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Zurich – 13th June 2008 – Italy v Romania
In my years of watching football all around the Europe there are a number of countries that I have never seen. Not many, but still a few. A number of years ago I came up with the idea of visiting the smallest 5 nations affiliated to UEFA in their qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan. Quite how FIFA (for it is them that decide which nations can join their party) decide who can and cannot be affiliated is an absolute mystery. For instance Faeroe Islands, who are part of Denmark are allowed in, but Greenland who are also part of Denmark, aren’t. Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom can come and play, but Jersey and Guernsey who are also part of Queen Elizabeth’s realm are not invited. My list therefore included Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Malta and the Andorra. In theory it should be Vatican City, Gibraltar, Monaco, San Marino and Liechtenstein but the first three are still not allowed to play. I managed to get to games in four of the five, missing out on a qualifier in Malta. But there are another few countries I have not got to. Kazakhstan – not really in Europe as it is 9 hours away, Belarus – one of the most backward countries in Europe and Ukraine are in the list but as England are heading to these new countries in the next 18 months then they will be ticked off the list. But one country that is absent is Romania.
I did once have the chance to head off to Bucharest to watch West Ham. In 2001 in our first European Campaign for twenty years the Hammers applied to enter the much derided Intertoto Cup. The club were the first English team to take the tournament seriously as in previous years Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday used it as a chance to stock up on duty free, and Tottenham took it so seriously that they fielded their youth team and played their home games in Brighton. How we all understood when they shipped 8 goals at home to a nondescript eastern European team. West Ham became the first British team to win the trophy (at the time three clubs won the trophy and in this season West Ham joined Stuttgart and Juventus as winners) and as a reward earned a place in the UEFA Cup. After a first round win to Osijek in Croatia they were drawn against Steaua Bucharest. With the away leg first the club organised a trip for supporters to Bucharest. Unfortunately in a sign of things to come the club deemed that a £400 day trip was a good value option. These were the days before Romania had joined the EU and so no budget airlines flew to this region, and BA only flew a couple of times a week. So I had a choice – £400 on a game in eastern Europe or £400 on the family….hmmm it was tempting but CMF saw through my plans and threatened to restrict access to a certain draw in the bedroom and so potentially my only chance to see West Ham play in the UEFA Cup passed me by (6 years later when we drew Palermo away I had signed up for the trip within 2 minutes of the details posted on the internet).
Anyway I digress as usual. Romania – never been there, never seen them play. By all accounts Bucharest is one of the least appealing capital cities in Europe. It is dull, so says a number of my Groundtastic chums. There is simply nothing to do. Shops have empty shelves, people just mill around and the concept of entertainment to locals appears to be just staring at dinners in restaurants. Romanian football has hardly set the world alight since the days of Georgi Hagi, Ille Dumitrescu and Floran Radiciou who led the team to prominence in the 1990’s. But beggars can’t be choosers and so the opportunity to get another game under the belt in the Euro’s was too good to miss.
After round one of the pool games, Romania had pulled off one of the surprise shocks of the tournament to date with a dull 0-0 draw with France. Italy on the other hand had come into the tournament as World Champions, and with an impressive qualifying record. Although they had been drawn in the group of death with Romania, Netherlands and France they still expected to finish in the top two. However, they did not expect to be on the end of one of the best Dutch performances in living memory. With a combination of attacking flair, ruthless midfield efficiency and some excellent goalkeeping the Italians were blown away. The only consolation was that due to France’s 0-0 draw with Romania, a win and a draw from their final two games would take them through.
Despite being only a hundred miles or so from the Italian border, few fans had made the trip to Zürich to watch their team. As Romania are one of the poorest teams playing in the tournament, and the concept of following their team away has not yet reached Bucharest this was one game were atmosphere was going to be muted. Zürich is a strange city. It is possibly the most Swiss city, which sounds weird but any visitors to Geneva would testify that it cannot make its mind up whether it is French or not, Basel thinks it is German but Zürich is in the middle. It is also one of the most business orientated cities in Europe, meaning that accommodation is at a premium at the best of times. Add in a major sporting event and even Expedia had run out of rooms (bar a suite at the Four Seasons at £1,340 for one night). The stadium is the newest in Switzerland, located a couple of miles south west of the city centre. The city is home to two clubs, separated by the railway line running south towards Luzern. On the west of the tracks you will find Grasshoppers, one of the most famous Swiss clubs from the 1980’s. They are currently rebuilding their Hardturn stadium as a 25,000 football only arena. Their local rivals are FC Zürich, who have been one of the most successful teams in Switzerland in the past decade. Their Letzigrund stadium has been rebuilt for the championships, although it still has an athletics track which basically means that views from many seats are crap. Why, oh why clubs still build stadiums like this. I have said before, and I will say it again. The presence of such a huge gap between the pitch and the stands leads to a crap game. I do not know why but I cannot think of a decent game played in a stadium like this.
With businessmen doing deals worth millions of Swiss Francs around the city centre, there was little room for the fans. A Fanzone had been opened close to the lake, as far away from the business centre as possible but at 5pm there was few fans in the park. One reason is that the price of food and drink inside the stadium was far more expensive than the bars outside – and considering how expensive the city is that took some beating. Fanzones work well when the atmosphere is built up slowly. UEFA never learn from their mistakes and are only interested in their pockets.
At the stadium the touts were out in force, which was a surprise. In my experience, Touts come in two catagories. Firstly, there is your lovable English tout, normally a Scouser who walks quickly up and down the road outside the stadium saying “buyandsell,buyandsellanytickets”. Will normally pay you in fake £20’s for your tickets, or get his mates to rob you 100 yards down the road if you are a buyer. Secondly, there is the foreign touts who always seem like extras from the French Connection, and with their limited use of English simply want to rob you blind. In the tournament so far there had been very little of the former and loads of the latter. An hour before kick off when I arrived at the stadium they were doing a roaring trade in a game which on paper appeared to have little interest. One even offered to buy my press accreditation off me, despite the fact that my fat white face on the front somehow did not look like him.
Media centres so far in the tournament have been a mixed bag. A big wedding marquee in Salzburg, a series of temporary buildings in Geneva, but Zurich won the award for the best yet. The stadium was built not only to host football but also top class athletics. Underneath the main stand was a huge warm up room that had been converted to the press centre to cope with over 500 journalists, and next door was the warm up track – a 60 metres blue synthetic surface that had been converted to be the mixed zone for post match interviews. Access to the stands was up a Batman-like staircase that deposited me at the top of the main stand, and a great view of the city. So in terms of press areas Zurich gets a 9/10 but disappointing to report that Sweet and Soar Chicken with boiled potatoes was not the kind of Swiss cuisine I had expected and so they lose marks here – 4/10.
Anyway, enough pre-amble and onto the main event. The stadium was absolutely packed, although it did look as if Romania had more fans, even without the noise they generated. The Italian fans, not exactly known for following their team with passion made do with a few “Forza Italia”‘s but nothing to suggest that they really believed in their team.
Romania started the brighter team,and had obviously spotted a weakness with Buffon as they peppered his goal with shots in the first half. One free kick in particular from Chivu took a wicked deflection and nearly found the net. However, Italy soon came back into the game,and with Romania losing Radoi to a nasty facial injury sustained in a clash with his own player, they were forced on the back foot for a period. Luca Toni went close twice and would have had a hatrick if it wasn’t for the inspired goalkeeping of Lobont, and a linesman’s flag ruling out a header. The first half ended to a high for the Romanians as again Buffon had to pull off a top drawer save from a long range effort.
The game came to life in the 55th Minute. Donadoni, obviously unhappy with a number of players sent his team out 5 minutes early and brought on Antonio Cassano from the start of the half. However, it was the Romanians who stunned the whole of Italy, and a fair percentage of the rest of world football when a poor defensive back header let in Adrian Mutu to put them one up. Only 38 minutes to hold out and Italy would be going home…Could it be? Could it be? Of course not. Just three minutes later from another dangerous Del Piero corner, evergreen Christian Panucci tapped home from close range after fellow defender Chiellini had risen above the Romanian defence.
Romania were not to be put off their quest for a victory though, and they poured forward in numbers, showing no respect to the World Champions. With fifteen minutes left to play Daniel Niculae was bundled over in the penalty area by Panucci and inexplicably the referee pointed to the spot. Adrian Mutu snatched the ball before anyone else could get close and hit his spot kick true, but Buffon is not one of the world’s best keepers on past performances alone and he saved the spot kick, and undeniably kept his country in the tournament – just!
So in the end honours were even. The Italians headed back to the city centre for some coffee, ice cream and praying for a Netherlands win. The Romanians headed for Club Paraguay and the Erotik Shop just up the road from the stadium which advertises “the only glory hole in Zürich”…Lets just hope they an shoot better through a small goal that Mutu can!
The second part of the plan was now on. 17 minutes to get to the main station for the 8pm to Bern. I made the train with seconds to spare and passed through some of the most uninspiring scenery – who said Switzerland was all cows, fields and cuckoo clocks. All I saw on the journey was graffiti and motorways. However, it did get me into the Swiss capital (not many people know that) ten minutes after the Netherlands game had started. My plan was to head to the stadium and initially see if there were any no shows for the media seats (based on my experience so far there are dozens, bu that doesn’t mean they will give them out). If not then the plan was to wait until the security people weren’t looking and sneak into the media seats. Once there do not move. An ambitious plan based on the very tight security in Zürich (although the lax arrangements in Salzburg had originally given me the idea.
With earlier results in the tournament having gone 100% their way, the Netherlands came into this game knowing that a win would guarantee them top spot in the group and a place in the last 8. They also knew that a draw would almost certainly take them through barring a freakish set of results in the Italy v France game. However, they were a team on a mission, and like Portugal seemed hell bent on winning the tournament in style for their departing manager as the legend that is Marco Van Basten was off to try and resurrect Ajax on the 1st July.
France, on the other hand had been slated back home. They either purr with brilliance, or run round and round in circles like a blind chicken with no head. There was so much pre-tournament hype about Ribery and Benzema but they had been rubbish in the first game and so now was the time to step up to the plate.
The game was being played in Bern, one of my favourite European cities. It can hardly be called a city as it is so small, but it is the administrative capital of the country and a more historic place in the Alps you could hardly find. Cobbled streets, old buildings and history at every corner. I was last here a year ago on a Sunday. Sunday’s in Switzerland are not particular exciting – nothing is open but I had a few hours to kill before a visit to the stadium so I had a wander. You can read the strange sights in an earlier blog entry (May 3007) but it is not often you see a couple of Brown Bears and a Porn film being shot in a Swiss city on a Sunday I can tell you. The rebuilt stadium just to the north of the city is a fine settings for football. Very similar in design to the stadiums in Salzburg and Klagenfurt. Unfortunately it did not retain its original name – the Wankdorf which would have been very amusing to see how the commentators handled that little one.
Netherlands v France – Stade de Suisse – Berne – 20:45
I made it to the stadium by taxi with Holland 1-0 up thanks to the Premier Leagues Porn star name Dirk Kuyt. The next job was to convince the Media Manager that I could get a seat. No can do, but a kindly Brit who was the UEFA Technical Services Officer (Stand up please Jerome) sorted me a standing place. Yes, it is good to see that in our day and age of all seater stadiums that you could still “stand at the back, just don’t get in the photographers way”. Trying to find a decent vantage point was hard though, and it wasn’t until the half time whistle blew that I ventured down to pitch side to get my customary tournament photo with me in just to prove I was there.
Van Basten was obviously trying to kill off France early in the second half and brought on Van Persie and Arjen Robben to attack the ropey French full backs. Henry had a great shout for a penalty turned down after a Dutch hand seemed to block his goalbound shot, but not for the first time in the game fate provided a fickle friend as with now customary pace and incisivness the Dutch broke down the other end, Robben drilled the ball across and Van Persie slotted home (well, the keeper got a hand and it trickled over the line, but it would have been slotted home if he wasn’t there!). Two nil down with their tournament disappearing down the Mont Blanc tunnel Domenech threw his final card and brought on Le Grand Sulk (Anelka). Within 5 minutes Henry had pulled a goal back with a neat back heel, but Robben restored the lead within a minute thanks to another goal on the break that he slammed into the roof of the net from an impossible angle. With a minute left in time added on, another one of the stars of the tournament so far Wesley Sneijder lobbed the French goalkeeper from the edge of the box to make it 4-1. Undoubtabley the Dutch had become not only the tournament favourites, but the neutrals team as well. With the three Real Madrid stars Robben, Sneijder and Van Nistelrooy dominating the second half you have to question why Real Madrid actually need Cristiano Ronaldo.
So Netherlands become the third team to secure a group win in a group that was supposed to be lead by the French and the Italians. Instead they could actually lose to Romania next week and put both France and Italy out in one fell swoop (thank you Colin for that Shakesperean quote).
Trip from hell mark 2 had produced 9 goals and possibly the best two games in one day so far. All that remained was a 3 hour train trip to Geneva Airport, 2 hours kip on the floor before the 6.40am flight back to CMF and the littlest Fuller (Midi Fuller was at Brownie camp – her first night away ever from us – aww bless).