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Cologne fans descend on London for return to European football

Cologne couldn't have picked a bigger game to mark their return to European football - Arsenal away. DW's Matt Ford spent an eventful day in London with the traveling Bundesliga fans.

For Cologne's trip to London, trains, planes and automobiles didn't cover it. The traveling red-and-white army commandeered ferries and buses too, as 20,000 supporters applied for tickets for the club's first European game in 25 years.

The city of Cologne has been in a state of delirium ever since the club secured qualification to the Europa League on the final home game of last season. Not even the worst start to a Bundesliga campaign in 14 years stopped the fans from being loud and proud.

But according to UEFA regulations, home clubs are only obliged to offer visiting teams five per cent of the stadium capacity - in this case a paltry 2,900 tickets at the Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. That was nowhere near enough to satisfy demand.

If Europa League euphoria in Cologne was reaching new levels, qualification for Europe's second tier competition is considered failure in North London. Under coach Arsene Wenger, Arsenal had qualified for the Champions League for 19 consecutive years until last season.

Consequently, and despite reduced ticked prices, large sections of the Emirates had remained unsold. Cologne sent a delegation to London to negotiate a higher ticket allocation and reduce the number of German fans purchasing tickets in the home sections.

But Arsenal refused and the consequences of that decision would soon become clear.

Read more: Stop blaming Cologne fans for others' mistakes

UEFA Europa League 2017/18 | FC Arsenal vs. 1. FC Köln | Sicherheit, Fans (Reuters/Action Images/J. Sibley)

Chaos descended as the game was delayed by an hour

London calling

Meanwhile, Cologne fans were arriving in London. Many had been in the capital the day before and had watched Borussia Dortmund, with whom some Cologne fans share a fan friendship. Others had arrived as early as Monday and watched two other London clubs (West Ham United or Charlton Athletic) in action.

In their discussions with Arsenal, Cologne had predicted that 10,000 fans would make the trip - an estimation that soon became hugely conservative. From the Houses of Parliament to Oxford Street to the London Underground, Cologne fans were everywhere.

They'd brought countless crates of Kölsch beer (Cologne's most popular beer) and their carnival music too. They would have brought their cathedral if they could have packed it. On Highbury Fields, a 15-minute walk from the Emirates, they drank in the sun and waved their flags - many featuring the gold stars of the European Union.

"We are from Cologne, we are from Germany but we are also from Europe," Dimi and Max told DW. "We feel like this is more than just a football match; we want to show the English that we want to all work together." Clearly, Brexit is on the Germans' minds too. 

Outside the away end

Three hours before kick-off, accompanied by a loose police escort and led by vocal ultras, the Cologne fans made their way boisterously but peacefully towards the stadium. Upon arrival, the march was halted as police and stewards decided how to filter out the 2,900 fans with tickets from the 17,000 without.

When the ultras were permitted to approach the entrance, a small number surged forward and attempted to storm the turnstiles. Barriers were knocked over in the crush and police drew batons. A handful of fans were arrested, one was escorted away with a badly bloodied face. With thousands of Cologne fans still being held on the bridge and with the rain beginning to fall, the decision was taken to postpone kickoff by one hour.

Eventually, when the turnstiles were opened again, Cologne supporters made their way calmly into the ground - both into the official away end and the neighboring blocks. Arsenal's famous Clock End became a temporary Südkurve (south stand - Cologne's most famous stand in their stadium) and the segregation between the two sets of fans was non-existent. Not that it posed a problem, as the two sets of fans mingled peacefully in the stadium concourses, exchanging songs and chants.

Game time

The noise created by the traveling contingent was deafening. Arsenal were jeered when in possession while every touch of the ball by a Cologne player was greeted with huge roars - but that was nothing compared to what happened just nine minutes in when Jhon Cordoba lobbed the ball over the retreating David Ospina from 40 yards.

After five relegations and near bankruptcy in the past 25 years, just being here was beyond many Cologne fans' dreams. But leading at the Emirates was something else altogether. Arsenal coach Wenger admitted afterwards his team were shocked by the early setback but the hosts slowly regained their composure and turned the game around with three second-half goals.

Cologne coach Peter Stöger said "the better team won in the end", but declined to comment on the prematch incidents, much to the displeasure of the English journalists who appeared shocked by the Cologne fans.

But such intense, fanatic support has long been priced out of the expensive and inaccessible English game. Apart from the incidents at the turnstiles, the picture painted by the British media of "fear and fire" (Daily Mail), "Eurotrash" (Daily Mirror) and "Chaos" (The I) was a complete exaggeration.

Cologne might have made a poor start to their Bundesliga campaign but their loyal supporters thoroughly deserve their Europa League trips. Their city stands for vibrancy, color, humor and friendliness - and that's precisely what the majority of Cologne fans brought to London.

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