Exploring Football in Europe
In April 2008 having spent three months in Prague, I was joined by my travel companion, Alex. We set off for Europe. Our plan was to take in every football (soccer) match and kebab we could. We like football. This journey would take us to the great footballing nations of Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, and to a lesser extent, the mighty Slovakia and Polish giants. It was not all about the football; it was about seeing how the fans, the stadiums and the experience differed from place to place. It was going to be a man-tour.
The journey started in Prague with the free bus service from Andel bus station to Slavia Prague’s Strahov Stadium, a concrete monolith reminiscent of many of the Gorbachov-era buildings throughout Central and Eastern Europe. As expected, it is huge, ugly and concrete. Cracks are evident; one wonders whether it is really the safest structure for a mass of people who pride themselves on goulash, dumplings and beer.
Ah, the food. The traditional match day Czech sausage with mustard served with a solitary slice of brown bread on a fetching paper plate must go down as one of the worst culinary experiences of my life. So greasy you can leave a fingerprint, so clear that Scotland Yard could arrest you for a burglary in fifty years time. The worst part was the lingering smell as several plates with left over mustard and a transparent sausage-shaped grease mark lay in every row. Every time the wind blew, the smell returned.
The games are a predominantly pleasant affair that show less of the sanitation of football in Western Europe, with a quality that would never adorn the Premier League, but you sit safe in the knowledge that this costs at most five pounds. In the family stand the atmosphere is calm and relaxed. To the left can be seen the Sparta ultras; to the left, the ultras of the visiting team (provided more than ten turn up). Both are far enough away to be admired for the spectacle they provide as they ritually chant, jump and gesticulate. The ultra culture takes on an Anglicised feel; banners advertise the names of the different firms, such as the “Slavia Gentlemen”. Probably unknown to Matt Groening, The Simpson characters take up a prominent position amongst much of the artwork – Lord knows why, I never saw Milhouse as the epitome of machismo.
The highlight of the Czech football calendar comes with the two biggest teams in Prague and the league taking each other on – Sparta and Slavia. The game in March 2008 was of special importance as it was the last in the Strahov Stadium before Slavia moved back to the rebuilt Eden Stadium. Before the game, internet forums were awash with Sparta fans talking about burning down the stadium. The Slavia ultras did not take offense at this – instead they pledged to join them!
Luckily I managed to get a ticket with some English friends. I was late. I took the bus up to the stadium and arrived in time for the kick-off. I found my gate, walked into the stadium and found the stairwells full of fans. I couldn't get to my seat so I made myself at home on the steps. As I looked around me, I realized I was not in the family stand, rather in the lion's den – at the ultra end behind the goals that I had marvelled at from afar. I stood with people decked out in red and white, with the occasional half-naked skinhead mixed in for good measure. My initial concern soon wore off; I was happily jumping around, playing with balloons, attempting to join in with the songs, anything to ignore the extremely drab game unfolding beneath me. So far, so good.
At half-time, several hundred armed police lined up in front of my particular section. Did they know something I didn’t? I soon found out, when Slavia scored. A few burning objects flew over my head and landed in front of the police. The police went into the crowd to drag the offending man out. More burning objects. More police came to arrest the culprits and to protect the firemen. A few people began ripping up the plastic seats and throwing them. The police retaliated with tear gas, firecrackers and a full charge.
Alarmed, I backed into the stairwell but the cloud of gas made my eyes sore; they started to water. It was like someone was grating an onion into my eye. What could I do? I ran, of course. My tactical retreat led me to a wooded area outside the stand. I recovered close to a company of brave police officers who were also cowering by the trees. Relieved, I heard the welcome call of my friend, Alex. “John! My eyes! What's going on!”. We spotte some people wandering, dazed. They greeted us with the same confused laugh, wondering if this was supposed to be funny. Tentatively we made it back into the stadium; it had calmed down. This didn’t stop us from standing six inches from the exit ready to beat another hasty retreat. We didn’t know the score and we didn’t care but we made it to the end. All that for five pounds.
Our next football match was at Wisla Krakow in Poland. We expected to see a peaceful game. How could a quarter final Polish Cup match between Wisla Krakow and a team from the other end of the country turn ugly?
Things did not start well before we even reached the stadium. Confused as to where to buy tickets, we asked a group of eight policemen in classic tourist mode, “Do you speak English?” The reply came back in unison, “No”. We were then body searched by security, not a good sign, especially if you are carrying a five-inch Postman Pat soft toy. We got through that and entered our section of the stadium. A teenager was sitting on the railings, acting as a conductor and chanting away. We soon realised that once again we were in with the hardcore fans. The proportion of stereotypical bald heads and people who look like they wouldn’t sit down even if they were subject to the gravitation pull of Jupiter, gives you a clue as to where you are. Everyone around us was chanting, making threatening gestures, not taking the slightest notice of the game. Alex and I tried not to have eye contact with anyone, making ourselves as invisible as possible.
At last a change of pace came when we arrived at Artmedia Bratislava’s shed-like stadium. Crossing the River Danube at 10.30 a.m., we came upon a throng of civilised-looking people enjoying a morning beer. How I wished I could see my way past a debilitating hangover from a cheesy Slovakian underground rock music club, and join them. It was such a relaxed atmosphere akin to a Sunday league football match. The crowd was made up of families and tourists, hoping to enjoy a disgustingly cheap game of football.
Bratislava laid siege to the AS Trencin goalie, who waited to be rolled over. It didn’t go quite as planned; the only thing the visitors could have done more negatively would be to construct a human pyramid on the goal-line. Luckily, the only danger to our safety here was severe buttock splinters from the wooden bondage chairs.
Milan and the San Siro were to be the centrepiece of our journey. We were not disappointed. We were there to watch Inter Milan; I even bought a knock-off Inter shirt in Croatia for the occasion.. The San Siro seats nearly 83,000 people. To get to the third tier, it is necessary to walk up a lot of stairs. Even way above the pitch, we had a great view and enjoyed the noisy atmosphere. Fans carried flares; we all held up blue and black cards to signify the club colours. This was way above anything we had seen throughout Europe so far.
Out came Postman Pat. What better time! Surrounded by a mere eighty thousand Italian football fans, who would notice or pass judgement? In spite of this, nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Our final game was in Germany; we were lucky enough to watch Hertha Berlin at the gigantic Olympicstadion. The stadium is surrounded by history – the 1936 Olympic Games entrance, the Glockenturn (Bell Tower) and Jessie Owens statue are impressive and historically significant.
Sitting safely to the side, away from the hardcore fans, we watched their flags, their dancing and their singing – oddly familiar from our previous games. After fifteen minutes though, there was still no goal. People began to stream out of the stadium in large numbers.
What pleased me was that thirty one days after the Prague sausage incident, I was able to confidently get back on the wagon and have a delicious traditional German bratwurst. Just add Bovril! Football in Germany is cheap, enabling the Germans to fill their larger stadiums. We got in for nine Euros.
That was our trip. We learned to always check who is playing and where we were sitting.