Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I’ve been in enough recovering post-industrial casualty towns to know a mendaciously upbeat tourism spin job when I hear one. Gelsenkirchen was the furnace of the German post-war economic miracle, but, like most forming coal-mining towns, suffered the withering effects of that industry’s downturn. Now the tourist blurb claims that deep pits have been replaced by high culture.

“The theatre and smaller performing arts audience now gathers where foremen and hewers once descended into the pits,” claims the Nord-Rhein Westphalia World Cup guide booklet. “Art rather than coal is on show.”

This all carried a similar whiff to the European City of Culture gong which is passed around between similarly rehabilitating former powerhouses trying to find their feet in the digital age, passing them a towel to cover the immodesty of their rusting erstwhile might.

But while the likes of Glasgow and Liverpool have developed burgeoning art and music scenes, or at least recognisably swish cultural quarters, Gelsenkirchen’s shabby, kebab-shop strewn main precincts suggest that this small Ruhr valley city has some way to go to match with genuine development the muscular confidence of its larger neighbours in Dortmund and Duesseldorf.

Football, of course, is one area in which this type of town is generally bullish, and Gelsenkirchen is no different. The Arena auf Schalke, home of Schalke 04, is one of Europe’s most recognisable stadiums. Built five years ago, the Arena has already hosted a Champions League final, in 2004, and its retractable roof and glassy, curving exterior make it easily the city’s most arresting feature.

In this case once again, however, Gelsenkirchen suffers by comparison to its neighbour, Dortmund. It is a little harsh to measure the Arena against the Westfalenstadion, after all, one of Europe’s most atmospheric and electrifying grounds. However, while sitting in the latter, you wonder as to how Borussia Dortmund could ever fail to win a home match, such is the noise-hoarding properties their home possesses.

The Arena in Gelsenkirchen, on the other hand, despite being filled yesterday with vocal and boisterous fans from both the USA and the Czech Republic, struggles to provide the same visceral thrill; the fault, one suspects, of that vaguely antiseptic, plastic feel many new stadiums have.


In fairness to Gelsenkirchen, the above lukewarm write-up was coloured by the atrocious form yesterday of your correspondent, on whom the excesses of days 1 to 3 of the World Cup began to catch up. The searing heat, the Chernobyl-like cloud of pollen which appears to be currently hanging over Germany, the punishing schedule of beer-drinking and the catastrophic nutritional effects of a bratwurst-heavy diet meant that had I been even perambulating through the streets of ancient Babylon my enthusiasm for its delights would have been negligible.

Still, with two more trips to Gelsenkirchen to come, and with the help of an increased fibre intake, there’s plenty of time for the place to win me over.


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