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.

Drawing Lodz

“Ella, Ella, Under my Umbrella”….just five days prior to our arrival in Poland’s third biggest city, those words has reverberated across the Stadion ŁKS  as one of the most famous and sought after artists in the world, Rhianna played in front of a sell out crowd in the adjacent Atlas Area. One hundred and fifteen hours later, Danny Last and I were wrapped up like Michelin men outside the football stadium, huddled under a canopy, waiting to pick up our press passes from ŁKS Łódź . Now don’t get me wrong, I love Danny Last but he’s no Rhianna and so when he uttered the chorus line for the umpteenth time I told him exactly where he could stick his bloody “Ella” and I wandered off in a huff to find some football socks for my collection.

Our trip to the frozen central plains of Poland had begun like that of thousands of heroes before us at Stansted Airport at 5am on a Saturday morning. We had endured the 2 hour mind torture that is Ryanair and had completed a quick recce of Poznan where the Irish will be playing next Summer (question – when the Irish go abroad, do they seek out the nearest English pub and drink watered down Fosters and watch episodes of Only Fools and Horses with their Roast Beef and two veg?). From Poznan we had travelled east in 1st class Polish train luxury to Warsaw as you can read over at EFW.  Let’s hope they have finished the tram link to the stadium as it is a long walk otherwise.  We also discovered after what seemed liked an eternity that Polish train stations are not allowed by law to sell alcohol.  So now we know why they all head over to England!

Sunday morning saw us rise early from our 5 star luxury abode. Events of the previous day/night slowly started to unfold. Mobile phones tend to leave a history and looking at my call/text/Twitter log left me in no doubt I had had a few too many. All I will say is that no, I don’t think we should do that, yes it was very hairy and Mum, I was only joking.  The noise of the Legia fans was still ringing in our ears, and after a quick Poznan across our Westin hotel room we headed out into the freezing day trying to jointly piece together the evening.

There had been a lock-in at the pub we eventually found. It was a Polish Karaoke bar, hosted by Chris Evans (at 2am he could’ve been his twin brother anyway) who kept plying us with Lech’s, with the mistaken belief that we were journalists and would write nice things about Pub Ślusarna in ul Waliców 12 in the official (ish) guide to Euro2012. Well, we can’t be bought that easy!  And if you thought we were joining in in getting up on a table you would have grossly mistaken our outlook on life. Continue reading

Pole Dancing in my pants

Some of the most beautiful cities in the world have the honour of being twinned with Warsaw, capital of Poland and proud host city of Euro2012. Berlin, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Oslo and San Diego are just some of the names culturally associated with Warsaw. And then we have the British offering – Coventry. If this is the only impression the Poles have of our green and pleasant lands then I apologise now. No disrespect meant to the home of Jimmy Hill, Willie Carr and Talbot but it is hard to compare the Coventry Ring Road in the constant grey drizzle with Gran Via and its never ending nightlife in Madrid or the sunshine of San Diego’s harbour. So I was sent on a mission to try to make the Poles feel that us Brits really do care. Oh, that and to see Legia Warsaw play against Zaglebie Lubin in the Polish Ekstraklasa.

Poland had hardly appeared on my footballing radar since my days of getting my passport stamped for European football commenced back in 2000. One single visit to Krakow back in May 2008 was the sum total of my experience, which is quite unforgivable and forgettable as I spent that weekend with Football Jo talking celebrity rubbish. With Euro2012 almost upon us, those good chaps at In Bed With Maradona gave me a gentle nudge and reminded me of my duty to produce at least an online guide book for the championships, just as I had done for every major European football tournament since 2006 (such as the now out of print 2006 World Cup Guide). Oops, there I have gone and revealed a huge trade secret. Yes I can exclusively reveal here, today that there will be a IBWM/TBIR with guest stars Ryan Hubbard and Danny Last inspired guide coming to a screen near you soon.

So to make it as authentic as possible I set out on a schedule to take in the 8 host cities and see how things were shaping up for the big day(s) in just three months. First up was a quick overnighter to Warsaw, where the re-arranged opening day fixture for Legia Warsaw was being played. The game was cancelled back in August due to appalling rain and the final stages of redevelopment of the Stadion Wojska Polskiego imienia Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego (aka handily known for us foreigners as the Pepsi Arena). Now this wasn’t one of the venues for the games next summer – Warsaw had decided to build the new 58,145 seater National Stadium on the other side of the Vistula River from the picturesque old town. Continue reading