Thursday, January 31, 2008

VC Eendracht Aalst 2002-KSV Oudenaarde (27-01-2008)

It must have been in 1995 that (a much younger) Grondhopper wanted to visit Eendracht Aalst. I was spending a couple of weeks in Brussels by myself and made good use of that opportunity to see as many Belgian teams as possible. My brother and a friend were coming from the Netherlands, but the car broke down and we never made it to the game. Now, 13 years later, KSC Eendracht Aalst has become VC Eendracht Aalst 2002, after the club went bankrupt, and it no longer plays in the top flight of Belgian football but is trying to get out of the Derde Klasse A (Third Division A). Two things remain from the glorious years: a more than adequate stadium and a comparatively large crowd (for Belgian standards).

The Pierre Cornelisstadion has been the home of Eendracht Aalst since 1928, nine years after its foundation, and is situated “in the shadow of the Holy Heart Church”. It can hold 7.500 people, of which 3.500 seated, which makes it one of the bigger grounds in the lower Belgian divisions. We bought tickets for covered standing at 8 euro a piece and a hamburger with samourai sauce at the snack cart in front of the stadium for 3 euro.

With the hunger somewhat satisfied, we circled the stadium and joined a fairly bizarre mix of people; several of them preparing for the carnival festivities that make Aalst (in)famous within Belgium. While in the stadium, it was very hard to estimate how many people were In attendance that afternoon. This was partly because JB and I are no longer used to seeing more than 400 people in one day. ;-) The official website of Eendracht Aalst speaks of 2.800, which was also roughly what we had estimated (2.500-3.000).

Although most fans were very engaged in the game, I was a bit disappointed by the (lack of) atmosphere. There was very little singing and, when it occurred, it was short and not very original. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the game itself (I had forgotten my cell phone at home, and I normally make notes on it). Probably one of the most notable aspects was that Oudenaarde played in the away shirts of Aalst.

Overall, the game was poor and slow. While Aalst was much higher in the table than Oudenaarde, 4th and 11th respectively, I couldn’t really see the difference in quality. Both teams played slow and imprecise, lacking technique and accuracy. The visitors played quite rough in the beginning, which at least had the effect that the hosts created few real chances. This notwithstanding, they did score in the 25th minute, though I can’t recall how. 1-0 was also the half time score.

The Fan

The second half was much the same, but I got increasingly drawn into the game of the number 31 of Eendracht Aalst, local hero Roel Van Den Brande, a bold guy with the heart at the right place, who fights all game, and tries to play forward. While both teams mainly battled it out in the middle of the pitch, they did have a couple of chances. In the end, it would be again Aalst who scored: 2-0 in the 58th minute.

The remaining 30 minutes were as entertaining as the previous 60, with both teams still in balance but without too much effort to fundamentally change the score. The fans around us seemed mostly worried about the scores at the other pitches, as some direct competitors were losing points.

After Roel had gotten his deserved substitution – after having walked off the pitch before, when Oudenaarde’s number 31 was substituted – I lost most of my interest in the game and just used the last minutes to enjoy the fans around me. How can I put it: Aalst produces some remarkable characters! Anyway, it remained 2-0 and everyone happily ran to the bar.

It’s a shame that Eendracht Aalst went bankrupt, but to be fair, it doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the club or its supporters. It still breathes an air of professional football that most teams in the Second Division lack. In other words, if you are in the neighborhood, do visit the Pierre Cornelisstadion and enjoy the people around you!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

HC Slavia Praha – HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi (13-01-2008)

I hadn’t been back to Prague since 2003, but boy, what a beautiful city it is. As it was the heart of Winter, and the Czech football league takes a very long winter break, a football hop was out of the question. However, there is something even better, at least in the Czech Republic: ice hockey. In my humble opinion, the Czech league is the most exciting ice hockey league in Europe; or, at least, it used to be in the 1990s.

As my favorite team (HC Sparta Praha) was playing for the European league, my girlfriend MG and I decided to see a game of town rivals Slavia. Fortunately I checked their website the day before the game, as I had completely missed the fact that they had exchanged their old Communist-style stadium for the brand new Sazka Arena. This ultramodern stadium was built for the 2004 Men’s Ice Hockey World Championships and holds 18.000 people, making it one of the biggest ice hockey stadiums in Europe.

After a 15 minute ride with the yellow metro line B, we got out at station Ceskomoravska and walked the 400 meters to the Arena. We were more than an hour early, so the only scattered fans around were the visitors from Usti nad Labem, a destitute city close to the German border (some 85 km north of Prague). We bought tickets a couple of rows behind the dug-outs, which at 250 Czech Crowns (ca. 9.50 euro) a piece must have been among the most expensive tickets I ever bought for a sports game in Eastern Europe. The game between the number two and number last of the O2 Extraliga, the Czech First Division, attracted some 3.500 spectators, not even bad for a Sunday evening in Prague, but fairly pathetic in such a huge stadium. While the home fans were by far the more visible and vocal, the ca. 500 away fans were enthusiastic and seemed to have the day of their life in this ultramodern surrounding.

The expected severe beating of Slovan didn’t take place. Although Slavia did start well, being 1-0 up, Slovan came back and turned the score around to a shocking 1-2 after the first period. While both the visitors and the home fans didn’t believe their eyes, the former enjoyed themselves tremendously.

The second period was fully for Slavia, 2-0, although the team hardly impressed. But with 3-2 after two periods, the game was still well open. With the level of play deteriorating even further, the game remained extremely tight. In the third and last period Slovan fought like devils and came back to 3-3. Unfortunately, Slavia was able to score the 4-3 and defend it to the end of the game, to the relief of their fans.

While MG was raving about her first hockey game, I could not help but feel a bit cheated out of my East European experience. Sure, the Sazka Arena is beautiful, but it has the same problem as all those new ultramodern football stadiums: no character. There is nothing ‘Czech’ about it. In fact, I felt more at a NFL game than at an Extraliga game. I cannot help it, but I missed the old Eden Stadion!

K. Bocholter VV – KFC Mol Wezel (20-01-2008)

Although, strictly speaking, this was not my first hop of the year – I saw the hockey game HC Slavia Praha – HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi in Prague a week before – this Sunday I did see my first football game of the year. Accompanied by my loyal fellow-hopper JB and my girlfriend MG, we set off to the Belgian province of Limburg to watch a game between two mid-table teams of the Derde Klasse B (Third Division B).

After a scenic route through memory lane, we arrived at the humble Damburg Stadion, which can hold a maximum of 3.062 people and consists of only two small stands on parts of the two long sides of the pitch. The new stadium is next to the old ground, where K. Bocholter VV played its games below the four national divisions until 1998.

We tried to get tickets for the main stand, which probably doesn’t hold more than 300 people, but were told that we couldn’t have tickets next to each other anymore. So, we decided to slum it, and at 8.50 euro bought tickets for the standing sections (i.e. everywhere else around the pitch).

Attached to the ticket office was the one snack station, which I passed without noticing at first. Not only is it positioned very badly, i.e. between the guy who sells the tickets and the guys who checks them, it also works with false advertisement. The big sign on the building says “Hot-Dog”, but fronts a picture of a hamburger. To the confusion of the guy in front of me, however, it doesn’t sell hamburgers. The only items they sell are hotdogs and “broodjes frikandel” (a sandwich with a meaty snack); the last one I sampled with some disappointment.

While K. Bocholter VV is a reasonably old team, founded in 1923, KFC Racing Mol-Wezel is one of the many merger clubs in Belgium, founded in 2002 out of a merger of K. Wezel Sport FC and KSV Mol. Both teams made it to the Third Division only recently, after a short stint in the Fourth Division and longer stints in sub-national leagues. As Mol and Wezel are not so far away from Bocholt, between 35 and 40 km, the visitors had taken some 100 fans with them, which made up between one-quarter to one-fifth of the 400-500 spectators this afternoon.

After a beverage in the cozy canteen above the main stand, which had a waiter (!), we took our place at the side of the pitch, literally at 2 meters of the pitch. The weather was typical Belgian: grey, windy, a bit rainy, but not too cold. The first half was very poor. Both teams fought hard and fair, but seemed unable to provide good passes. Instead, we focused on the endless complaining of some players (most notably the No. 10 of Bocholt, Jimmi Catgiu), as well as the two players we did know, both at Mol-Wezel: Kurt Van De Paar, a big youth talent of Anderlecht, who failed at FC Twente and Trabzonspor before ending in the lower regions of Belgian football at only 30, and Patje “Boem Boem” Goots, a cult legend who at 41 has scored over 400 goals in the various national leagues of Belgium. This all notwithstanding, half time score was 0-0.

The second half seemed to be much more of the same. But in the 60th minute the only remarkable player on the pitch showed his class. Goots got the ball inside the penalty box, fooled the goalie by cutting left rather than shooting, simply got free from a defender, and then kicked the ball in the far corner: 0-1! From that moment on the visitors set back around their penalty box and the hosts desperately tried to create clear chances. In fact, in the next five minutes Bocholt created two big chances, but failed to score.

In the 65th minute Goots was substituted. Even more the number 9 of Mol Wezel, Jeroen Van De Kerkhof, became the man of the match. After several big chances of the hosts, and some impressive safes of the Mol Wezel goalie, “Jeroen” (as the supporters next to us all the time shouted) set up an attack, got beyond the goalie, and rather than shooting himself laid off to a team mate, who thankfully scored the 0-2. Even though Bocholt had much more of the play, the victory of Mol-Wezel was deserved. They had the clearer chances and the cooler players.

Overall, it was not a remarkable groundhop. Granted, it was nice to see Pat Goots score his fourhundredwhatevers goal, but the setting was not impressive and neither was the level of play. I guess the best thing about K. Bocholter VV is that it is not a merger club… yet!