Friday, December 29, 2006

Fortuna Sittard-Helmond Sport (22-12-2006)

Less than ten days before the end of 2006, my mates A.H., J.B. and I met up at Leuven railway station to make our last groundhop of the year. But not before we had sampled the goods of Frituur Luc in Holsbeek, definitely one of the best snack bars in Belgium. Full with satisfaction and snacks, we drove the fairly easy 100 km to Sittard in Limburg, the most southeastern province of the Netherlands, where we arrived just in time for the game.

Fortuna Sittard is not a well-known team in Dutch professional football today, but the club has a famous history. In 1968 two clubs from the area merged, Sittardia and Fortuna’54 (from Geleen). Fortuna was the first professional football club in the Netherlands and has twice won the Dutch Cup (KNVB Beker)! The fusion club Fortuna Sittard has played for many years in the Dutch eredivisie (premier league) and has had some famous players – even in the 1990s players like Kevin Hofland (now VFL Wolfsburg) and Mark Van Bommel (formerly PSV and Barcelona, now Bayern München) played at Fortuna under coach Bert Van Marwijk (later Feyenoord, now Borussia Dortmund). But these glory days are long gone. The last years the club has cheated bankruptcy a couple of times, but financial problems remain. Not withstanding the financial problems of Fortuna Sittard, the club moved in 1998 from the destitute De Baandert stadium to a modern 12.500 seater at the outskirts of town. Tellingly, in 2005 the club had to sell the very modern Wagner en Partners Stadion to a project developer to save its existence.

We bought a ticket for Tribune C at 10 euro a piece and took a place at the center of the pitch. There were some 2.300 supporters scattered around the stadium, with an estimated 50-100 from Helmond. Although the “hardcore” home fans were with few, they did show some nice banners.

Around us where some people in the Christmas spirit, which they also really needed that evening.

As Ronse-Waregem the week before, Fortuna-Helmond was a game between the bottom two of the first division, i.e. the Dutch eerste divisie (or in good Dutch “Jupiler League”). The fact that A.H. and I watched the bottom two of the Dutch and Belgian league play within one week also enabled us to compare the two leagues a bit: the Dutch league turned out to be both better and (much) more professional. The Wagner and Partner Stadion, for example, would make many a Belgian Eerste Klasse team jealous. Also in terms of technique and pace the Dutch game was a lot better; in part helped by the fact that both teams had various ex-players from the youth programs of top teams (notably PSV).

While the game was entertaining at times, it was again a fan behind us that made the evening. This time it was a not a voice of irony and nuance, but thé most biased fan I have ever heard. And that, I can assure you, is not an easy job! This guy saw every attack of Helmond as off-side, counted at least fifteen handballs (all for Helmond, obviously), and endlessly called for yellow cards (except the one time a Helmond player got a yellow card, when he demanded a red card :-). He was sitting next to his mother or wife (we couldn’t tell), who not just tolerated him, but actually encouraged him in his overly expressive supportering. My high point was when he, at the end of the game, declared to her in all earnestness, that Fortuna could have been 12-1 up already (in fact, they could have been at best 1-2 down).

Anyway, the game was entertaining, but not really good. Fortuna might have had the better squad, Helmond had the better players. Particularly two of the strikers were too good for the home defenders and created havoc at times. Unfortunately for them, they had little if any support from the midfield, and therefore the 0-0 half time score was deserved. After a cup of weak coffee, but anything hot was appreciated in the winter cold, we returned (to the exact same spot, obviously), to see Helmond unexpectedly score the 0-1. With still 40 minutes to go, everyone still believed Fortuna would come back (our fan behind us disputed the goal and was disgusted by the ‘fact’ that the home team hadn’t scored its many chances). Notwithstanding the last glitches of optimism among the much tormented Fortuna fans, the game remained 0-1.

The last minutes the Fortuna players vented their frustration by fouls and a phenomenal fight on the pitch; which also saw an impressive right hook from one of the
Helmond players).

Directly after the game we made our way to the car for our drive back. Somehow, I feel I would have enjoyed De Baandert more. Still, it would be a shame to see a club like Fortuna Sittard disappear and I sincerely hope they will finally get their act together. At about 23.00 A.H. and J.B. dropped me off in Antwerp. My last groundhop of a very successful year. Groundhop-tally at the end of 2006: 257 clubs in 35 countries. Ambition for the end of 2007: 270 in 36 countries! Watch this space!

SK Ronse Renaix – RC Waregem (17-12-2006)

As I wanted to finish this top groundhopping year in style, I decided to see two more games with my grounhop-buddies: both between the number last and second from bottom in the first division. On Sunday 17 December the Japanese Übergroundhopper A.H. joined me for a trip to the language border of Belgium: Ronse-Renaix. We met at Ghent Sint-Pieter railway station to take the (two-hourly) train to Ronse, where we arrived hours before the game. It was a cold but clear winter day and we spent a couple of hours walking through the picturesque Flemish town, enjoying the Christmas atmosphere (including a Christmas stall with live animals, see below), and buying some family gifts at the Christmas market.

Some 30 minutes before the start of the game we arrived at the Stade O Crucke Stadion (underscoring the bilingual character of the club). We bought a ticket for the Tribune A-B-D-E at 15 euro a piece at the wooden “ticket office” and made our way to the cantina in the hope to find some food. Unfortunately, this must be the only stadium in Belgium that does not sell any snacks, not even the obligatory sausages and hamburgers! A bad start!

Somewhat hungry we took a place at the main stand and prepared ourselves mentally for a game between the numbers 17 and 18 of the Belgian Tweede Klasse. I guess that there were some 300 people in the stadium. The setting was as expected: amateurism everywhere. We were particularly charmed by the groundsman, whom we learned from cheering around us was called Cyrille, who kept the official balls in a laundry basket.

Other interesting aspects of the SK Ronse ground were the fact that the pitch was not level, but rather hyperbolic, the small cement building (with the name of main sponsor Bocova on it) with the police officers in it (who never came out), and the “Kantien” for the away supporters, which was basic, to say the least. All in all, a unique setting.



Now to the game itself. You might be surprised to read that the game was not of the highest quality. In fact, the pace was very low and the passing poor. The teams were equal in terms of quality and performance and neither had more than two decent players. Still, it was quite entertaining to watch. And it was made even more rewarding by the commentary of the fans behind us; clearly locals and lifelong SK Ronse supporters. One in particular had us laughing over an over again, with his ironic comments on players, referee, and everything else. All in good spirit (so lacking at the stands of many big teams). Anyway, this was all appreciated the more as the half time score was 0-0 and there was no reason it should have been anything different.

At half time we escaped the stadium to visit the Frituur (snack bar) next door, which turned out to be closed… only for this short period of two weeks! Even more hungry and somewhat frozen we returned to the stand, made sure we sat again in front of the funny guy, and dived into the second half. This period the game did bring a winner, i.e. the home team, who scored twice, quite late in the game, to get a deserved 2-0 home victory against their main rival. This even satisfied our favorite fan behind us, and so we could all happily leave the stadium and get back to the winter cold.

We were just in time to get the train back to Ghent, which saved us a two hour wait, where A.H. and I parted ways. A. caught the train back to Leuven, whereas I decided to take a later train and sample some local food establishments in Ghent instead. Around 19.30 I arrived back in Antwerp, happy to have seen the battle of the bottom two of the Belgian Second Division

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hannover 96 – Arminia Bielefeld (9-12-2006)

Call me an addict, but I am not yet willing to close the groundhopping books for the year 2006. So, I convinced my buddy J.B. to go for another trip this Saturday, which wasn’t difficult at all. Presenting him with a list of options in Belgium, France, and Germany, he chose Eintracht Frankfurt-Werder Bremen. However, as the website said that there were only some 1000 seats left in the away stand, we decided to play it safe and go to Hannover 96 instead. I ordered tickets through their fantastic website, where you can even choose your exact seat: Südtribune, Block S13, Reihe 7, Platz 17 und 18 at 19 euro each (plus 1 euro booking costs).

At 8.30 I leave my house to walk to the station to take the train to
Leuven. At 10.00 J.B. meets me there and we start our long journey to Hannover, some 475 km, over the (mainly German) Autobahn. Hannover is the capital of the state Niedersachsen (Lower-Saxony), in the center-north of Germany. Fortunately, the weather is good and the road is not that busy, except for the (various) parts where they are working on the road, and we arrive in Hannover more than an hour before the start of the game. After a sample of snacks, including fresh Erbsensuppe (pea soup), which is a delight in the winter, we pick up our tickets at the Ticket Office, try to enter at the Nordtribune, and end up circling the stadium to get to our stand.

The AWD Stadion is one of the many modern stadiums in Germany. It is the completely refurbished Niedersachsenstadion, originally built in 1954, and was used during the World Cup 2006. It holds 48.933 spectators, although it is seldom sold-out. As most new stadiums today, it holds the name of the main sponsor and is high on comfort, but low on character. Hannover 96 is one of the most commercialized clubs I have ever visited though: food and drink in the stadium could only be paid with a special “Rote Karte” (Red Card), while every single event in the game was sponsored by someone, usually a local furniture shop (corner kicks, last 15 minutes, free kicks, last 5 minutes, etc.). At the same time, non-VIP supporters can only visit the main fan shop after the game! Fortunately I was able to buy a small pennant at a small fan shop at the Südtribune.

And, now that I am complaining about commercialization anyway, what is up with calling the team “Die Roten”?! Awful! Hannover 96 has traditionally the beautiful color combination of green-black-white (see its beautiful logo!) – hence the friendly relations with Borussia Mönchengladbach (who sport the same colors). However, since a few years Hannover has been playing in red-black and have been merchandizing themselves as “the reds”. I don’t know exactly why, but the fact that major sponsor Tui has red as its main color will not be a coincidence.

Ok, to the game now. We sat behind one of the goal, on the second tier, where we had a fantastic view over the seemingly broad pitch. There is no denying that the stadium is beautiful inside, even if the atmosphere is a bit stale. Not willing to buy into the “red card system”, we did have to watch the game drink- and Wurstless, however, which diminishes the Bundesliga experience (it also felt we were the only ones in the stadium who watched the game Wurstless ;-).

We were sitting almost next to the two blocks occupied by the away fans, but even around us at least one quarter of the fans were from Bielefeld (‘only’ 100 km away; this makes Hannover for them the closets away game; together with Dormund). As always, the atmosphere is a German stadium is friendly and pleasant, with supporters of different teams mingling without any problem. There were some 34.000 supporters for this game between two small teams that do relatively well this season (both hover around position 10 at this moment).

Unfortunately, they didn’t get a good game today. The first half remained 0-0 and there were virtually no good chances for either team. Jiri Snajder, the main player of Hannover, had an off-day, which meant the team had virtually no power up front – the Dutch player Arnold Bruggink, ex-PSV, as always excelled in technically beautiful passes and complete invisibility. At Bielefeld I hardly knew anyone – the Albania Vata didn’t play (he is probably getting too old, but he is crafty little devil) – and the game didn’t change anything.

After half time, where we mainly walked around a bit too fight the increasing cold (around 5 degrees Celsius), the game pretty much continued where it had left off. Few chances, few good passes, much fighting against each other and themselves. In the 67th minute, truly out of nowhere, Ndjeng makes the 0-1 for “die Arminen aus Bielefeld”, to the great delight of the blue-red (they haven’t betrayed their colors…. yet?) supporters around us. To be fair, it wasn’t really deserved, although we were already happy to see a goal. Two minutes later, it was already 1-1, by the substituted Brdaric (the only time he wasn’t offside). After that, both teams were so shocked that they actually started to play football. ‘Fortunately’, this only lasted for some ten minutes, after which everything went back to the same old, same old. 1-1 was a deserved final result, and actually two goals better than the level of play indicated (a 0-0 would have fitted the play).

After the game we ran to a stand to buy a Wurst (well, I did, J.B. is a vegetarian-but for the rest a normal guy). On the way back we were led through some villages to the Autobahn, a detour which added further to our already long way back. And, to top it all off, we were drafted in a alocohol check by the Belgian police, which J.B. passed with flying (green-black-white, not red-black!) colors. Around 22.00 he dropped me off in the center of Antwerp. A long day, maybe not too good football, but a Bundesliga game is always worth the trip.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Royal Olympic Club Charleroi Marchienne – WS Woluwe (25-11-2006)

Even before I left for Liverpool, my mate J.B. and I had decided to go for a real groundhop the next Saturday. We would go to the second team of Charleroi, the biggest city of Wallonie. Royal Olympic Club Charleroi Marchienne (or ROCCM) is one of these Belgian teams that have fallen on hard times. In the 1950s le ROCCM was a key player in the Belgian First Division, even clinching the title in 19??, but since than all has gone wrong. Now they play in the Derde Klasse B (Third Class B), in the shadow of local rivals Sporting Chareleroi, who are a solid team in (the lower part of) the First Division.

The afternoon started with a nice drink in Leuven with my Japanese groundhop-friend A.H., who couldn’t make it that night (and will regret it forever), and a too late departure. J.B. had scouted a truly authentic frietkot (imperfectly translatable as snack bar) on the way from Leuven to Charleroi, admittedly with some detour, and even though we were already somewhat late, we had to stop at Frituur Sabrina for a test – worth a visit! However, this all meant that we arrived very late in Charleroi, where we than got lost, and finally got to the Stade de “La Neuville”.

More than 25 minutes late, we found the gates to the stadium closed, but fortunately a nice steward opened it and let us in (for free!). We walked on the stand behind the goal and directly felt at home. This is how football should be!

We noticed that ROCCM was already 1-0 up, not surprising given that they are second in the league and WS (= White Star!) Woluwe ‘only’ 4th – in other words, we were witness of a true Meisterschaftsspiel in the Belgian Third Division B. Rather than watching the game, we just looked around, admiring the spirit of a truly local team. We were surprised to see many supporters with ROCCM scarves. We also spotted the mascot of the home team, a dog.

At half time we circled the ground. This must be one of the few stadiums I have visited were you could indeed circle the whole ground, i.e. get onto every stand of the stadium. This led to some fantastic sights, such as this wall at the back of the stadium

And this authentic sign to the main tribune

Walking back through the cantina, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said something in French. I was so perplexed that I didn’t understand. Than he asked me again, “didn’t I see you yesterday at the lecture in Brussels?”. And, indeed, it turned out that a colleague from a French speaking university in Brussels had sat behind me at an academic lecture the day before, was a lifelong fan of ROCCM and recognized me. And this unbelievable coincidence got an even more positive result, as he happily gave me his ticket as a souvenir, as J.B. and I had gotten in for free. Merci beaucoup! After that I visited the tiny fan shop, more a kind of kiosk, and bought a great banner (with the head of the dog – see also the car).

After the half time we returned to our favorite stand and watched a very entertaining game. The pace was quite fast and the combinations not bad. There were not many clear chances, but the game was very enjoyable. After an hour or so the home team got to 2-0, after a nice half-volley, and seemed to have the game in the pocket. But a quarter hour before the end of the game one of the strikers of Woluwe made a beautiful dribble and was semi-fouled in the box: penalty and 2-1. This made the end of the game tense and exciting, even if in the end ROCCM won 2-1 (deservedly so).

Extremely happy J.B. and I returned to our car. This was exactly what we had hoped for. The true spirit of football, without the commercial interests and comfort zones of the big teams and stadiums. In many ways comparable to Royale Union Sint-Gilloise, the first groundhop the two of us did. After the disappointment of Anfield Road, the Stade de “La Neuville” more than made up for it. Groundhopping at its best!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Liverpool FC – PSV Eindhoven (22-11-2006)

It has been a lifelong (well, kind of) dream of me to visit the legendary Anfield Road stadium of Liverpool FC and 22 November 2006 the moment was finally there. I was a big fan of Liverpool in the early 1980s, particularly of central defender Alan Hansen, but my allegiance to “the Reds” proved a youthful infatuation that dissipated with time (unlike my ‘love’ for PSV and BMG). Still, Anfield Road remains one of thé football temples in the world and, given that Liverpool FC wants to move to a new stadium, it had become increasingly urgent to visit it. My sense of urgency had been heightened even more by a couple of failed attempts to visit Anfield Road for a Premiership game (impossible to get you hands on tickets).

I was therefore thrilled when PSV Eindhoven drew Liverpool FC in the Champions League group. Despite problems with the sale of the tickets on the PSV website, I managed to get my ticket in the first attempt and enjoyed the feeling for the rest of the day (while following the growing anger and despair of other PSV fans on the PSV Netwerk website). Unfortunately, PSV has still not overcome its provincial mentality, and so it remains an expensive and tiring affair to get the actual ticket to Antwerp. Please PSV, finally understand that you have now fans well beyond Eindhoven, who find it always impossible to visit home or away games because of the ridiculous policy of exchanging your tickets at the PSV Stadium in Eindhoven.

Wednesday morning I take the bus to “Antwerp International Airport” and get a VLM flight, with stop-over in London City, to Manchester. There I check in at my hotel, and make my way by train to Liverpool. In the train I meet the first fellow PSV supporter, who lives in Denmark for a couple of years and meets up with friends from Eindhoven in the center of Liverpool. Around 3pm we arrive at Liverpool Lime Street Station, where, surprise, surprise, it is grey and drizzly. The center of town is full of PSV fans and, as always, I have mixed feelings about being identified with them.

After visiting the huge LFC shop in the city center, and deciding not to buy a megalomaniacally large club banner (there are no smaller ones; do we need to compensate for something?), I make my way to a very busy bus stop to take bus 17A (together with hordes of PSV fans) to Anfield Road. Annoyed by the pseudo-hooliganism of several fans (shame how few people can withstand peer pressure), I am happy to get out of the bus and face the outside of “The Kop”.

More than one hour before the start of the game more PSV than LFC fans have amassed outside of the stadium, most of whom admiring two of the most famous sites of international football: the arch with the world famous text “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and, next to it, the impressive memorial for the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989.

Around 7pm I enter Anfield Road Lower to take my place in Block 123, row 32, seat 64. Obviously, none is keeping to their seat and, given that the away supporters blocks are already quite full, I have to go quite far up on the stand. There I am confronted with the discomfort of old stadiums like this one, a fairly poor view (reminiscent of one of the stands of Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium). Still, it’s better than the poor slobs who come after me, and who have to sit on the upper row (as the police strictly enforce the policy of keeping the steps free of people). They complain bitterly and loudly, but to no avail. Quite a rip-off given that they, like all of us, have paid 34 pound (ca. 50 euro) for a ticket but see almost nothing of the pitch!

Maybe it is the bad view from my seat, or it is the fact that I’m surrounded by 2.400 PSV supporters, but I am not particularly impressed by the LFC stadium and its fans. I had long looked forward to hearing the LFC crowd sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the beginning of the game, but it didn’t impress me as much as it did at Celtic Park. During much of the game I will only hear the PSV supporters sing and, even when they are quiet, the Liverpool supporters (that day) really “only sing when they are winning”. This is not to say that Anfield Road is not a beautiful ‘old school’ football ground, just that it wasn’t as impressive as I had expected (maybe I had too high expectations).

As both teams were already qualified for the next stage of the Champions League, the pace of the game wasn’t impressive. Moreover, both teams excel in defending rather than attacking, and so the game didn’t have the highest amusement value. Though biased, I admit, I thought PSV kept the 0-0 score without much problems in the first half, although the first 15 minutes were clearly for the home team.

The second half was decided by one mistake of the PSV defense, finished in great style by the only two class players of LFC: Dutchman Dirk Kuyt passing to Englishman Steven Gerrard: 1-0 and I am seriously pissed off! After that PSV finally starts to attack, but without the much desired result. In fact, in one of the counter-attacks the young central defender Da Costa makes a positioning mistake and the ridiculously tall and sluggish Crouch scores the inconsequential 2-0. Game over!

After the game we have to stay for an additional 30 minutes in the stadium, in which ‘we’ taunt the Dutch tv commentators with songs against ajax and the Dutch national coach, Marco Van Basten. Many PSV fans discuss the disappointingly tame atmosphere at the LFC end of the stadium – friends who had seen the game on tv would tell me afterwards that the PSV supporters were far more vocal than the LFC fans; a not uncommon experience at European games.

After I finally got out of the stadium, I walk some 20 minutes through the rain in search of a (free) taxi. In the end, I settle for a bus, which is again packed with (less buoyant) PSV supporters. I discuss the first exit poll results of the Dutch parliamentary elections, sent by sms by friends of mine, with some of them. At the station I find out that I have to wait an hour before I can take the (last) train to Manchester; I kill the time by hunting for anything eatable that is not kebab or, the local favorite, chips and gravy. After a short stop-over at Manchester Piccadili, I arrive at my hotel at Manchester Airport at 1am. An hour later, after checking the last results of the elections, I fall asleep. Five hours later I am checking in for my flight back to Antwerp

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

België/Belgique-Polska (15-11-2006)

Hardly back from South Africa, I was on my way to a game back ‘home’. After some 40 minutes by train to Brussels and a 20 minute metro ride in Brussels, I reached the King Boudain Stadium – built at the site of the infamous Heysel Stadium. On the way to the stadium I had already noticed the huge groups of Polish fans, clearly outnumbering the Belgian fans in the metro. Also around the stadium the Poles seemed in the majority.

A good hour before the start of the game I met my friends, the Belgian E., the Polish W., and my Japanese fellow-groundhopper A.H. As everything around the stadium was closed (off), we had no other choice than sample the food and drinks in the stadium. After the obligatory beer and fries we took our seats at Tribune 3 (at 25 euro a ticket). The stadium was very well filled, for Belgian standards, largely thanks to the Poles, who accounted for some 40% of the spectators. The Polish red-white was a lot more visible than the Belgian red-yellow-black.

There is something surreal about going to a game of the Belgian national team. There is a group of supporters that will chant “België” (the Dutch speakers), a group that will support “Belgique” (the French speakers), who will find each other by cheering for “Belgium”.

Both the Belgians and the Poles are teams that have their heydays well behind them. The start of the campaign for Euro 2008 was bad in both cases, but they have recovered somewhat. A fairly even clash was expected, and that was also what we got. However, we also got a struggle between two extremely poor teams.

The game started and ended with a long list of poor passes, terrible control, and hilarious mistakes at all levels (technical, tactical, etc.). In this respect, both teams were equal. However, if one of the two could claim some superiority, it was the Poles who had at least some half-decent players (e.g. Smolarek). Halfway the first half one of the relatively small strikers of Poland went into a duel with the tall and (allegedly) strong Belgian central defender Daniel Van Buyten, one of the most revered defenders in the German Bundesliga (!), gave him a slight push, and scored. 1-0 for Poland. After this the game deteriorated even further, and 1-0 was also the half time score.

The second half showed much of the same, which brought the best out of the Belgian crowd. Increasingly the Belgian fans started to either whistle or applaud the mistakes of the home team. We also had to laugh repeatedly in the face of so much incompetence. The highlight was a collision between two Belgian strikers, including the extremely poor Emile Mpensa (who played the whole game, despite being a regular player in the football league of…, don’t laugh, Quatar!), in the penalty box. This way these players screwed up the one possible goal chance of the Belgians. After 90 minutes the score was still 1-0, and quite honestly, we could have played for two more days but I seriously doubt anyone could have scored another goal.

Amused and shocked we made our way back to the metro. The Belgian took it as Belgians do, lightly, while the Pole seemed more upset by the terrible level of play. It will take (again) some time before I will go and see another game of the Belgian national team

Benoni Premier United – Orlando Pirates (12-11-2006)

On my last day in
South Africa, we had planned the biggest of the three games of this trip. Not that Benoni Premier United was such a catch; in fact, Benoni is a relatively young team from an industrial suburb of Johannesburg. Their opponents, the Orlando Pirates, are the second biggest team in Johannesburg and South Africa, after their bitter rivals, the Kaiser Chiefs. P.K. and I were picked up in Joburg by two colleagues and their partners and we made the short drive to Germiston, where the game was played. They had purchased tickets at 20 Rand (ca. 2 euro) in advance, which saved us hassle at the ground.

While I had expected a lot of away supporters, I have never seen this: in and around the Germiston Stadium the vast majority of the supporters were Pirates. Everywhere you saw the black and white outfits and it took me quite some time before I had figured out the colors of Benoni (white-blue). South African fans can be very colorful, but the Pirates fans are among the best.

We entered the ground some 20 minutes before the game, sitting us ground in the grass. Germiston Stadium has only one (covered) stand, one of the long sides, and the rest of the stadium is just a grassy hill. It felt almost like a picnic. All in all I estimate that some 15.000 people had made it to the stadium, ca. 90% of them Orlando Pirates supporters! During the whole game I couldn’t find any other whites than us, except for the referee. Still, we felt very safe and various black supporters clearly appreciated that we (whites) had come to the stadium; particularly because one of my colleagues was wearing a Pirates t-shirt. Interestingly, while Pirates and Chiefs are the main rivals in South African football, various people walked around in their Chiefs shirt and some even danced and cheered with the Pirates fans. You wouldn’t see that in much of Europe.

The game started fairly disorganized with a lot of heart but very little mind. In this orgy of rash challenges and failed passes, The Pirates scored a decent 0-1 around the 10th minute, to the great delight of the vast majority of the audience. After that the disorganized struggle continued, leading some 15 minutes later to the less greeted 1-1. During almost the whole first half the fans were cheering, dancing, laughing, and blowing their vuvuzela (a kind of plastic trumpet which makes the sound of a horny bull, if you can play it —which I can not). 1-1 was also the half time score.

From the beginning the clouds had been moving ominously into our direction and some ten minutes before half time the temperature was dropping significantly while the wind was picking up. Thousands of supporters made their way to the one covered stand, while my company was slowly but steadily starting to make their way out of the stadium. While Johannesburg storms are wild and wet, I was still disappointed to be forced to leave the game at half time. In all my years as a groundhopper, I had only once before left a game at half time: in Malta after my (ex-)wife couldn’t stand the dreadful football anymore. But, being fully dependent upon their transportation, I followed meekly. The game ended 2-1 for Benoni, with Pirates being brought back to ten men. And the storm did break out, big style, but unfortunately my flight back home was not postponed.

Football in South Africa definitely made me curious into football in other African countries. The game itself isn’t particularly good, especially when you like intelligent play, but the atmosphere is unique. So much energy and happiness. I cannot wait to visit my friend next year in Ghana!