Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hamilton Tiger-Cats - Edmonton Eskimos (08-10-2010)

For business in Toronto, Canada, I decided to see a game of Canadian Football with my wife. We drove the 44 miles (73 km) to Hamilton, Steel Town, Canada. This Friday night the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were taking on the Edmonton Eskimos.

We parked close to the Ivor Wynne Stadium, a large, old football stadium with a capacity of 30.000. It has been the home of the Tiger-Cats since 1950 and I doubt much was invested in it since that time. It has the shape and atmosphere of a high school football stadium, but then just a very big one. Oh, and an expensive one, as our tickets for the top ring of the stadium were CAD 29 a piece (ca. USD 29 or EUR 21).

The stadium was roughly three-quarter filled, mostly blue collar workers, many seem to know each other. Reminded me of going to soccer games at provincial clubs. Now, Canadian Football is very similar to American Football, but there are (at least) two major differences: (1) there are only three tries (not four); (2) you get 1 point for a punt that ends in the endzone (‘single’). As a consequence of the first difference, the game is much quicker than American Football with the ball much more often changing sides.

The game was dominated from the beginning by the home team, one of the dynasties in Canadian Football (seemingly similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the US). Because you have only two real plays, the first one is almost always thrown. Depending on the outcome of the first, the second is ran or thrown again. In most cases, the third down is kicked. In the first period the Tiger-Cats scored one touchdown, through running the ball.

The second period was more exciting, as well as confusing, with the Tiger-Cats first scoring through a ‘safety’ (9-0) and then by ‘single’, after a punt bounced in the endzone (10-0). Then, the Eskimos finally hit back, by a touchdown: 10-7. The first half is ended by a field goal of the Tiger-Cats: 13-7. Half Time.

In the third period the Tiger-Cats take the initiative again, scoring a touchdown: 20-7. But the Eskimos hang in with a field goal (20-10) and a single (20-11). But in the fourth and final period the hosts make an end to any last speculation. They score a touchdown (26-11), but when they go for the conversion there is a flag, and they decide to go for a play conversion (28-11).

Although it had become quite cold, almost all people were still in the stadium, enjoying the game, the company, and the beer. I don’t think any Eskimos supporters were in the stadium; it is 2.050 miles (3.300 km) from Edmonton to Hamilton! We stayed until what turned out to be the last touchdown (35-11).

We had an excellent time at the game! Canadian Football is much faster than American Football, though this makes it, oddly enough, also a bit less exciting. In terms of atmosphere, it is in between college football and NFL: it has the class base of NFL, but the familiarity of college. Anyone who has a chance to see a game, should definitely do so.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

NSC Minnesota Stars – Portland Timbers FC (21-08-2010)

Living in Indiana, I have few chances to see my Timbers play. In fact, one of the closest USSF Division-2 Pro League teams is NSM Minnesota Stars, which plays in Blaine, a suburb of Minneapolis. Rather than driving the 600 miles (960 km) direct, I took a detour through Grand Rapids, Michigan (to see the Danish metal band Volbeat rock The Intersection). After meeting my old Romanian friend R. in Minneapolis, where we had an excellent burger at Matt’s Bar, we drove to the National Sports Center (NSC).

We arrived almost an hour before kick-off and were impressed by the number of cars on the huge parking lot in front of the complex. We soon found out that the small groups of people tailgating were the only soccer fans; the rest were there for hockey and other sports on the self-proclaimed “world's largest amateur sports and meeting facility”. We walked to the ticket office and bought a (pathetic) ‘ticket’ for $13 plus tax (the first time I have to pay tax on a game ticket).

We entered the stadium and took a place in the shade, as it was a warm Saturday evening, though not very humid. At that moment only some 2-300 people were in the stadium, mostly families with young kids. I couldn’t hear the official number during the game, but I did understand that this was the highest attendance of the season (with only one more home game to go!). This is very disappointing for a Second Division team, as I doubt that there were more than 2.000 people in the stadium that evening. On the upside, the crowd was pretty multicultural.

Given the fact that Portland is 1.730 miles (2.785 km) away from Minneapolis, I wasn’t surprised to be the only Timbers fan in the stadium. However, I later found out that there were three more: one local, and two who had flown to Minnesota for the game. Respect! Allegedly, they were hiding among the Minnesota ‘ultras’.

The game started pretty poor: Minnesota pressured and Portland disappointed. Overall the passing was slow and bad. R. started to complain, feeling vindicated in his opinion that US soccer is not worth watching (even though we used to go regularly to Hungarian games, which were often not much better). Around the 20th minute Minnesota put a good pass in the box, but the direct shot was saved by the goalie.

It would take until the end of the first half for the Timbers to finally create some kind of chance. Around the 40th minute the Portland striker turns away from two defenders and shoots at the goalie. Two minutes later a Stars player runs at the goalie, pressured by two Timbers defenders, and shoots at the goalie. Half time score: 0-0.

The second half remains poor, but at least Suzuki entered the game for the Timbers. The old Japanese midfielder shows more class than all other players together, even if he also quickly disappears into mediocrity. There are two contested moments. In the 48th minute Suzuki is fouled from behind in the box, but gets no penalty. Two minutes later a Timbers defender stops the ball with his hand in the box, and again no penalty.

In the 67th minute the Timbers striker goes alone at the goal and absolutely clearly goes for the penalty. The goalie did lightly touch him, but the striker should have gone for the goal. Anyway, the Timbers did get a penalty and converted it: 0-1. Although this opened up the game a bit, the quality of play remained very low. The only notable chance led to two great saves by the Minnesota goalie.

Portland’s sneaky 0-1 win was not necessarily undeserved, but didn’t take away from a bad game. If the Timbers want to make any impact on the MLS next season, they need almost an entirely new team. Then again, at least soccer is well grounded in Portland. In Minnesota, the Stars seem destined for the same fate as the Minnesota Thunder, which folded last year.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

VfR Aalen – SpVgg Unterhaching (08-08-2010)

Having stayed the night in Stuttgart, I had a short drive to the small town of Aalen in the southwest of Germany. I parked in the residential area next to the stadium and joined the short queue in front of the ticket office. Although I ordered a ticket for the covered stand, knowing it was going to rain, I got a cheaper ticket, for 9 Euro, which turned out to be not for the covered stand (despite the fact that I asked to make sure).

The Scholz Arena was opened in 1949, but seriously renovated in 2002-3. It is the home ground of the Verein für Rasenspiele 1921 Aalen e. V. (Association for Grass Games) and has a capacity of over 11.000, which mostly sit on the two covered stands, although there is also a non-covered standing part behind one of the goals, of which one part houses the away fans. For this game, some 100 Unterhaching fans had made the roughly 200 km trip from Munich; which is among the closest away games for them.

The most striking aspects of the Scholz Arena are the wooden elements of the outside of one part of the stadium and the small restaurant plus terrace within the stadium. It looks totally out of place and I cannot imagine how it would look after a team like Feyenoord or Chelsea would come and visit.

Despite being early August in south Germany, it was cold and windy. It was clear that it was going to rain, and rain hard. This notwithstanding, 4.089 people had turned up for this second home game of the 3. Liga (Third Division) season 2010-11. Neither team had started the new season well, they were numbers 17 and 19 at that time (out of 20), so both teams expected a win. A small group of Aalen ultras waved flags and sang songs, but overall there wasn’t too much atmosphere.

The first half saw few real good attacks or chances, even if Aalen was clearly the better team. They had a couple of good attacks, but were never able to finish them. As it started to rain hard, I joined the huge groups of people who took shelter under one of the main stands, which provided cover from the rain, not the wind. I mainly amused myself with watching Klaus “Auge” Augenthaler, the famous former Bayern München and Deutschland defender, now the critical and often disappointed coach of Unterhaching.

Watching Auge, and listening to the various comments of Aalen fans to him (to which he at times even reacted – all very civil, mind you), helped me get through this terrible first half. One of the best chances came in the 30th minute, when a cross of Aalen was missed by everyone and the following shot from outside of the box was easily caught by the goalie. 0-0 was the only logical half time score.

The second half doesn’t get much better. In the 65th minute a free kick of Aalen lands in the hands of the Unterhaching goalie because everyone misses it. A couple of minutes a free header for the hosts goes wide. While the rain and wind don’t make it easy to play, this was really bad.

It would take until the 85th minute for Unterhaching to get a real chance, but the shot from 20 meters is exactly at the fists of the goalkeeper. After that Aalen still created a couple of half-decent chances, but failed to score. To all there it was absolutely clear, these teams could play for another couple of days, but wouldn’t score. I was rather relieved when the referee finally blew the final whistle.

VfR Aalen is a small team that hovers between professional and amateur level. Despite it’s pretty, modern stadium, it has a small support base. It definitely is among the less interesting teams in German football.
SR Colmar – US Orléans 45 (07-08-2010)

When I originally planned my double trip of SV 1916 Sandhausen and SR Colmar, the latter was scheduled for 20.00. Just a couple of days before the game, I found out that kick-off was 18.00, which meant I had to leave the first game a bit earlier and make sure to make the best of the parts of the Autobahn that were without maximum speed. In the end, I arrived just on time for kick-off at the Colmar Stadium.

I bought a ticket for the one seated and covered stand for 10 Euro and took my place. It was the first game of the 2010-2011 season of the Championnat National, the French Third Division, and the main stand was well filled. I guestimate that some 4.500 people turned up, no one had made the 575 km from Orléans.

Sport Réunis de Colmar, or Les Verts (The Greens), were founded in 1920 and played one season in the French First Division, in 1948-1949. The past decades they have been playing at the amateur level. They regained professional status only this season, after providing also an absolute shocker in the French Cup, defeating First Division powerhouse Lille OSC after penalties. The return to professionalism probably explains the high attendance for this historic first home game.

After a minute of silence, which was instead celebrated by a minute of applause, for a local football hero, the game started relatively slow. Orléans had the first two chances, in the 5th and 6th minute, but shot wide. In the 10th minute Colmar had a good half-volley from 20 meters that went just over the goal.

After that, the game quickly deteriorated and virtually all of the slow play was between the two boxes. I was mainly fascinated by the guy next to me, who was blind, and mainly reacted to the cheers and shouts of the people around us, then asking his friend what had happened. Overall though, the audience was as tame as the game; SR Colmar didn’t even have a small section of ultras. Half time score: 0-0.

The second half started a bit better: in the 49th minute Colmar got a soft penalty, which they converted: 1-0. After that, it quickly dropped to the level of the first half, so I directed my attention to the surroundings. I noticed that while roughly 50% of the players was non-white, the audience was roughly 90% white. One of the few non-whites was a Chinese girl next to me, who was on the phone the whole second half (with the same person). It would take until the last ten minutes of the game before some real chances occurred again.

Probably the best chance of the game was in the 90th minute, when an Orléans striker got alone at the goalie and shot him in the face. After several minutes of treatment, we played one more minute, but then it was over.

SR Colmar had gotten its first professional victory in decades. It wasn’t pretty, but the home fans didn’t care. They celebrated the victory as if they had won the championship. I don’t know how long they will stay up though…
SV 1916 Sandhausen – FC Carl Zeiss Jena (07-08-2010)

Having finished my business in Berlin, I have scheduled a weekend of groundhopping before returning to the US. On Saturday I will meet a friend in Sandhausen, 635 km southwest of Berlin. I leave already on Friday night, so that I make the 14.00 kick-off the next day. Unfortunately, my friend M is ill and can’t make the game. I park accidentally at the away supporters lot and have a 15 minute walk through the forest to the ticket office.

I buy a ticket for the standing section for 10 Euro and enter the small Hardtwaldstadion, which can take 10.231, half of which on its two covered stands. There are 2.400 people for this second home game of the season, enjoying the sunny summer day. At least 500 people have made the almost 400 km trip from Jena: respect! Carl Zeiss Jena used to be a top team in the DDR Oberliga (East German First Division), but, like many East German teams, has fallen on hard times after the reunion. Still, they clearly kept a loyal fan base, and their 500 fans were responsible for the only singing and chanting this afternoon.

SV Sandhausen is a relative newcomer to professional German football. This is its third season in the 3. Liga (Third Division) and it seems that it’s success is more the result of a rich sponsor (allegedly a furniture salesman) than a sizeable supporter base. The stadium is small – they will play their cup game in Mannheim – and the supporters tame; no one sings the club song, for example.

After having watched one of the most pathetic warm-ups ever, by Sandhausen, I was not surprised that Jena would be the better team. In the 3rd minute they go alone at goal, but miss, while in the 11th minute a good hard shot is stopped by the Sandhausen goalie. However, one minute later a Jena attack is headed in: 0-1.

Not much later, the first home supporters start to boo their team. Clearly, the start of the new season is not going as expected. Both the teams and the supporters are almost exclusively white: there is one black player, one Asian female supporter, and I will also count the two Spanish speaking fans behind me for good measure. There are two visible supporter groups, the Jungs (boys) and the Veteranen (veterans).

The rest of the first half doesn’t bring much. The home supporters are increasingly voicing their dissatisfaction, while the away fans continue their drumming and singing. In the 42nd minute Jena has a great chance at a second goal, but they shoot over the goal. 0-1 is the half time score.

At half time everyone lines up at the beverage stand, rather than the sausage stand, as it is so hot. Undoubtedly, this also affects the players, although I saw Sandhausen a couple days earlier during a cold and wet evening, and they didn’t play much better. In the 48th minute Sandhausen heads a corner in, but the ball is cleared of the goal line by a defender.

After a couple of big chances on both sides, a freak header of the black Jena defender goes over both the goalie and the defender on the goal line: 0-2, game over. After that, there is an incidental, and accidental, chance for Sandhausen, but overall Jena is too strong and Jena too weak. Hence, 0-2 is the final score.

I head out early and quickly, as I have another game to make, in France, two hours later. SV 1916 Sandhausen has not impressed me. It is an amateur team that has been promoted because of a rich sponsor… no soul, no support base, no atmosphere.