Postcard from September 2008

Cathal charts stage one on the journey of hope

How we came to be in Mainz, forty minutes west of Frankfurt, is a tale of ill-advised invasions, incompetent organisation and rapid reservations.

Ireland was scheduled to play Georgia in Tbilisi at the start of their World Cup qualifying campaign. I booked my flights and hotels for Tbilisi way back in June, anticipating a return to a country much changed since our last visit there in 2003, but still with friendly faces, late late closings and 15% proof beer. This was all thrown into doubt when, on the day the Olympics started, the Russians invaded Georgia over the disputed South Ossetia region (it must be said the Georgians aren’t entirely innocent, but that’s another story) and a week later, FIFA announced that our match would be played at a neutral venue to be decided by the Georgian FA.

Glenn Whelan celebrates goal
Stephen Hunt in Podgorica action

This led to a flurry of Tbilisi hotel and flight cancellations, but a few days later, FIFA amended their statement to say they merely asked Georgia to nominate a neutral venue should the need for one arise. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from Irish fans who had jumped the gun. But the political situation got no clearer as time went on and the game had to be relocated after all. The Georgians eventually picked Karlsruhe, an hour west of Stuttgart. Ireland supporters, including many who weren’t going to Tbilisi but were now up for a weekend in much handier Germany, snapped up all the flights to the area (Ryanair’s opportunistic 5,000% price increases notwithstanding) and hotel rooms in the city. The trouble was the Georgian FA forgot to ask Karlsruhe SC if it was possible to stage the match at their ground.

It wasn’t.

Citing too short notice as a reason, Karlsruhe declined to host the game, sparking another round of mass cancellations. Just nine days before the match was due to be played, Mainz was finally named as the venue for the tie. Within two hours of the official confirmation, every single hotel room in Mainz was booked up – An on-the-ball bunch us Ireland supporters are – with Wiesbaden and Frankfurt taking the overflow of fans.

And so on Friday afternoon, I found myself in Mainz, a well-heeled city of 200,000 people, situated where the rivers Rhine and Main meet. It’s a hilly town of cobbled, pedestrianised squares and confusingly planned streets (or badly drawn tourist maps, one of the two). We were there at the same time as the Mainz wine market. Not wanting to appear rude, we sampled the fabulous fruity local wines. Sadly we couldn’t buy any to take home as it was still fermenting and the gasses would explode if bottled. In the evening, we dined at Heiligeist (Holy Spirit), a restaurant set in a converted church. The food was excellent local fare and obviously popular with the Mainzers, though we did wonder whether the wine was previously water, or if you got communion wafers with ice cream.

The match was at the Burchweg Stadium, a 10 minute hike up a hill from the Hauptbahnhof (central station). A compact little ground that normally holds 20,000, but reduced to about half of that for this game as no standing terraces are allowed for World Cup matches. About 4,000 Irish supporters made it there, four times more than would have gone to Georgia, but those like me who originally booked for Tbilisi got tickets to this game for free! Our numbers were supplemented by a fair few neutral Germans and about 200 Georgian exiles. Not many spectators, but paradoxically enough to generate a far better atmosphere than is usually found at Croke Park.

Kevin Doyle headed Ireland into a 13th minute lead. Then Georgian keeper Giorgi Loria let a speculative Glen Whelan shot deflect off his knee into the corner of the net, 2-0. Giovanni Trapattoni had done well in his first competitive game as Ireland manager, but he’ll need to drill the team out of habitually conceding late goals. Here, Levan Kenia pulled a goal back for Georgia in the 90th minute to cause mass panic amongst the travelling support in injury time. But we held on, and were off to a winning start.

It’s always been my contention that football is an excuse to travel, not the other way round. Football, especially international football, offers the opportunity to go to far off places away from the established holiday destinations. Who would normally consider a trip to Montenegro for instance?

Montenegro broke away from Yugoslavia/Serbia only two years ago. It’s often said that newly independent countries apply to join FIFA before seeking membership of the UN and I can see why; having a team in the World Cup or European Championship raises your country’s profile infinitely higher than being in any bureaucratic council – But for football, who’d have heard of Cameroon or Faroe Islands, for instance? – and as fate would have it, in their first international competition Montenegro find themselves drawn against Ireland. So here we are.

At first glance, Podgorica, the capital city, appears dilapidated and run-down, the buildings seem very low and in need of restoration. But the quality of light, especially at sunset, casts a positive glow on the place and its people. All in the shadow of the surrounding black mountains that give Montenegro its name.

I was staying at the Hotel Bojatours Lux Podgorica, just down from the main street, Slobode. This hotel also doubled as a travel agent and paint shop. Not exactly the most obvious combination. The rooms were a bit dark, but they did have satellite TV, Wi-Fi connectivity and that most treasured asset in daily temperatures of 35°C, air conditioning.

Podgorica has a population of 160,000, all of whom apparently go out in the evening promenading up and down Slobade, seemingly without going anywhere. Not that anyone minded; Montenegrin girls are olive-skinned, long-legged, clear blue-eyed types wearing not a lot in the hot temperatures. During the daytime however, it’s just the men who are seen sitting around the outdoor cafes and bars, man bags on the table and drinking away. And nobody, male or female, day or night, ever seems to eat.

Though not a big city, it feels like it is because of the traffic. Local drivers are a law onto themselves and think nothing of driving straight on through pedestrian crossings even when the green man is flashing. Crossing the road here should only be done by waiting for a native to cross and follow in their slipstream.

I visited the Gallery & Museum of Podgorica. The caretaker fella there seemed befuddled that I would want to visit. It was deserted and I had the place to myself. So much so that the caretaker had to come with me to turn the lights on.

The match was at the FK Buducnost stadium in the city centre right at the end of Slobode. A compact little ground that holds 17,000 spectators. It looked close to full as Montenegro and Ireland played out a tense scoreless draw. Robbie Keane should have scored in the second half, but Shay Given kept it goalless by scrambling out a Stevan Jovetic shot that was deflected goalwards by John O’Shea. Montenegro are no also rans and we were happy to escape with a point.

So there you have it. At the start of our journey we hoped for 4 points from these two away games and that’s what we got. Even though we enjoyed Mainz, we would have preferred it if gone to Tbilisi as originally planned. As for Podgorica, it was a revelation. If you’re looking for a holiday in a hot climate, with low prices (€0.80 a beer! Match tickets at €5.00!) and no crowds, you could do worse than consider Montenegro.



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