Thursday, October 04, 2007

Groundhopweekend September 2007

Just over one year since our last groundhopweekend, 15-17 September 2006, which brought us to Germany and Poland, it was time for my brother and I to hit the road again. As we all get older and more quickly tired, we decided to be less ambitious and circle the surrounding countries. After all, there is plenty to see here.

US Boulogne Côte d’Opale – Stade de Reims (28-09-2007)

Although I often look for French teams that play at roughly two hours from Antwerp, the Union Sportive de Boulogne Côte d’Opale had remained below my radar until I was looking for a game to start this weekend with. It turns out that the team belongs to the oldest in France, founded in 1898, having been a semi-finalist in the Coup de France in 1937! It got promoted to the Championnat National (Third Division) in 2005 and to the Ligue 2 (Second Division) in 2006.

Supporters Pub

After an easy drive of just over two hours we arrived in Boulogne sur Mer, the biggest fish port of France, as billboards everywhere tell you, and home to the Stade de la Libération, home of the US Boulogne Côte d’Opale. As the weather had been instable, we decided to buy tickets for the Tribune Sud, at 10 euro per person.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the Stade de la Libération has only two covered stands, and the “Tribune Sud” is an uncovered emergency stand spanning the side behind one goal (behind the other goal there is no stand at all). It can take 7.000 people, most of them at the two (very different) covered stands on the long sides of the pitch. In short, the stadium is no beauty, and the track around the pitch makes it even worse. This was the view from my seat.

As the loyal reader will know by now, much of these (small) disappointments can be compensated by the offering of good snacks, and this they did. Every French stadium will provide frites and sandwiches, which can be combined in the americains. However, while in most instances the fries are undercooked and soaking in fat (English style, ironically), they were crispy and tasty here. Well done! The merguez sausage, undoubtedly the main Maghreb contribution to French cuisine, was unconventional but spicy. Add to that the wonders of samourai sauce, which normally can only be sampled in Belgium, and you have a very happy Grondhopper!

I estimate that there were some 2.000-2.500 spectators this Friday evening. The most fanatic home fans are on the East Stand, but are divided into two groups: the Ultras Boulonnais (see above) and the US Corsaires (according to the banner). While their songs are far from original, they do bring quite a decent atmosphere to the game. They could even improve, if they would sing with (or to) rather than against each other. Only some 35 fans had made the 270km trip from Reims to Boulogne sur Mer to support their team.

The game was I guess what you can expect of a battle (struggle?) between two mid-table teams in the Ligue 2. Still, it took till the 20th minute for the first shot at goal (of the home team). The first real chance was for the visitors, however, but the shot from 11 meters was well saved by the home goalie. Directly afterward Boulogne forced the Reims goalie to a safe, after which it took until the 42nd minute for the next chance, a diverted free-kick from 18 meters of Reims. Half-time: 0-0.

Having circled the ground during half-time, we decided to watch the second half at the fairly crowded East Stand. The game remained poor, but Reims clearly had the best of it with a header just wide and a shot at the crossbar. This changed in the 65th minute, however, when a Reims defender held a lone Boulogne player and was correctly sent off. While this made the home team the stronger side, they remained weak in their passing.

Surprisingly, they were further helped by the Reims coach, who substituted his two most creative players and thereby killed any ambition at scoring. This notwithstanding, it would be the visitors who got the next good chance, in the 74th minute, but missed from 5 meter. From then on the supporter in front of me said “ooh-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaa” at almost every touch of the ball by Reims.

Fortunately for him, and us actually, Reims would not touch much in the last minutes of the game. The only man working his ass off was the Reims goalie, who made two great safes in the last two minutes of the game. Making himself up for a celebration as the man of the match in the Reims bus, he completely misread a weak shot from ca. 35 meters and fumbled it into his own goal: 1-0 in the 92nd minute! An amazing ending to a highly uneventful game.

Somewhat frustrated by the undeserved victory of US Boulogne, we walked back to our car to drive the roughly 250 km to our hotel around Charleroi (Belgium), which would bring us roughly halfway our next game at 14.00 on Saturday.

SV 07 Elversberg – FSV LU-Oggersheim (29-09-2007)

Having still 300 km to drive, we woke up at a reasonable hour, got some croissants at a local market, and drove to Spiessen-Elversberg in the German Saarland. We arrived almost an hour before kick-off, visited the Russian supermarket of Elversberg, and than parked just opposite the Waldstadion Kaiserlinde, home of the Sportvereinigung 07 Elversberg.

Although the stadium looks much less professional than the Stadion de la Libération, it also holds a maximum of 7.000 and has two covered stands (though they are much smaller). Although SV Elversberg has “07” in its name, this is somewhat dishonest. True, the FV Germania Elversberg was founded in 1907, but it was dissolved in 1914, and the current club is the successor to the Sportvereigung VfB Elversberg, founded in 1918 (to be even more accurate, they seceded from the successor in 1952!). Until 1996 the club mainly played at the amateur level, but since then they have been a stable member of the Regionalliga (Third Division).

The professionalism can be most noted in their prices: we paid 18 euro for a seat on the only stand that they sold tickets for (the other one is exclusively for VIPs, according to the stewards). So far this season, the club hasn’t been able to draw more than 1.000 people to their home games, and today was no exception. I estimate that there were some 500 spectators, including the “Black White Army Elversberg” behind the goal.

The opponents of the FSV LU-Oggersheim come from Ludwigshafen (hence LU), a city at ca. 117 km from Spiessen-Elversberg. As this is a short distance according to German standards, some 100 away fans had made the trip to support their team. Most away fans sat with us, but the small ‘hardcore’ stood behind one of the goals, and behind an unreadable banner, bravely facing their ‘enemies’ behind the other goal.

What can one expect from a game between the umbers 15 and 18 of the Regionalliga Süd? Exactly, mediocre and overpriced football, and good and inexpensive sausages! And this game was no exception to this general rule. Although the game started well, with a shot at goal by Elversberg in the 1st minute, it soon deteriorated. That said, there were quite some exciting moment, at least in the first half. For example, in the 13th minute Elversberg missed from 5 meters, and two minutes later a great chance for Oggersheim was stopped for offside (which it was not). Equally notable was the fact that the visitors had to make two substitutions in the first 20 minutes because of injuries.

I decided to circle the ground, as far as possible, to take some pictures from different angles. Among other things, I came across a true old-school German fan (see below) and found, despite stewards had told me I wouldn’t, a “fan shop” (in fact, a table with some items stashed away in a kind of tent annex cantina) where I bought a pin and a small banner for my brother and me.

From the reactions around us, it seemed even a poor game for local standards. As many other fans I looked for comfort at the sausage stand, which, as usual in Germany, didn’t disappoint. At 2 euro a sausage with bread, you cannot go wrong easily, but both sausages I ate (einmal Weiss, einmal Rot) were excellent! Anyway, half-time (again) 0-0.

Again, the second half started promising, but deteriorated rapidly. Within the first ten minutes Elversberg missed from close range twice, once with a shot and once with a header (after a beautiful pass with the outside of the foot). After that we were only entertained by the ‘overcoaching’ of the Oggersheim coach, although I don’t think it was much appreciated by his players, and a comical run-in between the keeper and central defender. In the 72nd minute a good double one-two pass was poorly finished by the home team. When T.M. and I were already convinced that we would see our first 0-0, Elversberg actually scored with a header from a corner kick: 1-0.

This created some activities from both sides, including a horrible finishing of a great chance for the home team and a strong shot (with ditto safe) from the visitors. In the 86th minute Elversberg scores the 2-0, this time a header after a free-kick. At that time we also notice that Oggersheim is playing with ten men, probably the result of a fourth injured player and no more (allowed) substitutions – as we didn’t see a red card (and, yes, we did look). After a last ditch attempt by the visitors, a header just over the goal, the referee ended this rather poor game: 2-0.

(As they didn’t have a scoreboard, there is no picture of the final score)

While leaving the small parking lot opposite the stadium, we were approached by a guy who needed a ride back to Saarbrücken, which was on our route anyway, so we dropped this self-declared “Fussball Freak” off at his home, and continued our drive to the second game of the day: kick-off at 20.00 in Troyes.

ESTAC Troyes – Clermont Foot (29-09-2007)

After a drive of just over 3 hours, and roughly 330 km, we arrived well in time in the picturesque French town of Troyes. Here the awkwardly named Espérance Sportive Troyes Aube Champagne, ESTAC or ES Troyes AC, plays in the beautiful Stade de l’Aube. ESTAC was founded only in 1986 and was forced to change its original name, Association Troyes Aube Champagne (ATAC), in 2000, to prevent legal problems with the French supermarket chain ATAC. Since 1996 the club has been yoyo-ing between the two top flights of French football.

The Stade de l’Aube was inaugurated in 1924 and has been changed many times since. The current stadium was finished in 2004 and can hold 21.877 people; so far, it never did. It has a stunning front, with tingling lights on match nights, and provides a professional but pleasant home for a football club like Troyes.

Tickets were very decently priced: we decided to sit at the upper level behind one of the goals for 11 euro. While the club also has a well-stocked boutique (fan shop), the merchandise was horrible and reminded us of the Dutch neo-team FC Omniworld. No class, no tradition! And even worse, no pins or (serious) banners.

Slightly disappointed we walked to our end of the stadium, where we were welcomed by young girls with free mini-croissants and a couple of stands with snacks. Never changing a winning team, I went again for the americain merguez and was again not left wanted (although this time the sausages were far superior to the fries). While enjoying the food, I watched a somewhat shabby performance by the local cheerleaders and a more impressive unraveling of the banners of the Troyes ‘ultras’.

ESTAC relegated from the Ligue 1 (First Division) last season and wants to get back as soon as possible. Everything seems in place for it, as the ground is professional and the following seems loyal and supportive. Tonight’s game was between the numbers 4 (ESTAC) and the number 10 (Clermont Foot Auvergne) of the Ligue 2 (Second Division). The stadium was roughly two-thirds full, with a remarkable number of children; the official site speaks of 17,404 spectators. Only a handful of supporters had made the ca. 375 km from Clermont-Ferrand to support their team.

The level of play was not much different from our Friday game in Boulogne sur Mer, despite the far more professional surrounding. While ESTAC got several smaller and larger chances, I was far from impressed by their game. They seemed uncoordinated and even when they combined it seemed luck rather than plan. As if it was meant to be, the half-time score was once again 0-0.

While we were discussing whether this would be a game with either no goals or only a sneaky goal in the last minute, as at Boulogne, the away team got a corner, the home goalie completely missed the ball, and a Clermont player scored with his back. To be fair, it seemed also the only way they would be able to score, but this didn’t change the fact that the second half had just started and the home team were 1-0 down.

Now the game really started, and Troyes finally created some chances. One of the most notable was in the 52nd minute, when a striker took the ball with his right foot, turned away from his defender, and in one move shot at goal with his left foot. In the 54th minute it finally paid off, although through a somewhat surprising dry shot from 20 meters in the low corner: 1-1.

The equalizer was followed by several minutes of very offensive football with chances on both sides. Unfortunately, after the 60th minute the game became poorer again. One exception to the general poor quality was a beautiful attack with a one-two pass, a great dribble, and a strong finishing in the far corner: 2-1 for ESTAC in the 68th minute. Two minutes later Clermon hit the post, but after that it was all ESTAC that played. Although positionally weak, they did create various chances, but failed to seal the game. And as can only happen in football, as the cliché goes, they paid the price for it. In the 91st minute a defender touched the ball with his hand and the referee was left with no other choice than to give Clermont a penalty: 2-2.

The frustration around us was huge. Although the Troyes crowd don’t seem to be ‘success supporters’, they do not handle disappointment well. It is clear, both the club and its supporters want to get back to the First Division and accept no failure! Though not impressed by their team, ESTAC does seem to have at the very least the infrastructure to get back to the French top flight. Still, if they could invest a little bit more in their logo and merchandise, all of us would benefit!

After a relaxing night in the cheap but clean Etap hotel in downtown Troyes, and a tasty breakfast of artisan breads and croissants, we got in our car to drive the roughly 300 km to our fourth and last game of the weekend in Hautcharage, Luxembourg.

UN Käerjéng ’97 – RFCU Lëtzebuerg (30-09-2007)

After a short search in the tiny village of Hautcharage, we parked our car truly next to the stadium (roughly 5 meters and 1 fence from the pitch). Having arrived almost one hour before kick-off (16.00), we were among the first to enter the Stade Hautcharage, one of two ‘stadiums’ of the fusion-club. UN Käerjéng ’97 is a merger of US Bascharage, from “Low Charage”, and FC Jeunesse Hautcharage, from “High Charage”, and exists exactly 10 years. Clearly, its high point was this summer, when they played the ‘huge’ Standard de Liège from Belgium in the UEFA Cup, as virtually all their fan gear was made for that game.

We had bought a (generic) ticket for 7 euro and made our way to the one stand, literally, to see whether there were any souvenirs to be bought. The cantina was a classic, quite similar to the one at Avenir Beggen, small and full of banners and posters of famous games. It also had a special part for VIPs and press (I particularly like the “Golden-Card Invitees”).

Somewhat surprised by outsiders, the friendly people told us that there was an actual fan shop. After having forced my brother to take a picture of me in the dug-out, which didn’t seem to bother anyone, we walked over to the fan shop, which indeed was there and open. However, getting a banner was a far from simple task, despite the huge willingness of the extremely friendly people, and a pin was completely impossible. (Having only one pin from four games, i.e. from SV Elversberg, was a huge disappointment for my brother; I did much better with 3 out of 4, only Boulogne didn’t deliver, despite having a big fan shop… in town).

As had been forecasted, the Sunday was a beautiful summery day, so we could enjoy the game while standing (most of the time) in a pleasant sunshine and some 20 degrees. Given that the stadium has only a tiny covered stand, one wonders how it is to watch a game here in mid-Winter. Probably the small cantina will be even fuller; though this time some 30 people were sitting all second half inside to watch the World Cup Cycling (an indication of the quality of play on the pitch?).

Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about that. With such great weather, even my very long wait for what turned out to be a quite mediocre sausage, as the baker hadn’t delivered his bread, couldn’t spoil the fun. This was football as I used to watch at my Dutch amateur team (VVO), which by now probably has a better stadium and much more spectators. This sunny Sunday afternoon (officially) 290 people had made it to the game, of which at least 90 had come the 17,5 km from the capital city to support Racing FC Union Lëtzebuerg, another fusion club in the Fortis Ligue, Luxembourg’s First Division.

Now, I know I have said this before, and you are free to doubt me on this, but if I would still be 18-25 (oooh, the good old days), I could have easily played in this game! In fact, there was a (English?) player in the visitor’s side who would never have made it into the first team of VVO! I guess that says enough about the level of play that afternoon. The first half showed little noteworthy (on the pitch) except for a dumb foul that was penalized with a penalty: 0-1. For the rest, it was just enjoying the sun and hanging out.

Not surprising, the second half was much the same. I guess you could say that RFCU Lëtzebuerg had the better team, although even this is relative. In any case, the most enjoyable part of the whole game was watching the coach of the visitors discuss virtually everything with everyone (e.g. linesmen, players, referee, supporters). At least he was much more positive than his colleague from Ogersheim, as his main remarks was “c’est ne pas grave” (it’s not bad/a problem), irrespective of how horrible the action of the player had been.

Despite some isolated chances and commotion, 0-1 was the best either team could do. Surprisingly, the visitors were very happy with the result, even though they are second and Käerjéng are fighting relegation. Still, who could complain with such great weather and such nice people. Satisfied but tired we walked out of the stadium, entered our car, and drove home. It had been a weekend with poor football, but good snacks. To be fair, none of the teams really caught my heart, and I guess US Boulogne was the most fun. But with good company and weather, and four new scalps under my belt, I don’t complain!

Video of the Ground

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