Monday, 28 February 2011

FC Twente

Twente/20 Vision

FC Twente 2-2 Rubin Kazan (24:02:11)

Continuing our ever popular Readers' Lives section here at European Football Weekends is Fulham fan, Eddie Fremantle... 

When my friend Kevin suggested in the autumn that we go to FC Twente Enschede's Champions League match at White Hart Lane, I wasn't that keen on the idea but Kevin sold it to me. He'd met a Twente fan, Gerko, in South Africa during the World Cup. Gerko was a great bloke, he said, and it should be a good night out.

So we met Gerko and a gang of around 20 Twente fans in a pub near Trafalgar Square. Chatting to them, we learnt about the problems they have just going to matches in Holland. Many away games are designated 'combi' games which means away fans have to go to their own stadium and travel on official coaches or trains without being allowed near the town in which the game is played.

This has killed much of the trouble that occurred before games but has sanitised the experience for many travelling supporters. For Gerko and many of his friends, there is the extra pain of travelling 50 miles to Enschede from their homes in the town of Hardenberg to join the combi. With Twente's first ever success in the Eredivisie, a Champions League campaign meant Gerko and the rest could let their hair down and have a few beers on away trips.

One of the best aspects of chatting to the Dutch is that there is little or no language barrier as so many of them are fluent in English. One young guy I talked to spoke English with a Scottish accent but he had never been to Scotland. 'I learnt it from my Celtic mates in Spain,' he told me. Despite being beaten 4-1 by Tottenham, courtesy of some extremely dubious refereeing, with decisions that meant the Twente fans were chanting 'Mafia, mafia' at the officials, and despite being soaked both ways on the interminable walk to and from Seven Sisters station, the Enschede entourage had a tremendous time and invited us to come to see them in Holland sometime.

So that is how, several months after the Spurs game, Kevin and I chanced to be at the Eurostar terminal at some ungodly hour on a Wednesday morning to catch the 07.34 to Brussels-Midi on our way to Twente's second leg Europa Cup encounter with Rubin Kazan of Russia. It looked a bit of a dead rubber as Twente had won 2-0 in the first leg, that had to be played in Moscow because of ridiculously low temperatures in Kazan. Mind you, it was minus 15 in Moscow and the game was nearly called off.

-20 (Twente?) degrees in Moscow? Pah! Bring it on for the Dutch. 

Luckily, they remembered to pack the beer goggles.

Fanatics, lunatics or both? FC Twente fans in Moscow. 

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Mark Smith, aka the Man In Seat Sixty-One. The Man's website gives us all the benefit of Smith's lifetime's experience of European train travel. Although Smith has the unnerving habit of saying things like, 'It's easy to travel by train from the UK to the Ukraine' when it comes to travelling from the UK to the Netherlands on the rattler, it really is easy. From Brussels, we whizzed to Rotterdam, stopped for some lunch at the excellent Engels restaurant near the station, and went on from Rotterdam to Zwolle, then on a local train to Hardenberg, around 20km from the German border in the eastern Netherlands and 70km north of Enschede In Hardenberg, we enjoyed terrific hospitality from Gerko, his partner Jenny and his mother and father, Hans, with food and drink galore. Gerko told us that two Irish friends, Paddy 1 and Paddy 2, would be joining us for the match the following day, although they had been delayed en route in Dusseldorf. 'They are always late,' he said, adding 'They are mad.' Not that Gerko and his friends are particularly sane. The previous week, celebrating in Moscow, they stripped off and posed for photos in the freezing night at around minus 20 degrees. There were 27 hardy Enschede fans who made the journey to Russia, including Gerko and his friend Johan. All were presented with a specially embroidered commemorative scarf by the Club. A nice touch.

Twente Enschede are a young team, founded on the amalgamation of two others in 1965. Enschede is the home of Grolsch beer and their relatively new stadium (1998) carries the brewery's name in a sponsorship deal. De Grolsche Veste is a 24,000 capacity ground, low level on one side so there is some development potential. Indeed, some work has started to increase capacity at the stadium that stands, conveniently, alongside the railway station at Enschede Drienerlo, a couple of kilometres or so from the town centre.

Because of a complicated set of circumstances involving people having to work in the morning and something to do with the late Paddies, we set off for the game by train from Hardenberg, missing connections left right and centre. But a late train or two was no problem compared to the happenings in Dusseldorf. The message came through that Paddy 2 had had his jacket stolen. Passport, money, credit cards, driving licence were gone, meaning that the Paddies had too much red tape to sort out to make it to Enschede and they were heading back to Dublin. 'I told you they were mad,' reiterated Gerko as Johan showed us his scarf from Moscow.

Naturally, even though our train was late, we arrived at the central station with a good six hours' drinking time before the 21.05 kick-off. The Oude Markt (Old Market) in the centre provides a square with many hostelries, two of them Irish pubs of the type that have sprung up in just about every European town.

Eschewing Gerko's offer to take us to a cafe for a smoke, we started in Paddy's bar, moved on to the Kings and Queens and it was Grolsch all the way. It wouldn't be my beer of choice but there wasn't much choice in Grolschland and, like any brew, it tastes much better when only a few yards from where it has been produced.

In the third, and best, bar we went to we ate and I sneaked in a Jupiler for the sake of variety, although the fact that I cannot remember the name of the place suggests that plenty of Grolsch had been taken on board. By this time we were around a dozen strong and we made our merry way to the station to go one stop to the ground.

The scrupulously honest Johan tried to buy us tickets with his credit card from the machine but he too was suffering from the Grolsch factor and failed. We therefore owe the Dutch railway company two Euros each, sorry. Following our leader, Gerko ('they're with me'), we gained entry to the Vak-P bar on one corner of the ground. Vak-P was the block behind the goal at the old ground, the Diekman stadium, and the Twente Ultras group use the name. The Club have set aside the bar for Vak-P and there is a nominal annual membership fee. To get your hands on a beer, you buy a beer token, or several at a most reasonable seven tokens for 10 Euros, at one counter and then queue at the bar, whose surrounds had been waterproofed by another of Gerko's group, Werner. At the final pub, Werner had painstakingly explained the difference between normal grout and the stuff he uses, even taking me on an impromptu tour of the toilets to show me. Yes, the Grolsch factor had got to him too.

It was around six and the place was quiet though gradually it filled up until there were several hundred drinking and watching PSV getting the better of Lille on the many tv screens.

There were a few cheers when Eindhoven scored and everybody seemed happy that another Dutch club had progressed to the last 16. Nobody seemed in the slightest doubt that it would be a comfortable night for Twente and that they would join PSV and Ajax in the next round.

Ajax were not so popular. 'Everybody hates them like Manchester United in England. They are arrogant,' Gerko explained and he also told us that Steve McClaren will hold a special place in their hearts after taking Twente to their first Eredivisie last season before leaving to join Wolfsburg. But Janine, who was there with her partner Jan, wanted all three Dutch Europa teams to win that night as she likes a bet and had put them in a treble.

Gerko was going to have to cancel the hotel rooms he had – just in case - booked in Bern, as Young Boys had been eliminated by Zenit St Petersburg and Twente progressing would mean the Enschede fans faced another journey to Russia.

As we made our way into the ground, through a cordon of extremely friendly stewards, there was the sound of drumming from the Vak-P end. A line of drummers stood near the gangway, led by the most burly of them in a medley of hammering noise.I think I upset Johan when he asked me, with a hint of pride in his voice, whether I liked the drummers and I said, 'Not really.'

As the teams were coming out there was a heartfelt rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' Twente play in red, but if you thought this was in any sort of homage to Liverpool, you'd be wrong. In May 2000, there was a disaster in Enschede when an explosion in a firework factory ripped through the town, killing 23 and injuring nearly 1000. The singing of this evocative song is in memory of those who perished that day.

Kazan k.o. on their way to k.o.

From Russia with love. Johan's treasured scarf. 

Johan and Eddie are ready and Grolshed up. 

Stairway to Heaven. The Vak-P section. 

The game was largely uneventful for 20 minutes with Twente looking comfortable and you began to wonder how this lot – Kazan – beat Barcelona in the Nou Camp last season but then we found out as first Ansaldi lashed one in at Mihaylov's near post and then Twente's star player Bryan Ruiz, tried one impish piece of playmaking too many, lost the ball, which led to Noboa scoring from distance. All the hard work from Moscow had been undone in a minute. Suddenly, there was a football match worth watching as the Russians threatened to run riot and their group of around 50 at the other end of the ground were in good spirits.

Twente weathered the storm and there was a passage of pinball in the Rubin penalty area that came to nothing. Then, shortly after the board had gone up for a minute's stoppage time, Theo Janssen lashed in a piledriver for the home side.

That made the half-time visit to the Vak-P bar underneath all the sweeter for the Enschede fans. As we came out of the bar, plastic beakers of beer in hand, we were given cardboard Pepsi cups in which to pour the alcohol, a novel way of disguising our breaking of the rather silly UEFA rule banning alcohol in the ground.

When Douglas nodded in the equaliser from Janssen's corner as we were coming up the stairs for the second half, the game was up for the pesky Russkis. The drumming got louder and a couple of red flares were set off, breaking yet another UEFA regulation – don't tell Michel - and shrouding the ground in a thick cloud of smoke, but the game petered out as Twente ran down the clock and Rubin ran out of ideas.

By drawing, Twente had let Janine down for her treble but she was still happy, even though she won't be able to go to St Petersburg, as Jan has to go to hospital in Amsterdam. He has a fairly serious eye problem. Some things are more important than football.

A great deal of organising from Gerko had gone on to help make our trip a cracking one and he arranged for his friends Bert and Joey to take us back by car for a late drink in the best pub in Hardenberg, where Johan joined us, still wearing his Moscow scarf with pride. He won't be able to go to St Petersburg, but nobody will keep Gerko away. First, he is off to AZ Alkmaar on Sunday. It's a tricky game for Twente but, as it's not a combi game, Gerko will have a ball.

And if Twente reach the Europa Cup Final, in Dublin in May, we may finally be able to meet Paddy 1 and Paddy 2.

'We're proud to be Twente'

He's two metres, three and he's not scared of thee. The legendary Gerko. 

It's not fallen flat for Kevin. 

- Feel free to comment below - 

Sunday, 27 February 2011

MFK Dubnica v MFK Košice

Dub Steps in Slovakia

MFK Dubnica 0-0 MFK Košice (26:02:11)

Our Readers' Lives series continues with James Baxter living the dream out in Slovakia... 

First of all, it would be fraudulent to claim that this trip constitutes a true 'European Football Weekend'. I live in Žilina and Dubnica is a simple journey of just over an hour on the main railway line which links Slovakia's capital Bratislava with second city Košice. But, after the three-month winter break the domestic game takes here, it at least felt like a proper football day out. Also, while I've been to Dubnica before to watch Žilina, this was my first visit as a neutral fan.

The Slovak language has a word 'sympatický', which, although not exactly a false friend of the English 'sympathetic', is not an exact translation of it either. Its most common meaning is 'likeable' but it is often used by sports journalists here to give a sense of a game underdog trying his or her best, and 'in the right way', to overcome imposing odds. It is often used, and for a variety of reasons, to refer to MFK Dubnica.

For a start, Dubnica are a small-town club. I was a little surprised to find that the population of the town, Dubnica nad Váhom to give it its full name, is 25,000 because, when you get off the train there, you feel like you're in a village. And the towns ten minutes or so away in either direction - to the north, Ilava, with its vast prison, and Trencín and its spectacular castle to the south - are almost certainly far better-known within Slovakia as a whole. Dubnica's football club, meanwhile, is a Slovak version of Crewe Alexandra. It is known for its academy, which, considering its lightly-populated catchment area, produces a remarkable number of talented young players season after season. It is partly the transfer fees earned from the sales of the best of these lads which keep the club going.

Dubnica never have a first team good enough or, more to the point, strong or experienced enough, to challenge at the very top of Slovakia's Corgon Liga but, after spending the 1990s yo-yoing between the top two divisions, they are currently in their tenth successive year among the elite. Their most successful season of recent times was 2004/2005 when they finished fourth and qualified for the Intertoto Cup. None other than Newcastle United, at the start of Alan Shearer's farewell season, knocked them out of that. You don't have to look too hard in the bar adjacent to the Dubnica ground to find pictures taken at the St James's Park leg of that tie.

Saturday's clash with Koice, by contrast, was a relegation battle. Dubnica went into the winter break at the bottom of the Corgon Liga with some of their autumn defeats, notably successive 4-0 hammerings at Trnava and at home to Zlaté Moravce, suggesting that some of their current youngsters are not quite up to top-level football yet. As such, extra funds were released during the break to bring in a few more experienced campaigners, including goalkeeper Pavol Kovác, who has played in Greece's top division, and Czechs Tomáš Polách and Jan Trousil. Košice, just two places and two points better off than their hosts, have problems of their own. They are not as 'sympatický' as Dubnica, however, not least because they are effectively a franchise club. The Koice who entered the Champions League group stages in the 1997/1998 season went bankrupt six years later but new owners purchased the licence of Licartovce, an up-an-coming second tier club, and transformed them into MFK Košice. They gained promotion in 2004/2005 and have been in the Corgon Liga ever since. Like Dubnica, though, they haven't seriously figured at the top end.

However, for me, the best reason of all to apply the word 'sympatický' to Dubnica is not directly related to pure footballing matters. It is that a trip to watch a game there is such a delightfully simple, laid-back experience. If you want to see a Slovak game with atmosphere, by which I mean colour and noise, then go, as EFW have already done, to Trnava. You'll get choreography, non-stop chanting, probably fireworks and a tangible 'edge'. Trnava fans are fiercely partisan, as much in defence of their reputation as the most passionate in the country as in support of their team. At Dubnica, you get off the train 30 minutes before the game, stroll the 200 metres to the ground, momentarily wonder if there is a game on at all because there is nobody in the surrounding streets, have a drink, pass the time of day with the amiable stewards and take your seat. The rest of the crowd - and the 1,750 attendance for Saturday's game is quite high for Dubnica - materialise as if from nowhere, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, as the players take the field. I can only assume that all the home fans here live in the residential streets near the stadium and know to the second how long it takes to get from their houses to the ground.

Back to the game, which Dubnica would have had all wrapped up inside the first twenty minutes if it hadn't been for a simply miraculous performance from Košice's Macedonian goalkeeper Darko Tosilovski. He made an amazing double save and then bettered it with a triple save. After one acrobatic effort, I happened to glance at Kovác, looking lonely on the edge of his penalty area, and, like most of the Dubnica fans, he was shaking his head in a mixture of disbelief and admiration. Inevitably, Dubnica couldn't quite keep up that opening barrage but at no point in the game did Košice get on top. When the referee blew his final whistle on a 0-0 draw, it was impossible not to feel a sense of injustice on the home team's behalf.

Finally, it's rather shaming to write an article for EFW describing a football trip during which you didn't drink any beer but there are a couple of mitigating factors. First of all, it was a seriously cold day and Slovak beer, good as it is, just goes through you in those conditions. Second, and far more important, Dubnica is such a wonderful place that you can buy pretty much any alcoholic drink you like inside the ground. Winter warmers such as mulled wine, tea with rum or tea with slivovica are available. Or you can have rum, slivovica or brandy in their neat forms. You buy your shot from a wooden hut for 50 cents and return to your seat in a happy glow, ready to enjoy more of the home team's easy-on-the-eye football. I'll be honest here ; living where I do, I'm supposed to support Žilina but I really do love Dubnica. They're a lot more than just 'sympatický' and I fervently hope they stay up.

For more of James' work and additional Slovakian football goodies head to the excellent Britski Belasi website.

- Feel free to comment below - 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Aris Thessaloniki fans

The best fans in Europe?

Are Aris Thessaloniki fans the best in Europe? It's not often Guardian correspondent, Daniel Taylor makes two references to fans in the first three paragraphs of a match report, but for their recent home game with Manchester City he couldn't help but describe the incredible din and raucous atmosphere at the Kleánthis Vikelídis Stadium.

There can't be a single football fan that has come away from watching a game at Aris, either on television or in the flesh, and not talked about their support. It's fervent, passionate, frenzied, riotous, deafening....(yes, yes, we get the picture, you can put your thesaurus away now - Ed.).

European Football Weekends managed to dial up Chrisanthos Tsaltidis as the Kitrinomavri (Yellow-blacks) boarded the plane to England for the Europa League return leg with City. He quite literally (Jamie) had two minutes before the safety demonstration which, although he'd been a frequent flyer with the team this season, he was still under instructions to pay attention to. So here we have it - 120 seconds with Aris Thessaloniki:

From what I've seen, there seems to be a very special atmosphere at the Kleánthis Vikelídis Stadium. Is it like that for every game? Almost at every game. But our fans prepare some extra events when we play European games

How many fan groups do you have? The biggest is SUPER-3. They have offices all over Greece and also at some other European countries. They have over 10000 members. We also have IEROLOHITES who got their name from the ancient Greek warriors!

Is it easy to get tickets for a match. Can we buy them on the day of the game or do
we need to book in advance? Europa League games nearly always sell out so you need to buy tickets well in advance. For the Greek Superleague games, you can normally buy tickets on the day unless it's a big game against Panathinaikos, AEK, Olympiakos or PAOK.

How much do match tickets cost? Between €15-€60.

What is the allocation for away fans at the stadium in terms of numbers? We have a separate gate for them (Gate 4) that can hold about 1200 fans.

Do fans in the Greek Super League travel in big numbers to away games? Only the fans of the big clubs. Aris fans want to travel everywhere. But in the last few years they've been prevented from travelling by some new government laws. In order to travel the two clubs must first agree, and even then the police have the final decision. And they usually don't let the fans travel.

Who are you main rivals? PAOK in Thessaloniki and the three big clubs in Athens

Do you have a friendship with any other clubs? With many clubs over the world. I think one of the most important is with Boca Juniors. They came over last year for a friendly game in our stadium.

What is the stadium like? It's like a proper football stadium!

Are there any plans to move to a new ground? We would like a bigger stadium, and we have found the space to build one, but again, Greek law is preventing us from getting started.

What is Thessaloniki like as a city? Very friendly. It's a place to drink your coffee by the sea during the day and enjoy the nightlife at the clubs and "bouzoukia" until the morning!

If we travelled over for a match, would we be made welcome and are there any bars we can meet with local fans near to the stadium on match days? Of course my friend, of course.

Thanks, and can we buy a beer in the stadium? Yes, but with no alcohol. Don't panic though, there is a popular bar at the ground called Beer F.C. that sells all types of beers and sausages. We also have large plasma screens showing football, not just on match days, but all during the week.

We're on our way! But before we travel, how safe is it to watch football in Greece? It is safe. Sometimes of course some people make some incidents that can cause serious problems, but that usually occurs outside of the stadiums.

Is there much football violence at games? It depends what you mean. It's not unusual to see bottles or coins flying about, but any actual violence usually happens outside the stadium.

Which other sports are popular in Thessoloniki? Basketball and volleyball. In Basketball ARIS is one of the best clubs ever in Greek sports. They've won three European Cups, and lots of Championships and domestic cups.

Is it true the club has its own radio station? Of course and we are the only club in Greece to do so. ARIS FM 92.8.

And finally, a prediction for tonight? A glorious victory for the Theos tou polemou (God of war) of course!

Like this? Olympiakos fans stake their claim HERE.

Who are the best fans in Europe? 
Feel free to comment below 

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Borussia Dortmund v St Pauli

You'll Never Walk Alone

Borussia Dortmund 2-0 St Pauli (19:02:11)

Stepping up to the Readers' Lives plate today is Nick Davidson, author of Modern Football is Rubbish, to regale us with a story of his European Football Weekend in Germany...

Borussia Dortmund v St Pauli at the Westfalenstadion (Signal Iduna Park, if you must) was the first game I looked for when the Bundesliga fixtures were announced last summer. The Westfalenstadion was ‘The Big One’ (© Tony Pulis, probably.) Anyway, it was the one I desperately wanted to tick off my list of German grounds visited. I’d tried a couple of times to combine a trip to Dortmund en-route to watch St Pauli when we were in 2.Liga, and often played on different days to the Bundesliga, but the fixtures had never fallen for me. But to go there with St Pauli – that would be something else.

It still wasn’t that straight forward. The game, part of Spieltag 23, could be played anytime from Friday night to Sunday tea-time and the kick-off wouldn’t be confirmed by the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) until a month or so before. The Friday fixture would be impossible due to work, and Saturday would be pushing it. As a result, I took a keen interest in Dortmund’s Europa League campaign, as BVB negotiating the group stages would guarantee a Sunday slot for our game. Unfortunately a 2-2 draw for Dortmund away at Sevilla wasn’t enough to get them into the Round of 16 and, as a consequence, my trip would rest on the whim of the DFL.
To add to the suspense – in my head at least – the DFL kept me hanging on until mid-January before confirming the kick-off times for Spieltag 23. Dortmund v St Pauli was scheduled for 15.30 on the Saturday – it would take some planning, but it was just about possible.

As I’m not overly keen on flying – don’t worry the Dennis Bergkamp jokes have been done to death already – my trip started on Friday evening at Milton Keynes Central (central to what? Not Milton f@*%ing Keynes that’s for sure.) As I walked towards the station I spotted a young lad in a brown St Pauli hoodie leaning against the wall. I took it as a good omen that, in the land of the concrete cow, anodyne shopping centre and Franchise FC, someone was sporting a Totenkopf – genuine fan or fashionista? I didn’t have time to stop and chat, I had a train (the first of many) to catch. Anyway, my trip appeared to be blessed with much better karma than in August when, on a rare plane journey to Hamburg, some clot in an English Defence League t-shirt was flitting around the platform of Birmingham International station looking for aggro as I was heading for the airport.

After an overnight stop in Brussels and a train ride to Köln, I met some fellow members of the St Pauli messageboard on the platform heading for Dortmund –all Port Vale fans and a sound bunch. In Dortmund, there was time to meet a few more messageboarders in the pub including a long awaited (and much postponed, last time due to the volcanic ash cloud) meet with a fellow Watford fan, before heading off to the ground to meet Justus from the St Pauli Fanladen who’d got my ticket. I can’t praise the Fanladen enough, they always try to sort us out for tickets, something that has become increasingly difficult after our promotion to the Bundesliga last May. Back in August, they’d been fabulous sorting seat tickets out for me and my 8-year old daughter for the game in Freiburg. In the wider scheme of things, helping international fans get to games is just the tip of the Fanladen iceberg, there’s a good summary of their work here.

Ticket in hand, I stood staring at the exterior of the Westfalenstadion thinking profound thoughts like, ‘bloody hell, it’s big.’ However, from the outside despite the vivid yellow roof supports, it does look a tinsy-bit like a lot of other new stadiums, just on a much bigger scale. Once through the ticket and security check – at an entrance shared by both home and away fans, imagine that at Old Trafford or Ashburton Grove? – it’s a different story. I was in Block 8, right at the bottom of the away terrace. As I headed down a short flight of steps, I noticed piles of seats stored neatly ready for the infamous conversion of terrace to seating for international fixtures or European competition. Then it was down some more steps to an entrance that brought me out into the stadium, right at the base of the away fans section – not that I was looking at that, my attention had been diverted to my first glimpse of the ‘Yellow Wall’ at the other end of the stadium. Much has been written about that vast expanse of terrace, so I won’t bang on about it too much, but seeing it pretty much full 30 minutes before kick-off was a sight to behold. In fact, the whole stadium looked huge, turning round looking at our section, the terracing was dwarfed by an upper tier of seated St Pauli fans stretching up to the heavens (and containing somewhere therein, the Port Vale massive.) Cathedral, temple or opera house of football – take your pick, it’s truly breath taking.

Cathedral, temple or opera house of football?

"Cultural magpies"

There was a bit of bother to the left of me, about 20 minutes before kick-off. A few fists went flying and I assumed that a home (or rival) fan had decided to get in amongst the St Pauli hardcore. Apparently, it was more to do with the stewards not letting the fans hang their banners over the advertising hoardings at the front of the stadium. The ‘over-enthusiastic’ police and stewards response, wasn’t the best move after the problems at Wednesday night’s game in the Volksparkstadion.

But things settled down, and it wasn’t long before the St Pauli fans were in full voice. Kick off was preceded by a sing-a-long version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which, despite the piped-music accompaniment, was ace. Of course, being St Pauli (and YNWA being one of ‘our’ anthems) we managed another verse and chorus once the music had stopped, before launching into my favourite chant of ‘Aux Armes’ which sounded great bouncing between the upper and lower tiers. Cultural magpies them St Pauli fans, appropriating YNWA from Merseyside and ‘Aux Armes’ from the Marseilles…

Sing-a-long a YNWA

We are the ticks’  – can’t see the English translation without launching into a rakishly out-of-tune rendition of Suede’s ‘We are the ticks / we are the swine’ (with apologies to Mr Brett Anderson)

The game itself was unremarkable and the score line fairly predictable. Despite St Pauli’s recent run of form, most fans didn’t expect to be leaving the Westfalenstadion with more than a point, and even that slim hope was ended early in the second-half when Ralph Gunesch diverted a shot into his own net to give the league leaders a 2-0 lead. But I’d not come looking for a win, I’d come to stand and sing with the St Pauli faithful in this grand setting. And I’d come to see and hear the Südtribüne in full flow. In true, away fan fashion, it felt like we were out-singing the home fans for much of the game, especially as we had a new chant of ‘Derbysieger’ that needed a lot of airtime. If the noise coming from the Südtribüne wasn’t especially impressive, the sight of 20,000 fans pogo-ing on the spot sure made up for it, it was then I really appreciated the vast scale of the terrace. In the end it wasn’t the acoustics that blew me away, but the seething mass of bodies. Whether jumping up and down in unison or holding scarves aloft it was a sight that took me back to the great terraces of the 1970s. It was reminiscent of The Kop or The Stretford End as seen on old Match of the Day footage. Great stuff.

It finished 2-0. Fairly respectable considering we were missing derby hero, Gerald Asamoah and midfielder Fabian Boll (I think I’m obliged by European law to mention that Boll is a part-time police officer, even if I’m not 100% sure if it’s still actually true?) and centre-half Carlos Zambrano due to suspension. We also lost left-back Bastian Oczipka due to injury early in the first half, which meant another appearance from former Times columnist, Moritz Volz. As the St Pauli players came to applaud the fans, my mind was starting to wander to the long journey home.

Had it been worth it? Too right it had. I’d stood on the terraces, drinking beer and supporting my team (St Pauli having overtaken Watford in my affections sometime ago – a combination of the politics of the St Pauli fan scene, general disinterest in the English game and not helped by having Lord Ashcroft as club owner – give me the German 50 +1 over a Tory Peer anyday) in one of the greatest stadiums in world football. The only downsides being I didn’t get inside early enough to find a place to hang my handcrafted Sozialromantiker flag (it’ll keep until my next visit to the Millerntor) and trying to steer clear of the currywurst due to an attempt at a health kick!

My first attempt at a banner for football in about 20 years, aaah the distinctive aroma of Dylon fabric paint!

Worth the trip? Too right

Despite the bitter cold, I made all my train connections home, in fact so efficient was the free U-Bahn service from the ground back to the main railway station, I managed to get a train back to Köln an hour ahead of schedule.

Whilst on the subject of trains, over the weekend, I had traversed parts of Germany, Belgium and France without a hitch, yet there was the obligatory 10-minute wait 500m short of Milton Keynes station, as they struggled to find a platform for us. You’d think they’d get the idea by now: a train generally requires a platform on which to deposit it’s passengers. Yet, every time I get to MK it’s the same. Imagine Network Rail, or whoever is responsible for our running train stations this week, trying to transport 80,000 fans efficiently away from a major sporting event. Actually, don’t.

Another great trip, another great stadium, right up there with the Millerntor and Union Berlin’s Alten Försterei as one of my favourites.

Thanks a million to the excellent BVB fanzine for the photos.

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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Türkiyemspor Berlin v VFC Plauen


Türkiyemspor Berlin 0-1 VFC Plauen (13:02:11)

It's Readers' Lives week here on EFW, and stepping up to the oche today is Ipswich Town fan, Chris Mills who chose to spend last Sunday watching Türkiyemspor Berlin - as you do.... 

THE cheerful chap at the ticket table had the decency to look a little guilty as I winced at paying €10 to get into a fourth-level Regionalliga Nord game on an arse-freezing Sunday lunch-time in February.

And it was just a table, chair and a cardboard box of home-printed programmes. That and more security than a G8 summit, including bag searches and frisking of the 125 people who showed up, many of whom were the innocent Turkish mommas and children of players.

The lavishly uniformed bouncers (their Jack Wolfskin jackets seemed warmer than anything the spectators were wearing) looked like they might outnumber the home support. The away support – complete with drums and giant flags – did outnumber the Türkiyemspor fans, it seemed; certainly in terms of decibels.

Türkiyemspor team bus?

One of the many security staff needed for the 125 attendance obscured by naked buttocks in the entrance hall of the stadium and, right date, right badge, last week’s team on the programme

I suppose it was fitting that the stewards took it so seriously. We were, after all, at the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark (named after the “father of German gymnastics”), a place with a lot of history. Still, I wouldn’t have paid €10 for a ground-tour either.

The Berlin Wall was put up directly behind the stadion, which had been built to hold 30,000 for athletics and football ten years earlier by the authorities in the then Soviet Sektor of the city. The East German national side played matches there and West Berliners were able to get quite a nice view from their nearby apartment blocks.

Athletics world records have been broken there, including the first ever javelin throw of more than 100 metres and even American football has been played (Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe). They also had a Michael Jackson concert at the Jahnstadion one time. Really.

The Stasi-backed Berliner FC Dynamo played there for its bigger games as does its now non-evil modern-day version (in the German fifth division). There was a refurb in the 80s, which brought the capacity down to 20,000. These days Hertha’s amateur side, Hertha BSC II, plays games there when it expects a big crowd. (a bit of a long shot this, but if there is a team who hasn't played in this stadium, can you add your name to the comments section below, many thanks - Ed.).

Tunnel vision. The teams trot out past yet more under-employed stewards

These young Turks were transfixed by the occasion until one found a vuvuzela and was immediately taken away to that prison in the movie Midnight Express

It seems Türkiyemspor Berlin play there when they are expecting a really small crowd. So it was when VFC Plauen turned up from Saxony to the south of the city. My local guide and host, EFW crowd-favourite Stoffers, noticed immediately that the organisers had managed to get the correct badge for Plauen on the front page of the programme, but appeared to have left on the name of the last opposition team.

This was not a great start by the Turks, who are struggling in their league. They initially formed as a youth team in the now groovy, bohemian Berlin district of Kreuzberg, then changed names to BFC İzmirspor (as many players had roots in İzmir, Turkey) and finally Türkiyemspor.

The club is involved in anti-racism, gay-respect and anti-domestic violence campaigns. Players are often from the long-term migrant worker population. League regulations have been altered to allow them to play in the first and second divisions (which have rules about the number of foreign players) without citizenship if they can show they have played a good amount of youth football in Germany. More than 40 Türkiyemspor players have gone on to become professional and one, Ümit Karan, ended up playing for Galatasaray.

Stoffers sticks it out at minus-2 on the press bench; neither of us sat in the seat marked “penis”. Right, the crowd goes wild

The striking Jahnstadion floodlights are reflected in the “Grog €2” sign

Back in the freezing stadion, a lovely Turkish lady sold me a €1 kaffee from the concessions window but disappointingly the kaffee wasn’t Turkish too. There were no kebobs either, although you could get a “Grog” (tea with rum) for €2.

Stoffers and I lurked in the near-deserted press area, warmed only by the kaffee and the rather good syncopated drumming/chanting of the Plauen “Ultras”. We marvelled at the Jahnstadion’s seating, which is charmingly set out in Rasta Fari colours (yes, I!). Its striking floodlights aside, the stadion is beginning to show its age. The almost life-size statue of two naked men wrestling looked a little over-the-top in the shabby entrance hall behind the small section of seating they’d opened for us.

But they had radiators back there too, which proved invaluable for short leg-warming bursts during the staggeringly dull second half. Plauen had walked one in early doors (4 mins) and little happened after that. Stoffers stuck it out in the open air, though, almost giving himself hypothermia as a result.

Post-match, it took some good Lebanese food and a beer in the bar of one the few remaining Berlin squatter’s-rights houses to get him back to his old self.

The Jahnstadion seating resplendent in Rasta Fari colours and, inset, Plauen celebrate their early goal

The Plauen Ultras had a nice line in syncopated drumming/chanting

A panoramic view of the Jahnstadion

Photos by Stoffers

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Monday, 21 February 2011

1.FC Union Berlin v VfL Osnabrück


1.FC Union Berlin 3-3 VfL Osnabrück (11:02:11)

Continuing our ever popular Readers Lives' series on these pages is Ipswich Town fan, Chris Mills who takes a visit to see FC Union Berlin..

IT was the best of times. It was the wurst of times. We travelled to the far, far east of the old East Berlin, to a magical place, a forest kingdom under the spell of… barbeque.

Acres (or German Hektars, I should say) of sizzling grilles and everywhere the cold air warmed and suffused by the fragrant aroma of, yes: cooking meat. And at the centre of this beautiful, greasy sausage-fest: the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, home of FC Union Berlin.

This is no sunny, goofy Australian beach barbie. This is German meat-processing with not a hint of salad nor seafood anywhere to be seen, just German men in biker jackets and women with fantastische 80s hairdos lining up for a wurst in a bun for €1. And if you want variation, they have “Buletten” – delicious meat-lumps, also served in a naked bun, for €1.50. It’s like Communism never ended (in a good way).

Meet the meat. And behind, the slightly more expensive “Buletten”

Everywhere you look in the Köpenick area, it’s a little bit “Eisern Union”

The delightful pork-based fragrance hits you as you step from the Köpenick S-bahn station and swarm as one with the rot/weiß (red/white) fan-base towards the Union-Tanke (the perfectly named Filling Station), a collection of über-barbies and outdoor bars on a scrubby piece of grassland nearby.

Here you can eat cheap (and drink cheap) but another option is the walk through the wurst-mist past more meat cookery to the 1.FC Union Berlin klubhaus “Die Abseitsfalle” (The Offside Trap), a jolly and super-heated run-down community centre style complex where the pool table and table-fußball are both used for the putting-down of plastic beer glasses pre-match, when there’s drinking to be done.

But it appears this ersatz glassware is not necessary, as my local fixer – legendary EFW Gold Member Stoffers (who recently beat Boris Becker into second place in a poll of Britain’s favourite Germans) explained. When his team 1860 München played here, the travelling fans filled the Abseitsfalle bar by 10am. It was a take-over, but when the Union fans pitched up it was all good humour and the quiet chinking of plastic beakers of Berliner Kindl and other good local lagers.

FC Union’s “Die Abseitsfalle” (The Offside Trap) clubhouse, where away fans mix joyfully and beerfully with the locals and, right, the crazy hardhat and barrows monument to how the fans rebuilt the stadium

“Scheiße! I brought zee Duran Duran tickets instead of zee match tickets!”

This place is an homage to drinking and footy and I was slightly mesmerised (in a Twin Peaks sort of way) that the several TV screens in there seemed to perpetually show scenes also from a bar, like a strange tunnel of mirrors. There was no discernable sound from these screens – instead we enjoyed some traditional German music (Tupac Shakur).

Everything about this club is cool, from its retro logo to the fact that in the days when the Wall split Berlin, being a fan of FC Union was akin to marching in the streets with a banner reading: “I heart the West!” Their arch-rival on the eastern side of the mined and watch-towered barrier was Berliner FC Dynamo, the fußball klub of the Stasi, the secret police. Mysteriously Dynamo always won the league.

But this never bothered the Union fans and, indeed, they loved winding up DDR leader Erich Honecker’s goons, often to be heard chanting “Liverpool, Liiivveerrpooool” and sporting blue patches on their cut-off denim jackets in support of West Berlin’s main side Hertha BSC, ironically now their 2.Bundesliga rivals in the re-unified German capital (while Dynamo languish in the fifth-level NOFV-Oberliga Nord).

Mills and Stoffers decide to road-test the new XXXL EFW logo in the bar of Der Abseitsfalle*

Less than a week before our match, Union had won a shock 1-2 victory at Hertha in front of 74,000 and many flares. And that very night Union’s reserves beat the BFC Dynamo first team 0-1 at the Jahnstadion back in north-central Berlin – the very place where the former evil Dynamo played their big games with West Berliners peeping in over the Wall from their apartment blocks.

Stoffers and I were at Union to see them take on VfL Osnabrück, from near Dortmund in Lower Saxony to the west. We operated with German precision, timing our beer intake to the millilitre and the second and then stomping through a later pitch-dark muddy forest to the 18,432-capacity ground.

It was only here that some very un-Teutonic planning by the club sent us into a groundhopper anxiety spiral. The ticket sales/gate house we found ourselves outside (a building resembling an Alpine border post) had six doors but, with only 25 minutes before the 6pm kick-off, only two were open and a large crowd of surprisingly cheerful fans were trying to funnel their way into these small orifices.

The mass of fans simply wasn’t moving, partly because, we later discovered, the ticket price had just gone up from €10 to €11 with no signage making this clear so everyone was fishing for that extra coin or waiting for change to be counted out.

Patient Germans form an orderly crowd outside the FC Union gatehouse; the EFW contingent was less patient

The great outdoors

Then, at precisely 17:40, lights came on two more of the doors opened to cheers (initiated in part by Stoffers and me). But these new portals were marked “Achtung! Achtung! Season Tickets Only!” (OK, there weren’t really the Achtung!s) so while many streamed straight in, we ticket buyers were still stuck in purgatory.

Eventually, Stoffers and I (both 6ft-plus and still full of currywurst from the city centre) gently forced our way around metal barriers into the line (Stoffers deftly flipping me a euro coin just in time to stop me holding things up like everyone else) while, all around, empty, inviting ways-in taunted us. There were no turnstiles; it occurred to me that, in England, this scenario may have led to a mass invasion.

Our proactive queue-jumping got us in with 15 minutes to spare, but I wonder if a few fans missed the k/o. Stoffers assured me this has never happened before on his many visits to Union.

Inside, the sudden feeling of space was liberating; there is a large, fenced-in area with trees and wide concrete steps up to the main stand which gives the place a kind of music festival aura, complete with its own strange, pagan statue feature a giant red hardhat surrounded by wheel barrows. This commemorates the recent rebuilding of the stadion by the fans themselves (admittedly led by fans with building companies and construction skills, but apparently regular Joes would show up just to labour).

This feeling of community is one of the many things I love about football and I found the support inside (attendance 14,074; 500 from Osnabrück) actually quite moving (*sniff*); thousands of spinning, rot/weiß striped retro-scarves and the enthusiastic singing of songs such as:

„Dem Morgengrauen entgegen, zieh’n wir gegen den Wind,/ Wir werden alles zerlegen, bis wir Deutscher Meister sind./ FC Union du sollst leuchten, wie der hellste Heiligenschein/ Und überall wird es schallen, FC Union unser Verein!“

(“Towards dawn, we’re marching on against the wind,/ We’ll take everything apart, until we’ll be Champions of Germany./ FC Union you shall shine, like the brightest gloriole [as in radiant light around a saint’s head],/ And everywhere it will resound, FC Union - our club!”)

Makes “Dodgeeeee keeeephaaaaaah!” sound a little infantile. The full club anthem was even more remarkable, starting as one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever heard over a stadium PA with some death metal, morphing into The Scorpions (for old time’s sake, I suppose) and ending with community singing of the above.

The graphics at FC Union suggest the waving of scarves and that both male and female fans should rush to the portaloos if they need to “machen eine peepee”

I went into the game a neutral and as such was impressed by the Osnabrück dee-fence; they put a stop to all Union had and nicked a goal and then another. It was looking dire for “Eisern Union” (“Iron Union” – a chant from the team’s working-class beginnings and as Union is pronounced “Oon-ee-on” in German sounds like “Icy Onion!” to many a silly English-speaking EFW member (titter).

But the Onion boys turned it around about 15 minutes into the second half and it was Osnabrück’s turn to collapse at the back. Soon it was 3-2, then 3-3 and then a penalty for Union, skilfully ballooned right in to Row Gay (“Gay” is the German word for “G”). Great match and a fair result, I would say. And finally, after literally days of searching, I now have my own Deutschland klub to support: 1.FC Union.

Ja! Ich bin ein Berliner! (You’re a doughnut? A doughnut? Ed.)

As usual, it all ended at the nick (actually Berlin- Köpenick S-bahn station)

Panoramic shot of the FC Union stadion 

* Pics by Stoffers

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

Stoke City v Brighton and Hove Albion

Heads You Win

Stoke City 3-0 Brighton and Hove Albion (19:02:11)

Ah, the Boothen roar; terracing; Delilah; a wall of noise; a four goal thriller; Peter Beagrie; Dean Wilkins and being unceremoniously bundled into the back of a police van for "our own safety" after the match. All memories of the last time I went to Stoke City to see Brighton & Hove Albion play, at their old Victoria Ground - in 1989. I was probably overdue a re-visit and the Albion's first FA Cup Fifth Round Proper in 25 years seemed as good a reason as any to head back to The Potteries.

The only way of getting there by train 22 years (twenty-two-chuffing-years) later without paying an arm and two legs was on a magical mystery tour via Milton Keynes. Luckily, my main man Mr Cherry was on hand with a set of wheels - aka the Silver Flash. We punched ST4 4EG into the Sat-Nav and let the giggles commence. We were brimmers with excitement, because this was not only our big day out (© Tony Pulis), but also our cup final (© Tony Pulis, again). How nice of Big Tone to upgrade the day. And not a hackneyed cliche in sight, refreshing.

A twenty two year old photo, tick. Stoke City v Brighton, Victoria Ground, May 1989.

Fast forward a few years, and it's a warm welcome back to Stoke.

This is magnifient. One of the best tributes I've seen to a true legend. 5 FIFA stars.

Drinking in decent pubs around the ground was one of the options lost when City moved grounds. The Britannia does have a couple of alehouses fairly nearby, but they are either not really the places that away fans can sup in confidence, or Harvesters that are 10 deep at the bar. So for the perfect pre-match drinking experience, we pitched up at The Greyhound Inn, Penkhull, one of the Six Towns of Stoke-on-Trent. Old Speckled Hen on tap was enough to have us reminiscing back in a haze of blurry sepia-tinged nostalgia; Brighton v Stoke at the Goldstone Ground in 1990 with thousands of City fans in fancy dress anyone?

The Brit certainly wouldn't have Prince Charles purring from an architectural point of view. But to my mind, what primarily makes a ground special - aside from old skool scoreboards and hulking great Eastern European floodlights - is its supporters. Stoke City normally have a brilliantly passionate - and somewhat intimidating - support who are, according to this match ticket anyway, the LOUDEST in England. They were certainly the most vociferous we've had at Withdean until FC United rolled into town recently. They were quiet today however, but then they probably don't give two hoots about Brighton, and in fairness, if we were playing a club two divisions below us in the cup, Withdean would be pretty silent as well.

Off the top of my head I didn't recall seeing a hippopotamus strolling down Stoke High Street beforehand (I think they tend to stay in the more outlying areas like Burslem), but that hasn't stopped The Potters tenuously adopting them as their mascots. I saw the plump and bulky Mr Pottermus (in blue) and his bread knife Mrs Pottermiss (white), grazing on the grass before the match. I'm unsure as to what the groundsman makes of all this - not that Stoke use the grass too much. Boom, boom and indeed tish.

Kids love Potter(s). thanks. You're 'avin a scarf lads.

In the away end pints of quality draught flow Titanic White Star served in proper pint glasses for a reasonable £2 Carlsberg or Tetley's in plastic pots for £3.80 were being served up to thirsty fans. This is one thing Brighton are getting very right in their new stadium; proper local draught beers in the home end and guest ales in the away end. They've thought of pretty much everything at Falmer, but that's for another day.

Brighton took to the pitch on top of their league and with a manager promoting "sexy flickies and one twos" all over the park. Thirty man moves are the norm with the Albion this season, but - unlike Messi & Co - could we do it on a cold and damp Saturday afternoon in Stoke? Maybe. The home team were, after all, in a run of fairly average form, and have reverted back to what some locals refer to as 'Pulisball'. Their last game before this was an entirely predictable dish of numbing dross against Birmingham. All The Seagulls had to do was control possession in the midfield (see engine room Gary Dicker for details), cut off supply to the wings and a place in the FA Cup Quarter Finals was ours. Whoop.

Football fans are all too quick to lay into Stoke's style of play, but how many of them actually watch every game they play? The only time I really get to see them is for three minutes each week when they're tagged on the end of Match of the Day for the Tony Gubba game. So I wasn't about to vilify Stoke without fact. Just as well really. They tore Brighton to pieces early on. I knew about their aerial threat, viewers of the last five minutes of MOTD were aware and so were Brighton - we just couldn't cope with it.

Carew nodded the Potters ahead from - surprise, surprise - a long throw-in from Delap. Walters added a second, with another header, after some questionable goalkeeping from our Slovakian cup "specialist" Brezovan. And Shawcross scored their third with yet another bloody header, after more good work from the highly impressive Belfast born midfielder, Marc Wilson. Pretty deflating for the large Albion following, but a masterclass in set plays and the like from Stoke. Nobody does it better.

Sadly, Etherington - who had been a relative joy to watch with his trickery down the left flank - was withdrawn just before half time with an injury. He was replaced by Ricardo Fuller, who I believe I'm contractually obliged to refer to as both a maverick Jamaican and a real handful. You could almost Phil (sic) the power of his presence.

Delap. He throws from the left....

...he throws from the right. Anti-football? You're probably right.

Etherington produces thrills and spills in front of the World Wide Webb.

Brighton fans did at least have a bit of fun in the second half. Finally, we got into our stride, and towards the latter stages strung together a plethora of passes to huge cheers. Hell, even Stoke managed to string four consecutive passes together at one stage, which brought the house down from both sets of fans. We all laughed.

So a thoroughly deserved win for the home side. Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say well played. The did boss the midfield and we did fail to cut off the supply to their wings. Them's the breaks.

Afterwards, the debate raged on amongst the Stoke faithful as they near the end of their three-year plan. It centred around the sale of Tuncay and Gudjohnssen, the purchase of Carew, and about whether Pulis can actually take the club beyond survival at all cost and develop their football. Can he overcome his underdog mentality and mistrust of individuality, or will he continue to revert back to his default setting of Pulisball? Better times are round the corner for Brighton, but for today anyway, forgive us Delilah we just couldn't take anymore. Well played Stoke.

We'll be back.

Yeah, about that car in Zaragoza old chap...

Happy Potters.

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