Germany

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

Review: German Football Museum

On Wednesday, March 8th, I attended the Borussia Dortmund-SL Benfica Champions League match contested at the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund. You can read about my experience here if you haven’t already. In this follow-up post, I aim to review my visit to the German Football Museum, which occurred in the following morning.

On Thursday, with a few hours to spare, the grey weather persisting and the harbinger of a few showers, I mulled over two options: take the metro to the Westfallenpark, check the scenery and visit the Borusseum, Borussia’s museum, or, in alternative, clamp down in the brand-new building located just a few steps away, which catches the eye as soon as you leave Dortmund’s Hbf. You can guess where this is going.

The facade of the German Football Museum

Since 2015, after beating thirteen other German cities for the honour, Dortmund has the privilege of being the home site of the Deutsches Fußballmuseum (German Football Museum), established by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Federation, DFB) with the profits of the 2006 World Cup.

While I hold no close ties or special esteem for any German club or Die Mannschaft, I’m still an irredeemable football nerd, therefore I relished the chance to visit the museum of the world’s largest single-sport federation, comprising more than 25,000 clubs and 6.8 million members. Even so, I certainly flinched at the 17€ entrance toll. The museum had a lot to live up to in order to justify the price of admission, but I definitely didn’t exit dissatisfied some three hours later.

Visitors are welcomed to the venue by a rising illustration along the escalators of German football fans from all creeds and provenances, including an exulting Angela Merkel, and you quickly reach the first floor, entirely dedicated to the national teams and the Federation’s history.

The starting point is a section dedicated to the 1954 World Cup winning team, who authored the “Miracle of Bern” to defeat the mighty Hungarians, but you soon get acquainted with a timeline describing the 117 years of the German Federation.

I was looking forward to see how they would deal with the Nazi years and came pleasantly surprised. No bleach was used and you learn in detail, with documentation and news reports, how the societal and political developments affected the structure of the sport in Germany. You can read not only about the restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime, but also about the persecutions to Jewish players, from which Julius Hirsch, a German international who would perish in Auschwitz, is the banner name.

The Tribute to the “Kaiser”

Moving on, the most memorable moments in Germany’s national team history take center stage. The 1974 World Cup title conquered on home soil against Johan Cruijff’s Netherlands. The clash with Maradona’s Argentina at Italy 90, where Franz Beckenbauer became the first man to win the World Cup both as a player and coach. The “Kaiser” merited his own tribute, shaped in the form of his iconic Number 5, but not only the greatest triumphs are celebrated in this space.

There’s an area dedicated to the “Game of the Century”, the 1970 semi-final clash in Mexico where Italy defeat West Germany by 4-3, and an amusing board remembering the polemic goal by Geoff Hurst which propelled England to victory at the 1966 World Cup Final. A forensic investigation was launched to comprehend whether the ball fell past the goal line or not, and visitors are invited to share their opinion. I voted YES, yet the NO’s advantage isn’t as big as you might think (something like 60 to 40). I suppose Dortmund gets more foreign visitors than I thought…

Investigating Geoff Hurst’s goal at Wembley in 1966

I was happy to notice women’s football gets a fair recognition in the museum, including an exhibit of the trophies won by the National team, some historical jerseys and remarks about the evolution of the female game and the success achieved by German clubs internationally.

The ladies have their due share of the spotlight

The history of East Germany’s football, its clubs and the confronts between the East and West representations, is also part of the museum and, as we move into the XXI century, the tremendous investment made by the DFB on youth academies and talent development in the early 2000’s jumps to the forefront, disembarking on an area dominated by the 2014 World Cup triumph (Remember Paul, the Octopus?).

The monumental 7-1 thumping of Brazil doesn’t get as much buzz as I would like, but I understand they have to prioritize the events on the Final against Argentina. You get a detailed breakdown of the action during the 120 minutes and Mario Götze’s tournament-winning volley, before guests are invited to a 3D video presentation.

Every aspect of the 2014 World Cup Final is dissected to the limit

This is where the heroes of 2014 run the show. The hologram of Bastian Schweinsteiger, draped in the German flag, is the first to appear, and he is soon joined by Captain Philip Lahm to reminisce on the journey in Brazil, from the first days in the seaside training camp resort in Salvador to the final at Maracanã Stadium. Mats Hümmels and Thomas Müller keep the ball rolling, with an exchange probably filmed before they became club buddies, and later Manuel Neuer, recapping his sensational sweeper performance against Algeria, and the inevitable Götze also make glossy cameos.

By this time, the former German World Cup teams have been immortalized, and the movie ends with the band chirping a cheery Christoph Kramer, who you may remember as the guy who lost his memory and had to be subbed out in the Final. I watched the German-speaking version (couldn’t wait for the English subtitles) but was still able to pick up on the banter thrown around, which resonated well with the locals.

The World Cup trophy up close

After the presentation, you’re ushered onto the ground floor to get introduced to the Jules Rimet Trophy and the Henri Delaunay Cup. Or, for the initiated, the World Cup and European Championships trophies won by the men’s national team. From then on, the focus shifts to all other facets of the beautiful game, duly enriched by tons of interactive panels and videos.

You can learn, for example, about the coaches that shaped German football and their tactical advancements, the legendary German broadcasters, the history of club football in the country, from the first competitions to the formation and emancipation of the Bundesliga, the football fans and its myriad traditions and idiosyncrasies, or the evolution of German stadiums. Before leaving, you’re allowed to explore and seat on a replica of the bus used by the reigning World Champions, and exercise on the small multiple purpose arena and adjoined play zone.

Memorabilia abounds at the museum

In short, the German Football museum is a comprehensive football experience that is sure to please travelling enthusiasts with a desire to explore, learn about or study the game. If you meet the requirements, take the plunge and I believe you’ll depart after a few hours well spent.

Field Report: A pilgrimage to Dortmund

The list of mythical football stadiums is a short one: Wembley, La Bombonera, the Santiago Bernabéu, Camp Nou, San Siro, Maracanã, Estadio Azteca, Old Trafford. These are the ones most fans would rattle off from the top of their head and, even if you can make a case for a few more, they all have something in common. The glittering location in some of the World’s biggest metropolis, where millions of visitors can appreciate their grandiosity, indulge in their splendorous history and, eventually, find a way inside to experience a match.

That definitely isn’t the case in Dortmund, a city of 600,000 people placated on the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, where 11M people live in an area of just over 7000 km2, smaller than Cyprus, the 162th biggest country in the world. For long, this part of Germany has been known for its heavy industry and therefore it’s a far cry from most touristic routes, with Dortmund further outshone by the likes of Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia’s state capital and a major business and financial centre, and Cologne (Köln), the fourth largest city in Germany and the main cultural hub in the province.

Nevertheless, despite lacking the charm and allure of other destinations, Dortmund is a place wholly familiar for football fans around the globe, and its Westfallenstadion an emblematic location for an outstanding, enduring sporting experience wrapped in black and yellow, the colours of the local deity, German football giants Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund or, simply, Borussia Dortmund.

With a sizeable season ticket waiting list and sell-out crowds in every match, securing an ingress by official channels to a Borussia Dortmund match is tremendously difficult for an outsider, so you might as well just pray your favourite team faces them off. As the whims of the 2016-17 Champions League draw pitted Borussia and my beloved SL Benfica in the last 16, I quickly set out to make the best of an exceptional opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list.

This post relays my experience in the city of Dortmund and the all-around feeling of being inside one of football’s most renowned cathedrals.

Getting to Dortmund

Situated in the middle of Western Europe and not far from Germany’s borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, you can say that it’s more difficult to decide how to reach Dortmund than to get there. Departing from my native Lisbon, the closest options included flying directly to Düsseldorf International Airport, some 60km away, or Cologne-Bonn Airport (100km), whereas Dortmund Airport, a minor infrastructure situated 10km east of the city, is connected a few times per week with Porto. However, forecasting muddy prospects of guaranteeing a ticket in timely fashion and backed off by a relative shortage of travel options, I opted to plan for the worst and try a different approach.

Europe’s dense railway network is a major asset for travellers and that means Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are, daily, just a few hours away from Dortmund without the need for multiple stopovers. As I had some unfinished history in Amsterdam to take care off, the dilemma sorted itself out and on the 6th of March, after two months of anticipation, I finally hopped on a plane towards the Dutch capital. An untimely strike by France’s aerial controllers delayed my departure for a few hours but, taking into account that more than a handful of flights were cancelled in the next 48 hours derailing the plans of many of my fellow Benfiquistas, I can’t really complain. Tuesday, the 7th, was spent threading the streets of Amsterdam, but the big day would soon arrive and I had to decide how to commute to my destination.

Amsterdam is linked to Dortmund by a daily bus connection (taking around 4 hours) operated by German company Flixbus, yet you should book your place in advance, online, for a reasonably price (as low as 15€) or pay significantly more as a walk-in, provided seats are still available. For this exact route, it’s definitely the most cost effective option, but the flexibility and magnetism of train travel swooped in and I foolishly (in purely economic terms) decided to take the ICE (Inter-City Express) train at around 10:30am. The convoy departing from Amsterdam Centraal Station heads to Frankfurt with multiple sojourns before and after the border, and consequently I had to make a rapid switch for another ICE at Duisburg, finally arriving at Dortmund Hauptbahnhof just short of three and a half hours after taking off from North Holland.

Pre-match ambiance and Dortmund City Center

Welcoming me and fellow Benfica fans to Dortmund was a somber day, with light rain dropping almost incessantly for most of the next 24h, the time span of my presence in town. After dropping the baggage at the accommodation, situated just a few hundred meters from the central train station, we headed to the city center via Brückstrasse, a nightlife thoroughfare occupied primarily by fast food restaurants and bars, and soon reached the main cluster of places of interest, if we can call it that.

I don’t want to slam too hard on Dortmund, especially because my stay was short, but it looked entirely insipid and dull. You’ll find the odd, bland-looking church or classical building but downtown is mostly a slab of office buildings, galleries, large banks and shopping malls, with modern, uninspiring constructions taking over premium estate. This can be partially explained by the severe bombings suffered by Dortmund during World War II, specifically in 1945, when, reportedly, 98% of the buildings in the inner city got destroyed.

Dortmund

The Markt, the most lacklustre central plaza I’ve seen, contains an official Borussia Dortmund store to cater to the desires of football fans and is also the essential point around which are located most of the establishments that were invaded by the visiting fans. With beer flowing freely, a lively atmosphere was brimming around here as the afternoon advanced but, as soon as you strolled around, it quickly dissipated into the gloomy spectre that mirrored the weather. Truth be told, we didn’t stagger more than a few avenues in the inner city, and the eighth largest urban center in Germany certainly has much more to see, but, unless you’re looking for a shopping spree or have a lot of time in your hands, the city probably won’t justify the visit. I guess there’s a reason Dortmund is home to such football fandom: there’s not a lot else to focus on.

Anyway, when the cacophony of Portuguese increased as match time drew closer and civilians left their work, Dortmund fans joined in on the fun and I was pleased to notice the friendly coexistence amongst the sides, with no locus of tension as far as I could see. This wasn’t exactly a surprise though, since Dortmund is a town used to greet football fans, happy to showcase tremendous hospitality, and respectful of people keen to celebrate the game and their passion. Hooligans notwithstanding, obviously. It would be great if international football could be always like this.

Benfica and Dortmund fans mingling at the Markt

Taking in the city vibe on Champions League day was something I was looking forward to, but with some 2:30h to go until kick off, it was time to head to the Stadium. A crucial task was awaiting me there, so I took the metro at Stadgarten towards the Westafallenstadion, planted 3.5 km south of downtown Dortmund

On game day, you can ride the subway by free possessing a match ticket and in 10-15 min the U45 line takes you to the “Stadion” station. When that isn’t the case, an adult ticket costs 2.70€ and the closest stop is at the Westfallenpark.

The Westfallenstadion

If there’s something I wish I could change about the trip was the match’s starting time. I would have liked to be able to distinguish the surroundings of the stadium, particularly the neighbouring Westfallenpark, but it was already pitch dark when I arrived. Nevertheless, just as you leave the station, you immediately notice a Biergarten and the locals enjoying their pre-game drink before traversing the short walk to the glitzy venue in sight, where the letters forming “Signal Iduna Park” beam on the night. By the way, I’ll keep ignoring the official designation here, since I don’t get payed to make publicity and grew up with the traditional WestfallenStadion moniker.

The intimidating venue lit up on the night

The yellow is omnipresent on the way to the stadium as the passageways are riffed with stalls serving bratwursts, pretzels and beer or selling merchandising, but my mind was somewhere else by this time. After ditching my backpack in the proper cabin (0.5€), I glimpsed the entrance for visiting fans just in time to see Benfica’s bus arrive to the rousing applause of their mantle of supporters. Once again, without as much as a cringe from the locals.

Less than two hours were left until the opening whistle, so I proceeded to frantically pace up and down the street trying to luck out. A whisper. A fortunate encounter. Some back and forth. I was finally clutching my magical paper.  Time to approach the gates, get patted down, scan the ticket at the turnstiles. Three months of uncertainty ending right there. What a marvellous feeling to hike the stairs of the biggest stadium in Germany and one of the most iconic in World football.

Opened in 1974 right beside Dortmund’s former home, the Stadion Rote Erde (which still stands under the watchful eye of its successor), the Westfallenstadiom is far from worn down, having suffered renovations on multiple occasions over the last 30 years, yet doesn’t possess the same comforts of the stadiums purposely built for the 2006 World Cup. The cement of the stands isn’t disguised, there are no glossy details, the concourses, especially on the second level, are a bit cramped due to the supporting pillars, and the food lanes difficult circulation.

The concourses. Plus a famous Benfica fan on the background.

However, there’s no shortage of toilets or food stalls, with the latter dispatching customers fast because they don’t handle cash. That’s right. You’ll have to approach the ladies carrying a banner to obtain the stadium card, which will be loaded with the amount you want and swiped when you order something. At the end of the game, you can keep it as a souvenir and/or head to the corresponding huts, located outside of the stadium, looking to be reimbursed of the remaining funds. Simple and efficient.

Six euros lighter and carrying a drink and a pretzel (Bretzel in German), I meandered for a bit before searching for my seat in sector 54 of the Osttribüne (East Stand), on the far right, top-level section of one of the central stands. The view from the sector’s entrance looked promising but I still had to hurdle up the stairs… all the way to the last row of the steep stand. From there, the design of the roof obstructs a panorama of the whole stadium, with the top of the farthest stands out of sight, yet I was still delighted. Just a dozen of seats separated my spot from the mesh enclosing more than 3,000 Benfica fans. I couldn’t have wished for better at the day’s beginning.

Benfica warms up

The stadium slowly filled up in the following minutes and the raucous visiting section dominated the noise battle until the eternal “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started blasting from the speakers and the throats of the locals. Scarfs stretched atop, teams on the ground, the spine-tingling Champions League anthem, a splendid tifo elevated from the vaunted  SüdTribüne remembering the outcome of the tie contested 53 years ago, and 65,849 fans – sold out but short of the 81,000 allowed for domestic matches – oozing the fervent enthusiasm before a decisive match in the most beautiful football competition ever. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The 90 minutes and the epic 12 in the middle

Guess I can’t just skip this part, right?

Benfica held a 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg, courtesy of Kostas Mitroglou goal in Lisbon, but the Portuguese Champions were severely outplayed at home and it wasn’t difficult to anticipate Dortmund would put the pedal down at the start to erase the deficit as quickly as possible.

To counter that, Benfica’s coach added muscle to his midfield in André Almeida, hoping that his three-man inverted midfield could close down on Dortmund’s build-up from the back three, while Thomas Tuchel opted for the aggressive 3-4-3 that controlled the proceedings in Portugal, with irreverent youngsters Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulišić roaming behind prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

First Half

Surprise, surprise, the hosts came out roaring and it took a whole three minutes to get on the board. After Benfica’s captain, Luisão, panicked on Dortmund’s first approach and conceded a corner kick, Pulišić’s deflection on the first post encountered Aubameyang unmarked on the far side, with the Gabonese nodding the ball past the outstretched Ederson. It was a terrible start yet, as my mind wandered to a similar beginning at the QF of last year’s Champions League against Bayern Munich, Dortmund kept creating havoc in Benfica’s area, threatening a second and galvanizing the home fans.

Fortunately, the visitors didn’t fold and after the 20-minute mark finally settled down, with Nélson Semedo’s bold escapades up the right flank persuading his teammates forward. Benfica’s newfound ability to retain possession calmed down Dortmund’s electric pace and the game gradually fell into a standstill, despite a couple of openings that allowed the Portuguese to target Roman Bürki’s net and the omnipresent danger of Aubameyang and Dembélé’s darting runs on the other half.

The atmosphere and a sensational halftime

During the first 45 min, I kept glancing at the other stands to appreciate the spectacle and there’s no doubt the Yellow Wall at the SüdTribune is a sight to behold, even with the mass of people curtailed by UEFA’s stance against standing-only terraces. They may fall short of the usual 25,000 fanatical voices, but still made a whole lot of noise after ramping up efforts following kick-off. However, for all the vibrancy inside a venue whose architecture enhances sound retention, I couldn’t help to feel a tinge of disappointment regarding the support coming out from the rest of Dortmund’s faithful.

The Yellow Wall

It may not be discernible on television, but the vast majority was simply following the match as most football fans do everywhere: wheezing, gasping, heckling and, eventually, bursting when Dortmund scored. They followed the SüdTribüne’s lead on a couple of “BVB! BVB!” chants, and came to life for a few minutes after the third goal, when the home crowd exhaled, leaped from the seats and jumped in unison, shaking the building’s foundations, but not much more. Nonetheless, if you still believe in amphitheatres where 80,000 raging spectators impel their team forward over 90 minutes in a maniacal frenzy, you’re in for a letdown.

As for Benfica fans, modesty aside, we were more than up for the task, rebounding quickly from the early sucker-punch and the two quick knockout blows that would later follow, and keeping the faith until the very end. In normal circumstances, I would have already been proud of our top-notch performance during the 90 minutes of playing time (except for an unfortunate incident in the second half that was quickly dissipated), yet we far exceeded whatever expectations I could have had while the world of football looked away at the interval.

Words cannot describe what happened in those twelve minutes at halftime, with the players out of sight, television cameras shut down, few journalists on duty and many German fans away from their seats. It wasn’t a simple serenade, it wasn’t exhibitionism, it wasn’t a show of strength directed at the opposing ultras. It will go down as an utterly spontaneous, vocal love letter by 3500 devotees on a cold night in Dortmund.

I’ll forever be grateful for having been at that sacred temple in those minutes, able to assimilate every second of it. Able to experience whatever coursed through my body while I closed my eyes and belted out “Benfica, O Amor da Minha Vida” (Benfica, the love of my life) in loop until my voice started trailing off, undone by raw passion. Those twelve epic, magical minutes will live forever in the hearts of all of us, and, pardon the exaggeration, inhabit that place for a long time, attached to the cement and steel of the Westfallenstadion.

However, that riveting display couldn’t have been possible without the solemn deference by our opponents on the night and its fans. There wasn’t any intention to halt the show in those minutes where we took their house from them. No deafening tune drowning our chants. No booing. No recriminations of any sort. Just a bunch of smiling faces in awe, capturing the moment, admiring a truly special rendition and, finally, applauding the foreigners as their heroes came back into the pitch for the play to resume. Those thousands on the stands certainly headed home with vivid memoirs and increased appreciation for Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

Benfica fans put on a show during 90…105 minutes

Second half and post-match

At the break, the tie was up for grabs and the Portuguese appeared to come back from the room more determined to collect a crucial away goal that would alter the complexion of the matchup. On the 48th minute, a failed clear off a cross awarded Franco Cervi a golden chance to do just that, but his shot couldn’t puncture the yellow wall of Dortmund players that dived in desperation for a goal-saving block. Up in the stands, with a scream still stuck in my larynx, I wondered whether our ticket to the quarter-finals had just flown out of the stadium and, regrettably, time would prove I was right.

A series of corners and free kicks kept the ball around Dortmund’s box for the next five minutes as our confidence was soaring, yet it all vanished in a hurry. The hosts regained composure, encircled Benfica’s area, forged two point-blank chances where Aubameyang (in offside position) was brilliantly rebuffed by Ederson, and then dropped the hammer just before the hour mark. With the defence still reeling from another period of incessant pressure, Łukasz Piszczek solicited Christian Pulišić with a superb through ball that caught centre-back Victor Lindelöf napping, and the American teenager niftily chipped the ball over the onrushing Brazilian goalkeeper.

The visitors now needed to score to keep their hopes alive, yet Dortmund fans were barely back on their seats when the hill got even steeper. A brilliant diagonal ball by Julian Weigl met left back Marcel Schmelzer on the edge of the box, and he drilled it perfectly towards Aubameyang, who only had to tuck the ball in to secure a brace on the night.

Aubameyang was at his best on the night of Dortmund ((Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Just like that, in a couple of minutes, the sky had come crashing down on us, but 30 minutes were left on the clock and we could only escalate the vocal support to try to inspire an improbable revival. However, Dortmund soon smothered any semblance of response from the visitors, who proved incapable of knifing past the suffocating German pressure and engineer a clear-cut chance for the rest of the match.

When Aubameyang completed his hat trick five minutes from time, after a Benfica turnover in the midfield turned into a textbook counter-attack, the gap in play between the teams over the two games was expressed in the final 4-1 scoreline. The best team over the majority of the 180 minutes was, undoubtedly, Borussia Dortmund and when that happens you accept the outcome, congratulate the other side and pick up the pieces wishing to return stronger the next time around.

In the end, after the German players executed a customary routine of celebration with the Yellow Wall, both sets of fans cheered their own and applauded the performance of their opponents, both on the field and in the stands, with the utmost respect that ruled the encounter extending until the very end.

I delayed my exit from the stadium for a few minutes to avoid the masses, take it all in a bit more, check the highlights of the mindboggling happenings in the Barcelona-PSG match, and wait for the release of the rest of the Benfica faithful. Due to the swift and competent work by the German police, that didn’t take long – contrary to what happens so many times in other countries – and soon the away fans were allowed to leave the premises, free to chase a way to drown their sorrows.

With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the Westfallenstadion and strutted, alongside my people, in the direction of the metro station and, eventually, the city centre. A change of scenery loomed the following day as my journey continued, but I still wanted to take advantage of the morning in Dortmund, so I bunked up in short order with a bittersweet pot of memories flashing ceaselessly.

This post is already way…way…way too long, but if you wish to read about my whereabouts in Dortmund the following morning, click here.

If not, I can tell you that soon after exiting the museum (spoiler alert!), I left Dortmund towards Cologne, which ended up as an inspired decision, and would later return to Amsterdam – after a 24 hour detour in Utrecht – to fly home. Unfortunately, no further sport adventures were on the cards as scheduling issues derailed my prospects of attending an ice hockey match at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena, and the Amsterdam Arena sold out for Ajax’s weekend appointment.

And that’s it for this field report. Cross your fingers for another one, hopefully sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading and making it this far!

Summer Tournaments everywhere – A recap of football’s club-offseason (I)

In no-World Cup (or no-European Championships) summers, the offseason of football fans can be a depressing time, with several weeks of “excitement” over rumours of new addictions to their club and nonsense anticipation over the start of training camps and friendly matches played at turtle-like rhythm. To bridge the gap after the apex of the previous football season, this year there were no shortage of different options, with several competitions going on from late May to early July.

During that time, I had my sights split between four tournaments held all over the world and had a blast following them. Starting in New Zealand, at the Under-20 World Cup (30th May to 20th June), all the way to Canada and the Women’s World Cup (6th June to 5th July) or Chile and the Copa America (11th June to 4th July), with some selected stops in the Czech Republic (U-21 European Championships), I was busy enjoying some really fun sporting events.

This article compiles my thoughts and perspectives on those tournaments, with the obvious remark that I naturally had to prioritize certain viewings and make biased choices on content. Thus, I have to disclaim that my live look-ins on the U-20 World Cup were limited by time-difference and mostly restricted to my nation’s (Portugal) games, and the same happened to U-21 matches due to work-week obligations. The Copa America and the Women’s World Cup final rounds also collided often and my preference usually went to the Canadian-held competition because…well, I just can’t see those girls at big stages that regularly.

It’s time to unpack my (imaginary) travel suitcase and share the spoils.

Under-20 World Cup and Under-21 European Championship

I’ll start with the biggest youth tournaments of the summer and the interesting differences in approach that I noticed between the three European countries that were present in both. As a whole, Portugal, Germany and Serbia should be happy with their performance, but undoubtedly they had to fragment overlapped groups of players that could have been in either event. The way they did it and what they managed to achieve enclosed how they view the sport at the national level right now. The Serbians were the only ones to clinch a title, so I’m going there first.

Serbian Goaltender Predrag Rajkovic lifts the FIFA Under-20 World Cup trophy in front of his teammates

Coming off four consecutive presences at the Under-19 European Championships, the group which Veljko Paunovic got to New Zealand had a few members that experienced success at the 2013 Under-19 European Championships and was supplemented by the semi-finalists of the 2014 event, defeated by Portugal on penalties. Thus, the Serbians knew they had good chances of shining at the world stage, on the first participation of the country on the competition since 1987, at the time as Yugoslavia. It was a long time ago but the youngsters couldn’t have a better example to follow, as that generation left Chile with the trophy. Comprising a terrific array of talents that would become household names, including Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker or Predrag Mijatovic, much of the members of that squad played on Europe’s richest emblems and peaked as a team with the third place on the 1998 World Cup.

Time will tell if the heroes of 2015 will reach the same heights but it’s not too early to appoint the most promising of the lot. Everything starts at the net with goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, the captain and starter for this team and the U-19 iterations of 2013 and 2014. The Red Star Belgrade wunderkind collected the Golden Glove awarded to the best of the tournament at his position and added a few more accolades to a trophy case that already included the nomination as best goaltender of the Serbian league at just 19-years-old. On defence, the dynamic Milan Gajic and center-back Milos Veljkovic, already a property of Tottenham, turned some heads, as did Gent’s midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the leader pushing the team forward at the centre of the park. Vojvodina’s Mijat Gacinovic confirmed the good impressions of the Euro’s and winger Andrija Zivkovic delivered on the credentials of youngest captain in Partizan’s history and most premature debut for the main national team, leaving the World Cup with the award for best goal of the tournament. 17-year-old Ivan Saponjic scored a pair of goals coming off the bench but the decisive tally in the final, against Brazil on extra time, was the work of Nemanja Maksimovic, who didn’t have the same buzz surrounding some his teammates because he plays in Kazakhstan, for FC Astana.

Nemanja Maksimovic scored the tournament winning goal for Serbia

The Serbians started on the wrong foot, losing the inaugural match against Uruguay, but righted the ship to reach the last 16 and then showed tremendous resiliency to overcome four consecutive knockout games that went past regulation time, including a penalty shootout victory over the USA in the quarters.

The Under-21 Serbian team returned to the category’s pinnacle event for the first time since 2009 but they couldn’t replicate the U-20’s success, failing short on the group phase after a draw and two losses. Led by Borussia Dortmund’s Milos Jojic and Benfica’s Filip Djuricic, the Balkanian outfit never displayed the level that ousted Spain, the reigning Champions, out of final tournament and were beaten fair and square by hosts Czech Republic (4-0) and Denmark (2-0). However, everything could have been different had they decided to bring the talents of three players: Schalke 04’s defender Matija Nastasic, Liverpool’s winger Lazar Markovic and new Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, all already established on the starting eleven of their national team, which is almost mathematically eliminated from contention for a spot on the 2016 European Championships. The main team, now coached by Ljubinko Drulovic, the mastermind of the U-19 European Championship triumph in 2013, is experiencing a rebuilding phase, having qualified for only two international competitions in this century (2006 and 2010 World Cups) but the youth Serbian teams have shown that help is on the way. The future of the country’s football seems bright if they can find a way to mesh the kids with untouchable figures like Alexander Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marc Stendera shined for Germany on the stadiums of New Zealand

The Germans arrived at the U-20 World Cup as the European Champions, after beating Portugal at the final held in Budapest last July, but without a key player of that squad, injured striker David Selke, who will represent RB Leipzig next season and was the best goal scorer of the 2014 tournament. Without a clear replacement, Frank Wormuth had to improvise and Hany Mukhtar received the task, tallying four times in the event but only one after his hat-trick against lowly Fiji. The Germans lacked an incisive front-man but they had talent to spare manufacturing scoring chances, with the trio of Marc Stendera (Eintracht Frankfurt), Julian Brandt and Levin Oztunali (both from Bayer Leverkusen) excelling, especially during the group stage, where the team cruised past three weak opponents (Fiji, Uzbekistan, Honduras). The attractive, offensive style of play produced 16 goals in three games but the offense dried up when things got tougher, with a narrow win over Nigeria preceding a 1-1 draw against a surprising Mali squad, which then left victorious on penalties. The talented Germans were thus sent home earlier than expected but at least one man was recognized in the end: Stendera’s playmaking and prowess on set pieces netted four goals and three assists and those numbers were enough to clinch the Bronze Boot.

From the German team that won the U-19 Euro one year before, the World Cup squad was also in danger of missing the services of Nurnberg’s Niklas Stark, but the skipper/defensive midfielder ended up travelling to the other side of the planet and covering for the loss of Joshua Kimmich. The defensive pivot handpicked by Pep Guardiola arrives at Bayern Munich for the new season after a pair of years on loan from Stuttgart to RB Leipzig and a starting spot on the U-21 team that faltered in the tournament held in Czech Republic. Indeed, the Germans were demolished by Portugal in the semi-final but it wasn’t for a lack of talent, since the roster included two World Champions in Brazil last year, center-back Matthias Ginter and forward Kevin Volland, and more could have been selected from several regular choices by Joachim Low like defenders Erik Durm, Shkrodan Mustafi, Antonio Rudinger and midfielders Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze. Instead of loading up for the event, though, the side handed out to Horst Hrusbesch included two other players that could have featured for the U-20’s in Schalke’s Max Meyer and Arsenal’s revelation Serge Gnabry.

FC Barcelona and Germany’s U-21 Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen couldn’t avoid the humiliation against Portugal

On the other hand, the process of sorting out the players adopted by Portugal was entirely different, even if the lack of titles conquered recently by one of Europe’s most regarded talent makers kind of explains it. The Portuguese haven’t added a trophy to their showcase since 2003, the U-17 Euro Championships they organized, and were eager to come out of the summer with some silverware one year after falling short on the U-19 final against Germany. The entirety of that generation was saved for the New Zealand encore and the team once again made the country dream, ultimately being knocked by Brazil on the quarter-finals after 120 minutes clearly dominated by the Europeans, lots of missed chances and a uninspired penalty shootout. The U-20’s were thus enable to repeat the achievements of their compatriots in 1989 and 1991, but they left the tournament followed by high praises and a slew of impressive performances, including striker André Silva, a highly skilled and mobile front-man, offensive-minded left-back Rafa, always dangerous when approaching the opposing end, and playmaker Ronny Lopes, a Manchester City property that played on loan for Lille last season. This trio had already played for their U-21 team and could have been helpful for coach Rui Jorge at the Euro’s – especially Lopes – but that’s simply not Portugal’s way unless a player completely blows apart the expectations.

Portugal’s #10, Bernardo Silva

Take the case of the U-20’s, that only had a player that wasn’t born in 1995 (the last year of eligibility), forward Gonçalo Guedes, and the makeup of the U-21’s*, that “just had to” receive the reinforcements of several players already firmly entrenched on the main national team, a group that would, in turn, form the best midfield on the competition. Sporting’s William Carvalho and João Mario plus Monaco’s Bernardo Silva, integral parts of Fernando Santos’ roster, were in Czech Republic and Valencia’s André Gomes would have completed the diamond on the centre of the midfield hadn’t he been injured, which opened a space for team captain Sérgio Oliveira. Anyway, the quartet paced Portugal to a strong tournament, highlighted by the 5-0 stumping of Germany in the semi-finals, and they would have terminated their title drought hadn’t been for a sturdy Swedish side that frustrated the favourites on the final. The Portuguese finished with the best attack (7 goals, tied with Sweden) and defence (only 1 goal allowed) and exhibited, by far, the most entertaining football on the field but they were left to pick up the consolation prizes: five members of the team were included on the tournament’s best eleven, including Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho, who squandered off for the best player of the tournament nomination, ultimately awarded to the imposing defensive midfielder.

Now, time for some comments on the other sides that competed on these tournaments:

Sweden won his first ever men’s UEFA competition, coming out on top displaying the same competitiveness that edged France in the qualifying playoff round. The apex of that was the turnaround with only 10 men and 1-0 down against Italy during the first match in the competition, but the side led by Hakan Ericson also managed to rescue the passport to the semi-finals on the last minute against Portugal in game 3, a few days before stifling their rivals on the final. The Swedes relied on an organized defensive scheme boasted by two disciplined midfielders in Captain Oscar Hiljemark (PSV Eindhoven) and Oscar Lewicki (Malmo FF), and played long balls to their pair of dangerous strikers, the physically imposing John Guidetti and Isaac Kiese Thelin, both with experience on the main national team. They didn’t have game-breaking talent, with winger Simon Tibbling being the closest resemblance of that, but used their strengths perfectly and history has shown that, in short tournaments, sometimes is enough.

Denmark’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has already featured for the senior national team.

• With powerhouses like Spain and France dumped in the qualifiers plus Italy and England edged by the eventual finalists in the group stage, dark-horses emerged on the search for the title, with Denmark and Czech Republic showcasing a lot of talent on the event. The hosts were led by Jan Kliment, who burst to prominence due to the unexpected hat trick against Serbia – enough to secure the Golden Boot for best goal scorer of the competition – but right-back Pavel Kaderabek and midfielder Ondrej Petrak also had scouts drooling. Meanwhile, the Danes reached the semi-finals powered by hulking Werder Bremen central commander Jannik Vestergaard on defence, the poise of Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg (Bayern Munich) and Lasse Vigen Christensen (Fulham) on the midfield, and the flash of Viktor Fischer (Ajax) and Yussuf Poulsen up front.

• On the U-20 World Cup, the story of the tournament was the predominance of the African contingent on the latter stages, including semi-finalists Mali and Senegal plus Ghana, beaten by Mali in the last 16, and Nigeria, which lost to Germany. The Malians were the most satisfied in the end, carrying the bronze medals, but another shiny object was part of their luggage, the Golden Ball awarded to the tournament’s best player.

Adama Traoré wasn’t freed for the qualification tournament but he joined his teammates in New Zealand and contributed greatly to Mali’s historical result, including a masterclass performance on the third place game highlighted by two spectacular goals. The slick creative force ended the tournament with four goals, three assists – a direct contribution in 7 of Mali’s 11 goals – and proved why he was already a key figure for the midfield of France’s Lille OSC, his club side. Since the end of the event, he has already agreed to join AS Monaco, where he’ll now exhibit his broad technical gifts, playmaking awareness and flair.

Mali’s Adama Traoré received the U-20 World Cup Golden Ball

• Traoré is not the first African Golden Ball winner, following Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah, laureate in 2009 after his team’s triumph, and countryman Seydou Keita in 1999. The pair shows the hit and miss character of the award, since Keita played at the highest level for FC Barcelona and Seville but, on the other hand, Adiyiah signed with AC Milan in 2010, went to the 2010 World Cup, and five years later is donning the colours of Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Football Club. Other former winners of the award include Diego Maradona (1979), Lionel Messi (2005), Sergio Aguero (2007) and Paul Pogba (2013) but also non-factors like Ismail Matar (UAE, 2003) and Henrique (2011)

• If we expand the sample to the other Youth World Cup promoted by FIFA, at the U-17 level, we find two more recent Golden Ball winners from the African Continent, Nigerian’s Sani Emmanuel (2009) and Kelechi Iheanacho (2013), which means that Africa has amassed 4 of the last 7 Golden Ball winners.

• The South American contingent, that usually dominates the U-20 competition (Brazil (5) and Argentina (6) have won more than half of the 20 editions), wasn’t impressive this time. Uruguay and Colombia fell in the round of 16 but the biggest fail was Argentina, which had his worst performance ever, finishing with just two points on an accessible group. Only Ángel Correa, the Atletico Madrid attacking midfielder, captivated for the Albicelestes with pace and skill that produced half of the team’s four strikes.

Ángel Correa leads his teamates on a rare moment of elation at the 2015 U-20 World Cup

Brazil reached the final after getting the better of two consecutive penalty shootouts on the round of 16 (Uruguai) and quarter finals (Portugal), but their squad didn’t excite most observers. Defensive anchor and captain Danilo played well above all his teammates over the entire tournament, relentlessly driving the team with his experience and power, while skipper Lucao, a composed defender with great anticipation, and left back Jorge, a speedy, offensive full back, also caught the attention of the scouts. Up front, the team lacked spark outside of Atlético Paranaense’s Marcos Guillerme and the irregular Boschilia, with Real Madrid’s Jean Carlos and Manchester United’s Andreas Pereira, in particular, notching underwhelming performances that saw them relegated to the bench.

*To be fair, 18-year-old Rúben Neves was named to Portugal’s U-21 squad, but he’s exactly the type of tremendously rare exception that corroborates the rule. And he was going to be the starter hadn’t they rescued William Carvalho…

(2nd part, regarding the Copa America and the Women’s World Cup right after the jump)

Rescaling the NHL outdoor fun in five European destinations

The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.

Despite the big crowds at the stadiums, the outdoor ice hockey game concept has stalled in North America

Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.

So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:

– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.

How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.

SEL Outdoor Classic at the Ullevi in 2009

Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)

One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.

Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)

The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.

The Tatze-Derby (SCL Tigers-SC Bern) at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in 2007

Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.

Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.

Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)

It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

More than 77,000 atended the 2010 IIHF World Championships Opening Game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen

Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.

Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)

The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.

Ducks and Kings faced off in 2007 at the London O2 Arena

Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.

Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.

Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.

The landscape surrounding the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt

Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.

Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.

After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?

An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.