Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Norway — Cyprus (20-06-2023)

I take the tram from the Central Station to Ullevål Stadion and along the way more fans join. When we arrive at the stadium, roughly 45 minutes before the 8.45 PM kick-off, there is a very good crowd.
Fortunately, everyone has their tickets printed out, so when I make it to the ticket office, there is virtually no one there. I ask for “a ticket” and get one for NOK 400 (ca. $37,50), not bad for an official game of the national team (particularly in such an expensive country as Norway). The ticket itself is bare minimum.
Ullevaal Stadion looks like a mall from the outside and has some shops built into the outside. It opened in 1926 and has long been the home ground of the two major teams from Oslo, FK Lyn, which left in 2009, and Vålerenga IF, which left in 2017. Now it is owned by the Norwegian Football Association and the stadium of the national stadium. With a capacity of about 28,000, it is the biggest stadium in the country.
Today’s game is an official qualifier for the UEFA EURO 2024, to be played in Germany, between Norway and Cyprus. Despite the fact that Norway has just one point after three games, it is very busy. Official attendance is 23,643. The audience is typical for national team games in Europe: cross class, but disproportionate upper middle class, very white, quite a lot of girls, women and families, and mostly people who never go to the stadium for a club game (perhaps sometimes an EPL game on vacation). The audience is also quite young.
Norway will dominate the whole game and Cyprus makes it clear why they haven’t won a game yet. In the 5th minute, a Norway corner is headed from close range but bounces over the goal. Four minutes later a Norway player gets the ball free in the middle of the box but his half volley is saved by the goalie. And another minute later a mess up in the Cyprus defense gives Norway another big chance that is saved in two attempts by the (good) goalie. But two minutes later, a cross goes just over the incredibly high jumping Haaland, but behind him is a player who drop shots it hard in the far corner: 1-0.
It gets quite pedestrian after the goal. Norway has about 80% possession but plays predictable, slow, and without any individual actions… yet, as I write this on my phone, another clever pass to Haaland leads to an incredibly hard shot from the bounce but the goalie saves — it’s offside anyway. I honestly think I have no one ever seen shoot as hard as Haaland. Half time score: 1-0.
In the 50th minute Norway gets its first chance of the second half: as Haaland goes down and claims a foul, another player misses a perfect opportunity, free in front of the goal, by heading the ball wide. Despite having one of the best midfielders (Ødegaard) and the undisputed best striker in the world (Haaland), Norway is a very mediocre team.
In the 55th minute a clumsy handball after a corner leads to a Norway penalty. Haaland scores calmly: 2-0. About five minutes later, we finally see a Haaland moment: perfect start at a perfect pass and a cool finish: 3-0. First real good attack that leads to goal. After a lukewarm performance, but with two goals as his already record-breaking tally, Haaland now seems motivated again, I guess to score a hattrick.
Cyprus is really, really poor. Worst than I had expected. They get their first somewhat of a chance in the 72nd minute, a shot that goes far wide. In the 87th minute, a calm, low Norway shot from just inside the box goes wide. And then, with practically the last kick of the game, in the third minute of extra time, Cyprus scores out of nowhere, after a clever through ball and a cool finish: 3-1. That is also the final score.
Overall, this was a classic official international game. A happy audience of people who rarely go to games, are not hostile to the opponent, and entertain themselves even when the football is poor. Ullevaal Stadion doesn’t look much from the outside, but is pretty nice inside, and was almost sold out. Nice convenient hop!

Hammerfest IF Stein — Tromsø IL 2 (18-06-2023)

Hammerfest, a town in Norway, is the most northern settlement with more than 10,000 people. It is also, allegedly, the most northern place in the world where official football games are being played. So, I decided to drive there from Stockholm, approximately 1,600 km (or 1,000 miles), by way of games in Umeå and Luleå.
I arrive in Hammerfest more than 1.5 hour early for the 4 PM kick-off, so I decide to make a quick visit to the old stadium, the Breidabikk Stadion in Rypefjord, just outside of Hammerfest. And “stadium” is a big word here.
Since 2022 Hammerfest plays its home games in the brand new Vår Energi Arena, an indoor Astroturf ground that has place for just 500 people on just one side of the pitch. Although it is indoors, it is also remarkably cold… in fact, colder than outside!
I pay 100 NOK (or $9.50) to get in and get sort of a ticket. I go back to my car to get my jacket and take a seat on one of the ca. 25 plastic seats — the rest is just wooden bench.
It’s pretty busy at the game, particularly given that it is nice weather by local standards (14 C and sunny). The audience is quite young, mostly men, but a few larger groups of girls too (some might play for the girls team). Although I saw a lot of non-white people downtown, there are few in the stands and none on the pitch (one non-white player comes in for Hammerfest in the 79th minute). A significant people wear club gear that indicates they play for the team at some level — few have fan gear.
The game is in the Norsk Tipping Ligaen, Afd 6 (Sixth Division). Hammerfest IF Stein) is a merger of two local teams, founded in 1991. They play the second team of Tromsø IL, whose first team plays in the Eliteserien (First Division).
The first half decent chance occurs in the 12th minute, when a a hard shot by the hosts goes wide and high. A few minutes later, a Hammerfest corner should have been headed in but is weak and wide and the ensuing shot is wild and wide. Two minutes later a long H free kick is headed back and hit weak from close range and then saved by defender.
It is a game between hard work and strong physique (Hammerfest) and high pace and good passing but no final pass (Tromsø). Tromsø 2 looks like the under-21 team of the club: young, fast, technical, but missing the height and strength of lower league Norwegian football. Still, in the 31st minute, the guests have a well-executed counter attack that is finished from close range: 0-1. This is also the half time score.
The second half continues with physical work by Hammerfest and fast counters by Tromsø with a lot of fouls and very few chances. In the 58th minute the ball drops in front of a Tromsø player inside of the box who hits the crossbar. Two minutes later a quick counter through the middle leads to a surprising win in a sprint for the fairly heavy Hammerfest striker, who then shoots a bit weak at the goal, which is saved by the gaolie.
In the 70th and 78th minute a Tromsø goal is disallowed for offside; in both cases the correct decision but particularly the second one was a beautiful attack. After that, there is no more goals and 0-1 is the final score.
Indoor football, rather than futsal, remains really weird, but it does make perfect sense in Hammerfest. Was it worth the drive? Well, yes, because it is the most northern place to play official football. But in terms of stadium, football, or ambiance, it was less remarkable.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Bergnåsets AIK — Sandviks IK (17-06-2023)

I arrive at the ground of Bergnåsets AIK (BAIK) over an hour before the 2 PM kick-off, just to make sure I am at the right place and they actually play. After having confirmed that, I go to downtown Luleå to raid some food trucks.
Upon returning 30 minutes before kick-off, I see players warm up and even hear some distant music. Somewhat surprisingly, I have to pay (SEK 60 or $5.60), but of course I don’t get a ticket. The game is in the Division 2 Norrland, which is actually the Sixth Division in Sweden, and both Umeå FC and Piteå Ik are mid-table.
The Bergsvallen “stadium” is part of a sport park and constitutes of a small, old, wooden bleacher on part of one long side. There are almost 100 people, a lot of younger guys, some seem to play for the team at other levels.
It is again a surprisingly warm day, roughly 21 C, but the wind makes it a bit cold at times (perfect to play though). Both teams have a lot of young players and the whole refereeing team is very young. In the 3th minute the hosts have an enormous chance but the striker hits it well over the goal from about 5 meters. After another BAIK chance, a S free kick is missed by everyone in the box until a player puts the tip of his foot against it and scores: 0-1.
In the 21st minute, after the game is halted for a long injury break, the hosts score a great free kick from just outside of the box: 1-1. A stunner! Overall, though, the game is a lot of complaining, falling, and high balls to nowhere. After another BAIK free kick is deflected on the crossbar, they do score again, in the 45th minute, after the ball bounces up in the box and the striker shoots it hard in the goal with a half volley. 2-1 is also the half time score.
The second half is just blunt (physical) and includes a lot of smaller and bigger fouls. As a consequence, almost no good soccer is played. Overall, really annoying. In the 60th minute, a slow and low Sandviks shot from outside the box just rolls through players and the goalie let’s it go, but, luckily for him, it ends up on the post.
In the 77th minute the hosts finally have a good attack again, which is finished hard and low in the far corner: 3-1. Five minutes later, a BAIK corner is cleared but brought back well and headed into the goal from 5 meter: 4-1. That would also be the final score.
In the end, it is an easy win for the home team, but it was overall pretty dismal soccer. Too many long high balls, too physical challenges, dives and complaints. The ground is minimal but the tower-shaped kiosk gives it some flair.

Umeå FC — Piteå IF (16-06-2023)

I have driven some 7 hours north of Stockholm to get to Umeå, where I’ll see the local FC in the Ettan Fotboll (Third Division). But when I arrive at the ground, 45 minutes before kick-off, I panic. There is no one! There is no music or other sound.
I walk to the stadium and see that the entrance is open. I ask the older guy at the entrance whether Umeå FC plays tonight and he says “yes” and that entrance is free. At this time, there are only some 25 people.
The Umeå Energi Arena (originally Gammliavallen) sounds like a horrible soulless building but it is in fact a gorgeous stadium with a capacity of 6,000 (although Wikipedia is inconsistent on this across pages), with two stands on the long sides, one low, one a bit higher, made from wood.
They play on artificial turf, which makes sense given the climate. Allegedly, the stadium was built in 1925 but it looks very new. The stadium is shared between three soccer teams: Umeå FC, Umeå IK (top tier women’s team) and Team TG FF, which plays in Division 1 Nord. We are roughly one-third into the 2023 season and Umeå FC is 7th and Piteå IF 12th in the Ettan. Piteå is about 200 km, or 2.5 hours, north of Umeå but I don’t think there are any away fans. Most people in the stadium don’t wear any gear of any soccer team.
It is exceptionally warm in Umeå this evening: some 24 C and even hotter in the sun. This explains why most of the 1,000 people sit on the big stand which gets all the sun. The fans are white and male, overall a bit older.
In the 7th minute the guests have the first chance, but it goes just wide. In the 25th minute, another half chance for Piteå, but the half volley goes straight at the goalie. Three minutes later, a poor pass forward is deflected by a Piteå defender and the goalie, who is running towards to original pass, slips, and the ball rolls into the goal from 20 meter: 1-0. Comedy of errors.
Only in the 35th minute the hosts have their first shot on goal, but it literally goes straight at the goalie. The play is very slow, predictable, and risk averse. Consequently, the half time score is 1-0, to a weak applause from the audience. Overall, the atmosphere is cozy rather than heavily invested in the game.
The second half starts with a big chance for the guests, but the goalie saves at the post.The game is getting really bad now. Piteå attacks, kind of, and Umeå just kicks the ball far away. Very dire. This notwithstanding, the (ca. 25) ultras put on a pyro show.
In the 65th minute, Umeå finally attacks, but the finish is hard at the goalie. In the next minutes there is some pressure from the hosts, leading to several corners. A free kick from just outside of the box is placed low but just wide.
There is now a true onslaught of Umeå corners but none challenge the goalie. In contrast, some of their shots do. Piteå seems perfectly content with the 0-1 lead.
There is some drama in the extra time. First, a desperate Piteå attack ends with a shot at the goalie. Next, in the last attach of the game, Umeå sees a wild shot hit the crossbar from inside the box. Final score: 0-1.
Despite the dire quality of play, I really loved this hop. Sure, the weather helped, but the stadium, despite its modern name, is a true beauty. Go see it!

Monday, June 19, 2023

WAF Vorwärts Brigittenau – Favoritner AC (11-06-2023)

I arrived in Vienna on a Saturday evening, wanting to see a game, but an hour delay and horrible weather make me decide to stay at the hotel. The next morning, however, it is game on. I meet a local groundhopper at the main station and set off for the 20th district on the other side of the Danube.
The small ground (WAF Gruabn) is inside a residential neighborhood, with some mid-high rises, but surrounded by an ugly solid fence. We enter and pay €9 each and join an already pretty serious crowd about fifteen minutes before the 11.15 AM kick-off.
Today’s game is in the Wiener Stadtliga (Fourth Division), the highest local league in the capital city. WAF Vorwärts Brigittenau is a small team with a very local base, which is near the bottom of the league, and plays Favoritner AC, a club with a stories past, which even played in the top flight in the 1980s.
I estimate that there are some 150-200 people, with perhaps half from the visitors. Both teams and supporter groups are very diverse. Favoritner AC seems to have a strong Serbian contringent on the pitch and in the stand.
In the 2nd minute, the first attack of Favortiner is finished hard from inside the box: 0-1. The visitors overwhelms the hosts and after yet another attack, in the 6th minute, a well-placed shot from outside of the box goes in: 0-2.
The guests remain the dominant team. The quality of play is remarkably high, particularly the passing and technique of the Favoritner players. In the 35the minute, a brilliantly executed attack leads to yet another well-placed long shot: 0-3! This is also the half time score.
At half time I decide to visit the small grill to get some essential protein. Fully in line with the audience, they have several types of sausages and cevapcici, little minced meat “fingers” originally from former Yugoslavia. I chose the Bratwurst, however, which is on point.
In the second half the visitors are less dominant in second half. The only create a few half chances. In 68th minute, the guests have their best chance yet, when the ball is headed well wide.
In the 81st minute, WAF commits a clumsy foul inside of the box. Although the fouled player wants to take the penalty kick, he gives the ball to another player, who scores through the goalie, which seems to be his 200th goal. 0-4 is also the final score.
This was an incredible hop, thanks to the company, the weather, but also the local charm of the Wiener Stadtliga. I will definitely try to see more games in this league when I have the chance.