About a month before England’s Euro 2008 Qualifying game away to Croatia in Zagreb, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued an update piece of advise for England Fans without tickets hoping to travel – DON’T! Blame it on the fact that England have the best following in the world. Out of the Official England Fans Group, over 8,000 applied for tickets. These fans will have already paid for flights and hotels well in advance of finding out if they were lucky enough to receive one of the 3,688 official Away tickets. Do the maths and you can see that 4,300 fans would be potentially traveling and hoping to get a ticket somehow, somewhere in the city. Of course anyone who travels without a ticket is someone looking for a fight right? Well yes according to the media. They don’t factor in that people can’t get refunds on their flights and hotels, and faced with a slim chance of getting a ticket against no chance by not traveling they go – after all how many of the media actually travel with the fans instead of ligging on their expense accounts (Tip for the Tabloid Press – By approaching a group of England Fans drinking in a bar and saying “Alright lads, anyone been fighting” you do not gain any credibility so stop doing it!).
So anyway I digress. I was lucky enough to be one of the 3,688 and secured a ticket. The usual security warnings were made to us before we traveled – you know the type of thing – No Guns, No throwing objects onto the pitch (so what should we do when a ball goes into the crowd? Throw it back and break the law or keep it and get accused of theft?), No drugs and of course No singing any songs likely in incite hatred.
I chose to travel on one of the organised Day Trips – this time using Sport Ops out of Gatwick. The good thing about the Day Trips is that they are normally well organised, transfer you to point A to B and give you some confidence that if you get stuck in the stadium, your plane is not going to leave without you. The downside is that you get allocated such crappy flight times meaning your day trip is normally over 24 hours long AND the local aviation authority find it funny to schedule all return flights at the same time – meaning absolute chaos of 1,000’s of fans trying to pass through security at a foreign airport at the same time.
Anyway I digress….As I had been chosen to represent my country in a series of Fan Friendly games (still in a job as player manager after 6 consecutive defeats and just 1 goal scored!) I had to pass on the pre-match rituals of beer, beer and beer. As luck would have it we found ourselves playing a 5 minute stroll from the stadium in the Maksimir Park area to the east of the city centre in Zagreb. The stadium is normally easily reached for a match – Hop on Tram line 4 from the central station, or line 11/12 from the historic centre in Trg Bana Jelacica and you will be at the stadium in less than 15 minutes. On this occasion the England fans were advised to walk the 30 minutes or so east to avoid any confrontations. We however felt that the short walk through the Maksimir Park from our games would be fine.
So decked out in our White England shirts a small advanced party of 4 decided to head for the ground after we had been routinely humiliated by the Croat Fans. We could hear the noise of the crowd building, just through the trees and then we were there…..4 of us….standing on the edge of the road opposite the fiercely loyal home fans turnstiles…In our England shirts….looking lost….In such situations you can do three things:-
1. Be French/Italian and turn around and run away quickly
2. Be German and pretend nothing is amiss
3. Be British and carry on regardless
So we walked against the tide of fans, chatting about team selections and the like – and the most amazing thing happened. As we walked down the street, the Croatian fans started moving out of our way, allowing us safe passage around the stadium to the away end – the Curved South section on Budakova Street. Here there was a check point set up where they looked to see if we had a ticket. Excellent idea but one person trying to check thousands of fans, with only a waist high temporary fence separating those who had tickets and those who didn’t was a recipe for disaster. At the turnstiles they checked our bags, and trying to understand why us “crazy” fans would want to take shin pads into the ground…Anyway, our entry passed without incident – although ten minutes later it was here that the riot police decided to lock the gates to stop the ticketless fans who had easily passed by the first check point getting in. When those at the front of the gates (with tickets) started being pushed forward, the riot police could have:-
1. Told everyone to stop pushing
2. Told the guy on checkpoint 1 not to let fans through or even DO HIS JOB in checking tickets
3. Randomly baton people around the head
Its no surprise that they chose option 3. Sod the fact there were women and children there – England fans again were subject to the kind of brutality that we have seen recently in Madrid and Bratislava.
Anyway, the less said about the game, the better – we lost, McClaren got it all wrong, the pitch was rubbish blah blah blah…Come the end of the game we were kept in for the customary hour whilst they made sure all the proper hooligans outside the ground had had a chance to throw some rocks into our stand, try to launch some fireworks and then give up. The coaches were parked behind the stand and so we had a simple 15 minute drive back to the airport – oh no that would be simple. Instead we were taking on a magical mystery tour of the Croatian suburbs and the Airport car parks – all 17 coaches! Eventually we found a parking spot somewhere at the airport where the police initially refused to allow anyone to leave the coach to go for a pee. Finally, we were driven to the airport terminal where all 17 coach loads of fans had to queue to pass through security and passport control, all the while with “last call” announcements go off for our flights – trust me next time you have to queue at the horrendous Stansted to pass through security you’ve had it easy – try doing it with 2,000 odd fans and 2 Airport Detector machines….We then found out the reason for our delayed trip back to the Airport. The England team didn’t want to stay in Zagreb another night and had arranged to fly home directly after the game, but didn’t want to mix with the fans – the poor loves. Well thanks England – because of you I had to endure another 3 hours without sleep, a spineless performance, a nervous tick every time there is a back pass to a goalkeeper and a hatred of red and white checks!
The Stadium – The Maksimir
Maksimiska 128, Zagreb
Capacity: 38,923 All seater
The Maksimir is classed as the national stadium despite not being the biggest stadium in the country. That honour sits with Hadjuk Split, and their redeveloped Poljud stadium. However, the Maksimir is one of the most atmospheric. The club have played at the stadium since their inception in 1945. The first real redevelopment didn’t take place until the mid 1980’s when the stadium was chosen to host the World Student Games of 1987.
The stadium today is an odd affair. All four stands are uncovered, with two large two-tier stands, one smaller single tier stand and finally the original curved bank behind the goal. The stadium suffers by having a running track, meaning that some fans behind the goal are quite a way from the action.
The easiest way to reach the ground is to jump on tram line 4 from the central station, alighting at Bukovacka which is 7 stops and 15 minutes away. If you coming from the bus station then catch tram line 7 which is ten minutes away. The stadium is just beside the tram stop. With the ground 3/4th of the way to full redevelopment, the stadium is rarely full. Only the big European matches and the Croatian derby between Dinamo and Hadjuk raise the average attendance above the 10,000 mark. Tickets can therefore be purchased on the day of the game from the booths to the right of the stadium as you approach it from the tram stop. Traditionally, the hardcore Bad Blue Boys take up residence in the north stand, so it may be worth avoiding this stand if you want to watch the football, and not your back.
Zagreb Pleso Airport (Airport Code ZAG)
Telephone: +385 456 22 22
Zagreb Pleso airport is located around 17km south from the city centre. Shuttle buses run to the city centre every 30 minutes, starting from 7am, and finishing around 8pm. The journey takes less than 30 minutes and costs 25HRK oneway. A taxi from the airport should cost less than 150HRK – make sure you negotiate the rate before you start the journey. The shuttle bus drops you outside the main station (Glavini Kolodvor).
Where to stay in Zagreb
The tourist office should be able to help you in getting a bed for the night if you haven’t booked anywhere. The main tourist office is located in the main square at Trg Bana Jelacica 11. It is open daily from 08.30am, later at the weekend. The centre is staffed by English speaking staff and can not only help find accommodation, but can also book events and tickets for the theatre. They also sell public transport tickets. Contact them on +385 492 1645 or check out their website at http://www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr.