07/10/2007

Ingolstadt and Into Luxembourg

Note – this is the long version of my first European trip of the season. If any programme editors, etc wish to use it they can apply their own editing, or contact me at leo@leohoenig.com for a 1600 word version. I also have a few more photos that can be used.

My first trip into Europe for the season, and it is familiar territory as I fly Ryanair in and out of Germany, do battle with the Autobahn and rush across the borders to get my double fixtures in. So, not for the first time, I am rushing around Stansted Airport around six on a Friday morning. The comfort zone is only reached when you have passed through the queues for check-in, security and a cup of coffee, and are on board the plane. Finally a chance to pick up on some of the night’s lost sleep.

My flight takes me to Baden Airpark. The nearest airport to my destination with a cheap fare, but still some 350 km to go. The German motorway system is renowned for being the open road, and without speed limit. The reality is somewhat different. The age of many of the Autobahns means that repairs are constantly needed, while even the major roads were built with just two lanes in each direction. As a result, there is currently an enormous amount of resource being poured into updating the network, and it is almost impossible to go any distance without having to go through either a resurfacing project, or a major road-widening scheme. Still, unlike in England, actual queues when approaching the works are quite rare (and on this trip almost all heading in the opposite direction to me). It still remains a fact, though – that queues apart, I can drive at a faster average speed on the English motorway – even keeping to the speed limits, then the German one.

My first port of call was Ingolstadt, historically an important crossing point on the Danube, between Munich and Nurnberg. The town bristles with imposing buildings, and an improbable amount of church spires fighting for attention. With parkland next to the river as well, the town is a pleasant place to spend one’s afternoon, and after hours on the Autobahn, I was glad to have a couple of hours to look around. Near the cathedral is a gatehouse of some antiquity, and if you wander through, then the football stadium is about 100 yards further up on your right.

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The stadium is as basic was one can get. The pitch sits inside a running track, (slightly unusual at this level). The main stand runs less than half the length of one side, and has only five rows of seats, a total of 400 places. Not surprisingly, all the tickets were sold out before I arrived at the ground. There is no cover for any of the standing areas. These consist of banks of terraces each side of the stand – also about five steps, and a slightly higher bank on the far side which goes most of the length of the pitch. Away fans, (and there were few of these on a Friday night), have to content themselves with the curve behind one goal – a few though had chanced their luck for a better view and were standing near me to one side of the stand. The opposite goal is entirely undeveloped, and is closed to spectators. The crowd was 2320, and most of the good view points in the home areas were taken. One could squeeze more in where I was standing – and on the far sides, where the front rows (view blocked by fencing) were unused. But even knowing the away end was nearly empty, I would not like to be there if the crowd ever approaches the quoted capacity of 10,000. At the end of this season, the Regionalliga will stop being the third level of football in Germany, and a new Third Bundesliga will be created. The objective for clubs such as Ingolstadt, and the visitors, Sportfreund Siegen – is to finish in the top ten and qualify for the new league. With nine points each from five games, both sides had made a good start to the campaign. We were treated to an entertaining game with plenty of attacking football from both sides. Siegen were using a 4-5-1 formation with the apparent intention of defending for a draw, but conceding early in each half, they had to attack for the draw, which they did. Ingolstadt always played as if they knew that one goal leads were not enough – and so it was proved with equalisers conceded in both halves.

On the Saturday morning, I retraced my steps most of the way, then headed west of Karlsruhe into the wine growing region of Pfalz. The small town of Hauenstein lies nestled below the hills and vineyards. Its football ground is typical for a fourth level team, with no cover at all, but some steep steps on one side to provide good viewing positions. All the rest of the ground is just level with a path. Behind one goal is a clubhouse, on two levels, while the most important and popular feature is a canteen supplying wurst and bier to the hungry masses. (Well, the 200 or Actually, the attendance was only around 200). The problem for German football, which next summer’s re-organisation will do something to face – is that a little club such as Hauenstein, whose league games do not take them more than 100 km from home – are only one good season away from having to travel half the country in the Regionalliga. Next season’s new Regionalliga will be at level four, and will only cover a third of the country. It is unlikely that either Hauenstein, or Engers, who were the visitors for the day will make the grade, (the top four are promoted to the new leagues). Instead they will stay with their Oberliga, which will drop from being level 4 to level 5 of the German pyramid. I feel this is football that would not look out of place in the Southern League, at a venue that still needs to add covered accommodation and floodlights to join the Hellenic. Very little needs to be said about the game itself, which ended up as a 1-0 home win.

After that, I headed further west. The advantage I now had was I was now away from all major population centres in the country, so although I was on a motorway of much the same standards as before, it was now clear and I was able to put my foot down. Appropriately, I thought – the border crossing into Luxembourg at Schengen is marked only by a signpost. After 40 km, which took me clear across the southern end of Luxembourg, I arrived in Petange. The ground sits on the edge of town – and has only one feature of note – a grandstand for about 300 people. The difference between the top division in Luxembourg and the third division in Germany was clearly shown by the fact that here the stand was nowhere near full. It was also a stand meant more to be admired from the outside than actually used. Its height above the ground, and the pyramid shapes of the roof make it look good – but with the few rows of seating arranged so as there is a path through the middle (used as the only covered standing), the number of railings needed to keep things safe, plus the pillars holding up the roof meant that less than half the seats have good views. The rest of the ground is just flat standing, although an area is set out to sell beer and bratwurst with a few tables and benches.

Petange has never been a big team, but have managed one European campaign, in which they drew the home match, but lost 4-1 overall to Allianssi of Finland. The visitors, FC Differdange 03 are a merger of two clubs from the town. Red Boys were a force way back in the thirties, but also won the championship in 1979, but they had dropped to the second division before merging with a third division side and climbin back a level. Red Boys have played in Europe on ten occasions, but never won a tie. They did win the first league of their only Champions Cup tie, against Omonia Nicosia by 2-1, but lost 6-1 in Cyprus. Their most notable result was a 0-0 draw with Ajax – but the return defeat at 14-0 remains a European record. (In 1971, Chelsea scored 13 at home to another Luxembourg team, Jeunnesse Hautcharage and won 21-0 on aggregate).

The football was poor, and unfortunately poor in all the wrong ways. With a quite enthusiastic crowd of just over seven hundred in the ground (including a small number for the visitors, Differdange, who had made the 5 km journey for this local derby), the footballers demonstrated a series of different ways to lose the ball. Both sides had gone for defensive formations, so while their forward players attacked eagerly, and the ball swung from end to end – none of the attacks looked vaguely like threatening the goalmouth. Differdenge, who had marginally the better of the game, had a habit of delivering a long ball to a free man on the far side, who would then hit the ball as hard as he could, in any direction except towards the target! Petange preferred not to risk losing the ball to a bad pass, so they made no passes at all and instead found their players continually crowded off the ball, as they tried to find the way through the mass of defenders. And so we had a game bereft of more than a few moments of either skill or entertainment, settled by a single scrambled goal helped in by the goalkeeper. This allowed the visiting fans to return home happy.

So that was Saturday, a fourth level German game in the afternoon, followed by the Luxembourg League in the evening. What to do on the Sunday? Well, much the same, although with no suitable fourth level club playing in the right part of Germany, I had to select fifth level instead. Generally, though Morbach was quite similar to Hauenstein. The Alfons-Jakob Stadion sits on the edge of a small town in a wine growing region. One side of the ground has a number of steep steps, and with the rest of the grounds surrounds being just a path. Again we have a two story club house, with a bar above and dressing rooms below, although this one is better positioned along the touch line, so a terrace outside the bar would provide some viewing under cover should the circumstances demand it. Morbach were promoted to this level at the end of last season, and are looking more than comfortable in their new surrounds. They dominated the early parts of the game, but lacked the touch that was needed to beat the visitors, SG Langenhahn/Rothenbach who were playing a very cautious 5-4-1 formation. Fortunately, on the bench they had Eloy Campos – a flair player who brightened up the attack as soon as he came on, providing the opportunity for leading goalscorer Timo Rosner to score three minutes later, and then adding the second goal, five minutes from time. The crowd was a little better than the previous day, with 300 present, and I felt it was thoroughly worth the €4 admission fee. The club could well get itself into position for another promotion, in which case its proximity to Ryanair’s Hahn Airport hub could see it becoming popular with travelling groundhoppers.

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My Luxembourg league match was at Grevenmacher, only just across the border from Germany. An athletics event in the afternoon had led to the fixture being changed from the standard afternoon kick off to early evening. The ground was similar to that of Petange, in so far as it consisted of a single main stand, while the rest of the pitch surrounds (around an athletics track) were level standing. The main difference was that it is somewhat larger, and the stand while being blander in appearance, was far more suited to a crowd. The setting is quite attractive, with the ground quite a distance up the side of the hill above the Mosel river. This means the heavy industry along the river cannot be seen, but instead on gets a clear view to the vineyards on the hills the other side of the river (and hence incidentally in Germany) The crowd was a fraction under 800 and they were given a treat of a game, with both sides adopting attacking formations and going at their opponents from the start. Within 10 minutes both had opened their own accounts, and were fighting hard for the lead.

Grevenmacher established themselves as regular challengers for the title in the 1990s, when the leading club in Luxembourg were Jeunnesse Esch (the visitors for my match). They have now played in Europe 9 times, but have beaten KR Reykjavik, HJK Helsinki and Anorthosis Famagusta all at home, but always lost out on aggregate. In 2003, they won the title for the first (and so far only time), and added the Luxembourg cup as well. The visitors, Jeunnesse Each were the country’s leading team in the country for a long while, but of their 27 championships, they have managed only one (2004) since the millennium. They have featured in Europe on 30 occasions, 19 times in the top competition, and have won two ties.

Even though the league cannot be better than semi-professional, none of the teams involved are made up entirely of Luxembourgers. A variety of other players either cross the borders to play in this league, or maybe are already in the Grand Duchy for other reasons. While the neighbours (French, German and Belgium) make up the biggest part of the mix, there are a number of East Europeans, a smattering of South Americans, and Differdange appear to have more than a fair share of Portuguese.

It was one of the Portuguese, Bruno Ribeiro who had scored for Differdange, while at Grevenmacher, a German (with a Turkish name) opened the scoring for the team on the German border, while the team from the French border equalised by way of a Frenchman. Still it was a local that put Grevenmacher ahead again for the break. The same player concluded the scoring seven minutes from time, but only after another German had increased the home side’s lead, and an Italian had pulled a goal back!
A couple of years ago, there was speculation that a Luxembourg side would be allowed to join the Belgium league – staring in the second division. As with the speculation over Scottish sides joining the football league, the details (especially what happens in the case of relegation) have never been properly worked through. Unlike the Scottish example, there is no proof that a Luxembourg team could pull the crowds in. Where any sort of changes would leave the European competitions remains to be seen, although Luxembourg may point to Wales and say that teams from the league that is left should remain in competition through the league, and also point to Liechtenstein in the hope of keeping the side playing in Belgium in sight of a place, should they win the cup. (The Liechtenstein team remains unique as it is the only team in Europe that represents a country other than the one it plays league football in, Welsh teams in England, along with AC San Marino appear not to play in their home domestic cups). Until something changes Luxembourg appears destined to remain a backwater among footballing countries.