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Zurich and Innsbruck certainly captured the spirit of these European Championships, but their efforts pale in comparison to those of Vienna. The space devoted to the Fan Zones is enormous, and there's a real mix of nationalities here from all the competing countries - and in the case of my friends and I, from England too.
After a train journey of around eight hours (two of which were spent thumb-twiddling in Innsbruck, due to a rare delay in the otherwise frighteningly efficient Austrian rail network), we arrived into Vienna Westbahnhof late on Friday afternoon. Having checked in at the Hotel Deutschmeister - where, despite the name, Russians appeared to be in charge - we headed to the Rathausplatz to get our first look at Vienna's main Euro 2008 hub and watch Croatia versus Turkey in the second quarter-final.
Austria's capital is full to the brim with architectural splendour, and from within the Fan Zone you can marvel at a series of magnificent buildings. The Habsburg dynasty ruled a vast empire from here for over 600 years, and the imposing Hofburg (Court Palace) was their seat of power. For this tournament, the city organisers have sited the Fan Zone right in the heart of imperial Vienna - it stretches from the Hofburg's Heldenplatz gardens, through the Volksgarten and up into the Rathauspark. In the latter, the buildings all date from the 1880s but appear much older, having been constructed in different styles - there's the Gothic town hall, the Baroque theatre, the Neoclassicism of the Parliament building, and the Renaissance university. Vienna's glory days may be long gone, but standing here you wouldn't know it.
It's not just a feast for the eyes either. The fast-food stalls make a mockery of the appalling grub we get served at most football grounds in the UK. We plumped for a fried food dinner, which may sound unappetising and unhealthy but consider this - we had shrimp, prawns, breaded mozzarella sticks, chilli cheese potato wedges, chicken goujons, curly fries and more. A greasy undercooked cheeseburger in a stale bun doesn't really compare.
We'd considered attempting to pick up tickets on the black market for this fixture, but the train-station touts were quoting us a price of 300 euros each - plus the three of us felt the game might not be a great spectacle. As it turned out, we had no regrets. Croatia were clearly the more skilful side but lacked a cutting edge, while Turkey's rare attacks amounted to very little (although jinking left-winger Arda Turan always looks a threat). We were, however, hugely entertained by both sets of fans watching the giant screens in the shadow of the Rathaus. The Turks were out in greater numbers, and generated a tremendous atmosphere with their shouts of 'Turk-i-ye!!' growing in volume as we went into extra-time. After Ivan Klasnic's 117th-minute goal, many of them slipped away but quickly returned in high spirits when Semih Senturk levelled five minutes later. And as their team came through the penalty shoot-out, the celebrations began in earnest. Walking back to our hotel later that night, we were passed by countless cars and taxis honking their horns and waving the Turkish flag from the windows.
Having risen late on Saturday, our first stop was the Stephansdom cathedral - a good place to get our bearings in the middle of town. After a leisurely stroll through the shopping district, we decided to check out the daytime goings-on in the Fan Zone. Adidas are one of the sponsors who have a major presence here - in truth, the rampant commercialism can get tiring - but at least their area comprises a series of football mini-games to keep you occupied. My participation ended early though; I was wearing sandals not trainers, a choice that backfired as I suffered a bleeding big toe on Game 4 which ruled me out for the rest of the tournament. I hobbled off to the Kia Motors stand, where there was less risk of injury playing table football with some very attractive Austrian girls.
There was little debate about the lunch options - Wiener Schnitzel all round, and very good it was too - and we wandered on through Vienna, which does have one drawback. Horse-drawn carriages are popular with the tourists, but the resulting smell on a hot day is enough to make you retch. We stuck to the side streets and ended up next to the Hilton Plaza hotel, a five-minute walk from the Fan Zone on the Schottenring. As we ambled past, Turkey coach Fatih Terim was deep in conversation with an Italian TV journalist but he was interrupted mid-flow by the shouts from a large crowd of fans when players Rustu Recber, Gokhan Zan and Servet Cetin appeared to sign autographs. Sadly, there was no sign of Colin Kazim-Richards - the undoubted star of Euro 2008, to those desperate for some English interest.
Holland v Russia was unsurprisingly a much better game than the previous night's quarter-final offering, with both sides so technically accomplished. We'd witnessed first-hand the style and movement of the Russians as they beat Sweden in Innsbruck on Wednesday, and once again their maestro Andriy Arshavin inspired them to victory against a Dutch side whose defensive frailties were all too apparent in extra-time. A group of rowdy Oranje fans started throwing plastic cups at some Russians and the mood threatened to turn nasty after the final whistle. The Fan Zones are fantastic arenas in which to watch tournament football, but depending on the size of the crowd, the importance of the match and the teams involved, you are always aware of the potential for trouble.
Being inside the stadium is what it's really all about, and on Sunday night we're at the Ernst-Happel to see Spain take on Italy - a clash of the heavyweights. The supposed underdogs have won every quarter-final so far, and it seems strange to have the reigning world champions in that role for this game. It's a tough one to predict, but I'm hoping Spain come through as they've been great to watch so far. Bring it on!
Fabregas is a class act - how Spain can afford to keep him on the bench is beyond belief (and I'm a Man Utd fan!). It's been a very entertaining tournament apart from the first few games, it's been refreshing to see unheralded teams such as Croatia, Russia and Turkey go so far. Attacking football has been rewarded as seen by the Dutch, the Spanish and the Russians with Fabregas and Arshavin being the players of the tournament despite playing in less than half of their teams' games to date!
Posted 22:24 23rd June 2008
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