Monday, October 30, 2006

Groundhopweekend October 2006

This weekend I had a colleague over from the US. When we met in Texas, several months ago, I told him about my groundhops and he really wanted to join me o none of those. So, when he had to be in the region for work, he contacted me in advance and we arranged a nice program for the weekend: four games in four countries within forty-eight hours.

On Friday 27 October I took a train in Antwerp to get to Charleroi-Sud, where I was to meet Z.B. As he doesn’t have a cell phone, it was a tricky affair, but we managed to find each other and around 14.15 we got in his rental car and started our groundhop. First stop: Reims (France), some 150 km south of Charleroi.

Stade de Reims – US Créteil (27-10-2006)

We arrived in Reims around 16.00, well in time of the game which only started at 20.00. So, we killed some time by visiting the imposing cathedral and having a sandwich and a drink. We also walked around a bit, and found out that the stadium is very close to the center of town, just across the river.

Around 19.00 we arrived at the Stade Auguste Delaune, the stadium of Stade de Reims (sounds confusing, I know). Although Stade de Reims is a modest team in the Ligue Deux, it is building a hypermodern new stadium. When we visited it, only half of the stadium was built yet; one side behind a goal, and one long side. For 10 euro we bought a ticket for a corner side, after having eaten an americain merguez, and to our great surprise found ourselves in a pretty full (half) stadium. Our stand seemed mainly filled with kids. As more often in France, the crowd was relatively multicultural; not as much as the city itself, but still a lot more than most clubs in Germany or the Netherlands.

Now, before I describe the game itself, let me enlighten those with little historical knowledge of the beautiful game. In the late 1950s Stade de Reims was a major player in European football. No, really, M-A-J-O-R! They were in the European Cup 1 finals twice, in 1956 and 1959, losing both games against the historic Real Madrid team of that time (which won five cup finals in a row and could therefore keep the Cup).

So, maybe the new stadium is an attempt to bring Stade de Reims back to the glory days. If so, they might want to replace the team as well. Despite the 7.434 spectators, of whom I guess some 40 came from Créteil (i.e. Paris), and a generally good atmosphere, the game never really exploded. The level was acceptable, but the play wasn’t too exciting. Interestingly, I got the impression that the vast majority of players in both teams were French, not some (cheap) Africans and Yugoslavs.

While we enjoyed the experience, we worried a bit about the omen. The first game of the weekend and a 0-0 score… what would await for us the next days?

After a good night sleep in a Formule 1 hotel around Sedan, an hour north of Reims, we drove at our leisure the remaining 260 km to Mönchengladbach, our next destination. As we took time for lunch and a scenic route, we arrived at the Borussen-Park only half an hour before the start of the game.

VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach – Bayer Leverkusen 05 (28-10-2006)

As I had ordered tickets in advance, which they send by mail to your home address, we didn’t have to stress to get into the stadium in time. In fact, I still had time for the most important aspect of a German football game, a Wurst. We had tickets a raison of 23 euro for the Süd Tribune, behind a goal and opposite to the Nordkurve, the side of the diehard Gladbach supporters. The game was almost sold-out with 51.227 spectators. The seats were very close to the away supporters, who, unfortunately, would have the most fun this afternoon. Already after 12 minutes Leverkusen scored after a major mistake in the defense. After that the game remained extremely poor, with Leverkusen being the better side mainly on the account of having at least one good player, the Russian Voronin, who scored the deciding: 0-2. Thus I witnessed the first home defeat of BMG this year.

As I was tortured by the ‘performance’ of my Gladbach long enough, Z.B. and I decided to leave 7 minutes early, so that we could beat the traffic and not get into trouble with our second game of the day. Profiting from German organization, we were on the Autobahn around 17.30 and on our way back to Liège/Lüttich/Luik. Well before 19.00 we arrived in Seraing, an industrial wasteland-town to the south of Liège. We tried to find the center of town for over 30 minutes, hoping to get some decent food, but failed. Or better, we might have been in the center of town, but simply didn’t recognize it as being the center of anything, not even Seraing. Even more problematic was finding the stadium, which is hidden in a remote part of town.

RFC Sérésien – KVK Hasselt (28-10-2006)

Nowadays there is a team in the Belgian Derde Klasse B (Third Division B) that calls itself, and is referred to, Seraing. However, while the team does play at the stadium of the former RFC Seraing, a famous club that went bankrupt and disappeared in 1996, it is not the same team. In fact, the RFC Sérésien is legally the successor to FC l'Espoir de Bressoux, founded in 1901, and moved to Seraing only after the disappearance of the RFC Seraing. That destitute city was happy to have a team again and offered the RFC Sérésien, as it was named in 2006, the Stade du Pairay, the former home of the RFC Seraing.

We arrived to the Stade de Pairay almost an hour before the game. They only have one kind of tickets for adults at 9 euro a piece. The ticket itself looks like they used to years ago (really retro). From the outside it looked fairly impressive, but once inside it proved to be glory of the past. First of all, only the stands on the long side are used these days, and then mainly only one side. They do have a restaurant/cantina behind one of the goals, but this is for ‘VIPs’ (well, Very Important Persons in Seraing ;-). Unfortunately, for the not-so-important-persons-in-Seraing there was only one snack available: a huge hotdog, which mainly consisted of bread and sauerkraut. :-(

Together with some 400-600 people, of whom some 100 from Hasselt, we watched a highly entertaining game, well, an explosive first half at least. While the football itself was poor at best, incidentally the struggling players would rise above themselves and come up with a nice goal. Around the 20th minute RFC scored a nice goal, a half volley in the low corner from 20 meters, only to be followed by a direct counter-attack of KVK and the 1-1. Some 10 minutes of poor game later RFC scored the 2-1, followed not much later by the 2-2. About 5 minutes before half time RFC again got ahead: 3-2, also the half time score.

What can I say about the half time entertainment: there was none. And another hot dog was out of the question too. So, we stayed put, got increasingly cold, and hoped the goals would continue. Unfortunately, the poor football continued, but no more goals were scored. Nevertheless, the RFC Sérésien is worth a visit, if only for the destitute surroundings of both the club and the city.

Having returned to Antwerp on Saturday night, I meet Z.B. at his hotel downtown for the fourth and last game of the weekend. We discuss a couple of options, but decide to drive to Enschede despite a possibility that the game is sold out. It takes us just over 3 hours to cross the 250 km to the East of the Netherlands. To our great relief, we are still able to buy tickets at 20 euro a piece for Vak 12, behind one of the goals.

FC Twente – NEC (29-10-2006)

FC Twente is the result of a merger in 1956 of two important clubs of early Dutch football, Enschedese Boys and Sportclub Enschede. The club has a solid support base in the eastern region of Twente, despite competition from Heracles from nearby Almelo. Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s the club was a solid performer in the mid-table, regularly qualifying for the UEFA Cup. The past decade FC Twente has underperformed, but this season they are the surprise team, in part because of the coach duo Rutten-Eijkelkamp, before assistants of Guus Hiddink at PSV.

FC Twente starts like a tsunami, taking NEC by storm. Within 17 minutes they are 3-0 up! Not only does NEC defend poorly, FC Twente plays well and the former PSV youth player, Otman Bakkal, scored twice. Unfortunately, as happens in such games, after that the game slowly died. FC Twente remained concentrated, but not pushing, while NEC remained too weak to challenge the home team. 3-0 was also the half time score.

Together with the 13.225 other spectators we watched the second half go by much the same as the first half, but without the explosive start. While the football was at times quite technical and tactical, they were only sporadic highlights. Shortly before the end the home team scored one last time, making it a deserved 4-0 victory. With this fine victory Twente solidified its 4th position in the Dutch league. More importantly, with my visit to the Arke Stadion I have now visited all Dutch Eredivisie teams.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

FC Girondins Bordeaux – PSV (27-09-2006)

Going to international away games of my favorite team is something special… although I do visit a (new) foreign ground, it doesn’t feel exactly like a groundhop as I am only partly interested in the home team. Sure, I look forward to seeing the ground, feeling the atmosphere, but I will stand with the away supporters and be focused exclusively on the result of my boys.

Around 7 AM I walk to Antwerp Central Station, as always when I am outside so early completely surprised by the number of people in the streets. My friend and fellow PSV-fan J.B. picks me up at Mechelen Station just after 8. To avoid the traffic jams around Brussels we drive via Antwerp and Ghent to France. Just before 10 we cross the border at Lille… only 800 km more and we are at our final destination: Bordeaux in the Southeast of France.

The weather is not too bad and the traffic is mild, so we arrive already around 6 PM in Bordeaux – we only got lost once, around Charles de Gaulle airport (what an unbelievable labyrinth of roads is that). Given that we have more than enough time, and the weather is nice, we decide to go into the center of town to check out the sites. J In the main shopping street we find one of the shops of FCGB and I buy a small pennant. Although their shirts are no longer as beautiful as in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I still think Girondins plays in beautiful colors. We play it safe and eat at the Quick, where we try to avoid some fellow PSV-fans (who are embarrassing us by their behavior), and establish that the term fast food is not accurate for this particular branch of the hamburger chain.

At about 8 PM we park the car at an underground parking close to the stadium – only 2 euro for the whole evening. I am getting increasingly nervous about the game, but we take our time to circle the stadium, which is at the side of an expensive area. Particularly impressive is the entrance of the VIPs.

The Stade Chaban-Delmas is an extraordinary building. It is not really beautiful, but it does have its own style. Particularly the bow at one of the entrances is unique.

After taking all the necessary pictures and circling the whole stadium we show our ticket and get access to the Virage Nord Est Bas, where the circa 200 PSV supporters are gathered. I don’t know, I always look forward to meet my fellow supporters when I attend a PSV away game, yet when I enter the stadium and am enclosed with them, I feel like an alien. Although there were only a small number of PSV fans who had made their way to the south of France, the atmosphere was good and part of the fans kept singing all game long.

The FCGB fans, who were not that numerous either (total of some 26.000), only sang very loudly at the beginning of the games, were the two sides behind the goals were singing against each other. This was also when they showed their banners.

The game might not have been particularly good for a neutral observer, but this was irrelevant for me this time. I was extremely nervous all game long, even if it soon became clear that Girondins Bordeaux does not have such a strong team this season; moreover, star player Johan Micoud just came back from an injury and played only one half and fairly poorly. PSV missed Cocu, Farfan and Culina and that showed. Defensively we played well, but offensively we couldn’t do too much. As a consequence the game was pretty even and without many chances. 0-0 at half time and I went down to visit our friends from the French police. ;-)

In the second half the game remained relatively poor, but PSV got a bit more controle of the game. Half of the fans of our block sang virtually the same song for 45 minutes, but that created more atmosphere than the 26.000 FCGB fans could generate. More and more we started to believe that a victory would be possible, even though very few chances were created on either side. But then, out of nowhere, Väyrynen finally knew where to go, Koné finally provided a good short pass, and Väyrynen finished cool and precise in the far low corner. The 200 PSV fans went crazy, while the rest of the Stade went silent. The last 15 minutes or so we sang our boys through to the end of the game, which indeed finished 0-1. A great result and a great experience, which was only somewhat diminished by the fact that virtually none of the PSV players came to thanks the few fans that had made the more than 1.000 km trip from Eindhoven (or Antwerp for that matter).

After the game we walked to a kebab place around the corner where we ate something and enjoyed the last 30 minutes of the game again on Canal +. After that we picked up our car and drove for two hours to our hotel around Niort. Arriving after 2, we had a good rest and made our way back to Flanders the next morning around 9.30. Traffic was excellent and all went well until just before getting home, when a big piece of clay fell of a truck in front of our car and smashed a hole in the window. Fortunately the window held and the insurance paid, so the fantastic trip wasn’t spoiled by something so mundane as a big chunk of mud!