Saturday, July 19, 2014
Having seen an evening game in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the night before, we had to drive long (a bit over 700 km) to make it to Charleroi, Belgium, the next day to be able to see the afternoon game in the Derde Klasse B (Third Division B). Unfortunately, our car ran into major trouble and when we finally made it to Charleroi, we were unable to find the stadium – no one, including the police, knew where we needed to go. This was not that surprising, as Royale Jeunesse Sporting Heppignies-Lambusart-Fleurus, or RJS HL Fleurus, is one of those many merger-teams in the (lower) Belgian divisions. Sadly, I have to say “was” a team, as 2013-14 turned out to be the last season that RJS HL Fleurus existed. Going back to Etoile Sportive Fleurusienne, which was founded in 1909, it went through three mergers to finally go under in a huge reshuffling of smaller teams in Wallonia.
It takes us around 2.5 hours to drive the 250 km from Stuttgart to St. Gallen, in part because we are not stopped at the German-Swiss border – the last time T and I tried this, the Swiss border guard inspected our car for almost 30 minutes! We arrive well in time for the game, despite getting lost in St. Gallen.
To be honest, I had never heard of FC St. Gallen before planning this trip. They have never really been a major team in Swiss football, for a long time yo-yo-ing between the first and second divisions. This not withstanding, they were founded in 1879, which makes them the oldest existing team in Switzerland and, according to Wikipedia, continental Europe!
Today FC St. Gallen plays in the Swiss Super League, the country’s First Division. Its home is the AFG Arena, a beautiful modern stadium, completed in 2008. It has a capacity of 19,694 and currently doubles as home for FC Wil, a team from the Swiss Challenge League (Second Division), which is building a new stadium to meet the Swiss Football League’s standards.
The stadium is situated above a shopping mall. We park in the parking garage under the mall and walk through the largely closed but clean shopping mall to the stadium. Welcome to football in the 21st century! At the surprisingly makeshift ticket office we buy tickets for the standing-only home section behind the goal. The tickets cost 25 CHF (€ 20.50) a piece, which isn’t too bad for a top division game in a comfortable stadium in a very expensive country.
We walk past the ‘ultras’ of the home team as we make our way up the stairs. The stadium is quite full and had a good, organized, atmosphere for a Swiss game. While I estimate that there are some 6,000 people in the stadium – almost exclusively white and (upper) middle class – they later announce that the official attendance is 13,157, which seems a wild exaggeration. A quite decent number of fans, some 300, have made the 200 km trip from Berne to support their Young Boys (YB), one of the most successful clubs in Swiss football.
The game is not overly exciting even though the quality is pretty decent. The plays are technically competent and the teams play tactically quite well. The pace isn’t too high though and creativity is rare. The first chance is only in the 20th minute: a header for FC St. Gallen. Two minutes later a home player is lucky to get the ball and shoots at the YB goalie.
In the 24th minute YB gets a corner. The goalie saves the shot but the rebound header finds the net: 0-1. Just two minutes later a FC St. Gallen player breaks through, gets around the goalie, and scores: 1-1. Looks like we are having a game now!
YB responds by creating two good chances, but both shots are saved by the FC St. Gallen goalie. Over all the football is pretty decent: YB is better, but FSG works harder. Half time score is 1-1.
The second half is much less impressive. The quality of the game drops dramatically. YB defends very deep, hardly tries to play, while FSG dominates but doesn’t create any real chances. This notwithstanding, the home fans continue their singing of largely unoriginal songs.
When a YB forward makes two nasty fouls within 5 minutes he gets two yellows (and therefore red) and has to leave. This gives the fans some hope, but the game doesn't really change much. FSG just doesn't have enough quality to score. Final score: 1-1.
In many ways this was a very modern football experience. A modern stadium integrated in a shopping mall with significant comfort and well-behaved affluent fans. At the same time, the atmosphere was surprisingly good for a small Swiss team.
After a leisurely drive from Dijon, France, we make it with more than enough time to our next destination, Stuttgart. Both T. and I have visited the big club VfB Stuttgart before, so we are here to see the little brother, the Stuttgarter Kickers. The Kickers are one of the older teams in Europe, founded in 1899 as Stuttgarter Cickers. I have always had a weakness for them, going back to the early 1980s, when their beautiful white jerseys had vertical light-blue stripes and Südmilch as their shirt sponsor.
The Kickers play in the Waldau-Stadion, which for sponsor-purposes is called GAZi Stadion an der Waldau. It’s an old stadium, opened in 1905, which has seen various renovations throughout its 110 years of existence. It holds 11,410 people, of which a mere 1,311 can sit. In other words, a nice old-school German stadium. It is currently the home of two football teams, Stuttgarter Kickers and VfB Stuttgart II, which both play in the 3. Bundesliga (Germany’s Third Division), and the Stuttgart Scorpions, an American football team.
After we have been joined by my friend M., with whom I have made many groundhops before we both moved abroad, we pay €10, sample some of the excellent stadium snacks (sausages and other chunks of meats), and take our place on the standing-only stand.
As quite often at second or third clubs in a city, the supporters are mostly old men, who know each other and have been coming to the club for years. As is usual with German teams, the fans bring flags and passionately sing their club song before kick-off.
I estimate that there are some 3,500 people in the stadium, including some 300 from Chemnitz (known as Karl-Marx-Stadt between 1953 and 1990), some 435 km to the East. As almost always when the visitors are from East Germany, there is a large and very active police presence at the game.
It took more than ten minutes for the first shot at goal, which came from the home team. However, in the 16th minute a Chemnitz shot ricochets and goes over the goalie: 0-1. Less than ten minutes it gets even worse for the Stuttgarter, as a nice combination attack is finished with a strong low shot: 0-2.
This finally gets the home team moving and five minutes before half time they have a good header, which is saved by the Chemnitz goalie. Two minutes later a good attack but the striker slides the ball from 7 meter at least 10 meter over the goal. Half time: 0-2.
The second half doesn’t bring much better play for the home team. The fans around us complain and increasingly talk about games between other teams or better times of the Kickers.
In the 60th minute the Kickers get a free kick but it is headed straight at the goalie. Three minutes before the end the guest counter attack and score: 0-3, also the final score. As the East Germans celebrate, the locals complain rather stoically. They have been through a lot, during the past decades. We leave quickly, as we have another game that day, but look back at an old-fashioned genuine football experience, which unfortunately has become increasingly rare in today’s world of commercialized football.
After almost 1.5 years I was finally back in Europe and, even more importantly, able to meet up with my brother T. for an old-fashioned four games in three days groundhop weekend. The first game was Friday evening in the mid-East of France, in the city of Dijon, known better for its spicy mustard than for its football. It is home to Dijon Football Côte d'Or, which was founded in 1998 as a merger of Cercle Dijon Football and Dijon FC. Better known as Dijon FCO or DFCO, the club currently plays in the Ligue 2, France’s Second Division.
We arrive at the stadium at 19:45, roughly 15 minutes before kick-off. The Stade Gaston-Gérard was built in 1934, but has quite recently been seriously modernized. It is situated in a residential area in the northern part of town and can hold 15,995 people.
There is quite a (disorganized) line in front of the old tickets office. We pay only €10 for a covered seat on the new stand behind the goal. Before taking our seats we sample the stadium food, which is the by now staple selection in French stadiums: Sandwich Merguez (€4.50), a very long roll and long and thin sausage (spicy but a bit dry), and Fries (€3), thick and not particularly good.
By the time we take our seat, the game is already a few minutes old. We sit up relatively high with a good view of the game. I estimate that there are ca. 7.000 people in the stadium, so almost half full. Only a few supporters have made the 500 km trek from Le Havre.
The pace of the game is not very high, while the players’ technique and teams’ tactics are poor. DFCO has the most of the game, but Le Havre the better play. In the 18th minute a home player tries a low shot from almost 30 meters. The ball has a great curve and is hidden from goalie: 1-0. Six minutes later the guests have a good attack that puts the right-wing forward in front of the goal. Despite of a good attempt by the DFCO goalie he scores: 1-1. Two minutes before half time the guests have a good attack over the left flank and the same player beats his defender and tips it in: 1-2.
The second half starts with slow and poor football. It the 50th minute DFCO gets a free kick just outside of the penalty box, which lands on the cross. Beautiful! After 30 minutes of low pressure by the home team, Le Havre finally starts to play a bit again.In the 76th minute they have a decent shot on goal.
As the guests start to put the pressure up, the defense of DFCO looks shoddy. Given that Le Havre never really pushes very hard, always holding many players behind, the score doesn’t change. Le Havre doesn’t need to, and DFCO isn’t able to. Final score: 1-2.
While fans around us complain a bit, they are clearly used to dire performances of their home team. Resigned to their fates they make it back to their home. Overall a nice, kind of old-school football night.