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So Japan-easy, May 2006 (Part 1 - Kobe)

Prologue – The Plan for Japan

It all started just before Christmas, when a poster on the TAMB called Tartan Tokyo mentioned he’d heard a rumour from a Japanese journo pal that Scotland were to be invited to play in the Kirin Cup. It was pretty much dismissed as wishful thinking and not really spoken about for a few weeks, until it resurfaced again. A few calls were placed to the Japanese and then the Bulgarian FA, and after weeks of rumours and refutations, it emerged that the SFA were indeed in negotiations.

Some people jumped the gun and booked early, others (myself included) preached restraint less we end up with return flights to Japan whilst Scotland are playing elsewhere. Due to some skilful manipulation of BA Miles, I established I was able to use these for booking the trip in a cancellable way, coupled with a sympathetic boss, and so the reservation went in near the end of March, one week before Scotland’s participation was confirmed. Several hundred Scotland fans booked, probably around half of those who would have done so had the announcement been made sooner.

Due to work commitments and flight availability, we booked Tuesday (arriving Wednesday) to the following Tuesday, along with two nights in Kobe and four in Tokyo – the counterweight was having to cut our planned 10 days in Germany for the World Cup down to two weekends.

Wednesday – Laughing in the face of jet lag

After a largely sleepless night for me (two lots of 30 minutes before waking up sweating), not helped by spilling red wine right down my front early into the 12 hour flight, and loads of sleep for Helen (about 7 hours!), we found ourselves at Tokyo Narita Airport. We’d bumped into Will (from Swindon) at Heathrow the day before, and he ended up just behind us in the passport queue at Narita airport. After bumping into a few other Scots, including Will’s pal Greg, Freda and Ronnie McDevitt, we picked up our JR rail passes (after much umming and ahhing, we’d opted for Green Car passes, the equivalent of first class) and headed into Tokyo Central where we’d agreed to meet Ally, Susan, Kenny and the WESTA/LA combination trip (Tam Coyle, Elise, Kev and Craig, Jim Brown and Niall) before catching the Shinkansen bullet train down to Kobe.

After bumping into Singing Phil McFadden on the airport train (literally, his booked seat was in the row behind us), we met up with the others and I invested in a bento box on the railway platform, as despite the jet lag I was keen to dive headfirst into the local cuisine and culture. Unfortunately, I’d inadvertently chosen the seafood version, complete with whole baby octopus looking up at me as I opened the lid. My short-term recall was really suffering, and trying to hold even the simplest of conversations was a laborious process; it’s fair to say my equilibrium was not helped by the regular appearance of Coyle’s jowly face over the seat in front trotting out poor, poor one-liners (example: “Octopus is cheap here; three for a squid”). Somehow I remained conscious and sane all the way to Kobe and to the Holiday Inn Express hotel near the station.

After a quick doze and a shower, it was out and about in the Kobe rain with Ally, Susan, Kenny and Phil. Before we’d even reached the first pub, we had to cross the most mental footbridge I’ve ever seen, and halfway across, with me lagging at the back of the group, I thought I was having some kind of turn as the ground seemed to be moving under my feet (I found out the next day that was a design fault of the bridge and not my jet lag). After a full-size Izakaya meal which involved trying everything on the menu (not least of which the salted prunes) – Kenny reckoned the enterprising waitress was using us a chance to get shot of any food no-one else would eat – we rounded off the meal in cavalier fashion with a watermelon (forgetting all the horror stories about the price of the fruit). After settling the bill (which, despite our fruit-based extravagance, was still in the realms of reality) it was out and about to a couple of pubs gleaned from the guidebook. First up was the Polo Dog, a hidden gem in a shopping centre, followed by the pricey but nice German-style brew-pub, the New Munchen. Well, it would have been expensive had it not been for the free and discounted beer the owners insisted on plying us with.

After finally managing to tear ourselves away, we made it to Ryan’s Bar, the ubiquitous plastic Irish pub that the Tartan Army had designated base camp. Now, it’s well known that I’m not a fan of Irish pubs, but this one really took the biscuit: aside from it’s authentic setting (the seventh floor of an office block above a McDonalds and overlooking a busy traffic junction), the landlord had woefully underestimated the amount of beer, and when they ran out of draught they carried on knocking out bottles for the same price as pints – when these were 500ml bottles, fair enough, but when they moved on to warm 330ml sizes that just wasn’t on. I partly had myself to blame for over-exposure, as we had actually left the pub earlier with Ally and Susan (who were planning an early morning excursion on the train to Hiroshima), but then rode the lift back up to carry on drinking. Thankfully, I’d found a kindred spirit in fellow Irish pub hater Chris Houston, and between us we managed to help effect a mini-exodus across the road to a wee Japanese local. It’s fair to say the wee pub wasn’t expecting us, but put rose to the challenge admirably, knocking out beer and cook-on-the-counter noodles. The final straw was not Houston’s impromptu version of the Court of King Caratacus but rather an over-enthusiastic display of gratitude (and, it must be said, genitalia) by one of the Highland contingent.

Thankfully, Ali Nish – glamorous friend of Chris, Stevie Imlach and Andy Mac and fluent Japanese speaker – had by this time arranged a two-hour stint in the karaoke lounge opposite, so we all piled in there, dragging the “flashing blade” with us. These karaoke lounges are a strange arrangement – everyone piles into a sound-proofed room together, and there’s a catalogue of thousands of songs (usually performed by session musicians over the same soft-rock, one-size-fits-all video backdrop). Meanwhile, beer is included in the price – just pick up a phone, speak in Japanese and ten minutes later a waiter magically appeared. The fifteen or so of us had a fantastic time, but in my befuddled mental state (not just beer, remember, but serious sleep deprivation as well by this stage) I failed to realise just how amazing the whole experience was, not to mention how lucky we all were to have Ali on hand to take the lead and do all the talking. Thanks!

After a brief discussion about whether it was worth staying up to 6am (Japanese time) to see Middlesborough in the UEFA Cup Final (it’s where Helen was born), we wisely opted for bed. We had actually suggested to Ally and Susan that we may just make it up in time to accompany them down to Hiroshima Peace Park before we had bid them farewell just after midnight. When we made it back to the hotel four hours later, getting up for an 8.30am train no longer seemed so appealing, so it was with considerable effort that I somehow managed to not only write a note but slip it under the correct hotel room door (okay, it was the room next to us, but I really was “tired and emotional” for once!).

Thursday – So Japan-easy

Thursday morning came and went, and our meeting with Kenny and Phil had to rely on the “fallback” plan. We eventually made it out of the hotel and down towards the centre with the intention of finding the team hotel and picking up tickets, with a quick food stop in McDonalds (which seems to double as power-napping venue for the locals). After finally working out the ticket machine with a lot of help, and then managing to lose my own ticket en route to the destination station and having to run the barrier (with lots of bells and whistles and disbelieving stares from the locals), we rolled up at the team hotel and picked up our briefs from the lovely Angela.

After a civilised coffee and an abortive attempt to find beer, Kenny wandered off for some fresh air and we bumped in Ally and Sue who were now back from their Hiroshima trip, followed by meeting McFadden-alike Lawrie, a lad from Dundee who was teaching English on Japan’s south island and was only recently off the boat. Beer (and iced coffee for me, jet lag and all that…) was eventually sourced in a shopping centre café, before we piled in to two cabs for the short trip to the Kobe Wing Stadium. Unfortunately, Lawrie, Helen and I ended up in the back of a cab driven by a guy who clearly didn’t know where he was going, and as a result had to tailgate the cab in front! Nonetheless, we rolled up in front of the stadium in good time and we were in the ground well in time for kick-off (even after having to decant my bottled water into the supplied paper cup).

The Scotland “end” was behind one of the goals in a single tier stand – the big sweeping stands are along each side – and the Bulgarian contingent (which basically looked like embassy staff and possibly a handful of ex-pats) were away to our left along the touchline. There were a good smattering of locals amongst the 5,000-plus crowd (which was still rattling around inside the 53,000 capacity Kobe Wing Stadium!), including a bunch of young Vissel Kobe “ultras” behind us, complete with Japanese-language banners and songs (they were nice though, and happy to swap a scarf with me!).

The game itself was a bit of a blur; irrespective of the fact I was still suffering from the tail-end of jet-lag, I think any Scotland fan would be a bit bewildered following that performance! Fresh from beating the Japanese hosts 2-1 two days earlier in nearby Osaka, Bulgaria found themselves two-one down at half-time to a Kris Boyd brace either side of their goal. The verdict as the teams ran out to start the second-half: Sofia, so good! Boyd’s replacement McFadden made it 3-1, before another debut brace in the last 10 minutes, this time from Rangers winger Chris Burke, turned the game into a rout. If only Boyd and Burke had been ready for the first team sooner…

With the statisticians among us quickly working out that even a narrow defeat to Japan would be enough to clinch the cup, much celebrating followed, including the obligatory “pose with the Kirin Cup” (well, a paper beer cup with the Kirin logo on it anyway!) photos followed, before the baffled stewards finally managed to get the celebrating Tartan Army out of the concourse almost an hour after the final whistle.

Helen and I had spotted a couple of wee pubs over the road from the ground from the taxi in, so we led a few people over in order to wait out the “rush” on the tube back into town. As we set-off in the opposite direction from the rest of TA, we discovered in addition to our kitty (Helen and me, Ally and Susan, Singing Phil, Kenny and Lawrie) there were another dozen or so. Not a ordinarily a problem, however the Playboy bar was full with less than half of us inside the door! Somehow we all squeezed in, however Helen’s initial order of 10 beers (she had the kitty pikachu at the time) caused the landlady to panic – they only had 10 in stock. Her husband was swiftly despatched for supplies, and staggered back a few minutes later toting a bucket full of beer bottles. For the next couple of hours, beer supply was magically solved.

Stevie and Andy thought it would be good idea to call Bruce, slaving away at his civil service desk in London, and the pub duly sang along to Andy and Helen’s mobiles. At some point Wilf (from Swindon) took off his hat (following a chorus of “he’s got a tea cosy on his head”) only to put it on again swiftly after being belted with “He’s got a permed f*cking mullet”, and another member of the party left arm-in-arm with a local to a blast of “to get his hole, to get his hole… he’s going to get his hole” (said member re-appeared around 90 minutes later, whilst the local lassie was keeping his hotel bed warm!). After a team photo and several free cigarette lighters later (we literally had them thrust upon us by the grateful landlady), we arranged a fleet of cabs back to downtown Kobe.

After touching down at the big junction where Ryan’s perched in it’s olde worlde quaint tower block, Lawrie (who was by now, quite frankly, tired and emotional to the extreme) discovered he’d left his mobile somewhere. Even the offer of more beer could not cheer him up: “In Japan, without your mobile, you’re nobody!” (which basically meant that apart from Helen and Andy, ALL of us were “nobody”. Well, apart from Tam Coyle, more on that later…). As Lawrie drifted off disconsolately to mourn his loss, I rejoined the rest of them in Ryan’s, to bump into Chris urging me to move on ASAP. With the elevator doors starting to shut, my cat-like reflexes kicked in and I leapt majestically across the small entrance area to gallantly stop the doors closing with my outstretched leg. Well, according to witness reports, I attempted a kung fun kick, slipped on my trailing leg (there was a small step!) and ended up flat on my back with my right leg half-way up a closed lift door and my kilt akimbo, whilst Stevie stood at the door with his hand in the way looking down at me with a bemused expression. After reassuring everyone that I had not, in fact, fractured my lower spine as first feared (as Helen said: “You’ve got less far to fall when you fall on it”) it was out into the backstreets of Kobe once more, leaving the masses to over-priced under-cooled lager and a sleeping (but still lethal) Kevin Donnelly).

Between us (Ally, Singing Phil, Chris and myself) we found a posh wee pub with a Buddha on the bar, before Ally tracked back to Ryan’s to get Helen and Susan (who were still finishing their beer). Chris decided to dabble with the local firewater – not Sake but Shochu, which he soon declared was “chewy”. After stealing to the lavvy, ditching it down the sink and topping it back up with tap-water, he was soon faced with another dilemma when we explained his new drink was potentially far more damaging than what he’d just poured away (“But I can’t not drink it – that would be an insult!”). Soon after that it was out and into a taxi for Helen, me, Ally and Susan, and the last laugh of the night; despite me patiently asking (five times no less!) for “Hoteroo Holiday Inn Express” (hotel in Japanese being pronounced “hoter-oo”), I eventually gave up and sharply said “horror-day inn expless”, at which point the cabbie went “Ahh, horror-day inn” and Ally started crying with laughter in the back.

Friday – Clubbing it

The Horror-Day Inn reception looked like a tartan refugee camp on the Friday morning, with Andy Maclean wandering about bleary-eyed in his pajamas and people coming and going in various states of hangover. Rather than rush up to Tokyo, we decided to spend a few hours looking around Kobe. Helen and Kenny were keen to take in the rope-way up to the peak (as were half the school children of Japan, by the looks of it), and on the way back down (we side-stepped the confusing skyscraper this time) we made our way down to the old colonial area of Kitano, where we bumped into Jack.

Jack was a very friendly American who now lived in Kobe, having married a local lady. He explained that he was retired from the US Foreign Service and was full of stories, as well as being interested in what we were all doing there. He insisted on treating us to a beer, and as he led us to his plush members club (the Kobe Club), he proudly explained that there was a Scottish Freemasons’ Lodge in the car park (and no, he wasn’t joking!). We were introduced to Paul, his pal from Essex, and the two of them were a real double act as they entertained us over a beer. It was very difficult to leave, but with booked seats on the Shinkansen we had no choice – in the end we had to get two very confused taxis across town to the hotel and then back to the station (I had to stay with the cabbies and wave my hands around a bit whilst everyone else retrieved the luggage).

The Green Car carriage was pretty empty, apart from the seats directly opposite us from Osaka onwards; rather than sit a seat away and allow us to keep the seats facing (Shinkansen trains have a pedal that allows the seats to swivel, allowing them to face one way or the other), they insisted on sticking to their assigned seats! Nonetheless, the journey did allow for me to slip off my ailing kilt and sit back whilst Helen performed her seamstress act. On arrival in Tokyo we arranged to meet up with Kenny in the Ginza Lion Beer Hall, and Ally, Susan, Helen and I squeezed onto a rush hour tube train (not too bad – apparently much worse in the mornings) and headed across town to our mega hotel – the 1,600 room, three building Hotel New Otani.

After unpacking and freshening up, Helen and I headed out to meet up with the other three. Ginza subway station offers a myriad exits, and unless you have an ability to navigate by neon, heading above ground to get bearings is a futile exercise. Our joy at finding an underground entrance to the Ginza Lion was tempered by the fact that no-one else showed up (making explaining to the waiter why we needed a table for 5 when there was in fact only 2 of us rather difficult). Undaunted, Helen and I sampled the beer and food and then headed back on the underground towards the ex-pat disco inferno district of Roppongi. The Hobgoblin had been designated as the TA HQ, mainly thanks to the sterling pre-trip work of Scottish ex-pat and part-time Harry Hill impersonator Tartan Tokyo, however when Helen and I rolled up around 9-ish it was hoaching. Decrying the choice of venue (“I live in England, I can go in an English pub any time”), we co-opted “Save The Whale” Chris Houston and headed over the road to a German pub instead.

On arrival in Bernd’s Bar, the owner was so taken with the kilts that he bought us the first round of beers on the house. More rounds followed as we fell into conversation with the other customers, a range of German ex-pats including none other than ex-international and (then) current Urawa Red Diamonds manager Guido Buchwald. After much drunken lunacy and tales of culture shock (including the one about the elderly Japanese bather saying to one of the German guys: “Next time, we’ll leave the Italians out of it”), we headed back across the road to the Hobgoblin. By now the crowds had subsided a little, leaving a trail of bewildered locals in their wake and, at the back of the pub, Walter Smith, Jim Duffy and Ally McCoist holding court (and happy to pose for photos). Ally, Susan and Kenny had also arrived, fresh in from the other Ginza Lion Beer Hall and keen to know why we’d stood them up.

As the Hobgoblin started to shut up shop, we headed en masse for an alternative, eventually stumbling into a packed Motown House bar where we found Akie and co. By the time Ally had fought his way back from the crowded bar with a round of Heinekens, we decided to take our chances outside and finished our beer on the streets before hailing a taxi back to the New Otani.

Saturday – We'll drink Kirin oot the cup

The late night took its toll, so after a lie in, Helen and I headed out with Ally and Susan to the Yebisu Beer Station for some local produce. The Inverurie Two headed back into the Hobgoblin after a meal, whilst Helen and I were taking it easy with a stroll around the museum (and the prize of a tasting pallet at the end). By the time we made it to the Hobgoblin, Ally and Susan had already headed out to the ground and the pub was filling to bursting point. By now the heavens had opened and the local transparent umbrella sellers were doing a roaring trade, particularly as Paul Baker contrived to purchase half a dozen. Helen and I decided to make an early break for it to beat the crowds and beat an early retreat out to Saitama for the match. The train filled up as it neared the stadium, but we were the only Scots in sight. The rain was getting heavier, so we sought out some full length plastic rain jackets (casper the ghost numbers), bought the required towelling souvenir scarf and headed into the stadium for some shelter (albeit only in the concourse, as the ends were open to the elements.

The scene in the concourse was like something from a refugee camp, with hundreds upon thousands of Japanese teenage girls sat cross legged on blankets on the concrete floor, sharing picnics and generally being a fire hazard. We bumped into an exasperated Ally and Susan, who confirmed that the scene before us had changed little in the past hour, much to their bemusement. After some initial confusion as to which section we’d been allocated, the Scotland support began to congregate and Cammy the Ref produced his camera for the obligatory “smiling with the home fans” shots (including a bunch of Dundee FC supporting locals).

We took our seats in the corner for the game, wrapped up us much as possible (my proper waterproof jacket was bound around my rucksack to try and limit the damage). After having Flower of Scotland massacred by a Japanese opera singer, the home anthem was sung by cheeky looking gent who proceeded to flash the inside of his jacket to display the JFA crest. The noise from the home fans was absolutely amazing, putting to shame anything else I’d encountered, although as the first half wore on it became apparent it was all a little choreographed and bore little relevance to actual events on the pitch.

Although the game itself ended in a goalless draw, it was a very different Scotland performance from the rampant attacking against Bulgaria, and that itself was exceptionally satisfying. Denied the services of Kris Boyd, and with Burke inexplicably left on the bench, Scotland sought to restrain the hosts and did so very effectively. Although a two goal deficit would have left us in pole position, we hung on desperately to the draw and it took some last gasp defending in the final moments to preserve the equilibrium. Then the final whistle blew and those of us lucky enough to be there realised that we’d just seen Scotland win a trophy on foreign soil (we’re actually now the first British nation to win a regularly contested international trophy on non-British soil!). With all the surrealism of a Tarrant on TV clip, the trophy and a large cheque was presented on pitch to a baffled Davie Weir (who, having swapped his shirt in the immediate post-match formalities, was forced to don Gary Naysmith’s for the sponsors photos!). After letting it all sink in, it was out of the ground and in with the thronging hordes towards the station.

After an age of shuffling forwards with what must have been twice the official crowd of 68,000, waiting, shuffling some more and waiting some more, we finally boarded a Tokyo-bound train with Ally, Susan and Iain from Paisley. Everyone else headed to the Hobgoblin (where else?) in an attempt to catch the Scottish Cup Final (or in the West Ham fan’s case, the English FA Cup), Helen and I decided to jump off near the hotel for a nightcap. After wandering the streets for a while, we happened across a Ramen place and had some of the trademark pork and noodle soup before turning in early (well, earlier than the night before) at around 2am.

Sunday – Urawa you?

Our discussions with Guido on the Friday night had revealed that his Urawa side were to play a local derby away at Yokohama F Marinos on the Sunday in the cup. We knew that FC Tokyo had a game the same day, but as it’s not every day you get a chance to see the Japanese league leaders play away in the 2002 World Cup Final venue, we’d agreed to head down to Yokohama with our shiny Green Car passes.

Despite an abortive attempt to leave the hotel early to see the freak parade at the temple (a Sunday morning fixture) due to the ramen soup providing an encore (Ally: “Did you know there’s a new 100 metre record?”, Paul “I know – I broke it this morning running for the loo”), we finally made it out of the hotel and rendezvoused with Ally and Susan at Tokyo Central station. We followed the crowds past the knock-off football shirt sellers and managed to get hold of some good second tier tickets for a few quid each. After a quick scoot around the Yokohama club shop we headed in, and to our surprise, found the concourses deserted. Strangely, Urawa had set up their own official shop in a disused refreshment kiosk, so after buying and donning scarves we headed up into the seats. We had specifically asked to be in with the away fans, and to be honest, we had made the right choice. Although the crowd of 25,000 or so was lost in the expanses of the 80,000 capacity bowl, the Diamonds’ fans outnumbered the home crowd by around two to one. Much to Ally’s approval, Urawa play in red whilst the Marinos wore blue, white and red (and to rub salt in the wound, the fans sing a song not dissimilar from “We arra peepul”).

Urawa ran out winners; more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggested, and after the game we decided to head straight back to Tokyo rather than explore Yokohama further. We hopped off at Shinjuku station (famous for being the busiest station in the world) and were in time to head up the Metropolitan Tower for a great view of the Tokyo skyline (Ally and Susan also managed cocktails in the Park Hyatt “Lost in Translation” bar later in the trip). After spending loads of money on a metal badge machine in the toy shop at the top of the tower, it was back down to street level and into a Kirin Beer Hall for a couple. After a fruitless wander around the Golden Gai and the Kabuki-cho area (most things were shut as it was Sunday), we headed into the unassuming Champion Bar (with it’s 500-yen price promise).

The Champion was a real find, with non-stop karaoke, mad regulars (Brad and Pedro) and scurrilous graffiti in the toilets (complete with the number of Tam Coyle’s rented mobile phone). The only downside was that some of the local karaoke singers were really, really good, compared to the drunken yeti chanting that we came up with. After staying on until the bitter end, it was back in a surprisingly cheap taxi to the hotel and to bed.

Monday – Electric Avenue

After securing our bus tickets for the journey to the airport the next day (it’s all about planning, kids!), Ally and Susan joined us on our expedition to Akihabara’s “Electric Town” to procure a new memory card (having caned three already on this trip). Being the panic merchant everyone knows and loves, I also wanted to use BA’s Online Check-In to make sure our prime seats were still ours. Despite rumours of free internet terminals being liberally sprinkled around, this was easier said than done and, as a result, I am now a proud member of one of Akihabara’s many internet and manga cafés. Thankfully, membership was free (although they did need to photocopy my passport), and the seats were confirmed with no further pain.

With all the essentials out of the way, it was onward to the sedate Asakusa district and a cruise down the river. This turned out to be much more fun than it sounded and took us right down past the famous fish market to the harbour proper. Once back on dry land, and with the new memory card having been given a full workout taking photos of the Asakusa River’s famed bridges, we headed for the Phillipe Starck designed Asahi Brewery. The tower boasted a top floor bar in the Sky Room, and we set up shop by the windows to watch dusk fall over Tokyo (with the beers flowing, of course), before heading downstairs to the designer beer hall proper. The food and beer was great, but the Star Trek themed toilets really took the biscuit here.

Suitably refreshed, we bowled up the hill to the famous temple for some photos in the dark, before finishing off with a nightcap in the hotel’s own tower-top bar.

Tuesday – Sayonara

Helen and I headed down to the hotel’s very own bus station in good time for our airport transfer, only to be met by the bizarre sight of 5 busloads of Japanese wedding guests in traditional clothes queuing in perfectly orderly fashion before filing silently onto the waiting coaches. The view from our elevated seats on the journey along the raised motorway viaducts around Roppongi was certainly an eye-opener, as was the rural surroundings we hadn’t had much to chance to notice on the train on the way in. The Tokyo airport experience was particularly painless, and the highlight of the flight home was the crystal clear view of the arctic which I managed to catch on camera from the galley as the rest of the plane slept.

All in all, a fantastic trip, but more for the football (and the sights) than the actual drinking.

The trip in numbers:

  • 3 – World Cup stadia visited (Kobe, Saitama and Yokohama)
  • 5 – bullet/express train journeys
  • 60 minutes - the total sleep by Paul on the plane over (in 2 shifts of 30 minutes)
  • 6 hours - the total sleep by Helen (all in one go)
  • 16 Beers (+ 1 cider):
    · Yebisu
    · Yebisu Black
    · Major Weiss (at Sapporo Museum)
    · Major Ale (Museum)
    · Sapporo
    · Kirin
    · Kirin Black
    · Braumeister
    · Heartland
    · Kobe brew-pub beer
    · Asahi Super Dry
    · Asahi Kuronama Black
    · Kohaku no Toki (ale-ish)
    · Juksen (Asahi Premium) – (hoppy & pale)
    · Fujisan (really crips & pleasant)
    · River Pia (Tokyo brewed wheat beer)
    · Nikka Cider

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NATA @ The World Cup, June 2006

Helen and I got lucky on the FIFA website last year for a pair of tickets for what turned out to be Poland v Ecuador in Gelsenkirchen (at the time we found out it, was "Team A3 v A4 in Match 2", so we watched the draw in December with interest!), then found out in February we'd been lucky in the next ballot with tickets for tickets to Czech Republic v Ghana.

We had planned to spend Thursday 8th - Sunday 18th out in Germany, and right up until April we had hotels booked the length and breadth of the country (Gelsenkirchen - Dusseldorf - Heidelberg - Augsburg - Mainz - Rudesheim - Koblenz - Dusseldorf), some around match venues and some along the "Romantic Rhine". As it turned out, two events conspired to curtail our World Cup adventure to just two weekends - reporting deadlines at my work changed (very boring - I'm a Compliance Manager!) and Scotland played in the Kirin Cup in Japan (which changed our holiday priorities!). A very understanding boss agreed to a change of holiday plans at short notice, and so our football (watching) season was extended right through the summer, enabling us to watch Scotland lift their first overseas trophy and still get to the greatest show on earth.

On Friday 8th June we flew out to Düsseldorf and headed up to Gelsenkirchen for 2 nights. The Thursday night was great fun, and ranged from quiet drinks in a station pub to being treated to Deutsche Bahn hospitality at a nearby brewpub with the station manager and the architects (they'd been celebrating the opening of the new station since 10am that morning!). On the Friday Gavin (another Tartan Army pal with a ticket) came up from Düsseldorf and we had a few beers and watched the opening ceremony and first half of the Germany game (with the Fortuna connections, and my frequent travel there, Germany are naturally my national second team after Scotland). The Polish fans during the day were pretty unfriendly, unlike the exuberant and generous (we were offered two free tickets to the game, which we declined) Ecuadorians, so we were quite happy when Ecuador sprung a surprise. The tram back into town was slow and hard-going, due to a tram crash three trams ahead causing a massive log-jam, but it did give us a chance to chat to Colin, John, Ross and Kirk of the Larbert Tartan Army, fellow Scots over for the first weekend.

Saturday saw us off down to Düsseldorf to check in to a new hotel, before donning my Trinidad & Tobago shirt with my kilt and heading up to Dortmund. The train was packed, but we got chatting to a Trinidadian couple and Chris (England fan) and Cameron (an Aussie). Once in Dortmund we wandered around taking in the atmosphere (a sea of yellow from the very friendly Swedes, and certainly no animosity towards my T&T shirt) before settling in a pub to allow Helen to watch the England game. The day was a bit of a blur, but involved meeting Scots supporting England (admittedly through marriage), a group of Watford fans, who left shortly before father and son Luton fans took their place and, come evening and the third match, a large group of Everton and Liverpool supporting mates and all the accompanying banter. By now, the bar (the Kronen Pils Bar) had laid on a DJ and he was trotting out the likes of Ferry Cross The Mersey and You'll Never Walk Alone (a big favouite of the Borussia Dortmund supporting locals). We left the pub just before 1am, somehow managed to ride a big wheel in the funfair on the way to the station, before staggering onto a Düsseldorf-bound train. Luckily that's where the journey terminated, as we both had to be shaken awake by a concerned train guard (it was all the emotion of the day, honest!).

Sunday saw a later start than planned, but it was off down to Cologne to meet back up with Gav (who'd been to Hamburg for Argentina v Ivory Coast on the intervening day, getting good value from his German Rail Pass) and another London-based pal, "Disco" Donnelly. We didn't stray far for the first game of the day, watching the Holland-Serbia game on the station pub's big screen, before I lead the way to a couple of good local brew-pubs (despite Düsseldorf and Cologne being rival cities, I know them both equally well). No sooner had we found a seat in the second brewpub when Disco's phone rang - it was one of his fellow Chelsea fans with the chance of 60 Euro tickets for Angola v Portugal at just a 20 Euro mark-up. Helen and I weren't too fussed about actually getting into the game, as we had an early flight Monday and wanted to beat the crowds heading back up to Düsseldorf, but Disco and Gav took them and were soon off to snap them up. By now, we'd actually rendezvoused with yet another Tartan Army regular, Jim Brown, who works during the week in Cologne and commutes back to Glasgow at weekends (where he somehow finds time to act as Chairman of the West of Scotland Tartan Army!). Jim, Helen and I wandered back towards the station, taking in the first half of Angola v Portugal on the screen of a riverside pub before heading back to the station pub for the second half, enabling an easy get away.

Monday's flight back to Heathrow from Düsseldorf (which was actually the outbound section of a new return flight, having booked the original ticket back in January for the full 11 days) was a mixed bag of German businessmen and English fans, and after a hectic few days back in the office, this trend was repeated in reverse on Friday afternoon.

Whilst the first weekend saw me travel in my kilt and wear it throughout, I was a little more apprehensive for the second weekend. With England's game in Nuremberg on the Thursday, it stood to reason that their travelling army would start heading for Cologne in the intervening period before the Sweden game the following week, and despite the reported mproved behaviour, I was in no mood to mark myself out as a possible target. Friday evening was a relatively quiet affair, taking in the end of the Mexico-Angola game in a wee lokal near our hotel before settling in to the Schumacher brew-pub for a few late night beers (the köbes, or barmen, have started recognising me in there as it's my favourite pre-Fortuna game haunt).

Saturday saw us up bright and early on a mission to track down some late World Cup souvenirs; despite coming to Germany on average every two months, hence savouring the build up from a very early stage, there still seemed to be the odd knick-knack or special edition t-shirt we haven't yet bought! After running into a group of kilted Aberdonian fans in Ghana shirts and comedy wigs on the platform, the train to Cologne got us in just after 2pm, which was perfect timing for us to find a seat in front of Cologne station Kolsch pub's tried and tested screen to watch the first half of Portugal-Iran before heading out to the ground in good time!

By doubling back over the Rhine and catching the tram from Deutz, we had the pick of seats - just 2 stops later it was standing room only. Yet another unexplained tram hold-up later, we were standing out in front of Cologne's Rhein-Energie Stadion. Being the ground-hopping football anoraks we are, both Helen and I had taken in games here the previous summer in the Confederations Cup, including Germany's sell-out win against Tunisia. Somehow this managed to count for nothing, as the vast lawns in front of the stadium's north stand were taken up by swathes of white tarpaulin for hospitality, and the central path was flanked by a variety of stages and stalls plugging everything from soft drinks to tyres to mobile phones.

Despite leaving the kilt hanging up at home, I had opted on the day to sport a retro Scotland shirt, with a tastefully chosen Hawaiian shirt to deflect attention from it if necessary. The adornment was Helen's Worthing FC flag (which could be confused for Austria at distance), and we headed in to our seats earlier than usual to try and find a prime spot to hang it. We knew we were in Row 1, and I was pretty certain from my internet research we were in the upper tier, but how much opportunity we'd have to get the flag up was uncertain as our tickets were actually the lowest of the low - 27 Euro Category 3 Restricted View. No problems at all on this front - we secured both the Worthing flag and a smaller "Netley Abbey Tartan Army" saltire with the help of some shoelaces and a generous portion of masking tape (thankfully not confiscated at the turnstiles).

The fans (as opposed to the prawn-sandwich inflated "attendance") would have been around 60% Czech, 10% Ghana and 30% Germans/neutrals supporting Ghana. We seemed to have ended up in an unofficial "home" end, as all the "Viva Colonia" chants started around us (much to my chagrin, as a Fortuna follower, and Helen's amusement). Ghana played superbly, ending up deserved 2-0 winners against a largely clueless Czech side missing their main threat in Koller, although to their credit the Czech fans were very sporting and were very keen to instigate the swapping of shirts and scarves with the victors.

More over-heated, over-loaded stationary tram fun awaited us on the journey home, and Helen and I found ourselves around 8 yards apart, separated by several dozen other fans, including a group of 5 mates from Manchester (one of whom worked for the UK Government out in Accra). Despite having to suffer stripped sweaty torsos brushing against me as yet more fans swapped shirts, I found myself cheek to armpit with one of the English guys. He took time to explain to me he was just here to enjoy the football and the carnival spirit, but he had timed his visit to avoid the main influx of English fans for fear of being caught up in any trouble and getting tarred with the same brush; this is reminiscent of two lads from Bolton I met in Montpellier at France 98, as they explained they'd left Marseille for the very same reason. Although my tram travelling companion's fears have thankfully proved to be largely unfounded, it did hammer home that there were many fans just like me, English, Scottish and from all points north, east, west and south, who are basically the same in sharing a passion for both football and their own country.

The light that shines twice as bright shines for half as long, and as we'd shone so brightly up to this point, Helen and I decided an early-ish night was called for. So, after stocking up on cured ham, cheese and Tuc biscuits at Dusseldorf's always dependable station supermarket, we settled down in front of the hotel telly for a picnic and German TV World Cup coverage.

Despite our flight home being on the Sunday afternoon, the Tartan Army connection wasn't over yet. Craig and Simon, yet another pair of economic exiles to London, had flown to Frankfurt on the Friday to take in Portugal-Iran and also had tickets for Switzerland-Togo on the Monday in Dortmund; unable to find accommodation in Dortmund, and inspired by my constant recommendations, they had decided to bide in Dusseldorf on the Sunday night. After getting up at the crack of dawn on the Sunday morning, failing to get any breakfast (except for a Weissbier) on the ICE train up, and then getting lost in the station and having to ring for directions to their hotel (one street away!), the two of them made it to the Schumacher Stammhaus for our lunchtime rendezvous. Helen and my planned departure to the airport slipped from 2pm to 3.30pm ("hey, it's the World Cup - let's treat ourselves to a taxi!") as we whiled away the afternoon, before we reluctantly bade farewell. Despite a solid diet of German football songs on the car CD player on the drive back from Heathrow, it couldn't quite make up for the realisation that the World Cup is still going on without us. We did however promise ourselves that if Germany do make to the final, we'll go back to Düsseldorf and watch in a pub there in our Germany shirts and kilts, unless it's against England...

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WC2006 - Part 1
(9 Pages)

WC2006 - Part 2
(3 Pages)





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