Wednesday, 14 November 2007

German/Dutch weekend

Old school floodlights - tick.

Alemania Aachen v Kaiserslautern.

A small drop of rain at Aachen.

Nick (left) and I at Rott-Weiss Oberhausen.

An oversized flag makes an appearance at VVV Venlo.

Rot-Weiss Oberhausen 3-2 SV Babelsburg 03 (10:11:07)

VVV Venlo 2-0 Sparta Rotterdam (10:11:07)

Alemannia Aachen 2-1 1. FC Kaiserslautern (11:11:07)

The North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany may be synonymous for being an industrial sprawl but for us it pretty much represents the equivalent of footballing heaven. It’s a region simply chock-a-block with teams and on any given weekend you can easily catch a game or three. Having previously been there to visit the bright lights of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, VfL Bochum, MSV Duisburg and Cologne, we were keen to pay a visit to some of the areas lesser known teams.

Also on this trip we were attempting to do what possibly many others had done before but we had only dreamt of doing; two games in one day, in two different countries. To do this means commitment and by that I mean a 04:50 journey departure time from Hove to Cologne. No pain no gain eh!?

Now between you and I, a month or so ago, I didn’t know the city of Oberhausen or its team Rot-Weiss Oberhausen from a hole in the ground. You can keep your Eiffel Tower; say no to the Statue of Liberty and turn a blind eye to the pyramids because the main attraction in Oberhausen is (no giggling at the back) a gasometer. I know what you’re probably thinking; did I have enough film in my camera!?

Our pre-match consisted of several pints of Gruben Gold, ‘gold’ being the operative word and a small mountain of pork, sauerkraut and brockwursts. With that little lot consumed with vigour we were off to the match – a Regionalliga Nord affair which is the third tier of football in Germany.

The stadium at Oberhausen had two curved open terraces at either end. One of which sported a magnificent giant electronic scoreboard. There were two single tiered seated stands running along side the pitch. One of which contained the RWO ultras and the vocal element of home fans which we were in. Opposite stood a stand containing coughing policemen who were trying to avoid the smoke filling through the stand caused by flares let off by the travelling Babelsburg fans – more of them later.

On a pitch fit only for farming there were enough errors in the game to fill an Own Goals and Gaffes DVD – presented possibly by James Nesbitt. It made for wonderful entertainment. There was a sending off, terrible defending, woeful goalkeeping and five goals and all this for £6. Outstanding value in anyone’s book surely!?

The travelling Babelsburg ultras were a strange bunch. They were few in number but that didn’t stop some of them lighting flares, engaging in frenetic flag waving and at one stage - trying to break out of their section in a comedy attempt at getting at the home fans. They were very animated and yet, when their team scored they didn’t really seem to give a monkeys.

On the bus back to the station, fans of Swap Shop might like to note that my Brighton badge was swapped by a friendly local for a novelty RWO one complete with flashing lights. From Oberhausen we were now off for our second game of the day over the border in Holland in the city of Venlo.

We were wondering how we’d know when we had crossed the border from Germany into Holland. Was there to be any passport control or at the very least a big sign, or would we just notice the change of scenery perhaps. As it was we knew we were in Holland when all the passengers on the trains’ mobile phones went off and roaming texts welcoming us to the Netherlands were received.

Upon arrival at the Seacon Stadium – De Koel we made our way to the plush new offices to collect our tickets and then somehow found ourselves in the players bar. It was very posh, lined with pennants and served very bland beer. I’m not sure we should have been in there and those thoughts were confirmed when suddenly I was standing next to the match referee and his officials. Nobody seemed to mind however so we helped ourselves to some free programmes and a couple more bland beers.

From the salubrious surroundings of the players bar we then headed to the supporters bar. This place was filled with smoke and packed to the rafters. It was like walking into a packet of 20 Benson and Hedges. Holland seems to be one of those countries whereby smoking is compulsory and taught in schools.

For 25 euros our seats were near enough the best in the house. This was an Eredivisie match which is the Dutch equivalent of the Premier League. We were situated near to the half way line, seated in the front row of a single tiered stand running the length of the pitch.

A couple of banners draped around the stands caught our collective eyes just prior to kick off. From the fairly mundane ‘Come on VVV its show time’ to the rather extraordinary ‘Benders Venlo’ – draw your own conclusions.

VVV won the match 2-0 sending Sparta Rotterdam to the bottom of the league in the process. There were two very clear candidates for my man of the match award. Firstly, step forwards VVV Venlo full back Mike Mampuya - who overcame the handicap of a terrible hairdo to produce a match winning performance. He was just pipped to the post however by my good friend, the aforementioned referee. Pieter ‘Vinkers’ Vink who lit up the match with a series of wonderfully elaborate hand signals coupled with some fancy footwork – think Billy Bowden meets Wayne Sleep and I’m sure you’ll agree – we have our winner.

We awoke on Sunday at our base in Cologne to find the city in full on party mode – at 10am! Thousands upon thousands of people had taken to the streets in fancy dress and were already consuming staggering amounts of alcohol. We had arrived in the middle of the 11:11 Cologne Carnival which marks the beginning of the “fifth season of the year”. Evidently, anyone who is not a fool at carnival is foolish for the rest of the year.

Thirsty for more action we headed to Aachen close to the Belgian and Dutch borders for our third game of the weekend. To me this day represented all that football is and should be about. We were met by fan representatives of Alemannia Aachen outside the stadium who afforded us the warmest of welcomes, showering us with gifts as we chatted and sunk a few nice cold beers.

Inside the ground the tannoy was belting out club anthems which were being sung with great gusto. Fans were waving flags, scarves anything they could lay their hands on and this was an hour before kick off. The stadium was the very essence of ‘old skool’ with three steep banks of terracing and a rare old atmosphere to boot. Kaiserslautern had brought 2,000 fans with them who were giving it their all in the corner. There were smiling faces all round though and not a hint of trouble.

The match was a cracking end to end encounter refereed by a lady who commanded maximum respect. The raucous atmosphere spurred Aachen onto a 2-1 victory in conditions that ranged from bright sunshine to a ten minute hailstorm in the second half. It was a splendid advert for the Bundesliga 2 and safe to say we’ll be returning to that particular division for more of the same.

Back in Cologne the revellers had moved in off the streets to occupy every nook and cranny of every bar in the city. They were dancing on the tables and chairs and singing themselves hoarse. Sadly for us, it was time to leave them to it and head back home. Carlsberg don’t do European football weekends………..

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Empoli v Napoli

Just some of the 6,000 Napoli fans at Empoli.

Me at Empoli FC.

More Empoli v Napoli gubbins.

The Arena Garibaldi home to Pisa Calcio .

Another successful break in to a football ground (Pisa Calcio).

Stadio Artemio Franchi - Fiorentina.

Empoli 0 Napoli 0 (23.09.07)

I'd heard that procuring tickets for Serie A fixtures had become a little more arduous since the Italian government attempted to clamp down on increasing levels of violence at games towards the end of last season. I ordered my ticket from and was instructed to pick it up at the stadium prior to the match. The Carlo Castellani stadium is a fifteen minute walk from Empoli station. It wasn't signposted but I'd come prepared, armed with a multimap printout. In picking up my ticket, I used my newly learnt (that morning) pigeon Italian to get me to the collection point. This turned out to be four little huts, three unmarked and one with a sign saying 'Press and VIPs only'. I queued up for twenty minutes at one of the unmarked ones and and was then told to move to another as mine was an 'internet only' collection. A little sign wouldn't have gone a miss. Fans of queuing would then be delighted to note that fifteen minutes in another line later and bingo; I had my ticket. I had to present my passport before they would hand it over and then had to show it again twice more before gaining entry. A couple of tips then, namely, get there early and take your passport if you want to get in.

Empoli don't have a club shop. There were several stalls outside the stadium but they had all arrived from Naples and only sold Napoli t-shirts (predominantly Maradona ones), scarves and flags. As with a lot of games abroad, match programmes were 'gratis' and laid out on the seats beforehand.

So what of the Stadio Carlo Castellani then!? Well forget your traditional four stands, this one had eleven! Ten of these were uncovered and of those nine were temporary looking structures similar to those behind one goal of the much loved Withdean Stadium, Brighton. I was in the main two-tiered covered stand on one side which had two more stands either side of that and the largest stand opposite was an open two-tiered affair which ran the length of the pitch and contained most of the home support. Of the eleven, Napoli fans were packed into six and half of them. An incredible show of support for a fixture over four hours away from Naples. They must have had five-six thousand at least. I often hear fans use the lack of a roof as an excuse for a poor atmosphere. Au contraire Blackadder. The Napoli ultras ensured a wall of noise for ninety minutes. One regular song was accompanied by fans running down the stand to the front, running back to the top, then over to the left and you've guessed it over to the right. Great to watch, dangerous to to be near was my verdict.

The game itself was fairly uninspiring, lit up only by the officials luminous clothing. Empoli were fairly solid but lacked any striking prowess. Any hope Napoli had of taking three points were diminished when they withdrew livewire Argentinean striker Ivan Lavezzi. A Carlos Tevez rather than Maradona type player both in appearance and ability who was a the centre of everything they had to offer. His partner up front, the Uruguayan Zalayeta has scored seventeen goals in over one hundred and ten appearances. It was not hard to see why, he was turgid.

I don't think it would have taken much for the Napoli fans to ignite. As it was, each unfavourable decision was greeted with a hail of bottles and next to me a couple of seats were ripped out when Blasi was shown a yellow card.

Refreshment wise in the ground, you could buy water and rather splendidly about six different varieties of cheesy biscuits. Around the pitch there were five randomly parked cars, a huge yellow semi circular inflatable advertising not a lot and everybody's favourite; the extendable players tunnel.

After the game I saw a rather menacing looking firm who had taken their belts off and were slapping them into their hands. Police helicopters hovered overhead and indeed the next morning in the papers I read of clashes outside and at the station in which one Empoli fan had his middle finger cut off. Having said that, I didn't feel personally threatened. The stand I was in was half Empoli, half Napoli. When one chap asked me who I supported, instead of a punch, my reply of 'Brighton and Hove Albion' was met with the usual combination of mirth and hilarity.

So a highly original stadium and a great day out, save for large parts of the match. After arriving back to Florence by train I rewarded myself by uncorking a bottle of Chianti and gorging myself on some magnificent Pecorino cheese.

Stadium nerds like myself might want to know that during my trip I also visited Fiorentinas Stadio Artemio Franchi which was very tricky to enter as they were training at the time but I did get in and also the Stadio Romeo Anconetani in Pisa which was a breeze to enter and brilliantly located a two minute walk from the leaning tower.

Romanian football weekend

Welcome to Constanta "The focal point of Black Sea coast tourism."

Five hours across Romania to stand in the rain - tick.

Stadion Farul in Constanta - Euro 2008 here we come!

Packing them in at the Stadion Cotroceni in Bucharest.

Me (left) and Martin (PNE fan) after less than 2hrs sleep - not pretty eh!?

Romania 1 Holland 0 (13-10-07)

Progresul Bucharesti 1 FC Petrolul 1 (14-10-07)

You know what it’s like with budget airlines; you’ll do anything to grab a bargain. So I booked us a flight to Bucharest umpty thrumpty weeks ago safe in the knowledge that when the fixtures were announced one or more of Steaua, Dinamo or Rapid Bucharest would be playing at home and we could pop along and Bob would indeed be our Uncle – wrong. What I didn’t factor in was pesky Internationals. There would be no Liga 1 fixtures during our three day stay but our saving grace was that Romania would be playing Holland in a Euro 2008 qualifier, not however in Bucharest, in Constanta, 225 kilometres away!

Our train departed Bucharest for Constanta at 13:15 and arrived some five hours later at 18:15. You haven’t misread that, it took five hours to travel 225 kilometres. The track between the two cities was only laid down two years ago. Last summer, such was the intensity of the heat that the track melted. Ever since, the train has had to crawl along at around 25 miles an hour. There are many beautiful areas of Romania but the stretch of land between Bucharest and Constanta isn’t one of them. The overriding impression was one of an overgrown landfill site and the views outside our window seemed only to be in black and white. The journey was only briefly lit up by the odd passing horse and cart and a brief flirtation with the River Danube. Having said all that, I was with four of my best mates, some local chap kept walking down the isle selling us cheap beers, we had a splendid quiz on the go and frankly; we couldn’t have been happier.

Constanta is meant to be a premier Romanian holiday hotspot – oh dear. In fairness it was pitch black upon our arrival with sheeting windswept rain swirling around the grey concreted station and there were stray dogs on every corner. We jumped in a cab to the stadium; negotiated our way into the stadium (easier said than done), ordered ourselves some beer and we were ready for the match. The Stadion Farul itself was a fairly uninspiring bowl with the dreaded running track around the pitch, non descript almost entirely save for the towering concrete soviet style floodlights, enough to warm anyone’s cockles on a damp night in Eastern Europe. Conditions dictated that ‘total football’ was kept to a minimum and the ball flew around in beach ball fashion for the games entirety. We got the feeling that the Dutch weren’t overly keen on being there and this was epitomised in the performance of Arren Robben who was mercifully withdrawn late on after 78 minutes of mincing around the pitch trying in vain to look interested. He was also involved in the undoubted highlight of the match whereby five minutes after taking his seat on the bench, the wind caused the aforementioned bench to blow over exposing Robben, who was wrapped up in what looked like several sleeping bags. The only goal of the game came after 71 minutes when the outstanding Chivu’s left sided free kick was flicked on by the head of Codrea and, although Stekelenburg brilliantly saved the midfielder’s effort the ball fell kindly for Goian to stab home. After the match we slipped into the Constantian night for many a beer, a delightfully elongated meal and several more beers which set us up for the 4am train back to Bucharest which arrived at 9am the next morning.

As it happens there was a match taking place in Bucharest on the Sunday; FC Progresul Bucharesti v FC Petrolul at the Stadion Cotroceni, kick off 1pm. Well it would be rude not to we concluded. Match tickets were duly snapped up at the ticket office at a cost of 5 Lei each which equates to around £1.10 and we were in. Progresul (formerly FC National Bucharesti) is a club that lives very much in the shadow of the big three teams in the city. This was made abundantly clear upon our arrival in the ground which has a capacity of over 14,000 in that the crowd was barely more than 500. The stadium however was actually an improvement on the previous day, the development which is flanked by an equally impressive tennis centre was financed by a consortium of banks, primarily the Romanian national bank who were, maybe still are the major backers of the club. The match finished 1-1. The home side were overly, often laughably physical which resulted in Petrolul players left strewn over various parts of the pitch doubled up in pain. The referee saw nothing untoward in the odd elbow/bunny punch/kick to the nether regions and let the game flow on with a refreshing unawareness. The quality was shocking but every now and again someone would come up with a remarkable bit of individual skill that would have the locals scratching their collective heads in amazement. With the crowd being so sparse we were really able to pick out the characters in the crowd of which there were many. It had been put to us before that the Romanian people may not react in an overtly friendly fashion to Westerners. Nothing from our experience could have been further from the truth. The only thing you have to perfect upon meeting one the locals is the ‘high five’.

After the game we wanted to get a bit of a feel for Bucharest. It’s a city that has had to put up with quite a lot, namely Nicolae Ceausescu and latterly in 1977 a strong 7.4 on the Richter-scale earthquake which destroyed many old lodgings and offices. During Ceausescu’s leadership, most of the historical part of the city was destroyed, to be replaced with the enormous buildings of Centrul Civic – notably the immense but ludicrously grotesque Palace of the Parliament which we pitched up at first. It’s the 2nd biggest building in the world after the Pentagon and remains as possibly an unwanted reminder Ceausescu’s reign. His Communist regime ended in dramatic fashion when in 1989 a Romanian Revolution and coup removed him from power. The revolutionaries held a two hour trial and sentenced him to death for crimes against the state, genocide and ‘undermining the national economy.’ You may remember the memorable scene of Ceausescu and his wife Elena fleeing the scene of the revolution by helicopter. He was found later and executed by a firing squad. After visiting all of the sites where these events unfolded we headed off into the town for what can only be described as a marathon darts session and several pints of Bergenbier, Civc and Ursus; well you have to try all the local bevingtons don’t you – and at £1 a throw – why not!?