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Monday, September 21, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: September 22, 9:14 AM UK
The Unforgettables

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

The annual pre-season guide published by kicker magazine lists every Bundesliga club's trophies. Even Mainz has an entry under the heading "Titles", namely: 1982 German Amateur Champions. (An honour handed out between 1950 and 1998.) Currently, there are only three teams in the top flight for which kicker does not list a single title. They are 1899 Hoffenheim, SC Freiburg and VfL Bochum. And following Saturday's home defeat at the hands of the 1982 German Amateur Champions, all the signs are Bochum still won't have a title when kicker publishes its next pre-season guide. Maybe they'll even no longer be a Bundesliga club. That, however, would be a pity. There are quite a number of reasons why I have a soft spot for Bochum, though I'll readily admit it's unusual. Because this is a club which quite simply leaves most people stone cold. For instance, I take it for granted mighty few of you will be able to name some Bochum legends, list the club's biggest achievements and recall a few famous games the team has played. You mustn't fret, though. This exercise would pose a severe challenge even to the majority of German football fans, particularly - but not only - those from the north, east and south of the country. VfL Bochum, its players and fans, have spent the better part of the past decades trying to live down the reputation of being the epitome of the nondescript club that makes up the numbers but never hogs the limelight. So far to little avail. Other clubs might be called lions, wolves, zebras or at least foals. Bochum is still sometimes referred to as the grey mouse of the Bundesliga. (A "grey mouse" is an inconspicuous person you easily overlook and hardly recall having met. What in English is just "a mouse", I guess.) For a long time, Bochum's two biggest claims to fame were that the club a) simply was around and b) gave the German language a new word. But even those two, er, achievements were really only one. The story began back in 1971, when Bochum were promoted to the Bundesliga thanks to the heroics of striker Hans Walitza. (There's a club legend for you. Consider the unusual fact that Walitza won the Regionalliga West's Golden Boot with 28 goals that year - and was then also voted the league's "most selfless player"!) In the years following 1971, Bochum hardly tore the Bundesliga apart, as the side never finished better than 8th place. But the point is that they also never finished below 15th place. Oh no, hold on - I got that wrong. In 1990, Bochum were in 16th place after the end of the regular season. However, that was during the first era of relegation play-offs. And so Bochum played and beat second-division Saarbrücken to survive once more. A year later, in 1991, Bochum turned a 3-0 deficit away at Düsseldorf around to win the third from last match of the season 4-3 and complete another Houdini act, finishing two points above the relegation zone. The following season was a nail biter again, but on May 9, 1992, the penultimate match day, a late goal against Dresden secured what was Bochum's 22nd Bundesliga campaign in a row. And that, one must point out and hope not to sound condescending, was an astonishing feat. During those 22 years, big and proud former championship-winning clubs like Braunschweig (Brunswick), Bremen, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Rot-Weiss Essen, Hannover, Hertha, 1860 Munich, Nuremberg or Schalke spent some time downstairs. But Bochum always found a way to stay up. In the absence of silverware, the club's fans decided to declare their team's apparent invincibility in the relegation fight a badge of honour. Ahead of the 1992-93 season, they produced t-shirts that bore just one word: "Unabsteigbar". This coinage can only be translated as "unrelegatable" ... and of course you know what happened. Ten months after many Bochum fans had spent a tenner on one of those shirts, the team finished another season in 16th place. However, the relegation play-offs had been abolished the year before and so Bochum, after more than two decades, at last went down. This was a terrible blow since the club lost far more than just its top-flight status. In May 2006, even the official club magazine pointed out that "marketing experts see a product's worth primarily in its inimitable characteristic", known as a USP or unique selling point, and went on to say: "Once upon a time there was a USP. It was called 'unrelegatable'. But it was buried shortly after its introduction." In other words, the grey mouse had become even greyer in the wake of the 1993 relegation. Those people who like unknown but smart underdogs now sided with Freiburg and, later, Mainz. Those people who like poor but gritty underdogs sided with Unterhaching and, later, Cottbus. Basically, that only left people from Bochum's region, the Ruhr area, to root for the side. Well, tough luck. Just four years after the original relegation of 1993, Bochum's two closest neighbours, who had spent most of the previous decade in a coma, won the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. Yes, whether it is condescending or not, you can't talk about Bochum without pointing out that this is the club sandwiched between Schalke and Dortmund; which was always bound to make things very hard for the team. VfL Bochum's logo may say that it was formed in 1848, but if you've read other club profiles in this here space you know how it all too often is in Germany: what was formed in 1848 was a gymnastics association (and even that wasn't really formed that year, but I'd better not go into this), one of a number of clubs which would finally become VfL Bochum only in 1938, at a time when Schalke was already a powerhouse and Dortmund were preparing their post-war rise. But in part it's this closeness that explains why I like Bochum. I usually tell people that the Ruhr area is like Greater London - the distance between Dortmund's ground and Bochum's ground, for example, more or less equals that between White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge. The difference is that there are half a dozen major motorways cutting through the Ruhr area, so that everything is a mere 30 minutes by car from wherever you happen to be. Which is why I often went to see Bochum play during my youth when my own team had an away game. In the 80s, the club's average attendance only rarely climbed above 16,000 or something, so you'd always get in even if you decided to go only at 3pm. And the ground was - and is - great: an intimate football-only stadium with no running track that holds the noise well and offers a fine view from almost anywhere. The people who always watch their football here love the club in large part because they are fiercely proud of their city - and rightfully so. To be honest, Bochum has much more going for it than both Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen/Schalke. The Bochum theatre is one of the most famous in all of Germany, which may also explain why a stunning number of well-known actors and comedians come from Bochum. The city's university is ugly, yes, but it is also huge and that is why Bochum offers many of the things you expect from a university city - young faces, a lively club scene, an air of lightness - which are absent from Dortmund (despite the fact it also has a university). And don't forget Bochum's legendary downtown quarter, known as the Bermuda Triangle because there are so many bars here that you can vanish easily. Or what about the fact that, in 1984, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" may have been the world's most successful record but was outsold in Germany by an album called "4630 Bochum"? (4630 was Bochum's old postal code. Google the rest, if you must, or click here.) Finally, for some reason or other I happen to know a lot of Bochum fans. For instance the man who is probably our best and best-known serious football writer and whom I've mentioned in passing in my last column. Or Ben, with whom I've shared a stage a few times. There, now you know why I often look for Bochum's result before I check what much bigger or more famous teams have done. Which, I guess, means there really are no nondescript clubs, no teams which leave everyone cold, no grey mice. Every club, to borrow a book title from Michael Azerrad, could be your life. Though I have to say it's quite nice to celebrate the odd title now and then.

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