Thursday, December 20, 2007

Alicante 1 Real Madrid 1 19th December 2007

The copious graffiti on the walls of the tower blocks, as you pass to & from the airport, tells you something but I'm not sure what.

Its breezy along the seafront as you view the expensive yachts moored in the marina.

The centre is reasonably busy though some of the shops & restaurants are closed.

The rock overlooks everything as its always done.

Alicante in winter.

And Real Madrid are in town for the first leg of the Copa Del Rey.

On the night many locals turned out, some 16.000, to see plenty of big names (Guti, Robben, Dudek, Heinze,Gago,Metzelder etc) in the Madrid line up, hoping to see their boys , from the Spanish 3rd level, 'get a result'.

They nearly did.

Creating more chances Alicante score from a penalty (no Dudek heroics) early on in the 2nd half & nearly hold on against a fairly lacklustre Madrid (Gago being one of the few to show some urgency)
Its left to Equatorial Guinea's Balboa, a sub, to head the equaliser from a corner in added time.

But, one has to assume, Real will prevail easily enough in the 2nd leg.

food & drink of choice - tapas, beer & a caipirinha
starbucks count = 0

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thessaloniki December 2007

At this time of year Thessaloniki has few tourists.

On a Friday or Saturday night there is a vibrant bar & restaurant scene as the locals , well wrapped up, parade along the seafront.

Inventive xmas lights add to the scene.

Unlike Athens there are not many tourists & therefore no hustlers.

The fashion features are large sunglasses, cigarettes, porcelain skin & the look of Vera Farmiga (The Departed)

Your correspondents food & drink of choice was kebabs, ouzo, bread sticks & baklava.

starbucks count - 4

As for the football this comprised seeing three games in three stadiums a few kilometres apart.

Aris 1 Braga 1 UEFA Cup

Aris play in an atmospheric medium size stadium, a bus ride from the centre.
For me there is something special about arriving at a stadium within a built up area, the mingling crowds , the ground hemmed in by buildings all serve enhance the atmosphere & intensity.

Despite it having 3 open sides the locals can certainly generate some noise.
That & the paper storm, flares ,smoke & counter-chanting made it an interesting night.

No doubt this atmosphere goes a long way towards maintaining their fearsome home record.

Braga , skillful & well organised scored early following a goalie error then tended to contain Aris apart from a cross & header converted by defender Ronaldo Guiaro.

The draw means that one or other will probably miss out on going through to the next phase.

PAOK 2 Veria 0

a regulation win for PAOK in the Super League with South African Glen Salmon leading the way with an excellent traditional centre forwards performance - winning most headers , showing good control & getting a goal.

Again the counter chanting is impressive - even the main stand joining in.

The stadium , larger, is again near a built up area.
For a bigger game I'm sure the home support (and surroundings) would be very intimidating.

Iraklis 0 Panathinaikos 1

the last of the three games in this trip. Walkable from the centre the stadium is (again) 3 open sides & a covered main stand with a track around.

The big team from Athens bring around 300 supporters located behind one goal opposite which are the 'blue boys' of Iraklis.

Panathinaikos score fairly early & perhaps predictably tend to control the game apart from some Iraklis flourishes . Some offside decisions upset the locals but in the end they have to accept the defeat.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Switzerland December 2007

do you have any cocktails ?
only two : caipirinha.... stop right there.

yes St Gallen has seen the light - they even have a bar called (the) 'caipirinha bar'.

After South America Switzerland is particularly calm, safe & ordered.
Somewhat cold at this time of year but bearable.

St Gallen offers a pleasant central area , with picturesque buildings, starbucks (plural) & restaurants of many kinds.
On a Saturday morning there is a market amongst which the affluent citizens can mingle accompanied by the smell of gluhwein.
There were some nose studs in evidence & the odd Goth but otherwise there was no sign of revolution coming from this part of the World.

In the afternoon you could take a short tram ride to the old Espenmoos stadium to watch St Gallen play Young Boys.

St Gallen 2 Young Boys 7

If this was the last competitive game at the old stadium then it couldn't be more low key.
There was no sign of any (home) celebration as YB overran St G with Hakan Yakin scoring four against his old teams very poor defence.
Incidentally Marco Tardelli, producer of arguably the best ever goal celebration after scoring in the 1982 World Cup Final, also had a spell at St Gallen.

FC Zurich 0 Aarau 1

Zurich is maybe an hour away.

And the Letzigrund stadium is a short tram journey from the centre.
It is famous for hosting the Weltklasse meeting & it does look more like an athletics stadium.
Anyone watching games here at the summer European Championships might not have the best of views.

For FC Z fans this game was not great viewing from wherever you were sitting.
They found it hard to get anything going against a resolute Aarau even when the visitors had been reduced to ten men.
Before that Aarau had missed a penalty, scored soon after & so went on to be the first team to beat Zurich at home this season.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Peru v Brazil November 2007

Played in the Monumental stadium in Lima this World Cup Qualifying game attracted 61,000 plus some others who, despite having tickets never made it into the stadium.
The authorities closed the gates because of an apparently full ground.

Its takes a taxi ride & a longish walk to get near the stadium. Because there is only one way in , the stadium being ringed by mountains, the roads are blocked at various points by the police.

But when the weather is pleasant enough & the surroundings impressive despite the blatant advertising (see pics) it is a very traditional way to approach a game, amongst the fans.

Your correspondent had about 3 days in Lima.
Choosing to be in the centre is not the best option as the hotels are generally old & uninviting & apart from the very impressive main square there is not too much to see.
So i'll opt for nearby Miraflores as a base next time.

But football was the focus.

It was a mediocre Brazil performance , at times languid, but lit up by a sublime finish from star-man Kaka.
Having taken the lead you would assume Brazil would go on to win especially considering the past history (3 wins by Peru from 37 encounters)

But Peru had plenty of play & deserved their equaliser, even though it was from a deflected shot. It certainly got the locals animated & the goal was shown repeatedly on television.

It was my last game on this trip to South America & I finished off the evening with a couple of pisco sours (a very reasonable alternative to a caipirinha) & a steak.

Atletico Paranaense v Sport Recife November 2007

your correspondents' plan was to visit Asuncion for a weekend.
However this schedule was amended as the Gol flight bound for Paraguay was unable to land due to bad weather and went on to Curitiba , in Brazil.

One perhaps not always recognised aspect of travel , being by definition outside of most normal routines, is to cope with situations that arise unexpectedly.

My choice was to take an indirect flight (there being no available direct flights - 'until wednesday') to the Paraguay/Brazil border then a bus onto to Asuncion to arrive at maybe 5 or 6 am the next day.

Or I could stay in Brazil - a quick check of the paper confirmed there was a game in Curitiba on the Sunday.
So that was my choice - unwind the Asuncion reservation & settle in Curitiba for the weekend.
And enjoy the odd caipirinha, my favourite cocktail, at a budget price.

A pleasant enough centre of a largish city with an interesting historic area Curitiba was bright, sunny & vibrant on a Saturday morning.
Still trendy platform boots were the most recognisable fashion statement as on my last visit to Brazil.

As nice as Saturday was mingling with the locals enjoying the sunshine my preference (as always) was to see a game. My optimism was raised slightly as I saw some Coritiba fans at a garage - unfortunately there were 4 of them , in a smallish car, otherwise I would have asked them for 'lift'to their game in Florianopolis (against Avai)
Due to the distance involved & my need to get back to Curitiba , my only realistic hope had been to do the trip by car.

But I had to settle for just the one game - played on the Sunday between Atletico Paranaense & Sport Recife.

Atletico are one of three main teams in Curitiba - they and Coritiba have the biggest support followed by Parana. Incidentally I was told that the 3rd best supported team in this city was actually Corinthians (of Sao Paulo)

Atletico play in a 2/3rds built European style stadium (see pic) that they expect to expand to a capacity of 41000. Like many in Europe (not least Wembley) it had the seats decked out in red.

The impression was of a go-ahead club (the club have given Japanese electronics company ,Kyocera, the stadium naming rights) that will be prominent in promoting its stadium/city as a candidate for the 2014 World Cup.

Certainly the combination of a modern ground & a pleasant/secure city seem like a winning formula to this observer.

Sadly the game didn´t really live up to the surroundings (or the support from the ultras)

It being goalless despite Sport playing with ten men for the last quarter. Atletico had a bag full of free kicks - only one of which got very close.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Argentina November 2007

1. Clasicos - two Argentinian Derbies

Belgrano v Tallares 0-1

The Estadio Olimpico, also known as the Estadio Cordoba, is an interesting 1978 world cup stadium on the outskirts of town.

Interesting partly because of the particularly poor sightlines that would be apparent to anybody standing behind the goals. Curiously , because of the poor viewing & no doubt because of the World Cup connection, it brought back memories, to this observer, of the White City in 1966.
Then (for France v Uruguay) it rained - this time it was fine & warm.

Despite being nominally Tallares' home ground the stadium was full of only one colour, light blue, as Belgrano were the designated home side in this big Cordoba derby.
Since this was in the Nacional B, the 2nd level in Argentina, no away fans were allowed entry.

The Belgrano fans certainly produced plenty of atmosphere in the 36000 crowd .
Even in the vast open bowl of a stadium they still generated quite some noise.

But their team missed a number of gilt edged chances (headers especially) , had a man sent off & were then frustrated by a Tallares side who scored then wasted time fairly blatantly afterwards.

And so it was I trooped back towards town with the downcast fans, finding a taxi up the road for a ride back to the centre.
There some roads were blocked as the police re-directed traffic around the Tallares fans celebrating in one of the central squares.
So black & white became prominent as the light blues were diverted along different streets to a quiet homecoming.

Incidentally in their next home game Tallares had over 30000 for their defeat of Godoy Cruz - no doubt they were in very celebratory mood.

San Lorenzo v Huracan 1-1

A traditional Buenos Aires clasico with added spice as they have not met for 3 or 4 years .

Good but not great, the Neuvo Gasometro had a slightly disappointing 32000 inside - not full in either the San Lorenzo plateas(seats) or at the Huracan end (due to restricted ticket sales)
But at least there were away fans , including the somewhat notorious barra brava with their red & white umbrellas.

Huracan had most cause to celebrate as they came away with a draw (1-1) , a moral victory.
Their fans prolonged the agony by taking their time to depart the visiting section , such that it was at least 40 minutes before the gates were opened to the rest of us.

Incidentally Huracan are one of couple of teams that have announced some stadium development plans (Boca being the other)
For sure their fairly old ground is in need of some cover as anyone who has experienced a game in the rain will testify.

And most of Independientes old stadium has now been demolished.
The schedule is to build the new stadium (European style) by June 2008 - which might well be a little optimistic.

2. Copa Sudamericana

For this writer hardly a goal-fest.
Three games seen in this competition & three 0-0 draws , all involving River Plate.

The first against Defensor of Uruguay (guess they don't score many goals anyway)
then two games against Argentinian opposition :

Arsenal v River, River v Arsenal

the first game played in the smallish (c. 15000 attendance) 'Viaduct' stadium in Sarandi was a bit of a chess match with few clear cut chances.
Though Damonte of Arsenal did catch the eye at times.

Prior to the draw it was considered a surprise if Arsenal (known rather disconcertingly as arse) ,a relatively new & unheralded team with limited support, beat one of the giants of Buenos Aires.

But it happened following another goalless draw in the Monumental watched by 50,000.

This time with more close things including Biagini of Arsenal hitting the bar in the opening minutes.

Overall Arsenal defended well & their goalie (Cuenca) starred with a number of saves as well as scoring the final penalty (a la Rogerio Ceni) blasted home to seal victory. It helped that River had a man sent off.

But River did have a small ,tricky left footed midfielder called Diego (Buonanotte) - expect to see more of him in the future.

So a place in the Final awaits Arsenal, against America (of Mexico)

Whereas Rivers' coach Passarella's stay is at an end. As he said when it goes quiet at the Monumental, as it did at the finish - thats death.

3. The Apertura title race

Can Lanus win the title for the first time ever ?

I saw them overcome Tigre, 2-1, before a large, passionate (what else ?) crowd of 40,000 & maintain their lead at the top of the Apertura.

From the way they attacked they will take some stopping this season.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Donegal Celtic v Glentoran 27th October 2007

A goal after 43 seconds (to Glentoran) & 4 goals after about 14 minutes, this game had plenty of action.

Played to a backdrop of a helicopter overhead & 6/7 armoured police vans in the vicinity this meeting of teams from West & East Belfast evoked some history but passed off very peaceably.
This observer noticed no sectarian feelings whatsoever from the home fans but the visitors complained bitterly at times - about the referee & the 'DC' coaching staff.

Though I'm sure the surroundings are a far cry from the legendary Belfast Celtic's 'paradise' at least this DC team showed considerable spirit & endeavour in representing West Belfast against a much more favoured team.
They were helped by the Glentoran goalie who had considerably difficulty in dealing with crosses & was culpable for at least two of the DC goals (one direct from a corner)
In turn Scullion, one of the smallest players on the pitch, was allowed two scoring headers as part of his hat-trick for Glentoran.

A day earlier I had stayed in Castlederg - reputedly the most bombed small town in Northern Island (during the troubles)
For me it was a reasonably convenient location for visiting Donegal, in particular Ballybofey which was lively enough on a Friday night.
I watched Finn Harps overcome Kildare County before a good size crowd & move closer to promotion to the Premier League.

A possible star of the future played on the Harps left wing - Marc Brolly - you may have heard it here first.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Russia October 2007

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - how do those long legged girls become babushkas later in life ?

For Steve McClaren the problem was to work out what happened in those four minutes when England succumbed in the Luzhniki.

This writer enjoyed Russia despite the well documented negative aspects.
Perhaps it was the power, the passion, the architecture or the sense of history in this vast country.

It started off cold with sleet & snow in Moscow but got better.

I travelled to a warmer Rostov-on-Don to see a Russian 1st Division game between SKA & Tekstilchchik Ivanovo, returning on the Wednesday afternoon in good time to see Russia play England in the capital.

Certainly the Luzhniki will offer a vast, atmospheric, secure & well organised stadium for the Champions League Final next year.
The locals generated a vibrant noise & colourful display for the International though the flares might well induce a sanction from UEFA.
Similarly the Spartak fans were noisy during their victorious league game over FC Moscow a few days later - albeit in a less than half full ground.

In 'our' game we scored a route-1 goal, missed one or two other chances & looked dodgy in defence when the Russians turned on the pressure.
To this observer the Russians seemed limited & without obvious stars although the goalscorer Pavlyuchenko was superb when he came on (though less so when playing for Spartak at the weekend)
He had apparently been late for a training session but as part of the admonishment Hiddink had clearly found a way to inspire him.

Despite the situation there might be another twist to this qualifying group as Russia will not find it easy in Israel & before a packed Wembley against an already qualified Croatia, England might get there after all.
One Russian I spoke to definitely thought the powers-that-be wanted the England 'brand' to be in Austria/Switzerland rather than themselves.

The 3 stadiums I visited in Moscow were all close to a Metro station (two in the case of the Luzhniki) & the Metro is a work of art - sometimes literally.
The worlds busiest such system, it is fast & efficient but often very crowded.
It has dangers for the unwary - in that xenophobic, possibly drunken, ultras use it as a means of transport. Typically they wear no colours & do more than just roll coins down the long escalators.
So learning to interpret the cyrillic text (after a few days you can pick up the basics) is recommended for finding your way around the system even though at times you end up counting the stations to your stop.

Moscow is a place to take a camera - though not in Lenin's mausoleum.
The Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, numerous churches, the statue of Peter the Great, the foreign affairs ministry - awesome buildings & monuments abound reinforcing the sense of history & power.
Power (or is it paranoia ?) is also represented by the ubiquitous security presence.

Even at the lowly SKA Rostov game there were numerous police/military lining the pitch.

On leaving the Lokomotiv stadium after their 1-1 draw with Luch Vladivostok there was a corridor of guards leading to the Metro entrance & many others on the station platform.
Incidentally I was told that around 20 or so fans regularly travel from Vladivostok to their away games - most of which would be near Moscow - over 6000 km away.
For a 'local' derby the nearest team is currently Tom Tomsk a mere 3000 km or so distant.
Based on distance alone Luch would be far better off playing in the South Korean, Japanese or Chinese leagues.

Back to the security (same word in Russian by the way) aspect. This can be taken either positively , my own view, in that it enhances safety in this volatile world or negatively, in that is normally unnecessary & overkill in most situations.
It seems to hardly affect the bustling muscovites as the only people I saw stopped , for a document check, were apparent (possibly bearded) foreigners & drunks.

Of course there are queues & service can be slow & at times surly.
But there is a vibrancy about the place.
The restaurants buzz with friends & family greetings, as flowers are exchanged evoking memories of the famous picture of Chelsea players receiving bouquets from the Dinamo Moscow team back in the 40's.

That practice stopped in the 1960's so it played no part in Dinamo's encounter with Kuban Krasnodar at the aged Dinamo stadium. Some 7000 saw the home team hold on for a 1-0 win.
Dinamo have plans to either move, or renovate, their historic stadium as do Spartak (who hire the Luzhniki) & CSKA.

Moscow is very expensive , usually there is full-on heat inside & maybe too much cold outside.
But there are plenty of jobs for cleaners, flower sellers, alcohol & mirror vendors (the girls wear them out)
Take a trip outside of the centre , say to Domodedovo airport , & you see the landscape change.
Amongst the autumnal trees are the stark, grim tower blocks & the derelict industry.

But even in those places the Russians would have celebrated their first home win over a top ten team (England)

The place & the country will draw this visitor back in the near future.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Brann Bergen vs Lyn Oslo 8th October 2007

Gold for Brann Bergen as they , barring the mathematics, clinch their first Norwegian title for some 44 years.

After taking an early lead through top scorer Helstad the home side missed numerous chances to seal the win. Generally unless your team is Italian one goal is not usually enough.
And with the celebrations just about to get going Lyn did produce an equaliser with some 3 minutes remaining.
Could it be a serious anti-climax ?
Enter Azar Karadas to save the day(night) with two very late goals & Brann had it won by 3-1.

The red shirted fans certainly generated some atmosphere (for Norway anyway) in the packed 18,000 capacity Brann stadium with plenty of flags & flares & noise.

This joy was then transferred to the city centre as the harbour bars were soon thronged with fans singing (more terrace chant then Grieg) & most of all - drinking into the early hours.
For me midnight was long enough.

It was probably not a normal Monday night in Bergen & I think Tuesday was also abnormal as many fans undoubtedly had sore heads .
But the red scarves & shirts were worn with pride.

Norway in early October is coldish tho' for my 4 day visit the days were bright & sunny though it did get colder by nightfall.
Watching football is reasonably comfortable & certainly cosy enough in the stadium in Bergen.

An affluent , successful country for most - you know its going to be expensive but it still comes as a small shock - the £70 meals, the £20 haircuts (not that I had one) , the £9 cocktails (I did have one) & the £70+ train ride from Oslo to Bergen for instance.

But the scenery is often stunning - the sparsely populated areas seemingly idyllic amongst the isolated cabins, lakes & forests.
Peaceful & civilised - great for children - a few seedier bits (near the big stations typically) but generally safe.

But nowhere is perfect.
A small argument in a library - maybe about some photocopying - somehow typifies the situation.
When most things are under control - you have to worry about something.

Not that many Brann supporters did on the evening of the 8th October 2007.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

All Ireland Hurling Final September 2007 Limerick v Kilkenny

“Limerick by two goals”,“But you won’t get the ball” replied the Kilkenny man as the Dublin bound train left Maynooth station.

And so it was.

Kilkenny got the ball, Limerick didn’t and after 8 minutes or so they led by 9 points (2-3 to 0-0)

The underdogs,Limerick,had too much to do & the ‘Cats’ would win their 30th title.

The Guinness All Ireland Hurling Final is a very traditional Irish sporting spectacle. It was played on 2nd September at the Gaelic Athletic Association headquarters in Croke Park, Dublin before a sell-out crowd of over 82,000. Such is the interest that tickets can be sold for in excess of 500 euros on Ebay though on the streets, on the day, they were going for significantly less.

Hurling is an ancient, fast & furious Hockey-like game played 15-a-side on a large pitch of around 135 metres long x 90 metres wide with Rugby-style posts through which the ‘ball’ is sent in order to score. The Hurling stick is known as a Hurley.

And on this day in central Dublin there is a lot of hurley burley.

The city becomes crowded with green shirted & black/amber clad Hurling fans from the west(Limerick) and central (Kilkenny) counties of the Republic of Ireland. Mixed in with the throng are curious tourists getting an extra, unexpected example of Irish culture.

A fairly short walk from the main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, is Croke Park - named after an Archbishop. The stadium itself is steeped in history – not least the evocative open end,Hill 16, reputedly commemorating the 1916 Easter Uprising.

Inside the massive ground the two sets of fans, refreshingly mixed together & split approx. 60:40 in favour of Limerick, present a colourful image under a generally cloudy sky.

The event itself is infused with tradition & an amateur ethos that makes one smile with appreciation :-

the players marching around the pitch with the band in gladiatorial fashion before the start.

the close connection of the participants with their local area.

giving three cheers for the losers.

even the celebratory pitch invasion at the end was good hearted.

But most of the all the gracious & eloquent speech by the winning captain brought to mind a bygone age. It was in complete contrast to the stumbling & often incoherent efforts of the millionaire stars from Soccer’s Premier League.

Despite Limericks’ undoubted effort & commitment they couldn’t overcome the more skilled Kilkenny team in this final but whatever the result both sets of fans would enjoy their day out in Dublin’s fair city.

So if you do find yourself in Ireland go along to a Gaelic football or Hurling match as you’ll enjoy a fast moving game in a friendly, uniquely Irish environment.

The Asian Cup Final 2007 Iraq vs Saudi Arabia

The cause of some briefly united celebrations in war-torn Iraq.
Their victory in this final in Jakarta was due to a combination of good organisation & team effort
amongst the mixed faiths of the Lions of Mesopotamia.

As has been the case in recent times (eg the 2006 World Cup & the 2004 European Championships) the best defence had come out on top.

But before a very supportive & sympathetic crowd of around 45,000 (rather than the announced 60,000) Iraq did more than just defend well as they often took the game to the more favoured Saudis.
In a better-than-average final their efforts were finally rewarded in the 70th minute when captain & driving force Younis Mahmoud headed the winner.

No kalashnikovs were fired into the air at the end but there were joyous scenes for Iraq's first Asian Cup success.

Whilst not always riveting (in my last seven games I saw only 4 goals) the tournament did offer up some striking experiences , not least in this final game.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Asian Cup July 2007

You don't often get to meet an elephant whilst eating at your local restaurant , a surreal experience this writer had near his Bangkok hotel. Though I declined to feed the said beast some children did (for a small charge) .That was during my first night in Thailand - a country that can definitely offer a wide variety of 'experiences'.

Thailand, Vietnam , Malaysia & Indonesia jointly hosted the latest addition of the Asian Cup.
Most games were played in the capital cities - Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta & Kuala Lumpur and each city had its own attractions.
All places were hot, often humid & sometimes very wet. But that was to be expected in July in South East Asia.

The conditions did serve to enhance the chances of the four home countries & probably detracted from the performance of the favourites, Australia, playing in their first Asian Cup.
Certainly the torrential rain that accompanied the Bangkok opening ceremony diminished that spectacle & reduced the attendance for Thailand's game versus eventual winners Iraq. The result of that match was a rather surprising draw with the home team benefiting from a rather dubious penalty decision. Thailand would not progress beyond the group stages but their play exceeded prior expectations.

Wandering around central Bangkok at this time of year means you will inevitably be wet (through sweating) whether it rains or not. So your correspondent had to modify his tourist strategy on this trip - using more taxis or tuk tuks or even on one disconcerting occasion, a motor bike, to see the sights.
And there are certainly sights to be seen, not least the mind-boggling architecture of the Grand Palace, the excellent National Museum & the golden buddha.

One thing that is impossible to miss are the all pervading Royal images and the numerous yellow shirts. Especially on Mondays (King's Day) when most of the population wear that colour to show support for their long-serving monarch.

In contrast Thai support for the football was fairly moderate & that could be said of the profile of the tournament generally.

However in Hanoi , encouraged by a winning start , the Vietnamese proved keen & enthusiastic supporters. They generated some serious noise at the My Dinh stadium to drive on their players towards a previously unachieved level (the quarter final)

The city itself is probably the most interesting of the four capitals.

Uncle Ho's mausoleum, the Revolution museum, the crazy roads full of bikes & most of all the old quarter, with its ancient system of streets divided into specific trades ,are some of the highlights.
But drinking a beer in a bar overlooking Hoan Kiem lake whilst watching the locals loudly celebrate a Vietnam win, circling the lake in their motor bikes with flags flying , was perhaps the best moment.
Having a hotel nearby was useful although returning after midnight was not to be recommended as I found one night. Fortunately (for me) banging on the shutters awoke the caretaker & I was allowed in.

My introduction to Malaysia was also not very auspicious. Arriving late at night on an Air Asia flight from Hanoi I expected to arrive at the main airport (the only one mentioned in my year-old guide book) in Kuala Lumpur & be collected by the hotel bus service. After a while I realised that the low cost airline base had been hived off to an airport 'annexe' & I needed a taxi to get home, belatedly, for the night.
Somehow KL continued to frustrate with its rather un-integrated transport system , over-officious hotel staff & minor regulations.

But being a much newer city than the others it tends to lack the character & obviously the history of the more established places, though Chinatown does give it some atmosphere. Otherwise you can admire the tall towers & visit a very impressive (and large) bird park.

The Malaysian football team was not so impressive - they were poor & suffered some comprehensive defeats watched by small crowds in the over-large Bukit Jalil stadium.
Though that stadium did host one of the better games ; China 2 Iran 2 , played before an enthusiastic mixture of students & ex-pats workers.

It was especially in Jakarta that you seemed to be in the presence of 'real' football fans. Over 80,000 would pack into the Senayan stadium, generating a vibrant atmosphere, to see their country.
Although Indonesia ultimately failed to reach the last eight they did produce some very spirited performances.

As with the other capital cities Jakarta was often very crowded & hectic though you did sense it had less tourists.
Certainly in Palembang on Sumatra island, the location for the 3rd place play-off, it felt like the locals had hardly ever seen a westerner.
Hence a nod & a smile, often in response to 'hello mister' from the curious faces, was the required greeting.

So the Asian Cup in South East Asia offered a variable passion for football with sometimes very small crowds in vast stadiums, better than expected performances from the home teams & a climate that made your correspondent sweat for England.

Nevertheless it was a very interesting & memorable experience amongst friendly people.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Brazil June 2007

1. The Copa Libertadores Final 2nd leg

When a big Argentinian team plays in Brazil it is normal to apply some precautions. So many of the Boca fans making their long bus journey from Buenos Aires to Porto Alegre were escorted by the state police from the Uruguyan border - some 600km.

When they finally arrived they would find the roads packed with local buses threading their way through the street markets. Walking amongst this throng were taller than normal Brazilian women in their platform boots - some in Gremio shirts. Above it all were the guys on stepladders overseeing the traders' stock.
In contrast to the heady atmosphere outside, the large indoor market offers somewhere quiet to have a pre-match meal , welcomed by your correspondent.

When the time came to depart for the game (the 2nd leg of the Copa Libertadores Final) the scenario is familiar.
Roads jammed with buses and cars packed with flag waving fans heading for the stadium.
As you near the Monumental stadium the heady mixture returns with a vengeance as the streets are filled with beer & food stalls & the air thick with smoke from fireworks.
This is a big night.

Inside , some hour & half before kick-off, the two-tier stadium is a mass of blue/white & black shirts (that is apart from about 2700 Boca fans)
The atmosphere builds to a crescendo until the Gremio players appear when you see the full fireworks display. But thats as good as it gets for the home team.

They needed an early goal to have any chance of pulling back the 0-3 deficit from the first leg.
Despite showing promise down the left & hitting the bar a couple of times Gremio couldn't get too close to a well organised Boca side.
Star player Riquelme was to deliver the blows that quietened the 'Vamos Gremio Vamos' , the first a superb right foot into the top corner , the 2nd after a combination with Palacio.
Many tears are shed.

Whilst the Argentinian supporters celebrated their triumph the adrenalin (and songs) would no doubt help them survive the long bus trip back to Buenos Aires.

2. Gre-Nal the Port Alegre clasico

Played four days after the Copa Libertadores final in much cooler conditions (12 degrees) in Internacional's Beira-Rio stadium around 34000 saw this derby.
Rather disappointingly there were a very limited number of away fans present(c. 2500) , because of security concerns.
Even so both sets of fans didn't hold back on the fireworks & Inter did have one eye-catching banner - 'gracias Riquelme' just to remind Gremio of their grief.

But Gremio did recover some pride as they secured a convincing win with two great goals, one in each half.

Although Porto Alegre would certainly not be high on the tourist's list of places to see in Brazil it did provide some memorable football moments (and the caipirinhas are excellent)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Finland & Estonia June 2007

Helsinki is a relatively quiet capital city. In early June on a bright summers' day walking towards the Olympic Stadium, amongst the Goths enjoying a rock concert in the central park, life is pleasant enough.

If so inclined the experience can be somewhat enhanced by a refreshing gin long drink or very enhanced by the dark Czech beer Velkopopovicky Kozel.

For an enthusiast the stroll to the stadium evokes memories of past Finnish sporting heroes & in particular their athletes. Near the entrance is an impressive statue to the most eminent (Nurmi)
Inside you can visualize that epic finish to the 1971 European Championships 10,000m when Vaatainen overcame Haase & Sharafetdinov as the crowd roared them on to a sub-54 secs last lap. Whilst in the nearby museum you can simulate running against Lasse Viren during his famous win in the Montreal Olympics 5000m.

Finland's footballers playing and losing 0-2 to Serbia somehow doesn't provide the same level of spine tingling memory. The biggest cheer being reserved for the entry of 36 year old substitute Jari Litmanen, who still looked the most competent Finnish player on show.

Close by the old Olympic stadium is the neat, modern Finnair stadium where , on another day, I saw a low key 2nd level game between HJK's 'reserves' (Klub '04) and KPV before around 250 spectators.

From central Helsinki its an easy stroll to the harbour & the ferry terminal for the trip over to Tallinn. The Nordic Jet ferry takes around 1hr 40 mins to cross the Baltic.
Once there the nicely preserved Old Town offers an attractive location in the June sunshine for both the cruise ship tour groups & the increasing numbers of England supporters getting in the mood for the European Championships qualifying game against Estonia.

That match gave some encouragement to your correspondent as England secured a comfortable 3-0 victory albeit against very limited opposition watched by 11,000 in the Le Coq Arena.

I returned to the same city & the same stadium a couple of days later to see Flora Tallinn beat Ajax some 11-0 before somewhat less people. Because of the convenient kick-off scheduling (presumably to increase the attendances ?!) it was possible to stroll across town & watch TVMK Tallinn play Vaprus later in the afternoon (just the 9-0 win this time).
Total crowd for the two games... 140 & that included other England supporters - but there were plenty of goals.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Roma v Lazio 29th April 2007

Historic surroundings abound in Rome and the Olympic Stadium evokes special memories for me having seen Liverpool win the European Cup in 1977 & 1984 & the, less famous ,World Cup final of 1990. The stadium curvature & sightlines are somewhat similar to the old Wembley (which again has many memories for this writer - not least a certain World Cup final in 1966)

The game itself eventually drifted towards a goalless draw perhaps predictable given their league positions. Roma star Totti wasn't able to produce (much) and was substituted.

In the context of the events during the Italian season (i.e in Catania) it was inevitable that some of the atmosphere would be dampened down for this derby. The Roma song was loud enough but there were no large banners or flares.

But it's certainly a derby to see again not least because there is a large representation from both sets of fans in a historic arena in the Eternal City.

Copa Libertadores group games April 2007

The Parque Central stadium in Montevideo was the venue for the first ever World Cup finals game in 1930 (between USA and Belgium)
It is small (15,000), intimate & far from the standards of modern European stadia though when Nacional played Argentinians Velez Sarsfield the locals certainly generated an excellent atmosphere. No shortage of fireworks, flares & flags. The support no doubt helped the home team secure a 2-0 win and they continue to progress in the competition.
In contrast the game between Audax Italiano and Nexaca of Mexico was played before maybe 4,000 in the 45,000 capacity estadio Monumental in Santiago (home of Colo Colo) in a much more subdued atmosphere. Nevertheless Audax won (2-1) in an entertaining game with Rodolfo Moya starring up front.

Gimnasia v Estudiantes The La Plata Derby

Good but not great. Played in the La Plata City stadium on the edge of town ,this derby lacked some of the intimacy & intensity of the best Argentinian clasicos. Maybe the previous result (7-0 to Estudiantes) and their recent title success (winning the Apertura) gave Estudiantes too much superiority over their rivals.
Even though they had a player sent off very early on the team in red & white still won reasonably convincingly (2-1)
Veron continued to enjoy a renaissance of form in his home country but it was double goalscorer Pavone who was the match winner.

As the Gimnasia fans complained about their lack of quality players & some (minor for Argentina) disturbances broke out in the surrounding streets I was in a taxi making my way back to the bus station for my return to Buenos Aires.

Boca v River April 15th 2007

No longer the best Derby in the World ?
As I strolled back after the game to the centre of Buenos Aires via the markets & antique shops of San Telmo I happened to see two fans amicably chatting outside a bar, perhaps discussing the match. In a perverse way it reinforced my sense of disappointment at what went before as one wore a Boca shirt , the other a River shirt.
Too much of tourist attraction - do the stadium tour , visit the museum & go to the superclasico with Carl Lewis & other celebrities. By further limiting the numbers of away fans , selling tickets only to socios (i.e mainly middle class fans) & reducing the overall capacity adds up to less intensity ,passion & less noise than expected.
Thats what has happened to Boca v River at the Bombonera. Tourists can buy tickets at inflated prices , though still low compared to European equivalents they are out of reach for most locals, via sources in the city.
Continuing controversy over the role of the barra brava (ultras) has meant their numbers have been reduced (seemingly to zero for River) Though no reasonable person would condone the unsavoury & violent aspects associated with them the sense of theatre & spectacle is certainly diminished.
Yes its still Boca v River but , to this correspondent , that sense of commercialisation & europeanisation if you like (following the trend of many european derby games) has meant it is definitely not the most intense, visceral football derby experience in the world anymore.

There are other derby games in Buenos Aires that surpass it in that regard.

Even the game itself ended equitably (1-1) though Boca should have been in control after the chances they had in the first half.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Switzerland (& Italy) Feb 2007

Take the train from Milan into Switzerland & you soon see the differences between travellers.
More blackberrys.

There is also a contrast in derby games. My plan had originally been to see Catania v Palermo but the rescheduling (to the Friday) meant I arrived too late - some would say that was good thing.
The hiatus in Italian football meant i visited Switzerland to see some football.
Including the Zurich derby between Grasshoppers v FC Zurich.
OK its not Sicily but you do see some innovative displays by the local fans (see pics) especially those from FC.
This game was goalless though it did have some near misses , particularly by the brazilian/tunisian Santos. And a fairly ineffective performance by the Bolton-bound Dzemaili.

In my second game , played at the re-designed Wankdorf stadium, Christian Gross's Basel (whose fans supplied boisterous support) convincingly beat Yound Boys.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Arabian Gulf Cup 2007 Abu Dhabi

The 18th Arabian Gulf Cup certainly has a (very) low profile in the UK which is a bit of a shame. The UAE & the Gulf area in general is a progressive, prosperous & safe region keen to promote sporting events & in January presents a pleasant location to visit. Having said that hotels are certainly not cheap though transport is - you can travel by communal taxi to Dubai for as little as £1.50.

Getting into the games during this tournament is also not costly. In fact its free as tickets are given away. However this does mean for UAE games in particular the entrances can be closed some hours before the kick-off.
The eight teams in the Cup split into two groups to play in three stadia , all in Abu Dhabi, one of which is walkable from the city centre. The standard is decent (bearing in mind the saudis are regulars at the World Cup) , technically reasonably competent & organised.
Many of the games had plenty of drama with a number of sendings off & late goals.
No one player stood out except (eventually) UAE's Ismail Mattar who went on to score the decisive goals.

Amongst the teams , apart from the home side, the Iraqis had the biggest support - though most were local workers. They were part of large ex-pat community meaning Abu Dhabi can resemble Mumbai at times.
Amongst the mosques, skyscrapers & luxury hotels there is an exceptional quality of life for some locals & a good selection of sporting events to attend (this correspondent also went to the Abu Dhabi Golf tournament) in the winter.

A date for your diary - in 2013 the Gulf Cup is scheduled to be staged in Iraq.