Saturday, November 08, 2008

Oregon – Stanford (08-11-2008)

This season I’m working at the University of Oregon in Eugene, known for two sports: track & field and football… American football that is. The Ducks, as all sports teams of the U of O are called, are part of the PAC-10, a kind of premier league of college football teams of the West Coast. While the West is not the heartland of college football, the PAC-10 has some strong teams (notably the USC Trojans), and Oregon has become one of them (not the least because of the millions of support of Phil Knight, one of the two founders of Nike).

I left my house some 45 minutes before kick-off, grabbing a bagel and a rain coat on the way. After a beautiful sunny October, the rain had started a couple of days ago, and seemed to have picked this game to make the point that Oregon is a rainy state. I walked with a growing group of green-yellow fans, over the foot bridge, to the beautiful Autzen Stadium. Just before kick-off I arrived.

Built in 1967, and significantly renovated and expanded since, most lately in 2002, Autzen Stadium currently has an official capacity of 54.000. However, most games attract a couple of thousand more people: today’s attendance was a sell out with 58,013! This in a town of just over 150,000 and a university of some 20,000 students. I had bought my ticket online, more than three months ago, at which time it was already impossible to get two seats next to each other. Although fairly expensive, at 55 USD and a 4 USD “facility fee”, I had a very good spot, relatively close to the pitch and at the 30 yard line.

I arrived just in time for the delayed kick-off, slightly after 12.30, somewhat (pleasantly) surprised to not hear the national anthem. The Ducks started on fire, getting a turnover after one minute, and being 0-10 up within 5 minutes. Stanford got a field goal back, but after the first quarter Oregon seemed to have things under control: 3-17.

But the Ducks are a young and very instable team, so as so often before it completely lost its momentum. Within five minutes of the second quarter, Oregon had squandered its lead: 17-17. The rest of the quarter was a close fight with little result: still, a late field goal ensured a tiny 17-20 lead for the Ducks at half-time.

Despite the fact that it was raining the entire game, and Autzen Stadium is not covered, the vast majority of fans stayed in their seats and continued to cheer and shout. Even without encouragements on the scoreboard, often the only way American fans make noise, the yellow and green rain jacket wearing fans would make the O-sign and shout OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

And, with only 2:18 on the clock, Stanford attacked, fumbled the ball, and got into the end zone. After a long discussion on the pitch, the referee ruled that it was not a touchdown. But after another minutes-long review off-pitch, Stanford were awarded a touch-down after all. 28-27 and only 2 minutes to go: time for general desperation. From now on, everything had to go perfectly… and it did. In 11 plays, after 74 yards, and with only 6 seconds on the clock, the Ducks scored the no-longer-expected touchdown and took the game. Together with the field conversion it brought the final score to 28-35! Autzen erupted! What a finale!

The third quarter was tight, with Stanford equalizing, before Oregon took the lead with another touchdown: 20-27. Soaked by now, the home fans got increasingly annoyed by the bad throwing of the quarterback and the fumbling of some of the receivers. Stanford got two points back, making the difference only 5 points.

Although I was by now soaked and cold, I left the stadium with a deep sense of satisfaction. I clearly have found a love for college football – although I do think the games last too long (four 15-minute quarters lasted over 3.5 hours). And everything I heard about Autzen and the Ducks fans proved right: they rock! GO DUCKS!
Georgia Tech – Florida State (01-11-2008)

As this was going to be one of my last visits of Atlanta, and the last time during Football season, M.G. and I got tickets for a game between two of the main teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference (numbers 31 and 16 nationwide). As these games are sold out well in advance, we went online (at StubHub) and paid 85 USD each.

Already on the walk to the stadium we were surprised by the number of fans of Florida State University, in Tallahassee, a good 270 miles to the southwest. Around the stadium there seemed to be as many white-old gold home fans as garnet-gold visitors. Everyone was in jolly spirits, enjoying the surprisingly sunny weather.

After an endless climb up the stairs we took our place in the scorching sun… surrounded by Florida State fans. The Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field is located at the city campus of Georgia Institute of Technology. It has a capacity of 55,000 – today’s official attendance was 53,528 – and gives an impressive view of downtown Atlanta.

The game started very well for Florida State, which made me root for the Yellow Jackets (i.e. Georgia Tech). After the first quarter the visitors were 10-3 up and we were semi-broiled. Even though it was the first of November, the sun was shining as if it was middle of July in the south of France.

The second quarter the game exploded, with the Jackets scoring three touchdowns in a row, before the Seminoles could get a touchdown back. A 45 yard field goal sealed the quarter with a small lead for the hosts: 20-24.

After a half-time of band music and cheerleading, the third quarter solidified the Georgia Tech lead: 20-31. As the FSU fans around us were looking increasingly desperate, and we were finally starting to hear the home fans, the game changed yet again. The fourth quarter was all about the visitors, which first scored a touchdown and then converted with a field play (i.e. 2 instead of 1 point). However, that was all they had time for, so in a narrow ending the Jackets won 28-31 against the Seminoles. The first victory of Georgia Tech over Florida State since 1975!

To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed by the home fans. The Bobby Dodd Stadium is a great football ground, smack in the middle of a city, but this game the visitors (accounting for almost a quarter of the attendants) seemed to make most of the atmosphere. That said, it was great weather and a good first American Football game!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Oregon – Washington (26-10-2008)

In the absence of professional sports, I decided to go and see a game of the women soccer team of the University of Oregon. At US colleges and universities ‘soccer’ is still mainly a female sports; but among women sports, it is one of the most popular. So, I took my bike and rode to Pape’ Field, in the shadow of the mighty Autzen Stadium, where the UO American Football team plays its home games (more on that in two weeks).

To my surprise, I had to pay 5 USD to get in and, even more surprising, there were some 150 spectators on the one stand. Many were related to the players, I guess – either being friends or family. But there were also quite a lot fans of ‘the Ducks’ (the nickname of the University of Oregon). As my breakfast took longer than expected, I arrived 15 minutes late, and the Ducks were 0-1 down. This seemed fair, as ‘the Huskies’ (the University of Washington or UW) were clearly the better team.

This was the first women soccer game I ever saw in a stadium, I have seen some WC games on tv, and, to be honest, I remain unimpressed. First of all, they simply miss power; in terms of speed (of ball and players). Second, their technique is quite poor. Third, their movement is limited, in terms of space and originality. I was amazed how defensive and disciplined both teams played though. It reminded me of Belgian football.

Fortunately it was great weather, and the atmosphere was friendly yet engaged, so I did enjoy the experience. There were few real chances, as most of the game went on between the two penalty boxes. The Huskies remain a tat better, but the Ducks press for the equalizer. They get it in the 72nd minute, with a great 20m shot. Unfortunately, in the 80th minute the Huskies get a free-kick just outside of the box. With a rather lame shot low in the left corner the visitors score 1-2: the winner!

Although I enjoyed the event, the weather and atmosphere did more for me than the football. I know, I’m a sexist, but as far as I’m concerned, women soccer is still miles behind the real thing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Luxembourg - Greece (06-09-2008)

The day before my (temporary?) emigration to the United States, J.B. and I made a farewell groundhop. Unfortunately, there were very few option available to us, because of international games, so we decided to see Luxembourg against Greece, despite having visited the boring Stade Josy Barthel not long before.

We arrived well in time, but at the expense of not having had time to get a snack on the way there. We bought tickets for the uncovered long side at 20 euro a piece, which was largely occupied by the away supporters. Fortunately, they sold warm snacks there – better said, one snack: a Grillwurst, which was way below German standard and, at 3 euro, much more expensive. With an official attendance of 4.596 people, the national stadium was actually well-filled (it has a capacity of 8,054). As this was a special event, the Luxembourgian Football Union had splashed out on getting not just one cheerleader squad, but two! Both were crap, but the ones from the German town of Trier were a bit less amateuristic. Still, the mostly Greek fans enjoyed them.

The dominance of the away fans was most notable, and painful, during national anthems; whereas the Greek Hymn to Liberty was sang by thousands, the Luxembourgian Our Motherland was not even hummed by hundreds. You would think it was the Greeks who played a home game. Also, the away fans were clearly the more colorful.

The game started poorly, not too surprising given Luxembourg’s long-standing reputation and Greece’s horrible performance at the European Championship this summer. In the 19th minute the hosts had their first shot at goal, and a couple of minutes later a Greek defender almost scored an own goal.

Still, in the 31st the inevitable (finally) happened: after an easy attack over the right wing Greece scored 0-1. Although this clearly lifted a huge load off the Greek side, they nevertheless returned to poor play. The Luxembourgers defended with 10 men, leaving the attack up to the only dark player (and Luxembourger?), who did little else than shoot from wherever. In the second minute of extra time, two Greek players went at the Luxembourg goal for 40 meters and scored 0-2: half time!

As the evening grew colder and colder, the games went from bad to worse. In the 59th minute the visitors had their first chance of the second half, and ten minutes loser the hosts followed. In the 71st minute the Greeks fired a great volley, which was well saved by the Luxembourg goalie.

Another several minutes later the Luxembourgers had their one moment in front of the Greek goal, heading it just over. In the 80th minute the Greeks got a debatable penalty, which highly frustrated striker Charisteas converted: 0-3.

Obviously the game was over, but we had to suffer another ten minutes. To the credit of the hosts, they actually came to another chance, in the dying seconds of the game, three minutes in over-time, forcing the Greek goalie to one of his only saves of the game. This not mistaken, 0-3 was a logical result in a game between these two poor teams.

Well, that was the last one for a while. Do keep checking in regularly, particularly in December!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Good Old-Fashioned Saturday Double Hop (16-08-2008)

The great thing of living relatively close to four countries is the possibility of double hops, i.e. two games on one day. Normally these are done on Saturdays, when you start in Germany, where they play in the afternoon, and end in Belgium, France or the Netherlands, where they play in the evening. Unfortunately, I have seen the vast majority of teams in the larger Ruhrgebiet, in the west of Germany, and it has become more difficult to find suitable German teams for double hops. Fortunately, however, JB is not afraid to drive mean distances, and I am still able to get myself out of bed at 7.30 on a Saturday.

SV Darmstad 98 – Karlsruhe SC II

Leuven to Darmstadt is almost 400 km, which we made in good 4 hours as the roads weren’t too busy and few roadworks slowed us down. Moreover, Darmstadt must have the best signing of all cities I know, as we were directed to the Stadion am Böllenfalltor without any problems.

We parked just outside of the stadium, which is quite ugly from the outside. At 9 euro a piece we bought tickets for the non-seating area, as it was very sunny and we wanted to enjoy one last real summer game. The Böllenfalltorstadion was built in 1921 and hasn’t been renovated since 1974. It can hold 20.000 people and counts only one covered stand, seating 4.000. After eating a spicy Zigeunerwurst (gypsy sausage), and buying a nice pennant in one of the two small but well stocked fan shops, we took our place in the sun on the huge long stand.

SV Darmstadt 98 is a name from the past; in my youth they played consistently in the Zweite Bundesliga Süd (Second Division South); in the late 1970s and early 1980s Darmstadt even played in the Bundesliga (First Division). But they have fell on hard times in the 1990s, relegating to the Oberliga Hessen (Fifth Divison Hesse). Last season they became champions, promoting to the Regionalliga Süd (Fourth Division South). However, before playing their first game in that division, a bankruptcy had to be averted (once again) over the summer.

For the season opener some 1.500 people made it into the stadium, including possibly 10 from Karlsruhe (only 109km away, but then again, these are the reserves and the first team played at home), enjoying the sun rather than the game. Incidentally, the stadium announcer spoke of “2.600” attendants, but that seemed highly exaggerated. Still, one section of the home fans created a lot of atmosphere, singing throughout the whole of the match.

In the first half there was very little to sing or talk about. Both teams played very poorly. Darmstadt couldn’t do much better and KSC II didn’t want to. We mainly enjoyed ourselves with the sun and people watching. 0-0 was the logical half time score.

The second half started fairly similarly, but was soon to divert radically. Despite huge protests on the stance, the referee gave a deserved penalty in the 50th minute, after a defender held a striker obviously and stupidly. KSC took the gift: 0-1.

This finally opened up the game. In the 62nd minute the visitors laid down a good and simple over the right side and finished it with an easy header: 0-2. One minute later they had deserved another penalty, but the clearly intimidated referee didn’t dare to give it. As the “Blue Madness” kept singing, and their team kept pushing, this cowardice decision almost made a difference. In the 70th minute, after a corner kick, Darmstadt scored the 1-2, after three attempts.

Still, the difference between the two teams was simply too big. After a gallery play attack, the visitors got a penalty. It was finished with a fantastic heel of the ball (Hackentrick): 1-3. Afterwards the had two more attacks (a strange bouncing ball on the cross bar and a counter attack that was shot wide) before they scored their final goal, in the 87th minute, after a simple counter attack:1-4. Even the Blue Madness was silenced by that.

As virtually all other spectators, we left the meet and greet with the players, which was to follow the game, for what it was. Instead, we made virtually exactly the same road back.

KSK Tongeren – ROC Charleroi

After a good three hour drive, and an impressive snack just off the motorway in Tongeren, we arrived (a bit late) at Op de Keiberg, the rather soulless stadium of a rather soulless club.

De Koninklijke Sportkring Tongeren Hedera Millen plays in the Derde Klasse B (Third Division B), but this game was for the Belgian Cup, against second divisionist Royal Olympic Club de Charleroi-Marchienne. We entered the stadium through the aligned sports hall, where we bought a ticket for 7 euro (everywhere but at the one main stand).

Some 250 people attended the game, at least 75 from Charleroi, more than 110 km away! They saw a rough games, which many quite brutal fouls (mostly from Tongeren defenders and midfielders), which were not penalized enough by the soft referee. Only in the 42nd minute a first good chance materialized, from the visitors, but they headed just wide. 0-0 was the half time score.

The second half started a bit more exciting. After a poor clearance from a defender, Olympic screwed up the chance. Two minutes later they got their act together, after four attempts, and finally scored: 0-1. This was roughly the end of the Olympic efforts, as they sat back deep, leaving the initiative to the incapable hosts.

The rest of the game was as uneventful as the first half. Tongeren pushed and kept playing rough. Olympic did just enough to stay in front. A minimal performance. As the game got ino extra time, the guests scored once more: 0-2, the final score.

I guess this game made it clear that it’s time for Grondhopper to leave Belgium behind him. KSK Tongeren was my 53rd team in Belgium, and again (as KV Turnhout before it) a disappointment. The difference of the Belgian third divisionist and the German fourth divisionist was huge in all aspects except for the level of play. The ambiance, fan gear, and support in Germany is just so much better.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SV Rot-Weiß Oberhausen – Bayer 04 Leverkusen (10-08-2008)

With only a good week to go before my ‘transfer’ to the US, technically I’ll be ‘on loan’, it was time to make my farewell-hop with my friend M.T. As our last hop had been a bit below his standards, I did my best to not drag him into the lower belly of European football again. After several data changes, for a variety of reasons, we agreed upon Sunday 10 August, which turned out perfectly, as it had a serious game just across the Dutch border and only at 17.30. This allowed me to visit his family before setting en route from Leiden to Oberhausen, just over 200 km and a good two hours drive because of all the roadworks. As we had left a bit too late, we arrived close to kick-off.

Forced to park at a 10 minute walk from the stadium, we bought our tickets (at 8 euro) at kick-off time, and entered the standing-only Emscherkurve several minutes later; I was starving and, let’s face it, which non-vegetarian can resist a German Wurst even when he is not hungry? At the program was one of the top games from the first round of the DFB-Pokal (German Cup), between the recently promoted 2. Bundesliga (Second Division) team SV Rot-Weiß Oberhausen (RWO) and long-established 1. Bundesliga (First Division) team Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Bayer), which has been struggling since it “Treble Horror” season 2001-2002 (when it lost the Champions League, German Cup, and German title, all in the last match). Interestingly, the big scoreboard of the Rheinstadion (Rhine Stadium) of RWO was a gift (in 1998) of… Bayer 04 Leverkusen.

As we had expected, it was very busy in the stadium. The Rheinstadion was built in 1926 and has stayed largely the same since. It’s an old-school German stadium, with two covered seating stands on the long side of the pitch (the main stand was built only in 1998), two standing areas behind the goals, and the horrible but inevitable track around the pitch. My personal favorite of the stadium was the little Turm (tower) with clock.

For RWO this was one of the biggest games of the season, and the chance of a possible upset. Moreover, the weather was decent and it was the first official game of the season. According to the club, 10.117 people attended the game, which seems strange, as the full capacity is 21.318, yet the stadium seemed pretty packed. This was particularly true for the Emscherkurve, where the home fans stand; it was so packed that we could hardly see the game. On the Kanalkurve, opposite to us, I estimate that some 2.500 away fans stood; which is not that surprising as Oberhausen and Leverkusen are only 54 km apart, and are both part of the highly industrialized Ruhrgebiet.

Admittedly, I missed quite some of the game because of the packed stand full of tall German, blocking my view, and because of the regular trips to the snacks stand, but I don’t seem to have missed much. Leverkusen was truly appalling, while RWO tried but lacked quality. Most of the first half was battle at the midfield, and only very few true chances were created. Consequently, 0-0 was the only correct half time score.

The second half was not much better. However, as had been in the making for some time, the guests did finally score, in the 69th minute. It was hardly deserved, as Leverkusen clearly had the better team, but most players were almost striking, that’s how little they did.

For much of the game the difference between the neo-second divisionist and the established first divisionist was invisible, which led the home fans to the (accurate) taunt “Erste Bundesliga, niemand weiß warum” (First Division, no one knows why”. Still, they were leading 0-1, which should have been much higher as they were missing two 100% chances in the 88th minute alone! As many home fans had already left the stadium, and we were ready to head back after a disappointing game, the unbelievable happened: in the last minute of extra time RWO scored the equalizer: 1-1 and extra time. Around us people exploded, what a relief!

What followed was Pokalfieber pur (pure cup fever)! Despite the fact that Bayer was starting to play a bit better, it was the outsider that scored in the 97th minute: 2-1. Was a wonder is the making? Unfortunately, no, as one minute before the end of the first half time, Bayer equalized: 2-2. This clearly was a blow to the tired hosts, who had several players with cramps or small injuries. Not surprisingly, despite their awful performance, the guests also scored the winner, in the 11th minute. That was also the final score.

Somehow this game reminded me of some of the games of the Turks at the recent European Championship. They were poor and boring until the dying minutes of regular time, and then exhilarating in extra time. This definitely was a cup classic, even if I would have wanted RWO to win in the end. In any case, the Rheinstadion is definitely worth a visit of you are into old-school German football.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

KV Turnhout – K Lierse SK (05-08-2008)

It’s been a long time since I went to a game by bus, let alone by regional bus. But given the poor evening train connection in Belgium, P.S. and I had no other choice than to Turnhout, 42 km to the north, by bus, an agreeable 1 hour. We arrived to the center of town with just under an hour before kick-off. This allowed us a relaxed 30 minute walk to the Stadspark (city park), the leafy setting of the stadium of KV Turnhout.

We bought (general) tickets for 8 euro and entered the stadium. There were some 500 people, most of which fans of the away team, Lierse SK. The teams are owned by the same owner, Wadi Degla Investment, an Egyptian business that also owns the Wadi Degla Sporting Club in Cairo. So, it seemed that this was the season opener for both teams, and Lierse SK just has more supporters. Then again, Lierse SK plays in the Tweede Klasse (Second Division), having won the top division of Belgium in 1997, whereas KV Turnhout plays a division lower, and cannot look back at a glorious past.

The Stadsparkstadion is a horrible site. It is completely new, but only counts two stands, both on the long side. One is very small, including the sad away fans section (not in use today), the other a bit bigger, housing the canteen, dressing rooms, and ‘business section’. Unfortunately both stands are separated from the pitch by a broad athletics track! Consequently, the stadium provides very little atmosphere; tonight the little also came from the away fans, which make you wonder how a game against, say, RRC Peruwelz are.

Lierse used the friendly mainly to test a whole lot of players, almost exclusively Africans. It seems that the Egyptian owner hopes to use Lierse to bring African talents to Europe to then sell them with great profit; something SK Beveren has tried recently, and failed miserably (despite having much better African players than Lierse). Not surprising then, given all the testers, that Lierse didn’t play very well tactically. Most players were mainly busy with themselves and there were no set plays.

Nevertheless, it was no surprise when Lierse SK was the first to score, in the 11th minute, after a poor ball back and a cool finishing: 0-1. Tunhout kept playing its own game, fairly decent given the mediocrity of the squad, and in the 14th minute had a good set of attack, including three headers and three safes of the Lierse goalie.

Lierse was mainly counter-attacking in this phase, which almost led to a second goal in the 17th minute. However, in the 21st minute Turnhout got what it deserved: a strong shot from 20 meters turned slowly away from the goalie: 1-1. In the remain time of the first half both teams got one good chance each, but 1-1 was also the half time score. As there was little to do or see in the stadium, except perhaps for the stone remembering 35 years of KFCT (the predecessor), we just used the break to move from the main stand to the small stand opposite to it.

The second half started with a long scrimmage in front of the Turnhout goal, but with no result for Lierse. After that the level of the game continued to decrease, reaching a very poor level at the end. There were virtually no remarkable pieces of play to see, as mostly both teams fought tough physical duels at the midfield. Only in the 60th minute we saw a first real chance, for the hosts, but the goalie deflected the shot of the striker. The following corner kick also created a chance, but not a goal.

By now there was no atmosphere left on the stands, as both groups of supporters seemed disappointed by their team and increasingly annoyed by the erratic referee. Both teams had one more chance, in the 80th and 84th minute, before they settled for the final score of 1-1.

PS and I were happy it was over. Despite the nice setting, in a green city park, the ground of KV Turnhout is one of the worst I have ever visited. No atmosphere whatsoever, and the distance to the pitch is awful. They also seem to have few fans (particularly when they are not successful). Definitely not a club to recommend!