Sunday, June 15, 2008

Euro 2008: Part 2 – Joel Rookwood in Austria and Switzerland

Austria and Switzerland might serve as a convenient central location for this summer’s European football championships, but for most actual ‘fans’ (as opposed to ‘followers’) of football, the selection of hosts for UEFA’s latest showcase tournament has been nothing but problematic. For a start, the stadiums are a farce, with maximum capacity rarely exceeding 30,000 for any of the eight venues selected to host games. Then there is the match schedule, with games played in the respective nations on alternating evenings, rendering it virtually impossible to get to a decent number of matches in a short space of time without resorting to airborne travel.

When the draw was made for the group stages, and I predictably lost the ticket lottery, I realised then that it was always going to be difficult to gain entry into stadiums. UEFA think that their ‘partners’ deserve preferential treatment and supply tickets by the bucket-load to anyone with corporate connections. Next in line are probably the fans of the respective nations and a few locals, which I guess you can’t complain at. But at the last European Championships, many of the ‘festival followers’ decided to avoid the long trip to Europe’s most westerly nation. Instead Portugal was invaded by a mix of corporates and football fanatics, with many of the ‘take it or leave it’ crowd opting for the latter preference and staying at home. Austria and Switzerland however, share a land border with virtually every country in the continent. And so it seems that for the current tournament, every man and his town have descended on one of the joint host nations, to sample some football, probably for the first and last time in their lives, before returning home to jump on another bandwagon.

Despite not qualifying for tickets via any ‘legitimate’ source (surely a rather fluid term in the context of UEFA’s relationship with supporters), I decided, along with David, Faz, Richie and Mick, four other hopefuls from Liverpool, to head out for the event. We were unperturbed by minor details like tickets or hotel accommodation. And so, three days after the ridiculously weird and over-elaborate opening ceremony, we flew to Milan, for no particular reason, picked up a hire car, and headed north. Staying true to our reputation as cheeky Scousers, we managed to convince the charming staff of the unnamed car hire operators that an upgrade to a top of the range Mercedes should come as standard, and at no extra cost. Spurred on by our first unexpected success, it was agreed moments later that this would prove a memorable tournament, for five lads who for circumstantial reasons will probably never travel again as a group.

Night fell soon after we passed Milan, and it wasn’t long after that before fatigue began to set in, and so we decided to call it a day. Now, our choice of sleeping venues on this trip usually fell somewhere between spontaneous, ridiculous and illegal. Occasionally our selection was to border all three during the days that followed. For the opening night, the Italian location was equidistant between a road, a mountain and a fast-flowing river. This was to ensure that we could get straight on the road the following morning, that our tents and their contents would be sheltered from the wind, and that we could get a wash before setting off. We awoke the next morning, and discovered the plan had been a success. By 09:00am we were ‘showered’ (much to the shock of some horrified and amused observers), and on the road to Geneva.

In keeping with the overly negative tone of this article, it has to be said that Geneva was a ridiculous choice of venue. An attractive, popular city it undoubtedly may be, but a football city it undoubtedly is not. Football fans reading this will understand the term ‘football city’. A place where you just know the people live and breathe the game. The likes of Seville, Marseille or Liverpool – these are football cities. Geneva is good for a cheese fondue, a boat ride on the lake and a new Rolex, but it is no place to watch football. And sure enough, for us, it proved to be no place to watch football. For only the second time in my life, I failed to gain entry into a football stadium for a match.

The Portuguese were in town to play the Czechs, and unfortunately this attracted lots of Portuguese and Czech fans. Crazy, I know. Worse still, they seemed to have bought nearly all of the tickets. The North African/French and British touts were predictably making a killing from the tickets that remained, shamelessly shifting on their spoils for eleven times the market value. Some people say touts don’t do much harm and that it is just a business like anything else. Those people are idiots. At 400+ Euros for a 45 Euro ticket, the slimy, scruffy no marks made their money, and denied a group of dejected and disillusioned Scousers entry to the stadium.

With the prospect of watching the game in a fanpark proving rather unappealing to five battle-hardened fans from Liverpool, we were keen to vacate the city. UEFA, the corporates and the touts had won round one. But then, to make matters worse, the second battle didn’t even commence. For soon after the game in question, I had been outvoted in the decision of whether we would drive nine hours to Klagenfurt for the next day’s (closest) game between Germany and some other nation we had no interest in. The other four inhabitants of the car voted in favour of avoiding the long-haul journey, and instead making a more leisurely trip to Zurich for the Italy Vs Romania game the day after that. I was naturally disappointed, but took it on the chin. Then, I did what any Liverpudlian in my position would have done. I went in search of mischief.

Of course, the journey from Geneva to Zurich was never going to be direct. As with any European away trip with our beloved Liverpool, there is always some adventurous detour to occupy a free evening. A quick glance at Europe’s least accurate map seemed to reveal little at first. In fact, I think Austria was still the same country as Hungary when this tatty map was produced. However, on closer inspection it did highlight one key location: Sion. Liverpool had played FC Sion in the European Cup Winners Cup in the autumn of 1996, and the name was immediately recognisable to the five of us. Liverpool won the memorable second leg 6-3, but whilst the five of us could not agree on the final score of the first game in Switzerland, what we could agree on however, was the location of our next stop after Geneva.

We arrived at the sleepy town to find it nestled in behind a collection of picturesque mountain tops. We found FC Sion’s ground before even locating the city centre, which is always a good sign, and headed straight for the pitch. Even with our frame of reference, entry into the stadium was relatively simple, and so the customary kick around and ‘photo with the flag’ on the pitch commenced. We then began to feel the effects of a long first day in Switzerland. Painfully aware that we had not yet selected a place to pitch our tents for the night ahead, there were some heavy sighs from the boys as the final shots nestled into the open goal. We sat on the lush turf, with the realisation that from four possible matches in the tournament, we could now only go to a maximum of two before having to catch our flight home.

Although it was a disappointing reality to be faced with, we Scousers are optimistic by nature. Despite some early setbacks therefore, we decided that Euro 2008 would be a tournament we would look back on with fondness. Consequently, all talk of negativity was banished from that moment. All moaning about touts and UEFA’s greed and incompetence was replaced by a cheeky demeanour, and a decision to apply our civic education, and the requirement to be buoyant and resourceful irrespective of circumstantial strain. With the light fading fast, we needed a place to camp. With the trip fading fast, we wanted a story tell. Almost immediately, we looked at each other, realising in unison that the solution to both our problems lay beneath our feet. We were going to camp in FC Sion’s stadium, on their pitch. And do you know what? We did as well.

If you want to discover whether we escaped punishment for this latest act of impudence, or if we manage to gain entry into either of the two games remaining, keep an eye out for my third and final piece of the Euro jigsaw. Until then, keep an eye on the Dutch. They look a bit special.

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