Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Royal Olympic Club Charleroi Marchienne – WS Woluwe (25-11-2006)

Even before I left for Liverpool, my mate J.B. and I had decided to go for a real groundhop the next Saturday. We would go to the second team of Charleroi, the biggest city of Wallonie. Royal Olympic Club Charleroi Marchienne (or ROCCM) is one of these Belgian teams that have fallen on hard times. In the 1950s le ROCCM was a key player in the Belgian First Division, even clinching the title in 19??, but since than all has gone wrong. Now they play in the Derde Klasse B (Third Class B), in the shadow of local rivals Sporting Chareleroi, who are a solid team in (the lower part of) the First Division.

The afternoon started with a nice drink in Leuven with my Japanese groundhop-friend A.H., who couldn’t make it that night (and will regret it forever), and a too late departure. J.B. had scouted a truly authentic frietkot (imperfectly translatable as snack bar) on the way from Leuven to Charleroi, admittedly with some detour, and even though we were already somewhat late, we had to stop at Frituur Sabrina for a test – worth a visit! However, this all meant that we arrived very late in Charleroi, where we than got lost, and finally got to the Stade de “La Neuville”.

More than 25 minutes late, we found the gates to the stadium closed, but fortunately a nice steward opened it and let us in (for free!). We walked on the stand behind the goal and directly felt at home. This is how football should be!

We noticed that ROCCM was already 1-0 up, not surprising given that they are second in the league and WS (= White Star!) Woluwe ‘only’ 4th – in other words, we were witness of a true Meisterschaftsspiel in the Belgian Third Division B. Rather than watching the game, we just looked around, admiring the spirit of a truly local team. We were surprised to see many supporters with ROCCM scarves. We also spotted the mascot of the home team, a dog.

At half time we circled the ground. This must be one of the few stadiums I have visited were you could indeed circle the whole ground, i.e. get onto every stand of the stadium. This led to some fantastic sights, such as this wall at the back of the stadium

And this authentic sign to the main tribune

Walking back through the cantina, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said something in French. I was so perplexed that I didn’t understand. Than he asked me again, “didn’t I see you yesterday at the lecture in Brussels?”. And, indeed, it turned out that a colleague from a French speaking university in Brussels had sat behind me at an academic lecture the day before, was a lifelong fan of ROCCM and recognized me. And this unbelievable coincidence got an even more positive result, as he happily gave me his ticket as a souvenir, as J.B. and I had gotten in for free. Merci beaucoup! After that I visited the tiny fan shop, more a kind of kiosk, and bought a great banner (with the head of the dog – see also the car).

After the half time we returned to our favorite stand and watched a very entertaining game. The pace was quite fast and the combinations not bad. There were not many clear chances, but the game was very enjoyable. After an hour or so the home team got to 2-0, after a nice half-volley, and seemed to have the game in the pocket. But a quarter hour before the end of the game one of the strikers of Woluwe made a beautiful dribble and was semi-fouled in the box: penalty and 2-1. This made the end of the game tense and exciting, even if in the end ROCCM won 2-1 (deservedly so).

Extremely happy J.B. and I returned to our car. This was exactly what we had hoped for. The true spirit of football, without the commercial interests and comfort zones of the big teams and stadiums. In many ways comparable to Royale Union Sint-Gilloise, the first groundhop the two of us did. After the disappointment of Anfield Road, the Stade de “La Neuville” more than made up for it. Groundhopping at its best!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Liverpool FC – PSV Eindhoven (22-11-2006)

It has been a lifelong (well, kind of) dream of me to visit the legendary Anfield Road stadium of Liverpool FC and 22 November 2006 the moment was finally there. I was a big fan of Liverpool in the early 1980s, particularly of central defender Alan Hansen, but my allegiance to “the Reds” proved a youthful infatuation that dissipated with time (unlike my ‘love’ for PSV and BMG). Still, Anfield Road remains one of thé football temples in the world and, given that Liverpool FC wants to move to a new stadium, it had become increasingly urgent to visit it. My sense of urgency had been heightened even more by a couple of failed attempts to visit Anfield Road for a Premiership game (impossible to get you hands on tickets).

I was therefore thrilled when PSV Eindhoven drew Liverpool FC in the Champions League group. Despite problems with the sale of the tickets on the PSV website, I managed to get my ticket in the first attempt and enjoyed the feeling for the rest of the day (while following the growing anger and despair of other PSV fans on the PSV Netwerk website). Unfortunately, PSV has still not overcome its provincial mentality, and so it remains an expensive and tiring affair to get the actual ticket to Antwerp. Please PSV, finally understand that you have now fans well beyond Eindhoven, who find it always impossible to visit home or away games because of the ridiculous policy of exchanging your tickets at the PSV Stadium in Eindhoven.

Wednesday morning I take the bus to “Antwerp International Airport” and get a VLM flight, with stop-over in London City, to Manchester. There I check in at my hotel, and make my way by train to Liverpool. In the train I meet the first fellow PSV supporter, who lives in Denmark for a couple of years and meets up with friends from Eindhoven in the center of Liverpool. Around 3pm we arrive at Liverpool Lime Street Station, where, surprise, surprise, it is grey and drizzly. The center of town is full of PSV fans and, as always, I have mixed feelings about being identified with them.

After visiting the huge LFC shop in the city center, and deciding not to buy a megalomaniacally large club banner (there are no smaller ones; do we need to compensate for something?), I make my way to a very busy bus stop to take bus 17A (together with hordes of PSV fans) to Anfield Road. Annoyed by the pseudo-hooliganism of several fans (shame how few people can withstand peer pressure), I am happy to get out of the bus and face the outside of “The Kop”.

More than one hour before the start of the game more PSV than LFC fans have amassed outside of the stadium, most of whom admiring two of the most famous sites of international football: the arch with the world famous text “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and, next to it, the impressive memorial for the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989.

Around 7pm I enter Anfield Road Lower to take my place in Block 123, row 32, seat 64. Obviously, none is keeping to their seat and, given that the away supporters blocks are already quite full, I have to go quite far up on the stand. There I am confronted with the discomfort of old stadiums like this one, a fairly poor view (reminiscent of one of the stands of Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium). Still, it’s better than the poor slobs who come after me, and who have to sit on the upper row (as the police strictly enforce the policy of keeping the steps free of people). They complain bitterly and loudly, but to no avail. Quite a rip-off given that they, like all of us, have paid 34 pound (ca. 50 euro) for a ticket but see almost nothing of the pitch!

Maybe it is the bad view from my seat, or it is the fact that I’m surrounded by 2.400 PSV supporters, but I am not particularly impressed by the LFC stadium and its fans. I had long looked forward to hearing the LFC crowd sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the beginning of the game, but it didn’t impress me as much as it did at Celtic Park. During much of the game I will only hear the PSV supporters sing and, even when they are quiet, the Liverpool supporters (that day) really “only sing when they are winning”. This is not to say that Anfield Road is not a beautiful ‘old school’ football ground, just that it wasn’t as impressive as I had expected (maybe I had too high expectations).

As both teams were already qualified for the next stage of the Champions League, the pace of the game wasn’t impressive. Moreover, both teams excel in defending rather than attacking, and so the game didn’t have the highest amusement value. Though biased, I admit, I thought PSV kept the 0-0 score without much problems in the first half, although the first 15 minutes were clearly for the home team.

The second half was decided by one mistake of the PSV defense, finished in great style by the only two class players of LFC: Dutchman Dirk Kuyt passing to Englishman Steven Gerrard: 1-0 and I am seriously pissed off! After that PSV finally starts to attack, but without the much desired result. In fact, in one of the counter-attacks the young central defender Da Costa makes a positioning mistake and the ridiculously tall and sluggish Crouch scores the inconsequential 2-0. Game over!

After the game we have to stay for an additional 30 minutes in the stadium, in which ‘we’ taunt the Dutch tv commentators with songs against ajax and the Dutch national coach, Marco Van Basten. Many PSV fans discuss the disappointingly tame atmosphere at the LFC end of the stadium – friends who had seen the game on tv would tell me afterwards that the PSV supporters were far more vocal than the LFC fans; a not uncommon experience at European games.

After I finally got out of the stadium, I walk some 20 minutes through the rain in search of a (free) taxi. In the end, I settle for a bus, which is again packed with (less buoyant) PSV supporters. I discuss the first exit poll results of the Dutch parliamentary elections, sent by sms by friends of mine, with some of them. At the station I find out that I have to wait an hour before I can take the (last) train to Manchester; I kill the time by hunting for anything eatable that is not kebab or, the local favorite, chips and gravy. After a short stop-over at Manchester Piccadili, I arrive at my hotel at Manchester Airport at 1am. An hour later, after checking the last results of the elections, I fall asleep. Five hours later I am checking in for my flight back to Antwerp

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

België/Belgique-Polska (15-11-2006)

Hardly back from South Africa, I was on my way to a game back ‘home’. After some 40 minutes by train to Brussels and a 20 minute metro ride in Brussels, I reached the King Boudain Stadium – built at the site of the infamous Heysel Stadium. On the way to the stadium I had already noticed the huge groups of Polish fans, clearly outnumbering the Belgian fans in the metro. Also around the stadium the Poles seemed in the majority.

A good hour before the start of the game I met my friends, the Belgian E., the Polish W., and my Japanese fellow-groundhopper A.H. As everything around the stadium was closed (off), we had no other choice than sample the food and drinks in the stadium. After the obligatory beer and fries we took our seats at Tribune 3 (at 25 euro a ticket). The stadium was very well filled, for Belgian standards, largely thanks to the Poles, who accounted for some 40% of the spectators. The Polish red-white was a lot more visible than the Belgian red-yellow-black.

There is something surreal about going to a game of the Belgian national team. There is a group of supporters that will chant “België” (the Dutch speakers), a group that will support “Belgique” (the French speakers), who will find each other by cheering for “Belgium”.

Both the Belgians and the Poles are teams that have their heydays well behind them. The start of the campaign for Euro 2008 was bad in both cases, but they have recovered somewhat. A fairly even clash was expected, and that was also what we got. However, we also got a struggle between two extremely poor teams.

The game started and ended with a long list of poor passes, terrible control, and hilarious mistakes at all levels (technical, tactical, etc.). In this respect, both teams were equal. However, if one of the two could claim some superiority, it was the Poles who had at least some half-decent players (e.g. Smolarek). Halfway the first half one of the relatively small strikers of Poland went into a duel with the tall and (allegedly) strong Belgian central defender Daniel Van Buyten, one of the most revered defenders in the German Bundesliga (!), gave him a slight push, and scored. 1-0 for Poland. After this the game deteriorated even further, and 1-0 was also the half time score.

The second half showed much of the same, which brought the best out of the Belgian crowd. Increasingly the Belgian fans started to either whistle or applaud the mistakes of the home team. We also had to laugh repeatedly in the face of so much incompetence. The highlight was a collision between two Belgian strikers, including the extremely poor Emile Mpensa (who played the whole game, despite being a regular player in the football league of…, don’t laugh, Quatar!), in the penalty box. This way these players screwed up the one possible goal chance of the Belgians. After 90 minutes the score was still 1-0, and quite honestly, we could have played for two more days but I seriously doubt anyone could have scored another goal.

Amused and shocked we made our way back to the metro. The Belgian took it as Belgians do, lightly, while the Pole seemed more upset by the terrible level of play. It will take (again) some time before I will go and see another game of the Belgian national team

Benoni Premier United – Orlando Pirates (12-11-2006)

On my last day in
South Africa, we had planned the biggest of the three games of this trip. Not that Benoni Premier United was such a catch; in fact, Benoni is a relatively young team from an industrial suburb of Johannesburg. Their opponents, the Orlando Pirates, are the second biggest team in Johannesburg and South Africa, after their bitter rivals, the Kaiser Chiefs. P.K. and I were picked up in Joburg by two colleagues and their partners and we made the short drive to Germiston, where the game was played. They had purchased tickets at 20 Rand (ca. 2 euro) in advance, which saved us hassle at the ground.

While I had expected a lot of away supporters, I have never seen this: in and around the Germiston Stadium the vast majority of the supporters were Pirates. Everywhere you saw the black and white outfits and it took me quite some time before I had figured out the colors of Benoni (white-blue). South African fans can be very colorful, but the Pirates fans are among the best.

We entered the ground some 20 minutes before the game, sitting us ground in the grass. Germiston Stadium has only one (covered) stand, one of the long sides, and the rest of the stadium is just a grassy hill. It felt almost like a picnic. All in all I estimate that some 15.000 people had made it to the stadium, ca. 90% of them Orlando Pirates supporters! During the whole game I couldn’t find any other whites than us, except for the referee. Still, we felt very safe and various black supporters clearly appreciated that we (whites) had come to the stadium; particularly because one of my colleagues was wearing a Pirates t-shirt. Interestingly, while Pirates and Chiefs are the main rivals in South African football, various people walked around in their Chiefs shirt and some even danced and cheered with the Pirates fans. You wouldn’t see that in much of Europe.

The game started fairly disorganized with a lot of heart but very little mind. In this orgy of rash challenges and failed passes, The Pirates scored a decent 0-1 around the 10th minute, to the great delight of the vast majority of the audience. After that the disorganized struggle continued, leading some 15 minutes later to the less greeted 1-1. During almost the whole first half the fans were cheering, dancing, laughing, and blowing their vuvuzela (a kind of plastic trumpet which makes the sound of a horny bull, if you can play it —which I can not). 1-1 was also the half time score.

From the beginning the clouds had been moving ominously into our direction and some ten minutes before half time the temperature was dropping significantly while the wind was picking up. Thousands of supporters made their way to the one covered stand, while my company was slowly but steadily starting to make their way out of the stadium. While Johannesburg storms are wild and wet, I was still disappointed to be forced to leave the game at half time. In all my years as a groundhopper, I had only once before left a game at half time: in Malta after my (ex-)wife couldn’t stand the dreadful football anymore. But, being fully dependent upon their transportation, I followed meekly. The game ended 2-1 for Benoni, with Pirates being brought back to ten men. And the storm did break out, big style, but unfortunately my flight back home was not postponed.

Football in South Africa definitely made me curious into football in other African countries. The game itself isn’t particularly good, especially when you like intelligent play, but the atmosphere is unique. So much energy and happiness. I cannot wait to visit my friend next year in Ghana!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Bidvest Wits FC – Black Leopards (11-11-2006)

Finding out about the exact date and time of a football game in South Africa is similar to trying to go to the movies in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s: dates and times seem to change daily. We had planned to see Wits FC on Sunday and Kaiser Chiefs on Saturday. On Friday we found out that Wits plays on Saturday (too) and seemed to be forced to make a choice: seeing Wits, the team of The University of the Witwatersrand (where my friend P.K. works), or the Kaiser Chiefs, the main team of South Africa (in)famous for its fanatic fans. We chose the Chiefs, after having made sure that it iss “reasonably safe” to go to their games (as long as it is not the major derby against Orlando Pirates). However, nothing is simple in South Africa, and while driving through Joburg on Friday, we passed advertisements for newspapers and one said “Empty Chiefs Game”. After checking the newspaper in question, we found out that the Kaiser Chiefs had to play their game that day without spectators, because of misbehavior of their fans a couple of weeks before (ripping out the seat and throwing them on the pitch; they don’t take defeats well ;-).

So, on Saturday 15.00 P.K., a friend of his, and the Grondhopper entered the campus of The University of the Witwatersrand to see the university team take on the beautifully named Black Leopards (or Lidoda Duhva in their local language) from Limpopo in the North of the country. While parking at the campus we were surprised by the number of fans and their colorfulness. We bought tickets for the Open Stand at Gate C for 20 Rand (ca. 2 euro) and, as it was 34 degrees, sat down behind the goal and under a tree.

Home Fans

At the beginning of the game some 700 spectators were in the small Bidvest stadium, of which some 50 whites, and 200 away supporters (who probably studied or worked in Johannesburg). In addition, there were more than 100 supporters of other teams, most notably the Kaiser Chiefs (banned from their own stadium), who mainly supported the Black Leopards (as Wits is the better team).

Away Fans

Despite the small size of the audience, the atmosphere was really nice. The away supporters were dancing and singing in their traditional way, while the home crowd at the main stand was full with people with plastic trumpets who were blowing to the sound of the music that was played. Around us fans from practically all teams in South Africa sat down, mainly opposing Wits.

The game started ferociously, similar to the FC Twente game I saw two weeks earlier. Within 20 minutes it was 3-0 for Wits. Oddly enough, it had been Lidoda Duhva that had had most of the play so far. Wits had shot three times at goal and had scored three times: courtesy of the dreadful Leopards ‘defense’. In the meantime, the Brazilian striker Julio, who had scored the 1-0, had been launched 2 meters into the air in a collision with Leopards goalie Mbaha, and had been substituted, while one of the Leopards defenders was playing with a bandage around his skull after a clash and a head wound. Still, the game was entertaining and not very dirty. As had happened in Enschede, two weeks earlier, the game slowly died down after the quick 3-0. Wits were clearly the better team, particularly their disciplined and skilled defense impressed, but were no longer motivated to go for it. The Leopards recovered from the early slaughter and slowly but steadily got back into the game, without threatening the good Wits goalie Josephs too much. 3-0 at half time.

After a relaxing 15 minutes of pause, with a not particularly skilled but very enthusiastic cheerleader team exciting the (90% male) audience, the game restarted where it had largely left off: with the Leopards dominating the game, and Wits easily keeping them at bay. And while the 3-1 seemed closer, it was Wits that scored the 4-0 in the last minute of the game.

The 'final' score

All in all, a very enjoyable game, with a friendly and festive atmosphere and very decent football. I was particularly struck by the discipline of the Wits defense and by the good choices that most players on the pitch made when having the ball. Moreover, Wits games are probably the safest in the country, not a futile in a country like South Africa.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pretoria University FC – Western Province United (03-11-2006)

I have come to South Africa to visit my friend P.K., who is there for five months, and, obviously, to see some games. My first game in the country would be one in the Mvela Golden League, the South Africa Second Division. The venue of the game is the LC de Villiers Stadium in Pretoria, which is located at the campus of Pretoria University, thereby providing some (illusion of) security. After a short period of searching, we parked next to the stadium and entered the ground. Oddly enough, there were no ticket offices and so we entered the ground for free. The stadium has only one stand, at one of the long ends, and seems mainly built for athletics (the bigger stadium of the university rugby team was next to it).

We arrive around 19.15, some 45 minutes before the game. After a nice talk with the two officials of the PSL, the South African Premier Soccer League, we take our places in the stand. At that time, some 20 minutes before the start of the game, there are 50 people at best in the stadium, mainly friends and family of the players, it seems. When the game is well on its way, the crowd has risen to some 150, none (as far as we can see) from the away team. They enjoy the evening, despite the often hilarious ‘football’ on the pitch. Both teams are dismal during most of the game, but Pretoria University FC (or ‘Tuks’) is the least bad. Western Province United is also solidly bottom of the league and would stay there. In part because of dismal defending by WPU, the home team gets to 3-0 at half time without playing well.

The second half remains poor, although WPU seems to have some chances at success. The ‘excitement’ increases when Pretoria University brings in a guy I had already spotted during the warming-up: a kind of self-professed star, who does all kind of useless trick. In the game he is even more ridiculous and useless than during the warming-up. The crowd loves him though, despite the fact that he is an insult to the opponent and the ‘beautiful’ game itself. Some of his fellow players don’t seem to be too happy about him either, and refuse to pass the ball to him. In the end, not thanks to this ‘star’, Tuks score the 4-0, which is also the finale score. A very poor game indeed.

True, it might have been more glamorous if my 250th groundhop-point would have been collected at Liverpool FC-PSV, which instead will be my 253rd, but somehow this fits the whole experience of groundhopping even better: a game in the South African Second Division. That’s what groundhopping is all about!