Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from EFW!

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping on your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choi.....(enough already - Ed).

Thanks a million to all those who have logged on to EFW this year. Hopefully, you'll be back for more of the same in 2010!? I'm off to Spain for the festive period but it's not all fiestas and fine wine as I'll be working there as well. I'll be putting in shifts at Atletico Madrid v Sevilla, A.D.Alcorcón v R.M.Castilla and Getafe v Valladolid.

If you missed it, you can read the 2009 EFW Awards HERE and if you get bored of that you can read The Ball is Round Awards THERE.

You can follow our antics in Spain on the EFW TWITTER feed. If you don't fancy signing up for that then the last 5 tweets always appear at the bottom of the menu on the right hand side.

If you fancy your club or fans being featured on these pages next year then get in touch.

See you in 2010!

Danny X

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Monday, 21 December 2009

Maccabi Haifa FC

Jolly Green Giants

The next stop on our continuing global journey into football culture finds us pulling into Western Asia. Israel to be more specific and their pride and joy Maccabi Haifa FC. Some people refer to them as The Greens, others just simply מועדון הכדורגל מכבי חיפה. Being - as they are - the EFW team of choice in Israel, we wanted to get to know them a bit better and so we dialled up our Israeli correspondent Ofer Prossner to find out more:

Tell me a bit about yourself and why you support Maccabi Haifa. I'm a 27 year old aspiring screenwriter who currently works as a sports write in Tel Aviv, which is the cultural centre of Israel, and is 100km from Haifa. Support for Maccabi Haifa is a family thing, at least for me. My Dad gave me and my brother the gift/curse. He took my brother to his first game when was 3 years old, and mine, if I remember correctly was at 8 years old.

Ofer -Maccabi Haifa through and through.

What sort of crowds in terms of numbers does Maccabi Haifa attract? Well, it depends. We actually sold out the national stadium for the Champions League games with crowds of 40,000 (unheard of in Israel, especially as that stadium is in Tel Aviv), but in the Israeli Premier League, usually home crowds are in the region of 6-7,000.

Do you get any away supporters at the Kiryat Eliezer? Of course, since Israel is a very small country, away supporters always come to the Kirya - they are housed in the worst seats though.

How good is your away support? Well, I'm not objective, but I rather like it. We used to often outnumber home fans - which was fun. There is a feeling nowadays though that since we became the most successful side in the league (over the last decade), our attendances, both home and away have dwindled a bit.

Is there an ultra culture in Israeli football? Jerusalem, Yes there is. Each one of the big 4 (us, BeitarHapeol Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv have rather good ultras). I must say that in terms of creativity, and if you are a neutral supporter, Hapoel's ultras give you the best entertainment. But the Green Apes, Maccabi Haifa's ultras, are very good and extremely passionate, sitting in the famous Gimel (the 3rd letter in the Hebrew alphabet) block in the Kirya.

Who are your rivals? Well, we consider the other 3 of the big four our rivals, and it usually depends who is running against us in the championship race. But we really dislike Maccabi Tel Aviv, it's kind of the peripheral team (us) against the big city up-nosed-know-it-alls. And of course, we have our local rivals, Hapeol Haifa, which I consider my top most hated team.

What is derby day like in Haifa (v Hapoel)? Well, we share the same stadium but we have more fans than they do. During the mid to late 90's, the derby was great because Hapoel had a very strong team that even won a championship - their only one. This season the derby is on the weekend of the 26th December and it should be awesome.

Is there a bigger game in your season than that one? The biggest games each season are the European cup games; they are the most anticipated and the most important.

Is it easy to get tickets for home matches? It usually is, since for the average league game, we usually only fill half of the stadium.

If the EFW team cam to Haifa for a match, would we be made welcome? Very much so! People in Israel are very friendly and like speaking with foreigners about anything - apart from politics. You'd be most welcome, just come already.

What is the beer situation in and around the ground? Could you recommend us a nice pre and post match drinking venue? You've hit on a touchy subject there. Beer is not sold in Israeli grounds and is not considered a staple in the Israeli football food and drink plethora. Also, the stadium does not have pubs near it. You can buy cheap bottles in nearby shops. There's no such thing as a license in the holy land.

How many games can you feasibly see in one weekend in Israel? Oh well, since I know EFW's liking of lower leagues, I say that 4 or even 5 is not too hard to achieve - and I shall explain. In Israel, the weekend starts in effect on Thursday evening. You can catch a 2nd Division game on Friday afternoon, sometimes two games on a Saturday, one on a Sunday and another lower league game on Monday afternoon and one Premier League game on Monday evening. Remember that Israel is a small country, so if you rent a car you can see at the very least three matches but the stadiums aren't that great.

How much would a match ticket cost us? Tickets usually cost between 70-90 shekels - 12 to 15 quid for Premier League matches.

We sell terrible food in English stadiums at silly prices. What sort of food can we procure in Israeli grounds? Not that good either, but in Haifa, the best donner in the city is right outside the stadium. Israeli grub is one of the best in the world, ask anyone.

How safe is watching football in Israel? Watching a game is usually a safe experience although we get the occasional problem. Lately, things are quiet. Our biggest problem in the stadiums, in my opinion, is the fact that we don't have stewards but policemen. Police special forces are in charge of security in the stadium, a thing that causes clashes sometimes.

Is there a hooligan problem? The only team that has a hooligan problem is Beitar Jerusalem. Their fans have been known to taunt Arabic players and even yell racist remarks. But most of the time, no hooligans, although you might see or hear some off colour signs and chants.

What is the Kiryat Eliezer stadium like? Well, I've had many good times there, so I have emotions towards it, but it's old and I can honestly say it's a dump. It's like an old dog in a way.

Like an old dog.

I've heard you are in the process of building a new one? Yes we are, a top notch modern 32,000 all seater which should - according to the plans - be the best in Israel and even a good match to some European stadiums. Knowing my country and the way things are, I'm pessimistic and I just hope it'll be built before Lewes FC's next Champions League game.

And the best stadium in Israel? I have to say Bloomfield - the municipal stadium of Tel Aviv, which is located in Jaffa (but doesn't sell Jaffa Cakes). Its the only stadium in Israel that is totally enclosed and it has great site lines. It's home to Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv and also to the third team from Tel Aviv - Bney Yehuda. Second best is Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium.

Playing Champions League matches in Cyprus must have been a bit of a pain? Our first Champions League campaign was played in Cyprus, 7 years ago and it was indeed a pain. But this year we played in the national stadium and actually made a record as the worst team ever to appear in the Champions League. Did I mention I absolutely freaking hate the national stadium? And it's not just me - almost every football fan in Israel hates it.

Does politics play a part in Israeli football? Where to even start, of course it does. Politics plays a part in every aspect of the Israeli life. I won't go into details about how the IFA is being fun, but from a fan's prospective I will say that of the big 4 - Hapoel tend to see themselves as lefties and anti institution while Beitar see themselves as right wing. This is why games between those two are hotly contested. Beitar are the only team in the Premier League never to have fielded an Arab player, although Jerusalem is a very big Arab city as well as Jewish.

What is the biggest match in Israeli football? The two biggest are Hapoel Tel Aviv v Beitar Jerusalem (for the reasons I listed above) and the Tel Aviv derby between Maccabi and Hapoel, which was given it's own chapter in the Andy Mitten book - "Mad For It".

How big is Israel's version of the FA Cup? Ahhh...the Israeli Cup - how I love it. For years, one of the best fixtures in the Israeli football calendar is the semi final day. A double header in the national stadium, which brings out lots of fans. It takes place in the spring and is great fun to be in. Cup games are loved in Israel.

Does football dominate the press?
Yes, but basketball is our No.2 sport. We have one team that won the European top competition a few times but in recent years basketball is losing it since there are too many foreign players. Also, at the start of this year, a famous basketball official hung himself which led to an ongoing investigation about the purity of the game. It's a shame really - I don't follow Maccabi Haifa's basketball team anymore because of that.

What has been the highlight of supporting Maccabi Haifa? It's so hard to pick one but the first ever Champions League game of an Israeli team at Old Trafford was something else. We went 1-0 up early on and that was absolutely amazing. We lost 5-2 in the end but in the return leg in the group we beat Man Utd 3-0. That game took place in Cyprus and I couldn't attend because of my army service. There was also a famous last minute win against PSG (3-2) and in Israel; I shall always cherish the derby victory after Hapoel's championship season - a remarkable game.

Obviously, we've heard of Avram Grant and Yossi Benayoun but who is the next star you are going to let loose over here? Look for a young talent by the name of Eyal Golasa - he wears Benayoun's No.15 shirt, has long hair and he looks like he dances with the ball. Also, there is Muhammad Gadir, a young striker with excellent pace.

What is the club song like at Maccabi Haifa and can we swing a fast shoe to it? Oh, it's hard to translate but here is a YouTube clip.

Do you have a mascot? Nope, but we used to have a lovely lion. It's been 15 years since him going away. (I feel an EFW campaign coming on there don't you? - Ed).

Is there any interest in English football in Haifa outside of the big four? We love English football. Some are Tottenham fans after Ronny Rosenthal (who grew up in the ranks of Maccabi Haifa) and flock to England each Christmas to watch matches. But generally, the big four and any team that has an Israeli player or coach.

Presumably, Lewes FC has their own Israeli fan club? My lower league heart lies with Leyton Orient but I know that next time I'm in England, if I go to a Lewes game - I'll be hooked.

As well as our European football, we love our non-league stuff here at EFW. Is there much of a non-league scene in Israel? The biggest and most passionate non league (the lowest 3 leagues in Israel are not professional) teams are found in Arab villages and cities. As a former referee in the lower leagues in the north, I have to say that attendances vary but they do not exceed 1,000. Having said that - a lot of Premier League matches are poorly attending as well.

What sort of wages are players on? Is it all about money, money, money in the Israeli Premiership? Money is a very big part of the game nowadays and Maccabi players get paid some of the biggest wages in Israel. There is a big parity between teams because of those financial issues.

Tell us something we don't know about Maccabi Haifa. We once lost a cup final 12-1. For years there was a Brazil flag in the stands as Maccabi is synonymous with beautiful football. We have the longest serving owner of a football team in Israel - Yaakov Shachar - who has been here almost 20 years.

Anything else to add? A nice tidbit -as far as I can remember - Maccabi Haifa have used at least 10 grounds in European competitions, which I believe is some sort of record. We've played games at four different grounds in Israel, and also home games in the Ukraine, Holland (2 different ones), Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus.

And so concludes our little chat with Ofer which I hope you enjoyed. I'm now a lot more clued up about Maccabi Haifa and Israeli football in general. We've stuck Haifa at the top of our 'to do' list for 2010 and we'll be over there for the derby if you want to join us? Right, I'm now off to pen a letter to the club to get that lion mascot reinstated. In fact, I want to be in that lion costume for the derby match next season - just you watch.

Thanks to our friends at the Maccabi Haifa online website for the photos.

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Friday, 18 December 2009

Al Murray The Pub Landlord

It's as easy as.....

1 - Hosting (hosting!) the Q awards -seen here with Mr Plant.

2. Hosting (hosting!) Live at the Apollo.

3. Holding (holding) the EFW logo.

Welcome to the silly season folks.

Monday, 14 December 2009

2009 European Football Weekends Awards

In the rare moments when we are not picking up awards here at EFW, we like to dish them out ourselves. Following the relative success of our 2008 ceremony, we had a little think tank here at EFW Towers and decided that we should end the year with a look back on 2009. Why change a winning formula!? So, without further ado, roll up and enjoy the 2009 EFW Awards:

Highlight of 2009

Take 32 lads from all around Europe, add in four games of football in two different countries in three days and enough beer to sink a small battleship and that - in a nutshell -was the inaugural EFW Oktoberfest. An event so successful that we're going to do it all again next year. Happy days and no mistake.

Most over the top pre-match

We had some silly/inspired ideas during 2009 but none more so than trying to drink in every pub in Walton-Upon-Thames before the Walton Casuals v Walton and Hersham local derby.

Best atmosphere

There's been a few goodies this year but the best atmosphere for a game I attended was for the St Etienne v Bordeaux "love in". There was a deafening noise throughout and the ultras at both ends of the stadium give it everything - how it should be. We also bonded with a group of Bordeaux fans on the trip who are still friends to this day.

Worst atmosphere

It's an unbelievable sight and a cathedral of football and all that but there is simply no atmosphere at the Camp Nou - nada. I went for the Barca v Real Mallorca match. The football is great, as it the city but the fans just simply can't be arsed.

Best ultras photo

You'd do well to top Beavis and Butt-head at St Albans wouldn't you!? If you haven't already signed up for the Merstham Ultras Appreciation Society then what are you waiting for?

Best cuddle

I don't make a habit of cuddling blokes but this one had to be done. When a chap you sponsor knocks in - what at the time I thought was - the winning goal for Lewes, then runs towards you as you're doing star jumps down the terrace, what else are you mean to do?

Best press pass blag

I don't make any money out of EFW, in fact I turn down about two offers of sponsorship every week, but I do get the odd press pass for my troubles. Blagging one for Wembley Stadium and Lords in the same day though was rather special.

Good Lord(s).

Best merchandise

The runner up in this keenly fought category are these wonderful Rot-Weiss Essen Christmas decorations, which are currently looking resplendent on the EFW Xmas Tree as I type.

The winning bit of kit though is the old Hansa Rostock bunting - which Nick Waterhouse is seen here holding aloft. Why doesn't every team sell bunting? Exactly the sort of thing we'd like to see in the newly refurbished Lewes FC clubhouse project, which we are undertaking early in the New Year. (keep your stuff coming in for that by the way - Ed).

Best celebrity with the EFW logo

Nowadays, fans and celebrities alike queue up to have their photo taken with the EFW logo. Pub landlord Al Murray looked stunned to have met us here and gets the runners up prize. The week after this was taken Al went on to host the Q awards. A coincidence? I don't think so.

The winner though is England cricketing legend and Ashes winner Jimmy Anderson. Follow Jimmy on Twitter for some good banter.

Best hat

When we pitched up at Wolfsburg earlier in the year, this bit of headgear understandably blew us away. Five FIFA stars to this German lady. I take my hat off to her.

Best pre-match pub

Lots of contenders here; Nailsworth, Essen, Southampton, Siena etc but the winner was the Llanelli FC clubhouse. 2,000 Motherwell fans in full voice for four hours and all of them wanted to buy me a beer. Thanks a million - what a day!

Best post match pub

Cynical Dave and I tried out most of the pubs in Aberdeen after the match against Celtic. This one though was something else. Look behind the hype (it was featured on Britain's Roughest Pubs) and the masking tape holding the tables together - Peep Peeps is a great boozer. We received the warmest of welcomes in there. Class in a glass.

Best video of 2009

Cynical Dave doing his Roy Hodgson impression just shades him and Stoffers swinging a fast shoe in Havant. I can't seem to post videos on this site these days so you'll just have to click on the links. 1) Roy Hodgson 2) Disco Dave and Stomping Stoffers Part 1 and if you will Part 2.

Most self indulgent photo/bigging yourself up moment

This category was suggested by Big Deaks and Cynical Dave. Plenty to choose from of course but Essen (above) and Llanelli (below) appear to be fine examples!

Worst day/game

We normally have the day of our lives on awaydays, pretty much without exception. However, at Braintree v Lewes; I broke my camera, we lost 3-0, to get there we had to do battle with London commuters on the worlds hottest train and to cap it all off - I had to go easy on the pre-match beers because I had to pen an actual report for the Lewes website and match programme.

Best ground

It doesn't have to be an 80,000 all seater to impress me. These were the three new grounds that I fell in love with this year. In third place St Albans, Clarence Park (above). Surrounded by trees, terracing and a splendid old main stand.

Bromley's Hayes Lane is the runner up. Fantastic modern facilities behind the scenes combined with an old skool ground. The perfect combination in my book.

The winner, by a nose is Princes Park, Dartford. It's easy to see why this stadium has won hatfuls of awards. It's ecologically sound, it's got a grass (grass!) roof all the way around, it's got solar panels, it's totally sustainable and it creates it's own electricity. Some argue it's the best ground in the country. I agree.

Favourite photos

Runner up is this one of the Maidenhead keeper. I love it because it was taken during the match. Cheeky as you like but a classic EFW moment. Hats at a jaunty angle to Chris Tardif - legend!

This was my favourite photo of 2009. We developed a bit of a thing for staying in clubhouses after matches this season, then having a "bit of fun" on the pitch afterwards. This photo at Bromley sums that up perfectly. Big Deaks saving a penalty with the EFW logo whilst Stuart Fuller (arms in classic ten to two pose) celebrates behind the goal. This is what EFW days out are all about.

So that's it folks. The year in which we fell in love with non-league football and moreover Lewes FC - as well as our European trips. The year in which I was offered a role at FourFourTwo magazine which didn't come to light because they wanted me to shut this site down and write for them - for nothing. The year in which after a year of joking about it, we actually won something in the form of a When Saturday Comes Bronze Award. The year in which we arranged a trip for 32 people to drink beer and watch football, which turned out to be the best three days of 2009. The year in which we set up a succesful EFW Facebook group (with over 350 members) and Twitter account. The year in which I made friends for life at Lewes, Forest Green Rovers, Rot-Weiss Essen, Royal Antwerp, Hansa Rostock, Bordeaux, Motherwell, Hampton and Richmond and many many more. The year in which I probably talked too much nonsense. The year in which our 100,000th hit is about to occur on this site. That year, was 2009 and I loved every minute of it. More of the same in 2010!? I think so - see you there X

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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Chicago Fire - Section 8 Chicago

Ring of Fire

Talk to the majority of English Premier League fans about the MLS and they will more than likely turn their noses up in disgust. Knowledge is the bomb though, so don't knock it until you've tried or at least heard a little about it. Nobody can deny that a fair amount of EPL games are played out against a backdrop of near silence in the stands nowadays. Compare that with the growing trend of ultra groups, raucousness and passion that's increasingly emanating from the stands in America.

Earlier in the year, I caused a bit of a furore on these pages with a couple of articles about both the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. The fans of those two teams tore each other to shreds on the comments section and it took me quite by surprise. I drew positives from that experience though, after all, where would football be without rivalry!?

Fast forwards to December 2009 and I found myself researching another MLS club with fans worth investigating - Chicago Fire. To find out more, I dialled up Tom Dunmore. Tom is the editor of the award winning and rather fantastic Pitch Invasion blog as well as being the Vice-Chair of Section 8 Chicago (more of them in a minute). So, pull up a chair as Tom and I discuss footy, fans and beer 'American style'. You never know, you may soon find yourself on a flight to the "Windy City":

America's best kept secret (at least this side of the pond anyway) is the ever growing passion that is being shown on the terraces at MLS matches. Tell us about Section 8 at Chicago. Section 8 is the name given to the standing, singing sections at the Harlem End of the Chicago Fire's current home, Toyota Park. There are usually about a thousand supporters in Section 8, though that can be more for big games (we had almost 2,000 packed in for the recent Eastern Conference final across three sections). We do all that ultras jazz in the tradition of our continental European and South American counterparts: waving flags, producing big banners, and letting off pyrotechnics now and then (not that I approve of that), along with keeping up chants for 90+ minutes straight, led by a Capo on a stand gesticulating at us plebeians to sing louder. Outside of games, we socialise a lot: we like to drink beer now and then, and my own little supporters group is rather keen on ensuring there's whiskey ever-present on our regular away days to support the Fire.
The name "Section 8" references the original home for supporters when the Fire played at Soldier Field, in Section number 8 of the stadium. The name also has many other appropriate references in the United States that have made it stick to us, and Wikipedia's disambiguation page for the term "Section 8" never fails to amuse me.

But to bore you for a second, it's also important to note that Section 8 is not actually a group you can join, but just a general term used for all the individual supporters and supporters' groups that make-up Fire supporters as a collective. For example, I am in the groupWB05, which has maybe a dozen members. As Wikipedia notes, we do have a non-profit Independent Supporters' Association called Section 8 Chicago that has an annually elected board and acts as the liaison between supporters and club management. Somehow, I was elected as the vice-chair for 2009, and a year of my life has since gone missing.

And how do the club themselves view the actions of your group? Inconsistently. At times, they love what Section 8 does to support the team across the country (and we're pretty useful marketing-wise, given our kind of passion isn't much seen elsewhere in Chicago's professional sports stadiums), and certainly the players appreciate the support at every game. At other times, club management give us serious headaches (and to be fair, sometimes we give them headaches): we've had a few protests over the years that have silenced the stadium, such as those against the firing by the Fire's ownership of club president Peter Wilt and against racist security guards in the stadium. We have our traditions as supporters and those in the front office foolish enough to fuck with them soon regret it, to be honest. Right now, after a lot of hard work on both sides of the fence, we have a good working relationship with the club (the front office has had a lot of turnover, and most of them are now very friendly and supportive of Section 8) and we recently sat down with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman for an open and productive meeting. We still have some issues to resolve as the treatment by security of fans around the stadium is still very poor and the pyrotechnics certainly cause problems for everyone, but we're starting to take more substantial steps by working on a fan charter and getting more support in growing the supporters sections further. Right now, I believe relations with the club are better than they have been since Peter Wilt was fired. But of course, we never know what's around the corner.

The players must love it though? Everyone of them I've ever spoken to has said they do, and I'm sure it beats having to play in front of the crappy crowds in a few otherMLS cities I could name.

We are loving this......all rise for the Chicago Fire

Didn't Chicago Fire win the league and cup double in their first complete season as a competitive club!? Only in America eh....Yep, though to be fair, it was only the third season of Major League Soccer as a competition itself (the league began in 1996). In 1998 we joined as an expansion team, and the focus of the league on "parity" via the salary cap means it's relatively easy for an expansion team to have a shot to win it all. And we did, thanks to these guys and many others. Sadly, I was still living in England at the time and had barely heard of the Chicago Fire. We still remain the only team to achieve this feat in our expansion first season (sorry, Seattle).

What is Toyota Park like and is it comparable to any grounds here in England? It was one of the first "soccer-specific-stadiums" in MLS, a name that belies its actual multi-purpose use: like Wembley, it's also used for concerts and other sporting events. Unlike Wembley, it sports a permanent stage area at one end, though fortunately seating in front means it is a four-sided ground. Roofing only (just about) covers two sides, though we play in the summer, so the rainy games are rare (but hell for those of us in the uncovered Harlem End when they do happen). In terms of capacity, facilities, luxury suites and the like it's probably similar to a decent Championship side's modern stadium.

Is it one of those out of town stadiums? Yes. It's just outside Chicago's city limits, in the gritty Village of Bridgeview. It's not easy to get to via public transit, though beer buses that we run from city bars sure make the 30 minute drive pass by easily enough. It would be great to have a stadium in the city centre, but it wasn't viable at the time, and we really needed a stadium to call home anywhere near Chicago after playing in three different stadiums in the club's first half-dozen or so years of existence.

How much would a match ticket set us back? In Section 8, $10-15. So what it would have cost you to watch an English league match about twenty years ago. My season ticket is just $200.

100GBP a season AND a free flag. What's not to like!?

What sort of crowds do you attract and how does that compare with the multitude of other sports in Chicago? The average this year was about 15,000. Not the best in the club's history, though we did sell out both playoff games. It's not a patch on theNFL's Chicago Bears, who easily sell-out Soldier Field's 60,000+ capacity for every game, or the millions who pour through the gates of Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs, baseball), US Cellular Field (Chicago WhiteSox, baseball) and the United Center (Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks ). Chicago shares with New York the unique distinction of being home to major league teams in football, basketball, ice hockey and two teams in baseball: it's sports-mad. That has made it hard for the Fire to carve out as distinctive niche, but it's slowly coming along.

Do you struggle for press coverage in the Chicago Tribune? Yes, for the reasons mentioned above: every day of the year, there is a bigger team in the city to headline the sports section. Right now, the Tribune do not even have a dedicated reporter to the Fire, though they have a couple of decent bloggers covering the team.

Unsurprisingly, the 'beer bus' caught my eye on your website. Free beer on the bus to matches!? Surely not!? You'd be hard-pressed to find a Section 8 activity that doesn't involve cheap, and fairly often free beer....

Free (free!) beer and flag displays. Welcome to Chicago folks!

What is the beer of choice in Chicago and is it weak, fizzy and tasteless? There's plenty of weak, fizzy and tasteless beer consumed, from Budweiser to the Fire's sponsor beer, the execrable Miller Lite. However, America also has an outstanding craft brewery industry that has grown up over the past decade or two, and Chicago is no exception: several local breweries produce outstanding beer, including -- gasp -- Real Ale, and we often have a keg of the excellent Half Acre at our tailgates in the parking lot before games. Great blokes, great beer.

Talking of beer (again), can we get a decent beer and a famous Chicago 'deep-dish pizza' inside the stadium on matchdays? Yes, they serve a few decent beers inside and they have Connies pizza, which isn't bad, if far from the best Chicago pizza. But it's overpriced inside, so I'd recommend eating at our barbecue outside before the game and drinking the aforementioned Half Acre or bringing your own beer to our tailgate. Tailgating is a Chicago sports tradition, and it's hard to beat it: good beer, grilled food and hours of socialising with friends before the big game. Did I mention beer? (yes you did, we're renewing our passports as we speak - Ed).

"Good beer, grilled food and hours of socialising" Where do we sign!?

Are there any fans of the Fire now that used to follow the Sting or the Power? Absolutely, though I wouldn't say it's a large number.

Who are your rivals? Everyone. No, seriously. We seem to have managed to piss off pretty much everyone everywhere we have gone in MLS. Dallas was a long-time rival (see the Brimstone Cup), but we no longer play them as often as we're not in the same conference, so in recent years New England and Columbus have been the most noticeable rivals. Toronto can be considered a rival if they ever make it to the playoffs to play us there, Seattle don't seem too keen on us, and I guess Kansas City dislike us, though we don't pay a lot of attention to them. I'm not making friends here, am I?

Is it true that you have an informal alliance with the fans of the Portland Timbers? Yep. The Timbers Army have long had much of the same spirit and energy for supporting the team Section 8 has had, and kudos to them for doing it just as well in the lower divisions. Their DIY culture is something to be admired, and many Section 8ers have made friends with members of the Timbers Army on more than one trip out there. Most recently and famously to Seattle's chagrin, many members of the Timbers Army travelled up to Seattle to support the Fire in our first league match against the Sounders along with many Fire fans who took a bus up from Portland after flying out there first. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the alliance when Portland joins the league in 2011, but I think we're both mature enough groups of supporters that we can be rivals for 90 minutes then make fun of each other over a beer afterwards.

Chicago (actual) Fire

Surely with the distances involved there aren't too many away fans at matches in the MLS? It's certainly a lot tougher than in England: our closest league opponent is over 500 miles east in Columbus, Ohio. But Americans aren't afraid of travelling vast distances, so we take several hundred fans to Columbus each year (and their stadium has hence been named Firehouse East by us) on buses we run. We also run buses out to Toronto and Kansas City, making up our 3-city "Away Season Ticket" package: three bus trips and game tickets for $175 this year. There are Fire fans at all other away games, whether it's just a handful or dozens more for reasonable flight distances like New York. We give the name to these adventures "Section 8 On Tour" and the goings-on have become pretty legendary over the years. As in England, the away trips are the best way to bond with fellow fans, meet new people and come up with more songs to pass the 12 hour bus trip to Toronto.

Do you have a club mascot? Yes, Sparky. Be careful around him. Seriously.

Sparky -Approach with caution.

And a club anthem? Umm, not really.

We've gathered your vocal and visual support is pretty impressive but this is America, do you have any cheese inside the stadium such as music after goals, novelty off the pitch shenanigans, firing t-shirts into the crowd that sort of thing? Yes, though thankfully this has been cut down over the years as MLS has realised it needs to focus on the game itself. There is little to distract the crowd during the action (the t-shirt firing and mini-games on the field happen at half-time). It's nowhere near as spoonfed as in professional baseball or basketball, where at times it seems as if the intent is to make the crowd forget there's an actual sporting contest going on. There's nothing much that bothers me during the 90 minutes, not that I'd notice from the mayhem in Section 8 anyway.

Do sports fans in Chicago cross codes? i.e. do many follow more than one sport? Absolutely. Very, very few Fire fans would not have a passing interest in at least one other sport. Most of them will have grown up supporting local professional sports teams, from the Bears to the Bulls (remember, that Jordan fellow was pretty popular in the 1990s).

Being English, I am of course contractually obliged to ask you about David Beckham. Do you have a view on him and his impact on the MLS? My favourite Beckham-related moment was John Thorrington's goal for the Fire against his LA Galaxy in the final regular season game of 2007, which ensured we made the playoffs....and the Galaxy didn't. I enjoyed that more than anything else Beckham has brought to the league.

And finally, just how windy is Chicago? Not as windy as Brighton, England, the only place I've ever experienced (something like) a hurricane!

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When Saturday Comes Blog Award

It's Bronze for EFW in national awards shock

I've often joked that EFW is an award winning blog. But, like most things on this site, that wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Now we've only gone and trousered a prestigious joint Bronze Award in the 2009 When Saturday Comes Web Awards. If you click on the above cutting from WSC, you'll see that Ian Plenderleith - we'll call him Plenders shall we - had this to say about us:

"OK, room for one more groundhopping blog, because these lads don't take themselves too seriously on organised weekends, wearing EFW T-shirts, in a bus, drinking beer on the autobahn on the way to a German fourth division game. The jocose banter makes you feel like you're on the bus too. A boozy, enjoyable trip."

Jocose banter! That sounds like us eh!? I'll settle for that Plenders old chap. Congratulations to our pals at Pitch Invasion, Two Hundred Percent and the 100 Football Grounds Club for also picking up awards.

Thanks to you all - you know who you are!

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Futbol Fanatico

Living the dream

Fancy going to see the Boca Juniors v River Plate Superclásico in Argentina? Of course you do. It's the one match every football fan must see before they die. Well, how about seeing that match and then staying on in Argentina to capture loads more fanatical fan behaviour on film before moving onto Brazil, South Korea, Serbia and pretty the rest of the free world watching football - sounds alright doesn't it!?

Well, a DVD entitled 'Futbol Fanatico' arrived at EFW Towers a few weeks back in which German lads Jörg Heinisch and Carlo Farsang did just that. This double DVD - that runs for just shy of 3hrs - concentrates on football fan culture around the world and makes for compelling viewing. So if your interest in football extends to events on the terraces then this could well be worth a look.

To find out more about their adventures and delve a bit deeper into the movie about the most fanatic supporters in the world, I dialled up Eintracht Frankfurt fan
Jörg and asked him a few questions about 'living the dream'.

Have you found anything that comes close to matching the Boca Juniors v River Plate match in terms of atmosphere? No, it's really a fact that this match I saw in 2006 was my biggest experience of atmosphere in football. There were other matches in Argentina with incredible action that we documented on this double-DVD. The match in Rosario for example between Newell' Old Boys and Boca - what are you meant to feel as you are standing on the roof of the main stand which is vibrating in an extreme way as the crowd is jumping and jumping? You can see it in the movie. This was totally new for me.

Welcome to Boca Juniors. Where do we sign?

Fari hits the roof in Rosario.

I've fallen in love with a few teams on my own footballing journey throughout Europe, any worldwide that you have taken to your heart - aside from Eintracht Frankfurt obviously? My football heart is reserved only for my club. But my skin is prickling if I am able to enjoy a journey in a far away country with great football atmosphere, adventure and breath-taking landscape. To avoid a misunderstanding: for me. I am not a groundhopper! A groundhopper is a fan who is travelling minimum every weekend and has to collect new ground on every holiday. I have a good job, a girlfriend and a fanzine that has to be published every month. So there would be no time for groundhopping.

There must have been one or two hairy moments on your adventure? In Argentina you can't "go for a walk" through the stands, especially whilst filming the crowd. You have to be very careful. When we made shots of the supporter scene at Velez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires it was said to us very clearly that we have to stop. We are talking about an area where no police go as there could be violence against them. In the eyes of these fanatics you could be a policeman with a video camera documenting something.

On the other side there are lots of districts in Buenos Aires with social conflict potential - some directly near to grounds. You have to open your eyes if you should walk near the ground of San Lorenzo for example. As we tried to get a taxi to a 2nd Division match at the ground of Neuva Chicago the taxi drivers refused to transport us to the ground. It was only at our fifth (!) attempt that we found a driver with enough courage to go to Nueva Chicago.

What sort of response did you get from the locals? We didn't have so much contact with the local when we were in Argentina in 2006: We did ten matches in 14 days. Consequently, we were on tour all the time. And when we had a night in Buenos Aires we had to check our video material and talked about what could be used for the film. My colleague Carlo Farsang (nicknamed "Fari") had a lot of contacts and impressions from his former tours in South America.

You two lads must have spent a small fortune on football. Are your trips self funded or do you have any form of sponsorship? Neither of us has a form of sponsorship. Me, I choose to go on tours with an interesting combination of land, people and football as a vacation or for a kind of report like for the DVD. I have visited football matches in little more than 20 FIFA members only. Fari is another case, a very special case. He is the most popular German groundhopper and started going on tour around 1988. He gave up his job in his home town, changed his lifestyle and sometimes worked in other countries (East-Europe, Argentina). He's been everywhere. Until 2000 he invested all his money in these trips. After that, he started his own service company in his black forest home town which has been very, very successful. Today he goes on tour only two or three times a year as he can't be absent from work for too long. Although he no longer tours every weekend he has visited matches in over 110 FIFA member countries, visiting far more than 1,000 grounds.

These days you learn which is the cheapest way to travel. Booking via travel agencies can be expensive. So for example - going to a match in Armenia: take a cheap flight to Trabzon or Van in Turkey via Istanbul, then a bus to Georgia. Then travel with the locals on mini buses through Georgia to Armenia. That way you get to live great adventures - better than travelling by an expensive scheduled flight directly to Erivan.

Hola to you!

Who have been the friendliest club you've encountered? I don't know. It's friendly if it's familiar. This can be a 2nd Division club in Argentina or anywhere in a province where you get invited for a cake or get to meet local people on the terraces.

Your house must be a shrine to football, does it resemble a footballing museum? Not my house but the house of Fari since he is a football photographer and has so much material. Some of his stuff was shown in a Museum in Kiel some years ago. During 2006 he produced an exhibition "The World of Football" with motives from grounds all over the world.

Is Argentina the best country in the world in which to watch football? In terms of atmosphere....yes, together with Chile.

Presumably, you've popped around Maradona's house for lunch, what was he like!? We went passed the block where his family is living and we saw him at the Boca v River match as you see in the movie. It was never a plan to visit "El Dios" though. There is no sympathy for him from me. He is a phenomena and lots of people love him but on the other side Mr "Hand of God" is no fair sportsman.

Those Argentinian terraces look absolutely crazy, how safe is it to watch football there? You shouldn't go in the middle of fanaticism on some of those terraces. This could be a little bit risky. But it depends on the club. You are able to enjoy this atmosphere from everywhere in these stadiums.

Did you see any violence at all? In Argentina the fans are kept apart more than in Europe. The travelling routes near the grounds are separated. But the grounds are very old. We had this match in the 2nd Division (Tigre v Chacarita) where the away fans dismantled their section. There were wooden benches...but after a few minutes there were less benches and a lot of their fanatics had wooden slates in their hands and climbed with them on top of the fences.

During this trip we heard that there was a battle between two groups of different clubs on a highway parking area. One bus of one group was driven in kamikaze style into a bus of the other fans. Sounds like extreme violence eh!?

I hear you've become a bit of a celebrity in Germany? More people know about me but celebrity? I've published twelve football books, three of them regarding groundhopping under the aspect of "adventure groundhopping". I have collected the most interesting reports, complete with a lot of background and interview material from the groundhopping scene. These books are very popular and for sure - the DVD FUTBOL FANATICO was received with a lot of enthusiasm in the German supporter scene. We also received a nice review in When Saturday Comes in England. The nationwide magazine "11 Freunde" ("11 Friends") gave us the best review they have ever published so I think that's why some more guys know my name.


Is there any game you'd like to see that haven't already? If money was no object then the big derbies in Santiago de Chile and in India (with up to 100,000 fans) could be interesting. Fari's current wish is a 24-hour-trip to Congo, one match in Kinshasa and another on the other side of the River Congo in the other Congo state in Brazzaville.

The fans of your own team (Eintracht Frankfurt) have a tremendous reputation around Germany for the support they give their team. Is that what first got you excited about fan culture? The good reputation of Frankfurt fans started with the foundation of the group of "Ultras Frankfurt" in 1997. As I started a bit of my groundhopping experience by that time, I had some good ideas what a good support could be.

But my first match was in 1979 and I've been to all the home games since 1985 and all away matches since 1990. I was a referee for 12 years and founded a regional supporters club where I organized a big European Supporters Club tournament with up to 28 supporters teams from up to 8 nations every year for 11 years.

My first intensive contact with fan culture was with the Frankfurt fanzine "Fan geht vor" (first published in 1991 and still running on a monthly basis) - I've worked on that since 1994 and have been its editor for many years. It's still only a hobby but a good compensation for my normal job.

Had you heard of European Football Weekends prior to this interview? Yes, I visited your pages whilst working on my third groundhopping book.

And finally, what's next for you? I'm off to Andalusia in January including a match at FC Sevilla or Deportivo Xerez, followed by a tour to the Greek Islands (without a game) and Norway. I'm writing a 4th groundhopping book in 2012 if I have enough good material. I've just finished a shorter travel report to French Polynesia/Tahiti for that book. At the moment however, I've no bigger trips planned as I have a new Eintracht Frankfurt book that has to be finished.

There you go folks, one of the most interesting and informed interviews I've ever had the pleasure of being involved in. I hope you enjoyed it as much as me. I don't know about you but as soon as I can afford it - I'm on the next flight out to Argentina!

If you fancy ordering the DVD then it's available to buy from HERE. If you have any problems ordering one then contact me and I'll try and help get you one. And no, I'm not making any profit from the sales of it, football fans get ripped off enough without me getting in the act.

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