Organised Crime – I’ve had harder walnuts – West Ham’s European Adventure

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So for only the second time in 26 years West Ham made it into Europe – whilst I enjoyed the travels in the Intertoto Cup in 2000 to such places as Jokerit in Finland and Heereveen in Holland it wasn’t quite the same as a UEFA Cup run. The way that the competition is set up now, the draw in August is almost as important as the Final itself….West Ham were an unseeded team and so prior to the main draw, they could have been paired with Osasuna (Spain), Palermo (Italy), Feyenoord (Netherlands) or Steaua Bucherest (Romania)…All on paper appeared tough either on the pitch or off the pitch – although I suspect the nightmare tie would have been against the Dutch….When the draw was eventually made the Italians were drawn away to West Ham – sighs of relief all round were quickly replaced with furious logging onto the internet to get a seat on the only cheap flight to the city from London, offered by Ryanair. In fact the flight prices went from a manageable £14.99 each way to £149.99 each way within 5 minutes of the draw being made.

As I was away enjoying the comforts of the Alton Towers Hotel, I was for once slow of the mark in arranging travel – no problems I reasoned – no point in thinking about this until I had a ticket for the away leg. After all, pick up a guide book and flip to Palermo and the most common text simply says “Why?”….Described by one book as dirty, cramped, crime ridden, morally and financially bankrupt – it sounded a wonderful place to visit in late September.

So West Ham being West Ham did not miss an opportunity to fleece the fans. No match tickets would be sold via the club unless you were booked on a Thomas Cook package – a two finger salute to those fans who had gambled on Ryanair….That’s OK – even at £300 for a return flight, and a £100 for a hotel would make it a nice couple of days away….WRONG! West Ham had managed to secure some exclusive bedrooms in a hotel at a bargain price of £799 PER PERSON for a 1 night trip – oh of course it did include a match ticket….Unbelievable….A day or so later they released package number two – a 4 Star instead of a 5 star option at £699 PER PERSON! Take up must have been swift because the day trips then hit the market – a bargain of £279 for a 5am departure but it was the only way to get a ticket….We needn’t have bothered – but more of that later.

So Thomas Cook took their revenue collection for the year from me over the £1,000 mark and I made my way to Gatwick for a 3am check in blissfully unaware of the near riots that had occurred overnight in Palermo between the West Ham fans and the local police. Apparently the locals had been offended by West Ham’s “funny” idea of producing Mafia-mocking T-shirts at the home leg a couple of weeks before….Still, it was evident from a number of sources prior to the game that many of the so-called “names” from the past would have been coming out of retirement for one last “horaah”….

So what did we get at 3am for our £279??? A “freshly prepared breakfast” – hmm looked like Gate Gourmet all the way to me, that or did I mistake the Chefs for air stewardesses? A limited edition badge – sold on Ebay for £1.99 and that was it…Value for money my arse! The plan for the day was a 45 minute transfer into the city centre, a few hours sight seeing before being bussed to the stadium 3 hours before kick off “Just to be on the safe side” quote Thomas Cook.

The city itself was quite interesting – certainly no one here has heard of B & Q but it did have a rustic charm. All was quiet after the previous night’s antics, and a general wander around the city saw some nervous police and a few groups of Hammers drinking in bars. We opted to get an overview of the city with a Open top bus tour – It was amazing how they could make it last an hour – after all there was literally nothing to see – I cannot understand how they think the railway station can be classed as a tourist site.

Lunch was obviously the focal point of the afternoon – a quiet side street spot was found with a few friendly hammers who regaled us on the events of the night before. All handbags by the sounds of things but still enough for the young lads who could at least pretend and dine out on the fact that they “stood firm with the ICF against the Mafia” in years to come. Lunch was chaotic – the bar ran out of beer and had to go to the local supermarket to get some more – unfortunately the bar owner could not carry anymore so he had to enlist the help of the West Ham fans to carry it, and then charged them a 200% mark up to drink it! A nice afternoon snooze was in order – and what better way than to board the tour bus again for a lap of the city – after all it was free!

We met up with our buses in the main square at 6pm – 3 1/2 hours before kick off. Despite the stadium being a 3 mile hike out of town, the police took our coaches on what could only be described as a “nature ramble”, up hills, down mountain paths in and out of country parks until we reached the stadium – which with 3 hours before kick off was in complete darkness.

Somebody had to go and wake the groundsman up to open the gates, and we started the slow process of entering the stadium – but not before the police had had a good grope of all of the ladies instead of a security check. We were then herded into a cage that ran the whole length of the main stand, driven onwards by the police in complete darkness, and with water slopping over our feet. At the far end we entered the stadium – toilets – 1, food & drink – ice creams only!.

West Ham had been given a corner of the stadium – hemmed in by thick glass on two sided, and a caged roof on the lower tier. With hours still to go before kick off we did the only thing we could – sing! The players came out to warm up and were greeted with great relief that the kick off was approaching. At regular intervals fans were seen being led out of the home end, and into the walked around the pitch to the away end – some took the opportunity to run onto the pitch – although the Italian police were obviously very happy with this.

So the game kicked off. 1-0 down from the 1st leg, West Ham battered the Italian’s goal, but fell behind to a fluky deflected shot…The team then crumbled and a 3-0 defeat on the night is all we can say to sum up the evenings events. Now, as any seasoned traveler abroad will know, the local police like to have the last laugh by keeping fans in the stadium “for safety” reasons…Now there is safety reasons and safety reasons….Why they thought 90 minutes would be a reasonable time to keep us tired fans in the stadium is unknown, but when they eventually opened the gates, we were again herded into the cage and out of the stadium.

So our tale is nearly done – only a final mention of the most fantastic organisational skills at the airport….Thomas Cook had issued us with our return boarding passes. Unfortunately with 6 planes due to leave at the same time the Italians got confused with boarding cards issued for the same flight – and so they refused all 1,000 plus fans and sent them all back to check in, where two helpful airport workers tried to dish out new cards….Thomas Cook lost the plot – “just get on any plane – they all go to the same place!” was the classic final quote of the evening, although our “freshly” prepared food on the plane was in fact the same as it was on the way out due to an “oversight”…hmmmm

The Stadium – Stadio Renzo Barbera
Viale del Fante 11

Capacity: 36,980 (All seater)

The Stadium has one covered stand, with three uncovered areas framed by the huge hills behind the stadium. The stands are two tiered, with both end stands curving away from the pitch. The Curve Nord is where you’ll see the flares and the choreographed Tifosi (Italian for hardcore fans). West Ham will be allocated 2,000 in the Curve Sud, undoubtably surrounded significantly by the Carbonari.

How to get to the Stadio Renzo Barbera
The stadium is located around 5km north of the city centre, close to the A29 Autostrada in the San Lorenzo area. To get to the stadium from the Stazione Centrale, catch bus number 101 or 107. The nearest suburban station is the Imperatore Federico Stadio which is on the road of the same name just south of the stadium.

How to get a ticket for the Stadio Renzo Barbera
Tickets can be bought online around 2 weeks before the games at http://www.ticketone.it. Tickets range in price from €27.50 for a Curva Sud ticket to €72 for a top of the range Tribuna Laterale ticket. Tickets can also be bought from a number of Snai outlets in Palermo. For the majority of matches this season, tickets will not be on sale on the day of the game.

How to get to Palermo
The Falcone Borsellino airport is located around 30km to the west of the city centre. Buses run every 30 minutes or so from outside the arrivals hall through the centre of town and terminating at the central station for €4.65 one way. Buses run from 06.30am.

A taxi should cost no more than €40 – it may be best to agree the fare before you commence the journey. There is an English-speaking Tourist office at the airport that may be able to help with finding accomodation, as well as a cashpoint and money exchange bureaux.

There is also one other international airport in Sicily, on the east side of the island in Catania. This airport is served daily by British Airways from London Gatwick. BA have flights available from £46 including taxes on the 27th September. To get to Palermo from Catania, catch a regular bus to the central station and then one of the bi-hourly trains to Palermo – the journey takes close to 3 hours.

How to get around Palermo
Palermo has a good system of buses which run in all directions. A flat-fare ticket is €1.35 or an all-day ticket is €3.35 – tickets are available at kiosks at the Central Station and Piazza Verdi.

About Palermo
Palermo is one of the toughest cities in Italy. It is no surprise to understand that this was the birthplace of the Mafia, and where many people say that crime is out of control. However, that shouldn’t deter any visitors – with sensible precautions that you would apply in any big city back in England you will steer clear of any problems. Palermo has been described as an up-market Naples, and its citizens are known for their raw energy and outspoken views. Areas to avoid include La Kalsa (the Historic quarter) after dark as its maze of alleyways are not the most inviting places to wander, the Central Station and the Bus Station.

It is hard to believe that Palermo was once one of the greatest cities in Europe, but in the times of the Norman invaders it was. The city , shaped by the backdrop of Monte Pellegrino and the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea was home to invaders and visitors throughout the middle ages, each of whom left their unique mark on the city. Unfortunately this mark wasn’t always welcome – in 1943 the incessant bombing of the city by the Allies almost reduced it to rubble. The city was further damaged in 1963 by an earthquake that put pay to a lot of the rebuilding efforts of the city’s council.

Today the city wrestles with a different problem – one with a bad reputation. Sicily after all was the home of the Mafia. The underworld organisation are still active today, although there is little evidence of them on a day to day basis. One of the reasons for this has been the excellent work the local authorities – led until 2001 by Mayor Orlando in cleaning up the corruption in public office. At the height of their fame, the Mafia were linked with a number of very public assassinations in Palermo including two of the prosecuting judges in the Mafia trials. For the film buffs amongst you, the final scenes of the Godfather III were filmed at the Teatro Massimo.

One issue that Orlando, or any of his predecessors have been able to solve is that of petty crime. In some areas of the city this is a real problem, and it is advisable to take sensible precautions in the city – namely don’t flash the cash or goods (mobiles, IPods, Cameras, etc), don’t walk alone down unlit alleys at night and avoid the areas you would do at home (train station and parks after dark). If you are confronted just give them what they want – it is far easier spending a few hours reporting some stolen goods to the police than spending hours in a Italian hospital.

However, the citizens of Palermo take great pride in the city not only being the capital of Sicily but also being their home. Whilst they may appear to be constantly in a hurry, driving at breakneck speeds sown impossibly narrow streets, they also play hard too.

For us culturally aware football fans, Palermo offers an abundance of Churches and galleries to visit whilst we are there. The jewel in the crown of the city is the Cathedral, in Via Vittorio Emanuele which dates back to the 12th century. Other notable buildings that can be visited include the Royal Place, now home to the seat of Government in Sicily and Piazzo Marina which borders the water’s edge.

Where to Stay in Palermo
If you need to look for a hotel, then the following still have rooms available for the 28th September. Alternatively you can try the Tourist office in Piazza Catelnuevo 34 – http://www.palermotourism.com.

Hotel Cavour – Via A Manzoni 11 (5th floor). Email – giopintos@libero.it
Hotel Moderno – Via Roma 276
Hotel Orientale – Via Maqueda 26 – http://www.albergoorientale.191.it
Hotel Joli – Via Michele Amari 11 – http://www.hoteljoli.com
Hotel Sausele – Via Errante 12 – http://www.hotelsausele.it
Hotel Posta – Via Gagni 77 – http://www.hotelpostapalmero.it
Hotel Centrale Palace – Corso Vittorio Emanuele 327 – http://www.centralepalacehotel.it

Drinking and Eating
Most of the nightlife can be found around Viale della Liberta and Via Principe di Belmonte. Bear in mind though that Italian nighttime culture is very different to our culture. Italians think of nothing better than to cruise in their cars or walk along the streets, stopping occasionally to drink Coffee or eating Ice Cream. beer drinking as we know it is not a major practice. If you are desperately in need of a Guinness and a bit of Irish culture then head for Murphy’s in Via Sciuti.

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