So, so long

Whilst this blog came to a natural end after World Cup 2006, I travelled to Euro2008 as a volunteer for UEFA. You can read what I got up to as the only Englishman in Zürich.

Me in an empty Letizgrund in Zürich

Me in an empty Letizgrund in Zürich

Zum Schluss

Like any true Englishman, I was in the pub before I'd even gone home last night. I was beaming from ear to ear and the envy of all my mates. I could tell them all stories until dawn, but of course you cannot recreate the World Cup in words. You can't recreate the World Cup at all.

Although my journey at the World Cup is over, I'll still find cause to write here, as the stories throughout the tournament weave their final webs.

On my trip I managed to see four World Cup matches. I saw Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Tomas Rosicky, Pavel Nedved, Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme all play and win. I saw Maradona above me in the stadium. I met Americans, Brazilians, Dutch, French, Swiss, Angolans, Portuguese, Italians, Czechs, Swedes, Irish, Scottish, and of course Germans. I saw 13 goals, a red card, two penalties. I met the friends of Chris Birchall, a person who works at Bodymoor Heath with the Aston Villa players. I watched England play alongside the Rhine with 35,000 other England fans.

I saw violence, joy, agony, jubilation, wonder, amazement and relief. I heard drums, air horns, car horns, chants, songs, cries, screams.

Ultimately it was a pilgrimage of sorts. It was expensive and extravagant. At times it was lonely, tiring and frustrating.

So now I'm home with the group stages not even complete yet. I have plans to sit down and see what the BBC theme tune for the World Cup is, what Leonardo is like as a pundit. I'll update my wall charts and unravel my flags, and finally, when all is complete, I'll reflect.

And now, the time has come…

…the last show, the final curtain.

After the English party at Deutz I was worn out, exhausted, tired and not fully awake. However when the three Swiss guys who had just rented the room next to me arrived at midnight I couldn´t help but accept their invitation for drinks. If there´s anything I´ve learnt during my time in Köln it´s never to refuse an invitation, as you might regret it later. Several glasses of Havana Club rum later, and I´d found out that two of the Swiss men were bankers. I can only presume that the other had an occupation that involved either putting the holes in cheese or herding mountain goats around. Who knows.  We sauntered around town doing nothing in particular, mostly drinking, mostly saying "Hopp Schwiez", or however they tend to spell it. It´s worth noting that in my time here I´ve managed to understand a lot of conversational German, but I can safely say I did not pick up one word from their own conversations.

I woke up yesterday with what I can only assume was a concrete block tied to my head and hanging out of the window, and had presumably eaten nothing but cotton wool the night before. I managed to scrape my sheets off my body and in a semi-conscious state made my way with Björn (my host), and his friend, to Gelsenkirchen for the Portugal versus Mexico group decider. For the two, this was exciting as they had never been inside the Arena Auf Schalke before, and Björn hadn´t seen a World Cup match live thus far. So it was a trifle disappointment for me to read in the paper on the train that Portugal would be resting players, among them Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco. Expletives followed. "Perhaps if they are losing they will come on?" asked Björn. This hope was short-lived as I read a quote from Luiz Felipe Scolari. "They will not play one minute even if Mexico are winning 30-0". 

Despite this disappointment, the atmosphere was the best of all the matches I had seen so far, and to my surprise, the crowd seemed to have more Mexicans than Portuguese. The game itself was decent enough. An early goal, a converted penalty, a crossbar hit, a headed corner, a red card, a skied penalty, but alas no equaliser from the Mexicans. After the game I asked my companions what they thought. "It had everything" they said, quoting all the above events, "except the equaliser".

My reply was short, sweet, and summed up everything I´ve come to know ever since I kicked a football.

"So ist Fußball". 

On Reflection

Yesterday I travelled to Gelsenkirchen one final time for the Portugal versus Mexico match, and was of course Enjoying the festivities of the English support the day before. Having just checked my emails now, I cannot believe the attention my report got.

On that account, I would first like to say that up until that moment and ever since, I thought the German police have been very accommodating and very leniant. In the same manner, virtually every single one of the English fans have provided England with a support they can be justifiably proud of. My only criticism is that when the moment came for either the English fans or the German police to step down in the heat of the moment, neither relented and a fairly small-scale skirmish occurred. The problem wasn´t the scale of the event, but rather the ease with which it happened.

There was certainly a different atmosphere that night and it always felt as if under provocation, either party could react in an instant. With the knockout stages around the corner and more than just pride to play for, nerves will be on more of an edge than ever before.

Having said that, the events of Tuesday were almost perfect. The Köln local authorities did themselves proud with the huge event they put on at Deutz at such short notice. Reports of over 100,000 English in Köln, a tenth of the city's population, didn´t seem even slightly exaggerated. The English fans celebrated en masse, creating an atmosphere as good as any stadium. Again the reluctance of a minority to comply with the police requests via an Amerian Compere highlighted the difficulty with which the German police may have to act. Not only were some fans defiant, they were flagrantly flouting the requests. Of course this was only a very minor issue, but the fact remains the patience of either party hasn´t been tested on a huge scale as of yet.

The celebrations were wild as Joe Cole unleashed a fantastic effort, and the promised rain never came on what appeared to be a perfect day as Steven Gerrard headed home shortly before time. Of course the voodoo of 38 years wasn´t about to be broken and England looked surprisingly weak at set pieces. Three unconvincing second halves have somehow put England into the second round with a good draw against Ecuador, but in Michael Owen´s absence it´s up to anyone else to become our goalscoring hero.

The Dream is Over

The English were fighting a battle on two fronts at this World Cup. One, as a team, and the other, as fans.

The latter ended tonight as the riot police charged on English fans in the Aldstadt part of Cologne.

I left my flat after the Spanish game and made my way to the the Heumarkt FanFest, where there were two big groups of fans in good song. All of a sudden, riot police brushed past all of us and toward the area outside Peter´s Brauhaus.

They formed a cordon around I´m not sure what, but in the corner close to one of the Irish bars, a lot of running was occurring.

I went towards the scene, where conversation between English fans was happening. “I can´t believe they kicked off” said one, “They started it and we´ll finish it said another”. “Spread the word” could be heard filtering through. One by one some English fans removed their shirts.

All of a sudden, game to the baiting, the riot police ran towards me and the English fans.

I ran to the side, but could not believe what I saw before me. The riot police ran 20 yards towards the English and were relentless in their clubbing. As I ran out of the way the cover to my phone fell off. After only perhaps 30 seconds of chasing that wave finished.

I was recording the events on my phone alongside a Croation news team. Then the police came back in a wave and a riot policeman knocked my to the floor as I searched for my mobile phone cover. I was wearing just a striped Puma t-shirt and jeans, nothing overtly English.

This was definitely a 2-way link. The atmosphere was noticeably worse than other matches I have witnessed. I spoke in German to a few police officers who said there had been no trouble but it could turn in an instant.

That instant happened and all of a sudden I raced to the scene. Every English person on the fringes who weren´t involved in the goading said that it happened out of nothing. The riot police appeared out of nowhere for the same minor glash-smashing-on-the-ground offences of the fans, nothing more than had happened all night.

But the sight of the riot police excited a few fans, who took of the tops and told everyone around them to “Stand your ground”.

They shouting for the riot police to run towards them which they duly did, and the rest will be tomorrow mornings headlines.

A peaceful night, turned upside down by drunk fans and over-eager policemen,.

Football’s Coming Home

As a resident of Köln for more than a week, I feelwell qualified to be of some use when it comes to local knowledge. On the eve of the Sweden game here in the city, England fans are populating the city in their droves. This morning the Hauptbahnhof was full, not just of supporters, but also volunteers from the Fan´s Embassy and also the British police. The police have no powers of arrest but it would be unwise to perform any kind of salute to them as they are in liaison with the German police.

In anticipation of the ticketless masses, the announcer after the Trinidad game in the FanFest announced that there would be a THIRD area in the city for the fans to watch the game. The venue is on the other side of the river from the main city centre, but is still only a short walk. The people from the Fan´s Embassy are handing out the Free Lions magazine and a pamphlet showing the viewing area. They can be found all around, but whilst it´s raining probably only in the train station!

The map shows it wise to cross the Deutzer Brücke (Bridge) which is near Heumarkt (where there is the usual Fan Fest). The guy I spoke to said that the doors were closing an hour before the England games in previous cities, and were all but full up to 90 minutes before kick off. There is also a free camp site just along the Rhein on the same side, although I would anticipate that filling up very quickly if not full already. It may be useful to know that a  little way down the river are some public football pitches which anyone can use, and the scene of my Sunday League heroics.

The screens will be showing the Germany versus Ecuador game, followed by a recording of Poland and Costa Rica (yipee?!), then the hugely anticipated England versus Sweden game and finally a recording of Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago. It should be noted that there are NO big screens outside the stadium to watch the game. The stadium is at the other end of town to the new big screen so it would be risky to try and wait outside the stadium for tickets and then rush to the public viewing area.

On the topic of tickets, the complimentary Free Lions magazine has some interesting discoveries. As widely expected, there have beenvery few identity checks. From personal experience at three matches, as long as the light goes green on the card reader then you can get into the stadium. The only complications arrive with forgeries, reported stolen tickets, banned fans and finally bent tickets. The chip can be easily damaged, so the advice is that if you do "acquire" a ticket without your name on, then don´t fold it or else you may be due an identity check.

Free Lions is very useful and they´re giving it away for free in the train station. It say that the sources for black market tickets at previous England games have been from the Paraguay FA, Gilette, hospitality tickets, and for reasons beyond any consideration, Costa Rican FA tickets. An alleged incident at Togo vs South Korea was that McDonalds hospitality reps were emerging from the stadium soon before kick-off laden with unclaimed competition tickets, sold cheaply to scalps among others, who promptly walked 20 yards down the road and sold them for 10 times as much.

Not to judge by steretypes, but I´ve seen a lot of unsavoury looking characters at train stations and stadiums holding up signs saying "NEED ONE TICKET". I saw one American person who sold his ticket cheaply because the guy said he was a desperate American fan. As soon as the guy had gone, the scalper held up his card again announcing he still needed one more ticket. This was 90 minutes before kick off, and I would bet a small fortune that you would have seen the same person outside the stadium 5 minutes before kick off when the ticketless fans begin to panic and give away several hundred Euros. 

The irony of it all is that the ticketing system for this WC was supposed to eradicate the black market, but if anything the number of unused sponsors tickets has only made the situation worse.

As for after the game – if you wish to stay on that side of the Rhine, there is a Beach Bar with a fake stretch of sand that is fairly popular on sunny days. For the Trinidad match the England fans concentrated themselves just around the bars of the Heumarkt area, and also the bars on the city centre side of the Rhein. Locals and insiders venture further to the Hoherzollernring, but I wouldn´t anticipate too many English there. In addition there are a few Irish bars but from past experience the best celebrations are the ones with international fans, rather than just drunk ex-pats.

Rheinmeisterschaft 2006

On Saturday night I was invited to one of the nightclubs out of the city centre with the flatmates where I´m staying. The problem with being a young person in Köln is that the Tourist Information doesn´t offer much that doesn´t earn the city money, nor do they concern themselves with such activities that are away from the city centre.

The people were cool, although I should have been more sceptical about being invited to play for one guy´s Sunday League team after having only spoken to him for a few minutes. They weren´t short of players either.

In the end I had my fill of beer in the Underground and made my way home, and woke up in the sort of state that only Sunday League football can really match. The league is a local one within Köln, that may or may not have been called the Köln Nord Division 4 Reserve Sunday League. I didn´t mind it was a low standard, I´m not exactly a John Terry myself, but the pitch was as hard as ice, and about as frictionless. Our team comprised of, following a rudimentary check, a Croat, a Turk, an Italian, a Dutchman, an Indian, a Bavarian, a sprinkling of Germans and now an Englishman. 

Tell me now if there´s anything better than playing Sunday League football on the bank of the Rhein with a hangover, searing heat and no tackling (or for that matter passing). Naturally, my inherent Bobby Moore-esque tackling couldn´t be achieved, but a Torville and Dean slip to the floor was.

In the event, we managed to surrender a 3-1 half time lead to a 5-3 loss, but I honestly couldn´t give a jot.