburg, with whom they consist the Straßenbahn-Derby (tram derby), a fixture named after the tram line connecting the two cities. Köln have other things to worry about, too. The most heated rivalry is probably the one contested with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Recently, a Gladbach supporter gained nationwide fame when he appeared on Gefragt – Gejagt, the German version of the popular ITV game show The Chase. He was asked for the winner of the 2. Bundesliga in the 2018-19 season – FC Köln. The supporter couldn’t bring himself to say the name of his team’s hated rivals, not even with the €500 reward for a correct answer in mind. It only goes to show that North Rhine-Westphalia isn’t exactly short on local feuds, but the one between FC Köln and Fortuna Düsseldorf stands out because of the underlying city rivalry. Matters here are serious: you will not be able to find a traffic sign anywhere in Cologne directing you to Düsseldorf. The city council’s reaction? “Well, nobody is missing them.”
Both sets of fans seem to agree on where the feud originates from. Most people will point to the Battle of Worringen in 1288. The power of the mighty Cologne took a hit, and Düsseldorf obtained city rights a few months later. Historian Eva Schlotheuber is quick to dismiss the idea of a proper rivalry as early as the 13th century, stating that Cologne’s dominance wasn’t seriously challenged at that point. It did, however, sow the seeds of animosity for the following centuries. Düsseldorf grew steadily and struck a big blow in 1946 when it was elected the capital city of North Rhine-Westphalia. These days, both cities have their selling points. Cologne is still the larger city and boasts the stunning Dom. Düsseldorf is the state’s hub for literature and has the Königsallee, an upmarket shopping street unrivalled in all of Germany. So, how did the football clubs develop their rivalry? Time to find out more on two clubs boasting a vast fanbase, but a rather more modestly filled trophy cabinet.
Someone particularly qualified to answer that question is Michael Bolten. The Düsseldorf-born author wrote a truly stunning book to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his beloved Fortuna. “I had a fascinating conversation with Annette Fimpeler in Düsseldorf’s maritime museum. She wrote a book on the relationship between the two cities and showed me how traffic at sea came about. For centuries, these cities could co-habit without getting in each other’s way. Then, economic competition started a sense of animosity. Cologne has always been the bigger city. It still is, with more inhabitants, and Düsseldorf used to be pretty irrelevant, except for the booming art scene. Cologne, on the other hand, had the cathedral, had everything. From the 19th century onwards, Düsseldorf started to make more of a name for itself. There isn’t really a turning point, except for maybe when Düsseldorf was chosen as North Rhine- Westphalia’s capital. Düsseldorf grew into a worthy competitor for Cologne. Not just in football, also in ice hockey: the two cities boasted the nation’s dominant forces in that sport for a while.”
So is the footballing rivalry a logical consequence of the city battle? “Well, there’s an element of folklore to it”, Bolten says. “Fortuna was already a successful team before FC Köln even existed. Köln were not founded until 1948, and Düsseldorf were clearly in the ascendancy. Initially, the clubs got along. From the 1970s, things turned a bit sour. The derby hasn’t been played all that often as the two clubs have not always been in the same league, yet you’ll find kids who have never been to a derby shouting things like Tod und Hass der FCK (‘death and hatred to FCK’)…but I wouldn’t say it’s got worse over the years. You know, I’m a bit older – I first used to go to the home games in the 1970s. I saw some ugly scenes – people beating each other up with bicycle chains, it was pretty heavy. The hooligan scene had its heyday during the eighties. People launched bottles at each other. Irrational brutality, if you ask me.”
Thankfully, Bolten hastens to add, some people do also manage to see the funny side. “Have you heard of Halbangst, a band from Düsseldorf? Following promotion in 2012, they re-wrote the lyrics for Verdammt Lang Her, a song by BAP (a famous group from Cologne) and changed the title to Jetzt Simmer Hier (’Now We’re Here’). It ends with a flash mob of Fortuna fans singing along in front of the Kölner Dom. That’s just funny, and definitely better than throwing bricks or something. It’s not that I’m too old for that now, I never liked that in the first place.”
Thomas Reinscheid, the chief editor of FC Köln fansite Effzeh (the local way of saying FC), is happy to go along with the idea of the city rivalry interfering in football. “For sure, the largest part of the rivalry comes from the historical feud between the two cities on a cultural, economic and sporting level. But we need to stress that we are not overly fussed with Düsseldorf being elected state capital, they had their reasons to do so back then. We have plenty of worries of our own! The two sides have locked horns on the pitch often enough for it to be considered a proper rivalry. Its peak came in the late 1970s when Fortuna were particularly strong in the cup. Apart from that era, the teams were often a mismatch with FC Köln being more ambitious and successful most of the time. That’s why the ice hockey rivalry tends to be more serious: it’s more even, and the two clubs were leading the way nationwide for a long time. For us, the derby with Borussia Mönchengladbach is probably the game of the season. But don’t get me wrong, games against Düsseldorf truly do matter. We just don’t show it with all sorts of practical jokes. As FC Köln fans, we don’t define ourselves by who we dislike as much as fans of other clubs apparently do. We do make an exception for Carnival, mind you. Düsseldorf is a Forbidden City during those days.”
The most high-profile games between these two have been cup finals. Neither of the Rhine giants has made it to a DFB-Pokal final since 1991. In the 1970s, however, their appearance in one of the showpieces of the German football calendar was common. In 1978 and 1980, the two sides contested the cup final in Schalke 04’s old Parkstadion home. The outcomes were perfectly balanced: Köln lifted the trophy in ‘78, with Düsseldorf gaining revenge two years later. Michael Bolten attended one of the finals, but sadly for him, he saw his side lose that day and didn’t attend the game in 1980. Thomas Reinscheid is too young to have been at those games.
So, what would their favourite derby be? Bolten: “There was an important away win in 1981, which meant we’d stay up, so that was a good day. Apart from that, I have to admit that my favourite days following Fortuna have come in other fixtures.” Reinscheid expresses similar sentiments. “A favourite derby game is hard to mark because I can’t remember too many of them. I do have pleasant memories from when Köln won 3-2 away in Düsseldorf in 2013, as well as a 3-0 home win on the opening day in 1996. Sunday Oliseh scored a beauty.”
What will the future bring for this rivalry? Reinscheid: “The future will depend on how both clubs develop themselves. Derbies have been few and far between for a long time. That’s one of the reasons why playing Leverkusen and Mönchengladbach is more important to us, both on and off the field. And if I’m honest, I can’t see that changing soon.” At this moment in time, you’d back Köln to finally establish themselves as a Bundesliga team again, having spent the current century as a yo-yo team (or Fahrstuhlmannschaft, the beautiful German equivalent).
The picture in Düsseldorf is rather more blurry after this summer’s relegation. Even Bolten, a man exceptionally well-qualified to speak about the club, is in the dark on what’s next. “Couldn’t you ask me anything easier?”, he says in a tone betraying at least some level of genuine indignation. “It’s not easy to say because, at this point, I could just about tell you five players’ names for next season. They could be near the top, but they could just as well be fighting relegation once more. I can only hope to see a couple more wins!” That should not be a problem. A club the size of Fortuna, however, should not be lingering in the second tier. Düsseldorf is easily big and economically strong enough to support a Bundesliga team. For this derby to truly ignite, it will need the two teams playing in the same league for a few years. We can only hope it’ll be in the Bundesliga.