This is the third in a series of short articles following a recent trip to Berlin. The first article, A weekend in Berlin, provides some historical context while the second, A bike tour through Stasiland, describes a bike trip from Neukölln, taking in the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park, the Stasi Museum and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
This article recalls an unforgettable football match at the incomparable "Stadium by the old forester's house" (Stadion An der Alten Försterei) of FC Union Berlin.
For football fans visiting Berlin, the obvious impulse is to go to the cavernous Olympic Stadium and see Hertha Berlin, the city's most famous club (currently behind only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga). Indeed, I did the same myself on a previous visit.
But, for a more fulfilling experience, you would be better advised to head out of town to the forrest of Köpenick. Here you will find the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, home of FC Union Berlin. Playing in the German second tier, there is nothing second division about the atmosphere inside the ground. With only 3,500 seats in a stadium with a capacity of a little over 22,000, the place was literarily bouncing. It's a stadium purpose built for football, with no athletics track to create a gap between the fans and the action. The stadium hosts a stunning annual christmas carol service (Weihnachtssingen 2015) and in 2014 the club allowed fans to bring their own sofas to the ground to watch World Cup matches on the stadium's big screens (Fans leap off the sofa at 5-0 lead over Brazil)!
The football wasn't half bad either. A three-one victory over a well supported TSV Eintracht Braunschweig side, including a goal by promising young Hawaiin striker Bobby Wood (who Liverpool are reportedly following closely), and a brace from Croatian midfielder Damir Kreilach. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet for the entire match and the singing, chanting and drumming didn't relent for a single moment, creating an unforgettable atmosphere. With beer available from roaming vendors and delicious steak burgers on sale at half-time, supporting FC Union Berlin was a truly memorable way to spend a fantastic evening in the German capital!
As we begin to look forward to the next round of the Six Nations matches, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look back at my recent visit to Rome, which included the annual "Wooden spoon decider" between Scotland and Italy.
I had taken the early morning train from Verona and was in Rome by 10.30 am. As the persistent rain showed no signs of abating, I quickly dropped my bags off at one of the many budget hotels near the station and was soon on my way towards Piazza del Popolo, the large urban square to the north of the historic centre that was the muster point for many Scottish fans heading to the game.
By now the rain had stopped and, coming from the sub-alpine conditions of the north to the temperate subtropical mediterranean climate of Rome, I was beginning to feel rather overdressed. Most of my compatriots were far more suitably attired in short-sleeved rugby tops and kilts.
My companions for the day were all long-standing veterans on the international rugby circuit and, I'm pleased to say, brought their cumulative experience to bear on proceedings. They had made reservations at ristorante pizzeria “Il Vignola", which was as authentic a taste of Rome as I have ever experienced - including the famous pasta cacio e pepe (on previous visits I had usually settled for the standard tourist fare to be found in the historic centre). The food, wine, beer, service and company were all first class. The perfect prelude to the match. Il Vignola had the added benefit of being almost equidistant between Piazza del Popolo and Stadio Olympico (I told you these guys were good).
Suitably refreshed we made our way the short distance to the stadium - the magnificent Stadio Olympico.
There was a real carnival atmosphere in the area surrounding the stadium (the magnificent Foro Italico), with marquees, bars and entertainment for the nearly 70,000 fans who were by now flooding through the security perimeter.
Although I vaguely remembered reading something about the fascist origins of this magnificent sporting complex, the details, like my general state after such an indulgent lunch, were somewhat hazy.
Hazy or not, the tell-tale signs of fascist era architecture were striking.
Simple but grandiose, Foro Italico, Rome's magnificent sports complex, is littered with 15 foot tall marble sculptures depicting muscular Italian athletes in various semi-erotic (to me anyway) poses. Fascist architects in the 1920s and 1930s drew inspiration from classical Roman buildings, but while Roman design has ornate details and rounded edges, fascist buildings are generally cold and forbidding. Symmetry, straight lines and simplicity were the order of the day. The ancillary buildings surrounding the stadium were designed in exactly this way.
Foro Italico was originally known as Foro Mussolini. Inspired by the Roman forums of the imperial age, it was designed by Enrico Del Debbio and, later, Luigi Moretti. Built between 1928 and 1938, it remains one of the preeminent examples of Italian fascist era architecture.
The match itself passed in a bit of a blur - something to do with a never-ending hip flask of whisky and the proximity of the in-stadium bar. For the record, Scotland won 36-20, ending a ten-game losing streak and, in the process, racked up the most points they have scored in a single Six Nations match.
Flooding out of the stadium after the game, most fans seemed oblivious to the significance of the 50-foot obelisk that bears the inscription “Mussolini Dux”.
It is the world's greatest surviving monument to the fascist dictator.
While some may argue that such monuments have no place in modern sport, I rather enjoyed my afternoon in Rome's playground built by fascists.
I would even go as far as to say that I appreciated the aesthetic beauty and efficient functionality of the Foro.
The Mussolini Obelix, more than anything else, stands as a lasting reminder of the perils of fascism and the tragic absurdity of its vainglorious leader.
Click here to read more about the dark history of Rome's Stadio Olympico with the Gentleman Ultra.
In a departure from my usual subject matter, today I’m not writing about conflict or war or death or politics. Instead, to paraphrase the late great Bill Shankly, I’ve decided to write about a subject much more important.
I’ve been reflecting recently on what it is about football that is so utterly compelling (for at least 49% of the population anyway), and I thought I'd share my thoughts with you.
The catalyst for this bout of reflection is the strange but endearing behaviour of my football-daft 6-year-old son. To say he’s football crazy doesn’t quite capture it. Every night this week, despite my protestations, I have found him in bed with his football kit on.
By way of explanation, he is currently attending a two-week summer football camp. Such is his enthusiasm, he surreptitiously puts his kit on the night before!
He is at football camp from dawn, when I drop him off, until dusk, when I collect him. A pause for lunch, two showers a day and some ping pong during any occasional idle moments. But, in the main, it’s football. All day long.
Now, you’d think this would satisfy his appetite for the beautiful game. You’d be wrong.
On Tuesday, we cycled home from camp and he played another hour in the garden. Dinner was followed by more football, this time on television. He watched the first hour of a rather turgid encounter between Italy and Portugal before finally, at around 9.30 pm, succumbing to sleep. I carried him off to bed and watched the last 30 minutes of the game myself, without his relentless stream of childish commentary. Later, when I went to his room to switch his light off, I discovered that he’d put on his kit, dreaming, no doubt, about football!
But where does this obsession come from?
Now, I love football as much as the next man. I have a season ticket for the local team (Hellas Verona) and I play five-a-sides every Tuesday. On average, I probably spend around an hour a day playing football with Leo and, although I don’t have Sky television, I will watch just about any match I can find on the telly. In an effort to broaden his mind beyond Serie A, this year we’ve started watching MOTD together on a Sunday morning. It’s one of the highlights of my week.
So, I suppose, I must take some responsibility for my son’s interest in the game. But, I’ve never forced him to play. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.
His nonno (maternal grandfather) and Zio (maternal Uncle) must also take some responsibility. They are fanatical followers of the Italian game and to watch a televised match with them is an unforgettable experience. Extravagant gestures, colourful language, tears, tantrums and endless theatricals. His uncle is even called Pelle for goodness sake!
Leo, of course, is not alone in his passion. Some, but not all, of his peers share his fanaticism. In a male heavy classroom, football is the playground lingua franca. When the business end of the Panini sticker season arrives, fathers (and mothers) hunt down elusive stickers with a determination bordering on the maniacal.
But is this obsession with football healthy?
In a wonderful article, Gary Linekar describes the damage caused by pushy parents screaming abuse from the sidelines. I myself know many parents in Italy who have consciously steered their children away from the murky world of childhood football, concerned about poor standards of coaching and the unsavoury culture that surrounds the game in Italy (corruption, hooliganism, racism, vanity, unsporting behaviour), they prefer rugby, tennis or basketball.
I grew up in Glasgow, which has its fair share of ugly prejudice and blind fanaticism (and that’s just the Partick Thistle fans), so I know all about the darker side of the game. Growing up playing football on the oversized red blaze fields of the Glaswegian hinterland (Bishopbriggs, Cumbernauld, Summerston), I remember the absurdity of kids playing on full-sized football pitches and the meglomaniac coaches with little beyond a long ball, win-at-any-cost mentality. Of my many talented contemporaries only Steven Thompson enjoyed success as a professional player with spells at Crystal Palace, St Mirren (including two memorable goals as they thrashed Celtic 4–0 in the SPL in 2010) and Falkirk. With better youth coaching, perhaps some of our equally talented team mates could have shared his success?
I was never in their league though. The perennial substitute, I was occasionally awarded a starting berth at left back, but years of disappointment on the sidelines eventually drove me and my brother towards rugby.
Perversely, I find that years of good quality rugby training from skilled coaches have improved me as a football player. How to exploit an overlap, how to use my body to protect the ball, how to time a run and, above all, how to play without fear. That is why I hope that Leo enjoys a range of sports, not just football.
Thankfully the pitches Leo plays on are small. The goals likewise. The clear objective, thanks to a great team of coaches, is to have fun, to encourage participation and to improve technical skills. Retaining possession (a principle I don’t think I really understood until my late 20s) is key.
But there are signs, usually from opposition parents, of the unpleasant atmosphere that sometimes pervades youth football. As a spectator, I have made it my policy never to shout anything other than encouragement from the touchline. I hope I can honour this commitment as Leo gets older.
Anyway, he (a tireless midfielder with a decent goal-scoring record) is far better than I was at his age. Hopefully he will never have to endure the disappointing realisation that enthusiasm is not always matched by ability.
That said, a week younger than Luca Toni, my own football career is enjoying something of an Indian summer. As fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, I’m enjoying playing football now as much as I ever have. Balmy late summer evenings on the local five-a-side pitch with a group of 40-something dads who play a friendly-but-competitive game. That’s as good as it gets for me.