Munich, Tunisia 2 Saudi Arabia 2

Tunisia 2 Saudi Arabia 2 (Allianz Arena, Munich, 14/06/2006)

There aren’t many stadiums in the world that are as well known for how they look outside as inside. The San Siro would be one. The old Wembley would be another. Perhaps Soccer City in Johannesburg would be a new addition to this small list. This list would undoubtedly include the Allianz Arena, whose white plastic bubble facade encloses the stadium like a giant white car tyre. It was certainly the most unusual looking world cup stadium for many a year.

Perhaps all the more unexpected coming from Munich, which I’ve always had down as the most conservative, and most stereotypically German of all German cities. Everything, including the people, is smart, well preserved and well presented. Everything is orderly and in its place. This is a city where people really will wait at the pedestrian crossing, even if nothing is coming. OK, it is perhaps a little bit of a shock to find ordinary people really do wear lederhosen as casual attire, but I also feel that the Oktoberfest could only be held here, as it’s the only place where having several thousand drunk people in one place could still be organised.

This was my third visit to Munich, all of them fleeting, but neither of the other two had been as short as this one. Although I’d spend much of the day here, the intention was to wake up, and go to sleep, in Frankfurt, over 300 miles away.

My initial world cup ticket allocation had been for 5 tickets. I picked up Croatia v Japan in a latter sales phase, but none of the other feasible games ever cropped up as available in the last sales phase. There were two that were there regularly. One was Iran v Angola in Leipzig, which you’d have to be mad to want to attend. I’d applied for that one directly. The other was the equally appealing Tunisia v Saudi Arabia match. Yes, I’d love to go to the Allianz Arena, but the game didn’t exactly jump out at me as a “must see”. And in any case, I was based in Frankfurt for that week, which is three hours away even in German trains.

I still had that niggling “it would be nice to go” feeling though, and at some stage of the umpteenth night of sitting over the FIFA ticket sales screen, hitting F5 every few seconds, seeing the Tunisia v Saudi Arabia showing green (available) status, just got the better of me, and I booked up.

The match was the early evening 6 pm kick off, which gave me enough time to take in the city centre, as well a leisurely meal and beer before heading off to the game. The stadium is a long way out of the centre, but trains go directly there. Perhaps going a little earlier would have been wise, as the platforms were heaving. Packed trains and summer heat aren’t really an ideal combination, unless absorbing the sweat of other people is a particular kink of yours. I realised I could sneak to the far end of the platform, where it might not have actually been spacious, but at least you didn’t feel that if everyone breathed in at the same time, it could trigger a structural collapse.

Things weren’t much better at the other end, but after a squeeze up the stairs, the crowd filed out onto the grassy approach to the stadium ahead. Wavy paths, criss-crossing as they went, lead the way, passing the occasional hopelessly optimistic ticket tout en route.

Even without the lights that bathe the stadium in red or blue depending on which of the Munich tenants are at home, the view to the stadium was still stunning. No other ground looks like it.

Supporters of the two competing teams hadn’t been obvious around the city centre, although it has to be said that fans from the two nations wouldn’t be the most likely to be hanging around in the bars and beerhalls of the city. They were more in evidence at the stadium though. Many Saudi fans wore the Saudi headdress, the shemagh, even if the rest of their clothing didn’t match. On closer inspection, a fair few of these shemagh wearers were locals taking the nominal support for one team a step further.

Inside, the ground certainly lived up to the billing. It doesn’t look that tall from outside, but stepping out off the concourse for the first time, I’ve never felt higher at a stadium. And it wasn’t just high, it was steep too. Unlike say at the new Wembley, the pitch didn’t seem like some distant plateau to be viewed through binoculars. You almost felt closer enough to reach out and touch, even if Stretch Armstrong would struggle to actually do it.

Despite the compact feel, it still looked huge, and far bigger than its 66,000 World Cup capacity. Perhaps even more remarkable, as kick-off approached, was that this fixture actually looked sold out. OK, I do get the impression that a very large number were here for the stadium and the experience rather than a keen interest in either Tunisian or Saudi Arabian football, but if the game could even match half the enthusiasm of the spectators, we’d be in for a treat.

As it turned out, for most of the match at least, half as much enthusiasm was asking a bit. Both were rank outsiders in their group, and while the fans at this first round match were here to enjoy themselves, for both teams it was serious business from the word go. Both knew defeat would pretty much end their tournament, meaning a start more cagey than an aviary in Strangeways.

It was almost a bolt out of the blue when there was an opening goal. Halfway through the first half, a deep free kick was only half cleared, and the dropping ball was volleyed unstoppably into the top corner. A display of the kind of sheer quality both sides had kept skillfully hidden up to that point.

Goals change games, and often open them up. This one, was something of an exception. Both teams remained more in their shell than a tortoise on Bonfire night, as the terror of making a mistake gripped both teams to the point of inertia.

The half time break did see some WD-40 applied to the game’s creaky joints, and while still not adventurous to the point of being confused with an Indiana Jones flick, you could at least sense a goal was possible. If not just a round the corner, at least in the next street.

That goal, the equaliser for Saudi Arabia, was turned in just before the hour. A break down the right resulted in a low ball into the six yard box, where an on-rushing attacker was able to flick the ball into the roof of the net at the near post. The amount of fans who seemed to celebrate both goals so far hinted at the less than partizan make up of the crowd.

From that brief flurry, it settled back down into stalemate, with both teams looking like not losing was more important than winning. The game was heading to an inevitable dull 1-1 draw. Or so it seemed.

With just 6 minutes left, Saud Arabia went in front. It came as a result of some terrible defending. Saudi Arabia broke. Both central defenders went to the attacker with the ball at his feet, allowing him the simple task of playing in his completely unmarked partner. He made no mistake, clipping the ball past the keeper for what looked like the winner. But the late drama wasn’t over. In injury time a ball was chipped back across the six yard box, for Radhi Jaïdi to head a towering equaliser. A dull game had broken out for a stunning conclusion.

If only I’d been there to see it.

I’ve never understood people who leave games early. Is getting a head start on the traffic really worth the risk of missing a goal? I’ve always felt not. There was unfortunately a problem with my travel plans. From the final whistle I’d have one hour to make it back to catch my train, and judging by the crowds on the trains, that probably wouldn’t be enough. Yes there was a later train, by rather than reaching Frankfurt at midnight, it wouldn’t get there until 4 am. I just didn’t fancy that.

The upshot was that just as I reached the bottom on the staircase, convincing myself it would all be OK and there’d be no more goals, as , a roar of 60,000+ people told me how foolish I’d been.

In the end it was just as well. Germany were due to kick off at 9 pm v Poland, so thousands of Germans were trying to “beat the rush” too. It meant that even with leaving early, I only made it to my train with two minutes to spare. Missing two goals is bad enough. Missing two goals, and my train? Well that really would have given me something to think about for two hours on the deserted Stuttgart platform, waiting for that connection. I had to take the optimists view – yes I missed two goals, but at least they weren’t the only two.

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