Friday, December 29, 2006

Kaizer Chiefs v Orlando Pirates December 2006

Often described as the one of the biggest clashes in world football the Soweto Derby between Chiefs & Pirates is certainly an impressive spectacle. A crowd of over 70000 , of which probably less than a 100 are white ,with just a few Europeans (such as your correspondent) in evidence.

Following an overnight flight from the UK it takes about a day to return to 'normal'. The weather certainly helps the process as its at least 25 degrees & usually dry & very sunny. Though a languid feeling tends to take hold - reinforced by seeing the locals strolling around the streets (or indeed the motorways)

Driving from Melville (Jo-burg) it takes around 40 minutes , with one or two wrong turns to get near to the NASREC area/FNB stadium (actually just outside of Soweto) As a newcomer it certainly takes a while to find your way around as signage can be uninformative or non-existent & road names hard to find (often on the kerbside)
You know when you are close because the car park hustlers appear & you see the yellow & black/white colours of the two teams displayed on the vehicles. Parking near the stadium (as I did - not my usual approach but as it was my first visit to a game in South Africa it seemed the safer option) meant a long wait to get in amongst the general chaos with little evidence of police presence.
That gave plenty of time to absorb the atmosphere which was friendly enough as both sets of supporters seemed to mix happily with the early arrivals enjoying their pap (porridge) , beers & maybe some ganja (which I noticed was popular amongst the Ajax Cape Town fans who I saw at another game - being connected to their namesakes in Amsterdam this seemed eminently appropriate)

Inside the mainly open stadium there was a carnival atmosphere enhanced by the pre-game entertainment of dancers/singers & the non-stop noise of the fans' vuvuzelas (horns)
The Pirates supporters occupied the side opposite & half the right hand side (as viewed from the main stand) with the remainder of the stadium being dominated by the Chiefs fans.
The german coach (Middendorp) of the Chiefs chose to leave Shaun Bartlett (ex-Charlton) on the bench & started with young Kaizer Motaung up front. The Bucs included a Tonic, Avril, Innocent , Excellent (who wasn't particularly) & a Lucky (in the end they weren't)

Played at medium pace in sunny & warm conditions the game was dominated by the Pirates who lead early on thru a great Benedict Vilakazi shot & seemed sure to seal their first derby win for a while. But as many of the home supporters were drifting away Bartlett , on as a sub., headed in with just a few seconds remaining.
So only at the end did you see the golden horde of Chiefs fans really animated.

Then it was time to negotiate a way out of the car park & the roads back to the motorway - a procedure that took at least 45 minutes (to travel maybe a mile and a half)
The last game at the FNB ,before the stadium is refurbished in preparation for the World Cup, had finished peaceably.

This derby doesn't have the visceral excitement , visual presentation (no flares, smoke, balloons, few flags) or the songs/chants of the big European or South American derbies.
But certainly it does present an exciting image & though latent during this match I'm sure the volatility evident amongst the crowd could easily erupt under certain circumstances.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Impressions of Buenos Aires November 2006

Sometimes it can take a while for the lift to arrive as the locals typically press the up & down buttons regardless of which direction they wish to go. Breakfast is filling since it often means too many medialunas (pastries) with your coffee. Then you pop out for the sports paper (Ole) to confirm the days football fixtures passing the numerous dog walkers & the odd tramp.
Its morning in Buenos Aires.
Spring it is usually very pleasant , not too hot but bright, sunny & dry. The feeling of renewal, that the best part of the year is yet to come, is uplifting compared to the dark dull days back home in autumnal England.
Walk to the nearest metro station, via one of the numerous Internet cafes, queue for a ticket whilst those begging for change look on. Sometimes they have a child in tow who may have a cleft palate or other such problem.
Taking the metro is usually (apart from walking) the most cost effective, preferred & reliable travel method followed by train, bus & taxi.
Trains can depart from a variety of city stations including 3 adjacent to each other at Retiro &
overcrowding is not unusual - such that riding on the train roof is not uncommon. Expect a steady stream of pedlars to accompany any journey & its advisable to avoid sitting next to an open window passing some areas of BA (to avoid the missiles) Underinvestment is all too evident.
Buses do offer an alternative slower option bouncing along the one-way streets via a myriad of routes.
But regardless of which route is taken at journey's end is a football ground - it could be the Diego Armando Maradona stadium (Argentinos Juniors) , Isles de Malvinas stadium (All Boys) or La Bombonera (Boca)
Either way once inside you experience the passion of a city like no other.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Independiente v Racing November 2006

For an englishman Avellaneda , in Buenos Aires, is not easy to pronounce ('abeshaneda' maybe) & though it is a station on the line from Constitution when you get there don't expect it to have that name on the platform - it actually says Dario y Maxi.

But i'm sure the two sets of fans had no problem getting to the stadium as this couldn't be much more of a local 'derby' - their respective stadia are about 150 metres apart.
Not that they would go to the game together (this being Argentina) - the two groups are channelled through specific streets & entrances with diagrams in the morning sports paper.

50,000 attended this last clasico at the Independiente stadium before it is re-built, many arriving 3 hours or so before the kick-off & for some it was not a comfortable experience & for all it finished early.
The stadium is partly covered , very unusual in Argentina, & it resembles a European ground albeit from 20 years ago. The packed terraces also bring back memories but the noise, smoke, balloons, streamers & passion are pure Argentina.
The afternoon (it was a c.5pm kick-off) became quite hot especially when you were exposed to the unrelenting sun - in the shade it was pleasant enough.
But some Racing fans did have the chance to cool down later on as the water cannon was wheeled out. Before that they had been shot at with rubber bullets & had tear gas to inhale - presumably in reaction to missiles being thrown at the police (I was in the home area)
Action that eventually resulted in the referee having to abandon the game.

The contest itself - almost incidental - lasting around 65 minutes was a triumph for Independiente with Montenegro scoring through a penalty (following a rather inexplicable handball) & from a nicely chipped second.

The atmosphere & build up made this an awesome spectacle that somehow couldn't contain the passion generated without degenerating into (partial) mayhem & ultimate suspension of play.
Not a unique occurrence in Argentina.
You couldn't help thinking that unless the atmosphere it is kept within reasonable (i.e non-violent) boundaries the risk is that these clasicos might go the way of many European derbies where there are often few (or sometimes none at all) away fans present.

Subsequently I understand the AFA (Argentinian FA) did disallow visiting fans from attending games for the remainder of the season - then rescinded the restriction.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Rosario Clasico October 2006

Rosario Central v Newells Old Boys - the Rosario Clasico

Take the bus (comfortable but slow) from Buenos Aires & 4 hours or so later you can be in Rosario.
Arrive about 2hrs before kick off & you may get the chance to walk to the ground with the Newells hinchas (fans)
Surrounded by police & led by motor bikes they present an awesome sight as they march from the centre to the Central stadium.
There are then something like 6/7 sets of security before you reach an entrance gate - for me to be in the lower tier of the 'main stand' side.
This is one of the top derbies in Argentina with a significant local focus - Central in particular having mainly Rosario players - Paolo Wanchope , who played a starring role, being one of the exceptions.
The stats are :- a 42000 crowd , 1450 police (a record for this game) with the away team (Newells) having both tiers behind the goal (c. 10000)
The presence of a very large (and needless to say noisy) away following plus the intimacy of the Gigante stadium makes this derby one of the best you will experience.
The build up starts well over an hour before kick off with chants, balloons, smoke & flags.
As always there is a 'dialogue' between the fans often referring back to previous events (eg the Central fans don't sing, the 'penguins' - Newells fans - are freezing)

Not many Argentian clasicos are dull & this one certainly had plenty of action - goals (4-1 to Central) ,drama (2 Newells players sent off) & trouble (after missiles being thrown the police fired rubber bullets at the Newells hinchas). Despite the stoppage during the police action the game did restart and finish (unlike my subsequent clasico - Independiente v Racing). As usual the locals (including myself) had to wait whilst the away fans departed - helped along by the odd baton or bullet.

For me the action hadn't quite finished as on the bus back to the bus terminal the locals smash the rear windows - but we shake off the glass & carry on regardless.

After all its just another normal football derby day in Argentina.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Croatia/Austria/Slovenia October 2006

Croatia 2 England 0 , hooligans arrested 198-26 so Croatia 'won' on both counts.
Zagreb was pleasant enough with an excellent City museum , large student population & a comfortable ambience as long as you avoided the Bad Blue Boys of Dynamo Zagreb (if not their graffiti)
It was also convienent for travelling to southern Austria (Klagenfurt) where Bill saw second divison team Karnten lose rather unluckily to league leaders Linz before a respectable 1800 crowd.
Neighbouring Slovenia also has picturesque countryside with an alpine feel. Attractive cities like Maribor and Ljubljana offer a cafe style culture (at this time of year) & decent sightseeing in a generally quiet environment. Both games Maribor (vs leaders Domzale) & Factor vs Gorica ended 1-1 , though it was disappointing (in the groundhopper sense) to visit Maribor whilst most of the stadium is under reconstruction.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sevilla vs Real Betis September 2006

Andalucia in September is still hot. Seville was 33 degrees at times & most people tried to avoid the sun. The city centre's narrow streets gave some shade but also a sense of claustrophobia.
Similarly if you were a Real Betis supporter around the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium for the Derby you probably felt a sense of being hemmed-in & intimidation & some beer might well be directed towards you.
Inside the stadium it seemed a little like a smaller (though less intense of course) version of the Monumental in B Aires - the red & white , the curve of the stands & watching the away support arrive in a segment of the higher tier.
Los Biris (Sevilla ultras) had prepared their presentation based on 'Victoria' later accompanied by red smoke & as the kick-off neared the rest of the stadium joined in with their white/red flags.
Except the 500 or so Betis fans who missed the first 20 minutes of the game - because of security reasons or maybe they didn't want to see the display ?
Betis tends to represent the poorer areas of this city - they also showed the Spanish flag whereas Sevilla had the Andalucian flag prominent.
Sevilla, with recent European successes, were also on a high.

Though victory ('victoria') did happen it was not easy in an at times pulsating Derby.
With Rafael Sobis , recent Copa Libertadores winner, scoring two well taken goals Betis for a while anyway seemed like they might spoil the party.
But Kanoute with a Kanu-esque style also scored a couple & (another) Brazilian Renato struck the winner following a dribble & decisive finish with 5 minutes to go.
Expect Sobis (given the opportunities) & Sevilla's Jesus Navas (who at times terrorised the Betis defence) to be stars of the upcoming season in Spain.

A Derby with atmosphere & also a memorable game.
And with a 9pm finish you only had an hour or so to wait before the local restaurants would open.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Macedonia v England September 2006

Kosovo was hot , maybe 33 degrees , so drinking water was essential & Bill needed to keep hydrated. Buying some bottled water from a nearby kiosk the vendor showed three fingers - Bill pulled out his change & offered one euro - the vendor shook his head - Bill jumped to 3 euros.
The local smiled before searching the handful of coins & taking 30 cents (c. 20p)
Skopje is also cheap.
It offers a pleasant ambience , surrounded by mountains, with an (inland) holiday location feel.
Plenty of (often) well dressed locals strolling around in the hot weather enjoying the nice restaurants & bars in the city centre.
The locals seemed friendly enough - with no evidence whatsover of any previous hostilities.
And in particular the taxi drivers can usually converse about the game ('why is Beckham not playing', 'I support Albania' etc)

Kosovo(Pristina) is quite near but a 2.5 hour bus journey (no trains) , with half an hour taken up by customs checks, sometimes thru hilly roads.
A not very appealing town with shops seemingly wedged in amongst the appartment blocks, Pristina showed no evidence of any troubles, Bill saw one or two Kfor vehicles but no other UN
presence. Graffiti was the only discordant note.

As to the game the result was all that mattered & one goal proved enough in a lively (but not very hostile) atmosphere. Once again it highlighted (amongst other things) the strength of Hargreaves in the holding role , Crouch's ability to score goals, that Phil Neville can still 'do a job' & that Defoe will soon get competition from Johnson & (later)Ashton.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Czech republic august 2006

Mlada Boleslav is a car-town. Catch an early morning bus to Prague , as I did, & you will see the stream of nightworkers leaving the works. A large propotion of the local population are employed by Skoda. They also sponsor the football team.
Mlada Boleslav vs Galatasaray (1-1)
It was always going to be tough task for the home team to retrieve a 5-2 deficit from the first leg of this Champions League game.
Gala paraded the likes of Hakan Sukor, Rigobert Song, Hasan Sas & Sasa Ilic together with support from their usual lively travelling fans ('sultans of europe')
Although MB did have quite a number of chances & near misses , especially in the second half, they lacked a decisive finisher. Only when it was (far) too late did they equalise Sas's
driven opener.
So Gala did enough without being over stretched- no doubt they were doubly pleased when they heard the news that Fenerbahce had failed to qualify.

Brno 1 Slavia Prague 0 & Slovacko 1 Banik Ostrava 2
Brno is a bus or train ride from Prague - the bus generally being quicker & cheaper but less spacious. Slovacko play in a town called Uherske Hradiste - a couple of hours (by train) east of Brno.
From this outsiders viewpoint these Czech league games tended to be dominated by strong defences & good technical players though generally lacked goalmouth action. (& goalscorers - no doubt the best move on to bigger leagues)
However the fans support was not lacking ,especially the ultras of Brno (see pic.) & the travelling Banik support. Flags, banners & flares being prominent.

Combine that atmosphere with the cheapness of local match tickets (c. £2), travel, food/drink and the ability to see a number of games over a short period & you have a decent value-for-money trip.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

World Cup 2006 in Germany

Bill left the Berlin Olympic Stadium as the Italians celebrated not waiting for the presentations. He assumed this time there would not be any communal prayers (as the Brazilians were out) - his usual exit point.
Somehow he felt it was an unsatisfactory conclusion - the penalty shoot out (dramatic nonetheless) & Zidane's dismissal plus the seeming inevitability of England's under performance all contributed to the feeling that the tournament could have been much better.
The S-bahn quickly took him back to his pension near the Zoological Gardens where he quickly blended into the heady atmosphere.
Italian flags & car horns merged with the general melee of drinkers & partygoers - Bill somehow failed to resist the lure of a weissbeer & a couple of cocktails.

The long road had ended.

Bill's personal stats were :-

Number of games attended..................... 28
Number of teams seen ............................ 26 (missed Brazil, Ghana,Switzerland,Saudi Arabia , Ivory Coast & Costa Rica)
Mileage in car ............................................ 7000 km
Mileage on train ........................................ 3600 km
Stadiums .................................................... 12
Best game.................................................... germany v italy
Best performance ...................................... argentina (v serbia)
Best goal ...................................................... maxi rodriguez (v mexico)
Best supporters .......................................... korea & argentina
Most expensive (black market) tickets...... mexico's games
Most awkward stadium entrance.............. Kaiserslautern(up that hill)
Biggest surprise............................................the weather
Least surprising...........................................England lose on penalties

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

UEFA Cup & Champions League Finals

Compare & contrast.

Two major events & the same result for both English teams.

Beforehand it was tricky to pick a definite winner of either game. In the end Middlesborough didn't perform & Seville won relatively easily.
Boro had a tremendous run that ran out of momentum at the last hurdle & though it could be a while before they get close again their supporters certainly seemed to enjoy the experience (despite some ticket issues)

Barcelona surely deserved their victory despite Arsenal holding on until the last quarter of the game.
For the Londoners it could be the first of more such finals (but surely Chelsea will be next ?)
This time they met a team that delivered when it mattered - from Ronaldinho & Eto-o to 2 or 3 sublime touches from the departing Henrik Larsson.
Maybe it would have been different without the (inevitable) sending off , maybe Henry, Fabregas & Co. could have conjured the win but probably Barca had the stars anyway who would perform on such an occasion.

From a heatwave in Eindhoven to the rain (and later winds) of Paris my 2500 miles of driving , 6 hotels, also involved a celebration in Sedan (promotion to French League 1), some end-of-season affairs (eg at Metz) & a curious Belgium game (vs Saudi Arabia) played before 3000 or so at Sittard in southern NL.

Oh & I did see Christ .... play (moderately) in midfield for Aalen in the German Regional League against Trier's Stuff (at 6 foot 7 or so there was a lot of him)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Scandanavian Derbies 2006

AIK vs Djurgardens 27th April

Considered the biggest derby in Sweden & arguably in the entire Nordic region AIK vs Djurgardens played at the Rasunda delivers a night of well-coordinated passion with the two sets of fans arrayed at either ends of the stadium.

Since there are not too many big European derbies, these days, where there is an even split of supporters the event harks back to earlier times - not least as it is staged at an old-fashioned style stadium (to English eyes)

Although not quite full the Rasunda with its the fairly steep ends does allow the atmosphere to develop.

The two sets of supporters work hard to outdo each other with modified English style chants being popular but best of all is the pre-game presentation this time ‘won’ by the AIK black army with their two sided representation of the club’s history & the name of the club.

The game initially offered typical derby fare – a fast pace but not much of a pattern.

But as is often the case a goal improved the spectacle & AIK, inspired by Derek Boateng, went on the win fairly comfortably. Apart from a couple of brief spectator interventions (one running on from each end) the game ended peacefully.

I did see some minor skirmishes outside beforehand but nothing serious - there was a reasonable sized police presence but certainly not overbearing.

At the end of the game I left quickly via Solna station with the Djurgardens support (no problems) whilst AIK celebrated back at the stadium.

FC Copenhagen vs Brondby 30th April

The big Copenhagen derby took place at 5.30pm on a coldish, wet day at the Parken stadium – for me a fairly short walk from Osterport station after I’d been to Fremad Amager vs Lyngby (who brought some lively supporters) towards the south of the city.

There seemed to be an evident mixing of fans (more so than in the Stockholm derbies for instance) without any apparent trouble.

Inside the stadium the Brondby support were at the 3-tier end with the ‘ultras’ at the front & unusually in such a stadium,the main FCK support were arrayed in the side - opposite the main stand (again with ‘ultras’ in the lower tier)
Though not comparable to ‘the Jungle’ during an Old Firm game they were nevertheless quite loud.

Both sets of supporters had their visual presentations well coordinated & a noisy atmosphere continued no doubt fuelled by the amount of beer (mainly Carlsberg ?) being drunk.

FCK with a 6 point over Brondby in the league generally had the upper hand and could have clinched the win near the end when Ijeh (on for Alvaro Santos) missed a good chance.

GAIS vs IFK Gothenburg 2nd May

The first meeting between GAIS and IFK for some years, traditionally the top two teams in Gothenburg, was switched to the (new) main Ullevi stadium to accommodate the largish crowd expected.

Although aesthetically pleasing this stadium is not really best suited to watching football or for the generation of a pulsating atmosphere.

Despite that both sets of fans, tucked away in the corners of the stadium, produced some good noise during the game with the GAIS support not missing the chance to highlight to the slightly larger IFK group the continuing tax problems currently associated with that club.

During the game GAIS had a generally good first half but once IFK got on top the result seemed (and was) inevitable.

On a pleasant day in this old port city both sets of fans mixed easily enough & to me there didn’t appear to be any aggro.

Hammarby vs AIK 3rd May

My final derby (of four) during an 8 day trip to Scandanavia was in some ways the most intense being played in a smaller more intimate stadium in the south of Stockholm.

The feeling of arriving at Gullmarsplan station and the short walk to Hammarby’s Soder Stadium, seemingly surrounded by offices and a shopping centre, together with the green & white colours of the milling fans gives you the feeling of probable intensity.

Wherever you are in this stadium is close to the action - although those watching from the overlooking buildings have more of a birds-eye view.

The 2000 or so AIK fans (streamed in away from the main shopping area/station) are allocated half of the right hand terrace (it was later announced that they did not take their full allocation) & the remainder of the stadium is Hammarby support with the ultras over in the opposite (to the main stand) side.

These 'bayen' guys beat out the hammarby… hammarby… rhythm.

The teams entered to flags & flares from the black (AIK) army and green & white from hammarby.

And the noise continued pretty much thoughout – though the black army drifted away sometime before the end (when their team conceded a second goal)

With both teams at the top of the league this was a fine win for Hammarby who despite sacrificing the extra revenue that would have been gained from playing at the Rasunda enjoyed the benefit of a passionate home crowd.

Like many I drifted away with that hammarby…hammarby …hammarby sound in my mind.

Though none of these Scandanavian derbies have the visceral intensity of (say) Turkey or Greece or South America they certainly do have their own passion & style.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

African Nations Cup The Final Egypt vs Ivory Coast

Have you ever arrived at a stadium nearly 5 hours before the start of a game ?
Probably not - in the English Premier League most supporters take their seats 5 minutes before kick off.
I took my well rehearsed route from my Giza hotel i.e. communal minibus (0.5 LE = 5p), metro (0.75LE = 7.5p) and 30 minute walk all done on a bright sunny day - similar to May in the UK. Except this was February in Cairo and Egypt were in the Final.
In Africa at the Nations Cup Final you never quite know what to expect and hence my over cautious approach - to ensure a good seat (tickets don't allocate specific seat numbers) and to be there well in advance of Mr Mubarak - whose presence meant all spectators had to been inside the stadium some 3 hours before the start. It was the first time I had seen the groundsmen mowing the grass before a game.
You need plenty to read, a good supply of nibbles (nuts in my case) and adequate water.
Fortunately the atmosphere generated by the local supporters meant the time did pass reasonably quickly.

As in many finals the game was not a classic but it did have drama. The pattern of the first half saw Egypt attack and Ivory Coast generally content to defend and play for breakaways. Not too many clear cut chances occurred.
The second half revolved around 3 significant moments - two misses by Drogba (one of which was a relatively easy opportunity) and a much disputed penalty after Barakat was brought down by Bouassi. Previously (and subsequently) reliable Egyptian captain Ahmed Hassan hits the post with the spot kick and Ivory Coast clear the ball.
The 90 minutes thus ends goalless with the Egyptians shading possession although the Ivorians with the solid presence of Drogba continued to threaten.
Extra time, as is often the case, fails to provide a winner and we go into the penalty shoot out.
This time the Egyptian captain scores decisively whereas Drogba (and Kone) have their efforts saved by the excellent El Hadary in the Egyptian goal.
It falls to Abu Treka to score the clincher and set off the great celebrations.
Egypt had kept their nerve , had played with great determination, no little skill and had overcome some drama (especially involving Mido) along the way to a deserved win.
Mr Mubarak does the honours as the (prolonged) presentations are made in front of his glassed-off VIP area to end a very successful tournament for the home team.

After a brief delay (again for HM to depart) I made the fastest way back to the hotel - the taxi making good time until we neared the Giza area where the density of traffic and general mayhem made any progress extremely slow - so I walked the remaining distance and had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the noisy, exuberant but peaceful (and presumably non-alcohol fueled) street celebrations.

Before returning to the UK I joined the tourist groups and visited the Pyramids , the impressive Egyptian Museum and the Cairo Citadel whilst fending off hustlers, negotiating with taxi drivers (Cairo is a big city and many sites are inaccessible by public transport) , enduring the pollution and managing to stay alive when crossing the road.
No question Egypt is a country of contrasts having within its midsts the relics of the dawn of civilisation and also a population that often has an everyday struggle to scratch out an existence.
And its interesting how you get used to seeing the local (Muslim) women with their heads (and often everything else) covered ,the women-only Metro carriages (often a riot of pastel coloured headscarves) and the dearth of bars. No bear midriffs or mini-skirts (or drunks) in sight.

So the African Nations Cup was won by the modern day Pharoahs in a place not too far from where their very successful namesakes' wonderous burial monuments were built some 4000 years ago.

Friday, February 17, 2006

African Nations Cup in Egypt 2006

What makes visiting the African Nations Cup so fascinating is that element of unpredictably & drama that almost inevitably occurs both on and off the pitch.
Having been in Tunisia for the last such event prepares you for some aspects (although this time there were no Algerian supporters to 'enliven' the proceedings) and knowing Cairo is the biggest city in Africa should give you more clues.
But being an independent traveller essentially getting around like the locals means being part of an everyday mayhem characterised by jam-packed roads , crazy drivers with no road discipline, very few traffic lights (that actually work) & worn-out pedestrian crossings that nobody would risk using.
In general you see few other tourists (for instance using the metro system or the communal mini-buses) as most take the package tour option where you are generally shielded from the local miasma and can go from site to site often ring-fenced by security areas (of which there are many)
However you do interact with the local populace, initially with the taxi drivers (typically you know when you have got close to the 'correct' price for a trip when the driver is visibly grumpy - if he isn't you've probably paid too much) then the street hustlers hanging around the hotels (suggested tactic - smile and wave them, gently, away - any dialogue not recommended) & then finally the real people.
Most Egyptians are very friendly and welcoming , from the children practicing their limited English (what is your name, how are you) and offering you their biscuits, tea and chocolate (as one did at a game in Port Said) to the adults saying 'welcome to Egypt' and thrusting bread, cheese & inevitably, nuts into your hands. Generally they show a generosity of spirit to visitors that tends to make you (temporarily) forget the hustlers.

In such tournaments it makes a difference when the host nation does well.
In the first phase of the competition Egypt progressed , winning their group and thus ensuring full stadia for their games played at the 75,000 capacity Cairo International Stadium.
Throughout the event the home country showed a determination and resilience to succeed that eventually was to take them to the final.
But not without some drama along the way.

Taking centre stage was Tottenham striker Mido. He came to the African Nations Cup as a success in the English Premiership , regularly scoring goals for Spurs who thus gained Egyptian fans along the way. His performances for Egypt however had been not so great (I was told) and even though he scored in the first game he generally performed under par and was taken off against Morocco, despite which he still retained the support of the fans.
His finest (thespian) moment came in the semi-final versus Senegal when with some 15 mins to go , and with the score at 1-1, coach Hassan Shehata decided to substitute the tall striker(again he'd been playing moderately) Seeing his number being displayed Mido went through the full gamut from complete disbelief to a major argument with Shehata before finally trudging off. The guy who came on , Amr Zaki, then proceeded the head the winner with his first touch, thus fully vindicating the coach's decision.
Mido was later suspended for 6 months & played no part in the final (except as a very animated spectator)

Apart from the success of the home team the tournament tended to highlight the limitations of some of the World Cup qualifiers , especially Angola, Togo and Ghana.
Cameroon had the best player , in Samuel Eto'o, but ultimately they couldn't get past Drogba's Ivory Coast team with the star man himself missing the crucial penalty.
Crowd pleaser Jay Jay Okocha was to go out on a very low key note , in the irrelevant 3rd place game, but potential starlet Mikel (subject of a Chelsea/Man Utd bid) scored in one match then seem to run out of steam in another.
There were some spectacular goals and a few flare ups resulting in dismissals but with a generally high level of play and organisation that you have now come to expect from players of this continent.

As always the African supporters were colourful and vibrant. To be near such groups meant you couldn't help swaying to the rhythms.
Just one sour note caused some pause for thought when some Nigerian supporters took exception to a local man - at first I thought he had stolen something but it turned out he had taken a picture (without asking permission) of a Nigerian woman. Eventually the situation calmed down - but it highlights a cultural difference.

But overall being in the stadiums was a comfortable experience - it had to be as I watched 5 double headers and 17 games in total. The one exception being one game in Alexandria when the heavens opened and we were absolutely drenched for about 45 minutes. There being no cover - even under a policeman's shield.
Apart from the Cairo International Stadium the stadia were of a medium size with the crowds often heavily reinforced by military personnel dressed in guantanamo bay style outfits trucked in to fill up the otherwise empty seats. It was only at the Egypt games that they tended not be needed.

Obviously being non-Egyptian (and non-African) inevitably means you meet other Europeans , typically either in the stadiums or on the trains, and this time it was many Germans and other English - often groundhoppers. The opportunity to discuss your travels and experiences often filled many a long journey.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

olympiakos vs panathinaikos january 2006

The biggest derby in Greece was played at the Olympiakos stadium in Piraeus on sunday 15th january & in terms of drama , intensity & passion it did not disappoint.

My long weekend in Athens started on the Friday prior to the big game and during that day and the Saturday morning I sampled the ancient (and some more modern) Greek history & culture at the National Archaeological Museum (fine) , the Byzantine & War Museums (smaller but ok) together with a tour of the Acropolis and surrounding area (cold wind but generally free of many tourists)

In the evening I attended AEK vs Atromitos played at the newish Olympic Stadium, to the north of Athens (metro station Irini) The surroundings and the stadium are architecturally attractive although the 10,000 or so fans were rather lost in the large arena. Despite that the AEK ultras certainly make some noise.

On the Sunday after spending the morning at the Piraeus and Athens flea markets (crowded)
I watched Ionikos vs Levadiakos in the afternoon (their ground is in the Nikea area of Piraeus, on Gr. Lambraki street, either bus or taxi from downtown) before a small attendance of under 1000. A fairly low key aperitif before the main course.

I arrived nearly two hours before the 7pm kick off and the Olympiakos Karaiskakis stadium and surrounding area was already noisy and crowded.
But only with home fans as no opposition fans (with the exception of three Panathinaikos directors ?) were allowed into the stadium.

For me the lack of away fans does detract from the overall derby game experience, however it is clear that the intensity of the animosity generated between the supporters has inevitably meant home fans only is the way it will be for the forseeable future.

So over 30,000 passionate greeks dressed in red is how it was. And the most intense are those representing Gate 7 (see picture) - the ultras of Olympiakos. Imagine being a Panathinaikos player warming up some few yards in front of these guys , as they did , to prove they are not afraid. But not too close in order to avoid the missiles being thrown.
As the players appear for the kick-off the taunts to the Panathinaikos players are 'pastmasters' , 'has-beens' and rabbits (because they run) the noise is deafening and the flares copious.
It takes maybe 4/5 minutes before the smoke clears and the game can start.

You could contrast the occasion as between extreme noise and mayhem whenever Olympiakos went close or scored (as they did three times) versus total silence when Panathinaikos scored (twice). Neither defence looked that secure & the difference really was the two well taken goals by Rivaldo who can still strut his stuff , although a little more slowly than in the past.

I assume Olympiakos will be called to account for the missiles & flares thrown during the game - often Panathinaikos players were unable to take corners without being bombarded by dvd's or whatever (given as handouts to the fans) .When the away team were awarded a penalty (brave refereeing) flares were thrown onto the pitch and it would not be an exaggeration to say that they (mainly Gate 7) must have lit over 100 flares before and during the game.

Overall an intense experience of a greek derby played out in a very atmospheric stadium where the Olympiakos ultras express their passion writ large.