Politics, WAGs and cup semi-finals

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Watching a match tonight? Dedicated Dutchman Thomas Rensen will be – he's watching 31 games in 31 days across Europe...

Ever heard of the Bad Blue Boys? They are the Ultras of Dinamo Zagreb, and they are unhappy with the vice-president of their club (and the man who actually runs the show, nobody ever hears from the real president). They have therefore decided to boycott their own club as a show of their displeasure.

Of course I had to see that by myself, in Zagreb. So, after taking in matches in Belgium and Austria, I was off to Croatia.

Zagreb is a nice town, with nice people and nice weather, but an empty stadium. I spoke to Igor about this boycot: “We have been boycotting this club since August. All the Bad Blue Boys see the matches downtown, in a cinema. We all still have a Dinamo-heart, we’re just really against Zdravko Mamic. He buys and sells players, the profit is never going to the club, he only cares about the money and, above all, he is fan of Yugoslavia and clubs in Belgrade. For us, that’s impossible. He is bringing disgrace on the club. We won’t go back there until he’s gone.

"Are we going to get this Mexican wave started or what?"

Strong words, but their actions are yet to have the desired effect. Josipa, who I met at the stadium, explains: 4“[Mamic] earns too much money to even bother about the Bad Blue Boys. He will never stop just because of the boycott. My nephew and I disagree with his politics, but we’re still coming to games because our love for Dinamo is bigger than our dislike of Mamic.”

The Maksimir Stadium is not the most beautiful in the world, especially when it’s almost empty. There is room for 40,000 fans, but on the day I was there only around 2,000 showed up.
The match isn’t that special either.

The day after I’m in Serbia to see Proleter Novi Sad. The show was stolen by three girls who appeared to be supporting one particular player (who I assume was probably the boyfriend of one of trio) rather than the team.

Serb WAGS don't get the same luxuries as their English counterparts...

Three beautiful girls in the middle of 100 older men. I didn’t understand a word of the conversation, but the dialogue between the girls and the men sounded very entertaining. The men won though, the girls’ favourite player was substituted after 70 minutes and the girls promptly left the stadium.

Another train ride brought me to the capital of the Czech Republic, where it was derby time again as Sparta Prague faced Slavia Prague.

It was a shame there were so many tourists in Prague, as there was no real atmosphere in the city until I reached the stadium itself for what is for the locals the most important match for them of the year, in a 19,000 sell out.

And if an English club is looking for a striker, they could do a lot worse than Sparta’s Kweuke Leonard – an impressive, fast and strong forward who scores his fair share of goals, including the only two of the derby match.

"Anybody got a light...?"

While it was a different derby in the FA Cup which hogged the limelight in England this weekend, in Liechtenstein last Tuesday it was all about the FL1. Aktiv Cup. The seven competing teams normally play in Swiss competitions, but enjoy this rare chance to compete solely against teams from their own nation.

I went to see USV Eschen play for the right to reach the final. It was raining and just 200 people turned up to see the game. Eschen were the favourites, playing one division higher than their opponents, FC Balzers. But you wouldn’t have guess who the higher ranked team were in the first twenty minutes, Balzers started well and got a few chances.

But, like happens so often in cup ties, one breakaway was enough. Balzers goalkeeper doesn’t have any other option but to bring the Eschen striker down. The result was a red card, a penalty and ultimately a 1-0 lead for USV, who eventually won the tie 2-1. Those with USV allegiances in the clubhouse are delighted – they’re in the final!

The Liechtenstein cup semi-final - certainly more scenic than Brent

Then, 24 hours later after a night in Liechtenstein, I’m in Germany - Gelsenkirchen to be precise. Schalke’s season has been a weird one. Their league form has been terrible. They likelihood is that they will end up in mid-table, and that’s not really considered good enough. But it has been an altogether different story in the Cups. They are in the final of the German Bokal, and even more impressively they are in the semifinals of the Champions League – and I was there to see them do it by eliminating the holders, Inter Milan.

The weather was pleasant and more than 50,000 fans showed up to the stadium waiting to see history written. Schalke 04 had won the away leg 5-2, so should certainly have been confident of completing the job.

I meet Olivier, a dentist and huge fan of Schalke 04. He even has a waiting room with Schalke memorabilia. No Borussia Dortmund fans allowed! Before the match he’s as nervous as his patients before a long and painful bout of root canal surgery. Never trust the Italians, he says. Never think you’re already there. He says you have to be nervous before a cup tie, otherwise it’s not important.

Yeah, but we bet he's not got a Schalke drain cov....oh, he does...

Afterwards, he’s over the moon with another win against the Serie A champions. That was until the next morning when he heard the date of the semifinal match against Manchester United. “I’m still on holiday”, he says. “Can you believe that? We never expected Schalke in the semi final of the Champions League when we booked our holiday to Turkey. But now, we fly back to Germany the day after the game. That’s not possible right?”

He looks to his wife. “Please baby, please call them. Please ask them whether it’s possible to go home one day earlier. Please!” His wife doesn’t complain but you can read her mind – “football again! Never a peaceful holiday…” But she will call. Olivier knows how unique this cup is.

I prepare to board another train, this time back to my own country, to see PSV Eindhoven against Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinals. Everybody in Eindhoven is praying for a miracle as PSV lost the first leg 4-1. In the league that’s terrible but ok, it happens. In the cup, that almost always means elimination. That’s why they all hope for a miracle. They are praying.

Some 36,000 fans showed up, most of whom bought their tickets before the first leg hammering. Sometimes praying helps. PSV rush into a 2-0 lead but, just as the locals start to believe the miracle could be about to come true, Benfica pull one back and it’s all over. Maybe next year.