In the zone with Europe’s football fans

OFFICIALDOM always likes to speak warmly of the “family of football”, though the equally popular designation of “stakeholders” tends to bespeak an altogether more revealingly bureaucratic view of the game’s footsoldiers on the part of the universal blazer.

Either way, in the expensive, corporate world of modern football, it’s the fans who more often feel like the black sheep of the family or who are left holding, never mind a stake, barely a sausage.

At least, in this part of the world, the sausages are all the better for being the wurst (Red card — Editor), and there were plenty of them being washed down with copious draughts of beer in the official Fan Zone in Zurich on Monday night, as a crowd of 14,000 gathered to watch Germany play Austria live on the giant screen from Vienna.

The Fan Zone idea began modestly enough in Portugal for Euro 2004 but really took off in Germany at the World Cup two years later. With the Nationalmannschaft flying in the tournament — at least until Italy stopped them in an unforgettable semi-final in Dortmund — the Fan Zones almost rivalled the stadia for atmosphere, drawing vast throngs of ticketless supporters to host cities all over the country, culminating in a crowd reckoned to be not much shy of one million packing the centre of Berlin on semi-final night.

Austria and Switzerland have some way to go to match that — a Euro 2008 record of 120,000 people were in Vienna on Monday, bringing the total for the eight cities up to that point to 2.2 million — but the same mix of pride, passion and porter prevails. And, most of the time, it’s also remarkably good-humoured and hassle-free (unless you happen to live in the neighbourhood and wouldn’t mind getting a wink of sleep at some point over the course of three weeks).

The 157 arrests in Klagenfurt, where the predictable neo-Nazi nuts gathered for Germany versus Poland, have been the exception to the rule. Personally, the only violence I have encountered so far was in the form of an almost comically drunken fight which broke out in the middle of the road between four Croatians who, just moments before, had been staggering arm in arm in a spirit of boozy brotherhood through the late night streets of Zurich.

The bigger issue for the authorities has been the simple one of crowd control and the standard problems which arise when too much booze is mixed with too much excitement. When Italy played Romania here in Zurich last Saturday, 84 people required medical treatment and, sadly, a young Austrian woman died in the city’s Fan Zone, of a suspected heart attack, during her country’s 1-0 defeat by Germany two nights ago.

This human tragedy went largely unnoticed as people gathered to watch the game on three giant screens — one of which is scenically perched out on the water where the river Limmat meets the lake — or on one of the many smaller screens located in the temporary food stalls and bars which currently line the bridges and the quays. Your correspondent chose to mix with the fans in the main, purpose-built open-air theatre in Bellevue, where three thousand had the luxury of grandstand seats and a few thousand more filled the standing area in front of them.

Of course, when I say that I mixed with the supporters I obviously don’t, mean that literally. As a professional sportswriter, it simply wouldn’t do for me to be seen cheek by jowl with the lads and lassies in the face paint and flags, so instead I availed of the Zone’s media facilities to take my place on the balcony overlooking the scene.

However, imagine my chagrin when a polite but firm security chappie informed me that I wasn’t permitted to stray beyond a tiny space, for fear apparently that I might transgress on the domain of the corporate tiger. That’s right — it turns out that the sponsors and their clients have even infiltrated the Fan Zone. “They have paid a lot of money for these,” I was told, “and they don’t want people blocking their view.”

But I quickly spotted a problem — to reach the only pay bar on the balcony required either the power of human flight or a walk along the forbidden highway past the VIP Skyboxes. And this, amazingly enough, was permitted. In other words, security around the VIPs was absolutely watertight but for one tiny loophole — it was access all areas and “in you come, mate” if you wanted to load up on strong Swiss gargle. Somehow, I suspect the CIA won’t be following suit.

Then again, maybe the organisers accommodate the prawn sandwich brigade all the better for the Fan Zone to replicate like the real thing — as Keano knows, it’s the way of the modern game, after all.

On Monday, the Germans dominated in the Fanzone as they did on the pitch, but there were plenty of Austrians singing their hearts out for the lads too, until Michael Ballack settled the game with his ripping free-kick. Still, at least the Austrians got the chance to jeer approvingly when Joachim Low was sent to the stands and the big screen showed him receiving the condolences of Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Incidentally, it appears that through his seat on UEFA’s main disciplinary committee, FAI boss John Delaney will have a say in the German manager’s punishment for his dismissal from the dugout).

That their team had squeaked unimpressively through to the quarter-finals didn’t bother the jubilant German fans one bit. As the action on the screen gave way to a DJ on the stage, they stayed on to party like it was 2006 all over again, the biggest reaction reserved for the song which became their insanely popular World Cup anthem on home soil two years ago. Written and performed by a band comprising of Bayern Munich supporters, it was originally entitled “54-74-90-06”, to mark their three World Cup triumphs to date and their hopes for another one two years ago. A German told me yesterday, it has been amended to “54-74-90-10”.

The Fan Zone is clearly one of the brightest ideas that the authorities have come up with in many a year but, while hugely enjoyable, it is still no substitute for being inside the ground on a big match night. An electric atmosphere has prevailed at most of the games so far and the mood can be expected to achieve unprecedented levels of intensity when the ferociously partisan supporters of Turkey and Croatia watch their teams do battle in the quarter-finals.

And then there’s the Dutch, 100,000 of whom are reckoned to have painted Bern orange for their game against Italy, although only one-tenth of that number actually had tickets for the match. Just like their team, there’s no mistaking when the Dutch are in the zone.


Lifestyle

Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s. https://www.facebook.com/PopsceneCork/You've Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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