The Cologne Paradox

August 14, 2008
By Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger
(Archive)

There has been a lot of talk about one of the newly-promoted teams that will grace the season soon to kick off, Hoffenheim. Maybe too much talk. (Wink, wink.) So let's talk about one of the other two.

GettyImages / LarsBaronA fan of Cologne waves a flag.

Because what has happened in the past ten years or so in Cologne is really an amazing success story. I don't mean the footballing side of it all, as that's rather been a roller coaster ride. I mean what has happened off the pitch.

To illustrate that, let me take you back to the early 80s. Back then, I used to take a train ride to Cologne once every two months in order to buy records. (Cologne was home to Saturn-Hansa, which for a long time claimed to be the largest record store in the world.)

As you may know, I come from the Ruhr area. And whenever I was walking through Cologne during those years, I had the strange feeling that something was dramatically different from home. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it, but one day I stopped to let an out-of-town car with a Schalke bumper sticker pass by - and that's when it struck me.

There were no Cologne (FC or Fortuna) pennants in the windows. There were no Cologne flags in people's gardens. There were no Cologne bumper stickers on the cars. There were no people wearing Cologne scarves.

I was already aware of the prejudice that Cologne was not a football city and that the fans were a fickle bunch who came out to see the team only when things were going well. But now I had some sort of first-hand proof for this theory, and the figures bore it out.

Even though Cologne was - and is - the fourth-largest city in Germany, its premier club's attendance was very often under the league average, except for great years such as 1978 (league champions) or 1982 (runner-ups). Even good seasons, such as 1982-83, when the side came fifth, would on average tempt a mere 17,000 into seeing a game.

A particularly telling season was 1985-86. In this hooligan-infested decade, the Bundesliga recorded two of the three worst-attended seasons in history. (The absolute low point was the year following the bribe scandal of the early 70s.) One of those two was this campaign, when the league's average attendance dropped to an abysmal 17,655 fans.

Now, even if we take into account that Cologne FC had a bad season (they finished only one point ahead of the relegation zone), it's shocking to see that the club undercut even this paltry league average: Cologne FC drew a mere 13,035 fans per game. That was less than relegated Hannover and Saarbr├╝cken, less than Dortmund (headed for the relegation playoffs), less than even small clubs such as Bochum or Mannheim.

And in the Second Bundesliga, Cologne FC's local rivals Fortuna enjoyed their best season in many moons, came to within a whisker of making it to the top flight - and still drew less than 3,000 fans per game. Which is not a typo.

Since we knew that Cologne did, after all, boast a legendary set of supporters - namely the loyal, inventive and vociferous fans of the city's ice-hockey club - we came to the conclusion that this Bundesliga apathy had nothing to do with an aversion to sport as such but that Cologne was indeed simply no football city.

And now let's fast-forward to the here and now. In the season just past, Cologne had an average attendance of 44,322 - in the Second Bundesliga. That's only slightly less than in 2005-06, the club's last top-flight season to date. That year, 45,2003 came out every second weekend to watch their club get relegated. In other words: the second-worst team in the league was better supported than Werder Bremen, who qualified for the Champions League.

So, what has happend beneath the imposing Cologne Cathedral since a teenage yours truly marvelled at the absence of any kind of evidence of devotion to football? It can't be, as some people say, the new ground, as the team began to draw well above the top-flight average before they started rebuilding the stadium. And of course it's not simply the general football boom, as that is clearly, well, general and has boosted attendance everywhere.

GettyImages / VladimirRysA packed house at the RheinEnergie Stadion

Okay, I'll tell you what I think it is. I admit my theory has more holes than a goal-netting, but I kind of like it - not least for effect. Because it says: Cologne became a football city when the team became crap.

I'm not alone in saying that. This year, there was a comedian peforming at the club's carnival party. (Football is big in Cologne now, but the Carnival is still bigger.) He cracked a few jokes in front of the players, the coaches and the officials, then he turned scientific by elaborating on a sociological phenomenon. 'This is known as the Cologne Paradox,' he explained. 'It says: the worse Cologne FC are playing, the more people come out to watch!'

I heard that on the radio, so I can't tell you the reactions of the players. But we can safely assume they didn't exactly roll over laughing. In fact, I like to think they slowly nodded their heads. Because the paradox is there for all to see.

In 1998, Cologne were relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time. During the following season in the lower flight, they drew 13,282 fans per game. That was above the division's average, but a lot less than league-mates Hannover and roughly the same as small St. Pauli, who finished one place ahead of Cologne by coming ninth.

In brief: it was a complete catastrophe for a club famous for its delusions of grandeur. And what happened once the next campaign kicked off? People came in droves. Cologne drew twice as many fans as the season before. True, it was a winning year for the team. But first, the supporters couldn't know this at the beginning of the season, yet 66,000 saw the first three home games. Second, Cologne easily outdrew Gladbach or Nuremberg and suddenly left Hannover in the dust.

And the frenzy hasn't stopped since, no matter the division or the performance of the side. In 2002-03, in the Second Bundesliga, Cologne drew twice as many fans as Karlsruhe, almost four times as many as Duisburg. A year later, in the top flight, 36,911 - more than the league average - came per game to see a team that was so bad it ended up no less than thirteen points behind a non-relegation spot. In 2006-07, Cologne missed out on promotion back to the Bundesliga and finished in a terrible ninth place. Yet 38,195 saw an average home game - more than Duisburg and Rostock, both promoted, drew taken together.

So, having spent my formative years calling Cologne fans disloyal glory-hunters, I now formally take everything back. And unless something else intervenes, next time I'll show you that these Cologne fans are not only proper supporters. They are much more. They are stark raving mad.


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