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Have you ever been on a bus for more than 24 hours? I have. Multiple times. But the most memorable occasion was in the spring of 2019. I had just met my girlfriend, who was flight-adverse due to the aviation industry’s effect on the climate, and I wanted to impress her by not flying anywhere. So, when a good friend of mine offered me tickets to Eintracht Frankfurt’s now memorable Europa League knockout stages run, my feelings, as a Frankfurt fan living in Sweden, were mixed. But in times like these, the only things we have are the memories of times lost. And these memories will last a lifetime – something for which I have been truly thankful for during this quarantine boredom.
The first game, against Shakhtar Donetsk, was an electric experience. I had been to Waldstadion in Frankfurt on multiple occasions but had never experienced a game of this magnitude. I fondly remember the day we arrived in Frankfurt. We took our bags to our hotel, went to a suburb called Enkheim and just walked. We stopped by a local supermarket to buy a six pack of Krombacher and some Kinder Riegel and sat on a bench in the middle of nowhere, drank beer and ate children’s chocolate at 11am on a Thursday.
The rest of the day is in a blur. We trekked through the marvelous city of Frankfurt, eating schnitzel before drinking apple wine at a famous pre-game spot. Every bite, every sip and every breath celebrating our luck as one of 50,000 people lucky enough to be able to enjoy this occasion. Jović. Haller. Rebić. Eintracht won the Round of 32 second leg 4-1 to progress 6-3 on aggregate. We attended the game, experienced what was to experience and went home. We assumed this to be a memory, a great one, but just a memory. Little did we know.
Later, when I came to read the directives for Europa League tickets it seemed obvious, but my friend’s knowledge of German was basic. So he was rather surprised when, just two days before the round of 16 tie against Internazionale, tickets to the game appeared in his mailbox for the same seats.
The experience against Shakhtar had more than warranted another visit. To be fair, I would have gone either way. Just being in Frankfurt on matchday is something every football fan should experience at least once in a lifetime. So, we realised that we both had some things to figure out. I, for one, had to solve my situation at work. This was easier said than done but I called in a few favours and had Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday booked off.
Next thing on the list was to figure out how to travel. I wanted to take the bus, because I wanted to impress my girlfriend, and managed to book one that left my hometown two hours after I got off work on Tuesday. I was supposed to arrive in Frankfurt on Thursday morning, although one tends to underestimate the amount of energy it takes to endure more than 24 hours on a coach.
I arrived, as planned, at 10am on Thursday. I was joined by my travel companion Filip at around noon. He was quite adamant in his decision to avoid going by bus and had called it “the stupidest idea”, but it was not too bad, the energy sapping demand aside. We, once again, trekked through Frankfurt, dropped our bags at our lodgings – we stayed with a friend of mine who lived in a suburb west of the city center – and hit the town.
After another visit to the famed Apfelwein Wagner, a place for a schnitzel and ebbelwoi (Frankfurter Apple Wine) before the game, we watched the Frankfurt fans put up a massive choreo (or tifo) celebrating Eintracht’s 120th birthday. Despite the vibrancy of the occasion, the game itself was not much to remember, with the biggest echo in my mind being the joy of seeing Kevin Trapp save a penalty. But Frankfurt emerged from a tough first leg with a creditable goalless draw. Eintracht more than made up for the lack of spectacle in winning 1-0 at the San Siro in the second leg, at that point the club’s most impressive European result since winning the UEFA Cup final in 1980. In a two legged affair against a young Lothar Matthäus’ Borussia Mönchengladbach side.
I was not able to attend the quarter-final victory over Benfica – another cornerstone triumph this time on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate draw – but I did finally succumb to booking a flight down to watch the semi-final against Chelsea. However, Scandinavian Airlines’ pilots had just gone out on strike the week before and we eventually concluded that going by bus again was the best and most secure choice this time.
Flixbus saved us, and I would once again sit on a coach for more than 24 hours. Memories of this trip, more so than the ones before, are hazy at best. I do not remember much, except for the currywurst in Hamburg and the feeling of stale legs hitting the Frankfurt pavement. This was mostly due to the impending game itself – I have seldom been so nervous. But we were treated to something extraordinary before the game as the Eintracht ultras had spent weeks devising a huge choreo, as massive as the whole stand. The whole stadium was involved in this madness and the players were welcomed by one of the most sensational acts of fandom I have ever witnessed.
Days like these, sitting at my kitchen table filled with papers on political science in my apartment in Uppsala, eastern Sweden, I can barely allow myself to dream about the memories of this crisp evening in May 2019. While the game was itself largely uneventful, a 23rd minute Jović header put Frankfurt ahead and promised to carry Eintracht to glory. Thinking back, that dreamy moment is enough sweet sports candy to give you diabetes.
Frankfurt pushed Chelsea all the way to penalties at Stamford Bridge during the second leg, Jović again with the goal to aid a second 1-1 draw. When César Azpilicueta failed to convert in the shoot-out, the final was tantalisingly within reach. But Eintracht’s Martin Hinteregger and Gonçalo Paciência followed suit to put Chelsea, the eventual winners, through to Baku by the smallest of margins.
We only spent six or seven days in Frankfurt that spring, but it feels like I was there every day. Europe was never as small as those beautiful months and may never be again. As the pandemic creates an uncertain future for all football fans, I am lucky enough to have experienced a continent more open than ever, closer to me than ever and more likable than ever. If the world ever becomes sane again, and one can only hope that it will, I can only wish to experience this closeness to my European kin again, to see new places and travel through villages and towns on the lookout for memories new and old.