About 9 Metres Below Sea-Level
Flevoland is the newest province of the Netherlands, indeed it is literally one of the newest lands anywhere. The decision to seal off the Zuiderzee was only taken after floods in the Netherlands in 1916. The dike that created the enclosure was finished in the 1930s, but it was not until the late 50s that the water levels were lowered enough to allow new lands to be settled. Situated well below sea level, the terrain of Flevoland is flat and unexciting. The dominating feature being the wind turbines that delineate the dikes between the land and the lake, and also appear to be growing randomly across what is the world’s biggest man-made island. The biggest city on the island is Almere, which has grown from having a population of 47 in 1975 to now house over 165,000 people, the eighth biggest city in the country.
The town planners for Almere started with a blank sheet of paper, and devised a system of keeping roads, bus ways and cycle lanes separate. Sadly, this was their only achievement, and the buildings placed between these through routes fail to show any use of imagination. The city fathers however did show some imagination when they decided the city should have a sports club that would compete in ‘all’ sports. Hence the rather ambitious name of Omniworld. Over the years, though most of the sports have been dropped. The football team, after several years of trying, and reaching the top level of the amateur game was accepted into the professional league last season. This meant a very quick build to bring the stadium up to standard, the stadium has been morphed from a very basic facility named after the Netherlands most famous athlete (Fanny Blankers-Koen) to become the far more eloquent Mitsibushi Fork Lift Stadium. The name is clearly appropriate as most of the parts could easily of been put into position using Fork Lift trucks. Three sides have basic tin covered stands, two (along the length of one side and behind a goal) given over to seats, while the third is given over the standing. Behind the goal where we entered the ground, there were to buildings, – one was a club room where anyone could get a beer or a coffee, while the other newer building was given over to the corporate guests, with dressing rooms on the lower floor.
The playing surface was one of the new third generation artificial surfaces. These play a lot better than the original plastic pitches, but the bounce is ensured by a layer of black dust which is embedded with the plastic. This brings up a slightly disturbing view, somewhat akin to a splash of water whenever ball or player makes a heavy contact with the ground. Contrary to popular opinion, artificial surfaces do not always guarantee the match being played. What was scheduled to be the first ever professional game on the ground, just over a year ago was postponed because the referee had deemed that too much water lay on the surface. That match would have been against BV Veendam, who by chance were also the opposition for my visit. Omniworld, in their second season are still to set the world of professional football alight. Veendam on the other hand have a tendency to be among the leaders in the lower division of Netherlands football, frequently making it into the play-offs, but almost by design not going further. (They have only ever spent three seasons in the top division, and each of these ended in relegation). As for the game itself, it was quite an entertaining affair with plenty of chances at both ends – but no one was capable of converting the chances into actual goals. Officially, the crowd was given as 2236 – I felt this was the first piece of imagination I had seen on the Flevoland, but it would be more charitable to put the figures down to the number of ticket holders who did not fancy the ground on a damp Friday.
In the grey dawn of a dull Saturday morning, Flevoland continued to look bleak, but then so did the rest of the low country as we drove on to Groningen, where we booked into a hotel, and the 100 extra kilometres across the German border to Emden. Arriving only 45 minutes before kick off, I had to forgo seeing the delights of this port, and head straight to the ground. I was already too late to buy a seat ticket. With high fencing on all sides, my eight Euro standing ticket left me out in the rain, as the terrace along one side of the ground was the only one that has reasonable views. I did repair to the covered standing behind the goal for a period of the first half as a further shower threatened to more than dampen my hair. The views from this low standing area behind a fence were poor, and inevitably, while I was sheltering at one end of the pitch, the only goal of the game was scored at the other. Played on an almost waterlogged surface, the game almost certainly would not have started in England.
Back to Groningen, and pleased to find that the long queues through the road works had now evaporated, we arrived at the ground in good time. Groningen moved away from a traditional ground in a built up area about 18 months ago. The new ground is part of a renovation scheme for a derelict docks and industrial area just south of the centre, and conveniently close to the motorways. There are a number of new office blocks in the area, resplendent in shiny glass and steel. By contrast, the ground appears to be an amorphous blob of grey concrete, speckled with porthole windows. As the building also housing a number of other businesses, a health club, a Chinese restaurant and a supermarket among others, there is no shape to remind one that this is a football ground. The only real sign an outsider gets is floodlight gantries which appear to be somewhere in the middle of the block. I thought it appropriate the name of the stadium, the Euroborg reflected that of Star Trek’s Borg – an enemy without shape or personality (and clearly also without 7 of 9 – the Euroborg certainly is not sexy).
The casual visitor to the Eredivisie (it translates as Premier Division) in the Netherlands has a problem. A few years ago, the problems of hooliganism in the country got to the stage where the government decided to introduce a membership scheme, “club cards”, and to refuse entry to anyone without a card. It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut approach, as everyone knows that the problem is limited to five clubs, (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, den Haag and Utrecht), with the need perhaps for some extra security for matches of special local interest, such as the Fresian ‘derby’ when Groningen play Heerenveen. Despite the relatively small size of the country, away fans for most clubs are short of numbers. Still, hooliganism has been reduced.
In the meantime, so many new grounds have been built, that the league is unrecognisable (around half the Eredivisie play on grounds less than a decade old). Surprisingly, there has been a boost in the numbers of people watching games, even though it appears to me that the Dutch ideals of total football have died, and with the best of the countries players now abroad, the domestic league exists on crumbs and foreign imports. Buoyed by the new ground, and the rise in support, almost all tickets at Groningen, (and many other Netherlands clubs) are now given to season ticket holders. A small area is for away fans, and this area is divided into two pens. An tickets made available to the casual visitor are in this area, and are not confirmed until three days before the game. At Groningen, these are available on the day at the stadium, or in advance (for two days only) at a nationwide ticket service (run in conjunction with the national lottery). At the ground, one would need some ID, but a foreign passport would do in lieu of the club card. The club will not give out any useful information about ticket availability in advance, nor will they reserve tickets for visitors. Still, you should be confident of getting a ticket if the opposition is not one of the critical teams above. The locals do not queue for them.
I actually cheated though – and applied in advance for press accreditation. Inside the stadium has two tiers of seats around the pitch, with the lower tier going down to around pitch level, on the side were we entered, the upper tier was entirely replaced by executive boxes. We ourselves had the use of a plush lounge which was shared with a number of categories of fan, and we were provided with free coffee and cake before the game. Our view was from near the top of the lower tier, with the executive boxes up above us. Above us, the roofs of the stand did not come out anywhere near the full width of the stand. On a blustery wet day (and we had chosen such a day), almost all the lower tier seats and their occupants were to get wet. This type of detail in a new ground always surprises me. I only had to look up when I entered to realise that the risk of the lower seats getting rained on was high – one does not need a fully roofed stadium to prevent this – a further 5 yards of extended roof would have protected most of the crowd. Many clubs have added this in semi-transparent plastic to reduce the effect the shadows so caused will have on the pitch. Despite having as much rain in Groningen, as there had been in Emden, the pitch was in excellent condition. The game however was not. Sparta Rotterdam played Sander Westervald in goal, and then arranged the defence to try and stop the ball getting anywhere near him – three centre backs, two wing backs (neither of whom pushed forward much), and a defensive midfielder to shield the backs. Only one forward, but that seemed a luxury as they never got the ball that far upfield. Groningen struggled to break down the resistance, but managed a single goal early in the second half. The goal did not change things on the pitch much though, as Sparta continued their resolute defence of a 1-0 defeat.
The tour finished on Sunday with an Oberliga game in the Westfalen region. The match was chosen mainly on the strength of its distance from both Groningen and from Weeze airport. The Oberliga are level four of the German pyramid system and are supposedly nine equal leagues – each currently promoting one team per season to each the Regionalliga. With the creation of the 3rd Bundesliga and three Regionalliga for next season, most of the Oberliga will be promoting four teams at the end of this season. Below this level, things get more complex, for while most Oberliga will remain as they are, those from Westfalen and Nordrhein are to combine, to form a single Oberliga. Meanwhile, the biggest geographical Oberliga (Nord) will disband, meaning that the five leagues that feed to it at present will be the new fifth level. Already there is some disparity between the strength of the Oberliga, and these changes are going to make the differences at fifth level much more pronounced.
Anyway, back to my tour – and to Erkenschwick, a former mining town on the edge of the Ruhr industrial area. The town itself is clean and neat, nothing to get excited about, while not have the depressed feel of some of Britain’s former mining towns. A mining museum reminds the visitor of the towns former status, while a mixture of light industry and accommodation as a dormitory town for bigger centres not far away gives the town its current existence. The football club has seen better days, and has a stadium to prove it – a large bowl with steps of terracing all around a running track with a stand providing cover and seating all along one side. In the days before the National League was formed, Erkenschwick were frequently in the top level of regional football, and in more recent times they have spent three seasons in the second division of the Bundesliga. But the last time they were at this elevated level was in 1981, and since then there has been a gradual decline in the club. A crowd of 600 – good for this level is dwarfed by the size of the ground. Oddly, there is very little in the way of access to the main bowl – the dressing rooms are outside the area, and we approach from a public car park and then across two training pitches, (one plastic, with a junior game in progress, one red gra). The bars are also outside the ground, but the locals are very hospitable, and curious as to why three English football fans should descend on the game. Admission is €8 and the programme is an extra 50 cents. We drink with the locals at the outside bar until they have set up things inside, so we watch them carrying crates of beer, rolls and sausages to provide refreshment to those inside. Later, I will, of course, be partaking of a Bratwurst. It would not be German football without one.
I think the game goes down as unmemorable – typing this piece several weeks later, I remember little of the actual match, and more of the people we talked to (a local journalist, and an Englishman who married and settled in the area), than of the games itself. It remained scoreless in the first half, so the crucial point was the home side bringing on substitute Martin Setzke in the 55th minute. Setzke’s first action was to put his side ahead, but two minutes later, the game was level again. It Was Setzke again who was supersub when Erkenschwick scored the winner with 15 minutes to go. As the home side tried to increase their advantage (and they looked worthy of it), the visitors, Weidenbruck started to lose their shape and composure, and this led to them losing a player, sent off for foul language – as the game was already into injury time, it did not effect our result.