They streamed down the streets in blue and white, gravitating to the Castroper Strasse where trams drop right outside the Ruhrstadion and the smell of grilling sausages hits you as soon as the double doors open. “The euphoria was palpable throughout the city,” said Thomas Reis. They had waited for this and how they deserved it.
Bochum is a city of 365,000 people hiding in plain sight in football’s landscape, in the German game’s most teeming region. On a wider scale, VfL Bochum are destined to be the forgotten of North Rhine-Westphalia, squeezed into the space between the bigger and brasher Borussia Dortmund to the east and Schalke to the west. Not on Saturday, though. This was their day, a day they had been waiting for and not just since their promotion and title win at the end of a season when they were again treated by many as an afterthought to Hamburg’s latest failure to return to the big time.
They had been waiting for this for more than 11 years, since their last go at the top flight, and they were going to celebrate and make the most of it. Reis understood, with the coach having played 197 times for the club in an eight-year spell. He wants his team to be brave and proud. “We don’t have to make ourselves smaller than we are,” he said after the game. “We have heart and we have courage. If we play like we did against Mainz, we’ll get the points we need.”
For Mainz, who have improved dramatically under Bo Svensson and played with enough soul of their own to defeat fancied Leipzig last week, it was their turn to be the support act. Bochum were seizing their moment and did so in spectacular style to take the lead, when Gerrit Holtmann dribbled in from the left, skipped around a bevy of defenders and poked the ball under Robin Zentner for a Lionel Messi-esque goal, worth every one of those 11 years’ wait.
The announcer feverishly proclaimed it as the “Tor des Jahres” – goal of the year – though Holtmann admitted it was the result of not having the confidence to shoot from further out.
The richly talented Holtmann, binned by Werder Bremen’s academy as a teenager for not pulling his weight in training and who didn’t quite make the grade at Mainz, is representative of this side. A German under-20 international who now plays for the Philippines having qualified through his mother, he is eager to grasp his chance. As is Sebastian Polter, the scorer of the second – on his debut – to clinch the win. Once of QPR and scorer of the first top-flight Berlin derby winner for Union in 2019 before later leaving the club in acrimony, Polter has been brought back from exile at Fortuna Sittard to have another crack at the Bundesliga.
The Ruhrstadion is full of surprises, from the pillars celebrating club legends Stefan Kuntz and Hermann Gerland to colourful supporters in film-maker Gerrit Starczewski and the unmistakeable VfL Jesus. Reis will hope his punchy side can continue to catch the rest off guard for a few months yet.