It never rains but it pours, and pours, and pours

Eighteen months ago I completed one of my worst ever european football awaydays as I returned from Seville via Madrid where England had been beaten by a Spanish team who were well on their way to becoming the best international team in the world. It wasn’t a nightmare for any travel problems – on the contrary the flights to and from Madrid were on time, the AVE train to Seville was luxurious and the hotel around the corner from the Ramon Sanchez Pijun was well appointed. Nor did I have any problems with my travelling companion, Dagenham Dan. It was unfortunately the fact I developed an infection in my jaw that caused my face to swell up like a melon. On my return to TBIR towers CMF made me vow that would be the end of my England away days. I agreed, well temporarily, until the draw for Euro2012 qualifying was made and England were paired with Bulgaria, Switzerland, Wales and Montenegro in a group which seemed too easy even for the poor English team that played out the World Cup in South Africa. Montenegro immediately flashed up as a place to visit, and with some local contacts through work keen to help with arrangements that one was in the bank. A two hundred mile trip round the M25 and down the M4 was hardly a difficult one to arrange for Cardiff so that left Bulgaria and Switzerland.

First up was the Swiss. As soon as a date was announced the demand for flights shot up, but where would the game be played. Switzerland essentially has four top stadiums, three of which sitting in a triangle of no more than an hour or so travel by train. It was always likely that Basel would be the venue of choice, simply because it was the biggest of the four stadiums, especially as the second choice option in Berne, the Stade de Suisse was now resplendent with an artificial pitch. With only a few flights each day to Basel Mulhouse and Berne, the best option was always Zurich, and flights were surprisingly cheap for once. One soon became four as Dagenham Dan, Brian and Rich also chose this as the best option and off we planned to jolly well hoped on a very early Tuesday morning.

After the disaster in South Africa and the commotion around what went wrong, Capello offered nothing really in terms of excuses nor changes as the team stuttered to beat Hungary in the opening friendly of the season, and then an easy 4-0 win against a poor Bulgarian team in the first qualifying game of the campaign. Early season injuries had forced Capello to recall the likes of Matthew Upson and Phil Jagielka whilst Robert Green was still seen as enemy number 1 for his one mistake during the team replaced by Scott Carson whose mistake against Croatia in 2007 had ultimately cost us more when we failed to qualify for Euro2008.

In the game on Friday at Wembley there appeared to be a new era taking shape.  Joe Hart looked dominant in goal (although some of the radio commentators suggesting he was “nailed on” to get a 100 caps is a tad premature I think), Barry and Gerard looked as if they had played in midfield together for years, and Defoe took his chances well.  Even Rooney seemed to have regained some of his sparkle that was so missing in the World Cup.  I wonder what was on his mind that caused such poor performances.

The Rooney answer came on the day the England team flew out to Switzerland as the News of the World revealed his “£1,200 a night hooker romp” whilst Colleen was pregnant.  Not that this was the biggest shock.  To me it was the fact that he paid someone £200 to get a packet of fags whilst staying at the Lowry Hotel – what was he thinking about?  Surely he should have take precautions and bought them on his way in?  With at least two other football “gagging” orders still in place on players in and around the squad, all was not happy.  But surely it wouldn’t distract the team from the task at hand, would it?

Basel is a strange city. It sits on the Rhine, literally in a nook of Switzerland and close enough to the border with France and Germany to allow you to have a beer in three different countries on an extended pub crawl. Consequently it doesn’t really know whose side it should be on. Go to Geneva and you get the feeling from the style of the city that you are in France. Head into Zurich city centre and you could be sitting on Lake Constance in Germany. Basel is neither. Dominated by the Munster, the cathedral sitting high above the Rhine it has a few museums, a road of bars and an efficient tram system.  But it is hard to love.

Take a look around the St Jakobs Stadium, Switzerland’s biggest stadium and you will be hard pushed not to keep mentioning the word Barcelona.  The club play in the same Blue and Red shirts, the shortened name?  FCB of course.  Well here is a little secret for you.  Back in November 1893, a Swiss chap by the name of Hans-Max Gamper put an advert in a local paper asking for players to form a team.  His name ring a bell in any way?  Well, four years later he headed off to Catalonia and decided to adopt a more Catalan name…Joan Gamper.  Again he put an ad in the local press about forming a new football club and so was born FC Barcelona.  His legacy – the name of Europe’s largest stadium – the Camp Nou.

Full steam ahead then – two days off work – marvellous.  Or so I thought.  After a very late night sorting out issues in my proper job (yep I still have to earn some pocket money from somewhere) it became obvious that I was not going to be able to make the trip.  Gutted is not a word I use often, but I really was.  However, all is not lost dear blog fans as Brian takes up the tale.

Our  flight was from London City Airport to Zurich, where the plan was to catch a train to Basle. With this being the first flight out in the morning, and the city of London only a mile or two up the road, we walked through to the departure gate to be greeted the sight of a lounge full of suited business people, probably heading to Switzerland for meetings. As we had all turned up in t-shirts and jeans, lugging rucksacks with us, I for one certainly felt very underdressed, and made a mental note to travel in a suit next time.

However, we were all cheered up as we boarded the plane, as the p.a. system was playing a disco classic from Earth Wind and Fire. If the £5 it had cost for a sausage sandwich in the terminal hadn’t woken us up, this certainly did. All through the flight out, that was the only tune I could think to hum. Even now typing this out, it’s still going round in my head.

A memorable disco track aside, the flight out wasn’t that eventful to be honest, although it did seem to go on for longer than the 90 minutes or so we had reckoned on. Arrival into Zurich was easy enough, and we made our way to get the train tickets for the second leg of the journey to Basle.

Arrival into Basle was around mid-day, and the first of many showers we were to get over the next two days. We headed straight to the Basel Hilton to register with the FA – an archaic process so that they can monitor who is actually in the country and who has just been fibbing to get their elusive “caps”, and after handing Stuart’s ticket back to them, we then made our way (in the rain still) to the hotel.

The hotel was about a twenty minute walk from the station, and we faithfully followed the route shown on the map. However, and this is always something you discover later, we could have made a couple of short cuts that would have removed a few minutes from our walk. At least we know for next time I suppose (Like you will go back to Basel any time soon Brian -ED!). The hotel itself was full for the evening of the game, but we had rooms each, which was great. The beds weren’t particularly wide though, as one woman complained while we were waiting to check in. For one night, it was fine, especially as it came with the facility to make tea and coffee, although you needed to bring in your own milk and tea or coffee to take advantage of this.

Having left our bags, we headed up to the stadium. This was another fifteen minutes away, but at least it had stopped raining by this time. As we strolled around, we found the club shop which also doubled up as a museum. Dan wanted to purchase a pennant, but decided to give it a miss when he saw the price tag of CHF32, which worked out as around £20.

This followed a theme that was to run throughout our trip; the cost of everything. Some things were expensive, like paying CHF12 (£7.50) for a Big-Mac meal at one of the branches of the golden arches, and I didn’t even get my special glass either. But then, at the supermarket, a 1.5 litre bottle of evian was only CHF1 (50p). In fact, a small Snickers bar was cheaper than a small bottle of Coke. I know that you don’t read this to find out the price of stuff in Switzerland, but I thought it was important to show how much things cost. As mentioned by a local that we spoke to before the game, we are paying for quality. At McDonalds?

The afternoon passed; we all bumped into people we knew along the way, and after going back to the hotel to collect tickets and flags, we were on our way back out to the stadium again.

Switzerland 1 England 3 – St Jakobs Park – Tuesday 7th September 2010
The allocation for this game was in the region of around 6,000, but not all of those had been taken up, so there was a bit of room in the England section for a change. Based on the performance of the team in South Africa many EnglandFans had simply stopped following the team, fed up with the attitude, performances and cost of following the national team abroad.  The St.Jakob Stadium is home to FC Basel, who have taken on several English clubs in recent years, and was one of the host stadiums for Euro 2008; you know, the one we forgot to qualify for thanks to McClown

The stadium is built with a shopping centre attached (not that unusual, the Jose Alvalade in Lisbon has a bowling alley inside), but what must make it fairly unique is the old people’s home, the top floor of which overlooks the stadium. Having arrived at the ground a few hours before kick off, we spent some time in one of the bars around the ground, and ended up paying over the odds for a drink while watching a repeat of a Champions League game from last December. It was here that we got chatting to a couple of locals; their considered opinion was that if we scored first, then we would win the game. Dagenham Dan reckoned on a 1-1 draw, with the home side equalizing late on. I thought we could win, but it would depend on us getting the early goal, like against Bulgaria a few days previously.

The match programmes were proving to be popular, with all three of us making a trip outside (into the rain again) to collect a few. These were a freebie, so people were picking up armfuls of the things, which more than likely ended up on eBay. One person even managed to fill up a black bin liner with them, which must have weighed a fair bit in his bag. Just for good measure, and in case he hadn’t collected enough, he was back two minutes later after leaving, just to collect one more. You can never have too many free programmes, and here was living, breathing proof.

England away games have several unwritten rules; firstly you sit more or less where you like. Secondly, flags are a big part of it, and at no point must they overlap. You need to get in early to get the flag in the best position, so if you snooze, you lose is probably the best way to put it. Both Dan and Rich had taken their flags, and so, while I went to sit right at the back of the upper tier (and had a good view by the way), they went to the front of the lower tier to put the flags up. As the kick off approached more started to arrive with their personalised flags, but the space to put them up was running out; in the end, some were putting them up in the home section.

With the rain now starting to fall in a similar amount that made the game between Switzerland and Turkey at Euro 2008 more like a water polo game, the teams emerged to be greeted by (apparently) a full house, and a camera-man on a two wheeled scooter; you know the ones that are supposed to balance perfectly?

The game, as you no doubt saw, started well for us as Rooney scored after nine minutes, and from then on, we never looked in danger. We should have made the game safe in the first half, but somehow contrived to let them have a sporting chance in the second. Once the sending off happened, we scored a very good second through Adam Johnson, and although they got a fine goal back, Darren Bent finished them off with a few minutes to go, to give us another win, and six points from the opening two games.

With the main reason for the trip now done, we are then left to wander back to the hotel, and contemplate going home. All that separates us from Blighty is a train ride back to Zurich, and then the flight home. Of course, and trip to Zurich isn’t complete without a trip to FIFA headquarters, which is located outside the main city, and at the end of the number 6 tramline. On the snappily titled “FIFA Strasse” the building sits, complete with flags, pitches and a gym for the staff and any passing match officials. For the main building of a major worldwide sporting organisation, it’s a bit out of the way. I would have expected a huge building in the city centre, but apparently not. Having had more rain on the way out there, we headed inside the main foyer for a look at the trophies, and some pictures, before taking the tram back to the city and then the train back to the airport.

If there are any Swiss reading this, then I apologise right now, but from what I saw of both Basel and Zurich, I probably won’t be heading back in a hurry. Ok, the weather wasn’t the best, and we didn’t have a great amount of time to do any serious exploring, but from what I saw, there really isn’t too much to head back for. If we draw Switzerland again in the next competition, then I will go, and hopefully have my perceptions changed. But I’m not thinking about that for the moment. While England have Wales away in March, my next trip is to Bournemouth on Saturday. At least it might be drier..

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