It’s in the shops…..


Passport to footballThe UK locked in a frenzy with the launch of “Passport to Football” .  Thirty chapters, thirty unforgetable trips (well, the bits we can remember in between all the foreign beer) and of course a fair few classic games.  Who can forget Hvidovre v AB, FC Orgryte v Jonkopings Sodra and Akademia Sofia v Radovski Sevlievo – well quite a few of us actually but many will want to remember Euro2008, France v England or Palermo v West Ham.

All your favourites are in here.  The “Jugtastic” CMF, Football Jo and all of her perversions and a cast of literally a dozen.  None of the tales can be found anywhere else apart from in the hallowed pages of “Passport to Football”.  So buy a copy by clicking here – you know you want to!

Well done to Neil Campbell who found an obscure interview I did some years ago and that my first ever game was between West Ham and Burnley from April 1976

Advertisements

The 2008 The Ball is Round Awards


With over 50 games under my belt in 2008, added to 33 new stadiums and over 60 flights to get there I thought I would reserve a chapter at the end of the year for the first ever The Ball Is Round Awards.  For a more musical view of the nominations and winners click on the relevant videos below.

Best new stadium visited in 2008
3rd Place – The Dinamo Stadium, Minsk. Not a real classic but a typical Soviet stadium with some huge floodlights and the away fans situated along the side of the pitch.

2nd Place – The Dripping Pan, Lewes> Yes it is really basic but it is certainly unique and one of the most picturesque. And it has the best name.

The Bochum massive

The Bochum massive

The Winner – The Rewirpower Stadion – VfL Bochum.
It had to be a German winner and what better stadium than Bochum’s Rewirpower/Ruhr Stadion. A classic ground with four connected single tier stands almost touching the pitch and a passionate crowd to match.

 

Worst new stadium visited in 2008
3rd Place – Trellesborgs. OK, it was a dark, damp night but I could not find anything appealling about this little town on the southern tip of Sweden. Not even the football lightened up the evening.

2nd Place – Salisbury City. I appreciate that it is a Blue Square ground but it really is in the middle of nowhere and had very little soul let alone atmosphere.

The winner - MTK Stadion

The winner - MTK Stadion

The Winner – MTK Stadion. The current Hungarian champions have invested absolutely nothing in their stadium and run away with this year’s award. A special mention must go to the ticket office workers who lock themselves in the womens toilet for their duty – sheer class.

 
Best Atmosphere at a game in 2008
3rd Place – Sweden v Greece – Euro2008 in Salzburg, June 2008. The Swedes came to town and took over Salzburg, turning everything yellow and blue. They filled the stadium and did not stopping getting behind their team in a dull game.

2nd Place – Orgryte 1 Jonkoping 0 – July 2008. A strange choice many would believe but this Swedish second division game played at the tiny Valhalla stadium in Goteborg was the homecoming of local hero Marcus Allback and so the ground was full to busting and the atmosphere superb. So good in fact that littlest Fuller fell asleep 5 minutes in for the whole game!

The Brondby fans celebrate an early goal

The Brondby fans celebrate an early goal

The Winner – IF Brondby 2 FC Midtylland 1 – March 2008 in Copenhagen. With the snow falling and the beer flowing the whole Faxe tribune literally bounced as the fans turned the heat up on a cold night. The game was the turning point in Brondby’s season and who can ever forget the impressive rendition of Elvis’s “Falling in love with you” by over 15,000 fans as the teams re-emerged for the second half.

 Worst Atmosphere at a game in 2008
3rd Place – Any game at Upton Park in 2007/08. Yes, you have read that right. Under clueless Curbishley, West Ham played some of the dullest football ever seen at Upton Park, and this lethargy seeped into the crowd. Take your pick from a number of games but undoubtably the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea was the low point, with most of the crowd gone before the hour mark.

2nd Place – Grays Athletic v FC Totton – November 2008. No doubts about this one as “Our Barry’s” fan club provide the only atmosphere or noise at the FA Cup game versus Totton.

The Winner - The Olympic Stadium

The Winner - The Olympic Stadium

The Winner – Istanbul BBS v Rizaspor – February 2008 in The Olympic Stadium, Istanbul. A soulless venue in more ways than one that is so far from civilisation that NASA could recreate the moonlandings here. No public transport, no facilities and no crowds. Shall I go on? Even the riot police started arguing with themselves as there was so little to do.

 Best game seen in 2008
3rd Place – West Ham Utd 4 Blackburn 1 – August 2008. Unbelievably still under Curblishley (although this was to be his last game in charge) and with Paul Ince back at Upton Park for the first time as a manager, West Ham tore Blackburn apart. Oh how we dreamed of a top 6 spot at this point.

2nd Place – Italy 1 Romania 1 – Euro2008 Zurich – June 2008.
Euro2008 was a tournament that on most part did not disappoint in terms of the quality of action. This appeared to be a real mismatch on paper but the Romanians came within a Buffon penalty save of putting Italy out in a full house in Zurich.

France pound the Dutch goal in Berne

France pound the Dutch goal in Berne

The Winner – Netherlands 4 France 1- Euro2008 in Berne, June 2008. Actually played on the same day as the Italy game above, this was the game of the tournament as Van Basten’s team swept aside a French team containing such world class talent as Anelka, Henry and Malouda. The Dutch seemed invincible at this stage. Cracking atmosphere to boot.

 

Worst game seen in 2008
3rd Place – Sweden 2 Greece 0 – Euro2008 in Salzburg June 2008. Who could ever forget the negative Greek tactics that included a spell of 47 consecutive passes where they played the ball across the back four trying to eat up time at 0-0.

2nd Place – FC Nordjaelland 1 Velje 2 – Supaliga in Farum, Denmark September 2008. Two teams with very little idea where the goal was who attempted to out do each other in hoofing the ball out of the ground. So bad I left after 50 minutes despite not having paid to get in.

Histon v York City

Histon v York City

The Winner – Histon 1 York City 1 – Blue Square Premier – December 2008. A game on the coldest night of the year was not appealling to start but add in a pitch in awful condition and a team who simply hoof the ball into the corners at every opportunity was as appealling as watching Rusty Lee audition for a job in the Playboy Mansion.

A note here that the game between South Africa and Australia played at Loftus Road in September 2008 could well have won this catagory but it was so mind numbingly boring that Jonnie and I spent most of the game drinking in the bar and thus saw very little of the 2-2 draw.

The Best Fans in 2008
3rd Place – FC Karlsruher fans at home to Werder Bremen – December 2008. In a stadium that is hardly condusive to building an atmosphere, bottom placed Karlsruher’s fans gave it their all in an impressive display that undoubtably helped their team to a 1-0 win versus Bremen and lift them out of the bottom 3.

2nd Place – England fans in Berlin – November 2008. We came, we saw and we conquered our old enemies in Berlin in November 2008. Despite England fielding almost a B team the fans, fuelled on by a day consuming sausages and stiens of beer out sung their German rivals in a full house at the Olympic Stadion.

A birds eye view of the Swedes

A birds eye view of the Swedes

The Winner – Swedish Fans in Salzburg – June 2008. There could only be one winner as the Swedes took over the town. The sight of 10,000 fans in their yellow shirts dancing and singing to Abba-esque in the fan zone was a sight to treasure, especially the cute blonde ones in their full football kits!

 

 The Worst Fans in 2008
3rd Place – MTK Budapest Fans. The Hungarian champions were flying top of the league when I visited their crumbling wreck of a stadium in March 2008. A crowd of no more than 500 turned up to welcome me. I’d hate to be there when they aren’t successful!

2nd Place – Istanbul BBS Fans. Enough said already about this white elephant of a stadium that is almost in a different country from Turkey let alone in the same city as the other teams from Istanbul. I counted 34 fans who did not sport away colours during the first half – in a 80,000 capacity stadium.

The hardcore fans congregate behind the goal at Levski Sofia

The hardcore fans congregate behind the goal at Levski Sofia

The Winner – Levski Sofia Fans. The so called biggest team in Bulgarian football and one who had regularly played European football including the Champions League group stages versus the likes of Chelsea in 2007. Yet they had less than a 1,000 fans for a game on a Saturday evening in October.

Note – I would add here that the most disappointing were the Galatasaray fans who have been so hyped up in the past. Welcome to Hell – more like Welcome to Highbury…sshhhh.

My Three Favourite Grounds of All Time
3rd Place – Wembley Stadium – London.  The old Wembley had a reputation as a world class venue but in reality it was a toilet.  It was an awful stadium to watch a game in but the new incarnation, the 90,000 new Wembley is one of the finest stadiums in the world.  Huge steep stands and every seat facing the centre circle means nobody is far from the action.  The accoustics are very impressive as well.  Just a shame that the FA sold its soul to the corporate dollar meaning that for virtually every game some of the seats lay empty.

2nd Place – Upton Park – London.  It had to be in here.  One of the few grounds that have improved since modernisation and it is a white hot atmosphere under the lights when the big teams come calling.  Manchester United would testify how hard it is to get something here as they have lost for the past two seasons.  It is just a shame the football on offer as been so poor over the past few years.

liechtensteinThe Winner – RheinPark – Vaduz Liechenstein.  I know many people will be amazed that my favourite stadium is a small 8,000 capacity one in a country that is smaller than Croydon but trust me there are few more picturesque stadiums than the home of FC Vaduz and the Liechtenstein national team.  Sandwiched in the Rhine valley with the Alps on either side you can hear the polite cheers from the stadium from high up in the mountains.  If you want to watch a game in a postcard perfect setting then come hear, grab a beer and a sausage and watch a game – Vaduz are currently in the top league in Switzerland so games are a plenty. 

My Three Worst Grounds of All Time
3rd Place – Olympic Stadium – Barcelona. I hate Barcelona at the best of times but having been forced to come here to watch England play Andorra in two consecutive years is punishment enough for any fan. It is a nice stadium from the outside but is completely soulless inside with a running track and all bar one stand uncovered. Fine for the normal sunny climate here but not good for the torrential rain and near zero temperatures whenever we play here…oh and I hate Barcelona!

2nd Place – Renzo Baraba – Palermo.  Before West Ham were drawn to play here in the UEFA Cup in 2006 you could only go on its reputation as a poor venue for fans especially for the away fans who are “caged” in a corner of the stadium along way from the action.  Add to this the appalling conditions the fans have to go through to get into the stadium (walking through a unlit dark and damp cage where the home fans can throw down missles from above), the hostile policing and finally the fervant home fans and you get the picture this is not a venue for the feint heart.

heysel2The Winner – Heysel Stadium – Brussels.  Most people will remember the stadium from the awful events of May 1985 when Liverpool met Juventus in the European Cup Final and the subsequent crowd violence left over 50 Italians dead.  But this game should never had been played at this crumbling wreck of a stadium.  The whole ground was demolished and rebuilt and renamed as the King Baudoin Stadium.  However, the sight lines are appalling, entry and access still problematic and when the sun sets most of the stadium cannot see anything.  It is hardly surprising that no major club games have been played at the stadium since 1985.

No games today….


SNV10869So I can go home, have a kip and remind the little Fullers on Fathers Day that I do still exist……

Looking very happy with myself that I had managed to beat the system and not only get into the Netherlands v France game in Berne, but get to pitch side!

Wish You Were Here Part 3 – Too Bloody Right McClown – Zurich and Bern


For a copy of this post in MP3 format Listen to this episode, go to Podcast at Podbean.com or subscribe at Itunes.com

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).