sarahx: (sweep)
I really hate penalties

On Friday morning, the Berlin streets were buzzing. German nationalism is well and truly back – face-painted fans in Germany shirts and silly hats were everywhere in a show of flag-waving pride in their country that hasn’t been seen for more than 60 years. The impending quarter-final with Argentina had really caught the national imagination. The match was being played in Berlin, and the vast majority who didn’t have tickets were joining in the party. It was just like being in England – only more yellow, red and black.

My Danish friend Jesper and his friend Thomas were in town – Jesper’s brother is studying in Berlin this year, and they’d come from Copenhagen to soak up the atmosphere (and the beer, being typical Danes!). So I met up with them to watch the German game, in a marvellously scruffy (and gothy) bar in Friedrichshain. It was hardly the sort of place one would expect to watch football, but such is the footy invasion in Germany that trying to find a bar that isn’t showing matches is nigh on impossible. Even the most unlikely places have hauled out the televisions and hired big-screen projectors for the duration.

By kick-off, the bar was heaving. The low quality of the footy in the first half didn’t deter the natives, though, as they cheered on every German attack and groaned every time it failed. The match came to life early on in the second half, however, when Valencia defender Roberto Ayala outjumped Miroslav Klose (a fine striker but rubbish in defence) to head a Riquelme cross past Jens Lehmann.

Argentina may have had the lead, but rather than German heads going down it seemed to inspire them to play the sort of determined, attacking football that they have surprised us with all tournament. It worked: 10 minutes from full time the equaliser the whole of Germany had been praying for arrived. Poland struck again: yet another header from that man Klose. It remained 1-1 at full time (much to my delight: I won the sweepstake), and after a nervy and goal-less half-hour of extra time, Germany held its breath for another penalty shoot-out.

TV cameras pictured the dropped German goalie Oliver Kahn smiling and wishing his hated rival Jens Lehmann well, but I bet he was saying, through gritted teeth, ‘This is for the cameras, I hope you have a nightmare!’ But he didn’t. The Arsenal keeper was the hero of the hour, saving penalties from both Ayala and Cambiasso, and the Germans were through. The bar erupted as the tension evaporated and, like the rest of the city, once the initial euphoria had subsided they settled down to celebrate their semifinal qualification. A comprehensive win over Ukraine that evening meant that there will be a tasty contest with the Italians on Tuesday evening.

If the streets on Saturday morning were anything to go by, the whole of Berlin awoke to a well-earned hangover. As did the Danes. I’d headed back to the bar next to my brother-in-law’s flat to meet two English friends who had been at the Germany game (and were off to Frankfurt to watch France play Brazil the next evening). Not so the Danes. Jesper had no idea how late they’d stayed out drinking, but it hadn’t been an early one, and they were suffering the consequences.

We’d arranged to meet in the Irish pub at about 2 before heading off to watch England on the Fan Mile in the Tiergarten – well, it’d been lucky for the Ecuador game. I was there by 2, wearing my England flag. Jesper and Thomas rolled in looking a little the worse for wear at about 2.30, and decided that we should stay put – some feeble excuse about the sun being too hot! His little brother Kasper and his mates eventually decided their hangovers were too bad and they weren’t coming out to play at all. We were also meant to have been meeting Ed (the young Wednesdayite who’d been at the first two matches with me, and now lives in Berlin), but it turned out he’d overdone it so comprehensively he couldn’t even get out of bed. The youth of today – no stamina!

From being near deserted at 2, the pub was packed by kick-off, with masses of England fans, and German fans cheering on England against Portugal. That’s something else that’s been a little odd this tournament – the goodwill of the Germans towards the English. They always seemed to be backing us, regardless of whom we’re playing.

The match reminded me why I hate watching England games. For the first hour or so, we were poor (and so were the Portuguese). We could have had a penalty early in the second half, as a Beckham cross hit Nuno Valente’s arm, though it would have been harsh as it was from close range and he stood little chance of avoiding it. Beckham was replaced by Lennon soon afterwards having picked up an injury, and he was clearly distressed to have to leave the field.

Then on the hour, Wayne Rooney did it again. Sadly not score a scorcher – it was another red card, presumably for stamping on Chelsea’s Carvalho (though it might have been for the little push on his Man U team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo). While it looked a tad harsh – it was difficult to tell whether his boot’s contact with Carvalho’s groin was deliberate or (un)lucky – Rooney yet again proved that he may be a brilliant player but until he can control his temper he will remain a liability. He needs to take lessons from Beckham. But the way Ronaldo was asking the ref to send him off was a disgrace. As was the cheeky wink he directed at the Portugal bench as Rooney received his marching orders. He’d been indulging in far too much play-acting himself, and it seemed more than a bit rich. I’d have booked him for it.

As is so often the case, going down to 10 galvanised the England players and they suddenly started playing much better, creating more chances. Of course, they didn’t take said chances. Yet again, Lampard failed to capitalise, including one great opportunity from a Gerrard corner that he’d have tucked away in his sleep back at Stamford Bridge. The Portuguese continued to dive and writhe, England continued to do their best not to get a goal, and there was little surprise when the full-time whistle arrived with the score still 0-0.

There were few fingernails left in the pub by the end of extra time, and I must have deafened all of those within close earshot with my screaming at the telly. But to no avail. It was groundhog day – a penalty shoot-out with Portugal for a place in the semi-final, just as it had been two years ago as I stood in Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz, hiding behind my fingers.

Have I mentioned I really hate penalty shoot-outs?

Simão scored. Lampard didn’t. Newcastle failure Hugo Viana missed. Owen Hargreaves scored. Petit put his penalty wide too. Yessssss! We have hope!

Ha ha ha. This is England in a penalty shoot out. Gerrard missed. Groan. Helder Postiga scored. Bigger groan. Carragher scored!! Oh no, the ref’s making him take it again. Missed. Arse. If that diving, cheating slimeball Ronaldo scores, that’s it. He did. The England dream is over yet again. It’s heartbreaking – Portugal were definitely beatable but we just weren’t good enough. And if you can only score one penalty out of four, then you can’t expect to win.

I left the Danes in the pub to trudge back to the apartment for a quiet night in (it’s a long drive home on Sunday!) watching France play Brazil. A very entertaining match, Zidane was on fire, and the Brazilians weren’t. So it’s an all-European line-up for the semi-finals. With the form they’ve conjured up from nowhere and the incredible backing of the nation, who would bet against Germany winning on home soil again?
sarahx: (sweep)
24 June: Becks to the rescue (again)

Who needs the Caribbean when it’s this hot in Germany? It’s great for sun-worshipping English girls on their summer holidays. It’s rather less good if you’re a pasty-faced English footballer condemned to run around a pitch for 90 minutes in the searing heat. The temperatures in Berlin had soared into the 30s again, and it can only have been hotter still further south in Stuttgart where England were playing their second-round game against Ecuador. Despite the 5pm kick-off time, the sun was still beating down making conditions for exertion rather less than pleasant.

Fortunately, all I had to do was drink beer and watch the match. We’d decided to investigate the Fan Mile by the Brandenburg Gate, where the road has been closed off for the duration of the tournament and big screens installed at intervals down the street. Hundreds of thousands of fans had turned out there to watch Germany’s last couple of games, and while there were never going to be that many England fans there (most of ticketless travelling fans, obviously, would be watching on the big screen in Stuttgart), a good atmosphere was pretty much guaranteed.

We rolled up there a couple of hours before kick-off, and managed to secure seats in one of the little temporary stands with a great view of the screen right by the Brandenburg Gate itself. Result. A wee spot of beer or three and we were set for the afternoon’s entertainment. This began with the inevitable pointless cheerleaders prancing around on stage below the screen. Equal opportunity cheerleaders, mind, as a couple of them were somewhat on the hefty side…

Of course, this being England, ‘entertainment’ was maybe a tad optimistic. And sure enough, after just 10 minutes our supposedly rock-solid defence (ha!) seemed to have developed sunstroke, with John Terry uncharacteristically slipping up, allowing Carlos Tenorio to blast a great strike at goal. Thank goodness for the crossbar.

England couldn’t make up their minds whether they were playing rather well or really badly. Sven’s latest formation, 4-1-4-1, didn’t really work. Rooney looked isolated on his own up front, and we just weren’t creating chances. But at least we somehow managed to hold the Ecuadoreans at bay, and it remained 0-0 at half time.

Steven Gerrard at least managed to get forward a little more after the break, but the good shots on goal still eluded us. Beckham had been chucking up on the pitch – presumably a combination of dehydration and too much water at half time. But he managed to overcome his nausea for long enough to line up a free-kick 30 yards out. He ran up, his right foot approached the ball… and the screen froze. After the longest two seconds imaginable, it flickered back on, to show the ball nestling in the back of the net. GOOOOOAAAALLLLL! That magic right foot of the boy Beckham had done it again. Thank goodness Sven remains deaf to the calls of the ‘experts’ to drop him.

The final half-hour of the match passed without England looking much like they were going to increase the lead, but no matter. In knock-out tournaments, it’s far better to play badly and win than play pretty football and lose. It may not have been attractive, but we’re through to the quarter-finals. Yes, we’re going to have to play better to progress further. But at least we’re still there.

Unlike the Dutch. The evening game between Holland and Portugal was a cracker for those who think footballers are overpaid namby-pambies who get away with murder. Russian ref Valentin Ivanov was showering the cards around like confetti – including four in pairs that left the teams playing nine against nine for the final few minutes. Most of them were perfectly justified and, if anything, he should have given out more, notably to Luis Figo who was lucky not to get a straight red for headbutting Mark van Bommel, and his play-acting was key in Khalid Boulahrouz’s second yellow.

Sepp Blatter had the cheek to complain that the ref spoiled the game. Well, I’m sorry, Sepp, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t order them to crack down on timewasting, diving, shirt-pulling and the like and then whinge when they do just what you asked. Maybe if you kept your nose out in the first place it would be better for all concerned.

Anyway, it’s Portugal up next for England. At least it will be a Portugal shorn of Deco and Costinha. But the way we’ve been playing, we’ll need more than that. It will take a miracle for us to win, or even to reach extra time, in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday – let alone conjure a repeat of our penalty shoot-out defeat to the Portuguese in Euro2004. I’ll take a miracle, thanks.

Photos are here
sarahx: (sweep)
23 June: Rubbish football and serious earache

Berlin has really taken the World Cup to heart. Around 700,000 fans had turned up in the ‘fan mile’ here to cheer on the German team when they played Ecuador on Tuesday, and wherever you go around the centre of the city you’re confronted with fans clad in German replica shirts in the biggest show of German nationalism since the war.

The final batch of group stage games kicked off with Ukraine playing Tunisia in Berlin in a match both needed to win, and Spain, who’d already qualified, taking on Saudi Arabia in Kaiserslautern. And I’d got tickets for the game at the Olympic stadium.

After a peaceful start to the U-Bahn ride – I was pretty much going from one end of the line to the other – the calm was shattered at the Zoological Gardens station when hordes of noisy Ukrainians and even noisier Tunisians piled onto the train. The atmosphere on the walk from the train towards the security checks was amazing – I was carried along on a sea of singing, dancing, drum-beating Tunisians desperate to encourage their team to get the win they needed to stand any chance of qualifying.

For once, the crush at security wasn’t too bad, and despite the numbers the area around the stadium didn’t feel overly full as there was so much space. There were plenty of grassy areas to sit on and soak up the pre-match sun, not to mention masses of German beer-garden style long tables and benches to sit on and soak up the pre-match beer.

The Germans have excelled themselves with the renovation of Hitler’s Olympic stadium, originally built for the 1936 Games. Unlike Leipzig, where the entire stadium was replaced, they did their best to retain as much of the old building as possible. What is left is the glorious colonnaded stone-build exterior, with the inside replaced by a modern bowl with more than 70,000 seats sweeping around the playing area and the bright blue eight-lane track that surrounds it. Despite the running track, the pitch didn’t feel quite as distant as it can in some of these multi-purpose stadia, and the new roof held the noise in pretty well. They’ve also invested in a rather impressive sound system, with the speakers hidden underneath a layer of canvas that spreads around the roof.

It’s a shame the match didn’t live up to the atmosphere built up by the fans and the surroundings. Ukraine started brightly enough, and they should have scored after a couple of minutes following an overambitious backheel by Bolton’s Jaidi, but Ukrainian Andriy Voronin couldn’t capitalise. I rapidly discovered that I was sitting next to a girl who screams at the football even more than I do. And that’s going some. My brother-in-law Ian, sitting on the other side of me, complained she was making his ears ring.

In the absence of much excitement on the pitch, a knot of German fans down to our left started the first Mexican wave of the day after about half an hour. This was rapidly followed by a second, and we were treated to the sight of two waves chasing each other around the stadium, the first slowly accelerating away from the second. I’m sure there’s some interesting physics behind that but it’s far too much like hard work to think of such things on holiday!

The score remained 0-0 at half time, and neither team had really created much in the way of chances: about the only thing of note that happened was Tunisia’s Jaziri being sent off for a tackle from behind just before the break. The concourse on the upper tier is not especially wide, but that didn’t matter – the spectators spilled back out onto the grass surrounding the stadium for a little half-time beer and sunshine, and to hope that the second half would bring better quality football.

It was marginally better, but not much, and it took a rather dubious penalty to break the deadlock. Andriy Shevchenko got some diving practice in for his new career as a Chelsea striker, and succeeded in earning a penalty. He took it himself, scored, and the squealing in the next seat reached new heights. Ian had his fingers in his ears.

And that was about it for the excitement. The Tunisian fans carried on singing and beating their drums regardless, the Ukrainian girl continued to squeal and shout ‘Oo-kri-ee-na’ at the top of her voice, and an obnoxious drunken Kiwi moron sitting behind managed to spill beer all down her back and whine that it wasn’t his fault as ‘I dropped it’. It’s maybe as well she was too busy celebrating her team’s qualification for the knock-out phase or she might have been tempted to deck him. But Ukraine won, and earned themselves a second round match. The Tunisians are going home, but their fans continued to sing regardless.

Barring a miracle, this will be my last match live at this year’s World Cup. It’s a shame the football was such low quality, but at least I got to watch a match in the Olympic stadium. The knock-out games should be fun: apparently the authorities have extended the Berlin fan mile, and they’re expecting a million fans to turn up for the hosts’ game against Sweden. That should be fun.

Photos are here
sarahx: (sweep)
21 June: 21 blokes and Ali Daei

Thanks to the joys of the internet, a ‘borrowed’ wireless connection and the endless patience required to hit ‘refresh’ every two seconds for about 20 minutes, I managed to buy a ticket for Angola v Iran in Leipzig the day before the game. FIFA’s ticket website is efficient if frustrating, with yellow ticket images for returns appearing but leading to nothing as someone else jumps in and snaffles them before you do. But patience is, apparently, a virtue sometimes and not only did I eventually get a ticket, but it was one of the small number of €35 ones. A bargain.

The only difficult decision the day held was how to get to Leipzig. It’s only just over an hour away from Berlin by train, but the problem would be getting back in time to watch Holland play Argentina in the evening. The fast trains are only every two hours, with the 6pm being too early to catch, the 8pm cutting it a bit fine, the 10pm involving missing half the game, and the midnight getting back rather late and meaning I’d be spending the evening alone in Leipzig. So I decided to drive. After the mileage I’ve been racking up on this trip, what’s another 250-mile round trip?

It turned out to be the right decision. It was an easy run down (110mph is a Good Thing), and I parked at the park & ride by a tram stop near the exhibition centre, just off the motorway in the north of the city so well placed for a quick exit. They were running special trams through to the stadium, too, which only took about 20 minutes. The ticket centre at the stadium once again proved every bit as efficient as the website (without the added frustrations), and ticket in paw I was off to the match.

The Leipzig stadium was completely rebuilt a couple of years ago, on the site of the old Communist arena. Parts of it have been left for posterity – a tower and the main staircases leading up to it, and some of the old wooden bench seating has been left in place on the grassy banks behind the new stands to show how it used to be. The new stadium looks like it was dropped into place by aliens; it was essentially built for political reasons so there was another World Cup venue in the old east. And there are stairs. Everywhere. After the main staircase, there’s another long L-shaped one taking fans to the top of the hill, and then a series of fourth ones dropping them down onto the main concourse behind the lower tier.

Home to fourth-division FC Sachsen Leipzig, the stadium is unlikely see the big crowds it deserves very often. Curved roofs cover the two-tiered long sides, dropping down to flat tops on the single tiers behind the goals. The sides of the stands are open to allow the wind to circulate, and the whole ambience was reminiscent of Porto’s Dragão stadium. On a lovely hot, sunny day, the breeze was welcome. In the depths of winter, the howling gale would be perishing.

The seats that run around the ground in blue-and-turquoise ripples filled up slowly. Without one of the teams that has a huge travelling support in town, the atmosphere had been subdued, though there were still plenty of white Iranian shirts and a few red Angolan ones milling around. For once, the match wasn’t a sell-out. The gaps weren’t in the areas reserved for neutrals, though, they were in the fan areas where segregation decreed that the unsold tickets couldn’t be flogged off to just anyone. Otherwise, given the trouble I’d had buying my ticket, I’m sure it would have been full. As ever, there were plenty of England flags. Slogan of the day, on one of them: ‘Vorsprung durch metatarsals’. Well, it amused me.

The match proved the point that games featuring two unfancied sides needn’t be rubbish. OK, so it might have been 21 blokes I’ve never heard of and Ali Daei, but it was end-to-end stuff, with both sides creating plenty of chances. After about 20 minutes we were treated to the rather surreal sight of two Angolan players being stretchered off from opposite halves of the field. One hobbled back on, the other had been done for by a chunky challenge and didn’t. Although it remained 0-0 at half time, there could easily have been several goals.

Despite being thin on numbers, the fans managed to create a great atmosphere, with the Iranians blowing hooters and the Angolans at the other end beating drums. The drums beat faster 15 minutes into the second half, when striker Flavio buried a cracking header to give Angola the lead. The hooters got to respond quarter of an hour later, when Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh (wouldn’t want to pay for that to be printed on the back of a replica shirt!) headed a response into the Angolan goal. The score remained 1-1, I lost track of the number of yellow cards, and the crowd streamed away having been well entertained.

And my plan to get back for the evening game worked beautifully. I was straight on to a tram, there was no traffic jam leaving the car park, the autobahn was mercifully clear, and I was in Berlin by 8pm. Plenty of time to spare to get to an Irish bar (yes, I know) for the evening’s entertainment, yet again wearing the old orange Wednesday away shirt I’d promised my Dutch friends I’d wear to watch them play. If the potential quarter-final between us comes off, I might have to revisit that promise...

Photos are here
sarahx: (sweep)
20 June: Could Do Better...

Last week, I read UK newspaper reports that claimed the Germans weren’t really getting behind their team and there were few German flags on display. I have no idea where those reporters were looking, but they were talking tosh. While the viral infection might not be quite as widespread as it is back home, there are flags hanging from buildings and sprouting from cars, taxis and white vans wherever you look. And there were nearly three-quarters of a million Germans packed into the public Fan Fest area in Berlin to watch their team’s final group game against Ecuador.

I watched in the rather more sedate (and not a little surreal) setting of the old East German parliament building, now home to the European School of Management and Technology where my brother-in-law Ian is studying this year. A multicultural bunch of souls crowded in front of the big screen that had been set up for the occasion, with added beer, and Miroslav Klose’s early goal had the Germans bouncing in delight. All the goals came from the German Poles – Klose made it 2–0 just before half time from a perfectly weighted chip by captain Michael Ballack, and young striker Lukas Podolski rounded off a 3–0 win with his first goal of the tournament

The Germans have thus far been nowhere near as bad as had been predicted. Although they’ve yet to face a particularly stern test, they’ve certainly put in some better performances than might have been expected from their shocking run of form before the tournament started, and they ended up topping their group table after three straight wins.

The German victory left England needing to avoid defeat against the Swedes if they were to get the easier second-round draw against Ecuador. And yet again I ended up watching in a near-empty bar. Ian was cursing as he had a work dinner he didn’t really want to go to, so one of his friends and I met up in the Spanish-German establishment next to his apartment block in the hopes that he’d be able to escape in time to see the game. No such luck. The phone beeped about 10 minutes into the match: ‘you’re going to have to text me updates’. He wasn’t entirely happy.

England had a terrible start when Michael Owen went down, and it was immediately obvious he’d done his knee a serious mischief. So much for resting Peter Crouch to prevent him getting a second booking: the gangly one had to come straight on. Steven Gerrard, also on a yellow card, had been replaced by Owen Hargreaves in the starting line-up. He proceeded to have a good game: hopefully this might help persuade the moronic England ‘fans’ who booed him when he came on against Paraguay to lay off him.

They dominated the first half, with the half-decent team we know is hiding there somewhere almost managing to emerge. Joe Cole’s goal said it all. He chested the ball down onto his foot and blasted it into the top corner of the net from 40 yards. Even my bad German was good enough to understand that the commentator was claiming it as the best goal of the tournament so far.

It couldn’t last. A mere six minutes into the second half, the England defence went AWOL at a corner, and ex-Villa player Marcus Allback jumped to send the ball goal-wards. And England proceeded to fall apart. From a team that had dominated in the first half, they were suddenly under pressure, with the Swedes rattling the crossbar twice and the English defence looking decidedly shaky.

Nerves were calmed somewhat five minutes before the end when sub Gerrard headed home a Joe Cole cross, but yet again it couldn’t last and Henrik Larssen and his wonderful thighs scored a scrappy injury time equaliser.

A draw was enough for England to top the group, and avoid Germany in the second round. They shouldn’t be complacent about the task ahead, though – Ecuador rested five first-team regulars against the Germans, and although the English looked sparkier in the first half of this game at least, the overall impression so far is Could Do Better.
sarahx: (sweep)
The road to Hell is paved in… yellow

Munich awoke to glorious sunshine and a sea of yellow shirts. With both Brazil and Australia in town, the party had gone on late the night before. That rare breed, the footy-mad Aussies, whooped it up on the Hell (as the natives call their lager here) and mixed with the Brazilian fans in the beer gardens that are dotted liberally around the city.

Of course it would have been rude not to join in the party, and we consumed Hell in large quantities, in combination with lumps of dead animal with potatoes and sauerkraut. When in Germany… Saturday had been spent in one beer garden with a big screen, watching first the Czechs’ surprise (but deserved) defeat to Ghana, followed by Italy just about managing to scrape a 1-1 draw with the Americans, and the Hell went down well. Sunday started in another, with my good intentions of starting on the shandy evaporating in another litre of Hell.

Yet again sardines were the order of the day on the way up to the ground, though thanks to a little local knowledge – my friend Mike, who’s lived in Munich for the past eight years, was with us – we managed to sneak onto the U-bahn before it stopped to fill itself up with the massed hordes of yellow-clad fans at main station Marienplatz. Those seats we snaffled were most welcome.

The Allianz Arena (or the World Cup Stadium, as it’s been renamed for the duration of the tournament thanks to Fifa’s ludicrously all-encompassing rules to protect its ‘official’ sponsors) looks rather weird from the outside. Maybe they should have named it after official sponsor Continental instead as it resembles nothing more than an outsized car tyre, albeit a white one. For night matches, apparently, it is lit up from the inside, blue when 1860 are playing at home and red for Bayern, with the eerie glow visible from miles around – and even in the skies as planes come in to land.

There was an appalling crush to get in to the security checks, as huge metal fences had been erected, funnelling the fans into an entrance maybe four feet wide. The ground around the stadium is gravelly and looks unfinished, a far cry from the lush green landscaping that surrounds Schalke’s lovely ground in Gelsenkirchen. Once through the turnstiles, concrete was the order of the day around the open area underneath the stands.

Concourse level is at the top of the lower tier, with the pitch set in a huge bowl below ground level. And it was a pretty impressive sight, with three levels of seating all the way around underneath that tyre-shaped roof. It was hard to tell which was the Aussie end and which the Brazilian, with both sets of yellow fans making a stack of racket, reaching a crescendo as the players ran out onto the pitch. Prize for banner of the day: ‘Ronaldo ate all the pies’.

Brazil had hardly looked convincing in their first game against Croatia, and they started the same way. Ronaldo trundled around like a somnolent sea-slug waiting for the ball to come to him, as if chasing it were beneath him. Adriano was little better. Ronaldinho seemed to have left his tricks at the Nou Camp. Their attitude is bizarre. If you can’t make an effort in the World Cup Finals, when can you?

The Aussies started much the brighter – it was their big day, and they were going to treat it with the respect and effort it deserved, even if it was too much bother for the opposition. Millwall-supporting Mike cheered on former Lions Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill, and claimed that even Wednesday and Millwall would fancy taking on Brazil playing like this. He has a point.

German referee Markus Merk had a poor game – some of his decisions were bizarre in the extreme, such as rewarding Brazil for a heavy tackle with a free kick, and the Aussie defender picked up a yellow card for dissent into the bargain. No complaints with the stupid yellow Big Ron got, though – he ignored the offside whistle and blasted the ball into the net regardless. The refs have clearly been told to clamp down on timewasting. Quite right too. One strange observation, though: why did the ref and linesmen change from blue to red shirts at half time? Were they trying to keep both 1860 and Bayern happy?

Mercifully, the second half was a little better; one or two of the overpaid lazy Brazilians had clearly had a rocket inserted in their posteriors at half time. It took just four minutes for them to score: for once the well-organised Australian defence failed, and Adriano woke up for long enough to blast the ball into the net from the edge of the area.

Liverpool’s Harry Kewell came on for Evertonian Cahill 10 minutes into the second half, and immediately began to threaten, hitting the side netting and shaving one just over the crossbar. Sadly for the Aussies, he couldn’t quite break through, and when Robinho came on they suddenly had a player who looked like he wanted to be out on the pitch. Why on earth did he not start instead of Big Ron? And sure enough, fellow sub Fred scored in the 90th minute – a mere couple of minutes after coming on – after Robinho’s shot rebounded from the post.

The Aussies had played well, and the final score of 2-0 really didn’t reflect the Brazilians’ lazy, complacent performance. So much for them being favourites to win the tournament. My money’s on Argentina.

Photos are here
sarahx: (sweep)
16 June: And the new score is...

Most Brits would be hard pressed to pinpoint Gelsenkirchen on a map; it´s one of those small towns in Germany´s industrial heartland that all seem to merge into one big blur of factories. It´s hardly a throbbing metropolis, but it´s home to Schalke, one of Germany´s top teams at the moment, and their stadium is one of the finest in Europe.

Like Cardiff´s Millennium Stadium and the Ajax Arena in Amsterdam, the roof closes. But there the resemblance ends. Not for Schalke the constant re-laying of the pitch because the grass doesn´t get enough light. Oh no. They just wheel the entire playing surface underneath the seats and outside into the open air between games, so it gets to see the sun and rain and the grass can grow. It´s insane, inspired and incredibly impressive.

The stadium is about five miles outside the centre of Gelsenkirchen, reached by tram from teh main station. The fans sardined onto the trams leaving no room for anyone to get on at any of the stops further down the line, though no-one seemed to have told the driver who insisted on opening the doors for the frustrated waiting fans every time. Mercifully they didn´t try to squeeze in, as I was already squashed more closely than was entirely pleasant between a large German and an even larger Argentinian, and that was more than cosy enough.

Argentina were playing two countries for the price of one - the soon-to-split Serbia & Montenegro - and both sets of fans were in fine voice as they spilled out onto the stadium´s purpose-built station at the end of the line. A wide pathway wound its way around the groud delivering supporters to the security checks, which once again didn´t involve the threatened passport checks. So much for people being unable to get in with the wrong names on their tickets.

The staircases wound their way around the outside of the stadium, leading to a big open concourse upstairs. Then through the huge doors out to the stands and... wow. An hour before the game wiht msses of empty seats still, and the sound of the Serbian fans nearby whistling the Argentinian players as they ran onto the pitch to warm up echoed around as the closed roof bounced the sound back and forth.

Yes, it may have been a fine day outside, but they´d left the roof shut regardless to ensure playing conditions were perfect. And what an arena to watch footy in. More than 50,000 seats fill the huge closed blue bowl of an arena, with a vast four-sided bank of TV screens suspended from the roof mid-pitch, giving everyone a perfect view of the replays. My seat may have been ´restricted view´ behind a set of safety railings, but five rows back in the upper tier right behind the goal it was hardly going to wreck my enjoyment of the match - and saved me 40% of the cost of the ticket. Bargain.

Any thoughts that the S&M players might have had of providing hte tournament´s first big upset were pretty much wrecked after just six minutes. Maxi Rodriguez picked up a great pass from Saviola, splitting hte hapless Serbian defence and hammered the ball home. THe Argentinian fans bounced. The Serbian fans sang. There was most of the match left to play, and they were going to come back, weren´t they?

Erm, no. S&M seemed determined to try and tackle their way out of trouble, but merely succeeded in picking up yellow cards rather than knocking the Argies off their game. Riquelme and Saviola bossed the midfield, and goal number two came on the half hour when defender Cambiasso blasted a neat backheel from Hernan Crespo into the back of hte net. The Argentinian fans twirled their scarves in celebration, and the first Mexican wave of the day preceded goal number three, from that man Rodriguez again. The Serb fans were strangely subdued going into half time, fearing a rout was inevitable.

It was. Although their heroes started the second half brightly with a shot on target (their only one of the match!) after 30 seconds, the Argies were passing the ball around between themselves after just five minutes. Chelsea misfit Mateja Kezman was sent off for a shocking two-footed tackle, and fellow Premiership failure Savo Milosevic signed off on his 100th cap by being whistled as he was subbed after 70 minutes - though I´ve no idea whether the whistles were for him or his departure! Lionel Messi came on for Rodriguez and promptly sent a super ball across the goal for Crespo to slide into the net. As the stadium announcer said, ´And the new score is... 4-0!´

The pain wasn´t over for the hapless Serbs. Sub Carlos Tevez nutmegged one defender, beat a second, and hit the net. And to complete the rout that had threatened at half time, more mickey-taking pass-around football culminated in Messi making it 6-0. Serbian heads dropped as Maradona was pictured on the big screen twirling his scarf.

It was a great performance by Argentina. They played far better than the Brazilians had in their opening game, and itäs difficult to see how England could hope to beat them on current form. A quarter-final exit to the old enemy could well be on the cards again. If we can beat Germany or Ecuador in the next round, that is...

Photos are here
sarahx: (sweep)
15 June: Roo-ney! Roo-ney!

Germany was closed today. The shops were shut, the streets quiet and the autobahns nigh on deserted (and the answer is... 138mph!). Not a collective hangover brought on by the previous night´s injury time winner but, according to the excessively blonde girl at the hotel reception, a holiday because of the dead body of Jesus. Those Catholics. Any excuse for a day off.

Tentative plans to head up to Gelsenkirchen to watch England play Trinidad & Tobago on the big screen there were scuppered by the late arrival from London of two more Wednesdayites, so we sat in the bar watching Ecuador beat Costa Rica, and started on the beers. I must have been on beer about number five by the time they arrived, just nicely in time for kick-off, by which time I´d got a big England flag draped around my shoulders. Not anything I´d dream of doing back home, but when in Germany...

A smart bar in a four-star hotel is rather a strange place to watch a footy match - let alone a big England game. But what the heck. At kick-off there was just the four of us, the barman and a middle-aged Dutch Ajax fan. We were then joined by a German. I think they were all cheering on England too, just to humour us. But I can´t be sure. By then the Bier was going down even better.

My comprehension of the match got steadily hazier as it went on. But we weren´t very good, were we? Lampard would have had a hat-trick had he been wearing a Chelsea shirt. Owen had another poor game. Crouch looked to be back to his comedy finest. The whole impression was that they were there for a kickabout, not a World Cup match.

Then, after nearly an hour, the moment the England fans had been waiting for - their cries of ´Rooney! Rooney!´ were answered and Shrek himself came on for the lacklustre Owen, along with Aaron Lennon for Jamie Carragher. Immediately, the England team seemed to find the spirit it had been lacking and when Stewart Downing replaced Joe Cole quarter of an hour later, Sven looked like nearly as much of a tactical genius as Klinsmann had the night before - suddenly looked like we might even do something reckless like score a goal.

With a mere seven minutes left, another great ball from Beckham found the head of Crouch who, for once, did the simple thing and headed it into the net. The beer consumption by this time was nearing double figures, and my screams deafened those poor people unlucky enough to be in earshot.

The lead was doubled in injury time, as Gerrard belted a 25-yarder past poor Shaka Hislop, who must have been wondering what he´d done to deserve a repeat performance of the strike at the death of the FA Cup final a mere month earlier. And the England win was sealed, just in time for a celebratory beer or three to keep the others I´d already poured down my neck company.

So another unconvincing performance by Sven´s boys, but at least we can go into the Sweden game safe in the knowledge that we´ve qualified for the next round. Now all we have to do is keep our fingers crossed we manage to avoid the Germans.
sarahx: (sweep)
14 June: Lukas Podolski, er ist Polski!

Germany v Poland was always going to be a tasty fixture. If the historical resonance wasn’t enough, events of the first round of games added further spice, as Germany’s win and Poland’s surprising defeat at the hands of Ecuador meant it was win or bust for the Poles – another defeat would likely mean an early exit.

The fans were out in force early in Dortmund. We got there early too – in time to watch the 3pm kick-off Spain v Ukraine match – and already the streets were swarming with Germans and a handful of Poles, downing the beers in the sunshine six hours before their match started. Spain’s 4–0 stuffing of the hapless Ukrainians was watched in a bar that thought it was an Italian caff, to the deafening strains of a mobile disco outside. Yes, he really did play ‘The final countdown’. Such class.

If the streets had been teeming with German shirts when we went in to the bar, they were positively heaving with them when we emerged into the sunshine afterwards. Not a hint of trouble, though, as Polish fans sang ‘Deutschland’, Germans sang ‘Polska’, and everyone got steadily merrier as the beer went down. Even the police were getting into the atmosphere, putting sticky strips of German flag ribbons on the cheeks of the fans – even some of the Poles. The visitors had the best chant of the day, too – the current wunderkid of the German team, Lukas Podolski, was born in Poland, and the locals weren’t entirely ecstatic to hear a knot of drunken Poles informing them that ‘Lukas Podolski, er ist Polski’. So is the German striker Miroslav Klose. But that doesn’t rhyme.

Borussia Dortmund’s stadium, a couple of miles outside the city centre, is big and boxy and yellow. Very big. It holds 70,000 for club games, and even in cut-down standing-free form for the tournament 65,000 fans can fit in. And the Germans seemed to have got their paws on at least three-quarters of the tickets. We got there in time to watch the second half of Tunisia v Saudi Arabia on the stadium TV screens, with Bolton’s Jaidi scoring a very late equaliser for the Tunisians in a lively game. If my Bolton mate’s text message is to be believed, he’s the first Bolton player to score in the World Cup Finals. Hmm.

By the time kick-off came around, the atmosphere was astonishing. The roof, with its yellow supporting pylons, trapped the noise of the fans, a rousing rendition of the German national anthem, and much chanting of ‘Deutschland!’ The Germans started by far the more brightly, with those ex-Poles Podolski and Klose coming close (sorry, couldn’t resist) to scoring, but thanks to the heroics of Celtic goalie Artur Boruc and some poor finishing the score remained 0–0 at half time. At the other end, Arsenal’s Jens Lehman spent most of the game twiddling his metaphorical thumbs as the Poles failed to threaten.

The second half started much the same, with Boruc getting loudly whistled by the German masses whenever he got the ball. They thought he was taking too long with his kicks, and Spanish ref Medina eventually agreed and booked him for timewasting. A couple of substitutions in the last half-hour by German coach Jürgen Klinsmann proved nearly as inspired as his diving used to be. The pace of local hero David Odonkor seemed to make the home team go up a gear, and in the 90th minute Klose hit the post. Chelsea-bound captain Michael Ballack clattered the crossbar with the rebound, and the 0–0 draw I’d predicted looked inevitable.

Not a bit of it. Deep into injury time, Odonkor picked up the ball, sped down the right wing and crossed to fellow sub Oliver Neuville, who skipped around two Polish defenders and buried the ball in the net. With seconds remaining, the German hordes went mad, I got very squashed by the fat smelly German in front of me who’d insisted on standing throughout the entire game, and the noise reached near-deafening levels. Their beloved team had stolen the win they really deserved at the death, and they were going to celebrate.

The defeat leaves the Poles favourites for an early return home. News reports this morning claim that there had been some trouble between the fans in the middle of Dortmund before the game, but I’d seen no evidence of anything other than good natured banter. Maybe I was just lucky and was in the right place to avoid it. I’m glad. I go to big international tournaments to soak up the atmosphere and join in the fun as partisan groups of footy-lovers enjoy the party. I’d likely see more of the matches if I stayed at home on the sofa, but it’s just not the same.

I wonder which countries’ fans I’ll be watching England with this evening?

Some photos are here


sarahx: (Default)

July 2010

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