This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
I usually only get post from my football club, Hamburg SV – a team in Germany's second division – when my season ticket arrives at the start of a new season.
But before the last season started, I knew that another very different letter would be on its way. Sure enough, it arrived, and contained a note outlining my own personal nightmare: I had received a three-year national stadium ban for setting off flares at a Bundesliga match. Three years: that's 2021. By then, I'll be 26 and a firm member of the sofa ultras. Will HSV even still exist in the same way in 2021, or will we have been sold off to some investor somewhere?
I wasn't surprised to receive a ban. A few weeks previously, I had been given the chance to make my case to the club, alongside other die-hard fans. The mood in the waiting room was tense, like we were waiting to see the head-teacher. It actually turned out to be a lot more serious than that: we were accused of lighting pyrotechnics inside the stadium. The German FA had fined HSV €115,000 for the incident – a sum that the club was very angry about.
In a gentle tone, the stadium manager explained that he had received a list of alleged culprits. I was on it. And though the club hadn't seen the CCTV footage, my defence fell on deaf ears. My word against the police's meant nothing. Case closed.
That was my thanks for years of loyalty. For all the pocket money I'd spent on entrance, shirts and train tickets. For the times I cycled 400km, up and down mountains, to away games. Now, my team didn't want anything to do with me.
Of course, the feeling wasn't mutual, so I decided to fix up a plan. For Round 13, HSV were playing away against FC Erzgebirge Aue – a team whose stadium is surrounded by mountains and forests. Until 2017, I would have been able to follow the action on the pitch from the wooded slope behind the East Stand, without breaching my order by setting foot on the stadium grounds. However, since Erzebirge renovated their stadium, its new roof obstructs much of the view. It could have been so easy.
My mind switched to height. Some friends and I got together to discus hiring a crane, but none of us would have been able to get a crane driver's license in time. I searched "paragliding in Erzgebirge", but got no results. A drone, perhaps? Obviously not. Better to watch it on TV and not risk getting arrested on potential terrorism charges. It quickly became obvious that I needed an accomplice – lucky, then, that my best mate is also banned.
Though the city of Erzgebirge is small, football fans in the east can be rough, so it was important that we came up with a plan that ensured we fly under the radar – though the fact my friend's license plate includes the letters "HSV" already put us on fairly shaky ground.
The afternoon before match day, we travelled to Aue for a recce. For that, we had to hit the undergrowth before it got dark. As we crossed a small river, I slipped on a rock and my phone fell out of my pocket, landing in the water. Good start.
We then clambered over rocky outcrops and tree stumps. Later on, we learned there had been a path all along. We scouted out clearings and discussed where the best vantage points might be, but as we expected, trees and branches obstructed our view in most places.
Wherever we eventually landed, we were going to need some height, so we headed to a hardware store and hired a four-metre-tall ladder – the biggest we could find.
Next up: how to avoid being recognised by the specialist police trained in spotting "problem fans"? If we were seen, our little excursion to the countryside would brought to a swift close. Sure, we weren't doing anything illegal, but the police can justify doing almost anything, so we needed an excuse, which meant answering the question: what sort of people would have a good reason for wandering around in the woods with a ladder?
Foresters, of course. In the local garden centre, we get ourselves some green jumpsuits, slip-resistant gloves, ear protectors and a few beers to keep us entertained before we headed back to our B&B for the night.
Our alarms went off at 6:30AM the next day. It was still dark as we headed off across the nearby sheep field, ladder over our shoulders, walkie-talkies in hand, binoculars stashed in our rucksacks.
We reached our hiding place at 8AM, five hours before kick off. This gave us plenty of time to compare notes about the tragic situation we've found ourselves in – the way we were made to strip naked in front of strangers in a detention room when we were first questioned by the club.
By 10AM, our beer was almost gone and our butties eaten. All there was to do was sit there in character as the two dedicated forestry scientists we were.
Obviously, none of this made us feel like we were part of an actual match day. If you've grown up in the ultra scene, you'll know that one of the great joys of going to a game is knowing half the stadium personally and shaking every hand as you arrive. It's about the little things: waving a flag twice the size of your body; the heart-pounding clapping and hissing of burning flares in your ear. Instead, we were two guys with a ladder, sitting among the trees somewhere in Saxony.
The closer we got to kick off, the louder the songs from the stadium became. Half an hour before the game started, we shuffled ourselves to within 80 metres of the ground and spotted rich blue smoke rising from the Hamburg end. Strangely, our intended lookout post was already occupied: an old man with a bald head in a purple Aue shirt looked amused as we approached him.
Finally, we found a spot and unfolded the ladder to see if we could get a rough overview, only to realise that it wasn't quite tall enough to look down into the stadium. We eventually noticed a small slot between the roof and the stand, through which we could see what was going on. From there, we could see almost everything, except the two most important parts: the penalty areas.
We slid over to another spot, where we could see the goal HSV were attacking in the first half, taking turns on the ladder and explaining to each other what was happening.
When HSV took the lead after just 21 minutes, we were in the perfect position. Our first real bit of luck of the entire ordeal. A short while later, our opponents equalised – but we had the mercy of not actually seeing the goal go in, but just hearing the cheers of the home fans.
By the start of second half, the away end was burning with flares. I made my way closer to the fence to get a better view, but reminded myself to not get too cocky – the only people who seemed to have spotted us were two Fred Perry-clad Aue lads hanging around by the toilet block, who glanced up and then continued to ignore us.
Suddenly, the noise level in the stadium rose. From our new vantage point we could see Aue's keeper fall towards the ground, grasping at thin air. We'd scored again to make it 2-1.
A third goal secured the winning result in the 68th minute. Feeling pretty happy and not wanting to push our luck, we decided to leave – making it probably the earliest I had ever left a stadium. I didn't want to, but we had to return the ladder to the hardware store before it closed.
On our trip home, we were once again full of that unique type of joy one only feels after watching their team win in the flesh. We weren't in the ground, and we weren't able to celebrate with our HSV friends, but we saw one-and-a-half goals with our own eyes.
All it took was five hours padding around in foliage, one ladder and two silly costumes. A price I'd be happy to pay again and again.
The name of the author has been changed at his request.