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Bundesliga: Your complete guide to becoming a football fan in Germany

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Bundesliga: Your complete guide to becoming a football fan in Germany
Bayer Leverkusen celebrates with its fans after beating SC Paderborn on Saturday. Photo: DPA
12:34 CEST+02:00
If you're not following Germany's top football league, you're missing out on a big part of Deutsche Kultur. Follow our seven-step guide to find a German club that will get you cheering.
If you're a football fan, living in Germany presents the chance to live not only in another country, but to be a part of another football culture.
 
And as an American, it's the chance for me to experience a top-flight men's football league. (The US has terrific women's football, thank you.)
 
Now's the perfect time to dig in, as the new Bundesliga (as the German league is known) season kicked off last weekend and will stretch on through May. Will Bayern Munich win an eighth consecutive title?

Alas, Berlin, where I'm living, doesn't really feel like a football mecca -- though this season will test that. For the first time since 1977, this year will bring a Berlin derby to the Bundesliga, as league regulars Hertha Berlin take on upstarts FC Union Berlin in their first-ever run in the top division. 

READ ALSO: Inside the world of the east Berlin club that rallies against commercialization

FC Union Berlin greet fans in their stadium 'An der Alten Försterei' on August 18th. Photo: DPA

(A few years ago, Berliner Morgenpost put out a map showing where Hertha members and Union members live. It looks rather like a map of the Berlin Wall.)

Before coming here, I knew a few things about German football: the successes of its national team, the perennial dominance of Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga's low ticket prices and teams' ownership by their fans. And as an Arsenal supporter, I've cheered on German players like Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski.

But now that I'm here in the land of Bundesliga, I want to go deeper. 

Here's my plan.

Read up on the history.

I've just finished reading Tor! The Story of German Football by Uli Hesse, and I can't recommend it more highly. I've been regaling friends who have little interest in football with anecdotes and history from this book for the past week, and I don't intend to stop anytime soon.

Hesse artfully tells the tale of football in Germany as it collides with the country's political history time and again. If you want to know what the Bundesliga's storied clubs were doing during the Nazi era or the Cold War, or how Germany won the 1954 World Cup almost a decade before it had a national professional football league, or why German clubs have odd names, read this book.

Pick a team to follow.

A good bet is the team that's closest to where you live. But you'll also want to read up on the history of the team and see if their story is one you're into, and talk to Germans about what the team represents to them.

For instance, BFC Dynamo in Berlin now plays in a regional league, but they were associated with the Stasi when they played in the GDR's top-level Oberliga.

One contentious club is RB Leipzig, the team that has rocketed to the Bundesliga from the fifth tier just a few years ago. But this has been accomplished with big money from energy drink company Red Bull, and many see the team's corporate-funded ascent as a threat to the long-standing character of German football. 

Leipzig's Emil Forsberg (l) and Willi Orban cheer for Forsberg's 2-1 goal in April. Did they get too much of a boost from Red Bull? Photo: DPA

In Sunday's season opener between Leipzig and Union Berlin, Union supporters waged a silent protest of Leipzig for the first 15 minutes of the match. Union lost the match 0-4, but its fans had made their point.

Don't have a team you like nearby? Pick a club in a city you'd like to visit. It never hurts to combine match days with vacation days. 

Find a neighborhood Kneipe to watch matches.

Part of the joy of football is drinking beer with strangers watching football most anywhere in the world.

And on a match day, a good way to get into the spirit of the league and its supporters is to find a good football bar. Any pub with a television may be a Bundesliga bar -- though it may broadcast the Turkish Süper Lig or another European league instead. When the weather is nice, these places often set long tables and a giant TV outside for onlookers.

Here are a few Kneipen zum Fußball gucken I plan to scout in Berlin: Weisse Taube in Kreuzberg, Bretterbude in Friedrichshain (a Bayern Munich bar), and Sportsbar Tor 133 in Mitte.

Go to a match.

This part can be tricky, depending on the team. 

With a small stadium and fervent fan support, Union Berlin doesn't even have a place to buy home game tickets on its website  -- instead it directs you to the secondary market or the team's away games. This is your chance to visit Augsburg or Leverkusen! Similarly, the only tickets available on Bayern's website are for its second division team.

But other teams are easier to watch. Hertha Berlin plays at the enormous Olympiastadion, where tickets are plentiful and start at €15. And tickets are still available for upcoming matches of Eintracht Frankfurt, too.

Dortmund's Paco Alcacer (r) gets the ball ahead of Augsburg's Daniel Baier on the first matchday on August 17th. Photo: DPA

Play in a fantasy league. 

There's probably no better way to get familiar with second-string defenders on middling teams than playing in a fantasy league. The Bundesliga season kicked off last week, but you can start your own league with friends at any point during the season. 

I'm not much for fantasy sports, so I won't be following my own advice here. But I can't deny that keeping on top of injury lists each week would force me to engage deeply with German football.

Pick up a soccer magazine.

As Uli Hesse describes in Tor!, football was met with deep skepticism when it first arrived from England, and it was thought to be “un-German.” To make the game more palatable, in 1903 one of the game's pioneers, Konrad Koch, published a list of football expressions in German so that English terms could be avoided. Among them: Tor (goal) and Eckball (corner kick).

A good way to learn some of that German lingo is to head to a newsstand and pick up a high-quality football magazines. Two to look for are Kicker and 11 Freunde

Kicker was founded way back in 1920, by one of the sport's biggest early champions in Germany, Walther Bensemann. It publishes twice a week and also covers the women's Bundesliga and other sports.

With the tagline “Magazin für Fußballkultur,” 11 Freunde publishes monthly and covers football in a nicely-designed package, bringing art and reportage to the beautiful game. 

Appreciate what makes the German league special.

The Deutscher Fußball-Bund clung to ideals of amateurism for an improbably long time and still requires most clubs to be majority-owned by their members, which is known as the 50+1 rule.

These qualities have given the Bundesliga a community-based character that persists. Even as global football in 2019 is a multibillion euro business, many fans resist corporate ownership changing the fabric of the league.

The Bundesliga season is just getting started. So watch some match highlights, do a bit of reading on both history and the next breakout stars, and find a good lokal to watch the next game. And when the time is right, buy yourself a new scarf.

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