It’s a rare 8am wake up call for me, but sometimes duty calls. Outside the window of my cruise ship cabin I can see the port of Stavanger. The houses look like toys, and I know I can be nowhere but Northern Europe. After a quick breakfast I disembark, heading towards the city center. On the hill to my right swarms of seagulls fly over the whitewashed facades of houses in the old town, the view looks almost Mediterranean.
I head towards tourist information with what seems like half the cruise ship’s population. The streets of Stavanger are empty and I explore the back alleys as a throng gathers, waiting for the tourist bureau to open at 9am. There is a 7 11, an H&M, and a Burger King. It seems that the more a country advances economically, the more it looks like America. It disappoints me and I’m eager to get to the stadium, away from the tourist crowds and tourist prices.
Not that the latter would change. Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries. With a minimum wage of 3,500 Euros everything is prohibitively expensive. A bottle of water at 7 11 costs six dollars, at the ATM the minimum one can take out is the equivalent of forty dollars. It is almost unreal. And I learn how unreal it is moments after seeing the eyes of the tourist bureau’s employee light up at the mention of “Viking Stadion”. Apparently it will take a short train journey outside of the city to Jattavagen. That and fifty dollars.
The change office wants 16 dollars commission to exchange 100 dollars. I choose the ATM as a better option, they will only charge me a foreign transaction fee. It is the best worst option, as I see it. Then it’s off to grab the ticket, fourteen dollars round trip. Seeing as how it is an eighteen-minute journey in total, I’m relieved (in a way) to not be spending a dollar a minute. A can of Swedish Snus and a bottle of water later and I’m out twenty more dollars. Within a matter of five minutes I’m down fifty dollars. At the rate of five dollars a minute I feel like I am in some sort of nightmare.
I forget about it all as I watch the fjords through the train window. I’m nursing my water, I feel like every little minute needs to be soaked up and lived to its fullest. Norway has a way of doing that to you, and it is not just about the money. Its that feeling of being somewhere you may never return to in this all too big world that we live in. I disembark at Jattavagen to find the club’s stadium. Luckily, it isn’t hard—the stadium is basically attached to the train station. It is nine thirty, and the club shop won’t open until eleven so I spend time exploring the area. Viking Stadion is modern, with offices and even a small shopping mall part of the stadium complex. The day is just starting, and I walk among bleary-eyed employees ready to start their day of work. I comfort myself, thinking that—in a way—this is my work.
As I walk the stadium’s perimeter I take in the smell of freshly-cut grass emanating from the nearby practice field. It’s a comforting smell, and again I know it is summer in Northern Europe. Just as I’m about to complete my circumnavigation of the stadium I get lucky. Three men in team issued polo shirts are coming out of the team offices.
“Hey, is there any way I can get a few pictures of the stadium?” Sometimes, in this line of work, you need to be equal parts aggressive and assertive. And you can never be shy. Ever.
“Oh yeah, sure. Just go upstairs and find the bald guy. He’ll help you out. Tell him ‘hi’ from the boys downstairs”. I thank them and move on in. I also thank Norway for educating their citizens to the point that all are basically fluent English speakers.
I head up the stairs and am met with a modest trophy case as well as a full size photograph of Viking Stavanger facing Chelsea. This is Viking FK’s finest hour in the modern day; they knocked the English giants out of the 2002-03 UEFA Cup. I spend my time with the other curiosities, including a poster of what I assumed to be the team’s historical XI with faces that span more than a century—Viking FK were founded in 1899.
Inside an office I find two men engaged in conversation and I introduce myself, telling them that I have come to “see a bald man”. One of them—who is not bald just laughs at me. I can understand him, it isn’t the most tactful way of introducing oneself.
“Just a moment, I’ll be with you shortly.” I nod and step out, relieved that I didn’t commit too much of a faux-pas. I amuse myself by looking at the trophy case again and flipping through some old match programs. I feel like I’m in someone’s living room, and I’m careful to not disturb anything.
Just as thought I had been forgotten in my hosts’ living room the man I had spoken with earlier appears and introduces himself as Morten. He happily escorts me through two double doors and we head out onto a concourse before another set of doors opens and I feel as if I’ve reached some sort of Promised Land. Beyond me is the green of the Viking Stadion pitch, looking as pristine as can be. It is definitely summer in Scandinavia and I shudder at the thought of winter.
As I snap my pictures I explain to Morten my travels around the world in search of stadiums and shirts, and tell him that I will be going to visit Brann Bergen on the last stop of my tour. Since Brann are one of the oldest teams in Norwegian football (like Viking) Morten gives me a small history lesson. Apparently Viking FK are the team to have played the most seasons in Norway’s top league. “In fact, just recently Rosenborg passed us as the team to have collected the most points in the history of the Norwegian top-flight. Not a good thing,” he adds, with a grimace.
“It’s normal. Football is all about money these days—I mean look at Rosenborg. They used to be in the Champions League every single year . . . but not anymore. Its all about Barcelona and Real Madrid.” Morten nods along as I attempt to explain my views on industrial football and the changes it has brought. There will never be the Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Paulo Maldinis and Francesco Tottis, or even Bulent Korkmazs of my childhood. One club men who played for the love of one game, one city, and one club. It’s a bygone era.
For that reason the amateur spirit of Norwegian football warms my heart—here, in one of the world’s most expensive countries, football is not about money. It is about people. I tell Morten about my visit to Stockholm last year, and the derby between Djurgardens and AIK. Even in a neighboring Scandinavian country that amateur grassroots feeling is lost. Morten tells me that I need to see Viking FK face Brann Bergen. I certainly hope I get the chance.
After asking Morten for a Viking FK shirt (since the club shop is closed at this hour) I learn just how real the true spirit of football is in Norway. But first I learn some more about the stadium. We leave the stands and head back into the offices where Morten asks something in Norwegian to a co-worker regarding the shirt. I stand like a child, helplessness belying my 28 years. For some reason, football shirts leave me weak in the knees. Looking at pictures of the original Viking Stadion taken during the Chelsea match I learn that the old stadium had a capacity of only 5000 in the main stand—the rest was standing only. Since UEFA regulations prohibit standing the team decided to build the new stadium. The catch was that the team couldn’t buy the land surrounding the old stadium from the city; the new stadium had to be built on the outskirts of Stavanger. That explains the offices and attached mall—Morten tells me that the goal was to make the stadium useful seven days a week, instead of just one day every other weekend. It is sound reasoning—very progressive Northern European.
Following a walk through the VIP sections and a look at some great aerial photos of the old stadium taken circa 1970 we’re back in front of the giant touch screen that displays the team’s website. It is truly a technologically sound European office—if only my two countries could do technology this well is all I can think. My attention only strays from the screen when Morten’s friend arrives with a beautiful Diadora shirt, a pomegranate color somewhere between red and orange. One of those colors that words cannot describe—you have to see it. I attempt to pay for it but Morten and his friend rebuff my efforts. What can I do?
I do all that I know to do. I thank them both profusely. My heart is warmed by their generosity, and they only smile. Before I leave Morten asks me where I am from in the US. He’s been to Boston, and loved it. He’s lived in Texas, where the heat got to him (as it got to me). He jokes that he can’t even go outside in Norwegian summers due to his light complexion—thus the underground tunnel system in Houston worked for him (it didn’t for me). I keep reiterating my thanks and appreciation of Norwegian hospitality and he gives me his own impressions of the United States.
“It’s a great country—although I did get flipped off twice.” My shock soon gives way to anger—although flipping “the bird” is a time honored tradition in New York I’m shocked that it happened in . . . San Francisco of all places. Not once, but twice. I guess the look on my face makes Morten feel the need to elaborate.
“Well, the first time was from a taxi driver. I couldn’t explain to him the location of our hotel so he just told my wife and I to get out. He left us standing on the sidewalk and gave me the finger as he drove off. Then we tried to get on a bus, from where we were left, and when I didn’t have the correct change the bus driver flipped me off as well.” He just laughs and I have too as well. It’s all we can do sometimes in a world inhabited by more than a few disrespectful people. Because if you don’t laugh, you will never be able to appreciate the good people—people who can just give you a football shirt free of charge in the world’s most expensive country.
Still laughing Morten wishes me luck as he leads me to the door—I have to move fast in order to see the old Stavanger Stadion; my promise to Morten and the rest of the folks at Stavanger FK in return for their generosity. It’s all I can do.
The old stadium sits in a peaceful residential area above the town near an old cemetery, beautifully blanketed in all the brilliant colors of summer flowers. Walking past the cemetery and listening to the crunch of leaves beneath my feet I think about industrial football and the setting of the new stadium—it is basically a business park far from the neighborhoods that support the team. I later learn that Brann Bergen’s stadium is in a similar residential setting. I suppose its fitting—stadiums and cemeteries are two staples of urban life, just as life and death are certainties in our time on earth.
After a few pictures of the stadium—reduced now to a municipality owned exercise-park with a green field and running track—I decide to walk back through the cemetery. Mourning, in my own small way, the death of the old Viking Stadion. Money seems to subsume everything in the end. Viking FK were never—and will never—be Barcelona or Real Madrid, but they can still play them (as they played Chelsea). Football in Norway harkens back to an earlier time, when neighborhoods and personal connections mattered. I learn this in one of the world’s most advanced countries, and that is something I will cherish forever for its odd beauty. The beauty of my great grandmother’s country lies in its small town feeling, where football shirts with three figure price tags can be given for free, where people want to meet you, where people want to care about you.