Archive for the ‘The European Game’ Category

Eurotrip 2012 – Part 3 : Germany

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Every European tour needs Germany. You cannot ignore it, it’s big, sits in the middle of the continent and has a plentiful supply of fast trains. I travelled almost the whole length of Germany to get from Vienna to Randers (and slept through most of it), then took a somewhat shorter journey to get me to Kiel the next day. Now Kiel is a city built to be taken seriously. I remember thinking on a previous trips how the apartment buildings that line the walk out of turn just appeared big and sturdy. The Rathaus is not the most impressive you will see, but it commands the square nearby. On the side of the square is an opera house. No exactly an architectural delight, but a place to go and listen to the singing. Every thing about the city says solid – not so much as an act of defiance against the cold east winds of every winter, but a proclamation of victory against the elements. Even on a hot and sunny day such as this one, when I was walking pack to the Aldmarkt later in the evening (the location of a home brew pub with a pleasant dark beer), I could not help but notice the cold evening wind.

In the sunshine, the city appeared vibrant and lively, with market stalls jostling (not literally) for attention in the main shopping street, and the sun glinting of the waters of the Kleine Kiel – an inlet from the port surrounded by parkland.

Kleine Kiel. The building is the background is the law courts.

Like England, Germany is a large country, with concentrations of the population in small pockets, with the resultant concentration of numbers of football clubs. It has, like England gone through a series of re-organisations of the lower divisions, the last one creating a National 3.Liga, with three Regionalliga between this and the fifth level, still generally referred to as the Oberliga, as they approximate to the Lander, or states that make up Germany. There are two factions in German football at the moment. The big professional clubs want to run reserve teams as high up the structure as is possible, while the smaller clubs and their supporters have a dislike of reserve teams. They are poorly supported, and damage the competition. There is now a youth bundesliga, so why not a reserve one? The big clubs appearing to be holding sway, with a limited number of reserve teams in the 3. Liga, and large compliment in the Regionalliga. One way or another, while the 3. Liga appears to be a success, the 3 Regionalliga pattern is not holding up so well, with many clubs struggling financially. Therefore from next season, there will be five regionalliga. This clearly will cause complications as there will still be only three promotion places available, but promotion/relegation play offs have long been part of the German game, so this is not considered a big problem.

The effects of this on the lower leagues vary from place to place, and in the North, where the Nord Regionalliga will still cover four Oberliga areas, there is hardly any change at all. The Regionalliga is fed by four Oberliga, from the two cities of Bremen and Hamburg, the massive Neidersachsen, and Schwelsig-Holstein, which covers the northern most area of Germany, up to the border with Denmark.

Below the Schelsig-Holstein Oberliga, there are 4 Verbandsliga, each promoting only their champions. Kiel sits within the North East area, and with only two league games to play SC Comet Kiel 1912 are in a safe mid-table position. The league finishes at the weekend, as the re-arranged fixture was the only one on the night. The visitors, TSV Altenholz had already claimed the title before the match began.

But first, I had a problem, and I was not even aware of the detail. While I was walking around the city, I had noticed the bus departure boards were displaying a standard text rather than departure times, but I thought little of it, as I could see some buses and plenty of people waiting at bus stops. It was only while waiting for the bus to the ground that I tried to read the board. “Strike!”. I was of the opinion that no public service, (or for that matter anyone at all) ever went on strike in Germany. Surely it must be true, didn’t I read it in the newspapers? Without speaking English, those waiting with me at the bus stop confirmed there was a strike, but then a number 200 bus turns up. I wanted a number 11, but I got on anyway. This took me to a point about a 15 minute walk from the ground, (the 11 would have left me a little closer). It was only at the refreshment hut in the ground, when I explained that I was worried about getting back to town (a process normally referred to as “fishing for a lift”), that was explained that it was only one company that was on strike, and the buses on route 200 were running normally. And so, the only problem the strike created me was the 15 minute delay (between the two departure times) in returning to my hotel.

SC Comet Kiel is exactly the sort of club that I think the UK pyramid has lost touch with. It sits on the edge of town, near a small urban community, tucked between a residential street and a bye-pass. One enters up a few steps, finding yourself by the clubhouse, and with about four steps of terracing down to pitch level. All along the opposite side are two shallow steps, with a grass bank above. Behind either goal, there is nothing except a grassed path. As well as the clubhouse, a further hut was providing hot food and beers, as is traditional in German football grounds. An A4 programme was provided free with the €4 admission price.

The match took a while to warm up – not entirely surprising for one that had no importance for either team, but eventually it opened out in a pleasantly entertaining the match. This is amateur football, after all, careers are not dependent on the result, and the players might as well get on and enjoy it, which is what they did. Twice in the last fifteen minutes of the first half, the away team took the lead, but on each occasion, the Comets levelled the scores.

In the second half, it was the other way around, with the home team twice taking the lead, the first thanks to a mistake by the visiting goalkeeper who let the ball run through his hands. Comets were not ahead for long on the first occasion, but on going ahead again with ten minutes to play, the longest period of time either side held the lead by proved decisive as Comet ended up winning 4-3. After the season finishes at the weekend, Comet will be celebrating their centenary, and Altenholz will celebrate promotion. I celebrated getting the bus back into town by visiting Kieler Brauerei an der Alt Markt, and sampling the ale and bock brewed on the premises. The next day saw me head back to Scandic lands, using the boat train to Copenhagen

Breakpoint. The last view one gets of Germany when leaving via Puttgarten – or the first point when returning two days later.

The last of course, can be later the first, and so two days later, it is the same view but in the reverse direction as I re-enter Germany. The train is packed and many of its facilities were not working. No hot water in the buffet, no flush in the lavatory, and no signs on display to show which seats are reserved and which are not. The train staff are unresponsive – when asked which seats were reserved, we are told “all of them”. All those without reservations can do is take a seat and hope no one turns up to claim it. For once, I was lucky and managed to keep my seat all the way from Copenhagen to Hamburg (about five hours). I saw plenty of others who were not so lucky, spending a good part of the journey sitting in the corridors. German railways have practically given up this route. Not only do we get the faulty rolling stock, but there was no ticket check on the train during the whole journey (and there was none in the opposite direction two days earlier). Entertainment on the train was provided by the already drunken supporters of the Danish national team, who for some reason were playing Brazil the following day, in Hamburg.

The journey from the centre of Hamburg to a middle class northern suburb is straight forward, using the U-Bahn. From the U-Bahn station, it is about a 15 minute walk straight up the road to the Hoheluft Stadion. A €6 ticket gets on in, including a free A4 programme, but this is a ground where the extra €2 for a seat is worthwhile. There are good terraced areas, sections of concrete steps behind one goal, opposite and next to the stand, but there are also massive fences all around the ground, meaning the only good views are to be had from the seats. The stand itself is a well elevated with plenty of rows of seats, but it is not at all modern, and this shows itself in the four support pillars partially blocking every view above the lowest rows. Clubhouse and dressing rooms are underneath the stands, while there is an outside sausage stall, with a somewhat temperamental mustard dispenser. This was of the pump action type, but no mustard appeared when I tried it. Pumping harder, there was a sudden splurge of mustard, most of which landed on my T-shirt, although it also managed to travel a distance in many other directions, splattering passers-by on their shoes. The only part of Hamburg not to receive mustard was my sausage. At this point, as a favour to life in the region, I took the lid off the dispenser, and dipped my sausage instead. [I know this is all in Hamburg, but no euphemisms or double-entendres are intended, this is just a story about a half time snack].

Victoria Hamburg Supporters in full voice.

As for the game, well once again I was watching the league champions after the title had been decided. The away side was in second place, but likely to drop to third with defeat. This would not matter much as there are no play offs. I was more worried that Victoria would field a weak side, due to a local cup final at the same stadium on Monday. The local cup competitions, (Lander Pokal) tend to pass by without much notice around Germany. Fixtures and results columns often show the league matches only, and ignore cup games. These cup games therefore have to take place midweek at the start and end of season, or on bank holidays. There are still a lot of teams, even in the higher levels of the amateur and semi-professional game in Germany that do not possess floodlights, so all the weekend dates are given over to the league, and the cups take what is left. Despite this, there is a big prize on offer. The DFB Pokal, the German cup is very limited numerically. It is also seeded. This means that merely being in the first round practically guarantees a home tie against a major team. Of course, less fuss is made over these in Germany, and should Victoria win through and get a good tie, they would switch the venue quickly and quietly. Still, there is only one way for the minor teams to gain this qualification, and that is by winning the local cup.

High Fences make viewing from behind the goal difficult

I was indeed right about the game, Victoria were clearly favouring the Monday game. Many of players that normally start were missing, including both the two top goalscorers. At 248, the crowdfor the game I saw was probably around its normal level. The cup final would draw in over 4000. Still, I need not have worried about the quality of play in my league match. There was no doubt from the word go that Victoria wanted to finish their league campaign with a win, there was more doubt that Vfl Curslack/Neuengamme had the power to stop them. Victoria took an early lead, and added a second just before half time. When they made it 3-0, on the hour mark, it was beginning to look too comfortable, but any complacency was knocked away with the visitors pulling one with 15 minutes to play, and then scoring again less than five minutes from the end. The comeback was short lived, as while the visitors pushed forward for an unlikely equaliser, they left enough space at the other end for one of the Victoria substitutes to complete the scoring in a 4-2 win.

Having decided to head down to the Hessen league for the Saturday, I needed an early start to get me to my destination, so I spent the evening in bars around the Reeperbahn, avoiding the more expensive joints, and slowly nursing my beers. Since my first visit, over 20 years ago, the Reeperbahn has changed somewhat, and although there are still a number of brothels and girly bars, it is now a noisier entertainment hub, centring on the clubs with rather loud music. Even when I was younger, these places made me feel old, and I have never gone in for them. Still, at the start of my evening, I found a bar with a live band producing a sound more to my taste, sadly I entered rather too close to the end of the set, but they were rather good. I returned to the Hauptbanhhof with time for a coffee and a roll before boarding a train for the four hour run south to Giessen. For this, I had an alarm set to make sure I did not overdo the sleep

A Woolly Mammoth outside the bell tower does not appear to worry the locals in Giessen

Giessen is a pleasant if small town. It does not have a great deal to show to the tourists, except for the fact that it appears to be overrun with prehistoric beasts; well models of dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and other such creatures were scattered liberally through the town centre. I did notice the local brewpub, but I wanted to get out to Fernwald in good time, as the buses only run once every two hours. This was a decision I came to regret. I am not certain that Fernwald actually exists as a town, rather than a series of villages under common title. Certainly, there were several signs to places such as Fernwald – Steinbach, but none to Fernwald – Centre. The bus dropped me at Steinbach Hauptstrasse, which for those who know even less German than me, translates as Main Street. It is indeed the main street of the village, it has a chemists (shut), a bakery (shut) and a pub (I checked the sign outside this, open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only). Being as there was a bench by the bus stop, I sat and read for a while, and may even have dozed off for a bit. Still, when I wandered down the road to the ground, it was still 90 minutes before kick-off. I did pass the church (which I guess is open on Sundays), another shop (closed) before I got there. The gates were open, but without anyone there. I expected at least one of the club bars to be open at this time, but I was too early even for this, and there were just a couple of people setting things up. I had to wait until about one hour before kick off before anything was properly open, and for someone on the gate to be equipped with tickets and programmes. Admission was €7, the programme was an A4 monthly magazine with a one page A4 insert (in full colour) for the days match. It was, as most in German are, free of charge. The beer was cold and wet, (Weizen, if you must know).

The Steinback Sportsplatz is a basic railed off pitch, with a couple of steps of terracing on one side, and then a second pitch behind this at the higher level. The nearest thing to cover or shade was underneath the announcer’s tour. FSV Fernwald were confirmed as finishing in third place, regardless of the result of the final game. The Hessenliga is the highest level the club has even played at, (they arrived at this level in 2005). Visitors, Buchonia Flieden finished just below mid-table, and while a win could have taken them above the half way mark, there was no danger of relegation.

Played at a 3 p.m. kick off, on a hot afternoon, it should be no surprise that the game did not come to a lot. Indeed I had written it off as a dullish 0-0 draw before a home substitute scored 8 minutes from time. Three minutes later, a penalty was converted to make it 2-0. There were 180 in attendance, most of which must have arrived by car from surrounding villages. Now my original choice of Fernwald was because the next level down, Verbandsliga Hessen Mitte had chosen to kick off its matches at 5.30 p.m. For some reason, the other two Verbandsliga that make up step 6 in Hessen (Nord and Sud)had chosen 5 p.m. kick offs. This meant that there was another club, VfB 1900 Giessen within reach for an extra game. A combination of two buses, a total of over 30 minutes on the bus when one runs only at two hourly intervals was never going to achieve the transfer, so my plan was to struggle across the language barrier and ask for a taxi at Fernwald.

However, not long before kick-off, I spied the potential of being helped. At the right arrival time to have been on the later bus, the crowd was increased by a gentleman carrying a rucksack and carrier bag. A quick approach confirmed my suspicions, it was a groundhopper and Bayern München fan, by the name of Thomas. Thomas is not the standard groundhopper, as he has other interests as well. He was sandwiching these games in, between watching Bruce Springsteen concerts on both Friday and Sunday in different German cities. Appearing less organised than me, (which takes some doing), I am not certain that Thomas had found out about the difficulties in getting between grounds until arriving. Still he was agreeable over sharing a taxi, and at half time he got a home official to phone and request one for us. Almost immediately after this had been done, we spotted two other people taking photographs, and quick enquiries showed that they too were ‘hoppers, this time out of Bochum. They were driving, and had two seats free in the car – so poor Thomas went off again to ask for the taxi to be cancelled. I spotted at least one other person at the second game who had also been at Fernwald.

By car, the journey between grounds was completed in no more than 15 minutes. The Waldstadion Giessen may host football at a lower level, but it is a bigger and better ground than its neighbour. Indeed, until 2001, they played at a higher level than Fernwald. In 2001, they finished 9th in the Oberliga Hessen, then the fourth level of German football, but they hit the financial buffers and did not play at all the following season. In 2002-3, they had to restart in Kreisliga B, level 9! They were promoted in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 although thanks to the additional level introduced in 2008 (when 3. Liga started), the 2008 promotion took them from Bezirksliga (level 7) to Gruppenliga (level 7)! In 2011, they reached promotion play offs, but failed to go up, but 2011-12 was not to be their season and the finishing position (5th) was confirmed before our visit.

It was the visitors, FC Eddersheim that needed the points. Starting the day in second place, but only one point ahead of their rivals, they needed to win to confirm second place. This would give them a play off against those in second place in the other two Verbandsliga, and FCA Darmstadt, third bottom of the Hessenliga. An added advantage was that the group of four were playing for two promotion places, thanks to the Viktoria Aschaffenburg deciding to make a geographical defection. Although within Bavaria, Aschaffenburg had been able to play in the Hessenliga on relegation to this level, which reduced their travelling, as they are not far from Frankfurt, but a long way from the major Baverian cities. Another team, FV Illertissen is making the same move from the Baden-Württemberg Oberliga. So in both these leagues, the top team, and fourth placed team gained promotion, while those in second and third were not eligible even for play offs.

The Waldstadionhas its main stand opposite where we came in, with several steps of terracing each side of the covered area. Both ends are curved to accommodate a track, and only flat pathways provide access in these areas. There are more steps of terracing on the side we entered, with a level terrace above this, and the dressing rooms and clubhouse at the back of this. Admission was €5, the programme was again a free A4 magazine, but while there was an insert to greet the visitors, it did not include match details. The team lists were provided on request, after which I pointed Thomas up to the club house, as Weizenbier was on sale upstairs, while the outside stall was offering only Lager and Sausages.

As I said, the visitors needed the points to give themselves a chance of promotion by play offs, and their star in this bid was Julien Antinac, seen here being substituted a few minutes before the game ended.

Antinac quickly made sure that the visiting supporters got their goal quota, starting after just two minutes and completing his hat-trick by the 19th minute. He added his and his team’s fourth goal early in the second half. Giessen did pull one back midway through the half to make it 4-1, but that was then end of the scoring, and there was no denying that Eddersheim were good value for their win. One win, one draw and one defeat in the three play-off games, added to a good goal difference, (the win was by 6-1), saw them promoted

From the ground, there is a regular bus service into the centre of town, where a change of vehicles took me to the station. From there, it was train to Frankfurt, and after a night’s sleep a morning flight to Heathrow. Well before kick-off, I was at Wembley for the play off final, but the following Saturday, I was back in Germany to use the remaining two days on my Rail ticket. My return into Germany, via Düsseldorf Airport was just under six days after departing from Frankfurt. This turned out to be a slow airport to get through – a queue to get the passport checked, and a long distance from the terminal to the station. I remember the airport as having a rather dingy S-Bahn station in the basement. This is still there, but with the main line just outside the airport perimeter, you now transfer to this, using the Sky Train, which like the Schwebebahn in neighboring Wuppertal is an overhead suspension monorail. As a fan of Thunderbirds, these two car units still have a long way to go!

There were several factors in decided which match I was to go to on the Saturday, many years ago while travelling on a train somewhere in Germany, I was talking to a citizen of Lüneburg, (that would be a Lüneburger, not a Lüney), and I recall being told that the town was well worth a visit. Having finally made the trip, I would not argue the point. Although an inland town, Lüneburg was a member of the Hanseatic League, and made its wealth as the main supplier of salt across the trade routes of the League.

If you are going to make the local chemist this colourful, the rest of the town had better be interesting

I am not certain what is required, apart from being a historic member of the league, for town in Germany to be referred to nowadays as Hansa, but the privilege was restored to Lüneburg in 2007. Cities such as Hamburg have long included the term in their full name. In the 1960s and 70s, the town, at the time still somewhat dilapidated in the post-war period, developed the concept of “cultural heritage conservation”, which basically meant restoring old buildings instead of just demolishing everything and building a new town, as is so familiar in much of West Germany. The idea, opposed at the time by local councillors and politicians has successfully restored the beauty of the town, and made it a centre for tourism. With the last salt mine closing in 1980, this is a useful boost to the local economy.

From the centre, it is about a 30 minute walk to the Wilschenbruch Stadion, home of what is now called Lüneburger SK Hansa. I walked through an area of normal suburban housing and then across a main road, completing the trip with a five minute walk through woodland. Indeed to one side of the road leading to the ground, there is woodland, but the other side of the ground is anything but typical suburban housing. You need to earn a few bob before you can live around here. Without the word Hansa attached to the name, the club were moderately successful in the 90s, playing in the Regionalliga, then the third level of German football. Relegated in 1997, they had an unbeaten season in the Oberliga 97-8, winning 23 of the 30 games and easily returning to the Regionalliga. Already at the time, there had been talk of the club either developing the Wilschenbruch stadium further, or moving off altogether. They finished just above mid-table the following season, but there was growing disquiet in reports both over the level of accumulated debt (close to €400,000), and the lack of progress on stadium plans. Things were to come to a head in 2001, with the club again relegated – the mounting debts forced them into administration. Most of the club’s support did not believe in a change of venue despite all this, as a photo from the time shows a banner behind the goal “We need LSK at Wilschenbruch, as much as the air to breath”, (or similar, and of course in German). From then on things move slowly. It will not be until the last shot of 2007-8 season that the name of the club is lost in a merger with Lüneburger SV. The new club is to be called FC Hansa Lüneburger. Yes, it celebrates the history of the town, but not of either football club. Fans, to say the least are not impressed.

Some of the graffiti from 2008 has been preserved.

The name will only last for three seasons and this season the club name is officially LSK Hansa, with the emphasis on the three initials rather than the word Hansa. Those that have come to the club from LSV were not impressed with this, realising that their club has lost identity and assets to the merger. The new slogan of the club is “Traditional club with Heart since 1901” (it looks better in German), but it is still labouring the point, and gives the impression of trying to impress too much that they are LSK, not some new fangled merger. Even if they have heart, one wonders if they have lost their soul.

The Pig Supports LSK – The bad news for the pig is he adorns a Sausage stall.

The name on the club shirts, and adorned in several places around the ground is that of the builder that expects to build houses on the ground. If you ask around, though, you get the impression that no one at the club is in a hurry for this to happen. The answers are vague “two or three years” or “maybe 10 years”. One can bet that the builders are thinking somewhat sooner, whereas local residents may well be siding with the football supporters. Better to have a few hundred football fans wandering up the road every second week, than to have the green and wooded front outlook spoiled by a new development.

The ground itself remains a delight, the centre piece being the old stand, maybe too small for matches when the club was at a higher level, but now perfectly adequate for their needs.

Around most of the rest are a few steps of terracing – just close to the entrance it is flat. On the half way line opposite the stand is the announcer’s tower, with a coffee and beer bar underneath. That means that the crowd of 250 have no less than three places to buy beer, the announcer’s tower, by the sausage stall in one corner, and in the bar itself. I myself only had one beer during the game, and it had to be bought in the bar – the outside stalls only sell lager, while a bar sells a variety of beers.

The game was not a good one for the home team, they conceded a penalty on the half hour mark, and as shown here, it is scored for VfV 06 Borussia Hildesheim by Simon Blaus

The home team laboured without looking likely to get back into the game, and they conceded a second with ten minutes to play. The season did finish on a slightly more upbeat note, as they scored a late consolation, but they cannot get a point from the game.

Wilschenbruch in the Sun. From the right, one can see the old hut covered by graffiti, the main stand, the clubhouse, and by the corner, the wurst stall.

On my return to the station, I was met by a strange site. A policeman in riot gear, coming out of McDonald’s carrying a tray with four ice cream sundaes. The policeman then joined some of his colleagues. There were something like 20 police vans parked in the station, and around 80 police kitted out for a riot. I asked what was going on, and was told that with a far right march and a leftish counter march in Hamburg earlier in the day, there had been clashes, and both sides could be on the train coming in. The train I was about to board. When I voiced a bit of worry about this, I was told not to, the train might be empty. And indeed it was very quiet on board. Clearly the police knew what was going on, and knew when it was OK to just eat the ice cream and collect the overtime payment. As the train headed to Hannover, I noticed more overtime claims at every station on the route.

For Sunday, I was fortunate to be able to pick up two games in Essen, although as it turned out, there was not much football worthy of mention, and the weather was abysmal, raining quite heavily for most of the time until half time of the second game. Sunday morning games are quite common in the major cities of Germany, and Essen one of the most unexcitingly rebuilt is actually a bigger city than some of the more well known in the country.

I am now getting back to this piece, more than a month after the Sunday matches around Essen, the football is well forgotten (not being very good in the first place). The first of my two matches was SG Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 . The two numbers in the name signify that the club was formed by merger at some stage. A small amount of research shows that this was true, VfB Borbeck and SC Grün-Weiss Schönebeck merging in 2000. The clubs are more well known for their women’s football team which plays in the Women’s Bundesliga, the highest level of Football in the country. However, the men’s and women’s teams do not share a stadium, and the matchday programme I obtained for my game made no mention of a women’s team at all. Playing in the Bezirksliga, at level 8 of the German pyramid, this was one of the lowest level matches I had seen in the country.

The ground consists of an artificial surface, surrounded by a narrow two lane running track – this has a much sharper curve behind the goals than a standard track, to I am not certain of the circuit length, but it will be well under 400m. A quite wide path provides spectator provision on the entrance side, with two shelters (looking suspiciously like surplus bus shelters) sitting at the back of the area. The only way to get any sort of view from these was to stand on the benches and try and view over the umbrellas on the sidelines. The dressing room and club room buildings are joined on the upper floor, forming a bridge over the access way to a second, back pitch, (grass surface). Despite the rain and the early start, there was an outside barbeque serving the standard bratwurst, and a separate window off one of the buildings selling coffee and confectionery. I estimated the crowd at 150 (€4 entry, programmes free), although the official figure was around half this.

The visitors, SuS Haarzopf needed to win this match to confirm themselves as champions of the division on the day, although with two games to play, they could “do it in singles” with a point this week and next. By half time it looked as if they were getting their way. By half time, it appeared that they would win on the day, 1-0 up but comfortable, and a foolish second booking meant the home side had been reduced to 10 men. It turned out to be a frustrating second half for Haarzopf, comfortably on top, but never scoring again, and then conceding an equaliser 12 minutes from time. As it happened, other results favoured Haarzopf, who were handed the title by way of the afternoon results.

SGS Essen-Schönebeck 19/68 v SuS Haarzopf, 1-1, the home team in blue.

From there I retraced my steps back to Essen Hauptbahnhof, met up with Nick who had been to a different early kick off, and found the bus to Stadion Uhlenkrug, home of ETB Schwarz-Weiss Essen. A slightly unusual name, ETB is Essener Turnerbund, so the place name Essen gets mentioned twice in the club name. In recent history, Schwarz-Weiss have taken place in football within the city to Rot-Weiss – and with so many other football teams easily reached in the Ruhr, Rot-Weiss are not one of the best known teams in the area, spending only 7 seasons in the Bundesliga, and generally playing at second and third level, although recent financial problems have seen them drop to the level 4 Regionalliga. Schwarz-Weiss are only one level lower, but by the time we went there, they had already blown any slight chance of joining Rot-Weiss. The re-organisation of the leagues had allowed 7 teams to make the move upwards, including some play offs to give the champions of local leagues a chance. It was FC Kray from the Eastern of the city suburbs that took this chance and who now play a level above Schwarz-Weiss.

Schwarz-Weiss won the DFB Pokal (German Cup) in 1959. This was four years before the start of the Bundesliga, when the top flight of German football was still regionalised, and SW Essen were the first team from outside the top division to win the cup. This is the highpoint of the club’s history. They remained second level when the Bundesliga started, and played in the second Bundesliga after it started in 1974, but fell out of the second level soon afterwards (1978). In their heydays, the grass banks you can see above the terracing and to the left of it were all given over to terraces.

As you can see, the large bowl of a ground has a track, but it still has the feel of a proper football ground, and the stand provided a good watching point for a poor game in which SW Essen beat VfB Speldorf 1-0. It was €6 to get in, and the crowd amounted to 788. A newspaper style programme covered several games


…and Finally

Schwarz-Weiss Essen did not turn out to be my last game of the season, as two weeks later I took a car load to France to see the final of the Coupe de la Ligue Nord pas de Calais. Although I have paid little attention to this in the past, it appears that each of the French regions runs some type of local cup. Some, such as this one appear to be limited to teams playing at local levels, while others, such as Corsica also involve teams from CFA and CFA2 at least.

The match we saw was US St. Maurice Loos-en-Gohelle against AC Cambrai, and took place against the background of some quite tall slag heaps in this strong mining area. What appears to be hills on the club banner, are in fact slag heaps.

The reality is almost as impressive.

USSM play in Division Honneur Regionale Nord pas de Calais, one division below their opponents, AC Cambrai. Around 600 people, including 2 car loads from England paid €3 to enter the ground. There was no programme. The ground is quite basic, but at least is not a running track. The spectator areas are level standing except a small stand. The home side went ahead midway through the first half, but held the lead for only a minute. Sadly, this was the greatest excitement, and the game turned to drab as the second half wore on and extra time became more and more inevitable

As per the French cup, it appears competition sponsors provide the kit, and both clubs showed the same sponsor’s name on their shirts, and no club badges. The home team are in Red

There is a clubhouse, and stalls had been set up to provide the crowds, (some of which had been there all afternoon, watching the women’s equivalent competition first) with food and drink. In the penalty shoot out, Cambrai won 3-2

What’s the Big Idea

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

While UEFA’s executive met in Kiev this week, they could congratulate themselves on another successful tournament, far from the worst fears (or wishes) of the BBC’s Panorama.

It has not been without incident, but overall the football has shone above other concerns. The legacy is eight large stadia, many of which will rarely be filled again, built at great expense to local taxpayers, during a recession.

In better economic times, UEFA had decided to expand the tournament. There will be 24 teams contesting Euro 2016 in France – France also staged the finals (which meant four games then, semi-finals, 3rd/4th play off and Final) of the initial tournament back in 1960. On that occasion, there were only 17 teams in contention. Although Ireland played (and were knocked out in the preliminary round), there was no British participation, except Arthur Ellis refereeing the final.

For 2016, France is a safe pair of hands, there is no need to build many new stadiums after a recent World Cup there. The new stadiums in Lille and Nice were long overdue anyway, but UEFA were supposed to announce the bidding process for 2020 during the Kiev meeting, and there was a problem.

The problem was, there were only three bids, and none were ideal. Turkey had come close in the voting for 2016, and is still the favourite, but they would need to work on improving stadiums, and the country’s infrastructure is not well suited to the influx of fans. Past problems between Turkish fans and visitors during club matches, and an ongoing corruption scandal that sees some Turkish teams unable to compete in Europe do not help any Turkish bid, but the biggest problem is that Istanbul is a very plausible candidate for the 2020 Olympics, and staging the Olympics and the Euros in the same summer may is surely beyond any country’s capacity.

The alternatives are the Celtic (capital C) bid of Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, or a hastily prepared by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Only the first of this pair put in a bid on time, with Azerbaijan adding their name after Baku had failed to make the Olympic short list. (International sports organisations find it difficult to work together, so UEFA had a deadline to submit bids of 15 May 2012, while the IOC announced their shortlist (Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul) eight days later. Apart from Baku, the other city whose candidature ended in May was Doha, Qatar.

And so UEFA have ratified the idea of a pan-European tournament. Having launched the idea in his pre-finals speech, Platini is claiming it as his own, and it may well be. IN an earlier speech he floated the suggestion that the 2022 World Cup could be pan-Arabia, rather than limited to the single state of Qatar.

What Platini suggested was that 12-13 stadiums could bid to stage around 4 games each in a 24 or 32 country (yes, he did suggest 32), tournament. Going by the current favoured formats, of dividing the teams into groups of 4, and then a knock out section for the final 16 teams, (it would be 16 from either 24 or 32), then a 24 team tournament requires 51 matches, and for 32 teams, you need 63.

Platini’s assertion that the travel across Europe is made easier by the new low cost airlines suggests that he has seen them advertised, but never tried to book flights himself. For example, Wizz Air provides flights between London and Kiev, and will sell me a ticket booked a month in advance for around £200 return. I could have bought a ticket to the Euro final ten days before it was played. The match ticket was not expensive, but Wizz Air wanted over £500 for the return flight. Regular supporters of England or of clubs who use these airlines to travel abroad know that it is imperative to book quickly, and many are hovering over their computers as soon as the draws are made.

But this does not mean Platini’s ideas are without merit. To build more stadiums which are not required by the domestic game, and therefore have no use after the tournament is madness – even in good economic times, while UEFA’s baseline for a tournament (2×50,000 seat stadiums, 3×40,000 and 4×30,000) can only be met by a small number of elite countries. Glancing at the current lisitng for the Turkish Superlig, it has three stadiums over 50,000 but no more over 40,000 and only two at 30,000+. All the first three, and one of the others is in Istanbul. Azerbaijan and Georgia are in a similar position with 50,000+ national stadiums in both capitals, but then the next best in each country holds just 30,000.

I do not believe a pan European tournament randomly selected could work, no country’s supporters could follow their team if the matches were in Gdansk, Glasgow and Geneva within a week, but if we looked at it another way, and said that Group A was, for example to be shared between Hamburg and Berlin, Group B between Glasgow and Dublin, Group C Zurich and Geneva, Group D Barcelona and Madrid, Group E Baku and Tblisia, Group F St Petersburg and Helsinki, then this could work. Each of the stadiums gets at least three matches, with one of each pair staging a first round knock out game as well.

Under this plan, the first knock out round is on a weekend (maybe Friday through to Monday), with the quarter finals the following weekend (Saturday and Sunday) either on four stadiums in a single country, or at least neighbouring. The teams then stay in the same neighbourhoods for the midweek semi-final games, and the final on the next Sunday.

The biggest difficulty with this idea, and with any other realisation of the Platini suggestion is in making sure the ticket sales kept up well. A series of matches pairing Portugal, Czech Republic, Greece and Serbia might not pack them in, in downtown Baku. It may be necessary to have a series of potential hosts waiting, but none announced for this stage until the 24 teams are known, so as each pair of cities includes a local “host”.

Meanwhile, Platini has made another point, and while I agree with the point made, I would take the opposite conclusion. Platini has said he is opposed to the use of technology because it would in time be more and more invasive. I agree, it will be, but I do not believe the game can stand still. It is no good for television audiences across Europe to see decisions questioned and shown to be wrong on a weekly basis. Platini is right to say that the officials made two mistakes, not one in not awarding Ukraine a goal against England. The ball did cross the line, but a player was offside.

I am unconvinced about the goal line technology only because I am unconvinced about it working, but I am sure that this can be successfully introduced, it will be the thin edge of a wedge, with offside decisions coming next under TV scrutiny and others in time.


Eurotour 2012 – Part 2, Scandic.

Friday, May 25th, 2012

After the Austrian Cup final, it was a straight forward but lengthy change to get to Denmark, the overnight train from Vienna to Hamburg takes more than 12 hours, and then with a further change at Fredericia, one arrives at Randers with over 20 hours on the rails. As with my arrival in Austria, this meant I was in town about three and a half hours before kick-off. I had found a hotel in the town centre, at slightly less than seriously overpriced. I took the chance to wander slightly around the town centre. It is compact, and has few old style buildings, but it is never going to become a tourism hot spot.

The Randers Stadion, (now officially the AutoC Park) is conveniently only about ten minutes walk from the railway station. The hotel was 15 minutes walk from the station. Naturally we are talking opposite directions! The stadium has a modern feel to it, thanks to new stands and a very modern metal lattice work cladding these. However, once you enter, you find that the north end is steps of very unreconstructed terracing, without even the benefit of a few safety barriers. Most of this was not in use though, with one corner housing a few home fans, and another taken by the small number of travelling fans. A few low steps carry on around most of the rest of the stadium, probably the remnants of the old terraces, but renovated, and mainly converted into seats. There is still a terrace for about three quarters of the length behind the south goal, and this is where the popular support stands. A small group however take a block of the stand above for singing and the waving of flags. The new stands have been built above and behind the old ones, raised up by steel girders, so as at its closest point, it is some three meters above access to the seats. The main stand maintains a common height and roof line with the East and South sections. This stand as a single tier and is backed by a massive glass wall behind which are two levels. As far as I could see, the lower one of these was a VIP lounge, while above there were even more exclusive executive boxes, broken only in the very centre for the TV camera gantry.

Live television has created a series of Monday night games in the Danish 1st Division, (which like the Austrian 1. Liga is actually the second division). The division has 12 teams playing a 26 game season, and two places in the Superliga up for grabs. As the Monday night game, the two teams I was watching had a game extra to play, while most of the league had four games to go. Esbjerg, for some reason had played an extra game, and this gave them a lead confirming their place as champions. Randers started the night in second (and had to finish it the same way as this was the only game), with a three point lead over Vejle-Kolding and Viborg, five over Bronshoj. The visitors, Vestsjaelland are mid table, five points ahead of the highest relegation place, so relatively safe.

Both sides played five man midfields with just one up front. The home team using the 4-2-3-1 which now seems to be in vogue while Vestsjaelland settled for just one man shielding the back four in 4-1-4-1. The game made a quiet start, with nothing more than half chances, but Randers should have gone ahead half way through when Tidiane Sane headed over from a position almost underneath the bar. As it was, it was Vestsjaelland that opened the scoring, Rasmus Festersen playing a neat one two with Nicholas Sandberg before stroking the ball under the keeper. It really should have been two within mimutes, Sandberg pulling back a cross to Kristian Uth, who did not use the space he was given and shot wide. The set back did at least create a little urgency in the home side’s play bringing on Frank Kristensen from the bench and switching to 4-4-2 before the break. The change however looked more like panic then plan, Randers launched a series of long balls and early crosses that were easily defended. This feeling that all was not well in this part of the state of Denmark was accentuated by a quick team talk, with the home side coming back onto the field for a fresh warm up some five minutes before the second ad break of half time had even commenced. As it happened though, the rest was notas good as a change, and Randers continued to look hurried in their play. Salvation came from an unlikely source, Vestsjaelland centre half Lasse Nielsen pushed at Christian Keller, who was making a rare foray upfield. This gave Randers a free kick from a little over 20 yards, which Ronnie Schwarz curled inside the near post.

The goal calmed down the home side a little, but did not improve their competence, with crosses, (mainly from the left) proving easy for the visiting defence, who almost took the lead again – a corner being delicately headed onto the top of the crossbar. With the left flank proving so troublesome, (as Randers did nothing on the right), they kept chancing different combinations, and almost made a break through when Keller cut in from the position and then back heeled to the right full back Thomsen, his cross found Sane in space, but the Ugandan did not improve his record, shooting narrowly over.

With seven minutes to go, and while waiting for a right wing cross, Randers brought on Dutchman Remco van der Schaaf, replacing the original left winger, (he had a spell on the right, and an earlier substitution replaced that left winger). Ven der Schaaf first action was to get into the centre of the box and powerfully direct a header from the corner into the goal. Defending towards the end was slightly desperate as Vestsjaelland pushed for a point they must have though they deserved, but Randers held out to take the points, establishing a six point cushion, which must put them close to securing a return to the top flight after a single season away.

From Randers, I took the train back down to Germany, changing at the charmingly named.

The town marks the central point of the Danish Rail Network, if not the whole country. Natuarally, I wanted to know what tourists might do here. Answer “Change Trains”, if one wants more detail, they get off trains, and then get on other trains, and hope there is not long to wait, as you are a long way from anywhere, and all the station offers is three platforms and a 7-11 shop. And what are the primary occupations of the locals? Farming, serving in the 7-11 shop and trying to ignore foreigners making cheap jokes about the place name. Now there is an idea, it had never occurred to me that I could make a cheap joke out of the name of this town.

If I find the time to write it, Tuesday will be described in Part 3 of this blog, along with other German grounds visited. Suffice to say, I returned to Denmark over land and sea the following day, making the crossing between Puttgarten and Roby on the boat train and heading into Copenhagen. Back on my first ever trip to Copenhagen, some 23 years ago, the local derby between Brondby and Lyngby was the highlighted game out of three visited, all in the top division that season. The ground was crammed with about 7,500 watching, whereas the other two games, both also in the top division barely topped 1000. For Brondby, the young Peter Schmeichal was in goal, while Brian Laudrup led the attack, but all four goals in a 2-2 draw came from Christensen. Indeed three were scored by Bent Christensen, without the requirement for own goals, both teams had a player of this name. Brondby were 2-0 up with only a few minutes to play before Lyngby’s Bent Christensen, and then Fleming Christensen scored to give Lyngby a draw. When the game finished, my travelling companions and I would have made a quick dash to Kobenhavns Idraetspark, (now simply call Parken, which was only a nickname then) to see Boldklub 1903 lose to AGF. Three years later, B1903 merged with another club sharing the national stadium, KB to form FC Kobenhavn, and the Bronby/Lyngby rivalry moved somewhat down the order of importance in Danish football.

Much of Denmark is quiet, unassuming, flat, expensive and not very interesting. It just has to be conservative, with a small c. Copenhagen is not like most of Denmark, it is chaotically busy, noisy, expensive and interesting. It is one of those cities that you need a map to explore, but you are best off keeping the map in your pocket, heading down side streets and only getting the map out when you need to find your way back to the hotel. In the summer, at least, it is an ideal cycling city and one can be stunned by the mass of bicycles on some roads – or simply stunned by one as traffic regulations and cyclists never mix. It is possible that Copenhagen has more bicycles than any other European city, but it is also possible that it has less cycle helmets. I reckoned that the proportion using head protection was hardly more than 1%, which may even be less than the portion with rigged up (surely in some cases, home-made), bicycle prams attached to the front to ferry one or two youngsters around.

Just to make my point about the oddities behind the scenes, I cut down Vestergade, parallel to the main shopping street. At one end, this is part of the mainstream with eateries and a (rather expensive) brewpub. At the other end, there was a Goth’s fashion shop, an S&M outlet and club and a Cornish Pasty Shop. I bought (at a very reasonable price) a cup of team from one of these establishments, no prizes for discovering the proprietor had a Cornish accent.

The S-Tog (equivalent to Germany’s S-Bahn) takes you to Lyngby Station which is a mile or so from the ground, but there is a bus as well. The Stadium is well kept, but just does not look like the stadium of a club in a major European League. It is a stadium with a track, and low, single tiered stands running the full length of both sides. On the west side, where I was, the stand is mainly made out to seats, with just a small area of standing under cover at the very end. Opposite, only the central section was for seating, and this had some boxes at the back, the other two thirds were kept as standing areas. Admission at 150 DKK would, I think get you into the standing, and at least some of the seating areas. I noticed that advance booking brought the price down by 5DKK, but I did not test out the system to see if this is countered by booking charges later in the process. A free A4 programme (four pages only) is handed to you just inside the gates.

The footpath behind the main stand!!

As the viewing area curves behind the goals first of all there is a series of stepped uncovered terrace, but then this gives way to a grass bank. The steps are delineated with concrete, but the infill, normally concrete, gravel or dirt is in this case grassed and the grass has been recently mowed. And then there are the hedges. All the areas separated not by unsightly fences but by thick, green hedges. If you take the path behind the main stand, then you can hardly see the stand for the greenery. All the hedges have been kept in immaculate condition. This club does not need a groundsman, so much as a gardener.

The most popular are for home fans was the clubhouse corner where beer and sausages could be obtained while waiting for the game to get exciting. The home fans were in the opposite corner, and had been segregated. The fact that temporary catering facilities had been put into this area suggests they do not always bother with segregation. Serving the beer over the fence between the pitch and terrace helps in one regard though – you are not going to invade the pitch if it means knocking over the beer supplies!

There was not a lot of excitement anyway, Lyngby should have had a chance on 19 minutes when confusion between Brondby’s goalkeeper and defender almost let in Fetai, but he could not control th e ball and ended up in a heap with the goalkeeper and defender, which the referee accurately interpreted as no foul by anyone. Lyngby did take the lead on 31 minutes, with probably the best move of the game, Thomas Rasmussen taking the ball down the left wing and slipping it inside to Anders Christiansen, who in turn threaded the ball forward to Emil Larsen to power the ball in. Larsen missed a golden chance to increase the score three minutes later, and the home team maintained their ascendency up until half-time.

Brondby did come out for the second half trying to look a little more determined, and created a couple of half chances, but their heart did not appear to be in it. The best chance of the second half came from a free kick taken by Lynbby’s Kim Aabeck mid way through. The Brondby keeper stopped this but let it spin out of control before dropping onto just before any home forward could get onto the loose ball.

The Main stand curves slightly at the ends. The table on the left of the picture is for the sale of sausages

The Brondby fans made a great deal of noise throughout, while the home fans were generally quiet. Still, Brondby’s biggest cheer was for the news of goals at Nordsjaelland, which ensured that FC Kobenhavn were not champions. Only time will tell whether they were cheering for defeat for the team that has become their rivals, or for the eclipse of their own relevance by the new kids on the block, in the same way that FCK’s dominance has cast shadows over clubs such as Lyngby.

Lyngby, after all were the champions in 1992 when the merger created FCK. Winning the title in their first season, and playing at the refurbished Parken, FCK may have always had advantages, but they have taken time to build up support. FCK now have the biggest supporter base in Denmark (which is a reason why they are hated by other supporters), and they actually now own Parken, while Lyngby’s ground is still in municipal hands. FCK have really come to dominate since the turn of the century, winning 8 of the last 12 titles, Brondby have won two of these, but not since 2005. At least they have developed their facilities, and it now holds more than twice the crowd it could accommodate back in 1989. I visited Nordsjaelland in 1999 when they were known as Farum, and had just turned professional on joining the league’s Division 2, (third level). This was a marker in itself, as most of their opponents were not full time. It just paid off as they scraped fifth place which earned them promotion due to a reorganisation of the structures. Nordsjaelland were promoted to the top flight in 2002, and took on their current name after one season at the top level

Nordsjaelland are also using a different model to other clubs, I have been told emphatically that they did not buy the title, and in fact had only the 8th largest budget out of the 12 Superliga clubs. When they buy players, they buy cheap, but they develop most of them themselves, and through a series of more than 60 affiliated clubs in the area. Through the affiliates, known as Fodbold Samarbejde Nordsjælland (Nordsjaelland Football Co-operative), Nordsjaelland have a well run scouting network, developing players for the professional club. FCN participate in developing the training programmes, whereas the affiliates remain independent.

Overall, Danish Football is in a much better state than it was when I first watched a few games. The crowd of 1988 that watches the Lyngby game was a low figure, highlighting the lack of importance of the games. Three of the games on the last night had crowds over 10,000 with almost 20,000 at FC Kobenhavn. Denmark have been moving up the UEFA co-efficient table (club performance in European competitions), and are now ranked significantly higher than Scotland (hence two Champions League places, and less qualification to reach the group stages). While Denmark’s 1992 Euro success was based on players playing abroad, they now have a much greater number of their best players back in their homeland. TV money has proved the catalyst for this, but the knowledge that Denmark is not a footballing backwater, (if not yet in the European Premier League), has led to increased crowds, and their has been a rash of ground improvements to accommodate them.

Lyngby, who fell into bankruptcy in 2002, despite climbing back from non league football with promotions in 2003, 5, and 7 (and 2010 following relegation in 2008) have not been a beneficiary of the boom, and Brondby’s fans will find their cheering of Nordsjaelland success to be ironic if they too are consigned to the shadows.

And so to Sweden, making use of their fixtures being spread over Wednesday and Thursday. 4 on each in the Allsvenkan – which translates as All Sweden and is the National League. The second division in Sweden is called the Superetten. The first division, which is regionalised North and South has never been a National League, and since the National League started, it was the second level, until the Superetten started in 2006, (basically as Allsvenkan II). There is a direct train from Copenhagen to Halmstad which using the new bridge takes around two and a half hours. I then had two hours to book into a hotel and freshen up before travelling on. The trouble was that the “hotel” I was staying in also refers to itself as a “Hostell”, and uses that as an excuse not to have 24 hour service. In fact the only check in times were 4-7 in the afternoon, during which I was to be either travelling or at the ground. Fortunately, after a quick phone call, I found out I could leave bags there and get my key later from a key safe. Two trains were required to get me up to Borås, home city of IF Elsfborg, a short ride on the main line, followed by over an hour on a branch (ran by a different company). Even the main line has single track sections, and the 30 minute ride took over twice that. Fortunately, I had allowed a margin of error, getting the next train to Borås and staying on it for one extra station to Knalleland. Maps show a complicated road lay out between the station and the ground, but actually, it is all part of a retail park, and you can simply walk straight across the car parks, completing the journey in about five minutes.

When it was completed in 2005, the Borås Arena was the first modern ground in Sweden. IF Elfsborg celebrated moving in by winning the Swedish title for the fifth time a year later. It had been 45 years since they last won the title. Since then they have maintained a challenge, but the sixth title has so far eluded them. After 11 rounds of this seasons, Elfsborg are top, six points ahead of Malmo, but it is a 16 team, 30 game season. The only other time I have seen Elfsborg play, it was away at Halmstad in2003, with Halmstad then league leaders, but Halmstad did not go on the win the title, (they last won in 2000). The Swedish League is now considered one of the most open in Europe, with the last seven titles going to seven different teams, Djugårdens, Elfsborg, Göteborg, Kalmar, AIK, Malmo and Helsinborgs. The visitors to the Borås Arena, BK Häcken started out in third place, and are the highest place team who have never won the title.

Pesentation of teams before kick off. Even though it is an artificial surface, it needs maintenance, and was being watered before kick off. As the kids (in centre circle) were entering the playing area, with their “Give Racism the Red Card” banner, one of the automatic sprinklers started up, giving many of them an impromptu soaking.

The Boras Arena is a square ended stadium with an up to date artificial surface. There are two tiers of seats along the long sides, and single tier stands behind the goals. I think these are supposedly all seats, but there is an fact a mix between proper seating and benches, with most preferring to stand in the benched areas. It is of goalpost type construction with a lattice at the front of the roofs supported by steel post, but no blockage of the viewing lines. The lattice is below the roofs to the side, but above the ones behind the goal, allowing it to also support giant monitor screens. The Ryavallen, which the Arena replaced is next door to the north and is now used mainly for Athletics. It’s main stand almost backs onto the north stand of the Arena, with a section between the two roofed off, allowing covered access at the main entrance to the Arena.

The Arena itself is shared with Norrby IF, a club two levels below Elfsborg who also used to play at Ryavallen. It is owned and operated by an investment company, with IF Elfsborg as a major shareholder. IF Elsborg were founded in1904 as Borås Fotbollslag, but changed their name two years later, “because too many teams included Borås in their name”. One hundred years later, no major team appears to have Borås in the name.

Most of the seats in the main stands sell at 250 SKR, with tickets behind the goal available at 140 SKR. The programme, which costs 20 SKR is pocket sized, and unfolds to the equivalent of ten pages. It also serves as a 50/50 lottery ticket, that is to say half the proceeds are a lottery prize.

Elfsborg, playing a 4-4-2 formation and a team that is 100% Scandinavian, (one Dane, one Norwegian, nine Swedes), got off to the perfect start with a goal after just six minutes, Stefan Ishiaki took a free kick out on the left wing, and it went through a crowd of players, probably just getting a slight flick of deflection on its way into goal. This should have suited them through the half, as they allowed Häcken the majority of the possession, and then when they picked up the ball from defence they fired a long ball to one or another wing, or through to the forward. Certainly they appeared to be the more likely to score again before the break, at least until BK Häcken really should have levelled things on 39 minutes. Häcken were playing 4-3-3 with all three of the forwards being African imports – Majeed (Ghana), Chatto (Nigeria) and Makondele (DR Congo). The team maintained a tactic that was simply, “get the ball to the Africans”, after which the 8 Swedes tended to stand and watch. For this, the closest they came to the goal, Majeed actually started things by robbing a defender near the edge of the area, chasing for possession and then passing to Makondele. Makondele exchanged passes with Chatto, which left him with only the goalkeeper to beat, or as it happened, time for a soft punt into the goalkeepers surprised arms.

AT each end of the stadium were giant screens which showed the match as it was going on, with action replays of non-contentious decisions (generally near misses by the home team were replayed, fouls were not). They also relayed every goal from other matches being played in the Allsvenkan that evening, which did not appear to add up to many interruptions, and gave us updates on the odds for our game – 15 minutes in, betting on the game staying 1-0 would have earned one a return at 10-1, by 15 minutes into the second half, it had dropped to 2.5.

The trouble was that although there was plenty of attacking play, it was very one-dimensional, with no alternative plans on offer. Elfsborg prefer to defend in depth and then launch long balls forward as soon as they get possession. Their opponents were also strangers to the art of patient build up. Elfsborg’s approach should have paid off in the 72nd minute, when a rare defensive error meant the long ball game had left Elfsborg’s Lasse Nilsson with a run at goal, he was quick, but inaccurate with his shot, so instead dived over the keeper. This one at least did not fool the referee, and Nilsson received a yellow card for his efforts.

Still, diving is a tactic worth trying if you only get a yellow card 50% of the time, when Niklas Hult found himself as the only home player in the opponents half on receiving a long ball 8 minutes later, he evaded the first challenge, but as soon as he entered the area (with no one close to being a potential target for a pass anytime within the ten minutes still to play), he made contact with the challenge and then went to ground in much the same way as a brick does, if you drop it from six feet. For reasons I never fathomed, the referee did not book Hult as well, but instead awarded a penalty. Nilsson converted, which at last confirmed the wisdom of not taking offers at 10-1 for 1-0.

It should have been more, Chatto received his second yellow card just as the injury time board was displayed, and in the four minutes of injury time, both Ishizaki and Hult contrived to miss chances for Elfsborg.

From the outside, the Norh stand, and you can see the back of the adjacent Ryavallen’s stand

From there, it was just the matter of getting back to Germany, with a very brief overnight stay in Halmstad, and then onto Copenhagen and Hamburg. This last train was problematic. I think the Germans do not like sending their best trains or staff to Denmark. The train out of Copenhagen was overcrowded due to Danes heading to a game in Hamburg, and noisy as not surprisingly, an international in Hamburg is an excuse for much beer to pass through Danish supporters. The train lacked indication of seat reservations, as the electronics for this was not working, leaving a lot of passengers taking seats only to be moved on as others got on with reservations, and of course not knowing whether the seat gained, (the one I am typing from) would be lost to a passenger getting on down the line.

The fault also meant there was nothing either hot or cold in the buffet car. The steward made a point of showing me a melted twix bar, but could not offer sandwiches, coffee or chilled drinks. Its over two hours from Copenhagen to Roedby, where the train enters the ferry. One has to hope that the Danes’ supplies of canned Carlsberg last out until they can get more supplies.

Eurotour 2012, Part 1 – Austria.

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The gap between play off semi-finals and final in England has let me with the chance for a short trip to Europe, but with the catch that I had to book the flights before being certain who was playing on which day in the semi-finals, let alone if my boys would reach the final. Once we had confirmed that we would at least be in the semi-finals, we knew that our first leg would be at home, and the second leg would be away, most likely on a Thursday at either Crawley or Southend. The final day of the season changed this around, and we while the away leg was still a Thursday night, it was in fact at Torquay. And I had a nice early flight ticket (from Heathrow).

So my Thursday night timetable (times are approximate) was something like this.

21.30 – Marlon Pack scores a direct free kick, three minutes to play. Its 4-1 on aggregate to Cheltenham

21.40 – final whistle after five minutes of injury time, and a couple of Torquay fans on the pitch

22.00 – the on-pitch celebrations end. Head into the social club attached to the ground, “Boots and Laces”, for a quick (but non alcoholic drink).

23.00 – with some of my friends staying in Torquay and heading into town for more alcohol, I head back to the car

23.45 – pull off the motorway at Exeter, buy diesel and coffee

01.00 – Spend about an hour sleeping (in the car) outside a deserted service station not far from Yeovil

03.00 – Spend about an hour on the internet at the motorway services on the M3

05.00 – Arrive in the area of West Drayton, park car at the quiet end of a housing estate and walk across to bus stop.

05.06 – bus is on time!

05.30 – Arrive Heathrow

05.45 – Clear security (no queue)

08.00 – Leave Heathrow, bound for Vienna. The flight is fine, but why do they have to insist on making the passengers uncomfortable by cramming them on an overcrowded bus before allowing them to board the plane? Sleep through flight.

11.30 (Austrian Time). Arrive Vienna

12.18 First train – S Bahn towards town

12.39 Switch to another S-Bahn line

13.02 – On the “Railjet”, which is in fact an ordinary enough train from Vienna to Graz. You can get the internet (for free) on this train. Try to reply to a call from Cheltenham, which is probably about play off final tickets, but cannot get through. Leave text and e-mail messages.

14.33 – Arrive Graz. The next stage of the journey is by bus, but the “Railbus” does not connect with the “Railjet”. A bus went 15 minutes before I arrived, and I have two hours to wait for the next one.

15.00 – Having confirmed bus departure point, and bought a reservation for an overnight train on Sunday, I have the answer to what to do with the rest of the free time. It involves beer.

16.30 – Leave Graz

17.30 – Arrive Wolfsberg, the whole journey done according to schedule, so its three hours to kick off. Meeting me at the Station was Kevin, one of three other English hoppers already into longer Eurotours of our own. We were to take in three games together, while another of the English contingent was to join us at the second game only

Main Stand at Lavantthal Arena. The “junk” on the track will be used to make up the presentation stage

The game I am heading for is WAC/St. Andra v LASK in Austria’s 1. Liga. The “W” in WAC stands for Wolfsberg, (not to be confused with the German Wolfsburg). St. Andra is a nearby and smaller town. LASK is often referred to as LASK Linz, but this is not strictly correct as again, the “L” stands for Linz. (Pedants may like to tell me that it is actually Wolsberger and/or Linzer). Following in the now common practise, the 1. Liga is of course, the Austrian Second Division. WAC/St. Andra have actually confirmed themselves as champions (and there is only one promotion place) the previous week, rendering the result of this match against second placed LASK as academical, although with a promotion celebration, it will still be the first time the ground has been sold out.

It must be a good place to watch from – it’s near the bar!

One gets quite close to the ground before its location becomes clear. There is not a lot to the place, and there appeared to be deceptively few people walking towards the ground, and trying to find space in the nearby parking areas. Suddenly, one walks past the swimming pool, and the ground is in front of you, and chaos is ensuing. The ticket sales window is marked “Ausverkauf”, and people are still pushing in to try and get their pre-ordered tickets. I had spoken to the club and exchanged e-mails earlier in the week, and been promised one press pass and one match ticket. There was no ticket waiting despite this, and the girl hurriedly wrote our names on two press passes. Not surprisingly when we made our way up the area was somewhat overcrowded. The stewards did not know where the press enclosure was, or that there was a press room we could visit first. The pitch is within a running track, and the only covered accommodation is a stand that runs about the length of one side. Common with many others in this part of the world, there is a pathway along the top of the seats, but this has been broken up by a very plush VIP area in the centre, which has been added over the original path.

The opposite side has a few rows of uncovered terrace with a grass bank extending beyond this, the away enclosure is just a small area of grass banking with a couple of safety barriers, and as the grass bank runs around the corner, there is more space for home supporters to sit on the grass banking. This area even has its own bar, whereas in the main stand, one has to visit the bars and Wurst stalls behind the stand, or simply wait for the beer to be brought to you. Oddly, the size of this space id defined just be a temporary barrier and two stewards – they could have added room for a couple of hundred more by extending this further, even if views would have been distant, from beyond the curve of the track. The town end of the ground is closed to spectators.

Away fans enclosure of protest. No prizes for getting the name of the person they want out. Not only is Her Reichel being pictured as Pinocchio, but something is leaking from the end of his nose!

As a game of football, it was a poor advert, and we had given it up as goalless long before WAC/St. Andra scored in the 89th minute. What little football played in the game was actually played by the visitors, playing with a more direct approach, WAC always seemed to try to play the ball around, perhaps looking for a perfect goal but instead conceding possession. The crowd was announced at 5000, although I suspect it was less than this. It was however too many in most areas. Locals tell us that some or all of next season’s Bundesliga games will be switched to Klagenfurt, which is best part of an hour’s travel away. This could lead to a curious situation where the games moved, because WAC’s Lavantthal Arena cannot cope with the prospective crowd, are in fact played in front of a less crowd than those kept in Wolfsberg. Meanwhile, LASK, despite being in contention for promotion until the week before our visit, have not been awarded a licence for either National Division next season. This will probably be resolved, but at the moment there is a risk of them being demoted. The LASK fans that made the journey were in the mood for protest, and clearly laid the blame for the problems (which are financial) on the club president. With Austrian football dependent on the largesse of sponsors, as it cannot possibly pay its own way on gate income alone, (and the TV income is not great here), the job of the club president is to secure the sponsorship required to provide a budget and keep the club in the manner the fans would like to expect. At many clubs, the club president is the main sponsor (RZ Pellets at Wolfsberg), while other sponsors are often companies that would like to do business with the main sponsor. LASK is one of the old style, where the president is not providing from his own pocket. Having managed to argue with, and hence lose two major sponsors in the last year, the fans demand he should leave is perhaps, not misplaced.

For the records, I did not pay, and could not see any admission prices, while a 4 page A4 programme was given away free.

Celebrating in the now familiar style.

Reversing the last parts of the previous day’s journey, I returned to Vienna on Saturday morning. I had time to book into my hotel before using the local U-Bahn services to get myself to Simmering, within the city’s southern suburbs. Austrian Football has two National Divisions of just ten clubs each. The teams play 36 matches a season in a double round-robin system. Generally these are full time professional clubs, although attendances alone can certainly not support this. The third level is the semi-professional Regionalliga, which comprises of three Divisions, Ost (East), West and Mitte (Middle). Promotion opportunities for the Regionalliga teams are limited, with just 1½ available per season. Before any reader complains that it is not actually possible to promote 1½ teams, I would say this is the closest approximation to the truth. Each of the three divisions having just ½ of a promotion place available. The bottom team in the 1.Liga is relegated and replaced by the winner of a play off between two of the three Regionalliga champions. The third champion gets to play against the team finishing second to last in the 1. Liga. All of this is subject to limitations, such as a requirement to gain a licence for promotion, or to keep hold of one to avoid relegation, and the fact that reserve teams are no longer allowed in the 1. Liga.

Relegation from the Regionalliga is more straight forward, there being 9 state leagues at the next level down, and these are divided among the Regionalliga on a strict 3 to 1 basis, so the Champions of Burgenland, Vienna and NeiderOsterreich will all gain promotion to the Regionalliga. Licence requirements still exist, but are easier to comply with, and reserve teams can reach this level (10 of the 48 clubs are reserves). My match was at 1. Simmering SC, champions of the Wiener StadtLiga in 2011, but now at risk of returning to the lower league. An interesting and well thought out development borders one side of the ground. From the road, this looks quite typical with businesses on the ground floor, and housing above, but one end of the ground floor of the development is the football club’s clubhouse, and with the pitch level significantly lower than road level, the basements of the building include the dressing rooms. Just outside the clubhouse there is a balcony providing an elevated view of the pitch, something not available to those selecting to sit. Two rows of seats, the front one being at pitch level are provided on below the balcony level, and on the far side. On two sides of the ground, there are grass banks with a level area at the top, and this is where the majority of the crowd are watching from. There is a sizable encampment of visiting fans from Wiener Sportkub enjoying the sunshine on this bank, regularly regaling us with songs about how good they are and that they were going to score in a minute. Their efforts no doubt fuelled by an additional bar open on that size. The quoted attendance of 750, paying €10 for adult admission will be the best or close to best of the season. No programme was available. Sportklub were incidentally, the second Austrian club I visited, back in 1989. St. Polten, whom I visited the day before Wiener Sportklub were at home again the day before I was to see SK again. This was the last game at St. Polten’s Voith-Platz, which is to be demolished.

Simmering take the lead with an early penalty

If the fans of Wiener Sportklub thought they were going to have an easy day, they were mistaken. Simmering took an early lead with a 6th minute penalty, and then increased this on 33 minutes. The task for WSK was made more difficult with one of their forwards getting marching orders for a second booking early in the second half. The player concerned then had his “Joey Barton” moment as he appeared more violent after receiving the card then before it. A third Simmering goal was added midway through the half, giving a final score of 3-0. Not only does this lift Simmering out of the relegation zone with two games to play, but it also helps their goal difference, a vital matter if two relegation places are to be chosen from one team now on 33 points, and four on 34.

Within a few minutes of the game finishing, we were in a taxi – four of course is the ideal number here, as the journey we had planned, not much over 3 miles cost €16, a lot on your own, but quite manageable when shared. As I have mentioned, Wiener has one of the nine Stadtliga that make up level 4 f the Austrian pyramid. Below this there is no symmetry, as each of the areas defines the best system for lower football. In Vienna, this means two parallel divisions, (called A/B, but I think it is basically a North/South distinction, with those in group A being more Southerly). In most other areas, covering mush greater geographical footprints, the number of divisions increases as you drop down. The structure in Vienna, below the Stadtliga, is Oberliga, 1. Klasse, 2. Klasse. In Vienna at least, there are only a few reserve teams in the league structure, and these are the reserves of teams playing at a higher level. For those in the Wiener Liga structure, your reserves play parallel leagues to the first team, and are promoted and relegated on the first team’s merits, not their own, (Belgium runs a similar structure). The reserve fixture invariably kicks off either two hours before or after the first team game, at the same venue, but not necessarily the same pitch.

We went to the Franz Hölbl Anlage, home to KSV Monte Laa of the 1. Klasse A, (and also of SV Wienerberger who play one division higher). From the entrance, one climbs to a bar and dressing room, and then have to move higher again to the pitch. What one then found was two railed of pitches, one grass, one artificial. The grass pitch had advertising hoardings as infill, and a couple of rows of bench seats on one side. Peter insists that the pitch itself is named the Anker Arena, (after the club sponsors), and the unsold advertising hoardings certainly had this printed on them, and the name was used (with that of Franz Hölbl) on the official team sheet. Then again, Peter would be happy to count the artificial surface as another ground if her were to visit it on another day, whereas I tend to consider it to be another pitch of the same ground. Such subjects can cause endless debates in groundhopping circles, and I believe that I am now in a minority over some of the grounds I have visited twice, but counted as just one ground. Of course, to non groundhoppers, it is debates like us that prove that we are obsessive anoraks who cannot get a girlfriend, (but then both Peter and I are married). Admission to the ground for this game was free, although the signs said that SV Wienerberger charge €5. Not surprisingly there was no programme.

Seating at Franz Hölbl. Peter is the one shading the sun from his eyes, and effectively hiding two other hoppers from the view

The football at this level was poor to say the least, it lacked any sort of pace at all, and was clearly an end of season match of little importance. The home side, who like to take the name KSV Anerbrot Monte Laa to honour their main sponsor, took the lead early in the game, and increased to 2-0 before half time. The visitors, Margaretner AC had to make a hurried change to the teams before the start as their team captain, Ulrich Stabel was late arriving. He came on as substitute after just 21 minutes, but really made an impact 11 minutes from the end, pulling one goal back. Margeretner then scored again in the final minute to secure a draw from the game. Up to that point, the most interesting thing about the away team was their kit. All black, but in order to publicise a Turkish café as sponsor, a hashish pipe and the sponsor’s name shown on the front

The Viennese Leagues always have a few Sunday morning fixtures. At Stadtliga level, I had noticed three, two with kick offs at 10.15, and one at 11.00. My original plan would have sent me to Donaufeld, for a 10.15 kick off, but by the time I had taken breakfast, checked out of my hotel and taken my first U-bahn of the day to Westbahnhof where I could lock up my baggage, I calculated another U-Bahn would get me to Florisdorf only around half an hour before kick-off, leaving me with a long walk and a short time. So instead I took the U-Bahn to Stadlau and rather lazily took the bus four stops, (this is what happens when you have a day ticket). There is an adjoining S-Bahn Station, and if you approach from this side, you see a big gate announcing FC Stadlau, and leaving a gap where some sponsors name has been added in the past. The gate is not used, and is only notable for a couple of containers next to the gate, one of which is marked USA Exhibits. The actual entrance is from around the corner, past a car park, two other pitches (at least one artificial surface) and a small swimming pool. Although the football stadium has a running track and a large stand and is enclosed, the dressing rooms are actually shared with the swimming, and all the players enter the pitch via the pay gate. They did not, however, pay €7 to get in.

This is Stadlau!

Surprisingly, I failed to get a team sheet. Austria has one of the most sophisticated systems for player registration, and even at the lowest level, the referee will have a computer in his dressing room. He enters the team list into the system before kick-off, this gives an immediate check on suspensions or other irregularities. This can then be printed from any computer with access to the internet, but at Stadlau, the printers were in the referee’s room, and he did not know how to manipulate the software to print me a copy. I settled for writing it down by looking at the announcer’s computer screen, and then checking against the internet later.

Still the pulled out the stops in other ways, with dancing girls to greet the players as the entered the pitch, and a more than acceptable match. League positions suggested a home win was on the cards, but this reckoned without Rainhard Siegl, who scored early for the visitors, ISS Admira Technopool early in the first half, and then again midway through the second, after Wendl had levelled for the home team just before the break.

An Admira Technopool free kick blocked by the wall

The pitch also shows American Football markings, and appears to be shared with the Donau Dragons. During the second half, I discovered there were three other groundhoppers present, from Germany and Poland, (there are a lot of Germans on the circuit, but this was the first Pole I had met). They were going onto DAC, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia for a 5.30 game, making use of the fact the station outside has direct services to Bratislava. Oddly, they had planned to leave this match 15 minutes early to catch a train, which in an anathema to most British hoppers. They said this was not their preference, and then checked their train times, realising there was another train to Bratislava after the match finished, and it would still get them to their destination 45 minutes before kick-off, they changed their plans.

Possibly the best feature of Austrian Football – the answer to the question, “Where’s the bar?”, is “Over there, next to the pitch”, although of course, there will always be an indoor bar as well, in case of poor weather!

For those riding into Slovakia for the afternoon, it may have been clock watching, I had only a few stops on the buses and U-Bahn to Prater for the Austrian Cup final, with plenty of time to pick up my ticket (€32.50 for a good seat, although this was with two additional charges added to the face value of €28). I even had time for lunch before the match, knowing that of we had extra time and penalties, I cold be in a rush later.

Despite renovations when staging the European Championships, the Ernst-Happel or Prater Stadion in Vienna is showing its age. One enters the ground, goes straight up concrete stairwell and through another gate to your seat. There is no plush modern concourse to provide a massive choice of overpriced comestibles, just small rooms with a limited choice. With the match taking place at four o’clock on a very hot afternoon, the organisers did not help, opening the side of the ground where fans could swelter in the sun, but using only a few of the shaded seats opposite (the main VIP area). This also meant no fans, (only VIPS) anywhere near the actual cup presentation. Still, my €32.50 bought me a very good seat, which I then changed twice, firstly to move away from a smoker (you can still smoke in Austrian stadiums, even in the stand at WAC, which had a wooden roof), and then to get out of the burning sunshine. There were no programmes on view outside the stadium, or at the entrances, so I went in thinking one had not been published, but on reaching the seats, I found that one had been left on each seat. I am not sure if this extended around to the seats behind the goals.

Unlike many stadiums, the roof of the Prater is lower opposite the centre line compared to the end. The line of the top of the third tier of seats, however is even all the way around.

SV Ried brought the most fans, who made the most noise, and dropped the most litter

The Salzburg fans bask in the Sunshine.

Red Bull Salzburg dived and cheated their way to winning the Austrian Cup final, completing a double with an emphatic 3-0 win over SV Ried. They were ably assisted in this by Thomas Einwaller, who clearly has no idea that it is possible for a football to fall over without being fouled. Now do not get me wrong, Salzburg’s opponents were not afraid to make the odd dive themselves, it is just that Salzburg took more tumbles, more often, and were clearly better at this aspect of the game. The first major decision of the game was a penalty that gave Salzburg the lead after just ten minutes, and this was for a dive. Sadly for the visitors, when one of their players took the chance to fall over in the area early in the second half, the referee ruled that this was a clean challenge. I find all this cheating somewhat disconcerting, and especially the fact that the officials seem oblivious to it going on. I assume they do not suffer the same level of scrutiny as given by, say, “Match of the Day” in England, as surely the criticism would be so severe, they would either learn or resign. On one incident, the referee awarded a questionable free kick to Ried. As the players were running back, a Salzburg player “bumped” into Ried player and collapsed to the ground. All three of the officials seemed blind to this happening, taking action only when the repercussions of the incident almost led to a fight, (well fists were raised but not used – this is Austria). After seeing me get irate over the diving and officialdom, two very attractive young ladies took time to ask me what I was doing in Austria. The said that part of the fun of Austrian football is all the crazy refereeing decisions, and seeing who can make the most theatrical fall to the ground. Not only that, the actually seemed disappointed that I was leaving the country that evening (overnight train), and therefore could not have a drink with them.

Salzburg are actually capable of some quite good football, and having gained an early lead, (which became 2-0 in the 14th minute), most of the possession was with Ried. As their moves inevitably broke down, Salzburg could then counter attack with pace on both wings (Svento and Zarate) as well as through the middle (Leonardo). Zarate and Leonardo are two of the worst divers in the team, but Svento impressed me. For those of you of the right age, you may remember Dick Dastardly of “Wacky Races”, whose plots to win the races always backfired and led to him losing. My thought was that he clearly had the best car, as he could get ahead to try and bring these plots against the other drivers. Hence, I concluded, if he just drove fairly, he would have won all the races anyway. Salzburg also have the ability to win without recourse to cheating, but choose not to do so. The difference, of course between the real world and TV cartoons is that in the real world cheating does work.

In the end, the record books show, Salzburg holding the cup

Top of the Klasse.

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Football wise, it has been a long winter. The combination of working away from home, and actually having the wife at home to visit on the weekends has put the longer trips out of my mind – except when my wife wants me to take her into France, and then two times out of three this does not allow Football. At least the relative success of Cheltenham has meant that a period where I see them almost exclusively at the weekend,(with a diet of revisits in the general Manchester region during the week) was more than palatable.

Seasons change, as does home club form. At the time of writing, Cheltenham have not scored in five games and 77 minutes. It is a testimony to their earlier season form that even this record is not enough to take them out of the play off zone. With Cheltenham playing at Southend on a Friday night (no goals for us there),my first thought was to use the Channel Tunnel for the weekend, especially as I had an old ticket with the validity about to run out. I booked Monday off work, mainly because I did not want to drive from Belgium to Manchester in an evening. As it happened, the validity of my Eurotunnel ticket ended not on the Sunday, but the Saturday, and due to it being the first week of school holidays, there was almost no availability on the tunnel anyway. So my tunnel trip was instead scheduled for 25th March, when I did indeed drive from Wingene in Belgium, to my flat in Didsbury, arriving back at around 23.30.

One I visited earlier – KVC Wingene in action against Blue Star Poperinge.

I was tempted but not too tempted by a variety of possibilities for the weekend, as March gave way to April – but this left me too indecisive and as often happens with the “cheapo” air fares, one needs to pick up straight away. Anyway, a short trip with little time between the games for sightseeing is best done to the old familiar countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Still, fares were showing rather high, and I almost gave up the idea until I saw that I could fly BA to Amsterdam within a sensible budget. If I’d driven with Eurotunnel, then I would have tried to start early enough to get into the Netherlands, so this was ideal. Although not taking the trip, Paul generously allowed me to stop over at his place and park the car there, meaning I had just the slight target of the 05.46 train from Horley to catch my 07.20 flight at Gatwick.

Not the Montfoort Stadium. Instead the ground of neighbours MSV ’19

Even with the hour of time difference and the length of walk at Schiphol from Plane to Car Hire, I had some time to spare, and wandered into Utrecht for a while before heading to the match. In the Netherlands, the cities are generally more interesting than the towns. Indeed, most small towns in the Netherlands are much of a muchness, and somewhat dull. Pleasant (but dull) housing surrounds a pleasant (but dull) shopping area with a few small bars and restaurants and at least one supermarket. Driving must be done slowly, as it is never clear who has priority at a junction, but most cyclists assume that they own the road. It is, of course, possible that they do. The football grounds are almost always on the edge of town. Montfoort is no exception in these regards, although a couple of church spires and a windmill gave some respite on the skyline.

A football club bar should celebrate football, at least that’s what they think in Montfoort

Arriving at the grounds, one sees a neat small ground with a modern stand. Above the stand are the letters MSV’19. This is not the club I am going to see. Research shows that MSV play at the fourth level of regional Sunday football – so a ground with its own stand is quite something. Next to the MSV ground is a sports hall, and walking past the sports hall, one gets to Sportpark Hofland, home of vv Montfoort. This again is typical of the beast. Most of the surrounds of the ground are flat, but paved. On one side, a small stand has a small amount of elevation giving those inside a line of sight just above the benches. These seats, maybe 200 or so, provide all the cover. Each side of the stand are slightly raised grass banks, while in one corner, there is the clubhouse. This is typical of the type, Netherlands club bars are generally quite spacious, with a large bar area for drink, and food from a separate counter. There are more tables and chairs outside, in an area slightly enclosed. You can drink beer within sight of the pitch from this area, or through the clubhouse windows, but views will not be the best. You cannot take the beer to the other parts of the ground. I noticed that when someone walked out of the zone carrying the drink, they were quickly stopped by the stewards who had a quiet word after which the spectator returned to where he could legitimately finish his drink. While the professional leagues in the Netherlands suffer from a degree of hooliganism which goes beyond that remaining in Britain, the non-League game is one of tolerance, and four figure crowds can quite happily stand around the ground without even trying to goad the opposition.

Welcome to Montfoort. The teams enter the field to both sets of banners. Fans with a long memory will recognise the two footballers on the Montfoort badge from so many old programmes. Students of geography may note the wording VV Montfoort. Holland. Normally, the pedantic in me corrects the name Holland except in the two provinces of the Netherlands which are historically Holland. Montfoort is in Utrecht province, although close to the border with Zuidholland

Football in the Netherlands, below the two professional divisions is split into Saturday and Sunday football, with supposedly equal structures in each. This is the second season in which the top division of these two leagues is call Topklasse, and is national. The “Amateur Champion” is now decided by an end of season play off between the two TopKlasse champions. The winner of this can be promoted to the professional league, if they desire and have suitable facilities. The runner up can take the place if the winner declines. IN practise, there is next to no movement between the professional and amateur leagues.

The split into the Saturday and Sunday games is mainly on religious grounds. The protestants would never play on Sundays, whereas the Catholics always do, (this is true across much of Western Europe, countries are predominantly Roman Catholic are also predominantly Sunday football (or more recently Saturday night)). Saturday afternoon comes from the protestant communities. In the Netherlands there are more Saturday clubs towards the West, whereas in the area close to the German border, the Sunday leagues hold sway. With the West being more densely populated, there is a tendency for Saturday football to hold sway.

Apart from the National final, the Saturday and Sunday clubs can meet in the National and District cups. The rule for such meetings is that a Saturday club can refuse to play on a Sunday, but a Sunday club cannot refuse to play Saturday. Both legs of the national final are always on Saturdays.

Spakenburg are one of the top amateur teams in the Netherlands, and have won the overall championship 4 times, last season they came second in the Saturday Topklasse behind local rivals (the grounds are adjacent), IJsselmeervogels. Their neighbours went on to become overall champions, their 7th title. The derby match between these two had become the stuff of legends, and a capacity 8,500 saw the match played a week before my arrival. As a Spakenburg fan said to me “We did not play well, but we won”. This meant that Spakenburg went to Montfoort as top of the league, and with quite a following, two supporters coaches were parked outside the grounds, and judging by noise and colours, they provided over 50% of the spectators. Montfoort have been one of the beneficiaries of recent changes. They were not in the old Hoofdklasse before the Topklasse was formed, and after finishing fourth at the Eerste Klasse level, they won promotion after a series of play offs. Last season they went up again, and again it was via play offs, and not the one direct promotion place. This season, it appears as if the rapid rise is going to end, and they are secure in the relegation zone.

Not surprisingly, Spakenburg dominated the game. They managed to hit the cross bar no less than three times, while home keeper Johan Verkerk was announced as man of the match. Then, just after an announcement of a minimum four minutes injury time, Montfoort attacked on the break, the ball dropped to Chanan Brandsma on the left side of the penalty box, he kept his nerve and put the home side ahead. Spakenburg were shocked to be behind in a game which they should have comfortably won. From the kick off, a player went on a run down the wing and was brought down, the free kick was blocked for a throw on, the throw on was blocked for a corner. The corner was long, and Roy de Vies found space to sweep in a shot. 1-1. The result really did not help either side, with four games to play. Spakenburg lost top spot to Rijnsburgse Boys, while Montfoort are still four points short of the play-off position in their attempt to avoid the drop.

Admission to the ground was €8, and a free A5 programme was available. This consists of four pages of text, mainly squads, league tables and fixtures, surrounded by a glossy professionally print cover and advertising. Around 1250 turned out for the game. I was told that the creation of Topklasse had done a lot for this level of football, with a higher quality of football and much better crowds. Although both Spakenburg and Rijnsburgse Boys were rumoured to apply for promotion last season, I do not think either want to go up. Last season, Oss were promoted despite losing both legs of the final to IJsselmeervogels. Oss had until recently been in the league, and anyway, there was no relegated club as RBC had been declared bankrupt. The main point against taking promotion is the amount of work required to create a suitable stadium, and the costs of running a professional team. Most of the professional clubs carry significant debt, while generally the “amateurs”, (Topklasse is officially semi-professional), can balance their books.

Two weeks after this trip, Rijnsburge were held at Noordwijk, while Spakenburg have played twice more since my visit to Montfoort and scored 12 goals. Spakenburg therefore are back on top as I publish this, but Montfoort are now beyond hope, with relegation confirmed.

It goes without saying that I was not going to take a flight in search of just a single game of football, and I did not stop at Montfoort, instead I headed south and to Belgium. A variety of factors make this the most popular destination for groundhoppers heading regularly into European football. The factors tend to be ease of access, quality and variety of beer, chips with mayonnaise, and only then the football. Belgium towns have kept some of the idiosyncrasies lost in the Netherlands. Most towns are centred on a town square with one or two old buildings and a mixture of bars, restaurants and banks. Themain shopping areas tend to be on radial roads leading away from this square, and while the outskirts are not far different to suburbia elsewhere, the houses are certainly not all the same. On the contrary, one never sees two identical buildings next to each other. Even closer to the town, where at first glance one may find a row of similar terraced houses, a closer look will show that each has a little difference to its neighbour, even if this is just a decoration above the windows. It is this style, a homogenised non conformity, that best sums up Belgium.

As in the Netherlands, the professional league consists of two national divisions. The difference here is that while regionalism and semi-professionalism certainly starts at level 3, it is a more gradual transition. There is also a great deal of movement up and down the divisions with no artificial barrier placed in the way of promotion. The League comprises of four divisions, Division One has 16 teams, which means after 30 matches, they go into play off groups of unnecessary complexity. Most people preferred the straight 18 team league, but of course the increase in number of meetings between the top six, and the television contract for these hold sway. Division Two has 18 teams, and Division Three has 36, in two regions of 18 teams each. One team from team from each is promoted, while three enter play offs with one team from the higher division. There are two direct relegation places and one relegation play off place from each. Division four has four divisions of 16, with the same promotion structure, but no less than three direct relegation places, and one place again in the play offs. Up to 14 teams can lose their fourth division place.

Having gone weeks since the trip, without the time or impetus to finish the article, I am settling for brief notes and photographs from each of the three Belgium clubs visited on the trip.

First up was Leopoldsburg. As a club that bears my name, I thought it appropriate for what was actually my 200th ground in the country. Leopoldsburg also is one of those clubs that seems to always be in the bottom two divisions of the Belgium League. The club is known as KESK Leopoldsburg. The first “K” stands for Koninklijk, (it means royal), which can be seen in the name of most Belgium clubs with over 50 years of history. The “K” was actually awarded to the Excelsior FC Heppen in 1993. They merged with the more recently formed SK Strooiendorp Leopoldsburg in 1999. The new club kept those things that were of most value to Heppen, the “K”, the word Excelsior, and the Stamnummer (it may only be 3904, but it is still nearly 5000 less than the other club in the merger). I do not know when a much earlier Leopoldsburg club (with the far more impressive Stamnummer of 288) disappeared from view, but as the Belgiums tend to recycle their grounds, it would not be a surprise if KESK’s secondary ground had been used by this club. As it is, their Heidestraat ground is actually in Heppen, a good couple of miles from the centre of Leopoldsburg. The full name of the club is Koninklijk Excelsior Sportkring Leopoldsburg.

The ground is on the edge of town, nearly merging into the woods. At one end it has a neat stand built over a bar right up at one end of the pitch. The same side has a little cover in front of the dressing rooms, and a traditional single story long and narrow “cantine” (translates as bar) at the other end

I watched most of the game from the far side, where low cover runs the full length of the ground. The small structure visible at the end is an additional bar, allowing those in the stand to buy beer.

Admission was €8, and the crowd was quite small, I estimated it around 150. There was no programme as such, but an A4 printed sheet including the team names was made freely available around 20 minutes before kick-off. Quite a few of the fans came from the away team, Witgoor Sport Dessel. I had to question them as one of the names on the teamsheet had the wrong number. This makes them ask what you are doing there. It is not always easy to explain, even though every club in Belgium at this level has seen occasional English and German groundhoppers in attendance. As one I saw Witgoor at home earlier in the season, it was not a very exciting game, and was settled in Witgoor’s favour by a single late goal. The fans I had talked to had no hesitation in pointing out that scorer on this occasion, Alban Grepi was the player I had asked about.


It was the Belgium fourth division again the following day. The name Everbeur belongs to a small part of the small town of Averbode. Their football team started in the 1930s, joining the Belgium FA in 1932, (there were local unaffiliated competitions as well in those days), and after periods in more local leagues, making their way into the 3rd level of the provincial League (Brabant) in 1935. They rose to the second level in 1937 and to the first provincial league in 1943. A season later they reached the National League. 1944-5 season was lost to the war, and Everbeur stayed in the National League until 1951. After two seasons back in the provincial league, they were again promoted in 1953, but just before the season started, the Belgium FA hit them with a bombshell, no less than 13 of their players were suspended for taking illegal payments, (which means any payment at all, as they were all amateurs). With the guts ripped out of the team, they were relegated at the end of the season. They also lost their ground at this point and almost went out of existence. Still, they ploughed on, despite relegation at the end of 56-7 season which after which it was 51 seasons until they again reached the top provincial level. Their lowest point were the seasons 1989-91, spent in the fourth provincial league. There is no further down to go.

Slowly, their fortunes improved, but they were still at the third provincial league until 2006. Then three rapid promotions, 2006, 2008 and 2010 and they are back in the league for the first time since that disastrous 1953 season. They club had moved to their current home in 1978, and adopted the name K. Everbeur Sports Averbode in 2005.

Today the ground is next to the local sports centre, and this provides some shelter for the standing spectator, plus of course, the obligatory bar. The seating stand, a modern steel construction is on the opposite side. When I arrived at the ground, it seemed likely they would again change division in an even year, but this time, it would be a relegation.

Their hopes were not improved when within 30 seconds of the kick off, visitors KFC Sint-Lenaarts were 1-0 ahead. There was a fair crowd here, around 300 on a sunny afternoon. The admission price was €9. As at other matches, an A4 printed sheet was made available with the teams just before kickoff. As it turned out, this was intended as an insert into a full A4 programme which was carried around the ground to those who wanted it during the first half. No specific price appeared to be charged for this, but the programmes were only given to those who also bought a scratch card.

The match turned on the referee’s decisions. In the 26th minute, the visiting keeper managed to foul a home forward as he broke through. The referee gave a penalty and sent the keeper off. St Lenaarts had a substitute keeper to bring on, but this still means over an hour with only 10 men, and Everbeur had pulled level from this first penalty.

Not content with this, the referee awarded not one, but two penalties to Everbeur in the second half.

Having scored from the penalty spot in the first half, Shabi misses this chance to put his side 2-1 up with the second penalty.

With then minutes to play, Everbeur take the games third penalty, van Aerschot putting his team 2-1 ahead.

The Sportcentrum side and cover. The bar is within the Sportcentrum

With the visitors pushing forward to try and make up for this, Everbeur scored again in the final minute, recording a 3-1 win. Since then they have won two successive away matches, both against teams in the relegation zone, which have pulled them above the danger zone and makes survival at this level for another season more probable.

I was fortunate, I was not returning to the UK until Monday morning, and the fixtures had provided me with an extra game, albeit in the depths of the second provincial league. Although it was still a Brabant club, I first had to find my way around the Brussels Ring at a busy time of a Sunday evening. This was one of the times the satnav system was not playing ball, insisting that the roadname I gave for the ground was in fact a small driveway leading into a farm. Having looked up and down the roads in both directions and found nothing, I tried asking three small children (about 10 years old, I guess) playing ball in said driveway. One of them told me, in a language I understood (which means neither French, nor Flemish), to go back to the main road turn right and head to the cross roads. From this direction, the ground was clearly sighted, and it was still ten minutes before the start when I entered, although not through this gate.

The entrance actually must once have been connected to the road by a path, but this has not been closed off by a business, meaning a walk around the businesses and the side of a field to enter.

The home side, Denderzonen Pamel, were promoted last season and have accumulated just about enough points to ensure survival. The visitors, US Rebecquoise, still had hope of sneaking into the play offs, but it would depend on others as well as themselves. Still, they did their bit at the start of this game, 1-0 up with a third minute penalty, they tore through the home team to be 3-0up in just 21 minutes

No. 9 for Rebecquoise, Bert Sleewagen opened the scoring with a third minute penalty, and here in the 21st minute, he is seen scoring his team’s third goal.

It cost €6 to enter the ground, around 150 people were present. There was a cantine/bar by the entrance, and the fact that a team sheet was given out as I entered the ground meant no searching for the official lists and time for a quick beer before kickoff.

Low cover, filled most of the length of the far side.

Not all the cover is in good repair – the partial blockage of the pathway is the home “dug out”

With five minutes to go to half time, the game took an unexpected turn, Denderzonen Pamel pulled a goal back, and then a minute later were awarded a penalty

Damien Wets scores from the spot. Denderzonen Pamel 2-3 US Rebecquoise. Four minutes before half time, but as it turns out, the final goal.

Early in the second half, I am near the corner flag, when Rebecquoise’s Jeremy Paduwat commits a foul and receives his yellow card. He then says something, loud enough for me to hear, but in a language I do not understand (i.e. French or Flemish). It is enough to make a few young ladies (probably players’ wives or girlfriends) by the clubhouse door actually gasp in shock. Paduwat then just walks to the dressing rooms, never glancing back to see the inevitable red card. I imagine that he got some stick himself from his manager later, as down to ten men, it was a constant struggle for Rebecquoise, once so solidly in command to hold onto the points. There are no goals in the second half, but just before the end, the numbers are levelled again when a second booking causes Pamel’s Jeroen Walravens to leave the field.


The World’s Smallest National League?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

You may ask what is the smallest National Football League? Well, the Pitcairn Islands (population 67) does not have a league, and neither does Vatican City (the smallest state by area – although in this case the 770 ‘citizens’ all have citizenship only for the period of their assignment to the Vatican, and resume their original nationality when returning home). I am sure someone will come up with Clerical Cup and other Vatican competitions, but this is not a national league.

In terms of area, Monaco is the second smallest behind Vatican on the World lists, with less than a square mile. There are quite a few countries with lesser population than Monaco, including San Marino (and Gibraltar if you wish to count it) in Europe, but at 35,000, Monaco claims less than a quarter of the population of the smallest London Borough (I’ve excluded the City of London itself).

Monaco is curious in football terms. On one hand there is AS Monaco, playing in the French League with use of Stade Louis II within the principality itself, but then there is the local league without a ground within the state, and hence playing on two venues in France. The two are at Moneghetti and Capd’ail. Both the grounds are right up against the border of Monaco, with Cap d’Ail being just across the road from the Arches at one end of the Stade Louis II, while wayward shots at Moneghetti must seriously risk entering Monaco.

I was on a five day weekend, mainly at the wife’s behest, and so a visit to the Monaco league was not to be my only match of the weekend. A pure footballing weekend in these parts would be a good idea, there are some matches on Friday night, games at various times around the Saturday, the local leagues (from Level 6 down) play mainly Sunday afternoons, and AS Monaco play on Monday, (as well as the Monaco League competition). I was limited however. It was sightseeing during the day, no matter that it rained near continually during the trip, and while I had the evening’s available, the only potential Saturday match would be a revisit to Nice, which I gave away.

So it meant that only Friday and Monday evenings would include football. A strange weekend if ever I had one. The Friday night match was at Etoile FC Frejus-St. Raphael, in the French National League (which for the uninitiated is their National Third Division). I have never understood the Raison d’etre of the French National League, and yet there appears to be no move to rationalise it. Covering the whole Country, with a lot of Friday night games, the league has to be fully professional, yet the average crowd this season is given as 1655, with a quarter of the clubs managing less than 600 spectators on average. Even these figures may be exaggerated – after the game I saw, the home web site estimated the crowd at 1000, while the visitors said 900, (tickets are sold, so an accurate figure is possible). My own guess is that the Martigues estimate is on the low side.

The club itself is a recent merger of clubs in the two neighbouring towns. As EFC Frejus, they won promotion to this level in 2009, and in their merged form they have kept their status. They play at the Stade Eugene Porcin in Frejus. The first thing one says about this stadium is that it is French. At least (from the spectators point of view) it is trackless, with the viewing areas square to the pitch. It has the almost standard cantilever stand along one side. The opposite side and behind one goal is lined with some quite highly stepped concrete terracing, looking as if it has been recently installed and renovated. Probably to mark the 2009 promotion and merger.

The one unique point is two traditionally styled towers by the entrance, containing the ticket booths, one of which backs onto a refreshment stall. As far the game, well the lower divisions have a reputation for dull football, and this match fitted well with the reputation. I think the home goalkeeper may have made two saves during the game. His opposite number made none at all. If he had made one save, then the game would have ended scoreless, instead of 1-0 to Etoile. The goal was a well taken turn and shoot by Matthieu Scarpelli. It was scored just less before the hour mark, and only minutes after his side dropped to ten men after Delcos was sent off.

And so on to Monaco. I did a little research on Monaco’s major football team, and the relative status of the rest. AS Monaco is of course the principality’s only side in the French system. They play fully as a French team and are indeed affiliated to the French Football Federation. While first team games are played at the Stade Louis II, they have a total of four adult teams and no less than 13 youth teams. Apart from the first team, all the others play their home matches over the borders in France. AS Monaco seconds play in the CFA (level 4) in Menton, while the third team play at Moneghetti and the fourths at Cap d’Ail in the district competition, Ligue Cote d’Azur. The top division of the District League also includes US Cap d’Ail, who play in the top division of the Ligue Cote d’Azur, (level 8 of the French system). Monaco’s teams play at levels 9 and 11. Apparently, the Stadium in Menton is used by two French teams as well as Monaco II, with the highest one also in the regional leagues (Level 7 of the system).

The Federation Monagasque de Football organises two football competitions, added to by a number of seven-a-side competitions. There may be women’s and youth football as well, but it does not get a mention on the web site. The competitions are the Challenge Prince Rainier III and the Challenge Ville de Monaco. These are not referred to as national football competitions within, but as Football d’Enterprise, (Football for Companies). All the teams in the league are Monaco companies, or other places of work (such as La Poste or Hopital de Monaco). When I asked about the matches at the stadium, and referred to the league as a national league, I was similarly corrected. Most of the players actually work for the companies concerned, as they are only allowed a limited number of outsiders. Apart from being one of these guest players, it appears there is no competition in Monaco for local players who are not employed by Enterprises with competition membership, and hence the only avenue for their football ambitions is across the border in France, (or of course, AS Monaco themselves). The rules allow for a maximum of five who do not work directly for the company concerned, but no more than 3 in any one category, the categories being “assimilated”, for direct family members of employees, “waivers” for players not connected with a company or “other business” for players connected with a company indirectly – which could include seasonal workers when not working, or contractors from outside. All of these categories can only play for one team if they do not work for another company with a team, so there is no room here for a transfer market.

The stadium at Moneghetti. The stadium is in France, but the apartment block and church behind the goal are in Monaco. The only clear spectator areas is at the near end of the building along the side, and a small area (used for parking of bikes) from where I took the photo.

There is international competition, Monaco regular enters a team in the EFSA (European Federation for Company Sport) tournament, a biennial competition. Monaco are staging the competition 21-23 June this year. Monaco also enter teams in competition against other non FIFA nations such as Vatican City or Gibraltar.

There are some other differences to games in England, but which I have seen in French Amateur Football, either at CFA or regional level. Firstly, the points structure, four for a win, two for a draw and one for a defeat (which means you only get a zero for forfeiting the game, or if you are found to be at fault for an abandonment), and secondly rolling substitutions. The number of substitutes is not limited, and players substituted can return to the field of play, except during the final ten minutes of the game, (a player who has not been on the field of play can still enter late, but a replaced player cannot come back).

But the differences go beyond this; this is the only league I have watched, where the rules specify games are limited to 40 minutes each way. The reason for this appears to be time constraints, allowing two matches to go ahead on the same pitch in an evening. Although on the day I watched, (and this is not uncommon), there were two matches at one ground and one at the other, all matches are short. This at least maintains the same conditions in all games. Finally, although my game was too clean to require it, there is a “sin bin”. A player receiving a yellow card is removed from the play for a period of five minutes. A second offence will still result in a sending off, and I assume more serious offences can lead to direct dismissal.

The competition is in two divisions, the Challenge Prince Rainier III is the top division with ten teams playing nine games each in the regular season, while the Challenge Ville de Monaco has two groups of six teams, playing only five games in a regular season which is already complete. Both have some sort of knock out at the end, with the two finals played back to back – the only two Monaco games to be played in Stade Louis II. There is promotion and relegation, both of last seasons Ville de Monaco finals are in the Prince Rainier III this season.

Cap d’Ail. In common with the Stade Louis II next door, this stadium sits above a car park. In this case it is used for the Marriott hotel next door.

My groundhopping has always taken on strict rules, especially when watching more than one game in a day, or other over circumstances where part of a match is missed. Basically, when I make plans, I must allow myself the chance to see every minute played in a game, and then if something goes wrong, and poor traffic conditions or a delayed train mean I miss a small portion of the game (how small is not defined), then I will still count the match. When travelling between matches, it must be physically possible to see the end of game 1, and the start of game 2 before I can consider it.

I was tempted by the idea of seeing the 18.45 kick off at Moneghetti, and the 20.15 at Cap d’Ail, but despite the fact I may be able to do the distance in under ten minutes (if I did not get lost), this still would not be enough and parking at both locations is a problem. So in the end I went to the early kick of at Cap d’Ail, pausing at the other ground just briefly (I was double parked, the only way I could stop close by – but I was in a row of double parked vehicles).

Not surprisingly, with the use they get, both grounds have artificial surfaces. The ground at Cap D’Ail is caged, except that there are a few steps of terracing on one side, with (closed) areas which could be used to sell refreshments. The number of spectators varied slightly during the game, but generally, I counted them at six (including myself). The game was between SMB administration and SMA. The company SMB (Société des Bains de Mer), which also features another team in the division, (SMB slots) runs some of the best known casinos and hotels in Monaco. SMA is Société Monégasque d’Assainissement, which sounds better than its English translation –the Monaco Sanitation Company. Incidentally, until SMA was founded in 1938 as a separate company, sanitation was the responsibility of SMB. The idea being that they were given a monopoly on running the casinos, but they also took responsibility for garbage as part of the deal.

Cap d’Ail looking towards Monaco.

The game was as poor as any match I have seen this season. Whereas I managed to mark down the starting XIs into 4-2-3-1 formations, neither side really kept their shape well. What was clear was that SMB Administration (second in the league at the start of the evening, and destined to go top for a week until the leaders played again), were by far the better of the two sides. 3-0 up before SMA scored with a rare shot in the 15th minute, SMB extended the lead to 5-1 at the break and 11-1 at the end of the game. Such high scoring is not entirely typical – the average goals per match in the league is around 6, and the only other double figure haul was when league leaders Ribeiro Freres defeated bottom placed SMB Slots by 10-0. Before the game, I found the one league official in the ground, and he allowed me to copy the players names off the official list. I know they are correct as before kick off, the referee called each player out from the list, and checked the numbers were correct.

This rigmarole, a minute’s silence before kick-off, and a full ten minute break at half time meant we were running late. I actually left the ground at half time, crossed the road (and national border) to Stade Louis II, bought a ticket for the second division game there and returned to Cap d’Ail. I did not run, but still completed this in four minutes flat. At the time, I thought my game could run on to about 8.25, but in fact the referee compensated for the late start, by shortening the second half. It was a decision I thought odd, considering we had a ten minute break and three minutes injury time in the first half. Somehow, I suspect the locals take a pragmatic view. All that could have happened in a longer game was that SMB would increase their dominance to more than the 10 goal margin seen.

No doubt I will get some stick from the purists for including a game that barely exceeded 70 minutes, and had uneven lengths of halves. Frankly, I admit that even if this was to be seen as an extra game, it lacks something. As the supposedly major game of my evening, (as the other was no less than my third visit to the stadium). As a ground that I am claiming as a tick, it only just gets to pass muster – I did after all see the whole game, and the score counts.

As mentioned earlier, I ran across the border at half time and bought a ticket for the game at Stade Louis II – which gives away the fact I did not stay for the second of the evening’s games at Cap d’Ail. It was a wise choice, for the second division game was full of entertainment and interest.

The arches as views from inside the Stade Louis II.

I have a good past record watching Monaco, having seen them seven times, including twice at home and with the team winning five and drawing twice on my watch. However, they are well in the past, being based mainly on time I had to visit the South of France while working, and all seven previous visits came while Arsene Wegner was in charge of the team. One of the victories I had seen Monaco record, was on my visit to Racing Club de Lens. That was of course when both teams were doing well in the top division, now both are in division 2, and Monaco appear to be at risk of dropping lower.

Lens are known for actually having support, even for away matches – a rarity in France where distances are much greater than in England, and where games are much less likely to be scheduled with the convenience of the fan in mind. (Consider how much the convenience of the fans is taken into account in arranging televised games in England, and then think what less consideration must be like). Still there were around 100 visitors in on corner of the ground waving the colours, Sang et Or (Blood and Gold). The team actually played in a greenish hue of blue, with just a small amount of bright lime green trim. These are not colours that could invoke pride, so it is no wonder that only the traditional strips are on show. Monaco played in the familiar diagonal red and white halves. The first half contained plenty of chances at both ends, but no goals, Monaco had looked better earlier in the game, and started the second period strongly as well. This time they got it right, scoring quickly, and then adding a second. Two nil up ten minutes into the second half, and cruise control sets in.

Meanwhile, with no improvement in the situation, Racing Club bring on the youngster Thorgan Hazard. Thorgan’s elder brother, Eden is expected to move to the Premier League in the summer with clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea chasing his signature. Assuming he is a better player than his brother, I can well understand this.

Thorgan changed the climate of the game from the moment he took the field, and crossed the ball for Toudic to pull a goal back within two minutes. Toudic then missed the most open of a number of chances that went astray as Lens attempted to level the game. The game went into injury time with Monaco still ahead, but three minutes later, Lens finally got the equaliser.

Some Monaco fans may well think they were robbed of points that would have lifted them out of the relegation zone, but this would be to misrepresent the game. Lens should have scored their second much earlier, based on the dominance they held in the closing stages, and the chances created.

England C Team in Gibraltar

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Once the laws of football had been formalised, it did not take long for them to spread across International borders, and almost inevitably, the first International game was played as far back as 1872. By 1906, football had become so professionalised that there was little room for the amateur in international football, and England started fielding an all Amateur International XI as well. Their first game was played in November 1906 and resulted in a 15 (fifteen) -0 win against France. The side for that match included players from South Bank, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Old Malvernians, Old Foresters and Luton Town.

I am not certain if that game was entered as an official first team international for France, but most of the Amateur teams early games were against the full international XI of their opponents, (which meant they awarded full caps, while England did not). The England Amateur XI won their first 17 games and went unbeaten through the first 20. (To be accurate, three of these games were played by the team as a GB XI, as they were part of the 1908 London Olympics). In March 1909, the England Amateur team beat the full International team of Germany by 9-0, and a month later they beat Belgium 11-2. Both these results are still recorded as the record defeat for the National teams concerned.

Credit to Belgium though, as a year later, they gained a 2-2 draw with England (Amateurs) in Brussels, the Amateurs first failure to win. 1906-10 was a golden age for English International football with the Senior team also managing 18 unbeaten games between defeats in Glasgow in 1906 and 1910. The Amateurs finally lost in Copenhagen in May 2010. Denmark were the team beaten in the Olympic final, in 1908 and again lost to “England” in the 1912 final. The FA claim that England Amateur teams played at the 1908, 1912, 1920 and 1936 Olympics, but non English players may have been included in the latter pair.

I do not have a full record of England Amateur games, but one notable fixture, 28 January 1939 saw England beat Wales 5-2 at Whaddon Road, Cheltenham. Although by that time Cheltenham were a member of the professional Southern League, GE Perkins was in the England XI. By that time, the England Amateur XIs had become quite London based. Apart from Perkins, only two players were not Londoners, the goalkeeper G. Whitehead (Bury Amateurs) and T.H. Leek of Moor Green. I am saddened to note that Bury Amateurs changed their name to AFC Bury at the start of this season.

The England Amateur team was disbanded in 1974, basically because the distinctive name “Amateur Football” was being scrapped. The move was slow coming, and by 1974, many Amateur players were receiving so much boot money, that semi-professional clubs could not compete.

Still, with a strong distinction between the professional game (as in Football League) and semi-professional (or amateur), as in everything non-League, there was a case for a representative XI at this level and so in 1979, an England Semi-Professional XI was started. The first game was a 2-1 victory over Scotland, at Stafford Rangers in May 1979, with the Netherlands beaten at the same venue a week later.

Since then, the name of the team has morphed to the England National Game XI, and now England C, but the team has always been effectively the same, a representative side of the Football Conference, with the odd player entered from the lower leagues. Players have always come from the English non-League system (but including some playing for Welsh clubs), with I think just one exception. Kevin Todd, who I remember as a part of the Newcastle Blue Star team of the late 80s, made his one appearance in 1991, after signing for Berwick Rangers.

The England C team (using its current name) was not even limited to Englishmen. While only three players have been capped for both the C team and at Full cap level, I can easily name an equal number of players later capped for other nations. For the record – the players who moved up to the England squad were Alan Smith (Alvechurch) and Steve Guppy (Wycombe),with Peter Taylor (Maidstone)dropping to the semi-professional team in 1984, eight years after he won a full cap. Meanwhile, in the early days, I clearly remember Eammon O’Keefe moving up from playing in those first two England games, to play for Eire after switching from Mossley to Everton, Barry Hayles has gone on to play for Jamaica, while Junior Agogo has played for Ghana. The first two of these at least were English born. Agogo was born in Ghana.

In recent years, the shape of the Conference has changed. The effects of two promotion and relegation places has been to open up the Football League to those worthy non-League clubs which previously did not have the chance to improve themselves, but in reverse, the Conference itself has become the resting place for some many clubs with a lengthy Football League history behind them. Some of these clubs are getting far bigger crowds then their replacements; compare Grimsby, Luton and Stockport with Cheltenham, Morecambe and Macclesfield. Not surprisingly, these clubs have stayed full time professional, and the more ambitious clubs among the rest have also gone full time, boosted by increasing attendances and owners who put money in, (surely not still under the illusion that there is a pot of gold beyond any promotion rainbow?).

So, as the distinction between the Conference and the Football League has been eroded, in terms of professional clubs and even in wages offered, the choice of running a England representative side for players from Conference level down is looking more and more arbitrary. Players do not take the drop in level simply to get into the England team, but they can get into the team by taking such a drop, while many of last season’s team cannot play this season, as they are with either Crawley or AFC Wimbledon and hence moved into the league.

To my mind, the whole business of the England ‘C’ team is very arbitrary. Why do we award caps for one group of professional football players, while we have other groups of better players who are deemed too good to earn England ‘C’ honours, but fall far short of the standard required for England ‘A’. (The rarely used England ‘B’ designation is normally used for a reserve team of players picked from the same pool as the ‘A’ squad).

The only criterion I see the current XI being based on is to make it competitive in those tournaments it enters, and to neither overwhelm, nor be overwhelmed by its opponents. This at least is achieved, with the eight games 2009-11 resulting in two draws, five English wins, all by a single goal and a 1-0 defeat to a Portugal XI in the final game of the last International Challenge Tournament.

For England’s first International of the 2011-12 season, one could easily believe the squad had the ability to overpower their opponents. All but two members of the squad coming from the Football Conference, the odd couple being from Conference North. This predominantly professional squad was to play Gibraltar. The Gibraltarian League being an all amateur combination, played on the single stadium within the territory. Only a couple of players from Gibraltar have moved on to play semi-professionally in the lower levels of Spanish football, and there are no full professional players at all in the squad. The local newspaper’s sports reporter, loyal to his team tells me that one or two players have been offered chances in England or Spain, but have not taken them up; and as the game is played, one can see that there is some talent around and maybe some players could have made a higher grade with full time training and coaching.

The England team is very different to the one that played in the previous season. The age band, everyone over 20 and under 24 is very narrow, and only four players have played for England ‘C’ before, totalling only six gaps. The left back, Sean Newton (himself a late call up to cover for the inevitable absences in a team playing abroad on a Tuesday, when everyone has played club football on a Saturday) has two caps and is the only England player to have scored for the team before.

Lack of experience, difficult transport regimes, and little training together would all conspire against a team that one would expect on paper (or for that matter on a 3G artificial surface) to be far stronger than their opponents.

For the Gibraltarian team, there was no lack of preparation, the squad had been chosen weeks in advance and had been training together far more often than most club squads in the territory. Apart from the hope of a good game, and a close result in the match against England, the objectives of the Gibraltar FA are somewhat different to those of England. Soon after the Gibraltar FA was formed, it affiliated with the Football Association, and for many years had the same rights as any of the County associations, even though it did not enter clubs into FA Competitions, but seeing the explosion in the numbers of UEFA members, including the inclusion of other micro states (Andorra, San Marino) and dependent territories (Faroe Islands), there was a very good case for Gibraltar to join UEFA.

The GFA’s original application for membership came in 1997, and FIFA pushed it out to UEFA for consideration. If Gibraltar were accepted as a member of UEFA, then FIFA membership would also follow. Back at the time, FIFA were proud of the fact that their membership numbers made it the biggest international organisation in the world, currently 208 members, compared to just 193 in the United Nations, and at the turn of the Millennium it seemed there were opportunities for more to be added into the mix. Gibraltar ceased to be a part of the English Football Association and with the territory enjoying a similar autonomous role, to say the Faroe Islands, the candidacy looked good.

But there was one hurdle to overcome, and it was a big hurdle in the form of Spain. As soon as the Spanish Football Association (prompted by the government) objected to the inclusion of Gibraltar within UEFA, the plan was scuppered. I still believe the Spanish FA’s threat to leave UEFA if Gibraltar should be allowed to join is a bluff. With the National team for once on top of the World, and with Real Madrid and Barcelona carrying all before them on the club fronts, it seems they have a lot to lose by carrying out their threat.

UEFA went a step further than simply refusing Gibraltar’s application, they changed the rules and said that in future, only a recognised Nation could become a member of the organisation (I think this now applies to FIFA as well). This is not retrospective, so the continued participation of the Faroes and others is not in doubt. Now for a long time, FIFA has said that members should not appeal through local courts, but should apply to the Court for Arbitration in Sport in the case of any dispute. Gibraltar did just that – and won. The CAS said that the new rules could not be applied retrospectively, and any applicant that had attempted to join earlier had to be accepted on old rules. (This does rule out a floated move by Greenland to join, and delays any application from Kosovo until they gain full independence). After an appeals process, which did not change the decision, UEFA felt they had no choice, and in December 2006 announced Gibraltar were provisional members, to be rubber stamped by congress the following month. Congress involves the 52 countries (at the time) having one vote each, and with an intensive lobbying operation from the Spanish (with the threat of Spain pulling out to the fore), Gibraltar’s application was refused by 45 votes to three (with four abstentions). The three who voted in Gibraltar’s favour are believed to be England, Scotland and Wales

Gibraltar are pushing on with lobbying to bring the issue back to UEFA in the future, but despite confidence among some of the officials on the Rock, I feel it will be a long time before there is an change.

The following match report was written for the non-League Daily web site, and appeared there the day after the match.

The England C team were humbled by a well organised Gibraltar side at the Victoria Stadium, going down to a 3-1 defeat in their first game of the season.

England C can call on any players outside the Football League, which at the top level means 24 teams of mainly full time professional players, but any number of semi-professionals in the lower divisions. Gibraltar has only two divisions of Senior football, comprising a total of 16 teams, and generally amateur status. Yes, it is true that Gibraltar can put out Manchester United players, but that is only because there is a team by that name in the local league. Two Gibraltarian players do play in the Spanish Leagues, but only at semi-professional levels.

The game started in frenetic fashion, with more pace on display than purpose. England settled into a 4-4-2 formation, and appeared confident that they could play an attacking game. Gibraltar chose a more defensive minded 4-1-4-1 format, but from the word go they took the game to their opponents.

The story for most of the first half was Gibraltar attacking with pace and flair, particular the pair who play in Spain, Joseph Chipolina, the left full back was a constant threat overlapping, while winger George Cabrera was the threat on the other flank. England managed to stand firm despite numerous attempts, and should have taken the lead on 38 minutes, Danny Rose crossed from the left and Adam Boyes shot against the bar. Lindon Meikle then attempted to get a grip on the loose ball, but shot high and wide. This cost England dearly, as we were suddenly treated to a display of pace from Lee Casciaro, swopping passes with George Cabrera and then firing Gibraltar into a deserved lead.

Gibraltar appear too quick for the static English defence

After the break, England came out with six changes, but few differences. The goalkeeper, three midfielders and both strikers were swapped. Before the new grouping had even managed to greet each other and exchange names, the referee spots a stray hand where it should not be. Gibraltar’s Aaron Perez nets the resultant penalty. 2-0.

For the next six minutes, England are just wondering what has hit them, and then thinking it may be worse, with Robert Guilling hitting the post after a good interchange between Cabrera and Perez – then it was worst. Guilling was allowed to stand alone on the half way line, where he was picked out with a perfect crossfield ball, running on alone before shooting past the advancing Preston Edwards.

If Gibraltar ran out of steam after the hour mark, it was a sign of how much they had put into the early part of the game. Anyway, England continued to be disorganised, and despite having more of the ball, they could rarely show either enough guile or strength to worry Jordan Perez in the home goal.

Gibraltar stuck to the game plan, 4-1-4-1 throughout, although they were flexible enough to rotate some of the players positions within this system. Roy Chinpolina, who had an excellent game started off shielding the back four, and later joined it. Cabrera took up the lone forward position from Lee Casciaro allowing Casciaro to drop back, while Brian Perez and Aaron Payas had excellent games wherever they played.

Penalty – Gibraltar’s all important second goal.

England did get a goal back with less than ten minutes to play, it was knocked in by Connor Jennings at short range, following a rare defensive mix up for Gibraltar. England commanded possession after this, but there was never a suggestion that the goal was anything but a consolation.

Marks must go to Fairclough for demanding that his players went forward to applaud the home crowd at the end of the game. The crowd had chanted throughout (one of the few chants surely that uses the name of the organisation G-F-A, rather than the country). At the end they were calling again for UEFA recognition as well.

England. Jonathon Hedge (Tamworth) (Preston Edwards (Ebbsfleet)), Shaun Beeley (Fleetwood), Sean Newton (AFC Telford), Jamie Turley (Forest Green), Rory McAuley (Cambridge United) (Adam Watkins (Luton)); Lindon Meikle (Mansfield), Jai Reason (Braintree), Danny Rose (Newport County) (Kenny Davis (Braintree)), Robbie Willmott (Luton) (Ashley Chambers (York)); Adam Boyes (Barrow) (Connor Jennings (Stalybridge)), John Paul Kissock (Luton) (Michael West (Ebbsfleet).

All substitutions at half time, with Reason dropping from midfield to defence.

Gibraltar. Jordan Perez, Ryan Casciaro, Joseph Chipolina, Joseph Chipol (Jason Pusey 82), Lee Ferrary (Daniel Duarte HT); Roy Chipolina; George Cabrera (Gareth Lopez 89), Brian Perez (Jeremy Lopez 85), Aaron Payas, Robert Guilling (Kyle Casciaro 66); Lee Casciaro

Referee: A. Bacarisa (Gibraltar).

Attendance: Approximately 800

Gibraltar is a curious place to visit, very welcoming and an odd mixture between Spanish and British. Public transport and the border crossings are now straight forward, so visiting the territory by crossing the border from Spain is now quite easy, as is using Gibraltar airport as an entry point into Spain (you walk across the Spanish border, about 100 yards from the airport terminal). One curious point, soon to be changed is that the only road into Gibraltar runs straight across the airport runway, and so closes when a plane takes off or lands, (fortunately, there aren’t many flights). If driving, queues to cross the border can be several hours in length, entering Gibraltar early in the day, and leaving from mid afternoon onwards. Even during the game, I could see the line of cars across the runway until well into the second half, I was told this meant a one hour delay if I had left the territory at that time. A new airport terminal is being built, and then a tunnel under the runway which will alleviate some of the problems and allow more flights into Gibraltar.

The Stadium is next to the airport, and consists of a single cantilever stand over around 1000 seats. On the far side, some concrete seating has been built up, but this was not used for the International.

The Lithuania Report.

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

After less than an hour crammed into the back of a Fokker propjet, I made the transition from Latvia to Lithuania. My plan, based on advanced checks on the fixtures was to see the only A Lyga game on the Tuesday, when Dainava played Tauras in a mid-table match, and then to follow this with the top two Zalgiris v Ekranes. I still had not decided on arriving in Riga whether to hire a car or to use buses and stay overnight in Alytus after the Dainava game.

In the end, my decision was made for me. While I was in Riga, I discovered that the fixture detail had been changed during the week before the matches, and my favourite Wednesday game, Zalgiris – Ekranes game was not to be played in the capital, but in Marijampole, a two hour bus ride away. This meant there was no public transport from there (or any other game) suitable to return me to the capital in time for my 6.30 flight on Thursday.

And so on arrival at the airport, my first job was to check car hire prices. A local company offered me three days for around £100, and knowing that Hertz, operating out of the next office bar one were charging almost twice as much, I took it straight off. Now comes the bit where modern technology really helps. Instead of trying to read a map and drive in an unknown country, my SatNav found the route to the hotel straight away. Still, it took some time after spotting the road, in a rather run down suburb, to find the hotel – which turned out to be ultra-modern once one entered. Clean, bright, spacious and while the breakfast did not add to much, the internet worked.

It took only ten minutes to walk to the town centre. Vilnius is larger than its rivals in Tallinn and Riga, and very well preserved. There are more churches than you could worship at in a month of Sundays. The country is predominantly Catholic and signs in the city centre commemorated a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1993. I managed a good walk around before the sun went down, and then entered a local establishment that provided a very palatable wheat beer, as well some food.

Vilnius Cathedral – one of many churches in the Capital, although not typical of the local style!

There is a strong but friendly rivalry between the three Baltic nations, all of which left the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the European Union (and NATO) in 2004. I believe all three would like to embrace the Euro, but progress has been slowed by the recent economic crisis, which has put a halt to recent growth. There is one significant difference, Estonia and Latvia have never been other than small countries trying to fend off (not always successfully) the superpowers of the region, Sweden, Russia, Poland and Lithuania.

Lithuania (as part of a shared commonwealth with Poland) was the power in central Europe from the 15th to 18th centuries. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania included the current states of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, as well as parts of other states such as Romania, Poland and Russia. Even now it is larger than either Latvia or Estonia in terms of area and population – the three together have about one and a half times the population of Scotland, in an area which is almost twice the size of Scotland. I know the standard comparison unit is normally Wales, but I feel Scotland needs some recognition.

The local rivalries extend to the football field, and the trio have created a number of cross border challenges, which are almost completely ignored by the local populations. The three day, three match triangular tournaments are a favourite, even though these can never give the best of football. These are biased in favour of the home team, and the last two were won by the home team. Lithuania won a international series held in Kaunas last June, while Skonto won the champions completion, held at their indoor arena (which includes a full sized pitch) in January. The tournament total attendances were not exactly spectacular. The three games in Kaunas totalled a crowd of around 2000, whereas only 500 people headed to the Riga tourney.

The Zalgiris Stadium in Vilnius, although not currently in use, the pitch looks worn, and there is a groundsman working on it.

In ranking terms, Lithuania lead the way – they are ranked 54 by FIFA, ahead of Latvia (75) and Estonia (82), while UEFA rankings for clubs places Lithuania in 32nd , Latvia one lower, and Estonia 43rd. This gives all of them four entries in European competition, and all starting at the same stages. (Wales are 46th, Northern Ireland 49th). This is also reflected in attendances – the Estonian League has (according to European Football Statistics) an average “crowd” of just 188 in 2010, Latvia had 448, while Lithuania gets 880.

Zalgiris again.

So Tuesday morning arrived, rather dull and damp, and making me pleased to have explored the city centre in the previous evening’s sunshine. Fortunately, conditions improved allowing me to make the drive to Alytus in reasonable weather. The countryside was a mixture of woodland and agricultural land, but little of any great interest. At no point did I feel compelled to stop and admire the scenery.

As for Alytus, it would be easy to dismiss it as an ugly town, but this is a little unfair. It is bland and apparently uninteresting, but has a saving grace in the form of a large expanse of parkland that comes right into the centre of town, keeping the regulation apartment buildings at bay. Within this area is the Alytaus miesto Stadionas. (The extra “a” in the place name is correct, and I assume is possessive), miesto Stadionas means Town Stadium. What one gets is a very neat, and very new (it replaces another stadium on the same site). The press offices told me that it now holds 3700 seats, with two stands each the length of the pitch – a larger covered one on one side, and a lower open area opposite. The ground boasts the almost obligatory athletics track, with no facilities at either end. Neither stand has any elevation, so at least 10% of the seats are best avoided as too low.

The home fans at Dainava. A smaller number of away fans take up position at the other end of the stand

This probably ranks the stadium only behind the new stadium in Marijampole as the second best in the country, and during the week before my visit, it had the honour of staging the National Cup final.

The team name Dainava refers to an area within the city of Alytus. The visitors were Tauras, from the city of Taurage. This appears just to be a contraction of the town name, taking the local spelling for a zodiac sign and naturally using a bull on their badge. It appears that the city names are rarely included in the club’s official names here, although Klaipeda, Mazeikiai, Siauliai and Kaunas are all just place names. Suduva is the area which includes Marijampole. Zalgiris is the local name for the major battle that cemented Lithuanian power early in the 15th century (English history books would refer to it as the Battle of Grunwald).

The main stand at Dainava, Alytus

Unlike in Latvia, people were allowed to smoke in the stands, and there was a beer tent at one end providing lager and dark beer, as well as soft drinks. No food, tea or coffee though. The crowd was the best of the tour, and if the official figure around 2000 is correct, then it just about eclipses the total of the other five games seen in Latvia and Lithuania. Admission was 5 lita for any part of the ground, with the majority taking cover, but the “ultras” from each side settling for the end sections of the open area.

As for the game, it was of pleasantly good quality, certainly better than anything I had seen during the Latvian part of the tour. The visitors had an assembled a squad including a number of foreigners, and the name that stood out was Seedorf. Sadly this was Regilo Seedorf, and I suppose the fact he plays in the Lithuanian League, having tried his luck in the Netherlands, Belgium and the Cypriot second division gives away that he is not quite as good as his Uncle Clarence.

While Seedorf was trying to run the midfield, it looked as if the game could go to Dainava, but as soon as Tauras decided to miss the centre of midfield and play the wings, the game changed in their favour. The opening goal came seven minutes before the break, when Borisovs played down the left wing and crossed the ball for the right winger, Buitkus to finish.

The home side levelled the scores direct from a free kick early in the second half, but never looked likely to capitalise on this. Instead most of the second half seemed to be a series of fouls on the visitors wingers. The inevitable happened with 15 minutes to play, as one of the series of yellow cards collected by Dainava was a second, and substitute Strauka left the field early. With three minutes to play, a splendid passage of play involving all three of the Tauras substitutes resulted in a winning goal. One player ran with the ball, passed it out to the left wing, and then the cross was met by a good header which looped over the home keeper.

The names engraved on the outside of the “KGB Museum” commemorate some of those deported or killed after incorporation in the Soviet Union

Heading back overnight to Vilnius allowed me to start again the following day, even though I would be repeating my steps to a large extent. It did allow me to enter the museum of the genocide victims, otherwise known as the KGB museum. On the two upper floors, this consisted of a highly politicised view of the resistance against first German and then Russian occupation of the country from 1940 to 1991, and the lives they lived if caught and deported . It is the basement, however that holds the power to shock. This is a dank prison, almost unchanged since the Soviets left in 1991, and was there place were the regime first took those who offended it for interrogation and imprisonment, before shipping them to Siberia, or simply executing them within the building. (No photos permitted), but the outside of the building is now engraved with some of the names of those killed.

While my trip to Marijampole covered many of the same roads as the previous day, I started earlier, and this allowed a stop in Trakai. Here an interesting and picturesque castle sits in the centre of a lake. The building has been restored and the new red brick stands out starkly against the older parts of the building. The oldest parts of the castle date back to the 14th and 15th century, but it fell into disrepair after the battle of Zalgiris. Just not needed when peace ruled! The modern restoration was carried out mainly in the 1950s.

Trakai Castle – restoration in redbrick!

Marijampole may be the current host of Lithuania’s national team matches, but it is not an exciting city. The town centre consists of a sterile concrete square and a couple of supermarkets. The two football grounds are situated to the north of the centre, only around 400 metres apart. Suduva used to play at the Suduvos Stadionas, before moving to the new stadium when constructed in 2008. The new stadium seats 6250 and originally had the same name as its predecessor, before naming rights made it into the “Avri” Arena. The older ground was similar to that visited the day before, older and slightly larger, but still a main stand along one side, and a low bank of uncovered seats opposite, and nothing but the track at either end. No admission was charged, and the “home” fans were provided with a free coach from the capital, but still I estimated the attendance at just 150, (officially it was 500). I chose the game as it was the “big” game – both sides could end the day top of the league, and also because there may be few chances to return and visit this stadium.

Zalgiris’ travelling support (for a home game) try to get behind their team.

In the short term, this does not seem to mean much. Not only have Zalgiris to play more games here, but also FBK Kaunas had switched their game for the following Sunday. While it was easy to discover that Zalgiris had a problem with their home stadium being considered unsuitable for a A Lyga license, and the planned new stadium being still on same drawing boards as it was on 10 years or more ago, the reasons for other matches moving was unclear.

Meanwhile, the travelling Ekranes Ultras try to look menacing.

Meanwhile, Suduva were actually supposed to be away to Atlantas in Klaipeda, but had switched to playing at home, and kicking off 90 minutes before the Zalgiris game. This was an annoyance to me, who would have doubled up had the matches been two hours apart. Indeed there may have been some local sympathy for my position. Some 30 or 40 people entered the ground around half an hour after kick off, many wearing Suduva colurs.

I could not find out why Kaunas, who have played their other games in their home city were to switch a game here. It cannot be for the crowds though Dainava appear unique in getting 2000 in for their mid table games. The others are all under the 1000 mark.

As for my game, it was settled by an early goal scored by Ribokas for league leaders Ekranes. After this, Zalgiris seemed to be able to command most of the play, and unleashed plenty of shots, but hardly any that were anywhere near the target. With the early goal secured, the visitors were content to defend deep against opponents that seemed to lack any sort of punch. Their own attacks were rare, but were more concise and precise.

Ekranes were always good to hold on to their lead, and the game finished 1-0. Most of the play was uninspiring, and it was a surprise when Austraukas of Zalgiris managed to get himself a red card a few minutes before time. I did not think anyone was going to be committed enough to make a serious foul.

I travelled back using the motorway route, through Kaunas soon after dusk, but early enough to see it has a small historic centre and may be worth a visit on another trip. I managed to sleep a little in a quiet service area, and hence delayed arriving in the capital until around 3 am, heading straight to the airport for my 6.30 flight.

Boring, Boring, Barca?

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Of course, I do not really mean that.

I rarely comment on games seen only on TV, but this time I see a change in tactics, an extension of the direction already visible on my last few trips to Spain. One has to look at the game, and try and go beyond the gushing comments of praise offered up by the TV networks and commentators and ask what actually happened.

The BBC stats suggested that Barcelona had 68% of the possession . Another site, citing a link to “Total Football Apps”, says that Xavi attempted 148 passes in the game, and 141 were successful, Iniesta also had over 100 successful passes, while Messi made 92 out of his 100 attempts. Rio Ferdinand made the most attempted passes for United, but this was only 47, with 40 making it.

I am not sure of the accuracy of this, but the figures are believable, having watched the game on TV. Barcelona played a short passing game, with a player rarely remaining in possession for more than five seconds, and the vast majority being successful and over a short distance. It was not just that United could not intercept these, they generally did not try.

When United had the ball, tactics still owed a lot to Charles Hughes, the apostle of the long ball and direct game. Hughes said that most goals come from moves of three of less passes, and hence players should get the ball into a shooting position in that time. Correct analysis, wrong conclusion. Barcelona do score goals that do not depend on 20 or 30 passes, but these depend on gaining possession near to the goal. If you play a long ball, then more often than not you are trying to win possession again. If you pass like Barcelona, then possession is never lost, and so never has to be regained. Not surprisingly, Barcelona committed far fewer fouls than Manchester United. Most fouls are mistimed attempts to dispossess the player with the ball, and hence they do not occur when you are already in possession.

Traditionally in the English game, possession has always swung from one side to the other, and is lost due to poor quality of passing and control more often than due to tackling. A team’s dominance of a match is down to being more effective both with and without the ball, but a team could totally dominate a game, win by four or five to nil, and still barely exceed 50% on the possession chart.

In Barcelona, we have a team that holds possession, keeping it for more than two thirds of the time. Most of these short passes are not taking the game anywhere, but it frustrates the opponents when they just cannot get the ball. In this way, cricketers are more tactically astute than footballers. They know that a run of maiden overs can frustrate their opponents, and that this can win a wicket when a more direct attack will fail.

The natural consequence of Barcelona’s success is that more teams will copy this style, (on the continent anyway). No imagine two teams playing possession and short passes, but without Barcelona’s star players. Neither side will commit to a challenge in the other’s half of the field, for fear of being caught out with their players out of position. Without Iniesta, Alves and Messi to run at the defence, and to open up spaces, these sequential passing moves will break down eventually. Even Barcelona did not score every time they had the ball. With defenders falling back, the side in possession will be forced to shoot from distance, and will not be able to generate the excitement of play in the penalty area.

Barca have been anything but boring, but the Barcelona style could well be copied into a new and more sterile game, leaving commentators to regret some of the superlatives thrown at this new dawn.

Three Holders and Twinners in Riga

Friday, May 27th, 2011

I thought the title could be something from Ronnie Barker, but maybe it’s just my warped sense of humour. The one thing that is certain, when you have suffered the second half of the season as we have at Cheltenham, you need a holiday, and more than that – you need a drink.

Many of my trips have simple plans. Get to the destination, get to see as much football as possible, take in a little of the scenery and sights if time permits. Eat and drink when necessary. If I do not travel alone, then my companions are liable to take similar views on these things.

This is a bit different. An end of season tour. Still football orientated, but I am out with a group of fans from Cheltenham Town. In the past we have visited places such as Milan and Lisbon, and the trips have always been drinking first, football second, (but not a distant second). Latvia may be a bit more challenging, but the rules are the same. It was my second visit, and quite a bit has changed in the last decade. Back in 1999, Latvia was still freshly separated from the Soviet Union, (it achieved independence in 1991), and it did not join the European Union until about five years after my visit. In the meantime there has also been economic boom and bust, the country being hit hard by the recent crisis.

In 1999, I had to fly British Airways, and paid around £250 for my return ticket, now the cheap airlines have arrived in force, and it was easy to arrange a return for under £100. I chose Wizz Air, because I wanted to add Lithuania at the end of the trip. My friends flew with Ryanair from Bristol, a straight forward flight, and were surprised to discover it was more a commuter flight taking Latvians home for the weekend then a holiday makers’ flight. My flight appeared to have at least two stag parties on board, including the regulation butch, hairy and very drunk youngish Englishman wearing a pink dress.

In the city, the number of bars has increased massively, especially the British and Irish bars, and drink prices have risen to almost British figures. There are bars open late into the evening, but generally the atmosphere was peaceful, without the raucous and uncomfortable atmosphere that the British are liable to inflict on foreign cities.

Riga’s Orthodox Cathedral. I did not find out what was unorthodox about the other one.

I arrived in the afternoon, and had spent some time wandering around the old town, and found a bar with over 20 different beers (including a variety of local ones), as well as some 50+ malt whiskeys. I would have stuck to beer, but some visiting Finns decided that as an Englishman, I must be an expert on Scotch, and hence demanded I gave my opinion on 35 year old malt that they paid for. It would be rude not to, so I complied. I thought it was a beautifully smooth creation, (the Whiskey, not the Finns).

I want to buy a beer!

When the others, to be referred to as the “Three Holders and Twinners” arrived, we discovered that the hotel had messed up the room booking, and two members of the party were shipped off to the altogether superior Albert Hotel. As the Ramada (where we were staying) has no bar, the rest of us followed suit after a short time to get into the room. Even with a flight due in after 9 in the evening, it is amazing how much some people can manage before the hotel bar finally throws you out.

In the morning, we had to again sort the hotel rooms, and then head to the railway station for the first match. We came across a standard problem – where do you queue for tickets. Naturally, I waited for ten minutes before being told, (about two minutes before our train), that it was the wrong ticket window. The sign that said so had fallen out of sight.

By the time our tickets had been purchased, we had missed a train and we repaired to the coffee shop. Well I had a coffee, Twinners and at least one Holder had soft drinks, while the others purchased beer. Showing the friendliness that one might be surprised, we were interrupted by the girl on the next table, who wanted to advise us on the best choices of local beer.

On arriving at the town of Ogre, (it is pronounced Og-Re, and does not feature Shrek on its coat of arms), it was only 20 minutes to kick off. Twinners and I decided to take a Taxi, while the Holders walked – we had spotted the ground from the train, and in fact the walk was only 10 minutes, but my earlier arrival allowed me to quickly speak to the match commissioner who found me a copy of the team lists. SC Ogre/FK 33 had been promoted from regional football to the 1. Liga (which is of course, the second level of football in Latvia) last season, and had started this season with 6-0 and 11-1 defeats. This was their first home game. Still in the 11-1 defeat a week earlier, they had been 1-0 up for some 15 minutes, and the equaliser was an own goal. The visitors, FK Tukums-2000/TSS had won only one of three games to date. I did not get the meaning of the names after the strokes, but I think it refers to merged clubs.

The Ogre Stadions.

The stadium was a basic athletics track with a stand on one side, raised well enough to give good views. The stand holds around 650 seats, of which over 600 were left empty. No charges were made, no programmes were issued, no souvenirs were on sale, and the only refreshments were from a vending machine in the corridor that led to the sports hall behind the stadium. To say the pitch was uneven would be an insult to many a ploughed field. Let’s just say you could not be certain where the bounce would take the ball.

None of this mattered though, as there were few players on show that could control the ball even when it did not strike a divot. It is questionable whether more players lost the ball through tripping over it, than through tackles, but it is fair to say that the tackles when seen were not for the squeamish. Still when the referee told a player who had been pole axed by a particularly nasty blow, he would do so without even a word of complaint. Goalless in the first period, Tukums managed to score three after the break to comfortably win the game.

Not likely to win prizes in a Ploughing competition.

On returning to Riga, the Three Holders and Twinners wanted to see the FA Cup final on TV. This is not shown on local TV, so there was a requirement to enter the first Irish bar showing it on satellite TV. I do not go to foreign countries to sit in faux Irish bars, drinking Danish beer and watching English football on TV, (or at least not all the time). So I carried on after seeing the others enter the bar, and about thirty minutes later, I found Arkadija – the ground of FS Metta/LU. That means for the second time in a day, I was at the ground around 20 minutes before kick off! The ground was buzzing, mainly with hundreds of kids connected to the Football School which gives its name to FS Metta. The ground is a plastic pitch with a cage on three sides, and four rows of seats along half the length of one side. It was nowhere near adequate for the numbers there. Admission was again free, but an A6 sized programme was sold for 0.5 Lat (about 60p). Plenty of refreshments and souvenirs were on sale, and a team sheet was produced on request, (it did take a while to find the person to request it from – and he then disappeared into the sports hall, which also included dressing rooms to find it). Curiously the sports hall is labelled Riga Futbola Skola. Riga FS is another team, like FS Metta/LU in 1. Liga – but they play their home games at the LU Stadium. The LU in both Metta/LU and the stadium stands for the Latvia University.

FS Metta/LU at Arkadija. From the seats, one is looking into the Sun, and toward a Soviet style war memorial in the park behind

Sitting on the third row of seats back, I found so much movement and noise in front of me, that it was difficult to concentrate on the game, so I walked around the other side for the second period and stood holding my camera. A few of the officials gave me odd looks, uncertain as to whether or not I was supposed to be there, but I was not challenged. The visitors, Valmieras FK were not in the same class as FS Metta, whose record beforehand had been two wins and a draw, including a 6-0 victory over Tukums. There was only one first half goal, as the overhit ball still came to the fore more often than not, but when the home side got into their stride, and the visitors tired of the battle, a further six goals were added, including a hat trick for a substitute who came on with less than 30 minutes to play.

Putkis scores Metta’s second goal, from the penalty spot.

One note from the lower division of the Latvian League, clubs are allowed to name up to seven substitutes, and then play all of them. Not everyone can name a full complement though. Ogre named four, and played them all including the second choice keeper, while Tukems left their second keeper on the bench, but played six others. FS Metta played a full seven, including a keeper, while Valmieras named five, and played four (again it was the keeper that was not changed). All this makes the second half of games somewhat piecemeal, and does detract from the game. For the Sunday games, in the Virsliga (top Division) and Cup, it was three subs only, from seven names.

After the game, I gave in and returned to the Irish bar, although I drank only Latvian beer while watching the second half of a League-2 play-off game, and the whole of the French Cup Final. Still we did not overdo things and left with the bar still open, and the result of the Eurovision song contest (on the other TV in the bar) still uncertain. We missed out on culture despite the opportunities presented. Our Saturday evening in Riga had been designated as “Night of the Museums”, with every museum open past midnight, and more importantly free to enter. Our excuse was that we did not want to join the rather lengthy queues, (especially while the bars were still open).

Crossing the Daugavas river back into the old town

Another day, another train ride, and while this time we went straight to the correct ticket window, we were sold single tickets under the impression we were buying returns. We took the train to Majori, in the Jurmala area. This is a resort some 20 km from Riga, with a fine sandy beach on one side of a narrow spit of land, and a river on the other side. We wandered down a well paved and very gentile walkway close to cafes, shops and some very fine housing. But if one looked behind, down the lanes connecting to out thoroughfare, you could see that there was also a lot of housing in serious need of repair, while a few burnt out hulks were left were they stood, a tribute to the affects of fire on wooden buildings with inadequate insurance. We walked along this promenade, and then back along the back before taking a lunch, where a rather large piece of cow was served at very generous prices. Although an English menu was provided, Jurmala is not reached by many foreign tourists. Returning to the station, and a square with a statue of St. George and the Dragon, there was a lack of taxis, so we had to resort to the bus. The bus driver told us he did not go to Sloka, but the person behind us in the queue said to get on anyway, and he would show us the route for the ten minute walk from bus terminus to stadium.

Majori, Jurmala.

Three Holders and Twinners on Jurmala Beach – I am safely the other side of the camera.

Our guide was a former professional boxer who had spent around five years in the East End of London, and was as good as his word, walking with us for about half the distance to the ground, and then disappearing into a warren of stereotypical soviet style apartment blocks that made up this town away from the tourist beach – pointing us down the road and (correctly) saying we would reach the stadium in around 5 minutes.

The Power of advertising. Somehow I cannot imagine “Villa Lido” will ever live up to the dream of the poster.

Jurmala has not one, but two professional football teams, and they share the Sloka stadium. With the newer of the pair being promoted last season, this was to be the first ‘derby’ in the top level. Probably the first ever. If there was a charge to enter, we did not find it, and we also got a free programme. FC Jurmala, who were formed only in 2008 were the ‘home’ team, while FK Jurmala VV were the ‘visitors’. Like the ground at Ogre, this had an athletics track and a single stand, this time around 1000 seats. There was no access to other parts of the ground, although some chose to watch through the fencing. The Latvian FA web site gave the crowd as 350, which I feel is close enough to the mark. FK Jurmala had the most vocal fans, with several flags and a poster saying “One Town, One Team”, which suggests they are a little put out by the rise of local rivals. Despite their flags showing the name FC Jurmala, rather than FK, they insisted that the new club was not a breakaway of the old one, but had risen on its own. Former Arsenal player Igors Stepanovs is on the FK coaching staff and also listed as a player, but not one of the 18 selected for this game.

Sloka Stadions, Jurmala. During the half time break, less than 30% of the “crowd” keep their seats.

FK have not had a good season, just one point from six games, while FC were on eight points from seven games. Still it was always FK that were the better side, and they were deserving winners with an early goal, (a header from a right side free kick), and a late goal, following a long passing move searching for the gap. In between time, over hit crosses and shots that would have been deemed high in Rugby Union were the orders of the day. No refreshments were available except in an enclosed VIP section at the top of the stand, which was well guarded by people who were never going to let me in, even in search of the team list. The area marked “Press Center” was locked and empty, but I eventually found the stadium announcer, and another official who managed to let me have a copy.

FK Jurmala fans wave the flag to say “We outnumber that other lot”.

Not only are no refreshments on sale at the stadium, but Latvia is one of the countries with a no smoking rule. The stadium is next to some woodland, and at least half the crowd seemed to disappear into the woods during the break. Clearly many of them had gone for a smoke, but it was also spotted that some had left bottles of beer that would not pass through security into the ground itself,

And so back to Riga. Skonto stadium is about a 30 minute walk from the station, but I decided I should get a taxi, having obtained press accreditation and been told to collect it around or after 16.00, (it was about 18.00 when I arrived). I needed have worried, the place was near deserted, with just a few people finishing off a pre match buffer, and kids playing a table football contest. I appeared to be the first person collecting a ticket, and when the others (who did walk) arrived, they may well have been the first to buy tickets. I saved 3 Lat (about £3.75) by getting accreditation, and paid exactly the same to the Taxi! Programmes, a 36 page A4 publication were 2 Lat. Naturally this was considered too much by the locals, and few appeared to buy them.

Ventspils fans pleased to be given the open end. Or at least happy it has stopped raining.

As the teams take to the pitch, it appears the mascot is trying to injure the Liepajas captain. Perhaps angered by the incident, Tomasauskas will receive his second caution on 63 minutes, and miss a crucial part of the game.

The bar was marked “VIP bar”, but VIP appeared to be a local word meaning public. Beer was obtained, and then I went up to the press seats where I was given copies of the team sheets, and also free coffee and biscuits. The others later came and sat in front of the press box, returning to the bar for a quick one at half time, before realising that this is not Britain – and they were permitted to bring the beer back to the seats. Another beer was quickly ordered to last the second half.

Skonto. The side we are sitting on is similar to that opposite, and actually has people in it.

The Skonto Stadium holds around 8000, with three sides being almost identically clad stands, and the fourth being rather rudimentary open seats. Around 50 supporters from each side waved flags and chanted behind the goals, while the other 1000 or so (official crowd: 1112), were in the stand on my side.

FK Ventspils are top of the league, with 22 points from 8 games. The only team they had not beaten in the League were Liepajas Metalurgs, (it was 0-0), who in turn had 19 points from 8 games. However, the Latvian Cup is played on the same season as England, (Autumn one year, to Spring the next), while the League season is through the summer. Hence the pair knew that Skonto have the Champions League place from the 2010 season. Both had already qualified for the Europa League, but the cup winners would play one less qualifying round. Despite the lack of crowds in Latvian football, Ventspils have created a very international squad, including Africans, Russians and two Japanese. They even managed to leave a Uruguayan as an unplayed substitute. The starting XI included two Russians, but the stars were Ahmed Abdultaofik, (a Nigerian) and Minori Sato (Japan) who played at the point of a diamond shaped midfield four.

On 35 minutes, Olegs Laizans (14) gets enough curve to beat the wall and keeper and put Ventspils one up.

By comparison, Metalurgs fielded three Lithuanians as their foreign contingent. It was clear from start to finish that Ventspils were the better side, and their fans knew it, making more noise despite having the open end. It took 35 minutes for them to grab the advantage, a direct free kick from Oleg Laizans, and they were never going to let it go. Abdultaofik scored the two, the second being from a through pass from Sato. By this time, Metalurgs had been reduced to ten men, when Tamasauskas picked up a second yellow card, and a late penalty was no real consolation. We gathered as near as we could to the presentation and shook most of the winning players hands as they went onto the pitch. We then retired to the bar, again spotting some of the winning team, who came through to meet their girlfriends before heading to a reception upstairs. We stayed in the bar longer than planned, as it started raining, and we saw the players leave after the reception as well! Fortunately, there was to be a gap in the rain, as the bar staff wanted to throw us out, (and anyway, we had drunk all the local beer, and all the Carlsberg).

Having won the cup, Ventspils’ supporters prepare to celebrate until the bus is due to leave (about 5 minutes).

So it was back to town, and a return to the first bar I had visited, taking a stray scouser we had met in the stadium in tow. They said they closed around midnight, but we stayed about 45 minutes longer, before transferring to another bar, (last orders just been called) for another hour of so before finally returning to our beds.

Lifting the cup. This does not make the front pages of the Latvian press the next day.

Still, we all managed a hearty breakfast in the morning, and a general sightseeing walk around the old town. It is quite attractive, and very compact, before leaving in the early afternoon, the Three Holders and Twinners back to Bristol, and me onto Vilnius