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2007 UEFA U21 Championships
20 June 2007

"There are nine million bicycles in Beijing/That's a fact/It's a thing we can't deny"

Quit yer warbling Melua: you've obviously never been to the Netherlands, a place so in love with pedal-power even the trams give way to grannies on bikes. I bet there's more bikes in Groningen than there are in all the cities of China combined. No, seriously.

With a summer devoid of football clearly an unacceptable state of affairs, we decided to take in a couple of games at the UEFA U21 Championships in the Netherlands (or, as the Guardian quite rightly dubbed it: Tournament Nobody Gives An Eff About 07) along with an evening pounding the streets of Amsterdam in search of sex, drugs and a packet of Big Eat Quavers in case we got a bit peckish later on.

Two cheap football matches, a night on a ferry with resident P&O band Full Extra belting out Kaiser Chief singles that already sound staler than a two-hundred year old loaf of Warburtons, a few dodgy beers and 15-inch fist-shaped dildos: what could possibly go wrong?

Where's the Lurpak?

Well, not a lot as it happens. If you're tuning in for a hilarious tale of cavity searches by burly immigration officials or a wacky ladyboy brothel mix-up, you might as well go back to or whatever Facebook profile you were browsing a few seconds ago. It was a tediously straightforward trip.

We skipped the first England game of the Championships against the Czech Republic - a wise choice in hindsight - in order to split our time between Arnhem and Nijmegen. After leaving a grey and drizzly Hull on the gigantic Pride of Rotterdam - a ferry so big that
if it sank you'd just need to stand on top of it and await rescue - we arrived the following morning in an equally grey and drizzly Rotterdam before making the the relatively short drive to Arnhem to catch England’s second group game against Italy at the Gelredome.

Arnhem is a pleasant enough city, home of the only trolley bus system in the Netherlands. And when you come away from a place remembering only the fact that it boasts a unique trolley bus system from the official tourist guide, you know there’s not a huge amount to do there. It came complete with a miniature version of the Fan Fests that proved such a resounding success in Germany last year, although since the games were far from sold out the point was not immediately obvious. The Dome, home to Vitesse during normal hours, looks nothing like a sports stadium from the outside. Indeed, I initially thought it was an out of town Gala Bingo and almost directed us straight past it. As the name suggests, the ground has a retractable roof and a pitch that pops out the side like a stonkingly slow toaster, meaning it's more arena than football stadium.

Ok, so in hindsight.....

Luckily we arrived outside the Dome just as the England team pulled up in their team bus. We fought our way through the crowds thronging the players’ entrance - well, okay, a blonde kid wearing an Everton shirt and a couple of other mildly interested England fans – to catch a glimpse of untouchable celebrities such as James Milner, Matt Derbyshire and future megastar Ben Alnwick.

As the bus parked, however, it became clear that Stuart Pearce had no intention of disembarking straight away. Instead, he remained fixated on whatever was playing on the coach television. An FA security man ushered away an anxious steward eager to make way for the imminent arrival of the Italians while Pearce’s eyes remained fixed on the screen.

"What's 'ee watchin?" one England fan shouted.

"Ee's watchin' the Serbia game! Ee’s gotta be, ain’t he?" another replied, as though this might be some kind of astonishing revelation. But whatever Psycho was watching was certainly NOT the Serbia game as we discovered when he unexpectedly started singing along to something on screen, toe tapping away. A dozen eyebrows collectively raised and a few puzzled glances exchanged as Pearce, displaying not an ounce of self-consciousness, carried on intermittently bursting into song for a full ten minutes before dragging his i-pod posse off the bus. What he was singing along too will remain a mystery.

“Vaughanie! Vaughnie!!” the blonde kid shouted, waving a black marker pen about. No reaction. “Nugent!! Nugent!” No reaction. “Milner!! Milner!!” Nothing doing. England were soon gone, the only acknowledgement of the small number of fans huddled around the entrance being a yellow garment flung in the vague direction of the supporters by Scott Carson. Probably a pair of soiled hipster briefs.

“Ignorant cunts,” spat the Cockney. Then the Italians pulled up. Gianfranco Zola sprang off the bus, all smiles as usual, prompting the one and only wave of camera snapping, as various other people who may have been footballers or the kind of people who grace the pages of style magazines, the type which Jim Rodwell reads, strutted about managing to make even the task of picking up a bag look utterly cool.

Inside the stadium it was immediately apparent that no segregation was in force for the game, which we had already expected given the way UEFA handled the ticket sale. An England fan behind us took his seat and surveyed this novel experience. "No segregation then," he said to his mate. "Nah, no need for U21 footy," his mate replied. "Good mix of fans. Should be a good atmosphere. We're all friends at this level." Almost immediately, the England players emerged for their warm up and an Italian fan three rows down leapt to his feet, waving his fist furiously.

"FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING ENGLISH PIGS!" he screamed, as several startled fans on the other side of the Dome dropped their chips and choked on their Fanta. He then addressed the players in Italian as they jogged over, wildly gesticulating towards his own genitals: “BASTARDO! BASTARDO! BASTARDO! FUCK YOU! FUCK OFF! FUCKING ENGLISH PIGS, YOU CUNTS!”

“Let’s go grab food,” the English fans said in unison as Mental Italian turned around and clocked us in our England shirts. Muttering darkly under his breath he returned to his seat, only to leap up on top of it and whoop, holler and applaud the Italians as they joined the warm up under the guidance of Pierluigi Casiraghi, at 38 the youngest coach in the tournament.

With Mental Italian’s hysterical screeching still reverberating around the stadium, the rain began to fall as a huge thunderstorm rolled in over Arnhem. The roof began closing virtually imperceptibly until we were no longer sat in a stadium, but an arena. The atmosphere at U21 games is usually far less passionate than senior fixtures, and the Dutch had kept their part of the bargain by ensuring a block to our right was given over to squealing schoolchildren with hooters. With the roof closed, the stadium now sounded like a swimming pool with only the mental Italian trying to disrupt the tame ambience by reeling off a number of Italian insults as his team took turns trying to hit the roof with a number of booted balls. None succeeded, and the game was called off as the players’ attention was suddenly drawn to the big screen, where a Serbian player was buried beneath a mound of celebrating team-mates in Nijmegen with ninety three minutes showing on the clock. Not what they wanted to see.

Singing Stuart Pearce started with a 4-4-1-1 formation that was actually far more attacking than it looked on paper; a daring strategy against absurdly talented opposition. Initially it worked brilliantly. The Italians hadn’t a clue how to deal with it. They were especially troubled by the amount of space Ashley Young kept finding, and after Taylor’s header was saved well by Emiliano Viviano after prolonged pressure from England even Mental Italian had been silenced.

Leroy Lita soon changed that with a moment of sheer comic genius. From deep within his own half, Mark Noble hopefully booted the ball forward and somehow managed to find Lita perfectly, the ball neatly slicing the Italy defence. Lita’s pace carried him beyond the last Italian defender and towards a certain goal. He did the hard work, sidestepping Viviano and then, well, God knows what happened. He took his time, lined up the simple tap in and…. and….. shanked the ball tamely into the advertising boards. The stadium erupted. The mental Italian celebrated as though he’d suddenly realised his country won the World Cup. “BASTARDO!” he screamed at Lita as the Reading man skulked back, trying to block out the howls of uncontrollable laughter from the cosmopolitan mishmash of fans inside the Dome. It was certainly by some distance the worst miss I have ever seen in the flesh.

The roof closes and the temperature rises

But however fortunate it was for Italy there was a sense of inevitability about the direction the game was taking, and when we were treated to a sudden two-goal burst midway through the half, courtesy of Nugent and – thank God – Lita, it was of no surprise whatsoever. As Lita buried his chance, the mental Italian slumped into his seat twitching and squirming, so incandescent with rage he couldn’t quite squeeze an insult through his contorted features. Even his friend looked concerned, right up to the moment Italy scored. It was an ugly goal, Chiellini deflecting a corner pinball past Carson with the top of his leg.

The second half was entirely different. Italy pressed and harried with more urgency. The air inside the arena became hotter and more humid, and soon England were straining. If Reo-Coker was supposed to be anchoring the midfield Stuart Pearce obviously forgot to tell him. He occupied the right space, vaguely, but kept running out of the way. Italy soon began dominating possession and England began their retreat, practically inviting Aquilani’s equaliser, a low driven shot to Scott Carson’s right. Carson really should have saved it.

And so, after an evening in Amsterdam, onto Nijmegen and the de Goffert stadium hidden in the woods south of the town. Walking towards the stadium you feel like you’re taking a lazy summer stroll in a picturesque nature reserve. A nature reserve populated by medieval-era fascist ultras in Serbian shirts chanting vile racist abuse, that is.

Being a Sunday, Nijmegen was deserted during the day, so we headed over to the ground stupidly early to check it out. It’s not a huge place, holding just 12,500 fans and resembling, from distance at least, smaller cookie-cutters such as the Keepmoat. The stadium is home to NEC Nijmegen, a club apparently proud of the ground’s ‘distinctive design’. This, of course, is a euphemism for ‘hopeless design’. Not only does the ground boast a fully fledged moat masquerading as a concourse, but the access stairwells from said concrete trench virtually block half the pitch to those unlucky enough to have secured seats in the first three rows. Moreover, the tops of the stairwells provide a perfect vantage point for spectators wishing to pause to watch the game while on their way to the burger bar, just out of reach of those who may wish to give them a hearty boot up the arse to move them out of the way. It’s not an old stadium, having opened in 1999, but whoever designed it needs shooting. Twice. Still, at least the seats are heated, so you won’t get a cold arse reading the programme when you finally give up watching the steel bars in front of you.

Much has been made of the racist chanting during the game, but it’s important to note that the offending remarks came from a group of myopic Ultras situated in the caged ‘away end’. Presumably this was a special arrangement given the lack of segregation elsewhere in the stadium. There were a large number of Serbians situated around the ground who were as appalled as the rest at the chanting and who roundly applauded the stadium announcer politely telling the ultras to shut up or leave. It’s just a shame that the hot air balloon hovering over the stadium prior to kick-off didn’t crash land in block B and wipe out the monkey-chanting dregs of humanity hiding behind their ultra flags and twisted ultra mentality. At least we were spared a repeat of the Croatian human swastika.

Ultra thick

The game itself was devoid of any real skill. Serbia, already through to the semi-finals, tossed out a rag-tag reserve outfit and still gave England a decent game. Lita’s initial goal ensured he more than made amends for the Arnhem miss, and Matt Derbyshire showed commendable composure by not reacting to the Serbian players running after him like enraged zombies from 28 Days Later after he made the monumental error of playing to the referee’s whistle.

The same cannot be said for lumbering potty mouth Tom Huddlestone who managed to get himself sent off without even managing to kick a ball, a sterling achievement by anyone's standards. Except, perhaps, Drewe Broughton.

Reo-Coker gave a vastly superior performance than that in Arnhem while Kieran Richardson predictably maintained his steady and inexorable trajectory beyond the Manchester United bench towards pub football with an embarrassingly inept display. Lazy in the extreme, he clearly believes himself to be too good for the U21 outfit, radiating the aloof arrogance of a man suffering from delusions of grandeur. One only hopes Sir Alex Ferguson gives him a reality check sooner rather than later.

Sunset over de Goffert, Nijmegen

impsTALK’s one to watch
Nedum Onuoha. Forgetting for a moment that he was the target of the ultra’s abuse, Onuoha was simply outstanding in both games and clearly has a big future ahead of him. Then again, he does play for Man City, so maybe not.

And one not to watch
Kieran Richardson. Dogshit performances from an overpaid, overrated charlatan.

See also
impsTALK goes to Germany 2006

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