Two years ago I traveled to the end of the earth, or so it seemed to follow the UEFA Under21’s tournament in Holland. England didn’t exactly deliver on the exciting football promise and staggered through the groups to make it to the semi-finals before they were defeated in a marathon penalty shoot out to the eventual winners Holland.
England had impressed much more in the build up to this tournament, qualifying with ease, although they had to overcome a playoff with Wales. The tournament itself promised much more as well as the host, Sweden, had gone to the trouble of building two new stadiums in Goteborg and Malmo. The latter would be hosting the final, and I had already done my homework with a visit a few weeks previously (see Ny Grund post). My plan would of course as you would expect, take in as many games as I could in the shortest possible time. In theory you could see most of four games in the opening two days, but I didn’t want to be greedy so I planned just three!
I was flying into little ol’ Goteborg City airport, essentially a field with a small landing strip that a Ryanair flight found one day and converted into an airport. It was convenient though and I would be in the city centre and off to the New Gamla Ullevi stadium to pick up my accreditation. The first game of the tournament was surprisingly not being played in one of the newer grounds, or featuring the host nation but instead was England v Finland in the small coastal town of Halmstad, an hour south of Goteborg. It would be a new venue for me, having never ventured south of Sweden’s 2nd city before and I was due to meet up with Dan for a beer before the game. Right on full time I was heading back up to Goteborg to catch the 2nd half of Spain v Germany at the Ullevi before getting a 3am coach down to Copenhagen for a full day’s graft. Why 3am? Well I could get the train at 7am which would get me into the office at 10am but the £70 single fare wasn’t exactly winning any hearts in the wallet department so I figured a £12 bus would allow me 4 hours to sleep and I could but the difference I saved to a beer – only one mind you as that is how expensive beer is out here. After a full day’s graft (which is normally until 3pm in the summer for the Danes) I would be heading back over the Oresund into Sweden for the host nations opening game in Malmo versus the surprise qualifiers, Belarus before flying back from Denmark at 10pm….Easy eh!
Of course I had to negotiate the hell that is Stansted Airport at 6am on a Monday morning. It is never a good time to fly from this outpost but on a Monday you have people flying home after a weekend of wearing fake policeman’s helmets, having their pictures taken at Madame Tussards and thinking that the height of the English culinary experience is the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse in Leicester Square. Add to that a few “exchange” trips going here and there – that one phrase sends shivers up my spine – the thought of a complete stranger who cannot speak any English, who simply wants to hump your cat/wife/car and then steals your CD’s fills me with dread, and you get the picture that it is England’s closest example of hell on earth. Still at least I had a nice relaxing Ryanair flight to look forward to.
I have to say I was impressed. Normally Ryanair’s flights are staffed by the most miserable flight crews you will find, primarily because they are Polish/Latvian/Ukranian and actually do not understand any English. Today’s quartet surpassed anything I had seen before. Not even a smile on entering the plane. Not even a please or thank you when doing the safety briefing – (“You will not smoke”, “You will not use the toilet”, “If you have been using battery operated equipment switch it off now!” were some examples). Instead of asking if anyone wanted a magazine they simply threw them at you. Not that anyone was arguing – the three girls (Clarrisa, Alexandria and Rula if you want to know) were built for comfort and not for joy – perhaps they had been warned the flight was going to be full of English football hooligans and staffed the crew with the front row of Ryanair’s womens rugby XV. I am sure a few years ago they published a calendar featuring some of their more picturesque crew – where are they kept because I have never seen them!
However, we did land on ten minutes early although someone forgot to tell the captain that when the plane hits (note hits not touches down) the runway you are supposed to put the brakes on. Queue the ridiculous jingle about “another” on time landing, which actually isn’t true. I have taken this route four times and on each occasion the flight time has been the same (I am sad I make a note) – 1 hour 25 minutes, yet the scheduled time is 1 hour 55 minutes. Easyjet are no better, scheduling the Stansted Copenhagen route as 2 hours when even in a near hurricane headwind and de-icing in Denmark it is a 1 hour 50 minute trip max. The great bit of confusion the Swedes had added to the mix was that the only bus to the city centre did not take cash anymore. So you had to go into the she, sorry terminal building and buy a 60SEK (£5) ticket there. For some reasons a couple of posh middle aged English people who had fussed throughout the whole flight thought this was “rather unfair” as they had been queueing for twenty minutes, and demanded the driver reserved them a seat whilst hubby went off to get the tickets. Now my Swedish hasn’t yet extended to swear words but I am sure I learnt one with his reply!
So after a little wander around various football sites of Goteborg and a sneak look in the New Ullevi during daylight I nabbed my pass and headed an hour south to Halmstad. Now I wouldn’t say it was a sleepy little Swedish town, but I am a liar – it is and as Dan said, anywhere and everywhere is 8 minutes away. It is certainly picturesque and the walk up the canal to the stadium was very pleasant indeed, especially as the locals had deemed it a “wear as little as we wanted” day. The stadiums media facilities was essentially an extended shed with a bar at the home. No problems there as it had power, wireless network, food and of course local maidens on hand to help a lost visitor.
I met up with Dan in the fanspark in the town square – essentially a big bit of artificial grass with a goal in it so all the locals could take pot shots at the mad Englishmen brave enough to go in goal. I did bump into Niclas Alexandersson – the most famous local from these parts who actually played 8 games for the Hammers in the dark days of 2004 when every home game saw another loanee at the club.
Many people were surprised when Halmstad’s 15,500 capacity stadium was chosen as one of the four venues as there are much better venues not only on the west coast but also close to Goteborg such as Elfsborg’s Boras Arena. The original plan was to include the Boras Arena but because they had a “Max” burger restaurant as part of the ground (and one of the sponsors of the club) which they refused to close for the tournament, McDonalds (one of the main UEFA partners) “allegedly threw their apple pies out of the pram and the games were moved a few miles down the road to Halmstad. But the intimate venue has some real history. Int he 1958 World Cup the ground hosted games between Northern Ireland, Argentina and Czechoslovakia.
The Fins had certainly traveled in numbers and for once the English were outnumbered by a fair distance and really made themselves at home in the very quaint and picturesque little stadium. A beautiful setting on a long summer night but I bet it is horrible on a dark autumn one! And they had brought a few of the better looking fans with them as well, which had certainly endeared them to the English.
After some pitch side meet and greets with Stuart Pearce and Sir Trev it was time to sit back and watch the young Three Lions set a marker for the rest to follow.
England 2 Finland 1 – Örjans Vall, Halmstad – Monday 15th June
Pearce had put a very strong England team out, featuring five players in Hart, Mancienne, Agbonlahor, Walcott and Richards who had games under their belt for the senior team plus the likes of James Milner and Mark Noble (and even, dare I say it, another Arsenal player who is actually English in Kieran Gibbs) against the team who were the weakest in the group.
Having seen the poor crowds at the majority of the tournament two years ago I was very surprised (and pleased) to see so many in the stadium – although the vast majority were either Finns or locals supporting the Finns giving us Englanders a complex. It probably helped that a sensible ticket pricing scheme was in place with the cheapest category of seats being just 60SEK or £7, although or dear (quite appropriately) FA sold the “official” allocation at £25.
Finland certainly had the better of the opening exchanges, taking every opportunity to throw the ball into the penalty area to choruses of “boring, boring” from their supporters (Apparently it was “Suomi, Suomi” but it sounded like boring, boring). But on 14 minutes the English took the lead as Lee Cattermole slotted home from close range after a good run into the box by Gabby, Gabby, Gabby Agbonlahor.
The football rattle? What happened to them? Well in a world of happy clappers and blow up “rumble” sticks that we have seen recently at Wembley and Lords alike it was good to see that some of the Finns had got minature white and blue flags made out of plastic that doubled up as rattles – a great touch and one I am sure that Mr Last would approve of (see his post on cricket lowlights here for more details).
Back to the game, which is a shame as it was spoiling a lovely sunny evening. Thirty minutes gone and a long punt upfield caused Mancienne to dither and Berat Dadik nipped in and as he pulled back the trigger, Mancienne tripped him – Penalty and Red Card – no question…Up stepped captain Tim Sparv and it was 1-1. The Finns went wild, none more so than the goalscorer who disappeared into the fans behind the goal and it took four stewards to get him back!
The roll call of players sitting around us was quite impressive. Newcastle’s (or is he?) Stephen Taylor, ex-Liverpool defender(s) Marcus Babbel and more recently Sami Hyppia were all happy to be snapped away with the fans, less so Germany’s ex-World Cup referee Markus Merk who hid behind his programme when approached.
Pearce withdrew Walcott at half time, obviously having received a call from either Arsene Wenger or Mrs Walcott that his tea was ready, and Fraizer Campbell took his place. Seven minutes into the second half and England restored their lead thanks to a powerful header from Micah Richards from a set piece which woke up the English fans who were enjoying the sunshine a little too much – indeed it even roused the England fans behind the goal into a chorus of “You’re not singing anymore” – the first time we had been heard all evening.
With five minutes to go I packed up and yomped across this pretty little town and just made the 8.05pm train to Goteborg where I hoped that a kindly blonde beauty would take pity on me and break the traditional UEFA role of one day one match – i.e you cannot see two games in one day, even though it is possible. The train pulled in on time and five minutes later I was disappointed. Yes, there was no blonde beauty but a lovely UEFA lady waved her magic marker pen and I was in, ten minutes before half time.
Spain 0 Germany 0 – The New Gamla Ullevi, Goteborg – Monday 15th June
It is now not uncommon to see two teams sharing a stadium in Europe,especially one built thanks to central funding, but Goteborg’s Ullevia must be the only one in one of the major European leagues that has three tenants. IFK, GAIS and Örgryte IS all share the stadium for their Allsvenskan games – in fact there was original talks of BK Häcken moving in as well but that would have just been plain silly. The construction was not without controversy as supporters from all corners voiced displeasure at a number of aspects of the design. It opened to an almost full house on the 5th April 2009 when GAIS and Örgryte played in front of over 17,000 fans.
But that was then, and this is now. The first half wasn’t the most open of games with few chances for either side (thanks BBC.co.uk for that one line summary of the game so far) but my interest was split with events in SE1 where England were playing West Indies in a winner takes all Twenty20 game. The torrential rain had reduced the game to a slog fest that made for interesting t’internet viewing with a place in the Semi-Final at stake.
But back to the football. What a strange stadium it was. Probably around 7/8th full but completely devoid of any atmosphere, just a general chatter amongst the fans. You can see why the normally passionate Swedish football fans were disappointed with the finished article. The lower tier had strange patio doors around half of it that gave it the look of a 21st century Kenilworth Road. Small and compact yes but really unimaginative.
First chance of the half fell to Germany’s tattooed centre forward Ashkan Dejagah who had been part of the title winning VfL Wolfsburg team this season. A great pull back from Castro found the forward on the penalty spot and after he turned his man he fired the ball into the upper tier (which is not hard with only eight rows in the lower tier).
Spain’s captain, Raul Garcia had come into the tournament with a big reputation, after a good season in the Atletico Madrid team and scoring the goal that got the Spaniards to the tournament last year but he was really annoying the ref with his whining and a few stern words were required on a number of occasions, although on each time he did look like he was going to cry! He also managed a great run of 50 yards, although it was to protest in the referees face after a foul by Germany’s Beck had left one of their players prostrate (favourite players – “Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack” I bet it reads in the programme, but I can’t read German so you will just have to take my word that it is so!). Unsurprisingly he got his deserved yellow card in the 90th minute.
It certainly wasn’t a shabby game with both teams playing in a way their seniors would be proud of. Spain’s technical pass and move was a joy to watch but every attack was snuffed out by the quick and powerful German centre backs Howedes and Aogo. Ozil someone managed to miss a great effort on the hour mark, taking the ball around the keeper but delaying long enough for him to get back and turn the ball over.
With the temperature falling despite the late evening sunshine and news filtering through that England had lost to the Windies in the last over at the Oval I needed some cheering up. CMF was on “putting children to bed duty” so I couldn’t drive down that avenue so I started eye wandering (you know when you look around somewhere looking for something interesting?). The first thing that struck me was the managers. Germany’s Horst Hrubesch had won the European Championships in 1980 with two goals in the final. As a ten year old I remember “Rubbish” as Motty called him with his mullet hairstyle and bad dress sense. Well here he was tonight. Older, fatter but still with a crap haircut and a cheap looking suit. If you met him in a room of a thousand strangers, without even speaking to him you would know he was German. Balance this with Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, Spain’s coach. Tanned, smartly dressed and standing impassively in his technical area, hiding a tough interior from his time as Real Madrid’s reserve coach (and 1st team one as a caretaker in 2004/05 season). Two contrasting styles but very much conforming to a stereotype. Come to think of it, Stuart Pearce had a tracksuit on and the Finnish coach was blonde so we have a quartet of predictability tonight.
Mesut Ozil really should have wrapped it up for the Germans in the 80th minute when he beat the offside trap but shot weakly at the Spanish goalkeeper. Both teams had chances to win it in injury time but couldn’t find a way through. Horst thought that the Germans were the better team, and that they feared no one and he forgot to buy any meatballs from Ikea for his wife *well I am sure that is what I translated it from German). So England really became the only winners, knowing that a victory over either of these teams would take them through to the semi-finals. I was off to be bed for a ludicrous 2 hours power nap before I got the overnight coach down to Copenhagen and a day for mirth and mayhem in the office there before heading off to the Swedes opening game in Malmo.
Sweden 5 Belarus 1 – The Swedbank Stadion, Malmo – Tuesday 16th June
Well I survived the 2am start and the 4 1/2 hours coach trip which arrived into Copenhagen city centre a scandalous 1 minute late after the 250 mile journey. I was scrubbed up and at my desk by 8am (although the rest of the office still hadn’t made it out of bed yet), although our regular EDF induced power cut in London meant I couldn’t actually access any of my systems – a short nap was a consideration but with two cups of Black Citron Tea inside me I was ready for the day. And apart from a low period after lunch where sleep seemed an inevitable next step I survived, hopped on a train and was in Malmo less than an hour later.
It was good to see that the builders had been on overtime since I was here last month (see post here) and that the outside of the stadium had been finished. I was looking forward to being in the stadium for this one to see how many locals would turn out bedecked in yellow and blue. Rumours in the office were that it was a sell out, and thus the biggest ever Under21 game played in Sweden ever. The team were coached by Tommy Soderberg who had been co-coach to the national team that had qualified for Euro2000, Euro 2004 and the 2002 World Cup. Belarus on the other hand were an unknown force. They finished 2nd in Serbia’s group and had the most fantastically named Igor Shitov starting the game at full back.
Ten minutes before kick off and a group of children ran onto the pitch with the flags of the various countries playing in the tournament. Ah the opening ceremony. Now some traditionalists will have you believe that the opening ceremony should precede the opening game. Not so in ultra modern, hip, cool and trendy Sweden who planned the event to maximise the capacity local crowd. Except the locals forgot to turn up, and when the crescendo of music reached its climax nothing happened. Judging by the frantic talking into walkie-talkie’s I imagine the players should have emerged at this point. However, tonight the DJ saved their lives by playing the Euro-pop song again, even louder to remind the players that they were supposed to come out 2 minutes before.
The children could have stayed on the pitch with their flags and not got in the way based on the opening twenty minutes. Again at this level the teams were disappointing. UEFA had marketed this (quite cleverly in my opinion) as a tournament to watch the “stars of today before they become the superstars of tomorrow”, but they seemed happy to be forgotten in a season players. The ball was hit long on most occasions, and only some over zealous Swedish tackling livened up the opening quarter.
The first real chance came in the 29th minute when a smart Swedish move on the edge of the box saw the goal open up for Emir Bajrami who slid his shot just wide of the post. However against the run of play it was the Belarussians who took the lead with a fantastic strike from Sergei Kislyak from around 30 yards, powering the ball into the roof of the net after being teed up by Afanasiev. The lead lasted 6 minutes before Rasmus Elm’s hopeful shot took a deflection off Martynovich’s head and left the Belarussian goalkeeper clutching at air.
Two minutes later they scored again as Marcus Berg kept his feet in the penalty area, got a lucky rebound and pushed the ball into the net to send the slowly filling up stadium into a collective yellow and blue party zone. Berg certainly looked lively and had carried his form for FC Groningen into this game where he had scored 30 goals in just fifty appearances which had earnt him a number of call ups to the senior squad. Five minutes later and he had a second, slotting home with ease after some excellent hold up play on the edge of the area to put the game out of the Belarussians reach. Half time and the Swedes were well in control.
The second half started in the same vein with Sweden pressing the Belarussians back but they managed to hold out until the 81st minute when a ball over the top saw Berg squeeze a leg between the onrushing goalkeeper and the defender to lift the ball over their heads and to complete his hatrick with the simplest of finishes. If truth be told he should have had a 4th a few minutes later when his header was well saved from close range. But Sweden were not finished and with the game entering the 90th minute Svensson scored a cracking goal with a drive into the top corner from 25 yards. Sweden had been mightily impressive although it was hard to see how good the Belarussians really were on this form.
So my final job of the trip was to make it back to Copenhagen airport in time for my Easyjet flight. Phase one was getting a cab to the station – check. Phase two was getting the train – early one running late so a big check there. With an hour to go I was walking towards an empty security zone which is almost unheard of here. I passed over my printed at the office boarding card but it wouldn’t scan. “Try the machines downstairs” the security guard told me. Only the machines cannot accept Easyjet bookings, so I had to queue up at their sales desk. Fifteen minutes later when I am eventually served I am told I need to go to the check in desks and have a new boarding card printed. So off I go again(Copenhagen airport is not “compact” by the way). Nice smiley lady at check in sympathises and writes me a new card and I am off, through security, grabbed some food and make it to the gate just as the inbound flight lands 30 minutes early.
So I could make it home for play time – or so I thought. We boarded early and I took my seat at the rear of the plane. I have got to know a few of the Easyjet staff over the past year of doing this route regularly and had a chat about the storm from the previous evening. For some reason there was an issue with headcount. We appeared to have too many passengers on board and had lost a baby! So a manual count was done, which was inconclusive. The main stewardess asked the ground crew for a passenger manifest and they said that a computer malfunction had wiped the list – very handy….So calls were made to the world and their dog and eventually they got a list. The baby issue turned out to be an infant who had turned 2 years old since getting the outbound flight and was thus officially classed now as an Adult but not in the eyes of the manifest. But there were still two too many passengers on the flight. We were now 40 minutes late leaving and people were understandably getting frustrated. Eventually they found out why…
“Would a Mr Stuart Fuller please make himself known to the cabin crew”. Well I was sitting there talking to them – couldn’t really make myself anymore familiar without being in breach of a number of airline regulations. It appears that I had been checked in not just once, but three times! Once at the office and twice by the check in staff at Copenhagen airport, so I was on the manifest three times. A simple search would have thrown up this error straight away. The captain came down to verify that I was just one person, leading to many passengers speculating that I was a “wrong ‘un” but it was soon put right by a cabin announcement by the captain who told a few home truths about the ground crew.
So there we are. I crawled into bed at 12.30am and immediately started dreaming of Helsinki in August….could it be, could it be!