Friday, December 29, 2006

Fortuna Sittard-Helmond Sport (22-12-2006)

Less than ten days before the end of 2006, my mates A.H., J.B. and I met up at Leuven railway station to make our last groundhop of the year. But not before we had sampled the goods of Frituur Luc in Holsbeek, definitely one of the best snack bars in Belgium. Full with satisfaction and snacks, we drove the fairly easy 100 km to Sittard in Limburg, the most southeastern province of the Netherlands, where we arrived just in time for the game.

Fortuna Sittard is not a well-known team in Dutch professional football today, but the club has a famous history. In 1968 two clubs from the area merged, Sittardia and Fortuna’54 (from Geleen). Fortuna was the first professional football club in the Netherlands and has twice won the Dutch Cup (KNVB Beker)! The fusion club Fortuna Sittard has played for many years in the Dutch eredivisie (premier league) and has had some famous players – even in the 1990s players like Kevin Hofland (now VFL Wolfsburg) and Mark Van Bommel (formerly PSV and Barcelona, now Bayern München) played at Fortuna under coach Bert Van Marwijk (later Feyenoord, now Borussia Dortmund). But these glory days are long gone. The last years the club has cheated bankruptcy a couple of times, but financial problems remain. Not withstanding the financial problems of Fortuna Sittard, the club moved in 1998 from the destitute De Baandert stadium to a modern 12.500 seater at the outskirts of town. Tellingly, in 2005 the club had to sell the very modern Wagner en Partners Stadion to a project developer to save its existence.

We bought a ticket for Tribune C at 10 euro a piece and took a place at the center of the pitch. There were some 2.300 supporters scattered around the stadium, with an estimated 50-100 from Helmond. Although the “hardcore” home fans were with few, they did show some nice banners.

Around us where some people in the Christmas spirit, which they also really needed that evening.

As Ronse-Waregem the week before, Fortuna-Helmond was a game between the bottom two of the first division, i.e. the Dutch eerste divisie (or in good Dutch “Jupiler League”). The fact that A.H. and I watched the bottom two of the Dutch and Belgian league play within one week also enabled us to compare the two leagues a bit: the Dutch league turned out to be both better and (much) more professional. The Wagner and Partner Stadion, for example, would make many a Belgian Eerste Klasse team jealous. Also in terms of technique and pace the Dutch game was a lot better; in part helped by the fact that both teams had various ex-players from the youth programs of top teams (notably PSV).

While the game was entertaining at times, it was again a fan behind us that made the evening. This time it was a not a voice of irony and nuance, but thé most biased fan I have ever heard. And that, I can assure you, is not an easy job! This guy saw every attack of Helmond as off-side, counted at least fifteen handballs (all for Helmond, obviously), and endlessly called for yellow cards (except the one time a Helmond player got a yellow card, when he demanded a red card :-). He was sitting next to his mother or wife (we couldn’t tell), who not just tolerated him, but actually encouraged him in his overly expressive supportering. My high point was when he, at the end of the game, declared to her in all earnestness, that Fortuna could have been 12-1 up already (in fact, they could have been at best 1-2 down).

Anyway, the game was entertaining, but not really good. Fortuna might have had the better squad, Helmond had the better players. Particularly two of the strikers were too good for the home defenders and created havoc at times. Unfortunately for them, they had little if any support from the midfield, and therefore the 0-0 half time score was deserved. After a cup of weak coffee, but anything hot was appreciated in the winter cold, we returned (to the exact same spot, obviously), to see Helmond unexpectedly score the 0-1. With still 40 minutes to go, everyone still believed Fortuna would come back (our fan behind us disputed the goal and was disgusted by the ‘fact’ that the home team hadn’t scored its many chances). Notwithstanding the last glitches of optimism among the much tormented Fortuna fans, the game remained 0-1.

The last minutes the Fortuna players vented their frustration by fouls and a phenomenal fight on the pitch; which also saw an impressive right hook from one of the
Helmond players).

Directly after the game we made our way to the car for our drive back. Somehow, I feel I would have enjoyed De Baandert more. Still, it would be a shame to see a club like Fortuna Sittard disappear and I sincerely hope they will finally get their act together. At about 23.00 A.H. and J.B. dropped me off in Antwerp. My last groundhop of a very successful year. Groundhop-tally at the end of 2006: 257 clubs in 35 countries. Ambition for the end of 2007: 270 in 36 countries! Watch this space!

SK Ronse Renaix – RC Waregem (17-12-2006)

As I wanted to finish this top groundhopping year in style, I decided to see two more games with my grounhop-buddies: both between the number last and second from bottom in the first division. On Sunday 17 December the Japanese Übergroundhopper A.H. joined me for a trip to the language border of Belgium: Ronse-Renaix. We met at Ghent Sint-Pieter railway station to take the (two-hourly) train to Ronse, where we arrived hours before the game. It was a cold but clear winter day and we spent a couple of hours walking through the picturesque Flemish town, enjoying the Christmas atmosphere (including a Christmas stall with live animals, see below), and buying some family gifts at the Christmas market.

Some 30 minutes before the start of the game we arrived at the Stade O Crucke Stadion (underscoring the bilingual character of the club). We bought a ticket for the Tribune A-B-D-E at 15 euro a piece at the wooden “ticket office” and made our way to the cantina in the hope to find some food. Unfortunately, this must be the only stadium in Belgium that does not sell any snacks, not even the obligatory sausages and hamburgers! A bad start!

Somewhat hungry we took a place at the main stand and prepared ourselves mentally for a game between the numbers 17 and 18 of the Belgian Tweede Klasse. I guess that there were some 300 people in the stadium. The setting was as expected: amateurism everywhere. We were particularly charmed by the groundsman, whom we learned from cheering around us was called Cyrille, who kept the official balls in a laundry basket.

Other interesting aspects of the SK Ronse ground were the fact that the pitch was not level, but rather hyperbolic, the small cement building (with the name of main sponsor Bocova on it) with the police officers in it (who never came out), and the “Kantien” for the away supporters, which was basic, to say the least. All in all, a unique setting.



Now to the game itself. You might be surprised to read that the game was not of the highest quality. In fact, the pace was very low and the passing poor. The teams were equal in terms of quality and performance and neither had more than two decent players. Still, it was quite entertaining to watch. And it was made even more rewarding by the commentary of the fans behind us; clearly locals and lifelong SK Ronse supporters. One in particular had us laughing over an over again, with his ironic comments on players, referee, and everything else. All in good spirit (so lacking at the stands of many big teams). Anyway, this was all appreciated the more as the half time score was 0-0 and there was no reason it should have been anything different.

At half time we escaped the stadium to visit the Frituur (snack bar) next door, which turned out to be closed… only for this short period of two weeks! Even more hungry and somewhat frozen we returned to the stand, made sure we sat again in front of the funny guy, and dived into the second half. This period the game did bring a winner, i.e. the home team, who scored twice, quite late in the game, to get a deserved 2-0 home victory against their main rival. This even satisfied our favorite fan behind us, and so we could all happily leave the stadium and get back to the winter cold.

We were just in time to get the train back to Ghent, which saved us a two hour wait, where A.H. and I parted ways. A. caught the train back to Leuven, whereas I decided to take a later train and sample some local food establishments in Ghent instead. Around 19.30 I arrived back in Antwerp, happy to have seen the battle of the bottom two of the Belgian Second Division

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hannover 96 – Arminia Bielefeld (9-12-2006)

Call me an addict, but I am not yet willing to close the groundhopping books for the year 2006. So, I convinced my buddy J.B. to go for another trip this Saturday, which wasn’t difficult at all. Presenting him with a list of options in Belgium, France, and Germany, he chose Eintracht Frankfurt-Werder Bremen. However, as the website said that there were only some 1000 seats left in the away stand, we decided to play it safe and go to Hannover 96 instead. I ordered tickets through their fantastic website, where you can even choose your exact seat: Südtribune, Block S13, Reihe 7, Platz 17 und 18 at 19 euro each (plus 1 euro booking costs).

At 8.30 I leave my house to walk to the station to take the train to
Leuven. At 10.00 J.B. meets me there and we start our long journey to Hannover, some 475 km, over the (mainly German) Autobahn. Hannover is the capital of the state Niedersachsen (Lower-Saxony), in the center-north of Germany. Fortunately, the weather is good and the road is not that busy, except for the (various) parts where they are working on the road, and we arrive in Hannover more than an hour before the start of the game. After a sample of snacks, including fresh Erbsensuppe (pea soup), which is a delight in the winter, we pick up our tickets at the Ticket Office, try to enter at the Nordtribune, and end up circling the stadium to get to our stand.

The AWD Stadion is one of the many modern stadiums in Germany. It is the completely refurbished Niedersachsenstadion, originally built in 1954, and was used during the World Cup 2006. It holds 48.933 spectators, although it is seldom sold-out. As most new stadiums today, it holds the name of the main sponsor and is high on comfort, but low on character. Hannover 96 is one of the most commercialized clubs I have ever visited though: food and drink in the stadium could only be paid with a special “Rote Karte” (Red Card), while every single event in the game was sponsored by someone, usually a local furniture shop (corner kicks, last 15 minutes, free kicks, last 5 minutes, etc.). At the same time, non-VIP supporters can only visit the main fan shop after the game! Fortunately I was able to buy a small pennant at a small fan shop at the Südtribune.

And, now that I am complaining about commercialization anyway, what is up with calling the team “Die Roten”?! Awful! Hannover 96 has traditionally the beautiful color combination of green-black-white (see its beautiful logo!) – hence the friendly relations with Borussia Mönchengladbach (who sport the same colors). However, since a few years Hannover has been playing in red-black and have been merchandizing themselves as “the reds”. I don’t know exactly why, but the fact that major sponsor Tui has red as its main color will not be a coincidence.

Ok, to the game now. We sat behind one of the goal, on the second tier, where we had a fantastic view over the seemingly broad pitch. There is no denying that the stadium is beautiful inside, even if the atmosphere is a bit stale. Not willing to buy into the “red card system”, we did have to watch the game drink- and Wurstless, however, which diminishes the Bundesliga experience (it also felt we were the only ones in the stadium who watched the game Wurstless ;-).

We were sitting almost next to the two blocks occupied by the away fans, but even around us at least one quarter of the fans were from Bielefeld (‘only’ 100 km away; this makes Hannover for them the closets away game; together with Dormund). As always, the atmosphere is a German stadium is friendly and pleasant, with supporters of different teams mingling without any problem. There were some 34.000 supporters for this game between two small teams that do relatively well this season (both hover around position 10 at this moment).

Unfortunately, they didn’t get a good game today. The first half remained 0-0 and there were virtually no good chances for either team. Jiri Snajder, the main player of Hannover, had an off-day, which meant the team had virtually no power up front – the Dutch player Arnold Bruggink, ex-PSV, as always excelled in technically beautiful passes and complete invisibility. At Bielefeld I hardly knew anyone – the Albania Vata didn’t play (he is probably getting too old, but he is crafty little devil) – and the game didn’t change anything.

After half time, where we mainly walked around a bit too fight the increasing cold (around 5 degrees Celsius), the game pretty much continued where it had left off. Few chances, few good passes, much fighting against each other and themselves. In the 67th minute, truly out of nowhere, Ndjeng makes the 0-1 for “die Arminen aus Bielefeld”, to the great delight of the blue-red (they haven’t betrayed their colors…. yet?) supporters around us. To be fair, it wasn’t really deserved, although we were already happy to see a goal. Two minutes later, it was already 1-1, by the substituted Brdaric (the only time he wasn’t offside). After that, both teams were so shocked that they actually started to play football. ‘Fortunately’, this only lasted for some ten minutes, after which everything went back to the same old, same old. 1-1 was a deserved final result, and actually two goals better than the level of play indicated (a 0-0 would have fitted the play).

After the game we ran to a stand to buy a Wurst (well, I did, J.B. is a vegetarian-but for the rest a normal guy). On the way back we were led through some villages to the Autobahn, a detour which added further to our already long way back. And, to top it all off, we were drafted in a alocohol check by the Belgian police, which J.B. passed with flying (green-black-white, not red-black!) colors. Around 22.00 he dropped me off in the center of Antwerp. A long day, maybe not too good football, but a Bundesliga game is always worth the trip.