It’s around 3pm on Friday. I’m sat at the back of the Insula record shop on Blågårdsgade, just where the till meets the stock room. The shop is small and narrow, and empty apart from one sullen-looking bloke in a mac flicking through records in the local music section. Outside, in an enormous courtyard with one of those inner-city concrete football pitches, about a dozen coppers search a group of young lads, presumably praying for any reason to throw them in the waiting police vans.
Anton Rothstein emerges from the stock room with a six pack of Tuborg and places one in front of me. Apparently, he’s at work. “There’s been a huge gang war in the city recently, something about territory. They’ve just shut down the Hell’s Angels bar,” he says, offputtingly.
For me, this whole situation was surreal. Anton is one of the most recognisable faces in the flourishing music scene in Copenhagen, as well as a prominent member of the fan club at Boldklubben af 1893, better known as B93. He plays drums in Marching Church and is an ex-member of Lower, two of my favourite bands, and here we were about to have a conversation about third division Danish football while some sort of modern equivalent of the Nika Riots kicks off outside. In my tired, confused and infinitely hungover state, this was hard to process.
The football scene in Copenhagen is nowadays almost entirely dominated by FC København (FCK). Their nickname, Byens Hold, roughly translates to ‘Team of the City’, clearly distinguishing themselves from suburban cowboys Brøndby IF. FCK have won the Danish National Championship 12 times in their 25-year history, and that’s without counting the 22 titles won by Kjøbenhavns Boldklub and Boldklubben 1903, who merged in 1992 after a shared 100-year history to forge the Copenhagen superpower. But this supremacy hasn’t always been the case.
“My first B93 game was in 1999, just before I turned 10. That was the season we were relegated from the first division. We only won once, against Brøndby, and it was an own goal.” B93 now play in Denmark’s third tier, a regional affair with the sort of promotion and relegation system that model train enthusiasts might find interesting. Regardless, they are still ranked as one of the most successful clubs in the country. Between the start of the Great War and the end of the Second World War, they were crowned champions of Denmark nine times.
Anton was first taken to a B93 game by his best friend’s grandfather, who had played for the club at their glorious height in the 1940s, and he has been hooked since. “At B93, there’s an intimacy between even the highest ranking financial partner and the common hot dog salesman. It’s like a small community where you can speak to anyone,” he tells me.
This community aesthetic is something Anton feels is lost at FCK, where the malicious corporate cancer has spread from the boardroom to ultras, taking with it the sense of individualism so ingrained in a Copenhagener’s spirit. Their heavy collective history weighs down on supporters and produces a strangling uniformity unseen at B93, where there is no predisposition and no shared narrative, creating a near familial intimacy amongst players, fans, board members, beer vendors and turnstile operators. “When there’s only a few of us going to away games we travel together with the players – this is something that I think is unique.” This polar difference is borne out when you look at their fan clubs, comparing the 300 paid members of the B93 Fanklub to the 20,000 at FCK.
“Even though you support the team and the players become your personal Beckhams, they are our fans just like we are theirs.” And he really means this. He goes on to tell me how some of the members from the fan club started a seven-a-side team, and often groups of first-team players will go down and support them by singing B93 songs on the touchline. It’s clear Anton isn’t just espousing why he thinks his team is so special – they have a tangible community. “The first weekend of December, me and a friend went on holiday to Istanbul to watch Beşiktaş with the captain of the club, a former goalkeeper, a former striker and a player from the reserves. We’re all just friends, you know.”
A lot of intimate community clubs such as B93 have a strong political message, but while they’ve always been regarded as very inclusive, the fan base does not back a particular movement. “It’s very liberating to be involved in something non-political because everything else is so politically charged.” It surprised me that the close relationship between everyone involved in the club doesn’t have a political root – the community has been garnered naturally through years of support. “The reason I go is because I want to support the boys on the field and have a laugh with my friends.”
I was keen to see this intimacy for myself. The next day I find myself on the phone to Anton, lost, trying to decipher his directions. “Look for the Danish flag and you’ll see me,” are the instructions. I hang up and keep wandering through the park, the Saturday morning silence broken only by my mutterings. As I reach the road I spot the distinctive red and white at the top of a huge flagpole, drooping limply in the still air. Underneath I spot Anton, wrapped in a navy blue and white scarf, beaming at me: “Welcome to Østerbro Stadium.”
He leads me around the corner to a turnstile. Before now I hadn’t received any indication that we were standing right outside a football ground; there’s no bustling crowd to manoeuvre, no anxious policemen on horses, no 13-year-olds flashing their new Gazelles their mum bought them for Christmas, and certainly no half-and-half scarves. It feels so decidedly non-league – and I absolutely love it.
“Just say you’re with me at the turnstile,” says Anton. Like an official guest of honour at a drinks reception, I’m in, handed a beer, and instantly escorted to meet the head of the fan club, Brian Nehm. “It’s so great to have you here,” he says as he hands me a B93 cap and badge as a present, to which I reply with stuttering British embarrassment at such a nice gesture.
The other side of the turnstile opens up into a sizeable athletics ground, with only one stand across the running track on the opposite side of the pitch, where I can make out a huge banner saying ‘Fanklub: Østerbros’. As we walk around the pitch towards the stand, I’m taken aback by the enormously dominating presence of FC København’s stadium towering over the far goal, with its colossal Carlsberg drapes and robotic slogans. I’m not being figurative when I say B93 is in their shadow.
There’s a sparse smattering of supporters milling around on the stand, eating sausages and mustard, and buying beers. I meet a few other members of the fan club, Henrik and Adrian (who’s carrying a trumpet), and they take me up and tell me where to stand. Just before the players come out I’m handed a few rolls of streamers, which are dutifully thrown and accompanied with songs I can’t understand.
As the game kicks off there’s one thing I notice about B93’s support, which is unlike anything I’ve witnessed: the drumming. Maybe I should have expected this; after all, Anton is essentially a drummer for a living, but there’s a crazy samba rhythm that they whip out every few minutes that is mind-altering – Anton playing a snare with no bottom, while another bloke twats a big old bass drum. This isn’t like anything I’ve seen in England – a 14-year-old scarcely in time to Ring of Fire – this is a gig in and of itself.
I ask Anton about it. “When I was younger there were two drummers, and B93 were always famous for the drumming, people always expected it at games. Then one of them moved away and the other got ill, so there was just silence. We were at an away game against a team called Frem, in Valby, and I picked up the drum and started playing. That’s actually how I got to know the guys from the Fanklub.”
The game goes on, the drumming continues, the range of instruments increases, the 40-odd people around me keep singing. At one point Adrian taps me on the shoulder and says, “The song we just sung about that defender, called Adam Emme, is about how nice his handwriting is.” We both laugh, but he goes on to tell me the player songs are something B93 are famous for. Almost every player has one and the lyrics are very personal, such as Emme’s handwriting, or the goalkeeper Ronny Raun, who is a policeman part-time, has a song about shooting other players with his service gun.
For the lack of numbers, the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s all very upbeat and feel-good, the community spirit Anton had told me about the day before is palpable – it makes you feel like you’ve been coming here for years. At one point a young kid comes up and stands with the fan club, picks up a drumstick and starts hitting one of the bigger drums. The boys react with a big dollop of heart-warming enthusiasm.
When the final whistle blows, the players are straight over to us, their hands linked in that traditionally European end of game courtesy, applauding the fans as passionately as they applaud back. The fans rush down to the front, a few jump the fence onto the pitch, and everyone shakes hands and hugs.
Skip to a few hours later and I’m on the back of Anton’s push-bike, cruising through the city, over the lakes and into the centre of town. I don’t know if you’ve ever been bunked through a foreign city after a few too many beers, but it’s the closest I’ve felt to certain death. When we stop we’re outside a little club with a queue that seemed to stretch around the block. Anton walks up to the bouncer, says something in Danish, shakes hands with a bloke in a suit that I recognise from earlier as B93’s striker, and we’re in. Inside, the whole squad has booked out a private table, and I’m greeted like a personal friend. Handshakes, hugs, drinks: “Here, sit. Thank you so much for coming today.”
Opposite me is Martin Heisterberg, the club captain. I ask him again about that one word that keeps coming back when speaking to anyone associated with B93: intimacy. “It’s not like other teams at this level, we all know each other here. If I had to leave B93 then I would stop playing football.” Martin came through the club’s youth system, and apart from one year at Hellerup IK, has stayed loyal to the club he supports. “If I wasn’t out there on the pitch I would be in the stands with the boys,” he tells me, with such emotion I can’t tell how much of it is fuelled by booze or sentiment.
It’s the honesty which shines through – I’ve seen it in everyone I spoke to on my trip. The strong community ethic is not something you get at every club, even at this level. They have that glorious beauty of a lot of English non-league clubs that have developed strong support over the years (take Dulwich Hamlet and Eastbourne Town, for example) where it’s about the spirit of football, how it can bring people together and be such a positive force in a society, eventually becoming an obsession for so many devoted individuals.
I’d like to thank everyone I met for reminding me what is so great about football: going for beers with your mates, laughing at the goalkeeper going arse over tit, saying hello to John and thanks for sorting the boiler out the other week. It’s far away from the things that really make me hate football, where I spend most of my Saturday’s lamenting, criticising and condemning refereeing decisions, team selections, fantasy football, and “that lazy bastard up top”. This is where the football often comes second, and as long as everyone’s having a good time, it doesn’t matter. It confirmed my faith in this stupid game.
Oh, and B93 beat top of the league 4-1, by the way.
By Julian Roberts @juloianroberts3
Photos by Aaron Villa @aj_illa