Germany booked their ticket to EURO 2020, but are struggling to sell tickets to supporters. Empty seats were evident again in Mönchengladbach with fans complaining of too much marketing and inflated prices.
It was a joke that quickly did the rounds in the stadium: Had the German FA (DFB) hired their own brass band to try and create some atmosphere at the Borussia-Park?
After 30 goal less minutes, the musicians in the north stand had garnered plenty of attention for their efforts. Whenever there little happening out on the pitch, the band would drum up the decibel level, but for a long time it struggled to spark the crowd into action.
The small band didn't have it easy though, as only 33,164 fans made it out to Mönchengladbach on a cold November evening to see Germany take on Belarus in EURO 2020 qualifying. At least, that was the number given by the stadium announcer - it felt like less. For international games, the Borussia-Park can hold 46,000 fans. After a spell of below-par performances, those who braved the chilly temperatures were rewarded with a strong outing that saw Joachim Löw's charges clinch qualification for EURO 2020 with a 4-0 win.
The empty seats throw up the question: Are Germany, the four-time World Cup champions, no longer a big enough attraction for the fans? A trip to Mönchengladbach provided some answers: the un-family-friendly kickoff time (20:45 CET), the price of tickets and a low-ranking opponent all had an impact that resulted in plenty of the grey-shelled seats remaining unoccupied.
Some of those in attendance were even there by chance, such as Marcel and Josefine, who talked openly to DW having made the hour-long trip from Gelsenkirchen.
"We won the tickets in a competition on Instagram - otherwise we wouldn't have come," said Josefine.
The four goals they saw were nice, otherwise it wasn't an overly emotional affair for either.
"The atmosphere was a bit sad," said Marcel. A subjective stance perhaps, as in the second half at least, there was a little more action in the stands. After Germany went 3-0 up through Toni Kroos, the Mexican Wave began sweeping around the stadium - a rare sight at recent international encounters.
There's been a disconnect between the German national team and the fans in recent years that was clear for all to see again in Mönchengladbach. It's a feeling of alienation, which it seems, is self-inflicted. The extensive and sometimes artificial marketing acitivites generated by the national team have long been a bone of contention for fans.
Sometimes it hashtags that are intended to be used by sponsors instead of the team. Sometimes it's the actions of those sponsored, perceived as ingenuine, that irritate the "national team fan club."
The new DFB jersey, which can be bought for the proud price of €130 ($144), has fans scratching their heads.
"That's a lot of money," said Hans, who had traveled from Hamburg to see the national team in the flesh again. "When you then add that to the price of going to the stadium, the ticket and food and drink - it's expensive."
Boycott by the Gladbach fan scene
It was telling that the major fan groups from the city made themselves scarce for the game - a clear statement from Mönchegladbach's fan scene. Supporter's club FPMG, which runs the club house and information booth behind the north stand for their Bundesliga team's home matches, had no offerings for fans on the evening.
"The fan scene in Mönchengladbach is not willing to support the schemes of the DFB and the commercialism engulfing our national team. Artificial products such as the rebranding of Die Mannschaft or the compulsory membership for the so-called Fanclub Nationalmannschaft, required to obtain tickets are offensive to long-term fans," the supporters club announced on their homepage.
Fanhilfe Mönchengladbach, who make emergency telephones available to supporters, turned down the opportunity. Instead, the group hung a banner on the stadium outer fence that read: "Stop corrupt associations" - an unmistakeable gesture aimed at the DFB, which doesn't have the best of reputations among German ultra groups.
The phenomenon of under-attended matches is not exclusive to Mönchengladbach though. Just take a look at the match that took place in Dortmund in October. Argentina were in town and, while Lionel Messi was not in tow, their squad boasts star names that normally would have been enough to bring attract fans in their droves. With just 44,000 fans in attendance, the Signal Iduna Park was half empty on that night. On other occassions the DFB have opted for the safety of smaller stadiums.
Bierhoff admits errors
"We're not covering ourselves in glory," said Oliver Bierhoff earlier this week. For just over a year, Bierhoff has held the title "director of the national team and academy," which sounds more reminiscent of an authoritive role than that of a privileged job in professional football. Bierhoff also admitted that mistakes had been made when it comes to the marketing efforts.
"We may have gone a bit overboard. We may have over-emphasized, which is why we've taken it so seriously since," he said.
It also worth taking into account the social media scandals revolving around Mesut ÖzilandIlkay Gündogan, not to mention the at times catastrophic impact of the DFB leadership's handling of President Reinhard Grindel's resignation. Those situations have also left their mark on the relationship between the fans and the DFB. A brass band and a few goals alone aren't going to be enough to paper over the cracks.