With soccer matches in Germany's Bundesliga back behind closed doors, one talented 12-year-old is still allowing us to experience the thrill of a stadium atmosphere -- even if it is in miniature form.
Joe Bryant exercises his passion for German football, sparked by a chance encounter on a family vacation, by building incredibly detailed scale models of arenas out of Lego. The Ipswich Town supporter began creating imaginary stadiums as a 5-year-old and stuck with it, improving and perfecting his creations brick by brick. Little could Bryant have known that one day his replicas would become a social media sensation, attracting attention from major clubs.
"I loved football, so I started building my own stands with Lego people and then began designing my own stadiums," Bryant told ESPN from his home in Crawley in the south of England.
Bryant joined social media in 2017 under the name "Away Day Joe" to give a kid's perspective on travelling up and down the country to watch his team. But it was his miniature versions of beloved football grounds rendered in the famous plastic toy bricks that really struck a chord with fans online. Bryant now has more than 10,000 Twitter followers and almost 5,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Bryant is now a veteran of 14 arena constructions, and the very first Bundesliga stadium he attempted to build was that of Borussia Monchengladbach. That came about after a chance meeting with a group of German football fans during a family holiday to Turkey a few years ago. Bryant joined them watching games on TV, and it was there and then that he fell in love with all things Bundesliga.
A special family trip to Borussia Park followed when Bryant was just 9 years old, after which he decided to make it his mission to build every single German top-flight stadium out of Lego, starting with Gladbach.
Bryant has since completed models for Cologne, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, Nurnberg, Mainz, Augsburg, Werder Bremen, Bochum, Hertha Berlin, Freiburg, Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund, along with Anderlecht in Belgium.
He has travelled to Germany eight times over the past few years at the invitation of big Bundesliga clubs so he could exhibit his incredible handiwork.
"Cologne very kindly sent me tickets after I built their stadium, but the first club to invite me to Germany with my Lego stadium was Schalke in 2018," Bryant said. "That was an amazing trip. It snowed all the way there and I was worried the Lego stadium would get broken, but thankfully it made it in one piece."
Bryant admits that his trip to the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen to present his model to the club was a little "nerve-wracking" to begin with, though the club's amazing hospitality soon calmed his nerves: "Schalke were incredible. they took me around the stadium and let me go on the pitch before the game and show the fans my Lego model."
Bryant has also visited Werder Bremen, where he was allowed to venture on to the pitch at half-time during a match and announce to everybody that his model of the Weserstadion would be going on permanent display inside the real thing: "I couldn't believe the reaction of their fans, they absolutely loved that. I have been very lucky and all the clubs have been incredibly generous and friendly to me."
His love for the Bundesliga has flourished ever since, with VIP visits to cities such as Nuremberg, Berlin, Bremen and Bochum cementing his appreciation of all things German: "Germany is such an amazing place for football. The fans and the clubs are just unbelievable and they have amazing bratwurst."
Bryant insists that he doesn't really have a favourite, though he retains a soft spot for his most recent build: Dortmund's iconic Signal Iduna Park. He's proud of his take on the famous yellow-and-black ground, his most accurate and realistic creation to date.
There is a notable difference between his first, relatively simple build (Gladbach) and the attention to detail that has gone into Dortmund, which comes complete with geometric corner stanchions, "glass" executive boxes and BVB's circular logo imprinted on the roof. As it happens, rounded structures are a Lego builder's worst nightmare: "Other than Dortmund, I also liked building the Berlin Olympiastadion [home of Hertha Berlin] because it curves and has a running track. That is very difficult to build in Lego because Lego doesn't want to curve!"
While every stadium is a challenge, Berlin proved more so than most, taking 5,669 bricks to complete. Bremen and Stuttgart also proved tricky due to curved roofs, leaning floodlights and other architectural quirks. Bryant used to take roughly three weeks to build a Lego stadium but these days, due to the complexity of his designs, he can take up to eight weeks. It can also take a while to source materials -- 3,000 for the early basic models up to the near-6,000 used to construct Dortmund's ground.
Amazingly, Bryant doesn't build his arenas using any plans or blueprints, and instead assembles all of his constructions using nothing but photos he finds online. His father, Phil, explained: "He just looks at pictures and sees what looks right. If he has visited the stadium beforehand, that makes it easier. But if not, he asks the club and the fans to supply recent pictures. They are very good like that and always help him."
Sadly, as with most Lego creations, Bryant's stadiums are not built to last forever. Most of his early creations had to be photographed for posterity before being broken down so the materials might be reused. "I used to have to knock the stadiums down after a while because the Lego bricks were expensive and I needed them to build the next ground. That was very heartbreaking because it takes ages to build one."
As Bryant's portfolio continues to grow, storage space has become something of an issue in the Bryant household over recent years -- as well as a few other unfortunate pitfalls of leaving large Lego constructions lying around.
"If a club doesn't want to keep the stadium, I will hang on to it for as long as possible but I do eventually need the bricks and it does get very crowded in my bedroom," Bryant said. "I have to watch where I step. My dad knocked over part of Cologne trying to repair a brick and my mum dropped the hoover on Augsburg. Thankfully, I fixed both."
Since his builds began to gain popularity among professional teams and fans alike, Bryant has been able to see them given the reverence they deserve by being put on permanent display.
"Recently a lot of the clubs have wanted to keep my Lego stadiums for their museums, VIP areas or fan shops, which is really kind of them," he said. "That is perfect for me because it means they stay up forever and everyone gets to see it."
Anderlecht were the first to request to keep Bryant's stadium for themselves, before Mainz followed suit. Bremen's real-life stadium sponsors, Wohninvest, arranged for the mini-Weserstadion to remain in the German city, while the Bochum and Hertha models also live permanently inside the very stadiums they depict. Bryant was meant to travel to Freiburg over Easter to present his Schwarzwald-Stadion to the club, but the trip has had to be postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic: "I am still waiting to go over because of Covid. That is so frustrating right now, because I really miss Germany."
Hi @VfL_Wolfsburg and VfL Wolfsburg fans👋I am building your stadium in Lego but I need your help please🙏Can you tell me if there are VIP boxes where these arrows are? Or is it concourses with bars? I think the Haupttribune has VIP boxes but not sure about other stands? Danke! pic.twitter.com/4cOCGpCCaD— Joe Bryant (@AwayDayJoe_) October 20, 2020
Thankfully, our intrepid Legosmith intends to keep busy and has already begun work on his latest brick-based venture -- a model of Wolfsburg's Volkswagen Arena, which he started at the end of October. After consulting Wolfsburg fans over a few of the specifics involved, the foundations have already been laid and work begun on erecting the lower tier of the east stand, the Castrol Tribune.
Beyond that, Bryant fully intends to continue working towards his overall goal of building every single stadium in the Bundesliga before branching out into other club and national stadiums.
"I asked people on social media what they wanted me to build and I have now got a list of 100 clubs," he said. "I have teams from the German third and fourth divisions, along with English clubs, French, Italian and Spanish. I also get a lot of people asking me to build stadiums in North and South America, like the Azteca and the Maracana. I even had a request to make the national stadium of Iran. A lot of people seem to like my Lego stadiums, so I will try my very best to make them all for them."
And yes, before you ask, Bryant does harbour plans to build a faithful replica of the humble home of his beloved Ipswich Town.
"Obviously I have to build Portman Road. In fact, I have already promised to do that!"