Tuesday, April 17, 2007

KP Legia Warszawa – Arka Gdynia (14-04-2007)

I had to be for business in Warsaw, Poland, so I had checked whether it would be possible to see a game during the weekend. Although I had hoped to make a true groundhop, and see a team like Gwardia, the work schedule only allowed me to see the big team of the city, Legia Warszawa. However, just before I left for Warsaw my American-Polish colleague informed me that their opponents, Arka Gdynia, were under investigation for match fixing and would probably be suspended. When I arrived on Thursday afternoon, we met up and headed out on a chase for tickets for the game, which was not at all an easy task. In fact, we had to go to some small newspaper shop in the center, where we were told that Arka was “unsuspended” and the game was on. As Lega is well known for its hooliganism, and we would go in a group with inexperienced football spectators, we decided to go for the expensive tickets, i.e. covered seats at the Trybuna Kryta for 84 zloty (ca. 28 euro) per person. All tickets have to be sold on name of the person who is going to occupy the seat, so you have to give your name and birth date, but you don’t have to show identification. Despite the insistence to the contrary of the girl who sold the tickets, we did also not have to identify ourselves at the stadium (and thus, this was another good example of a useless anti-hooligan measure).

On Saturday afternoon we sped out our workshop at 17.30 to take the taxi to the Stadion Wojska Polskiego im. Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego. Fortunately, it was a short ride and we arrived well in time for the 18.00 kick-off. There were quite a lot of people around the stadium, most wearing Legia scarves and/or jerseys, but even more striking was the massive police presence (wearing bullet proof jackets). All people were also frisked upon entrance, although not very solidly. Whether this is the reason for the absence of violence, and radical right symbols, at this particular game is hard to say. The fact that the away team had brought only some 30-50 fans, who were strictly segregated and heavily guarded, might also explain something.

I had expected a team like Legia, which is allegedly Poland’s biggest football club, to play in a much more imposing stadium; in fact, the website mentions that they are building an ultramodern new stadium. The (old) stadium holds only 13.278 and for this game, which was played in very nice weather (19 degrees and sunny), some 8.000 had showed up. What they lacked in numbers, they made up in singing. From the beginning the two main stands would sing in unison, which created a very pleasant atmosphere. This was helped by a very quick Legia goal, 1-0, after fairly dodging defending and goal keeping from Arka. Actually, for a team under investigation for match fixing, they didn’t seem too concerned to prove people wrong. I was simply amazed by the lack of commitment of the Arka players. As Legia didn’t move beyond the pace of senior citizens for most of the first half either, 1-0 was still the score after a quite uneventful first half.

Despite the seducing smell of grilled sausages, I didn’t get tricked into eating one. I still remember the many stadium sausages in the Czech Republic and Slovakia that didn’t live up to the smell. So, with increasing hunger my colleagues and I watched the second half unfold in a very similar way as the first half had dragged along. It’s difficult to compare the level of play to something I have seen recently, but probably a game between two teams from the bottom half of the Belgian Premier League would be similar. Only the pace of the game and the players was (even) lower this evening; maybe because of the summery circumstances. To be fair, Arka redeemed itself a bit and at times actually seemed to care about the game. This notwithstanding, it would be Legia that would score its second, some fifteen minutes before the end of the game, again after weak defending. A couple of minutes later it would be 3-0 after a very soft penalty. Surprisingly, during whole this poor game the Legia fans remained cheerful and happy with their teams performance.

It’s difficult to evaluate the evening. Somehow I was a bit disappointed by how ‘normal’ the whole Legia experience had been. There were no gangs of violent, right-wing extremist hooligans fighting with the police and shouting nationalist slogans and racist abuse. At the same time, this was also very pleasing (particularly given the fact that I was not alone). But even the stadium was unimpressive, let alone the level of play. Still, for a postcommunist game there was a decent attendance and a very good atmosphere. Although I would prefer to go to a game of Gwardia, or possibly even Polonia, next time, I could easily go to another Legia game. At the very least I’ll have a guaranteed nice atmosphere again.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Brøndby IF – Randers FC (08-04-2007)

When you are alone in a new foreign city, and you have a four day holiday, there is little else that you can do than make the best of it. Inspired by my successful groundhop to Trelleborg two days earlier, I decided to go to the other side of the water for the only Easter Sunday game to be played in either Denmark or Sweden: Brøndby IF-Randers FC. Now, traveling on a holiday is always tricky, but this day proved particularly trying. Arriving at Malmö Central Station around 14.45, well in time to take my 15.02 train to Copenhagen, which would bring me to Brøndby Stadium around 16.00, an hour before kick-off, all seemed well. However, my naivety was soon crushed by the announcement that there were works on the railway tracks and a bus would connect Malmö South Station to Copenhagen Airport, leading to significant delays. But as my heart was set on this trip, I decided to press ahead anyway. After train, bus and train again, I arrived half an hour late at Örestad St Station to find out that my connecting bus only goes once an hour on Sundays. The only way to get to the game in time was an expensive taxi ride. I got out off the taxi at approximately 1 km from the stadium, as we were no longer really moving because of the traffic to the game, and I walked the last part in the rain, joined by a growing group of yellow-blue fans.

Brøndby Stadium is a highly modern stadium in the town of Brøndby, a suburb to the west of Copenhagen; hence the nickname of the team, Drengene fra Vestegnen (The boys from the western outskirts). Acquired in 1998 and finished in 2000, it can hold a maximum of 29.000 people for domestic games and 26.000 for European games. It is a perfect stadium for a big team in a small league, reminding me of the Sparta Praha stadium. After checking out the professional fan shop, which unfortunately didn’t sell pennants, I went to the Nordea Tribunen (North Stand) entrance to pay and get in. I paid 110 DKK (ca. 15 euro) to the guy at the turnstile, who let me in but didn’t give out tickets. This was the second disappointment in a row, ticket-wise, but fortunately I found a ticket in the stadium later. I decided to sit at the second tier, Nordea Øvre, just above the hardcore fans of Brøndby Idrætsforening, as the club is fully known.

To be honest, I hadn’t been too keen to go to see Brøndby, as they are one of the few big teams in Denmark, and have a professional stadium, while like all true groundhoppers I prefer the more exotic. However, the atmosphere at the Nordea Tribunen compensated for the professional surroundings. In fact, the constant singing and clapping of the fans gave the feeling of a game in a big league, despite the fact that ‘only’ 10.516 people had shown up for this SAS Ligaen (Danish Premier League) game. Moreover, the opponent was a small team, Randers FC, who had brought at best 100 fans (Randers is some 325 km away from Brøndby). Still, the away team did sport the most famous player on the pitch: the number 99, Stig Tøfting, the former Danish international, who had spells at Hamburger SV, MSV Duisburg, and Bolton Wanderers abroad.

Despite the difference in standing between the two teams, Randers were definitely equal to the ‘big’ Brøndby for most of the first half. Tøfting played the role of experienced (former) star, playing in a free role and distributing smart short passes. However, the main reason for the equality was the rather lackluster performance of the home team, which seemed to have wanted to take Easter Sunday off and look for Easter eggs with their families. They kept the pace low and excelled in poor passing. In the end, the 1-0 in the 42nd minute, courtesy of a smart soft but aimed shot in the far corner by striker Katongo, came as a surprise and wasn’t even completely deserved. This notwithstanding, the fans went crazy and even ignited some fireworks.

At half time I wondered around the North Stand in search for a ticket, deciding against a second sausage (even though I had enjoyed the first one, and particularly the grilled bread on the side), and settling for a Pepsi Max instead. I was surprised to see quite a high number of (young) women at the stands, mostly accompanying their boyfriends, but sometimes also in separate small groups. Also, the part of the North Stand that houses the hardcore fans had a quite mixed band of fans, including older people and some families.

In the second half the home team managed to score early, after having been awarded a (seemingly soft) penalty. Their main midfielder Martin Ericsson did his job and by and large finished the game: 2-0.

Indeed, after the 2-0 the game became less exciting, as the lack of high-class play was no longer compensated by the excitement of the tight score. I was surprised by the bad positioning of the players of both sides as well as the defensive nature of both teams. Even at 2-0 behind Randers FC held most of its players back, while Brøndby did little to push for the 3-0. The fact that it was scored, in the 93rd minute, was more luck than determination: a pass was diverted, went up so high that the Randers goalie misread it and it fell behind him in the goal: 3-0.

I experienced the 3-0 among the hardcore fans at the lower tier of the Nordea Tribunen, impressed by their continuing enthusiasm for both the game and the team. Even the highly loyal and uncritical fans of PSV would have been somewhat disgruntled by such a performance of their team. Not so the yellow-blue army of the North Stand, which continued to sing and chant.

Almost frozen, as it had turned cold and miserable, I left Brøndby Stadium to find a bus to bring me to Copenhagen Central Station. Again naivety struck, when I entered a bus to a metro station thinking I would be back ‘home’ within two hours. It turned out that not only had they chosen Easter Sunday to work on the railway tracks between Copenhagen and Malmö, they were also working on the metro tracks between two of the stations I needed to take. So, my trip back involved a short metro trip, a bus ride, another short metro trip, a short train ride, a longer bus ride, and a short train ride again. This all notwithstanding, Brøndby IF was a pleasant surprise!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Trelleborgs FF – IFK Göteborg (6-4-2007)

I’m spending two months for work in the South Swedish city of Malmö, which is not just a very pleasant town, but also a perfect location for groundhopping. Not only can I watch games in (South) Sweden, I can also take the train to Copenhagen for games in the Danish competition. As Good Friday is a holiday, I decided to take my first groundhop of this stay. And as one shouldn’t overdo it in the beginning, I decided to go to the town of Trelleborg, the most southern town of Sweden.

As Trelleborg doesn’t have a railway station, I had to take the bus from Malmö. They actually had a special bus for the football game, which followed the regular bus (146) from Malmö to Trelleborg, but ended at the football stadium rather than the central bus station. The trip of roughly 30 km took some 30 minutes. There were some 20 people in the bus, all supporters of IFK Göteborg. Around 14.00 the bus dropped us straight in front of the visitors’ stand of Vångavallen stadium.

As the clouds looked threatening, and it was quite cold and windy, I decided to buy a ticket for the main stand: a covered seat would cost me 140 SEK (ca. 15 euro), which was fine, but the sorry excuse for a ticket, i.e. the receipt, was not! If this is the future of football, God help us! Fortunately, I could buy a nice pennant and a fat, spicy sausage with aivar, which somehow softened my mood. As my seat was in a cold and windy spot, and didn’t provide me with many opportunities to take pictures of the ground, I decided to walk around instead. At various times the sun came through, and although it remained cold and windy, it was a great afternoon for football.

According to the website of Trelleborgs FF Vångavallen can hold 10.000 people. I am quite skeptical about that estimate though. For this first game of the 2007 Allsvenskan (Swedish Premier League) season, against the powerhouse of Swedish football, 5.480 spectators had come to the stadium, I would estimate between a third and half supporting the visitors. While IFK has many supporters outside of Göteborg, between 10 and 12 buses had made the 272.5 km long trip to Trelleborg! That shows real support!

Just before 15.00 the players came onto the pitch and the season was about to start… but not before some obscure woman had sung the Swedish national anthem! I don’t know whether this is customary, like in South Korea or the US, or because of the start of the season, but I’m not a big fan of national anthems before games. Fortunately, while most people stood up, hardly anyone sang (except the IFK fans, but they song their own song :-).

The game started furiously. After a couple of half-chances, IFK scored 0-1 in the 6th minute. As the goal was scored in front of their own supporters, which were housed on what seemed an emergency stand, they went mad and even accidentally pushed through the fence. Fortunately, the Göteborg supporters (including the “ultras” ;-) were as surprised as the stewards and police, and everyone behaved as one expects from Swedes: properly.

I must admit, at that time I feared the game was over. Let’s face it, when the biggest team in the country scores the 0-1 after 5 minutes against a team that until recently played in the first division, the best you can hope for is a big victory for the favorites. However, instead of a walk-over by IFK, the home team recovered quickly and took the initiative. Although it took them some time to start creating real chances, during which time IFK always seemed the more dangerous (though more in potential than actions), Trelleborgs FF clearly dominated the highly attractive game. And in the 43rd minute they scored the very deserved equalizer from a corner, captured aptly by yours truly! 1-1 was also the half time score.

The second half started with a short offensive by IFK, which almost led to another quick lead. However, Trelleborgs recovered and slowly but steadily pulled the initiative back. The game remained attractive, mostly because of the attacking spirit of the home team, with half and real chances on both sides. The most bizarre was when the IFK goalie, chased by the Trelleborgs striker, mishit the ball, which ricocheted from the striker, over the goalie, but the soft shot of the striker was cleared from the line by an IFK defender. After having been dominated for most of the second half, IFK started another offensive 5 minutes from the end, leading to several good chances, but (fortunately) no goal. With 1-1 the final score, I felt Trelleborgs FF got what it had hoped for, but less than it deserved. All in all, however, a highly entertaining game and very pleasant groundhop. This promises for the weeks to come!