City of dreams

Photos in this article are provided by the excellent Cabras Feliz (because I was too tense and forgot to take any) – be sure to check out their website

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I’m pretty superstitious when it comes to football. At Andorra away I accidentally stole the hotel keycard, and because Wales won I kept it with me for the rest of the campaign, all the way to qualification. Now our success probably has more to do with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey than my accidental thievery, but who knows. I certainly still blame myself for Austria Salzburg losing the playoff final 5 – 2 a couple of years ago after forgetting to pack my lucky pants.

So with this belief in meaningless symbolism, I was pretty pleased when I checked the time after arriving at Rotterdam Centraal to see it was 19:08. As any ‘echte Rotterdammer’ will be able to tell you, Feyenoord were founded in 1908, and the year features on much of the most popular merchandise sold both officially and unofficially.

To be honest, we needed all the luck we could get. After a superb start to the season which saw local hero Dirk Kuyt return, arch rivals Ajax defeated for the first time in years and the prospect of finally mounting a real title challenge, it all went spectacularly wrong. Feyenoord lost 3 – 1 to NEC, a disastrous result. Then they lost to PSV. Then they lost again. And again, and again…a total of seven times consecutively in the league, utterly destroying the challenge for the title. Indeed, there was a danger of Feyenoord dropping out of the top half of the table, an unthinkable outcome for a season which promised so much.

Understandably, furious supporters turned on the board and recent matches have seen a number of justified protests against Eric Gudde and co. Several hundred supporters were arrested at a game a couple of weeks ago during a non-violent march, which the police were quite clearly tipped off about by the board themselves. Fines of just over €200 were given out, a noticeable sum for anyone, but especially when you consider that many of the protestors were of student age. If I had been asked for €200 as a student, after emptying my bank account I would have asked the police were they expected me to get the remaining €196 from.

Despite the troubled times, the stadium was, like always, completely sold out. Feyenoord could play a friendly match at 8am on a Tuesday against a team of 11 traffic cones and it would still be sold out. Also the way things are going, if it was a league game we’d lose 0 – 2.

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Still, there has been one bright spot for Feyenoord this season in the KNVB Beker, the top knockout competition in the Netherlands. After an easy 3 – 0 victory over PEC Zwolle in the opening round, it’s been drama all the way. First there was the 94th minute winner over Ajax, then goals in the 88th and 119th minute to beat Willem II, followed up by another extra time win away at Roda JC. That series of wins set up the home semi-final against AZ. With PSV and Ajax both already eliminated, there was a real chance to end the eight year wait for a trophy.

There is really something special about a night game at De Kuip, something which has been sorely missing this season due to the failure to qualify for the Europa League. There was a buzz in the air around the stadium that you only get with knockout football, and the atmosphere had already kicked off long before the game did. There was also a nice tifo, not quite on the spectacular level of Sevilla last season or Ajax earlier in this one, but a two card display first of all turned the stadium green and white (the colours of Rotterdam) and then switched to the red and white colours of the home shirt.

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With one of the best atmospheres of the season, Feyenoord made a fast start – almost finding the net within a couple of minutes. The AZ fans were also contributing, using some pyro in the away end and making a display of their own with red and white scarves. There were some nice chances to open the scoring in the opening ten minutes, with Feyenoord coming the closest to making it 1 – 0, but unable to get the shot on target from a promising position.

Despite the frantic early pace, it would be the 12th minute where the game really game to life. It is traditional for atmosphere actions to take place during this minute of big games (and quite a few small games also), and the stand behind the goal Feyenoord were attacking did not disappoint, putting on a huge pyro show. Sparklers, flares, bangers and smokebombs lit up the night, it was the kind of display that is only fitting of such a beautiful stadium. Smoke drifted across the pitch in the aftermath, a reminder to the players of how much it meant to the supporters.

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With the supporters having just set the stadium alight, it would soon be the turn of the players. Just moments after the last flare had spluttered out, the ball is crossed across the face of the goal, reaching Kramer who steered the ball into the net with the help of a touch from an AZ defender. It had been quite a while since De Kuip had seen such a mad celebration, with the now familiar surge towards the front of the stand and bodies tumbling to the ground. The way to judge how important the goal that Feyenoord just scored is by how many people are suddenly lying on the floor, and how many minutes it takes to get back to the people you were standing with before it went in.

There was a new flag I hadn’t seen before on show which read (in English) ‘Many years of hurt never stopped us dreaming’ with a picture of the Beker and league trophies next to it. Well, De Kuip was certainly dreaming now, and while there wasn’t any emotional hurt at this time, there were plenty of shins that were certainly feeling the aftermath of the goal – it’s just not a Thursday night at Feyenoord without a couple of new bruises to add to the collection.

AZ threatened to be blown away following this goal, with the atmosphere in full battle mode and the players playing with the kind of relaxed freedom that had been sorely missing as long ago as November. It was very nearly 2 – 0 just a few minutes later, and a string of four corners in a row wasn’t quite able to find a way past the sturdy Alkmaar defence. It could easily have been 3 – 0 at half time, but it remained just a single goal lead. It was a very pleasing performance in the first 45 minutes, but with this team you always feel as though one goal is not going to be enough to win a game, and I was sure we would come to regret the missed chances later on.

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Guess which of these banners I liked best?

As the second half kicked off I thought “Right, just keep a clean sheet for 45 minutes and we’re in the cup final, I’m sure we can do…” and it was 1 – 1. Needing to hang on for 45 minutes without conceding, absolutely senseless defending meant that the home side didn’t even make it 45 seconds. Goalkeeper Vermeer hasn’t been a popular figure (no surprise, considering he was signed from Ajax), but he wasn’t really to blame here, his defence leaving him with no real chance of keeping the ball out of the net. He kept out the initial shot, but was left helpless as the follow-up was smashed in to equalise from less than a yard out.

After so much good work in the first half, it was all undone instantly in the second. The away end had a mad moment of their own, one AZ supporter actually climbed up the fence at the front and stood on it to celebrate. Not that impressive, unless you know that the away end at De Kuip is in the top-tier and he was probably a good 30 – 40 feet in the air.

The confidence crumbled out of Feyenoord in the way you would expect from a team that had won one league game since mid-December. AZ were now well on top, and really should have taken the lead. This lead to a number of chants being directed at the board “Gudde rot op, Gudde rot op, Gudde Gudde, Gudde rot op!” being the most popular. If you don’t understand Dutch, let’s just say that we wanted him to please go away. A defeat here and the season would realistically be over on the 3rd of March. AZ hit the post when it seemed easier to score, and an attacker went around Vermeer but didn’t have the right angle to get the ball into the net.

De Kuip had the sense of impending doom, much in the same way it did after Zorya Luhansk made it 3 – 2 in the now famous Europa League playoff. You just knew they would score again to make it 3 – 3, and indeed they had done so. Of course that night had had the happiest of endings in the 94th minute, but it didn’t look very likely that this vital game would finish in a way to leave a smile on the faces of the Rotterdam public. I felt certain that AZ would score, and even if they didn’t, the prospect of extra time meant I would have missed my last direct train home, meaning I wouldn’t get home until 3am. Annoying when you’ve won, enough to make you take up following netball instead if you’ve lost.

With just over ten minutes to go, Feyenoord make a rare break forward. Kramer has the ball in the box, but his strike at goal isn’t clean. The goalkeeper is able to touch it into the air, but only causing it to loop into the air and into the back of the net. Carnage in De Kuip. I don’t quite beat my personal record of falling down 15 rows after the second goal against Sevilla last season, but it’s close enough. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, at least 20 people needing to be picked up in the aftermath, both the noise and the amount of people tumbling to the ground resembling an earthquake.

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Like the banner said, the Feyenoord dream is one which never died and while this is not the league title which is so badly craved – it is still a very significant trophy and the stadium was in full party mode. “Komen wij uit Rotterdam?” “Ken je dat niet horen dan?!” was sung back and forth between huge sections of the stadium. “Feyenoord til I die…” was the next song to be bellowed out by the entire stadium, and this would prove to be a fitting choice. Ron Vlaar, now of AZ, spent six years with Feyenoord in the early days of his career, captaining the club for a few of these years. He was a very popular player during this time, in particular for the time he grabbed a microphone after a victory against Ajax and started the chants from the field.

Clearly ‘Feyenord til I die’ had not been forgotten by Vlaar, and his foul on Elia gave away a penalty with four minutes to go. Local hero Dirk Kuyt stepped up, and there was never any doubt where the ball was going. He blasted it into the net, and now the party could well and truly get started safely. “Finale, ohooo, finale, ohooo!” and a chant directed at the major of Rotterdam joined the song rotation now, Aboutaleb is not a popular figure with Feyenoord supporters due to his excessive policing of matches, and “Hey Aboutaleb, Feyenoord is coming for you!” was chanted (as a joke rather than a threat, I should add) and the stadium was alive and jumping once more. After the months of hardship which had been endured, the frustrations and emotions all came tumbling out at once.

The final whistle went, and a swirling Kuip saluted the players who had taken them back to the cup final, the first since 2010. The years of hurt can’t truly be said to be over until Feyenoord wins their first league title of the millennium, but Dirk Kuyt lifting a trophy at home next month would certainly be a better painkiller than a couple of Paracetamol. Football might not be coming home, but the cup final is…

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The fury of Frankfurt

“A carnival of love” was the slogan I saw all over Cologne, written on stickers slapped all over lampposts and metro stations, as well as being graffiti’d on a number of walls. If there was plenty of love to be found at the carnival, there certainly wasn’t any on show at the stadium, despite the game falling on the weekend of Valentine’s Day.

While this isn’t the main rivalry for either of these clubs, there is certainly a great deal of bad feeling between them due to the close proximity of the cities and previous incidents between both sets of ultras. I had visited an Eintracht Frankfurt home game once before, with the great atmosphere inspiring me to try out their away end. Having wanted to visit RheinEnergieStadion for quite a while and Cologne being just two hours away by train, it was the perfect opportunity.

Eintracht Frankfurt supporters had grabbed the attention of the whole of Europe a few years ago during a Europa League campaign that was fairly good on the pitch, and an absolute triumph in the stands, with spectacular tifos and huge travelling support to the away matches. I have been hoping to see the club return to Europe ever since so I could take in a game, but this season they are sadly close to suffering the agony of relegation rather than the euphoria of European qualification. They went in to this game just one spot above the relegation playoff position, and there had been furious scenes at the end of a recent 0-1 home defeat to Darmstadt.

The ultras had confronted the players at the end of that game, with many of them jumping a wall to stand on the edge of the pitch. It was called a pitch invasion by the DFB (more on them later), but in reality it was just anger at another poor performance – only three or four supporters stepping foot on the pitch, and even that wasn’t for long.

A reader of the website from Frankfurt was able to get me a ticket in the standing section of the away end, and I was all set to experience what the SGE had to offer away from home. I didn’t realise when arranging the trip that it was also the 68th anniversary of the formation of FC Kôln, meaning they were sure to have something planned to celebrate.

Sure enough, there were clear signs of a tifo (known as a choreo in Germany) when I took my first look at the stadium an hour before kick off. It’s a truly excellent stadium, and hard to believe that it was hosting second tier football until just recently. Regular readers will know that I like floodlights in the same way that some people like art, and these were some of the best I have seen so far on my travels, rising high into the sky like a tower designed to defend a castle.

The away end was wisely situated at the furthest point from the home terrace, providing a great view of the outstanding choreo display that had been designed by the home supporters to celebrate the founding of their club. It began by displaying 13.02.1948 across the top tier, before a huge banner bearing the club’s logo was unfurled, along with a huge 1948 in the top tier, a banner talking about the honour of tradition of the club in the second, and a sea of waving red and white scarves. As the grand finale, each of the banners which displayed a number was dropped to reveal a great moment from the history of the club, starting in black and white and moving to colour as the years progressed. Finally, the last one read ‘one day…’ and mocked up FC Koln being pulled out of the hat at the Champions League draw.

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There would also be action from the away stand, with most of the away end holding up spray painted scarves with ‘SCHEISS DFB” written on them, and others with “NUR FUR DE SGE”, SGE being one of the names that Eintracht supporters use to refer to the club. There was also a banner at the front of the stand which obviously I couldn’t see, but seems to have read “Free Freddy” from what I saw on Instagram after the game.

There was a terrific atmosphere from both sides of the stadium as the game kicked off, with three capos at the front of the away end leading the chants, and many of the ultras sat on the fence that divided the pitch from the supporters. I’ve always thought of Eintracht Frankfurt as being different to the usual German team, and the people who made up the away end were proof of that. Many German away ends would be full of people with 12 scarves tied around their arms, wearing a denim jacket with lots of patches sewn into the back, but this wasn’t like that. Eintracht Frankfurt feels like a club for the underdog, one where everyone is welcome. From the usual young guys in black North Face jackets to those with tattoos on their necks or a ring through their nose, it didn’t matter as long as you were SGE. The song book was also a lot more varied than “SHA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA (team name)” which you hear at some grounds, putting together a very impressive atmosphere.

Despite the palpable undercurrent of rage you could feel in the away section, they remained very supportive of their side, urging them forward. 25 minutes or so into the game, the support would be rewarded with a goal, Alexander Meier finding the back of the net and sending the away end into raptures. Despite the fact that everyone was going bonkers, you didn’t see anyone falling over or causing injury to themselves like I have done so many times in an away end with seats, further proof if it was needed that terracing simply must be an option which is available to football supporters.

The away end linked arms and bounced up and down to celebrate the opening goal, as well as one of the many football chants that is now firmly stuck in my head for the rest of my life “Köln, Köln, wir scheißen auf , die Dom”. If you don’t speak German I’ll tell you that “Dom” is the word for cathedral, the rest I’m pretty sure you can work out for yourself.

So, would this be the day it all turned around for Eintracht Frankfurt, a glorious away win in Cologne helping the eagles soar towards the top half of the table? Well, no. Barely five minutes had gone by when a terrible error from a defender gave Koln an easy chance from just a couple of yards out, one which was gratefully taken by the attacking player, blasting the ball past the keeper who never had a chance. All the good work undone in an instant, and that would be a theme for SGE throughout the match. Several times their players would pull off a great bit of skill, only to mess up something much easier a moment later.

Half time arrived with the score level, and it would be this 15 minute break that would see the kind of organisation that the midfield and defenders could only dream of. “Scheiss DFB” banners were distributed to the entire away end, including people in the top tier hanging their scarves over the edge, with supporters in the lower tier wrapping the flags around their scarf to be pulled back up. They were also rolled into a ball and thrown up, ensuring that everyone had one.

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As the players came out for the second half, the protest against the DFB banning supporters, preventing tifos from taking place and punishing Eintracht for the use of pyro, among a list of other reasons that was posted in the away end – these were just the ones I could translate from German. The banners were raised aloft, sending a message that was impossible to ignore. Just in case they tried, the chanting could be heard for miles around: “**** THE DFB, EINTRACHT FRANKFURT WILL FIGHT YOU” is the best literal translation I can give, it could also mean “will keep fighting”, but the message is just as clear either way. This went on and on and on, only pausing for the first time when the home side took the lead on roughly the hour mark – more poor defending leading to SGE falling behind.

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Still the away supporters did not give up hope and did not turn on their team, but you could sense they didn’t believe the 11 men on the field could give them the kind of result and performance their efforts deserved. It was party time in the home end meanwhile, with the home terrace bouncing up and down as if they were doing their best to cause an earthquake. While the focus of my story is on the away side, credit really must also go to Koln, it’s one of the best German stadiums I have visited and certainly somewhere I would recommend for lovers of football culture everywhere (ok, maybe not in Gladbach, but most places).

Not too long after the second goal for Cologne, the third one arrived. Frustrations had already boiled over on the pitch a few minutes before, three players being shown a yellow card after some prolonged pushing and shoving that probably should have also seen at least one red. With their side now 3 – 1 down and the rest of the stadium a sea of twirling red and white scarves, the full fury of Frankfurt was unleashed. Many supporters climbed the fences of the away end to encourage those in the home end to see them outside, and probably not to swap scarves and chat about the game.

The capos at the front of the stand were screaming into the microphones to keep going and keep supporting the team until the end “Give them everything you have for the last ten minutes”. So they did. Until the bitter end they kept singing and supporting their team with proud and defiant chanting. Again my translation is not perfect, but the final chant was something like “The first love, the one that lasts forever, Eintracht Frankfurt my team”. After ensuring that their team had been supported for 90 minutes, the supporters stopped holding back once the full time whistle blew. As the players reluctantly made their way over to the away section, many of the ultras scaled the fence to launch furious verbal abuse at them for their failure and perceived lack of effort.

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As an additional method to show their fury, a bonfire was started at the front of the away end, with the protest flags from earlier being set ablaze. Anyone who regularly follows a team away that isn’t Barcelona or Bayern Munich has probably been angry enough to want to set the odd away end on fire after a game (you should have seen me in 2009 at Sheffield Wednesday), so I have to give credit to SGE for actually doing it!

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All in all this was probably the angriest away end I have ever been in, and I fear that it is only going to get worse over the coming weeks for the Frankfurt side. There was not much to suggest that the players have the fight for a relegation battle. One thing is clear – it would be a football culture tragedy to lose this club from the Bundesliga, especially if they are to be replaced by the latest vile Red Bull marketing project in Leipzig. For some perspective, my ticket cost 15 Euro, I could stand up, nobody tried to sell me a half and half scarf and no stewards rushed to stop any signs of protest – the DFB hasn’t allowed things to get as bad as it is in England just yet. But they certainly need clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt more than Eintracht Frankfurt needs them, and if they enter a war, it might just be one they cannot win.

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Top ten atmospheres of 2015

2013 edition

2014 edition

Back for another year, it’s the article which causes the most infuriated comments by far (apart from the time some beer cans ended up in a fountain). This year I spent a lot of my time, and even more of my money, following Wales on the road to qualification to Euro 2016 which meant I wasn’t able to get to any games in Serbia – explaining the lack of Crvena zvezda or Partizan in my top ten who are usually a regular feature. Saying that, I was still able to attend over 50 matches in a variety of countries from Israel to Scotland, and these were the top ten best atmospheres I was lucky enough to experience live over the course of the year. In true Top Of The Pops fashion, we’ll get started with number ten…

For most matches, you can click the name of the fixture to read a full report.

10. Go Ahead Eagles vs. Ferencváros

The ridiculousness of using the Fair Play League to give out European football was shown by this fixture, as Go Ahead Eagles were relegated but made it into the Europa League anyway due to their disciplinary record. A very silly rule, but one I was pleased with due to the fact it gave the Deventer side their first game in Europe for 50 years. With their striking red and yellow shirts, amazing name and top quality supporters, Go Ahead Eagles are one of the most likable clubs I’ve ever seen and it is a real shame that it currently appears they won’t bounce back into the top flight at the first opportunity, although the unusual promotion and relegation system in the Netherlands means they still have a chance if they are able to put together a good run over the next few months.

Facing up to Hungarian giants Ferencváros as a second tier team seemed like a recipe for disaster, and I was pretty convinced they would take a bit of a battering over the course of 90 minutes. Worse still, stadium renovations meant that the Eagles did not even have home advantage, playing in a whole different city in a stadium that was not their own. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the atmosphere, and might even have helped to make it better. Instead of heading to the stadium quickly after work, the Eagles supporters had to travel by coach or train for a couple of hours, giving them time to have plenty of pre-match ‘refreshments’, and good lord were they refreshed. I think this was the drunkest stadium I saw in 2015, with a huge percentage of people who really needed to have a kebab and go to bed. I had to work before the game and so only made it to the stadium about 45 minutes before kick-off, and I was literally stepping over people in the car park by the time I got there. Problems in Hungarian football relating to ID cards meant that the away end was quite empty due to a boycott from most hardcore supporters, but the ones who did attend helped to add to a great atmosphere. The visitors went ahead after just a couple of minutes and you feared that a real hammering could be on the cards, but the constant non-stop support helped to inspire the less talented but more determined players to grab an equaliser. When they did, forget about it. Standing up without falling over is difficult enough when you’re as drunk as these supporters were, but when you score a goal in your biggest match of the season…there were more people throwing themselves wildly to the floor than at a training session of the Portuguese national team. Sadly they were well beaten in the second leg, but it was a summer night to remember for the supporters who faced uncertain times ahead. Hopefully it doesn’t take them another 50 years to play in Europe again, but if it does, at least their hangovers from this game might finally have cleared.

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9. Brondby vs. SønderjyskE

The day before I headed to Sweden for my latest visit to a Stockholm derby I watched my first game in Denmark, and it was a great unexpected surprise. With this just being a pretty ordinary league game and Brondby having a disappointing season up until this point, I wasn’t expecting very much from the atmosphere, but I was dead wrong. The South Side at Brondby is home to the ultras, and is one of the best terraces I’ve ever stood on. While it lacks the size of the standing sections in Germany for example, the way it was built helps to create a lot of noise, and when the supporters jump up and down (which is a lot), you can feel the ground bouncing beneath you. Copenhagen is quite expensive for hotels and food, but with cheap flights and beer this is a great destination as part of a football weekend. It’s worth a visit to the stadium if only to see the cool graffiti all around the stadium and the ‘menu’, which features a grand total of two choices – five large beers or five regular beers. Truly a throwback to the glory days.

 

8. Roma vs. Lazio

One of the clashes I had wanted to see for a very long time, I was lucky enough to go to what could be the last ‘proper’ Rome derby for a long time, due to actions being taken against Roma’s curva by the club have resulted in boycotts for the last couple. Lazio were the ‘away’ team for this derby, but it was their supporters who most impressed during this one. The huge away end had around 15,000 people in (possibly more, my estimating skills are weak)and they produced an outstanding tifo featuring Roma being transported to Hell. The noise got even better as the blue side of Rome took a 2 – 0 lead, with some of the best scenes I have ever witnessed over the last three years of running this website as it looked as if they would take victory in this critical fixture for Champions League qualification. The Roma supporters were subdued by the scoreline for quite a while, but did come to life following two goals from inspirational captain Francesco Totti. Not many countries can match the level of intensity and hatred you can feel in an Italian derby, and this was a prime example of that. Let’s hope that the club removes the restrictions on Ultras and this can take back its place as one of the best games in Europe.

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7. Feyenoord vs. Ajax (cup)

It started with the biggest flag ever displayed at a football match in Europe and ended with a 94th minute own goal winner to give the Rotterdam side a first win over their despised rivals for the first time since a John Guidetti hat-trick in 2012. That should tell you everything you need to know about the atmosphere inside one of the most intimidating stadiums in world football, with the locals going wild at finally being able to celebrate winning the game they care about more than any other. While this fixture definitely needs away fans for it to return to being one of the most intense in football, this was the best one I have attended over the last couple of years, the evening kick off and importance of the tie helping to create a ferocious atmosphere. The goal was scored with no time at all remaining, meaning celebrating the goal went straight into celebrating the win, and you better believe that Feyenoord supporters know how to party on the rare occasion they have something worth celebrating. 50,000 people bounced around the stadium and saluted their heroes long into the night. I tweeted at the time that all sleep in Rotterdam was cancelled, and I’m pretty sure a record amount of people called in ‘sick’ the next day in Rotterdam and the surrounding cities. Feyenoord have the chance to win the KNVB cup in 2016 as a result of this victory, and even a small chance to win the league. If they do, a whole week off work might be needed.

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6. Slavia Praha vs. Sparta Prague

I’m not really fussed about rugby (to put it mildly), so while most of Wales was preparing to watch the Rugby World Cup match against England, I was in the capital of the Czech Republic for the derby between the two biggest sides in Prague. Slavia have had very little success against their city neighbours in recent years, but an absolutely amazing display of support from the home crowd helped them to their first win in the derby for a couple of years. Indeed, the Slavia supporters were arguably the best I saw all year, it was just the lack of action from the away end which meant this fixture ended up at number six on the list. Putting together one tifo is hard work, so I can only imagine how many hours were spent preparing for this game, where a total of four were displayed during the first half. Believers in football karma were rewarded in this game, as Slavia scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game just as the final tifo was put on show. It was by far the worst goal I have ever seen live, a weak shot being dropped over the line by the goalkeeper, who seemingly had ages to recover from his mistake but instead seeming not to bother and just watching the ball trickle over the line. It was Slavia’s day on and off the field, the kind of derby domination which will be talked about for years to come by their supporters. I also experienced Czech drinking for the first time, and can confirm the saying “Czechs do not drink, they pour”, referring to the fact they finish their beer almost as fast as it can be filled up. Perhaps that had something to do with just how loud it was…

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5. Rangers vs. Celtic

The same but different. It was the first meeting between the two fiercest rivals in the UK since Rangers were demoted to the bottom tier due to the financial disaster at the club due to years of mismanagement. Celtic have of course dominated Scottish football ever since, with the title decided before the first ball has even been kicked and picking up a good number of cup trophies as well. However without Rangers, something has surely been missing. Crowds have fallen, as has player’s interest in joining the club due to the lack of competition, and the once highly impressive Champions League performances a distant memory. Rangers meanwhile have gone from final Milan, Manchester United and Fiorentina to taking on East Stirling, Montrose and Elgin City. As much as people on both sides (especially Celtic) will deny it, these two clubs need each other.

Unlike the hard fought (literally) contests when both clubs were at their peak, this one was never much of a contest on the field. Celtic bossed the game from pretty much the first whistle, and in the end they were probably quite disappointed to only win 2 – 0. It was in the stands where the real contest took place, with Rangers supporters taking the opportunity of having the eyes of the world on them once more to put on a show of defiance. They never stopped singing from the first moment to the last, bringing out all the songs they haven’t had a chance to sing for far too long, including the offensive ones that cause such controversy and outrage every time the sides meet. There was also a very clever tifo from the Celtic supporters referring to the controversy that comes from their opposition to wearing poppies, replacing the poppy with a red Rangers badge and featuring the line “At the going down of the Hun” with the dates that Rangers supposedly ‘died’. Time clearly isn’t a healer when it comes to these sides, and once Rangers do make their way back to the top of Scottish football, you have to think that the events of the last five years will cause the feelings to be even more intense than before.

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4. Panathinaikos vs. AEK Athens

My first taste of Greek football would disappoint on the pitch (my first ever trip for this website that would finish 0 – 0), but was a triumph in the stands as Gate 13 quickly became one of the best places I have ever watched a football game. A Greek friend of mine was able to arrange a ticket in Gate 14, one block over from the legendary home of Panathinaikos’s most hardcore supporters. I spent the days before the game coming up with a couple of plans as to how I could sneak into the block, including jumping over a fence, finding an unlocked door or bribing a steward. Eventually I tried my luck by simply walking in to Gate 13 and putting my finger over the block number, feeling like the sneakiest person alive when I was able to walk past the security without being checked. Then I walked out on to the stand to see it was totally open and I could have just walked there with my original ticket. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

Despite the poor quality of the game and the disappointing result, it was a great show from the green section of Athens (away supporters were banned), with constant use of pyro, singing, jumping and generally going bonkers. Perhaps my favourite moment came before the game even started, and was probably unnoticed by most. A company had put up advertising banners across the back of the stand, and one supporter took out his keys or some other sharp object (couldn’t work out exactly what it was, but it wasn’t a knife or weapon) and cut down the banner in Gate 13, before hurling it over the wall of the stadium and in to the street. Truly supporters and not customers. There was also a small pitch invasion at the end of the game to protest against the poor results, and the manager had been sacked by the time I flew home. Fan power is clearly still alive in some countries, and none more so than Greece.

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3. Wales vs. Belgium

When Wales drew 0 – 0 in Belgium, I thought we might qualify. When we won 0 – 3 in Israel, I was confident we would qualify. When we beat Belgium 1 – 0 in Cardiff, I knew we would qualify. While Bosnia away was the night it was confirmed, as well as being the best day of my life and the drunkest night of my life, it was this Friday night in June when Welsh football announced to the world that this time, this time, we should be taken seriously.

The Welsh public has mostly fallen out of love with football in the last decade, save a hardcore of around 10,000 or so. It’s difficult to blame anyone who did really, as we were completely shite. Watching the team you love being managed by John Toshack is pretty similar to watching your beloved family home burn down with everything you own inside, but even worse because Lewin Nyatanga is there. The years of misery (and they were MISERABLE) were blown away in 90 minutes of pure joy, the culmination of the great work done by Chris Coleman and of course, the much missed Gary Speed. The shin smashing, voice losing, row falling goal celebration will be the most replayed moment in the future, but when I close my eyes and think about the game, it is the national anthem in the 70th minute I remember first. I wrote at the time that it was at this moment that I knew we had won. Even if we ended up losing the game, Welsh football had won. Just listen to it.

2. Roma vs. Feyenoord 

Definitely the most controversial fixture I attended this year, a huge travelling army of Feyenoord supporters made the trip from Rotterdam to Rome. The word ‘army’ was taken a bit too seriously by the Italian police, who attacked the away supporters several times before the game. This resulted in many media sources reporting that the thousands of visitors from Rotterdam (plus a couple from Sunderland and one from Wales) had done more damage than the Gauls in 390 BC. In reality the damage was extremely overhyped and certainly no worse than Cardiff city centre after a rugby international.

To the game itself, and what a performance it was in the away stand. Feyenoord as a club has been missing from the highest stage for quite some time, a place it truly deserves for the support, and truly doesn’t deserve for the people in charge of the club. This was the chance to show to the world what Feyenoord Rotterdam is all about, and it was an opportunity taken in style. The 7,000 in the away end and the 350 or so in the home end put on a spectacular performance, with the 12th minute and the celebrations following the goal in particular sure to live long in the memory. There was to be no Europa League football for Feyenoord in the 14/15 season, but it seems they will surely be back next season. Watch out Europe…

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1. Djurgarden vs. Hammarby

DIF were the best supporters I saw in 2014, taking the top spot after I travelled with 7,000 or so of their most hardcore supporters to the away derby at AIK. Clearly I needed to go back this year, and this time the game would be even more spectacular. I had been quite disappointed with the AIK fans in the contest last year, not offering much opposition at all. That would not be the case this year, with the Hammarby fans turning up in huge numbers and creating the best atmosphere I would see all year. I went to many matches where the home fans or the away fans were great, but this was the one where both supporters were really at the top of their game. This game deserves more than just a paragraph or two to sum it up, so make sure to click the link in the title for a full report.

Starting from the pre-match tifo to the final whistle the atmosphere never let up once, firmly cementing Swedish football culture in my mind as one of the finest in the world. With Hammarby surviving their first season back in the top flight with relative ease, this is the fixture I recommend for anyone looking for their first Swedish football experience.

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Sterker door strijd

Football has a very unique power. It’s the power to set the mood of an entire city, for better or for worse. I saw it in Sunderland in 2014 when their last gasp derby win over Newcastle sent the entire city into a state of euphoria, and in 2013 I was in Dortmund for a 3 – 2 home league defeat which put the nail in the coffin of their title defence.  In 2015, the city hit by this footballing phenomenon would be Rotterdam.

Feyenoord never beat Ajax – it just doesn’t happen. Going in to this KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) match, the Rotterdam side had won just one of the last 21 meetings, a 4-2 victory inspired by John Guidetti. This was the 4th classic I have attended, with previous results being 1 – 2, 0 – 1 and 0 – 0. The goalless draw was the away match in Amsterdam, which I watched from the home stand due to the longstanding ban on away supporters. 0 – 0 was probably the only result that would have allowed me to get away undetected, but it could easily have been a three or four goal victory. After chances were cleared off the line, shots bounced off the post and the Ajax goalkeeper pulled off a couple of saves that were frankly ridiculous, I resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to see a win in this most hate-filled of fixtures.

But the Feyenoord of 2015/16 is a different beast. Local hero Dirk Kuyt has rejoined the club at long last, and the new manager has gone with a revolutionary tactic from last season of signing some players who are not rubbish at football. Kuyt’s goals are rightly grabbing the headlines, but Elia and Kramer have also had a big role to play. The city motto of Rotterdam translates as ‘Stronger through struggle’, and after plenty of struggle last season, the club is certainly stronger this year.

In the second round of the Dutch Cup it’s likely you’ll end up facing an amateur side or someone from the Jupiler League (second tier), but fate had different plans this time around. Feyenoord vs. Ajax. De Klassieker. Winner takes all. I spoke earlier about football having the ability to change the mood of a city, and it was plain to see here. As I walked from the train station towards the stadium, it looked like even the little old ladies with walking sticks looked like they were ready to pull a flare out of their handbag. Some years ago I lived in Leeds, and it is similar to Rotterdam in the way that everyone supports the local team. While Sparta and Excelsior mean that Rotterdam is not a true one club city, the overwhelming majority are for Feyenoord.

In the league these matches always take place on a Sunday, usually at 12:30 or 14:30. As a result the atmosphere doesn’t always reach the full potential that comes with such a strong hatred. No such worries here, with a Wednesday night 19:45 kick off and plenty of time for pre-match drinking to ramp up the atmosphere further still. Speaking of pre-match drinking, there were definitely some significant hangovers on Thursday morning. For those readers who don’t know about Varkenoord, it is the training ground for Feyenoord during the week, and on matchday it’s a bar where people drink as though it’s the last day before beer gets banned forever. There is a limit of 20 beers per person on each trip to the bar, and most people were getting the most out of this quota.

I’m not a season ticket holder this season as it wasn’t clear at the start of the season how much longer I would be living in the Netherlands, and the cheap cost of Dutch football would have been rather cancelled out by having to jump on a plane every week. This meant that I wasn’t able to get a ticket in my usual section of the stadium (Vak W), and instead was on the other side of the ground in Vak E. This was the first time I had been to a Feyenoord match outside of Vak W and had been a little concerned that the atmosphere would not be as good, but as one person said to me on Twitter “Every block is the crazy block tonight”.

After sinking a couple of pre-match beers to ease the tension (I had intended to buy two, but the queue was so long I bought four) I headed in to the stadium. One of the best things about De Kuip is that the atmosphere is almost always very good, even on the days when the opposition is not exactly inspiring. However, it has another level which is only reached on very special nights. Last season there was the epic 4 – 3 win over Zorya Luhansk, the impressive dismantling of Sevilla and a totally wild night against Roma, but the lack of European football has meant that midweek madness at De Kuip has been sadly lacking. Well, the battle mode was well and truly engaged for the famous and beautiful old stadium this evening.

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While the intense hatred and noise was to be expected and had been seen many times before over the years, there would be something the likes of which has never been seen before, not just in Rotterdam, but anywhere in Europe. South America has seen some truly gigantic flags over the years, with Colombia and Argentina in particular producing some absolute monsters. I knew there was going to be some kind of display to compete with the outstanding one seen against Sevilla last season. While that display contained more detail, this one was well and truly one-of-a-kind, the biggest flag ever displayed inside a European stadium.

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This picture is used with permission from frMelvin1908

Down it came from the very top of the grand old stand, a seemingly never-ending design which stretched from the ceiling to the pitch. It was the flag of the city of Rotterdam, the green and white stripes joined by the emblem and “stronger through struggle” motto that I have previously mentioned. When the flag was fully unfurled it was time for the finishing touch, with ‘the tub’ being set alight by red flares, green and white smoke and even fireworks shooting high into the darkened sky before exploding – basking the stadium in a green and white light. It was a truly awesome thing to witness, and something which will be seen and envied all over the world in the coming days. Having watched quite a lot of non-league football when I lived in the UK, this flag was literally bigger than several stadiums I have watched matches in.

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Ajax entered the field to a chorus of whistles, their every touch treated as though they had run out on to the pitch kicking a puppy, chewing with their mouth open and waving an ISIS flag. A tidal wave of hatred swept down from the stands, every last person on their feet and getting involved. There are many clubs that talk about having a 12th man, but this is one where it really does feel as though the crowd has an influence on the outcome.  If that is the case, it was not true for the opening stages of this game. Despite Ajax having a very young squad this season, they did not seem as if the intimidating atmosphere was getting to them too much. The early chances all belonged to the men in the ugly luminous green shirts, looking like a group of stewards who had got lost and found themselves on the field.

Feyenoord of last season would probably have crumbled (Ajax scored the winner after just six minutes last season), but this time the defence stood firm. There were plenty of tasty tackles, a theme that would continue throughout the game. Without any away fans it was down for the players for there to be a mass brawl, and they didn’t disappoint with several flashpoints throughout the game. The referee handled the match well in my opinion, another official might have handed out more yellows than the Coldplay song and a couple of reds, but he was sensible and made sure that the match would end with 11 vs. 11.

The second half was a big improvement from the home side, and it was reflected in the atmosphere. The first half had been loud but with some quieter periods due to the nervous tension and the memories of former failures against the greatest rival of all, but these melted away in the second half, with every supporter inside the stadium giving 100% to try to help the team to victory. I was able to start a couple of chants in Vak E when it got quieter, with the person next to me commenting with the typical directness in the Netherlands “You try hard but your Dutch is very bad”. Cheers mate. Still, the atmosphere was absolutely bouncing by this stage as the clock ticked down to 20 minutes remaining, with a 22 man brawl close to Vak W putting the noise levels even higher than they had been previously. Somehow no cards were produced despite five or six players very clearly trying to beat the crap out of each other, the only punishment being several Ajax players getting soaked in beer for foolishly venturing too close to the stands.

There are no replays in the Dutch Cup, so the anti-climax of a 0 – 0 draw and a replay in the capital was not possible. Someone was going out tonight, whether it was in the remaining minutes of the game, in extra time or, god forbid, penalties.

This dreaded option was feeling more and more likely as the clock ran down, when it seemed that surely they would not be needed. Ajax’s defence was split by a perfect pass, leaving the goal at our mercy. I was already preparing to celebrate, before the ball somehow missed the goal completely. Ajax’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident, limping off the field to be replaced by the deeply unpopular Jasper Cillessen. His walk from the halfway line to the goal will have felt like it was much further indeed, as he was whistled, jeered, booed and given one finger salutes from just about everyone in the stadium who wasn’t so nervous they had forgotten how to move.

Feyenoord had been coming more and more into the match as time progressed, and now they sensed blood in the water. Coming on as a substitute in a big game is hard enough, but there is extra pressure when doing so as a goalkeeper. A series of corners were won as the new stopper faced a fearsome opening test, and Elia in particular was causing all sorts of problems for the Ajax defence. In the opening 20 minutes I had feared history repeating itself once more with yet another victory for the side from the capital, but now it seemed as though, at long last, there was hope to inflict a rare defeat on the old enemy.

Time was running out, and I had already resigned myself to extra time and penalties. As well as the stress of this outcome, there was also the fact that I would probably miss my last train home, enjoying a night at Rotterdam Central Station before the first one in the morning at 5am. Fine if Feyenoord won, but having to do so after a defeat would probably see me give up on football for a couple of months and turn to a minority sport that nobody cares about like tiddlywinks, synchronized swimming or rugby  instead.

Four minutes of injury time are signalled, and I’m just praying that we get through to extra time unscathed. Ajax have a reputation for scoring late goals matched only by Manchester United when Alex Ferguson was in charge, and I had visions of the ball bouncing in the net after deflecting off the right back’s arse. Would they find a way to score? They always bloody score…

The four minutes are almost up, when Elia goes on what would prove to be his last twisting and turning run of the evening. He won a free kick a couple of yards outside the area, but much too far to the left of the goal for it to be a shooting chance. There would be time to whip the ball into the box one last time, hoping for someone to get a touch on it and send De Kuip into delirium. It’s played towards Dirk Kuyt, but he’s surely being too closely marked by Veltman to do anything with it…

In real-time it only took a second, but for those people with Feyenoord in their hearts it surely felt longer. The cross is fairly weak, but Veltman makes a mess of it and directs it towards his own goal. It’s headed to the corner of the net, but it seemed like Cillessen would get there. Oh, hang on…

He’s missed it.

It’s in.

Feyenoord have scored.

The roar.

Bedlam.

De Kuip has descended into absolute mayhem, a mass of writhing, celebrating, incredulous and joyful mayhem. I’m hugging the guy next to me who made fun of my Dutch, while half a beer bounces off my head having been hurled into the air somewhere behind me. People surge over the seats and down the stairs, most of them simply not knowing what to do with themselves. This never happens. It never happens, but somehow, it has. We celebrate until our voices give in, until the best we can do is a rasping croak of joy.

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The next hour seems to float by like a montage in a film. There is no time left after the goal. The final whistle blows. The players give a lap of honour. Super Feyenoord plays on the announce system, the stadium jumping, dancing and falling all over the place. The party goes on and on long after the players have left the field, and the huge flag is unfurled once more. Flares are ignited around the ground, and the sky fills with green smoke again.

The stadium begins to empty, every single person I pass by has a very special expression, one that only comes with a late winning goal. It’s a daft smile and an expression that says “Wow, that really happened”. When I had arrived a couple of hours ago Rotterdam had been a city full of nervous tension and aggression, now it is simply the purest form of happy. All the way down the stairs and all the way into the streets around the stadium the singing continues. Two friends who had been stood in different stands see each other, and sprint towards one another before falling to the ground in celebration. “JAAAAA!!!!!”

The queue for the tram is singing, and another tram already packed to the rafters passes by. It’s bouncing up and down so much that it looks like it might come off the rails. I hear two of the stewards talking “Last fucking minute! I don’t believe it!” he says. Finally I make it on to a tram, and we make it bounce up and down just as much as the others that had passed us by.

Cars are blowing their horn, people look suspiciously like they’re about to jump in the fountain, and the whole city seems to be shining a little brighter. There is a party going on at the Central Station for the supporters who live outside the city, and the songs can be heard from each and every platform, each train that departures spreading joy to another part of the Netherlands.

This was the night this city had waited for since January 29th 2012, the last time Ajax had been defeated. The night people had dreamed of, only to have these hopes crushed again and again. Whether Feyenoord go on to win the trophy or not, it doesn’t really matter. No longer will this rivalry be dismissed as one-sided or a walkover. No longer will Feyenoord supporters have to take the insults of their capital city foes for failing to defeat them once more, or have to deal with the sneering attitude towards Feyenoord from many within the Dutch media. It was the night the struggle ended, and the strength began. That’s football. That’s what it can do.

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