Saturday, August 28, 2010

Experiencing the World Cup first-hand...In Europe

For most football fanatics, a trip to Europe means one thing, football! Yet, as I jetted across land and sea to a faraway place, I pondered just how I managed to arrange my Europe trip for the one time football won’t be plentiful in Europe.

But ohh how wrong I was. The 2010 FIFA World Cup may have been in South Africa, but sitting in pubs in Austria, Slovakia, France, Belgium and Germany, you wouldn’t know it. In those pubs, the World Cup could have just been down the road, such was the intensity that radiated through their walls.

First stop on the World Cup bandwagon was a day trip to Slovakia, from my base of Austria, to watch the Slovaks play Paraguay. After a train ride to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, and some quick site seeing, my friends and I settled down at an Irish pub in the centre of the city, ready to watch the game.

And wow. The pub wasn’t that full, but nevertheless the atmosphere was great. Not having to watch the game while trying to keep open your eyelids also added to the experience.

The next trip also involved an Irish pub, but this one much closer to my home away from home, in Vienna, Austria. A quick jaunt down to the city centre took me into Flanagan’s Pub, a hearty place with televisions everywhere, and quality beer on tap.

After settling down for a beer...or three, I set my eyes on the afternoon’s entertainment, Chile v Switzerland. After the Swiss beat eventual champions Spain, and Chile had been unspectacular against Honduras, everyone was expecting a tight encounter. Well everyone in my area of the pub, two Germans, my friend who doesn’t follow football, and myself. Ok, I expected a tight encounter.

However, an early bath for Valon Behrami, after the West Ham United midfielder was sent off in the 30th minute, swung the game towards Chile. Despite failing to capitalise on many chances, the man advantage eventually proved decisive, and Mark Gonzalez headed the ball home with 15 minutes to go, pushing Chile towards the next round.

The final game to be watched in Austria, once again at the local Irish hangout, was the big one for any Aussie, the Socceroos v Serbia. Wearing my colours in the form of a Socceroos jersey, my Aussie friends and I eagerly awaited a thrilling game.

Sadly, despite the victory, the aged Socceroos didn’t progress, but the atmosphere in the pub almost made up for it. Almost.

With one half of the establishment crammed with German and Ghana supporters, and the other half full of Serbians and a few Aussies, the atmosphere was electric. As the Socceroos progression relied heavily on the other game, multiple trips were made to the other side, seeing if a favourable result was in progress.

Alas it was not to be, and as friendly banter between Serbian and Australian fans started to get heated, I decided to cover up my Socceroos shirt and head home.

After my sojourn in Austria, I headed to France, where I had to contain the urge not to shout out how pathetic their football team was. While in France I spent many nights in various hotel bars, watching all manner of games, but it wasn’t until I headed north to Germany that the real fun began.

A trendy hotel’s bar in Aachen was the scene for Germany v Spain, and after writing for a while on Spanish football, and tipping Spain to win before the tournament, my geographical location was not going to prevent me from supporting La Furia Roja.

After betting a pint on the result of the game with a friend, I sat back and enjoyed Spain’s domination, but was worried about the lack of end result. Thankfully, a Carles Puyol header sealed the deal, and I made some noise while getting death stares from various Germans, and Australians sharing the bar with me.

I must say, the Germans sure know how to prepare for a big game. Walking the streets before the game, I saw all manner of flags, banners and football paraphernalia. A house without something German related on it was a rare sight indeed. And the locals were walking around draped in Germany shirts and flag while drinking beer, at four o’clock, four and a half hours away from kick-off.

The morning after the game I went on a tour of some nearby battlefields, indulging my inner history nerd. Being led around scenes of fighting in the Second World War, by a German soldier who had actually fought in the area, I was somewhat surprised with myself when I started talking to him about football. He was understandably angry that Germany had lost, and I decided to keep my Spanish support quiet.

This moment however, maybe more than any other, truly underlines what I love about football. It is the global game. While a conversation about football may be more difficult in Australia or the US, ultimately, in any country in the world, you will find someone who you can talk to about football. From the Faroe Islands to North Korea, from New Zealand to Qatar, someone will talk to you about football. It is, the world game.

However, Europe tops this off, because in Europe, you don’t have to find someone to talk to about football, anyone will talk to you about football. From random bus drivers to WW2 veterans, from bar-tenders (see below) to...well, to everyone more or less. Football and Europe, practically synonymous.

Possibly the most humorous moment related to the game came the next night when I asked the rather cute bar-tender for a drink. She paused and looked at me before explaining “No, you were the guy supporting Spain last night.” Thankfully after laying on the charm I got myself a drink, although sadly not a phone number...

After listening to police sirens all night after the game, I was pleased to return to France, where my Spanish allegiance was less likely to get me mortally injured. However, upon returning Paris, I discovered to my horror that my plane flight would see my in the air during the World Cup final.

Needless to say I was devastated, and even an exciting 3rd place game couldn’t lift my spirits. Sitting nervously on the plane home, waiting for the pilot to announce the score, I got more and more worried as the minutes ticked on.

My logic that extra-time and penalties would make a win for Spain slightly less likely ultimately proved flawed however, and in a heavy Thai accent our pilot informed us that Spain had won one-nil after 120 minutes. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and went back to my movie.

After assuring quarantine that I wasn’t trying to bring home anything dodgy, I found myself a newspaper before getting ready for a long bus ride home to Canberra. Flipping through The Daily Telegraph, it was perhaps reassuring to see that football (or soccer as they may prefer to call it) is hidden 12 pages from the back cover.

This in an edition that went to print only hours before the World Cup final, the biggest sporting event in the world. It certainly rammed home the fact I was back in Australia, where, sadly, football is not the number one sport. Wait, why did I leave Europe again?

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