The dilemma of being a Non-League fan is that the atmosphere at games is generally poor. You don’t really have high expectations in terms of noise, colour and flare(s) when your fellow supporters all have carrier bags to keep their programmes in or dogs with scarves on. At some grounds the silence is punctuated with the stir of a cup of tea or the news that Stockbridge Park Steels have taken the lead against Shepshed Dynamo. And I appreciate the beauty and serenity of the Non-League game. But sometimes we want noise. We want passion. We want people waving fireworks around above their heads. So let’s raise a glass to three grounds we visited in 2013 that had just that. These have toughs acts to follow. Back in 2011 the winners, Legia Warsaw, blew our socks off whilst last year the Belgrade derby is still up there with the best ever footballing experiences I’ve had. So who were the winners this year? Well, here goes….
3rd Place – AS Roma v Cagliari – Stadio Olimpico
Italian football is moribund so we are led to believe. Ultras violence, scandal, match fixing, doping – you name it, at some point it has affected the domestic game. Long gone are the days when Juve, Inter or AC were considered to be real European greats, challenging for the Champions League. But try telling that to the chaps in Rome where i Giallorossi have made the best start to a season ever and crowds are flocking back to the Stadio Olimpico. The atmosphere at the derby game has to be experienced first hand, but for a run of the mill Sunday night game it is pretty special too. Deafening, to be precise with colour, smoke and noise filling all of your senses. Despite the disappointment of a goal less draw against a team at the foot of the table, the support was once again fantastic. Some more pictures I hear you ask? OK then…just for you.
2nd Place – Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund – Allianz Arena
Germany? Best atmosphere? Well that doesn’t take such research does it? Actually it does. Getting tickets for this game, a German Cup quarter-final was almost impossible. But thanks to a man in the know I managed to get a ticket. On a freezing cold evening with snow still heavy on the ground we arrived at the Allianz Arena and was immediately thawed out by 64,000 Bayern fans who were in a party mood and directed their passion at the few thousand Dortmund fans who had made the long journey south. The game itself wasn’t a classic, certainly not one that the two best German, heck, European sides, could have served up but this was to be simply a warm up for what was to come in May. Want to see some more? Head over here then.
1st Place – Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund – Wembley Stadium
I know that many fans were disappointed that the Champions League final at Wembley didn’t feature a sniff of an English team, but quite frankly the rest of us were purring at the prospect of seeing the two best teams in Europe on such a global scale. Once again, from the most unlikeliest source a ticket was trust into my hand and I was in. The build up in Old London Town was fantastic, with both sets of fans mixing well and enjoying life before heading to Wembley stadium where the atmosphere was simply outstanding. Perhaps it was the fact each club had been allowed to bring their own stewards, or the fact that someone brought in a few flares but it was one fantastic afternoon watching possibly the best club side of all time become Champions of Europe. You can see more pictures of joy here.
I rarely pass up the chance to go to the Dripping Pan but last night I committed the cardinal sin. I put the gravy train of the Champions League above grass-roots football, or to be even more precise, corporate hospitality at the Emirates over the Ryman Premier League at the Dripping Pan. I hope I can find your forgiveness in some way and I promise not to do it again….unless someone else wants to invite me in the luxurious surroundings of an Executive box.
My decision tree was influenced by the grade of the opposition rather than a promise of fine food and fine wine. Borussia Dortmund are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the world today. It doesn’t seem to matter that every so often they offload a player for small change (Mario Götze’s €37 million deal to Bayern in the Summer for instance), there is always someone new in the wings waiting to come in.
The Emirates is a very easy stadium to get to via public transport from Central London. Not so easy to get away from but we will deal with that later. Just 25 minutes after leaving the office I was at Drayton Park, just in time to see the 3,000 strong Dortmund fans marching down the road towards the stadium. Whilst they were being minded by the Met Police, the only issues they faced was having to use earplugs to drown out the noise.
The pre-match hospitality was first class as you would expect from one of the best stadiums in Europe. Our host was Sammy Nelson, the ex-Arsenal full back probably most famous for once dropping his shorts in front of the North Bank after scoring a rare goal (and being subsequently fined and banned) who spoke with real passion about the club and the current side. Talk turned to “that” goal on Saturday although he didn’t agree that Nicky Wheeler’s goal for Lewes at the same time versus Leatherhead on Saturday was better. We were surrounded on all sides by Dortmund fans, with the boxes either side hosting German football fans and below us were the massed ranks of yellow and black. Continue reading
“Football is a religion in Dortmund. Bayern may have won a lot of fans and a lot of trophies because of the incredible number of good decisions they have made, but now there is another story. Along has come another club that is pretty good as well.” It’s hard to disagree with the words of Jürgen Klopp, the miracle worker behind the spectacular rise from the ashes of bankruptcy of Borussia Dortmund. Despite enduring a disappointing domestic season where Bayern had simply been too good for them and the rest of German football, Dortmund arrived en masse in London knowing that all of the pain could be erased in one ninety minute game.
London awoke on Saturday morning awash with yellow and black. Whilst 478,567, to be precise, Dortmund fans had been unlucky in trying to secure one of the 24,000 official tickets for the Wembley showpiece, tens of thousands had headed to the centre of London to party like it was neunzehn neunzig neun. By mid-afternoon Trafalgar Square was a sea of Dortmund fans tucking into traditional English beer (Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg) and traditional English food (Walkers family packs of crisps) soaking up the rare English sunshine. Lord Nelson was looking down with an approving wink, especially at the girls who made the effort to dress in the full Dortmund kit. Football for life was the motto of the day for the fans. One game, one goal, one glorious night at the venue of legends. There were fans of all shapes and sizes enjoying the sunshine, although if truth be told some looked better in their Dortmund outfits than others.
Dortmund Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke could barely raise his voice enough over the strains of Wonderwall to explain with immense pride how special this day was. “Ten years ago every member of our club would have had a chance for a ticket.” Today fans sat on the edge of the fountains with signs around their necks pleading for a ticket for the biggest game in German club football history. Progress.
My mission was to try to document the day through the eyes of a fan with Allianz for their Football For Life campaign. Never an easy job with half a dozen Bitburger’s sloshing around your stomach, but even worse when every time I opened my mouth the German fans broke into a chorus of Football’s Coming Home. Both sets of found laughed at the irony that here they were in the home of “Your Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottingham Hotspurs”. Bayern fans were outnumbered 20 to 1 in Central London but they knew the score. Even a performance at 75% of what they have been capable of this season would see the trophy return to Bavaria. Dortmund needed all the skill of Reus, the fire power of Lewandoski and the sulkiness of Robben to snatch a victory. But if they could, it would be the most famous win in their history, one that would give them bragging rights over their rivals for years to come. Despite their dominance of the domestic game, Bayern had been the bridesmaid in European football for so long, runners-up five times in the last twenty-five years with just a single trophy in that time against Valencia back in 2001. Continue reading
The end of the football season. A time to reflect on all those moments of joy watching our beautiful game before the crashing realisation that there will be no more last minute winners, no more dodgy offside decisions and no more Robbie Savage – well, at least there is one positive. The biggest question on our minds is not where to go next Saturday but what excuses we could use to avoid the inevitable trips to DIY stores or fixing the leaking roof in the garage. These were the thoughts running through my head until I had an invite from those good people at Allianz to help them spread the good news – Football is for life not just for 37 weeks in the season. Their request was to help them celebrate all that is good about our beautiful game in one day. One glorious day. One day that I had to keep quiet from my nearest and dearest for fear of jealous retribution. A ticket to the Champions League Final. Of course I said….”YES!”.
If you are in any doubt about the anticipation for the Champions League final at Wembley then go an ask your average season ticket holder at the Allianz Arena or the Signal Iduna Park where they will be watching the game on Saturday night. Over 1 million people applied, but failed, to get tickets through the small allocations given to Bayern and Borussia for the most eagerly awaited European Cup final in decades. I cannot remember a final that has created such as buzz among the neutrals fans, none more so than the English who look on so enviously at the way German football is run. Make no mistake, this is THE best final the competition could have asked for. In some ways there is a poignant irony that the two teams competing at Wembley in the FA’s anniversary year are from our fiercest footballing rivals but in my opinion we are lucky enough to be watching two of the best teams in Europe at the moment compete for the coveted trophy. Continue reading
Twenty four hours ago I was in a pub in the heart of Bavaria. Munich to be precise, talking football with some die-hard Bayern fans from our German office who were telling me in graphic detail how this current Bayern Munich team were the best club side Europe has ever seen. They could give me plenty reasons to back this up, including a statement around the fact that “Pep”, having broken all records at Barca would only consider joining a club more supreme – and hence why he is coming to Bavaria next season. But my argument was despite romping to the Bundesliga, and being odds-on favourites to take the DFB-Pokal in a few weeks when they meet Stuttgart in Berlin, a failure to beat Borussia Dortmund in the most anticipated Champions League final for decades will mean this season counts for very little.
After the crushing disappoint of losing out to domestic honours to Borussia Dortmund last season and then losing the Champions League final in their own front garden in Bavaria to Chelsea, this season was seen as a chance for redemption. Their ruthlessness in winning the Bundesliga title has been breathtaking – currently 22 points clear with one game to go of Dortmund, scoring nearly an average of 3 goals a game, conceding less than half a goal a game, dropping just eleven points so far. Two defeats in all competitions is certainly a record-breaker but could they really go on their sunbeds around the pool in the summer with a smug feeling of superiority if Klopp’s team win at Wembley.
It would have taken a brave man to bet against Bayern in any domestic game this season (and that brave man would now be significantly poorer) but in a one-off game on neutral soil I think the game could be a lot closer than people think. An early look at the odds at Unibet shows Bayern are clear favourites to lift the trophy at 1.42 compared to Dortmund’s 2.8. This season both league games ended 1-1 and their meeting in the Allianz Arena in the German Cup saw an Arjen Robben wonderstrike the only difference between the two sides.
The key for me is the form of Dortmund’s occasional false nine, Marco Reus. We saw Reus destroy Eintract Frankfurt earlier in the season in the Westfalenstadion, scoring a fantastic hatrick. When he is on his day he is unstoppable. So unstoppable that the rumours of a move to Bayern have been circulating since he was voted German Player of the Year in 2012. With Lewandowski potentially on his way to Real Madrid in the summer, he will also want to go out on a high.
Unsurprisingly, tickets for the game are like gold dust. As the days tick down to the final we will preview the game more, including a visit to the Champions Park in East London.