Just because you pay top dollar……

The last banners have now been taken down, hotel prices have returned to normal and bar owners are looking at the bottle half empty again. Euro2012 turned out to be a good tournament. Tournament favourites Spain romped to victory in the final against an Italian team that many doubted would get out of the group stages. But who were the over and under archives? Betting company bwin have analysed the performance of every team and compared them to the wages of the squad to create the bwin Player Value Index.

According to this index, there has been no direct correlation between wages and success at the Euro 2012 Championship, which may raise concerns for UEFA and some of the national associations about the way the game is run. England players cost their clubs almost 40% more than their German counterparts, who are the current favourites – the market may want to know just how this is justified? Furthermore, French players cost almost five times more than Greek players, yet both teams reached the same stage in the competition, surely a point for concern?

bwin’s findings certainly raise a few interesting points. Whilst we can see a direct correlation between the top payers at club level and domestic success, it simply doesn’t wash at an international level. Current Premier League champions Manchester City pay the most wages, Followed by Champions League winners Chelsea. Money buys success at club level. But put some of those high earners in their respective national side and they struggle to live with their earning potential.

The bwin Player Value Index (BPVI), which includes all teams of the EURO 2012, was first published on the 7th June and correctly predicted that Spain and Germany would offer excellent value for money from their players’ wages. It also predicted that England, Ireland and Sweden would provide poor returns from their wage bills. However, the biggest disappointment from every aspect was The Netherlands – highly paid and well backed, the team failed to deliver against expectations. A surprise? Or have we become accustom to their tournament meltdowns?

The “winners”? Well thanks to their late winner against Russia in the final group game, Greece came out on top, pipping fellow Group A qualifiers Czech Republic. Non-qualifiers who still came out well include the Danes and the Ukranians.


Our Euro’s so far….

So a week into the European Championship, and time to review my progress. Due to the timings of the games I have seen few of the 5pm kick off second halves but I have still over indulged in the fun and high jinx around major tournaments.

I foolishly agreed to get involved in a number of prediction games, Fantasy Football Leagues, writing for the Daily Mirror and of course the usual Sports betting.

I also took part in an interesting debate over Skype, hosted by the fantastic Mina Rzouki who failed to understand why the general football-watching public felt that Zlatan was so over rated.

Continue reading

Football’s coming home – well nearly anyway

Four weeks ago the Football Associations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales surprised the football world by expressing an interest in hosting Euro2020 in a three-way love in.  Whilst not formally stating their intention to bid for the tournament, their dipping of the toe into the murky waters of International football was received in favourable terms by many people.  Faced with competition from Turkey and Georgia at the moment, the Celtic bid looks very appealling.

Michel Platini, however, may think otherwise.  He wasn’t very keen on inheriting the joint bid from Poland and Ukraine and has expressed his Gallic frustration on a number of occasions with the progress of the infrastructure which still isn’t quite finished despite the tournament kicking off in a week’s time.  He also feels a bit guilty about France winning the bid for 2016 7-6 over Turkey where essentially he had the casting vote, so Turkey will be firm favourites.  That is unless they win a bid for the 2020 Olympic Games.But do they really fit with UEFA’s vision for the Championships?  We can glean quite a lot of information from the bid document for bids for 2016 on what UEFA expects from tournaments in the future.

The first thing to remind you is that from 2016 the tournament is being farcically expanded to a 24 nation competition, which based on the potential Celtic bid, will mean that 50 UEFA nations will be competing for 21 spots – hardly a taxing qualifying tournament.  In terms of the tournament, UEFA set their infrastructure criteria for 2016 as:-

  • 2 x stadiums with at least 50,000 net seating capacity (net meaning seats free from any obstructions) of which one should preferably have up to 60,000.
  • 3 x stadiums with at least a 40,000 seating capacity
  • 4 x stadiums with at least a 30,000 seating capacity

In addition there should be a maximum of three stadiums to be used as backup that fall within these parameters.  All stadiums need to be at UEFA Category 1 level prior to the commencement of the tournament which has very little to do with design, facilities or even a fancy roof but more to do with the size of the Referee’s dressing room, the TV compound and the number of corporate boxes (40 for 30,000, 80 for 50,000+).

It also states that stadium must be well connected to public transport hubs (well that must rule out Turkey for a start – have you tried to get to the Ataturk stadium by public transport?) and be within a two hour drive of an airport.  At least three roads from different directions should lead to the stadium (to avoid “crossover” between fans, media and VIPs), and there should be specific number of parking spaces for the different catagories of VIPs.  In the past, UEFA (and FIFA) have not liked a concentration of stadiums in a small number of host cities.  Portugal was ideal for spectators who were able to travel between 7 of the 8 venues by car within a couple of hours, but UEFA felt that the teams training camps and accommodation were too close together.  So, despite its size and facilities, the day will not be anytime soon when we see a London European Championships, despite the fact the city  currently meets the stadium criteria (Wembley, Olympic Stadium, Twickenham, Emirates, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, Upton Park and The Valley – almost). Continue reading

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).


Wish you were here – Too bloody right McClown! – Part 2 Salzburg

Salzburg – Tuesday 10th June – Greece v Sweden
When Greece were made one of the two first seeds for this tournament (after Austria and Switzerland), everyone wanted to be drawn in their group. However, when the dust settled on Group D there can be few who could call it with ease as all four teams have a chance to progress. The every improving Russia are so reliant on their midfield maestro Andrej Arshavin, who will be missing from the first two games and so they may struggle in the early exchanges. Perernial under achievers Spain have at last found the attacking balance that should see them reach at least the last 8. Greece were written off as fluky winners 4 years ago but bounced back from missing out on Germany 2006 to dominate their qualifying group, and finally Sweden have been bouyed by the return from his 2nd international retirement of Henrik Larsson to partner one of the most impressive players in Serie A last season Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

So – not the easiest trip in the world to arrange. I ideally wanted to take just one day off work so I booked a ridiculously early flight back from Munich (90 miles west of Salzburg) at 6.30am so that I could be back at Essex’s finest by 7.30am (although in reality due to the unbelievable queues you having entering your own country that would more like 8.30am by the time I got back to th car). So at 4am I was up and on my way to Stansted for my monthly slice of customer service Ryanair style. Having become quite an expert in Customer Experience now it amazes me how that airline can keep on going judging by the number of complaints it receives (the one I love the most is that it refers to passengers as SLC “Self Loading Cargo”..brilliant). On this occasion apart from the continuous trace music they play when you board the flight advertising their “bullseye baggies”- come on it is 6.30am who, apart from the Scots, will want a double rum and coke at this time!, and when the stewardess woke me up to ask if my magazine I was holding was rubbish (yeah thanks for that – and guess where I have stuffed it now!), it was relatively uneventful. Not suprisingly the flight was full with Swedes and Greeks on their way out to the game.

With nearly 12 hours to kill, and only 4 hours sleep behind me I was at a loss initially what to do. I had investigated the cinema which could prove a good venue for a few hours sleep, but instead decided to see the bits of Salzburg I had not seen. That mean breakfast at Hangar 7 – the home to the Red Bull racing team, and quite a fine place it is to. Very trendy and artistic perfect for a sweaty Brit.

After my fill of German bread and meat I headed to the stadium. Public transport in Salzburg is easy, and so within 15 mins I was at Salzburg Europark, the huge out of town shopping centre, with an Ikea and the train station that would be my departure point later for Munich. What immediately struck me was how there was no signs for the stadium. Having been here only 9 months ago I know where the stadium is, and the station is no more than a 10 minute walk away, but the locals, in keeping with the rest of the tournament, had decided that such signs were an irrelevance. Twenty minutes later I reached the stadium, but from there it was so badly signposted that it took a further 20 minutes to find the media centre.

After a couple of hours cool recuperation on a day when temperatures hit 20 degrees in Salzburg I headed for the FanZone in the city centre. The centre of Salzburg is not particularly big and it had become overrun with Swedes. Big Swedes, small Swedes, fat Swedes, thin Swedes, drunk Swedes, and very drunk Swedes. Now the Swedes rank up their with the Estonians and the Danes in terms of beauty and what better way to show off their fine figures than dressing in football kits. Always does it for me, but that is for another day and adventure. The Greeks were small in number, hairy, fat and ugly. On the huge stage were an Abba tribute band getting everyone in the mood like a hen night in Magaluf. Beer was flowing, songs were being sung and the sun shone down on the rightuous. As if by some divine intervention, Abba-esque exited stage left and then the rain started and out came the extras from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – how to kill the dreams of 5,000 men…..The music was awful….Zorba’s dance is about as far as the Greek songs go but these guys were intent on murdering any song they could get their hands on. Surely the organisers had seen the crowd of 2-3,000 had now dwindles to 20 or 30, and even the ardent Greeks had gone back to the bars instead of listening to Stavros and his goat.

I took this as my opportunity to leave and headed back to the stadium to watch the remainder of Spain v Russia. The Media centre was packed but still the Carlsberg remained under lock and key – what is the point of having a fridge full of the stuff if we cannot drink it! With enough goodwill sorted out with CMF (present for mother-in-law) and various other interested parties, I got down to a bit of writing before the game.

With Spain cruising to a 3-0 win I popped into the bar to get a Coke and low and behold I bump into two legends. Firstly I meet Franz Beckanbauer who is as nice as pie, asking if I am enjoying the tournament, who do I think will win and do I like Salzburg.   As a parting note he told me to say “hello” to everyone in England.  I started ringing through my address book so please excuse the fact I may not have yet got through to you to pass on Der Kaiser’s greeting yet.  Then I see a bright red face, with balding ginger hair….McClown himself. I ask for word for this very blog but he refuses as he is “watching the Russia match” – yeah right mate – if you would have been doing this last year we may have been prepared for our game in Moscow and not lost – tosser!  What exactly was he doing there?  What possible expert opinion could he offer to anyone.  At least one good thing, as one of my colleagues said, was that he probably wasn’t in the frame for the Blackburn Rovers job, much to his glee.

The press were certainly thin on the ground in Salzburg, and after climbing up the Lego Technics towers that took us to the media area it was obvious that most had headed west for the Spain game earlier in the day.  It does seem a shame though that so many real fans had missed out on the chance of seeing this game because some fat journalist couldnt be arsed to cancel their seat.  The UEFA media team had put in place a system of red and yellow cards for non-attendees – one no-show and you got a yellow card by text and email, another and you got a red card which was an immediate one match ban.

It was good to see the Swede’s had taken over the stadium, and were making all of the noise.  Now I love the Swedes.  They are very passionate about their country, they love a beer and they have some of the best looking fans in the world – which makes for crowd watching a very enjoyable past time, which was just what I spent most of the first half doing as the ultra dull Greeks started playing for the draw as early as the 7th minute.  Try as they might with Larsson, Ljungberg and Ibrahimovic up front, the Greeks stifled the life out of the game, and seemed to be playing for 3 x 0-0 draws in the group.  In fact if it wasnt for the Swedish fans singing their hearts out, and jumping up and down I would have been asleep long before the 30 minute mark.  One incident summed it up.  A string of over 30 consecutive passes is normally a sign of a team in total domination, but when the passes were between the three Greek centre backs in their own half, under no pressure from the Swedes, you will understand how desperate the Greeks were.  “Total Football” Greek Tony texted me – yeah right.

I tossed a coin to decide whether I came out of the press room for the second half or not, and at least the first 15 minutes of the second half justified my decision.  Greece threw on Georgios Samaras the ex-Man City striker to try and at least get the ball into the penalty area but it was the Swedes who struck first, with a goal that immediately started the competiton in earnest for the goal of the tournament.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked the ball up near to the left hand touchline, took one touch and blasted the ball into the top corner of George Clooney’s net.  For a player who had been so prolific in Serie A, one of the toughest defensive leagues in the world, it was amazing to hear this was the Swede’s first international goal for over 2 years. 

A few minutes later Swedish fullback Christian Wilhelmsson pulled up after a heavy clash with one of the Greek midfielders and was obviously in some pain.  Alexandersson initially signalled to the bench, then went and spoke to them at length whilst the Swede’s had a corner to get them to make a substitution.  The bench simply ignored the request, so Henrik Larsson came over and initially appeared to be appealling that he should be taken off.  So with one player down and out, and another almost refusing to play it came as a suprise when Sweden doubled their lead after a serious f@ck up from George Clooney that allowed Petter Hansson to bundle the ball home.  With the game all but won the Swedish bench made their changes and took off scorer Ibrahimovic to leave the disabled Wilhelmsson and the uninterested Larsson on the pitch as a final fingers up salute to the players.

So 2-0 was a fair reflection in the end.  Sweden had been average, Greece very poor and now with all 16 teams having played a game it was obvious that neither of these two would be upsetting the apple cart later in the tournament.

It was never going to be an easy trip but some 11 hours later when I eventually walked through the front door of Chez Fuller I realised that it was a tad ambitious to plan to avoid a hotel stay, and “sleep on the hop” on a train from Salzburg to Munich, at Burger King in Munich, on the S-Bahn at 3.30am to Munich Airport and finally at the airport.  Hmm…all for the love of the game.

Click here to listen to the podcast of The Ball is Round in Salzburg Listen to this episode

Wish you were here – Too bloody right McClown! – Part 1 Geneva

Portugal 2 Turkey 0
Geneva- Saturday 7th June 2008 – Portugal v Turkey
I think you would be hard pressed to find two countries hated in such measures by England football fans than Portugal and Turkey. However, the reasons are so diverse. To lose to one team on penalties in the quarter final of a major competition is unlucky but to do it twice in two years takes some doing. Well Portugal managed to put one over us in Lisbon in 2002 and then two years later in Gelsenkirchen. Both games were charaterised by the eaarly exit of Wayne Rooney, although his broken metatarsel in Lisbon can hardly be compared with his petulant stamp in 2004. Turkey on the other hadn conjures up the return to the dark days of football violence for many, and the hatred still for some inexplicable reason still runs deep.

The opportunity to sample a tournament firstly as a Media representative, and secondly without having to worry what English player will be the next one to humiliate himself from the penalty spot was very enticing, and so as soon as my media details had been confirmed I was booking my travel left, right and centre.

Firstly, the good news. Flights were both cheap and easy to arrange to most games. A return on UnreliableJet to Geneva was a bargain £45 return – some £200 cheaper than when England visited in November 2005. The bad news was that hotels were impossible to come by – especially in Switzerland. However, all was not lost as thanks to the generousity of the Swiss and Austrians, 1st Class train travel was free for the duration of the tournament, so a couple of trips were planned with the concept of the moving hotel in the form of my 1st class recliner.

So trip one was to Geneva to watch Portugal v Turkey. For once a midday flight (late of course) got me to Geneva at 3.30pm, and I headed across the motorway (quite literally – after all would you risk a 5% chance of death on a major road and save a 30 minute walk?) and checked in at the hotel. Thirty minutes later I was at the Stade de Geneva, officially a member of the press corp. Most major organising committees give the media a free gift – but is hard to judge what it will be. Most give away nice bags for your laptop etc but there is always the risk that it will be a golf umbrella or something completely impractical. UEFA conformed to standard practice and handed us all a very nice bag, with lots of pockets to stuff as many free copies of the official tournament programme (normally 15CHF) which will of course soon appear on Ebay. With a few hours until kick off, the Media centre was a welcome home fo a few hours. Media centres sound very exciting but they are normally nothing more than a big marquee with rows of tables where nameless, faceless individuals make up stories to fill thousands of column inches. Geneva was no exception but I did see a few familiar faces from the Rugby World Cup that must mean I am becoming “accepted” at the top table.

The stadium in Geneva is really in the middle of nowhere. Sandwiched inbetween the railway line and a motorway, with a shopping centre at one end, it is not blessed with good public transport access. In fact the official guide recommends a 50 minute “fans” walk from the city centre, taking in many of the main sites of the city, passing the official Fans Village. These specially designated zones have become popular since the 2004 European Championships. The idea of cramming all fans into one area (essentially a compound) where toilet facilities are almost not existent, food and drink is overpriced and there is no shade from the sun or cover from the rain seems like fan hell, but they are very popular. The one in Lisbon in the old Expo site was brilliant. Not only did it have an arena constructed like a small stadium but it also had some excellent games such as “can you shoot as hard as Roberto Carlos” and the football equiviliant of Hole in One with a goal floating some 50 yards out into the harbour and you had to try and score three goals. In 2006 Germany took it one stage further by building mini stadiums in many cities just to watch the games. Many an unsuspecting person was fooled into buying a ticket to watch the world cup final in Berlin on Ebay with a seat at the 20,000 arena built by Adidas. Geneva’s version was no different, although as the first event here was the Swiss’s opening game versus the Czech Republic it was not suprising that the place was packed and hardly the most pleasant venue to watch the game so I instead headed past the stadium to a small French restaurant to meet Howard (and his Dad) who is one of a dozen or so England fans who has not missed a game (England that is) for over 20 years. He even travelled on a day trip to Tel Aviv last year just hours after his first child was born. He was without a ticket but had funds to enable him to negotiate so we had a decent meal, a couple of beers and then headed back to the stadium. With so many sellers, the market equilibrium was certainly in his favour and within minutes he had snared a face value ticket – so much for UEFA’s crackdown on the black market.

The stadium was a cauldron of noise and colour. The Swiss tried to introduce a few “wacky” games into the build up but it was not necessary. The dull looking stadium had been trasnformed red and maroon by the fans, and with the grey clouds staying over the mountains in the distance everyone waited for the start of the game. The earlier offering between the Czech’s and the Swiss had been disappointing, but this game started at a cracking pace with the Portuguese using Ronaldo wide on the right to attack the weaknesses in the Turkish backline. The first half was not without incident as theTurks played to form,diving around on the floor at every opportunity and with only 1 yellow card issued you could say that the German referee was turning a blind eye to most things. Pepe thought he had given the Portuguese the lead in the 19 minute but his header from a Deco corner was ruled out for a push. However, Pepe and the Portuguese bench appeared not to have noticed as they carried on celebrating for a good 30 seconds whilst play continued on around them. Ronaldo, sporting what can only be described as a baby mullet hit the post with a free kick late in the half – obviously he has been getting some tips on what the latest fashion trends are in Madrid from his “potential” new manager – the German Berndt Schuster.

The second half started much as the first half ended – with the referees whistle. Portugal continued to pump cross pitch balls to Ronaldo, and he continued to beat defenders with ease. The veteran Nuno Gomes hit the post in the 50th minute after the referee played advantage for a clear foul on Simao in the penalty area. The first goal eventually came on 60 minutes as Pepe got his score after a great one two with Deco. Whilst there was still 30 minutes to play, this goal essentially ended the spirit of the Turks, and apart from a couple of ludicrous penalty appeals they ran out of steam. It was left to substitute Raul Meireles to finish off the game in the 92nd minute after rounding the keeper, thanks to the brain and quick feet of Deco.

So 3 points for one of the tournament favourites, and game number one under my belt on the UEFA Gravy train. And with a strategically well located hotel I thought I was in for an easy journey back.  Oh how wrong I was.  I experienced the reason why Switzerland and Austria cannot host big events.  I even waited in the media centre for an hour after the game to allow the crowds to dispurse.  So leaving the stadium I headed north to Lancy and waited for a tram.  And waited, and waited.  After 20 minutes one turned up absolutely packed apart from the end carriage, where my fellow travellers and I boarded, only to be hit with the smell and site of vomit on most of the seats. This wasnt a “I feel a bit sick and cannot hold it in” type but a I am going to make sure I cover every inch of the tram with this baby…The tram took ages to crawl through the streets as the Portuguese fans in their cars were driving like maniacs, beeping their horns as if they had won the tournament as opposed to beating the 20th best team in the world (accoding to FIFA anyway).  The tram eventually got into Cornivan station and I headed inside to get the train for the 5 minute journey to the airport.  Except that the “extra trains laid on through the night for fans to get back to other towns and cities” actually meant that there was a train in 2 hours. So I had a difficult decision to make.  Walk the 3 miles, wait in a very long line for a taxi or try and find the bus.  After waiting for a taxi that was willing to go to such a local distance for over 30 minutes I gave up – as it was a sellers market the taxi drivers could be picky as to who they took and where.  And then a miracle happened – a number 5 bus signed to Aeroport and Palexpo drew to a halt on the opposite side of the road.  On boarding I confirmed it was indeed going my way and settled back – hopefully home by 1am and 4 hours sleep would have to do.  After 20 minutes of driving around the northern suburbs of the city we arrived at the deserted Palexpo (basically like the NEC) where the driver told the dozen or so passengers that actually he was terminating here and we had to get out and another bus would come “in about an hour” to take us to the Airport.  Wow – what a great and efficient transport service.  So with the airport in site across the motorway I set off again on my dangerous hike, crossing crash barriers, hard shoulders and a chain link fence to get back to the hotel – 90 minutes after leaving the stadium.  Good to see they have been talking to the organisers of Wembley to put in place their transportation policy!

A quick turnaround awaited me in the UK as I prepared for Salzburg – home of Mozart, Red Bull and chocolate salty marzipan balls – lovely!

Continue reading