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!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Deutscher Doppelhop (02-08-2008)

It had been already some time that JB and I made a double hop, but this Saturday we had several options. We chose an exclusively German double, as the combination was too sweet to let pass. Unfortunately, it did mean I had to wake up at 7.30, so that we could leave from our usual spot in Leuven at 9.30. First kick-off: 14.00!

Offenbacher Kickers 1901 – SV Wacker Burghausen

On the one of the busiest days of the summer JB and I set off for Offenbach, just under Frankfurt. Despite making sure that we had some extra time in case of roadworks etc., we arrived at the Biederer Berg late. The Biederer Berg is a classic German stadium, set in a somewhat green environment and full of atmosphere.

After buying standing tickets for 9 euro each, we made our way to the fan shop, which was closing, to buy a pennant. Unfortunately, they were out – but fortunately one of the smaller shops around the corner wasn’t. Although we were eager to get to the stands, as the game had already started some 5 minutes earlier and the atmosphere was clearly good, we did have to make a quick stop to watch this statue, to remember the fallen in the First and Second (!) World War.

Roughly ten minutes late, and one decent Thuringer sausage down, we took our place at the home stand behind the goal. As we later heard, 7.703 people had found their way to the Bieberer Berg for this first home game of Kickers Offenbach in the brand-new 3. Bundesliga (Third Division). They colored the whole stadium red and white, as at least 50% of the fans wore some kind of OFC t-shirt.

Only at the direct opposite stand were some black-white supporters; 75 brave ones had made the 432 km from Burghausen (Bavaria) to Offenbach am Main (Hesse). Respect!

Most of the away fans weren’t even in the stadium when the home team produced a good attack and finished with an easy header: 1-0. As the away fans tried to hang up a banner, which took a very long time, Wacker tried to get back into the game. However, a first good attack of them was directly followed by a Kickers counter-attack that was almost deadly. In the 21st minute, just as all the away fans had cuddle up together and stripped off their shirts, OFC had another good attack, this time finished with a decent volley: 2-0!

The strange thing was, while the Kickers had most of the game and chances, it had been Wacker that had produced the best football. They just couldn’t provide the finish. Still, both teams provided attractive football in the first half, but the score remained 2-0.

During half time we sampled the snacks – they were good! – and admired the fan project: a big wall with painted fans as well as a real tractor. As always in German stadiums, hordes of happy people enjoyed their beer and sausages during half time, all in good spirits. We joined them for the second half, which started promising.

The second half showed roughly the same picture as the first one. Kickers had most of the ball and chances, but Wacker provided some of the best football. Several players of both teams came face to face with their opponent’s goalie, and failed – some more miserable than others. Increasingly OFC kept more and more players behind the ball (6-8), which caused the game to become less attractive. When in the 86th minute a Wacker player got his second yellow card, it was clear the battle was over. Kickers Offenbach would win the game 2-0, to the great delight of their very grateful fans.

Happily we left the stadium and made our quick walk to the park and into our car. We had exactly an hour to get to the next game, which didn’t provide any problem, as it was only 45 km.

SV Wehen Wiesbaden – VFL Wolfsburg

Well in time we parked our car at less than 5 minute walk from the BRITA-Arena, the brand-new stadium of SV Wehen Wiesbaden. We bought tickets for 10 euro for the standing section and entered the futuristic stadium

The BRITA-Arena opened in October 2007 and has a capacity of 12,566. Before that, the club played at the Stadion am Halberg in Thaunusstein. In fact, the club was known as SV Wehen 1926 Thaunusstrein until last year; which might explain why I had never heard of SCV Wehen Wiesbaden until last season. ;-) Anyway, today SV Wehen Wiesbaden had its kiddie-day, and when we entered the stadium the majority of the people on our stand were under 18. Overall 2465 people attended this friendly between SV Wehen Wiesbaden from the 2. Bundesliga (Second Division) and VFL Wolfsburg from the 1. Bundesliga (First Division). Among them were some 65 from Wolfsburg, a good 377 km to the north!

It is actually quite amazing that a club like SV Wehen has been able to stay up in the German Second Division. While the new stadium is nice enough, it is still a rather small ground. Moreover, two weeks before the start of the new season they have sold only 3.000 season tickets! Clearly not a major player in German football. Also, the “loudest main stand in the league”, according to the stadium announcer, consists mainly of young teens.

This all nothwithstanding, the kids around us started the game with enthusiasm and optimism, singing local version of all the football classics. Almost similar to their team acting as if they were a real football team. But already in the 15th minute VFL Wolfsburg made clear this wasn’t really the case. After a fairly standard attack they easily scored the 0-1. They sat back a bit, let Wehen get a couple of half-chances in, before scoring the second from an easy counter-attack: 0-2.

Except for a 20 meter shot from Wehen just wide, the first half showed little more. 0-2 was the half time score and we circled the ground to keep busy at half time. I made the mistake of eating a Rindwurst (beef sausage), only to conclude that real sausages are made of pork! The disappointing sausage was more than compensated by another local specialty… the Polizei. ☺

The second half started with a surprise. After a header got stuck in the crowd of players someone was able to tip the ball behind the line: 2-1! Could Wehen come back into the game? Wolfsburg got sloppier and slower, but the difference remained simply too big. In the 53rd minute the visitors scored from a close header: 3-1.

Six minutes later a Wehen defender first saved with a great tackle, only to then screw up by touching the ball with his hand. Penalty! This was an easy task for the new striker, who had taken over from his colleague who had scored the two goals of the first half: 1-4.

After that the level of the game and the atmosphere on the stands dropped even further. It seemed everyone had slipped into sleepwalking mode. Wolfsburg became so lame that they had a throw-in at 5 meters of the Wehen goal, and played it back to their own goalie through two long kicks. It was time for the end, which also came exactly at 90 minutes.

Although SV Wehen Wiesbaden plays one division higher and has a more modern stadium than Offenbacher Kickers 1901, it was clear which of the two games JB and I had enjoyed most. Kickers Offenbach might be a name from the past, but they are worth a visit! In addition, the new 3. Bundesliga adds a third professional league to German football, a development that can only be applauded.