Watching the Cup with the Europeans

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It was just a few weeks ago that I felt we’d officially crossed the line into the ‘World Cup Zone’.

By this, I mean the period of the year in which if you don’t hear the words ‘World Cup’, or a variation thereof, over the course of a day, you either live an admirably sheltered life or you come from one of those weird countries where they pretend it’s not happening, like Scotland.

Admittedly, we entered into the ‘pre-game’ a long time ago. It feels like it was at least 18 months ago that Ian Wright and his fellow Cockney tabloid harbingers of doom were imparting on us sage wisdom along the lines of "If Rooney plays, we’ve got a chance for sure" and "If you don’t think England are gonna win it, what the hell you watching for?!"

For me, the first signs we were entering into 'WCZ' proper was when Pepsi decided to unleash the improbably rapid voice of Thierry Henry – 'canwegetzepepsimax?' – in the latest attempt to ensure that the Loads Of Footballers Playing Football In An Usual Environment genre of advertising remained.

This has become a cornerstone of any major tournament since the Brazil boys of ‘98 larked about in an airport, with ‘hilarious consequences’.

But the final confirmation that the relentless ultra-marketing of the game we love had hit full throttle was when Carlsberg rolled out its full minute and a half of stomach turning In-ger-land jingoism, complete with all your favourite sporting icons (and that bloke from Kasabian) and probably the best cliche-ridden ‘inspirational’ team talk in the world –Sir Bobby would undoubtedly be proud to see his image exploited for such a noble cause...

Enough to make Clarkson mess his 20-year-old blue jeans...

The World Cup’s sudden saturation of the nation’s televised advertising made me realise that I still had a great deal of planning to do.

For once the tournament itself begins, I will be avoiding all talk of WAGs, the dulcet tones of Venables and the inevitable furore created by the ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ brigade, as they pretend other people are repressing them by being offended by England shirts the flag of St George. Instead, I will be sampling firsthand how the greatest sporting tournament on Earth is enjoyed elsewhere across the globe.

Unfortunately, logistical and financial restrictions dictate that a trip to the Ivory Coast, Honduras or Japan just wasn’t possible, so instead I will be concentrating my efforts on Europe.

To be precise, I will be taking in, across their bars, cafes and public squares, at least one match of the respective national teams in Greece, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland and most probably Spain and Portugal. Sorry Danes, if there are any of you reading – Denmark is just in too awkward a place on the map.

My method of transport will be an Interrail global monthly pass, my mission to simply to have an adventure and learn a few things while I’m at it. Granted when most people go travelling they go to learn a few things about culture, art and ‘themselves’, but frankly I’m more interested in learning about how the Serbs remember Savo Milosevic.

I’d like to know if any other countries beside ourselves have a media possessed with a bizarre compulsion to stick the boot into their national side at any given opportunity, and whether anyone outside of our country rates England’s chances in South Africa – or whether, as I suspect, they reply in a Pele-like manner to that line of questioning.

As far as backpacking plans go, this particular jaunt is generally met with one of two reactions when I share it among my peers. Those who like the game, or at least have an appreciation for the World Cup and its effect upon a country, generally give it the thumbs up, knowing full well that if I was ever destined to travel, I was probably destined to travel from bar to bar watching a bunch of millionaires kick a ball around.

It's unlikely we'll see scenes like these in Trafalgar Square...

Those who have nothing but disdain for football, however, and deplore its effect upon the TV schedule, tend to react with bemusement, perplexed at how something as arbitrary as a fixture list can dictate what otherwise would have been a lovely month in Europe.

Frankly, I’m thankful for the fixture list – it has essentially done all the planning for me. Up to a week beforehand, I will still have no idea where I shall be spending 2nd July onwards – I will just be getting on the train towards whichever countries are left in it. Essentially, it is glory hunting on its most literal terms - a leech upon other nationsk’ success, hoping to suck on all the joy of quarter and semi final victories almost as if they were England’s.

Don’t think I’ve forgotten little old England however. In my head I’ve already calculated a series of scenarios ranging from the ‘Complete Catastrophe’ worst case scenario - losing my passport and wallet on the first day or getting arrested for not bribing a Serbian bobby - all the way to what I call the ‘Icing on the Cake’ scenario. This would involve each and every team I go and watch winning their games in style, creating a carnival mood wherever I tread.

In between those extremes, I’ve considered a series of events which would essentially satisfy most of my desires – an entertaining incident-packed tournament, friendly and passionate natives and table-topping success for my fantasy football side, David Cameroon.

But the vast unpredictability of it all only entices me further. Considering I’ve barely done so much as cross the Channel without a parent or schoolteacher alongside me, I figured it makes sense to start my trip in the one country on my hitlist with an entirely different alphabet, mired in a savage economic crisis which has already turned violent and whose football fans have a reputation for nothing short of volatility.

To Thessaloniki, Greece it is then (on British Airways no less – my flight is currently outside of the strike period by about six hours). Should anyone reading be based in these cities (see full schedule below), or know some friendly football loving English speakers who are – or if you just know these countries well and wish to recommend the best places to watch World Cup matches - it would be grand to hear from you, as I seek to put together a network of continental contacts.

Not because I fear for my safety, more that I fear the ‘don’t quite know anyone at this party’ feeling...

So by all means get in touch, and not just if you are of tangible use to me. I’m happy to hear suggestions on things you’d like from this blog – photos or souvenirs you feel I should obtain, questions you want answered by the locals, any quirky challenges you want to set me.

'Who do you think you are kidding Mr Blatter...'

Full itinerary:

10th June - 12th June: Thessaloniki, Greece.
(GREECE v S Korea; 13:30, 12.6.10)

13th-14th: Belgrade, Serbia.
(SERBIA v Ghana; 16:00, 13.6.10)

14th-17th: Bratislava, Slovakia....
(SLOVAKIA v New Zealand; 13:30, 15.6.10)

17th-19th: Ljubljana, Slovenia.
(SLOVENIA v Usa; 16:00, 18.6.10)

19th-21st: Bologna, Italy.
(ITALY v New Zealand; 16:00, 20.6.10)

21st-22nd: Zurich, Switzerland.
(SWITZERLAND v Chile; 16:00, 21.6.10)

22nd-23rd: Strasbourg, France
(FRANCE v South Africa; 16:00, 22.6.10)

23rd-24th: Munich, Germany
(GERMANY v Ghana; 20:30, 23.6.10)

24th-29th: Amsterdam, Holland
(HOLLAND v Cameroon; 20:30, 24.6.10)

29th: Madrid, Spain (Unconfirmed) 
Spain likely to play in 2nd Round at 20:30

2nd/3rd July: Remaining European Quarter Finalists

6th/7th July: Remaining European Semi Finalists

11th July: Remaining European Finalist

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