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. 

Oranje fans with their plums on show

Taken from Reuters:

By Mike Collett

BERLIN, June 17 (Reuters) – Hundreds of Dutch fans had to watch their team's 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast in their underwear in Stuttgart on Friday after stewards at entry points to the stadium rumbled an ambush marketing ploy.

The Netherlands supporters all turned up in garish orange lederhosen displaying the name of Dutch brewery Bavaria and were ordered to remove them by stewards before being allowed to enter the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion.

They then went into the match and watched it in their underwear.

Anheuser Busch's Budweiser is the official beer for the tournament and world soccer's governing body fiercely protects its sponsors from brands which are not FIFA partners.

Markus Siegler, FIFA's director of communications, said at its daily media briefing on Saturday that the governing body was alert to the kind of "ambush" marketing Bavaria had attempted.

"Of course, FIFA has no right to tell an individual fan what to wear at a match, but if thousands of people all turn up wearing the same thing to market a product and to be seen on TV screens then of course we would stop it.

"I don't know exactly about what happened in Stuttgart, but it seems like an organised attempt to conduct a mass ambush publicity campaign was taking place."

Peer Swinkels of the Dutch brewery told Reuters by telephone it was "absolutely ridiculous" and "far too extreme" to order the fans to take off their lederhosen and said the brewery had complained to FIFA."I understand that FIFA has sponsors but you cannot tell people to strip off their lederhosen and force them to watch a game in their underpants. That is going too far."

Most people had hopefully been wearing orange underwear, he added, denying that the trousers were an ambush and describing them instead as a Dutch nod to German culture.

Only men had been forced to strip according to his information, he added.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Hattingen)

Team of the Tournament: Week One

GK: Joao Ricardo (Angola) – this would have gone to Trinidad´s Shaka Hislop, but in the second game he didn´t actually have much to do due to England´s ineptitude. The Angolan keeper hasn´t conceded a goal since the fourth minute of his World Cup, not for lack of action in front of him. Without the most talented or experienced team, the Angolan has been both brave and lucky in the opening two games, a feat any successful number 1 needs.

DL: Philip Lahm (Germany) – A fantastic goal and two very solid performances. Has shown how to defend and attack, as well as his ability to use both feet. The comparison is to his counterpart Arne Friedrich at right back, who´s clumsy nature and poor positioning have caused concerns in the German back four.

Continue reading

Rest Day

Today is something of a rest day so just after halfway through my trip I thought I´d give something of a summary.

Köln (Cologne) – a very nice place that has come alive during the World Cup. You can go days without seeing fans from a particular country, but as soon as they are playing on any given day the hoards come out in their thousands. They all have standard issue flags, face paints, horns and whistles and aren´t afraid to use them.

Alongside the busier side of the Rhine is a long row of restaurants on bars that are all much the same, perhaps offering different specililaties but rarely much variation from the same menus. A couple of narrow alleys further back brings you into the Aldstadt, although this is a little misleading as a lot of it was destroyed in WW2 bombing raids.

All the bars around the Heumarkt Fan Fest come alive during the evenings, and today in particular is full of Czechs due to their game in Köln against Ghana today. At the other end of the main shopping area is Neumarkt and then Rudolfplatz, which is host to the Hoherzollernring. This long stretch of bars seems to be more for the locals as it may be a bit too far from the centre itself for foreign guests.

After the Trinidad & Tobago match the England fans were informed that on the 20th for the Sweden game, there would be a park that could accommodate 35,000 fans on the other side of the Rhine. The Fan Fest was very full for the Trinidad match and with Sweden bringing their own fans and the game being played in Köln, the citiy´s population could be increased by as much as 15%! 

Seeing God

Today I went to the Temple of Gelsenkirchen for the game between Argentina and Serbia, and even Montenegro. God was there. The clergy prayed, he preached, and a miracle occurred.

Last time I was at this stadium, I arrived at kick-off and got no build up of tension. This time around, I was able to take in the full atmosphere and engage my senses long before kick-off. For all their rivalries with England, there is also a mutual respect. Two sets of differently passionate fans and two differently styled teams. The sea of blue and white almost made the stadium bounce up and down in tangent with the movements of the crowd, and it wasn´t long before they had cause to celebrate. At all 3 matches I have been to, there has been a goal within the first 6 minutes.

The roof on this occasion was completely closed, and the air conditioned so that no temperature was instantly noticeable. Being on just the second row you realise just how the grass can be removed from the stadium. The pitch is on a platform creatig a moat of sorts separating the players and the fans. It would take a brave streaker to make that leap.

Argentina oozed quality and a free-flow of expressions that would match their Brazilian rivals. By the end of the game I had seen Riquelme, Crespo, Saviola, Tevez and Messi, all of whom are already true stars. Whilst Serbia didn´t provide too much of a fight, Argentina looked totally at ease with themselves and never seemed to be playing at full throttle. Meanwhile the fans were paying less attention to the pitch and more to events occurring just above me.

Just like the Pope at the Vatican, Maradona was on the balcony looking out over his wellwishers. He danced and bounced, shouted and screamed, and waved to the fans who regard him as some kind of deity. As someone who never saw him play and have since only heard and seen bad things, you have to admire the way in which Maradona is revered in Argentina. The man can do no wrong by them and in return he gives them all the hope they need to be able to crush teams like Serbia.

The World Cup itself has failed to ignite the imaginations of the masses, as the only upset so far has been the success of the Ecuador team, hardly a shock of massive proportions. The plucky underdogs have played well against the bigger teams, but essentially fallen at the last hurdle. Poland, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and the Ivory Coast have all fallen by the wayside despite decent performances. It is perhaps the way that the game is going that with so much at stake, a more conservative brand of football is proving to be the most successful. For that reason I was more than happy to applaud Argentina today, as they played in the way all World Cup matches should be.

Viva Colonia

I was beginning to doubt myself when I watched the Germany versus Poland game just outside the Schokoladenmuseum on the Rhine. I was with my German host and wishing for the Germans to win. It´s not that I have split loyalties, but rather I´ve developed a craving for that sense of euphoria you get with a mass celebration. Thousands of fans packed the space to watch the match and for one of the first times since the tournament began, Germans were in the majority.

But then my English roots kicked in by about the 85th minute when I anticipated a bout of Schadenfreude, should the Germans fail to beat a 10-man Poland side. However, the unfashionable Oliver Neuville of course scored for Germany and I could celebrate. Not because Germany had won, but rather just for the sake of celebrating. Meanwhile in Dortmund, trouble was occurring between German and Polish fans. Hooligans in many countries were prevented from entering the country but it was even more difficult with Poland being on the Eastern border. In a way it was a relief that the only real trouble so far was at an easily anticipated place and time, so the activity was limited.

Speaking of problems, I think that the German method of street cleaning is very effective and should be adopted in England. Deposits on plastic and glass bottles mean homeless people scour the streets for cast offs, meaning you´ll rarely find a bottle on the ground. If returns were extended to any form of rubbish then not only would there be no litter, we´d have the best-earning beggars in the world. Take that Paris!

Yesterday I did the particularly touristy thing in visiting the Schokoladenmuseum. It was a more sanitised version of Willy Wonka´s factory, but interesting nonetheless. And yes, they do give out free samples. The whole process of getting the beans to final wrapping held my interest for an hour or so, but I began to smell like I´d been swimming in a giant box of Coco Pops – which I would guess will be the Summer ’07 exhibit. I made my move to the Köln Sportmuseum but not without a trip to the Tropical Rainforest room, where the Lindt company were attempting to cultivate a couple of cocoa trees. I think the humidity was about 99%, it felt like a walk-in shower. The Sportmuseum was mostly full of kids, but it was nice to see the spirit of the World Cup hadn´t quite stretched to everyone, as a couple of blokes wouldn´t let some kids at a birthday party use the rooftop football pitch until they´d completely finished.

Last night the English took control of Köln´s Heumarkt. Many were fairly drunk even by the time of kick-off, yet there was no hint of any trouble, even as they sang the 10 German Bombers song. The English filled the Fan Fest better than any set of fans I had seen yet, though of course we got a little impatient as the game wore on. Relief came late on, to choruses of “Let’s all do the Crouchy”.

The celebration was perhaps one of my best memories of the World Cup so far. A samba drum band kept a good rhythm just outside the bars, and the entire street could be caught dancing. A rudimentary check saw fans from England, Sweden, Germany, USA, Holland and Mexico, and probably countless more. The highlight was everyone joining in for the universal “Ole” song, with each set of fans adding their moniker at the end. Songs were traded back and forth amourously, beer drunk by the barrelful, and a climax of everyone singing the native song used during the Köln Karneval, “Viva Colonia”.

A superb end to what could have been a tricky day had England lost and the crowds displeased.

Why do ‘Polish’ and ‘polish’ sound different?

Today promises to be a test for even the most hardened of football fans, as Tunisia play Saudi Arabia this afternoon. It doesn´t hold as much interest for the masses due to the lack of any European or South American involvement, and it isn´t aided by the fact that all the Saudi squad play heir football in their home country.

However, any game today was always going to come behind Germany and Poland in importance. This game is being heralded as being anything except football. Most German cities have large Polish contingents, and it has escaped the attention of no-one that the German forward line is comprised of two Poland-born players. It will provide interest in the Fan Fest tonight away from what is happening on-screen. In football terms, a loss for Poland sees their World Cup campaign over and German will be all but secured of their position.

Vorgestern it was the turn of Cologne´s Italian population to provide the car horns long into the night and most of the morning, and last night it was the large Brazilian contingent that the city boasts. The show looks like it won´t be yielding anytime soon as Hoherzollernring will come alive again this evening with either German or Polish fans, or should a draw ensue, everyone else. Come Thursday night the English fans will be looking to make their mark on the celebrations, meaning little sleep for the many.

Personally today will be something as a rest day, as tomorrow England play and then a trip to Gelsenkirchen on the 16th. The weather is supposed to be in the throws of turning but when it was 30ºC at midnight I think a slight downturn may well be welcome.

The American Dream

I was awoken by Three Lions being played over the military BFBS Radio One on felt that today would be a good one. Czech Republic versus USA should have been an equally fought match and promised to be a spectacle. Gelsenkirchen was also a well-liked stadium and promised something different.

Of course too much of a good thing can make you complacent, so I was dragged down to earth quickly enough when the train to Gelsenkirchen stopped after a short while. We could all smell smoke and sure enough the front of the train was on fire. Added to this the fact my window was broken, and you start to wonder whether it will be a sign of things to come. There were many Americans on the train but none seemed to have any tickets. It was a strange situation to note. I can imagine the likes of England and Italy having hoards of ticketless fans following them, but not USA fans. The delay was perhaps 20 minutes but in the sweltering heat it felt like 20 lifetimes. Upon alighting from the train I was met by a massive swell of both American and Czech fans. Both sets were in good voice and the atmosphere electric. It was probably for the best that I did not see any of Gelsenkirchen because it didn´t seem overly inviting. The stadium itself is located in the middle of nowhere. That would suggest that at the end of nowhere, is somewhere, but alas there is more nowhere after that. It seems as if someone suggested they build a stadium there, then built the town as an afterthought. For all the misgivings, the stadium is a very good one. The roof was partially open and the air was controlled so that you couldn´t really feel any kind of temperature or humidity. The Arena effect meant that the atmosphere bounced off the walls. My only criticism is perhaps that it was too good. It felt artificial. The air wasn´t hot, the pitch looked like it had been recently painted green and it leant itself no flexibility. It felt as if it would be no different in there even if it was -10º outside and in the middle of a blizzard. It made ideal football conditions, but one of the draws of football is its unpredictability and I didn´t get that feeling.

The match itself was even less of a contest than the Angola\Portugal one, but the quality much higher. I was disappointed not to see Milan Baros play, but there were plenty of others on show. Pavel Nedved and in particular Tomas Rosicky stood out as a class above. Rosicky will prove to be an asset to Arsenal with his pace and deft of touch. The USA weren´t outclassed all over the pitch, but rather had no route to goal. The Czech Republic had options everywhere – the height of Koller, the skill of Nedved and the speed of Rosicky, but with only Brian McBride as an out-and-out striker it meant the USA couldn´t break through the defence. Claudio Reyna hit the post and perhaps would have made a better game had it gone in, but things were not on the US side.

On my return to Köln it must have slipped my mind that Italy had just won the World Cup, or so it seemed. Hohezollernring was awash with Italians in cars, on mopeds and on foot flying their flags and bleating their horns. Chants were constant and the celebrating intense. Rather than winning the World Cup outright, they had merely beaten footballing minnows Ghana in their first match. It remains to be seen what celebrations will be like if the Italians do actually achieve something worthwhile.

As for the rest of today I feel it my duty to visit the Rhein. That and the Dom were the obvious landmarks I noted from the plane, so it demans a visit I feel. I´m looking forward to England\Trinidad on the 15th, and then I´m going back to Gelsenkirchen for Argentina\Serbia & Montenegro on the 16th. Bis bald!

A day of firsts

Sunday was a day of experiences. The Dom held a short-lived interest with the idea that once you´ve seen one cathedral, you´ve seen them all. Each seems to boast that it is the best or highest something, and the Kölner Dom is no different. Besides, if anyone wanted to be a tourist in Germany, and to see German culture, the WC is the worst time to do it.

Having watched the Holland\Serbia & Montenegro game in the Fan Fest I can say without hesitation that the Oranje are, as the Germans say, verrückt. That Sunday evening led to my first ever World Cup match. Having seen games in the since renamed League 2, League 1, Championship, Premiership, FA cup, League cup, UEFA cup and World Cup Qualifying, it was something of a religious pilgrimage to make the trip to Germany. It is probably worth noting that itäs the occasion which becomes spiritual rather than the place. The Rhein-Energie Stadion in Köln is not the best in the country by a long way but it still has a good atmosphere. In opposite corners of the stadium it was apparent the official fan clubs were segregated. Not to steretype too much, but the Angolans were all about the partying and the Portugese about the passion. As a former Portuguese colony I wasn´t sure of the political situations between the fans, but all seemed to be harmless. As for the match itself, I was impressed in the first half hour but the game needed more goals to make it a spectacle. Cristiano Ronaldo was trying, and to a greater extent succeeding in pulling off his usual repertoire of tricks. It was disappointing to see him constantly looking for fouls. Not that he was diving, but he was never adverse to running into someone to get a free kick. In contrast, Luis Figo seemed to have very little energy. Not that he wasn´t trying, but perhaps at his age he is merely being efficient in his movement. The goal was created by Figo as he showed his class to get past his defender. At that point I thought the game would be a rout for Portugal, but Angola rallied and had some good shots in the second half. They seemed rather defensive and lacked that final quality you need in a World Cup. Akwa was skillful but I was dissapointed to see him make way for Mantorras, rather than play alongside him. As it was, the game was a decent enough introduction to World Cup football.

The entire set-up reeked of contrasts. Ronaldo showed the best and worst of modern football with his tricks and his constant search for a foul. Luis Figo had all of the craft and none of the effort. The Angolan fans were terrific, many were leaning out of cars and chasing the trams on the way to the ground. The Portuguese were a sea of green and red. Yet they occupied only two corners of the ground. Everywhere you could see sponsors t-shirts or even worse empty seats, plus a plethora of neutrals, such as me. It felt a little like an exhibition match in that respect, because the atmosphere was only luke warm. It is perhaps a criticism of the ticketing system so that tickets are so much in demand that people will take in any game even if they don´t have a vested interest. The advertising was also a little grotesque. I can appreciate the need for sponsors but I think after a certain point it becomes counter-productive. People often complained that Mastercard had the monopoly on ticket sales and the abundance of Budweiser products plus the rest soured the purity of the football. Every advertisement was a company tipping their hat off to a fellow sponsor, it was horrible. I believe it was a relief to many when the football actuallzy started. To my eternal joy my seat was located on the first row of the second tier alongside the pitch, one of the best views in the stadium. But of course I was stopped from hanging my flag over the ledge because, as the steward informed me, FIFA regulations state no flags can hang alongside the pitch due to TV cameras, but it´s fine to hang them behind the goals. Go figure.

After the game I felt it customary to abuse the allowance of alcohol in the streets and joined some Irish boys in town. They had bought their tickets from scalpers for 180 Euros each. Don´t ask me what Irish people are doing at a World Cup they are not involved in, but Irish men don´t seem to need a reason to do anything.

Wow

Lets just put this in perspective for a second. Im sat in a Kölnisch Internetcafe, struggling to find the apostrophe key on their crazy German keyboards. I have doe nothing yet, and still I am having a sensation overload.

Firstly I miss England´s first and only goal so far in the World Cup, no big deal. Everything went smoothly travel-wise. No delays, simple check-in system. My bag was the first off the carousel and I caught a train to my destination.

The only hiccup was that my phone is refusing to find a German network to latch itself onto. This is a problem when you need to contact your host. As it was, I asked someone to send a text message to my host and all was sorted.

Everything is great but I don´t really want co comment  because I haven´t done anything yet! Having said that, on my S-Bahn voyage to the host flat, we encountered the dregs from the Argentina-Ivory Coast match in the city. Within one stop I had Swedish, German, Czech, USA, Angola, Portugal and Argentina fans get on the train. There hasn´t even been a game played in this city yet.

I woke up today and wanted to get to the ticket centre before 11am when it opened to avid queues. Job accomplished, and in fact the centre was just opening at 10.30am. I got straight to the counter and picked up all my tickets without any hassle, and now I have the rest of the day to explore.

The only thing I piucked out from the plane window was the huge cathedral and two purple arches next to it, which I assume is the FanFest. I think I´m going to head there.

Anywho I´m going now because I haven´t done anything yet and I could still write for a few hours more.

Tschüß for now!

Because bigger is always better

Setting off in 2 days from East Midlands airport and I cannot wait. Hopefully I'll keep this flag on my travels but probably not. 

How best to test my new air horn?

Yup, it works.

Schon bereit?

The last few days have been hectic. End of university exams, Campus 14 and the Nottingham University Summer Party. It would have been a lot to take had I been able to remember it all. But now it's all about the World Cup. That and piecing together the weekend. 

In all honesty I haven't got plans to do much in Cologne other than watch football, read football and play football. It's strange to think that the next time the World Cup is in Europe I'll probably be 32, with South Africa and almost certainly a South American country taking the reigns in 2010 and 2014 respectively. So I thought it best to make a list of things to do whilst I was over there that didn't necessarily involve football.

And I got nowhere. Who am I kidding? If you're going to a foreign country to experience the culture there probably isn't a worse time to go over than when hundreds of thousands of fans from 31 other countries are drinking and partying.

That said, we all need targets, so here is a checklist of things to do:

  1. Finish off the book we read in Mr. Whitaker's 6th Form lessons. Hard to believe we did exams on the book without ever finishing it in class
  2. Eat plenty of German sausage with a ridiculously high fat content.
  3. Guess someone's nationality correctly based purely on observed stereotypes.
  4. Beat a Brazilian at football.
  5. Lose to an Argentinian in a penalty shoot-out.
  6. Not mention the war.
  7. Not start a war. 
  8. Try and convince at least one person that I'm not English.  Which leads to 9…
  9. Perfect my fake-Welsh accent.
  10. Find a celebrity.
  11. Get on TV/Radio and embarrass myself.
  12. Get on TV/Radio and embarrass others.
  13. Visit the Chocole Factory in Cologne. Following which:
  14. Rat-tail a portly German child ("Don't make me run I'm full of chocolate!")
  15. Smile politely whilst someone asks me for directions in Angolan (is that their language?)
  16. Come on as a second-half substitute for Peter Crouch.
  17. Come on as a first-half substitute for Wayne Rooney.
  18. Miss a flight/train/internet connection. 
  19. Enter into an argument about the merits of Rammstein.
  20. Get deported for my comments about Rammstein. 

All of which I feel are quite achievable…

Rent-a-mate

This isn't a crude reference to the red light scene in many German cities (although it easily could be), but rather a look at the way everyone is making a quick penny out of the World Cup in Germany this summer.

FIFA's slogan for their showpiece this summer is "a time to make friends". As wholesome as that sounds, it doesn't quite include the entire spectrum of people in Germany this summer.

You can stay with your new friends in their own house this summer should you so wish (and I do), as long as you're willing to pay them for that spare room that currently hosts a fishtank and those boxes they were meaning to open but never got round to. Host-a-Fan.de gives landlords the chance to offer their rooms, and fans respond by saying they'll try their hardest not to vomit in the rockery after too many Weissbiers.

A system that may get some use for those not wanting to use the train system in Germany is the Mitfahrzentrale. This gives drivers the chance to offer people their spare seats in a car to a venue they are going to, as long as they stump up some of the petrol costs. It may seem a trifle risky, but that's the age we're in these days. Besides, all their details are on the website so that shoud provide some assurances. Either way, you pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

If your new driver seems to be taking the exit off the Autobahn towards something called "Der Nürburgring", start to worry. He's taking you around a racing track, and a busy one at that. Should you not trust another driver, then the Call-A-Bike option is always there, for quick and effective transport around chosen cities.

With the advent of eBay people are picking up everything from sarongs to thongs, laden with national emblems and flags. In some cases people have even sold tickets to World Cup matches on eBay (although this is now banned in the UK).

Ticket Swap Shop requires a registration fee of 25 Euros to simply put you in contact with someone else who may want to trade a spare ticket with you. Of course the argument is that had FIFA and those handling the ticketing process had offered a swap shop in the first place, the size of any grey market would be severely diminished. On the official FanGuide website the out of date material does state there will be an official ticket swap shop, but this never materialised. Without going too vehemently on the offensive against FIFA et al, it seems odd that in the first phases of ticket applications, fans were forced to pick matches completely blind. The only way of swapping them officially is in cases of extreme hardship – e.g. Wrath of God, exile in Siberia or your own death.

With so many people claiming a ticket transfer "within the family", the obvious excuse is that we are all part of the wider football community. In times of Terrorism™ it's clear we're all one big happy family, which in an optimistic way is perhaps what FIFA intended all along.

You can tell a lot about a man by his flag

If you had just come into the possession of a 9ft x 6ft St.George's flag, you'd want to decorate in the best way you saw fit. However I was never any good at art, so suggestions are more than welcome.

I could give a noble shout-out to my home town football club, or a message to my family. Perhaps a crude joke, or lyrics to a favourite song?

The truth is there's going to be a plethora of English flags in Germany this summer, and anyone is going to make their's stand out. A creative motif is often a way to get noticed. Perhaps a nice Welsh dragon to acknowledge Michael Owen's roots? Or even a maple leaf as homage to Owen Hargreaves? Maybe I'll throw a coloured sock into the wash to make the flag come out in Sven Göran Eriksson's Swedish colours?

England flag

All I know is that writing "E N G L A N D" across a St.George flag isn't really appreciating what the purpose of a flag actually is….

Übung macht den Weltmeister

It might seem obvious to check out a few websites before visiting cities these days, but often you're left with the same feeling from all of them. Each one has a cathedral by default, a local delicacy and a day of the year when everyone seems to go a bit crazy.

I'm starting to think that the key is to read between the lines, and see what they aren't reporting. For example, Wikitravel refers to the "distinctive" and "exorbitant amount of pride" that Cologne offers. If you haven't guessed already, Cologne boasts to be Germany's gay capital. I say this because if you search for "alone in cologne" on Google, you get a link to the Gay Times, so I may as well embrace this early doors.

To paraphrase from my German host:

"The cathedral is the most spectacular thing in Cologne. But Cologne is very famous for some other things. For example the gays. Here are a lot of gay people. So the party scene is a little bit different from other places. The cologne people are different anyway…the people here are very open. Some kind of Party-Folk. But they are not so serious, as they are in Hamburg for example."

But what kind of cosmopolitan city doesn't have a gay scene today? In comparison, my only other reference to Cologne in my first 20 years was during the reading of an A-Level German set text. Heinrich Böll was of Kölsch origin, and Cologne was a possible setting for 'Das Brot der frühen Jahre', or 'The Bread of those early years'. Here was a story of Walter Fenrich, who was part of the German community rebuilding following the Second World War. The reference to bread is of harder times when he was a boy, where something such as bread was a major commodity.

Over in Berlin, the rival for the throne of Gay Capital, the Olympic Stadium has seen a complete renovation in time for this World Cup. The scene of Jesse Owens et al in 1936 at a time of political fragility is now hosting the single greatest match in sport.

It seems that within Germany they have already made a fantastic attempt to shrug off the shackles of recent history and a move towards a more cosmopolitan life. This summer the rest of the world will finally update their factfiles on a country that hasn't left their history behind, but simply changed in spite of it.

How I Learned to Stop Studying and Love the Blog

The switch from spring to summer usually means a transition from inebriation to sobriety for many a student, but in between library sessions it's necessary to keep the fun levels up.

BBC Blogs

 That said, I can't help but feel a tinge of responsilibity when the BBC provides a link to my blog directly above those of Michael Owen and Ronaldinho. Not that I'm not up to the task and responsibility, but surely it's not in the interests of the British media to rely on an untested youngster to make the World Cup blog a successful one…

Grass roots, muddy boots

It has been some time since I saw Hans van der Meer's website. He went around Sunday league football pitches capturing those moments that mean as much to those involved as watching any match on TV.

Normally me browsing that site wouldn't be of much interest, until I recognised one of the photos he took.

The following photo was taken at Oxenhope's ground, a small place above Keighley in West Yorkshire. I have played on this pitch quite a few times, although not usually too successfully. My last game there was only the other month and was a 4-0 reverse. Apparently it was taken by Hans van der Meer in 2004 at a match between Oxenhope Recreation FC and Bronte Wanderers. Not too surprisingly for such a league, this match would be regarded as a local derby. For those with a keen eye, you may notice the pitch sloping downhill from left to right. That's about as gentle a gradient as you are likely to find in Oxenhope. Running uphill on that pitch is something you don't want to be doing in a muddy second half.

Hans van der Meer

Hans has some great photos on his website (www.hansvandermeer.nl) and it is well worth a visit.

England’s finest

For anyone who doubts the quality of England's finest players, check out some of the following footage:

Peter Crouch:

Rio Ferdinand:

Steven Gerrard:

We’ll do the headlines, you do the football

It's occasions such as the World Cup that encourages tabloid headline-writers everywhere to wrestle with foreign names and Anglicise them beyond all recognition. It's also times such as these where we all mock the headline writers, whilst at the same time marvelling at their creativity. Here's a prescient look at the possible headlines and the improbable stories to accompany them:

"Sven: I'm a Theologist"
Sven Göran Eriksson says he believed in the talent of England's World Cup winning star before he was even conceived. Theo Walcott's destiny was aligned in the stars many years ago according to the unusually irrational Swede. Eriksson then falls from grace following a comment about wheelchairs and karma.

"David vs Goliath: this time Goliath wins"
England's hopes were dashed on penalties yet again. The Angolan saviour? Reserve goalkeeper Goliath. The 33 year old goalkeeper was only in the team as the other keepers succumbed to a case of the Tottenham Trotspurs. Captain David Beckham sees his spot kick saved before joining Sven in a sarong-wearing cult.

"JRR talking"
In the build-up to the final between Argentina and Brazil, Juan Roman Riquelme talks his side up and claims Ronaldinho et al are just circus clowns at best.

"Ulises' Odyssey"
Ecuador will lose every game but expect some headline writers to crowbar this one into some Ulises De La Cruz related story.

"Polaksed"
Czech international Jan Polak unleashes a hellish shot to knock Italy out of the World Cup on June 22nd.

"Klose but no cigar"
Germany rue Miroslav Klose's penalty miss in the final versus Brazil in a repeat of 2002's climax.

"Marco Lambasts Them"
Dutch coach Marco van Basten refuses to take any blame for his side's first round exit, and instead goes on the offensive against his players.

"Spain fail to deliver"
Not so much of a play on words as just a general prediction.

Spot the difference

Feel free to watch the only documented case of me venturing over the the half-way line. Just lacking in the finishing department

Compare it to this effort from a Villa hero:

Dreams are for sleep, fantasy is for football

It's that time of year again when the sweepstakes, pools and spreadsheets make their electronic passage through the networks of many an office around the World. With so many games on offer, I've decided to limit myself to just two such games – as we all know, too many games before this World Cup could result in burn out come the knockout stages.

I opted for the Metro newspaper's online game, which has free entry but cash prizes for the overall winners. In addition, I pumped 300 pence into the Guardian's coffers for the chance to win a return significantly higher than the entry.

For some, the process of picking a fantasy team borders on the scientific. For others, it's just picking the household names. I usually go somewhere between the two, adding a little blind optimism and partisan support.

Goalkeeper:

Jens Lehmann (Germany, Metro and Guardian) – I've chosen Jens for both games because put bluntly, I can't see many teams scoring past Germany. They one-nilled their way to the final last time around (save for the Saudi Arabia match) and look to offer the same this time too. As host nation, and in a relatively easy group on paper, I don't see the likes of Coast of Rice, Poland or D'or Ecua scoring a goal at all. Jens has done well this season and will be out to amend for his sending off in the Champions' League final. Continue reading

One way ticket to paradise

It was out of optimism as much as anything that I booked a one-way flight to Germany for the 10th June. With no place to stay and no obvious way out, I thought I may lose myself in the system and be found driving a taxi in Berlin on my 37th birthday.

As it was I found a reasonable flight out on the 19th, before realising that the city I was to be staying in would be hosting an England game the very next night. Many Google searches later and all is well, and I finally have some accomodation sorted.

So for anyone interested, I'll be staying in Cologne (Köln as it'll come to be to me from now on) from the 10th June to the 22nd June. Day trips will take me to the following cities:

12th June – USA vs Czech Republic – Gelsenkirchen
13th June – France vs Switzerland – Stuttgart

Of course knowing my luck I'll end up in the passenger seat of an Audi Quattro going round the Nurburgring trying to remove my fingernails from the dashboard.

As a Villa fan I'll be happy to be seeing Milan Baros twice, and it'll give me rare opportunity to wear my claret and blue apparel without too much shame. A keen eye will be kept on Jan Koller, or "The Czech John Hartson", as rumours are abound that David O'Leary is grooming him to come to England.

To my eternal disappointment, my research has found that the local delicacy of the region is Kölsch, a light, and more importantly, SMALL beer. In glasses of 0,2L (or "a mouthful" to you and me), I won't be sure whether to sip these drinks or line them up. Perhaps the slogan they can use on these hot summer days is "little and often".

Of course I'm not so much of a nationalist that I don't want to see others do well. I hope to see Thomas 'Der Hammer' Hitzlsperger bostin' his way through the early rounds, just as long as he ultimately fails. Nothing personal mind, it's just theres nothing more potent than the mix of Germans and optimism. We all know where that ends!

On the same note, it was heard that Franz Beckenbauer was going on a 'charm offensive' to appeal to the calm nature of some of England's more unruly fans. I'd like to point out that using words such as 'Charm OFFENSIVE!' won't help matters. In truth, I can't see there being any English hooliganism. After all, that'd mean some of the World Cup tickets for England games actually reaching these shores.

To weave a more domestic web on the eve of the Prince's Trust 25th anniversary, I'd like to point a finger at Prince William. As heir to the throne, perhaps sooner should Charles decide to not bother with the whole King thing, I suggest Prince William use his royal influence to perform a State takeover of Aston Villa. Like many Spanish teams (e.g. Real Madrid), I feel Villa would benefit from the head of an aging dynasty and who stick around when no-one really wants them. It's what we're all used to anyway. We could even change our name to Real Villa, or Royal House to do an elementary translation.

Having a King bankroll our European successes would be fantastic, although I wouldn't suggest William extend his hospitality to his Grandad or brother for those continental away legs.

As a Norwegian ref might do in a Champions League final, I'll leave you with a rubbish and unnecessary send-off in the form of a couple of links to some videos with a World Cuppish-hue.

BBC World Cup video archive:
http://tinyurl.com/r4m2f

ITV World Cup video archive:
http://tinyurl.com/jmrqo

England Pride video:

Beckham vs Greece (2002 WCQ Old Trafford – should have volume up for best effect):


Ireland at Italia '90 – Packie Bonner's save and DOL's penalty (long download):

       

Same old, same old

With more than 3 weeks to go until Grinsi Klinsi gets sacked having suffered the embarrassment of a 0-0 drawfest against Coast of Rica, it is left to us Bloggers to provide light relief by making uneducated guesses about the World-master-ship.

Other than Wayne Rooney being over-shadowed by the so-thin-he-doesn't-cast-a-shadow Theo Walcott, the obvious answer is that Italy will go out amid some sort of conspiracy. If it's not an outrageously disrespectful Korean daring to score against The Azzuri, then it'll be the Czech Republic in cahoots with the USA to mastermind a 2-2 draw and kick the Italians out.More…Whilst we're in that group, expect one of 2 things to happen to Milan Baros:

1) He'll score the somewhat vague amount of a "bagful" of goals and then not recreate in with any kind of domestic form

2) He'll score none and carry it through the next domestic season.

In Group A, Germany will concede none, yet score just one in a scrappy 1-0 against Ecuador, where any number of English tabloids will rue the missed opportunity to use the headline "Ulises' World Cup Odyssey". Berlin will host scenes of never-before-seen violence between Polish and German hooligans, even though the match is in Dortmund.

Group B will be determined by Uri Geller. Expect hilarious and original obituaries in the newspapers because England failed to maul Trinidad and Tobago by the four goals predicted by Pelé. England will fail to beat Sweden, but it won't matter anyway, because Sven will already have run off to manage Germany by June 20th.

Both Serbia and Montenegro will each field 11 men to over-run the Mighty Elephants, the Oranje and Juan Roman Riquelme. Savo Milosevic will score a 30 yard belter to celebrate the decade since Aston Villa last won a trophy:

Continue reading