Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Glentoran FC – Drogheda United (19-03-2007)

After having taken pictures of murals around Shankill Road most of the afternoon, with the now familiar mix of rain, snow and sun, I was ready for some football diversion. For some reason, I had misread the time and jumped into a taxi an hour early, arriving to The Oval even before it had opened. Fortunately, the steward recognized me as a groundhopper and allowed me to get in early and take shelter from the wind and rain in the small bar.

After feeding myself with the obligatory hamburger and sausage roll, I headed out to the Main Grandstand – Lower Deck (as it was an all-ticket game, MvW had bought me a ticket of 10 pounds in advance). Tonight’s game was part of the Setanta Sports Cup, a competition between teams from both the Irish Eircom League and the (Northern) Irish Premier League. And this game was indeed a meeting of one team from Ireland (Drogheda United) and one from Northern Ireland (Glentoran FC). This might also explain the rather excessive security presence: I counted at least five (armored) police cars within the ground.

The Oval is one of the historic grounds of Belfast and has been home to Glentoran FC since 1892 (in fact, the club itself is 10 years older!). Although it has at one time hosted 55.000 people, in a European Cup game against Glasgow Rangers, it can now only take 15.000. The ground counts two stands, one quite big one, the Main Grandstand (holding 2,720) and the Railway Stand (holding 2,070), both in feeble state. Yet, although The Oval is old and in a fairly bad state, and squeezed between a motorway and Belfast City Airport, the ground does have a special atmosphere.

On this Monday night an estimated 450 people had made their way to stadium, including some 50 away supporters from Drogheda (approximately ?? km from Belfast). Although it was a boxing day, as St. Patrick’s Day was on a Saturday this year, the freezing wind and stormy rain didn’t make a visit to The Oval the most obvious destination for this evening.

I can be quite short about the game itself: it was poor… very poor! Most of the time neither team seemed in control of the ball, as most passes were without much direction and needed a duel between two sprinting players to find a receiver. My experience wasn’t helped by the people around me, who (in typical British fashion) couldn’t construct a (pseudo-)sentence without using at least once the word ‘fuck’. Still, at least the game didn’t make me regret my rather poor view from the stand.

The first half can be summarized as follows: goals 0; good chances 0; good set plays 0; usage of the f-word 100+. Somehow, half time felt like a relief. I walked around the stadium a bit, to get the blood in my legs flowing again, and found that in between the obese older guys who would swear at every (fucking) instance, there were also some younger fans in the stand.

The second half was not much better, except for the fact that there was one goal scored. Unfortunately for the majority of the people in The Oval, it was the Irish side that scored. Moreover, Glentoran never looked like they were going to score the equalizer. In fact, 0-1 was a deserved final score, in the sense that if anyone deserved to score, it was Drogheda United.

With a couple of minutes still to play, I left The Oval. Too much swearing, bad football, and cold wind for one evening. Although it felt more like a serious football experience than the Crusaders game, I enjoyed the latter more. Still, maybe on another day, on another stand, a Glentoran game will be a pleasant experience. At the very least The Oval is a unique stadium, with great view of the docks and planes flying over it. But don’t expect much from the game itself (at least not until they have changed most players of this team)!

Crusaders FC – Donegal Celtic (17-03-2007)

I had to be in Belfast for work so I decided to stay a couple of days extra to see a couple of games and score a new country point. After having watched the St. Patrick’s Day parade in the center of the city, I met my friend (and fellow PSV-fan) MvW in the lobby of my hotel. M and I know each other from our days in Edinburgh and are both loyal PSV-supporters, despite living far away from the home base. However, M. is a kind of football professor, always discussing positions and formations on the bulletin board, and not too easy to please on the pitch. Hence, while he had moved to Belfast a couple of years earlier, he had never seen a game in the Irish Premier League, Northern Ireland’s highest division. Today would be his chance.

After a short taxi ride we were dropped off in front of the stadium, at a big road in a fairly grim part of North Belfast. Naively, I took a picture of three security officers in front of the away stand, but one of them followed me, asked me very politely to see what picture I had taken, and than equally friendly to delete it. While you can take pictures of security forces, you cannot have their faces on them, as they might be targeted. Although ‘The Troubles’ seem (almost) over, some things haven’t changed yet. Not too disappointed we walked around the stadium, taking in the gloomy surroundings.

After asking, to make sure, we made our way to what is known as the main entrance. You could be fooled easily, as we were. For 7 pounds we were allowed to pass through the turnstiles, but unfortunately we didn’t get a ticket.

After devouring a classic British burger, not giving in to the ‘temptation’ of brown sauce, we walked towards the other side of the stadium to pay another 2 pounds to get access to the only covered seated stand.

Before entering the concrete monster, we took a look at our surroundings… a pitch covered with sand patches (actually, most of the center of the pitch looked like a desert), two uncovered stands with a couple of (frozen) fans from both sides, a good look at the M2 motorway, and an instructive text painted on one of the walls.

At 15.30 the players made their way onto the pitch, politely applauded by the ca. 250 fans in the stadium. While virtually all teams in the Northern Irish League are (from) Protestant (areas), this game was a true interreligious battle between the Protestant Crusaders and the Catholic Donegal Celtic (hence the relatively serious security concerns). The main groups of (young) supporters were close to each other, so that they could spit their simplistic banter more effectively.

The game started dismally: balls flew all over the place and few players seemed to be able to do anything about it. Admittedly, the conditions were not favorable for good football, as wind was gushing over the ground, regularly joined by rain, which made it freezing for players and public, but also made the ball relatively unpredictable. This not withstanding, the game soon started to become better and, despite relatively poor quality of the players, highly entertaining.

With the game flowing from side to side, none of the teams clearly dominated the game. Overall the first fifteen minutes were dominated by fierce duels and nasty elbows flying around. But around the 30th minute the left-wing midfielder of Crusaders played in a good ball and the main striker headed it in: 1-0. After the goal the game became a bit more open, although the home team started to dominate more. A couple of minutes before half-time this led to a second goal, through the same combination of players: 2-0 would also be the half time score.

The second half started furiously: within minutes Donegal Celtic got a penalty. The ultimate opportunity for the away team to get back into the game. However, although the penalty was not too badly taken, the strong home goalie chose the right corner and stopped the ball (as captured perfectly by your humble servant).

After the missed penalty Donegal Celtic got a couple of other chances, including a header on the post, but it would be Crusaders that scored: 3-0. This led to a series of attacks of Donegal and a dry, but well placed shot for the deserved consolation goal: 3-1. In the dying minutes of the still entertaining game, the home team scored the 4-1.

Partly frozen MvW and I made our way to the bus stop adjacent to the stadium. As the game only hosted 250 people, of whom most either went by bus back to one of the Catholic areas, or lived close by, we easily got on the first bus out and were back at my hotel fifteen minutes later. Even M. had to admit that it was an entertaining game. If one has to describe it in comparative terms: I imagine it would be similar to an English third division game in the 1970s.

A.H.’s Farewell Groundhop (10-03-2007)

As announced in an earlier report, my friend and fellow-groundhopper A.H. is returning to Japan at the end of this month. He will be sorely missed, as I know few groundhoppers like him. He can be at Barcelona’s Nou Camp one evening, enjoying the ultimate CL-experience with tens of thousands of passionate fans, and be as happy at a second division game in the middle of Belgium another afternoon, being one of a selected group of people crazy enough to visit a team like SK Ronse or Red Star Waasland without being a supporter or inhabitant of the locality. Obviously, such a man has to be honored with a farewell groundhop, and so J.B. and I had chosen Saturday 10 March 2007 as the day for this event. A.H. had chosen the games to visit and came up with a good combination.

VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach - Hertha BSC

noon the three of us met at the familiar back entrance of Leuven Station, all sporting our PSV-shirt (we are still trying to make A. a PSV-fan ;-), and got on our way to Mönchengladbach. After a relatively short and uneventful drive of 2 hours and 20 minutes we parked at the Borussia-Park. As so many new stadiums on the outskirt of a city, the Borussia-Park is not striking from the outside, but unlike many others it is beautiful from the inside.

I had booked tickets online, so we had more than enough time to sample the different sausages (so nice and so cheap) as well as the Borussia Shop (as long as they have Lotto, I don’t loose much money there). For 23 euro we had a good spot on the Süd Tribune, straight behind the goal, and with a great view on the Nord-Kurve, where the most fanatic Borussia-fans are.

As so often in the past two decades, BMG is having a bad season. While it all started very well, with Gladbach even being on top of the 1. Bundesliga for a couple of hours, it soon turned sour and they dropped to the bottom of the league. Although the difference between the numbers 18 and 11 are not that big, BMG is surrounded by teams like HSV, which will certainly gain enough point to stay in the top flight. So, the home game against Hertha BSC was again a crucial match for BMG and its new Dutch trainer Jos Luhukay. Over 40.000 had turned up to support their team, which led to a great atmosphere, despite a rather disappointing performance of the team.

From the beginning BMG played sloppy and poor, particularly in defense, with Degen and Delura as the worst examples of underperformance. Hertha seemed fresh and combined easily. Fortunately, they failed to score. Although having virtually no decent attacks or set plays, Gladbach made the most out of a little, and went 1-0 up. This would also be the half-time score. Probably as most BMG-supporters, I felt both happy and embarrassed by the lead.

The second half showed much of the same: poor football from two teams struggling, with occasional decent play from Hertha BSC, and some odd chances by BMG. Still, it was Hertha who would equalize, deservedly so. Even at 1-1 the home team played with only one real striker, Nando Rafael (who came from Hertha two seasons ago). Rafael was undoubtedly the man of the match: not only did he score the 1-0, he also managed to gain quite some clearances from the BMG defense (who mostly shot the ball blindly and as far as possible forward), and score the 2-1.

With the weaker home team back in front, and both teams making various exchanges, the game became (even) less structured. Despite Hertha still being a bit better, it was the home team that would profit from Hertha pressuring: Delura, who had been terrible up to this point, played a nice combination and had several seconds before he could put the ball in the corner of the goal: 3-1 and three much needed points to the VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach 1900 e.V. Will we stay in the 1. Bundesliga after all?

Although more than 40.000 people were in the stadium, it took us less than 30 minutes to get back onto the motorway and drive a small hour to our second game of the day. While we were still in a German speaking environment, we had crossed a state border. And this would soon show it’s relevance. If I have ever been confronted with empirical evidence that institutions created culture, rather than the other way around, it was this Saturday night.

KAS Eupen – Excelsior Virton

Some 70 minutes before the start of the game, we parked our car in front of the Kehrweg Stadion of the KAS Eupen, the only team from the German speaking part of Belgium to play in one of the top two divisions. We walked towards the stadium, only to find it closed. But that was not the only cultural shock. When the stadium opened, with only an hour to go until the game started, only one old guy manned the ticket office. It took him 10 minutes to set it up and when I finally asked for a ticket for the standing side of the stadium, he told me in an irritated voice that I had to go to the other booths of the ticket office. When I did, I found them closed. Five minutes later the same man entered the other booth and (unmoved) sold us our tickets (for 10 euro each). Clearly, this was not German(y)!

We made our way to the large cantina, where we had coffee and watched the Bundesliga on television (unfortunately, we had missed the BMG game). Fortunately I had eaten a third sausage before leaving the BMG game, as in the Kehrweg Stadion the only food on sale was hot dogs. Just before the start of the game we walked passed the 25 young hardcore fans of Eupen to take our place on the covered standing stand.

Overall some 450 people had come to see the game between Eupen, from the German part of Belgium, and Virton, from the Luxembourg part of the country. Both teams are somewhere in the middle of the Tweede Klasse (Second Division), with Europe a couple of positions above Virton. The game was quite open, for Belgian standards, and both teams tried to score. While the level of play wasn’t particularly high, the game itself was entertaining and had us ignore the fact that the weather had changed rapidly from mild and sunny into windy and cold.

To be honest, it is now over one week and one game later, and I remember little for the game. I know I was cold and circling the ground, taking pictures and feeling frustrated that they didn’t have anything else to eat than hot dogs. As far as I do remember, the game started poorly, but became better along the way. After some 30 minutes Eupen scored, not undeserved, and that also remained the final score.

I asked my fellow-groundhoppers whether they still remembered something from the game. JB remembered this:

- only hot-dogs

- mixture of Eupen and Virton-hools

- drummers that kept on drumming the whole game (and singing the same song for

more than 15 minutes)

- Belgian efficiency at the ticket-office (in others words; well-integrated Germans ;-)

- Excellent center-left player (at the Eupen-team)

- Virton wore Barcelona-shirts without Unicef on it

- Bilingual in many facets (swearing, announcing the players,…)

- Of the match itself I remember some spoiled open goal opportunities…

AH didn’t get much further than the both of us either:

- Cars with ASE Eupen since 1945 logo

- A beautiful scenery from the canteen

- The stadium had a nice executive room above the tribune (a colleague from Eupen

told me it’s called ‘business class’;)

- The smell of sauerkraut (German influence?)

- Indeed the excellent left back of Eupen (No. 20)

- A nice header by Eupen (1-0)

- A flag of province Luxembourg in the away stand

Monday, March 12, 2007

Arsenal FC – PSV (07-03-2007)

I know, Arsenal against PSV in the new Emirates Stadium is a treat for all fans of (European) football. And with a narrow 1-0 victory for PSV in the first game in Eindhoven, the spot for the quarter final of the Champions League was wide open. Most commentators saw Arsenal as the better team, but considered PSV hard to beat. Unfortunately, I am not a (neutral) commentator but a lifelong PSV supporter, and a pessimistic one at that. And thus, when J.B. asked me to go to the game with him, I was hesitant. Still, as members of the official PSV supporters club we were able to get tickets online – despite a logistical mess – and after a separate trip to Eindhoven to exchange the virtual ticket for the real ticket (not a beauty, by the way), we were in business. Incidentally, we paid a staggering 75 euro for the ticket; given that the official price was 46 pounds, according to the ticket, PSV added an additional 7.50 euro (or 10%) to the price! Nice to profit from your most loyal supporters!

At noon J.B. and I met at Bruxelles-Midi where we took the Eurostar to London Waterloo Station. It was a very comfortable ride and it left us with several hours of shopping time in the center of London – where we already met several small groups of PSV supporters. After dropping off our stuff at our hotel – typical London deal: far too much money for far too little quality – we took the tube to the stadium. At about 18.30 local time we arrived at the outside of the entrance to the Emirates Stadium.

This building functions both as a box office (obviously, the game was sold out) and the entrance to the stadium. You go up a couple of stairs, walk over a bridge that goes over a train track, and than you walk right into…

After taking some obligatory pictures, most notably of J.B. in front of the stadium, we made our way to turnstile L, where part of the 3,000 PSV supporters were seated. Before entering, we had to wait for police on horseback to let us through, which brought some funny remarks from the Dutch supporters – including the singing of the carnival song “Er staat een paard in de gang” (There stands a horse in the hallway).

I’m not a big fan of all these new comfortable stadiums, but the Emirates Stadium is undoubtedly one of the most impressive of the new grounds. It will never have the same unique atmosphere of Highbury, one of those fallen football temples, but it is beautiful and has a good acoustics and atmosphere. The 3,000 PSV fans were enjoying themselves, but I was mainly concerned about the result. The game started well for PSV, which had most of the first 10 minutes, but slowly but steadily the initiative moved to Arsenal. After a nasty foul by Fabegras, PSV striker Koné had to be taken off and PSV by and large lost its offensive power. It was at that time that I started to wonder why I actually went to these games… I don’t really enjoy the atmosphere or game, as the only thing I want is a good result for PSV. Dying a thousands death I survived the first half, as did PSV: 0-0.

The second half started where the first half had ended, with PSV under pressure and Arsenal not really creating clear chances. I nevertheless felt increasingly pessimistic and was now convinced that I would never go to an important PSV away game again. And than happened what I was feeling all along: Arsenal scored 1-0. Or better, PSV scored the 1-0 for Arsenal through an own goal by Alex, by far the most imposing player on the pitch so far. The next ten minutes were absolute horror: Arsenal had at least three clear scoring opportunities, but missed all of them. I was getting increasingly desperate and was (almost) ready to accept a 2-0 defeat over 30 minutes extra torture, when the anti-hero of the night became the hero of the night. After a stupid foul by Hleb, Alex put all his frustration in a huge jump, heading in the free-kick of Méndez: 1-1 and only 7 minutes to go. While we were going completely and utterly bezerk (and I was completely convinced I should continue to go to these games), almost one thirds of the stadium emptied. True, Arsenal had to score twice within 10 minutes, but this was extreme. By the time that the referee whistled for the last time, the stadium was not even half full anymore. But the 3,000 PSV fans were still there, partying with their players over this fantastic result.

After the obligatory 20-30 minutes waiting in the stadium, which you don’t mind when your team has made it into the quarter finals of the Champions League, we walked outside, past the huge letters spelling Arsenal.

For some reason the police had decided to not just keep us in the stadium for a long time, but then also lead us away from the nearest tube station. Still, who cares on a night like that, so we happily followed the other lost PSV supporters, making our way through the streets of Highbury, looking back at the beautiful Emirates Stadium.

Around midnight J.B. and I set down at a Cypriot restaurant to celebrate the result with a remarkably nice meal. It would take us two hours to calm down enough to sleep… well, J.B. slept, I listened to his snoring. ;-) Still, a historic trip, if not the most enjoyable groundhop.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

FC Omniworld – Helmond Sport (02-03-2007)

T.M., my brother, is a seasoned groundhopper too. In fact, with regard to Dutch professional football, he has seen it all… well, all, except for FC Omniworld, the newest club in Dutch professional football. The horribly named FC Omniworld (what were they thinking?) was founded in 1997, and was know as the Zwarte Schapen (Black Sheep) during its amateur days. In 2005 the club was the first in years to join the select group of professional football teams in the Netherlands; unlike many other European countries the Netherlands has a strict separation between professional and amateur football and as a consequence there is only promotion and relegation between the eredivisie and eerste divisie, but no teams relegate from or promote to the eerste divisie. So, on a Friday afternoon I headed out to Leiden, where my brother picked me up and we made our way to the ‘sparkling’ city of Almere, driving bumper to bumper for most of the trip, home to… well, FC Omniworld.

After a quick snack at a Kwalitaria (oooh, how we love the play of words) we arrived around 19.45 at the Mitsubishi Forklift-Stadion (I kid you not!). We bough a ticket for the long side of the stadium, which cost no less than 15 euro. What we got for that was a seat at a make-shift aluminum stand with poles every five meters or so. This was our view.

The stadium holds a mere 3,000 people, of who 2,500 can be seated, but for this game only 832 showed up. We were seated behind some Helmond Sport supporters (who sounded more like locals, given their Holland accent) and were seated opposite to the hardcore Omniworld fans. :-)

Before discussing the game, let me first say something about the project FC Omniworld. One has to admire their initiative, if only because Almere deserves something, even if it is only FC Omniworld. I don’t know whether someone consciously designed the team logo and name (lettertype), but if someone did, we do hope the club didn’t pay him. Everything about this club is wrong! The logo is stupid (did someone try to rip off Derby County?), the lettertype is awful (more fitting for a DiY shop), and the color purple they chose is also horrible. Add to this the ‘stadium’, and we have to give them one thing: they are consistent!

The game started out fairly tame, with FC Omniworld having most of the ball, but Helmond Sport looking a little more likely to score. The main attraction was the Helmond goalie, who miss-kicked almost every ball he got. After a while the home team started to show some nice combinations, in which particularly number 9 (Dibi?) showed superior technique; he must be good in futsal too. I must admit, I thought the number 8 of FC Omniworld, Dwight Eind, was the kind of player who creates a lot of attacks, but also screws them up. But I was proven wrong in the 40th minute, when he set up and finished a beautiful one-two: 1-0 and the crowd went, well, to the cantina. I had already gone for a broodje bal (an unfair translation would be a meatball sandwich), which tasted fairly rubbery (despite the mayo).

The second half was a bit poorer even though FC Omniworld still was able to show some nice combinations. What was lacking was the final ball in the box. It was clearly not my day in terms of predictions, as just two minutes after I had told my brother that Helmond Sport was not going to come back, they scored a sneaky 1-1. The group in front of us went crazy, and we counted some 30 Helmond Sport supporters on our stand and, roughly, some 50-100 in the away stand. Despite increased pressure from the home team, the final score was 1-1.

While walking back to the car, we realized how cold it had become. It was freezing. The whole FC Omniworld experience had not been able to warm us up. Even if the club is able to survive professional football – and in this time of (near) bankruptcies that is far from certain – it still has a long way to go to establish itself in the hearts of football lovers in- and outside of Almere. Our tip: start with changing the name, logo, and club colors!