Eindhoven – Sevilla 4 Middlesbrough 0 (10/05/2006)
Like many fans around the country, I, as a Reading fan, don’t have much of an opinion of Middlesbrough. As a club they are neither big enough to evoke admiration or envy, nor small enough to feel respect or empathy with. There’s no rivalry at all between the clubs, and few memorable games between the two. For Reading fans the one that they’d most readily associate with Middlesbrough would be the 3-2 win on the opening day of Reading’s first premiership season. For me though, the club trouble me with bad associations.
Part of it is down to the way the town of Middlesbrough itself partly nipped a short-lived fling with a Greek girl in the bud. One of a series of interviews she attended in England when planning to move over was in the town. An Athenian girl, she was very used to Athens’ warm café society and dramatic backdrop. I did try and warn her that the city wasn’t England’s most beautiful, and the interviewer did do his best to show her the sights, but being used to sitting outside a café and seeing the Acropolis, with the hills in the background, somehow the Riverside Stadium and the Transporter Bridge didn’t quite cut it. Although Leeds and other grim northern towns near where her sister lived were more to blame, I still bear a slight grudge towards the town over her decision to stay in Greece.
Part of it though, not Middlesbrough’s fault at all as it turns out, was that seeing a UEFA Cup match involving Middlesbrough in Eindhoven wasn’t quite the trip I was hoping for.
Early in 2006, I’d noticed quite by chance that UEFA were running a ballot for 6000 neutral tickets to that year’s UEFA Cup Final in Eindhoven. I applied and didn’t think too much of it, assuming it’d be hugely oversubscribed, but my luck was in, even if I did get bumped up to one of the rather eye-watering 110 euro tickets.
I arrived in Eindhoven in the early afternoon before the game, fresh from a day in Amsterdam, where I’d learned just how much of a racket a few hundred drunk Northerners could make as they leered their way round Amsterdam’s most notorious tourist attraction. I’m not going to claim any moral high-ground, having been around the same mind-boggling and body-oggling walk on a previous trip, but the canals I was looking forward to walking around were the stunningly beautiful and peaceful ones that were just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the city, but which felt like a few hundred miles away. I seen the area briefly before, when paying a visit to the Anne Frank House, where I realised the aesthetic appeal of the district perhaps outweighed my sense of history, as I looked out of the window of the small attic where Anne and seven other were forced to hide in fear of their lives, and couldn’t help but think that “this would be a great place to live”. The whole area is about the most pleasant morning stroll as can be imagined. I also got to see a multi-storey bike-rack, which isn’t high on any tourist’s agenda, but does make you appreciate that the Dutch love their bikes almost to a degree of fetishism.
Travel to Eindhoven was thankfully by train rather than bike, and after dumping my bag and hopelessly unneeded coat at my hotel (an act that would have unfortunate repercussions later), I made my way into the city.
Everyone was clearly there with the intention of enjoying themselves, and it was very relaxed with no hint of tension – either in the match nerves sense of any niggle between the two sets of supporters. Two fan camps had been set up in the centre. The one for Sevilla fans did look a slightly more rewarding part of town, but the Middlesbrough one had plenty of room, and plenty of people pouring beer as fast as people could order it, so everyone was happy. The DJ certainly knew how to get the party atmosphere going on a warm afternoon, and everyone was happy, with the consensus being that after their remarkable semi-final comeback against Steaua Bucharest (winning 4-3 on aggregate after being 0-3 down), Boro’s name was on the cup, with 2-1 being the scoreline of choice.
The lack of genuine “facilities” in the fan zone mean that many were having to dispose of the after effects of all that beer in the none too discreet confines of an alfresco urinal, looking like a 6 foot tall elongated orange-squeezer. Having seen these before, incongruously once in the middle of a footpath near the Amsterdam Arena for example, I got the impression that the Dutch clearly were rather less delicate than some about such matters.
I wanted to get to the game early, to savour the atmosphere and take a few pictures, and left with just over two hours before kick-off, for the 20 minute walk to the ground. Initially everything was great. I walked round the stadium, took a couple of pictures, then went to one side which, across a couple of lanes of traffic, backed onto the railway line. It would be a good spot to get a picture getting the whole stadium in. I was about to take a picture when I noticed a line of Sevilla fans getting rid of the remnants of the beers they’d drunk earlier in the bushes lining the fence between them and the railway line. Maybe it was psychosomatic, because although I had partaken in a few beers (of a low enough alcohol content to make them barely the legal side of the trades descriptions act, it has to be said) and it had been a longish walk from the fan zone, I was hardly crossing my legs in desperation, but something inside me just took the suggestion that it could be worthwhile doing similar while I was there. Let’s just say it was something of a mistake.
I heard a voice requesting I stop, and realised a policeman had chosen me at random from the rogue’s gallery by the fence. Apparently using the giant lemon squeezer things, virtually on public display to all is fine, but being discreet by a bush is right out. OK, the only thing for it was to be very cooperative and appeal to his reasonable side. He did seem a reasonable kind of guy at first, almost apologetic for putting me in this spot. After establishing I had a ticket for the match he then asked for some ID. Now I’m English, above a certain age. Nobody has picture ID, except of course when travelling abroad. Except of course my passport was in my coat pocket, back at the hotel. If I’d had my passport, he explained, I could have just paid a 40 euro fine and that would have been that. “Without it…”, and these are words you don’t want to hear at any time, particularly not relatively shortly before trying to see the most expensive game you’ve ever bought a ticket for, “…you are in a lot of trouble.”
With a whole police van to myself for the sort journey to Eindhoven police station, I did try and point out it would be a lot easier all round if we just drove to my hotel and got my passport, but somehow he seemed to regard this suggestion with an incredulous all-knowing laugh, as if it was some kind of elaborate escape plot and I’d dug tunnels called Tom, Dick & Harry underneath my hotel room’s minibar. Instead I found myself a few hundred yards away being photographed, parted with my shoes and personal effects, and invited to share a large cell with several Middlesbrough fans, all of whom were there for similar threats to the very fabric of society as my own.
I wasn’t too worried at first. There was still an hour and a half until kick-off. Just how slowly can the wheels of justice turn in modern day Holland? Very slow indeed was the answer, as it turned out. In fact it would require time-lapse photography to detect any turn at all. On what promised to be one of Eindhoven police station’s busiest nights of the year, they only seemed to have two women to take all the statements of everyone who’d been brought in, and they both dealt with each case together. As time ticked by, the beer I didn’t manage to dispose of by the fence started to make its presence felt. They allowed me out to use the toilet across the hall, but with a cream-covered slice of irony, considering why I was there in the first place, they insisted that I couldn’t shut the door so I’d be visible.
The cell itself wasn’t too bad. It was reminiscent of a large modern bus shelter, but enclosed on all four side, with the kind of seating that designed to be just uncomfortable enough to deter winos from spending the day and night there. One surprise addition, outside the cell and inaudible, if perfectly viewable, from within, was a plasma screen tv tuned in to show the match. While thoughtful, it actually became quite a torture seeing it there, knowing the stadium is just a few hundred yards away, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As each minute ticked away, you had to reassess you chances of making it there in time, until the crushing moment when you were now reassessing how much you’d miss. And further still, when it hits you that you may see none of the game at all.
That was how I felt at half time, and then suddenly my name was called and I was whisked off to a small interview room, where I attempted to give the world’s fastest confession. I did object at one point, to when my crime was described as “urinating in the street”, as if I was an cocking my leg like incontinent dog with a superiority complex, trying to mark every landmark as his territory, but I realised any argument would just delay things. With a sign of relief it was over – or so I thought. I may have given the statement, but I couldn’t go until they’d confirmed my identity. Put back in the cell and asked by an officer who seemed to be getting off on the fact that those were locked up were missing the game – perhaps the only chance in their lives they’d ever get to see Boro in a European final – I was told I’d need to wait for the British consulate to arrive before I could go. Missing the game was now taken for granted. I was worried now that I’d miss my flight home in the morning.
Luckily the guy must have either being wrong, or indeed just enjoying annoying the fans too much, as about five minutes later I was ushered out to pay my fine – now up to 100 euro – and re-united with my belongings. I was off to the match!
If there is one thing to commend getting to match late, it’s the almost poetic sound of a crowd you get from outside the stadium. It seems almost alive, as if the stadium is a living creature. All the cheers, roars and gasps of excitement take on an almost heightened quality that make you appreciate just what a special place a sports stadium is. Nowhere else sounds like that. It makes you want to be inside, and if I could only find a damn turnstile that was open, I soon would be.
I was in the top tier, but I bounded up the stairs like an excited child to find my seat, not wanting to miss another second, as I’d missed quite enough seconds already. Despite having a supposedly neutral ticket, the area I was in was to a man purely Middlesbrough. I knew Boro were a goal down, but I couldn’t tell what sort of game it was from the soundless pictures I’d seen. The sea of glum faces, such a contrast from the joy of a few hours earlier, told me all I needed to know about how well Middlesbrough had played so far. The Sevilla fans, on the other hand, were loud and clearly confident. Getting in with little over 25 minutes left, my hope was for extra time. I’d been similarly late for a match before, once arriving at Swansea with half an hour to go due to getting very stuck in traffic, and the final whistle in such a case feels hugely unsatisfying, but at least both teams had had the decency to wait until we turned up before scoring both of the goals that evening. The confidence of the Sevilla fans, and the fact the Middlesbrough were attacking with a frequency that made ice ages seem common, didn’t leave me with too much hope I’d get my wish.
The hope lasted barely a quarter of an hour. Even with the limited football I’d seen, it was clear that Sevilla were the far better team on the night, and with Schwarzer unable to parry a shot to safety, Vicenzo Maresca turned in the rebound to all but end the game as a contest with 12 minutes to go. The joy pouring down from the Sevilla stands was a stark contrast to the sullen end I was in. If there were any lingering doubts or hope, they were comprehensively extinguished five minutes later, when a poorly hit shot, again from Maresca, somehow found its way into the bottom corner. Caught pushing forward, Middlesbrough were now a boxer flat out on the canvas, completely beaten. You felt it should have been stopped as a contest, and despite a few towels clearly being thrown in by the Boro players who no longer wanted to be out there, Sevilla kept going, with Kanoute bagging a fourth which felt like an insult. A few tempers cracked in the Boro end – not violently by any means – although the one or two Sevilla fans who celebrated by running through the walkway directly in front of the Middlesbrough fans might have found little sympathy in some quarters if one or two had decided to let them know how classless such a gesture was. There was nothing like that though. The fans were just too crushed, and I realised that despite how bad my evening had gone, I was probably about the most cheerful Englishman in the place.
Not knowing the number for the Samaritans in Holland, I felt the only thing for it was to try and get the feel of the Sevilla celebrations. They did look a very worthy champion, after all, and despite being stage-managed, the celebrations did manage to avoid the cheesiness they can sometimes seem, and had a good authentic feel. It also allowed me to take in the stadium a bit more. In other circumstances it would probably have ranked as one of my favourites, looking far larger than the 36,000 it holds, yet with everyone close enough for it to feel intimate. The steep stands almost give the impression that the crowd is leaning over the pitch, and the deep guttural roar of encouragement which greeted every Sevilla attack, poured down the stands like dry ice. A real cauldron of a ground, and despite my deep empathy with those who surrounded me, I did selfish enjoy the sound of the late goals crashing in – and not least the fact that I was actually there to see them. At 37 euro per goal, and about 4 euro per minute, I really needed to get my money’s worth.