Monday, June 19, 2006

Postcard from the World Cup

I've never been to a proper soccer match in my life. Come to think of it, I don't think I've been at a football match of any kind since I was about twenty-five, and still going to the occasional rugby international.

So today I've been to my first soccer match. Not locally, not even in Dublin. I was thrown in at the deepest end, the World Cup Switzerland/Togo game in Dortmund, Germany.

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There were five of us went over, courtesy of Continental, the German tyre and automotive ride control giant. It was just a day trip, though I didn't go home with the group because I have a car launch to get to tomorrow in Austria. Another story altogether.

Before talking about the match at all, there are other things to be said, especially against a background of Irish Rail and the constant complaints we hear about their poor service to customers trying to get to and from major matches.

The Dortmund gig required getting off an Aer Lingus plane at Dusseldorf, taking a ten-minute trip on a shuttle bus to the airport station, and from there picking up a train to Dortmund, a journey of some 40 minutes.

It just gives me the opportunity to say once again how well the continental Europeans, and Germany in particular, run their public transport services. The trains are on time, there are plenty of them, and they bring you to places without charging the proverbial arm and leg. They are real alternatives to cars, and, in the medium distances, to airplanes.

So we got to Dortmund, taxied to a location to pick up our tickets, and walked ten minutes to get to the stadium.

This was where things fell apart just a little. Everybody going in was body searched, and any of us with bags or rucksacks had to open them too. It was a slow process getting to the gate and through, but it was all in the cause of security, or so we thought.

Actually, they were really looking for anyone bringing in cans of beer or containers of wine, or even plastic bottles of water. They were also checking that none of the garb worn by the matchgoers might be used as an 'ambush marketing' ploy.

The drinks ban was simple. All beverages consumed inside the stadium had to be bought inside, and they were limited to Coke, Budweiser, or water -- that last non-branded but it came in a Coke plastic glass.

These are the sponsors, you see. And they dictate what is allowed inside any of the arenas or official fan clubs where World Cup events are held.

On the same basis, MasterCard is the only credit card you can use to buy official World Cup merchandise (I came across a similar situation in the Athens Olympics, where only Visa cars could be used). Because MasterCard paid to be the sole sponsor.

I personally think this is a crazy situation, and will in some future time prove to be an undoing of such events. But back to the searches at the gate, and the fears about 'ambush marketing'.

A bunch of Switzerland supporters ahead of us had fancy hats in the national red-and-white colours, but obviously provided by Carlsberg, because their decoration also included green material bands with that beer's name on them.

Very quickly they found that their hats were verboten. The searchers made that clear in no uncertain terms. Just in case a stray camera shot onto a group of spectators might transmit the offending beer brand's name worldwide.

There was a level of pragmatism to be seen, though, prompted by a searcher. One by one the Swiss guys and gals turned their green bands inside out, so the Carlsberg name couldn't be seen, and they were all able to wear their hats in.

I heard today that some Dutch supporters at a match recently weren't so lucky. They were wearing shorts with Heineken written on them, and were told they could not enter the particular stadium so clad. To a man -- and maybe woman, I didn't hear -- they took off the shorts and threw them away, and watched the match in their underwear!

But let's go inside. The stadium in Dortmund we had seen on television over recent weeks. It is a really fine place, certainly to one like me not familiar with being in any kind of stadium.

Everybody has their allocated seats. Everybody gets a clear view. And in case you're momentarily unsighted, there's also a big screen in the opposite corner showing the TV closeup of the action.

There are beer and soft drinks -- sorry, Budweiser and Coke -- sales outlets all over the place. As well as frankfurter concessions which don't appear to be any particular brand. And just in case you get caught short of a Coke or a Magnum ice cream while on the edge of your seat during a particularly exciting moment, there are guys going up and down the aisles to make sure you don't suffer.

The stadium had about 95 percent Switzerland to 5 percent Togo supporters. We five Irish decided that we'd become the official Ireland Togo Supporters Club and so we shouted for them throughout.

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Have to say, too, that the minority Togoan real supporters did their team proud too, with multiple drumming from a small corner of the stadium being a constant undertone throughout the whole match.

Being a tyro soccer game spectator, I came to some immediate quick conclusions when the whole thing got underway. One, the pitch seems an awful lot smaller than it looks on even big television. Two, the players look an awful lot bigger, and even across the field you can make out their faces and expressions. Three, they don't do multiple replays of the scores and near-scores on the field. Four, you don't get commentary.

For someone who only looks up occasionally in the pub when things sound exciting, the live game was actually very entertaining. Indeed, really entertaining.

OK, our guys didn't win. Actually, they lost 2-0 in the end. But they gave a real good account of themselves, and opened up many opportunities to score, many more than did the Swiss. The difference was that the Togo guys couldn't close the sale. The Swiss goals, when they happened, were superbly finished opportunities.

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Nevertheless we had been at a good game for another reason too. The Swiss almost-absolute-majority fans were extremely good sports, and applauded strongly the many good attacks their team's opponents mounted, even when they failed.

We walked back to Dortmund Hauptbanhoff afterwards, taking around forty minutes to do so. It was a very pleasant journey, not only because the way was excellently signposted but also it gave us the opportunity to see how Dortmund was making all its World Cup visitors welcome.

OK, it is a German tourism authority policy that the World Cup 2006 should be used to show a very 'user-friendly' Germany. And so the closure of roads by police to allow us to walk down town from the stadium, and the many musical and food-oriented attractions along the way, which would require major planning exemptions in Ireland, are all part of that.

But I don't know if it is even necessary. Because I had to stay over here in Dusseldorf as I go to Salzburg tomorrow morning, I got a chance to experience -- again -- how user-friendly Germany actually is anyhow.

I've written this on a street corner, at a table outside a bar/restaurant which is a typical German city 'pub' away from the tourist areas. Around me all evening have been ordinary local Germans out for a few beers and a chat, sometimes for something to eat. I chose it just because it was that. And even though I have no German, I've been entertained by all that has been happening around me.

I left my camera in the hotel -- which is one I booked on the internet and for the first time that I've done that it is bad value -- so you have to read the word pictures.

I've had a typical local dish for food, schnitzel with veg and salad and chips. That cost me €7. And a half-litre of Greek red wine for €5.45.

And when he cleared away the food plates, my waiter brought me out a free glass of ouzo, which is a liquorice-based grappa or schnapps equivalent.

It is now dark, and still warm, and I'm out in the real cafe society, which doesn't do a Celtic Tiger screw-the-customer operation.

I like Germany and I've always found its people to be exceptionally friendly, and they often seem to be much more genuine people than we believe ourselves to be.

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