Archive for May, 2009

Euro Blog 3 – Zagreb

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Zagreb was always intended to be one of the highlights of my trip, the three matches that came before were merely matches at new grounds – in each case I had visited the country and even the city before. Zagreb was not just a new city, but also my first time in Croatia. From Salzburg, it is a relatively easy journey – if anything one that is not long enough, (seven hours on an overnight train, starting at 01.30). I had decided to book a sleeper for 30 Euro, and struck lucky in getting the three berth compartment to myself. Certainly better value for accommodation than the city itself, where a single room in the three star Central hotel was 527 HK per night – more than 70 Euro. And as I keep having to remind myself, in this day and age 70 Euro is a lot more than £60, not the £50 I had come to expect!

Zagreb does have one of the best outlooks when coming out of the station and looking towards the city centre. Two wide thorough fairs are separated by a swathe of greenery punctuated by statues, fountains, and a museum. To either side of this parkland, the buildings are of uniform height and style, the style being that which was popular in those parts where the Austro-Hungarian empire held sway for the second half of the 19th century. A town planner’s dream, the lower town is built to a plan – and the 20th century has not been allowed to turn it into a nightmare. The upper town, which starts a climb uphill is older, but most of the city is of pleasing 19th century design.

The same cannot be said of the city’s two football clubs and their stadiums. Taking the smaller one, NK Zagreb first. The initials NK tell us nothing except that this is a football club and are attached at the start of most club names in the country. NK play at the Stadion u Kranjcevicevoj -which may be a mouthful, but it also helpfully the street address. The floodlights could be seen close to the railway as my train arrived, and trams from the station would have provided an alternative to the 20 minutes walk. The first set of gates when you arrive tell you that it is the home of Zagreb Ragbi Klub. With a 3G artificial surface in place, I wonder if the Rugby players wear slightly more in protective clothing than for a muddy field at home? As well as Football and Rugby, the stadium is also used for cycling and a banked concrete track runs all around. There is terracing all along one side, curving towards the ends, but then ending suddenly. The piecemeal construction of the site is shown by the fact that the lowest steps of terracing are below the cycle track. A large seated stand takes up most of the length of the West side, and this is where the 12 HK (about £1.50) gave me access.

Having bought my ticket, the jobsworth on the nearest gate would not let me pass, but sent me back to another gate. At the other gate, there was no special check or security, and I was allowed to pass without problem. Both gates led to exactly the same area inside the ground. Within the ground were two (one at each end) restaurants/bars that appeared to be completely independent to the football club and stadium. While I took the opportunity to obtain a beer from the first of these, I was left to wonder whether I could have saved my money by saying I wanted to come in to the restaurant instead of the football. There was no further check on my ticket when accessing the stand. The official crowd for the match was 300, and the match played on a hot afternoon was not very good. Croatia Sesvete needed to win to stand a chance of avoiding a last place finish. The nearest they came was a foul about ten minutes from the end. The referee pointed to the spot, but his assistant remained unmoved – and the referee was persuaded to listen to the protests of the home players, but not to change his mind again when the visitors started protesting. The free kick was, of course, wasted and the final score was 0-0.

All is not lost for the visitors though – the Craotian league will expand next season from 12 teams (33 matches) to 16 teams (30 matches). The top four from the second division will all be promoted, taking much of the interest out of a very tight race – while Sesvete will play-off against the fifth placed team. The change in format does not meet with universal approval among fans of the league – the new teams are unlikely to bring much in the way of quality, crowds or stadia to the division, while they will further dilute to pool of talent in a country where the best have already left.

The four-thirty kick off time at NK Zagreb (and the rest of the division) does not make a great deal of sense in terms of kicking off during the heat of the afternoon. Even without floodlights, matches could easily kick off 90 or 120 minutes later. Where it does help though, is for groundhoppers trying to get to the televised game later in the evening. This kicked off at eight O’clock, and a direct tram allowed me to arrive around seven. First order was to confirm the result at Hujduk Split. Split were second in the league, and had won their game. This meant that Dinamo Zagreb also needed to win if they were to claim the title with this game, (there are still two more later games should they fail – while if Spilt had lost, then Dinamo could celebrate the title before even playing).

Dinamo play at the Stadion Maksimir, named after the large area of parkland that starts across the road. It has four large stands, but the only cover provided is by the overhand where upper tiers stand above the lower ones. The stadium once had an athletics track, but only a very careful athlete would try it now. The surface is torn where the “dug-outs” have been dragged across it too many times, the North stand has been built with an overhang over two lanes, and one of the floodlight pylons is on a concrete block that overlaps a lane. The north stand, as mentioned, is square to the pitch and must have been erected after the track fell into disuse, while at the southern end, the stands curve around. There are also two tier stands on both long sides – none of he sides join up.

The newspaper for the morning showed a vast mass of people around the ground the previous afternoon, collecting their tickets. I was worried this could mean a sell out, but I was assured that the main reason for the crowd was tickets were being given away free and that I need not worry about the possibility of a sell out. Indeed, when I arrived, I managed to obtain a ticket for the west side, marked 80 HK (about £10), but given away free. Even at this price, the stadium was a long way from being full – the official crowd was given as 27,000 while the stadium is listed as capable of holding 39.000. The game was as far as it could be, a predictable affair. Dinamo Zagreb started off at 100 km/hour – rather a pleasant change considering the low pace of most games on the tour – and practically demanded an early goal. They got it in unsurprising circumstances – a player who appeared offside to me, was fouled just inside the area and went to ground as if under the gravitation pull of Jupiter. The referee was not going to waste the chance to let the home side have their way and the penalty was given. I signalled incredulously to my neighbour that surely it was offside. Yes, of course, but that is the way. Although I never got to see a replay, so my opinion is unchanged, my neighbour soon got a text from someone watching on TV, saying it was actually on-side – and it was a clean tackle.

With the lead gained, the home side settled down somewhat, playing some good football at times, while Slaven Belupo created a few chances of their own. A second goal was added early in the second period, and Dinamo rode through to the end – not even unsettled when their goalkeeper came rushing out of the box in the 66th minute to chop down a Belupo attacker and pick up a red card. With a large crowd in evidence, we were treated to a good deal of chanting throughout the game. The north stand crowd are clearly the youngest and noisiest, although they managed to get responses from the other stands as well. Dinamo play in blue, so the banners styled these fans as “Bad Blue Boys”, or BBB for short. A favourite, if simple chant, is for the BBB to chant “Dinamo” and for the other stands to respond with “Zagreb”.

Talking to my neighbour in the stand, it appears that crowds of 5000 are more normal at the Maksimir, and it can only be filled for occasional big internationals (England played their) and European ties. Dinamo have dominated the league in recent years (fourth successive title, and 11th since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991), but they have not reached the Champions League group stages, since the year 2000 (getting draws against both Manchester United and Marseille). It is generally felt that the changes to the champions league qualifying structure should help teams like Dinamo Zagreb, who have tended to lose out to the non-Champion teams (Arsenal and Werder Bremen are recent teams that put them out). It seems there has already been some speculation over who might come up against Dinamo, knowing the seeding rules, with significant speculation as to whether they can end up playing Partizan Belgrade.

With the match one, the celebrations started. There was a brief flash of fireworks, and stadium was covered with smoke. I never saw the trophy actually presented, but I did see it during the lap of honour, as an open topped bus paraded around the ground, doing yet more damage to the running track. The bus was pained blue, but looked remarkably like a London Routemaster. The entrance platform was on the left – the wrong side for the local roads, so I assume it had come from Britain, it was only a ridge on the bonnet that looked different from the London bus, and it had the familiar triangle at the top of the grill, (I was too far away to see if the manufacturers initials, though).

Later, I walked away from the ground, as the road outside was closed and their were no trams for a while. There are many bars in this part of town, and many fans had parked themselves outside. I picked a likely looking bar and ordered a drink. I chose well, as some of the other drinkers spoke good English (my Croat being rather rusty). Again the possibility of a match against Partizan came up. So did the possibility of a few fights between the fans if this was the case. The fans I was talking to were clearly looking forward to this, (although in my experience, those that talk about the fight are rarely the fighters themselves). Legend now has it that the start point of the Serbia-Croatia war in 1991 was a football match between Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade – and it is still Red Star that is the most hated team in Dinamo’s books.

While I am sure the war would have happened with or without the football game, it is true that in a closed society, such as Tito’s Yugoslavia, football matches are one of the few places where the crowd can utter a cry, with at least some level of safety. Even in the new democratic Croatia (eager to join Europe) there was still whistling around the ground when the announcer informed the crowd that the mayor of Zagreb had been re-elected that day. I pointed out that many of the crowd must of voted for him, (the person sitting next to me at the game said he had), but booing politicians seems to be the done thing for football crowds. The fans at the pub also explained how the club is almost always at war with the authorities. They managed to keep a badge with the Croatian chequers pattern on it, even when the flag as such was banned in Yugoslavia, but then were told by the Croatian authorities to change their name as “Dinamo” was Yugoslavian, or worse still, Serb. After eight years as Croatia Zagreb, fans pressure forced the change back.

While the fans (who were barely old enough to have been there) harked back to the Yugoslav league and the rivalries with teams from Belgrade and Sarajevo, no one I spoke to wanted to return, even for football to the old days. The main rival for Dinamo these days is Hadjuk Split – their main rival for the title most of the time. Apparently they even have a soft spot for city rivals NK Zagreb, whose 2002 win was the only time the title has not been won by either Split or Dinamo, I assume NK were preferred by Dinamo fans to second placed Split.

The city’s third club, Lokomotiva who play in the second division have been used as a nursery club by Dinamo where they could farm out some younger players. This arrangement will have to stop, as Loko are one of the new members of the expanded top division next season.

The talking did not go on long into the night. The trouble with Sunday night football is that most people have to work the next day, and by midnight the bar was becoming deserted. A quick enquiry said that while the trams were not about to stop, I might struggle to get directly back to my hotel. Just after midnight, the last of my new friends spotted his tram home and made a run for the stop. Knowing that one was not going my way, I just waited for the next one in roughly the right direction and ended up walking for the last ten minutes back to my hotel.

Euro Blog 2 – Salzburg : Red Bull as the new cultural icon?

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

The third day, and third stop on my tour sees me in Salzburg. Trips such as this are never 100% plain sailing, and I come across my first problem while on the train. I have managed to mislay the European-UK plug converter. This may not come across as the most serious loss in the history of these voyages (I have lost my computer once, while another hopper of my acquaintance has managed to lose not one, but four interrail train tickets in a single act of tidying up). Still it is an item that needs to be replaced as all my favourite “boy’s toys” (computer, mobile phone, camera) depend on recharging their batteries. The shops near the station do not yield a solution, but I am told to head for the out of town centre, called Europark – a centre that requites a 30 minute tram ride may have been an inconvenience, except that it is only a couple of stops further on the same tram, to the stadium. The time taken, though meant that I had to abandon my original plan of seeing two games at the stadium. The match between Salzburg and LASK was preceded by a reserve game against Wiener Neustadt, in the Erste Liga (strictly translated that means first division, but as is the fashion these days, first division is of course the second level). By the time I entered the ground, Neustadt were 5-0 up (with ten minutes to play) and had won the title, meaning next season they will return to play Salzburg’s first team.

The stadium is known by a confusion of different names, the oldest of which is Wals-Siezenheim Stadion, after the area in which it was built. Maps of Salzburg, though refer to it as the Euro-stadion, as does the bus timetable. The football club itself would have you call the place the Red Bull Arena. It is a curious site, in that the two stages of construction are clearly shown. The lower tier has concrete steps, and a grey stone exterior – most of the seats are lower than the surrounding ground level, so the stadium must have been literally dug out of the ground. The stands are square to the pitch, with little to interrupt the sight lines, and two areas that allow standing rather than seats, (in the centre behind one goal, for the home fans, and a corner at the opposite end for the away ones). The upper tier is a steel lattice work construction, and appears to have been dumped, literally onto the existing stadium. I guess this is not far from the truth, as it was added a few years after the initial construction, to increase the size to that required for the last European championships. The upper tier does not continue on the West side, where executive boxes and a smaller upper section already existed, and hence the stand appears to come to a dead end. The roof is at the same level all around. From the outside, the newer constructions are more obvious, if only due to the creation of steel staircases rising around the stadium, like giant pillboxes, connected only by a bridge to the actual venue. The pitch, incidentally is 3G artificial and played quite well. It was heavily watered between the two games.

On a city that exists now as a tourist trap, dependent on its culture and history; it is strange that Red Bull has tried hard to eliminate all signs of historical culture from the football club. They actually tried to incorporate the date of their take over (2005) into the name of the club – the Austrian FA would not allow that,although they have no qualms about Austria Salzburg becoming Red Bull Salzburg. I guess this is better than many – it actually keeps the town name. The purple in the strip has been replaced by red and white despite some supporters objections. Not that there is no compensation for the supporters, not only does the day’s victory leave the side on the cusp of retaining the championship, but the fact that a single sponsor is subsidising the budget makes the shirts relatively clean. The Red Bull logo is on the front of the Salzburg shirts, and the wording “Red Bull” on the backs. By comparison, the LASK shirts had five logos on the front, two on the back and one on each sleeve – two more logos are added front and back of the shorts, and not forgetting the socks. This is the way of the majority of clubs in Austria, forced to accept whatever they can for small donations towards the costs. Others accept complete loss of name to a sponsor, hence in recent years we have had two different internet betting sites as football clubs, and Superfund, which first took over Pasching, as FC Superfund, and now with Pasching having sold their licence to Karnten, Superfund fund Kapfenburg, under the title KSV Superfund.

On the field, mid-table LASK put up more resistance than may have been expected, but gave away too many free kicks around the 25 yard mark. Three such kicks in the first 13 minutes saw first a narrow miss, than a good save, and finally a goal. A second was added just after the half hour, when the keeper appeared to misjudge a downward header. Surprisingly, Salzburg could not add to this, and actually conceded a goal to a distant shot with just over 15 minutes to go. This did not turn out to be a rallying call to either side, and the game seemed to tire itself out.

While Salzburg will retain their title and achieve their domestic aim, many fans may feel that the sponsors promised much more from the takeover. Trappatoni is certainly not going to turn up as coach, and the certainly show no signs of being able to achieve success in Europe.

Eurotour Blog 2009. Part 1. Bavaria.

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

Euro Blog Summer 2009.

Like so many European trips, I am starting in the middle of the night. Leave home at 1.30 – park the car half an hour later and wait for the London coach. Change coaches at Victoria at 4.00 and arrive at Stansted at five. Still two hours to get through the airport before departure. Memmingen is a new route for Ryanair, and it has not caught on yet – there are only 20 on the plane. As well as myself, there are two other groundhoppers, heading independently for the same destination.

Being a small airport, we are not held up at Memmingen – even collecting my bag does not take long. A local bus takes us to town (Memmingen is trying to be a cheap alternative to Munich, so there is also a coach heading that way), where we transfer to the railway system. I lose my travelling companions a couple of stops down the line, as they have s specific pub to frequent. I am meeting with four other hoppers, who have already been travelling for the last week. When I get to Ingolstadt, it is 13.00 German time, and the others shout to me from a bridge over the line as I get out of the train. A hotel has been booked, a short walk away and I am in after 11 hours of travelling.

Ingolstadt is an old Bavarian town on the river Danube, loads of historic buildings within the city,and this is a good place to find something to eat and drink before the game. Until recently, it had two football teams, both of which reached their peak at the end of the 1970s, when they each had two seasons in the second division, with a city derby at this level in 79-80. By the early part of this Millennium were struggling in the Bayernliga, (then the fourth level of German football, but now the fifth) and the football section of ESV Ingolstadt (E for Eisenbahn as in railway) was bankrupt. In 2004, the two teams merged to form FC Ingolstadt 04. Unusually for a German football team, the date part of the name refers to the date of the merger, rather than claiming depths of history that do not exist. Both sports clubs, MTV and ESV continue in other sports. At first, they took the stadium formerly used by MTV Ingolstadt – this was quit a small stadium, just outside one of the city gates. The only cover was over a few seats, while the terracing was limited in quantity and height. Two years after the merger, they won the Bayernliga and joined the Regionalliga Sud. While playing at the MTV stadion, works were going on to improve the ESV-Stadion, and at the beginning of this season the club moved across the town to the re-braned TUJA-Stadion. This was just in time, as Ingolstadt won promotion to the second division of the Bundesliga. The refurbished stadium is still not one of the best, and this is still intended as a temporary solution. In 2010, they intend to open the Audi Stadion, a completely new 15,000 stadium, and for the first time protecting the majority of the crowd from the rain. If this happens, it may make Ingolstadt fairly unique in having three genuine home grounds in just four seasons!

The current stadium is conveniently situated close to the railway station, and is basically two sided. There is nothing behind one goal, while behind the other is a new two storey VIP centre. The upper storey has direct access to a couple of hundred well elevated seats, while the guests in the lower section were seen streaming out (just after kick off) to take up places in the main stand. This side of the ground is all seated, but only the main section has cover while a lack of elevation combined with fences, and various media activities pitch side meant few of the other seats had a good sight line.

The opposite side of the ground is terracing on fresh concrete steps. As with most grounds at this level in Germany, the views from the lower levels are hindered by massive fencing, and a fan I spoke to who decided to stand complained that the terraces did not give good enough elevation to allow for good views.

As for the game, Ingolstadt have struggled all season, and with three games left, needed all nine points to stand a chance of avoiding relegation. Most of the play suggested there were intending to have a serious go at it – but as soon as they got within sight of the goal, they seemed mesmerised by the whiteness of the posts and crossbar, and unwilling to put the ball close to this structure. So Ingolstadt dominated possession, and were ahead 10-2 on the corner count (the well delivered corner count stayed level at 0-0 throughout). Finally, with five minutes to go, St. Pauli broke from defence, and suddenly four players were bearing down on the home goalkeeper – remembering not to get offside, a single pass was all that was needed to present Alexander Ludwig with an easy goal.

The St. Pauli fans were mainly penned into one section of terracing, and managed to maintain a consistent level of singing and chanting throughout. Considering the distance involved for a Thursday night game, of no importance to them, and shown live on TV, one cannot help but be impressed by this. Amazingly, the chanting was all in praise of their own. I don’t think I heard I heard any swearing, or bad-mouthing of the hosts during the game, (sadly a couple of individuals walking past us on the road back to our hotel did not keep this up).

For Ingolstadt, it will be Division three of the Bundesliga next season, still national football and a level higher than a year ago.

From ingolstadt, it takes about two hours heading North by train to Hof. Hof is a pleasant town, if not so well steeped in historical buildings as Ingolstadt – the tourist office certainly does their bit to sell the place, giving out a leaflet on the history, and directing the visitor to such sights as a Teddy Bear museum and a sign-post park. For one that often gets confused by the sign posting in foreign cities, the entrance to the sign post park – a mixture of town entrances, road signs, along with a couple of spoofs and a few adverts for bands seemed overtly difficult – so I crossed the road and carried on walking towards Grune Au.

This stadium shows its age, but wears it proudly. On three sides are steps of terracing, mainly in good condition, and providing good viewing at least from the top steps. An old stand with rows of wooden seating fills most of the far side to the entrance. On the entrance side, newer developments have not been allowed to interfere with the old terraces, but have been added behind it. Firstly there is a VIP section, on the top floor of the building that includes offices and the changing rooms, adding a few rows of covered seats – then next to this is a a tall and modern new stand, looking somewhat incongruous with its height, and being offset from a central position towards the town end. It does provide good viewing though.

The club have also benefited from a recent merger – they were 1. FC Bayern Hof until 2005 when they merged with SpVgg Hof and became SpVgg Bayern Hof. They have played as high as the second level of German football, but were not even in the Bayernliga in 2005. They returned to this level last season, just keeping their place at the end of the season. This time around, they have finished safely above mid-table, but did not challenge for promotion

The visitors, SpVgg Weiden are one of the up and coming smaller teams. They came into the game needing only a point to tie up the Bayernliga title, and a promotion to the Regionalliga Sud (level 4). Only the champions get promoted. In a generally uneventful and low paced first half, Weiden gained a 1-0 lead, but did not provide much to talk about. The game suddenly burst into life midway through the second half, with a sudden burst of three goals. Almost immediately after the visitors went 2-0 up, Bayen Hof pulled one back from the penalty spot – and this was quickly followed by a very well worked third goal for Weiden. A fourth was added late on, again a good passing move with two players repeatedly passing to each other until it looked as if the chance was lost – but fortunately a third player came in to strike the loose ball.