Gareth Bales on us

It’s not often you get the opportunity to travel from one end of the footballing spectrum to another in just a few hours.  But today was one of those days.  After the highs of Lewes’s win at Wingate & Finchley yesterday it was a rude awaking at 3am for the trip to Madrid, on the first flight out of Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport.  So early was the departure that I had the BA lounge to myself for a good 15 minutes.  Still no Marmite though, but that is another story.  As the plane hugged the Atlantic coast of France I looked back on my previous trips to the Spanish capital, each memorable for different reasons.

9893199025_1e372f1884_b (2)In 1998, the Current Mrs Fuller and I made our first ever trip to Madrid on Debonair.  Remember them?  They flew from London Luton and went head to head with Easyjet for a number of years.  We pitched up in the middle of the Summer, not realising how hot Madrid could be.  A tour of the Bernabau raised temperatures even more, although the roof-top swimming pool of the Emperador was certainly a bonus (Madrid tip number 1: Not only an excellent rooftop pool but a huge buffet breakfast).

Two years later and we were back again.  In lieu of Christmas presents to each other we had invested in four consecutive weekends in European destinations that just happened to have four of the biggest football teams in Europe.  Milan, Madrid, Munich and Rome.  What an outstanding month.  Only it seemed such a good idea when we booked it in July.  Come January time and CMF was “just” five months pregnant.  Not handy for walking up to the top tier of the San Siro but she was a trooper and so I decided to treat her to a seat in the lower tier at the Bernabau.  Oh how she enjoyed sitting in the Fondu Sur with flares for company.  Nobody has ever mentioned that passive flare smoke is bad for unborn babies so that is OK.  In those days the East side of the stadium only had three tiers, rather than the five elsewhere.

Four years later and I was back to help Spain celebrate their 500th fixture.  And how were us party guests treated?  With water cannons in the streets around the ground, unprovoked baton assaults on the fans in the stadium and the racial abuse of Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips.  The actions of the Spanish police went unpunished although their FA were fined $87,000 for failing to act on the abuse from the crowd. So that makes it all alright then. Continue reading


Write Barca off at your peril

History?  You want history?  What about the mighty Barca crashing out of the Champions League after a humiliating lesson in football in Milan?  That was sure to be on the cards as Dagger’s Diary Brian headed off to the Camp Nou on Tuesday…..

This trip represents a couple of firsts for me. It’s my first midweek trip to Barcelona, and also my first Champions League game here. While Dagenham Dan will be at the Daggers game against Torquay, I am here on a solo trip for the first knock out round game against Milan.

Barcelona are going through a bit of a wobble at the moment. A 0-2 first leg defeat at the Guiseppe Meazza three weeks ago has left them with a rather large challenge tonight, in order to progress. If that wasn’t enough, a league defeat at Real Madrid (coupled with a cup defeat to the same opposition) has reduced the lead at the top of the league.

Of course, even the best teams can have a bad run of form. The Milan defeat has been put down to just an off-night for the side, but the drop in form has also come along at the same time that the coach, Tito Vilanova has been in New York, recovering from cancer surgery. While those who have stepped up to lead the team are obviously giving it everything, the loss of the team leader is clearly having a negative effect on the club. While the president has said that the health of Vilanova is the main priority for the season, losing such a lead in the division, as well as the Cup and an early exit in the Champions League would mean that, in a world that demands success ever more impatiently, no trophies would signify failure, no matter what the moral issues of the time.

100_5939 Recent performances have not quite reached the high standards of the last few years, coupled with the results. Not keeping a clean sheet in the last twelve games signals a problem in defence, and the reliance on Lionel Messi for goals suggests a rebuilding exercise for the club in the very near future. However, Messi, Puyol and Xavi have all recently signed contract extensions, which should keep the side together for the next few years at least.

This game against Milan though is one that, even at this stage, will go some way to defining the club’s season. If they can succeed tonight, then the resultant boost from recovering such a negative position should provide enough to get league campaign back on track. Defeat, and the nervous looks over the shoulder at the approaching Atletico and Real Madrid might just turn the last couple of months into nerve fest which Vilanova might not appreciate, especially given the health scares of the last few months. Continue reading

Early doors

And so 7 years and 3 weeks since we were awarded the games, the London Olympics is upon us. How could anyone in Great Britain not be excited by the next 18 days featuring the world’s greatest athletes? And here we were, ready to experience the opening events. Whisper it quietly, but the London Olympics didn’t start with the multi-million pound opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium, but actually started on Wednesday in Cardiff when Team GB ladies took on New Zealand. Even the official Olympic website suggests the games start on the 27th July – as if someone is embarrassed by the fact that football even exists in the games.

It has hardly been a surprise that virtually every game outside of London or not featuring Team GB has struggled to sell tickets. I have argued on these very pages about the logic in using such big stadiums in the far flung areas of the United Kingdom. Those romantic few told me that the residents of Glasgow and Cardiff would flock to watch the likes of Honduras, Morocco, Belarus and Gabon because it was “the Olympics”. Last week, LOGOC took the decision to remove over 500,000 unsold tickets for the football tournament from sale and simply close down parts of the stadiums, obviously making sure that the TV facing seats were full.

It is too late to argue the merits of using smaller grounds closer to London for the football (Reading, Southampton, Brighton for instance), but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth that such a logical outcome was ignored. However, that hadn’t stopped me heading north of the border to notch up event one of ten I would be attending during the games. Hampden Park would be our destination for a double bill of Morocco v Honduras, and then a little throw-away tie between Spain and Japan. I mean, who would want to watch Spain these day? What have they ever won eh? Dull, negative football. Give me Allardyce route one anyday! Who wants to see the ball on the pitch. There is a million times more room to hoof it in the air….I’ll stop now.

Despite my frequent trips north of the border, Hampden Park has never featured on the TBIR radar for a game (great tour and even better museum) so when it was announced that games would be held in the Scottish National Stadium it was too good an opportunity to miss, especially as tickets to any events in the proper Olympic venues were impossible to get last year. One thing you could not complaint about was value for money – £61 for four tickets for a double-header of international football. Of course a year on and tickets can be acquired for just about any game – the football was to be the first of TEN events that we would see in a 12 day period during the games (and we will bring you action from all 10 right here). But confusingly, wherever you went, all the signs/websites/newspaper articles said the Olympic games was due to start on Friday 27th July with the opening ceremony. The website told us Big Ben was to chime 40 times on the first day (i.e Friday 27th); the countdown clock was to the 27th July and all of the official records say the games run from Friday 27th July to Sunday 12th August. Continue reading

A double dose of Wembley

We’ve all read about the John Terry incident at QPR, and the moment when he was alleged to have made a racist remark to Anton Ferdinand. It’s kind of ironic that, given the row that has developed regarding Terry and Ferdinand (and the captaincy sub-plot about whether Terry should retain the armband – again), that we are playing the European and World Champions, who have a bit of previous when it comes to these kinds of matters in England encounters. The game in the Bernabeu in November 2004 was soon overshadowed by the chanting of certain sections of the crowd (as well as Luis Aragones and his description of Thierry Henry to Jose Reyes), and the resulting furore that was created that particular winter night led the England team to wear “kick racism out of football” logo’s on the front of their shirts for the next game, which was a friendly against the Dutch at Villa Park a few months later.

Whether this qualifies as a political statement, I’m not sure, but in the week leading up to the game, the FA asked FIFA on more than one occasion that the team be allowed to wear a poppy on their shirts, much as most clubs nowadays seem to do around Remembrance Day. FIFA decided that this constituted a political statement and that it would not be allowed. What is actually written in the FIFA equipment regulations (on page 78 if you’re interested) is this;

For all matches, all forms of advertising for sponsors, Manufacturers (exceeding the extent of Manufacturer’s Identification permitted under Chapter VI above) or any third parties, of political, religious or personal statements and/or other announcements, are strictly prohibited on all Playing Equipment items used on, or brought into (permanently or temporarily), the Controlled Stadium Area.

So, basically, it depends on if you defined the poppy as a political statement or not. There was much written about this decision, and most of it has been negative on FIFA. But national team shirts (at the moment) carry no advertising, other than the kit manufacturers logo which is (I suppose) to FIFA’s credit that there are some football shirts that at least remain advert free. The FIFA rules state that no political message is to be carried on a national team jersey, and while many may not like it, it’s been there all the time and this was the first time that I could recall that the idea of putting a poppy on the England shirt had been bought up. Continue reading

We’re in Ron’s 22

1982 – Spain
Any English football fan over the age of 35 should  be able to sing the first few lines of the classic This Time.  One of the most underestimated football songs of all time, made all the better for seeing the England squad in the recording studio adding their voices resplendent in their red and blue jumpers.  As a 12 year old I rushed out and bought the album was a double gatefold with limited edition printed signature sheet as well as the picture disc 7-inch single which was the 7th best selling single in May 1982 (interestingly enough one place higher than the Scottish effort).

This Time, we’ll get it right sang the squad along with such classics as England, we’ll fly the flag (essentially a reworked ad for British Airways) , Bulldog Bobby (by Mike Reid of Eastenders fame), Head over heels by Kevin Keegan and a boring monologue about the road to Spain.  I’d like to think that my purchase of such an heirloom helped enormously in the album getting to number 37 in the charts – well after all it was only competing against Dare by the Human League, Rio by Duran Duran and Complete Madness. Continue reading

Come on you lions! Following the three cubs in the land of the Swedes

Two years ago I traveled to the end of the earth, or so it seemed to follow the UEFA Under21’s tournament in Holland. England didn’t exactly deliver on the exciting football promise and staggered through the groups to make it to the semi-finals before they were defeated in a marathon penalty shoot out to the eventual winners Holland.

England had impressed much more in the build up to this tournament, qualifying with ease, although they had to overcome a playoff with Wales. The tournament itself promised much more as well as the host, Sweden, had gone to the trouble of building two new stadiums in Goteborg and Malmo. The latter would be hosting the final, and I had already done my homework with a visit a few weeks previously (see Ny Grund post). My plan would of course as you would expect, take in as many games as I could in the shortest possible time. In theory you could see most of four games in the opening two days, but I didn’t want to be greedy so I planned just three!

I was flying into little ol’ Goteborg City airport, essentially a field with a small landing strip that a Ryanair flight found one day and converted into an airport. It was convenient though and I would be in the city centre and off to the New Gamla Ullevi stadium to pick up my accreditation. The first game of the tournament was surprisingly not being played in one of the newer grounds, or featuring the host nation but instead was England v Finland in the small coastal town of Halmstad, an hour south of Goteborg. It would be a new venue for me, having never ventured south of Sweden’s 2nd city before and I was due to meet up with Dan for a beer before the game. Right on full time I was heading back up to Goteborg to catch the 2nd half of Spain v Germany at the Ullevi before getting a 3am coach down to Copenhagen for a full day’s graft. Why 3am? Well I could get the train at 7am which would get me into the office at 10am but the £70 single fare wasn’t exactly winning any hearts in the wallet department so I figured a £12 bus would allow me 4 hours to sleep and I could but the difference I saved to a beer – only one mind you as that is how expensive beer is out here. After a full day’s graft (which is normally until 3pm in the summer for the Danes) I would be heading back over the Oresund into Sweden for the host nations opening game in Malmo versus the surprise qualifiers, Belarus before flying back from Denmark at 10pm….Easy eh!

Of course I had to negotiate the hell that is Stansted Airport at 6am on a Monday morning. It is never a good time to fly from this outpost but on a Monday you have people flying home after a weekend of wearing fake policeman’s helmets, having their pictures taken at Madame Tussards and thinking that the height of the English culinary experience is the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse in Leicester Square. Add to that a few “exchange” trips going here and there – that one phrase sends shivers up my spine – the thought of a complete stranger who cannot speak any English, who simply wants to hump your cat/wife/car and then steals your CD’s fills me with dread, and you get the picture that it is England’s closest example of hell on earth. Still at least I had a nice relaxing Ryanair flight to look forward to.

I have to say I was impressed. Normally Ryanair’s flights are staffed by the most miserable flight crews you will find, primarily because they are Polish/Latvian/Ukranian and actually do not understand any English. Today’s quartet surpassed anything I had seen before. Not even a smile on entering the plane. Not even a please or thank you when doing the safety briefing – (“You will not smoke”, “You will not use the toilet”, “If you have been using battery operated equipment switch it off now!” were some examples). Instead of asking if anyone wanted a magazine they simply threw them at you. Not that anyone was arguing – the three girls (Clarrisa, Alexandria and Rula if you want to know) were built for comfort and not for joy – perhaps they had been warned the flight was going to be full of English football hooligans and staffed the crew with the front row of Ryanair’s womens rugby XV. I am sure a few years ago they published a calendar featuring some of their more picturesque crew – where are they kept because I have never seen them!

However, we did land on ten minutes early although someone forgot to tell the captain that when the plane hits (note hits not touches down) the runway you are supposed to put the brakes on. Queue the ridiculous jingle about “another” on time landing, which actually isn’t true. I have taken this route four times and on each occasion the flight time has been the same (I am sad I make a note) – 1 hour 25 minutes, yet the scheduled time is 1 hour 55 minutes. Easyjet are no better, scheduling the Stansted Copenhagen route as 2 hours when even in a near hurricane headwind and de-icing in Denmark it is a 1 hour 50 minute trip max. The great bit of confusion the Swedes had added to the mix was that the only bus to the city centre did not take cash anymore. So you had to go into the she, sorry terminal building and buy a 60SEK (£5) ticket there. For some reasons a couple of posh middle aged English people who had fussed throughout the whole flight thought this was “rather unfair” as they had been queueing for twenty minutes, and demanded the driver reserved them a seat whilst hubby went off to get the tickets. Now my Swedish hasn’t yet extended to swear words but I am sure I learnt one with his reply!

So after a little wander around various football sites of Goteborg and a sneak look in the New Ullevi during daylight I nabbed my pass and headed an hour south to Halmstad. Now I wouldn’t say it was a sleepy little Swedish town, but I am a liar – it is and as Dan said, anywhere and everywhere is 8 minutes away. It is certainly picturesque and the walk up the canal to the stadium was very pleasant indeed, especially as the locals had deemed it a “wear as little as we wanted” day. The stadiums media facilities was essentially an extended shed with a bar at the home. No problems there as it had power, wireless network, food and of course local maidens on hand to help a lost visitor.

Niclas Alexandersson apparently

Niclas Alexandersson apparently

I met up with Dan in the fanspark in the town square – essentially a big bit of artificial grass with a goal in it so all the locals could take pot shots at the mad Englishmen brave enough to go in goal. I did bump into Niclas Alexandersson – the most famous local from these parts who actually played 8 games for the Hammers in the dark days of 2004 when every home game saw another loanee at the club.

Many people were surprised when Halmstad’s 15,500 capacity stadium was chosen as one of the four venues as there are much better venues not only on the west coast but also close to Goteborg such as Elfsborg’s Boras Arena. The original plan was to include the Boras Arena but because they had a “Max” burger restaurant as part of the ground (and one of the sponsors of the club) which they refused to close for the tournament, McDonalds (one of the main UEFA partners) “allegedly threw their apple pies out of the pram and the games were moved a few miles down the road to Halmstad. But the intimate venue has some real history. Int he 1958 World Cup the ground hosted games between Northern Ireland, Argentina and Czechoslovakia.

The Fins had certainly traveled in numbers and for once the English were outnumbered by a fair distance and really made themselves at home in the very quaint and picturesque little stadium. A beautiful setting on a long summer night but I bet it is horrible on a dark autumn one! And they had brought a few of the better looking fans with them as well, which had certainly endeared them to the English.

After some pitch side meet and greets with Stuart Pearce and Sir Trev it was time to sit back and watch the young Three Lions set a marker for the rest to follow.

England 2 Finland 1 – Örjans Vall, Halmstad – Monday 15th June

How did they get them in there?

How did they get them in there?

Pearce had put a very strong England team out, featuring five players in Hart, Mancienne, Agbonlahor, Walcott and Richards who had games under their belt for the senior team plus the likes of James Milner and Mark Noble (and even, dare I say it, another Arsenal player who is actually English in Kieran Gibbs) against the team who were the weakest in the group.

Having seen the poor crowds at the majority of the tournament two years ago I was very surprised (and pleased) to see so many in the stadium – although the vast majority were either Finns or locals supporting the Finns giving us Englanders a complex. It probably helped that a sensible ticket pricing scheme was in place with the cheapest category of seats being just 60SEK or £7, although or dear (quite appropriately) FA sold the “official” allocation at £25.

Finland certainly had the better of the opening exchanges, taking every opportunity to throw the ball into the penalty area to choruses of “boring, boring” from their supporters (Apparently it was “Suomi, Suomi” but it sounded like boring, boring).  But on 14 minutes the English took the lead as Lee Cattermole slotted home from close range after a good run into the box by Gabby, Gabby, Gabby Agbonlahor.

The football rattle? What happened to them? Well in a world of happy clappers and blow up “rumble” sticks that we have seen recently at Wembley and Lords alike it was good to see that some of the Finns had got minature white and blue flags made out of plastic that doubled up as rattles – a great touch and one I am sure that Mr Last would approve of (see his post on cricket lowlights here for more details).

Back to the game, which is a shame as it was spoiling a lovely sunny evening. Thirty minutes gone and a long punt upfield caused Mancienne to dither and Berat Dadik nipped in and as he pulled back the trigger, Mancienne tripped him – Penalty and Red Card – no question…Up stepped captain Tim Sparv and it was 1-1. The Finns went wild, none more so than the goalscorer who disappeared into the fans behind the goal and it took four stewards to get him back!

The roll call of players sitting around us was quite impressive. Newcastle’s (or is he?) Stephen Taylor, ex-Liverpool defender(s) Marcus Babbel and more recently Sami Hyppia were all happy to be snapped away with the fans, less so Germany’s ex-World Cup referee Markus Merk who hid behind his programme when approached.

Pearce withdrew Walcott at half time, obviously having received a call from either Arsene Wenger or Mrs Walcott that his tea was ready, and Fraizer Campbell took his place. Seven minutes into the second half and England restored their lead thanks to a powerful header from Micah Richards from a set piece which woke up the English fans who were enjoying the sunshine a little too much – indeed it even roused the England fans behind the goal into a chorus of “You’re not singing anymore” – the first time we had been heard all evening.

With five minutes to go I packed up and yomped across this pretty little town and just made the 8.05pm train to Goteborg where I hoped that a kindly blonde beauty would take pity on me and break the traditional UEFA role of one day one match – i.e you cannot see two games in one day, even though it is possible.  The train pulled in on time and five minutes later I was disappointed. Yes, there was no blonde beauty but a lovely UEFA lady waved her magic marker pen and I was in, ten minutes before half time.

Spain 0 Germany 0 – The New Gamla Ullevi, Goteborg – Monday 15th June

Spain 0 Germany 0

Spain 0 Germany 0

It is now not uncommon to see two teams sharing a stadium in Europe,especially one built thanks to central funding, but Goteborg’s Ullevia must be the only one in one of the major European leagues that has three tenants. IFK, GAIS and Örgryte IS all share the stadium for their Allsvenskan games – in fact there was original talks of BK Häcken moving in as well but that would have just been plain silly. The construction was not without controversy as supporters from all corners voiced displeasure at a number of aspects of the design. It opened to an almost full house on the 5th April 2009 when GAIS and Örgryte played in front of over 17,000 fans.

But that was then, and this is now. The first half wasn’t the most open of games with few chances for either side (thanks for that one line summary of the game so far) but my interest was split with events in SE1 where England were playing West Indies in a winner takes all Twenty20 game. The torrential rain had reduced the game to a slog fest that made for interesting t’internet viewing with a place in the Semi-Final at stake.

But back to the football. What a strange stadium it was. Probably around 7/8th full but completely devoid of any atmosphere, just a general chatter amongst the fans. You can see why the normally passionate Swedish football fans were disappointed with the finished article. The lower tier had strange patio doors around half of it that gave it the look of a 21st century Kenilworth Road. Small and compact yes but really unimaginative.

First chance of the half fell to Germany’s tattooed centre forward Ashkan Dejagah who had been part of the title winning VfL Wolfsburg team this season. A great pull back from Castro found the forward on the penalty spot and after he turned his man he fired the ball into the upper tier (which is not hard with only eight rows in the lower tier).

Spain’s captain, Raul Garcia had come into the tournament with a big reputation, after a good season in the Atletico Madrid team and scoring the goal that got the Spaniards to the tournament last year but he was really annoying the ref with his whining and a few stern words were required on a number of occasions, although on each time he did look like he was going to cry! He also managed a great run of 50 yards, although it was to protest in the referees face after a foul by Germany’s Beck had left one of their players prostrate (favourite players – “Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack” I bet it reads in the programme, but I can’t read German so you will just have to take my word that it is so!).  Unsurprisingly he got his deserved yellow card in the 90th minute.

It certainly wasn’t a shabby game with both teams playing in a way their seniors would be proud of. Spain’s technical pass and move was a joy to watch but every attack was snuffed out by the quick and powerful German centre backs Howedes and Aogo. Ozil someone managed to miss a great effort on the hour mark, taking the ball around the keeper but delaying long enough for him to get back and turn the ball over.

With the temperature falling despite the late evening sunshine and news filtering through that England had lost to the Windies in the last over at the Oval I needed some cheering up. CMF was on “putting children to bed duty” so I couldn’t drive down that avenue so I started eye wandering (you know when you look around somewhere looking for something interesting?). The first thing that struck me was the managers. Germany’s Horst Hrubesch had won the European Championships in 1980 with two goals in the final. As a ten year old I remember “Rubbish” as Motty called him with his mullet hairstyle and bad dress sense. Well here he was tonight. Older, fatter but still with a crap haircut and a cheap looking suit. If you met him in a room of a thousand strangers, without even speaking to him you would know he was German. Balance this with Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, Spain’s coach. Tanned, smartly dressed and standing impassively in his technical area, hiding a tough interior from his time as Real Madrid’s reserve coach (and 1st team one as a caretaker in 2004/05 season). Two contrasting styles but very much conforming to a stereotype. Come to think of it, Stuart Pearce had a tracksuit on and the Finnish coach was blonde so we have a quartet of predictability tonight.

Mesut Ozil really should have wrapped it up for the Germans in the 80th minute when he beat the offside trap but shot weakly at the Spanish goalkeeper. Both teams had chances to win it in injury time but couldn’t find a way through. Horst thought that the Germans were the better team, and that they feared no one and he forgot to buy any meatballs from Ikea for his wife *well I am sure that is what I translated it from German).  So England really became the only winners, knowing that a victory over either of these teams would take them through to the semi-finals. I was off to be bed for a ludicrous 2 hours power nap before I got the overnight coach down to Copenhagen and a day for mirth and mayhem in the office there before heading off to the Swedes opening game in Malmo.

Sweden 5 Belarus 1 – The Swedbank Stadion, Malmo – Tuesday 16th June

The opening game 3!

The opening game 3!

Well I survived the 2am start and the 4 1/2 hours coach trip which arrived into Copenhagen city centre a scandalous 1 minute late after the 250 mile journey. I was scrubbed up and at my desk by 8am (although the rest of the office still hadn’t made it out of bed yet), although our regular EDF induced power cut in London meant I couldn’t actually access any of my systems – a short nap was a consideration but with two cups of Black Citron Tea inside me I was ready for the day. And apart from a low period after lunch where sleep seemed an inevitable next step I survived, hopped on a train and was in Malmo less than an hour later.

It was good to see that the builders had been on overtime since I was here last month (see post here) and that the outside of the stadium had been finished. I was looking forward to being in the stadium for this one to see how many locals would turn out bedecked in yellow and blue. Rumours in the office were that it was a sell out, and thus the biggest ever Under21 game played in Sweden ever. The team were coached by Tommy Soderberg who had been co-coach to the national team that had qualified for Euro2000, Euro 2004 and the 2002 World Cup. Belarus on the other hand were an unknown force. They finished 2nd in Serbia’s group and had the most fantastically named Igor Shitov starting the game at full back.

Ten minutes before kick off and a group of children ran onto the pitch with the flags of the various countries playing in the tournament. Ah the opening ceremony. Now some traditionalists will have you believe that the opening ceremony should precede the opening game. Not so in ultra modern, hip, cool and trendy Sweden who planned the event to maximise the capacity local crowd. Except the locals forgot to turn up, and when the crescendo of music reached its climax nothing happened. Judging by the frantic talking into walkie-talkie’s I imagine the players should have emerged at this point. However, tonight the DJ saved their lives by playing the Euro-pop song again, even louder to remind the players that they were supposed to come out 2 minutes before.

The children could have stayed on the pitch with their flags and not got in the way based on the opening twenty minutes. Again at this level the teams were disappointing. UEFA had marketed this (quite cleverly in my opinion) as a tournament to watch the “stars of today before they become the superstars of tomorrow”, but they seemed happy to be forgotten in a season players. The ball was hit long on most occasions, and only some over zealous Swedish tackling livened up the opening quarter.

The first real chance came in the 29th minute when a smart Swedish move on the edge of the box saw the goal open up for Emir Bajrami who slid his shot just wide of the post. However against the run of play it was the Belarussians who took the lead with a fantastic strike from Sergei Kislyak from around 30 yards, powering the ball into the roof of the net after being teed up by Afanasiev. The lead lasted 6 minutes before Rasmus Elm’s hopeful shot took a deflection off Martynovich’s head and left the Belarussian goalkeeper clutching at air.

Two minutes later they scored again as Marcus Berg kept his feet in the penalty area, got a lucky rebound and pushed the ball into the net to send the slowly filling up stadium into a collective yellow and blue party zone. Berg certainly looked lively and had carried his form for FC Groningen into this game where he had scored 30 goals in just fifty appearances which had earnt him a number of call ups to the senior squad. Five minutes later and he had a second, slotting home with ease after some excellent hold up play on the edge of the area to put the game out of the Belarussians reach.  Half time and the Swedes were well in control.

The second half started in the same vein with Sweden pressing the Belarussians back but they managed to hold out until the 81st minute when a ball over the top saw Berg squeeze a leg between the onrushing goalkeeper and the defender to lift the ball over their heads and to complete his hatrick with the simplest of finishes.  If truth be told he should have had a 4th a few minutes later when his header was well saved from close range.  But Sweden were not finished and with the game entering the 90th minute Svensson scored a cracking goal with a drive into the top corner from 25 yards.  Sweden had been mightily impressive although it was hard to see how good the Belarussians really were on this form.

So my final job of the trip was to make it back to Copenhagen airport in time for my Easyjet flight.  Phase one was getting a cab to the station – check.  Phase two was getting the train – early one running late so a big check there.  With an hour to go I was walking towards an empty security zone which is almost unheard of here.  I passed over my printed at the office boarding card but it wouldn’t scan.  “Try the machines downstairs” the security guard told me.  Only the machines cannot accept Easyjet bookings, so I had to queue up at their sales desk.  Fifteen minutes later when I am eventually served I am told I need to go to the check in desks and have a new boarding card printed.  So off  I go again(Copenhagen airport is not “compact” by the way).  Nice smiley lady at check in sympathises and writes me a new card and I am off, through security, grabbed some food and make it to the gate just as the inbound flight lands 30 minutes early.

So I could make it home for play time – or so I thought.  We boarded early and I took my seat at the rear of the plane.  I have got to know a few of the Easyjet staff over the past year of doing this route regularly and had a chat about the storm from the previous evening.  For some reason there was an issue with headcount.  We appeared to have too many passengers on board and had lost a baby!  So a manual count was done, which was inconclusive.  The main stewardess asked the ground crew for a passenger manifest and they said that a computer malfunction had wiped the list – very handy….So calls were made to the world and their dog and eventually they got a list.  The baby issue turned out to be an infant who had turned 2 years old since getting the outbound flight and was thus officially classed now as an Adult but not in the eyes of the manifest.  But there were still two too many passengers on the flight.  We were now 40 minutes late leaving and people were understandably getting frustrated.  Eventually they found out why…

“Would a Mr Stuart Fuller please make himself known to the cabin crew”.  Well I was sitting there talking to them – couldn’t really make myself anymore familiar without being in breach of a number of airline regulations.  It appears that I had been checked in not just once, but three times!  Once at the office and twice by the check in staff at Copenhagen airport, so I was on the manifest three times.  A simple search would have thrown up this error straight away.  The captain came down to verify that I was just one person, leading to many passengers speculating that I was a “wrong ‘un” but it was soon put right by a cabin announcement by the captain who told a few home truths about the ground crew.

So there we are.  I crawled into bed at 12.30am and immediately started dreaming of Helsinki in August….could it be, could it be!

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Staring into the Abcess

In November 2004 I attended my first ever away trip to watch England as part of the official travel group. The trip was to the famous Estadio Bernabau for a relative meaningless friendly. The whole trip was a disaster, ranging from a four hour delay on the way out, the appalling treatment dished out to the traveling fans in the stadium by the Spanish police and of course the appalling racial abuse that the sparse crowd on the night gave to some of the England players. In the run up to the match comments made by the then Spanish coach Luis Aragones to members of his squad about Thierry Henry hit the headlines as he was fined a paltry around a day’s wages for his racial outburst by the Spanish FA.

The infamous game kicks off

The infamous game kicks off

The game itself wasn’t too impressive as a solitary goal by ex-Chelsea full back Del Horno in the first half settled the game. Obviously being my first ever away trip I expected a little bit more. Tickets cost something stupid like €4 each to try and generate some interest from the locals in Madrid for basically a game that no one really wanted to watch. There was some interest from the England fans as it was a new venue to tick off. One of the other abiding memories was the fact it was a freezing cold day and night but the huge powerful heaters in the top tier of the stadium meant it wasn’t long before fans were stripping off.

Since that game England surprisingly announced a return fixture two years later in Manchester in what turned out to be the last international played away from Wembley Stadium when Iniesta scored the only goal of a dull game under the leadership of McClown. So it was some surprise that initially rumours started that we would play them again so swiftly, and secondly where we would play as the Spanish FA initially would not be budged on Madrid as the venue.

Most fans worked on rumour and gossip for these games and this means taking a risk on flights before they get too expensive. I had heard a whisper of four potential venues in late 2008 – Valencia, Alicante, Santandar and Seville. Basing my logic on the fact that three places were in the south I booked flights to Alicante for a royal sum of £45. Of course the day I actually got round to do the booking the FA announced that the game was being played in Seville. Ryanair, after keeping me on a 10pence per minute music on hold line for 17 minutes told me the flights were non refundable but for £25 per leg I could change them….so for £50 I could change my £45 flights. Real logic there so instead I made a call to Dagenham Dan and within ten minutes we were booked on an early flight to Madrid and then the ridiculous fast train down to Seville.

I’ve never experienced this way of travel before. These trains put Eurostar to shame and travel at over 300km per hour on average – completing the 500 mile journey in under 2 1/2 hours. AND if the train is more than 5 minutes late you get money back!

There are three stadiums in Seville and it was odds on that it would be played initially at the Olympic Stadium. It was here that Celtic lost to Porto in the UEFA Cup final of 2003 in the 100+ degree heat that always seems to characterise the city. I was part of a group of ten which managed to all get tickets by applying earlier enough on the UEFA Cup website and then laughed our socks off as Celtic fans who could have had faith in their team and booked them the same way as us could not get any. I do not understand this logic. If tickets are available openly to the general public and your team could be in the final, why wouldn’t you take a chance. The Olympic stadium has never hosted any Olympic event and so I have no idea why it is called so, but it is a white elephant amongst a city that is know for its white elephants. The stadium is in the northern areas of the city, with no facilities or public transport links close by. We walked for 45 minutes across wasteland to reach the stadium on that May night and since then the stadium hasn’t hosted another big event. For this game the Spanish FA decided to play at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, home of Sevilla and a real favourite with the national team who had not lost a game in their long history.

The stadium is located to the east of the city centre, and was almost across the road from the hotel I had booked – for once a bit of inside knoweldge was useful for this trip. Apart from the 2003 trip I had been to Seville on two occasions, and both times had stayed at the Hesperia. On both instances it proved an oasis of cool on days where the mid day temperature soared over 100 degrees. Sevillians cope quite well with the heat – as they simply go home for lunch and sleep (Siesta time) for 3 hours. Us English instead did what English people do best in the mid day sun…we drank beer and wandered around a theme park!

So at 5pm on a freezing cold Wednesday morning I set off from chez Fuller, picking Dan up enroute to my second home Stansted. Within two hours of leaving the artic conditions of south east England we were touching down in a very sunny and warm Madrid. We had a couple of hours in the capital before our 3pm train down to Seville so we headed for a restaurant in the main station, Atoche, which looked more like a botanical garden than a station. We had a choice of restaurants and so picked the one that had the best looking clientele of course! We ordered – a typical Spanish meal of Spaghetti Carbonara for moi and fried chicken for Dan. Within 10 seconds, no word of a lie, my meal turned up. About a minute later the waitress came back with our drinks and looked puzzled. For a few seconds she was tempted to take away my meal which was obviously intended for someone else! I should add at this point that the reason for my strange choice of food was a growing pain I had in my upper jaw behind one of my teeth. I initially decided to concentrate on alcohol as a pain killer but that soon proved to be a bad move.

Our train, unsurprisingly left on the dot of 3pm and less than two hours ten minutes later, after covering close to 600km we pulled into an even sunnier and hotter Seville Santa Justa stadium. Rob the Red was there to meet us and we swiftly joined by Shents who had been in Malaga the previous evening watching our under 21’s play Ecuador. It appeared that the mindless element of the England fans had been out in full force in the centre of Seville, thinking that throwing oranges, pulled from the trees, at passing locals was a “great weeze”. Unsurprisingly the riot police, not shy in coming forward, had broken up the crowds in the, surprise, surprise, Irish bar as well as smashing a few tourists cameras who had attempted to film the whole thing.

After a brief pit stop at the hotel we met up with our usual travelling party for another typical Spanish meal, Pizza Hut which proved more than I could chew quite literally as the pain in my jaw was almost unbearable and for a brief moment I contemplated giving the game a miss and heading back to the hotel. We had been told to get to the stadium early, in fact as early as two hours before kick off, based on the treatment we had received in Madrid. So we turned up at the ground at 8pm and waited. And waited, and the waited some more. Eventually at 8.50pm we were let in and headed for a decent spot in the stadium.

Spain 2 England 0 – Stadium Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan – Wednesday 11th February 2009

Spain awaits....

Spain awaits....

Dan had brought his big flag and so getting into the stadium when the gates opened meant we had a prime spot in the front row of the second tier. We were soon joined by a few well know faces from the forum, including the legendary Mr Holmes, who got the chance to update me on Sheffield United’s hopeless case to sue West Ham. As time ticked down towards kick off more and more fans entered the lower tier and tried to push their way to the front – completely oblivious that there was hundreds of seats in the upper tiers.
The England support was split into two. There were those who were there to watch the game, and those here to piss around and cause bother. Oh, and we had the ones who had spent too long drinking in the sun such as the chap standing below us who spent the whole of the first half throwing up all over his nice suede shoes. There was also an unwelcome appearance from our friend in Minsk who had kept us all waiting at the airport, and had vowed never to come away again, but was here, pissed and making a complete fool of himself.
There were others who spent the whole of the game simply chatting and generally acting as if they were on a school trip. And then there was those who decided to antagonise the Spanish fans and riot police, not surprisingly getting a slap with a baton for their troubles. Finally, there was the complete tosser who decided to try and set fire to a Villa branded England flag as he was obviously a Blue Nose. If anyone who falls into the above boxes reads this, do us all a favour and stay in the bars – your support is definitely not welcome.
This was to be a monumental game for West Ham. Not only had Matthew Upson been picked again, but so too had England’s number 6 Robert Green and amazingly Carlton Cole had been called up. The choice of Cole had caused a stir both within the media and also the opposing fans. In a normal season he would not have got a look in, but with injuries to the likes of Owen, Rooney and dare I say it Defore, options were thin on the ground. Can’t Control, as the West Ham fans liked to call him, had been on a rich run of form with 5 goals in his last 6 Premier League appearances and so he was there on merit. The same could not be said for Scott Parker who was having an outstanding season in the Hammer’s midfield. The Times were so sure he would be included that they put him in the squad anyway…I can just imagine the Parker household getting all excited in reading this over Sunday bacon sandwiches only to have his hopes dashed when he picked up the Sunday Sport and found out the truth.
The other notable pick was Mr Beckham who would earn his 108th cap and thus pull level with Bobby Moore. You cannot compare the two players in my book. Bobby earnt 108 full caps and played 90 minutes in every single game in a time when friendlies actually meant something. Beckham’s last two caps had totalled less than 5 minutes. Capello resisted the urge to start with Beckham, but did insist on picking David James again and so it was no surprise that Spain took the game to England and took the lead when David Villa waltzed between Jagielka and Terry to slot home.
The second half started with the substitutions as usual with Green and Upson taking their place on the field but they were unable to get anywhere near the impressive Spanish where Xavi Alonso and Iniesta were so effective. It was no surprise when Llorente powered a second from close range with eight minutes to go. Carlton Cole had England’s best chance when Beckham put him through and his shot was cleared off the line. The defeat was predictable against a very strong European Champions side but there still seemed to be too many players going through the motions.
We stayed around after the match so that Dan could collect as many programmes as possible for his Ebay business. We saw David Pleat and Paul Jewel heading off, with a long walk back to their hotel whilst Dan and I had a short 3 minute stroll back to the Hesperia.
After a very uncomfortable night where the tooth was not becoming more than problematic we were off back to Madrid on the AVE. A slightly slower two hours twenty minutes (as we stopped in Cordoba) saw us back in the capital in the bright sunshine. We had a few hours to kill before our flight and whilst I should have tried to find an emergency dentist, the prospect of a tour around the Bernabau was much more enticing.
If anyone hasn’t had the opportunity to do this tour then you have missed a vital lesson in footballing history. The tour is self guided as you make your way from the top of the stadium, bathed in beautiful sunshine on this February day, through the musuem and trophy room (don’t forget your sunglasses in here!), down to pitch side and the dugouts, through the changing rooms and finally into the shop where you could buy Real Madrid branded nappies, PC’s and Christmas trees.
For once Ryanair’s flight was on time and we were soon on our way back to blighty….The tooth by this stage was in agony and I had already booked an appointment for the next day for some emergency treatment. However, all good things come to an end at some point as we landed in a snow storm at Stansted, and a flash back to ten days previously when I returned from Naples. This time we were lucky – we were one of the final flights to land before the airport was closed due to the blizzard like conditions. Oh to be in England in the winter time….
As a postscript the pain in the jaw was diagnosed as a deep root canal infection – aka an Abcess, which can be severely aggrevated by alcohol and flying…oops..

About the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán
The Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán is still one of the most atmospheric stadiums in Spain. It was originally opened in 1957, replacing Seville’s original home, the Estadio Nervion that was located close by the current ground. At its peak the stadium held over 60,000 but today due to safety issues and the conversion to all seater it has been reduced to just over 50,000. It is a relative simple stadium – a two tiered bowl structure, with steep sides and only one stand covered. The stadium hosted the 1986 European Cup Final between Barcelona and Steaua Bucharest as well as hosting games in the 1982 World Cup finals including the infamous Semi-Final between West Germany and France. After the 1982 World Cup, the land that the club owned around the stadium was sold for development and today it is indeed a strange sight that it is quite hard to find the stadium as a whole shopping and residential complex has been built around it.

The stadium is also used frequently for the national team, and is deemed a lucky omen in that they have never lost here in over 20 games. Added to this is the remarkable record Sevilla have in European competition in that they have never lost an European tie at home – a fact that certainly ensured UEFA Cup success last season. Average attendances over recent seasons have been over 40,000 but success on the field this season has seen it rise to nearly 50,000.

How to get to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán
The stadium is located to the east of the city centre, within a 5 minute walk from the Santa Justa railway station – the terminus for the AVE trains from Madrid, and forms part of the From the city centre buses C1, C2, 32 and 37 run from the city centre.

If the club switch a game to the Estadio La Cartuja in the north west of the city, then be prepared for a long 30-minute walk from the historic city centre. The renamed Olympic Stadium sits on the old Exp site north of the Ronda de Circunvalacion ring road, and whilst is an impressive stadium from the inside, suffers badly from being so isolated.

How to get a ticket for the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán
Despite Seville’s meteoric rise to fame over the past two seasons, tickets for most games (Betis, Real Madrid and Barcelona excepted) are easy to come by. The ticket office will start selling them from around 10 days before the match, with prices starting from €30 for a place in the Gol Sur or Norte to €90 for a covered seat in the Preferencia Banco de Pista. During May and September, temperatures in Seville can still hit the high 30’s and so it is worth investing more to get one of the limited tickets in the shade, rather than risk sunstroke.

For the big games, tickets are severely restricted but still available. For instance, for the Seville derby versus Betis, tickets were still on sale two days before the game – although prices tend to be inflated by around 40% for these fixtures. Last season Seville averaged just over 40,000 for their home fixtures.

If Seville, for any reason, switch their home games to the Olympic Stadium (more commonly known as the Estadio La Cartuja) then tickets are still sold via the ticket office at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. A couple of seasons ago, the club experimented by playing a couple of games here but crowds actually fell and so they are in no hurry to repeat the experiment.

Around the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán
The stadium is located in the middle of a shopping centre, which makes it hard to see from the surrounding roads, but means that food and drink outlets are numerous around the stadium.