Tuesday, March 25, 2008

FCV Dender EH-Club Brugge KV (22-03-2008)

An Easter break without a groundhop, that would be wrong, so I decided two days before to find a club that I hadn’t visited before, but that would be accessible by public transport. Given that only the two top divisions in Belgium played, and I have seen the vast majority of teams, this was not easy. One of the few options was FCV Dender EH, but they were playing their big game against Club Brugge, so I was expecting it to be sold out weeks in advance. Not so! There were still a couple of tickets available online, uncovered standing behind the goal, so I paid the 15 euro each, and ordered two tickets: one for P.S. and one for me.

After an easy train ride of some 1 hour and 15 minutes, transferring at Brussels, P.S. and I arrived in Denderleeuw, East Flanders. We had a quick snack, which turned out to be a mistake, and walked to the stadium – an easy 10 minute walk, as the lights are clearly visible and quite a lot of locals are walking to the stadium too. Well before kick-off we arrived, though it would take some time and effort to find out where exactly we had to change our Internet voucher for a real ticket (“at the small garden hut around the corner of the entrance”). We joined the hundreds other fans in front of the tiny entrance to the Florent Beeckmanstadion.

The Football Club Verbroedering Dender Eendracht Hekelgem is a typical example of the all too common Belgian merger club. FCV Dender EV is a merger (in 2004) of Verbroedering Denderhoutem and FC Denderleeuw EH, itself a merger of FC Denderleeuw and Eendracht Hekelgem (2001). In 2006 the new FCV Dender EH became champions in the Derde Klasse (Third Division), and the next year they did the same in the Tweede Klasse (Second Division). This first season in the Eerste Klasse (First Division) they are fighting relegation. They were at the bottom of the table during the whole first half of the season, but have since started a modest rise (under new coach Johan Boskamp).

Around and inside of the stadium it was absolutely clear: this was the big game of the season. Club Brugge is the big team in the area and the one to beat. The stadium was sold out and had a great local atmosphere. Interestingly, although the stadium announcer spoke of 6.800 spectators, which is also the official maximum, the official club website reports 7.000. Whatever the exact number, at least 1.000 were Club Brugge fans, who were not only in the whole stand behind one goal, but also dispersed throughout the other three sides of the pitch.

The Away Fans

The atmosphere was both familiar and euphoric: everyone seemed to know the people around them, be they home or away supporters, and they were ready to have the evening of their life. Even the fact that we were experiencing the coldest night of the year (so far) couldn’t temper the enthusiasm. So, bundled up we saw what would turn out to be a mediocre but very exciting game of football. From the beginning FC Dender played at least as attacking as Club Brugge, who were kind of fighting for their last chance at the title. The first chances were all for the hosts, even though they didn’t really test the Club goalie.

After some 15 minutes the visitors took over the initiative and started to create more chances. They hit a defender with a header and shot at the fists of the Dender goalie. However, in the 30th minute FC Dender had a beautiful attack, created mostly by the agile striker Munyaneza (referred to by the locals as ‘Mayonnaise’). After a lucky chance for Brugge, in the 38th minute, it would be the hosts who had the last big chance, in the 40th minute, forcing the Brugge goalie to make a great safe. Half time score: 0-0.

During half time we went into the big and buzzing canteen, where everyone was taking shelter for the freezing wind, and to my great surprise I found a well-stocked fan shop, which even sold (not particularly beautiful) pennants. Ignoring the broad choice of snacks outside, which included pitas, we took our place behind the goal to enjoy a second half of David against Goliath. Both teams were still roughly equal, although you could see the tiredness arising among several Dender players. Not surprisingly, it was Brugge who would create most of the chances, though very few the result of good play or truly challenging the Dender goalie.

As players became more and more tired, particularly those of Dender, the spaces became bigger and some chances clearer. In the 73rd minute the hosts had a nice long attack, but failed to finish, while 5 minutes later Munyaneza went alone at the Brugge goalie and failed. The home fans started to think that there might be even more in this game than a draw and in the 75th their dreams came true: after a good attack, Sanchez shoots from just outside of the penalty box, fast and low, in the corner: 1-0 and the people go crazy around us (including us).

The Fan

The last fifteen minutes must have been the longest the FC Dender fans ever saw. In the 84th minute a Dender defender rescues at the goal line. The home fans become euphoric, and even take the three minutes extra time lightly. In fact, in the last minute of the game a Dender striker again goes alone at the Brugge goalie, but his lob is too low. Not much later the referee blows his final whistle and everyone turns their cell phone to the scoreboard: “this is historic”, says a young Dender fan next to me. And he was right!

Tingling from coldness and satisfaction P.S. and I walked back to the stadium. We were even so early that we could take a train back earlier, returning to Antwerp before midnight. We were in full agreement on the evening: this is what groundhopping is all about!

Friday, March 21, 2008

VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach – FC St. Pauli (16-03-2008)

At least once a season I visit my German love, VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach 1900 e.V. And, as JB has joined the big community of Gladbach fans, it was clear that we had to see them before this season was over. On this hop we also had the company of JB’s friend N. (despite the fact that he is a Club Brugge fan).

After a 2.5 hour drive, which included 30 minutes stop-and-drive from the motorway exit to the stadium parking lot, we walked toward the Borussia-Park. Today we were playing the ultimate cult team of Germany: St. Pauli from Hamburg. Pauli is known for its following, which includes many anarchists (Autonomen) and other alternative left-wingers. As an homage to its fans, the club even started to use the pirate symbol, which its fans had been waving for years.

St. Pauli Team Bus

I had bought tickets online in advance, for 20 euro each on the Süd Unterrang, so we were able to take our place in time. The stadium was almost packed, with a good 48.000 people – and this is Germany’s Second (!) Division (2. Bundesliga). Among them were several thousand fans of St. Pauli, including in the sky boxes.

As always, the game was preceded by the collective singing of the rock song “Die Elf von Niederrhein” (The Eleven from Lower Rhine) by the band B.O. – In Germany many football teams have bands that play ‘soccer rock’, while the phenomenon also exists in Italy and the Netherlands – most notably through the band Foienoord!

I’m not going to write much about the game itself. Although Borussia is at the top of the 2. Bundesliga, destined to return to the top flight of German football, they have been struggling since January. This game was not much different. Both teams played rather poor, but at the same time created many chances. Although Borussia should have been 3-0 up by half time, it was still 0-0.

The second half was much the same: bad play, but may chances. This time, Borussia was able to successfully finish one: in the 62nd minute striker and top scorer Rob Friend scored the much awaited and needed 1-0. Shortly after Neuville missed a huge chance, but fortunately it remained 1-0. As the direct competition Mainz 05 and Greuther Fürth both lost, it was still a really good day for Die Fohlen!

After the game, we were somewhat disappointed by the catering, which clearly hadn’t expected such a good turnout, as virtually every stand was out of bread or even French fries. However, even more disappointing was the roughly 30 minute wait at the packed parking lots. 48.000 people in a stadium is fun, 48.000 outside of a stadium is a traffic nightmare!
KSV Oudenaarde – K. Londerzeel SK (15-03-2008)

This Saturday I had my good friend M.T. over. It had been over a year that we saw each other and made our last hop. As we didn’t want to go too far, and I have visited most teams in the top flights in a one-hour radius, I decided to take him to KSV Oudenaarde, at roughly an hour of Antwerp. Although rain had been forecast for the whole day, it didn’t rain… until we arrived at the game.

Although we arrived roughly 10 minutes before kick-off, we had no problem finding a spot at the parking lot next to the Thienpondtstadion. As M.T. was buying tickets for covered standing, at 8 euro each, I already ordered some snacks at the frituur (snackbar) in front of the stadium. Satisfied, with the French fries in our hands, we entered the ground, which has a very particular structure. There are three stands, all in different styles, but overall it looks like a poor athletics stadium, including the annoying track.

As soon as we had entered the stand, I had noticed that M.T. was not getting what he had expected. Through all my recent hops with JB, AH and MG, I had forgotten that some of my friends actually prefer to see ‘serious’ games. And that does not include a game in the Derde Klasse A (Third Division A) between KSV Oudenaarde en K. Londerzeel SK in front of ca. 350-450 people (of whom some 6 from Londerzeel, who all stood in front of us)!

To be fair, the game wasn’t too good. The home team got their first chance after 10 minutes. However, in the 15th minute something happened that can only be described as hilarious (even though I had to hear it from M.T., as I was taking a picture of something else and missed the moment of the match): an Oudenaarde defender played the ball back to his goalie, it hit a little bump, the goalie kicked over the ball, and it rolled into his goal: 0-1! ☺.

As people around us where still in shock, except for the 6 away fans who couldn’t believe their luck, Oudenaarde tried to get back into the game, and indeed created two (semi-)chances in two minutes. But that was it for them. The visitors would create one last chance, after a good combination was screwed up by a striker. And thus we went into the half time break with an unexpected 0-1 for Londerzeel, a team battling relegation and with only 2 points from all its previous away games.

After a refreshing coke zero in the canteen, and a disappointing burger from the stadium snack cart, we took our spot on the covered stand, as the weather had take a turn for the worse. In fact, the whole second half it would rain like cats and dogs. This didn’t help improve the level of play. After a single chance on both sides of the pitch, Londerzeel did what even its own fans hadn’t expected: score the 0-2 through a strong header from a corner. With only 15 minutes left in the game, everyone knew this was the decider.

Oudenaarde did try to pressure a bit, and even tested the Londerzeel goalie a few times with shots from afar, but overall the game was over. And so, after 90+ minutes, Londerzeel won its second game in a row… and I was there both times! They should make me their mascot!

As we walked back to the car, through the rain obviously, I profusely apologized to M.T. Next time I’ll take him to a bigger game… although we might have to go to another country for that.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

K. Londerzeel SK – KVC Willebroek-Meerhof (09-03-2008)

As a preface to an Editors concert later that evening, JB and I decided to take a small hop to the small town of Londerzeel, in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant. At the agenda was a game in the Derde Klasse A (Third Division A), between Londerzeel SK and KVC Willebroek-Meerhof. Although it was only a 45 minute drive from our usual starting point, Leuven Central Station, we left late and managed to arrived a couple of minutes after kick-off at the little impressive, but therefore highly authentic Burgemeester A. Lambertstadion.

We bought standing place tickets for 10 euro each, which gave us access to the one covered stand in the stadium. As the weather was dismal, even for Belgian standards, roughly everyone had congregated there, or in the canteen, which gave the appearance of a good crowd. However, the stadium can hold only 3.000 and I estimate that this afternoon only 3-400 were in attendance. Probably some 50 were away fans from the town of Willebroek, only 10 km away.

We were some ten minutes late, but it was clear we hadn’t missed much. The hosts are low in the table and are battling relegation, whereas the visitors are in the safe zone, but too far behind to hope for promotion. On a very muddy and wet pitch, both teams struggled to control the pace of the ball, although they did so well (for the Belgian Third Division). This notwithstanding, very few good attacks were created.

But roughly five minutes before half time the game truly exploded. In the 39th minute the hosts scored through a header: 1-0. Just three minutes later there was a small brawl and a red card for one of the visitors. So, Londerzeel SK was one goal and one player up. Satisfied, if cold, the fans found shelter in the canteen, and so did we.

Although I had told myself not to snack, I couldn’t resist the mexicano-sandwich-with- samourai (let’s face it, who could?! – well, ok, JB, but he is a vegetarian), so I committed this cheap sin for just 2.50 euro (and didn’t regret it). With a full belly I took my place on the small covered stand, away from rain and wind, and saw a relatively entertaining start to the second half. In the 46th minute a Londerzeel defender headed a header from his goal line, and 5 minutes later the Willebroek goalie saved a strangely bouncing ball.

However, in the 55th game the game was over. A Londerzeel player went alone at the goalie and scored cool in the far corner: 2-0 against 10 men, game over! Both teams had some chances afterwards, but it would be the hosts that scored also the last goal through a strong header. Although surprising, given the rankings of the teams in the league, the 3-0 victory of Londerzeel SK was deserved. And, given the difficult circumstances, the level of play hadn’t been too bad.

Neither of us knew exactly why, but we liked the Burgemeester A. Lambertstadion and the atmosphere at Londerzeel SK. Maybe it was the authenticity. Maybe it just reminded me of my days at my amateur football team in the Netherlands. In any case, the K. Londerzeel SK is worth a visit! If only for the fascinating steps over the ‘players tunnel’, just in front of the canteen!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Atlanta Thrashers – New York Islanders (28-02-2008)

February is not a good month for sports in the US. Both the football (no, it’s not ‘soccer’!) and the American football seasons have not started yet, and neither has the baseball competition (if one would care to go and watch that). So, you by and large have (professional or college) basketball and ice hockey to chose from, an easy choice, even in Atlanta.

Together with my girlfriend and some of her friends I arrived late at the Philips Arena (yes, Eindhoven’s second source of pride, after PSV, is everywhere!). That’s the price you pay for going to a good Mexican restaurant before the game. Anyway, we park close to the arena and join a large group of people – being late at a sports event is not a problem in the US, as the sports is secondary to the eating. We had ordered tickets online, at just 29 dollar per two!

As most sports arenas in the US, the Philips Arena is a combination of a food court, an entertainment park, and a sports arena. Still, it is a beautiful sight. It was opened in 1999 and cost a staggering 213.5 million dollar to build. It is home to both the local basketball (Hawks) and hockey team (Thrashers). For hockey games it can hold 18,545 people. While hockey is not big in the South, the Atlanta Thrashers have built a quite nice following in their ten years of existence. On average they draw a crowd of 15,768. Unfortunately, for this low-key game against the New York Islanders the arena was only half full (my estimate, but maybe everyone was just eating).

As in the previous times I visited an NHL game, I was far from impressed by what I saw. The Thrashers were absolutely dramatic in the back and were 2-0 behind after 10 minutes. Both goals were mistakes of the Thrashers rather than good plays by the (also poor) Islanders. The Thrashers are a strange team: most players are fairly unknown, and those known, are in their late thirties (e.g. Hedberg, Holik, Recchi). The Islanders have always been in the shadow of their big city rivals, the New York rangers. I mainly was interested in Miroslav Satan, who does not only have the coolest name in sports, but is also a very good Slovak forward. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in this game.

After the Islanders had scored their third, it was time for a break, in which I checked out all the food places. Shortly in the second period the Thrashers finally scored: 3-1. For some bizarre reason, the Islanders completely fell apart and by the end of the second period the score was equal: 3-3. The third period was tight and therefore exciting, even if the hockey itself remained of poor quality. Quickly into the third period the Islanders scored the 3-4, but 1.22 minutes before the end old-timer Bobby Holik equalized: 4-4 and extra time. The crowd went wild.

The euphoria and refound optimism of the Thrashers fans was short-lived, however. Three minutes into extra time the Islanders scored: 4-5 and game over! On the upside, the (many) Thrashers fans at least had some sense of pride, even if it lasted for just a couple of minutes. On the downside, until they will buy a lot of new players, the Thrashers will remain a team struggling to even make the play-offs, let alone win them.