Caribbean 5 – The ABC Islands (B is for Bonaire)

December 9th, 2018

 

The map shows an approximate locations for my journeys around the Caribbean, with markers for each place that I have seen, or intend to see football on. Most are on the line of small islands, mainly formed by volcanoes, that make up the Eastern edge of the Caribbean. The last three are very different. These are the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, which are closer to Venezuela than any of the others

I immediately noticed a number of differences, these must to some extent follow each other.

Firstly, the climate is different, it is far more humid – but apparently, they also get less rainfall than the other islands. One advantage they have because of this is they are not in “hurricane alley”. The dryness of the islands means that the ground is comparatively arid. Once you arrive, you cannot help but notice the number of Cacti around. I would think the next bit is a consequence of this. On the other islands I have visited, the vast majority of the population are black, the descendants of slaves brought to the area to work the sugar plantations. In Aruba, only about 15% of the population are black, with the majority being “mixed race”, that means their ancestry harks back to many groups. The local population that were before the Europeans arrived, people who have moved at some stage from the South American continent, Africans and Europeans.

Beyond this, the difference is in the soundtrack of the nations. Everywhere in the Eastern Caribbean, Reggae is king and Bob Marley appears to be the patron saint of the whole area. When the president of the Bonaire FA took me to a local bar, the music playing was Spanish language pop music. In Aruba, they pipe music over speakers in the main street and as far as I can tell, it is a mixture of Spanish, plus Christmas music in English. Not heard Wham yet, but I do think there is something strange about hearing “let is snow”, when the temperature reaches 30°C

My journey from Saint Kitts to Bonaire was convoluted, to say the least. I started simply enough with a taxi to the airport and a flight back to Sint Maarten. Here I had a long wait in the temporary terminal while waiting for my connecting flight to Curacao. There is something to be said for a cramped airport terminal without air conditioning as you talk to those sitting next to you. The beer choices include the two Sint Maarten brewed craft beers that I had sampled before, (its just that in the airport, the price is double that on the boardwalk). I ignored the price and was in a good place when boarding the plane.

I got to Curacao without incident and checked into the hotel. It was further from the town than I had envisaged, and there was a failure of communication over the airport pick up, meaning I had to wait for transport. I managed the walk to town and back. It was further than I thought. In the morning, I walked to the SUBT stadion, which is the secondary stadium for the local league. I took a few photos and noticing the office at the far side of the field was open, I walked across to have a chat.

As my fixture list, confirmed by a phone call to the FA gave me Sunday fixtures in the top division at the National stadium, and Monday night on the FFK (Federashon Futbol Korsou) pitch next door. I was not expecting to see a game here. So, after asking about the ground – it is owned by one of the clubs, Sport Unie Brion Trappers. It is run as a club, and the name Brion is not a reference to the beer of the same name available on the island. I asked if there were any games there soon. The reply was that they did not think so, but we’ll just check with the FFK. It turned out that on the Tuesday, they had not been told as yet that all five top division games for the weekend had been switched to their ground. They were pleased to discover this, as it means more income.

After that, its back to the accommodation, and on to Bonaire. I had booked with a local airline that gave a good price for my routes, which in basic terms were two return trips from Curacao, first to Bonaire and then to Aruba. However, I had a through booking Bonaire to Aruba and knew I would not miss the short connection time, as the flights would be on the same aircraft.

At the airport, it is standard airline business, so all checked in and waiting at the gate with no mention of any delay until after departure time had passed. I later discovered that all this airline’s flights for the day had been cancelled, as had those for the next morning. I was told this was due to crew illness, but let’s face it – that does not add up. The most likely cause was a mechanical problem with the plane, which did not fly at all on the Tuesday, or before 16.00 on the next day.

After a long wait, we were finally told that a plane would be found to fly us across to Bonaire just after 9 p.m., about five hours late. It turned out that this was a smaller plane, (the 19 seat de Havilland Dash 6). This basically spent its day running shuttle services between the three islands, and was now contracted to make an extra flight after its standard operations were finished. Fortunately, there were less than 19 passengers waiting (the Fokker F-50 scheduled to run the flight can carry about 60). After a long wait, I eventually arrived at my destination. My taxi driver told me that the staff at the accommodation would not be there on my arrival, and actually went as far as starting to phone them after my arrival, but actually there was someone waiting, who had received my new estimated arrival time sent in by e-mail once I had been appraised of the delay.

 

The next morning, I had a short walk into town, the road around my accommodation was poor – slightly muddy gravel after rain in the morning. Once you got close to the centre though, it was a different matter with very tidy paving. Tourism on the island can be split into two groups. The cruise ships provide the high-end tours, and they demand the pristine city, with mainly taxi tours to other parts of the island. There is also a much more basic level. The island is well known for its dive spots, and also has several nature reserves away from main town. This results in many tourists looking for a somewhat cheaper experience and longer stays.

A small distance out of town in the other direction is a football stadium. I went to have a look, but it was completely locked up with high walls so as I could not get a view. It is not currently in use, except for kids matches. Apparently, its artificial surface is 11 years old and can no longer meet FIFA standards. The local association is waiting on the local government to renew this.

This means that at the moment, all league matches take place in Rincon, the island’s second biggest town. No where else is big enough to be a town, I think. I was not sure how best to get there. I made enquiries over a one-day car hire, but this was not a comfortable price. I then had what I thought was a stroke of luck, Ludwig Balentin, the president of the FFB said he would pick me up and sometime between 6.30 and 7.00 for the 8 p.m. kick off. By ten past seven, I was getting nervous, especially as trying to phone Ludwig got me nowhere. So, I gave in and called a taxi. As the taxi pulled up to pick me up, I actually received a call from Ludwig, asking where I was and suggesting I tried to find him. I explained I had booked a taxi, and would see him at the stadium.

I think in retrospect, that although this added $25 to my costs, it was a wise move. Ludwig was also meeting a friend who had been working off the island and was still not at the stadium when I asked at half time. They actually made it before the second half started, which meant that I at least had a trip back.

The stadium, Stadion Antonia Trinidad is quite simple. The pitch was artificial but in excellent condition, the floodlights were good enough to get a clear view. There is one main stand, erected on scaffolding with a roof, and several small structures with two or three rows of seats each. In one corner is the shortest corner flag pole I have ever seen. The other three were a little taller (but not much). Admission was US$3. I counted the crowd at 100, but more than half of them missed the start. People were still drifting in to the stadium up until half time.

This meant that for many, the game was over as a contest before they had even arrived. SV Juventus, the “home” team were two goals to the good within 14 minutes. They were both fortuitous goals as well. A penalty in the fourth minute was for a hand ball which was not intended. Still, I can imagine the arguments in the match of the day studio, and feel that after filling enough air time to meet contractual commitments, they would conclude the referee was right. The second saw a defender send a looping header over his own goalkeeper.

Generally, it was an entertaining game, with both sides playing attacking football, but both lacking a clarity of vision in the last quarter of the field. A common fault with football out here is the lack of running off the ball, and also that many players want to be the hero and hang onto the ball when there are passing opportunities. SV Uruguay pulled a goal back 18 minutes for time. It was a typical centre halves goal scored with a header following a corner.

Ludwig Balentin ferried me back to the accommodation, after a drinking session at a bar in Rincon, so it was close to midnight when I got to bed. Still, who cares – you are only old once!! I asked about the application for FIFA membership, which he says will go through, but then when pushed, it seems to be on an indefinite time line. It is clear that the Dutch applications of Bonaire and Sint Maarten have more chance of getting through FIFA, as KNVB supports them. The FFF are not supporting the applications from the French associations in the area which means they are on permanent hold unless they can change the federation’s mind.

Although, with the exception of Rincon place names are not included in the club names, I am told the clubs do represent individual areas on the island. I am quite surprised to note how large the island is. It is larger than Aruba, my next destination even though the latter has five times the population.

 

 

Caribbean 4 – Saint Kitts

December 6th, 2018


Getting to Saint Kitts from Sint Maarten is quite easy. It is a short flight, and the most notable aspect is the temporary accommodation at the airport. This is not quite the last reminder of the Hurricane, as I have a stopover at the same airport on the way out of Saint Kitts as well. One of the first things you notice on St. Kitts is that while it may only be a short flight, it is a long distance in hurricane terms, and this island was not a sufferer from Irma.

 

I am booked into the Bird Rock hotel, a fairly simple accommodation, chosen mainly on price. Its disadvantage being that it is a fair distance from any other facilities.

I am travelling to a game the same night, and as I do not even know the exact location, I have no choice but to accept the taxi fares, and the quotes seem to be high. I am to discover that the quotes were fairly standard, and is just that taxi fares are high wherever you go here. Indeed, throughout my Caribbean trip so far, I have found that taxi fares cost more than most European cities.

 

In Saint Kitts, the taxis are not the only things where cost is over the top compared to those I am used to in the UK. There are a number of touristy options available here, with the hotel being next to two of them. In the end, I decided against trying any of these due to price and in some case other factors.

Some of these costs seem to be due to the fact that most of the tourists here are travelling on cruise ships and have actually paid for their side trips on board. It appears that the cruise ship passenger is willing to shell out fortunes in extras.

 

Other factors also put me off, such as seeing the enclosures they keep the dolphins in for the Swimming with Dolphins trip. The dolphin area was adjacent to my hotel, and judging by the numbers there whenever a cruise ship is in, my feelings did not damage their business or help the dolphins themselves much. I have a brother who has cruised the area more than once, and he says I am probably right about the dolphins, and he says that while the price for Scuba diving is not extortionate, full Scuba diving should not be on offer to untrained customer who do not have a PADI certificate. I know someone who does dive training and I and I am sure he would agree.

 

The trip I would have taken for a lesser price, which was also over US$100, although they do not advertise other figures is a three hour round trip using the only railway (its narrow gauge and was built to move sugar around the island in the old days). Again, my brother thinks it is overpriced. Apparently, the companies may well be contracted with the cruise companies not to offer at a discount. It may have been worth asking on Sunday, when no cruise ships were on the island, but most likely the tour did not run that day

 

Anyway, back to the football. The Saint Kitts and Nevis League has two divisions, with all the Premier division league matches being staged at the Warner Park Football Stadium at the weekend. The division one games are staged across the islands, and there are matches most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The mid-week games are scheduled for 6 p.m., and the Saturday games are at 3 p.m. Two of the teams in Division One are based on Nevis, the smaller island of the couplet that make up this country. Both of these share a ground. All of their games take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday, as it is difficult to travel between the isles for evening games. A couple of seasons ago, Bath United were in the Premier League, meaning all the games that season were at Warner Park.

 

So, my first match on Saint Kitts involved a taxi ride, and started a couple of hours after arrival at the hotel. With the exception of the island’s tail, a narrow strip of land to the south and close to Nevis, all of the island’s villages are close to a single road that makes a circuit of the island. The centre being a series of three mountain peaks, that are old volcanoes. Many of the Caribbean islands have been formed in this way, with mountainous volcanic peaks in the centre.

 

The villages are roughly the locations of residential areas that date back to the slavery era, when each would be a plantation with a different owner exploiting the imported work force as labour. As with most of the islands that depended on this economy, there was a collapse after the emancipation of the slave labour force, as the sugar plantations were not economical once it became necessary to pay the workforce. The new economy of islands such as Saint Kitts now depends on fleecing the tourists. If you put it another way, the descendants of former slaves are now overcharging the descendants of former countrymen of slavers.



I was heading to Ottley’s. A village on the north side of the island. I had to pay the taxi fares here, and although there was some negotiation, I still felt I was overpaying. In fact, it appears I was not overpaying by local standards, it is just that the pricing here is high. I paid EC$150 for a return journey of no more then 10 km each way. That is about £40. At least as the driver was happy for me to pay only on the return run, I knew he was going to arrive and take me back.

 

The comment from the FA was “there is only one field in each village”, when I asked about addresses and directions. This was true, as when we arrived in Ottley’s, we could see the floodlights and it was easy for the driver to drop me and arrange a time to pick me up again. He did at least give me a quick opportunity to ask whether I was in the right place, as we were around 20 minutes before kick-off, and apart from the fact it was a football ground and the floodlights were on, there was no sign of the game. I thought I would try and find my way to the dressing rooms – at which point one discovers that this grassed area close to the road was in fact the home dressing room. At one end of the field, there was an area where a grass bank gave way to a series of concrete steps. About ten minutes after my arrival, this became the away team dressing room! About the same time, the referee arrived and changed next to his car and not far from the home area.

 

The pitch itself was a somewhat bumpy grass surface, but not in bad condition. The floodlights were on the top of wooden telegraph poles, two on each of six poles, except one light was out. Even if all twelve were working, the lighting level would be poor and very patchy. We eventually got away thirty minutes after the scheduled kick off time.

 

Even at this point, we were not fully ready – the home side were short of one player. Worse still, from their point of view the missing player was the goalkeeper. When he took the field, ten minutes after the scheduled kick off time, his side were 1-0 up. It did not stay that way.



The home side was Lodge Patriots, with Lodge being the next village further down the road further than my journey. The away side was Trinity/Challengers United. Both sides have a sponsor’s name tagged in front of the name. It was easy to work out that Davis Construction, with the name plastered all over the shirts were the sponsors for Lodge, but less easy to decide on the opposition. The full name was given as KFC Trinity/Challengers United. The sponsorship does not go as far as getting names on shirts, as I was to find out over the week, only a minority of sponsors go to the extent of putting the names on shirts. Hence, I needed to check further to find that Trinity and Challengers are adjacent villages on the south side of the island, and the sponsor is indeed the fast food company.

 

With eleven men on the field, Lodge Patriots soon surrendered their lead, and then regained it before two goals in a few minutes before the break meant they went in a goal behind. Again, the scores were level at three each, three minutes into the second half, but fifteen minutes later when Clyde Herbert scored a penalty for Trinity/Challengers United, it put his side 7-3 up. For Herbert this was a great individual achievement as well, as this was his fourth in the match. There were no further goals for ten minutes, and then another short burst of two goals in four minutes brought the patriots back to 7-5. This may give them some hope, but in fact the final quarter of an hour went by without further score. This was the first game I had ever seen to end with a 5-7 score line. With over 6,000 matches in my records, first time score lines are rare and now mean a minimum of ten goals in a game. This was only the fourth occasion have I seen both teams score five (or more) in a match.


 

For much of the second half, I was talking too Lornette Byron who was insisting that the linesman should have disallowed two of the goals for offside. From time to time she berated the linesman for his incorrect decisions. The linesman himself took time to tell her all the goals were good, but she was not disheartened. We were joined by her granddaughter, Tonjelle (age 7). Tonjelle is a bright young thing he took a great interest in the stop watch and camera hanging around my neck. I allowed her to borrow the camera and she spent some time chasing the linesman up and down and taking pictures of his back. She also proved that you can take a selfie with a camera of this type


I went into the FA offices before the next game. The contrast between the office of an association such as St Kitts and Nevis and Sint Maarten are pronounced, and shows the benefits of having FIFA membership. While Sint Maarten’s main officials are all amateur, with jobs of their own between matches, and the FA has an administrative staff of one, who deals with all the league matches and registrations as well as the e-mails from people like me, the Saint Kitts and Nevis FA had five people in the office when I arrived.

 

Most of the information I needed to see the games was easily obtained from the receptionist, Makeda. I then had a chat with Dexter Tyrell and Lenny Lake who were in the office. Everyone repeated the advice given to me at the game on Tuesday – that going to Nevis would be pointless in football terms as the away team would not turn up. It is clear that the league is struggling to run its lower division. It started the season with 14 teams, but is now down to 12. As far as I can see, teams will not be fined or disciplined if they do not turn up for games, but will simply have a default result recorded against them. The main island is quite small – the main road that creates a circuit around the coast is about 30 km long, but it can still be difficult to get from one village to another. There are bus services along this road, but no timetables and probably little or no evening service. Taxi prices have been set with tourists in mind, and even though I expect the locals can get a lower rate, it is clear that they are not within the scope for the average citizen.


At the end of the season, the top four in each division has a play-off. For the Premier division, this is after everyone has played each other three times. It is a ten-team league, so that is 27 games each (all at the one stadium). In the First division, the clubs play the standard home and away sequence, so 22 games each now the league is down to 12 members. The top four competitions are all played at Warner Park over the course of a week. For the first division, the top two in this series (with no benefit from the earlier 22 games) gets promotion. For the Premier, again there is no advantage from the earlier games, they are just to get you there. The top two then play a final – which is basically a best of three series. The clubs play two games, (decided on penalties if drawn). If the two winners are not the same, then a third deciding game takes place.

 

Last season was not typical, Village Superstars lived up to their name and won the original series, all three of the “top four” games and the two games in the final. Looking back further, it seems the regular season champion rarely wins the play-off series. In 2017, Saint Pauls were top of the regular season, four points ahead, but then missed out on the finals on goal difference. Cayon won all three games at that stage and also both games in the final. In 2016, Newtown were top, by four points. They beat Cayon 3-1 in the final game, meaning Cayon scraped into the final four on goal difference. As this was the final game, Cayon knew all they had to do in that game was avoid a seven-goal defeat. If Garden Hotspurs (who just missed out) had not been held 0-0 in their preceding game, one wonders if the last one would have been different. One of the catches of a single stadium league is you cannot even have the final day matches played at the same time.

 

Newtown picked up just one point in the next three games, and finished bottom of the group of four, while Cayon were second to Conaree. The same pairing as I was to see as my last game. In the final, Conaree won 2-0 at the first attempt, but Cayon won the second game 1-0. This was the only year the final has gone to three matches, although it should be pointed out that is a recently added option. The third game was 0-0, so despite finishing below Conaree in the main season and the final three games, and even being 2-1 down on aggregate over three games, Cayon were allowed to take the title on a penalty shoot-out!

 

Not surprisingly, a few of the people I spoke to disagree with the format. I can understand their frustrations, as they play all season and then the prizes are delivered in a few games in the last week or two. I think I know the main reason why the FA wishes to keep the format though.

 

When I was at the office, I asked why all the top division matches and most ladies’ games are at the same stadium, despite the fact that several of the clubs have decent stadiums of their own. The answer I was told was in the financing. The SKNFA pay a fixed lease fee for the stadium each season, regardless of the number of matches played on it. They then charge 15 East Caribbean Dollars for each person that enters. My estimates were that there were around 350 in the stadium on Saturday and 450 on Sunday.



There will surely have been many that did not pay to get in, (the FA promised me a free ticket, but did not actually deliver), but I would still expect that over EC$10,000 would be taken. This may only equate to around £3,000 per week but probably this is essential income to the FA. It tends to be the better supported clubs that have the better grounds and so moving the matches elsewhere may be good for the clubs, but not for the SKNFA.

 

Similarly, the play-offs and finals at the end of the season are liable to draw even larger crowds to the stadium, and as we all know, income trumps competitive fairness at almost every step. I can easily think of a couple of ideas that makes a small step in improving things. The most obvious is to use the positions in the regular season table as a tie breaker rather than goal difference. Other possibilities would be to give a points advantage before the play-offs start and certainly not to allow the final match to end 0-0 and be decided by a shoot-out.

 

I would also consider changing the promotion play-off from Division One to the Premier, so as only three Division one sides competed along with the second bottom team from the Premier.

 

Anyway, after my visit to the FA, I went into the centre to look around and have a small meal before moving on. When you drop down the road from the FA offices to the town you start by passing through an area which I would consider normal. A bit untidy, various shops and businesses, and then onto the few notable remaining colonial era buildings. If you head to the right, you can find the ferry terminal for boats to Nevis and the local bus station. If you do not take the turn, but head past the colonial building that is now the national museum, you enter another world.

 

For a start, the area is pedestrianised, and the paving is even. The shops here are either selling high value products, (a lot of gold and jewellery on sale), or tourist tat. I was going to say cheap, but the price here for a T-Shirt with a St. Kitts slogan on it, (made in Honduras) will not allow that description.


Large signs pointing the way “back to ship” allow the cruise passengers to safely find their way back out of this sanitised area. There were two cruise ships in port that day, and as I started to wander away from that area, both could be seen sailing away. It is apparently unusual for cruise ships to stay in port here overnight and as such the facilities and tours are all based on visitors not spending more than around 8 hours on the visit.


 

I only had to walk twenty minutes from the centre before I reached the village of Lime Kiln. This is the location of the brewery in Saint Kitts, and also the hospital. To some extent this ground was similar to the one already visited. Depending on your view, it could be better or worse. The land slopes down gently from the brewery to the see, and the pitch has been levelled out from this slope. The intention is to allow cricket to be played here as well as football and this means one of the floodlight pylons is located around 30 yards further beyond the touchline than the others, with an unsurprising knock on effect on the lighting.

 

In one corner, the vegetation that comes close to pitch has not been cut back – so not only is there no run up for the corner, but the quarter circle in the corner is also overgrown. Some areas of the pitch have lost all sign of grass, while others are need of a cut back as strands of longer grass reach well above the rest. Because the pitch has been levelled, the ground drops away quickly behind one end’s goal.

 

The advantage this one has over Tuesday night is at the top of an embankment between the goal and the brewery. Here the land has again been levelled, with the section closest to the road used as a car park, and that furthest from the road being a hard court with basketball nets. Between the two is a wooden shack with seats outside and a small veranda in case of rain.

 

Yes – the ground has a bar. This is independent from the football club and very well used.



The match was not as exciting as the game on Tuesday. The home side, Trafalgar Southstars, had won seven out of eight and were second in the league behind Hardtimes United, (one of the two clubs on Nevis). I am not certain here whether or not Trafalgar is a sponsor’s name. The visitors from Sandy Point certainly have a sponsor, and are listed as Electrofab Sandy Point. They were actually listed under a different sponsor’s name on the original fixture list I was sent.

Trafalgar completely dominated the first half and really should have had more than the two goals scored – one at each end of the period. In particular, I could not explain the one disallowed for offside.

 

Sandy Point were better organised in the second half, and gave their opponents a game, but generally they got the ball forward and then failed to find their own players. By comparison, the Southstars were far better at coming forward, but had run out of steam in the second period and while threatening to increase the score, the threat was without never realised.

 

We had a lot of added time, this appears mainly the time taken looking for the ball after it had been kicked down the hill behind the goal. This reminds me of playing as a kid, with only one ball available, so that you always have to go and find it when it runs away, or lands in a neighbour’s garden. At one point, midway through the half, a family of three goats invaded the pitch and ran around a little. Although it took about two minutes to clear them away, this did not add to the time as the ball was missing behind the goal for the whole period.


The Sandy Point goal was scored in the last minute of injury time, a close range tap in after a corner. Had Sandy Point won, they would have been level on points with Trafalgar, but this result moved Trafalgar within sight of the top position two points behind Hardtimes, and with a game in hand. The attendance figure for this one, which I estimated at 40 was about twice that for the game two days earlier. I tried to estimate how many of those in the bar area were watching the game. Clearly the bar was helpful in bringing locals to the ground, while the game probably also helps in bringing people to the bar.

 

The next football was Saturday. I had accepted the advice not to go to Nevis, so it was disappointing to see a result for the game when Monday came. The alternative was at Dieppe Bay. This is considered to be the furthest point from the capital, which is roughly true. In the capital, one of the few signposts is to Dieppe Bay – but it is signed to the same place both to the left (14 km) and the right (12 km). I made my way to the bus terminal (on foot, about a 40-minute walk from the hotel), stopping at the only coffee shop I had spotted. Its in the cruise tour zone, so priced in US$. I stayed there long enough to have a clear indication that Cheltenham were not playing in the third round of the FA Cup.


I then got the bus to Sandy Point, but I did not fancy the walk up to the fort which was one of the main defences when Britain, Spain and France were competing for which of the islands each would control. Instead I had a look at the sports ground there. This is one of the better facilities although the field is shared by three sports, Cricket, Football and Athletics.

 

There is a small stand which would be behind one corner flag in a football game. A running track had been marked out, running around the boundary lines of the cricket pitch – so certainly more than 400 metres. I spoke to the couple who run the bar, situated just outside the gate. They were also doing some of the caretaker work on the field. Business is brisk whenever sport is being played, but I was the only visitor around on a Saturday lunchtime with no events. They had a Mackeson beer, so I did partake.

 


 

I then walked further down the road, finding another stopping place to have my lunch before taking another bus around to the northern tip of the island. The buses are probably not travelling that fast, but on the narrow roads, they certainly seem to be fast. It reminds me of the lines in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where speed is described as relative to your perceptions, but that regardless of this, Arthur Dent was travelling too fast.

 

When I got there, Dieppe Bay reminded me most of all of the other villages I had seen on Saint Kitts. Small, mainly residential with a scattering of shops, bars or what they call eateries. It was a short walk from the bus stop to the beach. The beach itself had a small area with the black sands that seems to be the feature of most beaches here. I am guessing the sand comes from volcanic rock, but it looks far less appealing then the white sands of the other islands.

 


 

From here, you could see the next two islands to the north, which were the Dutch municipalities of Sint Eustatius and Saba. I wandered back into town and found the field without a problem. There were a small number of home players around, but it was still well before scheduled kick off time

 

When kick off time arrived, I was getting a little worried. The home team were there, but had not done a team sheet as the referee had not handed them the blank form. There was not much sign of opposition. The referee and one assistant turned up at about kick off time. I was told the away team had at least thirty minutes before the game could be awarded against them, but also that the home side,

 

Dieppe Bay Eagles, (preceded by the initials TGE, a local engineering firm) would want to get the game played as they would gain a greater advantage by playing and winning well, then if the match did not start and was forfeited. The referee, who was telling me this knew that a forfeit gave the points away, but not how many goals were added to the goal difference. He thought it might be three.


The away team was Molineux Pitbulls. No sponsors name attached and from a village just off the main road. At around 3.30, I could count six players hanging around at their end of the field. I walked over to see whether they were expecting more, and was asked if I could play in goal. I excused myself on grounds of age, although the player who asked me then said he was 55. In fact, their keeper was already there, while the 55-year-old would play at full back. Two more players arrived around about 3.30. They walked in, and my suspicion was they were waiting just out of sight so as the referee could not force a quick start. We actually only kicked off a few minutes before four o’clock – but which time they could submit a team list with fourteen names on it. Twelve were actually at the field, while the last two turned up around 30 minutes later.

 


 

Saint Kitts is four hours of time difference from the UK, and actually sits on the meridian for this time zone. At this time of year, the sun is above the horizon for 11 hours of the day, which means Sunrise around 6.30 and sunset around 5.30 p.m. The ground at Dieppe Bay does not have floodlights, although six wooden poles have been erected and the disturbed ground says this is recent – so I would expect the field to get floodlit within the next few months.

 

One consequence of not being lit is the pitch was the best of those I had seen for Division one games. It appeared well tended and as it cannot be used in the evenings, it does not get as much use as other grounds. Still, the home coach told me that he will be pleased when the lights are up and his team can train on the pitch. A kick off as late as 4 means the light is fading by the end of the game.

 

Dieppe Bay were relegated at the end of last season and have spent only one season in the top division. I do not have all the tables for the lower division, but I know that Dieppe Bay finished top in the regular season 2015/16, only to lose out in the final four with Sandy Bay and United Old Road Jets gaining promotion.

 

In 2016/17, both Sandy Bay and Old Road Jets were relegated, while Dieppe Bay and St Thomas Trinity went up. Last season, St Thomas Trinity and Dieppe Bay went down, (although Saddlers actually finished below St. Thomas in the final table. It appears St. Thomas are now merged into the team I saw as Trinity/Challengers). This season, the new promoted teams United Old Road Jets (again) and Mantab (representing the villages of Mansion and Tabernacle) are currently the bottom two.

 

 

 

Onto the game, and I think I was expecting Dieppe Bay to impress from the start, having seen the disorganised arrival of their opposition, but the first half was a closely matched affair. The Eagles were always more in control, but Pitbulls also shared much of the possession. At half time, the score was just 1-0, and just before the break, Dieppe Bay Eagles had a man sent off. If this was meant to give hope to the visitors, the first few minutes of the second period took it way again. A long-range shot surprised the visiting keeper and flew in for 2-0 and the Pitbulls collapsed, with Shawn Dorsette adding a second half hat-trick and Dieppe Bay Eagles rolling on to win by 6-0. Dieppe Bay are still in fifth place, but only a point behind Sandy Point and with a game in hand. Molineux Pitbulls have lost ten games out of ten. Still only behind the St Pauls Youth & Experience team on goal difference, but the Y&E have played only seven.

 

Even without a bar on site, the match brought out a number of local families and kids to watch, and I estimated the attendance at around 50. At the end of the game, I headed back down to the road. In the main centre and its neighbourhood, all the bus stops are clearly marked, with little shelters. All of them appear to have girls’ names. They also have the useful feature of a USB charge point. Out in the villages it is much less formal. There was someone else apparently waiting for the bus, so I went and stood with him. I said I wanted to go back to Basseterre. After about five minutes, we hailed a bus down on the opposite side of the road, and my companion asked if he was “going through”. The driver said yes. This meant he was going to complete the loop and head to town via the North side, I crossed the road and got into the front seat. My temporary companion had to wait a little longer on the other side, as he was not heading all the way back.

 


 

This bus ride meant I had travelled the complete ring using the buses. With a stop on the way up, it cost only 10 EC$. It would have been less without the stop. I could not see much as it was now dark, but the driver pointed out a few highlights, including his mother’s house in Saddlers, where he stopped briefly to speak to a family member. He also mentioned Molineux, about half a mile off the road, so just lights in the distance, and I managed to spot the Ottley’s ground again as we went past. The terminus was conveniently a side street close to the Warner Park Stadium.

 

Things were in full swing as I arrived at the main stadium, as the second half had just started in the first of two games for the evening. It was not actually the game I was expecting to be on. When I was at the SKNFA offices on the Thursday, I had thought to confirm the times of fixtures as shown on sites such as soccerway, 6 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 3, 5, and 7 p.m. Sunday. I did not think to question the running order. Soccerway still has the games in the wrong order. The game I could not count saw a surprise 3-1 defeat for second placed Newtown United at the hands of Saddlers.

 

The Warner Park complex now consists of two major stadiums, one for football, and one for cricket with a raised grass bank between them. On the football side, there is a bit of concrete terracing on this bank. It looks as if it has been there for a long while, but that is deceptive. The bank was not there at the beginning of the century. The football ground also boasts a very good main stand and a few rows of concrete seats behind one goal. The far end is open, with just a wire fence, while that end of the grass bank is not concreted.

 

The cricket grounds have large and modern stands on the South side, and a smaller pavilion opposite. All of these are recent additions, basically for the 2007 Cricket World Cup. This would have seen the cricket pitch moved eastward. To date, Warner Park has staged 3 test matches and a number of one day and T20 internationals. England have not played in these games. Prior to that, the football facilities would have been used for cricket as well. The concrete steps behind the goal continue along to curve behind the main stand, leaving a small area of grass to one side of the stand with no apparent use.

 

This, I feel is a sign of an earlier reconfiguration before the stand was built. The stand still appears to be a relatively older feature. It concrete features date it back around 50 years. It is basic, but easily fit for purpose. With individual plastic seats for most of its area, it now seats less than 1000, but probably could have held twice this in the past. The entrance ways are at the top, where there is space to stand behind the seats and two serveries for food and drink, one on each side.

 

A couple of media boxes and a open plan area which could be used for hospitality sit centrally at the top. The public area below is utilitarian and featureless, with nothing except toilets and a gangway. Even lower levels are accessed from outside or the grass area to the side, and certainly include the dressing rooms, plus I assume other facilities as required for international football. There is another bar and eatery at the far end of the terrace behind the goal. Like the stand, this has its pathway above the steps and seats, and this is the favoured location for those that do not want to sit. A couple of mobile concessions sell popcorn, sweets and drinks here as well.

 

The pitch was in fairly good condition. It is a grass pitch which appears to get regular maintenance along with the cricket pitches next door. The grass had been cut so short that it appeared to have been manicured rather than mowed. There were worn patches, but considering that in a typical week it can stage five league games at the weekend and three or four midweek games in the Ladies’ League, and that there were heavy (but short) showers on a daily basis, it really did look good.

 

The Saturday night game was between current league champions and leaders Village Superstars and third placed Saint Pauls United. The earlier result meant that Village had not dropped a place temporarily. I was pleasantly surprised in the first half. The game was played at a good pace and was a fair degree of skill. Saint Pauls took and early lead, but a penalty goal had led to the scores being level at the break. The second half was a disappointment by comparison. It appeared that the players did not all have enough fitness to keep up the pace over the full ninety minutes.

 

I talked a little to a member of the national team coaching selection, and managed to blag a lift back to the hotel. The Saint Kitts national team merges together local players and some from England, including Omari Sterling-James, a former Cheltenham player who is currently warming a bench for Mansfield. The starting XI for the last game also included Lois Maynard (Salford), Romaines Sawyers (Brentford), Raheem Hanley (Halifax), Theo Wharton and Harry Panayiotou (both Nuneaton), as well as two who play in Trinidad and one in the lower levels in the USA. This means they have very limited time training together. The English based players are generally born in the UK as well. They lost the last game to Canada, which damages their chances of reaching the top level when the Nations League starts for CONCACAF next autumn, but with two wins earlier including a 10-0 thrashing of Saint Martin, (French side), they have an excellent chance of reaching the Gold Cup in the summer. The draw is not so kind however, and they face a difficult trip to Suriname in order to pick up the points.

 


 

The next day, I have no less than three matches at the stadium. First up is St Peters and Mantab. Both teams sit one point above United Old Road Jets who are bottom. The locals are not turning up in their droves and just before kick-off, I can count only around 15 people in the stadium. The number quickly doubles, as a few more come in early in the game. I think it had doubled again before half time (around 60), and more than double that at the end. Again, the best football is in the first half and it is 1-1 at the break, but a late penalty gives all the points to Mantab.

 

Second up is Garden Hotspurs, against United Old Road Jets. This time I think it may be a thrashing as Hotspurs are two up in eight minutes. The first goal is a penalty, and the second passed in by national team player Kennedy Isles. Good to see a player called Steve Archibald player for Hotspurs, although he did not look anything like the Scotsman, I had seen playing in the FA Cup final for Hotspur many years ago.

 

The two-goal lead was gradually whittled back, Old Road got one before the break, and another ten minutes before the end. This forced Hotspurs, who had been clearly coasting to what they thought was an easy win to step up a gear. This just managed to do the trick with a winning goal coming in the first minute of injury time

 


 

The final game was Conaree and Cayon, or SOL I.A.S Conaree against Flow 4G Cayon Rockets as the official titles put it. These are neighbouring villages on the North Coast, and of course this was a repeat of the final series I mentioned before. As Cayon have a decent venue of their own, rather than the basic field of the games I had seen, this is the type of game that could be easily moved from Warner Park. The venue was actually in use on the Monday evening for a reserve league game.

 

The crowd had more than doubled since the start of the previous game, and I estimated it at around 450. Unfortunately for all of us, Cayon were not Rockets as their name suggested but damp squibs. Conaree were no better especially close to goal and it was clear even before half time that we would probably finish 0-0. Unlucky, perhaps but the final game was not a great advert for football. At least I managed to blag a lift back to the hotel

Caribbean 3 – SXM (Sint Maarten/Saint Martin)

November 29th, 2018

I think the island of Saint Martin, (using the French spelling here) may be the smallest island to have a national border running through it. According to sources such as Wikipedia, the land totals under 100 km2, with the French side (the North) having the larger share.

The current name of the island goes back to Columbus first sighting it on St. Martin’s day, 11th November 1493. Although Columbus did not land, he claimed the island for Spain. It was the Dutch though that were the first to establish a colony. Previous inhabitants of the islands had called it Soualiga, meaning land of salt as the island contains many salt pans.

As with most of the Caribbean, the local inhabitants were mainly wiped out by a mixture of disease and guns, while large numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to operate profitable plantations. The Spanish finally decided they wanted the island and conquered it in 1633, mainly to use as a strategic point in their wars with the Dutch. When the war was concluded, they found it unprofitable and left. Before Spanish occupation, both the Dutch and French had footholds on the Island. As attempts by each to gain full control led to a stalemate, they eventually decided to split it in two. Unlike the judgement of Solomon, in this case splitting in two works, even if over the years there has been conflict over the borders.

Neither side of the island has become an independent state. The remaining French territories in the Caribbean are all integrated into the French state, taking parts in elections for the French president and government. There is some discrepancy between those areas such as Saint Martin that are termed Special Collectivities, and those which are Regions in their own right (the larger areas, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guyana).The Netherlands also has two different levels of status for its Caribbean possessions, Sint-Maarten, along with Aruba and Curacao are all countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while smaller islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba are municipalities with greater direct control from the Netherlands.

The French territories are all part of the European Union and use the Euro as currency. This means their citizens are all citizens of the European Union. The Netherlands side is somewhat different, and there is such a thing as Sint-Maarten’s citizenship, (more on this later). It is still common for young people from Sint-Maarten to travel to Europe, particularly to the Netherlands for further education.

Tourism is now the biggest contributor to the economy, and the Dutch understood it’s coming two decades before the French. As a result, the Dutch side of the island appears to have an advantage, with the larger airport and the terminal for cruise ships. Hence most visitors to the Island will arrive on the Dutch side. I was one of those and this helped me on my opening day as I was watching the Sint Maarten national team, even though the match was being played on neither side of the island, but on neighbouring Anguilla. After one night, I switched to the opposite corner of the island. This was mainly on the basis of economy, but factors such as proximity to the beach and even the fact that I can still use my mobile phone freely help.

SXM is the airport code for the island’s major airport, on the Dutch side. The initials are also used for the island as a whole or for the Dutch side alone. The football association on the Dutch side shows the initials SXMFF for Sint Maarten Football Federation on their shirts.

 

Marigot, with a shopping mall next to the harbour, and the Fort Saint Louis sitting above

Football wise, both Sint Maarten and Saint Martin are members of CONCACAF, but neither has been able to join FIFA. These are two of the six CONCACAF nations with this situation. The larger French territories account for three more, while the final one is Bonaire, the Netherlands municipality. Of the six, it appears that Sint Maarten is the closest to matching all FIFA’s rules for membership and they feel they can achieve this within the next couple of years. Their status is after all, the same as Aruba and Curacao which are both FIFA members. Also, six British Overseas Territories in this region are FIFA members.

There is a difference in the way Saint Martin is portrayed by the French Football Federation to the three regions. When I wanted to check the fixtures and results in Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana, I simply had to go to the French Football Federations website, and all was there for me to see. Saint Martin, and the nearby island (also a collectivity) of Saint Barthelemy are absent. For Saint Martin, with no senior league at the moment and the junior fixtures apparently arranged week by week this is not entirely surprising, but St. Barthelemy was one of the first places to send me the current fixtures. I did investigate crossing there for a game, there are ferries during the day from Saint Martin, but the games were under floodlights meaning an overnight stay and I do not think I found any accommodation under around £400/night!

Anyway, my accommodation on Sint Maarten side was not up to the price paid, so I was pleased to cross the border. Ignoring all local advice (except some of the web sites), I simply made my way to the bus stop. Almost immediately a bus came to take me to Marigot, the capital of the French side. I think I was a bit lucky there as I was expecting to have to go via Philipsburg, the capital on the Dutch side. The bus driver did offer to take me onto my destination for another $20, (which I later discovered is the taxi fare), but I declined, saying I could get another bus. He then operated the route I wanted as a bus, but left before the man at the bus station could explain that bit. Still five minutes later, a bus came and took me to Orient Bay for another $2. (He would also have accepted €2). I had to walk five minutes to find my accommodation, but all went well.

So, for six nights, I was in a good-sized apartment, one of six making up a single block around a small swimming pool. This was a five-minute walk from the centre, which has a beach and a few restaurants, bars and shops. Apart from that, and a couple of high-end hotels, there is not a lot here. I did not travel away until the Saturday, which is of course football day.

The landlady had booked a taxi to take me to Marigot, which was important as I had need of a cashpoint machine. This time I had made certain I had more than one card in case of problem and I still worried a little when the taxi stopped at a machine about half-way there which would not stump up any cash, but when I reached town, I managed to withdraw funds with ease. The town itself I quite small, but as befits the French, it has a mall and several shops selling fashions and perfumes. Once I had confirmed I was not going to get a coffee in the air conditioning of the mall, these were of little interest to me. Instead I made the walk of around 20 minutes to what, before the hurricane was the main stadium, the Stade Albertic Richards. More than a year after the hurricane struck, repairs have not started and it may be years before this venue is reopened.

The artificial surface has been removed, and now lies in heaps at the Marigot stadium. The base layers it was laid on have become overgrown in the meantime. Floodlight pylons lay brought down by the storm have been laid down at one side. It is as graphic reminder as anything of the force of the storm that devastated the island.

From here, I took the bus back into town. It had been only a 20-minute walk out, but in the heat of the midday sun, I was worried that to continue walking might make me feel more of a mad dog than an Englishman. For a short journey, the fare is just one dollar. In town, I wandered around a little before being persuaded to stop and take something to eat and drink at one of the many open fronted restaurants that make up the centre.

Once I had taken my fill, I headed down to the Marigot stadium, where I had a plan to meet up with Steven Tackling, general secretary of the Saint Martin FA.

The stadium has suffered less than the bigger one down the road. Its main stand is intact, except the roof itself is completely missing. This stand provides a few steps of concrete seating, and runs most of the length of the pitch. Opposite this is a relatively recently erected barrel roof, which I am assured was but in before the hurricane and survived intact. It is not part of the stadium, more the sports centre as it covers had courts for basketball, volleyball and hockey.

The pitch is in use from early morning to sundown, starting with the younger age groups playing small sided games across the pitch, and then three matches for under 15 teams playing 35 minutes each way. I do not include such matches on my full log, so none of the rigmarole of trying to get the players names, or checking on substitutions. During the week, the pitch will also get heavy use by schools and by the teams training, so it is no surprise that the playing surface is in such a poor condition. Laying a couple of patches of artificial grass in the goalmouths without the requisite works underneath is only a minor help.

Nethertheless, the kids playing are showing a degree of skill when on the ball. Passes will go astray on such a surface, the remarkable many do not. It seems to me that they have the basic skills of the game right, but there is a lack of vision in the play. The players on the ball are not aware of where their colleagues are, and the players off the ball are not thinking how best to position themselves.

When I talk to Steven Tackling, he explains that they are trying to get Senior football going again, but with only this one pitch this is clearly a problem. They do not expect to get the main stadium pitch, or another one in another part of the island operational at any time next year. Meanwhile, with senior football on the Dutch side having restarted, many players have “defected”.

The association, along with the three other French associations in the Caribbean would like to apply for FIFA membership, but the French Football Federation itself is not in favour. As none of these associations are full members of FIFA, and all of their citizens are French citizens, the French team can call upon Caribbean players even after they have played for the local teams in CONCACAF competition. FIFA membership would also mean far more players in metropolitan France may look at their ancestry and find themselves eligible to play for the Caribbean sides. For example, Raphael Varane of Real Madrid and France could have played for Martinique instead. However, when you consider the number of players in the French national team that could have played for independent countries such as Senegal, you would say this is not really a reason to oppose.

There is still the question as to whether FIFA would accept the autonomous but not fully independent countries of the world into the fold again, after deciding to block them in a failed bid to keep out Gibraltar (and appease Spain). A rule change may not help Jersey, whose recent application was rejected, but for the countries in the Caribbean, and for Greenland, there would then be hope.

Saint Martin is not, however a land that FIFA has forgotten. Simply one that they consider part of another country (France). There was a promise of a grant from FIFA to help with rebuilding immediately after the hurricane, but I was told that not a penny has reached the island yet. Again, it appears the local believe the fault is with the FFF, through which any FIFA funds would have to be re-routed.

I was lucky to get talking to one of the parents supporting his child at the game. Bertrand Peters is a father who is clearly proud of his children’s achievements. Although he did not mention it, from his name and employment, he is Dutch side, but his family is cross border. He had a son on the pitch who had played for an under-13 side earlier in the day, and was now turning out for the under-15s – even scoring a goal in their 4-1 win. His 17-year-old daughter has a problem though. She has been playing in junior football, where the teams are mixed – but there is no progression on the island with a shortage of ladies’ teams to play in. She is hoping to move abroad to continue education and football and he said he was trying to get her into a scheme at FC Groningen.

Anyway, this was a real help to me, as my new friend drove me from Marigot – firstly to the cricket ground on the Dutch side, where his daughter and some of her friends were watching an over-35 inter-island competition. Then having seen only the last couple of overs, we went down to the football stadium and watched my first (of three) game in the SXMFF League.

This was FC Soualiga v United Superstars. It did not live long in the memory, two reasonably matched teams struggling to find a way through each other’s defence. It was settled with two goals from Yannick Bellechasse, one shortly before the break and a second around the hour mark. Soualiga, I was told have quite a lot of national squad players, but these are mainly from the youth squads, and United Superstars greater experience held sway. Three of the Soualiga players had played for Sint Maarten in Anguilla, with one more on the Souaglia squad list but not playing this game. Judging by the players’ names, United are one of the teams with a significant presence from the French side of the island, with the goalscorer being the one I could confirm as he had played for Saint Martin’s international side in their last game. While watching the match, I chatted to my new friend, and drank a bottle of Mackeson stout. (Once an archetypal English brew, now almost forgotten about at home, but still brewed and drank out in the Caribbean). My friend then went around the island to take me back before taking himself and his daughter home.

The next day, the plan was to go back to the Raoul Illidge Sports Centre with two more games scheduled. This time I was on my own, transport wise, and I chose to try out the local bus services in earnest. This is actually quite simple, there is just one route that goes along the main road. Just as I arrived at the road, there was a bus – it was going the away from Marigot, but a quick enquiry with the driver confirmed that when this reached the end of the line, I would be able to get another to Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. This worked perfectly, with just a small wait between buses.

Philipsburg itself consists of a few streets between the sea and “the great salt pond”, which I believe does exactly what it says on the can. It seems the streets are placed in order the Boardwalk or beach front is not surprisingly full of beach bars and restaurants – but on a Sunday with no cruise ship in town, most were closed. The next road, Front Street contains the posher shops and the casinos – walk further from the beach and you get to Back Street (some originality on names here), which has the more basic shops.

Although most of the bars were closed, but when I found one that was open, I was glad to discover that it sold some of the local beers, from the only brewery on the island. This is a craft brewery and I sampled two different unfiltered beers. A very hoppy IPA named “Irma” (as in the hurricane), and a blonde beer by the name of “Souaglia”.

After I had eaten, then it was a simple matter of trying to find my way to the stadium. I did not fancy trying to walk it, even though my phone thought this was well within my capabilities, so I stopped the first bus that came past. Yes, he says, I can take you to the end of the road for the stadium for the princely sum of $1.50. That is good enough for me. Just a five-minute walk then, and I arrived at the stadium that was looking somewhat underwhelmed by the occasion. Through the gate I had used the day before, I could see only about two or three people in the stand. The gate, however was locked. Walking around, there were a couple of people waiting, and they did confirm there was supposed to be football on at 4 p.m. Twenty minutes to kick off normally means someone warming up on the pitch, but none was to be seen.

I find my way in, and the home team, C&D Connection appear to be all present and correct, but I quickly discover that the opposition, Funmakers are somewhat short. Indeed, the official kick off time comes and goes and there are only about six players in the dressing rooms. The referee and his assistants are quite clear that the rules allow 15 minutes after kick-off, and I am relieved that in that time more turn up and we do indeed have a game. With very specific rules demanding that the referee checks players ID before kick-off, the process is slow and when the game starts, we are close to 30 minutes behind schedule.

I check the team lists now, and while C&D show a full squad of 16, including five substitutes, Funmakers have only ten on the field. They do name two substitutes, but these never actually arrive and they play with the same ten for the entire ninety minutes. Both included one player from the Sint Maarten international squad on the Tuesday, although only the Funmakers’ player had played in Anguilla.

The stadium is an artificial pitch within a modern running track. The main floodlight pylons were lost in the storm, with only one upright, but four temporary pylons have been installed in its place. These provide sufficient light for the fixtures. The artificial surface shows signs of repair from damage caused during the hurricane. There are stands on both sides, but the older one can not be used. It has no roof and the supports for the roofing have been lost at one end. Underneath this are the dressing rooms, which must be a factor in what they need – which is to demolish this and build anew.

 

When I asked about the fact that this ground cannot hold the CONCACAF matches, despite it having more spectator accommodation that in Anguila, I was told that it the lack of ancillary facilities. There are no rooms at the stadium for the post-match press conference, nor for match commissioners and delegates.

On the opposite side is a fine stand with concrete steps on a steel framework. It provides seats for all who want them, and is fully covered. Even when it is not raining, cover is important to shade you from the sun. Having said that the sun dropped behind one of the large hills and left the pitch itself in shade after about 5 p.m. One does wonder about the choice of 4/6 o’clock kick offs, what mean half of the first match is played in the glare of the sun, when 5/7 seems more suitable. The Saturday night game itself was a 7 p.m. kick off, after all.

With only ten men, and a squad that I am told is made up of some of the older players on the island, Funmakers have no fun on the field in the early part of the game. Particular credit goes to Lavor Grant, who was the front man in the C&D 4-2-3-1 formation. He opened the scoring and went on complete his hat-trick within sixteen minutes of the start. Two other players got in on the act, and it was 5-0 after just a quarter of the game had been played.

After that, it appeared some of the teamwork went out of the match, with the Connection players all wanting to grab a goal for themselves, but the real change to the match came in the 35th minute. A rare Funmakers attack was stopped by centre half Nikola Radejevic who was booked for the foul. To say he was not happy with the decision would be an understatement. Hence, I do not think he received a second booking, but instead it appeared that the referee added a straight red. He had to be physically ushered off the field by his team mates. Grant was pulled back into the surely unnecessary role of centre half continuing to snuff out the non-existent threat.

As a result, only one further goal is added, mid-way through the second half when a penalty is awarded to C&D Connection and is converted by the goalkeeper, even though his opposite number did get a hand to it.

During the game, I was talking to Sudesh Singh, the president of the local association. He told me that the second game of the day should be more interesting and competitive. He was not wrong there. He may be president of an association, but he still can only sit on the concrete steps with everyone else. The only person who has an actual chair is Michael Dort, the only paid official. He does the administration and sits on the opposite side of the grounds with the team lists, even raising the boards for substitutions in the first game, when we have only three officials. The assistant referees are the same for both games (and for the game the previous night), but they have managed different referees for each game.

Some of the teams have sponsors, but the sponsors names do not appear in any of the club names. For example, the C&D in C&D connection refers to the initials of the two club founders. For the second game, I would see Flames United play 758 Boys. The number 758 is the dialling code for the island of Saint Lucia (which is a further independent state and a full member of FIFA). There is a sizable community from Saint Lucia on the island and the football club is one of the ways they meet up and maintain a cultural identity. This is clear during the game as the crowd will number around 200, as compared to around 50 earlier in the day

At the moment, the Sint Maarten national side relies on players who play locally, and a few who have recently moved away. It is not easy to maintain a side when a large portion of the players leave the islands for further education in their late teens and early twenties. This means, of course that there will always be a pool of eligible players who now feature in European football, mainly the lower divisions in the Netherlands. Similar to my experience with Antigua and Barbuda, who fielded a few players from lower divisions in the Football league, and others from clubs such as Ebbsfleet and Nantwich. If Sint Maarten can gain full FIFA recognition, then it would be easier for them to select from these players.

Sudesh Singh explained that Sint Maarten nationality laws further reduce the numbers of potential players. They have laws that mean that many children who have been born in Sint Maarten and have lived their all of their lives have not become citizens as their parents were not citizens. In some cases, this must cause problems if they cannot prove citizenship of another island. In my understanding, this felt similar to the laws in Germany before they reformed at the beginning of the century – a move that allowed more footballers of Polish or Turk ancestry to qualify for the national team. A year ago, I might have tried to be smug in saying we don’t do this in Britain, but that would have been before the Windrush scandal broke.

According to Sudesh, FIFA are now actively helping get the application right. It does not appear to be a simple matter. He thinks it may get approved in 2020.

Meanwhile the full membership of CONCACAF and the loose connection with the Netherlands association. Experienced coaches come across from the Netherlands, and this has resulted in all the teams having a coach who has passed CONCACAF coaching course.

Onto game two, and with a good crowd now in attendance. In the gangway below the centre of the stand, there is a good business selling beer and food.

The crowd is boisterous, but friendly and the majority appear to support 758. Their team has the upper hand throughout the first half, and the game is played at a much greater pace than the others I have seen here. Both teams can provide much more movement and far fewer passes go astray. The habit of players running into offside positions is still there, and they do need to work better off the ball, but this is a much more exciting and entertaining game.

It takes until the 38th minute to get a goal, and at this point there is a lot of cheering as 758 are leading. They double this is first half injury time, so take a comfortable lead into the break. Both teams are playing just one forward in the first half, but the speed at which the 758 midfielders move in support is a reason for their dominance, Flames change after the break into a formation more akin to 4-4-2 and commit more to attacking, this pays off with a penalty eight minutes after the break and a deflected goal halfway through the half.

With the score at 2-2, the game could easily go either way in the last twenty minutes. To the great glee of the crowd, it is in fact 758 Boys that complete the goalscoring with a goal five minutes from the end.

Getting back to accommodation from here is more of a rigmarole that I had hoped for. The bus driver that dropped me seemed to say I would have little trouble getting a bus to Marigot later, but it was not that simple. As I arrived at the stop, there was a bus there – but this was waiting for assistance as a car had just hit him from the side. It was only a minor dent to the bus, but he was waiting while someone came out to check the damage. In the twenty minutes that followed, no buses went past going up to Marigot, although I did see a couple heading in the opposite direction. I also saw no taxi pass by.

When the first bus disappeared, it went in the wrong direction, but a couple of minutes later it was back (with one other passenger) and took me to Marigot. I am not certain where it went exactly as it did not disappear for long enough to get to the terminal and back. While on the Dutch side of the Island, there appeared to be plenty of life, with a restaurant open near the stop and other bars passed on the route, Marigot was almost a ghost town, considering it was only around 9.30 at night. Clearly no buses were to be had, and as I headed into the centre there was no sign of a taxi either. Most of the restaurants were closed, and the others were waiting for their last guests to leave. Fortunately, one did call a taxi for me, for which I had to pay the late evening rate, I could not argue as there were no alternatives, and if I had called for a different cab, then late evening would have applied by the time it arrived.

Caribbean 2 – Sint Maarten in Anguilla

November 24th, 2018

The Tuesday tale starts early, as there are a lot of countries to get through before the day can come to an end. I err on the side of caution at the start, with no breakfast so as I can take a taxi to the airport in good time.

My flights are in two parts, but all on the one aircraft. Firstly, we retrace the route from the day before, returning to Guadeloupe. Then there is a long wait in the terminal, where there is not even a coffee on sale before proceeding with a second short hop. All in all, we are not in the air for ninety minutes, but the journey takes more than three and a half hours.

It turns out that of the dozen or more people waiting to re-board the flight, most have been to the same game as myself the night before. I am, however the only one whose fare has not been paid for by CONCACAF. I talk to an official who was from the offices in Miami. He will have to get off the plane again when I arrive at my destination and then get back onto the same aircraft for a slightly longer trip to Puerto Rico. Then he will change to another flight to Miami. Others, such as the referee and his assistants may need a further flight to reach their final destination.

As with many of the offerings on booking sites in the Caribbean, I am not in a hotel but an apartment. My taxi driver does not recognise the address and reluctantly calls the accommodation on her own phone, literally taken directions for the full five minutes it takes us to reach the address.

Now, surely it is quite simple. We have been on the phone to a person at the accommodation. But no, they do not want to come and check me in. I need three things, all of which are quickly promised. A key, a wifi password and a plug converter as they are using American style sockets.

I’m in Sint Maarten, which is ruled from the Netherlands, but depends on US tourism, so USA plugs and currency rules. Lots of dollars required.

It takes about half an hour for someone working in the garden to tell the lady running the apartment that the customer is in a hurry and get her down. Even then she does not appear to know where they keys are. In the meantime, the gardener says he will find me a converter plug (but cannot). Only after I have the key, and have paid for the property do they try and tell me the wifi password – and find out they have it wrong.

I leave quickly, having garnered a promise (which will not be delivered on), that the plug converter and wifi password will be waiting for me upon my return.

Very quickly on reaching the road, I find a bus. Although both are often mini-bus vehicles, it is easy to spot buses and taxis in Sint Maarten. The registration number of every bus starts with the word, BUS, followed by a number, while if the registration starts with TAXI, it is a taxi. Fares are supposedly strictly controlled, but the internet link to the fare table is broken.

The island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is curious as it is split between two countries. The southern part is ruled as a constituent country of the Netherlands, while the slightly larger northern area is a collectivity of France. This means that like Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is within the EU, using the Euro as currency. It also means that on the French part of the Island, I can use my mobile phone just as I can elsewhere in the EU. This is not available on the Netherlands part.

While the two sections of the island therefore have different languages, English is spoken almost everywhere. This is not at all surprising as the economy of both parts of the Island is dependent on tourism, and a very large portion of the tourists come from the USA.

The whole of the Island, however was devastated by hurricane Irma, which blew through at the beginning of September 2017. The estimates were that over 90% of structures on both sides of the island were damaged. While reconstruction has been rapid, priority was naturally in finding homes for people and getting hotels back up and running so as the economy can start to return to normal. As a result, neither side of the island currently has a stadium suited to playing international football. The French side has not even restarted their league this season.

The British Overseas Territory of Anguilla also suffered badly, but the football ground was not completely destroyed, and has been re-opened with a new roof on its stand. This allows it to offer facilities to both the Saint Martin and Sint Maarten teams, and also to the British Virgin Islands. There should have been two CONCACAF nations league games over the weekend, but the British Virgin Islands game against Bonaire was postponed, apparently due to cancelled flights.

Anyway, the bus takes me the two stops to the ferry terminal. It is actually across the road from the airport entrance. I am there at the right time. At the ferry terminal there is a man selling packages for the trip to the match. This was very advantageous. For the princely sum of US$70, the package gives me a return crossing to Anguilla, transfers between the ferry terminal and the stadium, an admission ticket for the game and a Sint Maarten Football shirt, (not in my size). Generally, the return ferry ticket could cost around $70 on its own.

When I was looking into this part of the trip, I went through several stages. Firstly, I noticed that Sint Maarten had a game on the day, then that flight tickets were not overtly expensive, but shortly after booking the flight, I realised that the game was on the wrong island.

My immediate thought was whether or not I could get another flight to take me onwards to Anguilla, then when I realised this would not work, I considered giving up my (non-refundable ticket). Finally I discovered the ferry option, and realised that this would all in fact work out.

The person selling the tickets was in fact the vice president of the Sint Maarten Soccer Association. He was quick to point out Sudesh Singh, the president who was also going to be on the boat, along with his children.

The terminal was busy and slightly chaotic. The check in for the ferries takes the name and passport or ID card number for every traveller, after which you are allowed to go through passport control. My exit stamp from Sint Maarten was put into the passport within two hours of arrival, and most of the time seemed to have been spent waiting at the accommodation.

Most of those waiting for the ferries were match bound, giving the illusion that there could be a good crowd. It was an illusion. In reality, a pair of chartered ferries each holding no more than 34 people was about the limit. A few fans from Dominica had made their way independently, although a fan wearing a Dominica shirt who I had spoken to when getting off the flight appeared to miss the boat and wasn’t seen at the match.

The atmosphere on the boat is good though. Almost everyone is wearing the shirts, and there are free drinks during the journey, with a rum punch being the favoured tipple. From the airport ferry terminal, you cross a large lagoon with the boat running quite slowly, you then go under a bridge (which is on the French side) before the captain hits the throttle and you make the speedier run between islands. I ask later and am told that the top speed is about 28 knots. It feels faster on a bumpy sea. At the other end you pass through another passport check before getting onto a minibus to complete the journey. During the slow part of the journey, signs of the hurricane were everywhere with wrecked boats everywhere. The weather has no respect for value either, so really extravagant yachts and small dinghies suffered the same treatment.

The stadium in Anguilla, the Raymond E. Guishard Technical Centre is simple enough. All the facilities are on one side and there is no access to the other three. It would not past muster in the higher regions of non-League football in England, although the stand is impressive enough, standing tall with an accessway at the top where there is a snack bar and an officials and VIP room.

The bar, clearly important to many of the travelling fans was situated between the entrance and the stand. If rules on drinking within site of the pitch exist in the Caribbean, then they were being ignored.

The crowd was low enough that I could easily do a head count, and it came out around 80!

Sint Maarten started the day bottom of the table, having lost both earlier matches heavily, (no goals scored, 13 conceded in Haiti and 12 in Bermuda). Dominica themselves had only one point. Sint Maarten come through from the lowest seeing group, with Dominica one higher. Checking the players off on both sides against Soccerway suggested that only one was playing football outside his own island. This was Briel Thomas of Dominica. Actually, looking further suggested a couple of other Dominica players were playing in Guadeloupe. Thomas plays for W Connection in Trinidad and Tobago, and a couple of other players had played in the T&T Pro league in the past. Dominica was also hit badly by the hurricane last year, and has not restarted domestic football. Its home game in this tournament was actually played in Guadeloupe.

With so few games having been played recently by players on either side, one did not expect a classic. Dominica, playing a 4-3-3 formation scored early and appeared to have the measure of their opponents in the first half, even without making a second goal. Surprisingly they changed formation at half time. The coach said later this was to give them more width. Although they increased the score to 2-0 early in the second period, the change was not really a success and they run out of pace as the game went on.

Sint Maarten were game throughout. With the two heavy defeats behind them, one might have thought they would cave in after early blows in each half, but this did not happen and they created a number of chances in the second half. In two many cases, there was not enough support for the player in possession and the chance was lost. At the other end, Van Griensven, who had made a number of good saves in the first half to keep Sint Maarten in the game was relatively untested after the break, while the home defence looked far more organised against two forward players than they had done against three. One of the centre halves, Djai Essed who I was later informed is currently studying in Amsterdam could surely find a place in a fairly high level of amateur football in the Netherlands.

At the end of the game, I was sought out and asked to attend to post match interviews. It turned out that the only other people there to question the officials were the match photographer and someone from the Anguilla FA. I guess these only happen here because they are contracted by CONCACAF. I have only been paid for a match report once, by the press association under their contract to report AFC games. At that time, I was told later that I reported too much on the match and not enough on quotes from the coaches afterwards. At least now I know that these conferences tend to start with a request for the coach’s thoughts on the game. We got a little information that neither coach was unhappy.

The home coach thought his charges had learnt a lot since their heavy defeats, and he was looking forward to the derby game when they would finish this tournament with a match against Saint Martin. Curiously, for two countries that share a small island, the record books only show one international meeting between the two parts. This was the first match on record for each (in 1988), and ended up with a 3-1 win for the French portion. As both have three defeats to their credit, it will be a game for local pride as neither expects (or even hopes) to escape the lowest division when the Nations League proper starts next season. Indeed, as I had discussed with the FA president earlier in the day, a few matches where they have a chance of winning in this lower division, hopefully coupled with a return to home matches may be the boost his team needs.

The visiting coach was pleased by the win, and thought the sharpness of the few players who had been playing made the difference. He explained the change in formation, but we did not press him on whether it had worked.

All this meant I had missed the shuttle minibus with most of the support, but I was taken to the ferry port with some of the officials and the equipment. When we got there, all the spectators were still waiting for the ferries. Again, we have to go through the rigmarole of signing in, and then paying departure tax ($13) before getting on the boat.

In fact, the whole group including the players and home officials are waiting for some time for the boats to get back off another shuttle trip. There are a small number of tourist day trippers who must have wondered what was going on, but we did not travel with them, as ours were chartered ferries. (Still the same type of boats). I did not see any of the Dominica fans or players, nor the CONCACAF officials. The Dominica players were waiting on a bus when I left the stadium. My guess is that any supporters travelling by ferry were off the island ahead of me, while the teams and officials either left by air, or stayed until the next day, (or even both).

Once again, there was an excellent atmosphere on the ferry, and again this was refuelled by the rum punch. I got talking to a few of the fans, and then went out with them for a meal and a drink afterwards. One of this little group was actually the mother of Djai Essed, who actually joined us briefly. I got to find out how his weekend had been. He is studying in Amsterdam, so he flew out to the Islands on Saturday, trained with the team on Sunday and Monday, played on Tuesday and then was flying back via Paris on Wednesday. He does not expect to be back on the Island until the next game in March.

The others did not have a football connection, and I doubt that they watch the game on a regular basis. Much of the talk was of the damage of the hurricane and how to they survived. Everyone had lost something, whether it was the contents of their apartment, to a yacht big enough to have been sailed to St. Martin from South Africa. Everyone on the table had been born in different countries, but all now (except me) are now settled on this island.

With such a high proportion of the population being employed in tourism, storms like Irma affect everyone as the first result is evacuation of tourists, and no quick return as the facilities have gone. Many people were without employment immediately. I think one of the advantages in not being independent from the European empires is that the governments in Europe do grind into action with aid and relief.

After this, I settled on the island myself for the next week, settling into an apartment on a resort on the French side. I spent a short while on the famous beach by the airport on the morning after the game. Here the planes come in low over the beach, with the start of the runway immediately across the road from the beach. The biggest thing I saw land was a 737, but I noted that two wide bodied jets were due in during the afternoon. The cafes at each end of the beach write up the expected arrival times, while there are warning signs over the danger of jet blast. They are not joking, a Canadian tourist was killed last year as a result of injuries suffered when knocked over by the blast from a jet.

Apart from the sea and sunshine delaying my completion of this piece, the most notable thing about this area of the island is the high amount of scaffolding and construction work. By all accounts, this corner was not the worst affected, and the houses are still standing, but around half of them are still having the roofs repaired, or are waiting for the work to start

Caribbean – Part 1

November 22nd, 2018

I have been neglecting anyone who reads the blog, as recently I have found it easier to write some lengthy diatribes directly to facebook and then post these with pictures.

I am not going to repeat all of that here, but instead provide a quick sketch of the start of my Caribbean odyssey, and then links to the facebook posts where individual reports on each match day cane be found.

Before I post that, I shall drop in a few words on country and association status, as this is particularly important, at least to my own obsessions at this point of the venture

 

Now, it is quite simple – the United Nations has 193 members, so there are 193 countries in the World. Simples?

Not really – FIFA manages to up the numbers to 211, but somehow manages to miss a few out, while there are 11 extra football associations around the world that have full or associate membership of continental federations, but are not FIFA members. Then of course there are the self-governing territories that have not managed to achieve recognition of statehood, as some of the members of the UN are opposed to their existence. The other way of putting that is that at least one UN member state claims the territory as their own, but for some reason cannot govern it. In simplistic terms that is normally down to the military forces of at least one other UN member state. It should not be a surprise that there are more than a few cases where those military forces are Russian. Some of these are members of CONIFA, (particularly, but not exclusively the Russian sponsored states). Such states include Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Kosovo is another territory that cannot get full membership of the UN, despite widespread recognition, but unlike those already mentioned, they have achieved membership of FIFA. All members of FIFA are also in membership of one of its six constituent Confederations, although as I have already mentioned, the reverse is not true.

There are 11 football associations that have joined their confederation, but are not FIFA members. Generally, these may aspire to joining FIFA, but the rules have been changed and for the moment it appears the doors are closed. Only two of these 11 are fully self-governing, although all have some degree of autonomy. As parts of democratic states, they could choose to become independent at some time in the future, but they are choosing not to be. Six of the 11 are in the Caribbean, which is why I have brought up the subject here.

The eleven are French Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten and Bonaire in CONCACAF, the Northern Mariana Islands in the Asian Football Confederation, Kiribati, Niue and Tuvalu in Oceania and Reunion in Africa. Of these eleven, only Kiribati and Tuvalu are fully recognised at the UN and therefore stand some chance of joining FIFA in the near future.

Oceania could add another four members without controversy, if the countries so wished. The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau are all full members of the UN and therefore meet the first of the FIFA’s current requirements. There is one more full member of the UN, Monaco that has not attempted to join FIFA or any of the Confederations. This is because of uncertainty over the fate of AS Monaco in the French League should they go independent. Curiously, while AS Monaco plays within the principality and in the French League, all the games in Monaco’s domestic football competition are played on grounds in France.

Over the years, FIFA has had a much easier entry criteria, which has allowed for many extra members that are not sovereign states. The tightening of the regulations was mainly in response to Gibraltar’s application for membership, which has heavily opposed by Spain. So much so that the two teams cannot meet in competition to this day.

Indeed, the United Kingdom has more FIFA member states than any other country in the World. Apart from the obvious constituents of the UK (England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland), and the newly entered Gibraltar, British dependent territories in the Caribbean are also in FIFA. None of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Monserrat or the Turks and Caicos Islands are members of the UN, meaning that the UK actually has eleven FIFA members.

We are not alone, just the most prolific. Apart from its four associate members in the Caribbean, France has two full members of the Oceania Football Confederation and FIFA in French Polynesia (aka Tahiti) and New Caledonia. The latter has just voted not to become independent from France. The Netherlands has responsibility for the other CONCACAF members. Sint Maarten and Bonaire, plus also Aruba and Curacao which are full FIFA members. The USA includes two Caribbean FIFA members, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, as well as American Samoa (Oceania), and Guam (Asia) and the aforementioned Asian associate, the Northern Mariana Islands. The Faroe Islands are an autonomous region of Denmark, while the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau are FIFA members, but also parts of China. China would like to claim Chinese Taipei (aka Taiwan) as well, and will complain vigorously if you miss the island off a map of China. Finally, Palestine has a special status at the UN and is a full member of the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA.

As I keep a list of countries I have seen football in, I needed to be able to have my own definition – and I have gone for wide scope. My list of countries visited for football will include any with full or associate membership of any of the Confederations, or full membership of the UN. Hence of this trip, all my first stops, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Anguilla and Sint Maarten will count. I also count Monaco as I have seen them in the French league, but for my matches in Monaco’s Prince Rainier III competition, the venue is shown as in France.

I am not including crown dependencies such as Guernsey on my list of countries, nor disputed self-governing territories such as Transdniestria and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, even though there is an argument for the latter as they do have an independent FA and league. Transdniestria teams play in the Moldovan league

And now a few links

Recap – my visit to a match in Monaco’s Prince Rainier III

http://leohoenig.com/?p=664

 

Day 1 – flying to Guadeloupe, the Just in Time delivery experience

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156624888529627

 

Day 2 – Life’s a Beach, (unless someone hits your car), but only until kick off time

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156627267574627

 

 

Day 3 – Bird Watching, and more Second Division Guadeloupe

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156628504574627

 

D

 

Day 4 – Money questions in Martinique

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156634204059627

 

The Expanded World Cup is vote buying for Infantino.

June 30th, 2018

The comments after the opening game in this season’s World Cup were over the mismatch between what were, at least according to FIFA, the two lowest ranking sides in the competition.

Russia, ranked 70th according to FIFA easily overcame Saudi Arabia, whose ranking was three higher. Russia’s ranking was of course false. One of the criticisms of the FIFA ranking system is that a host nation who are not playing competitive games will inevitably drop down the rankings. Because of this, and also because teams can protect their ranking (and therefore competitive seeding) by not playing while others play matches in which even a win results in them dropping in the rankings.

The new ranking system will be similar to the one used at www.eloratings.net – this works on points exchange so a team cannot lose points in the ranking while winning a game. It ranked the opening game as 45th v 63rd.

What is not addressed by the change is that the 32-team world cup is far from being the top 32 countries in the World. If we use the FIFA rankings, twenty of the top 32 ranked teams are from UEFA (14 teams at the World Cup) while 7 more are from CONMEBOL (5 qualifiers, including Peru via a play-off). The top 32 is made up with 3 from CONCACAF (3 qualified) and two from Africa (5 qualified). Asia has no country in FIFA’s top 32, despite having five teams in Russia. Using eloratings makes only a little difference to these figures, their numbers give a slightly better ranking to Asia (two in the top 33, as there was a tie for 32nd place pre-World Cup), and slightly worse for the Africans.

One might think that when the World Cup is extended to 48 teams, this would be corrected to some extent, with at least the possibility of the top 32 countries being there, but the new slot allocation has been defined as follows (with number of the number of teams in FIFA’s top 48 ranks in brackets). UEFA 16 (28), CONMEBOL 6 (8), CONCACAF 6 (3), Africa 9 (7), Asia 8 (2), Oceania 1 (0) – plus two play-off places for which each confederation except UEFA gets one chance in a six country pre-qualifying tournament. The host confederation will get one extra place in this – meaning UEFA is only involved when the finals are to take place in Europe.

I have made my own comparison of each confederation’s performance from 1950 onwards. The system I used was 2 points for a win, one for a draw (including a match that ends in a penalty shoot-out), and a bonus point for a win in any knock out game, including the final (but not the play-off for third place). I then divided the points by the number of teams involved. If no team from the confederation qualified, then a straight zero was recorded. For comparison, a middle “FIFA figure” is shown as well

 

The graph clearly shows how the South American teams did greatly better than the Europeans, especially in the two World Cups held in Mexico (1970 and 1986) and the one in Argentina in between (1978) while Europeans held sway in England (1966), Germany (1974), and Spain (1982). It also shows the failure of either Africa or Asia to make a break through.

Over the last five World Cups, we have had 32 teams and the same structure, leading to average points per team of 4.47. A total of the five cups of 22.35. During this most recent period, the European and South American nations have consistently beaten the standard, CONCACAF reached this target only once (2002) but came close in Brazil, while the others have consistently fallen short. Over the five-tournament run, the total points for each confederation are CONMEBOL 31.70, UEFA 28.62, CONCACAF 14.58, CAF (Africa) 11.50, AFC (Asia) 9.75 and OFC (Oceania) 6.00

If we added more teams from any Confederation, it should bring down the score, on the assumption these would be weaker than those already there, while conversely reducing the allocation should remove the weakest and improve the score. The clear implication here is that Asia and Africa are over represented, while Europe and South America do not get their just deserts.

So why do FIFA want to give more extra places to the continents which are over represented, but not to those which are under represented. The automatic response is that it is all about money, but this is not entirely the case. Most of FIFA’s income comes from the World Cup competition, through TV rights, sponsorship and (to a lesser extent) ticket sales.

In Asia, where the economies are on the rise, the increase in the numbers does have a financial case. Asia includes the giant economy of China, and the potential giant of India. Both are under performing on the International stage. We are a long way from the idea of India qualifying for this stage, but at least from 2026 onwards, the Chinese will have a good chance of taking part in another World Cup. In the final table, China were only a point away from the Asian play-off stage, so would not need a major improvement to get into the top eight in Asia

The TV rights sales and sponsorship money does not have Africa in mind and adding more African countries does have some logic behind it. The African qualification procedure, which currently involves no play-offs or second chances is the less likely than others to send the top five teams from the continent to the finals than the procedures used elsewhere. There is a belief that there are a few unlucky teams who are not particularly worse than those who have got through who have failed due to a poor draw or a single unlucky result.

To be honest, the same is true of the European qualification, but at least here we have the play-off procedure which gives a second chance. Still few would deny that the competition is missing teams such as Italy and the Netherlands. The argument that DR Congo were desperately unlucky to get knocked out, while teams such as Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire, all of which have impressed us in the past, are all missing. Of the latter trio, only the Ivorians finished second in their group.

Supporters if the FIFA stance, not giving the places that Europe believes are justified can also point to the graph above. When the numbers have were expanded to 24 and 32, Europe did not get the increases they may have expected, but this has not seen them gain a higher score.

South Korean fans in Frankfurt, 2006

However, Gianni Infantino came to power at FIFA on a promise of more slots in the World Cup, and more money to the members. If he is to retain the presidency, he must deliver on the promises to the smaller countries, in Africa particularly – but also in Asia and the Caribbean. Infantino basically came to power by trumping Michel Platini’s suggestion of a 40 team World Cup and brining in a 48 team one instead. Fortunately for him, the countries did back the Americas bid for the 2026 World Cup – which has income projections twice that of Morocco’s. This means that FIFA can continue to show largesse in financial grants to its members for the next decade at least.

The 48 team World Cup and the increasing costs of stadium building is placing a limit on who can stage future cups. The larger European Nations generally have the stadia, and always have plans for some improvements. The USA could have run a bid on its own, without joining up with Mexico or Canada – but neither of its partners could hold a tournament on its own. In Asia, only Japan and China clearly have the resources to hold the cup. I am sure China will be bidding soon. I am not even certain that Australia could mount a bid on current stadiums. In India, the new football stadiums inspired by the Super League are not of World Cup size, which means the big stadiums in the country are still the cricket grounds.

Then there is South America. The last World Cup placed a big burden on Brazil as FIFA takes money out of countries staging cups, but the countries have to bear the cost of building. There is a feeling that Uruguay should hold the 2030 World Cup in celebration that this is the centenary of the first world cup. But Uruguay cannot go it alone. There is a suggestion that a combined bid of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina may bid. England’s plans to bid (either on its own, or as a joint UK, or UK/Ireland) have been damned by a quotation in support from Sepp Blatter.

Infantino does not appear to be the initiator of ideas but has been in the background bringing them through. He was involved in the pan-European plan for 2020 and had left UEFA for FIFA before the disgraceful decision to water down the plan by giving group games to Wembley as well as the semi-finals and final. Both Cardiff and Stockholm would clearly have been better options. If 2020 goes well, then do not be surprised if Infantino is at the centre of a push for a pan-South American World Cup in 2030, with at least eight and possibly all ten of the nations staging games.

It is not only the World Cup itself where FIFA sees expansion as the way forward. They have two other adult men’s competitions for the World, the World Club Championship and the Confederations Cup. Both are somewhat maligned and ignored, at least here in England.

It is almost certain that the Confederations Cup will end after the 2021 event. It may well have even seen its last hurrah leaving an under-strength German side as the last winners. It cannot retain its current position as an event on World Cup venues twelve months before the World Cup as the disruption to leagues would be too great. If it is to be played in 2021, then it will have to be in the summer, and hence in different locations. FIFA are already discussion alternative titles of tournaments in its stead, with a World “Nations League” somewhere on the agenda.

The annual, 8-team World Club Championship has always been criticised and not particularly loved. FIFA have been searching for alternatives for some time, with discussions of 24 and 32 team tournaments. FIFA now say that they can earn an income of US$ 25 billion over a 12-year period for their two new competitions. This is based on an unnamed group of investors, who will guarantee the money, but will then sell on the various rights to the competition. FIFA would have a 51% share of a joint company running the operation and would lead on sporting decisions. A report on the BBC web site specifically says that the investor group, which comes from Europe, Asia and the Americas does not include Chinese investment or any direct involvement from Saudi Arabia. They second half of the reply seems to suggest there is indirect involvement from Saudi Arabia while the first may be a surprise given how big the Chinese advertising presence is at the Russia World Cup. Still, the Chinese government has ordered a reduction in capital outflow so I am guessing that the Chinese companies are no longer willing to commit long term like this. The current Chinese position has reduced the number of high value transfers into the Chinese Super League and also limits the amount that Chinese investors may bring to their European clubs such as the Midlands quartet of Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wanda have divested their 17% share of Atletico Madrid. The Chinese have not reneged on agreements made before the policy change, so Wanda is still the title sponsor at Atletico’s new stadium, while Chinese companies such as Wanda, Vivo and Hisense have stepped into to the void created in FIFA’s partnerships when some of their sponsors pulled out.

The author with Chinese fans, before their first World Cup finals game, against Costa Rica in 2002

So, we may expect the annual World Club Championship to end either in 2019 or 2020 and be replaced by a bigger tournament in the summer of 2021. The new tournament is expected to have 24 teams. Half of these will be European with the eight finalists from the four preceding Champions Leagues, plus the four Europa League winners all getting a place. CONCACAF, AFC (Asia) and CAF (Africa) will contribute two teams each while the CONMEBOL (South America) will have five or six contenders. Oceania will either have one, or maybe none at all.

Played in June, and with five games for the two finalists, one feels that the new form World Club Championship will get a much greater global presence than the current format. The plan is apparently eight groups of three, with group winners only entering the knock out stage. However, it is already fielding criticism from all sides.

There is concern about the increased number of matches for the players – and clearly one of the reasons for this competition’s expansion is that it can be sure of including most of the World’s star players. In contrast, the World Cup itself will always miss out a few because they play for nations such as Wales who rarely qualify. Other clubs and leagues will be concerned about the amount of money that will transfer to the competing clubs, and hence the further step up they in financial terms. FIFA have promised a fair distribution, but as with the European competitions, those that play always get a massive amount in comparison to the solidarity payments for the other clubs in the league

The World Nations League is less clear. It appears this could be a biennial competition, and hence starts with the various confederations own Nations Leagues competitions. The first European Nations League takes place this autumn, with the finals in the summer of 2019. At the same time, CONCACAF are staging a series of qualifying games which define both who is in the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer, but also the make up of the CONCACAF Nations League when it starts in the following autumn.

The Nations League concept is something that came out of UEFA while Infantino was still involved. The extension of this to become a FIFA competition has only been mooted since Infantino replaced Blatter in the chair. Previous ideas, such as playing the World Cup every two years had been rejected by the countries and their confederations, but it always appears that there is a contest between FIFA and the Confederations, (an in particular, Europe) over control of the competitions and the calendar.

The World Nations League, possibly under the title “Final 8”, would pit together winners of various Confederations Nations Leagues. If played in a single nation then one feels it is just the Confederations Cup re-aligned. Exactly how it fits into the international calendar seems ill-defined, but I have heard it suggested that the November International window in “Final 8” years could be two weeks instead of one, and somehow it gets played then!

Still, the “Final 8” is being promoted as between winners of continental nations leagues, and here there is a problem as only UEFA and CONCACAF currently have decided on this route. The Nations League concept is not exactly one size fits all, and may be difficult to work in CONMEBOL, Oceania or Africa. I would not dare to say that not having an Oceania representative would be one of the benefits of the format, but I have no doubt that someone behind the scenes has thought this.

The risk here, is that competitive games between the World’s top nations on a more regular basis could take the gloss off the World Cup itself. Do we really need three tournaments between the world’s top countries within each four-year cycle? Each federation’s own competition will come under pressure to change dates to fit into the FIFA formats as well. The global popularity of the European Competition, played in the even numbered years between World Cups means the others have now gone for odd numbered years. There will be a point next June when CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and Africa are all in the midst of their own continental competitions. The next Asia tournament is also in 2019, but in their case, it is played in January.

Oceania normally sneak theirs in at the start of the World Cup qualification process, and it is only played to a conclusion so as they can have two finals – one with the winner going to the Confederations cup, and another for the play-off place in World Cup qualification. The big surprise being the Oceania tournament in 2012, when New Zealand did not make the finals, and hence Tahiti played in the Confederations Cup. It was not even Tahiti that beat New Zealand in the semi-finals, but the New Hebrides who then lost to Tahiti in the final. New Zealand recovered quickly to win a round robin home and away tournament involving all four semi-finalists from the Nations Cup, and hence ensure their opportunity to lose (9-3 on aggregate) to Mexico in the play-off.

So, in simple terms, Infantino has made promises, and wants to change the scenery of World Football to keep them, and ensure he keeps in office. The World Cup expansion helps him to win votes in Asia and Africa, while the amount of money being offered for the other new competitions means that the opposition to them will probably be ignored.

Names such as “ITV Digital” and “ISL” keep echoing in the depths of my mind when thinking about this. While the investors may be able to deliver the promised riches, you can bet they have a back stop where the new company being formed fails to deliver. FIFA lost a bundle of cash when the ISL deal failed, as did the English Football League over the ITV digital debacle. In both cases, the money promised could not be backed by the product these companies were selling. Despite a series of new sponsors from China, FIFA have lost a lot of money after sponsors pulled out over the recent scandals. A recent report in the independent says that this is around 10% of the sponsorship income. In turn, this income is somewhere between a third and a half of all FIFA’s income.

Overall, the amounts promised for the new competitions would effectively double the income FIFA would expect to receive in any four-year period. It will allow them to send much more to the nations in grants both for administration and projects. I cannot see beyond the nations effectively voting for it because of the money. It is most likely there will be few objections, except from those nations where the additional income is lowest in percentage terms. Real Madrid and Barcelona have already been reported as responding positively to overtures over the club competition. Anyway, now the value of the genie has been let out of the bottle, there is the risk that if FIFA do not run such a competition, then someone else will – which will increase the rewards for clubs involved, while not helping out the rest.

Eurohop – Part 1

May 9th, 2018

In England, the groundhopper has been a part of the non-league scene for many decades now. There are several hundreds of people who travel up and down the country “ticking” the small grounds. The hobby has spread to other countries as well, with Germany probably having more practitioners than the UK, and others coming from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

I am not an expert on linguistics, but I have long held the belief that there is a linguistic grouping in the type of behaviour that leads to hobbies such as groundhopping (see also trainspotting, stamp collecting, etc.). In fact, this appears to go for any hobby which requires at least mild obsessive-compulsive actions. The desire to complete one set, and then go in search of another set does not appear to be so pronounced with people who speak Latin based languages (such as French, Italian and Spanish). Belgian hoppers are more likely to be Flemish speakers than Walloon, and Swiss hoppers are almost inevitably German speakers.

Of course, football goes beyond borders, and so not surprisingly, groundhopping does too. The most well-travelled groundhopper I know in England has, I believe watch football in 117 countries, and is at pains to say this is only FIFA members. It certainly puts my 71 countries (to date) in the shade, but some of the German hoppers are likely to have beaten these figures.

My figure, incidentally allows me to count Monaco (which is not a FIFA member, but is a member of the UN as a separate country). Monaco is odd insofar as while the football played in the principality is in the French Leagues, the grounds used for the main Monegasque competition are in France. The one I have been to, the Stade Plage Marquet Cap d’Ail is only just behind the arches of Monaco’s Stade Louis II

It has become a common theme with those of us that travel the grounds of Europe to make a tour in May, as the English season is drawing to a close. If one travels some long distances, then it may be possible to do games every day on a two to three-week period, even as those grounds already visited are not part of the equation. Yes, I do go to grounds I have been to before, but in the obsessive nature of hopping, each ground can only be “ticked” once. Two of those who have travelled with me most often in the past are in Europe at the same time as this trip. My son has given them both nicknames, so to avoid undue publicity, they will be referred to as Pizzaman and the Minion. The whole trip will be coloured slightly by the fact that another regular traveller, Paul Sparrow is no longer with us.

These trips are by rail, with us holding interrail tickets which makes the long runs easier. When we were younger, the trips would always include a fair number of overnight trains, but these days we tend to prefer hotel accommodation as much as the timetables allow. Interrail means that we are not stuck to the same itineraries. Our past records mean we want different grounds. In particular, the Minion and Pizzaman have done more of this type of trip than myself, but I have probably done more solo trips at other times.

So, I get a one-day head start, and this is typed from the Vienna to Graz train. Pizzaman will follow the same route 21 hours behind me, and we will then meet up and head to Slovenia. The Minion is coming into Vienna with Pizzaman, but I am not seeing him until Saturday, when we reach Germany.

My first game is in the Austrian Regionalliga Mitte, a match between SC Weiz and Vorwarts Steyr. This was always my intention when starting the trip, but just after I had booked my ticket, it was switched from Tuesday to Wednesday. Then two weeks later, the Austrian Cup final was scheduled for the Wednesday and my game was returned to the Tuesday. Austria has two professional divisions, which if we remove sponsors logos are Bundesliga and 1. Liga. They have been running with ten teams each and a 36-game season, but this is due to change next season. The Bundesliga will go to the 12-team format that is gaining in popularity. After 22 games, it will split into two groups, with the winner of the lower group is included in the play-off for the last Europa League place. The second tier will expand from 10 to 16 teams, meaning 8 new teams coming up from the three regionalliga. Champions and Runners-up should go up of right, and it appears two of the three third placed teams will go straight up, the third having a play-off against the bottom team in the 1. Liga. Although I had not seen this written, I had suspected that Regionalliga Mitte had drawn this short straw as they were finishing a week ahead of the other two – this would have made sense when the 1. Liga had an earlier finish but it now runs on to the same weekend of the Ost and West Regionalliga finish

As it happens events have got in the way. The Austrian Football Association have been hard pressed to find enough teams to bring the second level up to 16. It appears that the bottom team in the current 1.Liga will be reprieved from even a relegation play-off. Once those clubs who either do not want to be promoted, or cannot get a licence, it appears that only one club can be promoted from the Regionalliga West, Three from Regionalliga Ost, leaving four from the Mitte. Even then, it is not a matter of finishing in the top four. Neither Gleisdorf 09 (second when I started the tour), nor Union Vöcklamarkt (4th) want promotion, while Allerheiligen (7th) cannot get a licence. It is fairly certain that Lafnitz (confirmed as champions), Pasching/LASK Juniors (3rd), Vorwärts Steyr (5th) and Austria Klagenfurt (6th) will be promoted.

I arrive in Weiz by train quite and check into my hotel mid-afternoon. Weiz is a pleasant enough town, but very quiet with little happening. It is surrounded by hills, and therefore gets visitors who want to trek and take in the scenery. It is only a ten-minute walk from my hotel to the Stadium. The ground is basically two sided, with a few rows of terracing (uncovered) behind the goal as you enter, and covered stand running the entire length of one side. There is space behind the other goal, but this is grassed, with the area near the dressing rooms unused, and that further away having a marquee for use by the VIPs. It was not well used.

The other long side is very narrow and is an overgrown steep slope, interrupted only by team benches and the scoreboard.

When I arrived, they had opened an extra gate and put a fence between the end terrace and the rest of the ground, but when it became clear the visiting fans numbered a couple of dozen, not a couple of hundred this was abandoned, allowing the fans to mix freely, or more accurately allowing the visiting fans to find a good position to hang their surprisingly large array of flags.

Even though it was not a promotion requirement, I was told by a home official that Vorwärts still wanted to win and hence “earn” promotion, rather than gain it by default. The early stages of the game certainly suggested this was true, with them having a couple of chances before the division’s leading goalscorer, Yusuf Efendioglu found himself receiving a cross unmarked to open the scoring in the 8th minute. Steyr committed enough men forward that when their full back was disposed five minutes later, they did not have cover to prevent Weiz equalising, but quite quickly Efendioglu got on the scoresheet again to regain the advantage. For the rest of the first half, Steyr were well on top, and it was a surprise that they could not increase the lead. Weiz’s efforts were very limited and easily blocked.

In the second period, Weiz played better, committed more men to attack and created more chances, but still the edge was with the visitors. Lichtenberger hit a rising shot against the crossbar, and Efendioglu managed to balloon over an easy chance to complete his hat-trick. As the half wore on, and a mix of substitutions and yellow cards broke up the play, Weiz were still pushing to get back into the game. It was not until the 89th minute that Efendioglu managed to beat both defender and keeper to a loose ball to complete the scoring (leaving both of his opponents in a heap on the ground)

The result lifts Vorwärts into third place, two points behind Gleisdorf, with two games to play.

The next morning it was out of the hotel by 8, and on the train back to Graz. Here I had an hour for a coffee and to update my writings while waiting for the Pizzaman to arrive on the through train from Vienna to Ljubljana. Pizzaman sent me a message to say where he was on the train and we headed onward.

Considering the potential for things to go wrong, the Slovenian leg of the trip was smooth in a way that the football presented during it was not. Originally the thought was to go to Velenje on the Wednesday, for an evening game, and Kranj the next day for an afternoon one, but realising that the timing of the fixtures, (4, 6 and 8 o’clock on the Wednesday) meant it would be possible to go to both Domzale and Velenje on this day. The only catch being that one had to cover the 60km between the two by road. Once I had discovered that I could hire a car for as little as €18 for a day from a place very close to Ljubljana station, the plan was straight forward. With the train into Ljubljana being delayed, I called ahead to the rental company and asked that the car would be ready for a hurried take up. The company (Inter rent) were very good about this, and we just had to go through the normal paperwork before driving away. We arrived in Domzale around 50 minutes before kick off and parked in the car park for a supermarket, which backs onto the main stand.

All three of the grounds we were to visit in Slovenia had running tracks around them, and a main stand to one side. The away sides for the Wednesday matches were the two best supported teams in the league. Both Olimpija Ljubljana and Maribor claim over 3,000 supporters for their home games, while the next best in the league still get under 1000. In both cases, this resulted in a similar setting for the visiting fans, with a section for the “ultras” who would stand and sing during the game, and then the next block being occupied by the other visiting fans, who would sit and support their club in a quieter manner. There were some police and security around, but nothing to suggest that there would be any problems. Everyone was arriving and leaving through the same routes.

Maribor Ultras in Domzale.

One thing that does differentiate these Slovenian games from most of those I go to in Europe appeared to be the limited catering. As far as I could see, none of the clubs were selling any food to their patrons at all, and the only drinks options were for cold drinks, including lager.

 

Domzale was the only one of the three grounds which had a covered area opposite the main stand, this was mainly given over to VIP and press seats. Thanks to Pizzaman having made an advance application, we were allowed into this area. The press appeared to have no access to the refreshment areas on the other side of the ground at all, while VIP’s had to walk around behind the goal, crossing the line of players entering and leaving the pitch to get their fill.

Over the two-day period, we were to see the top five teams in the ten-team division, and Triglav Kranj, placed bottom. Slovenia gets one place in Champions League qualifying, and three for the Europa League. With five games to go, the title was between Maribor and Olimpija, with the Ljubljana team leading by one point. Domzale were third, but with little hope of catching the leading two, and already mathematically certain of maintaining a minimum of third place, which means they get European football. Celje (fourth) and Rudar Velenje (fifth) were battling for the fourth place in the hope that Olimpija would win the cup and give them European competition. Aluminij are the other cup finalists and are placed 8th, just about secure from relegation. Triglav started the round two points behind Ankaran Hrvatini. Both of this pair were promoted last season. The one that finishes bottom goes straight down, while the ninth place gets a play-off against the second division runners-up.

The first game set the scene for the football we were to see in Slovenia. Both teams liked to attack but did not commit many players to forward positions and moves tend to break down with a weak pass or a quick shot into a blocking player. On many other occasions we saw players in good attacking positions losing the ball as they were trying to get into a position to shoot on their best foot. When they shoot with the other foot, the ball goes off into the middle of nowhere.

Not surprisingly, considering the poor football on fare with the best teams in this league, not one member of the Slovenian football team which gave England a close run last autumn plays in the Slovenian League.

For most of the games, we were also treated to a series of poorly taken corners that either flew directly into the keepers’ hands or were easily headed away – and yet somehow corners led to late equalisers in both of my first two games.

 

One felt from the way the games went, that both Maribor and Olimpija Ljubljana thought that they only had to run up in order to win their games, despite the relatively high positions of their opponents. Both got a shock to their systems. Maribor had been well on top of the game at Domzale, but then went behind early in the second half. The goal came from an error which allowed a free run on the target. Admittedly, based on what I had already seen, there was no certainty the ball would be hit at the goal until the shot was unleashed, but for close on to forty minutes, Maribor were behind.

The equaliser came in the “final minute”, although we still had several minutes for injury and time wasting to add. I see that different web sites give a different scorer. The Slovenian League site gives it to Dervisevic, who took the corner from the right. When this reached the near post, three players went up for it. Two defenders and Marcos Tavares. I thought it was Tavares who got the touch, but even watching the video several times, I cannot say that for certain. Whoever headed the ball, it then bounced down and went through the goalkeeper’s legs, with him getting the final touch. Domzale tried to claim the ball did not cross the line, but in these games, we had no less than six officials, and if assistants behind the goal lines have any purpose, then it is to confirm whether or not the goal went in. For this, the video does confirm that the officials were correct in awarding the goal. Soccerway gives the goalscorer as Tavares, a Brazilian born player who has been a regular with them for ten years. I am going along with that.

The crowd was given as 2500. In all three cases on this trip, I felt there was a discrepancy between the number given as crowd, and the numbers actually present.

By car, it was an easy run from Domzale to Velenje – with the most traffic we encountered being on exit of the car park, (and that added less than five minutes to the time). When we arrived at the stadium in Velenje, all was quiet – and the arrival a minute or two later of a coach carrying Olimpija Ljubljana fans, not a lot changed. A quick investigation revealed not only that the only refreshment stall at the ground was again limited to cold drinks, but also that it would not even be open until shortly before kick-off.

Pizzaman was complaining about the fact he had not eaten since breakfast, and I fancied I could do with a snack. I was missing the sausages that are DE rigour at German and Austrian grounds. Fortunately there was a bar just across the car park from the entrance. It appeared to be styled as a trendy spot, but all it could offer was beer and a toasted tuna sandwich. Naturally given this choice, we settled for a beer and a toasted tuna sandwich.

Pizzaman in search of the all elusive sandwich

The ground is basically one sided. The ascetically pleasing wrap round roof is surprisingly not cantilever and has uncovered seating extending out from its ends. At the far end, this was used as the enclosed section for the Olimpija ultras. For most of the rest of the ground, there is nowhere for spectators to go, and a small area of uncovered standing behind the near goal was not being used. This end was more notable for the impressive street are mural favouring the home club

The game followed a similar pattern to the one earlier in the day, with Olimpija clearly the better side, but not being able to change this into goals. Where it did differ was it was Olimpija who opened the scoring, and the home side which managed to level the scores late in the day.

The following day, we had to return the car to Ljubljana, and we stopped briefly outside the old national stadium, not disused since the new stadium further out of town has been opened. Through gaps in the fencing, one can see what was once a large, if very open stadium, with no signs as yet of planning to redevelop the site.

Having returned the car, it was back to the rails for the shortish trip to Kranj. This was probably the most interesting of the towns we were taking in, as well as the only one that we would actually take enough time to see. The old town is set on a rock that separates two rivers shortly before their confluence. From the station, we had to cross the larger river and then climb the hill into the town centre. Pulling my case, with one of the wheels having a tendency to seize up, this was a far bigger job than it might have been. Fortunately, once up the hill, we had just a couple of hundred yards to traverse on level ground, and then crossing a high-level bridge over the deep gorge of the tributary river. The hotel was next to the bridge. The ground was a short walk, crossing the bridge again.

The arrival at the sports complex which includes the ground is indicated by a statue of a naked man, hand raised presumedly in position to take a selfie of himself with the stadium and mountains in the background.

Again, we have a main stand on one side. In this case there are open seats on the other side, in a concrete block which has the dressing rooms underneath. The enclosed section for visiting ultras is within this section, but if there were any from Celje, they kept themselves anonymous and stayed on the other side of the ground. This block is two sided, with a couple of rows of seats on the opposite side looking over a second pitch. While the main pitch is glass and not floodlit, the second one is artificial and floodlit. There were children’s training sessions on this while the game was on the other side.

One has to go outside the ground to transfer from one side to another, but with just a wire fence, the views from here are better than inside some grounds, and a few had elected to watch all or part of the match from outside. The home teams is known as Triglav Kranj, and has apparently borne this name for over 60 years. We felt that the name was a reference to the highest mountain in Slovenia, and not a sponsor, although you may notice the name Triglav on advertising boards at most Slovenian league games.

Triglav have their own “singing section”, called the Small Faces, who have one end of the stand. For a 16.00 kick off on a working day, the numbers here were limited.

At the other end of the stand were a larger group of school children who also did their best to enliven proceedings with chants. Efforts that were appreciated by the crowd. The match, as with the others we had seen in Slovenia did not add up to a great deal. Triglav started the day bottom of the league, but a 1-0 win in this game allowed them to climb one place, which would give them the potential to avoid relegation via a play-off. Both of the bottom two had won promotion last season.

The result was a poor one from Celje, reducing their chances of finishing ahead of Rudar Velenje for what could be a place in the Europa League. Their chances were further diminished the following weekend, when they were beaten at home by Rudar (?)

After the match, Pizzaman and I headed into the town, and found the Teresa bar, which sold beers supplied by Kranj’s small brewery. A change from the mass-produced beers of the main Slovenian brewers. We settled on the Rye beer, and very nice it was. The locals here were in good form and quickly struck up conversation in English, which helped us to extend our stay in the bar. They even gave us a lift back to the hotel, where the local Kranjska Sausages were a speciality.

The next morning, there was a break in the smooth running of operations. We had our breakfast and made our way down the hill in time to have a coffee in the station café before the train was due. Then we waited, and waited. OK, in reality the train was only 30 minutes late, but it was running just to cross the border in Austria, and then we were both intending to board a connection to Vienna, dump our bags in a locker and go to different games before meeting up again in Vienna for the night train to Germany.

The consequence of the delay was the connection was missed, a two hour wait for the next one. Pizzaman wanted to go to Ebreichsdorf, while I preferred SKU Amstetten in the same division. The two carriages that came up through Kranj would have normally been attached to another train at Villach and taken to Frankfurt. Because of the delay, this was changed with our train terminating in Villach, but the Frankfurt train would at least wait, unlike the Vienna one. Judging by the effect of the train conductor’s comments when he walked through, around half the passengers were going each way – almost none were heading to Villach itself. So while Pizzaman waited for his train, and by slightly changing route, arrived at his destination by 18.00.

My journey was somewhat more straightforward. I took the Frankfurt connection as far as Salzburg, where there is a train every 30 minutes to Amstetten, arriving more than 3 hours before kick-off. On a sunny afternoon, Amstetten is a pleasant enough town, and I wandered around a little, stopping at an ice cream parlour before heading down to the ground. The stadium is about a ten minute walk from the station close to the river. The leisure area has a theatre, as well as many different sports facilities.

The venue is three sides, with one end giving way to nothing except a fence to the tennis courts. The other three sides have a modern appearance and have clearly been designed with the size of the club in mind.

The ground looks close to full with 1450 in it for my game and would not look empty with only a third of the capacity. Naturally, it would struggle to hold 3000, but that type of point tends to be moot in Austria. The average crowd at Amstetten is a little short of 1,000 – still better than some in the division above.

Behind the goal, there is a fairly wide concourse, and close to food and drink outlets at both ends, there are bar tables, so as one can stand, with a beer and still watch the game. There are also ledges to place your beer glasses in the standing areas behind the seats.

Austrian civilization – beer and football

Covered seats go around all three sides that are pen for spectators, but one section, behind the goal is reserved for their “12th Man” group – the singing fans who come equipped with drums, a strobe light and occasional apparently smoky wafts, not smoke bombs, but apparently dry ice. At times it looks more like a disco than a football ground

One of the first things I asked at the ground was the situation with regard to promotion. Having been given four names from the Mitte earlier in the week, I was pleased to fill in the one (Wacker Innsbruck reserves) from the West. As far as the Regionalliga Ost is concerned, my feeling the Ebreichsdorf would not be promoted was correct, this being one of the reasons I preferred the idea of going to Amstetten. League leaders (at arrival), SV Horn will go up, with two from Amstetten, Austria Wien reserves and Karabakh. With the latter two playing each other at the same time as my game knew that if they won this one, they were promoted.


It took a while for the game to settle down, and while deserving it, Amstetten were fortunate with the incident that led to the first goal. The visiting keeper failed to hold the ball, and as Markus Keusch was trying to control it, he was fouled from behind. A completely unnecessary foul on a player facing away from goal. Milan Vukovic scored the penalty, the first of hat-trick (completed with a later penalty). Two goals in a minute early in the second half put Amstetten completely in control, and the score went up to 6-0 when Vukovic scored his second penalty. That incident left Bruck with ten men, but Amstetten did not score again until injury time. A final score of 7-0 left them in an emphatic conclusion to their promotion campaign

I stayed long enough to see the start of a celebration that I suspect was still going on after I had changed trains in Vienna, meeting Pizzaman again and heading to Germany

The Price is Right? Selling Football by the Euro.

April 27th, 2018

There are major changes to qualification for European Competition from next season. UEFA are selling this as evolution, not revolution – but for the clubs who have hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages, the odds have become longer. So, they may not see it that way

The big change is in the number of teams that have direct qualification to group stages in both competitions. This is particularly true of teams who have not won their leagues, playing in the Champions League. In 2017-18, there were 18 clubs who had won the major prizes in the Champions League. Twelve countries got their champions into the competition as of right, five more through the qualification process. The 18th winner was Manchester United who won the Europa League. On this occasion, the Champions League winner were also a League champion.

The champions that managed to come up through qualification were well distributed in the rankings. So while Champions 1 through 12 were automatically included, the others were ranked 14 (Greece), 19 (Cyprus), 25 (Scotland), 26 (Azerbaijan) and 30 (Slovenia).

For 2018-19, only the top ten Champions get an automatic place, and they are joined by just four other champions. With places for the winners of the Champions League and Europa League already guaranteed, this means that the number of teams with a major trophy will be reduced to 16 – or 15 if the Europa League winners are one of the top ten domestic title winners, (a scenario that is unlikely in 2018, the only Europa League semi-finalists likely to win a domestic title are the Austrians, Salzburg – who would have to fight through qualifying rounds to get into the Champions League groups).

For the non-Champions, in the 2017/18 season, nine had direct entry to the groups, from six countries while five more won through from qualification. Although countries down to 15th rank were allowed into this phase, four of the five came from the top five. The exception being the fourth German team, Hoffenheim, who were beaten by Liverpool. The Russian team, CSKA Moscow (Country rank 7) completed the line up.

In 2018/19, there will be no less than 14 non-Champion clubs with direct access, no qualifying match. They still come from six countries, but now the top four all get three non-Champion clubs. The third clubs from France and Russia (ranked 5/6) compete with the runners-up in countries ranked 7-15 for just two further places.

There was logic to changing from three to four countries with the top numbers. The recent evolution of ranking point has seen two big gaps emerging. Rounding to the nearest who number, Spain had 105 points at the end of 2016/7, followed by Germany (79), England (76) and Italy (73). France, ranked 5th had only 57 points. While it may have appeared that another season would see Italy overtake England, what has actually happened is that German clubs have performed poorly, while the English have done well. Hence, England will probably rise to 2nd on the five-year aggregate, while Germany fall behind Italy. Giving the fourth placed teams a direct place without qualification seems a more contentious point. The only reason I can see for this is that UEFA feels it needs these teams in contention to build up the TV audience.

Where the changes will be felt most of all is in the qualification procedure. More teams will have to play more matches in order to reach the group stage. For example, to get to the group stage this season, Celtic had to play six matches over seven mid-weeks. A fairly hefty early season programme with four of the games taking place before the first league game. If they are to repeat the feat in the new season, they will have to play eight matches on successive weeks.

The pushing back of matches has added a preliminary round to the qualifying competition – and it is a strange and new idea. Four teams play the Preliminary round, for just one place in the First Qualifying Round. These teams will be the Champions of Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and Kosovo. There will be only three games in this, and this season they will all be played at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar. The “semi-finals” will be on Tuesday 26th June, with the final game on the following Friday.

The other twist is that every Champions League team, knocked out in the qualification games will get a second chance in the Europa League. Also, in the Europa League, teams who have won their Championship but have been knocked out play in a section distinct from those who have qualified by cups or league position. This means that 12 of the 48 teams in the group stage will be National Champions. There will be 17 places given directly in the group stage to teams from the top 12 countries in the rankings. In all cases, these include the cup-winners (if not otherwise qualified for higher competition) and for five countries, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, it also includes the next best league side. This number is just one higher than in 2017-18 with the club that finishes fourth place in France being the one that gets the advantage here. Again, this comes at a cost in matches for the others. In 2017, 25 clubs had entry at the third qualification round stage, meaning two rounds, or four games to reach the groups. Only 12 teams get this in 2018 – and they are not from the top countries, but only from those which do not get two automatic spots in the groups. England’s seventh European club, will have to play three rounds, six matches to reach the group – they will start in the final week of July. For Scotland, only the Cup Winners get to start that late, with the other two teams starting in the First Qualification round, two weeks earlier. Countries such as both Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland will have all three of their clubs starting in the First Qualification Round, while for Wales it is even worse as their three combatants will start in a Preliminary Round at the end of June.

UEFA does not have to sell this much to the smaller nations. For most, they will find it is a take it or leave it situation alleviated by the rewards their clubs get just for taking part. Working from UEFA published figures, Welsh Champions, The New Saints will have received €800,000 for scraping through the first qualification round and getting hammered by a Croatian team in the next. This sum of money means that they can run a professional team in what is otherwise a semi-professional league without losing money year on year. It goes a long way to explain their dominance of the Welsh Premier League. The chairman, Mike Harris put in a lot of money to get them where they are today but does not have to keep spending to keep them there. What I find more surprising is that other Champions League do not all dominate their leagues to the same extent.

The other clubs in Wales also benefit from UEFA’s munificence. Not one of their other three clubs won their First tie in Europe, but all benefited to the tune of €215,000. A further €403,000 is given to the FA Wales to distribute to the clubs in the division. While the FA Wales also collects money from other TV and sponsorship deals for distribution to the clubs, one can see that this is likely to be a major part quite probably the lion’s share of the source of this distribution. [It is worth noting though that Wales only received the base payment from UEFA, the English FA had over €13 million from this source (in 2016/17), Scotland had €4.6 million. Northern Ireland received the same amount as Wales, but the Republic got just over twice that]

When I spoke to Mike Harris at The New Saints’ first game of the season, I had asked him about the fact that there are only 12 teams in the top league in Wales, despite a general wish amongst fans to increase the numbers. He said he would quite like to see the number increased, but that funding would be a problem. Sums of money such as the €403,000 I have mentioned would be significantly diluted if there were more clubs.

UEFA have promised with the new system that more money will be given to the smaller clubs – so those sums I have mentioned are all due to be increased in 2018/19. Even though the distribution through market pool is being reduced, (meaning the English teams do not benefit so much from the English TV deals), I cannot imagine any of the Premier clubs being worse off than under the current system.

UEFA still consider it necessary to keep the structure in favour of the big clubs. There is a point to this. At least with this system, the clubs are tied into this money generation machine, and this is sending money down to the leagues in the smaller countries. Most of the 55 European associations run at least one division of professional football, but only 12 of them can claim an average attendance of over 10,000 per game. There isn’t a threat of big clubs pulling out of National Leagues and playing closed competitions amongst themselves. This will not happen as long as they can fill the stadiums and sell the TV rights for their domestic competitions, even when these are not very competitive. However, they are secure in the knowledge that each of the domestic leagues needs its best teams at least as much as the teams need the league. Hence the leagues would not be quick to respond to any UEFA edict to kick them out should they ever decide to remodel the Champions League without UEFA involvement. And while so many of the World’s best players are concentrated at the few clubs at the top of the few leagues, UEFA and FIFA need them to sell their own international tournaments.

So, the small clubs in the small countries have to allow the sale of their football, and they have to accept the largesse as UEFA offer it, as for them there are no alternative tables to feed from. UEFA will continue to “evolve” the competitions every three years, as it keeps them in the headlines. The big clubs will again find the competitive bias switching their way, but the others will accept it because frankly they need the amounts that UEFA pass down from the €1.4 billion money pool.

CONIFA – A World Cup for the Common Man

April 23rd, 2018

The Champions League final is on 26th May, and the World Cup starts nearly three weeks later. So how do ordinary mortals survive if starved of competitive football for so long.

Fortunately, there is an answer, the CONIFA World Football Club will start on the final day of May and run for 10 days, bringing live football to stadiums around London, and streamed football to everyone else via the sponsor, Paddy Power’s website.

CONI-who? I hear you ask, and how do they get to organise a World Football Cup?

So, starting with CONIFA, it is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. It is an umbrella organisation for a number of associations which for one reason or another cannot gain admittance to FIFA. It currently has 49 members, and these members claim a population of over 300 million people. CONIFA itself was formed in 2013, bringing together associations that had already competed in competitions organised by the NF Board, and attracting new members into the fold

The World Football Cup (so named as to avoid any trade mark confusion with FIFA’s event soon afterwards) is the major tournament. This is the third running of the tournament, which is held every second year. Prior to CONIFA, there were five VIVA World Cup’s organised by the NF Board, and the FIFI World Cup organised by St. Pauli FC. These were played with varying number of teams but overall the number of teams and competitiveness of the matches has increased each tournament.

So, the next question is who are the Non-FIFA nations?

FIFA itself has more members than any other international body, including the United Nations. One reason for this is that in the past, it has included many small territories that the UN does not recognise as Nations. Hence the United Kingdom is not a single member of FIFA, not even the four obvious ones, but also includes a number of British Overseas Territories that joined FIFA some time back – such as Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans. With Gibraltar recently joining, the British contingent stands at 11 teams. Britain has more than anyone else, but we are not alone. The USA, Denmark, and even China are amongst those with multiple representation. The recent addition to FIFA rank of Kosovo and Gibraltar came against opposition, and FIFA have tightened up the rules for new entrants. This leaves a number of countries and territories disappointed, as they cannot get the FIFA recognition even though others in similar situations have already joined.

CONIkFA ties up these with a number of other categories that where the people can be thought to have a “national identity” but are not countries by any definition.

According to CONIFA general secretary, Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA has ten different categories of membership. I cannot list them all, but these are the main ones based on the clubs playing in this year’s World Football Cup.

  • Generally accepted independent nations, members of the UN – but not yet in FIFA, (Tuvalu)
  • Effectively independent states, that are not globally recognised – and have at least one country that does recognise them (N. Cyprus, Abkhazia)
  • Autonomous regions, that may have been able to apply to FIFA in the past, but not under current rules (Ellan Vannin, aka Isle of Man)
  • Ethnic groups – a minority within the country they are in (Felvidek, Szekely Land, United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia)
  • Diaspora groups (Tamil Eelan, Panjab, Barawa, Tibet)
  • Groups representing minority languages (Matabeleland, Kabylie)
  • Regional teams (Padania, Cascadia)

Some of these groupings may be questionable. I am not going into the politics of Tibet for example. In my mind a diaspora group means that the majority of the members of the group moved from the country of origin in the 20th or 21st centuries. While I know the United Koreans are an ethnic group, a mixture of those who migrated (in many cases forcibly) during Japanese occupation and more recent migrants, they could be called a diaspora or a minority language group as well. I cannot say whether the Western Armenians are people who actually live in eastern Turkey (which is the area they originate from), or have migrated elsewhere, and I certainly cannot give the full degrees of separation of Matabeleland and Kabylie from Zimbabwe and Algeria.

Sascha Düerkop told me that the pure regional teams such as Padania (Northern Italy) and Cascadia (North West USA /South West Canada) would not be able to apply in future. Despite this, CONIFA have recently accepted Yorkshire in membership (based on other criteria), but this does mean that an application from Surrey will be turned down, and there is no point in me trying to start a Cheltenhamshire team.

Tuvalu will be unique amongst the teams in London for this tournament as they have taken part in FIFA World Cup qualifying games. The 2007 Pacific Games were used as part of the qualification tournament for the 2010 World Cup and although Tuvalu would not have been allowed to progress, they played four games, including a draw with Tahiti before finishing bottom of their group.

Likely to offer much stronger teams than Tuvalu, are those teams representing the unrecognised nations. These are areas where there is an effective government in control, but another nation still claims the territory and a majority of countries do not support their independence. There tends to be a state that is powerful enough in defence of the current status quo preventing a violent reversion of status.

The Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union is about the most disputed series of territories around the world, with Russian support giving Abkhazia a level of independence while most of the world sees it as a breakaway from Georgia. Abkhazia both staged and won the 2016 CONIFA World Cup and are expected to field a strong side again. A similar long running dispute sees Cyprus divided with North Cyprus not being generally recognised, but Turkish support keeping them independent. Northern Cyprus staged a CONIFA European tournament last summer and finished second (to Padania).

CONIFA works hard at being a non-political organisation, but by including some of the most political of countries as members, they cannot help but be political. Ideally, they would bring together diametrically opposite groupings, but in practice this does not happen. UEFA makes sure that Azerbaijan and Armenian sides do not meet in qualification groups, or European club games due to the various conflicts between these former soviet republics. CONIFA includes Nagorno Karabakh as a member. This is a self-governed state, with a majority Armenian population, but in an area generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. Hence when CONIFA had an application from a team with an Azeri majority population, their first comment was “You know Nagorno Karabakh is a member – is this a problem for you”. They then took this all the way through the application process without problem, until someone in the Azeri government said they could not join an organisation that has Nagorno Karabakh in it.

Turkey is the main supporter of Northern Cyprus, and has enquired about TV feeds for earlier cups, but then not gone through with this because Iraqi Kurdistan was involved. Now while Iraqi Kurdistan only covers an area within Iraq, the idea of Kurdistan in general includes part of Turkey, so any promotion of Kurdish independence within Turkey would not be allowed – even when the area the team represents does not impinge on Turkish territory. This year, Iraqi Kurdistan have not qualified so the matches can be shown on Turkish TV. The existence of Northern Cyprus is opposed by Cyprus itself and their ambassador put in a protest about them having a team playing in the UK. I feel the protest was only made because it had to be made, and there was no real belief that they would be drummed out. CONIFA have actually used Northern Cypriot involvement to their advantage, staging their matches in Enfield close to the main centre of Turkish and Northern Cypriot communities in London. Similarly, the Panjab team play in Slough – close to the heart of a large Panjab diaspora.

The most controversial of the teams included is Tibet. In the past the Chinese has always raised it hackles whenever there is any action that comes close to recognising the Dalai Lama’s government in exile.

Already this year, the Tibetan situation has created problems in the footballing relationship between China and Germany. The Chinese had agreed to send a youth team to play teams in the South West Regionalliga in Germany – the free team each week in a 19-team league. At the first of these games (in Mainz), pro-Tibet protesters unfurled flags, and there was a scuffle with Chinese spectators, the game was held up, but eventually completed. The DFB said they had no powers to stop protestors from showing up at the games, and the rest of the series of games was not played. I imagine many of the clubs were disappointed, as they were to be paid €15,000 Euros each to play. The incident generated far more publicity than if the protests had been allowed to go ahead with the flags ignored.

In the light of this, an offer from a smaller German club FV Lörrach-Brombach to play the Tibetan team in a friendly prior to the tournament in London was vetoed. The match was originally sanctioned by the local area FA, but later they changed their mind while refusing to state if pressure was brought to bear on the decision. It does appear that the pressure came from the German FA, and not from China itself, and as yet, the Chinese have ignored the CONIFA tournament.

While initially trying to block CONIFA’s predecessors, it appears FIFA and UEFA are now content to ignore the organisation and leave any administration to local football administrations. With the football organisation here in England being what it is, this is guaranteed to cause confusion and a lack of decision. Players for the recently formed Yorkshire Independent FA have been going through a process of deregistering from their clubs before matches, and then signing on again afterwards, so as they are not members of affiliated clubs when the matches take place – and hence not subject to sanction. It is well within the power for any one of the County FA’s within Yorkshire, (the County has four) to register the team.

The Manx team had a similar problem, but after lengthy process this has been solved. Initially, they went head to head with FIFA – but in turn FIFA, UEFA and the FA washed their hands and left it too the Isle of Man FA to deliberate on. Despite the Isle of Man not being an English County, it is treated as one by the FA. For that matter, so was Gibraltar for a long time until they decided to apply for an independent status. Gibraltar never entered FA Competition, but Man does, giving the locals a plethora of “national” teams to support.

In the FA County Youth Cup, the Isle of Man reached the quarter finals this year, beating Cumberland, Lancashire and Middlesex before losing to Norfolk. This, I believe is limited to youth players at Island clubs, while as far as I know, their opponents do not use players from the professional clubs. The Isle of Man also played in this season’s FA Inter League competition. For this, players must be with a club in the league, and must never have held a professional contract. They do not have to be Manx, though – allowing amateur footballers who settle on the Island to play for this team immediately. In this, the Isle of Man beat the eterborough & District League and the Liverpool League before losing to the North Riding league. In 2006, they won this competition and went on the play in the UEFA Regions Cup – representing England. They took the field wearing England colours, not those of Man, so three lions, rather than three legs on the badge. The Isle of Man also play in the Island games competition, which plays in the odd numbered years, (while CONIFA use the even numbers). The Island games team would apply a residential qualification (as minimum) for incomers, while the CONIFA team can choose its own parameters, making it the only one likely to include Manxman who have moved off the Island. Despite the various rules, the majority of all three men’s representative teams are the same.

CONIFA is popular with ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring states. The borders in this area of Europe were drawn leaving areas with a Hungarian speaking majority that were not Hungary. Two have qualified for this tournament, Felvidek and Szekely Land (in Romania). Felvidek is the area on the Slovak borders, centred at Dunajska Streda. At various time, Slovak authorities have had different policies about the use of the Hungarian language and the showing of flags. There is still a general rule prohibiting any national flag except the Slovak one at football grounds. DAC Dunajska Streda gets the biggest crowds in Slovakia, thanks mainly to its position as a flagship for the Hungarian community. Sascha commented on the use of flags bearing the words, Red, White and Green to get past the Hungarian flag ban. When I went four years ago, they said it with balloons – as can be seen here. Supporters at the front are holding balloons in club colours, while behind that, the Red, White and Green of the Hungarian flag can be seen

Talking to Sascha, I got an idea of the amount of enthusiasm those running the tournament have for their cause. Even with the headaches this must create. As tournaments approach, running CONIFA is a full-time job, but they do not pay their officials. They do not even always get expenses. During his week in London, Sascha not only gets to drink with people like me, but also has to finalise details for venues, transport and accommodation – and hope that they can get enough sponsors and ticket sales to make the numbers add up. While the sponsorship from Paddy Power is generous and essential, it does not completely cover transport and accommodation.

The games are being played at grounds right across London, with the full fixture list and a link to buy tickets on the official page, www.conifa.org. I have mentioned the connection with the bookmaker, Paddy Power – who have been running campaigns to support the competition, but I particularly commend this one, which explains more about the philosophy behind CONIFA, https://news.paddypower.com/conifa/2018/03/21/conifa-president-per-anders-blind/

For those wanting to see the best teams, the obvious place to start would be the semi-finals in Carshalton the final games in Enfield. I feel that the rest needs to be seen, so on the final day, I will head to Enfield for the final (6 pm) after seeing the 15th/16th placement game at Bedfont (12 noon). The tournament uses six dates over ten days, and every team plays on every match day. Food for thought for professional managers who complain about their schedules.

I have seen comments from people who made it to Abkhazia for the last tournament that some teams were no more than Sunday league kickers, but with a more organised qualification structure, the weakest are not being represented this time around, so we may not get any double figure scores. The strongest teams are likely to be those that have home countries and can get support there, with the probably exception of Tuvalu, where the player pool is too small. Hence we may expect good performances from Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, and also strong teams from the two Hungarian ethnic sides (Felvidek and Szekely Land). Padania gets support from the smaller cities in the region and may well be able to field some good semi-professional players. I’ll be interested to gauge the strength of the United Koreans in Japan, and Cascadia – as both have their domestic seasons running at the same time.

The preliminary squads will be announced in the next week, and while one cannot expect many famous players, the United Koreans team will include An Yong Hak, who has 38 caps for North Korea, including starting all three group games in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, (and incidentally in the qualifying game I saw in Pyongyang).

If you are only interested in the highest quality of football, and over hyped TV coverage, then ignore all this and wait for the World Cup to come to our screens. If you want your football to be more fun, then the CONIFA World Football Cup is the place to be.

 

ATW90 – Thailand Part 2. The rise of Buriram United

March 1st, 2018

I thought my journey from Myanmar to Buriram might be a problem. Although it was two flights with a single airline, I would still have to pick up my luggage while changing, check it into the connecting flight and go through immigration in Bangkok. Fortunately, my morning flight from Yangon was on-time and two hours was easily sufficient to arrange the change.

On the Bangkok to Buriram flight, I saw something which I must say it is unusual generally, but especially so in Asian football. There were a small number of passengers wearing football shirts and these were not the shirts of a club from thousands of miles away. These are the shirts of Buriram United, the club I intended to see that evening.

It is a sign of the remarkable story of Buriram United, who are already the most successful club in Thailand, and by some metrics, could be considered the best on the continent. To try and unravel this, I need to look back into the development of the Thai Football League, which is one of the best demonstrations in Asia of what can be achieved.

My first football games in Thailand were in 1990, part of a few trips for work that I made to the region at this time. I was based close to Rayong, and my first game was on nothing more than an open field with a tent. This was the final of a local provincial tournament. The scale of development is such that the field is now under a sports hall, while close by, a new stadium has been developed.

All football in Thailand at the time was tournament based. Inter-provincial tournaments played between different areas of the country, while club competitions were played by clubs within a smaller area. One only ever heard about the Bangkok area club, with the Kor Royal Cup being recognised as the Thai Championship. I saw the final of this in Bangkok in June 1990. The crowd was sparse, not into four figures. All the clubs in the tournament were associated with companies or government department around Bangkok. My final saw Port Authority of Thailand beat Thai Farmers Bank 2-1 a.e.t.

In 1996, a league was started, but this was still an all Bangkok institution. A second parallel league was started for provincial teams in 1999.

Outside the I-mobile or Thunder Castle stadium pre-match.

Changes really started in 2005, when the top two provincial teams, Chonburi and Suphanburi were added to the Thai League. This did not create a national league, as neither was that far removed from Bangkok, but at least they were outside the metropolitan area. Chonburi finished mid-table, while Supanburi fared poorly and would have been relegated in further reorganisation had not taken place.

Technically, the two leagues merged, but this did not mean a great deal. There were now four clubs from outside the Bangkok area, thanks to the promotion of Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Navy, who both used stadiums in neighbouring provinces.

A year later, the club of the Provincial Electricity Authority, PEA decided to head away from the capital moving north to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. With increased crowds, they won the title, but their stay in Ayutthaya was to only be for two seasons. After a second, less successful season the club was bought out by politician Newin Chidchob.

Chidchob had been a minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, but had avoided the fall out when Shinawatra fell from grace. He went on to be critical of his former leader when groups that wanted him returned to political life were protesting early in 2009.

Chidchob moved his new club to the city of Buriram, which was where his political power base was. Buriram is a fairly nondescript city in North Eastern Thailand. By bus, it takes around 5 hours to get to the capital, (when I tried, it was nearer to six, but the last hour was all within metropolitan Bangkok as the weather and traffic combined to delay all).

Bangkok Glass FC – proud to wear my name, (or that of a very poor lager beer)

There was an added confusion to football in Buriram, as also in 2009, Buriram FC were founded and took a place in the regional league, playing at the Buriram Rajabhat University Stadium. Not that Chidchob was going to see this as a rival, the owner of the other club being none other than his wife, Mrs Karuna Chidchob.

A photo from the public display at Thunder Castle – Mrs Chidcomb holding the trophy after Buriram FC were promoted. Probably at one of the last games before they merged with her husband’s team

The stadium that Newin’s club had to use when moving to the city was the provincial stadium, and is 7km from the centre of town, but with promotion, Buriram FC soon had to move there as well.

Since moving to Buriram, Newin Chidchob’s club have won 5 out of 7 Thai League titles, four Thai FA Cups, Five League Cups, four Kor Royal Cups (now the Thai Supercup) and two Mekong Club championships. The Mekong championship is competed for by four or five South East Asian Champions. It has ran for four seasons, with Binh Duong (Vietnam) winning the inaugural cup (no Thai entrant, all games in Vietnam), and Thai teams winning the rest. Buriram’s biggest rivals, Muang Thong United being the current holders. Buriram have also reached the knock out rounds of the AFC Champions League once, when they reached the quarter-finals.

Game over – so its time to greet the fans.

Meanwhile, Buriram FC were also going from success to success. Two promotions had placed them one level behind Buriram PEA in 2011. The 2011 season was remarkable for the city, as both teams won their divisions. This presented the potential for the city to have two teams in the top division, with a husband and wife partnership as the two club presidents.

I cannot see many club owners doing this, but in Buriram you can buy dolls of Newin and Karuna Chidcomb, wearing the colours of their two teams prior to the 2011 merger

Also, during 2011, they opened the new stadium, known as the Buriram Stadium, the Thunder Castle Stadium, or the (insert sponsors name*) Stadium. (*I-mobile in 2017, Chang in 2018). The Stadium was built in 256 days, which is proudly proclaimed as a record for building a stadium (certified by FIFA, no less, as FIFA love to accredit a record that cannot be proved or disproved).

Of course, it would not be acceptable for his and hers football teams to play in the same league, so for 2012, a new name, Buriram United appeared in the top division. In Thailand, the moving of rights for a club in a division is allowed. After all, that is how PEA moved to Buriram in the first place.

The Chidcomb’s managed to sell the club rights to the furthest point they could find from Buriram, while remaining in Thailand, and so Wuachon United were created, sharing a ground and at least partial ownership with Songkhla FC, a team one division lower. Newin Chidcomb said at the time that this was to help football in Southern Thailand, a region that had never been represented at the top level. One can be certain that if this is the case, then he also had something to gain in literally selling the club south. I just cannot specify if this was for political advantage, economic advantage or a mixture of the two.

The name Wauchon existed for one season only, as Songkhla FC were relegated and the club owners decided to merge the two as Songkhla United. Songkhla United managed a further two seasons in the top division, and then three at the second level. They lost 1-0 in the match I saw at Trat, which helped both in securing their relegation, and making sure Trat just escaped. For 2018, they have failed to gain a license for the third level, and hence drop an extra step.

Meanwhile Chidcomb’s development of the site around the new stadium has increased. There is a small retail area, a modern hotel, the club superstore and a motor racetrack. The oddest of the features is a small castle, which is a replica of the ancient Hindu stone castle at Phanom Rung. The castle features on the club badge, along with two lightning bolts, a remembrance of the club’s origin as PEA.

I went back the day after the match to talk to Bubet Suppipat about the club, and was surprised to see a steady stream of tourists coming into the ground to take a look around, and see the entrance to the dressing rooms and take a selfie in front of the stand. I talked to a few of these and many were up on a trip that took in just the one game, as they came from towns in other parts of Thailand.

Coming to get you? The passage leading to the away dressing rooms!

Not quite the tours on offer at Old Trafford or the Bernabeu, but one can see that the club is selling itself as a destination. The club name is highly prominent around the town, with posters and a banner selling the fixtures.

If the objective is to use the sporting facilities to put the city’s name on the map, then it appears to be working. If you look on travel sites, such as Wikivoyage, then Buriram is listed as a “fairly nondescript town”, best utilised by tourists as a base for visiting ancient sites (such as Phanom Rung) in the area around it. These are well spread out, so time and transport would be required. I can confirm that there is not a great deal to see in the town itself, although it is appears to be neat, clean and relatively prosperous. What no visitor to the town cannot miss is that this is the home of Chidcomb’s ventures – the football club and the racetrack. You cannot avoid seeing posters advertising these.

While in the town during the day, I spotted a European couple who had been on the bus from the airport with me. While they had no thoughts of football before arriving, they were now considering going to the game, (they may well have been put off by the 4 km to the stadium and lack of public transport).

Bubet Suppipat, who also goes by the name Golf met me at the stadium after the match. For a while, I thought the meeting would not take place. It was originally scheduled for 10.00, but actually happened after lunch. Fortunately for me, as I have mentioned, the site has a few cafes where I could find some lunch. The delay was caused by an impromptu meeting requested by Newin Chidcomb. Clearly a request that cannot be ignored. Golf had football administration experience before coming to Buriram, and had been chief operating officer of Lao Toyota, the leading club in neighbouring Laos. He confirmed to me that Laotian football is far behind most of the South East Asian countries, (but of course, it is still somewhere I would like to visit).

After discussing the history of the club with me, we went on to the current financial situation. He did not know the exact budget, but thought it to be around 200 million baht. This is equivalent to about £4.5 million, and was ten times the figure mentioned by Rayong in the next division down. What is remarkable though is not the size of the budget, but the fact that the club is claiming to be breaking even. The basis of this is the merchandising operation, which apparently raises 40% of the clubs income. The city of Buriram has a population of around 30,000 – but the football club has sold around 700,000 football shirts in one season, and they were at pains to points out that this is only part of the operation, the figure does not include other parts of the kit, T-shirts, and other souvenirs. A similar portion of the budget comes from sponsorship, with the brewers Chang being named on the shirts and taking over the naming rights at the stadium for 2018.

With the rest of the budget covered by matchday income and the central allocation, (from the FA of Thailand, covering income from the TV contract, and league sponsors Toyota), it appears that Mr. Chidcomb no longer has to put money into his club to keep them at the top of the league.

Golf also mentioned plans to float on the stock market. When I expressed a need for caution, based on the poor record of stock market floats for football clubs in Europe, he corrected himself. It is not the football club itself that may be capitalised on the stock market, but the merchandising arm.

The stadium is straight forward, a single tier of seats running up to an even height all around, albeit that the lowest seat level being much too close to ground level. There is no track, so you are reasonably close to the pitch. Roofs on both sides, open behind the goals, sight lines are good except when too low. Unusually, the major side of the ground, with executive boxes, etc is on the East of the stadium, not the West. They do not tend to start matches before sundown, so this is less important.

A near square 32-page programme was sold for 20 Baht. It is a glossy affair, well produced but would still be short on information even if I could read Thai.

As far as the match was concerned, I found it dispiriting. Buriram won with a goal in the 90th minute, a header from a Brazilian player Coelho getting his head to a free kick sent on by Suchao. The free kick was won by their other Brazilian, Diogo who spotted the place where he would clearly get fouled if he ran through. Throughout the game the home side relied too much on these two players, who were generally poor until the final ten minutes, when they were clearly trying to set each other up for the goal.

It was the rest of the cynical play that I found worse though. Bangkok Glass have a talented young Thai player called Apisit, who simply attracted fouls until he went off injured. The injury was caused after he had won a corner. The Buriram player who had knocked the ball out then simply pushed Apisit into the advertising hoardings as hard as he could. At this point Apisit had has knee bandaged, but carried on. It took at least three more hacking fouls before he went off.

On a number of occasions Glass tried to run the ball through the midfield in counter attacking moves. As there was a risk of getting clear, the player would generally be fouled or pulled back by the Buriram captain Jakkaphan – I counted at least four occasions where this would earn a yellow card in Europe before he finally got a booking late in injury time.

There were about 10,300 people watching. This is down on the average attendance for the season by around 3,000, but not entirely unexpected for a midweek game

One final thought of thanks to the good people at the football club, as I mentioned, it is difficult for a foreigner with no knowledge of the area to find their way back from the ground – at least without their own transport, but the club arranged to get me into town both after the match (when I shared with one of the journalists), and after my discussions the following day.

The replica temple in the grounds.

Once in town, I had a good wander around, making the most of the last hour before sundown. I found the university stadium by chance, and there was actually football taking place as I passed. Naturally I stopped to inquire what was going on. The match had four match officials, so it was the fourth who tried to update me. The game was clearly competitive and it was described as fifth level. My later investigations showed that it was not part of the end of season fifth level competition – but I know there is a qualifying competition for this, and so these could have been fifth level teams, playing in another competition

The Rajabhat University stadium, once used by Buriram FC

On Friday, I took the bus south, starting in the bright sunshine of the North East, but soon travelling under grey skies before hitting the outskirts of Bangkok where the weather practically brought the suburbs to a halt. It was to be the story of the weekend

The Thammaset University Stadium is set on campus, about 40 km north of Bangkok centre, it is a 25,000 all seat stadium, which looks a little like a small brother to the national Rajamangala stadium, there are only 12 rows of seats in front of the scoreboard at one end while the numbers increase as you move to the centre, with around 50 rows opposite the centre line. There is cover on both sides, but not behind the goals, although the cover does not lean out far enough to protect the front rows on either side.

When I left the hotel, the skies were grey, but it was dry after a short lunchtime storm. As we headed north, the driver pointed out the “heavy rain clouds” ahead. In Bangkok, heavy rain is defined as such that you cannot see out of the car windows, even with the wipers going full pelt.

By the time we came off the elevated tollway, about five miles from the ground, the sideroads are completely flooded. You can see mopeds struggling to pass through water around 6 inches feet, and people who have taken their shoes off gingerly trying to walk through, not being able to see the ground.

I am thinking about what the alternative would be if the game is off, and whether my taxi can be held to take me onwards, but when I arrive, the ground is only mildly waterlogged. You can still see the grass, and the match is on. As it happened, my “second choice game” was postponed

The unlikely named Super Power Samut Prakan are the visitors today, while Bangkok United are the team that plays at Thammaset. It is an uneven contest, as United are near the top of the league and Prakan are rock bottom, with just one point from 28 games.

United had lost to second placed Muang Thong United on Wednesday, which left them six points behind second place, and 12 behind the leaders Buriram. So despite the comment from coach Alexandre Polking at the post-match press conference that he wants to win every match, and that he is not prioritising the cup, seven changes from Wednesday’s game suggests that players are being rested. One could say that this paid off, as they easily progressed through the following week’s cup game, beating mid-table Port by 5-1. United ended up reaching the cup final, before losing to Changrai United.

The combination of the weakened home side and a playing surface where every bounce caused a splash, and where players did not dare to take a dive as they were not provided with breathing equipment gave Samut Prakan some hope in the first half. Even a goal midway through from Dragan Boskovic did not mean they gave up, and just before the break they managed to get the ball into the net, but it was ruled offside

Supporters from both clubs get to show their colours during the break

In the second half, the rain was slowing and playing conditions were improved. The half time period involved much sweeping water off the surface. This allowed Bangkok United to feel a little more assured and to take control. Mario Durovski hit the second on 63 minutes, and then Alexander Sieghart added the third. Sieghart is listed as a Thai, he has a German father and played for Bayern Munchen II and Unterhaching before returning to the land of his birth.

A final goal, two minutes from time was credited to Mika Chunuonsee, (born in Bridgend, and formerly of Bryntirion, Neath and Afan Lido, Welsh mother, Thai father). However, his shot actually hit the bar and came out, hitting the keeper on the back before rolling in, so in my listing it has to be an own goal.

Programme was slightly smaller than A5 in presentation, but then unfolds into a single sheet of paper, nine times the size. One side has text, the other has a player poster.

The crowd was 819. This was to be the lowest turnout at the club for the season, thanks to a combination of weather and the failure last mid-week. After the game, I was fortunate to discover that the club runs a free fan bus from central Bangkok, and I was whisked back into town on this. Talking to a German supporter of the club, while on the bus, I was invited to book a place for Wednesday’s cup game, but had to decline as I was going to be back in England by then.

Having braved the rains, and facing certain relegation, the Samut Prakan fans can still wave their flags. They finished the season just 17 points behind the second bottom team, 30 off the mark required to avoid relegation


The players show their appreciation of the loyal band at the end

While seeing a low crowd at one game is not a problem in itself, the league will be concerned that the attendance for the whole season were 15% down, and that the 2016 season in turn was well below the leagues 2015 figure.

Apparently, the free fan bus also runs to away games, even if they are a nine-hour drive from Bangkok.

I only decided on my Sunday action on the day itself. Even the evening before, when I was doing some of the research, I had not decided whether or not to go to some of Thai Amateur games, and which ones to go to. I knew the Thai League had a 1-1-2-6 pyramid, with the top four divisions being professional, and the next two being semi-professional.

Sunday Morning, too early!!. The Leo Stadium staging fifth level games in the Thai Amateur League

The Thai League website also shows a fifth level, the Thai Amateur League. From this I discovered that there were matches due in some mini-leagues, that had started the previous week. Eventually, I managed to discover that the fixtures were being put out on a facebook page, but in an image format. This meant I could not use any automated translation engine on them.

It was clear that the matches were being played in a single venue each Sunday, with three matches on a day, using 10.00, 13.00 and 16.00 kick off times. The venues were not always the same from week to week, and I had to wait for the fixtures to appear on facebook.

I showed them to some journalists at the Bangkok United game. It was clear none had covered this level of football, but I had already worked out that there 12 leagues in operation, and that two of the areas were Bangkok and Bangkok Perimeter. From here I gathered that the stadiums being used this week for the Perimeter League was the Leo Stadium, home of top division Bangkok Glass, while for the Bangkok League, it was the Thammasat Mini-Stadium. While I could confirm that this was on the university complex with Bangkok United, no one knew exactly where.

 

The good thing was that these two were not far apart, it would be easy to travel from one to the other within the one-hour interval.

I also tried to find out information about one of the other leagues, with the thought it might combine with Chonburi’s league game, but here the information ran out. Even those who could read the language could not point to the location on a map.

As I awoke quite early, I decided to go for it, based on what I knew. So, my first stop was to be the Leo Stadium. I had always been quite eager to get to the stadium bearing my name, and were disappointed that I was in Thailand during a weekend they were away from home.

So at 9 a.m., I was out of the hotel, briefly heading into the metro station to use the ATM, and then asking a taxi for the Leo Stadium

This was quite straight forward, and I arrived at the ground about 15 minutes before kick-off, where no admission charges were being requested, and I managed to obtain the team lists in Thai quite easily.

The teams were Romklao United, a student team based at the Kasem Bundit University, and an Air Force team – google translate puts the name as Department of Air Marshal. The Leo Stadium is an unusual three-sided affair, one of the long sides is not used, with a three tier stand behind one goal, a two tier along the side and a single tier behind the other goal.

The individual players of the two sides were very good on the ball, but very poor off the ball. There is a lack of tactics or vision and the defences reigned. I though the Air Force team had done enough that they may nick it near the end, but then a silly foul in the middle of the field left them down to ten men, (it was a straight red as well), and changed the game dynamics. The students had the better of the last 20 minutes, but could not prevent the game from serving me up with my first draw (and hence first goal less draw) of the season.

On to Thammasat, no problems in getting there and none of the flooded roads of the day before. The advice I had been given was to ask directions from the University gatehouse. Considering that on the day before, my taxi driver had difficulty finding the big stadium, this seemed sensible. Naturally the driver would not do this, drove a while onto site, then asked someone, who said right at the end of the road and then left. In typical taxi driver style, he considered the second turning to be not worth his while, and drove off 400 metres in the wrong direction, turned around and then did it right. We still only got to about 200 yards away when he again decided he was lost, and could not see anyone to ask. I gave up at this point, paid him up and walked over to the building, where I was immediately and accurately directed to the mini stadium

It is a grass pitch with bleachers behind it, the only shade and cover provided by trees overhanging, and by three gazebos – one for each team, and one for the officials. I was invited to share with the officials

The individual players skills in this game were less than that in the earlier one, the lack of vision and movement off the ball was the same. The teams now were Rajdamnern and Tokio Bluearmy. The spelling Tokio is correct, it is a Thai footwear company. There is nothing Japanese about then, although the coach does look like a retired Sumo wrestler, (pot, kettle?). I thought that I was getting my second scoreless draw of the day, especially as while Tokio seemed to be on top. Twice Sarawoot got clear with only the keeper to beat, and beat the keeper both times. The first was wide, the second hit the bar.

Just to show, I am not making this up!

But then with four minutes to go to the added time board, Srichai found himself clear for Rajdamnern, and managed to beat the keeper without missing the target. Three minutes later, the same played passed a defender with a clever flick and made it two.

The attendances for the two games were just 30 and 50 respectively, although this included a drummer at the second game.

I made my way back to the central road, but the first taxi I stopped would not consider taking me to Minburi, despite this being a good fare to claim, it was a fair distance from where I was standing. Some taxi drivers on these trips won’t take you as they don’t want the hassle, but quite often it is because they just do not know where you want to go. Unfortunately, it turned out there were not many free taxis on the road within the university, but as I was waiting, a minibus stopped. It was the Rajdamnern team, on the way back to their base (wherever that is). They took me to a more major road where I could more easily find a taxi. It appears that there are no dressing rooms at the mini-stadium. I saw one of the match officials get on a bike and cycle away still in kit.

It took a couple of goes to find a taxi to take me to Minburi. This is the home of Thai Honda FC, and was close on to a one-hour drive from my position in North Bangkok. He phoned home to ask someone to look up directions to the 72 Anniversary Stadium. It did not really help and he still got lost more than once. I was trying to update him with the map on my PC, which I could not update offline, but could pan around a little, once we had got close enough to spot the stadium from the main road – still over two miles away I think. If you tell a taxi driver not to take a specific road, because my map says it doesn’t go through, he will of course try it, stop when he sees someone, and then head back when they confirm my feeling that we need to take the next turning.

The 72 Anniversary Stadium is quite interesting. The choice of slogan, “Club of tomorrow” is displayed with much aplomb as you enter the ground. Sadly, this is not likely to be true, as they were relegated at the end of the season – and administratively they are still about two days before yesterday. On entry, I was given my accreditation, and a slip of paper allowing me to access internet from the Press Room. So, I asked where the press room was? It was just behind the girl who gave me the card, but I was sent in completely the wrong direction, after which I was told they did not have a press room at all. Still, one gets there in the end. There is no viewing from either end of the ground and one side is just a raised concrete stand with concrete seating. The other side is similar, except that seating has been installed in the central section which Is under cover. There is a track around the pitch, but at least the elevations are good.

From the press room, I have a view onto the pitch and the stands, the weather was good when I arrived, allowing me to take a couple of ground pictures of the empty stadium, as I watch from comfort,

30 minutes before kick-off time, it starts raining. Heavily
20 minutes before kick-off time, the pitch is completely waterlogged
At kick off time, it is put back by one hour
45 minutes into the hour, the rain stops
One hour after kick off time, the referee goes for a paddle, and says we will kick off in 30 minutes
Five minutes later, the game is called off.

At some time during the wait, we were treated to an impromptu display of support from a small group of home fans with the name of the club emblazoned across their chests. Fortunately, it will wash off – and if they went to stand with the majority of the fans, it will have done before the game was called off.

In common with the practice I had seen at other games, even though the match was off, the players still made their way to the support on the uncovered side to make their ritual “thanks for coming”.

The taxi driver who took me to the stadium, said he would come back for me. I was uncertain as to whether this would happen, but not only did he come back, but he made it there around 30 minutes before the agreed time, meaning I did not have to wait long. Anyone else trying to get a taxi here needs to consider asking them to pick up after the game. You are at least a mile from the main road, with little chance of seeing a taxi before you reach it. I did not see many until we reached the centre of Minburi – a distance which would have required more than an hour of extra walking.

We also picked up two Thai supporters who were looked for a Taxi. Apparently, they had tried to stop my cab when he was on the way in, and he asked my permission to pick them up. They knew little English (despite having visited England – apparently London is cold in winter), and travelled on in the cab after I reached the hotel – so they were going a long way, so they spent at least an hour in the taxi. What they would have done, or what I might have done, without the taxi remains a matter of speculation.

Anyway, I was back in town allowing a drink before bed. In the morning, the hotel staff helped me in the unusual task of transliterating the Thai script on the fifth level team lists for my records. I had managed to get a few sorted and some sort of translation is possible using google, particularly when the name does not translate into English words. As I have found a couple of times in the past, in Thailand and Hong Kong, hotel staff are quite happy to help with unusual requests like this so long as you can make yourself understood and you pick a quiet time of day.

After that though, there was nothing to do but to head back to the airport and board my flight back to London. My flight out was my first on the Airbus A380, but the return was my first on an A350. To be honest, there is very little to say about either from economy class. But my last job was working automating the production procedures for A350 wing panels, so one felt a little more connected here.