Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Euro 2008: Part 3 – Joel Rookwood in Austria and Switzerland

Wednesday had long since given way to Thursday, as the sun’s ascension across the Swiss sky was well underway. Five slumbering Scousers lay snoring on the green green grass of FC Sion’s home stadium, protected from the elements only by two of the most primitive tents ever manufactured (there was change from a £20 note for their collective purchase). Predictably, as the self-appointed leader of the group, I was the first to rise. A quick glimpse at my surroundings saw me spring into action, as I immediately realised I hadn’t dreamt the previous night’s selection of accommodation. We really were stupid enough to camp on a professional football pitch.

The level of bravery-cum lunacy we had illustrated was matched only by the degree of fortune we experienced at not having been discovered. As I had drifted off to sleep I half expected to be woken by some irate groundsman accompanied by a dozen battle-hardened police officers. I needn’t have worried. The CCTV footage will hopefully never be recovered, although if it is, it will reveal that we came, saw and slept on, without tampering with the environment. The tent peg we were tempted to donate to the pitch once graced by our beloved Liverpool team was sensibly and thankfully collected on a final inspection of the site.

With the vast majority of Switzerland’s current occupants still fast asleep, no doubt in warm, sheltered accommodation, five fatigued Liverpudlians headed for the car, and ultimately for the Swiss capital. We decided to take the scenic route, stopping near Interlaken for a meal on the banks of Lake Cresent, and even taking up the chance to park up on a train which escorted us through a 20-mile tunnel.

Once we arrived in the charming city of Berne, the first port of call was the Nydegg Bridge, suspended 150 feet above the river Rhine. To the bemusement of passing tourists, we draped our ‘Scouse Spaniards’ Liverpool banner from the bridge, and managed to keep from dropping the flag onto one of the passing canoeists on the river below. Second to that, we relieved the nearest liquor store of a bottle of amoretto and a crate of lager, and set up camp on a central street. We then simply watched the world go by for much of what proved to be a fairly lazy afternoon.

The largely uneventful schedule was punctuated only by the sighting of Ray Houghton, the former Liverpool midfielder, who seemed happy enough to spend the best part of half an hour talking football with a group of lads for whom he held a quiet heroic status. The lack of English natives at the tournament had doubtless subjected him to the sole company of a socially-challenged television producer - hence his solitude as he wandered the streets of Berne’s old town, seemingly devoid of purpose. It was little surprising that he appeared almost as glad of the conversation as we were, even if I did slightly embarrass him by telling the story of when I had knocked on the door of his family home in Childwall as an eight-year-old and asked his wife if ‘Ray was coming out’.

We later headed to the nearby fanpark, where we watched the Germans succumb to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the impressive Slaven Bilic’s even more impressive Croatia team. We then spent the time between matches racing down the motorway to Luzern, immediately locating a central bar to watch the final hour of Poland’s tame 1-1 draw with co-hosts Austria. On the final whistle, we exited the bar, to find torrential rain was pelting the streets of Luzern. We looked at each other in stunned silence. None of us had planned for precipitation. We hadn’t really planned for anything on this trip, but a fierce wind and a ferocious downpour were certainly the last thing we had envisaged encountering.

Our reaction did not exactly promise much, and involved running to the car, and continuing to head North East. Were we thinking we would drive around the weather? I’m not altogether sure, but whatever the plan was based on, it was clear that we were not responding well to the challenge. We stumbled across a campsite in Zug, on the outskirts of Zurich a little over an hour later. The reception was closed and the lights were off. In retrospect we should have taken the hint and vacated the site, but we were tired, and as fellow explorer (!) Ray Mears points out “you make bad decisions when you are wet.” Without any guiding light and in saturated conditions, three of us attempted to erect a tent in a marsh that could have been mistaken for Wigan Athletic’s pitch. The two other members of the group had the sense to stay in the car. Within half an hour we had joined them, after the tent had given up, and exposed its contents to the elements. We were soaked to the skin as we packed up our belongings, the sense of irritation evident as we got back on the road.

With the clock having just past midnight, the realisation that we were on our fourth day on the continent, had not yet been to a single game, had contracted pneumonia and were cramped up in a car, could have got the better of us. But we knew better than to let that happen. Within half an hour, we had driven to and arrived in Zurich, located and checked into a hotel for 40 Euros each and collapsed on our own beds. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I woke the following morning with that familiar confusion, as I first tried to identify which country, then city, then locality I was lying in. As I walked downstairs I discovered that the ‘hotel’ was situated above a bar, which, judging by the faces of some of the other guests, had been drank dry the previous evening.

Friday 13th June may not appear a particularly lucky date, but I was determined that this would be the day where I got my first taste of Euro 2008. It was my 28th birthday after all. The Italians were due to play the Romanians in FC Zurich’s home ground, but despite the personal significance of the date, it appeared increasingly unlikely that I would find a ticket for the game for less than 500 Euros. I had virtually abandoned all hope when I stumbled across an Italian with a couple of spares and a willingness to depart from them for a combined cost of 600 Euros. They may have appeared to be ludicrously priced, but as the saying goes, ‘a diamond has no value, except that which is placed upon it’. Judging by its initial stages, this competition is sure to see record average black market ticket prices.

The Italian team appeared to be a mixture of very average and very good players. With a front two boasting more pace than Del Piero and more potency than Luca Toni, they would be a steady bet to reach the final. But the Spanish, with their forward line of Villa and Torres, will surely prevent Roberto Donadoni’s side from reaching the last four. Their opponents in Zurich were Romania, whose star man Mutu plies his trade in Italy’s Serie A. The goal-scoring hero in the first half, when he cancelled out Panucci’s opener, Mutu became the villain in the second half, when he saw his penalty saved by Buffon, thus denying Romania a vital victory. Faz and I were in the Italy end for the game, and experienced the Azzurri’s support, which was typically unique and passionate, if a little underrepresented.

After a memorable early evening’s entertainment, we headed to the riverside fanpark in the centre of Zurich to see the impressive Dutch team destroy a sorry looking French side on the big screen. Whilst Holland look well balanced and free from some of the self-imploding mechanisms which have characterized previous campaigns, the 1998 World Champions and Euro 2000 winners France signalled their return to anonymity following the most glorious period in their history, with a performance lacking passion, purpose and productivity.

After the match, an impromptu game of football we had started evolved into an evening sampling the local hospitality, despite my best efforts to prevent it. The less said about ‘who’ and ‘what’ I am referring to there the better. I did however eventually manage to drag the culprits away from Zurich. We then drove in the general direction of Austria, and specifically Innsbruck, which was the location of the closest match the following day. We decided to spend the night in Liechtenstein, simply because it was another country, and camped next to a stream. We alarmed several passing motorists the following morning by making full use of nature’s facilities before making our way to Innsbruck.

During the early part of our visit to Switzerland, I had secretly been trying to arrange tickets for the Spain V Sweden game via an unnamed friend who holds an unnamed position at an unnamed football club. This friend had arranged three tickets from Fernando Torres, who had left them in the reception of the Spain team’s hotel. When I arrived there, I was lucky to gain entry to the lobby, which was heavily staffed. The lady behind the reception was clearly not English but had also obviously lived in England. Her composite accent revealed an extensive residency in the south-east, probably London. She also seemed to recongise my accent, and in conjunction with respective stereotyping, immediately applied all the mistrust and contempt she was permitted to as an employee of a very exclusive hotel.

She refused at first to give me the tickets, but seemingly to annoy me, admitted to having them in her possession. She took delight in letting me know that Mr Torres had left them for Mr ________. Only the specific benefactor would be permitted to pick them up. I politely pointed out that was ridiculous, given that the person in question was in Liverpool, and so she reluctantly agreed to let me have them. However, she insisted that I make contact with the intended recipient and arrange a fax or email direct from him to her. With only two hours until kick off, it was not looking promising. Thankfully, the said individual was willing and kindly cooperated, much to the hotel employee’s annoyance.

She did insist that I waited for the email however, sensing that I was uncomfortable with the plush surroundings. Everyone in the vicinity was in a suit, except for me, who was sporting flip-flops and shorts. As I waited for the transaction of information to be processed, I witnessed an incredible array of footballing personalities and executives pass through the lobby, including Roy Hodgson, and more significantly, William Gallard. The UEFA communications chief had been vilified for his response to the behaviour of Liverpool supporters following the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. He had refused to acknowledge any degree of culpability for UEFA’s role in the selection of venues, after disorder had broken out prior to the match. Although numerous supporters were to blame for unlawful forced entry into the ground, the appropriate conditions were simply not in place at a stadium not built to stage football events.

As I sat in the lobby, I was desperate to raise the issue with him. The horrific receptionist though was clearly desperate for any opportunity to eject me from the building. Causing a scene with one of UEFA’s key executives would have been all the ammunition she needed. Nevertheless, I had the conversation all planned in my mind. I would simply congratulate him for choosing Rome as the venue for the 2009 final. Then, when he had been lulled into a false sense of security, assuming I was some well meaning if slightly annoying supporter, I would question UEFA's decision to select Istanbul, Athens and Moscow as previous venues, and suggest it doesn’t happen again. By that time I would doubtless be cuffed and about to be led into police custody. Meanwhile, my tickets would be sat in the possession of the inhospitable receptionist.

It was a tough call to make. I had to choose between a once in a lifetime chance to confront one of UEFA’s key idiotic personnel, and a lagging chance to watch Torres and co. play in the European Championships. In the end, the latter ambition proved to hold the greater intensity. With kick off only ninety minutes away, I received confirmation of the contact between the two key personnel. The charming Swiss cockney looked devastated as she handed over the envelope, whilst I looked smugly satisfied. William Gallard had long since departed, and with him my window of opportunity to question UEFA’s policies. But I knew I had bigger challenges to face, namely that five of us had made the trip to the Championships, and I had only three tickets.

The lads were unaware I had obtained any tickets of course, even though my unexplained disappearing act had clearly made them suspicious. I hadn’t wanted to suggest tickets were a possibility without being able to confirm they were a reality. But that time had now come. I rushed to the ground, where I met up with the group and explained the story. I told them only two of them could go in with me. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end I opted to give the two lads I had known the longest the winning tickets. It was an awkward moment, but an inevitable one. At least I had managed to get two of my mates into the ground, I thought. It seemed insufficient consolation at the time.

The three of us were seated in the end where Torres opened the scoring early in the first half, a goal which was cancelled out by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s strike shortly before half time. Spanish coach Aragones was granted a lifeline in second half stoppage time however, with goal machine David Villa scoring yet again to send the Spain fans into delirium. By contrast, the Swedes knew this defeat had vastly reduced their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-final. For the three of us who gained entry into the ground, all waring Torres shirts and holding the ‘Scouse Spaniards’ banner, it was a fitting end to a memorable week. After a journey that had proven as challenging as it was rewarding, we headed to Basle for the following day’s flight back to Liverpool, secure in the knowledge that Liverpool’s number 9 Fernando Torres is the best in Europe.

1 comment:

astropixie said...

very entertaining account of the tournament so far! thanks!