Chelsea leave it late to give Rafa a going away present

The Daggers Diary team have a nose for getting tickets for most big games so it is no surprise that they were heading off to the Europa League final for the fifth consecutive year.

Way back in August, both Benfica and Chelsea would have harboured hopes of progress in the Champions League. Benfica were drawn in a group containing Barcelona and Celtic, while Chelsea would have fancied their chances of progressing from a group containing Juventus, Nordsjaelland and Shaktar Donetsk, especially as they went into the competition as European Champions.

Benfica were undone by some very impressive Celtic performances, but the problems encountered by Chelsea during the first half of the season were many and were the subject of many column inches in the printed media. It cost the coach his job, and the replacement has been the subject of almost as many articles as the failure to get out of the group stage of the Champions League.

As the competition progressed, it became apparent that we were getting dangerously close to an all-English final. For a while, it seemed that Gareth Bale (or Spurs as they are more commonly known) would get to Amsterdam, and in doing so, provide their head coach with the chance to win this competition for a second time in three years.

However, quarter final defeats for both Spurs/Gareth Bale and Newcastle meant that the European Champions were still in with a chance of holding both major European trophies at the same time. So, with the European Champions getting past Basle in their semi final, and Benfica progressing at the expense of Fenerbache, we got a final that promises to be a really good game.

Of course, the idea of having teams that fail in one competition, only for them to turn up in the apparently lesser competition after Christmas is one that provokes much debate. Quite why the powers that be at UEFA felt the need to devalue a competition that already attracts less attention that it should do is open to question, but at the present time, they are the rules, however much they may seem abhorrent.

935686_10152820465140223_1281274735_nThere are certainly two sides to this. For the teams that started the season in the Europa League, it may seem a bit on the harsh side to have clubs that have essentially mucked up their other competition to be allowed to compete in this one. For the clubs who have “dropped down” into the Europa League, then it presents a chance to retrieve their continental season, although there are plenty out there who feel that having competed in the Champions League at the start of the season, that this is a come down from which there is no glory to be had at all.

For me though, as a bluff old traditionalist, I think its all wrong. The league champions of each country go into the Champions Cup, while the cup winners (and three or four teams via the league) go into the Europa League. None of this “fourth placed team playing in the Champions League” rubbish. And if you muck up in one competition, then that’s it. No second chance. Continue reading

The Champions League road ends for Ajax

Being a man of many talents, our regular reporter for The Ball is Oval, Michael Miles headed over the North Sea to Holland for the Champions League game between Ajax and Borussia Dortmund last week.  

The man in front of me in the queue at the ticket office was very, very upset. He had a ticket for the match but because it was not in the German section he and his friends had been refused entry by the stewards. In excellent English he was demanding of the harassed clerk that she not only refund the cost of his ticket but his airfare and his hotel.

I never did find out how things panned out with him as she waved her hand at me and I thrust my confirmation letter in front of her. She had regained her composure sufficiently to ask if I too were German. I reminded her that the e-mail in front of her had my London address on it. She pushed two tickets, our 10-euro Arena card and two game scarves in our direction and we were away to leave her to her new German friend.

Buying tickets through the Ajax web site had been easy enough. I had forked out 273 euros and that included a mysterious 15 euro handling fee. A year previously I had watched a league game at the same stadium and paid half that sum. Such is the inflationary value of the Champions League.

On the packed metro to the Amsterdam Arena were a group of West Ham fans. I am a Hammers supporter, so good to meet some like-minded souls among all the Ajax fans thought I. But they were already into a two-days drinking binge and weren’t interested in me. My Chelsea-supporting friend had just found the courage to put his Chelsea cap on, something which seemed to vastly amuse the West Ham gang who entertained themselves trying to snatch it from his head. They weren’t even going to the game, but to a Status Quo concert.

Such are the joys of foreign football travel.

The Champions League is the ideal place for Ajax’s youngsters to gain some much needed experience on the continental stage, although they would probably have wanted a slightly easier group. Nevertheless they had taken four points off Manchester City, and had only lost 0-1 in Madrid. The Dutch champions, with an average age of about 23, have the competition’s youngest squad.

Winners of the last two Bundesliga titles, Dortmund probably don’t need reminding that the last time they claimed two consecutive domestic crowns (1995 and 1996) they wet on to become European champions the following season. Last season they came bottom of their group with only one win, but this time around Jurgen Klopp’s young side have started impressively. Manchester City were very lucky to emerge with a point from the game at the Ethiad when the German side were the much superior side, and impressed many people with the fluency of their football.

Ajax 1 Borussia Dortmund 4 – Amsterdam ArenA – Wednesday 21st November 2012
On the pitch tonight, 20-year old Mario Gotze inspired Borussia Dottmund as they produced a ruthlessly efficient performance to win 4-1 in the Amsterdam Arena.3-0 up at half time they progressed to the last 16 as Group D winners, with one game to go-home to a foundering Manchester City.Gotze had a hand in each of his teams goals, scoring the second himself and setting up two for Robert Lewandowski, as Dortmund looked capable of scoring every time they broke.

Substitute Daniel Hoesen’s late goal for Ajax was little consolation for the home team and did little to dampen the spirits of the jubilant away support, proud to have witnessed such a superb display from their side. I only hope the fan in front of me at the ticket office got in to see it.

Frank de Boer, the Ajax coach, commented “We got a lesion in efficiency from Dortmund but I am also very angry about the way we defended.”  He had every right to be.

Cruyff’s turn again?

Michael Miles brings us an update on events from Amsterdam where a new dynasty is starting to develop, although not the one everyone wants.

Johan Cruyff made his debut for Ajax as a 17-year old in November 1964. He scored the only goal in a 3-1 defeat. Now, almost half a century later he is still making waves at the club where his mother used to do the laundry. In the few days I was in Amsterdam to see Ajax play NAC Breda the main story in the local paper was not concerning the team, but Cruyff’s on-going dispute with the club’s Supervisory Board. The gist of the dispute appears to be that they want to Bring back Louis van Gaal , but there is continuing bad blood between the two men , and Cruyff is set against him.

Of course Ajax already has a manager, and a successful one to boot. Frank De Boer was himself a mainstay for Ajax and Barcelona for many years, as well as winning 112 caps for Holland. Last season he took Ajax to their first Eredivisie title since 2004, a period of Arsenal-like proportions for a club of this magnitude, after succeeding Martin Jol.

I’d been to the ArenA once before, for a Euro 2000 semi-final against Italy, so I knew what to expect. Aesthetically it’s alright, but doesn’t take your breath away. Located south-east of the city, the ArenA stands alone, rather like Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium. There’s a road and car park beneath the pitch, so climbing to the second tier involves a bit of a hike. I enter the concourse and there the ArenA experience begins. Everything is sold in “ArenAs”, so before buying anything you must buy a minimum 10 euro Arena card. Mine came as part of the package that Ajax sell to foreign fans. I also got given a very nice scarf. I guess the idea is that you get served quicker, but that you also waste money by either not spending your Arenas , or buying stuff you don’t want, to finish your card. Continue reading

Sex, Drugs and Peter Crouch – England invade Amsterdam – 15th November 2006

When this game was announced finally by the FA in the Spring, the level of interest amongst England Fans was huge. The lure of a game that potential would yield 6-7,000 tickets, the ease to get to the city and the delights on offer were going to be too good to miss. Of course there was always going to be problems – the first of which was when the FA announced we would get just 4,500 tickets. The genius fans soon found out which agency was selling tickets in the Netherlands and hey presto another 4,000 tickets were soon snapped up.

So surely a trip to the home of sin to watch my beloved England was high on my list of priorities? Well no actually. Having spent a year enduring the constant delays flying in and out of Schiphol airport, the poor hotels, dodgy drug dealers (are there any normal drug dealers?) and groups of tourists vainly trying to barter with the girls in the windows of the Red Light District I decided to find the minimum possible time I could spend in the city. Fortunately BA cater for such occasions and I managed to book a flight that arrived in the city at 5pm, leaving by 7am the following morning.

The expected number of England Fans due to arrive in the city was over 11,000 and arriving outside the central station in Amsterdam it was reminiscent of some of the scenes we saw in Germany in the summer. On my short walk to the hotel I passed bar upon bar full with fans watching Sky Sports and enjoying a leisurely build up to the game. It was almost like back street English northern towns had been transported across the North Sea to the Netherlands – whippets an all…The main issue that the local authorities faced was getting all of the fans down to the stadium with 5 minutes to spare as normal. This was going to be compounded by a local transport strike which meant that there was no tubes or trams until 4pm local time.

Anyway, I digress…after meeting up with Rob the Red we decided to head down to the ArenA (as the locals pronounce it – us Johnny Foreigners simply say the Arena) early doors. We walked through the Red Light District and was concerned that so many people were looking for this bloke called Charlie. We couldn’t help but we did give them the number for the National Missing Persons Helpline so that they can try and find him. We also saw the bargaining skills of the England fans at their best as a group of 5 chaps tried, without fail to negotiate a group discount with one particular lady – unfortunately 5 into 1 at the rate of €60 did not push any of her buttons. The nearest station to the RLD (as us familiar with the area now call it) is Niewmarkt, which would allow us to get a train straight down to the ground. The one thing the Dutch sometimes don’t do very well is have their signage in English….So here is the guide how to buy a train ticket in Amsterdam:-

1. Work out which button is for a daily travel card
2. Try to pay by Visa card – realise you can’t
3. Try to pay by Mastercard – realise you can’t
4. Scrape together enough cash to pay
5. Start putting cash in
6. Get approached by a station attendant who tells you its cheaper to buy a Strippenkart ticket
7. Work out what button is a Strippenkart ticket
8. Realise that you don’t have enough cash
9. Go and find a cashpoint machine
10. Come back and find out that the same station attendant who told you to buy the Strippenkart is now saying that because of the strike all transport is actually free

So – 10 minutes later and we are at the ground. There are a number of great things about the ArenA (as I know the place so well I am allowed to call it that) – the first is that it has a number of excellent bars around the ground – including the Danny Blind/Frank Rijkaard owned Soccer World bar. Secondly it has 3 train stations within a 5 minute walk from the stadium and thirdly it has one of the loudest acoustic systems in the world. Lets deal with them in order – The bars were very welcome, although at €5 a pint we had definitely moved from back-street northern town to Soho poncy club. However, the evening was balmy and the England fans were in good voice so the time passed quickly. A strange looking Dutch couple kept walking through the crowds dressed from head to toe in Orange, with the Kevin-esque child 5 paces behind with a huge Ghetto blaster on a trolly blaring out a song about Marco Van Basten.

The train stations were fast and efficient at moving people to and from the stadium – although the insistence of cramming everyone on the trains after the match was a touch harsh….However, it is nice to see in the modern day that a new stadium has been built around an existing transport infrastructure, and not vice verca. None of the Allianz Arena-esque public transport nightmares here – take note Wembley!

The ArenA at night looks like a UFO – with green lights radiating from its roof. Some say this is the result of the radiation left over from the Bijlmer Airplane crash in 1992, that despite re-assurances that nothing radio-active was left in the area, the high incidence of cancer in this locale is scary…Anyway, I digress….The pitch is actually built 3 levels above ground with car parks underneath – and so as you enter through the turnstiles you climb, and climb and climb before you even reach the lower tier. I assume that the upper tier has its own Great Glass Elevator! The concourse levels are spacious BUT just before you go rushing in and buy your frites with Mayo and Ketchup, you have to buy an ArenA card. Now, these are an genius way to getting your money….Litter the concourse with vending outlets to buy these cards – and yes sir you can cash back any unused money from your card at the end of the game. Of course for every 10 places to buy a card, there was 1 to refund it.

So the game started as badly for England as you would expect – huff and puff sums up the game as much as you could say – a 1-1 draw was about the right result but the England fans went home happy! The atmosphere in the stadium was excellent – no sign of any animosity and a genuine noisy environment and half time entertainment bar none! Not many people realise that Holland’s 2nd most popular sport is Darts, so what better way to entertain the fans that with an England v Holland Darts match at half time on the pitch, beamed live onto the big screens. In a tense game of 701, England just pipped the Dutch to checkout – you can keep your Hammerettes, Penalty shootouts and Bonnie Tyler (West Ham take note!) – give us some Darts any day!

The remainder of the night went off predictably in the city centre – lots of people still looking for their mate Charlie, lots of business for those lovely friendly ladies and many fans failing to find their hotels in the maze of almost identical side streets. For me it was a short hop back to Gatwick, and at my desk before 9am and the Chief Executive realising that I’d actually been in Amsterdam, rather than the server room downstairs for the past 18 hours!

The Facts

The Stadium
The Amsterdam Arena – 51,100 All Seater

The Amsterdam ArenA was one of the most modern stadiums in the world when it opened its doors in 1996, and still today it has a number of features that make it unique. The stadium opened to a great fanfare with a friendly versus AC Milan in 1996, after a two-year construction period and a cost of €98million that was met by the local authorities.

The original plan was that the new stadium would be the centrepiece of Amsterdam’s successful 1992 Olympic bid, but this was won by Barcelona. The stadium was the first in the world to have a retractable roof, allowing the stadium to be used as a multi-purpose arena. However, this brought its own problems as the stadium grass failed to grow in the shadow of the roof, and it was replaced four times in its first year. Fans enter the stadium at ground level, but the pitch is actually three levels up, with the lower two levels taken up by a car park and a road that links the east and west of the stadium area. Therefore, expect a huge trek upwards if you are in the upper tier, although the stadium does have a number of escalators to take fans up to the stars. The lowest levels of seating are located around 6 foot above the pitch level, so views are excellent, as is the leg room.

The stadium was also one of the first in the world to be cash free, using the ArenA card, similar to those used by Schalke and Vitesse Arnhem. There are a number of points around the stadium to buy the cards, which come in €10, €20 and €50 denominations. Once you have a card then it can be topped up on any future visits. If you have any credit left at the end of the day you can exchange the card back for cash at the same kiosks. The atmosphere in the stadium on a match day is fantastic, with the two huge screens hanging from the North and South ends providing a great view of the action.

How to get there
The stadium is within walking distance of two railway stations – Duivendrecht and Biljmer. Biljmer is the nearest to the stadium, being less than a 5 minute walk away, but consequently is the most crowded. Services run to these stations from the central station platforms 2 and 7b, taking less than 15 minutes. There are more trains put on before and after the games to cope with the demands of the fans. A ticket to Biljmer costs €3.70 return. If you are coming by metro, then the stadium has its own stop, close to the north and east stands called Strandvliet/ArenA. The station is on line 54 in the direction of Gein.

A taxi from the city centre will cost around €20, and they will wait outside the main entrance to the stadium after the game.

Getting a ticket
As with all other clubs in the Dutch league, you cannot just book a ticket on spec, or turn up to get in unless you have a Club membership card. But fear not. The club reserve a number of tickets that are specifically available for foreign fans. The club also offer special packages that combine lunch at the training (The Toekomst), entry to the museum, an official picture taken on the pitch and a ticket for the game. These packages start from around €95 per person and can be booked direct from the club.

If you are able to get a ticket for a league game then you should not pay more than €40 for a seat in the East or West stands. The average attendance at the ground for league games is close to 48,000 so expect most games to be available on a match day. The ticket office is on the west side of the stadium, close to gate B.

Getting around
Amsterdam is a compact city and is best transversed on foot. Most places that you will want to visit, apart from the stadium, can be reached within 20 minutes from any point. The city does offer a host of different types of transport, including canal boats as well as the more conventional Trams, Metro and Buses. GVB passes are available for 24, 48 and 72 hours offering discounted travel – these can be purchased from most major hotels and the tourist office opposite Central Station

Local Hotels & Bars
Amsterdam has enough hotels to cope with a mass invasion of most football fans. Even the English failed to take up all of the hotel rooms when their 15,000 fans descended on Amsterdam in November 2006. Therefore, it is normally not a problem turning up on spec in the city without a hotel room. There is a tourist information office at Schiphol airport, as well as one opposite the main station entrance. The following three hotels are a mix of standards, but all are clean, safe and offer some creature comforts.

Hotel France – Oudezijds Kolk 11

Hotel Zosa – Kloveniersburgwal 20
(Tel: +31 330 6241)

Blakes – Keizersgracht 384
(Tel: +31 530 2010)

The drinking culture in the city is definitely aimed at the tourists, and you cannot walk more than 50 yards before finding a bar serving some excellent local beers – after all the Netherlands is home to Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch amongst others. As Amsterdam is located so close to the UK coast, most bars are able to pick up BBC television as well as Sky Sports. Therefore, almost every bar in the old town will try and attract you in on a weekend with the pull of Premiership football. If you are spoilt for choice, then head for one of the following:-

Molly Malones – Oudezijds Kolk 9
Mulligans Irish Bar – Amstel 100
Hoopman – Leidseplein 4

Nearest Airport – Amsterdam Schipol (AMS)
Telephone: +31 207 940 800

Schiphol Amsterdam International Airport is one of the busiest in the world. It is also one of the most weather-prone, meaning that early morning flights in and out are often delayed or cancelled due to fog, which has a knock on effect throughout the day. The airport is huge and has a couple of hotels within the terminals, hundreds of shops and its own Casino. The airport is served daily from the UK by Easyjet from 7 UK airports, BA, BMI, Jet2 and VLM amongst others.

To reach the city centre from the airport, head to the railway station under Schiphol Plaza where trains leave every 15 mins with the journey taking around 15minutes into central station. A ticket costs €3.60 return and can be bought from the yellow machines