Pro Piacenza v Viterbese

 

Pro Piacenza v Viterbese, Serie C, Sunday 18th February,

Stadio Calcio Leonardo Garilli

(with Genoa v Inter, Serie A, Saturday 17th February,

Stadio Luigi Ferraris)

The first time I’d heard the word “Piacenza” said out loud, it was with exaggerated elongated vowel sounds, articulated by the Godfather of Calcio, Joe Jordan.  “Peee-aahhh-chennnn-tsaaaa”.

Walk to stadium
The ‘Other’ Stand
Main Stand again
Main Stand

Coming from Genoa by train – a train we nearly missed –  Piacenza and Voghera (where we changed train) were like onomatopoeic terms for how sick I was feeling.  It had been a heavy day’s drinking on the Saturday, so my jakey demeanour on the train was not unexpected.  The cloud receded a little upon arriving at the excellent Dubliner’s Irish Bar in Piacenza.  which has an excellent selection of Italian Craft Beers (Hipster Alert) and soya burgers.

After eating and nursing our beers during the first half of Torino v Juve, a game we snubbed for this one, we set off towards the Stadio Leonardo Garilli.  It is a good forty minute walk to the stadium from both the bar and the train station, so sensible shoes, a warm jacket and a clear head are all desirable. I had none of these things. Leaving a historic old town and marching through a bland housing area makes it feel more like “normal” football though.

Stadio Calcio Leonardo Garilli

The stadium is a wonderful oddity.  When buying tickets, at the counter adjacent to the only opened gate in the huge car park, we had no idea what was where, as they don’t put a map up. And you kind of need one.  The two stands along the long sides of the pitch are covered, but very different. Only the main stand was open for this match.  The stadium has clearly hosted bigger matches during Piacenza’s time in Serie A and there are echoes of this in the crumbling concrete.

toilet alert

Behind the goals, each curve is split into three mini-stands, and is almost in a different postcode, thanks to the running track.  It remains, however, characterful, if a little run down. We paid 20€ for our tickets, in the tribune but not the central part (which was 10€ dearer – 30€ for this would’ve been criminal).  Those who did pay a tenner extra were given a plastic seat instead of a stone one. To be honest, it was “dance-on-the-spot-cold” anyway, so standing was the optimal choice.

Upon climbing the ramp (not stairs), we arrived in an area that had a press room to the left and toilets (I’ve seen plusher abattoirs) and a bar to the right.  The cans of Dortmunder beer were 2.50€ each, and coffee was one euro.

Pro Piacenza v Viterbese

I did have a brief moment of “I’m drinking beer when I don’t feel like it, watching Piacenza’s second club play a team I haven’t heard of, inappropriately wrapped up, along with perhaps 150 others, in a stadium that holds 21600. What am I doing?” The joys of a groundhopping weekend.  Proper “blood and snotters” football.

Pro Piacenza were on the defensive for most of the first half, with Viterbese having a lot of joy on the left via Calderini, yet it was the home side who took the lead against the run of play, through Musetti.  The game changed, however, shortly after half-time, when Viterbese had a defender sent off for a professional foul in the box. Pro Piacenza converted the penalty, and were much more in control from this point on.  The goal-to-beer ratio was further augmented with another two goals in the last ten minutes, the match finishing 3-1.

Genoa v Inter

I’ve decided not to offer this match a separate review as I’ve been to Genoa before, for the Derby della Lanterna, and my inebriation levels on the Saturday restricted my insight somewhat.

Genoa fans behind the goal

We arrived in Genoa, from Chiavari, by train, twenty minutes later than foreseen. Our hotel (mini-hotel) informed us that there would be no check-in after seven o’clock. Of course, we arrived at the hotel, stressing, with five minutes to spare looking for number 6A in a street of medieval, irregular building.  Scanning the buzzers, we eventually found the name of the hotel scrawled, in biro, on a button with no discernible number.

Genoa is both medieval and irregular in general.  After check, we found a pizza place (second of the day) close by, as we were approaching the danger zone of tipsy and hungry, and my memory of food in the stadium was crisps or chocolate and nothing else.    Feeling satiated, we started wandering towards the station but had miscalculated how far we still had to go, so a taxi was hailed and we ended up taking our seats in the stadium, with a beer, just before kick off.

The Genoa fans behind the goal were in fine form, and made an excellent noise throughout the match.  The stadium is still very no-frills once inside, but the view from the 3rd tier of the Distinti was excellent and, given the availability of seats, we sat where we liked.  The attendance was 23000 and the stadium holds 38000, so there were plenty of seats to be had.  Our tickets were pre-bought, however, from Listicket, and were 41€ each.

The football on show was, of course, a step up from Virtus Entella earlier in the day – proper Espresso Football – but Inter’s toothlessness in attack without Icardi and Perisic was the story of the match, along with Genoa’s resolute defending and the evergreen Goran Pandev, who I thought must’ve been about 40, such is his longevity. He is only 34, and was a nuisance for Skriniar and Ranocchia (who scored an unfortunate own goal), as well as scoring an opportunistic toe-poke.

After the match, refuge was sought in a local bar to allow the crowds to diffuse. We thought we’d ordered a red wine, but we were served two red malt beers. These were foul-tasting creations: only a few sips made me feel like my insides were fermenting.  Having stared at this poison long enough, we decided to start walking towards Piazza dell’Erbe, via various random castles and Roman remains. This was a surprisingly inspired choice, as there are an abundance of cool and vibrant bars.

Two Chiantis and an obscure Belgian Beer later, we found our way back our accommodation to get some sleep before our 0812 train Piacenza. I’ve no idea what time it was (well after 1am anyway), but it had been an action packed day of footballing debauchery.  Salute.

Virtus Entella v Pescara

 

Virtus Entella v Pescara (Serie B)

Stadio Comunale, Saturday 17th February

About half an hour South-East of Genoa lies Chiavari, a small port nestled in the Ligurian hills. Palm trees, green hills, blue sea and Virtus Entella. And rain. Lots of rain.  The club have been in Serie B for three years and, given the size of Chiavari, are punching well above their weight.

Sexy floodlights

Getting there

Having flown from Naples to Milan on the Friday (for 15€), I met with frequent ground hopping accomplice Szug and we took a train for a little over two hours from Milan to Chiavari on the Saturday morning.  As this was booked directly via the TrenItalia website a few weeks in advance, we benefited from a 2 for 1 special fare, meaning 12€ each as opposed to 24€.  The journey itself crosses varying dramatic landscapes, seeming almost otherworldly with the harr.

View from the Distinti
To the right
To the left
Step it up, step it up, it’s all right.

Tickets

The tickets can be bought from a little window at the corner of the Tribuna Centrale and the Gradinata Sud.  Prices vary from 8€ on the uncovered Gradinata, behind the goals, from 37€ for a central spot in the main stand.  I do find such a 463% difference rather bizarre.  Given the relentlessness of the precipitation, we opted for the covered Distinti, priced at 20€.  As ever, official ID is needed to buy the tickets.

Chiavari

The town itself is an attractive small town, split from neighbouring Lavagna (no, not a pasta dish autocorrect!) by the Entella river.  There are several small restaurants, bars and cafes in dotted around the mosaiced streets and the town feels relaxed and convivial.  There is a fountain en route to the stadium that looks like a squirting vagina.  The train station is perhaps 15-20 minutes walk from the station for those more pressed for time.  The bar opposite the ticket office sells pints of Harp lager for 4€, complete with accompanying crisps and corn puffs, and the walls are adorned with Virtus Entella memorabilia.

Stadio Comunale

The stadium is sandwiched tightly between a little residential area and a main road running parallel to the Entella River and has a 5535 capacity.  It is a nice blend of a shallow modern stand (the Distinti), the two rickety temporary looking stands behind the goals and the older main stand, complemented by free-standing floodlights.

Birra Moretti was decanted from bottles into plastic glasses for 3€ at the portacabin bar, in perfect equilibrium with an adjacent toilet where you could urinate whilst watching the match, depending on your levels of modesty.  The pitch is a synthetic blend but the whole scale of the operation seems appropriate and enjoyable, given the history of the club.

The atmosphere was relaxed pre-match and Pescara had brought maybe 30 fans in the away section among the 1600 present, who were all given free focaccia at half-time. I’m the guy in the video who looks like he’s being asked to eat a cactus.

http://www.entella.it/news-multimedia/video/item/2037-focaccia-per-tutti-nell-intervallo-di-entella-pescara.html

Virtus Entella v Pescara

This was a match with some quality touches but with some of the crudest tackling I’ve seen in a while.  This is the first ever goalless groundhop I’ve done since starting this three years ago, but it had its moments, even if few of them were in front of goal.  The weather made the surface almost frictionless, rendering most passes into space mere kicks for territory.  Pescara managed to huff and puff without a single shot on target.  This was definitely a case of the experience being much better than the match.

Verdict: Virtus Entella isn’t the team you’d make the trip for, but it makes for a scenic and charming pit stop in the North-West of Italy.

Napoli v RB Leipzig

 

Napoli v RB Leipzig, Thursday 15th February

Europa League, Stadio San Paolo.

Napoli (Naples) is a stunningly seductive woman, that touches you in ways previously unimaginable. Yet, she has been subject to years of systematic abuse that she is trying to liberate herself from. She is in pain; irreversibly scarred, yet she remains simultaneously irresistible and deadly; beautiful but bleeding.

I am, of course, referring to the town more than the football club.  The streets wear the history of the city: poetry and poverty, grandiosity and guns, passion and pizza.  Given that I walked around fifteen kilometres up, down and around its various veins and arteries, I arrived at the Stadio San Paolo emotionally and physically exhausted, a feeling which was further exacerbated by the 2:30am alarm call.

Why did I hike up here?

Getting there.

Napoli’s airport is very close to the city but the shuttle bus takes around half an hour to trail through the traffic, merge onto the road and meander through the streets, stopping at the main train station or the port. Tickets are five euros.  I had procured a fifteen euro flight from Charleroi to Napoli via everyone’s least favourite Irish airline, and had a sales pitch for perfume, panini and mother-fucking scratchcards perforating my eardrums for a little over two hours, in three languages.  I was “experiencing a sudden ‘loass’ of cabin pressure”, but my oxygen mask did not fall to alleviate my demeanour.  “You give me two euro, I give you car” was the corporate encouragement the patter-weary passengers were given to gamble.

Missing a bit on the top, and snowy just under – my hairstyle in a landscape

Tickets and Accommodation 

I chose my accommodation, the B+B Amore, on the basis of its central location and price. However the B+B host, Simone, deserves a shout out for going the extra mile.  He emailed me beforehand to ask when I was arriving in Naples, and I replied 10am. So, he met me at the B+B at 10am, checked me in, and then took me to the bizarre bingo and betting shop that also sold football tickets for Napoli, and acted as my translator.  The ticket cost 25€.  He also then WhatsApped me at the game to let me know bus times etc, and which line were most reliable etc.  I appreciated that level of service.

I hadn’t bought the tickets online because a Tessera del Tifoso was needed, even for the home end, which was concerning.  However, it turns out that I needn’t have worried, since the stadium was barely a third full.

Lost in Translation?
I thought Hearts were in Edinburgh
Amazing pizza found here
Nae Pals
These tins cac t ii
Any Ideas?

Naples

As previously mentioned, it’s a wonderfully evocative place. After checking in and procuring my ticket, I went for a stroll through the old town, whose streets and jewelled with organic wonder, having amorphously evolved into a maze of mystique.  Racking my brain for floral metaphors was hungry work, so I made my way to Da Michele pizzeria.  I didn’t have to queue, as it was before the lunch rush, but it was still busy at 11:20.  Pictures of Maradona and Julia Roberts (names seldom seen together…) eating in the restaurant, adorned the walls.  I was plonked down beside a smoochy couple – this is not a haunt for the rotund or those in search of romance – and was given the choice of Marinara or Margherita.  Although the inside is very rustic and underwhelming, the pizza was stunning, and cost me all of four euros.  Italy is the Eastern Europe of Western Europe, and Naples is a cheap city.

A walk out to the Castel dell’Ovo affords wonderful views of the coastline and Mount Vesuvius, and makes you consider that people actually live their normal lives there, if that’s not a ridiculous thing to say.  This wistful walk of wonder prompted me to consider that, given the sunny outlook, it might be an enjoyable stroll to the stadium, rather than taking the metro or bus.  For enjoyable, see masochistic.  An 8 kilometre slog up the hill (I should have foreseen this, but I expected a tunnel, or passageway. Google Maps had other ideas), through decreasingly salubrious neighbourhoods, left me a hot cold sweaty mess.  This also brought me to the stadium area hours before kick-off, leaving the option of drink or drink.  So I drank.  There aren’t many ‘proper bars’ around.  One pizza and four beers later, it was sixty minutes before the game and ten degrees colder. My phone’s battery power disappeared like testicles in snow.

San Paolo at Dusk

Stadio San Paolo

As the descent towards the stadium started, the San Paolo comes into view. It is the dominant structure in the Fuorigrotta region of the city. While I’m sure its etymology does not stem from “angry-dirty”, I’m choosing to believe that it’s a musical way of saying just that. Its magnificence, however, diminishes with proximity. Up close, the stadium is a carcass; a half-eaten brutal slum of a ground.  My gate, or ‘Ingresso 15’, was boarded up (to avoid paying stewards to staff it, I presume), so I was told to enter via another gate half-way round the stadium. This was a standard pat-down search, yet my passport and ticket ID were examined like the contract of a corporate merger.  This is just how things are done in Italian football.

Upon entering, I thought I’d sneak in a pee and grab a hot drink. No refreshment stalls were open pre-match, and the toilet had me ankle-deep still-warm urine.  It’s not a place for the faint-hearted.  I’ve been to semi-professional grounds with better facilities than this 60240 capacity bowl.

Inside the San Paolo

Once I climbed the stairs into the Distinti, I couldn’t believe how sparsely filled the stadium was.  All of the Leipzig fans were packed into their section, but where were the home fans?  As kick-off approached, it became apparent that just under 15000 fellow fans were in the stadium. And to think I’d been worried about ticket availability.

The stadium inside is not in great condition either.  It is corroding, eroding and hasn’t had any TLC since pre-Italia ’90.  However, like the pizzeria I had visited earlier, it seems authentic.  Nothing sanitized, corporate or exploitative about it. A bare bones Dacia Duster of a stadium.  At half-time, one little concession stand did open, selling soft drinks and coffee.  It was all a little anarchic, with several people shouting orders at the two women working there. Seeing the coffee being made using a domestic, single-capsule espresso machine, meant that the stand may have turned over about three euros per minute.

The home fans in both Curva A and Curva B (good names…) made a very decent racket. The atmosphere pre-match was better than it looked like it might be. The more hardcore fans were the ones who had turned up, and the decibel to supporter ration was favourable.

Napoli v RB Leipzig

On paper, this was an intriguing match of contrasting styles and fairly difficult to call.  However, my pre-match confidence in Napoli evaporated when I saw the number of first choice players who were not playing. Mertens, Insigne, Jorginho, Allan, Albiol either on the bench or not in the squad.  Leipzig looked more or less full strength.

Napoli, at times, play some fabulous football. Their tendency to overplay, however, can be their downfall.  Missing so many regulars, some of the replacements simply didn’t have the technical ability to execute Napoli’s expansive and intricate plan.  In the end, they beat themselves, Leipzig waiting to catch them on the break, or until they made a mistake, and counter-attacking quickly, directly and effectively.  While the 1-3 final score may seem harsh on Napoli, who took the lead through Ounas, Leipzig had more clear-cut chances.

I was particularly impressed by Marek Hamsik in the centre of Napoli’s midfield, and was disappointed to see him subbed as before an hour had passed, even if I understand Maurizio Sarri’s reasons for removing him.  He was the one purveyor of Espresso Football: short, powerful, effective and tasty passing.

Upon leaving the stadium, I followed by B+B host’s recommendation to get back to town, taking a bus from Via Guilio Cesare, but none appeared. With the metro closing well before 11 o’clock, I started trying to flag a taxi. It was after 11pm and I was cold and exhausted.  Eventually, one taxi with its light on pulled over (after a few others had passed). In an act of entrepreneurial banditry, he said he would take me to back to Piazza Municipio for ten euros, despite already having two other guys in the cab. It seemed like a good offer.

Some low-quality eavesdropping led me to understand that Sarri is prioritising the ‘Scudetto’ for Napoli, and given that they are still top, that is understandable. Given that over 20000 more fans were present for a league match against SPAL, hardly the most illustrious of opposition, the fans are voting with their team’s coach.  When I was deposited on the main road near my accommodation, I shivered back to my B+B.  It was so cold, my Naples were frozen.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ****
  • Stadium character: ***
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ****
  • Hospitality: *
  • Ease of access: ***
  • Things to do around the stadium: ***
  • Overall: ***

Verdict: A dilapidated dinosaur, leftover from a bygone era. Beautiful football and a brilliant city perhaps deserves better.

 

Leander Meanders on: The Anderlecht Talent Haemorrhage

 

The Talent Haemorrhage at Anderlecht

Crop rotation is a vital aspect of farming.  It maintains soil fertility, allowing the previous crops to be harvested to promote the growth of new plants.  However, one has to ask if Anderlecht’s recent sales have left the soil barren, even if the bank is very full.  The feeble excuses for not signing Mitrovic stick in the throat, given the deluge of money flowing into the club from transfer deals and the Champions League.

Were there an in-form forward, scoring regularly, then fine.  However, Anderlecht’s forwards at the moment are both towering dyspraxics with no form or confidence.  Young forwards, with potential to offer something different, are all out on loan (Leya Iseka, Vancamp etc).  At this rate, I can see Oli Deschacht signing a contract extension to play up front.

Counting the confirmed sale of Acheampong, at least 17 milion euros, not including bonuses, has come into Anderlecht this month. Only 6 million was spent (on Saief, Morioka and Markovic’s loan.  Here, we analyse the each of these sales, and their justification.

Sofiane Hanni (8.5M€ to Spartak Moscow): Hanni’s departure will no doubt be met with mixed feelings. There is a siezable percentage of the Anderlecht support who have not fully accepted Hanni and some of his poorer performances have been met with heavy booing.  Others (including me) saw him as Weiler’s ‘pet’; undroppable, despite indifferent periods of form.

Nevertheless, one criticism that could not be levelled at Hanni is that he does not work for, or care for, the team.  When Anderlecht were poor, Hanni’s hurt was visible. He always worked relentlessly for the team and some of these qualities were why Weiler made him captain.  He was a leader in the absence of others. You could say that, at times, he wasn’t good enough, provided that it is also recognised that he also produced some sublime performances.  Leaving on a hat-trick was a fitting departure, and he leaves the club an under-appreciated player.

Nicolae Stanciu (3.5M€ to Sparta Prague):  There was a large amount of expectation when Stanciu arrived for a club-record fee of 7.8M€ in 2016.  Great things were expected. The transfer was considered ‘a coup’.  Yet, despite occasonal moments of genuine class, his time at Anderlecht has been largely disappointing.  Reasons for this include Weiler’s direct style, lack of pace but mostly a lack of game time.  When Hanni was going through periods of dreadful form and Stanciu was still on the bench, you had to ask yourself “what is wrong with him”?  Did he refuse to comminucate with players? Was he lazy, or arrogant, in training?  Was his life away from football not professional enough?  These questions need to be asked, as this is a footballer bursting with talent.  With Frutos and Van Haezebrouck playing different styles from Weiler, yet still ignoring Stanciu, you have to wonder what the problem was.  He would have been on big wages, so selling him was the correct decision if he was not being considered for the team.

It was widely considered that Anderlecht would be Stanciu’s stepping stone to the more lucrative leagues, with the abundance of scouting done in Belgium coupled with exposure in UEFA competitions.  However, his new destination of Prague looks like a sideways move at best.  What remains to be seen is whether or not he can produce big performaces for them, and Romania, in high-stakes competition.  He was criminally underused at Anderlecht, and the jury remains unconvinced, but I have a nagging feeling that in a technical league such as Serie A, or La Liga, Stanciu will flourish.

Dodi Lukebakio (1.5M€ to Charleroi/Watford):  Lukebakio burst onto the scene a couple of seasons ago and looked full of promise and talent, albeit he was still very raw.  He is exactly the kind of player who fits the supposed Anderlecht model of bringing through academy players, yet was sent out on loan (twice) by Weiler. He was exactly the kind of player who could have been a good impact sub, or cover for a more experienced player last year.  I would argue that, right now, he is better than what we have at the club.  Quick, direct, unpredictable, athletic.  He would have increased the ‘home-grown’ quotient too, which restricted Anderlecht’s purchases to Belgian players (or those in the pocket of Mogi Bayat…).

Hamdi Harbaoui (0.5M€ to Zulte Waregem): Harbaoui is a big, strong penalty-box centre forward, who will score a bundle of goals in a team playing direct football with 2 up front or two wingers.  However, he is ill-fitted to the Van Haezebrouck system, which is crying out for a false 9.  He will score plenty at Zulte, and look like a bargain, but Anderlecht have enough slow, clumsy centre-forwards as it is, making this a good sale.

The non-sale of Leander Dendoncker is also a tricky one.  He was excellent in 2016-17, doing much of the ugly work alongside Tielemans, allowing the latter to flourish. There are, however, far too many false comparisons drawn here.  Tielemans is immeasurably more gifted than Dendoncker and justified his >20M€ fee during the summer of 2017.  Dendoncker’s reputation has benefitted from these comparisons.

However, anybody who has watched him regularly this season will have seen a player whose form has deserted him and whose versatility has kept him in the team.  The 16 million euros, with add-ons, offered by West Ham is a fair return for a player in such poor form and who clearly wants to leave.  He is effective as a fast and strong defensive midfielder, but he does still kick the ball the way his nose is pointing, and I wonder how much he can actually improve.  I believe the loss of Hanni is more troublesome than the departure of Dendoncker would have been.

On the other hand, had Dendoncker’s departure not been offset with a significant permanent arrival, then the fans may have boycotted the remaining matches of the season.  With the club changing ownership in March, Vanden Stock probably couldn’t risk his last significant action as Chairman being the sale of a home-grown key player, tarnishing his legacy.

Anderlecht are meandering on without a plan.  Players like Hanni or Dendoncker will always leave for richer leagues: that’s inevitable. Let’s hope Coucke and the coaching staff promote a model where academy players are brought into the team and the money recouped from sales is properly invested in more experienced players.  Having to bring in Sels, Kums and Gerkens to raise the Belgian population of the squad, and not for their inherent qualities, sums up the scattergun approach.

Real Madrid v Villarreal: But First, Let Me Take a Selfie

 

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, La Liga, Saturday 13th January

Real Madrid 0  Villarreal 1 (Fornals)

“All units code in.  Yellow Leader, standing by”.

“Yellow Eight, standing by”.

“Yellow Nine, standing by”.

“Yellow One, standing by”.

“All units, The Death Star has a structural weakness. Such is its carefree abandon it attacking others, its defence is left exposed. Their left flank in particular, while dangerous, is ridiculously under-barricaded. They are not prepared for an attack, as they perceive it as suicide.  We must be balanced: heroic in-goal, disciplined and deep in defence and clinical on the counter.  Their goalkeeper is nearly two metres wide, so you’ll have to use proteined torpedoes to get past. Remember, we have Carlos (Chew) Bacca up front. Use him; he’s a beast.  Any questions?”

“Look at the size of that thing! Won’t it just blow us out of the sky?”

“It’s impossible, even for a computer!”

“It’s not impossible; their attack is not as good as it looks.  They have an over-reliance on the number 7 gun, which is misfiring dreadfully. Its overconfidence is its weakness.  May The Force be with you”

Nice weather for submarines

A wise woman once said to me “family’s like fish – lovely for a bit but then it starts to go off and stink the place out.”  Real Madrid have had, more or less, the same first-choice starting XI for several years.  It has been a well-oiled machine for some time, but that lubricant is drying up and the friction on the pitch could be generating enough heat to burn Zidane.

Once proudly royal, the regality of the club is receding and a discreet senility is creeping in.  Some of the concrete seems to have the structural integrity of Gareth Bale’s body and the fans on the bottom two tiers of the stands were drenched, embers of passion smouldering on but never igniting.

In short, IT WAS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT!  “Wait, what?”, as the Youth of Today start sentences.  That’s right, it was an incredible experience in a colossal stadium watching an outstanding game of football that was, at times, analogous to the heavily armoured gladiator chasing his nearly naked foe in The Life of Brian.  Some of the control; the passing; the defending, had me moaning with almost intra-coital satisfaction.  Not even Jabba the Hutt to my right or the Dingle Village Idiot to my left could dampen my enthusiasm, let alone the Biblical rains.

Unreal

Getting There, Tickets and Accommodation.

The reason I’ve done so few Spanish matches before now is two-fold: flight prices, which is really an effect of the second reason, lateness of confirmation of kick-off times.  The scarcity of away fans in Spanish stadia can surely be partially attributed to this, whether it’s seen as culturally normal or not.  Therefore, when the opportunity came to go to Madrid for a reasonable price, it had to be grasped.  Not so big a problem if you can do Friday to Tuesday, guaranteeing you’ll be in the town for the fixture and flights are much cheaper, but us teachers don’t have that luxury.

Flights through a Belgian travel agent, called Tripair, were 68€ return from Brussels to Madrid with Iberia. This was about half of what Iberia were wanting to book with them directly. Good old Skyscanner pulled through.  Flights were packed both ways.

Getting tickets for Real Madrid is easy enough, through their website, https://www.realmadrid.com/en/tickets. Patience is required however, as tickets typically only go on sale ten days before the match. Unless, of course, you want VIP corporate tickets. They are all that is offered by the club in the weeks running up to the match, making you think the match is sold out and some must turn to agencies or resale sites.  Don’t! Just keep an eye on the website and get them quick once they go on sale, as the cheaper seats sell out more quickly.

Early doors

The pricing structure seems simple: you pay more to be closer to the pitch, or in the middle.  My ticket, at 50€, was in the Lateral Este, which is the stand that is slightly different from the rest.  Thankfully, the roof extended well over my head, keeping me dry (and warm, due to ridiculous suspended heaters) in spite of the deluge.

That’s right, vomitory

The ticket itself gave me a little chuckle, as it seemed I had my own “vomitory”, casting up images of Roman Rivers of Bile, where one de-debauches (or maybe, as two negative together make a positive, “bauches”? Language is beautiful.) oneself.  In fairness, the height could induce a vomitory reaction in those with even the slightest spin of vertigo.

The stadium is easily reached from Madrid-Barajas Airport.  The line 8 metro goes directly from Terminal 4 (there’s another stop for T1, T2 and T3) to Nuevos Ministerios, which is only one stop from, and an easy walk to, the Bernabeu, in the north of the city.  A 3€ supplement is added to the metro ticket for airport travel.  The metro system itself is great: relatively quiet and trains running very frequently.

One word of warning: if you haven’t done your research properly before you go (like me, on this occasion) do not fall into the trap of thinking that “M” and “S” (not the shop) indicated metropolitan or suburban rail.  “M” and “S” are the collective names from clusters of gates in the Non-Schengen Terminal, T4S.  I took the little shuttle to this terminal, looking for the metro, only to see customs and border guards and no obvious way out.  I said, in what I’m sure was actually Italian, that I was looking for the metro to Madrid, and had to take a staff exit down to the platform, to take the little shuttle back to Terminal 4, to look for the metro again.  The guy looked at me like I was a prize Dufus. He was right.

For those interested, the signpost for the metro at the airport says “Metro”. I know. Got to wonder how I’d get on in Korea.

What was different about the way Villareal slaughtered their opponents? Halal Madrid 🙂

My hotel was sourced via booking.com and was near Metro Tetuan, The Funway Academic Resort, about fifteen minutes walk from the Bernabeu.  This end of Madrid is generally much cheaper than anything around Gran Via, Sol or Retiro.  This room cost me 50€ for the night, had its own shower and toilet and a bed suspended from thin wires hanging from the ceiling, that could be raised or lowered as necessary. It was pretty good, considering how expensive other options were.

Madrid

I walked around Madrid a lot the day after the game, when the weather had cleared up.  It’s generally a good town for the pedestrian, and is full of things to see.  My tip for the top is 100 Montaditos.  A recommendation from a student, most of the food is snack based and it’s dirt cheap.  After the game on the Saturday, I had two small sandwiches, tortilla, fries with melted cheese and a large draft beer (500ml) for under 7€. Ridiculous. I watched Deportivo La Coruna v Valencia on the TV in there while I was at it.  You go to the bar and order and they call your name over a PA once it’s ready.  For no logical reason, this panics me a little, and, just like in Starbucks, I always give a false name.  Maybe because I don’t like my given name, maybe because I’m obtuse. I don’t know.  Anyway, after successfully ordering in clearly non-Native Spanish, she asked me my name (it took me to goes to grasp this).  I then responded, almost like a Tourette’s sufferer, “Juan.”

“Juan?”

“Si, Juan.”  Juan Kerr was what I was.  I have previous with this kind of thing, elevating social clumsiness to new levels.

Metro
Maction
The height-adjustable bed
Bernabeu in the Sun

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu

There are some stadia that wow you from the outside. I’m thinking the Allianz Arena in Munich, Olympiastadion in Berlin or the San Siro. You can stand outside those and be impressed.  To be honest, the Bernabeu only scores moderately in this respect. It has the towers in the corners, similar to the San Siro, but they look like budget alternatives.  Parts of it look like a shopping mall in a deprived area that has seen better days.  This really surprised me. I expected something  more superficial, more marketable via photography, more impressive.

The number of Spanish flags hanging from nearby apartments was noticeable, if not unexpected.  It reminded me of what Belgium was like in 2014 during the World Cup.  This was, however, more of a defiant togetherness than the celebratory one in Belgium.  There are, nonetheless, political parallels.  As Forrest Gump so eloquently put it, that’s all I have to say about that.

After entering through the gates, there are signs for the various “vomitoria”.  Bags are allowed, although they are searched, as are cameras. So began the climb up to the top. I entered at the same time as some group of around eight guys, speaking Dutch, and one of them was a 150kg hippo.  I could have taken this as my pre-match entertainment, watching him gasp for oxygen as he hauled his trailing arse up four flights of stairs, but I’m a nicer person these days.  Anyway, I was far too excited.

The moment when you get to the top is surreal.  The view as you catch sight of the pitch seems almost artificial, it’s so impressive.  The steward described to me where my seat was.  Just as well, because they have the most bizarre numbering system.  My seat was number 6, but it was next to 4 and 8.  My row was even numbers only.  The numbers on the row nearest the entrance were odd.  If I had been going with a friend and I’d bought two tickets I thought were next to each other and they had numbers 4 and 6 on them, I’d be disappointed.  Still, this is their system.

Another thing that really surprised me was how sparsely situated and poorly stocked the refreshment stands were.  A couple of types of baguette, alcohol free beer, water and juice was about it.  And I had to go two floors down for it.  Incidentally, the toilet situation is chronic as well.  Three tiers of stands at that entrance served by one toilet, on the 2nd floor, with about 10 urinals and 4 seats, in a stadium this size?   However, there really is hardly any concourse space in the Lateral Este stand.

So back up I plodded to my seat, with a cheese baguette and an incredible view.  The Bernabeu has that Instagrammable factor that attracts more of a fleeting fan – the type who’s more interested in the photos of themselves with Ronaldo in the background than the game itself (says the guy who takes pictures of, and writes about, football stadia).  People who were “not really that into football”, but it was a cool thing to do.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

The three other stands are slightly higher, but less well covered, so I’d inadvertently picked a great seat.  A huge number of people left it until the last minute before taking their seats.  I postulated a couple of reasons for this: the inability to buy a beer in the ground, when there are loads of bars in the vicinity of the stadium and the inclement weather.  The seats have really good legroom, which is all the more surprising given the severe verticality of the stands.

Where Beer Angels will come to your seat in fill your cup in other European Stadia, in Madrid, they come with Coca-Cola and Popcorn.  Watching couples buying industrial volumes of Coke and buckets of popcorn, with “Shape of You” and “Despacito” booming in the background just annoyed me.  It’s probably irrational, and I’m the visitor, but that kind of Pseudo-American Industrialised nothingness makes me die a little inside. All that was missing was the selfie-screen, where people can go and see themselves taking pictures of themselves on a big screen. Conformity and vanity sell. It’s the cultural equivalent of a Wetherspoon’s at 8pm on a Friday.

The pre-match “Hala Madrid” song is a little dirge-like. Kudos to the White Army behind the goal in the Fondo Sur – they were doing their utmost to get the place rocking, but sometimes fan enthusiasm is water soluble.

Real Madrid v Villarreal

The match really was a thing of beauty, and both teams made it such.  Key stats include Real Madrid having 28 shots on goal, including 11 from Ronaldo, much to the increasing frustration of the 63000 crowd. Villarreal also had 10 themselves.  Their goalkeeper, Asenjo, was outstanding and made some fortunate and some unbelievable saves; seven in total.  However, trying to describe the match using numbers is like saying Dali painted clocks.

The quality of passing, from both sides, was sublime.   Modric is a wonderful footballer, and was at the centre of all good things Madrid did.  Their weakest link on the day was Ronaldo.  The Portuguese Narcissus worked hard and was defensively effective. He also jumps exceptionally well in the middle.  Nevertheless, he squandered several opportunities with his masturbatory shooting when the pass was a much better option.  He’d make great Kylo Ren.

Bacca led the line well for the visitors, and really should have scored. If he had a little more pace, he would be the complete centre-forward, even if he is a former Brugge player.  When the goal finally came, it happened in slow motion, with Fornais lobbing Navas from outside the box after the keeper had saved seconds beforehand.  You cannot say it was undeserved: Villarreal were brilliant. Given the almost aquatic nature of the pitch, it seemed fitting that the Yellow Submarine prevailed.

Verdict: It’s not what you expect: a little disappointing in some ways, and breathtaking in others, making it an essential trip.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  *****
  • Stadium character: ***
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: **
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *****
  • Overall: ****

 

 

 

 

Royal Excel Mouscron

 

Royal Excel Mouscron v RSC Anderlecht, Jupiler Pro League

Stade Le Canonnier, Saturday 18th November

Provincial. Mouscron is provincial. If ever a word was weighed heavy with connotation, it’s provincial. The cafés were, provincial. The people looked, provincial. The shops, provincial. It’s a word that people from the ‘big smoke’ use to describe smaller towns and their inhabitants, with sneering superiority.  Well, I like provincial. Provincial is not homogenised. Provincial is unique. Provincial is what prevents proper football leagues becoming like the MLS or, if UEFA or Sky get their own way, the Champions League. Provincial is Kilmarnock, Darlington, Eindhoven or Duisburg.

The Moat of Mouscron

Mouscron, however, is very provincial. As I slalomed between the potholes, drunkards and banjoists, I found a parking space just visible through the smog of coal and chip-frying oil, not far from the Grand Place. The depression was tangible and the centre seemed like a giant electromagnet, attracting  weeping iron clouds from afar.  However, such environments are often fertile ground for passionate football fans.

The Hotel de Ville is a fine building and is completely surrounded by a moat of death to catch any stray child cyclists or elderly residents of unsteady footing. Instead of filling it with crocodiles however, the municipal minds have gone for the puddles, cabling and sand approach, coupled with the forlorn illusion of running water and electricity.

Mario and Luigi’s lovechild

The glowing filament of a nearby bulb, incandescent, attracted me like a violet glow to a bug in a hotel kitchen, and I ended up in a bar that had that alluring musk of fresh Stella and damp dog, and parted with 1.80€ for my only drink of the day.

It took around 15 minutes to speedwalk through the perpetually condensing air towards the stadium.  My print-at-home ticket in hand, getting soggier by the second, the turnstiles were negotiated with the dexterity of R2-D2. I then advanced to the humanoid at the other end, whose “patting down” was a tad too lingering and caring for my comfort: any less brusque and he’d have slipped me the finger.

I have detected Strontium 2+ ions I believe.
Il faut clapper les gars.
nettement cool

The stadium has an organic feel to it and clearly is modernised (or not) when any moderate success comes to town. This hand-to-mouth existence is honest and is the model UEFA wants the little guys to adopt: prudent, cautious and remembering your place.  Mouscron have flirted with European competitions in the past but their caste is very much in the lower echelons of the Pro League.  Nevertheless, there is something trustworthy and community-centred about the feel of the place, which is exactly what a provincial club should be.

Dampness engulfing, I dashed for cover under the Main Stand and saw that the beer purchasing system was a card-charging caper; scourge of the groundhopper.  Proceeding directly to the other end of the stand, past the club shop and various beer filling points (quite plentiful and frequent for a stadium of this size), I found a burger van. Scouring the graffitied menu for my delight, I decided upon the Braadworst. That was, until I saw them. If this sausage didn’t have cancer, it was surely carcinogenic. The hotplate wasn’t up high enough and a watery foam from the frozen meat was suffocating the sausage, poaching it until it looked like liquified liver cirrhosis.  All things considered, I had a spongy burger instead. Yum.

The ‘kop’ behind the goals has a few toilets and a beer stand and the die-hards were dusting down their club flags from a recess therein.  I figured, as the enemy in the midst and not wearing club colours, that anonymity would be maintained by hiding up near the back.  The view is decent enough, and the nets through which I would view parts of the game were needed to shield Boeckx from assorted missiles in the second half.

Donald Trump, obviously.

The pre-match procedure was, well, provincial. The club mascots (there seemed to be two) looked like a couple of hardy souls who had cobbled together something from the dressing-up box: Mario and Luigi tributes evidently. Then there was the man introduced as “President of ze United States, Donal Tramp”.  My squint and raised eyebrow were in overdrive, matched in intensity only by my confusion.  The MCs were trying their best to get the fans involved, but the majority who had taken their places were apathetic towards the rallying cry: more “peace be with you” than “death to the infidels”.

Once the teams came out, the visiting fans were still not allowed to take their places. This has become a recurring theme in matches I’ve seen recently and, frankly, it’s a really poor show from the police. Fans pay a lot of money to follow their team and the least that the police could do, given the money brought in to the local economy, is to ensure that they are allowed in on time. Both PSG and Anderlecht have suffered this fate in the past few weeks thanks to this inconsiderate heavy-handedness.

When the match kicked-off, a couple of nice little red flares were set off to my right and the Megaphone Man and his barmy army of around 40 were in full song.  The Mouscronnois are not huge singers, and the edginess I had expected was somewhat spherical.  The  atmosphere was, nevertheless, entertaining and family friendly but the majority of the noise came from the visiting fans (once they were allowed in).

In a match which was dominated possession-wise by Anderlecht, it was correct that they led 1-0 at half-time through a Massimo Bruno sclaff.  Mouscron were resilient on the pitch however, and a deflected shot gave them a (perhaps) deserved equaliser early in the second half.  Anderlecht’s amorphous setup and cautious passing meant that, for all their dominance, they didn’t look like scoring, a few Logan Bailly saves notwithstanding.  When it looked like the match may fade out into a draw, a fabulous one-two between Onyekuru and Hanni played in the former for an excellent finish. It was the undoubted highlight of the match and the latest instalment of the topsy-turvy thriller that is The Onyekuru Paradox.

Le Canonnier

As the final whistle blew, the Mouscron fans could applaud (and some did) their team who gave their all but were simply beaten by a collection of better players.  As the locals went home to kick the ferret and drink some hydrocarbons, I scuttled along towards my car – the drenched rat in the away end – hoping that my internal  sat nav wouldn’t guide me into some barely-illuminated ditch.

The Scenery

One heart-warming feature of the journey can be found on the road between Gent and Waregem en route to Mouscron: that of a giant sculpture(?) of a naked middle-aged man, complete with overhanging belly and gravity-enslaved scrotum.  Provincial Belgium at its finest.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: ****
  • Ease of access: ***
  • Things to do around the stadium: **
  • Overall: ***

Verdict: Provincial football doesn’t get much more authentic.

 

RB Leipzig and AK Berliner 07

 

Leipzig and Berlin Weekend: 3-5th November 2017

RB Leipzig v Hannover 96 and Berliner AK 07 v Chemie Leipzig 

It had been, without doubt, our best laid plan.  Unlike previous excursions, dreamt up between copy-paste “report writing” and semi-lucid lesson planning, this idea was conceived in the height of summer: long days, long sleeps and longing for some football.  Since swapping the cultural void of the West Midlands for the empathy void of Budapest, Szug Tszemples was ready for another kaleidoscope of kultur in Eastern Germany, a central destination for both of us, with a strong gravitational pull enhanced by very cheap air fares.

We had identified Union Berlin v St Pauli as our focal point for the weekend and would base any other matches around this. However, with 2. Bundesliga, the match could have been any time between the Friday at 1800 or late on the Monday, so we had to be flexible.  With the Union match selling out during the members pre-sale, we had to choose between risking getting a ticket at the last minute, possibly seeing nothing or paying exorbitant prices, or taking in another game in Leipzig. We examined our priorities, which were taking in a game or two and having a good scoop, meaning we bit the bullet and ordered the RB Leipzig v Hannover tickets.  I had visited the Zentralstadion once before (on a press pass) and was keen to sample what was on offer as a fan.

I can feel the cloud of disappointment of the beer-bellied, double-denimed “Scheisse-clan”, sweating out their Krombacher saying “you should go to Lok or Chemie Leipzig and avoid this Scheisse.” Yes. OK. That argument has been done. You go and see who you like and I’ll do the same. I respect your stance, but I don’t have to adopt it.

So, with Leipzig sorted for the Saturday and Berliner AK 07 on the Sunday (thanks Groundhopper app), we would meet for a few beers on the Friday night in Berlin. Or so we thought.  Air Berlin’s demise only a couple of weeks beforehand meant that my trusted sidekick would need to find an alternative means of transport, and the most affordable was a sleeper train from Budapest to Dresden.  This meant that, while I was having pork done twelve ways and Weissbier denser than osmium in the Alt Berliner Bier Salon on the Friday, intrepid Szug was bunking up with some deaf pensioners and a few crusty travellers for the night.

Expecting to be regaled with romanticised tales of the discovering the iron tracks behind the Iron Curtain, my weary accomplice sought only to anaesthetise his sleep-deprivation and aftertaste of pish, Twiglets and body odour with some cool Pils.  It may only have been 0850, but we had both been awake for hours, so it felt like going for a lunchtime beer.  We found a little bar, seven minutes walk from Leipzig Hbf called Kneipencafe Optiker, open from 6am.  This place was a find: 1.30€ for a half litre of unidentified but very decent Pilsner, comfy chairs and a convivial, if smoky, atmosphere.  A couple here and we were in severe need of food.  My bladder had decided that it was full for the rest of the day, and our planned bar route became more of a “this place’ll do, it must have a toilet” navigation system.

Our next stop was Dhillon’s Irish Bar – surely it would be serving breakfast – where we were served the most repugnant Staropramen.  Whether it was poorly rinsed cleaner or simply stagnant beer, the barman’s explanation that Staropramen has herby notes wasn’t swallowed, and neither was the corrosive liquid in my glass.  To be fair to him, he replaced it with some generic Pils which was less contaminated before we moved on to Prime Burger, which was a very good feed for a reasonable price.

We checked into our B+B Hotel at this point.  It was very centrally located and cheap enough (33 euros each) and Szug had to wash off the smell that had diffused from his bunk buddies in the communist-chic compartment from the night before.  Armed with our tickets, we strolled the fifteen minutes or so out to the ground, stopping off for a quick beer en route at a street-corner pop-up bar, before making our way towards the perimeter of the stadium.

Having both been raised in a country with puritanical views towards alcohol, the openness with which people were drinking, around children, and not becoming the abusive bigoted misogynists that we are told alcohol brings out, was reassuring.  A bigoted misogynist forms his views in sobriety and that is where and when the re-education must take place. That they are more likely to share these views after drinking is not the root of the problem, and is analogous to building bricks over weeds, without uprooting the weeds, and expecting the weeds not to come through. This is the same country that tolerates mass expressions of bigotry (Orange Walks) under the guise of free speech, allows (and almost promotes)  segregation of kids on the basis of their parents’ religion for their schooling, yet prohibits alcohol being sold at football (but not rugby) matches. I wonder which is more regressive?

The ground itself is one of my favourites, with the exterior walls, main gate, obelisk and embankments from the old ground still very present.  The walk across the bridge from top of the old terracing to the new stand inside the bowl is pretty cool.  Our seats were right up the back of the upper tier, which was excellent as we had a fantastic view of both the pitch and the city of Leipzig, as well as being able to stand up and not obstruct anybody’s view.

The beer in the ground isn’t too expensive, with 0.5litres being 4€, +1€ deposit for the handled drinking vessel.  At half-time we indulged in some of the Glühwein, which was surprisingly wonderful and was like a big fermented cuddle in the cold.

The atmosphere in the stadium ranged from okay to decent, but certainly didn’t hit the levels of my previous visit here against Schalke.  That said, Hannover didn’t bring a huge support in spite of their relative proximity, and the “Kind must go” banner away from home shows that things are going better on the pitch than off it for Hannover just now.

The match itself was interesting, although was defence-dominated until Hannover made the breakthrough through Jonathas after 56 minutes.  Leipzig, having played away in Porto during the week, brought on Forsberg and Keita around this point, and their attack started to look far more multi-faceted.  Goals from Poulsen and Werner ensured that the hosts squeezed out a deserved victory. Discovery of the game for me was Ilhas Bebou, Hannover’s number 13, who threatened the Leipzig match throughout the match and was unlucky not to score himself.

A strategic decision to eat soon after the match may have been ill-conceived, as our very nice but very heavy dinner from Auerbach’s Keller expanded into every available space in our stomachs, meaning the beer wasn’t going down quite so easily.  After a stroll out of the centre towards KillyWilly’s to watch the rest of the BVB v Bayern game, the refreshing abrasion of the cool air was having a diminishing affect on Szug, who started doing the head-nodding one and a half pints in.  Well, he had barely slept the night before and we’d been drinking since 9am.

Like two old men that couldn’t hack it, we jumped on a tram back to the Hauptbahnhof and were in bed before 10 o’clock.  I have, however, discovered that the “start early, finish early” strategy tends to work best for me and brings forth all kinds of benefits: easy getting ‘home’, most acute arseholery takes place after midnight and, in terms of hangovers, late drinking always makes me feel worse the next day than heavy drinking.

Feeling quite refreshed the next morning, we had booked two tickets on the early train to Berlin as tickets were cheaper and had a similar, although less intense day ahead.  Szug’s scepticism about not booking a seat and sitting in the restaurant carriage was quickly alleviated when he saw that, for the price of a seat reservation and a Starbucks, he could have a cooked breakfast and beverage on the train.  It is a pleasant way to spend 75 minutes on a train, coupled with searching for “bars open near Berlin Hbf”.

This search proved none too fruitful, and after dumping our bags in a locker at the train station (where we would return for our train to the airport), we found a nice bar near the Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linten serving a Berliner Kindl at around 10am.  From here, we saw a bizarre commemoration of the Russian Revolution en route to the Augustiner Keller, where we blindly ordered some sausage and cabbage with a decidedly average beer before heading off to the Poststadion.

This stadium is located around ten minutes walk from the Hauptbahnhof, although you really need to know where it is or you’d never find it.  The ground is in the middle of a residential area, next to some trees and astroturf pitches (used by the public). The ‘main’ stand has some wonderful Art Deco features and the tiny hut selling the tickets, adjacent to the ground, made me inexplicably happy.

All amenities, such as food, drinks and toilets, are located outside the stadium, so if you need once you’re in, keep hold of your ticket if you’re planning a pit stop.  There seemed  more toilets at the end of this stand, incidentally, than in the whole stadium at Anderlecht.  Ten euros seemed a reasonable price to watch some Regionalliga football.  I was told, by Wikipedia, that Berliner AK 07 have attracted a large Turkish following and, while I don’t know what constitutes large, the ‘young team’ certainly matched that description.

In opposition were Chemie Leipzig, and I was curious to see what their following would be like and how the event would unfold.  The atmosphere had the kind of community feel that I associate with Junior Football (semi-pro) and it was rather warming.  We took our seats so as to minimise pillar obstruction at the goals, as it was free seating, and sat down with our beers, like pigs in poo.  The match featured some moments of skill and crudity in equal measure – just what you’re looking for from a match at this level.  Berliner AK 07 were, however, well worth their win and cruised to a three goal victory without much reply from the Sachsen visitors.

A leisurely beer at an anodyne motel opposite the Hauptbahnhof was had, before a mad dash to print off tickets and get our ridiculously busy train out to Schoenefeld Airport, for our journeys home.  This weekend was more of a triumph of adaptability than excellent planning, and demonstrated Germany’s general hospitality towards the football fan as opposed to the increasingly frequent presumption of criminality and suspicion today’s fan endures elsewhere.

 

Weiler leaves Anderlecht

 

Another weekend, another stodgy Anderlecht performance against weaker opposition.  This has become a thing. Yet, optimistically, I stood in line outside the stadium this morning to get my tickets for the Champions League matches against Celtic, Bayern Munich and Paris St Qatar.  As I left the ticket office (bag slightly heavier, wallet much lighter), I had a perhaps unjustifiably hopeful spring in my step.

However, I had barely walked a hundred metres when the news had broken online: René Weiler had left Anderlecht by mutual consent.  At first, I felt slightly deflated and, to be honest, a little shocked.  Anderlecht have had a habit of hanging on to managers much longer than they should have in recent years, priding themselves on continuity and development.  And here they were, sacking their Championship-winning manager six weeks into the season, a week before a huge Champions League tie against Celtic.

I’m still not sure how I feel. Weiler’s Anderlecht won the title last year a little by default, getting it together when in mattered and in the absence of a genuine challenger.  Nevertheless, after two barren years, he had achieved his objectives and got the the last eight of the Europa League, where Manchester United needed extra time to get through.  Surely he has bought himself some leverage, some time?

Well, yes and no. For Celtic fans reading this ahead of next week’s match, I have two words that will rationalise today’s move: “Ronny” and “Deila”.  Deila won the league with Celtic playing a rather blocky, sometimes unnecessarily defensive system and generally underwhelming their fans.  Weiler’s Anderlecht won the league via drilled performances and relied heavily on the goals of Tielemans (now at Monaco and hugely missed) and Teodorczyk, who can’t hit a barn door at the moment.  The fluidity and attractive football the fans crave was ditched for a pragmatic, results-first approach.

However, when results do not go to plan, as has been the case recently, turgid victories become disheartening defeats and, as Weiler found out much to his annoyance, the criticism is fierce.  In recent weeks, Weiler’s normal “safe and boring” press conferences have become a thing of the past with Mourinho-esque huffs being thrown if he doesn’t like a question and  responses were becoming abrupt or corrosive.

This deterioration also found its way onto the pitch with key players such as Dendoncker, Obradovic, Kums and Teodorczyk underperforming. The slope became slippier when key players were being played out of position and systems changed from match to match, none of which were characteristics of Weiler’s successes.

Against Lokeren last weekend, 4-2-3-1 became an amorphous game of shooty-in after an hour.  Against Bayern, the now infamous back 5 with Sven Kums at “libero” was an ill-fated and bizarrely timed experiment.  Away to Kortrijk this weekend, it was 4-4-2 with two big centre forwards and two out of form wingers, and it was ugly, ugly stuff.

After the match on Saturday, Weiler did a post-match interview flanked by the Chairman and the Sporting Director, and was then televised (without sound) giving them some kind of debrief in the Kortrijk canteen.  It was either an overt show of support or, as we have now discovered, the behaviour of a group of people who expected to part ways.

I still feel disappointed for Weiler: I trusted him and his methods but the team have had an awful start to the season and the past week has been PR suicide and there were few glimmers of sunlight on the horizon.  So, in spite of last year’s successes, the sacking was justified.  I’m sure he won’t be out of work for long and that he’ll do a decent job wherever he goes next, provided he remembers that journalists are only doing their jobs.

So what’s next for Anderlecht? Many fans would be happy to see Nicolas Frutos, current youth team boss, be given the top job. He has the previous playing pedigree at the club but his lack of top-level experience as a coach could count against him, as well as his role under Weiler – will a clean break be for the best.? The club have some talented young players out on loan, as well as the gifted but unhappy-looking Stanciu.

Whoever does take over has a cup game, a league game and the most important game of the Group Stage of the Champions League for Anderlecht coming up in the next week, so they’ll have to get to work quickly.  They’ll inherit a group of players who, for all their shortcomings in recent weeks, have worked tirelessly for Weiler – even against Lokeren, the players were certainly fighting for their coach.  The time has come for them to stand and be counted; to act like Champions and to regroup quickly, uniting behind the new coach and restoring faith amongst the Anderlecht fans.  Three wins in the next week would go a long way to doing just that.

 

 

Anderlecht Champions League Preview 2017

 

“Team” Anderlecht

The last time RSC Anderlecht appeared in the Champions League in 2014-15, they were a disharmonious collective of talented individuals who lacked the mental toughness, cohesion and game-management to fulfil their potential.  Losing late goals away to Galatasaray and at home to Arsenal ensured that glass ceiling of the Europa League was once again the Mauves’ destination when progression beyond the Group Stages was a real possibility.  However, given a group of Arsenal, Dortmund and Galatasaray, third really wasn’t a disaster.

A toxic dressing-room containing characters such as Anthony Vanden Borre, Steven Defour, Alexander Mitrovic and Silvio Proto – all big personalities –  showed large fissures, and was being loosely bound by emerging talent such as Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Leander Dendoncker and Chancel Mbemba.  Besnik Hasi, since of Legia Warsaw and, now, Olympiakos, had found himself parachuted into the position of Head Coach following unlikely success during the previous season’s playoffs after the departure of John van den Brom. Hasi guided the team to seven wins from ten matches as Standard Liege blew a massive lead to earn the job permanently.

The RSC Anderlecht of today is everything that the team of 2014 wasn’t. Unlike Hasi, Rene Weiler has a plan. The Swiss Head Coach, recruited from FC Nürnberg in 2016, sets the team up in a very defined 4-1-2-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on the opponent and players fit into this system and not the other way round.  Although Weiler experienced a slow start at Anderlecht, he persisted with his team’s short-passing build up and reliance on crossing from wingers and overlapping full backs until it started to work. The team became far greater than the sum of its parts and an equilibrium had been reached, ensuring Anderlecht became Belgian Champions for the 34th time in 2017.

Oui tu as raison; Anderlecht, Anderlecht, Anderlecht Champion!

As the transfer window approaches, Anderlecht will be hoping that they can hold on to their most valuable first team assets in Dendoncker, Kara and Spajic. Last year’s top goalscorer in Belgium, Lukasz Teodorczyk, is currently enduring an horrendous run of form.  The tall centre-forward scored 30 goals in total last year, but only 6 since January. He is physically imposing but lacking in confidence and Anderlecht desperately need him at his best to have any chance of even reaching the Europa League.

Capacity crowds (around 21500) will cram into Stade Constant Vanden Stock for these fixtures in hope more than expectation: the days of the late seventies and early eighties when Anderlecht won the Cup Winners Cup twice and the UEFA Cup once are long gone in these days of teams being measured as a function of their country’s TV deal.

The departure of Youri Tielemans to Monaco leaves a gaping hole in the Anderlecht midfield. Tielemans contributed 18 goals from central midfield last season and was the team’s main creative outlet; he was the one midfielder who could destabilise defences and conjure a decisive pass or goal from nothing.  Weiler has already tried Hanni and Trebel in Tielemans’ “roaming playmaker” position but neither looks able of filling his boots.

Tielemans left with the good grace of the Anderlecht faithful: he had earned his move having given the club four good years.  However, those expecting another home-grown player from the club’s Neerpede Academy as his replacement probably didn’t envisage that it would be 29-year old Sven Kums.  The wonderfully named midfielder spent ten years as a youth team player at Anderlecht and was loaned to Lierse and Kortrijk before finally being sold.  His journey back to Brussels has gone via Kortrijk (who signed Kums permanently after his loan), Heerenveen, Zulte Waregem, KAA Gent (where he was voted Best Player in Belgium two years ago) and Watford (who immediately loaned him to Udinese, that well-trodden Pozzo passage) where he never played a game.

Kums is a tidy player but his arrival has slowed down the midfield and his tendency to take up the same positions as Dendoncker has left Weiler looking through his squad to solve this dilemma.  Unfortunately for Weiler, an increasing number of Anderlecht youth players are being developed by the club but then leaving before they turn 18, meaning Anderlecht cannot keep them. In the past few years, the Neerpede Academy has developed talent such as Adnan Januzaj, Charly Musonda, Ismail Azzaoui, Orel Mangala and now Mile Svilar only for them to be poached with negligible compensation by richer clubs looking to add to their ‘home grown’ contingent.  While some of these names are not yet ‘household’, they almost certainly will be.  This has increased the need for the club to ensure they buy enough Belgian players, making Kums all the more attractive a proposition.

 

Profile of Anderlecht’s Current Squad

Since the departure of Silvio Proto a little over a year ago, the goalkeeping position has yet to have an established and top-class replacement. It was thought that Davy Roef, who had played deputy to Proto for a few years, would now be given his chance to shine but his form at the start of the season was poor, meaning that Franck ‘The Tank’ Boeckx, signed the year before on a free as a 3rd keeper, was suddenly Number 1.  In a bizarre move, Roef was loaned to Deportivo La Coruna and Anderlecht loaned Ruben Gonzalez from the same team.  Boeckx would play league games and Ruben the cups.

The expected emergence of hugely rated 17-year old Mile Svilar meant that Anderlecht only really wanted another experienced keeper in for a year until Svilar was ready, explaining the loan of Newcastle’s Mats Sels.  The former Gent keeper has looked short on confidence though and many fans remain unconvinced. However, with Boeckx perhaps lacking the level required for the Champions League (not to mention recovering from a summer operation), Roef having been shipped off on loan to Waasland Beveren and Svilar shafting the club by joining Benfica, Sels will be Anderlecht’s ‘keeper this season. Hopefully he can recover the level achieved at KAA Gent, although I’m still not convinced he’s even as good as an ageing Proto. Time will tell.

The centre of Anderlecht’s defence will undoubtedly be Kara and Spajic, who developed an excellent partnership in the second half of last season, provided Kara’s head isn’t turned again by thoughts of the money available in the Premier League. Veteran club legend Oli Deschacht will provide cover here, and at left back, although as time catches up with him, his legs are going, and another centre back is seen as a priority in the transfer market.

The left back position will be filled by Ivan Obradovic; an excellent outlet going forward and sorely missed during a long injury layoff last season.  He will be heavily involved in much of Anderlecht’s build up play and has the pace to cope with the likes of Robben or Di Maria, even if he can be a little gung-ho positionally at times.  The biggest concern defensively is on the other flank.  Andy Najar has been at Anderlecht for four full seasons, mostly playing right wing, but has had horrendous luck with injuries.  In the second half of last season, he was deployed as a full back and, similarly to Obradovic, is excellent on the ball.  However, at the business end of the season he acquired yet another injury, excluding him from the League Playoffs and the latter stages of the Europa League.  As popular as Najar is, most fans know that he cannot be relied upon to be fit, which brings us to Dennis Appiah.

Appiah is an earnest player with pace to burn but is frequently bullied and exploited by opposition.  His distribution and tackling need work and he has yet to convince Weiler, as indicated by the fact that just last weekend, Alexander Chipciu (a winger) was selected at right back ahead of him.  Chipciu is sometimes said to be Weiler’s pet (Chouchou Chipciu) but his inexperience in the position was painfully illustrated by Sint Truiden, leaving fans to wonder what Ribery or Neymar might do to him.  In Chipciu’s defence, he has never been a right back and so can’t be expected to simply slot in seamlessly.

Three years ago, Anderlecht had Gillet, Vanden Borre, Maxime Colin and Marcin Wasilewski as options at right back – I’m sure Weiler would gratefully take any of them now (except maybe Vanden Borre, last seen riding through DR Congo like King Baudouin).

The midfield conundrum alluded to earlier depends on whether Weiler deploys Kums as a Regista, with Dendoncker pushing on in a more box-to-box role, or Dendoncker plays his familiar “Makelélé” holding role with Kums in a more advanced position, or a more cautious double pivot.  In any case, both are highly likely to play.  Dendoncker, like Tielemans, has been heavily linked with moves to wealthier leagues but it seems he will give Anderlecht one more year, which he probably needs for his own development.  While parallels are frequently drawn between Dendoncker and Tielemans, mostly due to their emergence at the same club around the same time, Dendoncker is technically far more limited than Tielemans and is not a match-winner in the same mould.  He does, however, possess a ferocious shot, is far tougher defensively and remains a key player.

The third central midfielder is likely to be one from captain Sofiane Hanni (who also features on the left as required), Adrian Trebel – perhaps the most defensive option – or Nicolae Stanciu.  Stanciu is Anderlecht’s record signing at 7.8 million euros, plus add-ons, but he has been frustratingly poor and his role has been increasingly peripheral.

Stanciu is without doubt a hugely gifted player with the capacity to split a defence but his output for Anderlecht has been, at best, erratic. With a style of play similar to someone like Coutinho, he could play wide or as a number 10 but his defensive work is comparable to Özil and Weiler seems unprepared to accept this.

The candidates for the left wing position are the aforementioned Hanni and Henry Onyekuru, on loan from Everton.  Hanni is technically competent and had the highest number of assists in Belgium last season.  He frequently drifts inside from the left wing, which can be effective, although he lacks the physical attributes to burn a defender in the way that Henry Onyekuru can.  For me, Hanni is a harder working but less gifted version of Stanciu.  He will, however, always find a way into Weiler’s team and, based on his consistency and attitude last season, he deserves to play.

Twenty year-old Onyekuru is the wild card in Anderlecht’s attack this season and provided he avoids injury, continues to learn and is consistently selected, he will score and make a truckload of goals this season.  He is the one genuinely pacy player still at Anderlecht, following  ‘Flying’ Frank Acheampong’s loan move to China, meaning he simply has to play.

On the opposite flank, Alexander Chipciu and Massimo Bruno (former Anderlecht youth product being loaned back to the club from RB Leipzig for a second consecutive season) will probably compete for the starting position.  Neither were particularly convincing last season, although Bruno’s ability to score goals in big matches cannot be lost on Weiler.  Chipciu’s arrival, shortly after Stanciu’s, seemed like he was signed to keep the main man happy, but it didn’t work out that way, with the former being far more integral to Weiler’s plans than the more lauded Stanciu.

Anderlecht only ever play with one up front and, excluding sudden transfer activity, that’s likely to be Lukasz “Teo” Teodorczyk.  Teo endeared himself to the fans with his no nonsense physicality, tireless running and his eye for goal.  Capped 13 times by Poland as a centre forward in the era of Lewandowski, and only 26 years old, much will depend on his ability to find the net. However, his form is a huge concern to the club and he is playing like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Signed after his successful loan for just over 5 million euros from Dynamo Kiev, thanks to a pre-agreed clause, Teo’s was expected to be signed and then sold for over double this amount in the summer. However, since January he has the footballing equivalent of a surly drunken giraffe, cutting a frustrated figure as opposed to the intimidating totem Pole of a multi-faceted attack that he had been.

Teo is, however, Anderlecht’s best striker by quite a distance and Isaac Kiese Thelin, returning on loan from Toulouse, seems to have been brought back for his willingness to play second fiddle to Teo and is very much a team player.

How will Anderlecht fare this time?

Being realistic, it’s going to be an enormous shock if FC Bayern and Paris Saint Germain do not qualify from this group by some distance.  Anderlecht’s best hope seems to be creditable performances against the two favourites and to ensure that they do not lose either match against Celtic.  Anderlecht do have a habit of raising their game in Europe and exceeding expectations in terms of results but finishing third would constitute success for the club and its fans.

The key games are undoubtedly those against Celtic.  Since Brendan Rodgers took over, the Parkhead club have improved beyond recognition, even if they were champions before.  Last season’s Champions League games were too much, too soon and I’d expect Celtic to pick up points at home, perhaps against PSG and Anderlecht.  Game Two of the group sees Celtic visit Brussels and Weiler has one month to iron out the glitches in Anderlecht’s recent performances.  His hitherto preference for stability hopefully won’t exclude the team’s most creative players from the side, especially with the ticket prices appearing to start at 75€ for those without season tickets.

“Strength” and “Stability” were the soundbites used by the UK Conservative Party in their recent pyrrhic election victory: Weiler has a squad and a system that is capable of finishing third in this group, but only if their attack shows more of its ability, a little unpredictability and less of its stability.

 

 

Honved Budapest v Szombathelyi Haladás

 

Honved (Kispest) v Haladas

NBI (league)  Saturday 15th July

I know both friends and family whose actual name is not how they’re known.  I know that this causes them confusion, especially when they have to give their name to somebody and they pause to reflect if it’s their ‘real name’ or not.  “Hello Stuart, may I see your ID please?  It says here ‘Mr R White’?”  Stuart replies “oh yes, that’s R for Robert: that’s just my real name, but people know me by my middle name.”  It is still common practice to inflict this confusion on children, unfortunately.

Perhaps in the case Honved though, it’s more like a married name given to someone who established their reputation before marriage, such as Jessica Ennis (Hill).  The club were founded in 1908 as Kispest AC, and the Kispest name remained until Hungary became a communist state at the end of the 1940s, when they were renamed Honved, and essentially became the team of the Hungarian Army (Honvedseg).

Stadium Entrance

The team enjoyed its most successful years during this incarnation, retaining Puskas and Bozsik from the Kispest team whilst poaching other teams’ players due to conscription and forming the backbone of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ of the ’50s.

In 1991 (post-communism), the club revived the Kispest name becoming Kispest Honved until 2004, when financial difficulties of the ownership provoked the incarnation of the club in its present form, Budapest Honved FC.

At the stadium, however, not one banner, T-shirt or song referred to ‘Honved’ and the fans clearly identify themselves as “Kispest.”

Kispest

Getting There and Buying Tickets

Honved is located in District XIX (nineteen), Kispest, in the south of the city.  To get to the Boszik Stadion from the city centre, it is easiest to take Metro Line 3, which runs from hubs such as Deak Ferenc Ter or Kalvin Ter, towards Hatar Ut (the penultimate stop in the Kobanyi Kispest direction).  Upon exiting Hatar Ut, there is a tram stop to the right and Tram 42 runs from Hatar Ut to just outside the Bozsik Stadion, which is the end of the line, and takes about ten minutes.

Honved Scoreboard

As tickets for the match cannot be bought online, a visit to the ticket booths is necessary.  This is not too problematic as Honved’s average attendance, despite being Hungarian Champions, is 2500-3000 and the capacity is 9000.  These are next to the main entrance, past the seed vendors.  With my Hungarian not being the sharpest, I was going ‘all-in tourist’ and hoping that the attendant would have some level of English.  I was asked for ID and handed over my passport, and the attendant entered my details before asking me where I wanted to sit.  The truth was I wanted to go into the “Kispest” zone, which is all terracing, but was concerned I’d be the tourist among the Ultras and so I repeated ‘Puskas’ three times, which is the ramshackle old stand.  I paid by 3000Ft (10€), which was the premium regular ticket and made my way under the signage and into a long track that winds round the stadium to the turnstiles.  The experience was fairly painless, compared with the nonsense I’d lived at Ferencvaros earlier in the day.

I’ve covered staying in Budapest itself in the Ferencvaros review as well, and the two grounds are easily doable in one day provided the kick-off times are more than three hours apart.

The Bozsik Stadion

This stadium gets a lot of love from groundhoppers for its ‘old school’ appeal, and I’m with them to some extent.  It is to be replaced by a modern, all-seater, fit for purpose stadium and, like trading in Nokia 3310 for an iPhone, the benefits will no doubt outweigh the drawbacks of nostalgia and sentimentality.

The first thing I noticed as I alighted the tram was the towering interrogatory floodlights, whose carbon footprint must be the size of a small airline’s.  They are, however, delightfully spatulaic communist relics and must surely be preserved in some form or another.

God’s reading light

There is fan merchandise spread out across a trestle table near the entrance, and a well-concealed fan shop near the turnstiles, nestled within a scabby office building. The wall around the perimeter of this path is adorned with some proper graffiti art and is not some sanitized corporate facade.

Proceeding to the turnstiles, I was absently patted down by the stereotypical Rock Szteady bloke and scanned my ticket, in the normal way, entering the ground without difficulty.  There are a few refreshment stalls at the turnstiles and under the Puskas stand.  The choice is reasonable, ranging from cucumber-laced hot dogs to schnitzel rolls and any kind of bog-standard Soproni beer you like, and is very much a cash-only operation.

Bowltastic

At this point, it is wise to scope out the toilets, which are to the left of the turnstiles as you enter, and not in the “Bufé” area as logic would lead you to conclude.  This is where all those indulging in their #againstmodernfootball ideologies have to walk the walk, and paddle in the pee of their comrades.

Once I showed my ticket to the attendant of the Puskas Stand, that is accessed from the front, I proceeded towards my seat covered in the ketchup which oozed from my hot dog while fumbling with my ticket just seconds previous.

They don’t sell “restricted view” tickets at Honved. That is all.

Hmmmm

I took it upon myself to find a different spot after kick-off, but the Puskas stand was actually quite full.  So, for the second half, I decided to stand above the seats of the bowl, near the pissers of the Proles, and was much happier.  Standing here took me back to watching Junior Football, with kids chasing each other and a hedge separating the seats from the pitch.  Football doesn’t have enough hedges.  #hedgesnotfences

Budapest Bush

Honved v Haladas

I’d looked though the squads of both teams earlier in the day, and they only player I recognised was the iconic Gabor Kiraly, who is still playing in goal for Haladas, jogging bottoms and all.  However, I wasn’t going to let my ignorance of Hungarian Football, which I was here to experience, allow me to prejudge the quality of football on show.  A promoter of Hungarian may adopt the line Obi Wan uses when training Luke in the ways of the Force – “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them!” – but my eyes, sadly, did not deceive.  The football on show was absolutely honking.  Just about nothing came off, and the frustration of the crowd became increasingly evident.

I was quite impressed with the enthusiasm of the fans on the Kispest tribune – they had an excellent variety of songs and kept going throughout the ninety minutes, generating a good atmosphere given the density of fans in the stadium.  Honved were, however, worthy of their win and their goals came from a near post header in the first half and a nice finish from Laczafame in the second.  If they are the best team in Hungary though, the league is in a sorry state.

I left right on the final whistle, mindful that the trams were small and increasingly infrequent at this late hour.  However, I had to wait ten minutes at the stop and everybody was able to get on without difficulty. I had mixed feelings going back to the hotel about the whole experience.  There is a much less sinister feel about Kispest compared to Fradi, and I the ground and atmosphere was fairly comforting in a nostalgic way, like a Werther’s Original.  However, I could have been at a lower league Belgian or Scottish match, given the surroundings and the quality of match.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  **
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: ***
  • Ease of access: ***
  • Things to do around the stadium: **
  • Overall: ***.5

Verdict: If you’re prepared to accept mediocre football and dated surroundings for an authentic, characterful and friendly experience,    then Honved (Kispest) is worth the effort if you’re in Budapest.

Never average.