On the first day of Christmas….The best atmosphere

Welcome to our annual “awards” – celebrating all that is good about the game from our tours around the world.  By 31st December we will have seen 115 games in 2011, which as CMF reminds me is one almost every three days.  She would only get bored of me if I was at home every day anyway.  These are awards based on our opinion.  No votes, no favouritism (well, almost none), no trophies and no speeches. Last season’s nominations and winners can be found here.

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, an atmosphere so red-hot it will make you wee”

3rd Place – Brondby IF
A fantastic display in the two derbies we attended in 2011 against FC Copenhagen saw the Danes keep their place in the top three this year.  The sheer noise and flag waving needs to be seen to be believed at the Carlsberg Classico.

2nd Place – AIK
People who have no knowledge of Swedish football may dismiss it as pedestrian, laid back and functional – a bit like Ikea.  But attend any of the big games features IFK, Malmö FF or AIK and you will see what Scandinavian passion is all about.  The biggest game of the season is undoubtably the Stockholm derby, played at the Råsunda stadium (until the new Stockholm Stadion opens in November of course) where AIK meet rivals Djurgården.  The notorious AIK hardcore fans, The Black Army, prepare their displays for months and it shows.  Recent legislation has meant that if any flares are let off whilst the players are on the pitch then the game needs to be stopped, meaning this game is a long affair.  The noise and colour will make your ears ring, the hairs on your neck stand up and your nose fill with smoke.  Beautiful.
1st Place – Legia Warsaw
The first time I went I lost my hearing for about an hour afterwards, and that was at a game where they had the lowest attendance of the season.  Two weeks ago when the temperature plunged well below zero, thousands of the fans jumped, sang, hugged and generally got 100% behind their team dressed in white t-shirts.  If there ever was a “twelth man” theory then this was it in practice.  Most Polish fans, irrespective of their allegiance will begrudgingly say Legia have the best fans in Poland.  As someone who watches the game all over the world I can honestly say that they are the best that I have seen.

Still England’s finest export

We think Kenny Pavey is the best English player currently playing outside of these shores.  Whenever we are in Sweden we try and make time for him, simply because he is a really nice bloke.  After my trip over to the Stockholm derby I asked Andy Hudson, our expert on Swedish football, and author of the excellent website Blågul Football to meet up with Kenny when he was next over in Stockholm.  Over to you Andy.

Pavey thanks to Robert Henriksson

I’ve been involved in many great situations since I started writing about football, but one stands out. It’s June 26 2011 and I’m sitting in O’Leary’s, a bar in Örebro. I’ve just ordered another beer, my fifth of the day, and AIK have won 2-1 away to Trelleborg. The only people celebrating as Teteh Bangura struck the winner in the 77th minute were me and a friend, in stark contrast to our protests when AIK wrongly had a goal disallowed in the first half; the other lads with us are still fuming about the ÖSK loss earlier. I fire off a text message and then there’s a look of disbelief from around the table as I read out the reply. My AIK supporting friend, the person to blame for the amount of time I spend talking about AIK; the person to blame for me checking the internet for the latest news; the person to blame for me listening to Swedish radio coverage of games whenever I can, can’t believe it. Kenny Pavey, ‘scorer’ of the disallowed goal, has replied. The same Kenny Pavey who can also happily be blamed for my AIK lust.

An infectious smile comes across the face of every AIK fan when I mention one name: Kenny Pavey – crowd favourite, idol of the North Stand, legend. If you wanted a definition of a whole-hearted, passionate player then I would give you Kenny Pavey. But he isn’t an English clogger, this guy has skill to go with the tough tackling. Continue reading

Is it too late for the English game?

Last week I was privilaged to be in the Brøndby Stadion for the derby game versus FC Copenhagen. Whilst a couple of other regional sides may argue, this is the biggest game in Denmark.  For any first time visitor to a game abroad they would not believe the sights, sounds and smells of derby day.  It is planned weeks in advance, with the “shows” on display from the fans designed to go one better than their opponents.  I would say that I have never seen this before in my life, but I would  be wrong.  In fact just last month I witnessed a slightly bigger and noisier version at the Stockholm derby between AIK and Djurgården.  So if much smaller leagues and clubs can generate such atmospheres, why can’t we in England?  I give you three words.  Health and Safety.

We have some of the tightest controls in terms of what can and cannot go on in football stadiums in the world.  We have the only league in Europe that rigorously enforces all seater stadium, yet have the worst atmosphere in our grounds.  Is that a co-incidence?  I certainly believe so, although there are other reasons:-

  • The cost of watching Premier League football is far too high.  This means that only those with the highest disposable income can attend, and this is not the demographic that really wear their hearts on their sleeves.  The average fan has long been priced out of the game, replaced by someone who wants to sit and read their programme, eating their branded burger and not be disturbed by songs and people standing up.  Case in point.  The last time I went to Old Trafford I sat next to a woman who read a book and behind someone who knitted throughout a 3-3 draw.
  • The Police associate groups of fans with trouble and therefore stamp out any activity that could be deemed to be “anti-social”.  Stewards are failed and frustrated security officials who are employed by clubs to stop anyone having any kind of enjoyment from the game.
  • Television, sorry, Sky would complain that no one could watch the game if flare smoke was hanging over the pitch.
Barclay’s own adverts for the Premier League show atmospheric black and white pictures of fans jumping around with a voice over saying “It’s about working hard for the weekend.  It’s about having a good time”. Now what do you think?  Wouldn’t you rather be watching something like the footage below?  And before everyone starts banging on about health and safety, not one arrest nor was anyone injured during the Stockholm derby.
The picture is the same across Europe.  Germany, with clubs like Borussia Dortmund, and the biggest terrace in Europe.  Slovakia, with Spartak Trnava.  Intimidating? Yes, dangerous?  No.  And here is the problem.  In whose interest is it to change the picture here in England?  The clubs get their pot of gold every two weeks, and know that every season they can squeeze more out of the same people using fear tactics – “Can you afford to miss the Carling Cup game with Walsall?”, talking about huge waiting lists for Season Tickets and introducing membership schemes as the only way to buy tickets for games.  The stadiums with their rows of shiny seats are easily to control with little Hitlers dressed in day glow jackets, and the TV companies know that there is no chance that their broadcasts can be interrupted.  I simply cannot see a compelling event that will lead to the revolution.  I think that football in Europe evolved from the dark days of hooliganism (I am not for one minute suggesting that has gone away by the way) into more of peaceful fan culture, and been allowed to develop, whilst in England we have cotton wrapped everything and will never move out of this state.
So here is my final piece of evidence to show what we are missing.  An OFFICIAL video made by Allsvenskan champions Malmö FF after their game last season which essentially decided the title against Helsingborgs IF.  Just watch the footage and tell me that you do not get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.  Can you imagine being one of those players knowing the backing and support they had from their fans.  But then again players in continental Europe have a different relationship with the fans based on respect and honour.  Fat chance of players over here ever respecting football fans.

Stockholm Syndrome

What is the biggest match in football around the world?  Many will say Real Madrid v Barcelona, others AC v Inter whilst some of a more continental persuasion will go for the Boca v River Plate game in Argentina.  But what is clear that in most domestic leagues the biggest game tends to be the local derbies.  In fact Spain (and to an extent, France) is the exception in that the biggest game is not a inter-city derby.

Germany has all of the passion (and spite) of Borussia Dortmund and Schalke as well as a new rivalry, played for the first time this season in Hertha v Union Berlin.  Italy has the Rome, Milan, Turin and Genoa variations.  Portugal has Sporting v Benfica derby played between the Lisbon sides and then of course there is the Old Firm in Scotland.  Childhood friends grow up enemies based on the teams they support, families are split in two over their allegiances.

Parken on fire again

During the past few years I have been lucky enough to experience a few such games.  Internazionale 0 AC 6 will always rank up there in my most treasured footballing memories, as will the rampant destruction of Parken, home to FC Copenhagen by Brondby IF fans in one of the fastest growing inter-city rivalries.  But one game I had always wanted to see was the Stockholm derby between Djurgården IF and AIK.

Djurgårdens IF and AIK were both founded in 1891 separated by just a month apart and both are originally from the Northern part of Stockholm.  Today they are almost in different towns with AIK based in Solna, to the north of the city centre and Djurgården in the district of Östermalm. They are also historically two of the biggest and most successful clubs in Sweden, with 11 League titles each. The Djurgården vs AIK rivalry is considered by far the biggest rivalry in Sweden and maybe even the whole of Scandinavia because of its rich history and the huge animosity between the two clubs and both sets of fans with the Järnkaminerna or Blue Saints of Djurgården on one side and the notorious Black Army of AIK on the other.  With this being the first game of the season for both teams, it was guaranteed to be a cracker in terms of atmosphere. Continue reading

The quickest penalty of all time?

The 18 May 1946 is not a day that many will remember as being well known for anything.  If you are old enough to remember, then President Truman gave a televised speech announcing the end of the railroad strike in America and that is probably it, unless you were a resident in the small town of Ängelholm in south west Sweden.

On that night, in a small forest on the outskirts of the town a UFO landed.  The Swedes aren’t known for their strange beliefs such as other nations (Trolls for instance in other more northerly areas) so it was hard to put this down to a flight of fancy, especially as it was seen by a chap called Gösta Carlsson, a famous Swedish ice hockey player at the time.  Gösta claimed that the aliens landed and then passed him some secrets that enabled him to set up a successful natural therapy company.  A bit like an extra-terrestrial Herbalife then.  There is a monument in the forest clearing where the incident was alleged to have taken place which makes it the one of the biggest tourist draws in the area.

The town itself is better known for us younger people as one of the best surfing beaches in the Nordics.  People come from hundreds of miles away to enjoy the wide sandy beach and the strong currents.  It is certainly a nice looking place – free from litter and well kept lawns, and lots of very bronzed Swedes cycling around.

But I was not here for the UFO watching or the wind surfing.  Of course I was here for football.  Ängelholms FF are your typical provincial Swedish football team.  Happy to sit in the mid-table of the second division, occasionally upsetting one of the big boys in a cup and even rarer pushing for a promotion spot.  They have ambition though, and the club have stated that 2011 is their target date to reach the Allsvenskan for the first time.  This season has started well for them.  A 3-2 win on the opening day against favourites Hammarby in front of over 3,000 set them up well, but since then it has been a disappointing series of draws mixed in the occasional defeats.  In their last home game the crowd dropped down to just over 300 which must be a real concern for the club. Continue reading