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!?