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Derek Rae: How I fell in love with German soccer, culture and the Bundesliga

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Published in Soccer
Friday, 25 September 2020 01:13

"What is it about you and Germany?" This is a question I get rather a lot. As a Scot whose broadcasting travels have taken me around the world since first picking up the microphone professionally in 1986, no country has had a hold on me quite like the land of bratwurst, BMWs, Beckenbauer and of course, Bayern Munich.

The seed was planted in 1974, when West Germany hosted the World Cup in the Cold War days, and the country's division added intrigue and mystery for a then-inquisitive 7-year-old football fanatic. As much as this was an immersion in the greatest sporting tournament on the planet, it spawned an interest in all things German, particularly after the DDR national team from the East defeated their more glamorous Western counterparts in a one-off game.

If you look on a map, you'll see just how close the north coast of Germany is to my home city of Aberdeen; indeed, the North Sea many centuries ago was one of Europe's early highways.

Geographically we were close, yet linguistically far away, or so I thought. When I began learning German at primary school a couple of years later, I realised it came naturally to me. Some of the guttural sounds were not unlike the Doric dialect of my parents and ancestors still spoken in the fishing and farmland communities of North East Scotland. As a radio enthusiast, I discovered that due to our coastal location, we could often pick up a radio signal from Hamburg in the evenings. And so, NDR (North German Broadcasting) came into my life, in many ways changing it for good.

It became a daily ritual. Doing homework with NDR in the background meant a mixture of news, politics, music -- I can tell you a lot about German pop from the 1970s and '80s -- and, when there were matches, football! That meant regular servings of the Bundesliga. Magical German wordsmiths like Jochen Hageleit and Gerd Rubenbauer painted vivid pictures with their words. As my language comprehension skills got better, I was transported to a secret, exciting German world I knew I wanted to be part of.

Travelling abroad was a luxury few families could consider back in the early 1980s, but my parents indulged me in 1982 by taking us on holiday, by car and then ferry, to Hamburg. It's funny the things you remember about your first visit to a new country; my memory is of how wide the streets seemed compared to home, the cycle paths and constant bell ringing from cyclists as we cluelessly invaded their space; the smells of bratwurst and mustard. Plus there was an impromptu visit to the Volksparkstadion, the home of Hamburger SV, who would be crowned European club champions the following year.

It was summer, and alas no games to go to, but my father and I simply walked inside the empty stadium and took in the scene of vastness, the huge sprawling terraces. I imagined the burly Horst Hrubesch diving to head home a trademark cross from Manni Kaltz.

In the '80s, my German teacher at Hazlehead Academy, Bryan Steel, was a huge influence, sensing he had a student in me who cherished the subject matter. Bryan had a fellow teacher friend in the small community of Obersuhl, which straddled the border of West and East Germany. I first went there as part of an organised school trip, but again later in 1985, between school and university, funding my journey by working as a postman in Aberdeen for the first part of the summer. Staying with Bryan's colleague, Erich, and helping out in the local school, taught me about living in a small German town, and given the proximity to the East German border guards, with their watchtowers and binoculars, I still have to this day "die Grenze im Kopf" ("the border in my head").

Despite not being able to travel into the DDR at that time, I spent weekends on trains up and down West Germany. It was late August, early in the football season, and treated myself to as many matches as I could, beginning with the closest second-tier team, Hessen Kassel, and then Frankfurt, with its wonderful wooded walk to the stadium. Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Bochum and my personal favourite, Cologne, would soon follow. I couldn't get enough of the "Spieltag" ("matchday") routine: travel from the railway station to the bratwurst stand, pick up local newspapers, jump on public transport to the game, interact with fans on the way, stand and marvel at the stadium from outside. It's a routine I've maintained when on duty in Germany, before the pandemic put a stop to it.

Until the last decade or so, my commentary work only rarely involved this football country I love so much, although there were countless trips as a fan. Yes, there were games to cover in Germany in my BBC Scotland years, but they were all from the Scottish clubs' perspective. I was always delighted, of course, when later as main commentator for the Champions League on ESPN, the assignment was to cover any German team. I felt being fluent in the language and with the advent of the internet, starting most of my days watching German news enhanced my expertise. I continued to listen avidly to the Bundesliga and other German content on NDR, WDR and a variety of other stations just as part of waking up daily.

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In 2009, I returned to be one of the commentators on ESPN in the UK. Over the years, I sensed on social media that those who really loved German football seemed to like having a kindred spirit at the microphone. I made a point of not just commentating on player to player, but trying to share the knowledge and passion in me.

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Not long after that the DFL, who run the top two divisions in Germany, began to expand on their world feed commentaries. To cut a long story short, I began to work for them when other commitments allowed. It felt like a marriage made in heaven, a true labour of love with a fantastic team of producers and commentators based in my German home away from home, Cologne. In recent years, I've been lucky enough to be on site to commentate on many of the big games for the DFL from Dortmund vs. Bayern, to the Revierderby (Dortmund vs. Schalke), to Union Berlin (that East German connection again) clinching promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time.

Now it all comes full circle with ESPN, the broadcasting home for the bulk of my career. When my colleague Kay Murray ahead of this season's Bayern-Schalke opener introduced me as "the voice of our coverage and the voice of the Bundesliga for so many," it really meant a lot. Thanks, Kay.

I'll be commentating on all the Bundesliga games that air on ESPN linear TV networks in the U.S., popping up to talk about the league on ESPN FC, and writing a weekly column in this space dedicated to German football. Little did the 7-year old boy in Aberdeen know what the 1974 World Cup would lead to.

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