Baoding

April 6th, 2019

Wednesday 3rd April 2019. China League 2 (North)

Baoding Rongda 1-1 Dalian Chanjoy

For my last Chinese venture at the moment, it had to be the China League 2. Simply as this was the only league with matches in mid-week.

My choice was dictated by a fixture list with all the games for a Wednesday afternoon, and my desire to do my journey as a day trip

China is a vast country, so there are very few journeys that can be comfortably done, there and back again in the same day – but Baoding, around 150 km from Beijing fitted the bill well.

Baoding, a former provincial capital is not a city everyone has heard of. But actually, including its extensive suburbs it comes in as large by Chinese standards, with a population a little larger than Greater London.

While the first impression on leaving the station, it is a chaotic, untidy place, this is not a fair reflection. The centre of the city contains three areas worth the visit, the governors’ office, the lotus gardens (which would be better with more water and lotuses in the lake), and the Daci, or Mercy Pavilion. Meanwhile giant and fearsome stone lions guard the entrance to a shopping centre. Whether or not these can deter shoplifters is open to debate

From the Daci Pavilion, I took a taxi to the Hebei University Stadium. I had it in mind that it would be just about within walking distance as the main university buildings appeared to be a 20-30-minute walk. The problem being I had not identified the football ground itself on maps of the area. It turned out I needed the taxi as it was around 7 km to the stadium, which is right out on the third ring road.

Next up was the problem I had not expected to encounter. Tickets were 20 Yuan (about £2.20), and I had a 100 Yuan note ready to offer – having just paid my only 20 Yuan note to the taxi driver. Sorry, they cannot take that. China is fast becoming a cashless society and almost everyone pays for almost everything using their mobile phone. However, this is only available with a Chinese bank account. Apparently, I was the first person to try and pay cash, and the people in the office were going to do nothing to help. Fortunately, one of the other purchasers did find the change and I got my ticket.

Once inside, and before heading for the seat I looked, as I do for a way in to pick up the team list. A person who I can best describe as a club “unofficial” asked me what I was looking for. The person, to which great thanks for my day out should go, was Huang Wei. He described himself as a soldier, but showed me a picture of him sitting on the mower and acting as a groundsman the day before the game.

After a quick call, he walked me past the security guards and into the VIP areas. We entered an office where I was given (free) a second ticket. This was for the VIP area. One of the officials then disappeared for a minute and came back with the team list. All in Chinese, of course – but enough that I could compare with the lists and Wikipedia later and make sure the names I had were accurate.

The stadium has a running track and two near identical stands. Each of these is in two tiers with a slight overlap between them. This overhang is the only cover provided as while part of the structure for a roof has been started, there is no sign that the roofs will be completed at any time soon. Both ends of the stadium were closed with no spectator accommodation and portraits of the squad filing up the wall space. No one sat in the upper tiers and a giant banner filled a space opposite where we were sitting.

I was now in the very comfortable VIP seats in the centre. To each side of me were supporters’ groups who would sing, wave flags and bang drums through the game. Huang explained that playing during the afternoon in the middle of the week meant the crowd was very small. I tried to ask why they did not play in the evening instead but I did not get an answer to this one. I mentioned it to Brandon, who reports for Wild East Football, an English Language discussion of Chinese Football, (albeit mainly focussed on the Super League and the National team). He thought the reason may well be that the cost of turning the lights on would exceed the extra income by playing later. My own theory is that with the fixture list stating matches where to be played at 15.00, no one at the clubs actually take the time to think whether it can be changed. I noticed later that out of eight games, one had been changed to an evening kick off, so possibly the people at Zibo took time to think. I know the change was announced less than a week before the games.

Of course, it would not matter of the 15.00 kick off could actually generate an attendance as high as 1369. This is what I was told by Huang, midway through the second half – and the club’s official report thanked the over 1300 supporters who were there. I had already done my estimates at this point and concluded the numbers were between 300 and 400 – so I have ended up changing only one digit and recorded the attendance at 369. It is quite possible that there were another 1000 tickets issued and not taken up. Clubs in China give out many tickets to sponsors and it is not unlikely that these are included in the counts, even though the sponsor does not distribute them

Having been issued with a paid ticket outside, and a free one inside, I was probably counted twice on the official figure anyway.

Noticing before the game that the visitors, Dalian Chanjoy had no less than five players in their squad on loan from Dalian’s Super League team, I had expected a youthful squad running at least to some extent as a development team for the city’s more senior side. The truth was a lot different. The two loan players in the starting XI were both 30 years old, and the average age of the visiting team at the start was 29. The home side was barely less experienced. Both sides did manage to have two U-21 outfield players on the bench – more of them later. In Dalian’s case, these were also loanees. The fifth was not in the squad on the day at all.

Despite Huang making excuses for the game, pointing out that China League 2 is a long way from the Super League, it was in fact an entertaining game with plenty of chances created at both ends. Unfortunately, most of them ended up with players unable to convert in the area. Baoding had a brief spell when they looked very strong at the start after which the visitors appeared to take control. Knowing that Dalian had scored ten goals in their first two league matches, their inability to land a strike on target from so many opportunities was disappointing.

At the start and end, we were treated (I think coincidentally) by a series of formation helicopter flypasts.

With the distances involved, the league is a fully professional league, but the money is not a great deal and many clubs have trouble with their finances. Baoding were one of several clubs I researched and found news stories about unpaid wages and similar difficulties. They had a single season in League-1, the next level up and midway through that the chairman had what can only be described as a “hissy fit”, threatening to pull out due to the impossibility of competing. Probably under pressure from local politicians, he apologised for this soon afterwards, but the club’s owners, Rongda pulled out during the close season. This apparently puts them into local authority control and should have removed Rongda from the name of the club – but all the badging stayed with the old owners and the support were chanting the name Rongda during the game.

As was pointed out to me later, it is very likely that many of these are Rongda employees and have been given leave to attend the match by the company which remains a sponsor. With such a low income from the spectators, no TV deals at this level and very little marketing, all clubs at this level (and in fact at every level in Chinese football) rely on the owners and other sponsors to finance them. However, if the municipality believes that the football club is something to be supported, then political pressure is applied to the larger successful businesses in the area.

For many clubs, it is still a hand to mouth existence, especially in the lower levels. A fourth level looks like being more organised this season, under the curious title f the Champions League. This made more sense in the past, when this was a competition where provincial and city champions would vie for places in League-2, but makes less sense with four regional divisions of 16 teams each. I have yet to see the make up of the league, but some of the journeys involved will be a lot further than Lands End to John O’Groats and as such one wonders how accurate the description of this as an amateur league will be. And for that matter, how many of the 64 teams do not complete the season or drop out at the end.

Looking back on my match, Dalian broke the deadlock with a looping header just under 15 minutes from the end. They then made a tactical decision to try and shut up shop, switching from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. Knowing they had scored a lot of goals in their earlier matches, this was disappointing, but it was true that Baoding did have a team that could mount a threat.

Both teams had made one substitution before the goal, but the playing of the other subs are restrained by rules, and not by the needs of the team. I was aware of the Super League rules on U-23 players, one must start and two more must appear on the field, subject to some exceptions allowed if players are called up to the National squads many training sessions.

Neither team had an U-23 player at the start, so it appeared there was no rule concerning the starting squad at this level, but the team lists both noted the U-21 players on the bench for each side. Baoding had two such players and they entered the field on 80 and 84 minutes. Dalian, by comparison reached the 90th minute without playing a substitution, but had both their U-21 players ready to come on in the final minute. With a player down injured, we were allowed the fairly unique sight where the first of these players came on, and then a few seconds later and without play restarting the second U-21 player replaced the first one. Hence a substitute was on the field for around 20 seconds in which the ball was not in play.

A minute late, a near post header from Li Lingwei was forced in for an equaliser, giving the home team an unexpected point.

I asked Huang Wei if he could order me a taxi to get to the station, but he went one better and took me there himself, even helping me through the chaotic ticket purchasing process. (It is quite straight forward, but getting to the front of the queue takes time and there is always someone coming to the window from the side trying to argue some point with the ticket clerk). My evening finished with a couple of beers at the Great Leap brewery, one of Beijing’s best beer outlets.

Derby Days, the Beijing Way

March 31st, 2019

Beijing Renhe 0-1 Beijing Guo’an
Chinese Super League @ Fengtai Stadium
Admission 150 Yuan (About £17), attendance 22376

Tickets went on sale about a week before the game. I asked my wife to help with the Chinese part of the web site, but she struggled with the site and decided to call a friend for tickets.

When four days later, he said he could not get them – because it was an away game for Guo’an, and this friend could only get us into Guo’an games for free, I again tried to get through the web site and again we ended up calling on a different friend.


After much confusion, I eventually discovered he had managed to secure three tickets from two different sources. Both sets were free of charge, although showing 150 Yuan as face value. I said I thought the west side of the ground would be better, and our friend sold the spares outside the ground at 50 Yuan each.

As so many tickets get out from the clubs without charge, it is apparently rare in China to not be able to buy from a tout outside the ground, and equally rare if you have to go as high as face value.


The ground is easily enough reachable from the city centre, as it is close to a metro station. It is a large bowl with running track and a single tier of seats all around. This tier is quite small behind the goals and gains height on each side. On the west side, there the number of rows is far greater than those opposite. A small amount of cover protects only the back rows of the stand and had it been a wet day, the majority in the ground would have felt it.

In fact, it was bright and sunny, but still cold and with a stiff wind blowing from the north. On the west side, we seemed relatively protected, but opposite, we would have had the sun in our faces, and yet the wind chill may still have made us colder.


The talk this season in China is of naturalised players. A few clubs have signed players with Chinese ancestry, and who agreed to take up Chinese citizenship (and hence become eligible for the National team). Beijing Guo’an were one of the clubs taking advantage of the idea with two signings, Hou Souter from Norwegian club Stabaek, (not listed as Hou Yongyong) and Nico Yennaris from Brentford (now to be known as Li Ke Yennaris). By playing in the pre-season Super Cup, Souter was the first naturalised player to play in China. Yennaris has also had a spell with Wycombe Wanderers and played on my last visit there. Yennaris is a product of the modern world, with a Chinese mother, a Cypriot father, he was born in England and has played for England’s age group teams. Souter has played for Norwegian youth teams

Shanghai Shenhua then got in the act by naturalising Alexander N’Doumbou. N’Doumbou (now to be known as Qian Jiehei) came from the Bulgarian league with previous experience in the lower divisions in Belgium and France, but notably he has also played three internationals for Gabon. This means he cannot represent China at international level.

So, they day before the league season was to start, the Chinese FA did not make an official announcement that no naturalised players would be allowed to play in the first two rounds. This is enough to bring out complaints on (Chinese) social media from supporters, but the clubs meekly obey the rule.

Nico Yennaris – number 23 green.

Not surprisingly, none of the naturalised players were included in the Chinese international squad, (although one assumes, they will be considered in June, to give a run out before World Cup qualification starts in the autumn).

Again, without announcement, it became clear this week that the naturalised players were now eligible. Guo’an decided not to include Souter for the derby match, but gave a debut to Yennaris.

The ground was about two thirds full, with sections left empty for no specific reason considering that many areas of the ground were mixed home and away fans. The visiting fans were easily in the majority. There is a fair amount of singing all around, with the biggest concentration of Guo’an fans (and therefore of noise) in the south west area. In such an open bowl, the noise is soon lost. I did not notice what they were singing at first, but my boy pointed out the chants included some “rude words”.



The home team played in 4-4-2 with the Senegalese player Makhete Diop leading the forward line. Sone Aluko (on loan from Reading) started as the other forward but for most of the time he dropped back and the youngster, Cao Yongjing played in a forward position. Their third foreigner was Argentine international Augusto Fernandez, signed last year from Atletico Madrid.

Having been more of a 4-3-3 against Urawa when I saw them in the Champions League, Guo’an were to play 4-4-2 in this game with no place for Bakambu, who had done so much to keep the previous game 0-0 (not much praise when we are talking of a forward). In his place, the captain, Yu Dubao switched from the centre of defence to partner Zhang Yuning up front. Zhang is best known for not playing for West Brom, but has had a good spell in Netherlands football. He still makes it into the team as an u-23 player this season as well.

Jonathan Viera and Renato Augusto were the wide players and the key to most of the visitor’s attacks, Viera easily being the most impressive player on view. Yennaris took up a defensive midfield position (last time I saw him play, he was at right back), while Kim min-jae reprised the role he had taken against Urawa in the back line.

Guo’an had won their first two games without conceding, Renhe had lost two, without scoring. I was therefore expecting 0-0.

Guo’an soon started to dominate proceedings, but could find few openings against a packed defence. Shortly before the break Viera made a foray into the area and was brought down as he turned, Yu Dabao was charged with taking the penalty and tamely played it to the home keeper. He made amends just after the hour mark with a powerful header from a Li Lei cross to put Guo’an ahead.

Renhe responded by immediately bringing Zhu Baojie into the fray. He replaced Cao, which basically changed the formation to 4-5-1. Zhu looked like a flair player, but very slight and easily knocked off the ball. I took him for a youngster who might have a future if he could gain some strength as he progressed. Then when I looked him up, I found out he was 29 years old.

in fact, Renhe started with two U-23 players in the team, meaning they only needed to play one more from the bench to make quota. This was their final substitution, and in the 77th minute. Guo’an had made only one change by this time, taking off the tiring Zhang Yuning (and therefore also going 4-5-1). As Yuning was the only U-23 player in the starting XI, (and rules state there must be at least one), then the substitute policy is very limiting. Instead of bringing on a player who might have threatened to increase the lead, they had to play two youngsters, who came on after 84 and 89 minutes. They therefore spent the end of the game defending a lead against a poor attacking force as they no longer had the players on the field to make their own attack

Infantino in a hurry

March 30th, 2019

It seems that Gianni Infantino is a man in a hurry, determined to make his mark on World Football. He was catapulted into a job that he could never expected to take, because his boss at UEFA was caught up in the corruption scandals before he could take over at FIFA himself. Platini’s fall from grace, over a payment from Blatter that he protests was legitimate comes with the feeling, as when Al Capone when jailed for tax evasion, that the whole story was not out in the open.

Infantino is armed with a gift from the gods, a promise of a $25 billion windfall that FIFA can then distribute to countries and clubs at their discretion. The actual sources of the money are less than clear, forcing FIFA to deny suggestions that the money was coming from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. They still have not revealed what the actual source of funds will be.

These phenomenal sums are not meant as a gift for the good of football. The consortium promising the money will claim the broadcast rights and other privileges in order to recoup their investment.

In order to unlock the money, Infantino there needs to be something new to show for it. Something that can be broadcast to billions across the world and allow the investors to recoup on their investments. Much of the rights to the World Cup itself are already tied up, so this cannot be gifted in this way.

While FIFA has a number of tournaments under its belt, only two types can really bring in the cash – because only two types of tournament bring together a large number of the star players. One of these is the World Cup, while the other should be a World Club championship. The variety of youth and women’s tournaments are actually more for the good of the game than the love of money, although you could wonder about add-ons such as Futsal, Beach Football and even e-Sports being under FIFA’s ever larger umbrella.

FIFA has been tried before to increase the frequency of the World Cup, so as it would be every second year, rather than every four years. Despite the obvious income this could make, especially for countries from the smaller confederations, it has been knocked back. It appeared that many of FIFA’s members actual see the benefit in the gap between competitions, which creates a greater amount of excitement each time the tournament comes around. Also, it has to be remembered that the preliminaries in some continents start three years before the final tournaments, which would clearly create a problem for a more frequent competition. You might get the case that some teams were already out of the qualification competition for 2024 before the finals in 2022 commenced.

FIFA does have its mini World Cup, the Confederations Cup. The last of these took place in 2017 as a preparation tournament for the full World Cup in Russia a year later. It is ignored to a great extent by those who are not involved – I cannot recall the 2017 final from memory at all, while I was glued to the TV for the World Cup final a year later. One can be sure, that even if England are defeated in the semi-final, the final of the new European Nations League in June will get a greater TV audience in Britain than the 2017 Confederations Cup final managed. For 2021, it appears impractical to play a Confederations Cup in Qatar with the switch to a winter World Cup and so it appears that there will not be a 2021 version. If FIFA decide that it will in fact take place, it is likely to be played elsewhere.

FIFA have got agreement to extend the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, (23% of membership), despite their amazing decision to still only give the strongest confederation, UEFA 16 places in this set up (UEFA have 29 clubs ranked in the top 48 of FIFA rankings).

The comparative number of slots agreed for the 48-team World Cup is (with those in the 32-team cup in parenthesis). UEFA 16 (13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8 (4.5), CONCACAF 6 (3.5), CONMEBOL 6 (4.5) and Oceania 1 (0.5). The 0.5s in the old list refer to the two intercontinental play-offs, while the old total adds up to 31 – the last one being the host, which is outside the slots’ allocation. In other words, for 2018, UEFA actually had 14 as Russia is a UEFA member. Despite the fact the hosts will come out of the continental allocation, the new total is only 46. FIFA had to think up another gimmick for the final two places. One team from each Confederation, except UEFA, plus one from the host confederation will take part in a simple competition to decide the last two places. This has provisionally been planned to be played in the host nation about 3 months before the finals (in the March international window). There is a precedent for holding a neutral qualifier in the host country. When FIFA decided to accept a late application from the USA for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, the qualification has already been completed. Mexico having beaten Cuba three times, all at home. FIFA decided that a Mexico v USA game would take place in Rome on 24 June 1934. The USA won 4-2 with Aldo Donelli scoring all the goals. The 1934 World Cup was a straight knock out competition, and three days after the Mexico game, Donelli scored again for the USA in Rome – but on this occasion his team lost 7-1 to Italy.

FIFA do not consider (or at least publish) a comparative table of federations, in the same way as UEFA maintains a table of the comparative performances of club teams from each country in their competitions. Using a formula similar to that used by UEFA, with a bonus point added for the winner of every knock out game, (but not the 3rd/4th play-off), the comparative performances are shown in this graph for every word cup from 1950. The FIFA line shows the average of all countries – so those federations with scores consistently above the line (i.e. UEFA and CONMEBOL) should have more entries, which would push their relative score down, assuming that extra entries ae comparatively weak. Those below the line (i.e. the rest) will not improve their lot by having more teams involved.

FIFA can argue that increasing the number from each continent gives more impetus to develop the game in these regions, but this study shows no evidence of this having an effect. The African line reached a peak with two countries in 1990, and increasing numbers since have not seen a gradual rise back towards this level. The African line should be particularly disappointing, as the number of players qualified to play for African nations, but playing in major European leagues has increased massively since 1990, but this has not reflected back on their national teams.

The counter argument could be that increasing UEFA or CONMEBOL would boost the game in the less developed football nations (and Scotland) in those federations. This is open to debate, with 52% of the players in the World Cup 2018 plying their trade in football competitions in just five European countries. In order of number of participants, the five are England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

At the March meeting, FIFA deferred the decision on whether Qatar 2022 would be a 32 or 48 team competition, allowing Qatar to talk to potential joint hosts to obtain additional stadia. Infantino really wants to increase the numbers for 2022, despite the fact it is neither sensible or practical. Asian qualifying was scheduled to start on the same day as the decision is now to be made, and it is unclear whether this first round will go ahead as planned.

Beyond the World Cup, the latest idea for a new World Competition would be to extend the Nations League from Europe (where it has had one edition) and CONCACAF (where it is due to start later this year), so as it became a Worldwide festival. Infantino was involved (mainly as administration) in setting up the Nations League in Europe, but when it came down to it, no one has been able to explain how a World Nations League would work. The most likely and plausible format would be to create a Premier Division with worldwide groups. The teams in these groups would not play a similar competition within their own confederation.

At four groups of four, this could be lucrative. It would, of course (if based on current rankings), only involve teams from UEFA (11) and CONMEBOL (5). An alternative would be eight groups of three. The top 24 rankings currently include 15 UEFA teams, along with 6 from CONMEBOL, and one each from CONCACAF (Mexico, 17), Asia (Iran, 22) and Africa (Senegal, 24). So, it is probable that only Oceania would miss out. The real difficulty is how to arrange the continental Nations Leagues to create a fair promotion and relegation structure, and how to fit in these matches into the busy football calendar.

The other point is that not all Federations have taken the Nations League idea on board. The European formula is not a practical proposition in CONMEBOL (because it only has ten members), or Oceania (11), while both Africa and Asia may see it as impractical, giving the logistics of travelling around their continents. Even within CONCACAF, travel can be a problem. Many Caribbean Islands do not have direct air links to each other. When I travelled from Martinique, after seeing them against Antigua and Barbuda, I found that there was a group of CONCACAF officials returning to base on my flight. I was heading to Sint Maarten, and although I did not have to change planes, I suffered the inconvenience of a 90-minute stopover in Guadeloupe, where we had to deplane and wait in an area with no facilities. The CONCACAF group also had a short stop in Sint Maarten, before the plane continued to Puerto Rico, and then had to change planes to get to CONCACAF headquarters in Miami.

The World Club Championship is also an idea that has not yet been realised. Certainly, there is a seven-team festival every December, scheduled in such a way as to make sure the bigger teams do not get to play too many matches. So not only did the big two, River Plate and Real Madrid only play two games each, but with this squeezed into a busy schedule of matches. As a result, River Plate decided to start their semi-final with only four members of the team that played the final of the Copa Libertadores nine days earlier. It was a mistake and they fell to defeat on penalties. Real Madrid made no mistakes with wins over Kashima Antlers and Al-Ain to take the trophy.

The current tournament was born of an original series of matches between the European Cup/Champions League winners, and the equivalents from the Copa Libertadores. Spanish teams have taken exactly half the titles since the current series started in 2005, (Real 4, Barca 3), which in turn demonstrates Spanish dominance of European competition in that time. European teams (Bayern, Inter, AC Milan and Manchester United) have taken four more titles, leaving only three for the South Americans, all heading in the direction of Brazil (Sao Paulo, Internacional, Corinthians).

The revised format for the tournament is to have 24 teams. Eight from UEFA, six from CONMEBOL, three each from Asia, Africa and CONCACAF and a single entrant from Oceania. Although one can question the allocations, one always can with FIFA, the actual idea is sound. At the March meeting, FIFA decided to bring this competition for 2021, squeezing it into an already busy schedule for the summer, even if it is without a Confederations Cup. UEFA have objected vehemently, and have said that no European team will take part. The mysterious consortium putting up the money must be aghast at this prospect. Eight clubs from Europe are required to make this project work, and the investors would really like more Europeans. A good few CONMEBOL clubs are needed in the mix, but they want Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Juventus, plus some top British clubs to make it a success. If the Europeans do boycott the whole affair, then they are not going to be able to recoup their investment at all. After all, how big a TV audience is going to tune in to see how easily Sao Paulo can beat Auckland City?

UEFA themselves are not entirely against the project, but they do not think it should start until 2025, allowing for a completely revised calendar to be drawn up. As it is, there are international dates in the first week of June, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup scheduled throughout July. There is an African Cup of Nations that summer as well, although dates have not been fixed as yet. The African championships were switched from January to the summer from the 2019 tournament, under pressure from FIFA and UEFA. This leaves Asia as the only confederation that uses the January dates, and they are changeable. The last three Asia titles, UAE 2019, Australia 2015 and Qatar 2011 were all in January, while the two before that, South East Asia 2007 and China 2004 were both in the summer. For the next tournament, AFC has not yet chosen between the Chinese and South Korean bids, but either way, there will be a return to a summer tournament for 2023.

At the moment, both FIFPro (the players’ union) and the ECA (European Clubs Association) have come out against the idea. FIFPro’s plea that new tournaments should only be considered as part of a reorganisation of football’s calendars. The dislike of the idea is not unanimous. La Liga president Javier Tebas has publicly welcomed them, although this was part of a tirade against what he believes is a secretive plot by UEFA and the ECA to change the format of the Champions League, so as groups are of eight teams and matches take place at the weekends, as opposed to mid-week. Now UEFA and the ECA have just agreed on a change in European competitions, for the next three-year cycle (starting in 2021). This is the plan to move to having three, rather than two competitions with group stages. Tebas is right in saying such a plan would badly affect national leagues, and it would be surprising if the ECA is in favour of a move that would be against the interests of the majority of their members.

The ECA was set up in 2008 as a replacement for the ultra-elite G-14 group of clubs. At the time, it appeared that UEFA was frightened of the influence that the small grouping of clubs could wield, and was trying to avoid the idea of a European Super League. At this time, Michel Platini was a relatively new leader for UEFA, and his stewardship started with a promise to help the smaller clubs and leagues in Europe. He only partially succeeded in his goals. The smaller clubs did get a bigger take, but the big clubs found their take rising fast as well. Still, it seems the opposition to the weekend rounds of European competition may be enough at the moment to make sure the idea is side lined, at least until 2024.

The reason for moving European games to weekends is supposedly increased rights sales in the Americas and Asia. Not that there is any common time that suits both anyway with a 12 or13 hour difference between the time in New York and that in Beijing. European mid-week games take place in the early hours of the morning, as far as East Asia is concerned, and in the middle of the working day in the Americas. A move to weekend fixtures in the European competitions would inevitably lead to a move to midweek fixtures in domestic competitions, and hence a decrease in the value of the TV rights from these. More of the clubs in the ECA benefit from domestic TV rights than from European competitions, so surely it is not in their interest to change this.

While there has long been talk of European Super Leagues, such competitions are still pipe-dreams that sit better in marketing departments and TV executive offices than they do in Football Club offices. The truth is that in many European Leagues, the domestic market is king, especially for the bigger clubs. Hence while the idea of Manchester United and Barcelona meeting on a regular basis in league games may well sound good on paper or a plasma screen, clubs such as Crystal Palace and Real Betis are still the regular opponents. England is a now a bit of an oddity compared to the other major European Leagues, where the money has led to six clubs currently competing at the top of the division, while many of the others can shock the top six on occasion. In most of the other competitions, the titles have been reduced to two or three contenders, and for the most part the other games are a procession of fairly easy victories. But while such leagues for all their lack of competitiveness can come close to filling the stadia, and while the TV audiences will still pay to consume this.

The problem with a Super League is it is not so easy. When the Champions League matches are the highlight of the season, the defeat can be accepted – but if we have the Super League, some teams have got to finish near the bottom, and with no Crystal Palace, Levante or Augsburg in the league, the struggling teams are going to come from the elite. Even only the elite is in the league, it is inevitable that not everyone finishes at the top. Just in the same way as Augsburg v Freiburg cannot draw the TV and live audiences that Borussia Dortmund v Bayern can muster, so Seville v Chelsea will not be a big draw if it is settling who finishes next to last in a league that (if the clubs get their way) will not even have the threat of relegation.

The threat of a European super league will remain, for the time being, a threat used by the bigger clubs vying for larger shares of the cash from domestic and European competition. Only if interest in these pales, do I see a change from threat to reality

In the end, despite European opposition, I think the new Club World Cup will get the go ahead in 2021. For clubs outside of Europe, the promise from FIFA of a minimum US$50 million in appearance money is a no brainer. Hardly any club outside Europe has a turnover in excess of $50 million per year and some for some of the competing clubs, the income from this competition will dwarf the rest of the income over a four-year period. The Europeans will want more for the appearance, even though this fee is already more than they get from the numerous friendlies not really competitive tournaments. For these clubs, which can easily offer more than $50 million on a single transfer, and with income exceeding $2 billion over a four year period, the sum raised is not so important. FIFA will have to understand what the tournament needs to be worth to them, to get their participation – as without it, this while competition is dead in the water. Within an edition or two, I expect the numbers competing will be raised from 24 to 32. Unlike the National competitions, where FIFA can get away with its anti-European agenda, a club competition is driven by money and European clubs are essential.

The Confederations Cup apparently has already breathed its last, so FIFA will be searching again for its mini-world cup to bolster its finances. Once again, the main opposition will stay in Europe, as apart from the absence of South American teams, the Euros are as good a tournament as the other quadrennial jamboree. There is a desire shared by clubs and the players’ unions for changes to the International calendars. This would not increase the number of international dates per season, but more likely change the grouping.

The March international break is the least popular with the clubs, coming as it does at such a crucial period in the European season. This can surely be lost resulting in an earlier finish to the season, followed by a longer international series in June. This would gain the approval of both clubs, and also of national coaches who would then have their players together at a time. This one is a no-brainer and it is a surprise it has not happened yet. The only problem with the plan is that both UEFA and FIFA are now promoting the idea of play-off matches for international tournaments in this period, barely three months before the finals commence.

UEFA would greedily look at any dates freed up in the international calendar to further expand the club competitions, forgetting the fact that they are not reducing the number of matches played and hence domestic games should be played in the time freed up. UEFA may push for a limit of 18, rather than 20 teams in the top leagues, (England, France, Italy and Spain all currently run at 20). This would see favour with the bigger clubs who could replace the dates with larger European groups, (six teams in Champions League groups and the maximum number of teams per country increased). Naturally, the clubs that could lose their place at the troughs will be unhappy with this. UEFA are still keeping their plans for a third competition under wraps. It is suspected that the Europa League will be reduced from 12 groups of four to eight groups, mirroring the Champions League, and that the new E3 tournament will also end up with 8 groups of four. There is a promise that the number of countries represented at group stage games will increase. The real big thing is whether or not the top countries will be excluded from this competition altogether.

To get back to Infantino, he needs his new world in order to secure the funds, and hence the votes to keep him in power for the full 12 years that he is allowed thanks to FIFA finally adding term limits for the president. It all comes down to money and politics. His back-room team really need to give more consideration to how the football calendar is arranged in order to achieve this. Most of the clubs, nations and confederations will give way to FIFA money, so its going to carry on as FIFA v UEFA for years to come.

Go On, Guo’an.

March 14th, 2019

AFC Champions League, Group Match

Beijing Guo’an 0-0 Urawa Red Diamonds

Admission 180 Yaun (£20). Attendance 43,112. Programme. Free

 

This was an ultimately frustrating and disappointing evening for fans of Guo’an, with the club outperforming their visitors in almost every department* of the game but failing to score a decisive goal.


*I can’t comment much on the home goalkeeper, he was basically idle.

 

With this visit, the Workers’ Stadium becomes the 23rd football ground that I have visited 10 or more times, the third in this group outside England, following the Shah Alam and Merdeka stadiums in Malaysia.

 

My first visit here was in 2001, with Guo’an winning 4-1 against a team from Shenyang. All the others were matches during the 2004 Asian Cup, concluding with the final in which Japan beat the hosts by 3-1

 

Outside, the streets of Beijing have been transformed over the last 15 years, but the stadium itself shows little change. The outside may have had a coat of paint and some new businesses have been installed under the stands.

Inside, a new scoreboard has been installed, and small size artificial pitches have been added, partially overlaying the running track. Beijing does not need a running track here with the Bird’s Nest providing the prestige event stadium and many similar facilities dotted around the city.



The seats are arranged in two tiers. There is a series of VIP boxes set between the tiers all around the ground, except on the East side, the lower tier is very low and has a very slight rake – added to the distance from the pitch caused by the track, the views from this area must be very poor.

 

Fortunately for me, my ticket was in the upper tier where I had a good view, despite being in the corner of the ground.



I have heard suggestions that Chinese teams do not take the international competitions seriously despite the fans clearly wanting success on these occasions. Certainly, this was the case last season in Shanghai, when Shenhua fans I spoke to were critical of the selection before the team lost at home to Suwon


On cannot level the same comments against Guo’an who made only one change from the team that had won 4-0 in Chongqing at the weekend. This was to strengthen the team

The fans are up for it as well, 43,112 is above the average league crowd from last season, possible boosted by Chinese politics which meant this was the first home game for Guo’an in any competition. Home fans were arranged around three sides of the ground, with most of the gaps being on the upper tier.

One can only assume this is price related, as in addition to having superior views, it is only the upper part of the top tier that falls under the roof in the event of rain.

 

The visiting fans were sitting high behind the south goal, with all surrounding areas left empty. The home fans included three different sets of singers with flags, with the ones on the Curva North (the confluence of English and Italian being read off a flag) being the most vocal and most visually stunning in uniform black. I particularly like their take on “We will Rock You” near the end. Nice to hear a bit or originality




Sadly, no co-ordination between the fans. Shout and reply between different areas being a thing reserved mainly for British and German fans. The result is often a cacophony of noise when the grounds are singing different songs.


If only someone could get the groups together, and possibly teach them a little French. “Allez les Verts”


In the Champions League, four foreign players are permitted, but one must be a national of an AFC affiliated association, while in the Chinese Super League, if a team wants to field a fourth, then he must come from Macau, Hong Kong or Taiwan

 

As a result, Guo’an could field their South Korean defender Kim Min-Jae as well as their other foreign players, these were Jonathan Viera – a Spaniard who has spent most of his career at Las Palmas with one cap for Spain. Renato Augusto, a Brazilian signed from Corinthians, who has also experience for Bayer Leverkusen and 32 caps, including scoring for Brazil against Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. Cedric Bakambu, born in France, but now a DR Congo international. Bakambu played for Sochaux, Bursaspor and Villareal before signing for Beijing last term.

 

Five of the starting line-ups have appeared for China, so there were nine internationals in the starting XI. The team includes players with some European experience, Wang Gang has played in Portugal and was a member of the Beira-Mar squad that won promotion to the top division in 2010, he made 26 appearances that season, but 24 were coming off the bench. Zhang Xihie spent six months at VfL Wolfsburg without playing.



The most notable European experience is Zhang Yuning, who was signed this season from West Bromwich Albion. Zhang did not make an appearance for the midlanders, so his signing may have been partially influenced by their Chinese ownership. Prior to signing for West Brom, he had spent two seasons as Vitesse. He returns to China with Beijing, and still ticks the “under-23” box which is important as every team must have an under-23 player in the starting line-up and must play three at some time in every game, unless some of their U-23 players are training with the national squads.


Some of the U-23 players have missed both the league games this season, as they are training for the qualification matches for the next Asian U-23 tournament, (which in turn is an Olympic qualification event). The matches take place in Malaysia at the end of the month. I suspect that Zhang is not in this squad but will instead be in the full squad playing the “China Cup” at the same time.


Guo’an were set up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with Zhang Yuning and Bakambu up front and Viera tucking in behind them. On occasion, Viera moved out to play wide on the right, and the structure fell towards classic 4-4-2 with Renato on the opposite side.


Urawa started in a 3-1-4-2 formation. They included two Brazilians in the team. Mauricio Antonio was at the centre of the backs, while Ewerton was the player shielding in front of the back three. Both have come from Portuguese football and had played together for Portimonense. Ewerton is currently on Porto’s books and is in Japan on loan. The Red Diamonds third foreigner was Australian international Andrew Nabbout. Nabbout was a member of the Australian World Cup squad, and apart from a short spell in Malaysia had spent his career in the Australian Leagues.

 

Urawa had 6 Japanese Internationals on show with two of the Makino and Nagasawa having a little experience with Koln.


Beijing dominated the first period, and certainly should have built up a comfortable lead before the break. Unfortunately, Zhang Yuning and Cedric Bakambu both turned out to be extremely profligate in front of the goal, with the plaudits going to the Congolese player for doing the wrong thing in the right place most frequently.



At this stage, Viera was looking to be the player who was holding the moves together, while the midfield pair of Zhang Xizhi and Piao Cheng were both involved and creative. The back four looked solid, but had little work to do to counteract the lack of attacking flair.

 

Frequently, the Red Diamonds back line appeared to be torn apart and Guo’an had the ability to threaten both from wide balls and direct hits to the forwards.

 

There was only one period where there was a serious threat from the Chinese visitors. In a short spell early in the second half, Nabbout made several runs down the right side of the field, but support was slow to come forward and all come to nought.

 


 

The Japanese then demonstrated their lack of intent by substituting Nabbout and falling into a 5-4-1 formation.

 

By this time, the home attacks, while not lacking in numbers were lacking in intensity, and it appeared as if tiredness had set in. They also lacked vision to try different things, repeating the free kick routine where three players stood a yard in front of the defensive wall and consistently playing corners to a deep position outside the area where the ball would be lobbed into a position where the keeper or defence could easily clear.

 

Changes were needed but were not forthcoming. The home substitutes probably completed more miles than anyone on the field, with lengthy and regimented warm ups in both halves, but only one was used – coming on as a late forward substitution

 


One wonders if the team struggles to consider a substitution policy as a way of changing a game, forced as they often are to play their reserves in order to fulfil the regulations on U-23 players in Chinese League games. Or is it just a lack of quality in depth in the squad.

 

So, at the end, the visiting team held out to get the point they had come for, which added to the three from their home game against Buriram last week sets them to the top of the group. In Thailand, Buriram United managed a 1-0 win over the South Koreans, Jeonbuk. Jeonbuk had defeated Guo’an, so the pair are both on three points. Guo’an now face two games against the Thai champions, and clearly require a better return than they have managed so far if they are to have a chance of progressing

 

A BIT of an unusual day out

March 9th, 2019

Since arriving in China in early February, my football trips have been curtailed somewhat, and there has only been a single match as I passed through Hong Kong before I settled for a stay in Beijing.

On the first weekend of March, the Chinese Super League started. This was to feature two sets of weekend fixtures, before all the teams took a two-week international break. The Chinese First Division (i.e. second tier) started a week later, and also featured two sets of fixtures followed by a single weekend of an international break. From the point of view of someone who does not want to travel far, there are two Beijing based teams in the top division, plus two in the nearby city of Tianjin and Hebei China Fortune in Langfang, somewhere between the two. There is another Beijing team in the second tier.

However, life in China is never simple. All six of these professional teams play both of their opening pair of league games away from home. Still, I am at least fortunate that the Super League Beijing derby is to be played before I leave, and it is at the only ground of these big six that I have not visited before.

The reason for the major matches being played away during the early part of the season is the security that ensues during the annual “two meetings” period. These are the major showpiece events where the policy directions for the following year and longer are discussed disseminated to the representatives from the regions.

Also, to be played in early March is the first round of the Chinese FA Cup. The CFA made a point of making announcements in the week leading up to the draw of the new expanded competition with the random draws made after each round and the end of two legged ties, except in the final. The expanded competition meant 32 ties in the first round, with half the teams coming from the China League 2 (the third tier, which has two regional groups. Regional, of course needs to be taken in context when some journeys in this division are further than London to Moscow.

I waited the draw with bated breath, and waited some more as the whole exercise was put back by one week. Apparently, this was partly in order to confirm the teams involved, with some of the teams in both divisions below the super league being under review. Somehow, this did not quite do its job. Despite the fact that it had been decided that Yanbian were to be expelled from division one before the draw was held, and it was known that Shaanxi would replace them, Shaanxi were still included in the draw. This resulted in their opponent being given a bye in the first round, while two other amateur teams were also denied entry at the first round and hence the round was reduced to 29 ties.

Fortunately for me, one of these ties was to be at BIT, the only Beijing based team in the third tier and a club that I had not yet visited. The visitors, Yanchuang Helanshan are at the same level. Again, there are delays in confirming the exact time and kick off of the match. The times of the fixtures actually make it to Wikipedia and soccerway before I spot them on the Chinese media feeds. The Chinese FA web site, which I would expect to be the definitive place to find the fixtures has still not been updated.

The website for BIT, which stands for the education institution, Beijing Institute of Technology, has not been updated for over a year. However, it contains a link to two sets of pages on Wechat, which is a Chinese social media account. I have an account on this, so I could find the details. Most of this was last season’s information, but there was an article on the start of the new season, and in response to a query put in English I received confirmation of where the venue was.

As it appears my purpose on this trip is to help my wife out with caring for boy while she got on with other business, she dropped me at the metro station and I made the journey with the boy in tow. He spent much of the day in talkative mode, as we made our journey. Fortunately, I was able to provide him with his main objective, a visit to a McDonalds just outside the nearest metro. From there it is a short walk to the ground.

It is a simple stadium, with steep concrete seats on one side only within the track. Behind the ground is the impressive building of the gymnasium. The main access to the seats being from an upper level of the gymnasium. However, once we got up there, we found that the area was closed off with a row of tape and a security guard saying no passage past. We checked the other side and the same story. No reason was given but we were advised to watch through the fences from the far side. I made a quick check inside the gymnasium. From here, the only entrance to the ground were pitch side and I was not going to get passage there.

I get no help either when I find the club officials. They will not even allow me to do more than see a copy of the team sheets. Apparently, for me to make a photograph of or take a sheet may be against republic rules, despite them being available to the official press at the ground. The only match report I have found to date gives only the home team line up, and then without numbers. However, last season, the Chinese FA did release the squads of teams at this level and they were posted on Wikipedia.

At the far side of the ground, I counted roughly 180 people watching through the fence. Almost everyone of these were there to see the game and would have normally paid admission. Inside the ground, I made it that around 70 had been let in, apart from the officials and press area. These appeared to be in two groups – a home supporters’ section where almost everyone was wearing club colours and others who looked as if they may have been players from within the club structure.

The home supporters were seen leaving the ground at the break and did not return. I did not see any behind the fence on the other side where we were watching. I did ask the supporters around me why we being forced to watch in this way. No one had been told, but when asked if it had any connection to the “two meetings”, I was told this was probably the cause. Exactly what security concerns there were over around 250 people entering a stadium is unclear, especially as more security staff were needed to keep the people out than would have been required if they were inside.

As for the game, it was not without its moments, but it lacked any sort of pace. It is never clear to what extent the third level of the Chinese league is professional, but these players lacked fitness, even for the first match of the season and would not fare well in the National League in England. The home side, BIT had the better of the first half and deservedly led at the break, but they were then put under pressure in a much more interesting second period.

With the pressure not telling, BIT had a few chances to put some clear space between them and Helanshan on the counter attack, but fluffed their chances. Things changed with ten minutes to go when a cross from the right was met by a visiting attacker who found himself a little quicker than a couple of leaden footed defenders to get the equaliser. This led to Yanchuan pushing harder and leaving less behind to protect against the counter. The counter duly followed with a through pass finding four players onside, but goal side of the last defender. The ball was safely slotted in by the first one on the ball for 2-1. It should have been three a couple of minutes later, but somehow and open goal was missed.

Adding a little to this post, a few days after the original. A match report on the home clubs’ Wechat feed gives me all the names of the players who took the field for the home team. Not all the numbers were confirmed, but I have the majority pinned down. There is pettiness in refusing to allow access to the paper copies when the information is being released to official news channels, which may then add them to the reports. I would have both sets if I had been able to find a news report from the away side, or possible even if I had taken more photos as the players’ names are all written on the back of the shirts. I should be able to pick up the rest with a reasonable degree of confidence later, if the squad lists are published in the next week or two. This has happened in the past.

It says something (to me at least) about the general Chinese responses to officialdom that around 200 people could be turned away from the grounds, and yet I saw no one apart from myself asking why this was. I am sure that many fewer would have been in attendance if they had known in advance they could not enter. In Europe, one can be sure that there would be far more protest from those trying to attend if they arrived and found they could not enter, without reasons given. In China, it appeared that most or all of those there merely accepted the restrictions placed upon them. Even the BIT supporters’ group in their bright orange scarves appeared to accept it when they were sent away from the game halfway through. No one official I spoke to would give any reasons for not allowing people in. The security who were the first line did not speak English, but once I had managed to get into the office looking for the team lists, I encountered people who clearly could speak my language, at least to some extent and they to were adamant that rules were there and must be followed, but the reasons for the rules could not be explained.

Being a university ground, there was a level of English available amongst the watching crowd, but it was difficult to get them to speculate the reasons for being forced outside the ground. Once I had ventured an opinion, there was some confirmation that this could be it. To some extent this is down to the Chinese psych. Not only do they not want to lose face but they do not want to lose the Nation’s face either. Hence many will try to avoid answering a question if they think the person hearing might not like the answer, or if they feel that the officialdom is not being sensible. To be openly critical in front of someone they do not already know is a problem.

I am reminding of two incidents from my first visits to China. On my first ever visit, which was work only – no football available (at least that I could find out about), I recall being in a technical meeting. One of my English colleagues asked a simple question, to which one of the Chinese technicians made a reply which was clearly false. I was sitting close to him, and could even see that the answer given differed from the notes he had written down. The problem was not even the technician’s fault, but probably the responsibility of one of his superiors – so he could not come out and say something. I waited until after the meeting to quietly let my colleague know that he had been misinformed.

On a later trip, I did get to see some football, including a series of derbies in Guangzhou. Back at that time, the Chinese were not so secretive and were on a charm offensive towards foreigners, so I had no trouble obtaining a team sheet and got a good seat up in the stand close to the one or two other Gwailou (a Chinese term for white people). Early in the second half, tempers in the stand were raised, and I think there was a small amount of actual fighting. I only think this occurred, as the first objective of the security people was not to stop the event, but to make sure the foreigners could not see the problem.

Caribbean 6 – The ABC Islands (A is for Aruba)

December 15th, 2018

At the end of my trip to Bonaire, I was getting worried about the flights for the rest of the ABC islands segment. Insel Air as I was told had a very poor reliability record. I tried to contact them without success, but when going back to my reservation, I saw that my Sunday flight time had been changed. Without anyone informing me. Not by a few minutes, but by eight hours. This would mean, quite simply that instead of being able to watch two games on Sunday in Curacao, I would arrive midway through the second match.

On arriving at the airport, I found desk of Insel Air.

Is this correct? Yes!

What has happened to the morning flight. We cancelled it!

Were you intending to tell me? No reply.

The flight will not suit me, I want you to change me to another airline! We won’t do that for you.

They agreed to an unspecified amount of refund, which I may receive via the travel agent that booked it – sometime next year; but it was down to me to book the earlier flight with another airline. Now I normally search for routes with the search sites, Skyscanner and Kayak – and I wanted to get the flight sorted quickly so I ended up paying £98 for a flight 45 minutes earlier than the cancelled one.

By comparison, the Insel Air flight to Aruba worked well. There was a note on the booking about a short amount of time to change planes, as one had to fly from Bonaire to Curacao and then onto Aruba. But as both flights were listed as being on a Fokker F-50, and the airline had only one such plane, one knew the connection would not be missed. I think the airline may in fact have only the one serviceable plane. I saw two larger aircraft in their livery at Curacao airport on this journey, (Thursday). They were still in the same place when I got back (Sunday), and again when I left (Tuesday). Websites such as flight radar 24 only show the Fokker as operating and even sometimes taking on the two hour each way trip to Sint Maarten. That flight should be with one of the larger planes, and seems to be cancelled frequently – making me glad that at least this was not the airline that had brought me to Curacao in the first place.

With the same plane running both legs of the journey, and luggage booked through, passengers making the connection stayed on the flight. Curiously I had two boarding cards with different seat allocations and had to switch while the plane was stopped – even though my original seat was not used for the second part of the journey.

While waiting for the flight in Bonaire, I ran into Ludwig Balentin again. His friend from the night before was now living in Curacao, and had only made a short visit. Apparently his first to the island in 30 years, most of the time spent working in the Netherlands, although he been in England as the company in the Netherlands had a contract during the building of the new Wembley Stadium.

On arrival, it was a taxi to transfer to the hotel. The taxis from the airport run at fixed price, US$21 for the journey which took about ten minutes. A lot of the accommodation on this trip has been in apartments, as in many of the destinations, the only hotels are either high end with the equivalent rates, or absolute dives with no facilities. By comparison, most of the apartments were quite good and the people running them were friendly and helpful. Prices were the equivalent or higher to the type of mid-range hotel I would normally us in Europe or Asia. In Aruba, I was in a modern and fresh hotel. I believe it had not been open long. The reservation site showed an artist’s impression of the outside, while in a couple of places, including within my room, there were electrical cables hanging from the ceiling waiting for some unknown extra to be fitted. It had most mod cons, and the real advantage of an upstairs communal lounge and veranda with a coffee maker running through day. Surprisingly, it lacked running hot water. The apartments I had stayed already in Curacao and Boaire also lacked this, but I would have thought a modern hotel would have thought to add this. The hotel is at one end of the road known as Caya G. F. Betico Croes. This is far too complicated name, especially in an area which has many visitors just jumping off the cruise ships. Hence a secondary name has been added, Main Street. Betico Croes was a leading politician in Aruba in developing the territory’s route to independence in the 1970s.

Main Street itself is wonderful. It is pedestrianised, except for a tramway that runs straight down the middle, and they play a curious mixture of Spanish pop and English Christmas pop and carols over speakers. I am fairly sure the pop music I heard was Spanish, but throughout the ABC Islands, a lot of what I took to be spoken Spanish was actually Papiamento. This is a local creole language with its routes in Spanish and Portuguese. The people in these islands are very polyglot, and the majority speak Papiamento, Spanish, Dutch and English. Although Dutch is the official language of the islands, it is the least used of the four. I rode the tram from the terminal by my hotel down to the end and stayed on back to my start point. It took about an hour. At other times, I walked the route which takes ten minutes each way. The tram is free and runs on batteries, so no unsightly overhead cables. A variety of shops and restaurants are situated on it, and the local bus terminal is at the bottom end. The really high-end shops, casinos and restaurants are closer to the cruise terminal.

 

The island has a second tourist area, for those that want to stay there. The top end of this is called the high-rise hotel zone. Slightly further south is the low-rise hotel zone. I got to the high-rise zone and it was also sanitised for tourists. Guide books however do recommend using the buses to travel between town and hotel, as a cheap alternative to taxis. As I have mentioned in the other reports, the idea of a taxi as a transport that can be used by the average citizen has not caught on in the Caribbean. If a local can afford taxi fares, then s/he can also afford to buy a car. Every island I have been on suffers from traffic jams.

Aruba had come under Dutch control in 1636 and remained as such until the 1970s. At the time, the Netherlands included seven territories that are considered Caribbean. This includes Suriname, which like Guyana and French Guyana is on the South American mainland. Only Suriname has actually become fully independent. Aruba official changed its status to being a constituent country of the Netherlands in 1986. This separated it from the rest of the Netherlands Antilles and allowed its own Football Association to become a full member of FIFA, which occurred in 1988.

At the time, Aruba was supposedly on the road to full independence, but this was suspended (at Aruba’s request) in 1990.

I wanted to get out to the offices of the Aruba Voetbal Bond, and managed this without difficulty. The trip involved catching the number 7 bus from the main bus station and asking to be dropped off at the right point. I easily managed to confirm my fixture plan while there. The top division games are played in the main stadium, a conveniently short walk from my hotel, while the lower division is split between the main stadium and the Centro Deportivo Frans Figaroa. I spoke briefly too with the national team coach, Martin Koopman and arranged to meet him again the next day at the top division games. The office was within the Centro Deportivo Frans Figaroa, but there is not a lot there and it was four hours to kick off. My plan was to get down to the high-rise hotel area and find the Fireson Brewery, the island’s only craft outlet.

This plan was not difficult in itself, but I managed to fail to be in the right place to stop the service bus as it passed, or a couple of the small minibuses that also supply transport. In the end, I completed the full journey from the stadium on foot, taking about 45 minutes. Much of this was along major roads, but there is always some type of footway, mainly of gravel or small stones. The general appearance of the buildings around was good. As I approached the hotel area, everything gradually became more up-market.

Even with the walk, I arrived at my destination just ten minutes after the scheduled opening time and found the building apparently deserted. After a scout around, someone did let me in and told me they were not opening for another 10-15 minutes. I asked if I could wait inside, and could I have a beer while I waited. No problems. That had three beers on tap, a very hoppy unfiltered IPA and two stouts. I tried all three. The only food on offer was Pastechi, the local variant on a pasty. I had a couple of these as well.

Considering that the main bus schedule is published, but only for departure times from Oranjestad, I managed to work things out well, leaving the bar just before seven and knowing I did not want to walk back as it was now getting dark. The first bus along was indeed my route, (this is a once and hour service, while the other route to Oranjestad runs every ten minutes). It would of course have helped if the route number or intermediate points were displayed on the front of the bus, rather than just the final destination, but at least the driver was helpful. He even told me, as I left the bus that the last run on the route would leave Oranjestad at 9.30, meaning that it would get to the stadium on its return soon after 10, ideal for an 8 o’clock kick off.

There is no admission charge, and I have some time to relax before trying to find the team lists. When I drop down to find them, I discover that there is a problem. Not with the teams who are all present and correct, but with the officials. There is a loan, eighteen-year-old official in the dressing rooms. This is Leandre Trimon and he is scheduled as one of the assistant referees. His colleagues for the game are no where to be seen. Trimon tells me that he had taken sole charge of an U-20 game in midweek and it had not gone well, so he was unwilling to take on the task alone. There are a number of urgent phone calls going on and just after the official kick off time, I am told we have secured a replacement referee and we just have to wait for him to get there.

Leandre has been refereeing for two years, and has been to an age group CONCACAF tournament on Curacao. When he got there, all the referees were told they had to be presentable. This apparently means no beards, and certainly no dreadlocks. I am thinking that such discrimination would not be allowed in Europe. My friend shaved off his small beard for the next day. Local referees who did not suffered extra fitness training. Apart from that, he was most concerned with the problem the late kick off would have on his social life. He had a girlfriend to meet later in the evening! He still was happy to agree to help me get away from the stadium when I said I needed help because the delay meant the game would not finish until after the last bus.

Our referee turned up, having driven from the main stadium and we kicked off 40 minutes late. Apparently, the replacement, Mr. W. Tromp (I misheard and asked, “as in President”. Certainly not, its with an ‘o’).

The stadium is one sided, with the single tier stand having plenty of plastic seats for all. The access pathway is at the top, and there are no refreshment facilities inside the ground. Instead, I went out to the supermarket across the road to stock up at half time. I was not alone in this, and made it back to my seat in good time.

My match was between Jong Aruba and Real Koyari. The Jong Aruba side had a splendid pink kit, with a partial outline of a five-pointed star shown in black. Real played in a more straightforward combination of white shirts, black shorts. I had been warned by Leandre Trimon that Division Uno, as it is called is a bit like English Sunday league football. In fact, it was quite a mixed ability game. With only two levels of open football in Aruba, all the better players are in Division Honor, and this division includes players who are hoping to get there, players who still want to play past their prime and some who just never made it. Some were very fit, others were almost as slow as this writer. The one thing that was clear was that Jong Aruba, even though not all their players were Jong, were easily the better team and with two goals in each half, they ran out as easy winners. Real Koyari scored once in the second period giving us a final score of 4-1

I waited outside the dressing rooms while the referee and assistant were tidying up. It seems there is quite a bit of paper work after the game, and the packs of player passports have to be returned to the team coaches. Leandre Trimon quite liked the idea when I mentioned it that in France, Belgium and Germany this is all done on tablets, and that the French FA have provided the tablets so as they are available in Martinique and Guadeloupe. He found it strange to hear that we are lagging behind such technique in England.

After the game, he did not shower at the ground, (although when questioned, he said facilities were there). Instead his parents picked us up outside, drove to his house where he quickly showed and changed and then into town where they dropped me off before taking him on to meet his girlfriend outside the cinema. Hope it was a good film.

On the Saturday, I meandered around the town without doing anything much, wrote up some of my blog on Bonaire and in the early evening made the walk to the Guillermo Prospero Trinidad Stadion. This means that on a trip where I only managed to pass through Trinidad to change flights, I saw football at two grounds named after people called Trinidad.

This stadium is two sided, and with a running track. There are no spectator facilities provided behind the goals. The far side was a single metal stand, with rows of metal seats sitting on scaffolding, while opposite is the older covered stand, in two sections with a large gap in the middle for entry and exit from the ground. There are small number of central seats with the press box behind above this central gap, and thanks to having arranged to meet with Martin Koopman, this is where my (complimentary) position in the ground was. The seating area each side of the centre is on wooden benches. The stand itself is concrete, post war but quite old, while the roof which does not extend over the full area appears newer.

There are two games to watch, 6.30 and 8.30 kick offs. The first sees league champions Dakota playing against River Plate, while this is to be followed by Brazil Juniors against Britannia. Some of the names, such as Dakota refer to areas of the island, (the stadium itself is in the Dakota district), but most appear to be chosen because they sound good. Most clubs are based around one or other of the island’s villages. The name Brazil Juniors, I was told was after the Brazil Nut tree rather than the country. The story was that there is a large Brazil Nut tree in the village. Since Aruba is an arid country, while the Brazil Nut tree normally grows in the rain forests of Brazil and Bolivia, I would need confirmation that this was not a tall tale.

The league is arranged in a division of ten teams, with five matches every weekend at this single stadium. The top four then go into a play-off, playing another six matches each. As more people watch these, there were no double headers (at least last season). This would increase the income. There is then a final over two legs – with a third match if these go one each way. There is, at least no penalty shoot-out in games one and two, so Dakota won last season’s title after the first game finished goal-less and the second was won 4-2. Deportivo Nacional, were the beaten finalists having finished one point ahead of Dakota in the group of four, but three points behind them in the original ten team league. That means the two teams met eight times in the course of the season. At least they avoided clashing in the Cup.

This season, Dakota had lost for the first time a week before I arrived, which meant that Nacional went to the top of the table by winning the Friday game. Dakota therefore needed to win in order to take back the lead (on goal difference). This was not aided by an early goal against, but over the first 70 minutes, their attacking 3-4-3 formation gave them an edge and they deservedly had turned the game around to lead 2-1. At this point, one of the midfielders was sent off for spitting at an opponent. Dakota responded by going into a shell, and dropping back to a 4-4-1 formation after substitutions. There were no shortage of substitutions here. Division Honor teams are allowed four, and Dakota did not hold back. They had changed two at half time, in response to being a goal down, and two more after the card. In the division uno game the night before, five changes were allowed and a total of nine substitutions were made in the game.

The lock-down worked and the game finished at 2-1 to Dakota who remained top of the league.

Brazil Juniors were to win the second game. They were promoted from the lower division last season and the talk was that they were doing much better than expected to keep themselves in the top half of the league. I was promised by some that they would have an exciting flourish to them, but in retrospect this was not the case. The game was slightly dour, especially when compared to the earlier entertainment. Britannia, who started (and finished) the weekend in third place were also uninspired. A goal midway through the first half put Brazil ahead and Britannia lost a man (second yellow card) midway through the second. After that, you could not see them getting back into the game. Still it took a penalty a minute before the end to give the Juniors a more comfortable scoreline.

 

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