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, 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 for bringing money 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 blunt.  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.

Ferencvaros v Puskas Akademia

 

Ferencvaros TC v Puskas Academia

NB I (league)  Sunday 16th July

I’ve always enjoyed the adventure-filled nature of the Bourne series; from the identity-seeking self-discovery of the ‘Identity’, to the steely glances and shadowy invincibility of the more recent, mute incarnation.  Sometimes I have imagined myself in that scenario: all eyes of a visibly oppressive and omnipotent security force searching you out, having to go to outrageous lengths to achieve a sense of calm and normality beyond the world of fingerprints, retina scans and espionage.  However, I now feel that this itch has been scratched, as I have successfully bought a ticket and entered the Groupama Arena, Ferencvaros.

Turnstiles at Groupama Arena

Getting There

The Groupama Arena is immediately adjacent to the ‘Nepliget’ Metro stop, which is on line 3.  If you’re in the centre of Budapest (Deak Ferenc ter) then Nepliget is six stops away, in the direction of Kispest.  The Metro system in Budapest is excellent and, provided you know in which direction you’re heading, is easily navigable.  Nepliget Bus Station is also where many of the International Buses arrive, so the location really is ideal.

Sunny Day in Ferencvaros

Tickets

Normally, I would stick a hyperlink in here, comment on the price of the ticket, simplicity of the website and any glitches or issues to be aware of and move on. Ferencvaros, however, have decided that online ticketing really isn’t for them, which I can understand when a club is having very small crowds and never selling out on the proviso that tickets can simply be bought at the gate.  No. As an occasional fan, tourist or groundhopper coming to Ferencvaros, you are made to feel like a terrorist threat, convicted hooligan and wilful carrier and spreader of Ebola.

Parliament, where they do palm readings

Firstly, you need to register for a ‘Fradi’ card, which is the compulsory fan card which is used to gain entry as well as to load with credit for food and beverages.  This is more ridiculous, and laborious, than passing through United States Immigration and Border Control.  The office where this takes place looks like the inside pan of a deep fat fryer, and is right next to the ticket booths, although finding the door is not as simple as it sounds.  Having made it into the room, I explained the purpose of my rude interruption to the man whose menacing grimace suggested his recording EasztEndersz was set for further postponement.  He actually reminded me of Danny Dyer when he used to do those ridiculous ‘ahd-mahn’ football rivalry shows before adorning a pink dressing-gown in Albert Square.

The surly employee, who will henceforth be known as Danny, barked “ID card now” at me.  I produced said card, which provoked a head shake like I’d told him “my dog ate my homework”, and Danny entered various details from the card into a computer.  He then placed the card down, and asked me to fill out a form, which surely contained the same information he just entered.  I duly obliged, and was then beckoned towards a PC camera.  After he told me not to smile and stored my exasperated image, I was guided towards a plastic device.  I had no idea what this thing was.  I was told to press down with a finger (can’t remember which) on some part of it and then, after several attempts and much frustration evident on Danny’s melted face, a scan of my handprint was subsequently taken.

It crossed my mind at the time that he was taking the piss, seeing me as some gullible foreigner and having a laugh at my expense to break the monotony of his day.  Only later (the next day) did I discover that they actually scan handprints to verify your identity in order to activate the turnstiles to let you in the stadium.  It’ll take time for Viagogo to find a way round that. Oh, wait, nobody uses Viagogo for Ferencvaros matches. Because there’s no demand. Why? Because, well, they’re rotten.

Eating seeds is a pastime activity, the toxicity of our city.

The fruits of my labour, having just arrived at the bus terminal fifteen minutes beforehand, was a ‘Fradi card’ for 1000 Ft (it’s 1500 Ft if you buy it on the same day as the match).  This enabled me to go to the ticket booths and buy a ticket. My ticket was 4200 Ft (around 14€) for a seat fifteen rows back almost on the halfway line.  With the cost of the card added, this was 5200 Ft (about 17€).

Considering that this whole procedure took around twenty minutes with me being the only person there, you can imagine the bottleneck that this causes on match days in the hours leading up to kick-off.  Therefore, getting your Fradi card and ticket the day before, or as early as possible on match day, makes sense.  However, it is a stupid system: having fans arriving over an hour before the game and still getting in late when your stadium is only about a third full is a ridiculous scenario.

The Fool on the Hill

Places to Stay

Budapest is awash with every kind of accommodation you could hope for, so I’d really recommend you do your own search here in accordance with your requirements.  I found a single room for 48€ per night (including a good breakfast) at the Residence Baron, next to Fovam Ter Metro, and was very happy with it, but if I was with a team of lads then there’s a plethora of low-budget alternatives I would’ve considered.  With the Metro being so good, provided you’re near a stop, there’s really no need to be near the ground, even if it’s a late match.

Where is ‘Boy With Apple’?
This is Zubrowka
Gellert Spa
Gellert Outdoor Pool

Budapest

Any preconceptions that may be harboured about Central and Eastern European cities should be rewritten after a visit to Budapest.  This is one of the grandest and most interesting cities you will ever experience.  Having been once before, three years ago, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed it but my memories were more of my experiences, and who I was with, than the city.

For those looking for comparisons, think Paris, but smaller and cheaper.  Getting around the city is probably best done on foot, or public transport if you have the time.  A 24-hour ticket for the public transport network costs 1650 Ft (5.50€) and is well worth it, although there are alternatives (http://www.bkv.hu/en/).  If time is more limited, one of the open-top bus tours is the way to go to get a good overview of the main sights, and a cruise on the Danube is often included.

It would be a shame to visit Budapest and not go to one of the many baths around the city.  The largest baths are the Szchenyi Baths, next to the city zoo, just behind Heroes’ Square, although the Gellert Baths and the Rudas Turkish Baths are also brilliant in their own way.  I had grossly underestimated how much I’d enjoy this experience and how rejuvenated I’d feel afterwards.  It is worth noting that some baths have “men-only” or “women-only” days, and this should be checked out in advance.

Finally, provided you stay away from the upmarket hotels, eating and drinking in Budapest is very cheap compared to most major capital cities.  Visiting Szimpla Kert, the original ruin bar, for a beer and a look around is recommended, although there are loads of nice restaurants, cafés and bars all over the city.

Groupama Arena

The stadium itself has a capacity of 24000 and was opened in August 2014. It seems that many of Hungary’s football teams have either recently renovated their stadium, are in the process of doing so or are about to.  In spite the criticism I have heard levelled at this ground for being “modern and soulless”, sometimes it’s a good thing to not have to stand in puddles of pee in a snaking toilet queue and having a good view of the pitch without having to straddle a pillar isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

My biggest criticism is ridiculously overbearing swarms of stewards and security: there were perhaps 8000 fans at this game and it felt like each had their own member of staff.  As I strolled, 120 bpm Travolta-style, to the turnstiles with my ticket and Fradi card in hand trying to look like I knew what I was doing, I was intercepted by a steward, who did the disinterested pat-down with impressive aplomb. Then, having negotiated my way through a turnstile before, I scanned by ticket under the infrared sensor. Nothing. Other way round maybe. Nothing. The turnstile steward smiled at my helplessness and told me I had to scan my Fradi card (the ticket, therefore, serving no real purpose other than to tell me where to sit).  I did this, but then she said “No. You must scan your hand!” After a couple of attempts, I placed my left hand into their scanner and my Fradi card into the other scanner, simultaneously, and the turnstile clicked, meaning that my “life line” on my left palm didn’t correspond to anything in their database of thugs and litterbugs, therefore I wasn’t the droid they were looking for and I could go about my business.

Once inside, if you’re looking for refreshments, the card system in operation means you find one of the people with a big flag on their back.  You can top up in denominations of 1000Ft it seems, although, by design, a hot dog and a beer is 1030Ft – not an issue if you’re a regular, and quite cheap, but enough to ensure that groundhoppers leave with unspent credit, which is not refunded.  The beer is Soproni, ubiquitous in Budapest, and is OK but nothing to get excited about. However, it was a very cold beer and at 490Ft for 0.4 litres on a hot day was very refreshing.  For 540Ft, a hot dog with these freeze-dried space-food onions and a gloopy mayonnaise was an interesting beer sponge. At least they didn’t try to garnish it with the Devil’s food, cucumber, like they did at Honved.

I found my seat easily enough, and was given the once over by a mustachioed seed-muncher two seats down, presumably because I wasn’t decked out in Fradi merchandise, like most people were.  The sun was beating down relentlessly on my spontaneously freckling bald head and I noticed that most of the supporters in the stand were wearing caps. So, I put my hand to my forehead, like a sailor peering beyond the horizon, hoping that the sun wouldn’t scorch a mark or blister into my hand incase I had to scan it to go for a piss.

As it happens, the toilets are more than adequate, and could accommodate a capacity crowd and the stewards without a problem.  The view from the seat was perfect, the seat itself was comfortable and I had sufficient leg room.  In all honesty, the facilities inside the ground are excellent, provided you can get in.

Ferencvaros v Puskas Akademia

The pre-match ritual involved an extra from Lord of the Rings running round the pitch with an eagle on his arm to some middle-ages feudal music, although I can’t help thinking its effect is diluted when the stadium is so empty.  The fans were fairly enthusiastic but there wasn’t much variety in the singing: any variation of “Hajra” and “Fradi”, in any order, seemed acceptable.

Then, there was the football. The ball behaved like a twelve-sided die, skiting off of feet, shins and heads in random directions.  Some agricultural tackling, reminiscent of Scottish Junior Football, punctuated the match with alarming frequency.  I expected something similar in quality to the Scottish Premiership, or the bottom half of the Pro League in Belgium, but it was nothing like it. It was a big pile of sweaty bollocks, just like the Rudas Baths.

Zoltan Gera strolled around the pitch like he was Pirlo, with the arrogance of someone whose career wasn’t spent yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship in England. Unfortunately, while he was one of the better players on show, the 38 year-old’s performance didn’t match his ego.

The best football of the match was nevertheless played on the opening stages, with the home side having a little more of the play without being dominant. It was Puskas’ Academia who took the lead through Szakaly after 24 minutes, who promptly gestured towards the fans and  made himself the pantomime baddie whilst acquiring a yellow card. Moments later, the same player was very lucky not to be sent off for a poor challenge and raising his hands.

Ferencvaros did press for an equaliser and Puskas’ keeper made a couple of good saves until a free kick was awarded on the edge of the box. It looked like a great chance, and the keeper left a large gap to his left. So, I sneaked out camera (having seen how friendly the staff were to tourists, I wasn’t keen to sample the fans’ disdain by filming like I was at Stamford Bridge) pointed it in the general direction of the goal and Varga flighted the ball into the top corner to equalise.

The second half was a not plot full of twists and turns but a collection of incomplete short stories, where you had to imagine the ending of each move, just like those “complete the story” competitions for teen authors.  This passage of play could be summed up by the fact that two players, named ‘Poor’ and ‘Koch’, were booked for clumsy tackles.  It was indeed, a limp affair.

A draw was probably a fair outcome for the match and, while I sometimes come away from games in buoyant mood feeling that nobody deserved to lose, this was a match where nobody deserved to win.  The stand emptied very efficiently and within ten minutes, I was being whisked back towards Kalvin Ter along line 3 where my dinner awaited. I was Hungary.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  **
  • Stadium character: **
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: ****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *** (although loads 15 minutes away)
  • Overall: **.5

Conclusion: Ferencvaros’ stadium is perfectly situated and, once inside, is a very respectable arena. However the experience leaves a lingering aftertaste, like cucumber on a hot dog, of bewilderment at the complicated method of ticket acquisition (which is not worth the hassle – go to Kispest), and disappointment at the level of quality on the pitch.

 

 

 

Calcio Como

 

Calcio Como v US Pistoiese:  Lega Pro A

Saturday 11th March 2017, Stadio Guiseppe Sinigaglia

“When the desire to do something transcends reason or logic, the lines between passion and insanity become blurred and decreasingly distinguishable”.  I am, of course, quoting myself. Those were the words that echoed in my head as I tried to fix my saddle at 0230 on a Saturday morning, three hours after going to bed.  However, those thoughts were vocalised in my garage, in a moment of introspection and self-realisation as “just what the fuck am I doing?”

Lake Como
Volta’s Vault
Has this Stand ever been structurally sound?

I was fumbling about with my bicycle, which had been in hibernation, in order to cycle 12km to my work, where I could securely lock up my bike.  From there, I would hire one of the Brussels city-bikes, and continue my journey to Gare du Midi, in order to take the 0400 bus to Charleroi Airport for a 0620 flight to Milano Bergamo, where a shuttle bus would whisk me to Milan.  I would hang around for a couple of hours before taking the train north to Como, to watch Third Division Italian football being played between two teams I had barely heard of, before rushing back to Milan for a schedule requiring extreme punctuality, planning and innate navigation.  All parts, except taking a taxi instead of cycling, would be assiduously adhered to throughout this epic day.

I love literal translations

On the other hand, I could have got up at a sensible time, taken the local bus to Brussels Airport about 0900 for a (more expensive) flight to Milan and either a) spent a relaxing day as a tourist in a cosmopolitan modern city or b) had a leisurely lunch in Milan before taking an earlier train to Genoa for the Derby Della Lanterna, allowing time for a wander around the sights and dinner near the ground watching the atmosphere build up.  Sound nice, eh?  Of course, being either ‘passionate’ about groundhopping or just a bit masochistic, I chose the exhausting option to squeeze in the match in Como.  And, for all the hassle and the tiredness, it turned out to be a magnificent decision.

Stazione San Giovanni
Como Price List
Como Ticket booth
Como Harbour
Row Z is the lake
Main Stand at Stadio Guiseppe Sinigaglia
It doesn’t look so safe from here…
Tifo of the Como Tifosi
The seat/step is comfier than it looks
You know you’re in Italy when the toilet has a two bar heater above the cistern but the flush doesn’t work

Getting There and Tickets

Using Milan as a hub, Como is reachable in just over half an hour or just over an hour by rail, depending on which train you take.  Tickets are bookable in advance at Trenitalia.it and can be printed off but, at 4.80€, any savings from pre-booking will be negligible.  My train there left from Milano Porta Garibaldi but my return train arrived at Milano Centrale.  The two stations are about 15 minutes walk (or two Metro stops) from each other but one is like a marble tribute to the Renaissance whereas the other is more like a bus shelter in Paisley.

Tickets for the match can be bought online from listicket.it but it’s easy to walk up and buy the ticket just before entry.  Passport or National ID cards are, as usual, required even when buying on the day, and even at this level, the ticket and documents are compared to verify that you are indeed the correct ticket holder.

Como

Tourism is clearly a major employer in Como and it’s easy to see why.  This is the kind of place where photos are taken and words like ‘idyllic’ or ‘paradise’ are superimposed.  Although the town is not huge, it certainly has enough to keep you amused for a weekend, between the narrow streets, promenade area, funicular or lake cruises.  I was only here for a few hours, including the match, so a stroll to the stadium to pick up the ticket, a wander around the old town and a spot of lunch were my collective achievements pre-match.  I did imagine myself living there – it is the kind of place you’d like to wake up in and wander around.

It was beautiful weather, around 18°C, in Como and I was kitted out for a cloudless early morning start in Belgium, and the heat combined with the tiredness to deplete my energy rapidly.  A pint of generic lager and a margherita (for a combined price of 9€) set me right and I meandered off to the ground via the joyous passageways and piazzi, being careful to avoid the unpredictable scooters, one of which was sideways in the middle of the road with its rider sadly still.  Having nothing to offer to improve this situation, I scurried along to the ground, a little moved by the events and crescendo of sirens.

Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia

The stadium reaffirms many preconceptions and stereotypes regarding modern-day Italian engineering and quality.  The stadium is quirky and oozes character but also looks like it would struggle to withstand any kind of force or adverse weather event.  Only three of the four tribunes were open on the day as the lakeside stand looks like it has been condemned some time ago.  The absence of scaffolding suggests that it is simply hanging around, waiting to die like an ailing pet whose owners cannot have it ‘put down’.  And, as nostalgic and romantic as that stand is, surely the club should euthanize it and build something fit for purpose, as all this is doing now is providing photographic material for people like me, acting as a wind break for the players and serving as an assault course for pigeons.

Just about all of the fans were located, alongside me, in the Curva Como.  The entry fee was 12€, and it was worth it simply to admire the view from the top of the stand with a beer on a sunny day.  After entering the ground, there was a toilet block, whose smell could be weaponised, a few metres away from a little stall selling hot dogs and drinks.  There were no prices anywhere, so I paid the 3€, which may or may not have included a foreigner levy, for a can of Peroni.  The vendor was rather disgruntled when I handed over a 20€ note and, to be fair, he had amassed about as much change as the ‘busker’ on Argyle Street, in Glasgow, who used to just smack a spoon off of the pavement outside Woolworth’s.  So, after shouting a few friends round, he cobbled together my change and off I went to admire the view.  The sun was intense and I was worried I’d get a Vitamin D overdose, not to mention falling asleep.

The fans to my right tried their best to generate some atmosphere and there were about 250 who sang away for most of the match.  However, this civilised paradise of a town is not fertile breeding ground for Ultras vocalizing their persecution.  It was all rather pleasant and child friendly.  There are not set seats, although the steps are numbered, and a higher vantage point does offer a better view.  The depth of the steps facilitates slouching in a way that modern stadia just couldn’t possibly.

Como v Pistoiese

The match itself was intensely dreary. The pace was fairly slow but the accuracy of the final pass was abysmal, leading to a dearth of goalmouth action and incident.  Goalless at half-time, with little of note to report, I found myself fantasising again about living in this area, close to Milan, the Mountains, beautiful weather etc.  However, I do think I’d find myself taking regular journeys to the San Siro if the quality of football in Como was like this every week.

In the second half, an oasis of skill punctuated the desert of mediocrity and Como took the lead.  There was no way another goal was likely – the game was that turgid.  However, the experience of the stadium and the town was almost definitely worth the trip.

I could have happily spent a few hours more in Como after the match, but another match beckoned in Genoa later in the evening so I left the stadium early, looking back at the flimsiness of the half-full stand I had been in with a little relief, and chaffed my way to the train station, which is less than ten minutes away, for my chariot to Milan.

Verdict: An interesting old stadium in a stunning setting, so close to Milan, that it has to be worth a visit.  Could easily be dovetailed with a romantic getaway….

Stadium Ratings

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

 

Inter v Atalanta: Sun at the San Siro

 

Inter v Atalanta: Serie A

Sunday 12th March 2017, Stadio Guiseppe Meazza (San Siro)

“If the San Siro were a player, it would be Ronaldinho: perhaps lacking the industrial yield of goals to games that characterises the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, but infinitely more joyful, artful, unpredictable and non-linear”

Sitting in a small recess between the gas fire and the television, I sat in the Lotus Position carefully trying not to spill the three-litre brandy bottle full of copper coins as I ate my Weetabix and drank my coffee through the global sporting journey of Saturday mornings on Channel 4.

Wow…
What we need Silvio is lots and lots of circles
Erm, which slope do I take?
Had I wanted to be cool, I would have stood here
Glad I brought the sunglasses
Curva Nord
Attilo Lombardo’s family enjoyed the game

This usually started with Transworld Sport, a program that provided me with many titbits of obscure sporting trivia, about the America’s Cup 1991 or Ice Speedway Circuits of the Baltic States.  This was often followed by Sumo or Kabbaddi which, instead of broadening my perspective of life outside the goldfish bowl, simply  served to validate the parochial nature of my childhood.  After sitting patiently through the adverts, most of which I could recite verbatim, came the tricolore di quattro.  The staccato pitch-shifting guitar, the high-end Casio keyboard drum fill tittilated until the cry of “Campionato, di Calcio, Italiano”.

Gazzetta Football Italia, one of the highlights of the week of the 90s teenager, showcased the greatest players and teams in the world playing in hallowed amphitheaters such as the Stadio Olimpico, the (unloved) Stadio delle Alpi but most of all, the ridiculous marvel that was, and is, the San Siro.  The show would often start with James Richardson sitting, looking incredibly smug, at some café reading Gazzetta Dello Sport and recounting the weeks events and gossip in the world of Calcio, followed by some highlights and interviews.  We were introduced to terms such as “tifosi”, “giallorosso” and “nerazzurri”, that were like aural popping candy.

So, with all of this in mind, it is fair to say that I was excited to visit the architectural behemoth that is the San Siro.  It looks impressive, impractical, implausible and incredible.  For all that I love going to football in Germany, it is difficult to imagine a German designing something like this with so many bizarre appendices.  It is more evocative than almost any stadium in the world.

Tickets

This was the third match of my Italian Trilogy, which is supposed to be when the goodies rise again, against all odds, to vanquish evil in some kind of moral victory.  Growing up, I always had Inter in the role of the baddie: the Darth Vader of Serie A, with the ability to choke their rivals’ Scudetto bid but never quite managing it.  Of course, in the second half of the noughties, Inter were very much the dominant force in Calcio, with Mancini and Mourinho guiding them to a truckload of trophies, including the Champions League in 2010.

While Inter have the highest average attendances in Italy, tickets can easily be bought for matches in the 80000 capacity San Siro via the club’s own website (http://www.inter.it/en/biglietteria#ticket-content), as opposed to using Listicket.it like many other clubs.  For my place in the corner, at the front of the second tier (just along from the Curva Nord), 30€ seemed a very fair price to pay.  Prices vary hugely depending on where you sit in the stadium, ranging from “very reasonable” to “are you sure this isn’t corporate” for most matches.

The Milan Metro, line 5, takes you to right outside the stadium, and costs 1.50€ per ticket.  These are typically bought from little kiosks or newsagents instead of machines, which has its own charm.  After the match, there is a counter at the metro station which tallies the number of passengers and limits it, so be prepared to queue if you don’t leave promptly, and don’t expect a seat.

Milan

The contrasts between Milan and Genoa, where I had travelled from by train, where striking.  From an organic, somewhat fragmented and rough around the edges port-city to an opulent and elegant hub of cosmopolitan affluence and style, Milan is not that pretty but deserves it suave reputation.  Yet, for all its ridiculous fashion houses and stupendously overpriced couture, food and drink were very reasonable.  I had a double espresso and a Nutella-filled pastry for 3€ in the Motta café looking onto the Duomo and, for lunch, I splurged on an indulgent pizza and beer in the grand passageway between Il Duomo and La Scala and it cost 13€.  Perhaps I sullied the grandiose decadence of the place with my trademarked gilet and rucksack combo, and the waiter did place me so that I was slightly hidden from potential diners, but I rocked the fish-out-of-water look to perfection.

As is often the way with this kind of weekend groundhopping, one gets a feel for a city without properly discovering it.  Milan does, however, boast one of the most magnificent train stations in Milano Centrale that is so grand and impressive, it could have been commissioned by Caesar, or even Berlusconi, himself.

San Siro

As a teenager, I’m sure Cindy Crawford disliked the mole on her face that would later characterise her and be the very distillate of her allure.  Similarly, the San Siro is not some characterisation of flawlessness, doing everything efficiently, cheaply and soullessly.  If the San Siro were a player, it would be Ronaldinho: perhaps lacking the industrial yield of goals to games that characterises the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, but infinitely more joyful, artful, unpredictable and non-linear.  It’s not the Amsterdam Arena, with a retractable pitch and roof, underground parking and glitz: no, this is a symphony in steel and concrete, full of unnecessary stepovers, Panenkas, nutmegs and dribbles.

The verticality of the stadium, along with its red roof-scaffold and cylindrical corners are the most obvious things at first glance.  But then, upon closer inspection, one spots a multitude of paths up and down the outside the stadium that are highly unorthodox.  The print-at-home ticket worked a treat, although I did have to scan it at two separate points and, like everywhere in Italy, you must have your ID to hand.

Having ascended one of the long and winding ramps, I then proceeded up some stairs to the second level, which is already pretty high.  The toilets and concessions were regularly dotted around the perimeter of the North Stand, although a couple of points made them noteworthy: it costs 5€ for a draught Heineken, which looked about 30cl (it wasn’t stated) but only 1€ for a coffee. There were also some Beer Angels coming round the seats, hawking their wares, but they didn’t have a keg on their back and were instead purveying lukewarm, flat beer and were wanting an extra euro for the delivery. Also, while the toilets were clean, the absence of toilet paper in any cubicle was thankfully, on this occasion, only a mild annoyance for me but I’m sure someone else’s physiological needs were being deprived because of this poor show.

The view upon emerging from the concourse is very impressive, and the stadium looks as good from the inside.  Those columns in the corner obviously act as the access point to the top tier, which was closed in two of the three stands having a third tier.  I was right next to a perspex wall, separating me and the plebs in the cheap seats from those under two metres away in their more expensive, similarly faded, plastic chairs.

What I would like to have known beforehand is that nobody in the front rows of the Curva Nord sits down or, seemingly, even stands at their designated seat.  Instead, fans choose to lean against the barrier at the front of the tier, forcing everybody else to stand on the seats (not in front of them) to see clearly.  The Sicilian couple next to me were on holiday but they migrated to this barrier, leaving some random guy to take their seat.  A North American couple rightly seemed bewildered that their seats were taken and confronted the squatter, who seemed completely indifferent to their incredulity.  I didn’t hear how this progressed but I’m guessing there was no steward in a fluorescent jacket to the rescue.

Where football grounds in Scotland are populated by men wearing thick anoraks, woolly scarves and hats who can see their breath in the chilly air, the abeti dei tifosi was sunglasses with well-coordinated blue and black accessories accompanied by the strut of Danny Zuccho and the air of volatilised tobacco and ristretto.  I just looked like an increasingly sweaty tourist who had badly misjudged how warm it would be.  My non-nativeness was further alluded to by my head’s redness in the March sun, like crepe paper over a candle: my translucent pastiness wasn’t ready for this level of heat before the first splutters of hay fever had arrived.

The pre-match video link, translated three ways, from Indonesia, was a cringeworthy modern-football stain that the fans in the stadium seemed disinterested in.  I understand that parts of Asia represent a large market for these clubs to develop their brand in, but the artificialness of it all was tough going.  This was ostensibly to celebrate Inter’s birthday, but it was clearly a sweetener to the club’s global benefactors.

The pre-match songs, on the other hand, bounced along and the stand was like Eurovision minus the boas and makeup.  “Pazza Inter Amala” has to be in my top few pre-match tunes.  While this match was lacking the noise and pyro of the Derby Della Lanterna the night before, the 60000 fans in the stadium clapped and sang along dutifully until the players emerged.  There was a dusting of Atalanta fans in the upper tier of the South Stand, although due to the identical home colours, a few could have been mixed in with the Inter fans elsewhere in the stadium.

Inter v Atalanta

The match itself was a complete rout – Atalanta had the cohesion of a team who had to borrow players because a few of the boys were working overtime.  Inter looked like scoring with every attack and Icardi, who seems to be well in with the fans again, had cantered to a hat-trick within 26 minutes.  His movement went completely unanswered from a disappointingly poor Atalanta side who continued like they were racing a car with a punctured tyre as soon as the first goal went in.  While Inter were very good, the dispirited and pacifist nature of the Atalanta team was an insult to their supporters – if they were an animal, they would have been taken to the vet before half-time.  Ever Banega – one of the great superhero names of world football – scored a very nice hat-trick himself and Perisic was a nuisance that Atalanta gave up competing against.  Inter’s five goal lead at half time was obviously representative of their dominance and fully deserved.

The 7-1 scoreline provided excellent entertainment and included some beautiful goals and a fitting back-drop to the event that is the San Siro.  My appetite for all things Calcio had been temporarily satiated and I made my way back to Centrale via the metro, then to Milano Malpensa (45 minute bus journey), before drifting off on the flight somewhere over the Lombardy hills, wistfully conjuring up another scheme to come back to the some of the monoliths of  European football.  Forza Calcio!

Stadium Ratings

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

Verdict: A real modern architectural wonder that remains highly fit-for-purpose as a football venue and is still one of the finest footballing destinations in the world.

 

Genoa v Sampdoria

 

Genoa v Sampdoria,  Serie A

Saturday 11th March 2017, Luigi Ferrari Stadium

Genoa 0 Sampdoria 1 (Luis Muriel): Attendance : 31190

“The toilets are inadequate, the refreshment stalls are very well hidden and you feel like you are in a recently looted Lidl.”

Saint Catherine of Genoa once commented that what we define as normal and weird was simply qualified by the number of subjects who exhibited a certain behaviour.  Visiting her home city over 500 years later has led me to recalibrate my version of what is normal or expected.  Italy can do that to you anyway, with its stubborn rejection of conformity and globalisation in favour of its own wonderful weirdness.  The Derby Della Lanterna, however, featuring the city’s two biggest football teams – Genoa CFC and Sampdoria – cannot be categorised as anything other than exceptional.

For all the grandeur that is dotted around Genoa with its mosaic pavements and renaissance buildings, there is a murkiness to it that is consistent with other port towns like Marseille (which is twinned with Genoa, appropriately) or Napoli.  This edginess seemed independent from the impending match, but there was a real tension about the city with everyone and everything seeming charged.  Walking past the “Fuck Off Tourists” graffiti, I didn’t stop to contemplate the irony of this graffiti being in the Esperanto of tourism.  Twilight was descending, minus the legion of adoring teenage girls but with the multitudes of undead, awakening.

Taking a shortcut from Genova Piazza Principe Station, where the train had chuntered in two hours before kick off, towards my hotel in Piazza del ‘Erbe via the Prè district seemed logical.  Even if it wasn’t the quickest route in theory, it quickened my pace, having twice been offered something murmured (and almost certainly illegal) within the first five minutes of my ever accelerating promenade towards the accommodation.  I don’t carry the most welcoming or approachable demeanour, so that I was offered these goods so readily and so freely concerned me.  Only very occasionally referring to my photographed map on my phone, I bulldozed the narrow, crumbling passageways and alleys towards my destination and sanctuary.

Arriving at what seemed like a lively misshapen quadrilateral (only in Italy could they call this a “square”), my coordinates were correct; I had arrived at Piazza del ‘Erbe. Except there was no hotel Albergo Panson.  Already exhausted from a very long day, a very quick walk and wearing too many clothes, I was a panicking sweaty mess.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, the Ristorante Panson’s neon lights flickered with the low-level hum of 19th century electrical circuitry.  Surely there was a link, and Alberto Panson wasn’t just a fraudulent Genovese front for a Nigerian Prince?

I knocked at the window, and a Gollum-like waiter peered at me.  With my patience having plummeted from its saintly precipice several minutes previous, I thrusted my reservation code on my smartphone in front of him and said “Does this place exist?”  He arched over, removed his cigarette and jewel-encrusted lighter and said “Ah, I get the Bossa…in fifteen minutes”, and proceeded to cower over his wretched burning carcinogenic “Precious”.

No, that’s not good enough!  I tried to explain I was going to a game across the city in a little over an hour but his brain circuitry had long since excluded my irritating presence.  So, I waited for “the Bossa” to arrive.   Thankfully, he was only a little over five minutes. The Bossa looked like a people-smuggling assassin; surely a torturer or a wrestler in a previous-life (or maybe even this one, given Gollum’s face when he saw him).  The Bossa took my 21€ – this was definitely a ‘cash only’ establishment – and took a photo of my passport (I wonder how many poor souls in the kitchens will have my identity in the coming weeks?).  I then followed him through what could have been medieval dungeons to a stairwell.  From here, three separately locked wrought-iron gates had to be unlocked to reach the slaves’ quarters where I was staying. You get what you pay for, I thought.  I could hear the cries from centuries ago of skulls crashing off of these beastly stairs.  Then, for the last ten to twelve steps, there sat a stairlift. You know, the type marketed at senior citizens with carriage clocks if you buy today.  Never before had anything looked so out-of-place.

Anyone got a light?

The Bossa explained to me that the building had been constructed in the 15th century, and the electrical wiring looked like some of Galvani’s and Volta’s early prototypes.  He then showed me the (shared) bathroom and toilet, with the light located right next to a pull cord.  “Which one is the light?” I asked.  I was informed, very clearly, that I was not to pull the cord unless I was in a lot of pain (and I don’t think he meant constipation) as it would send an alarm call to the restaurant and he wouldn’t be happy if it were to be for nothing.  Okay, thanks Bossa.  He then showed me my room, overlooking the “square” below, and left me to get settled.

Getting settled took all of about one minute.  Bag dumped; ticket, passport, camera and phone stuffed into pockets and off I cantered towards the stadium.  Good old Apple Maps reliably informed me that it was almost a straight road from the hotel to the stadium.  What it didn’t inform me was that part of that road was hypothetical, and involved a hillside descent akin to abseiling.  I had not seen one person in football colours so far and my tiredness was causing me to question my grip on reality.  A derby match in a football city is normally accompanied by a liberal sprinkling of roadblocks, fans drinking and tooled-up Police.  None of these elements had been present on my canter to the stadium.

During my descent from Via Assarotti towards the promised land down below, I clutched my sturdy hotel keys between my fingers, ready to use them as makeshift knuckle dusters should I be confronted in one of these arterial tributaries descending the hill.  The faint glow of street lamp down below, accompanied by the waft of yesterday’s fish, reassured me that I was exiting from what would have been fertile ground for muggers and rapists.  Then, all of a sudden, was the noise.  Not some phantasmagoric hell but the reassuringly staccato aggression of the football chant. And, given my state, it was a wonderful symphony of reassurance and equilibrium.

Snaking in and out of blasé scooter riders – I saw one splatted a few hours previous in Como, so was pretty cautious – to cross to the bridge, I saw some flames and the fans were drifting towards the stadium.  Quite possibly the most flustered and least cool person in Genoa, I hotfooted it towards the stadium, as my lateness fear was now also kicking in.  I’m not normally this neurotic, but as Saint Catherine said, Genoa is not normal.

Relieved to arrive, I tried to enter a gate in a perimeter fence a few hundred metres from the stadium, only to be told my entrance, or ‘ingresso’, was away up past the Decathlon shop I could barely see and round the other side of the stadium.  So, shuffling along like Mr Bean on a promise, I made my way to a mêlée which it turns out was the queue to get in.  Two mushroom-shaped queues had  formed and a couple of older men were, leisurely, asking people for ID and checking the tickets. BOOM! Oh no, was that a bomb? Or a gunshot? Why is nobody bothered? Tension levels up, I then joined another queue: this time, to scan my ticket. Incidentally, my ticket was a print-at-home job from https://www.listicket.com/ticketing/home.html – very easy to order, although ID is essential and really is checked.

My advice to anybody going to this stadium would be to turn up very early as this system is very slow and none of the staff seemed to particularly care.  This impression was further consolidated with a security pat-down so lethargic that it constituted not much more than a shoulder grope, maybe incase he found any glass, knives or pyro and was forced to do something about it, which was clearly not on his agenda.  Finally, I was in.

When you enter the concourse and start to ascend the stairs, you could be forgiven for thinking there had been a fire, robbery or some kind of disastrous event that would decimate any internal fixtures and fittings.  The toilets are inadequate, the refreshment stalls are very well hidden and you feel like you are in a recently-looted Lidl.

However, for all of the grumbling, head-scratching, profuse sweating and Gollum waiters, the sight of a pitch from the top of the corner stairs filled me with a wonderful contentedness. The section numbers are difficult to find so look carefully at your ticket beforehand: there is no helpful steward guiding you to your seat.

The Distinti was a fairly shallow tier at the top of the stand and contained both Genoa and Sampdoria fans.  I could not see any of the tiers below but it looked like most of the action would happen right in front of me in the Sampdoria stand.  The noise was immense, even fifteen minutes before kick off.  The rather lax security search, or a hefty bung, had set up the mind-bogglingly amazing pyro among the Sampdoria fans.  I felt for the Genoa fans at this point, who had obviously clubbed together for a choreo but it was completely blown away by the Sampdoria end.

The sheer number of flares, bangers and what I previously thought were bombs in that stand must have been equal to the number of spectators.  That there would be another display at the start of the second half was equally as ridiculous.  It brought back memories of  my twelve-year old daughter being refused entry at Anderlecht because her kitten-faced bag, containing a pack of tissues, was in breach of the security protocol and highly unauthorised.

This report would be incomplete without a mention of the Genoa supporter to my right whose gumsy vocabulary made my feel like I was in an Italian Tourette’s documentary.  When all you hear is “Die die die (I know that’s not what it means in Italian, and it’s spelled ‘dai!’, but that’s what I heard) vaffanculo bastardo” from a woman of that age, you know what this match means to the people of this city.  Or maybe I was just seated next to a potty-mouthed older woman.  In either case, the intensity was relentless from the moment I approached the stadium to the moment I unlocked the four gates of my converted renaissance attic.

Genoa v Sampdoria

Oh yes, I forgot, there was a match going on around all this.  The first half was a fairly even period of nice passing and excellent defending with Genoa creating slightly better chances, but neither team looking likely.  After the break, Sampdoria completely dominated and were worth their goal, which was well finished by Luis Muriel, who played well in leading the Sampdoria attack even if he was an underused outlet.  If anything, Sampdoria scoring a second goal looked more likely than an equaliser, with substitute Schick causing all kinds of problems with his ungainly but effective dribbling.

From Genoa’s point of view, most of their best moves came down their left with Laxalt looking like he had the beating of his opposite number at every opportunity.  Interesting from my perspective as an Anderlecht fan was the appearance of Dennis Praet as a substitute for Sampdoria.  He looked fit, eager and hungry but out of sync with his teammates.  Will he be the new De Bruyne or the new Eoin Jess?

The following morning, I meandered back towards the station through Genoa’s amorphous network of little streets.  The atmosphere was one of bleach, urine, coffee and homelessness.  I felt slightly guilty for having not respected this town enough in advance.  It deserves a better exploration than I could afford it.  Perhaps I will return for such an exploration. Perhaps I’ll be back for next year’s Derby Della Lanterna.  It certainly lit my lantern.

Verdict: An interesting yet unfriendly stadium filled with crazy fans.  A must see match!

Stadium Ratings

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

 

 

 

 

Mainz 05 v Werder Bremen

 

Mainz 05 v Werder Bremen:  Bundesliga

Opel Arena, Saturday 18th February 2017

Is that the carcinogens from a 3G pitch?

Set in the backdrop of multi-coloured student accommodation, nondescript ploughed fields and a couple of busy roads, Mainz’s red Duplo-esque stadium is like an urban Siren with TARDIS-like capacity.  It has been the home of Mainz ‘null funf’ since 2011 and was previously known as the “Coface Arena.”  Five-year naming rights seems a bit too short for me; the sponsor on a shirt is one thing but the name of the footballing temple that fans visit every two weeks should have a little more permanence.  It is perhaps an undesirable side effect of commerce in modern football that the name of a stadium can change as often Cheryl, formerly of Girls Aloud, changes her name.   Perhaps it should be renamed the Tattooine Stadium, as the surrounding barrenness is somewhat reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s adopted planet.

Shoebox in a well-ploughed field

Getting There

Driving from Brussels took a little under four hours and looked the simplest and cheapest way to get there.  Otherwise, the next best option looked to be taking the ICE train to Frankfurt and a subsequent commuter train thereafter, given the proximity of Mainz to Frankfurt (about 20km).  It remind me of my ‘tourist route’ path to Stuttgart from Köln on the day of a Deutsche Bahn strike and I ended up on a Swiss train to Zurich, which stopped at Mainz.

Did you know you can still smoke in German Stadia?

The drive to Mainz via the high-altitude autobahn from just outside Köln, through the Mosel valley, towards Mainz is relatively enjoyable and offers some pleasant views.  International visitors would almost certainly be best flying into nearby Frankfurt Hahn Airport and taking a regional train thereafter.  We parked in the Parkhaus Kupferberg, which was 15€ for 24 hours, and located 10 minutes walk from the hotel.

Mainz Null Funf

Tickets and Accommodation 

While tickets were being sold on the day, I always prefer to pre-book where possible, avoiding the risk that you turn up and nothing is available other than premium seats, or your accomplice cannot sit next to you etc.  Tickets can be bought and printed at home, stored on a mobile or collected at the ground after ordering from https://www.eventimsports.de/ols/mainz05/.  We were located in section S, and for 13.50€ (adult) and 10.50€ (child) including regional transport to the stadium, nobody can complain.

This is my seat number, but I don’t see my seat…

Last season, Mainz’s average attendance was 31000 in a stadium with a capacity of 34000, so these cheaper tickets are regularly available and are not just  for members, as is often the case for these eye-catchingly low prices.  The next home match, against Wolfsburg, is the ‘family day’ and standing tickets are being sold at 8€ for adults and 5€ for kids.  This is brilliant and deserves to be congratulated.

Opel Arena

We stayed in the Advena Europa Hotel, which was near the train station.  While it wasn’t particularly aesthetically attractive, it was more than adequate for our needs and also included a good buffet breakfast in the room rate.

Mainz

All too often in large towns, the area around the train station is a little grubby and Mainz is no exception.  A few bars, phonecard vendors, numerous recently opened haunts all claiming to sell the “best falafel in town’ and purveyors of erotic paraphernalia punctuate the pavements, permeating an aroma of smoke and sweat.

Nobody ever seems to walk alone, yet everybody seems to sing it.

However, venture a 10-minute stroll past this end of town towards the Altstadt and you’ll find a charming, well-kept and intriguing town; characterful, vibrant and with just the right amount of bustle.

For lunch, my daughter and I wanted some traditional Bratwurst or Currywurst  which, generally speaking, is not difficult to source in Germany.  It seems we didn’t go quite close enough to the river.  So, with the hunger cloud of rage descending ever more quickly, we decided to go into the café at the Gutenberg Museum (home of the original printing press).  The advertised sausage platter, describing three different sausages with some artisanal bread, was the clear favourite.  Ten minutes later, this…creation, appeared on a log (I’ve never understood the need to deviate from plates – they do a good job) surrounded by pickle, lettuce and bread.  Underneath this salad jungle, placed with surgical precision, were various cold sausages: had the air been distilled around us at that moment then concentrated disappointment would have trickled out into a musty bottle.

Party time, excellent!

Opel Arena

The stadium can be reached from Mainz Hauptbahnhof by taking the shuttle bus ‘E’, which is free with the match ticket, although I have never known this to be controlled nor, in this case, can I see how one would control it.  This takes about ten minutes and is hassle-free, dropping you off about 400 metres from the ground.  There is also a tram stop near the stadium should this be more convenient.

As the stadium seems to have been plonked into a nuclear desert, there is insufficient parking in the environs of the stadium, although many people took to abandoning their vehicle on the verge of a side street adjacent to the stadium.  Given the prevalence of muck in the area, I would not recommend doing this when it’s raining.

View upon arrival

The walk to the stadium from the bus was pleasant and humorous, as the proximity of Carnival has tempted some to adorn and show off their costumes a week early.  The wonderful symbiotic relationship between beer-drinking fans finishing their bottles near the stadium and the bottle collectors filling those wheelie shoppers with 25-cent glass cheques seems to exist in the ecosystem of every German football stadium, and Mainz is no exception.

The stadium is unmissable, clad in a colour that lipstick manufacturers would call ‘hooker red’, and feels smaller from the outside than it does once inside.  We made our way round to the terrace behind the goal and scanned our printed tickets without a hitch.  It is well advertised that one cannot bring one’s drink into the stadium, even if purchased in the shadow of the stands, so I was gasping for a cool pils by the time we were through.

Mainz has one of these card systems that, frankly, are a pain in the arse.  A ten euro deposit is required for the card, that you buy at a separate counter from your food and drink, and you add the appropriate amount of credit.  A pils was 3.90€ and sausage varieties were priced between 2€ and 3€.  At the end of the game, you return your card to a separate ‘Kassa’ outside the ground and unused credit and the ten euro deposit are refunded.

The atmosphere was almost non-existent before the game to be honest, with the majority of the noise coming from the Green and White fans in the opposite corner.  The Mainz fans did get better once the game kicked off though, despite having relatively little to get excited about.  That said, this was a very family-friendly stadium and there was a positive, non-hostile ambience.  The balance between edginess and atmosphere against how welcoming and friendly a stadium and its fans are can vary greatly, just like peoples preferences do, but I like a little more chilli than was on offer here.

Mainz 05 v Werder Bremen

Mainz always seem to find themselves in the Stoke position (perhaps appropriate that Bojan joined) of not challenging for anything but being clear of relegation.  Werder Bremen have been living on the edge a little more and only a late goal against Frankfurt saved them from relegation last year and hadn’t won a game in 2017 before this match.

The match itself boiled down to a tale of two strikers: Jhon Cordoba (autocorrect really dislikes this guy) and Nutella-fiend Max Kruse.  Kruse always looks a little unfit, has problems with injuries, doesn’t score as many as you’d want from striker and comes with off-field baggage.  However, he does have great awareness, vision and plays with his head up.  While he didn’t score in this match, he was a constant thorn in the end of Bell.

Cordoba’s qualities contrast with those of Kruse in that he’s exceptionally athletic, strong, fast, has excellent close control and always looks to be the finisher.  He is, however, a ‘head down’ player, and won’t drop deep to bring others into play.  He really missed the guile of Malli in behind him and Bojan was far too quiet and easily policed.  In fact, the Bremen defence were excellent on the day and they were comfortably giving Mainz possession and hitting on the counter-attack.

Since Gnabry headed Bremen into the lead early in the first half, they looked very comfortable and, while Mainz had a few chances, Bremen were worthy winners on the day.

Once the game was over, a queue of buses awaited the fans.  Word of warning here – it is not clearly indicated which buses go to Mainz Hbf and which go to Mainz Messe (which is a commercial and industrial estate on the outskirts of town).  Be careful to take the bus that is furthest right for Hbf, that is all.  The bus back was a noisy experience, with some drunk Bremen fans ingratiating themselves to the nullfunfers with some “Scheisse Has-ess-vow” songs.  The fans were then deposited at Mainz Hbf with some other away fans who were a little battle-weary and whose long journey home may have involved sleep and/or sickness.

Conclusion

The Opel Arena is a friendly, mid-sized stadium on the outskirts of a mid-sized town who regularly finish mid-table in the Bundesliga.  However, the football and the experience represented excellent value for money and the club give off an infectious likeability.

Stadium Ratings

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

 

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