Saturday, 14 June 2014

Refereeing errors: more nuanced than corruption or incompetency

By now you have all had or are having the debate, or perhaps you and your peers are fortunate enough to be in total agreement. The ref was bent, paid off by FIFA, the Brazilian FA, the sponsors; the ref was invested in a Brazil victory, encouraged as he was by his superiors, fearful as he was of the spectators and the protest movement gathering outside; the ref is simply weak and incompetent. These are the three primary schools of thought when assessing the performance of Japan’s Yuichi Nishimura and his team of officials in Brazil’s World Cup opener on Thursday evening, but the likelihood is it is only the one that sits in the middle that comes close to nailing the reality.

Let us consider the corruption angle. It seems naïve to ever dismiss the notion of FIFA compromising the principles of sport for the benefit of themselves or their allies, considering that has been their raison d'être for at least forty years, since the vile João Havelange first assumed its Presidency in 1974. However FIFA generally concern themselves more in how they can exploit the game rather than how they can directly influence its outcomes. Admittedly it is undoubtedly in their interest to see Brazil progress in the tournament, whether it be from the perspective of keeping anti-World Cup protests – often aimed in their direction – peaceful, or in keeping the world at large and the population of Brazil invested in the television coverage and the advertising messages that comes with every game. How many more in Southeast Asia would be tuned in to a second round tie between Brazil and Chile than they would Cameroon v Chile, for example?

But it strikes me that match fixing could never be their bag. For one, FIFA have never shown themselves at being particularly adept at covering things up. The likes of Andrew Jennings and the Sunday Times have been able to expose their malpractice with a degree of relative ease (not, that is, to undermine the journalistic work put into such exposés). The only reason these and other such revelations have failed to yield any sanction against those responsible is not just the uniquely unaccountable nature of FIFA (had these been government ministers then many would be serving jail time by now) but also the bureaucratic nature of their crimes. It is true that the decisions that favoured South Korea in 2002 seemed clearly premeditated, but does one really imagine that the governments and football associations of Spain and Italy would allow FIFA to continue acting with their trademark impunity should evidence of match fixing against their national teams be revealed? It strikes me as too large a risk with too little reward for those who still have so much more money to plunder from the game. 

So does it stand to reason that the officials were merely incompetent, a choice of referee that has embarrassed FIFA as much as it has enraged us, the fair play-seeking public? While not an unusual occurence, this seems too simplistic an explanation. The decisions that had a major effect on the game – the lack of red card for Neymar for a premeditated swing of the elbow into Luka Modrić’s face, the penalty award at a critical juncture in the game for little more than Dejan Lovren’s presence in the penalty area, the disallowed goal for what seemed to most to be a header impressively and legitimately won – fell so overwhelmingly in the home side’s favour that for them to be simple honest mistakes would be to suspend disbelief, in the same way an audience member might suspend disbelief when watching a sports film like The Mighty Ducks, or Space Jam

No, many will be reaching the conclusion that strikes the right balance between seeming healthily sceptical while avoiding looking unhealthily conspiratorial: the referee was simpler a ‘homer’, a weak-willed individual incapable of upsetting a vociferous crowd, perhaps even concerned he could play a part in triggering riots across the country.

This line of thinking almost certainly is along the right lines – let’s not pretend that any of us know what it’s like to do an incredibly difficult job with 50,000 passionate Brazilians telling you exactly in which way you should do it. But in castigating the referee for showing such weakness, they often imply a narrative that strikes me as inside-out, one that goes along the lines of: the referee saw exactly what happened, he got intimidated by the crowd, he pointed to the spot because Brazil winning makes everybody happy. The emphasis of this interpretation is on the official’s disinterest in calling something right; it ignores his outright fear of getting something wrong – or, rather, getting the wrong thing wrong.  

Consider the decisions again and hypothetically consider that they were in fact the right decisions – Neymar’s challenge was clumsy but perfectly innocent, an honest attempt for the ball; Lovren tugged Fred cynically; Ivica Olić had eyes only for the goalkeeper. In the eyes of the referee, all of these may have been a possibility, no matter how ridiculous that now seems to us with the benefit of replays. And then consider that the referee had in fact got these decisions wrong – incorrectly sending Brazil’s star player off in the opening match, condemning him to three matches of suspension! Incorrectly failing to award a penalty to the host nation as they desperately seek a goal! Allowing an illegitimate goal that enables tiny Croatia to nefariously steal three points from global favourites and pioneers of the game Brazil! 

It would be career suicide. And thus we reach the question that truly delves into the heart of the matter – what motivates a referee? It is a question brilliantly explored in Tim Parks’ A Season With Verona, as he and his son continuously question why Italy’s referees barely even attempt to conceal their bias towards the giants of Serie A, enraging fans of every small club in the process. One can also gain an insight from Swedish film The Referee, a documentary tracking the story of Swede Martin Hansson and his journey towards being selected as a 2010 World Cup official (remarkably making it despite being the official who failed to spot Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in the playoffs). What these examples tend to show us is that the referee is no less aspirational or careerist than the player – he too wants to climb the ladder, wants the world to recognise him as the best, wants to walk out of the tunnel at World Cup and Champions League finals.  

And while the path to the top in Serie A, and thus Europe, is forged by not pissing off Juventus or AC Milan due to the influence they hold within the league’s administration, the path to refereeing the World Cup final most certainly involves avoiding a riot caused by screwing over the host nation. Ironically, Nishimura has probably ensured that he never will reach this level, such was the blatant nature of his mistakes. But whether consciously or not, the Japanese most likely internally calculated that invoking the wrath of Croatia was a much smaller risk than invoking that of Brazil, the wider world and his employers.   

So while Nishimura probably derives no pleasure from now being the centre of the world’s attention, the real tragedy is that none of this will be any consolation for a Croatian side that played at a level deserving of more respect. Not only were they and we the audience denied a potentially absorbing 20 minutes of football that could have gone either way; it also affirmed to us that in certain contexts in football there is no such thing as the level playing field. Regardless of whatever psychology we choose to apply to the referee, Brazil went into that match with a distinct advantage over their opponents that had nothing to do with their ability or application – and the same will be true on Tuesday when they face Mexico. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Brazilians Ripped Off and Let Down by the World of Football

If FIFA had any kind of moral compass, then the popular protests that have spread across Brazil and have seen over two million take to the streets this week would prick their conscience. Nobody would dare to lay the blame for the entirety of Brazil’s societal ills on the hosting of a single sporting event, but questions are certainly raised as to the wisdom of a country spending over £9bn on the World Cup while demanding its downbeat populace spend more on public provisions which they consider to be inadequate.

Alas, Sepp Blatter is keen as ever to highlight just how out of touch he is with the common man, woman or child. “They should not use football,” he says. “… to make their demands heard.” It is a position of remarkable hypocrisy and arrogance. When discussing the virtues of hosting the World Cup, Blatter and his colleagues are all to keen to emphasise the joy it shall bring to the streets, the improvements in infrastructure it will herald, and the popular myth that the return on the investment shall trickle down to local people and business. Now that Brazilians have cottoned on to the fact that, save for the feel good factor for some during the event itself, tangible benefits for them will be few and far between, Blatter demands they disassociate their grievances from the game.

In the mind of Sepp Blatter football is his own personal possession, a particularly handsome child whose ears must be covered when people say nasty things about it. Like any proud parent, he shows off his little miracle to friends around the globe, lapping up the praise they bestow and happily accepting the financial gifts made for its upkeep. But should anyone break with such convention, he shall consider it an affront. A suggestion that his parenting lacks integrity shall be treated with derision; a complaint that his child has a nasty streak will be denied or batted away with ‘boys will be boys’; when one questions why billions are given to his loved one when some can barely feed their own, they will be told to shut up.

Of course Blatter’s inability to act with a modicum of humility or self-awareness comes as no surprise. This is a tournament after all secured for Brazil under the stewardship of Ricardo Teixeira, the former head of its Football Confederation who Swiss prosecutors allege has secured, along with his father-in-law, over $41m in bribes for the awarding of World Cup marketing rights. If FIFA are able to gloss over this (allegations of Teixeira’s corruption pre-date the awarding of the World Cup by a long way), why on earth would they care if bus prices in São Paulo have gone up by 20 per cent or if a pensioner in Goiânia has to wait days for basic medical treatment?

Brazilians should at least be able to look to its sporting icons for solidarity and supportx, particularly as many of its football stars grew up in the impoverished conditions that protestors now bemoan. Indeed Givanildo Vieira de Souza, or Hulk to you and me, a man who last transfer was for the fee of around €40m and is alleged to receive a wage of around £6m per annum, refreshingly agreed that ‘Brazil needs to improve in many areas and [we] must let the demonstrators express themselves.’

However the most famous figure of all managed to produce a display of foot-in-mouthistry that might have even made Blatter blush. Pelé remarkably suggested that the nation should ‘forget’ about protesting and simply get behind the national team. He has since felt compelled to change his tune following the enormous backlash on social media and beyond, but the extent to which Brazil’s most famous export was out of touch with his people had been made crystal clear.

Pelé’s lack of judgment and perception has been well known for some time. Nonetheless how disheartening it must be for the common Brazilian to be patronised in this manner by a sporting legend at a critical juncture in their country’s history. As both the world’s most famous Brazilian and the world’s most famous footballer, Pelé could serve as a powerful weapon in the struggle against corruption, inefficiency and injustice, both within the society of Brazil and the governance of football. Instead, no doubt with his cosy relationship with FIFA in mind, he has opted to parrot Blatter’s irreverence. If the people of Brazil succeed in securing their aims of an improved society, they will owe the world of football absolutely nothing.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Euro 2012 experience: don't lose your faith in the game yet

By Jarek Zaba

It is hard to pinpoint one particular chant I enjoyed more than any other out in Gdańsk and Poznań. There were the formulaic ones (Stand Up for the Boys in Green; Sit Down for the Boys in Green; Shoes Off for the Boys in Green), the ridiculous ones (We All Dream of a Team of Gary Breens), the self-depreciating ones (The Dutch are Worse Than Us; The Groups Are Upside Down), the random 1981 hits (Depeche Mode - Just Can't Get Enough), and the political ones (Merkel Thinks We’re Working; There’s only one Angela Merkel / She gave us some cash / We’re on the lash / Walking in a Merkel wonderland). However, it is somewhat easier to pinpoint my favourite overall moment. In the early hours of the morning following Ireland’s game against Italy, the boys in Green and assorted others in Poznań town square during their final sing song erupted into an extended chorus of Polska Biało-Czerwoni – this was the anthem that Polish fans had been singing all week, along the way slowly but surely teaching the Irish fans the words, who by June18th had seemingly improved their pronunciation to a more than satisfactory standard:

As an Irish Pole myself, this was naturally a moving and significant moment, encapsulating the mutual affection that had been exchanged between the two sets of supporters over the previous week and a half, the Irish lavishly praising the Poles as hosts and the Poles fully enamoured with the Irish as visitors. But it was also significant to me as a football fan, as it restored my faith in the game as a force for positivity and good as opposed to a source of negativity and hatred. Here I was witnessing two groups of supporters, who previously had no real reason to even consider each other’s existence, singing each others songs, exchanging scarves, familiarising each other with their customs and complimenting their counterparts’ personalities and national characteristics.

It is fair to say that many aspects of football have rendered me somewhat disillusioned in recent years. Be it my own club side producing some of the worst football I’ve ever seen (we shan’t go into that here), the dominance of finance within the narrative of the game to increasingly absurd levels, the miserable pettiness of our national press, the blasé nature of the global ruling elite’s corruption, or even just the tweets of Joey Barton – all contribute to a general condition of the game which can only be described as distasteful.

However, in reality, none of the above can fully push you away from football – in my case, it doesn’t come close to making me switch off Super Sunday despite all my supposed moral objections. When Sergio Agüero scored against Queens Park Rangers in May, I doubt few of us considered at that moment the objectionable nature of a foreign-backed superrich club propelling itself up the table. Instead, we appreciated the unadulterated drama of  live sport at its most absurd as the fate of a 38-game season (3420 minutes + stoppage time) was determined by one single kick of the ball in its desperate last gasps. Increasingly uncompetitive our domestic game may be, but that is far from mutually exclusive to it being continuously entertaining.

But more importantly, neither the distorted or uncompetitive nature of the league table nor the prevalence of imbeciles permeating almost every levels of the game can detract from what is often the greatest aspect of football: the atmosphere and experience of a live occasion. And this is where Euro 2012 excelled itself above all previous experiences.

For it was in Poland my eyes were opened. For the first time, I was able to appreciate that fans of opposing teams needn’t view each other through the narrow prism of rivalry, animosity or hatred. The host fans, eager to please and to repudiate their portrayal in the BBC’s highly selective Panorama documentary and media coverage elsewhere, went to great lengths to ensure the legions of Irish, Spanish, Italians, Croats fans and whomever else were made to feel at home. The travelling Irish contingent, regardless of what Roy Keane had to say, were determined only to have a good time irrespective of the exploits of their somewhat mismatched football side – and fun over here did not involve fights.

In fact, with the exception of the odd Irishman berating another for losing the hostel key, I cannot recall witnessing a single argument out in Poland, never mind physical violence. Mutual respect prevailed to the extent that, even if there were some local hooligans who fancied a fight they decided not to bother the tourists. And it is in this amicable atmosphere that the Irish sang the Polish unofficial team anthem long into the night, as flags were produced thanking the hosts in their native tongue:

And this invoked in me a reflection upon the club experience. As we enjoyed a few beers ahead of an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Gdańsk fan zone on the day of the Poland – Czech Republic game, a Polish friend bemoaned a supporter standing nearby who was singing derogatory songs towards Lechia Gdańsk’s nearby rivals Arka Gdynia. He expressed not only his distaste for the fact that he had chosen a day of otherwise national unity to express a local petty feud, but also explained that his ambivalence towards the Polish domestic game was a result of the fans being overly-concerned with expressing their negative feelings towards the opposition than those of positivity to their own side.

It was at this stage the realisation hit me that in my whole time in Poland, I had not heard any ‘negative’ chants whatsoever – no one was a wanker, no teams were to be shit on, no one danced and celebrated in delight at the misfortunate of others. Among the Irish, there wasn’t even a smidge of anti-English sentiment directed at myself or in general, bar the odd chorus of Terry is a Racist (NB: Legally Terry is not a racist). Euro 2012 had become a getaway, not just from everyday life, but also from the animosity and squabbling childishness of supporting a club side.

And so it was with a heavy heart that I returned to read the familiar childish squabbles between club fans on the internet. I should point out that I am not pining for some kind of hippie existence where Manchester United fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and Sunderland fans mingle with Geordies in the Gallowgate End. Nor do I wish to see an end to songs about the failures of your rivals, or insults aimed at opposition players. Rivalry is naturally an important aspect in football the world over, and sometime an added extra bit of needle can do wonders for an atmosphere. But equally, it would be desirable for hatred not to define the supporter experience in club football to the extent it does now – away fans shouldn’t be intimidated into hiding their colours; fans shouldn’t feel the need to sing derogatory songs about their rivals in a match that doesn’t remotely involve them; opposition players shouldn’t necessarily be labelled a c**t unless they have first done something that actually warrants such a label.

I am aware that some people would dismiss such suggestions with the assertion that these examples are ‘what football is all about.’ Having experienced the other side of the coin, I would beg to differ – the scenes I witnessed in Gdańsk and Poznań are what football is, and can be, truly all about: an occasion of colour, respect, joy and celebration.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Triple Dutch proved one trip too much

It would be folly to focus too much of my World Cup final report on the match itself. For one, it was a horrific spectacle. Secondly, the team of the nation I watched the match in failed to win, score or endear themselves to just about anybody. Thirdly, despite having travelled for a month in anticipation of these 90 minutes, I didn’t pay much attention to it - I’d deduced the above factors within five minutes of the match kicking off. Sometimes games are slow starters that always retain a sense of intrigue throughout, often with the potential to explode into life. However, others you can call as a shocker before most of the players have touched the ball. A few people in England have since told me they quite enjoyed the game, but I suspect that has more to do with gratuitous violence and the overwhelming challenge Howard Webb was presented with.

In any case, even if the game had encapsulated me into watching all 120 minutes intently then I would have been in some serious discomfort due to strains on my neck, packed as Museumplein was from the late afternoon onwards:

The Dutch media reported that over a million had descended on the capital specifically to watch this match. Considering Amsterdam has a population of around 800,000, you can imagine it was quite the influx – which would explain why I found it near impossible to find anywhere to both enjoy a meal and watch the Germany-Uruguay third place play off the previous evening. Ultimately, I had to settle on a place where the owner had to be prompted by customers to wipe the tables clean and they gave me dinner without a fork (the child serving me seemed quite offended when I asked for one.)

Pre-match, merriment encompassed the city as far as the eye could see, whether it be with some Spanish-Dutch unity or folk just taking in some music:

Once I reached Museumplein, this sense of occasion upgraded its manifestations to piggybacks, climbing on top of lampposts and helicopters dropping flowers from the sky. “You know the police have told people not to come here today,” said one Oranje fan. “They say the city is full! No chance man, just look at this place… There’s people smoking joints out here man, this is just one big party!” Yeah, well, that’s not all they were smoking:

Still, you have to been smoking something stronger still to come to the conclusion that Holland deserved to win that match. Spain once more showed the indisputable irritating sense of perfection that dictated the trophy was worthily theirs. The Dutch defence weren’t stretched beyond all recognition nor was Maarten Stekelenburg’s goal peppered, but that’s entirely the point: like the three 1-0’s that preceded this, the result seemed beyond doubt and the Spanish seemed in complete control despite not offering a regular attacking threat. They just hold onto the ball and wait for the right moment – even if they have to wait until minute 118. So hearty congratulations to La Roja, which I’m sure that will mean a great deal to them coming from me.

As for the Dutch aggression, no one seemed to comment on it – people were more irritated that on the rare occasions they did have the ball, they did so little with it. Equally I felt little in the way of anti-Webb feeling – people didn’t seem to bemoan individual decisions, rather just the ultimate result: a third World Cup final loss. Cue emotional scenes:

My total record, by the way, reads: P15, W6, D3, L6. F15, A14. Curiously the six wins all came in a row (admittedly only achieved by Germany, Holland and Spain) as did the three draws.

Which just leaves me, regrettably, to wrap up. Firstly some thank yous. A huge thanks to my parents who, as well as making big contributions towards the trip being a possibility in the first place, also stepped in to help turn Madrid from a crisis into a mere inconvenience. Thank you to my employers, who did little more than raise an eyebrow when I told them I’d be away for the entire duration of the World Cup. Thank you to everyone who expressed an interest in this blog – even if this may have just been family and friends, most of whom have probably stopped reading by now, you at least encouraged me to pen to paper. Thank you to Andrew Jennings, Simon Kuper and Stefan Kzymanski for providing informative and entertaining reads for long, long train journeys. And, if you’re reading guys, a massive thanks to those of you who drafted and later signed the Schengen Agreement of 1985 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 – your vision of a unified Europe really helped to make things easier, lads. And Timothy Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the internet – you are a legend.

The biggest thanks, however, must of course go to all those who made the travelling worthwhile. So, in chronological order, a massive shout out to Kostas and George; Snezana, Marija and Milica; Harry; Vlasto, David, Andrew, Andreas, Igor and the entire squad of the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies Association Football Club; Sara, Jure, Vanč, Ryan, Christina, Justin, Denise, Lana, Bole and Marco; Christor, Emir, Marco, Corrado and Luca; Nelly and David; Jilles and Yannick; Philip Rance, Daniel, Ralf, Ludwig, Paul, Julian, Philip Elam; Leen, Stefan, Rob, Ramon, Ron, Omar, Marcos, Jon, Joe, Alex, Peter, Lana, Chris, Jenelle, Brett, Laura, Ellen and Sam; Miguel, Jan, Sonia, Anthony, Kevin, Matt, Mike and Russ; and to Sam and Paul.

In particular, I must make a special point of thanking Snezana Bucic, Sara Soukal, Philip Rance and Jan and Sonia Fairey for going above and beyond to accommodate me. You guys most definitely make the team of the tournament.

So the moral of the story? Well, the corrupt incompetent insular and morally bankrupt group of people that run this game and retain full responsibility for the organisation of its flagship tournament, and the lucrative
privileges that come with it – FIFA to you or me - will consistently refer to football’s, and the World Cup’s, power to bring people together. They will hark wistfully about how they facilitate the game’s ability to transcend race, class or gender the world over, from Algeria to Argentina. They’ll speak in the most corny of terms about romance, friendship, tolerance or passion. They’ll try and claim credit for all of the above.

Do, and don’t, listen to them. Listen to them because, corny as it might be, a lot of it is true. What I have seen first hand is that when a World Cup comes round, the buzz spreads like nothing else. There is simply no other occasion where I could find myself sitting alongside some Norwegians cheering on some Italians; at what other time could I, immediately upon introduction, enter into a debate with a Portuguese couple and their Greek friends in central Bratislava; when else could a pair of Americans cheer at the worst possible time in the midst of an overwhelmingly partisan Slovenian crowd and get away with it? If you live in a major city come the next one, get out there and see this – the multicultural times we live in mean you’re never far from someone who will have an interest in almost any game. And trust me, it makes the games a lot more fun when you’re with someone who cares.

Don’t, however, listen to FIFA because it’s got nothing to do with those clowns. Indeed, the games governing body in fact, through their blind arrogant blundering, serve to highlight the incredible power of the game as opposed to facilitate it – it takes a great game to bring the world together; it takes a truly special game to continue to bring the world together despite for decades and decades being in the grasp of greedy power-crazed beaurocrats.

Summarising the incredible power of the game, I’ll leave the final words to Nelly, a ridiculously captivating 80-something year old former languges teacher from Luxembourg whom I met on a train from Milan to Zurich. When discussing Italian celebrations she had witnessed following the previous tournament’s final, the woman apparently known as ‘The Priest Eater’ in her home country for her passionately secular views, highlighted to me just how dumbfoundingly popular the game really is: “The Pope must be jealous,” she said with a smile. I may have gone seeking to live off other teams’ glorious results, but for that moment I basked in the most glorious scoreline I had ever heard: Religion 0 Football 1. Like Spain, the result was never in doubt.


GREECE 0-2 South Korea
SERBIA 0-1 Ghana
SLOVAKIA 1-1 New Zealand
ITALY 1-1 New Zealand
FRANCE 1-2 South Africa
GERMANY 1-0 Ghana
HOLLAND 2-1 Cameroon
HOLLAND 2-1 Slovakia
SPAIN 1-0 Portugal
SPAIN 1-0 Paraguay
HOLLAND 3-2 Uruguay
GERMANY 0-1 Spain
HOLLAND 0-1 Spain

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


So it was in Berlin where the idea that I’d kept a decent eye on my possessions evaporated once and for all, as well as being the location for a return to losing ways.

On that fateful train to Berlin (the laptop continued on somewhere towards Poland) I knew that for one, they had to party fairly substantially for Germany to overturn the considerable bias I already felt towards Holland in terms of a decision as to where to watch the final, and that for two, they had a job on their hands winning in the first place. But I thoroughly believed they would – Germany, not Spain, had played the best football of the tournament thus far, despite the howls of denial from the ignorant Alan “most average German team I’ve ever seen” Hansen. Just because you haven’t heard of the players, that doesn’t make them average Alan.

So I naturally assumed they’d take this form into their semi, and boy did the Germans assume it too. The thing is, even when the Germany side genuinely is average, the German people are still somewhat alien to concept of losing. So when the Germany team just put eight goals past England and Argentina, the fact that their opposition don’t really lose games either doesn’t register as particularly relevant.

The location for this one could only be the Brandenburg Gate fan mile. Unfortunately that picture is where the visual documentation of my time in Berlin ends, camera calling time on his battery life immediately afterwards. Nonetheless, due to the narrow multi-screened nature of the venue, there was absolutely no way of capturing (or comprehending) the vast numbers in attendance. At 300,000 strong, this was most certainly my biggest crowd of the tour.

Apologies for any keen Germans reading, because like the post before this, the one before that and what is to follow, this is to once more become about the Dutch. I thought in Sam and Paul I was choosing a unique story – two young guys, one in Dutch orange, one in German white - I assumed by striking conversation with the pair I’d be on for a night of quality Euro-banter as we cheered Deutschland onto that final we all wanted, sparking a late evening of debate over whose asses would be kicked by whom and in what manner.

Turns out they were both Dutch. Paul was, incredibly, just so desperate for a Holland-Germany final that he’d gone out and bought a cheap Germany shirt to display his support, presumably to be burnt in some sort of ceremony ahead of the final. So in seeking England fans in Munich I had encountered Germans wearing England shirts; now while trying to corner a German fan in Berlin, I ended up with a Dutchman in his arch enemy’s colours. They sure do things differently on the continent.

Paul and Sam were vintage Dutch, casually mocking the German team, people and language, while simultaneously gaining their friendship. Well, that is until the 73rd minute onwards, where the atmosphere dipped somewhat. Once more, the alien concept had manifested itself and they were out (whisper it quietly, but with two final defeats and two semi final defeats in the last eight years the German image is fast developing from inglorious victors to glorious losers).

But we just couldn’t resist but stay and observe. Despite all three of us possessing a genuine sense of warmth towards German people, being two Dutch guys and one English guy you simply cannot watch swathes and swathes of miserable angry Germans file past you, and not break out in a vast smirk. Of course no Englishman has anything to be smug about, but that doesn’t matter – the six-year-old boy in me who remembered Euro ‘96 would have wanted me to enjoy this. Schadenfreude derived from Germans is the ultimate Schadenfreude. Uberschadenfreude, they’d probably call it, if they had any idea how it felt.

The wittiest comment of the day came from another Dutchman, who quietly spoke into Sam’s ear as thousands of bowed heads marched past. “Yeah well, this is how they made us walk for five years.” Well, I did say wittiest, not most politically correct.

Sam, in his bright Hup Holland Hup t-shirt certainly attracted attention, but – with the exception of two nasty drunks who spat on him - it was overwhelmingly positive. Well, kind of. “You must kill those Spanish,” they said, again and again, so I was told every time I asked for a translation. It appeared the Germans have now developed a mechanism to deal with the anger of losing: direct it at the team who just beat you.

So back on the train to Amsterdam it was. It was the third time in ten days I’d be in the city alone, but it would be the first time ever that I’d experienced a World Cup final atmosphere.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

When Glastonbury meets Wembley

Firstly, apologies for my sudden extended period of silence during the climactic week of this summer’s football. I would love to be able to excuse it by bemoaning my luck or apportioning blame elsewhere, but the be all and end all is I left my laptop on a train that was heading to Poland. As a result I am a little, though not completely, short on some pictures and videos, but will endeavour to tell the tale of how the quarter finals onwards went down in the tournament’s most successful continent.

First, I must cast your mind, and my own, back to my last update. I’d just left Catalonia and was heading towards Valencia to enjoy Spain’s quarter final vs Paraguay. What I am missing now is two things, taken from the very same bar: 1) Some photos of some mortified Argentineans following the 3rd and 4th goals from Germany in their quarter final; 2) Footage of one ultra-passionate man celebrating, commiserating and generally getting wound up by Spain’s topsy-turvy encounter. In particular, I regret that I can’t show you his exuberant fist-pumping and friend-hugging nature once Xabi Alonso had tucked away a penalty, only for him to be tapped on the shoulder and informed the ref had disallowed it. You’ll have to take my word that his subsequent expression when the re-taken penalty was saved was, indeed, a picture.

The rest of the Spanish however seemed strangely mellow towards the result, Valencia resuming relative normality almost immediately following the full time whistle. Just ask Matt, Mike and Russ, three Americans who I overheard bemoaning the lack of car honking or flag waving in the streets as I sat down for some dinner:

Perhaps you might think it unusual for people from the States to bemoan a lack of World Cup passion but don't let the backwards baseball caps put you off - in fact almost every American I encountered on this trip were not only keen on the tournament but also possessed a knowledge of it which belies their soccer-ignorant reputation. Once I interrupted their private conversation and explained that I’d discovered something of a country-to-country variation in ‘World Cup fever’, they invited me to join their table; I duly ate Russ’s salad when the waitress accidentally served it to me; they duly paid for it. “You’re the first guy who’s actually spoke to us on this trip,” they said. Three other more stereotypically obnoxious and loud-mouthed Americans bothering the locals on a table nearby perhaps illustrated why. Sensible minded yanks suffer guilt by association like no other.

With hindsight, we can comfortably say we should have all be in Spain a week later if we wanted a party. However I was headed back to central Europe once La Roja had secured their semi final place, eager as I was to witness both Holland and Germany’s semi finals on ‘home’ soil. In anticipation for the match against Uruguay, Amsterdam had certainly increased its oranje factor by the time I’d completed my 24 hour train ride, the city buzzing more so than any encountered thus far on the trip. Rob, whom I had met on the last visit, tipped me off about Museumplein, which would be housing a giant screen – as well as around 40,000 – 60,000 Dutch fans, depending on your source.

It was to be a delightful combination of the atmospheres one would expect from both a music festival and a football match: mischief, humour and hedonism met passion, raucousness and colour and thankfully I retain some pictures and footage which illustrate this. For example, here is a game the Dutch like to play when there’s a lull in play – it’s called Throw the Toilet Roll, and delightfully the girl in front got one on the head:

It generally takes something special to distract Hollanders from such merriness, so it was a good thing Giovanni van Bronckhorst finally deliv
ered the World Cup belter we’d all been waiting for. Celebrations were wilder still once Wesley Sneijder made it two:

But the real fun was to be had at the afterparty, once the full time whistle went (after one false start) and Holland had secured their place in the World Cup final for the first time since 1978. Cue Viva Hollandia:

From Museumplein is the short walk / bike ride to Leidseplein where the masses descended for the biggest Tuesday night gathering of the year:

You may notice towards the end of the preceding video the garbage truck comandeered by jubilant crowds, ultimately resulting in the police force having to live up to their killjoy billing and seize back the vehicle, one would presume for the good of the recycling scheme. Ungracious descents from the top of the cab ensued:

The scenes were excessive and enthralling, and went long into the night. If Germany were to do the business, then Berlin had some party to match if it was to persuade me to stay for the final. One fan, a rare example of someone who wanted to avoid the Germans in the final, even told me not to head east once I’d explained where I’d been so far: after six victories in a row, I was even being considered a good luck charm.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

World Cup joy: it really does get everywhere

In the kind of bizarre sense this trip is working out, I have now come across the World Cup party atmosphere I was looking for - in a country over 1500 kilometres away from any participants in the match I watched. En route to Valencia, I made a brief stop in Catalonia for a couple of days. Don’t think Catalonia would be a hotbed for partisan World Cup passion? Nor did I. Then I discovered Salou. The costal town represents a somewhat untainted Costa del Sol or Benidorm - i.e. a successful beachside holiday resort, with plenty of foreigners (and even a Wetherspoons) but lacking in the ultra-intoxicated stag parties spewing up onto its pavements. And the other thing it has is Dutch people. Lots and lots of happy-go-lucky holiday makers from the Netherlands. So when I heard this was the case, plans to visit Barcelona were shelved and I headed to a Dutch bar to watch Holland’s quarter final vs Brazil.

Accompanied by Anthony - we’ll call him a friend of the family because explaining his link to me via my mother and various other people would be too laborious and probably not all that interesting - we spotted The Ski Hut as soon as the bus pulled into Salou, a particularly oranje decorated establishment. Indeed not only did we spot the Hut itself, we also spotted the various orange-clad employees lining the street attempting to coax as many Dutch people through its door as possible. And they did a decent job - come kick off the atmosphere has developed into a bit of a mini-Amsterdam, minus the whiff of pot or the billions of bicycles.

Naturally the atmosphere suffered due to Holland’s somewhat muted first half performance. But, for once, this represented one match where my so called ‘prophecies’ actually rang true. Pre-match I said “You will win 2-1,” to Kevin, just about the most decorated of all the Netherlanders in the bar. And at half time I said to him: “You need some Sneijder magic.” Whether a fairly hopeful cross from deep which was turned into the net by a Brazilian defender and a header from five yards really classes as ‘magic’ is debatable but I’m regarding my utterances as wise and true nonetheless.

Kevin was, of course, just one of many who erupted with joy following the full time whistle. Along with that video, there are so many joyous scenes I managed to capture on camera and should you meet me in person in the forthcoming months I’ll probably show you some of the material which didn’t make it here. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to upload as much as possible to give you a colourful display of images rather than words for this particular entry. Let’s just say, with this particular flag bearing group making themselves known to every vehicle on the road whether they liked it or not, the people of Salou would be hard pressed to remain oblivious to the result that evening.

Is that Owen Wilson carrying the flag? Could be.

But what’s that I hear you say: what about the camera of pain? The inflictor of misery? Surely a day didn’t go by where I didn’t capture some form of World Cup disappointment? Of course not. Bizarrely, in the small Catalonian town of Valls I found myself watching Uruguay v Ghana with strong Ghana supporters behind me and Uruguayans watching through the window. Particular bizarre considering that when myself and Jan, another, let’s say, family friend, arrived in the so called Barça bar (due to the fact the walls are covered in FC Barcelona posters) it was empty and they didn’t even have the game on - the barmaid had to be prompted by us. Within minutes of changing the channel, the place was suddenly packed out with African followers - or, at the very least, sympathisers.

And you know what I did when Ghana were awarded a penalty in the very last seconds of Extra Time: I got the camera out. I truly regret, however, that I stopped filming the second the penalty was missed - I think part of me thought I was going to get beaten up. But you’ll be delighted to know that come the shoot out I also zoomed in on my unfortunate African friends for Dominic Adiyiah’s poor penalty, complete with Uruguayan celebrations (it would appear that she is giving me the finger at the very start - perhaps she knows what this camera can do):

What I enjoyed most about the winning spot kick was that the South American Señor wasn’t even watching, too consumed as he was with lighting his cigarette. Wifey lead the celebrations, and the Barça bar went from busy to empty literally within seconds - you can see many of the African supporters streaming out in the background:

At the time of writing, I am on a train away from Catalonia towards the city of Valencia for Spain’s quarter final tonight. I’ll of course try and find a bar with Argentineans and/or Germans this afternoon, and from there I will make the 24 hour mammoth train journey back to Amsterdam for Holland’s semi final against Uruguay. Wesley Sneijder may not know it but he may well have just saved this trip from culminating in a two week holiday in Spain. Not that I have anything against Spain, but the itchy-footed traveller in me salutes him.