Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rochdale Association FC – Yeovil Town FC (28-03-2015)

I had initially planned to spend this Saturday watching games in the Athens area, but because of an international game of the Greek national team, and security concerns over domestic games, I decided to change my plans and take a flight to Manchester a day early and see a game with my colleague A. I had told him to suggest a game, as long as it wasn’t of one of the big corporate teams (i.e. Manchester CityUnited), and he came up with Rochdale Association FC (RAFC). Well done!

It's a typically cold, grey, rainy day when A. and I arrive in Rochdale, a grim North English town roughly 15 km (10 miles) north of Manchester. We park at a nearby Church and make a small “donation” as a parking fee.

We are almost two hours early and the stadium looks deserted. A few stewards are milling around, used to the cold and rain. The small fan shop is remarkably well-stocked and has some supporters in it, who are trying to profit from the 50% off sale on soon to be out of date merchandise.

Spotland Stadium is a classic old-school English football stadium, built in 1920, and currently shared between RAFC and Rochdale Hornets RLFC, the local rugby (union) club. It holds 10,249 people, but most of the time the stadium is not even half full. RAFC was promoted into League One (Third Division) last season. 

We circle the stadium, passing a little youth pitch, to get to the Main Stand. We pass a group of Japanese youth players who must be on a kind of practice camp here and wonder what they are thinking - taken from undoubtedly modern urban setting to this grim small town site of industrial decline.

We get tickets for the Main Stand for a staggering 20 pounds (cheers A!) – remember, this is technically the third (!) division of English football! To kill time we go to the pub, which is integrated into the stadium and supporters home. On one screen they show a live game from somewhere else, on the other a video of past glory of RAFC.

Upon entering the stadium through old-school turnstiles, a steward wants to take away my camera. After making a deal that I won't use it inside, I can take it in. Fairly insane given that half the stadium has s smartphone with an almost equally good camera on it.

Inside there are allegedly 2,650 people. The audience is remarkably old and white. They are mostly local, but definitely not all working class (maybe that is in part because I am on the most expensive Main Stand). There are also some 100 of them from Yeovil, a good 380 km (235 miles) south of Rochdale!

The first half was overall quite poor, which was in part because of the horrible conditions. The rain was very heavy, the pitch full of sand and water, which slowed the ball down unexpectedly and made combinations over the ground almost impossible. Although Yeovil is fighting relegation, it clearly is the better team in the first half, producing some nifty plays at times, even if the final pass was often lacking.

RAFC plays mostly a physical game, few combinations, much through the air, and hoping for a lucky bounce or tip. They create little in terms of chances, but somehow don’t concede a goal either. Half time score: 0-0.

At the beginning of the second half the rain settles down a bit and the conditions become a bit better. Yeovil continues to be the better team, playing quite sophisticated football for a third division English club, but it is RAFC that draws first blood. A few minutes into the second half the hosts score a surprising opener: 1-0. 

Within two minutes they score again. Their second goal is a true comedy capers with Yeovil’s star player kicking over the ball in the box and leaving an easy tip in: 2-0. Again two minutes later Yeovil get one back and the game seems open again: 2-1.

The rest of the game continues with Yeovil being the better team, but getting fewer and fewer chances, as RAFC just tries to hold on to the lead. High point is when a RAFC player lifts the ball from less than 5 meter in front of the goal a good meter over the goal! Never seen anything like it! It doesn’t matter, as RAFC wins the game 2-1.

All in all, Rochdale Association FC was exactly what the doctor had ordered: an old-school English football experience. Old small stadium with close access to the pitch, mostly local fans, and horrible weather. Only the quality of the game was higher than expected, but that was mostly because of the visitors.

Iraklis 1908 FC – Apollon Kalamarias FC (22-03-2015)

Greek football has its fair share of problems, including bankruptcies, corruption, and fan violence. The latter has become so bad that the Greek Football Association decided to suspend all leagues for one week and afterward play some games without spectators. This all happened two weeks before I had to be in Greece for work, having scheduled two weekends in the country to see a lot of games. In the end, I got to see one, which is better than nothing.

Despite a large police presence, I saw several small fights on the way to the stadium. They were mostly between small groups of teenagers. Still, this was a game of Iraklis 1908 Thessaloniki FC, the third team of the second city of Greece, not known for its violent fans (unlike PAOK or Aris). My colleague, an Iraklis supporter, had bought tickets earlier that day (€15 for main stand), so we passed by the not too busy ticket office and entered the big Kaftanzoglou Stadium.

While built in 1960, when it became the home field of Iraklis, it has been seriously renovated for the 2004 Olympic Games and is now a modern stadium that holds 27,770 people. This seems quite ridiculous for the third team of a city, which plays in the Football League (Second Division). Still, Iraklis has a good chance at promotion to the top flight of Greek football next year, given its standing and the fact that two teams have already withdrawn from the Super League during the season because of financial problems.

The teams get onto the pitch with the song “Bad Medicine” of Bon Jovi. The players are accompanied by people with Downs syndrome, who get a lot of applause from the roughly 6.000 people (my estimate). The audience is very male. At the main stand, where we sit, are mostly older home fans, while the younger fans are behind the goal (including the ultras). Apollon has taken some 100 people, mostly young, even though the come from a suburb of Thessaloniki.

The game has slow pace and some poor passing. After some 25 minutes a great through ball by Iraklis finds no one in the center of the box. Apollon responds directly with a good long counter, but a poor last ball. 

After some 30 minutes an Iraklis free kick is deflected by an Apollon defender, brought back into the box, and finished with a half-volley in the far corner: 1-0. The game goes back and forth slowly and imprecisely. Maybe that is the reason that people around me ('dad ultras') start to taunt the away fans and have to be pushed back by the police. A bit later a harsh Apollon foul leads almost to a fight on the pitch and two yellow cards for Apollon players, who don't really respect the authority of the referee (they push him with their chest as they argue). Half Time score: 1-0.

The second half starts hectic. An Iraklis corner leads to 2-3 half chances, but no second goal. Some ten minutes later the visitors shoot a free kick from 20 meter in the far corner, but it is too slow and stopped by the goalkeeper. In the next ten minutes Iraklis has two soft chances.

In the 69th minute a terrible back pass leaves an Iraklis player alone in front of the goalkeeper at 35 meter and he scores cool from 16 meter: 2-0. Given that Iraklis is much better than Apollon, that is the game.

Apollon has now totally given up and the only reason that they don’t get slaughtered by Iraklis is that the hosts are wasting chance after chance out of sheer laziness. In the 89th minute they do finish a great through ball from close distance: 3-0.

A minute later all last doubts are taken away, when an Apollon player gets his second yellow card of the game and has to leave. Three minutes into extra time Iraklis gets a free header at the goal, but misses. Final score: 3-0.

While the quality of football was really poor, in terms of stadium, fans, and ambiance Iraklis FC is more a first than second division team. They are worth a visit, even if the setting is not really that of a third team of the city.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

FC Viktoria Rosport – CS Fola Esch-Alzette (01-03-2015)

After three games with my brother, I exchange groundhop partners and go with my friend P. to Luxembourg for the fourth and last hop of the weekend. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Luxembourg, with regard to groundhopping, as it is extremely difficult to get accurate information about games (dates, times, locations), and I have at least twice been stood up. Still, I keep trying, and this time the information seemed reliable.

I had chosen FC Viktoria Rosport because of the perfect name of the stadium: Stade du Camping (Camping Stadium) – incidentally, the team also seems to play in other stadium, named, much more pretentiously, ViktoriArena (capacity 2.500). Anyway, the name really fit the location, as it is next to a camping and it seems that their accommodation is used, at times, by the camping.

Rosport is a small town only a few miles across the German border. We have little problem parking close to the stadium, and camping, and make our way to the ticket office. I forgot the exact price, which is also not indicated on the generic ticket, but I think it was 10 euro.

The stadium is really tiny and has just one small, semi-covered stand – although you can stand all around the pitch. It also has a real canteen, similar to the ones the amateur teams had that I used to play for. In it there are some pictures of old teams and big games as well as a nice older woman who takes cares of a limited offer of drinks and snacks.

I count some 150-200 people, of whom at least 50-75 are away supporters, who made the 65 km (40 mile) trek north from Esch-sur-Alzette (also home to Jeunesse d’Esch). The official count of 355 seems highly inflated.

The game is characterized by slow pace and movement, but quite decent passing, which is often broken up because of a too slow or imprecise pass. Fola is the top team in Luxembourg and this is clear from the beginning. They simply have the (much) better players, many quite young.

In the 21th minute a Fola midfielder can walk roughly 20 meters and than shoot beautifully from just outside of the box in the far upper corner: 0-1. Three minutes later they have another good attack, with a half volley cross that is met by a half volley shot that is saved by the goalkeeper.

In the 32th minute an easy Fola attack is finished cool in the far corner: 0-2. By now it is clear to anyone in the stadium, the Viktoria players included, that Fola is simply too strong. Half time score: 0-2.


The second half starts where the first half ended. A long Fola attack ends on the goalpost. In the 50th minute a good attack over right and an excellent cross is finished cool with a header: 0-3. Ten minutes later a Fola counter ends with a shot from outside of the box that goes just wide.

Although the hosts don’t really give up, they seem fully aware that they are no match for Fola. Still, in the 78th minute a corner is deflected, the first shot saved, but the rebound is scored from close up: 1-3. Is there still hope?

The answer comes just two minutes later. A quick counter with a great cross and a cool finish brings the lead back to three goals: 1-4. One minute before the end of the game a long pass to Fola’s striker is scored in two attempts: his third goal of the game. 1-5 is also the final score.

I can’t help it, I have a weak spot for Luxembourg football. It reminds me of watching my own Dutch team play in the third division of the amateur leagues. It’s homey and cozy.