Following Soccer Around Europe on $20 a Day
The Eurocup is just like the World Cup, but without all those “soccer is my religion” South American teams adding to the competition. In the summer of 2008, I took the standard solo trip around Western Europe, staying in a combination of hostels, couches, and dusty German hardwood floors. The dollar was at an all time low against the Euro, and I was on a budget of about $20 a day—so most of my experiences involved cheap beer, street food and wandering around looking for free tourist attractions. But one way I was able to break out of the American “backpacking through Europe” cliché and experience some bona fide culture was to join in with the locals in every country to root their national soccer team on to victory as the Eurocup unfolded on just about every screen on the continent. On Thursday I might be an avid fan of the Spanish and their incredible ball possession skills, but when my train rolled in to Paris I was raving about the French defense.
Sweden Vs. Greece – June 10 (Sweden 2 – Greece 0)
I took a taxi from the Stockholm airport to my Swedish friend Magnus’ Ikea showroom style apartment, tipping the cab driver about a quarter of my daily budget (Magnus later told me I probably made the guy’s week because Swedes don’t tip for cabs, much less 20%). When I arrived, several of Magnus’ friends had already gathered to watch soccer coverage and prepare for that night’s game against Greece. It was the Swedes first match, and they were feeling confident going in against a weak Greek squad. The Swedish team consisted of 22 middling players and one superstar—Zlatan Ibrahimović. Ibrahimović was such a big deal in Stockholm that the local paper included a 54-page magazine just about him. It was somewhere between US Weekly and Sports Illustrated, if they only covered one celebrity.
That night we posted up at a fancy downtown bar (not our scene, but Magnus had a friend working that promised us a free round—a big deal when the average cost of a beer is $13) and watched the Swedes live up to their potential as Ibrahimović led them to a decisive 2-0 victory. After the game, we headed into the crowded streets of downtown Stockholm as the ever-mindful Swedes politely celebrated their victory in organized fashion. The night wore on and the sun began to rise (at 3 a.m.—very weird), so we hailed a cab home. But as we were hopping in, a drunk reveler wandered into the streets completely unaware of oncoming traffic. My friend Magnus ran to help her out of the street, and instead of thanking him she just babbled on about Ibrahimović’s stellar performance and dreamy eyes. I tried to put her in the cab we’d just hailed, but Magnus had a better idea. He flagged down some passing police officers and explained the situation. I tried to protest—surely we don’t want to get the police involved; they’ll just make her night an unnecessary nightmare. After all, she’s just drunk. She doesn’t need to spend the night in jail for celebrating a soccer game. Magnus stared at me blankly before asking the police if they could make sure the incoherent partyer got home safely. The police officers smiled, helped the woman into their hip Euro cruiser that looked something like the authorities on The Jetsons, and whisked her away to safety—no handcuffs, tickets or even the slightest bit of attitude involved. Magnus, looked to me, not understanding my concern. “Why wouldn’t the police help her home? She needed help and that’s their job.” I was far away from home.
Total Spent on the Game: $26 for two beers
Holland vs. Romania – June 17th (Holland 2 – Romania 0)
When I arrived in Amsterdam, my first move was to rent a bicycle for the duration of my trip and my second was to ask a local why everyone in the whole city was dressed in orange. The Dutch played Romania that night, and their red, white and blue flag didn’t have a trace of citrus on it but every rabid fan was decked out from head to toe in eye blinding orange. I quickly learned that orange is apparently the color of the Dutch Royal Family, but that still seems like a weird reason to leave the house looking like a walking traffic cone. If President Obama revealed that his favorite color was turquoise, I don’t think we’d all of a sudden start dressing like a Jewelry stand in Santa Fe. Regardless, I arrived at my home for the next several days—a tall 300 year old 5-story apartment house that leaned at such a strong angle I thought it was one of those trick magnetized houses as Six Flags. I was staying with a group of Americans I’d never met—friends of friends that were studying for the semester or the year or an indeterminable amount of time—Amsterdam seems to make people’s future plans indeterminable. They welcomed me with homemade hummus, cous cous, and all kinds of delicious foods that had nothing to do with America or Holland but were a welcome break from the street meat that was all I could afford. We all headed out to a bar to watch as the Orange battled Romania, another easy win for the home country and my new favorite team. The Dutch fans were more rowdy than their Swedish counterparts, and the celebration felt more like a college football win than a European soccer victory. After the game, my new American friends took me to a local bar and proceeded to recite Pi to somewhere around the 100th digit. It was a party trick they’d been working on for months. Again, Amsterdam. The next morning, I drunkenly boarded a train headed toward Berlin and my new favorite team—the Deutschland black and white. But before we arrived in Berlin, the train stopped on the Holland/Germany border as several terrifying German guards boarded with drug sniffing German Shepherds (really Germany? German Shepherds? We don’t guard our borders with Bald Eagles), terrifying just about everyone on board.
Total Spent on the Game: $36 for 4 beers / $7 for French fries that were ruined with the addition of mayonnaise
Germany vs. Turkey – June 25th (Germany 3 – Turkey 2)
I arrived in Berlin to stay a week in my other Swedish friend’s empty extra room. And when I say empty, I mean empty—the only thing in the entire apartment was a single bed he and his roommate shared and a waist high stack of Snus (Swedish dipping tobacco) they had smuggled out of Scandanavia. I laid down my bath towel on the hardwood floor for a bed and crumpled up my jacket for a pillow, thrilled to have accommodations, no matter how rustic.
The first think I noticed about Berlin is that their street food was hands down the best in Europe. From Turkish gyros to fried halloumi cheese sandwiches to sausages that almost rained down from the sky (a more delicious ending to the film Magnolia), this was a drunk food paradise. My personal favorite was eating a bratwurst from one of the roaming grill men in Alexanderplatz. These guys were sort of a one-man band for bbqing—like if Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins was making sausage instead of music. They walked around with a portable grill strapped over their shoulders via suspenders and dished out excellent sausages for about $2 in 2 minutes. I can’t imagine how horrible of a job it must have been and how against health codes it would be in New York City to wear your entire restaurant (fashion week take note), but I came to love and rely on these culinary cyborgs for most of my meals.
For some reason my Swedish friends weren’t interested in watching the semi-final game between rivals Germany and Turkey, so I headed to a random bar in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg district to blend in with the thousands of German fans. Technically I didn’t even need to go inside a bar to catch the game, though, because essentially every establishment—from bank to bodega to auto shop—had wheeled out massive TVs onto the street as the city shut down and settled in for the match. Out of all of the nations in Europe, German fans were my favorite. They clung to massive flags, sang rousing chants and shook the city to its foundation at every play. But as the cute German girl I had the luck of posting up next to during the game explained to me in broken—but adorable—English, “This the first time Germans celebrate their team like this for long time. No national pride for generations. Just starting to come out now.” And that night—like most—the German team was on fire, shutting down an unlikely but intimidating run by the Turkish squad 3-2. As the minutes ticked down and the tables overflowed with massive liters of beer spilled with celebration, I wandered outside to the explosive streets of East Berlin and was promptly greeted by a full regiment of decked out German SWAT team officers. There is nothing more terrifying than German riot police…during what could easily be considered a riot. But as the thousands of fans poured out, waving flags, jumping on cars and creating massive circles of patriotic cheers, I noticed that the SWAT guys weren’t interfering. In fact, they were smiling, occasionally chatting with fans and obviously envious of the revelry. I tried to make it to subway but discovered the entire transportation system had been shut down. Fans flooded the tracks, the streets and every knook and cranny of the city. There were no cabs, no buses, no trains and even no ways of walking really anywhere. So I stopped into a bodega, paid a Euro for a fantastic German Dunkel and went back out to the streets to watch the celebration unfold.
Total Spent on the Game: $44 for a lot of fantastic German beers / $4 for Halloumi sandwich (seriously we should get these here in New York)
Spain vs. Germany – June 29th (Spain 1 – Germany 0)
I missed arriving in Spain for the Eurocup final they would ultimately win by about 3 days. Instead, I was high in the remote Swiss alps staying at a hostel that charged $25 a night to sleep at the edge of the world and peer out onto the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen. It was so high up that you couldn’t even take a car to get there. Instead, you take a regional train, followed by a local train, followed by a gondola. From the hostel you can see hang gliders soaring through the air hundreds of feet below and the peaks of the Alps just above. The only other people up this high were local farmers who were more than happy to sell their cheese and eggs to 20-something Americans with Canadian flags sewn onto their bags, and one other small village even higher into the peaks. Best of all, the Swiss farmers really did occasionally yodel, just like in the cough drop commercials. Or someone did; I’m not sure who…but I heard it.
Every day in this bargain paradise was spent hiking through postcard worthy vistas and winding down in the hostel’s wood burning hot tub while some burly German guys impressed everyone and no one by drinking massive glass boots full of some kind of alcoholic milkshake. For food, there wasn’t much. The hostel made pizza, and there was a tiny grocery store in the other village that sold frozen chicken nuggets in the shape of the cross from the Swiss flag. I bought a pack of the Swiss nuggets and filled in the rest of the flag by surrounding them with a rectangle of ketchup.
Switzerland was hosting the Eurocup, and the excitement was obvious even that high and remote in the mountains. Outside of the constant chatter, analysis and game predictions, they’d even decked out our hostel men’s room with a fun urinal-based soccer strategy game. At the base of the urinal where you’d normally aim your…stream…they’d replaced the regular rubber guard with a small plastic soccer goal and a soccer ball hanging down from the top by a string. The objective—I’m guessing—was to pee your way to victory by knocking the ball on the string into the goal.
When the final rolled around, there was only one TV in the whole area. It was in the bar of a hotel that was about a 3-mile hike further up the mountain where the next small village cropped up. I hiked up alongside the farmers, the hostel workers and the fake Canadians I’d been hiking with the last several days. We bought beers (one each because who knew beer would be so expensive in a remote hotel bar 2,000 feet above sea level?) and cheered the Spanish to their first major championship in what would be a 6-year dominance only ending last month at the World Cup. I was sad about not quite being in Spain yet to be a part of the celebration, but there was also something magical about being a part of a small crowd erupting in cheers that bounced around mountains and valleys for miles and miles.
Total Spent on the Game: $16 for one beer / $7.50 for a package of frozen Swiss Nuggets
Photo: Moazzam Brohi