Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SV Meppen – FC St. Pauli II (04-09-2016)

At the end of a great groundhopweekend with my brother I make one last hop (by myself) to Meppen, a small town just across the Dutch border in Northwest Germany. The local pride, SV Meppen, dates back to 1912 and spent a total of 12 years in the 2. Bundesliga (Second Division). In 1998 they relegated and a decade later they relegated again. Today they play in the Regionalliga Nord (Fourth Division North).

I arrive at the bit grandiosely named Hänsch-Arena – Hänsch Stadium would be much more accurate and adequate – and ca easily park in front of the cute stadium. As I buy my ticket for the (covered) Old Stand, for €10, I notice that I am one hour early. Kick-off is at 15.00, not 14.00.

Hänsch-Arena is a nice old stadium with two main covered stands on the long sides and two uncovered standing-only stands behind the goals. It also has a small fan shop and a cute stadium bar with full bar. Obviously, there are also several snack options involving sausages and even fries.

On this fifth round of the 2016-7 season there are (officially) 2.213 spectators, a pretty large number, which was undoubtedly because SV Meppen had won its first four games of the new season. The fans are local, typical of a small provincial town (white, middle class, predominantly male). There were also some 50 away supporters, not bad for a U-23 team.

After an uneventful start, the visitors make a dumb foul in the 5th minute, and SV Meppen gets a penalty. Although the goalie gets a hand to it, the ball goes in: 1-0. Just two minutes later the hosts have quick attack, the striker goes around the goalkeeper and scores: 2-0. What a start!

The hosts are enjoying their quick, and surprisingly comfortably lead, and get some corner kicks, while St. Pauli II creates a few half chances. In the 14th minute the visitors have a good attack, lone striker going alone at the goalkeeper, in between defenders, but shoots just wide. Ten minutes later another good St Pauli attack, but shoots hard at goalie. 

After half an hour Meppen shoots from 25 meter at goal; the shot is low but stopped by the goalie. Ten minutes later a long Meppen solo from the left moves into the middle and then shoot just over. Half time score: 2-0.

St. Pauli dominates the first 15 min of the second half, though they create few real chances. In the 63rd minute a fast cross misses everyone in front of the goal, although a Pauli striker almost gets a foot against it.

By now the pace has dropped significantly. There are fewer chances but still the ball goes from side to side. The visitors are a bit better but not very effective in the end phase.

Unfortunately, I have to leave in the 75th minute, as I have to make an evening flight in Amsterdam. I later find out that SV Meppen win the game 3-1, the fifth consecutive win of the season.

SV Meppen is a nice small town club with a lot of tradition and loyal fans. A team that deserves to be in the 3. Bundesliga, which will undoubtedly be the case next season.

UR La Louvière Centre – Waremme (03-09-2016)

We actually made good time from Paris to La Louvière and have enough time to eat at the fantastic friterie Cook ‘n Frites. However, we enjoy the fries a bit too long and in the end arrive a bit late at the stadium…. Moreover, at the wrong stadium! After some crisis management we finally get to the right stadium some 15 minutes late.

UR La Louvière Centre (URLC) was known as Union Royale Sportive du Centre or URS Centre until 2011, when it changed its name, in part because “big brother” R.A.A. Louviéroise (RAAL) had gone bankrupt in 2009 and URS Centre could now become the big club of the town. It also moved to the Stade du Tivoli, the communal stadium of 13,500 that had been RAAL’s home ground. Since the fundamental restructuring of the Belgian football leagues URLC plays in the newly created Division 2 Amateurs (Second Division Amateurs), which is the fifth or sixth division in Belgium (it was impossible for me to exactly track the new system). Today is the season opener, which is quite late, as the top flights in most countries have already played multiple rounds.

We get tickets for 10 each and get into the stadium, where we first have to have a whole discussion to get my camera bag into the ground. When we finally sit down 20 minutes have been played but it is still 0-0 (not necessarily a good sign).

There are ca. 500 people, virtually all white, mostly men, and many very old (well beyond 65). On the opposite side of the main stand are the “ultras”, namely the Green Boys and the Wolf Side, both roughly 25 men, who sing for much of the game.

We can’t really find any supporters of Royal Stade Waremmien Football Club (or RSWFC), a team from a town that has barely more people than fit in the stadium, which is just an hour from La Louvière (ca. 100 km).

In the 22nd minute a LL striker oes alone at the goalie, no one with him, but the shot is saved. Three minutes later the guests have a similar chance, but the shot hits the knee of the goalie, before it is saved from the line by a defender. Ten minutes later RSWFC again has a chance, but this time the goalie saves spectacularly with his right hand and then deflects the rebound from just 2 meter. Great saves!

In the 35th minute the hosts counter with two on the left and one in the center. One of the two shoots, the goalie saves, the other puts the rebound in front of the goal, where the third one finishes easily: 1-0. Maximal production!

The reason that there are few chances has to do with the typical Belgian approach to football, where the majority of players are always kept behind the ball. Both teams hold 6-7 players at all time behind the ball, even when they “attack.” Hence, 1-0 was also the half time score.

The second half started as slow as the first half had ended until in the 50th minute LL shoots from 30 meter, straight at the goalkeeper, who completely misses the bounce just in front of him, and it goes in: 2-0. One of the most unbelievable mistakes I have ever seen in a game.

The guests take it hard, whereas the hosts become a different team. In the 55th minute they get a free kick at about 20 meter, which is shot hard around the wall and inside the far corner. A good kick but the goalie should have had it. 3-0 nevertheless.

In the 63rd minute the guests finally get a chance to do something back. A dumb foul in the box leads to a penalty but the excellent goalie stops it – and the penalty kick was actually quite good. The guests try it a few more times with some attacks but can’t score. In the 76th minute the hosts punish them for it. After a corner kick three players are free in front of the goal, one heads it in: 4-0.

This is also the final score. An amazing start to the season which also took the fans by surprise.

Despite the relatively poor quality, which can be expected at this level, URLC is a nice club to visit. It has a small but very loyal support, who must relish in the fact that they are finally the top team in town.

Stade Français – ASM Clermont Auvergne (03-09-2016)

What, Stade Français? Never heard of that football team! You are right, because it is not a football team but a rugby team. Yes, I went to a rugby game on my groundhop weekend for three reasons: (1) it was WC 2020 Qualifiers weekend, so there were few football games; (2) I like rugby; and (3) my brother loves rugby. And thus we drove from Sedan to Paris, where we arrived almost 45 minutes before kick-off.

Somewhat confusingly Stade Français does not (or better: no longer) play its home games in the Stade de France (outside of the city center) but in the Stade Jean-Bouin in the 16th arrondissement, pretty much in the center – they play big games in the Stade de France though. Although Stade Français was founded in 1883, it exists in its current form – as Stade Français CASG – only since its merger with Club Athlétique des Sports Généraux in 1995.

As we arrive in front of the Stade Jean-Bouin, which is directly next to the Parc des Princes (home base of Paris Saint-Germain), I am stunned by the futuristic architecture of the outside of the stadium and by the crowds in front of it. Hundreds of yellow-blue fans have made the 400 km trip north from Clermont-Ferrand – and are joined by many fellow fans who live in Paris.

Stade Français is known for its distinct merchandise, which turns out to be a mega business. There is a fan shop in a huge truck in front of the stadium, which is doing great business. We cannot resist the pink merchandise either, even though this season the jerseys are not as striking as in previous years. After we also get some kick-ass fries, from de Roy des Frites (King of Fries) stand, we enter the stadium with out pre-ordered tickets.

The inside of the Stade Jean-Bouin is simply stunning. One of the most beautiful sports stadiums I have ever visited. The basic structure dates back to 1925 and is not remarkable. However, in 2010-2013 the stadium was expanded from 12 to 20 thousand and an absolutely amazing roof was added. I could not stop admiring the stadium during the game!
The audience is remarkable affluent and white, which is particularly striking in such a diverse city as Paris. While rugby is a very popular sport in France, and the Top 14 is the best-paid league in the world (according to my brother), it is mainly popular in the southern half of the country. Paris is by far the most northern town where a Top 14 team plays – actually, two, as Racing 92 is also in the capitol.

The game starts great with a good attack by Clermont in the 2nd minute. The next minute Stade attacks and scores a try (5-0), but misses the conversion. Just three minutes later they score a second try, but after minutes of video consultation, the try is not just canceled, but Clermont gets a free kick close to the posts and kicks a field goal: 5-3. An exhilarating start!

And the pace stays really high, keeping the enthusiastic supporters of both sides on the tip of their seats. A few minutes later Stade attacks again, the guy kicks it beyond the defense and scores a try. This time they do make the (easy) conversion: 12-3. In the 19th minute both teams have scored a field goal (15-6) and six minutes later a fantastic attacks is finished by the very fast left winger: 20-3 after the conversion is yet again missed.

It looks like Stade is cruising. But Clermont makes a great break and is about to score a try when the fast left winger makes a heroic tackle just before the goal line. Unfortunately, he gets injured and has to be substituted. Even worse, Clermont scores with a “running maul” after the line-out: 20-13, as they do score the conversion.
Minutes later they seem to equalize after a fantastic attack with several breaks, but after video consultation it turns out they threw the ball forward, so it is disallowed. The next attack again seems to end in a try, but leads to a kick instead: 20-16 is also the half time score. A spectacular first half!

After suffering through the Americanized half-time program with cheerleaders and a kiss-a-cam I am relieved that the second half starts. Clermont directly pushes for a try but after two minutes settles for a kick: 20-19. You can see that the teams are getting tired. Consequently, they are more and more going for kicks over tries. In fact, Clermont kicks virtually anything that is in the Stade half, even from the center of the pitch: 20-22, their first lead.

Fortunately, they miss their next far kick, in the 56th minute, but now Stade starts to kick from the center of the pitch too: 23-22. As we have an evening game in Belgium, we leave in the 70th minute. Just as we are about to leave Clermont scores a try but misses the conversion: 23-27. In the car we hear that the game ends 30-30. What a match!

Anyone who loves rugby, or is just curious, should go and see Stade Français play in the Stade Jean-Bouin. It is a truly beautiful experience in an amazing setting. Not only is the game itself exhilarating but the atmosphere is very energetic and positive – many rugby fans even applaud the scores of their opponent! I’ll definitely come back one day.