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The Ground Hopping Exploits of a Man from Down Under

Part Two - Tunis I

After more sightseeing in and around Valletta, I took the hour long flight to Tunis where I had no game scheduled. Despite my email to the Tunisian Premier League which started with a phrase  in fluent Francais, “Parlez vous Anglais?”, I had received no response so was completely in the dark about my chances of seeing a game. Upon checking in to my hotel I asked the receptionist about any games over the weekend. The blank look I got suggested that there wasn’t much hope. The following morning, I asked a different receptionist who suggested that I should come back after 3pm. The suggestion being that one of her male colleagues might have a better idea.

Sightseeing was on the agenda. I stumbled across the ground and main base for one of Tunis’s main clubs, Club Africaine. The grounds (there were a few pitches that all looked a bit tired) featured more than one fenced pitch and surprisingly, a small but neat and reasonably well stocked club shop. On sale were mainly items of club kit, tracksuits etc. Even snared myself the last shirt of last season’s kit for the knock down price of about EUR 8. Who’s going to know the difference back in Australia? And would you believe it? The shirt wasn’t manufactured by Nike or Adidas or other recent arrival on the sportswear scene. Umbro (remember them?) was proudly featured on the sleeves and body of the shirt. The lady behind the cash register obligingly posed for a photo proudly holding my new Terrors scarf.

Next stop was the World Heritage site of Carthage, old Roman ruins about half an hour to the east of Tunis. Back in Tunis having caught the local train that runs out and back to Carthage and beyond, I took the opportunity to have a spot of lunch and to rest my very, very tired legs. The pain in my knees was getting worse (post trip back in Australia the pain was diagnosed as early onset arthritis). As I sat and watched the crowds wander past, there were two young men with green scarves. They looked so much like football fans. But where would the game be? Which team were they supporting? Having finished lunch, I decided to approach them and ask about “the game”. They were from Casablanca in Morocco. They were here in Tunis for the big game tomorrow night between their team, Raja Casablanca and Esperance (EST), the local team who were the current holders of the African Champions League. It was a group game between the two top teams although Raja needed a point to ensure qualification to the knockout stage. The game was the next night (Sunday) and would take place in a stadium at a place called Rades. The nearest train station was a good half hour walk from the ground, known as the Rades Olympic Stadium, but how to get there and how to get a ticket? I was excited at the prospect!

The next morning at breakfast in the hotel, I spotted two more Raja supporters. I had a chat with them and they told me that all Raja supporters were going to be let into the ground free of charge to watch the game. This was a reciprocal arrangement as Raja had offered this same gesture to Esperance fans that had travelled to Morocco for the first game which the visitors had won 3-0. Interesting!

I went down to reception again and asked about directions to Esperance’s ground (training ground and HQ would be a better way to put it) so that I could buy a ticket for the match. He only had a rough idea where the ground was – despite the green square on the map being marked with the lines of a football pitch. I asked him about the possibility of free entry as mentioned by the Raja supporters. The look of shock on his face made it quite clear that no such thing would happen.

So, I wandered off and finally found my way to Esperance’s ground. The ground was very like that of Club Africaine just up the road. There were a few people hanging around. I saw a small window open with the odd person wandering away from it. It looked like a ticket sales window to me, so I approached and in my best Arabic (schoolboy French really) I asked about a ticket for the game that evening. The response was “complet”. Hmmm! So where to from here? Locals hanging around looked like ticket touts, but I was reluctant to approach them. Then a local came up to the window to try and buy a ticket for himself. He got the same answer, saw me standing there looking wonderingly about my next move. He spoke good English (and good Arabic), and we got chatting. His advice was that the only way to get a ticket would be to buy from one of the touts. He was happy to do the buying if I was interested as he would be able to “negotiate” and wouldn’t get ripped off. So I stood to one side and he went off to speak to a man nearby. He returned to me and told me that he could get a couple of tickets for 30 dinars each. Was I interested? Go for it I told myself! The transaction was completed and I had a 20 dinar ticket for the princely sum of 30 dinars. That’s about 8 Euros.

Next stop was the Medina. The old part of the city where narrow alleyways and small shops dominate whilst thousands of people live in quiet backstreets where cars cannot easily manoeuvre through. Having sworn my allegiance to Raja Casablanca, I felt it would be wrong to buy a shirt of Esperance as a souvenir. But the Medina did cough up one thing for me – a walking stick. Cost was 5 Euros and it turned out to be a great investment, helping me to walk with more confidence. After the Medina, I walked over to the main line train terminal to check out trains to Rades, the nearest station to the Rades Olympic Stadium. They ran every 20 minutes. Outside the station entrance, there were hundreds and hundreds of green clad Moroccans, all Raja supporters, getting ready to take the train to Rades. This looked like an adventure in the making. I bought a return ticket from Tunis to Rades for the princely sum of about 30 cents. The ticket said Rades and it was clearly a return ticket.

After a siesta back at my hotel, I made my way to the station to take an 1800 train out to Rades and then hopefully find my way to the ground. This turned out to not be a problem as there were hundreds of Esperance supporters doing the same trip. All I had to do was follow the crowd. The journey took about half an hour. There were two Rades stations serving different parts of the area with that name. Personally, I thought the first one we arrived at seemed the most sensible to get off at, but as no one moved so I stayed put as well. The next stop saw a mass exodus off the train. This must be the right one I reassured myself. Bracing myself for the long walk following the Esperance fans to the ground, I was quickly facing a setback when all the locals just jumped down from the platform, onto the tracks and up onto the platform the other side and straight out the exit gate. In my younger days I would have been quite happy to follow risking life and limb, but the knees were not happy with this idea. There was only one thing for it, I had to be the only person who selected to cross the tracks via the pedestrian bridge that rose from the platform I was on and deposited me on the one opposite. That climb and descent on the other side did not receive the support of my knees. The crossing was difficult and painful to say the least.

Having exited the gate I could see that the Esperance fans that I intended to follow, using their slipstream to full advantage, were now about 100 metres or more in front. I set off in chase, walking as fast as I could (which wasn’t very fast) with the aid of the newly acquired walking stick. It looked like a lost cause. I walked and walked. Gradually the tail end of the Esperance supporters out in front moved further away and try as hard as I could, I couldn’t close the gap. The further we got from the station, the less street lights there were. I passed a butchers shop which had the decapitated head of a bovine creature hanging up and on the other side of the window were four lower legs presumably belonging to the head.  There was no sign of the body. Eventually the Esperance supporters disappeared. I kept going and after what was probably about 45 minutes I approached a main road and as I got to it, there, off to the right in the distance I could see the bright lights of the Rades Olympic Stadium. On the “outskirts” of the ground – it was surrounded by a huge car parking area – I crossed open ground and headed towards the stadium itself. There were very few people doing the walk as I was. There was a modest security check at the perimeter fence and once inside the grounds, it was just a case of finding my “gate” as noted on my ticket. Then I thought, “Why not?”. Let’s try to get the free entry mentioned by the visiting supporters and join the Raja Casablanca fans. So instead of turning left and heading off to Gate 5, I turned right and headed to Gate 33, the home of Raja supporters. I was the only one heading that way. A policeman approached me and in my best schoolboy French I told him that I was heading to Gate 33 and the Raja supporter bay. No problems.

The stadium contains an athletics track, so the walk was along one of the straights (on the outside of the stadium itself) to the area behind one of the goals. Just behind where the steeplechase water jump was - just so you get the picture. There was another internal perimeter fence and when I came across Gate 33 boldly approached it. It was “guarded” by security personnel – mainly policemen. I held my passport and just said “Raja” and I was through.  Having walked for an hour or so I was in need of a visit to the men’s room. Raja supporters obviously had a problem with their aim. The floor of the toilets was covered in what could only be Moroccan pee. I waded in and left with a relieved bladder (having used the supplied urinal) and headed towards the terraces.

Tunis II