No football club in the world can claim to be as off the wall as Bundesliga outfit Cologne. - © imago images / Mika Volkmann
No football club in the world can claim to be as off the wall as Bundesliga outfit Cologne. - © imago images / Mika Volkmann

Carnival, a famous goat and pre-match Cathedral services: Are Cologne the most unique club in world football?


You've heard of football fans spilling out of bars and onto town squares before a big game - but descending on the local cathedral for a pre-match rendition of the club anthem?! Only in Cologne...

The self-styled home of Carnival, Cologne is no stranger to a party. Players and fans alike embrace the medieval tradition, sporting tailored Carnival kits and donning zany costumes throughout the world-famous festivities, celebrated from 11 November through to Ash Wednesday of the following year.

Supporters of the North Rhine-Westphalian outfit took their unique brand of merriment to the English capital back in September 2017, with 20,000 bringing traffic to a half on the streets of London prior to their UEFA Europa League group stage clash with Arsenal, while their club mascot is a living, breathing goat, reared in the local zoo.

Hennes IX, as he is known - his predecessor, Hennes VIII, was forced into retirement through arthritis - made his Bundesliga debut at the RheinEnergieStadion for the visit of Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 2 of the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign.

Rumour has it the original Billy Goat was donated to the club by a circus entrepreneur as a Carnival joke in 1950. The animal was immediately christened Hennes - after incumbent coach Hennes Weisweiler - before officially assuming pitch-side duties.

Nowadays, Hennes is one of FC Cologne's most recognizable figures. He proudly adorns the club emblem, hooves atop the unmistakable image of the Kölner Dom, the Rhineland city's twin-spired Gothic cathedral and inner sanctum.

The Dom is the pride of Cologne, attracting more than six million visitors annually. It survived the Second World War in spite of extensive bombing to become Germany's most popular tourist destination and - with room for upwards of 20,000 people - shares more than a few similarities with cathedrals of a footballing kind.

And much like Hennes, the Dom has become intrinsically linked with FC Cologne, so invested are the club in the aptly named 'Cathedral City' and its colourful cultural heritage.

Since 2014/15, Effzeh have held an ecumenical service in the cathedral hall prior to the Billy Goats' first home match of the season.

"It has become a tradition in Cologne as the season begins to ask God for a fair sporting competition - and for calm in the case of defeats," explained Monsignor Robert Kleine, representative of the archdiocese of Cologne.

Opposition supporters are openly invited, with Cologne vice-president Markus Ritterbach stressing that the service is an occasion for all football fans regardless of sporting or religious background.

"A rival is an opponent, not an enemy," he said.

Cologne and Borussia Dortmund fans mingled before, during and after their Bundesliga Matchday 2 meeting. - imago images / Beautiful Sports

As part of the 2019/20 service, there was a symbolic reading from the eighth chapter of the Book of Daniel, which tells of the eponymous Prophet's vision of a two-horned ram being destroyed by a one-horned goat.

The apparition leaves Daniel leaves feeling physically ill, but the recital had the desired effect, stirring the souls of the Cologne faithful before the congregation reached a rousing crescendo.

Some 4,500 fans - men, women and children - decked in red and white proudly sang along as the cathedral organist played the club's anthem, Mer stonn zo dir FC Kölle (We stand by you, FC Kölle).

It borrows its melody from the Scottish classic, 'The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond', but has been reimagined in Kölsch - the local dialect that shares its name with the ubiquitous gold nectar synonymous with the exuberant, boundless energy of Cologne.

"It's spine-tingling," said Cologne CEO Alexander Wehrle afterwards. "There's nothing else like it anywhere in Europe!"

Even the pockets of black-and-yellow-clad Dortmund supporters in attendance could be seen toe-tapping along.

Sadly for Cologne, there was to be no divine intervention out on the hallowed turf.

After taking the lead, the 2018/19 Bundesliga champions were stung by three second-half Dortmund goals as their top-flight homecoming ended in a 3-1 defeat.

Such a turn of events has been known to have supporters heading for the exits long before full-time - but Cologne fiends are an altogether different breed.

"The Cologne fans were behind us the whole game," said Cologne defender Kingsley Ehizibue of the atmosphere inside the RheinEnergieStadion. "It felt like we had 12 men on the pitch."

Watch: Ehizibue lauds Cologne atmosphere

And that's Cologne in a nutshell - spirited.

The backdrop, the culture, Hennes and the perpetual pomp - it's a heady brew as intoxicating as the local tipple Cologne supporters will have used to wash away the initial disappointment of the Dortmund loss.

Not that they'll have spent the night drifting along the Rhine in a river of sorrow.

Cologne aficionados are a happy bunch; happy to call the Cathedral City home, happy to be back in the Bundesliga, happier still to be part of one of the most brilliantly unconventional clubs in world football.

Chris Mayer-Lodge