Halle, and back to Switzerland

Please excuse the shortage of photos. They take time to download, but I will try to add some next week.

Sunday was again heavy on the mileage, even if I had dealt with a lot of the problem Saturday evening. I stayed overnight in Dresden, which required five hours on the rails after the match at Brno. The only reason for this was that it seemed to be the most convenient stopover point. In the old East Germany, the sun sets early in winter, and this leads to 1.30 kick offs soon before and after the winter break. In May, of course, there is far more latitude to choose the kick off time, but some teams including Hallescher FC, choose to stick to the early kick off. I arrange to arrive by midday, to give myself a short amount of time to see the city before the game. I know I have a choice of trains later, (Frankfurt having been chosen as the next break point), and so can return to the centre.

Halle is a seat of learning, and the birthplace of Handel. Its centre has been preserved as historic monuments, but I have just arrived from Brno, and by comparison, it is the same but smaller. One of the major monuments is cloaked for repairs, and a fair is set up crowding the central square. Walking just off the main square past the cathedral is a small square that was the setting for one of the first anti-communist uprisings of the 1950s. It seems a pity to me that this is not better commemorated. The tourist office seemed surprised when I asked about the football stadium; they found me directions to it, although it is not in the area covered by the tourist maps. This is a pity, because in itself it is a gem – a splendid example of either fascist or communist architecture, (in stadium terms, they tend to be similar), wrapped up in red stone. I suspect it was build after the communists came to the area – the six statues outside the main gateway are of workers and certainly appear to be communist style, (although one, in what must be a nod to Halle’s status, appeared to be an academic). Sadly, the ticket windows cut into the old walls are no longer in use, and the same steel cages that protect almost every ground in Germany have been build around the entrances.

Inside, it is a typical bowl. The steps are not as steep as Brno, and the whole place is on a smaller scale, and there are no shortages of recently added fencing. Plastic seats have only been added to a central section on one side, and the main area, including the covered zones. The cover anyway also appears to have been a later addition. Unusually, this is on the North side of the ground, and as a compensation, and extra shade has been hung from the front edge, to keep at least some of the best seats in the shade.

The game was in one of the nine Oberliga that currently make up the fourth level of German football. With the new national third division being formed next season, and only three regional leagues at the new level 4, the most important thing for the Oberliga teams is to try and see if they can qualify for the new leagues. Hallescher lead their division (Oberliga Nord Ost, Staffel Sud – or North East League, Southern Group – which reminds me of some of the English non-League divisions). The visitors for day, Germania Helberstadt are just off the pace, but would certainly come back into the competition if they could win this game.

As it is, Hallescher take the lead in only the second minute, but then hang back and try to absorb pressure. This is not a successful tactic, and Halberstatdt equalise half way through the half, and continue to attack to the break. In the second half, we again see the home side take an early lead, but this time they do not give away chances so easily. Still they appear incabale of adding to the lead, even when a long distance shot is handled on the line by the Halberstadt captain. The resultant penalty was saved, but the red card given to the visiting player was probably the deciding factor in keeping the scores unchanged (at 2-1) to the end.

From Halle, it was on to Basel, a Swiss city with borders to Germany and France – a cathedral overlooking the Rhine, and a completely different definition to me of ‘reasonably priced hotel’. I had to pick on a cheap hotel instead – about £60 per night. I think I’m glad now that I’ve not got Euro 2008 tickets. Seriously, what I got for my money was quite reasonable, and the local authorities throw in free local transport for anyone who books a hotel, (they also charge a local tourist tax). It did not take me long to get onto the local transport. In all, I used two trams and a trolleybus to get from the hotel to the Rankhof stadion. A journey of less than 15 minutes, including a full minute waiting for a connection!

The Rankhof may be the ultimate in municipal stadiums. There has to be some beauty in the sterile symmetry of the concrete blocks that make up the stadium, a symmetry that is broken as soon as the first member of the crowd enters. Naturally, in a stadium that worships the right angle, there are no curves anywhere, and all four sides sit square to the pitch. On three sides, we have around seven steps of concrete terracing made up from large concrete blocks. Smaller blocks provide steps. The final side has a stand built well above ground level. In fact the path at the front of stand sits level with the highest step on the other three sides. This allows a bridges to connect between them, although each had a gate that stayed locked shut. The stand was similar is scale to the terraces, while the space underneath provides places where food and drink can be provided. The dressing rooms themselves are a level underground. On a hot, sunny day, the area under the stands provides the only shade from the sun, for those who have not bought seat tickets, and there was a brisk sale of Bratwurst, beer and even ice-cream. Onto the roof of the stand, naturally a cantilever, efficiently styled in concrete, the single word “RANKHOF” is displayed in large red letters, reminiscent of the almost identical signage used airside, at so many international airports.

Entrance, to spoil the symmetry of the stadium cost 15 CHF (about £7.50), an A4 sized programme was free. One felt that scoring goals would be a travesty, an imperfection, and for a long time it appeared that the teams felt the same way, meandering through 85 minutes that brought new meaning to meaningless. But then, in a shock move the home side Concordia Basel actually scored a goal. This certainly took the visitors, Shaffhausen by surprise and the only response they could think of was to allow Concordia a second goal, just as the game entered injury time.

A match that kicks off at 4 p.m. on a Swiss Bank Holiday does not have to be the end of my day though. I was not quite so lucky with the trolleybus and tram connection – I only rode two this time, but spent longer waiting than riding, still this was comfortably early enough to catch my train, and with two further changes arrive in Wohlen (on time, of course) at 19.42.
The trouble with arriving in a quite strange town, just 18 minutes before kick off, is that one does not know exactly which way to turn, so one has to turn to a taxi driver. I spent about 2 minutes in the taxi, and he built up a metered fee of 15 CHF (£7.50). I then had to pay another 18 CHF to get into the game. Programmes were free, but there were none left! (Fortunately, when I started to ask around, I managed to find one). I had been to Wohlen before, and they then played on a pitch on the edge of town, next to farmer’s fields and with a small wooden stand. They now play on a pitch on the edge of town, next to farmer’s fields, but with a large concrete stand. I had been told it was a completely new ground, but to be honest, I could easily have been made to believe it was the same one with a rebuilt stand. When I got back to the station later, I did manage to locate the two on the map there, not much over a kilometre apart. Incidentally, the walk back took not much over 15 minutes!
Apart from the modern stand, which is the main feature of the new ground, Niedermatte at Wohlen has one step of terracing around most of the ground. Typically, there are food and drink vendors on both sides of the ground, but it is otherwise generally featureless. The away team was Gossau, who I had seen at home the previous week. Having seen them play defensive on their own pitch, I was surprised to see them play a more open game here, while despite their higher league position, Wohlen looked nervous and unconvincing, they kept their own defensive positions up even though they were a goal down midway through the first half. This was an own goal, and may be the only way that Gossau could hit the target, but over the period of ninety minutes they were the better side, and should have achieved a bigger win. Speaking to a journalist who was covering Gossau, I was told this was typical of the team, who had picked up more points on their travels than at home.

My third match on this trip to Switzerland, (which meant for the first time on tour, I stayed in a hotel two nights in a row – pity it was the most expensive I had stopped at) was for a match in what is called 2. Liga Inter-regional. The structure of football in Switzerland has to some extent remained unchanged for quite some time. Ever since I have started watching Swiss football, the professional league has been divided into two divisions, if the numbers in each have changed. When I started watching there were 24 professional teams, while this season there are 28 in divisions of 10 and 18. Next season, the lower division (Challenge league) will lose two teams in number, and the professional ranks will be 26. Within this, there is a big difference in class and scale between the two divisions. The next league down, which is certainly semi-professional consists of three regional divisions, and is called 1. Liga (first league). Some of the professionals run U-21/reserve teams at this and lower levels. Despite three divisions at this level, play-offs are always required, as I have never known more than two places to be available. Most of the grounds are relatively basic by English non-league standards, and it is only the big end of season matches that can draw big crowds, around two to three hundred being typical the rest of the time. The next level down has five divisions, and is known as second league inter-regional. Clearly sometime in the past, this has been interposed between the 1. Liga and the leagues run by the regional associations, as all of these have 2. Liga as their top level.

So a 2. Liga Inter-Regional game, between Belfaux, a small village outside Fribourg, and Breitenrain, a suburb of Bern. I have chosen the match because it is the only fixture I could find – this mid-week being used only the re-arrangement of a small number of postponed games. It is not a bad choice though – as Breitenrain come into the match just two points behind the league leaders, so a win would take them to the top. Belfaux is a small village, centered on an improbably large church. It has two railway stations, CFF on the main Swiss Railways line, and Village on a small independent line. The CFF station, at 15 minutes is the longer walk from the ground, which is reached by simply dropping down the hill until the village stops. A small lane takes you to the sports fields – strangely on one side of the lane is the main pitch, reached by a bridge over a small river, and guarded by ticket sellers. (The match programme, which is free, was originally produced for the postponed game, but comes with a sheet of paper giving updated league tables). On the other side of the lane is the club house, bar and another floodlit pitch. It is clear why this is not the pitch of preference – it is very much undersize, but I wonder at what level in England a club would be allowed to operate with players crossing the road to the pitch?

Not surprisingly, the ground consists of nothing more than a pitch with a rail around it. Hard standing is limited to an area near the entrance. The ground is not even enclosed. There is another small road bridging the river by one goal, going up to a farm, and there is nothing to stop people parking here, and entering the ground on this side. With Breitenrain needing to win the game to go top of the league, I was expecting them to provide a formation to attack the home side and put them under pressure from the start. On the contrary, it was a safety first performance, abetted by cynical diving, players feigning injury and general poor sportsmanship. Whereas I can understand in the professional game, the pressure for results means that this sort of play can be almost necessary, but this is an amateur game – the objective is more for the enjoyment of the players than the spectators, and I cannot believe that players enjoy being harsh and cynical in their play. Anyway, the team clearly had the ability to win the game by fair means, but ended up doing so in a way that left a foul taste in the mouth and which could win no friends. In the end, the Bern team won 1-0 with a long distance second half shot that took a deflection. They celebrated the win as if they had win the European Champions League. I did not feel the desire to applaud, but instead returned to the trains, where for a while I had the chance to speak to a Swiss based groundhopper, who seemed to feel the same about the game – except that he thought this was par for the course in the country.