Hopping with delight

In case you've ever caught yourself totting up how many different grounds you've been to and thought you might be coming down with an obsession, Ian Plenderleith has found the sites of the true hard core

Most fans like to visit an uncharted sta­dium for the first time. A change of view and a new degree of toxicity in your half-time snack are the small paybacks for taking on an often unrewarding away trip. But there are people who take things a bit too far. Welcome to the world of groundhoppers.

It is a cliche to label groundhoppers as sad and obsessive people. Yet sites such as the Swiss-based Groundhopping (in Ger­man) do little to eschew such derogatory labels when it explains the different categories of hopper. A junior-hopper has been to just five different countries and 50 grounds, but is upgraded to a ground-hopper upon doubling that tally, and a profi-hopper by doubling it again. As yet there is no category for psycho-hopper.

There are two sets of criteria to determine whether or not a ground can count towards your tally. The “strict” criteria say that the game you see cannot be a friendly, unless it’s an international; that you must have documentation to prove you were there; that you must stay the whole 90 minutes (not sure how to prove that, unless by procuring sworn affidavits from the spectators around you); and that the purpose of your visit must have been to visit the game. That is, don’t expect to have your ground counted if, when under interrogation by the groundhopping authorities, you let slip that you only went to the Nou Camp because you happened to be on holiday in Barcelona.

The website thinks it’s a “bit exaggerated” to discount a hop on that basis, but agrees you should stay for the whole game, not the 45 minutes stipulated in the “generally ac­cepted” criteria. Furthermore, both sets of conditions agree that the country you visit must be one of the 205 FIFA members. So that trip you took to see the Marshall Islands take on the Federated States of Micronesia was, sadly, a wasted journey.

The Swiss guys don’t appear to have gone to many grounds (still junior-hoppers), but their Dutch counterparts, the Korving Brothers (multilingual site), have been much busier over the past season, not only taking in games from Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Spain and England, but providing the docu­mentary evidence (tickets, photos) and even video footage too. The latter could presumably pass muster as proof that they stayed for the whole 90. The only thing missing from the site is a quote from Mrs Korving saying: “I think it’s just a phase the boys are going through.”

Yet these guys are amateurs compared with profi-hopper Ansgar Spiertz of Germany, who at the time of writing had, according to his awkwardly worded website Diary of Some Groundhopping (in German, with an English-language link that isn’t working), been to 109 games in 2004 alone. No sooner had he “done” 12 games at the European Championship than he was headed back north to see the Intertoto Cup clash between KVC Westerlo and FC Zlin (score: 0-0; attendance: 800).

Our man in Belgium reports that the game was poor and that seven of the eight Zlin fans who had made the 1,100km trip from the Czech Republic were thrown out of the almost empty ground after 25 minutes for refusing to sit down. Sorry lads, but without seeing the full 90 you can’t cross the Kuipje stadium off your lists just yet.

“The Aberystwyth [footballing] public belongs in the peaceful category,” reports Spiertz after joining 479 fellow fans for Aberystwyth Town v Port Talbot Town in late 2002. The stadium “is absolutely worth a visit”, he adds, at least in part because it’s “less than a quarter hour’s walk to the beach”.

Following links from the above sites reveals a strange truth about groundhoppers, or at least the ones that can be bothered to maintain websites about their travels – they’re nearly all German, or northern European, and take the visiting and consequent documentation of their hobby very seriously. One exception is the anonymous, Berlin-based Schalke 04 fan behind Stadionbesuch, who rejects the label “groundhopper” on the grounds that “I simply don’t have time for this hobby”.

Still, he gets around a fair bit (Polish second division; Swedish league; three Hungarian league games in two days), but has the writing style of the terrace misery, complaining on a trip to Eschborn that “travelling by train on Friday is bad enough, but with a carriage full of Japanese schoolchildren the trip turns to pure terror”. This sulky tone perseveres throughout his stadium reviews, as if he knows he should be doing something better but just can’t help himself.

The description given to the common groundhopper (Tetrix undulata) at the Tiscali British Wildlife Guide is of “an unobtrusive little insect, easily overlooked because of camouflaged appearance and small size”. So if you find yourself in a stadium sitting next to a groundhopper while he notes down stats and takes pictures for his homepage, I’d advise that you leave this anal retentive but ultimately harmless creature well alone. Unless of course you see him leaving before the final whistle, in which case you may be tempted to whisper knowingly in his ear: “Sorry mate, this one won’t count.”

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month