For the past five years, a scrappy fan-focused soccer magazine has been winning hearts in Germany. A year before the World Cup, "11 Freunde" is the resounding fan favorite -- and publishers are starting to notice.
The two friends behind "11 Friends"
Born out of the friendship of two crazed soccer fans who met on the grandstand of the Bielefeld stadium, it's no surprise 11 Freunde (11 Friends) reads more like a love letter than a typical sports magazine.
Instead of news from the transfer market, player ratings and dispassionate post-match analysis, the magazine offers odes to famous teams and goals of the century and is full of ironic -- sometimes biting -- commentary on the state of the game.
"It's a misconception that a game only lasts 90 minutes," said Phillip Köster (above photo, right), the magazine's co-founder and editor-in-chief. "In reality, it lasts much longer than that for many of the fans."
The needs of the "greater soccer movement"
When Köster, 33, started the magazine with Reinaldo Coddou (photo, left), a fellow Arminia Bielefeld fan, in 2000, they wanted to create a fanzine along the lines of England's When Saturday Comes, that would resonate with fans across Germany.
After teetering on the brink of bankruptcy through the media crisis of three years ago, 11 Freunde has evolved into a clear fan favorite, boasting a circulation of 75,000 and a subscriber list of around 13,000.
A recent issue carries a cover which appeals to fans to "Get the Game Back!"
Others are starting to notice. Olympia Verlag, which puts out the German soccer news bible Kicker every week, debuted a soccer culture magazine this week called RUND (Round). Like 11 Freunde, it's written and edited by journalists who used to publish fanzines. Unlike 11 Freunde's smooth paper publication with a retro-look layout, RUND is glossy and slick and says it is looking to reach a broader cross-section of fans.
"We don't want to reach niches, but the greater soccer movement in this country," said RUND's editor-in-chief Rainer Schäfer, who used to edit the FC St. Pauli fan magazine Viertel vor Fünf (A quarter to five) in Hamburg. "There are apparently one million Germans who want more information on soccer and there are very few titles out there."
Indeed, most German soccer fans pick up Kicker, which typically features shorter news articles, match reports, player profiles and ratings and insider information. Sport Bild, a subsidiary product of Germany's biggest tabloid, offers lighter features and game reports.
There have been attempts to create something as lasting as When Saturday Comes before in Germany. The most recent, Hattrick, folded in the late 1990s because it lacked the power of a publishing house behind it.
Written by fans, but not necessarily only for fans
11 Freunde was threatened with the same fate before Cologne-based publisher Intro Verlag, impressed by the small magazine's steadily growing subscriber rate, offered to market it in 2003. The change was visible in the next issue, which doubled in size thanks to big ads from companies like Postbank and Puma.
"Before that we were perpetually just short of closing down. We had thousands of euros in debt," said Köster. "But because we had 3,000 subscribers we couldn't just shut it down."
The new-found muscle has had its positives and its negatives, admits Köster. As his small publication has grown and gained in relevance in Germany's soccer community, some of the bite -- and the traditional fan's lament that soccer has become too commercialized -- has been taken out.
Fans wary of increasing commercialization
"We have a certain relevance now," said Köster, pointing to the letter from the president of the soccer club 1. FC Cologne hanging in his office. "Which is not always great."
Still, given the choice between insolvency and a slightly more commercial tilt, Köster says he and Coddou decided to choose the latter. They moved from a small office in Berlin's working class Kreuzberg neighborhood to breezy, light-filled split-level digs in a quiet neighborhood near the city center a year ago. Rather than write all the articles himself using a pseudonym, as he did for the first two years, Köster now has a small staff and freelancers to relieve the burden.
Fans remain supporters of the magazine, even if it has undergone a slight transformation.
"Many people have complained that it's gotten too commercial," said Johannes Stender, fan of the 1. FC Kaiserslautern soccer club and editor of the team's fanzine. But he remains a subscriber and pointed to a recent issue with a cover story offering fans tips on how to reclaim the game.
"The topics are not just fan topics, but involve the entire game," he said.
The deeper fan
In the coming Bundesliga season, 11 Freunde plans to run a half-hour television show on pay TV channel Premiere, which will be hosted by actor Peter Lohmeyer. Outside of that, Köster hopes the magazine will stay just the way it is and continue to offer the average fan a chance to think a bit deeper.
"We are doing this magazine for people like us," he said. "People who are aware of their position as a fan, who reflect on it and ask why they're fans."