Sunday, May 18, 2008

Brotherly Groundhop May 2008

Barely four days after returning from my 300th hop/club, it was time for the next trip. This time my brother T.M., the original hopper who gave me the taste for groundhopping, was my companion. We met around 11 at Schiphol airport, from where we set off for a two-day trip of roughly 1850 km!

Esbjerg fB – AGF (15-05-2008)



Protected by the traffic gods we drove the 775 km from Schiphol to Esbjerg roughly within 8 hours, including short stops, with no traffic jams and little problems around roadworks. Although Esbjer is a small town of ca. 70.000 people, in the Southwest of Denmark, it is the country’s fifth biggest city. Hence, it is not that surprising that it would house a serious football team, Esbjerg forenede Boldklubber, which has been Danish champions five times (mostly in the 1960s). After a short search in the outskirts of the town, we found our way to the stadium. However, before parking our car opposite to the ground, we made a short stop at the EfB Shop, which is a couple of minutes by foot from the stadium, to buy a pin (for T.M.) and a pennant (for Grondhopper).


Esbjerg fB plays at the Blue Water Arena, named after a main sponsor. Traditionally named simply Esbjerg Fodboldstadion, it was built in 1955 and expended in 1999 and 2004 (don’t you just love wikipedia). With a capacity of 13,282, it is the biggest Danish football stadium outside of Copenhagen. And it is currently being rebuilt yet again, making it both more modern and bigger (up to 18.000).


As a consequence of the rebuilding, the ticket offices are externalized, i.e. in small huts next to the stadium, together with food stands and another fan shop. We bought covered seating tickets at the Vestfrost stand at 130 DKK (ca. 17.50 euro).


We entered the stadium, where I sampled a local sausage (which, compared to German sausages, was mediocre). The stadium was quite full (at least where there was stand ;-). The game this evening was between the numbers 6 and 10 (out of 12) of the SAS Ligaen (First Division) and was attended by 6.112 people (according to the club), many of which with fan gear on. Some 150 away fans had driven the 168 km from Aarhus. They must have gotten overexcited from this trip, as before the game they started to burn various items in their corner, which created a huge black smoke screen.


As AGF were still playing to stay up, and Esbjerg were without any specific goal, it wasn’t surprising that the first part of the game was dominated by the visitors. That said, while AGF had the better of the play, Esbjerg did created the few half-chances that the poor game counted. However, in the 25th minute AGF had a good chance, which was initially stopped by the Esbjerg goalie, and then finished with a hard shot in the top of the goal: 0-1. This was well deserved, as the visitors had worked the hardest (both the players and the fans).


After the shock of the 0-1, the crowd turned even more silent, while the visitors had little problem controlling the game. It seemed that Esbjerg could not be bothered to put in an extra effort this evening. Half-time: 0-1.

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The second half remains poor, if only because AGF takes less chances, but at least the hosts start to pressure somewhat. In the 60th minute they miss the goal from a mere 3 meters, a couple of minutes later they head the ball at the goalie, and in the 70th minute a long attack is pushed corner by the AGF goalie.


Still, because of consistent forechecking by the visitors, and a lame performance by the hosts, the game remains poor and the two AGF fans next to us don’t really have to worry too much about staying in the SAS Ligaen. The 90th minutes sees an almost-chance for Esbjerg fB, but that is it. AGF wins 0-1 and keeps its spot in the top flight of Danish football.

Football in Denmark is alive but not kicking that much. To be honest, we were a bit disappointed by the lack of atmosphere in the decently filled stadium. Still, the team seems well supported in town and the renovated stadium might not be sold-out often, I guess it will also not be very empty in the future.


Sportfreunde Siegen – SV Wacker Burghausen (16-05-2008)



Having spent the night just across the border in Germany, we had ‘only’ some 600 km to drive on Friday. Given that the game started at 19.30, and we left at 11, we had little to worry about. Again protected by the traffic gods, we arrived in Siegen over an hour before the game. The Leimbachstadion is just off the main street from the motorway to the town, somewhat similar to the Erzgebirgsstadion in Aue. We bought tickets for the uncovered standing section at 8 euro, set off for a quick snack at the Imbiss-am-Stadion (hmmmm, Currywurst), and took our place among the fans.


The game in the Regionalliga Süd (Third Division South) was about a ticket in the 3. Liga (Third Division); next season the top teams of the Regionalliga’s North and South are brought together in a new Third Bundesliga. SV Wacker Burghausen seems safe, but Sportfreunde Siegen (Sports Friends Siegen) had to win this game to stay in the race. Consequently, 5.767 had come out to support their team; even though the stadium holds 18.500, this still made for a decent crowd. A brave 100 had traveled the almost 600 km from Burghausen!


From the beginning it was clear that, at least for the home fans, there was much at stake. People around us got very worked up over even the clearest of off-sides. At the same time, they seemed very forgiving of the poor quality of play of most of the players; except the black striker Okpala, who seemed to have slipped even under the “SFS” fans’ expectations.


After some uneventful play on both sides, in which Burghausen had most of the play, the Sporfreunde Siegen scored practically out of nowhere. It seemed a lucky goal too, but this didn’t upset any of the fans. 1-0 meant that the dreams for a spot in the new Third League were still alive, and that was all that counted tonight. In fact, that was also all they got, at least in the first half, as the only other chances were for the visitors. That it was still 1-0 at half-time was mainly because of the Siegen goalie, who once stopped two close-by shots within 10 seconds.

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The second half was particularly poor. Neither team created any good attacks, let alone clear-cut chances. The home team seemed destined at bringing the lucky 1-0 to the end of the game, while Burghausen seemed no longer willing to put in a serious effort. In fact, if both teams would have played on for another two hours they wouldn’t have scored.


That said, the home fans at various times seemed to have a heart attack; strange, given the lack of real chances and the fact that their goalie seemed their best player. In the end, the relief was electric when the referee finally blew the final whistle and the 1-0 was still on the scoreboard.


The Sportfreunde Siegen are a great destination for a groundhop. Not only do they have a funny name, their stadium has a remarkable location and the club seems deeply supported in the town. If they would pick up their game a bit, you will have a great time in the Leimbachstadion!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

GROUNDHOP-MILESTONE: CLUB 300

It had been anticipated for months, and planned for weeks, but this weekend it was finally becoming reality: my 300th hop. Or, to be more precise, my visit to the 300th different professional football club in the world! I was not an easy task to find a club suitable for this occasion, particularly as this trip was in between two longer trips to the US, and I didn’t want to go too far from Antwerp. In the end, I chose right, even if the club disappointed somewhat. Fortunately, my groundhop-buddy JB didn’t!


FSV Frankfurt – Stuttgarter Kickers (10-05-2008)



As I was only at 298 on Saturday, the hunt was on for the 299th club. This was not that easy, as few teams I hadn’t seen played within a 500 km radius on Saturday. After consultation with JB, we decided to skip the semi finals of the Luxemburg Cup and instead drive to Frankfurt am Main… not to see the big Eintracht, but the small FSV!


Because of the many roadworks we arrived to Frankfurt late. Given the lack of signaling, we were lucky to find the stadium (tip for future visitors: it’s behind the Eishalle where the Frankfurt Lions play their hockey games). So, at 14.15, a quarter of an our after kick-off, we paid 8 euro for a standing place and entered the Frankfurter Volksbank Stadion (formerly known as Stadion am Bornheimer Hang), in the city district of Bornheim.


It was immediately clear that the stadium is seriously being rebuilt. It’s original capacity of 24.000 is reduced to 10.300, which seems more realistic given the club’s average crowd. At this moment, only two sides of the pitch were open to the public: the new main stand at the long side, and the emergency standing section (Stahlrohrtribüne) behind one goal. On this very sunny and hot day, 3.400 people had made it to the game, not bad for a game in the Regionalliga Süd (Third Division South). An estimated 500 had driven the approximately 200 km from Stuttgart – including the three members of the Sektion Stadionverbot (Section Stadium Ban ☺).


Given the atmosphere around us, we assumed it was still 0-0. As I found out only later, FSV Frankfurt are second in the league, while the Stuttgarter Kickers are fighting relegation.) Although the football wasn’t very inspiring, we were both happy to see this game between the second team of Frankfurt (am Main) and the second team of Stuttgart; after all, that’s what groundhopping is all about! Moreover, standing in the sun and a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius, what could go wrong?

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Both teams were of equal strength and I actually fancied the Kickers a bit more. They had at least some players who could do something special on the ball. This notwithstanding, the first noteworthy action in the first half, at least from the moment that we had entered the stadium, came from the home team. In the 30th minute they shot from 20 meter at goal and the goalie had to tip it against the crossbar. The only other action worth mentioning was a bizarre walkabout by an Kickers player, who, without any real opposition, decided to shoot at goal from 30 meters: the Frankfurt goalie stopped. Half time: 0-0!


And what does one do at half time in the Frankfurter Volksbank Stadion, I hear you think… well, obviously, one looks for food and drink. Regarding the former, I was left disappointed by a very mediocre Bratwurst. Fortunately, this was fully compensated by the setting of the latter: the Texas American Saloon! For some reason, the bar in the FSV Frankfurt stadium.



The second half started out ok, with a couple of shots at both goals within the first fifteen minutes. After that, the game became very disorganized, with both teams losing possession way too easy. Only in the last ten minutes the game picked up again, with at least some chances.


In the 79th minute the Frankfurt striker turned and shot at goal, at the goalie. After that, it was the visitors who created some three chances, including a weak header from 5 meters and a long attack over many players that was intercepted by the Frankfurt goalie. In the end, it was clear that the game was destined for 0-0; to the delight of the visiting fans, and the chagrin of the home fans.

Despite the poor game, we returned to our car satisfied. Not only the weather had provided us with a nice afternoon, FSV Frankfurt is a true groundhopper destination. The village in the city, so to say. Moreover, the 299th scalp was now in my possession and the only thing behind me and my 300th club was a trip of just under 500 km!


FC St. Pauli – Alemannia Aachen (11-05-2008)



We had arrived in Hamburg around 22.00 the previous day, and had decided to go into the city, despite the Hafen-Feste, if only to see the (in)famous Reeperbahn. Call me a Dutch chauvinist, but I prefer the Wallen in Amsterdam! Anyway, at around 11.30 on Sunday, we left our hotel and, just 15 minutes later, we parked out car at less than a 5 minutes walk from the Millerntor-Stadion (which is smack in the middle of the St. Pauli district). As so many others in the lower German divisions, the stadium is being gentrified and its capacity is raised from 19.800 to 27.000.


After brunch in the city district of St. Pauli, we lined up to visit the official fanshop. Despite the humble housing, it was directly clear that St. Pauli is running a very professional merchandizing operation. In fact, they have commercialized almost everything that is linked to the left-wing image of the club – in part a reflection of the traditionally strong radical left presence in the district of St Pauli – from the pirate symbol (white skull and bones on black flag) to Ché Guevarra. In other words, the club (and fans) is a perfect example of recent the Kommerzialisierung der Anti-Kommerz (commercialization of the anti-commerce).


I had chosen St. Pauli as my 300th club as for decades the team has had a cult status in German, and even international, football. However, having only seen away games of the team, where its fans always came in impressive numbers and with remarkable attires, I had missed the fact that within Hamburg they are fully mainstream, if not even fashionable. Provocatively stated, I guess it’s more cult to be a HSV-fan in Hamburg!


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As all home games of St. Pauli are sold out well in advance, I had been forced me to buy tickets online, at 29 euro per person, through their website, which I almost regretted after seeing the horrific tickets. (In fact, I did my best to exchange it for an original ticket within the stadium, at the end of the game, but could only find people with season or online tickets). Of the 22.717 spectators, at least 2.000 had come from Aachen, almost 500 km to the south! They were greeted by the stadium speaker and they even played the official Alemannia Aachen song for them. Now, that is class!


After having sampled a (nice) sausage, we took our place on the stand, surrounded by a colorful mix of Pauli fans and Alemannen. As both 2. Bundesliga (Second Bundesliga) teams were between promotion and relegation, 8th and 7th respectively, we were hoping for an open match, and that was exactly what we got. However, we got another surprise: a female referee!


Already in the first minute Pauli shot at goal, and a couple of minutes later Alemannia had its first counter-attack, which was save by a defender (after the goalie was already neutralized). In fact, in the first 10 minutes we counted three chances for the visitors and two attacks of the hosts. In the 18th minute the inevitable happened: Alemannia set up another sharp counter attack and scored: 0-1. Four minutes later they did practically the same, with the same result: 0-2. This was even too much for the happy St. Pauli fans, who stopped their singing for a couple of minutes. However, as soon as their team started to attack again, they restarted their chants – including the shouting of “St. Paaaaaaulu” from one stand to another.


The rest of the first half saw an increasingly pressing Pauli, and a continuously sharply countering Alemannia. This provided attractive, if not always necessarily good, football and a lot of excitement. Unfortunately for the home fans, however, it didn’t alter the score. Half time: 0-2.


The second half provided much of the same. Pauli had most of the possession, but Alemannia created the best chances through smart counter-attacking. The atmosphere remained lighthearted and positive, even if the singing seemed to become a bit softer and infrequent. The biggest excitement was provided by a loose fan, who managed to duck one steward, before being caught by an Alemannia defender; who was subsequently whistled with every ball he touched.


After this intermezzo St. Pauli had a couple of half-chances, including two shorts at goal from 20 meters in the 86th and 87th minute, but this didn’t change the overall result. Alemannia Aachen won deservedly with 2-0. This not withstanding, the home team was celebrated extensively by its fans, in this last home game of the season.


Objectively, there is nothing wrong with St. Pauli. In fact, in many ways it is everything a groundhopper wants: the second team of a city that is fully integrated into a specific district with special fans. Still, I was not caught by the Pauli-bug. Somehow, the club has become too popular and popularized. It’s left-wing alternative image looks phony in the light of its extensive commercialization. But maybe I had just expected too much. The fact remains that St. Pauli was a very deserved 300th hop!

The countdown to 400 has officially started! Will I make it in this lifetime?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New York Red Bulls - San Jose Earthquakes (27-04-2008)



As I had to be in New York City for work – I know, what a drag – I took the opportunity to finally see a game of professional 'soccer' in the city… well, technically, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, but whatever. Of course, New York will always remain linked to the famous Cosmos team, which include Brazilian superstar Pele, but since the start of the MLS (Major League Soccer) in 1996, the city team has been the New York/New Jersey Metrostars; after 1997 known as only 'Metrostars' (which, in 2000, signed German superstar Lothar Matthaus!). In a weird event, the Red Bull company bought the Metrostars just before the 2006 season, changing the name to Red Bull New York (similar to their buy of SV Salzburg and the consequent transformation into FC Red Bull Salzburg).



After an unexpectedly quick drive from Queens, we arrived early at the huge Giants Stadium, the 80,242 capacity home of the New York Giants; winners of the 2008 Super Bowl! We bought tickets for a steep 30 USD each, the cheapest tickets were 22 USD, and made our way through the huge empty stadium to find our seats. As always before the beginning of a sports game in the US, we started with the singing of the national anthem.



I had a really hard time estimating the size of the crowd, and was surprised to later see the official tally of 9.053 (I had estimated some 5.000). It is not even a bad crowd for a football game in the US, but in a 80.000 stadium, it looks fairly pathetic. Interestingly, the crowd was very mixed, not just in terms of ethnicity but also in age and gender. Not the usual mix of schoolgirls and Mexicans. ;-)


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The game was mildly interesting. The Red Bulls had started the season well, having won two and drawn the third previous game, but still performed at the level of a poor Belgian or Norwegian first divisionist. Their key player is Claudio Reyna, former captain of the US national team (112 caps) and former player of teams like Bayer Leverkusen, VFL Wolfsburg, Glasgow Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City. Even at 35 he is much better than everyone else at the pitch – although Juan Pablo Angel (formerly of River Plate, Aston Villa and the Colombian national team) didn’t play. From the first half I noted a safe from the goal line after a good attack by Reyna (38th minute) and a Red Bulls header just over (41st minute). Anyway, after 45 minutes of fairly poor football, the score was still 0-0.



In the second half, the young star of the New York Red Bulls, Jozy Altidore, finally made an impact on the game. Every action of 19y old Joy was greeted by enthusiastic cheers of male fans and (over)excited squeals of female fans (particularly of the group of young black girls in front of us), but so far he had not showed his potential to be the new Freddy Adu. In fact, I wasn’t very impressed by his fall in the 78th minute, but it gave the hosts a penalty kick.

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With only 10 minutes to go, everyone in the stadium was happy and relieved that the New York Red Bulls stayed on course for the championship. The small group of hardcore home fans, the only ones allowed in a section behind the goal, celebrated in style, uncovering the official banner (undoubtedly provided by the sponsor).



And they even received a second present, this time in the form of a real goal by Jozy Altidore. In the dying 95th minute the young superstar made his mark on the game after all. Although I still haven’t seen it, everyone in the stadium was convinced: New York Red Bulls have the new American Pele in their midst, and he is a young boy from Florida!



I don’t think I will ever get used to it, watching a football game in an empty huge stadium. If Red Bulls would really like to do something for football in New York, they should build a new, smaller, exclusive football stadium. Wow, wait a minute, that is exactly what they are planning to do, with the new Red Bull Park. Hopefully, as of 2010, the New York Red Bulls will play in a 25.000 soccer-specific stadium (SSS) in Harrison, New Jersey. I’m sure that will increase the crowds and improve the atmosphere. On the level of play, however, I am less optimistic.