Wednesday, June 17, 2015

US Solrézienne - FC Richelle United

As most leagues had already ended, or played all games of the last round on the same date and time (mostly on Saturday), it was not easy to find a game on Sunday. I couldn’t make it to Club Brugge in time, I feared, so I settled for a couple divisions lower, namely a play-off game between the last from the Vierde Klasse (Fourth Division) and the first of the Eerste Provinciale (Fifth Division, regional). Winner was to stay in/be promoted to the Fourth Division, the lowest national division in Belgium.

Union Sportive Solrézienne is a small club from Solre-sur-Sambre (which literally translates as Water-With-Mud), a village of just 2,500 people at the French border. The club’s facility is one of the most modest and run-down I have ever seen, much less developed than my very low-ranked amateur team in the Netherlands had thirty years ago.

As I arrive to the ground, stadium would be too much, I am met by a bus full of drunk and loud away supporters, who brought a "Viva Espagna" drum and a couple of horns. They made the roughly 150 km (90 miles) trip from Visé, above Liege, where FC Richelle United is from.

I pay €7 at the make-shift ticket stand, get a basic ticket (very common in lower division games in Belgium), and walk into the ground. I estimate that there are some 300-400 people, possibly half away fans. It is a very nice day, roughly 21C/70F and sunny. A relaxed atmosphere in this rural setting. There is a little stream on one long side of the pitch, a horse behind one goal, and a forest on the other long side. As far as I can see, there is no police present!

The game starts late, but no one seems to care. It seems like one of the referees is missing. With a delay of ca. 20 minutes the game finally kicks off, with blue playing against blue?! The pitch is very small and has several big sand parts.

The visitors have the first good chance, already in the 2nd minute of the game. In the 10th minute Richelle United plays a high ball in, the goalkeeper hits it away, but the rebound is finished from close up: 0-1.

In the 18th minute a good attack of the hosts leads to a fantastic turned half-volley, which is tipped to a corner by the diving goalkeeper. The low corner is back-heeled, but too soft, so the goalie can pick it up. In the next attack the ball bounces in the box and is half-volleyed hard into the goal from 7 meters: 1-1.

In the 24th minute the visitors have another big chance, but he tries to go around too many players in the box, rather than shoot. In the 33rd minute Richelle has a good attack over left but the cross is missed badly by both the defender and the striker. Half time score: 1-1

The second half starts ferocious. In the 48th minute a big chance for the hosts is saved by the goalkeeper. Two minutes later the visitors volley the ball far over the goal. Then it slow down a bit. In the 63rd minute a Solrézienne corner is headed hard but just over the goal. Overall I rate the quality higher than in the Mulhouse game, but maybe the atmosphere creates different expectations.

In the 79th minute a Solrézienne cross was headed on and completely missed in a bad attempt at a volley from 5 meter. Two minutes later they get another big chance but the goalie saves. The next minute the arrogant, slow, but good captain of the hosts gets alone in front of the goal but the goalie makes an amazingly safe.

As I am watching the game, several people cycle onto the ground, as there are two fully open roads leading into it – one from the town and one from the woods. At one time two tourists cycle into ground and ask me what game is on!

In the last minutes Richelle has two chances but cannot finish. Hence, the final score is 1-1. Extra time! I hadn’t expected this and have to leave, as I have to return my rental car in Paris that evening and it is already 20.30. I later find out that the game went into penalties, which were won 5-6 by FC Richelle United, who will play in the Fourth Division next year.

FC Mulhouse - Saint Etienne II

I drive three hours almost non-stop to cross the 275 km (ca. 170 miles) from Grossaspach, Germany, to Mulhouse, France. As I left the afternoon game early, I arrive almost 30 min before kick-off. It is so quiet around the stadium that I worry that the game starts at 20:00 rather than 18:00.

I buy a ticket for €10 and go into the stadium. The clubhouse is already open and there are some 50 people at that time, almost exclusively men. I enter and get a drink, as I await kick-off. FC Mulhouse has an interesting history. It was founded in 1893 by two Englishmen as Fussball Club Mülhausen, as Mulhouse was then part of Germany.

During the 1980s and 1990s FC Mulhouse played in the French Second Division, but in 1998 they were relegated and the next year they went bankrupt. Since then they have fought their way back to the Championnat de France Amateurs (CFA), the highest amateur league, and officially the Fourth Division of French football. Since 1978 they have played in the Stade de l’Ill, an ugly stadium with two big concrete stands and an athletic track around the pitch. 

It is perfect weather for an early evening game: ca. 20 degrees Celsius (68F), nice and warm in the sun, not too cold in the shade. The game is against the second team of AS Saint Etienne, whose first team plays in the French Ligue 1 (First Division). At kick-off there are some 300-400 people, about two-thirds on the main stand and some 100 on the cheaper opposite stand. While mostly male and white, there are quite a number of ‘immigrants’ as well as four away supporters and one home supporters with a drum.

The game starts slow. In the 7th minute the visitors get a free kick that goes straight at the goalkeeper, who boxes it away in panic. Four minutes later a good Mulhouse attack is saved by the goalie. A minute later the home defense screws up, putting a Saint Etienne striker alone before goal, who lobs the ball over the keeper, but it goes wide.

I am used to a lot, but this is really, REALLY, bad football. The game is slooooow and the ‘control’ and passing are still terrible, even of the Saint Etienne players. The only notable action isa Mulhouse corner that is headed just over the goal. Half time score: 0-0.

Half time takes at least 20 minutes, during which there is absolutely nothing to do. Fortunately it is still sunny. The second half starts furious. In the 48th minute poor build-up by the visitors gives Mulhouse the ball and the cross is volleyed at goal: the goalkeeper gets his hand to it, but it goes through the crossbar into the goal: 1-0.

There is more happening now. In the 53rd minute a striker of the visitors runs at the goal from his own half and is tackled from behind. The defender hits both the ball and the player, but no foul is called. The next minute a Saint Etienne defender is screwing around, loses the ball, but the Mulhouse shot is saved by the goalkeeper. In the 61st minute the ball comes with luck to the Mulhouse striker, as most players think the referee will call a foul, and he takes the ball from 12 meter and shoots it beautifully in the upper corner: 2-0.

In the 69th minute a good counter is set up by a Mulhouse defender, who volleys in extremis just over the goal. The guests have clearly given up by now. One can only hope that the first team of AS Saint Etienne will never have to draw upon any of these players. They are terrible! In the last five minutes they waste two chances. Final score: 2-0.

Sure, it is amateur level, but this notwithstanding, this was really a very disappointing level of football, particularly of the second team of AS Saint Etienne. FC Mulhouse is a great example of faded glory, a club that has seen better days, but is still worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.

SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach – DSC Arminia Bielefeld (23-05-2015)

I didn’t even know about the SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach until my brother suggested we would go and see them. Unfortunately, that trip fell through, but I found a way to work it into my May 2015 Groundhop (Long) Weekend. Grossaspach is so small that it is discussed as “the main village” in the “community” of Aspach, Baden-Württemberg, which in total has a mere 8,000 people. On top of that, it is completely in the middle of nowhere, half an hour north of Stuttgart, but 13 km from the closest motorway exit.

I arrive just in time for the fairly early kick-off of 13:30. To my dismay, this completely marginal football club from a tiny village has a brand-new stadium, horribly named Mechatronik Arena, which holds 10,000 people, almost 1,5 times as many as the total population of the Aspach community. Record attendance is just under 6,000 and most of its games in the 3. Liga (Third Division) draw far fewer.

I park close to stadium and walk up to the closest stand, which turns out to be the one for the away fans. I actually first thought that the home team played in blue-black-white, as there are so many away fans. As I have to leave early to make it to an early evening game in France, I decide to join them (only realizing later that this might make it harder to leave early).

I buy a ticket for the (standing only) away stand for €10. Here I find myself between thousands of hardcore Arminia Bielefeld fans, who have come to see their team becomes champions and get promoted to the 2. Bundesliga (Second Division). DSC Arminia Bielefeld has always been one of those teams that moves between the First and Second Division – I saw them in the First Division many years ago – so it must have been painful for their many fans to see them in the Third Division.

While there is an amazing atmosphere, this is because I am in the away stand. There are some 3,500 people in the stadium and at least half of them made the five hour drive south from Bielefeld. Sonnenhof has only 30-40 young fans that are singing.

The football is not that good. There is just one chance, for Bielefeld, in the first 15 minute. Sonnenhof is in the lower half of the table, but safe from relegation, while Bielefeld just needs not to loose to secure the championship. This does not create the best incentives for an attractive game.

In the 17th minute a Sonnenhof header hits the hand of a Bielefeld defender, but the referee does not give the foul and saves the guests from a penalty. Five minutes later a clear foul in the box is again not punished, as the referee says that the ball was played (it was not).

Like many Bielefeld fans I start to wander around, get a sausage, and look at the group of some fifteen away fans that sit outside of the stadium. Given that tickets were still available, I assume they have a stadium ban, but nevertheless traveled with the other fans to celebrate the championship. It is an odd sight, but it is good to see that the police are fairly relaxed about them and let them be.

I walk back into the stand and see that a half chance of Bielefeld goes far over and wide. Not much else happens in the next fifteen minutes. Half time score: 0-0.

During half time I get to talk to a couple of Bielefeld supporters, who are fascinated that I came to the game as a groundhopper and eve more fascinated that I will (try to) see a game in France later that day. The conversation is more interesting than the game, which is why I return to the stand five minutes after the second half has started.

As it is very difficult to leave the stadium from the away fans section, and the game is going slower and slower, I leave 30 minutes early (something I normally never do). On my way to the next game, almost 3 hours away, I hear on the radio that Bielefeld has won 0-1 and has became champions of the 3.Liga. I'm happy for the many Bielefeld fans who made the trip, with or without stadium ban.

Still, I wonder how the experience would have been if SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach had played a normal 3. Liga team, such as VFL Osnabrück or Borussia Dortmund II. I imagine it would have been quite depressing: 1,000 mostly silent people in a soulless stadium of 10,000.

SC Austria Lustenau - FC St. Pölten (22-05-2015)

Lustenau is a very small Austrian town of just 20,000 people on the border with Switzerland. The local team, SC Austria Lustenau, plays in the Erste Liga (First League), which really is Austria’s second division.

Situated in the center of the small town, the Reichshofstadion is an old athletic stadium with randomly built extensions. It is set in a beautiful mountain scenery. On one side, on what used to be the track, there is almost a market of beer and snack tents behind the stand. They serve an amazing range of snacks and everyone is eating. 

I pay 14 euro for a ticket on the Haupttribune (main stand), which is covered and an all-seater. The stand is pretty full, a mix of the town’s population (including families), while the stand behind the goal is mostly younger ‘ultras’ (banners, drums and singing). 

Overall, the roughly 2,000 (guestimate) fans all sit or stand on those two stands. Along one long side is no stand, but some people simply stand there, while there is almost no one sitting on the uncovered bleachers behind the other goal. I see no away fans – then again, St. Pölten is almost 600 km (ca. 385 miles) away from Lustenau.

It is quite telling that you cannot even see the pitch from the VIP ‘stand’. Still, they can exclusively eat grilled chicken. They follow the game, if at all, on the tv screen inside.

The game is very poor: slow pace, poor passing and touch, and very few chances. After 20 min the visitors take me by surprise and score: 0-1. Ten minutes later there is a series of blocked Lustenau shots and a corner with a shot that goes just wide.

In the 39th minute a header of the visitors is saved on the goal line by the Lustenau goalkeeper. Half time score: 0-1. I’m off to sample the broad variety of snacks, from candied peanuts to Currywurst, from some kind of Spaetzle to schnitzel, and from candy to Pommes (fries). My tip: Zack Zack with onion sauce (spiced pork cutlet).

The second half is mostly defined by the red card for a Lustenau player in the 57th minute. One goal behind and one man down, the game is clearly over, particularly given that Lustenau was already the weaker team. I focus increasingly at the big screen, which is constantly showing commercials (something I have never seen before in a stadium).

In the 76th minute the game is finally decided when the visitors score their second goal of the night. This is also the final score of the game.

Even though they lost 0-2 the atmosphere is good, as another team also lost, which meant that Lustenau wouldn’t relegate. To celebrate there was thirty minutes of free beer for the fane (soda for the children).

Overall, Austria Lustenau was an truly joyful experience. Sure, the football was pretty terrible, but the atmosphere was so authentic and homey. Football for the community, not for big business.