Owen Pearce shares some tips on enjoying the beautiful game wherever you may be on holiday.
A WALL of noise, banners being unfurled and the aroma of sizzling sausages. Add to this some local beer, the sound of klaxons and a tale of the unexpected: the big match. Or more to the point, YOUR big match.
For close on three decades I have made an effort to see local sporting fixtures when on my holidays. And it a is bug which I am in no danger of losing.
It surprises me the number of people who love the beautiful game, but have yet to experience the continental football experience.
My travels have taken me from the sporting cathedrals of Barcelona and Munich to the crumbling terraces of St Patrick’s Athletic and Royal Antwerp.
Whether it’s attending a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash with your mates or enjoying a lazy autumnal afternoon on your own at a third division ground in Budapest, one thing is for sure – you will be getting a different perspective of your holiday destination, well away from the obvious tourist sights.
A possible exception is in Barcelona, where the 98,000-capacity cauldron that is the Nou Camp is a must-see in its own right.
So, where does one start? There are two choices. Finding a match at your destination, or making the match itself your raison d’etre.
Both options are usually straightforward, but do have pitfalls for the ill-prepared.
Biggest drawbacks of the former option is finding the ‘sold out’ signs at the ticket office – or the local heroes are playing away at a mining town 200 miles distant. And don’t forget, the summer months can be tricky, unless you’re happy to watch a pre-season friendly with a few hundred others.
For the latter option, the risk is buying your match tickets, booking the flights and hotel only to find out your game has been put back three days because of live television – or postponed because the opposition have a cup replay.
But don’t despair. With a little forward planning and a bit of digging around, you can be sure to take your place on the terrace.
First-up, attending a game at your existing holiday location.
Three priceless mines of information: taxi driver, barman and the local newspaper.
More than once I have been pointed to tickets by my cabbie – the best example came many years ago in Brussels where the driver, a chatty Turk – Fenerbahce pennant dangling on the mirror – whizzed me past my hotel and straight to the Anderlecht ticket office, because I was advised with a very animated ‘Tickets nearly gone! Must quick! Must quick!’. He was right. I got my ticket and I heard that evening that the following day’s clash was indeed sold out. Anderlecht smashed Mechelen 5-0 to all but seal the title. The partying went on long into the night.
Barmen are also good sources of information – but remember your best bet is usually a smaller, locals’ place, rather than the big Irish-themed sports bar where the smiling Kiwi girl pulling your euro-fizz will point you to tomorrow’s Chelsea- Arsenal clash on the big screen but be blissfully unaware of that night’s second division match just six tram stops away.
Then there’s the local newspaper. The internet is not the best of bets – more than once I have seen incorrect dates and kick-off times on even seemingly reliable sites.
So pop to the news-stand and pick up the local paper, as I did in Munich this time last year. Even if you don’t speak the local language, among the back pages one might find something like: ‘Samstag: FC Augsburg-Hertha Berlin – 14.00’.
Samstag is Saturday, Augsburg is just an hour on the train from Munich and it all starts at 2pm! Here we go!
Alighting from the train (the gloriously-named ‘Fugger Express’!) I found the time to have a potter around the small Bavarian city, tried some of the local sausage, quaffed a foaming beer from up the road at a cavernous beer hall which had a gleaming, snaking copper and brass beer dispenser as spectacular as I’ve ever seen. On to the tram, and off I went to the match.
The game ended 1-1, with the added drama of four red cards, a penalty, some truly awful finishing and a flurry of snow. Add to this the sound of a continental crowd, and I felt a real sense of seeing Bavarian people doing ‘their’ thing, well away from the oompah bands and giggling Japanese tourists at the Hofbrauhaus.
No matter where you are, you are sure to find a game somewhere.
And there’s not only football. Just about anywhere in France (not only the southern heartland) and a colourful afternoon’s rugby can be found. Most of the bigger French clubs have redeveloped their stadiums and now have larger capacities.
Belgium, Holland and France are good bets for professional cycling meetings, and motorsport and racing fans can come up trumps all over Europe.
As for the States and Canada, ice hockey, Gridiron and baseball are all a draw – but bigger fixtures are problematic where getting in is concerned.
So, if it’s harness racing in Leipzig, cycling in Ostend, football in Tenerife or rugby in Biarritz – join the locals, and have fun!
• Check the local newspaper, speak to your cabbie or bar staff.
• If in doubt, try to buy tickets in the main stand. Finding yourself penned in on a terrace in Poland or Slovakia with 1,000 snarling skinheads is not most people’s idea of fun. Remember: a third division match can be more dangerous than a top-flight local derby.
• If you are travelling specifically for a match, CHECK it has a kick-off date and time set in stone. If in doubt, phone the club – most leading European sides have an English speaker somewhere in their office. Many games get switched to different dates for television - sometimes just a week or two in advance.
• If you want to buy tickets in advance, do so via the club website.There are ticket brokers and exchanges like seatwave.com for the biggest matches, but they can be expensive.
• Tempting as it is to pick up a souvenir – check the general mood of the game first.That prized Lech Poznan scarf might well be your ticket to the local hospital should 150 hacked-off Legia Warsaw fans hop onto your tram.
Buy afterwards, and keep it out of sight.
• Also, beware touts – getting into a dispute with a local, or trying to gain entry with a forged or stolen ticket is not best advised if the nearest policemen are of the riot control type! Buy your ticket through the proper channels.