Friday, September 30, 2011

TEST DRIVING THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Oktoberfest. Champions League. Manchester City.

There. I've done it. All three together in one line. And what, as they say in these enlightened times, is not to like about that? Well, as it transpired, after an event-filled trip, quite a large sack-full of things, but more, much more of that later.

Marienplatz gets a makeover
For many many years the prospect of a tilt at the assembled tents of the Munchener Oktoberfest has been on my list of things to do before I reach the age where half a shandy sets me off whistling uncontrollably and dribbling down my jacket, but never in my wildest dreams had I thought that I might get there on the grounds that City were playing in the very same town at the very same time in the Truly Awe-Inspiring UEFA All-Singing All-Dancing (and ever-so slightly Plastic Fantastic) Champions League. Truly the world is a mad and challenging place to live in.

Arriving in Munich without pre-booked accommodation during this yearly splurge on beer and pretzels is nothing short of junior school naivety, but various visits to the interweb had revealed a lot of places who didn't want to take anymore monies ("nicht verfugbar" I took to mean something like "this hotelier is so satiated with dollars and euros, he's not listening to your plaintive calls anymore") and those who did but rather liked the idea of charging the uninitiated (and likely unwashed at this rate) between €285 (the best I found, only of course using the word "best" in a kind of double-hit reverse euphemism) and the somewhat extravagant €2300 (Danke sehr, Kempinsky Palast, but absolutely nein danke). So, with the growing realisation that in this particular Champions League city, bed looked like being a bench at the Hauptbahnhof alongside Fritzie der Alkoholiker and the rest of the Madly Shouting Men, I trailed into the Pension Lindner with my champions league tail firmly between my legs. One last attempt.

Five minutes later I am listening to middle-distant chants of "Best team in the land and all the world" as I nuzzle my first glass of Paulaner, a reasonably priced bed secured against the odds at the last moment. Thank you, Frau Frerick, you fragrant and accommodating woman.

Bring on the sausage
Close enough to Marienplatz to smell the salty breath of Albion's finest as they pillaged their way through to the only bar selling Heineken. Far enough away for some exercise before the deluge of pretzels and sausage. German beer is curiously satisfactory stuff: it has passed the Rheinheitsgebot to be with us (the age-old purity law, which states anybody producing beer containing more than hops, barley, water and yeast will go to prison and think about their folly for a very long time), it looks the real deal in its wildly condensating vase-shaped glasses, tastes as you'd expect anything brewed in the Vaterland to taste (clean, functional and doing exactly what it says on the tin, or, in this case, the barrel). Pretzels on the other hand, are the Ed Milliband of tabletop snacks: crusty on top, tasteless and leave you with a damp, flat feeling of impending flatulence. So it was a quick dive into a bowl of the world reknowned Gulash-suppe (thick spicy beef and vegetable stew) and, naturally, a quick brattie. Bratwurst must be accompanied by senf (mustard) and a bun, nothing more. Excellent food, filling, tasty and quintessentially German. That is until the sneaky waitress, taking huge and swift advantage of my bus driver's German, supplied me with a small set of bratwurst delicately placed on a hill of sauerkraut. That is plainly bending the rules and would have dire consequences later in the evening.
Ready for take-off, captain

The thing with sauerkraut, essentially rotting vinegary cabbage kept under control only by way of lights and mirrors, is that - when accompanied by Paulaner Pils, sausages and spicy gulasch soup, wearers of pointy Oktoberfest hats are more than likely to blow them off the top of their heads every time they hiccup. There I was nicely set up for the football, just waiting to get a quick spell of blocked tubes on the U-bahn and half of Munich would be cordoned off.

Round the corner at the Andechser am Dom Cafe the Andechser Helle tasted like it had been sieved through the fairest Bavarian barmaid's dirndl and the packed terrace offered a view of the boisterous singing section gathered across the road in front of the obligatory Killians Irish Pub. I spied the waitresses as they watched our lot serenading Uwe Rosler's grandpa: one shook her head sighing "die Englander", another asked "is there a game on tonight?" whilst her colleague assured her that, sure enough "Manchester were in town to play FCBayern". Marvellous stuff. To say the good folk of Munich are stiff would be grossly unfair but they do at times reveal the cosmopolitan cultural flexibility of a bed board. As the waitresses formed a huddle to argue about how the Champions League group format actually works (I kid you not), a heavily inebriated pair, one Mancunian, the other Bavarian, both shaven headed and in their late forties, swayed back to their seats. The Bavarian, arm around the shoulders of the City fan was saying "this is your first time in the Champions League isn't it?" like a concerned Mother preparing her son for the first day at school. All sights and sounds, and indeed smells, to make the heart leap. Trixie, the head waitress, wearing one of those delapidated faces that middle aged German women with a career of waiting on tables sometimes have, looked into my bloodshot eyes and asked "You are English.Why do you show your bottoms in public?". There are few handy answers at times like this. I muttered that it was one of our national past-times and dispatched her for more beer.

Like any afternoon in the sun drinking alcohol, however, at some point the mind turns to weightier matters. Where do I go now? How do the turnstiles in the underground work? Will the sauerkraut have its revenge? Will I well up thinking of Barney Daniels and Geoff Lomax when the Champions League music cranks into action and why does this drunk tramp think I'm his new besty mate? So many questions and very few answers. This was to be the case during the following two hours as well.

The Allianz Arena sits atop a hill by the Autobahn at Frotmanning, a faceless suburb near the ringroad. There is quite literally nothing there at all. It could be the moon and, just to ram home the metaphor, the stadium does a passable impersonation of Thunderbird Two, after making an emergency landing in a German meadow. Like many of us, the stadium was white when we arrived and red when we departed. I thought at first this was to mock our embarrassment, but apparently it also goes blue for 1860, who, I was told by Danny and Mona, a couple of enthusiastic Bayern supporters, Bayern are currently trying to evict. "Neighbours," they insisted, "who needs them?!" Quite so...

Is that Tevez down there
I know I should have, at this point, been awe-struck by the surroundings, but this is where Champions League morphs into World Cup, and morphs again into Barclays Premier League Plus and morphs again into any giant marketing exercise you care to mention. Besides the very familiar advertising, the stadium catering is dealt with by the main sponsors, leaving you with a non-selection of mainly tasteless, overpriced and garishly packaged drinks and food that anybody on the planet would recognise. The seats in this ground are uniform grey whilst Bayern continue their eviction-cum-strangulation of 1860, the tannoy plays upbeat Euro-trash-soft rock and Bayern's Stadium announcer, full of guttural bonhommie and fake tan smarmyness, is obviously a man enamoured of his own charms. As he addressed the City fans over the tannoy, you could feel something disagreeable was about to happen:  "ja ent now a bit of English, ja, real cock-er-ney English ha ha!". Give the man a bone for that one. Cockney English?  Cock-er-ney English?

The Bayern Ultras are a busy lot in a plastic sort of way too. The noise is undeniable, but I have never seen such well dressed, close-shaven, side parting ultras in all my life. They even have a chant from a Boney M song, a frightening enough thing in itself. Mental note to self: try to remember the "Rivers of Babylon" lyrics in case it kicks off in town later. "No wait, no fighting, listen to this. I remember Zion! mmmm mmmm mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm". I can just see it all unfolding, a trail of immaculately groomed German ultras charging through the allies roaring "Show me your motion tra la la la la" and the rest of us, Manchester City's pride and glory, chanting back over our shoulders as we regroup for battle: "She looks like a sugar in a plum. Plum plum". It must be the Paulaner.

Thankfully there is palpable tension despite the unerring politeness and friendliness of all the locals and the slack, misplaced jokes of Tannoy Man. It is all incredibly civilised, sanitised and UCL prim and proper. This is already beginning to feel like heading into the Amazon for the first time and finding in a clearing in the dense forest that you have battled through for days to be confronted with the Big Burper Sunshine Motel. What, no pygmies with arrows through their noses and an I'm-going-to-eat-you look in their swollen eyes? Everyone's eating Whoppers here too? Whilst on the subject of burpers...that sauerkraut has now had time to ferment a little more. Acid redux meets Jonny Fartpants. I may have found a way to get the locals annoyed after all.

Look at me now, Mum
So to the match, if we must. A blast it would be to see the stars out there trying to cope with the occasion. For my own part, nerves were settling fine as the drinks boy took my mind off the troubles at hand, a spotty fellow of about 17, his was the job not even a spotty teenager should be subjected to: selling drinks was, some possessor of a larger brain than my own had decided, not his only purpose. There was to be an element of entertainment, one might be tempted to say comedy (if this weren't Germany of course), but that would be to demean the man's efforts. As well as an aluminium tray of tasty looking Champions League Drinks, the lad had a bright yellow balloon attached to his person. On it the single word "Thirsty?". His mam would have been so proud to know where he had got to. "Bit of studying to do tonight, ma! Back after the mat....er after the library shuts". Here he is anyway, in all his finery. A good man doing a complicated job.

City came out of the blocks as one would have expected a side set up so aggressively, with Silva prominent, first having his legs taken away by Boateng for what looked like a penalty, then playing in Dzeko for what looked like a goal. Sadly, neither materialised into anything more concrete than little bubbles of sauerkraut air. By the time Micah Richards was sent flying in the box, again the culprit was Boateng, doing his best to recapture his MCFC form, City's bright start was petering out and Bayern were beginning to get their game together. Only there was a problem: Bayern's quick passing was even quicker than City's. The ball flashed between Muller, Ribery, Schweinsteiger and Kroos like it was on a string with fire attached to it. Suddenly City were being swamped and the noise from The Tidy Boys grew to a howl. I noted that nobody, by this time, was singing, "hoorah, hoorah, it's a holi- holiday, a happy time for everyone, holi-holiday" and had cranked up the atmosphere to a howling gale of noise.

Two goals came quickly at the end of this barrage, both opportunist tap-ins from the reconstructed Gomez, after Hart had saved brilliantly and the defence had refused his requests to clear. Two nil at half time and 63,000 locals backslapping and high fiving all around me.

The second half was worse, much worse, but without the logical pay-off of several more Bayern goals. As City descended into a riot of strange substitutions (little did we know of the pantomime being acted out down on the touchline, despite some odd text messages from mates watching tv at home), Bayern seemed to content themselves with the two-goal lead. De Jong finally re-emerged to give the midfield a semblance of togetherness and City's patient passing game, which had unsettled the hosts for the opening 20 minutes, gradually returned to action. Kolarov, another of Mancini's willing subs, was put through and fired tamely wide when he should have scored his and City's second Champions League goal of the season. It was not to be and a two goal margin was the least a snappy, fast-moving Bayern side deserved. We were left with the sobering thought that David Silva had been shackled by Ribery, who had also managed to be the creative spark under the home side's explosive attacking. What a game the ugly little French gnome had had. I also wondered what or who had tampered with Yaya's compass, as his display of bewildered midfield shimmy-shammying and frustrated arm antics had become quite a spectacle by the end.    


It was left to the bleary-eyed City support, stuffed into the u-bahn on line 6 back to town to sum the evening up. This was done nicely by Harry, so electrified by his evening's entertainment that both his voice and his balance were shot through. In a gruff voice much like the under-appreciated male member of Boney M, he attempted a chant of "we're here, we're there..." which quickly petered out, before refilling his plastic Budweiser cup with a steaming brew of his own. As he lifted the warm cup to make a toast, half the occupants of carriage 27 leapt to the side. "Who's yer best player?" he slurred at the nearest Bayern fans. "Who is it?". "Tonight Ribery. He took shitty City apart!" came the confident teutonic response. "Aye, right, chum. Not wrong there. Here's to Michel Ribery. He'll be playing for us come January!"



CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TEST DRIVE - THE RESULTS
         Settling down for a beer in foreign climes: 10
         Sauerkraut under your wurst: 3
         Paulaner Pils and Andechser Helle: 9
         Frau Frerick at the Pension Lindner: 9
         Harry and the ubahn relief: 2
         Hospitality: 10
         Champions league hymn playing whilst Manchester City line up: ha, put a price on that!

German enthusiasm

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