Sunday, August 19, 2007

Charleston BatteryCarolina RailHawks (14-08-2007)

Groundhopping is not an easy hobby in the U.S. As the distances between the different teams are so huge, and the schedules so absurd (many midweek games, streaks of home or away games), a groundhopper should be happy to be see one game a month. However, with some good will and positioning, one can do better, and so we did. On a hot Tuesday M.G. and I decided to drive from Atlanta (Georgia) to Charleston (South Carolina) to see our second game in the USL First Division (i.e. America’s Second Division) in one week. After a trip of no less than 320 miles, or 515 km, we saw the floodlights of Blackbaud Stadium from the motorway and drove up the parking lot in front of the ground.

Charleston Battery is one of the older ‘professional men’s ‘soccer’ teams in the US. It was founded in 1993 and has been in various leagues uninterrupted. Blackbaud Stadium, built in 1999, was the first privately-funded soccer-specific stadium in the US and seats 5.100 spectators. Unfortunately, the day we were there, the ticket offices had problems with their printers, which meant we had to wait for more than 15 minutes to get to the window. Fortunately, the people around us were chatty and one Battery fan tipped us to keep an eye on the number 16, an allegedly overqualified South African player by the name of Stephen Armstrong. When we could finally get our ticket, the printer was still so slow that we decided to go for the cheap tickets, i.e. $8 (or 6 euro), as they were pre-printed. At there was some kind of promotion this evening, we got two for the price of one, which made the game cheaper than most East European games I saw! Moreover, as the ushers in the stadium were not very concerned with checking tickets, we could sit wherever we wanted.

Because of the ticket-delay we had missed the singing of the national anthem; this time there was only one. Fortunately, Blackbaud Stadium did provide for the inner human; in good American sports tradition it was well-stocked with snacks, including Papa Joe’s Pizza. After taking in some chicken nuggets, we made our way to the stand to see the unfolding of the “Southern Derby”. In fact, “Carolina Derby” would be more fitting, as the opponent comes from North Carolina (and there are other southern teams in the USL1, notably Atlanta Silverbacks).

As I would later find out, both Carolina teams were in the bottom half of the USL1, with the Railhawks trailing at the lower end. This wouldn’t be visible on the pitch, however. Already in the 6th minute the visitors would score after a beautiful first touch of Nigerian striker Connally Edozien: 0-1. This was to the delight of the 6 away fans, who had made the 288 miles (464 km) trip from Cary, North Carolina (probably the shortest for any away game!).

This was not to the liking of the vast majority of the (officially) 3.063 spectators, who were a lot more critical and engaged than most crowds I had experienced in the US. They also had little to be happy about, as their team was totally outplayed by the Railhawks, who showed a lot of nice short passes and much more determination to win the game. The pace was generally quite low though, which must also be explained by the very warm and sweaty conditions. In the first half Charleston Battery came not much further than a shot wide of goal, one minute before the “pretzel twister minute”— If the home team scores during that minute, the whole stadium can get a free pretzel after the game at some store… which, obviously, didn’t happen. What did happen, however, was a beautiful attack over four players, involving a smart backheel pass and a clinical finish by, again, number 8, Connally Edozien: 0-2 would also be the half time score.

We used the half time wisely by sampling the many goods that Blackbaud Stadium provided. I bought a long-sleeved t-shirt of the home team, pennants were again not available. Than it was time to feed the beasts, so M.G. was getting some “ices” and I was taking a bite of a little bag of “kettle korn”, a delicious version of popcorn.

We knew it was time to get back on the stand when we heard the commentator, who wasn’t as present as his colleague in Atlanta, shout “Let’s back that Battery Attack!”. Unfortunately for him and the 3.000 others, it was to no avail. Rather, it would be Edozien who would score again: 0-3 after a free header from a corner kick. Not exactly a hattrick, as the three goals had been scored in different halves of the game, but an impressive performance nevertheless! After this definite blow to the Battery, the home fans started to increasingly attack the referee for biased decisions. This was quite lame, as the ref might have been poor, he was hardly biased. And even if he would have been biased, that would not have been the main reason for the home team’s defeat. They were just totally outplayed!

Probably one of the few decent attacks of the Battery was a good volley in the 73rd minute. After that, their goalie would stop a hard shot from some 25 meters and another chance for the Railhawks the next minute. But the final score was a well-deserved 0-3 victory for the visitors.

Sticky from the sweat, and a bit sick from the kettle korn, M.G. and I happily left the stadium. While walking out, we were once again addressed by the Battery fan, who asked us for our impression of the number 16. I told him that I knew the answer to his earlier puzzle, i.e. why Armstrong is not playing in the MLS: he is slow and hides too much from the game. The fan agreed, but said that the player was also already 31. This friendly encounter solidified our positive experience at the Blackbaud Stadium. As the city itself, the Charleston Battery is well worth a visit!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Atlanta Silverbacks – Puerto Rico Islanders (10-08-2007)

On Friday morning I flew from
Brussels Airport to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport for a four week visit to my girlfriend/holiday in the US. After dropping off my stuff and resting a bit, I was happy to find myself in enough supply of energy to see a game of the local Atlanta Silverbacks that evening – it would be the only home game during the period that I could see. So, we entered the inevitable car and drove to the RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Around 19.40 we drove up the sand road to the stadium, following a surprisingly long and slow line of cars (mostly SUV, this is the South!). RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium, at Silverbacks Park, is a long term project that is still in the process of building. At this stage the stadium holds just 3.000 people, but the goal is to expand it into a modern 15.000 seater arena. After 10 minutes I got out of the car to join the unorganized line in front of the ticket ‘office’. As with most US ‘soccer’ games, most spectators were families with young kids (girls or boys are almost equally represented), youth teams, and ‘Mexicans’ (the generic name for people from Central and Latin America). I decided to go for the $20 tickets, which turned out to cost $22.95 including tax! But the added tax, which is not indicated on the advertised prices, was not the only American aspect of the tickets… so was the sticker on the backside of the ticket:

Atlanta is sometimes called “Hotlanta”, because of the smothering heat in the summer, and this evening was a good example of this. Although the game started at 19.55 (no kidding!), it was still easily 27 degrees outside (and I’m not talking Fahrenheit!). Boy, was it hot!. We took our place in sector 107, not far away from the ‘infamous’ sector 109 ;-), the (ca. 50) hardcore fans of the Silverbacks.

Tonight the game was almost an international, given that the Atlanta Silverbacks played the Puerto Rico Islanders. This was a game in the USL First Division, i.e. the division under the Major League Soccer (MLS). While all sports games in the US are started with the playing of the Stars & Strips, the American national anthem, this game was preceded by two anthems: the Star Spangle Banner and La Borinqueña, the ‘national’ anthem of Puerto Rico (legally a “self governing unincorporated territory” of the US and not an independent country).

This points to a funny aspect of the ‘American’ football competitions. Whether MLS, USL1, USL2, or even the W-League (Women), the division includes mostly teams from the US (proper), but not exclusively! The Major League Soccer (MLS) counts teams from Canada (Toronto), the USL1 from Canada (Montreal and Vancouver) and Puerto Rico, the USL2 from Bermuda, and the W-League again from Canada (Laval, Ottowa, Sudbury, Toronto, Vancouver). Anyway, after the wordless versions of the national anthems, which didn’t encourage many of the 1.200-1.500 spectators to sing along, the game started.

While no American game is complete without an announcer shouting commercials at you every so many minutes, but this time we were ‘entertained’ even more, namely by a commentator who regularly told us what happened on the pitch – this might have been because the game was televised live as well, although my girlfriend’s alternative hypothesis is that most spectators understand little of the game and have to be explained what’s happening. Indeed, it seems that at least half of the adults in the stadium are parents of soccer-playing children with no or very limited knowledge of the beautiful game themselves.

What can I say of the quality of Second Division football in the US… possibly comparable to a good, but not top, level amateur game in Europe. To be honest, Grondhopper at various times thought he should have moved to the US at 21, as that must have been the only place where he could ever have had a professional football career. Nuff said! In addition to the poor level of play, the game was very slow, both the pace of the players and of their passing. While Atlanta was the somewhat ‘better’ side, Puerto Rico had the best chances at first, including a ball on the crossbar after 30 minutes. In the 42nd minute the young Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji or “Mac” (predictably dubbed “the Mac Attack” by the commentator), who played only his second game for the Silverbacks, cut into the penalty area with a great dribble and was fouled: penalty. The arrogant young defender David Hayes didn’t waste this opportunity: 1-0 for the Silverbacks! Two minutes later Puerto Rico headed the ball just past the Atlanta post. Half time score: 1-0!

Now, normally I go for a snack hunt during half time, and one would imagine this to be a very pleasing activity in an American stadium. But not this time! While Americans eat themselves into obesity during baseball and football games, ‘soccer’ games tend to be fairly poorly catered for. This evening we would only have the option of cooled drinks (including Heineken and Heineken Light) and crisps. L We were entertained with a shoot-out for kids though. But the half time highlight was that I caught one of the balls that were shot in the audience (and the gratitude of the little boy I gave it too). Fair enough, most other men probably more enjoyed the celebration of the Atlanta Silverbacks Women Team, who were honored for their great season. Here is the proof that American women soccer looks a lot different than women football back in my days.

After waiting for over 20 minutes, the commentator announced the start of the second half as follows: “and we are televised and on our way”. The first 15 minutes little happened outside of the middle section of the pitch. Whenever the visitors would attack, the commentator would shout “come on defense”, probably in an attempt to explain soccer to basketball fans. Around the 60th minute the game started to pick up in excitement: a nice backheel flip of Atlanta was followed by a good shot of Puerto Rico and a close-range blocked shot of Puerto Rico. In the 73rd minute “Mac” started a beautiful action in the penalty box with his right foot and finished it in style with a left-footed shot in the far upper corner: 2-0! Just a couple of minutes later he would come one-on-one with the Puerto Rico goalie, but the latter held his cool and blocked the shot. Again a couple of minutes and a bicycle kick later Atlanta ended the game with a strong attack and skillful half-volley: 3-0!

At this point fans started to leave the stadium and walk up the hill to leave before the after-game fireworks. They missed little, except for a great reflex of the Puerto Rico Islanders goalie, definitely one of the best players of his team, who blocked a close-range shot in the low corner. Final score: 3-0 for the Silverbacks!

The family atmosphere of the game was even strengthened after the game, when the lights went out, and a 5-minute-fireworks show started. It might not have been the most impressive fireworks I have ever seen, but it did give a very friendly and cozy feel to the whole evening. So, quite satisfied, if tired, we made our way back to the car… and the air conditioning!

Royal White Star Woluwe – Royal Union Saint-Gilloise (08-08-2007)

While the First Division has already started in Belgium (see Charleroi-Roeselare), the lower divisions are still playing preseason friendlies, which provides perfect opportunities for a midweek game in the not-too-distant vicinity, namely Brussel-Bruxelles-Brussels. Around 19.00 I met J.B. at Brussels Central Station and we took the metro to Stokkel, where we enjoyed one of the best “frietje mayo” (French fries with mayonnaise) I ever had at Friture Charles. Please, do not miss this opportunity if you ever anywhere close to the square in front of Stockel/Stokkel metro station! Sure, we missed our bus connection, and arrived late to the stadium, but boy, was that worth it.

Around 20.05 we arrived at the Stade/Stadion Fallon, a place that defeats any clear description. Allegedly it can take 7.000 people, but I am quite skeptical about this information. While you are able to watch the game for free from at least two full sides of the pitch, we paid our dues and bought tickets for 8 euro a piece at the not overly professional ‘ticket office’.

The Stade Fallon counts only one real stand, which is an old concrete semi-circle construction. The two sides behind the goals are without any stand, while the opposing long side has only two small makeshift stands. The horror of the stadium is even increased by the big (new) athletic track around the whole pitch. The only real compensation for this was the small snack tent, in which you had the obligatory Belgian football snacks – hamburger and sausages – but exceptionally this guy carried my favorite samourai sauce. J With a great smile (and burger) I took my place at the main stand.

Royal White Star Woluwe is a team from the Derde Klasse B (Third Division), while Royal Union Saint-Gilloise plays for the second season in a row in the Tweede Klasse (Second Division). Both teams are from different districts of Brussels and attract a bilingual following, although the dominant language around us was French rather than Dutch. Although difficult to estimate, I guess some 175 people attended this friendly game, of whom at least half were ‘visitors’ from Sint-Gilles. Depending on their place and length, they had a more or less similar view of the pitch as me.

As far as we were concerned, the game had started at 20.00, as they had informed us the day before when we phoned to make sure the game was still on (as the website of neither team had listed it), and the score was still 0-0. This was namely the score on the official scoreboard. After some 15 minutes the home team scored, despite Union being the much better team until that time. Five minutes later this referee whistled for half time… contrary to the information provided by phone, the game had started at 19.30! While we were under the impression that White Star was leading 1-0 at half time, I found out days later that it had in fact been already 0-1 when we entered the stadium and that the half time score was therefore 1-1.

After an uneventful half time the second half started without much excitement. The level of play was generally not too high and the better team, Union, seemed more interested in practicing set plays than winning this friendly game. They created two chances in the first 15 minutes, but it would be White Star that scored again. A free-kick from approximately 20 meters was deflected and rolled somewhat softly in the goal: 2-0 for us, 2-1 for the rest of the people!

Despite this positive result for White Star, the scoreboard remained fixed at 0-0. After some unsuccessful attempts to change this, the people in charge decided to simply give up and shut off the electricity of the scoreboard. Union seemed slightly energized by the second goal and started to pressure more. This led to several chances and half-chances, including a header just over the goal.

Still, the biggest chances were for White Star, which forced the Union goalie to make various great safes, among others at a close-range shot in the 75th minute, at a one-on-one attack in the 85th minute, and at a powerful shot in the 90th minute (with a beautiful dive). Finally, in the last action of the game, he took the ball of the feet of the Woluwe striker. Clearly, it wasn’t his fault that the better team lost!

Slowly following the mainly elderly supporters outside of the stadium, we took one last look at the bizarre stadium and walked back to the bus stop. With some self-discipline we ignored Friture Charles and walked directly to Metro Stokkel. Without many words we could agree: Friture Charles is definitely a more satisfying destination than Stade Fallon. Still, it was my 275th club!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

RCS Charleroi – KSV Roeselare (04-08-2007)

Whenever my English mate L.M. comes to visit me, I take him to a Belgian game. As the new season of the Eerste Klasse (First Division) had started on Friday, with an undeserved victory of lucky Anderlecht at KV Mechelen, we decided to go and see one of three Eerste Klasse teams I haven’t seen yet: Royal Charleroi Sporting Club, the biggest team of Wallonie’s biggest city.

We took the train to Leuven where we were met by J.B. After a scenic route we arrived in Charleroi four hours before kick-off. Charleroi counts over 200.000 people in the city itself and some 500.000 in the urban area around. While we knew that it is not the most beautiful city -- it is an old mining town in the infamous Le Pays Noir (the black land) area – we had never expected it to be so grim and uneventful. There is truly nothing to do! Although, you might want to drop in at the Greek snack bar that advertises a “gyros géante”. Take them on their word, as it is huge! This is what the medium one looked like!

At about 19.00 we returned to the stadium to get our tickets and visit the fan shop. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell pennants (which seems to be a trend), so I was left without any souvenir. We decided to buy a ticket for Tribune 3, the long side that was still in the hot sun. For 19 euro we had a great seat at the middle of the pitch. As I had eaten only half of the pita, I was able to squeeze a Mexicano with Andalousse sauce in before taking our place.

Despite (or because?) the great weather (31 C) the stadium was quite empty. The Stade du Pays de Charleroi was renovated in 1999 to accommodate the European Championship of 2000 and can now host 25.000 people. For this game, only 8.158 turned up, including some 50 people who had made the 140 km journey from Roeselare in West Flanders.

The game started explosively: within 1 minute Sporting had scored 1-0! What a start to the new season! Unfortunately, after that the game deteriorated rapidly. Roeselare showed that it will be a main contender for relegation with many poor passes and uninventive play. Charleroi didn’t impress either, although they have more skill.

I was most impressed by two players of Roeselare: French central defender Jonathan Joseph-Augustin and Bosnian defender Davir Mirvic (who played more like a defending midfielder). The most remarkable player on the pitch was Roeselare’s Belgian-Turkish striker Izzet Akgül, who joined this summer from… Sporting Charleroi! Clearly, the home supporters had not forgiven him this move, as they were whistling and taunting him during the whole game. Anyway, half time score was 1-0! Time to get something to drink.

The second half started where the first one had left off, with poor football and few chances. Roeselare got a bit better in the game without becoming really threatening. But then, in the 65th minute, the ball falls to Akgül, who plays himself free and scores professionally: 1-1. This set off a spat of insults from the home fans, which led the referee to stop the game for a couple of minutes.

After the game restarted the home team pushed more for a victory. However, it mainly showed its incompetence. Roeselare didn’t have too much problems to keep their goal clean and didn’t press much forward anymore. 1-1 was what they got and it must have been one point more than they had expected.

All in all it was a decent groundhop, although this was mainly so because of the great weather. The game itself was poor, even for Belgian sub-top standards, and I was not that impressed by the atmosphere in the stadium. Sporting is one of the few Belgian teams with a solid following, but if this is what counts as "une toute grosse ambiance", at the Stade du Paus de Charleroi, as the official website claimed afterwards, they are having a problem.

Monday, August 06, 2007

BV Veendam – SC Cambuur Leeuwarden (18-03-2005)

Last Friday it finally happened: I visited De Langeleegte (literally: The long Emptiness), the almost mythical stadium of BV Veendam, a small Eerste Divisie (Second Division) team in the northeast corner of the Netherlands!

(An earlier attempt had failed when we arrived at the stadium after a 3 hour journey to find the game cancelled because of bad weather.)

Around 15.15 my mate M.T. picked me up at Schiphol – I returned from a trip to England and fortunately Easyjet didn’t have a delay this time – and we made our way to the other side of the country. Without a problem we passed Amsterdam and drove into the Flevopolder. The sky turned more and more grey and when we entered the province of Groningen it also started to rain a bit. In short, perfect weather for a game in De Langeleegte!

Just before 19.00 we arrived in Veendam and, after a not too subtle shoarma, we bought a ticket for the Promenade stand for 12 euro. To my surprise, De Langeleegte looked quite cozy; it reminded me of the old stadium of RBC or the new stadium of FC Zwolle. Since the modernization in 1998 the stadium holds 6.500 people. Probably because this was a northern derby against SC Cambuur it was quite busy, approximately half full, I would guess some 2.500 people, including a good 200 from Leeuwarden (ca. 100 km away).

The start of the game was stormy: after 6 minutes it was already 1-0. After that the level of play decreased rapidly and it became a poor kick-and-little-rust-game. The BV Veendam clearly couldn’t do much better, while SC Cambuur had some decent players. Although Cambuur was the less bad team, 1-0 was also the half time score. The whole second half was also for the visitors, who didn’t even play well. In the 70th minute they finally scored: 1-1 was also the final score.

Despite the poor quality of play, there was a nice and cozy provincial atmosphere in De Langeleegte. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed that it was so busy and full of atmosphere. I had always hoped to visit one of these legendary game in front of 350 spectators and in the pouring rain, for which De Langeleegte was so famous in the 1980s.

AC Parma – Cagliari (06-03-2005)

I had to be for work in Bologna on Friday and Saturday, so I decided to stay another day and see a game. As Bologna FC played away, and I had seen them at an earlier visit to the city, I decided to go to Parma. The trip takes only some 50 minutes, if you take the right one (my train back took 1.5 hours!), and goes regularly.

Around 13.30 I arrived in Parma and started to walk haphazardly north. It was cold and sunny in the north of Italy and there was quite some snow. Excellent weather to talk a walk through a nice Italian town and… because that’s the core of everything… see a game. A good hour before kick-off I arrived at the Stadio Communale Ennio Tardini, the home base of AC Parma, which is truly smack in the middle of a residential area. The tickets are pricy: I paid 25 euro for a ticket on the Distinti Laterali Nord, in the corner of one of the long sides, It turned out to be a wooden emergency stand at that, but that couldn’’t take away the pleasure.

Tip: if you will attend a game of AC Parma, and you really should, eat macaroni al ragu in the restaurant next to the stadium. Deeeeeeeeeelish!

Ok, after a tasy pasta and the obligatory snack (an Italian version of a hotdog) I took my place at the (emergency) stand. With the exception of the Curva Nord, home to the Parma tifosi, the stadium was only modestly filled – I guess some 12.000 people, but find it difficult to estimate. Parma is having a bad season and is suffering badly as a consequence of Parmalat, its main sponsor. Additionally, it was cold and they were playing
Cagliari, a rather colorless middle bracket teams in the Serie A (First Division).

I knew little about the two teams before the game. To be fair, I’m not a big fan of Italian football. At AC Parma I only knew Paolo Cannavaro, the brother of (Fabio, the defender of Juve and the Azzuri). But Cagliari had a very pleasant surprise in its lineup: Gianfranco Zola, the tiny ex-star of Napoli and Chelsea. For the rest I didn’t recognize anyone.

Let me get directly to the point: the game was un-Italian! Man, have I enjoyed myself! Already after 1 minute the Cagliari goalie (Iezzo) pulled off a great safe at a closeby shot and after 5 minutes it was 0-1, after a half chance for Cagliari. However, Parma continued to attack and after 10 minutes it was 1-1. Only 6 minutes later Iezzo had already made his second great safe, but couldn’t prevent that the home team scored the 2-1. At times Parma played a very nice passing game in which particularly striker Gilardino excelled. The only dissonant was the pseudo-star Morfeo, playing on shiny yellow shoes, who saw a great backheel go on the post. Half time score 2-1 and seldom have I seen so much attacking football in the Serie A.

The second half was much of the same, which in this case was good news. Already in the 48th minute Parma hit the crossbar and less than 10 minutes later Morfeo shoots from under 10 meters next to the goal.
L Despite the clear domination of the hosts it remains 2-1 and Cagliari gets more and more back into the game. In the 65th minute the Parma goalie fouls a player (unnecessarily) and is sent-off. The 10 men defend like lions (the observant reader might notice a slight pro-Parma bias here), but in the 88th minute the inevitable happens: a disappointing 2-2. Completely in pieces the crowd watches the last minutes…. Screwed up a victory after all. But then, in the 91st minute, a counter by the impressive central midfielder Simplicio, who, out of a lack of option, decides to shoot from some 20 meters and… straight into the top corner of the goal!!! 3-2 for Parma, the referee whistles for the end, and we all go crazy! J

I have seldom enjoyed a game between two teams I didn’t support this much. Or better, I didn’t support before, as Parma has really gotten a special place in my football heart. The atmosphere was really good… much singing, next to me three fanatical old guys, and a very impressive applause of the Parma fans when Cagliari player Zola was substituted. So that is also possible!

Parma might not have any big stars, but there are some very useful players. Bolano is a real interceptor, whose positioning is strong and who breaks up many attacks. Simplicio is a very efficient central midfielder, who might be too slow for the top (one-pace-player) but is of immense value to Parma. Boc is a very strong central defender with a great long ball and Gilardino is a somewhat lazy striker with many tricks up his sleeve.

So, there can be only one conclusion: if you are ever in the neighborhood, you absolutely have to visit the Stadio Communale Ennio Tardini. It is no San Siro, there are no big stars, but you will have a fantastic football afternoon!

Ciao a tuti!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Groundhopweekend February 2005

My, my, what a weekend! I cannot remember the last time I was so cold! And I mean C-O-L-D!!! And on this cold(est) weekend I was groundhopping. Yep, and it again didn’t exactly go as planned.

Hannover Scorpions -- Iserlohn Roosters (25-02-2005)

On Friday afternoon my brother T.M. and a friend of him picked me up at Schiphol airport and we were on our way to Hannover to see a game in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). Having driven around the traffic jams we arrived more than an hour in advance to the beautiful, brand-new TUI Arena. The hall can hold 10.600 people for icehockey games, which makes it a large-size ring. For this game some 6.000 people turned up, among whom a remarkable number of girls and women.

We bought tickets for a standing place behind the goal for 14 euro and entered the stadium. The atmosphere was classically good, as with all sport manifestations in Germany. The icehockey was a lot less good, particularly from the hosts. They were 2-0 behind after 6 minutes and never looked like winning. The final score of 2-6 was deserved, even if Iserlohn didn’t play a top match.

After a short night in the usual F1 hotel we decided to be ambitious after all and head out to Luxemburg, in the hope to see the cup game between Progres Nierderkorn and Dudelange in the afternoon, and a game of Raon L’Etap in the Franse Championnat National (Third Division) in the evening. Almost the whole time we drove through a snowed-under Germany and at times it was still snowing. When we finally arrived at the Stade Jos Haupert, some 40 minutes before kick-off, we saw the squad practice at a training pitch. After inspection of the empty stadium and snowed-under pitch, we decided to also skip the French game and look for a safe alternative instead.

Sint-Truiden VV -- AA Gent (

And so we drove without any rush to Sint-Truiden in Belgian Limburg. After a short stop at Frituur Juliette (hmmmm) we drove to the stadium to make sure that we could also buy a ticket without a Fancard. The security was watertight: Fancard or identity papers.... or just giving your name. J Thus we bought a ticket for just 7.50 euro and spent the next 60 minutes in Cafe Stadion, warming ourselves and watching the game Hertha-HSV on tv.

It was freezing in 'the hell of Staaien', but fortunately the game was less boring than the last time I visited STVV. This was mainly the merit of AA Gent, who scored early in the game. Thereafter the vistors remained the better team, though most remarkable was how poor STVV is. Only Benji de Keulenaar is a good player, but by himself he was obviously unable to defeat AA Gent.
In the end “the Buffalos” won 0-2 and we drove with frozen toes to Antwerp.

KV Kortrijk -- Excelsior Virton (27-02-2007)

After a good night rest in my own bed, and a delicious cup of coffee, we set off to Kortrijk (in West Flanders) for a game in the middle bracket of the Tweede Klasse (Second Division). We knew it was going to be freezing col, but when we got caught in a snow storm just outside of Ghent we were starting to worry for another cancellation. Fortunately the snow storm was local; in fact, it hadn’t even snowed in Kortrijk.

At 14.15 we arrived at the ramshackle Guldensporenstadion of KV Kortrijk. We saw almost none, except for a bus with green-white supporters. We turned out to be at the back of the stadium together with the away fans, in this case some 25 jolly Walloons from Virton. We bought a ticket for a steep 12 euro and joined the Virton fans on Tribune (Stand) 4.

All in all I don’t think more than 500 supporters were in the freezing stadium. This was a shame, as the game was not bad at all. After 5 minutes Virton was already 0-1 up and another 5 minutes later KVK had equalized. 1-1 was also the half time score but there had been some good football, particularly from Virton. In the second half both teams played much weaker, most notably the Walloons. Some 15 minutes before the end of the game Virton lost the game, when it got reduced to 10 men and, shortly after, got two goals against because of individual mistakes. Thus, the final score was 3-1 for KVK in this 6-point game.

LOSC -- Stade Rennais (

Directly after the final whistle we jumped into the car and drove to
Lille to catch a game in the French Ligue 1 (First Division) an hour later. The last time I saw LOSC, they played in the center of town. Whether or not as a consequence of renovation, Lille plays this season at the Stade Metropole, a typical athletics stadium. L We bought a ticket for just 11 euro and entered the bare, concrete stadium.

I’m going to keep it short: could, COLD, C-O-L-D!!! Man o man, how cold were we! At one time I tried to text a friend and my fingers froze so quickly that I had to stop texting and put my gloves back on (which helped only partly). And than also a 0-0 game! Still, I do recommend a visit to LOSC. Not only is Lille a pretty city (for North France), LOSC plays good and attractice football, the atmosphere is (usually) good, and the merguez americaine greasy. But do choose a day that the weather is (much) better!

SpVgg Unterhaching – LR Ahlen (06-02-2005)

I had to be in Munich for a conference this weekend, so I decided to stay a day longer to see, after Bayern and 1860, the third team of the city: indeed, the Spielvereinigung Unterhaching. This club has one of the oddest combinations of sports, namely football and… bobsleigh!

As it had snowed extremely in the days before, and the freezing temperature had turned the snow into ice in the city, I was getting increasingly anxious that the game would be cancelled. At 13.30 I took the Strassenbahn from the centre of town to Ostbahnhof, where I transferred to the S5 direction Holzkirchen. Possibly blinded by the reflection of the sun in the fields of snow I got out one stop too early and had to walk for a good 25 minutes in almost total solitude and through a snowed under park, meanwhile becoming more and more sceptical about the taking place of the game. When I finally arrived at the correct S-Bahn station I saw more and more fans and my frozen fingers started to tingle from the regained warmth. I arrived finally at the stadium at just 15 minutes before kick-off (15.00), after having watched a friendly game of curling on natural ice!

The Generali Sportpark is a reasonable accommodation for a club that has promoted (back) to the 2. Bundesliga (Second Division) only a few years ago. It is situated in the district Unterhaching, a former independent suburb to the south of Munich. Officially the stadium has a maximum capacity of 15.053 spectators, including 6.874 seats (of which 6.111 are covered). As it was ice-cold but dry, so I opted for a standing place at the Südtribune (South Stand), at 7.50 euro, to prevent my knees from freezing together.

The programme for this afternoon was a game between SpVgg Unterhaching and LR Ahlen, a so-called Keller-Duel in the 2. Bundesliga. Despite the unprecedented coldness some 1.500 people had shown up -- the speaker spoke of 2.500, but that seems wishful thinking. Incidentally, he also mentioned the presence of Rudi Völler, which did prove to be correct. Without fear I took my place between the Rot-Blaue Tiger (Red-Blue Tigers) and the Sonnenbrillen Mob (Sunglasses Mob), gangs for which even the most hardcore hooligans in England would be afraid. ;-)

Already after 4 minutes “Haching” was 1-0 ahead, and 4 minutes later it was even 2-0. The fans didn’t know what hit them and I also got carried away by their enthusiasm. This disappeared rapidly when the football deteriorated, yet the cold became more and more biting. Even the joy of a Bratwurst could not reanimate my frozen toes.

Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised by a nice conversation with a British German during half time. He told me that he and his group of some seven Munich-based British mates went to virtually every home game of Haching. Some were fans of FC Darlington, one of Dundee FC, and he himself of Walsall FC. He had also lived in Wolverhampton for a year and that’s why he had come up to me, as in my unsuccessful fight with the icy wind I had wore my Wolves hat (which I purchased during my visit there last Christmas).

After our entertaining conversation we directed our attention ack to the game, which more and more became a race against the clock. Ahlen took the initiative and the level of play became worrying. The visitors did score 2-1, and had chances at 2-2, but to the great joy and relief of the home fans Haching was able to hold on and 2-1 was the final score.

With frozen toes, but satisfied nonetheless, I walked back to the S-Bahn station to get to the airport. There I saw BMG win against Freiburg on the tv to make this an extra enjoyable football Sunday. There is something special about visiting the third team of a city, as I had earlier experienced at Excelsior in Rotterdam, at Partick Thistle in Glasgow, or at Bohemians in Prague. A sort of charm that might only be appreciated by real groundhoppers, but I can definitely recommend a visit to the SpVgg Unterhaching to them.

Groundhopchristmas 2004

There is little more beautiful than visiting a football game in England on Boxing Day. It is something special, something particular British.

Birmingham City FC – Middlesbrough FC (26-12-2004)

At 11.00 I had flown from Schiphol Airport to Birmingham and at 13.30 (local time) I dropped off my stuff at my hotel. As the game started only at 15.30, I had ample time to get to the stadium. I took a taxi and walked the last part uphill. Enjoying a quarterpounder and the typical English football atmosphere I picked up my ticket at the stadium (I had ordered it through the Internet for the steep price of 28 pound or ca. 40 euro). As I still had more than an hour before kick-off, I walked around the stadium where it was agreeable.

BCFC plays in the St. Andrew's Stadium, which holds somewhat over 30.000 spectators. For the game against Middlesbrough, no highflyer in the Premier League either, there were some 29.000 – almost full. The atmosphere was very amiable; little verbal violence, yet quite some singing. Both teams are mediocre, although Boro has a couple foreign ‘stars’ (i.e. Hasselbaink and Zenden). BCFC has two strong black guys in the attack (Morrison and Heskey), while their playmaker is an old, somewhat corpulent, very slow Irishman: Dunn. For the rest few players caught my eye, except for the Dutch player Melchiot, who came in the BCFC team at the end of the second half.

Overall it was a poor game in which BCFC scored relatively early, but Boro was the better team. Still, if I say that Zenden was the Boro playmaker and best man on the pitch, connoisseurs will know enough. In the end BCFC was able to score one more through, who else, Emile Heskey (what a non-player is that). 2-0 was also the final score.

You don’t have to go to England for the quality of football, but the atmosphere and experience of an English football game on Boxing Day is and remains unique!

Wolverhampton Wanderers - Brighton Hove & Albion (28-12-2004)

Two days later I travelled with my English mate L.M. to Wolverhampton, a surprisingly nice town at roughly 30 km northwest of Birmingham. (At least since the (short) period of John de Wolf at the local pride the Wolves are also known in the Netherlands.) Wolverhampton Wanderers is a club with a great tradition and support and has one of the most beautiful logos in the world.

We arrived well in time at the Molineux stadium, a fairly classic English stadium with a capacity of 28.500. Although we were about to visit a game between two teams from the bottom half of the English First Division (now: The Championship), the stadium was almost sold-out! L.M. had ordered tickets through the internet at a cost of no less than 26 pounds (ca. 37 euro); only 2 pounds less than the BCFC game, which, however, was in the Premier League.

The atmosphere was excellent and I have been surprised by the friendly comments throughout the game – almost no cursing! The level of play was below any expectation, except for the beautiful goal of Wolves (after a great combination of three passes). The most remarkable things of the game, which ended in 1-1 (the Seagulls had already scored luckily after 1 minute), was Glenn Hoddle. This former super footballer and national coach of England is now coach of Wolverhampton Wanderers... how the mighty have fallen.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

KV Mechelen – RC Mechelen (28-11-2004)

Scotland has the Glaswegian derby Celtic-Rangers, Serbia the Belgrade derby Partizan-Crvena zvezda, and BelgiumBelgium has the Mechelen derby KV-Racing. I know, the Mechelen derby does not have the same scale as the other two, but within the Belgian context it is comparable to these big ones in intensity.

This Sunday KV Mechelen played at home against Racing Mechelen in a sold-out stadium of almost 13.000. True, this is comparable to a game like, say, FC Groningen against AZ, but this was not a game in the First Division, not even in the Second Division; no, the Mechelen derby was played in the Third Division! This notwithstanding, the game was sold-out weeks in advance and attracted fans from as far as Germany and the Netherlands (e.g. Roda JC fans at KV and FC Dordrecht fans at Racing).

As the game had gotten serious out of hand the year before, among others because of foreign hooligans (mostly from the Netherlands), the security measures had been increased even further. To me, they were similar to what I have experienced at Feyenoord-ajax in the 1980s; there was minimally one police helicopter, two water canons, ca. 8-10 police vans, and approximately 100 policemen. The few thousand Racing fans marched from their own stadium, escorted by a heavy police presence and closed-off streets, to the KVM-Scarlet-Stadium, popularly known as “Achter de Kazerne” (Behind the Barracks).

After having circled the whole stadium, to kill the time needed to wait for J.B. (who was having his private battle with Belgian Railways), we entered the already quite full stadium at 13.30. J.B. had arranged tickets through his work (buying them through the ticket office would have been impossible); for 11 euro we had standing places at Stand 3, area G, behind the goal. From there we had a decent view, although we sometimes had to stoop to stay under the roof and bend to avoid the posts of the stand. Obviously, we were among the Kakkers, the fans of KV!

At 14.00 the teams kicked off at a beautiful green pitch, which had become nice and slippery because of several days of rain. Perfect for a Derde Klasse (Third Division) derby game! From the start both teams went full for it, tackling whatever moved. The referee kept everyone on a tight leash, leading to two yellow card for KV players within the first 5 minutes. It also prevented the game from exploding, which was not self-evident in this pandemonium. As a consequence a fierce but entertaining game developed in which not much good football was shown, but where both teams battled for each inch of the pitch and every minute something would happen.

In the 25th minute KV got a deserved 1-0 lead through a goal by “Patje” Goots, the former striker and top scorer of d´n Antwaarp (RFC Antwerp) and (self-proclaimed) star player of KV. The stadium erupted and the home goalie and players ran around the pitch like madmen. In the 39th minute the hosts even scored 2-0, somewhat flattered but not undeserved. J.B. and I swayed back and forth with the KV supporters around us into the half-time break.

Already early in the second half (60th minute) the game seemed all but over, when a Racing player got his second yellow card and had to leave. But soon after a KV player met the same fate, by stupidly obstructing a free kick, and it was 10 against 10. KV had played laconic, while Racing continued to fight, which would be rewarded. Although KV remained the better team, the game was changing and around the 75th minute the visitors scored the 2-1. Both before and after that goal KV had various counterattack opportunities, but most were squandered by Goots, whose starlike airs begged for a substitution. In the 91st minute KV was still punished by a late equalizer. Seconds later the excellent referee blew the final whistle.

After having processed the dramatic dénouement of the game, J.B. and I walked to a café to warm our frozen bodies. Having returned to a body temperature of approximately 37 degrees Celsius, we could not but conclude that we had been witness to a fantastic football afternoon. KV-Racing might not be Celtic-Rangers or Partizan-Red Star, it is without a shadow of a doubt the premier derby of Belgium and a football fest that is not to be missed.