Saturday, 21 June 2008

Past EFW Classics part 5

Hannover 96 0-2 Vfl Bochum (04:11:06)

Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arminia Bielefeld (05:11:06)
Heracles Almelo 0-3 Ajax (06:11:06)

A Hannover 96 toaster anyone!?

AWD Arena Hannover

Me on the Sudtribune - the largest terrace in Europe - hence silly grin.

Evidentally - You'll Never Walk Alone.

The Westfalenstadion home to Borussia Dortmund.

The Polman Stadion home to Heracles Almelo.

The Ajax fans in the corner.

Ajax engage in some 'total football'

This is the sort of agenda we love - three games in three days in two different countries. It was to involve a lot of travelling (we don't mind that), lots of drinking (that's ok as well) and three games of football (oh go on then).

The European Football Weekends crowd varies in number from two to eight. For this particular weekend we were down to just two; Big Deaks and I. However, I had arranged to meet up with some Borussia Dortmund ultras on Saturday and some Heracles Alemelo ultras on the Sunday and these were to become our drinking buddies for the weekend.

We flew into Cologne early on Friday morning and then jumped on the train to Hannover which took just over two hours. Hannover is actually quite a nice City so we had a look around before easing ourselves into the obligatory pre-match drinking session. Save for one establishment which was full of the 'Stone Island brigade' all the pubs were very welcoming and served up beer to die for. In that one pub we downed a swift beer, doffed our caps, smiled and then left.

Hannover 96 play in the AWD Arena which was re-developed for the 2006 World Cup Finals in which it staged five matches. Crowds for home games can fluctuate wildly and for this game against Vfl Bochum the ground was only just over half full and tickets were obviously very easy to get hold of.

The actual match was pretty poor and Hannover went down 0-2. Bochum brought about 2,000 away fans and they were having a great time so we tried to get into their section but without success. Afterwards we pitched up in a couple more pubs in town and staggered back to our hotel in the early hours.

The next day was to prove one of the all time EFW classics of all time. Thanks in no small measure to our friends at The Unity - who are the ultra group that follow Borussia Dortmund. We got the train from Hannover to Dortmund (1hr 40mins), checked into our hotel before meeting Ivi and friends from The Unity who were to take us under their wing for the day.

They took us to their pre-match pub where naturally we drank a few too many beers and chatted with the group and handed over an Albion pennant which still hangs proudly in the pub to this day. To be honest it was such a good pre-match that it was a bit of a chore to leave the pub. The pull of an 80,000+ crowd and the thought of standing on the biggest terrace in Europe was just enough to convince us to down our beers and leave for the ground.

After a hearty rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' the game got underway. Often you'll find on these trips that the actual 90 minutes of football prove to be the most boring bit of the day that was the case here. Arminia Bielefeld took the lead, made a few negative subs and tried to hold on for the win. They were undone in the last minute though as Dortmund were awarded a penalty in front of the biggest terrace in Europe (did I mention that!?) and converted it to earn a draw.

Luckily for Deaks and I, The Unity were holding one of their infamous parties that night and we'd been invited. They hold parties to fund their terrace displays which have to be seen to be believed. The Unity are one of the best ultra groups around and having survived one (just) I can confirm they organise one of the best parties around. Needless to say it was a great night - ladies and gentlemen - The Unity - Cheers!

It took an enormous effort to get out of bed the next day. Ahead of us was a 2.5 hour train journey to Almelo in Holland for the 'Battle of the Greek' (both teams obviously have Greek history) between Heracles Almelo v Ajax. It's alright getting up after 3 hours sleep when you're 21 but when you're 34 it's the hardest game in the world.

We picked up our tickets at the ground and headed off to the pub to meet up with the Almelo ultras who I'd arranged to meet in the week leading up to the match. There is only one pub near the ground and it was rammed full of what looked from the outside to be a bunch of loons. We were so hungover and devoid of caring about our health that we took a deep breath and went in anyway. Before entering I did a quick take over my left shoulder to see if Danny Dyer was behind me with his film crew as it looked 'a bit naughty'.

Within a nano-second of walking through the door they tapped Big Deaks on the shoulder. Game over for us!? Not a bit of it - Are you guys from Brighton!? Erm...yes we squeaked - then come over here we have a beer waiting for you. Phew! We were in and tensions were immediately eased when our beers arrived in a huge watering can - strange but true.

After a couple of enjoyable hours swapping 'tales on the terraces' it was time to head to the match. As we exited the pub 'the lads' all got on their bikes and rode with us to the ground! I've seen some funny sites in my time but beers in watering cans and ultras staggering out of a pub, riding their bikes to the ground!? - I've not laughed as much since the opening credits to Terry & June where a dodgy garden chair left Terry with a glass of orange juice on his lap.

We had tickets for the seats but not for the first time on our travels the ultras were having none of that. A quick nod and a wink with the gate man and before we could say 'health and safety' we were standing on the terrace behind the goal helping the lads with a terrace display.

Heracles Almelo play on an artificial pitch and Ajax hate it. It didn't stop them winning at a relative canter (3-0) even though they were down to 10 men after 54 minutes. Almelo huffed and indeed even puffed but Ajax produced a few inspired minutes of 'total football' and the rest of the game petered out into large periods of 'anti football'.

It took Big Deaks and I about a week to recover from this weekend but it really was worth it. That trip took place in 2006 and even today we are on very friendly terms with members of The Unity at Dortmund who we often try and hook up with each time we are in Germany - broust!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Romania v France (Euro 2008)

Adidas successfully enter their brand into our subconscious with this marvellous 'huddle' in the foyer of Zurich train station.

Me at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

At last! After 42 years an Englishman gets his mitts on the World Cup.

The Germans celebrate their win over the Polish at the Zurich fan zone with a well rehearsed conga.

The soon to be demolished Hardturm Stadion which was previously home to Grasshoppers of Zurich.

Romania v France at the Letzigrund Stadion - note if you will the thinness of the floodlights.

6,500 Romania fans and one happy empty club shop owner.

The goal in the centre of this picture was undisturbed during the filming of this game.

I walked up 212 steps to bring you this picture so you better chuffing well like it.

From left to right - Martin (PNE fan), Big Deaks (Brighton fan), Sergio (Grasshoppers of Zurich), My good self and Dominik (Grasshoppers of Zurich). This picture was taken at 3am hence slight redness in the faces and cheesy grins.

Romania 0-0 France (09:06:08)

This was my fourth European Championships in a row having previously attended games in England (Euro 96), Holland & Belgium (2000) and in Portugal (2004). I only had tickets for one match but was that going to stop me having a good time!? Was it 'eck as like. Euro 2008 - bring it on.

After a flying into Basel from Luton (£23 thanks very much) we got the train from there to Zurich. The 1 hour journey was free courtesy of our match tickets. Indeed we didn't pay for any travel on trains or trams during 2.5 days due a condition allowing free travel with every match ticket purchased.

Within 15 seconds of arriving in Zurich I had already caught Euro 2008 fever. This was due to the magnificent work of art Adidas had plonked into the foyer of Zurich train station (see above). The 17 metre high huddle of 11 giant footballers took 50 people over a year to complete. I like to think generally I'm not a victim of advertising - then I looked down at my Adidas trainers - doh - they win again.

Zurich had prepared excellently for this championships. There was a fan mile which ran down one side of the river in the City which ended up at the lake next to which the enormous fan zone was situated. It had three giant screens, one of which was situated on a floating stage on the actual lake. Furthermore and get this Manchester City Council, they all worked and there was no trouble whatsoever.

Contained within the fan mile were a plethora of mini fan zones with live music, hundreds of giant plasma screens and thousands of happy punters. Stories of £5 a pint were happily unfounded - the most we paid was £3 which I'd have taken before the start of play.

We watched the Austria v Croatia match in one of the mini fan zones. Before and after the match a gypsy punk band played to a receptive crowd and after quite a few beers my friends and I found ourselves swinging a fast shoe down the front. The music was in fact better than the football.

After that we headed down the main fan zone to find several thousand German fans in questionable head wear but all the same in good voice. We watched Germany ease past Poland with them, sang a few songs, exchanged some great banter and helped them celebrate long into the night.

I can speak a bit of Spanish but after a few beers I'm completely fluent. We met up with four lovely people from Zaragoza whom I chatted to at length, one of whom was an old chap who turned out to be the President of Real Zaragoza!

I'd read in When Saturday Comes that the Swiss have a reputation of being rather discreet, very withdrawn and reserved. The article also said don't talk to them because they won't be your friend and that includes the random bibulous Scot in a kilt who thinks he can travel the world and make anyone smile by wiggling his sporran and showing a clean pair of Highland cheeks.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Zurich was in full flow, fans of every nation were singing and dancing and enjoying themselves. All the Swiss we met were fabulous and incredibly I ended up getting dragged onto a stage in the small hours with a bunch of Scots in kilts for a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland.

The next morning we decided to get a bit of culture into our system and try and find the 'real Zurich' before our match which was kicking off at 6pm. So first on the list was a trip to the new FIFA headquarters! Built at a cost of 99 million quid the building is actually very impressive. It has five underground levels, a fitness centre, meditation room, geographically themed parks and a full size pitch with fancy scoreboard.

After wondering into the generously sized foyer the first thing that took my notice was the World Cup sitting on stand. It would be rude not to be the first Englishman in 42 years to get my mitts on it so I helped myself to a photo. So far so good. Onwards we marched and I thought a meeting with old Joseph S. Blatter would be minutes away. An official looking lady then approached us and gave us a FIFA goodie bag containing badges, pennants, pens and all that sort of gubbins - nice. Sepp didn't agree to a meeting but we shook hands and with that we were off.

The Hardturn Stadion was next on our cultural agenda. It was previously home to Grasshoppers of Zurich but nowadays the stadium is no longer in use and is in fact due to be pulled down anytime soon. It was all boarded up and looked a pretty sad sight actually. We couldn't get inside but we did sneak a look through the fences to see an overgrown pitch, smashed up seating and some odd shaped stands.

Before setting of for the match we had dinner alongside the river back in the City centre before heading into and up 212 steps of the Grossmunster. This two towered Romanesque and Gothic cathedral provided a wonderful viewing platform over the City and if stain glass windows float your boat, it has a few of those as well. Dinner by the way consisted of a salad and a plate full of vegetables - license enough I thought to allow me to consume another tank full of ale after the game.

It was then time to head to our match. The tram took about 15 minutes from the town centre and we were met on our arrival by a large police presence. They were dressed to impress in green stormtropper outfits. As it was they weren't necessary and the only riot that day in the stadium was a riot of colours.

Big games in tournaments are quite good for spotting a celebrity of two. However, the best I can offer you on a quick walk around the stadium before the match was World Cup winning Frank Leboeuf. Sorry about that.

The stadium itself had of course been renovated for Euro 2008. Both FC Zurich and Grasshoppers of Zurich play their home games there. Normally it suffers the curse of having a running track surrounding the pitch. This however had been covered for the Euros with extra seating and some blue carpet. For this decision alone I award the organisers of the tournament five stars.

Four years ago, I was lucky to be at the Czech Republic v Holland game in Euro 2004 which was widely believed to be the best in the tournament. Fast forwards four years though and this match as you all know was an absolute stinker. Not only were there no goals but there wasn't even a single shot on goal. I had a good mind to nip back to the FIFA offices during the match a quickly pass a motion demanding bigger goals and no goalkeepers.

There was still plenty going on in the stands to look at during the game with the Romanian fans in great voice. I myself was whoring it up by singing with them and waving my Romanian flag (in figure of eight motion of course). Although the game itself was lifeless, bloodless and tedious the Romanian fans didn't give two hoots and they were delighted with the point. The French fans booed off their team (stop laughing at the back).

I had been looking forwards to seeing the much hyped Lyon striker Karim Benzema. He was bobbins though and on this performance alone I certainly won't be signing him. The only brief moments of excitement were provided by Franck Ribery. Not enough to justify 80 euros for the ticket though.

After the match we headed back into town to watch how football should be played in the form of Hollands victory over Italy. We then talked, sang and danced with French, Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish and probably lots more at various fan zones and bars.

The night ended in a bar near to our hotel where we met Dominik and Sergio. Two Grasshoppers fans and members of Swiss band Bedlam. Two great lads and if you are reading this chaps - thanks for your company, the songs and the beers! It was a fitting end to a brilliant couple of days. I'd like to think we extended our hands across Europe. The tournament motto is 'Expect emotions' we certainly had a few - thanks Zurich.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

We're off to Euro 2008!

Sadly fan zones will outnumber match appearances in Euro 2008. Here's one we made earlier.

Happy to report that this Sunday, we here at European Football Weekend Towers are decamping to Switzerland for Euro 2008. Sadly, UEFAs decision to hold the matches in stadiums the size of an old shoe box meant that we could only get tickets for one match; Romania v France in Zurich.

Initially we'd applied for six matches across two weeks in what we hoped was to be a repeat of the never to be forgotten Euro 2004 experience. All of those applications were rejected. Sepp Blatter must have had a very minor change of heart however and a few weeks ago an emeither from UEFA arrived in my inbox offering me the chance of three tickets for the aforementioned France v Romania game - yes please Sepp.

The build up to Euro 2008 has been wonderfully understated here in England. Thank Croatia for that if that nitwit Gary Linekers predictions on the BBC website are anything to go by. You and I pay this chap around a million quid a year and this is what he came out with - "It's open, but I'm going for those perennial underachievers Euro 2008 one to watch is Cristiano Ronaldo." Ta very much for that Gary lad - have a word with him.

So with only one game to attend in person, I'm going to have to get used to watching a few matches in the Zurich fan zone. To get me in the mood for such an act, I've dug out a photo from the archives from the 2006 World Cup final which I watched with my wife in a fan zone in Innsbruck, Austria (see above).

In the absence of any home nations participation everybody is asking 'Who will you support in Euro 2008!?' - for the record 10% of my support will be with the Romanians who I saw in the qualifiers against Holland in Constanta. The other 90% of me will be supporting Spain (see wife for details).

So that's it folks. I fly out with a couple of mates to Basel or Basle whichever you prefer on Sunday and we'll make our way over to Zurich for a couple of nights of fan zones, cheese and one actual match. I'll pen a report upon my return so for now vamos Espana - Switzerland here we jolly well come!