A poor man’s Andy Carroll? I don’t think so

Just two weeks ago the lights dimmed and a lone voice welcomed over 45,000 people to the opening of Europe’s 2nd largest indoor arena (Schalke’s Veltins Arena is classed as the biggest). The 2.8 billion Swedish Kroner Friends Arena had finally arrived, years after talking, debating and finally construction in Solna, just north of the city centre in Stockholm. The opening event featured the best of Swedish music including appearances by Björn and Benny themselves (the BB in ABBA silly) as well as Roxette. Alas, other classic Swedish music acts such as Ace of Base, The Cardigans and Europe were missing from the line up.

But the Arena wasn’t just built just for Swedish House Mafia concerts. It will primarily be a football stadium, home of AIK and the national team. So it was only fitting that the opening game to be played here should be against a team who have a passionate away following, who could generate some real noise and atmosphere. Unfortunately, Denmark had a previous engagement with Turkey so England agreed to step in. The good news was that I was already due to be in the city for work purposes; the bad news was that it was likely the ban on the England band from Poland wouldn’t be in force for this game.

I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with football in Stockholm over the past few years, documenting my trips on the website Football in Sweden. I’ve been a frequent guest at the Råsunda, the home for at least another week of AIK, primarily to watch Kenny Pavey, the finest Englishman never to play for the national team (see interviews here and here with him). The face of football in the city was about to change dramatically. Not only were AIK about to get one of the most modern new stadiums in Europe, city rivals Djurgården and IF Hammarby were about to move into the new Tele2Arena in the south of the city. I have also spent enough nights in the city to know where to go to drink proper beer, rather than the watered down, Government friendly, bars that most of the England fans would camp out in during the run up to the game, spending a fortune on beer that has less alcoholic content that a can of Shandy Bass.

After the debacle of Poland many people will question why I was here at all. That trip turned out being very expensive with the replacement of my iPhone after its water damage. Whilst the FA promised a refund of our ticket money, a month down the line and I am still waiting. As with most organisations, they are very quick at taking money off you, but very slow at refunding it. I had my answer all prepared for this line of questioning, relying on three statements:-

1. It was a historic night for Swedish football. The opening of the biggest stadium in the Nordics, one of the most modern in the world and one where the roof actually worked and would definitely be closed.

2. I need to visit our sales office in Stockholm every few months and hadn’t been since May and they missed me.

3. I had a room booked at the Jumbo Inn.

Point three was probably as exciting as the visit to the new stadium. I love airplanes – you have to doing the job I do. On average I fly over 100 times per annum so being able to actually stay in a jumbo jet for the night was high on my list of to-do’s especially as the house maids were dressed as air stewardesses (I was hoping Virgin/Singapore rather than BA or Ryanair).

As usual prior to friendly games there had been a significant number of withdrawals from the squad the weekend before. Five players pulled out on Sunday, and three potential replacements had produced a note from their Mum meaning the 21 player squad includes new faces such as Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha, Fraser Forster and Carl Jenkinson, who had previously represented Finland at under 19 level.

After completing my work for the day I weighed up the options in getting to the stadium. The FA had produced a handy guide on their website, but of course nobody had bothered checking the links recently and so they simply went to unavailable pages. Fortunately the Football Supporters Federation had produced their regular Free Lions fanzine that had full details of the various routes to the new stadium.

The easiest seemed to be the train from Central to Solna, but that meant every man and his blonde haired, blue-eyed wife would go that way, so I chose the “more problematic” route via the T-bana to Solna Centrum. The metro station entrance brings you right out in front of the Råsunda, which would be hosting its final game next week when Napoli were visiting in the Europa League. Now there are two sets of fans who would willingly start the demolition process on the historic ground free of charge!

The route from the stadium was well sign-posted, albeit dark and wet as we went up hills and down vales. Eventually the sky turned blue and yellow as the new stadium lit up the stars. It certainly looked impressive, with an other shell that was pulsating blue and yellow as Swedish rock music blared out. Having had to carry around my bag all day with work stuff,  I was expecting some issue when I entered the stadium. Instead I had a not-too unpleasant rub down from one of the Corrs (the drummer I think) and she asked if I had anything “interesting” in my bag. What do I do? Show her my collectors edition of Private 73 – Swedish Saucepots, featuring and I quote, “Amazonian haired women” (and we are not talking about hair on top here), or my iPhone mobile charger shaped like Spider-Man? I kept my mouth shut as she moved her hands from my body onto the bag, giving it a seductive squeeze and a wink.

“From Miami to Ibiza” sang the Swedish House Mafia as I entered the stadium, quite apt as the temperature had risen by a good ten degrees. Perhaps it was the collective heat generated by the England fans who also had a thorough security check or all part of the modern design of the stadium which ensured that a temperature of 20 degrees was kept constant as scientifically that was the optimum temperature for the players to perform at.

First impressions were very good. Wide concourses, plenty of food outlets, soft drinks which you could top up as much as you wanted a la Pizza Hut, a special Arena sausage (made from 80% “great meat”….and 20% of what?) and very surprisingly, beer. Some England fans hadn’t realised that the cheaper variety was the alcohol-free kind, a fact that became more amusing as the evening wore on and they got “drunker and drunker”.

The stadium has excellent sight lines, seats with masses of leg room and four huge screens that hang from the ceiling. With the roof closed it had an almost surreal feel about it. At one point doing the warm up, Hodgson looked up to the roof, as if he was reliving the nightmare in Warsaw. Talking of Roy, the fans were treated to an interview he gave with Swedish TV prior to the game. I always find it strange when we see and hear an Englishman speak a foreign language fluently. We see the reverse all the time but because we see so little exported talent from our shores it always makes you want to applaud them for basically bothering to learn a local language. Roy of course is still a hero down at Malmö FF where he heralded in a golden age for the club, and signed some quite good players as it turned out, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

With this being the first game we expected some pomp and circumstance. What we didn’t expect was 6 bloody great big horses running around the edge of the pitch, ridden by knights holding various flags. They provided the guard of honour for the teams as they emerged and we stood up for the national anthems. The Swedish authorities decided on the two verse approach thus trying to gain the upper hand by silencing the England fans. We had already broken into applause, the band had started (more of them later) and we were back in our seats before we realised they were signing the lesser known second verse “Our lord our God arise”. Just like the missing verse in Thriller, none of us knew the words so we just repeated the first one. Spare a thought for some of the players – they’ve only just learnt a) we have an anthem b) it has words and c) they are supposed to sing it. Now they find out there’s a second bit to it. I think we best leave the fact that there are two more verses to another day.

The TV presenter on the side of the pitch tried to persuade the mascot to take the match ball onto the pitch but he was having none of it. With his image being beamed to a global audience of millions, and blown up to 6 metres wide in the stadium, he froze. Stage fright is a bugger and he had it bad. Eventually the referee persuaded him on to do the ceremonial kick off with Zlatan. Finally done he picked up the ball and ran off. Only he had the ball with him so a further delayed ensued whilst someone went and got it back, swapping it with him for a bar of Plop.

Sweden 4 England 2 – The Friends Arena – Wednesday 14th November 2012
The game can be summed up into three parts. Firstly the section where England were crap. Then when we realised we were playing a one man team with little substance and then the Joe Hart “missing period”. Make no mistake – Sweden deserved the win but the way that England handed it to them on a plate, with some Ikea special sauce made us realise actually we still aren’t world-beaters.

It was certainly a new look England team that started the game with Sterling, Osman and Caulker all making their debuts. For all of his boundless energy and apparent fertility, Sterling cannot defend. Never really an issue if you are playing in front of a good full back. But he wasn’t – he was playing in front of Johnson. First question – why does Johnson have the letter “G” on the back of his shirt? There are no other Johnson’s in the squad, nor has there been since Adam lost his way. Of course he could always get a recall and thus they’d save on money by already having his shirt printed but could you say the same for Rooney (the lesser skilled John is skill kicking around somewhere), Terry (brother Paul is one player slower than “legend” John) and of course Stevie G himself has a cousin playing in England. But back to Johnson (G)’s walkabout with just twenty minutes gone. Sweden exposed the space down the England right, the ball is played across the area and Zlatan gets to it first, his initial shot is blocked by Caulker but he makes no mistake from the rebound.

The roof almost came off the stadium. Prior to this you could almost hear a pin drop. It is deathly silent – something completely the opposite of the big games I’d attended in Sweden in the past. In fact the goal woke up a fair few thousand fans who had been happily snoozing in the quiet, warm environment. To stop them going back to sleep a Mexican Wave was started, and of course we all joined in – we love a Mexican Wave we do.

At this stage the familiar thought goes through your head. “Why do I bother spending time and money to watch England play?. It was simply a below average performance against an average team. Then something strange happened. We started playing the ball around like a team ranked by FIFA in the world’s top ten. Ashley Young got the ball wide, beat his man, decided not to dive for once and sent the ball across the six yard box. Welbeck couldn’t miss. One-all.

Confidence breads confidence. Gerrard and Osman put their Stanley Park differences to one side and started bossing the midfield. Then all of a sudden we had the lead. Gerrard swung in a free-kick, the Swedish defence left it for the keeper, the keeper left it for the defence and all it needed was for Caulker to get any part of his body on the ball to score. And so the young Spurs centre-back celebrated his debut with a goal to put England 2-1 up.

By half-time the pitch was a mess. Prior to the game I had met up with Pras, the Swedish Marketing manager for Blackburn Rovers (not specifically for Sweden but he is Swedish and a Marketing Manager) and he had relayed his concerns about the pitch which had only been laid the week before. But after just forty-five minutes it looked like it has been toasted in parts, with clear parallel lines running across it from where the turf had been laid. Various divots were scattered around which the groundsmen tried to work on to no avail.

The first half of the second half was typical England. Little threat, square passing and lots of substitutions. On came Shawcross to shore up the defend and nullify any threat from Zlatan. The Swedish captain wasn’t having the best of nights. He’d seen little of the ball and more often than not tried to drop too deep to get it. “You’re just a shit Andy Carroll” some of the fans sang to him, obviously forgetting that West Ham loanee Carroll had been overlooked in a squad where a player who plied in the Championship and still could play for other nations had been picked.

Of course there was no irony when Ibrahimovic equalised with a little under twenty minutes to go. To celebrate the goal the England Banned (sic) started up a chorus of Steptoe & Sons…classy as ever and adding absolutely no value to our away following.

Now would’ve been a good time to bring on one of our sub keepers. After all, isn’t the point of friendlies an opportunity to blood some new players, try out new formations? With Gerrard now off the pitch to pinch himself as to how he had just played for his country for the 100th time (btw Steve – thanks for acknowledging the fans when you went off – it wasn’t as if you couldn’t hear us over the crowd noise was it?), Joe Hart was the most senior player on the pitch. What was Hodgson hoping to learn that he didn’t already know? And what’s the point of having two untested keepers on the bench if you will never play them?

As the game entered the last ten minutes these ironies came back to bite England firmly on the bum. Zlatan’s free kick from 25 yards was well hit but should not have beaten the wall, let alone an almost static Hart. Three-two and at last the home fans had woken up. The script was written for them to win their first game in the new stadium.

If that was bad enough then what on earth was Hart doing in injury time, wandering out of his area to head a ball straight up in the air. The next few seconds seemed to pass in very very slow motion. You could see Hart mouth “shiiiiiiiiit” as Ibrahimovic looked up and turned away from goal. He leaped and connected with an overhead kick some thirty yards out. The ball sailed high up into the air, the crowd all looked skywards, as too did the English defenders frantically trying to get back on the line. Of course the script had already been written for this historic night and the ball defied physics by coming almost straight down and just under the cross bar.  The stadium went ballistic.  It was part luck part genius.  If a “normal” player had scored the goal we would have said it was lucky, but because it was Zlatan (what I call the BeckhamCantona effect, where everything you do irrespective of how lucky or shit it is, people call it genius)  it was a stroke of pure magic.

Quite a few of the England fans applauded – after all we are all football fans at heart and it was a goal worthy of the highest international stage.  Zlatan ran to the crowd, took off his shirt and milked applause raining down on him.  Of course, despite the situation, the referee had to be the fun police and book the Swede for taking off his shirt, but we all know that he has to follow the rules.

The final whistle followed a few minutes later.  The talk soon turned from the brilliance of the goal, to the fallibility of the England keeper.  He made some poor judgement calls in the second half and as a result England lost the match.  Once again you have to ask the question what he was doing on the pitch when we had two untried keepers on the bench.

The journey out of the stadium to the station was cold and wet, although still not on the Warsaw scale.  As we headed in the opposite direction to most fans our journey was relatively pain-free and I was back in my “private” first class cabin on the Jumbo by midnight.

Thursday morning dawned and I had already dealt with the texts from my Swedish (and French colleagues).  One player was the difference, but surely a team who are ranked sixth in the world shouldn’t be beaten like this.  Hats off to the Swedes for having the balls to build such a great new stadium and let’s hope it won’t be so long before we come back.

I could tell you about my four hour delay on the way home due to fog but that would spoil the impression this was a great trip…so I won’t.

 More pictures from the evening can be found here.

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