The spectacle and glamour of the World Cup draw in Leipzig last Friday wasn’t exactly low-key; any ceremony that involves Heidi Klum and a load of balls brings to mind numerous puns far too weak and contrived for even this column, but the ballot for the group stages of Germany 2006 threw up some intriguing clashes and a relatively kind grouping for Sven’s England. The World Cup draw is a strange beast; seeing Togo and Switzerland pulled out of the hat just doesn’t have the sense of magnified excitement and anticipation that comes with the FA Cup 3rd round draw. Interviews with nervous non-league club chairmen hoping for a Premiership payday to clear the overdraft and the plumber turned hat-trick hero of the second round are oddly preferable to disinterested supermodels and the spray-on tension of the ever-barking Sepp Blatter’s global circus; David Davies may not be the stuff of Vogue covers, but there is something about him announcing that a couple of 1970’s cup legends have just given Manchester United a trip to Burton Albion or Burscough that all the blonde hair, pouting and dull stats about 350 million people tuning in to watch can’t quite match.
That England avoided the might of Holland and the Czech Republic, the human rights culs-de-sac of Iran and the USA and the Walkabout-worrying ‘Ashes’ clash with Australia gave rise to a heightened sense of hysteria in the domestic media over the weekend. Last 16? No problem; we’ll have qualified by the time we meet Sweden (again) — we always beat Paraguay (well, we have on both occasions that we’ve played them) and half of the Trinidad and Tobago team play for the likes of Gillingham and Wrexham. “3 Lions On A Cert!” bellowed one headline while Wayne Rooney gurned attractively and grunted monosyllabically to the nation that he was confident of bringing home football’s biggest prize from Berlin next July (if he manages to steer clear of the city’s legendary brothels; the “is he or isn’t he?” farce of Ronaldo’s near non-appearance at the 1998 showdown with France could be eclipsed if somehow England reach the final, only to take the field with our own boy wonder missing presumed tied to the bedposts by a sixty-something PVC-clad Fraulein in the red light district). Much is being made of what is arguably England’s best chance to plant themselves on top of the world since the glory days of 1966; the more realistic among us ponder Brazil and the combined talents of Ronaldinho, Adriano, Ronaldo, Kaka et al and think that a run to the quarter-finals would be jolly nice, thanks very much. Typically English, I suppose.
What was apparent but less commented upon was the effect that Chelsea will have upon the tournament; no less than nine of the players in the starting line-up for the efficiently won but none-too-exciting game against a resilient Wigan last Saturday will be travelling to Germany with their national sides; many other squad members will also be booking their tickets. Every group bar one contains some form of Chelsea interest; the ‘Group of Death’ (group C) pitches Crespo’s Argentina, Drogba’s Ivory Coast and Robben’s Netherlands in with sometime Chelsea woodwork-worrier Mateja Kezman’s Serbia and Montenegro who topped their qualifying group without losing a game. Fireworks and goals galore then? Or will dodgy hamstrings and sicknotes prevail? Anything could and probably will happen.
Group F contains five-time winners and holders Brazil and is the only group without any current Chelsea players, but much discussion is likely on the subject of whether that will change during the summer. Any sightings of Roman and/or Jose at a game where Adriano is playing will surely lead to endless speculation as to how much Abramovich is prepared to part with for the 23 year old Brazilian who has stated that he will leave Inter Milan at the end of the season if Massimo Moratti’s billion pound plus pet project fails to win any silverware.
During the build-up to the greatest show on earth, it should be noted that ancient Ronglish style clichés about German football and its organisation / ruthless efficiency now extend to the stadia in which the tournament will take place. The process of renewal and in some cases rebuilding of the dozen grounds that will host Germany 2006 has been completed on time and the improved facilities have been cited as a factor in increased attendance figures at top flight games during recent years. The magnificence of the Allianz Arena, new home to Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the 74,000 capacity venue for the final is obvious, but a closer look at the other grounds and their ‘day jobs’ as homes to several Bundesliga clubs tells a story that those who regularly attend Premiership matches would do well to listen to.
England’s opening game against Paraguay takes place in Frankfurt on June 10 at the Walstadion, home of Eintracht Frankfurt who are currently hovering around mid-table respectability in their first season back in the Bundesliga. The lowest priced season ticket to watch home league games at the 48,000 capacity ground is â‚¬150 and the cheapest single ticket just â‚¬13; around £100 and £9 respectively. Taking a similar club in the Premiership as a comparison; to watch Sunderland play at the Stadium of Light (a fairly traumatic experience this season, it has to be said), a 10 game mini-season ticket will set you back around £230 with a single ticket coming in at £25-30. At Hertha Berlin’s home ground, a season ticket ranges from just â‚¬99 to â‚¬699 for a ‘comfort seat’ with the cheapest single ticket starting at â‚¬10 (which for reference is less than a ticket for the Conference South Boxing Day local grudge match between Sutton United and Carshalton Athletic); according to the club website season ticket prices include public transport to and from games. The story is much the same across Germany; some grounds, including the Allianz Arena have sections which can be converted into terraces — the Holy Grail for many English supporters who feel that the atmosphere at football has deteriorated to theatre type levels of hush and polite applause in recent years — that accommodate 14,000 fans at around â‚¬12 each.
Most Bundesliga games kick off on a Saturday afternoon — 11.15am starts to accommodate Sky schedules are generally unheard of; speak to those who have travelled to Germany with their clubs for European fixtures and in general they will tell you that the facilities for fans are good, transport links usually excellent and the overall match experience a very enjoyable one. Germany’s first division may not be perceived to be as glamorous as the Premiership and whilst we would be naà¯ve to expect to be able to watch the likes of Lampard, Terry and Crespo each week for shirt buttons, it is abundantly clear that both the loyalty and wallet of the average fan are being stretched to breaking point at best or at worst, he or she is being completely priced out of the game. It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of Premiership chairmen on the situation in Germany; even more so the views of the fan who has paid £60 for a ticket plus extra for refreshments and travel (usually an overcrowded tube which terminates at Earls Court due to engineering works). Ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?
Sunday sees our final league visit to Highbury before Wenger’s men move to Ashburton Grove next season; Arsenal are currently some 17 points adrift of the Premiership summit. The Library has hardly been a happy hunting ground for us, but the prospect of the Gunners’ Vieira-less and frankly rather lightweight midfield taking on Essien and Lampard (and possibly Makelele, recovery permitting) with Robben and co. getting a run at a makeshift left back in the form of Cygan is one to fill the average blue heart with much festive cheer. That said, the pre-Mourinho Chelsea pessimist in me is making no predictions…