Archive for the ‘The European Game’ Category

The Jutland Weekend

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

When I left Hamburg airport, I was planning on heading to Flensburg for the derby in the Schleswig-Holstein Liga. TSB were top of the league, and entertaining neighbours Flensburg 08. These are the second and third best teams in the border town, as Flensburg also has a team one level above in the Regionalliga. The Sat Nav said 13.20 arrival when turned on, soon updated with ten minutes of delays in the many roadworks.

Once I reached the roadworks, I was travelling slower than the Sat Nav predicted, and even on the small sections of open road, it is impossible to drive fast on busy German Autobahns. The predicted delays increased and my time was slow, so an hour into the supposed 1hr 25 minute journey, I was still an hour from my destination.

Flensburg were kicking off at 14.00, Kilia at 16.00, so I took the turn, found the ground with plenty of time to head into town and grab a drink at the Kieler brewery.

This meant that by the time Kilia kicked off, Heider would know that TSB had lost their game, so Heider were level on points before starting.

First the ground. It is classic and old, but with a few new additions. It has a classic entrance block, with the name Kilia Platz picked out above the gates, but this, along with a dressing room block on that side of the pitch is no longer used.

Entrance is now from the small car park,the Gaststatte is also on that side of the ground, with the dressing rooms underneath.

The ground used to have a few steps of terracing on three sides (not behind the far goal), with a classic stand sitting above the terrace on the West side. They have now added an area of decking in front of the clubhouse, with beer and wurst being served there, and a large block of uncovered seats next to this. Both of these cover the terrace and need to be traversed when walking around. The €5 entrance is for anywhere, so this is OK.

The open seating, unusual in German football appear to be because the ground is also used by the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes in the German Football League (as in American Football).

No programme, I was directed towards the dressing rooms when I was looking for a team list, only to be sent away by an official down there. However, he turned out not to be a jobsworth as one of his colleagues came up to the bar and handed me a sheet within a minute.

Onto the game, and it was not a bad one, although up to half time I thought it could be goal less. The visitors had by far and away most of the possession, but could not find a clear opening, with most of their shots being rather wayward, while their goalkeeper was forced into action on several occasions. The decisive moment came at the end of the half, Tobias Hass received the ball in space, and tried to go around the home keeper. The keeper dived but missed the ball, taking Hass out. Clearly a penalty and a goalscoring chance, so the red card was shown.

The last kick of the half saw Hass score the penalty against stand in keeper Niklas Lott. Kilia did not have a keeper on the bench, Lott having played the first half as left back. A substitute left back came on at the break, and Lott continued to keep the goal. Despite this, Heider could not up their game, and the ten men even created a few chances. Lott made one fine double save and the score stayed at 1-0 until the 81st minute, when David Quade took advantage of Kilia not clearing the ball to head in at the post. Heider were awarded a second penalty when the extravagantly coiffured Mark Lafrentz was brought down on the edge of the area, but this time Lott dived to his right and pulled off a fine save.

Sunday dawned bright and foggy. I still headed down to Schleswig without leaving enough time to switch to the alternate game if the weather continued in the same bent. Fortunately, there were no problems.

I had never been to a Kreisliga game before, two efforts to do so in Aachen had both failed, once because the fixture time shown on fussball.de was wrong, the other because the venue was incorrect. In both cases, the ground was such that I did not feel I had missed anything. In Schleswig Holstein, there is no Bezirksliga, so Kreisliga is the 7th level, while in most of Germany it is one or two levels lower. Generally, Kriesliga is an indication of the geographical area the league covers, but I had assumed the quality of grounds and football would be similar.

If this is so, then I struck lucky at VfR Schleswig. On arrival, the ground has club house, car parking and an entrance gate where €3 is taken off those watching first team games. No programmes though. Inside there is a clubhouse and a food stall. I was surprised to pay just €1.50 for my bratwurst.

The team list was a problem, not because they had any objection to me seeing it, but because they could not get their computer to work. Having made a prior check that last week’s lists had been published on fussball.de, I settled for the numbers on the player’s backs at the start, but when I saw the officials had managed to print out a couple of copies and were taking them around to each club’s dugout, I managed to photograph one.

The main pitch has rails on both sides, but is open behind both goals, meaning the goalkeepers have to collect the ball quite frequently. All the pitch surrounds are grass. On the clubhouse side, there is a grass bank (no reported injuries) leading up to a patio in front on the clubhouse. This paved area boasts three wooden park benches, while two more are situated to the sides. Additional seating was in the form of a stack of plastic garden chairs, which spectators could select and position in any free space.

I made the crowd to be about 85, quite a few of which came from the visitors, FC EIlligstedt-Silberstedt. It was clear from the start who was the better team, and while VfR tried to match the visitors, it was never going to be close. With a little thought for sequencing, FC E-S scored goals in the 9th, 19th and 29th minute of the first half. Finn Johansen got the first from close range, Marco Clausen added the second with a good finish from a tight angle on the left, and Yorrick Theeman added the third.

It was no all one way, but few of the home sides attacks looked dangerous, until they won a 37th minute penalty, which Dennis Winda converted for 3-1. Schleswig missed a golden opportunity to make it 3-2 before the break, which turned out to be their last chance to make a go of it.

Three minutes into the second half, FC E-S were awarded a penalty, and Timo Semmler made it 4-1. While in the first half it was on the nines, in the second half it was within nine, as by nine minutes after the penalty was awarded, both Johansen and Clausen had added to the score and it was 1-6 with more than 30 minutes to play.

As often happens, the winning team slackens off after taking such a lead, and this was no exception. They made their allotted substitutions, leaving Semmler as the only visiting goalscorer on the field. So we did not get a further goal until four minutes from time when Christoph Rennhack brought the numbers back to 6-2. Not surprisingly, this was a late consolation and the final goal.

Now I had a decision to make – German Regionalliga in Flensburg, or Danish 1st Division in Vejle. For those that do not follow Danish Football, the 1st Division is the second division, unlike countries such as England (where it is the third division), let alone Switzerland (where it is both the 3rd and 4th divisions). With the Danish game kicking off later than the German one, my Sat Nav had me arriving at either venue around 40 minutes before kick-off.

I chose Denmark, but soon regretted the decision. While there were no road problems, stops at the first two service stations in Denmark confirmed that one can neither change money, or use ATMs here. That meant I had to go into the town centre and find an ATM. Generally, this is not a problem but of course once you are looking for a bank, you cannot find one. I never did spot a bank in Velje, but eventually found a machine on drew out 400 DKK, more than enough for the day.

Parking at the ground was easy, I managed to find a spot on Stadion Vej, just two minutes walk from the ticket offices, which are situated between the old and new stadiums.

I now suffered (for that is the word) with two pieces of luck that ended up saving a little money. Firstly I went to the first ticket window, (just as they were about to close) and bought the first ticket I could. This cost 70DKK (about £7), but was behind the goal. If I had taken time to read the displays, I would have bought a 100 DKK ticket along the side. As it was, having found myself in one section, I asked to buy an upgrade and was let through for no extra!

Secondly, the programme sellers had already disappeared and I could not get one until the end of the game. When I asked at the offices at the end of the game, I was given one without charge, (another 10 DKK saved).

I would have willingly paid all the extra money and more for a decent game, as this match was tedious in the extreme.

Firstly the stadium, which I actually did not see as I drove past it. The floodlights are not as tall as the neighbouring Athletics stadium (which staged the game of my earlier visit), and from the road, one could believe it was a low lying office building with two square tower buildings, a storey higher at each end. The offices were the club offices, while the two towers were corners of the stadium and I think are let out as commercial buildings.

The other three sides were a continual uniform height single tier with 17 rows of seats. The roof of the main stand is of a height with the other sides, but less rows of seats, allowing for boxes behind. The stands curved around the two corners without offices.

Behind each goal, the stand was broken by a dividing line about half way. In each case the half closest to the road was standing accommodation with seats in the other half. For this game, one end section was entirely empty. I did not see an away fan until the end, and when I mentioned this, I was told they numbered about 10. Probably the only ten people that were happy with the day’s fare.

The Danish League is being restructured from next season. Currently the top two divisions are 12 teams apiece, with the teams playing a 33 game season. Next season the Superliga will have a 14 team division, taking its lead from the Belgium top division. After 28 games have been played, the top six go into the Championship play-off round, playing a further 10 games each. The other 8 will be divided into two groups of four, playing 6 games each. Each team in these groups plays at least two more matches in knock out play.

The four team groups are referred to as C and D, the winners of each playing the second team in the other group home and away, with the two game winners then playing another two-legged game. The overall “best of the rest”, then plays against the team that has finished either 3rd or 4th in the Championship group for a Europa League spot

Meanwhile, the teams that finish 3rd and 4th in groups C&D play off against each other, with the two winners then playing each other in one game, the two losers in the other, giving a final classification of 11th to 14th places. 11th stays in the Superliga, 12th plays-off against the team that finished 3rd in Division One, 13th plays-off against the Division One runners-up while 14th takes the drop directly.

I guess by creating more games, and in particular more games of importance, the league can sell the rights to the TV companies for more money. I have yet to meet a fan of a club in any country with a convoluted system like this that actually prefers it to the standard fare of home and away sequences, and with the seventh and eighth placed teams in the initial series of games having a better chance of reaching the Europa League, there must be a feeling of injustice from supporters of teams who just miss out on a European play off.

All this means that there are three promotion spots up for grabs this season, with no play-off. A golden ticket for a team like Vejle who lie in third place at the moment. This week’s matches are the 11th of a 33 match season, meaning after the games, everyone has played each of the other teams once. Vejle were unbeaten at home going into the game, while HB Koge did not have an away win to their credit.

The match was as dull as any game can be. There was no end to end play, but Koge were clearly the better of the two. They eventually scored just before the hour mark with Kristoffer Munksgaard getting his head to a right wing cross. Everyone (including the home support) were bemused about protests about the goal, which seemed to be “how is this to be allowed, they have no right to score”. Vejle did not improve and Koge were closest to scoring again, with Faeste making one good save, (the only one in the game), and Rasmus Nielsen firing a shot against the post. All in all, though this was a game that did not live in the memory for the whole time it took me to return to the car.

It must be said that my previous visit to Velje has also escaped my memory, the old stadium did not allow me to recall anything about the game, perhaps this was also a dull game following a much better one. Certainly I can recall going to AGF earlier in the day to see Kobenhavn win 5-3, before Viborg won 3-1 at Vejle.

With time to kill, I took brief looks at the town centres of both Vejle and Herning before heading to my night game. I may be doing the places a disservice, but both towns are on the “nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit” list. They have good facilities – shops, restaurants, theatres, (Herning has banks), but I saw nothing that inspired me during me brief time wandering through the towns.

Velje’s windmill overlooks the town

If I ever come to these parts as a tourist, it will be to take the boy to Legoland, and not for anything special the area can provide.

In actual fact, one of the main draws for visitors to Herning is the Messe Centre Herning, (or MCH). I normally search for alternative names for stadia which appear to have sponsors names, but the MCH Arena is simply the Arena at the MCH, so it will remain as MCH Arena in my log. I note it did run as SAS Arena for five years in the past, but it was MCH before and after this.

This looks like a football ground from the outside, and cannot be confused with the exhibition halls around it. I particularly like the curved floodlight pylons. I was also pleased to note that for a stadium a couple of miles out of town, car parking was free. After the game, the stewarding was good, and I got back to the motorway within minutes.

Inside it was bland and modern. In a similar format to Vejle, the stands all around were of uniform height, with a less rows of seats on one side, to allow for sponsors lounges behind. In this case, all four sides have the corners filled in, although the lower rows of seats are missing to give access routes to the pitch.

Tickets can be bought on line, or at the stadium. There was no shortage of empty seats. Prices for the long side of the pitch were 135 DKK. Again there are standing sections behind each goal, with half of each end given to seats. The AGF fans were given one end of standing, and with Aarhus being relatively local, they were numerous and in good voice. They even managed to let off a few flares before the game.

The Programme was a pocket sized affair, given out free on the turnstiles. It has been folded into a fifth of its length and opens out into a single long sheet, with ten “pages” – only one has text, another has the teams, one is a front page, while the rest are fixed content, mainly listing sponsors.

FCM were formed in 1999 by a merger of Herning Fremad and Ikast. They are the current champions of Denmark, their first title, and lead the league again. In the ten league games prior to my arrival, FCM had scored just 12 goals, conceding 3. In the Champions League, the Gibraltar team Lincoln Red Imps were beaten 3-0 on aggregate, but they went out on away goals to APOEL of Cyprus. This gives the team a second chance in the Europa League play-off, and they took this well with a 2-1 aggregate against Southampton. I saw the match in Southampton and also their visit to the New Saints, in the 2011 Europa League. Midtjylland have won their opening two games in the group stages, with a 3-1 win last week in Brugge being the second time they have hit three this season, (the other being a Danish cup tie at Naestved, the bottom team from the lower division).

With plenty of crowd noise, and a faster pace on the field, the game has more going for it from the start, but one soon realises this is a veneer with very little behind. Midtjylland play a 4-1-4-1 formation designed to frustrate their opponents, but they have little in the way of creativity.

They can get the ball out to the wings well enough and they attack with plenty of width, but there the game plan ends, as the ball is booted into a central area where no one is there to meet it. Onuachu is the one man up front, but he seems to have been picked for his size (6 foot 7), rather than speed or skill. He did manage to flick a good chance just wide in the 13th minute, but most of the time he failed to get close to the ball, or his midfield support had not moved up to collect a knock on.

FCM rely on dead ball situations as the only times they have more than one man in the box and can really threaten. AGF play into their hands by conceding free kicks in the right places, as well as corners, while long throws are also a threat.

When FCM go ahead on 30 minutes, it owes more to AGF than their own prowess, a long throw comes into the six yard box, where the keeper goes up to punch the ball under pressure from his own defender. His touch sends the ball the wrong way, behind him and towards the far post. There is still a defender with a chance to clear, but he makes no contact and Royer taps gleefully knocks the ball into the empty net.

When I saw FCM at Southampton, they achieved their aims by stifling the home side and having a little bit of luck to score. They were aided and abetted by the Saints’ lack of tactical nous, with the home side returning to the 4-3-3 formation that had been so ineffective in the first half after 15 minutes of 4-4-2 after the break had put FCM under the cosh and resulted in Southampton equalising. While AGF also play 4-4-2, (maybe 4-4-1-1), they never look likely to open up FCM from the flanks, and hence once the home side had taken the lead, one always felt the game was only heading one way.

Indeed, I felt there was little of note in the next 25 minutes although at least the game is played at a much greater pace than the one in the lower division, hence one could always hope there might be something at the end of the next run down the wing. Too often though this hope was dashed when the ball was crossed in without a specific target

But then Marcos Urena comes on as substitute for the lumbering Onauchu. This immediately adds more pace and more promise to the Midtjylland attacks. Five minutes after Urena comes on, he receives a ball flicked over a defender by Dueland. Urena demonstrates a skilful first touch to control the ball, and then takes it past the goalkeeper before finding the net. It is the little piece of magic the game has cried out for.

This appears to be the catalyst the game needs, and for a short while, one could believe that they could score three at home for the first time this season, but the head of steam soon run out, and with AGF capable of nothing more than occasionally making the ball bounce in the penalty area, it is no surpise that a 2-0 final result ensues.

Its then onto my day job for five long days in Bremen. My week finished with a plane delayed at an hour back at Hamburg airport, thanks to a leaking toilet! That sort of thing annoys me – not so much the delay, we could see the plane on the ground with water from the leaking pipe dripping from the fuselage, but the absolute refusal of the airline officials to give information about what the problem was or how long the delay might be. Only the pilot’s message told us why we were delayed, and I think that was only because he had to let us know the forward toilet was out of order.

New Beginnings.

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

The old chapter finished at about 4.50, on Saturday 2nd May. The ball was passed to Jamal Lawrence, and the referee blew the whistle for full time. Hence, Lawrence with 16 minutes of League football to his name became the last player to play the ball while Cheltenham Town were members of the Football League.

There has been much on social media, blogs and newspaper columns to try and work out where it went wrong. All the serious analysis comes to the same conclusions – there were many faults both on and off the field.

In the end, it does not matter where we lay the faults, as we cannot turn back and must look forward, and forward means the Conference, renamed as the Vanarama National League for next season. Having given the sponsors their obligatory mention, I will now refer to our new home as the National League, but in this article, the word Conference is used historically. It is a very different league to the Conference we left 16 years ago, and so using a different name seems appropriate.

When we were promoted in 1999, we were, along with all our rivals, a semi-professional team. There are still semi-professional teams at this level, but for the main part, the National League is England’s fifth level of fully professional football. Nineteen of the 24 clubs averaged over 1000 in attendances in 2014-15, although the majority dropped to three figure crowds on occasion. The costs of watching the games will be barely changed. Cheltenham Town have announced that the prices will be the same as last season. I think seven of the 24 in the Conference last season had a lowest price that was more than the £16 for adults at Cheltenham last season. Of those that were cheaper, most were only a pound or two in difference. Eastleigh appear to have been the cheapest at £12 to stand, followed by Southport at £13.50.

Tranmere Rovers have announced that ticket prices for 2015-16 will be more expensive than us, but have promised their playing budget will be in the top four, (a dangerous promise, when you do not know what the other budgets are). They have also stated that this is sustainable (but they may have a less than text book definition of the word).

As a subject, Budgets now create a lot of discussion among football supporters. Sadly, most of it is ill informed with a very wide discrepancy between the amounts some clubs are said to be paying and the budgets they are paying them from. Some of this is pure guesswork, some is generated by agents who state their players are being paid more than is true, in order to squeeze more out of the next club. Despite all the hype, there is still a clear factor that the majority of clubs in the Conference (and for that matter, the Football League) are living beyond their incomes. This generally means that they are relying on the generosity of a small group of people who own the clubs to subsidise the game. Cheltenham is no different to other clubs in this regard, Paul Baker (and to a smaller extent, other directors) funded our entrance into the league in 1999, and we have leaked money ever since – posting a loss more often than not. There have been a few exceptions, and I do not have all the figures, but I would estimate that we have taken a total subsidy averaging at least £100,000 per season over our 16 league seasons. More to the point, we need to carry on this type of “investment”, if we wish to be competitive in the National League.

Looking at the National League for next season, the first thing one notices is the number of ex-football league clubs at this level. There will be 10 clubs who we have played during our league stay. As well as Tranmere, taking the drop with us, we will again meet Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, Macclesfield Town, FC Halifax Town, Wrexham, Chester, Torquay United, Lincoln City, Kidderminster Harriers and Aldershot Town.

This is not strictly true, as two of the clubs, FC Halifax Town and Chester are reformed clubs. FC Halifax Town were started in 2008, and commenced life three divisions below the Conference. They had dropped to the Conference in 2002 and just avoided relegation, despite having a ten point deduction when they entered administration. The new club were promoted in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Chester FC replaced Chester City. The earlier club had dropped to the Conference in 2009, but did not complete the first season at the level. They were also started three divisions lower, winning the championships three seasons in a row. They did finish in a relegation position in 2013-14, but with Hereford and Salisbury expelled from the Conference, they got through the AGM cup.

Perhaps the most interesting case is the one we will not meet. Barnet won their third promotion to the Football League, all as champions of the lower division. Originally promoted in 1991, Barnet spent four seasons below the league (2001-5) and are now Champions again after a two season spell. This time around, there was potential that their plans would be thwarted after leaving Underhill. A lot of fans were unhappy at moving out of the borough, with the chairman Anthony Kleanthous being considered as much to blame as the council by many. As a result, crowds dropped by 30% in the initial season at the Hive. The successes in 2014-15 have moved the figures upwards again, but still not to those reached in the league. Meanwhile, they have managed to fight off complaints from the local council over the size of the stand, which was greater than originally planned for.

There are also plenty of clubs who we have faced before in non-League circles.

Forest Green (5th in 2014-15), finished 12th in 1999. They reached the FA Trophy final in that year, and again in 2001 – both times losing 1-0 and hence not adding to their 1982 Vase triumph. They moved to the New Lawn, just up the hill from the old one in 2006. I have seen Cheltenham play there at reserve level. In 2010, they should have been relegated, but were reprieved when Salisbury were demoted for breaking financial rules (that is the same Salisbury who suffered a similar fate 4 years later – some never learn). At the time, FGR were reported in dire straits financially, but the takeover by Dale Vince that summer has breathed a new lease of life into the club and they are now on the up and up, with reported budgets far outstripping ours (despite a much smaller income).

Woking (7th in 2014-15) finished 9th in 1999. They were relegated to Conference South in 2009, and returned as champions in 2012. We have faced Woking twice since joining the league. The meetings were in the Football League Trophy (I think it may have been under LDV sponsorship at the time) in 2005. We played twice as the first game was abandoned due to fog, winning the second game 5-1. In the same season as playing us, Woking reached the FA Trophy final, beaten by Grays Athletic at West Ham (during the Wembley rebuilding).

Dover Athletic (8th in 20014-15, 11th in 1999). When Cheltenham Town returned to the Conference in 1997, they lost their first game, at Dover Athletic’s Crabble Athletic ground in front of 982 spectators. I was not there, but thought it was the omen of a difficult season ahead. When I did get back to Dover, on the 4th April 1998, it spelt out possibly the greatest point in Cheltenham’s history up to 1998 – a match against Southport at Wembley. While we went upwards, Dover headed in another direction. They were relegated to the Southern League in 2002 and switched to the Isthmian two years later after restructuring removed Kent from the Southern league remit. In 2005, they were relegated again and with re-organisations, needed three promotions to regain Conference Football. The first two of these were achieved in successive seasons, 2008 and 2009, they then stayed in Conference South until the 2014, winning promotion through the play-offs despite finishing fifth in division. As I think is well known to us, Dover Athletic reached the third round of the cup for the first time in their history this season, losing to Crystal Palace.

Gateshead (10th in 2014-15, 5th in Northern Premier League 1999). My only visit to the ground was way back in 1987 when we drew 1-1. Our goalscorer was Mark Boyland and the crowd was 233. That was a single season stop at the level. They returned to the Conference in 1990, meaning we played twice more before relegation. On that occasion Gateshead stayed up until 1998, so we met again when we got back to the Conference, 0-0 at the International Stadium, and a 2-0 win at home (Eaton and Victory). Gateshead dropped back to the Northern Premier League in 1998, and dropped another division in 2003. In 2004, they returned to the Northern Premier’s Premier Division, but the introduction of the Conference North (and South) meant this was still the third level. Gateshead came up to Conference North in 2008 and moved back to the National division a year later, after play off wins over Southport and AFC Telford United. They have since established themselves at this level, participating in play offs for the Football League place in 2014.

Altrincham (17th in 2014-15, Northern Premier Champions in 1999). Altrincham were the Conference (or Alliance Premier League if you prefer) champions in the first two years of competition, and regular opposition in our first spell at the level. However, when we returned to the Conference in 1997, they dropped down for two seasons in the Northern Premier League. 1999-2000 was a singular year at Conference level, and they have split the 16 seasons we have been in the League between the top two levels of non-League, playing 8 seasons at each, with two relegations and two promotions. The last promotion was through the 2014 play offs.

Southport (19th in 2014-15, 18th in 1999), and of course our opponents at Wembley in 1998. For that point alone, we will be pleased to welcome the Sandgrounders back to Whaddon Road. In 1977, the non-League teams reached an agreement that only one Southern League, and one Northern Premier League team would be put up for election to the League. This achieved a dramatic effect with Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic getting the nod for promotion. Southport finished 91st in the league in both seasons, and while Wimbledon replaced Workington (92nd), Rochdale did not go down the following year, but Southport exited the league instead. The football map today would look a lot different if the league had not shut up shop after this. Meanwhile Southport played on in the Northern Premier League until winning promotion to the Conference in 1993. Southport have spent more time at the top level of non-League than the second while we have been away, but they were relegated to the Northern Premier in 2003, and re-allocated to the Conference North on its formation, becoming first champions. They won Conference North again in 2010.

Welling United (20th in 2014-15, 20th in 1999). With the similarity of Welling’s positions, one should remember that in 1999, there were 22 teams in the Conference, and three relegation places, so when we drew at home to Welling on the last day of the season in 1999, we thought we had consigned them to relegation. As it happened, financial problems at Barrow meant Welling were reprieved on that occasion, but not after finishing 20th again a year later. They have played below the National level, in the Southern Premier, and then Conference South when it started in 2004. In 2013, they were Conference South champions, and returned to National level football.

Barrow (Conference North Champions, 19th in 1999). Barrow were members of the Football League from the founding of Division 3 (North) in 1921, until 1972. Then despite finishing above Stockport County and Crewe Alexandra, Barrow were dumped from the league in favour of Hereford. They played in the Northern Premier League and became founder members of the Conference, and then switched quite frequently, with relegation in 1983, 1986 and 1992, and NPL Championships in 1984, 1989 and 1998. This means we met four times in our first Conference spell, year one and the final three years, with Barrow the only team below Cheltenham when we dropped down in 1992. Barrow were an early visitor to Cheltenham in 1998-9, with our 4-1 win (Walker (2), Brough and Eaton) witnessed by 2005. We travelled to Holker Street in early March with Knight scoring in a 1-1 draw. As already mentioned, Barrow finished above Welling in 1999, but were forced out of the division due to financial problems. With no play offs, second and third places in the NPL in 2003 and 2004 did not earn anything, other than a place as founder members of Conference North. In 2008, Barrow finished fifth, and beat second place AFC Telford United (home and away), and the third placed Stalybridge Celtic to take a place in the National division. Relegated again in 2013, Barrow return as champions and looking better than they have done in the recent past.

The final group of teams are the new friends, teams we have not faced in league competition before.

Top of this list are Eastleigh – a team playing in the Hampshire League when I first watched them. They could attract over 100 spectators even then, which was more than par for the course. This season the average has been around 1750 – mid table in the attendance list, the record of 4216 was set during the season, for the visit of Bristol Rovers. When I visited, the ground was known as Ten Acres, but it has now been rebranded as the Silverlake Stadium – and I am reminded as I go to work by the sign promising that when my car gives up the ghost, Silverlake will pay a scrap value for it! Eastleigh were formed in 1946 and went by the names of Swaythling Athletic and Swaythling before 1980. In 1986, they were founder members of the Wessex League, which now operates as a Step 5/6 League (equivalent to the Hellenic). The remained at this level until 2003, when they won the title and took promotion to the Southern league. This was a good time to join, as re-organisation a year later moved them from the Southern League (East) to the Isthmian League (Premier), two steps below the Conference. They only spent one year in the Isthmian, finishing third and defeating Braintree and Leyton in the play offs to join Conference South. In 2011, a takeover by the Oxfordshire insurance brokers Bridle Insurance gave them the finances to progress further, they lost to Dover Athletic in the Conference South play offs of 2013, and then went up as champions the following season. The plan when Bridle took over was to reach the Football League in five years. With play-offs this season (even if beaten), it is possible to say they remain on track.

Braintree Town started life as the works club, Manor Works in 1898. The works were part of the Crittall Window Company, and gave the club the nickname the Iron. They took the name Crittall Athletic in 1921, and became founder members of the Eastern Counties League in 1935, and the Essex County League in 1937. They switched league’s frequently, dropping back to the local league when money was tight, but playing semi-professional football in the Eastern and various London leagues when they could. In 1968, they added the town name to become Braintree and Crittall Athletic, in 1981 they dropped the works name and played as Braintree for two seasons, before adding a Town. This change brought with it successes, with the club immediately winning the Eastern League title twice in a row, with four runners-up positions before joining the Southern League in 1991. They played five seasons in the Southern League (Southern Division). Playing in a division with Braintree at one extreme, Weymouth, Poole and Weston-super-Mare at the other was proving difficult, and Braintree successfully petitioned the FA for a switch to the Isthmian in 1996, although this meant starting in division 3, an effective drop of two levels. This gave them several Essex matches, and no journeys further than Camberley – two successive promotions did not extend the travelling distance beyond Hungerford. Braintree spent three seasons in the Isthmian first division before being promoted to the Premier in 2001. In 2005, they lost to Eastleigh in the play-offs, but the following season went up to the Conference South as Isthmian champions. After five years at that level, Braintree claimed the title again and promotion to the national level for the first time

Bromley come into the National League as Conference South champions. The ground is Hayes Lane, although not improved when rebuilt after a fire in 1993 remains a classic – the sort of ground that a non-league ground should be. It is not surprising that Bromley have spent most of their existence in the old Amateur leagues around London. They were members of the Southern League’s second division for two seasons in the 1890s, but soon moved on. They joined the Isthmian League in 1908 and were champions in their first season, repeating the fete in 1910, 1954 and 1961. They have also won the Athenian League on three occasions. Bromley have twice won the Amateur Cup, in 1911 (they beat Bishop Auckland 1-0 at Herne Hill) and 1949 (Romford, 1-0 at Wembley). In 1999, Bromley were relegated to the Isthmian First Division, then the third level of below the league. Re-organisation in the Isthmian area placed them in Division One (South) in 2002, but this returned to Division One in 2004, although this was now Step 4. In 2005, Bromley were promoted to the Isthmian Premier through play offs, and in 2007 they moved up to Conference South in the same way. Bromley finished as runners-up that season, and beat 5th placed AFC Wimbledon in the semi-finals, and then Billericay (on penalties) in the final. Having missed out in the play offs last season, (they lost to Ebbsfleet, who in turn fell to Dover), Bromley took the title this time around.

Having mentioned ealier that we will play one ex-league team, either Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, depending on the result at Wembley on May 17th, the last two of our opponents will be decided by next week’s promotion play-offs, with Chorley playing Guisley, Boreham Wood against Whitehawk for the honour of playing us next season. Chorley have played two seasons, 1988-90 in the Conference, meeting us both times, while for those with very long memories, we also played them twice in the FA Trophy, 1978-9.

Guisley have never been this high before, but reached the semi-final of the FA Trophy in 1994, beating Cheltenham in a third round replay. Boreham Wood played us in the FA Cup in 1997, with Cheltenham winning at Meadow Park 2-0, after a home draw. That leaves the rapidly rising (and reportedly heavily backed) Whitehawk. They were Sussex League as recently as 2010, winning promotion in that year, and also in 2012 and 2013 (all as Champions of the division).

A few more things about Conference life. We will start the FA Cup in the final qualifying round. This season that took place two weeks before the first round proper with 32 matches. There are 24 exempt teams in the round, and hence 40 come through from the third qualifying round. There is no seeding, and a semi-national draw in the round. We will start the FA Trophy at the First Round. Again we will be one of 64 teams playing, with the 24 National League teams meeting 40 qualifiers, no seeding and a semi-national draw. This season, the matches were scheduled on December 13th. The second round was four weeks after the first, but then the fixtures were close together, with matches every two weeks, and the semi-finals on successive weeks at the end of February. This is a recent change to allow the final to take place at the end of March, and avoid a potential clash of priorities with the play offs.

Since I wrote this, it has been announced that the FA Trophy and FA Vase (for Step 5/6 level clubs – Hellenic and equivalent) will share the day and play both Wembley finals on May 22, hence the round dates may well be more spread out over the second half of the season. There are no league cups for the Conference, so apart from the FA Competitions, the only other cup we will play in is the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, where we tend not to field the first team

With the Play offs for promotion completed, we now know we are playing Guiseley and Boreham Wood. Guiseley beat us during their run to the 1994 Trophy semi-finals. AT the time, two Wembley appearances in the FA Vase were still fresh in their memories. Both the 1991 and 1992 finals were packed with goals, eight in each. In 1991, they were shared evenly with Gresley Rovers, requiring a replay at Sheffield United’s ground, where Guiseley took the honours. A year later they returned to Wembley, but were defeated by Wimborne, 5-3. In 1999, Guiseley were one division below us in the top division of the Northern Premier League, but were relegated a year later. They returned to the Premier division in 2004, as part of the realignment caused by the creation of Conference North/South. They won the title and promotion to Conference North in 2010. In five seasons of Conference North Football, they have reached the play offs on every occasion, and this is the third time they have reached the final. Last season they fell to an extra time defeat to Altincham. For this year’s final, they claim over 900 supporters made the journey across the pennies to Chorley, where they were outnumbered in a crowd of 3418, and found themselves 2-0 down at the break. The comeback took place between the 60th and 80th minutes, with Chorley appealing unsuccessfully for a last minute equaliser when the ball came off the underside of the crossbar.

For visitors heading to Yorkshire next season, Guiseley is well known as the location of the original Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chips Restaurant.

Like Guiseley, Boreham Wood were a division below Cheltenham in 1999. In their case this was the Isthmian League’s premier division. Also like Guiseley, they were relegated a year later. Here the comparison ends, as Boreham Wood returned as division champions a year later. They were relegated again in 2003, and after the re-organisation of the divisions a year later, they found themselves in the Southern League’s Eastern Division. The opposition in this division were still based around North and East London, so it was not a big change. When Boreham Wood won the title in 2006, they were placed in the Isthmian Premier again. Four years later they moved up to the Conference South thanks to play off wins against Aveley and Kingstonian

Boreham Wood is more famous for its neighbour, the Elstree studios. (Studios is plural, as there are several film and TV studios around). One of the studios is well known for both Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but by all accounts the final started like a dull night on Eastenders (filmed at another Elstree studio). Boreham Wood finally broke through on 67 minutes, Lee Angol curling a free kick around the wall. Sam Deering levelled from the penalty spot, but Whitehawk despite having the best of the final minutes could not make it count, and the game went into extra time. Junior Morais scored the winner for the Wood within minutes of the start of extra time, and this time there was no comeback.

209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. The CONCACAF Commencement

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

I am making this initial posting now, with three matches still to preview, as games have started. I will add the others as soon as I can

CONCACAF, the Caribbean, Central and North American Confederation made their draw well ahead of the Asians, even though they were starting some two weeks later. Even when making the draw in January, they used the August 2014 FIFA rankings for seeding, allowing for many changes before the matches take place. The numbers shown in brackets are the seeds at February 2015, while I have underlined the seven seeds in the draw.

Bahamas (195) v Bermuda (180 equal)

British Virgin Islands (202) v Dominica (180 equal)

Barbados (142) v US Virgin Islands (197)

St. Kitts and Nevis (119) v Turks and Caicos Islands (176)

Nicaragua (177) v Anguilla (208)

Belize (167) v Cayman Islands (205)

Curacao (160) v Montserrat (170)

 

This shows how small changes can affect things, as if the draw was made on current seedings, three of the fourteen would have received a bye.

The matches are being played over a nine day period, starting at 23.00 (UK time) on 22 March in Barbados, and finishing on 1st April, after a 23.30 kick off (again UK time) on 31st March in Montserrat.

I will take the matches in order of commencement. UK times shown)

Barbados v US Virgin Islands (23.00 22 March, 19.30 26 March)

SO we begin in the former British colony of Barbados, independent since 1966 and home to a little over a quarter of a million. They have a long footballing history, starting way back in 1929 with a series of three games (all at home) to Trinidad & Tobago over a five day period. All three were won. Still it was friendly matches only for nearly 50 years. Before their first appearance in the World Cup, they had appeared in Olympic Qualifiers, and once in the Central American and Caribbean games. Playing two years ahead of the 1978 finals, Barbados started with a two legged game against Trinidad & Tobago, winning the home leg 2-1. After falling 1-0 in the away leg (and without an away goals rule at the time), they got home advantage for the play-off, but still went down 3-1. They then did not play in the next three tournaments, although they were in the 1986 draw, withdrawing without playing Costa Rica. When they did play again, it was Trinidad & Tobago again. This time they lost both legs.

It must therefore have been a relief to play Dominica in the first round four years later. Goals from Roger Proverbs (away) and Gregory Goodridge (home) meant they won each leg by 1-0, and got to play Jamaica a month late. This time both games were lost. In the 2002 World Cup, they had to face three knock out rounds, but successfully passed through ahead of Grenada, Aruba and Cuba. This gave them group matches against USA, Costa Rica and Guatemala – with a home win over Costa Rica, but five defeats in other games.

After 12 games in one qualifying series, Barbados only played 12 over the next three – just two ahead of 2006, St. Kitts and Nevis beating them twice, Dominica again proved easier before the 2010 World Cup with Barbados winning 2-1 on aggregate before losing 9-0 over two legs to the USA. Last time out they escaped having to play a knock out round, but lost all six matches in a group also involving Bermuda, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana.

AT the same stage, the US Virgin Islands also lost six games, their opponents were Curacao, Haiti and Antigua and Barbuda. The USVI had not been exempt from the first round, and had beaten the British Virgin Islands in both legs of the first round games. The US Virgin Islands lie just to the west of their British Counterparts, and are not an independent territory, but a territory of the USA. This means the just over 100,000 inhabitants have US citizenship. Curiously, and in common with some other non-state US territories, citizens can vote in the presidential primaries, but not in presidential election itself. The Islands were known as the Danish Virgin Islands until 1917, when the US bought them for $25 million (paid in gold). The US Virgin Islands launched as a national football team in March 1998 with a 1-0win over their British neighbours. However, it should be noted that the three games against the British Virgin Islands in 1998, and 2011 remain the only wins in the team’s history.

The US Virgin Islands have played in four World Cups before this one, a total of 13 matches. They opened in March 2000 (ahead of 2002) with a 9-0 defeat to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, losing 5-1 in the home return. Four years later they went down by 11 goals (aggregate) to St. Kitts and Nevis, while in 2008 they played only one game, a 10-0 defeat in Grenada. I guess they conceded the tie without playing again. Hence by beating the British Virgin Islands last time out, it became their most successful campaign, even if the six group games ended with fourty goals conceded. After all they scored twice. Since then, the USVI have played two Caribbean Cup qualifying games, (both on Montserrat, losing to the hosts and Bonaire), and then warmed up for this world cup with a 2-0 defeat in Antigua

I am expecting Barbados to win both games, and USVI could drop to zero points on the FIFA rankings when the wins from four years ago drop off the list in July.

As I did not publish this before the first game, I should adjust to report to say I was completely wrong over the first leg. The US Virgin Islands won the away leg in Barbados thanks to a Jamie Browne goal. Browne was also the scorer in USVI’s 8-1 defeat to Anguilla in the last tournament. The winner plays Aruba in June

St. Kitts and Nevis v Turks and Caicos Islands (00.00 24 March, 00.00 27 March)

Of the independent states in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest in both population and land mass. In footballing terms, of course, there are some smaller dependent territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands. St. Kitts and Nevis became independent from the UK in 1983, and could have separated further in 1998 when the population of Nevis voted in favour of breaking the union, but did not achieve the required two-thirds majority.

St Kitts and Nevis played their first international games in Caribbean qualifying games in 1979, when they played Jamaica twice – both away – and lost both by 2-1. It would be ten years before they tried again, this time losing a single match to Trinidad and Tobago by 2-0. In 1991, they played two games in the Cayman Islands, drawing with both their hosts (1-1) and the British Virgin Islands (0-0). The Cayman Islands beat Montserrat to qualify. St Kitts and Nevis played on home soil for the first time in 1992, and recorded their first win, a 4-0 victory over British Virgin Islands. They followed this up with a 10-0 victory over Montserrat. However, the only goal they conceded in this qualifying ground turned out to be crucial, as it was a single goal defeat to Antigua and Barbuda that put them out.

The following year, St Kitts and Nevis also staged a home qualifying group, drawing 2-2 with Dominican Republic in the first game. The Dominicans beat British Virgin Islands 3-1 in game two, leaving St Kitts and Nevis with a target to reach the finals for the first time. A 5-1 win over BVI meant this was achieved with a little to spare. The finals were in Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis were grouped with the hosts (lost 4-1), Puerto Rico (won 1-0) and Sint Maarten (drew 2-2). This meant they reached the semi-finals where they were beaten (on penalties) by Martinique. They also lost the third place play off to Trinidad & Tobago.

The first attempt at the World Cup was in 1996, ahead of the 1998 finals. They played St. Lucia over two legs, winning the home leg by 5-1 and adding a 1-0 away win two weeks later. They ended that cup unbowed and unbeaten, as in the next round they were playing St. Vincent and the Grenadines. James Alexander Gordon should have been made to read out the second leg result. St Kitts and Nevis nil, St Vincent and the Grenadines 0. Aggregate 2-2 – St Kitts and Nevis go out on away goals.

No qualifying for the 1997 Caribbean Cup and St Kitts and Nevis were to stage half the finals tournament. Antigua and Barbuda shared duties. In group games, St Kitts and Nevis beat Martinique 2-0, and then lost 3-0 to Trinidad & Tobago. T&T had lost to Martinique in the opening game, but Martinique went out, and St Kitts ended up in second place. As a result, they stayed at home for a semi-final against Grenada, while T&T crossed islands to play Jamaica. St Kitts beat Grenada 2-1, but did not get home advantage for the final itself, where Trinidad beat them again, this time by 4-0.

Since then St Kitts and Nevis have twice more played in the group stages of the Caribbean Cup, but not in any of the last six tournaments.

Back to the World Cup, where St Vincent and the Grenadines beat them again in 2000, this time winning both matches – St Kitts and Nevis had earlier beaten their opponent for this year, Turks and Caicos Islands by 8-0 and 6-0 (staging both games at home). In 2004 (qualifying for 2006), St Kitts and Nevis won in two knock out ties – firstly home and away over US Virgin Islands (agg 11-0) and then winning twice against Barbados (agg 5-2). This placed them in a group of four with St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. [Mexico do not need an &]. St Kitts lost all six games, and switched the home game against Mexico (they were already out at this stage) to play in Miami, where they were rewarded with a crowd over 18,000. This is more than double the aggregate attendance from the four home games played before that.

Despite the away leg being switched to Guatemala, Belize proved to strong in 2008, winning 3-1 in that game and drawing the leg in St Kitts to go through. Last time out, St Kitts and Nevis had a bye until group games as there was only one knock out round and only ten teams were involved. St Kitts drew all three home games in a group with St Lucia, Puerto Rico and Canada. They also drew in Puerto Rico and won in St Lucia. This was not enough though – they lost 4-0 in Toronto and finished third in the group.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are still a British Territory, and have a population of just 31,000. IN footballing terms, they are an infant nation. I refer to the website at www.eloratings.net when compiling these stats. This is because the site has a reputation for accuracy and presents the scores in an easy to read fashion. They do include some matches that FIFA ignore as they are against non-FIFA nations. Still, the ELO Ratings show only 17 games for the Turks and Caicos Islands, with only two games at home. As it happens, these are the home legs in qualification attempts at the last two World Cups. They lost 4-0 at home to the Bahamas in July 2011, (and 6-0 away a week later). However, there other home game was a win over St Lucia in February 2008. With a 2-1 home win, they went down 2-0 away to drop out.

Turks and Caicos also played in qualification for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but as I have already mentioned, they conceded home advantage and played both games away to St Kitts and Nevis in 2000, losing 14-0 on aggregate, while four years later both games against Haiti were played in the USA. Haiti winning 7-0 on aggregate.

The first ever games for the Turks and Caicos Islands were in February 1999, in qualification for the Caribbean Cup. Two matches both played in the Bahamas, with the hosts beating them 3-0 in T&C’s first ever game, followed by their only ever draw, 2-2 with the US Virgin Islands. The Turks and Caicos Islands have a habit of either not entering, or withdrawing without playing in the Caribbean Cup, so they have only entered qualification games in 1999, 2007 and 2014. They have never lost every game in these qualifying tournaments, and in September 2006 (for 2007 tourney), they lost to Cuba and the Bahamas (in Cuba), but beat Cayman Islands 2-0; while last summer in Aruba, they lost to Aruba and French Guyana, but beat the British Virgin Islands. This win is their most recent international, but has shot them up the FIFA rankings as they now have 66 points. Prior to the match, they were tied in last place on the list.

St. Kitts and Nevis are expected to get through without a problem, to play El Salvador in the next round.

Nicaragua v Anguilla (00.00 24 March, 22.00 29 March)

Nicaragua are one of two central American teams starting in this round, and by far the biggest of the states at this stage. The country is part of the Central American Isthmus and borders only Honduras to the North, and Costa Rica to the south. Nicaragua has a population around 6 million, and apparently started their national footballing career with a 9-0 defeat by El Salvador in 1929. This match does not appear on the ELO records, but their second game, 12 years later does. This was a 7-2 defeat in Costa Rica in the CCCF Championship of 1941. They lost a further 10 matches over the year in the same competition before beating Panama by 2-0 in 1946 to record their first win. Nicaragua did not play a home game until 1975, when they beat El Salvador in an Olympic Qualifying game, although the 2-1 score was not enough to overturn the 4-0 defeat in the first leg.

In the World Cup, Nicaragua first entered the 1994 competition, playing El Salvador home and away two years before the finals. They conceded five goals in each game, scoring once in the away leg. By the time of the 2010 World Cup, Nicaragua had played 12 World Cup matches, and managed one draw against St Vincent and the Grenadines, even then losing 4-1 away. Hence there 2-0 win in Dominica in 2011 ahead of the last World Cup may have been something of a surprise. Nicaragua won the return game 1-0 as well, but sandwiched these with two defeats to Panama. Nicaragua only played two opponents as the Bahamas withdrew without playing. The last competitive fixtures for Nicaragua was last September in the UNCAF competition, which double as qualification for the CONCACAF gold cup. The games were not played in the region, but in the USA and Nicaragua lost to Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras.

Anguilla are a British Overseas Territory, and are home to just 13,500. In 1991, they played Montserrat in their first football game. The match was a Caribbean Cup qualifier in St Lucia and was drawn 1-1. They lost to St Lucia 6-0 two days later. Anguilla did not win a game until February 2000 when they won a friendly in the British Virgin Islands by 4-3. Still they played a second friendly two days later at the same venue and lost 5-0. Between then and last month, the only other official match won was over Montserrat a year later in a Caribbean Cup Qualification game in Saint Martin. Saint Martin play in CONCACAF competitions, but are not FIFA members, so neither the match which they lost to St. Martin just after their win over Montserrat, or their win over the same opposition in Puerto Rico in 2010 count for the FIFA rankings. Still, Anguilla will boost themselves a little by arranging two friendly games at home to British Virgin Islands less than a month before the World Cup games. Anguilla won both these, by 1-0 and 3-1. Surely a boost to confidence after three heavy defeats in the last series of Caribbean qualifiers, (last September).

In the World Cup, Anguilla have entered in the last four competitions. While in each series, they were knocked out in the first round of two legged games, only their first World Cup game, a 3-1 defeat by Bahamas was actually played at home. Playing the Dominican Republic in both 2000 and 2011, they chose to play both games away, while the 2008 “home leg” against El Salvador was played in the USA. It was only in the two games in the first attempt, when they played Bahamas, that Anguilla scored World Cup goals, but they lost both games. Still in the first of the two matches in the Dominican Republic in 2000, they managed a scoreless draw.

Anguilla will do well to even score a goal in these ties, so Nicaragua should earn the tie against Suriname

Bahamas v Bermuda (23.30 25 March, 20.00 29 March)

The Bahamas became independent from the UK in 1973, and currently has a population of around 320,000. Wikipedia says that the Bahamas Football Association was formed in 1969, but joined FIFA in 1968- which is an unlikely state of affairs, hence I am more inclined to believe FIFA, who state the BFA were formed a year before joining FIFA. Wikipedia has the Bahamas as losing 8-1 to Netherlands Antilles in Panama, 1970. ELO Ratings do not mention them until 1974, when they beat Panama in the Dominican Republic, part of a series in the Central American and Caribbean games , which they followed with defeats by the Dominican Republic and Bermuda.

This is the sixth World Cup for Bahamas, but their first entry came to nothing as they withdrew without playing the games drawn against St. Kitts and Nevis. I have already mentioned the first two games actually played – when they beat Anguilla in each of two games in March 2000. The Bahamas played Haiti the following month, losing 9-0 away, and 4-0 at home. In 2004, Dominica conceded home advantage, so Bahamas played at home twice. While Bahamas drew 1-1 in the first game, they lost the second by 3-1.

In March 2008, they played both qualifying games against the British Virgin Islands at home. Fortunately for the Bahamas, the first leg was the home game (1-1), so by drawing again in the second leg (2-2), the Bahamas went through to play Jamaica. This time it was the Bahamas who gave up home advantage and they lost 7-0 and 6-0 in the two games.

Oddly, they won both the last two World Cup games, 4-0 away and 6-0 at home to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Despite this good start, they withdrew without playing the group games of the next stage, when they could have played Nicaragua, Panama and Dominica. They have also been absent in the recent runnings of the Caribbean Cup, so they have not played since the games against T&C in 2011.

With a population of 64,000; Bermuda is the most populous of the British Overseas Territories. Bermuda have produced a number of well known players in the English Leagues, with Clyde Best and Shaun Goater the best known. From 2006 to 2013, the Bermuda Hogges entered in the Premier Development League, a fourth tier league in the USA. The team was part owned by Shaun Goater.

The National FA were formed in 1928, and they affiliated to FIFA in 1962. Their first game, was a friendly in Iceland which they lost 4-3. In 1967, they won an away Olympic qualification game in the USA.

Bermuda’s World Cup records goes back to the 1970 World Cup when they started with a three team group playing both USA and Canada. They drew the home match against Canada 0-0, but lost the other three games. Still they were not entered in the next five World Cups. When they played again, a late goal from Goater gave them a 1-0 win over Haiti. Goater scored again to increase the lead in the second leg, and while Haiti managed to level the aggregate, Haiti went through on away goals. Next up were Antigua and Barbuda who were beaten twice, placing Bermuda in a group with El Salvador, Canada and Jamaica. Bermuda started well, with a 1-0 home win over El Salvador. They drew their other home games but lost all three away games

Again, they did not push on in the next tournament. Instead they withdrew after drawing to play Trinidad & Tobago. Bermuda were unbeaten in the 2002 competition, with two wins over the British Virgin Islands, followed by two draws against Antigua and Barbuda. As the home leg was 1-1 after 0-0 away, Bermuda went out on away goals. Similarly four years later, they easily overcame Montserrat (20-0 on aggregate), and then narrowly beaten by El Salvador (4-3 aggregate) and in 2008 they won away legs in matches against both Cayman Islands and Trinidad & Tobago. In the first round they had drawn the home game, so sent through but T&T beat them in Bermuda and went on to the group stage. Finally, they started with group games in 2011 – and played four at home after Barbados conceded home advantage. They still went out, but not far behind Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago – the defeats in these two countries were their first two games.

Since then, Bermuda’s rankings have not been helped as most wins have been against non-FIFA teams, Four wins when staging the Island games in 2013 (against Froya, Falkland Islands, and Greenland (twice)) mean nothing to FIFA. Still they have warmed up with a draw and a win against Grenada

Bermuda start as narrow favourites to go through to the next round, which would mean matches against Guatemala.

Belize v Cayman Islands (02.00 26 March, 01.00 30 March)

The winners play the Dominican Republic in the next round

British Virgin Islands v Dominica (23.00 26 March, 22.00 29 March)

The winners get to play Canada in June

Curacao v Montserrat (00.00 28 March, 23.30 31 March)

For the right to play Cuba.

The other matches in the second round are

St Vincent and the Grenadines v Guyana

Antigua and Barbuda v Saint Lucia

Puerto Rico v Grenada

209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. 1. The nature of nations

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

It may be well over three years before the 2018 World Cup fills our TV screens, but the tournament is just about to start in some of the lesser known footballing corners of the world. FIFA now has 209 members, one up on the numbers available for the last World Cup, and for the first time ever, all the members are believed to be entering into the draws. I am saying believed to be, as the qualifying draw does not actually take place until 25th July.

When the draw takes place, for countries in Europe it will still be a year before they start the new round of matches, as the 2016 Euros are completed first, but this is not the way of the rest of the world, where the playing of Continental and World competitions are mixed (and in some cases combined).

So you may ask. If the qualifying draw takes place in July to reduce the 209 countries in the World Cup to the 32 finalists, why am I starting to write in February. The reason is simple. Even before the July draw, the effort to pare down the numbers will have started. The North, Central and Caribbean American Association (CONCACAF) drew its first two rounds back in January, while the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) made its draw this month. Both areas will start with two legged knock out games in March.

Before I get onto the draws, which of course mean little except local pride – as they involve a few teams with no hope of being in the final 32 beating other teams with no hope of qualifying, I want to bring FIFA’s headline number to the fore.

209?

FIFA has 209 member associations, which makes it the largest international organisation in the World. The United Nations only has 193 members, which means to all intents and purposes there are only 193 countries in the World.

We all know one of the major difference, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is represented as a single member of the United Nations, but it has four members of FIFA competing separately. But this is not the end of the British involvement in the World Cup. Britain still has remnants from its empire. There are fourteen British Overseas Territories that for various reasons have not become independent states, or parts of other independent states. These territories are not independent, and so do not have their own representation at the United Nations, but six of them are FIFA members. The six are mainly Caribbean based, and all members of CONCACAF. They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. Hence the country (by United Nations standards) known as the United Kingdom has no less than ten FIFA members.

The British are not the only nation with old empires or other associations. The USA accounts for two more members of CONCACAF, in the form of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Both have a status that stops short of making them full states, but gives the islanders US Citizenship. The USA also lays claim to two of the Pacific Island “nations”. Guam (which is a member of the Asian Confederation) and American Samoa (Oceania). Also in on the act are the Chinese. The two special administrative areas, Hong Kong and Macau had become members of FIFA long before administration returned to China in the last years of the 20th century. The change of sovereignty from Britain and Portugal to part of China has not changed their status with FIFA and they still run as independent members – both are part of the Asian Confederation. The fourth Chinese member is a matter of political fudge. Back in the 1970s, the United Nations accepted the political reality that China existed, and was not a province of Taiwan, (which refers to itself as the Republic of China). The situation ever since is that Taiwan has been effectively a self governing state, it has always fallen shy of calling itself independent, while the Chinese always claim Taiwan as part of their nation. It is something of a diplomatic faux pas to show an outline map of China which does not include Taiwan, as shown by the London Olympic Committee when they made the mistake, and were forced to quickly apologise.

While the United Nations transferred their seat from the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the Mainland), and left the smaller territory not represented, sports organisations were more flexible in allowing both to stay members. So the Taiwan now plays as Chinese Taipei in international football

The Netherlands accounts for two more of the Caribbean territories in Aruba and Curacao. Newcastle United’s Dutch International Vurnon Anita was born on Curacao and could have played as an international there, but for some reason, having moved to Europe at the age of eight, he has chosen to play for the Netherlands instead. The French also have two island groups, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both of which are members of the Oceania Football Confederation. French Polynesia is normally referred to as Tahiti for football. These leaves two final FIFA members which are considered parts of other nations, in the Cook Islands (Oceania) which is affiliated to New Zealand, and the Faroe Islands (UEFA) which is still part of Denmark.

That leaves one special case – Palestine. Palestine has some representation at the United Nations, but is not a full member state. As its neighbour, Israel has conveniently and politically aligned itself into UEFA, (there is no definition that includes the area within Europe), there is no argument with Palestine being a member of FIFA. They joined in 1998 and have taken part in international competition ever since, even though they had to wait until 2008 to play a home match.

Stopping for a moment, let’s do the math. I originally stated there were 209 FIFA members, compared to 193 in the United Nations. I then quoted 10 British members of FIFA, (compared to a single UN member), and four for USA, three for China, two for the Netherlands and France, one each for Denmark and New Zealand in addition to the nation at the UN. With the addition to the list of Palestine, I have enumerated 24 FIFA members who are not UN members, and only one (United Kingdom) the count in the opposite column. In other words, I have counted too many additional nations.

This means that dotted around the World there are seven recognised nations, members of the United Nations which are not members of FIFA. As it happens, six of the seven are island groups in the Pacific Ocean, and grouped together, the population is barely more than 300,000. These are Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu. The seventh is a slightly different case, being situated in Europe, and having a football team in one of Europe’s major leagues. This is of course, Monaco. The leading team from Monaco plays at the only football field in the principality and in the top division of the French League. Monaco has decided not to attempt to join UEFA in order to ensure the status of their club. This is despite the example of countries such as Wales, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra – all of which have teams in the leagues of neighbouring countries, while fielding their own national team and having local competitions for entry to European Club competitions.

Monaco’s main club competition is played between company teams, with some games played on a small ground across the road from the Stade Louis II. The road is however the border between Monaco and France. So the matches are actually staged in France. The other ground I know to be used also abuts the border, but is on the French side, while Monaco’s reserve and youth teams also tend to use grounds in France. There is no sign that Monaco will attempt to change their status in International Football at any time in the near future.

The Vatican, for those who wonder has observer status with the UN, and hence is not a member of either organistation.

One may have noted that UEFA’s newest member, Gibraltar has not yet appeared on my list of non independent countries in FIFA, and you would also know that they are not a UN member. Despite having become a full member of UEFA, Gibraltar are not members of FIFA and thanks to opposition from Spain, this is not likely to change. Gibraltar managed to get various courts to support their bid for joining UEFA, especially as the organisation had tried to preclude their joining by changing some rules after the application had been started. The rule changes prevent other semi-independent territories from becoming UEFA members in the future, so the door is now closed to Jersey and Guernsey, and those disputed zones of Eastern Europe – Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo cannot change their UEFA status until their statehood is confirmed. Kosovo, at least gets to play some friendly internationals in the meantime

Gibraltar’s status as a member of UEFA, but not of FIFA is not at all unique. With the exception of CONMEBOL, the South American Federation, all the Federations that makeup FIFA have some members that are not also part of FIFA. Some are associate, rather than full members which does limit them to regional, and possibly continental football.

For UEFA, Gibraltar is the only oddity. The other 53 member states are all full members of FIFA as well. The home nations all compete in the Olympics as the United Kingdom, a team that would include any Gibraltarian Olympians. The Faroe Islands also does not have an Olympic team, being Danish in this regard. CONCACAF has six members who are not FIFA affiliated. They are all in the Caribbean, and are Bonaire, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe are all French territories with clubs actually playing in the French Cup, (along with the two French territories mentioned in Ocenaia). Saint Martin is also French and shares an Island with the similarly named Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten and Bonaire both remain parts of the Netherlands. None of these six, all recent additions to CONCACAF are members of the IOC, (International Olympic Committee), and four more of the dependent territories, Anguilla, Curacao, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands lack direct Olympic representation.

Africa has two associate members who play only in regional competitions. They are Reunion, a further French territory which enters a team in the French Cup and Zanzibar – the latter is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania (which includes a good portion of people who might like full independence). Mayotte, which also has a team in the French Cup does not enjoy even associate status. Reunion and Zanzibar are also not members of the IOC, South Sudan, which is the most recent addition to membership of both the United Nations and FIFA is not as yet a IOC member. It was represented by a single runner at the London Olympics, Guor Marial, who was listed as an Individual Olympic Athlete and finished 47th in the men’s marathon.

Asia has one associate member, the Northern Mariana Islands. The NMI are, like Guam, territories of the USA. The actually changed affiliation from Oceania in 2009, having joined the East Asian Football Federation a year earlier. The Northern Mariana Islands recorded their first ever victory, a 2-1 win over Macau in an East Asian FF Qualifying game in 2014. They also played in the qualifying competition for the AFC Cup (a second ranking Asian competition, now disbanded) in 2013. As the World Cup and Asian Cup qualification procedure is being merged in Asia, there was speculation that NMI would take part in a World Cup qualifying, although they could not qualify. There is a precedence for this, as the Pacific Games used to be used as part of the World Cup qualification procedure even though it included non FIFA affiliated countries.

In fact the practise of using the Pacific games as part of the World Cup qualification regime was ended not because of the inclusion of non-FIFA members, but because of the inclusion of Guam – a member of the Asian Football Confederation. Oceania itself has three associate members, Tuvalu and Kiribati are both independent countries and members of the UN, so I have no doubt they could move up to full member status and join FIFA if they wanted, as could those four other UN members already mentioned, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau. It is surprising that the OFC does not try to push their membership through, as increasing the number of countries (and hence number of votes in FIFA congress) may not actually do anything to improve football on these Islands, but could help them to get a full slot in the finals, rather than one play off slot. The final member of Oceania is Niue, which like the Cook Islands is a generally autonomous state, but “I association” with New Zealand. Niue’s best ever football result was a 14-0 defeat by Tahiti in the 1983 Pacific Games, their worst result was a 19-0 defeat by Papua New Guinea on the following day. The first two days of September 1983 representing their entire international football history.

The Early Draws.

Although CONCACAF put out is draws first, it will be in Asia that the first matches are played. For reasons of their own, the AFC are not using recognised international dates, but are scheduling the two legged games on 12/17 March. Unless home and away matches get switched, all the home teams are seeded. IN Asia, the seeding tends to be meaningful, even if they are derived from FIFA rankings, as there tends to be a significant difference in quality as one drops down the rankings. I would not be surprised therefore if all five seeded teams got through, and I would certainly be surprised if more than one of the lesser teams broke ranks and qualified. I am putting the FIFA rankings (as at February 2015) in brackets. The draw was done using January 2015 seedings, which is poor news for Nepal and Pakistan, both of which rose up the rankings, and would have been seeded (in place of Chinese Taipei and Timor Leste) had the draw taken place later.

India (171) v Nepal (180)

Timor Leste (187) v Mongolia (194)

Cambodia (185) v Macau (188)

Chinese Taipei (186) v Brunei (198)

Yemen (179) v Pakistan (172)

Sri Lanka (173) v Bhutan (209)

 

The twelve countries that open this session of the World Cup have a varied, if unsuccessful World Cup pedigree. The first match to be played in the 2018 World Cup, some 1221 days before the final will also be the first International Football match to be played in East Timor

Timor Leste v Mongolia

Known in English as East Timor, Timor Leste first tried to declare independence (from Portugal) in 1975, but was then invaded by Indonesia, which took control for the next 27 years. They finally became independent in 2002, the first “new country” of the 21st Century. They made their footballing debut in qualifying games for the Asian Cup. This was in a group of three teams, with all matches played in Sri Lanka. East Timor actually went ahead three minutes into their first international, through an own goal by Mohammed Hamza. Falling behind, an East Timorian, Cabral scored an equaliser for East Timor, but it was not enough as Sri Lanka scored in the 89th minute to win the game. Timor Leste lost their other game in the series to Chinese Taipei (3-0).

Timor Leste sat out the 2006 World Cup qualifying, but entered a team for 2010. With the home stadium not suited for playing, they travelled around 700 miles to play the home leg on the Indonesian Island of Bali. Playing Hong Kong, they again lost 3-2, and then a week later went down 8-1 at the Hong Kong Stadium. In all, they lost their first 13 straight international games before drawing against and in Cambodia, in an ASEAN regional qualifying game in 2008. The score was 2-2. IN the summer of 2011, the World Cup came along with a pair of games against Nepal. This time they elected to play both games, just three days apart in Kathmandu. Both games were lost, with an aggregate of 7-1. East Timor have had some limited success in the 2012 and 2014 qualification games in South East Asia. The 2012 matches were played in Myanmar, and East Timor beat both Cambodia (5-1 no less) and Laos, while in 2014, playing in Laos, they gained a 4-2 win over Brunei, and a 0-0 draw with Myanmar. To date, East Timor have drawn 2 and won 3 of their 32 international games, (using the ELO Ratings database). East Timor’s World Cup record is four matches played, all lost.

The National Stadium in Dili has played host to Kylie Minogue, but not yet an international football match. Hence, the game on March 12th, is not merely the start of the World Cup, but also the historic first international game at the venue.

Mongolia’s debut on the International Football Scene was in 1960, when they played in a tournament in North Vietnam, losing three games to North Vietnam themselves (3-1), China (6-1) and North Korea (10-1). They then took a short sabbatical, not playing again until the 1998 Asian Games in Thailand, where they lost two games, to Kuwait (11-0) and Uzbekistan (15-0).

Mongolia’s World Cup debut was in 2001, in Asian qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. They were in a group of four teams, with all matches played in Saudi Arabia. Mongolia had to play Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Bangladesh (in that order) twice. After five defeats, Mongolia had lost all, without a goal and conceded 20 goals. The sixth game was a 2-2 draw against Bangladesh (neither of which could go further). This was the first time Mongolia had avoided defeat. In 2003, they won an East Asian Qualification game by 2-0, their first ever win. In the last three World Cup’s Mongolia’s participation has been limited to a two-legged first round game – played nearly three years before the finals. In 2003, a 1-0 home defeat to Madives was the first official international played in Mongolia, they lost the second leg by 12-0. Four years later, Mongolia lost 9-2 on aggregate to North Korea, and last time out Myanmar beat them, but the aggregate was just 2-1, and Mongolia won the home leg 1-0. Mongolia’s World Cup record is 12 games played, with one win and one draw.

East Timor are seeded to get through to the next round, but climate may be all important. East Timor is still within its wet season, not as hot as it can be but humid and sticky, by comparison they can expect dry and sunny weather in the return leg, and if they are lucky the temperature may rise above freezing point.

India v Nepal

India actually qualified for the 1950 finals in Brazil. However, two caveats apply. Firstly every one of their potential opponents in Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew so India qualified without playing, and secondly, India themselves withdrew without playing in Brazil. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics.

India also entered the competition in 1974, but withdrew without entering the draw, so it was 35 years after they could have played in the finals, when the opened their world cup account in the qualification rounds for the 1986 World Cup. Krishanu Dey scored India’s first world cup goal, to put them 1-0 up against Indonesia in Jakarta, but in front of a 70,000 crowd, they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. India played two more away games – a draw in Thialand and a win in Bangladesh before starting their home campaign – by this time Indonesia had played five of their six games, and picked up four wins (2 points for a win in those days), so India needed to win all three games to reach the next round. It was not to be, as Indonesia took an early lead in the first game, and despite a late equaliser, India could not turn the game around as Indonesia had at home. Perhaps this was down to the crowds – the Salt Lake Stadium is known to regular see 80,000 watch Kolkata derbies, but for this game, only 10,000 turned out. The matches against Thailand (draw) and Bangladesh (won) were seen by even lower turnouts. For the 1990 World Cup, India were drawn in a five team group with South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Nepal. Home and away was abandoned, in favour of a series of games in Seoul, followed by a return series in Singapore. India thought better of this, and withdrew without playing.

They were back in 1994, and have played in every World Cup since, but they have never got out of their first group, or won a two legged qualification game. India have won eight and drawn 10 of their 33 World Cup games to date. Their last outing, in July 2011 was a two legged game against UAE, with India going down 3-0 in the away leg, so the 2-2 draw at home would only be a consolation. India enjoyed some success in early Asian Cup and Asian Games, (when the number of entrants were much fewer than today). They were runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup in Israel, where the lack of contestants meant qualification was not required, and won the Asian Games tournaments in 1951 (home soil) and 1962 (Indonesia). In recent years they have had to content themselves to success in the South Asian Football Federation regional tournaments, India have reached the last five finals, winning three and are likely to stage the 2015 edition. They also staged the AFC Challenge Cup (a now disbanded competition for second ranked nations) in 2008, and by taking the title, they were given a place in the 2011 Asian Cup, where they failed dismally. This was the only time they reached the finals in the last 30 years. The most recent competitive result was the final of the 2013 SAFF Cup in Kathmandu, where they lost 2-0 to Afghanistan.

Nepal, who India play in their opening game also have a World Cup pedigree dating back to matches played in 1985. Nepal had joined FIFA in 1970, and the AFC two years later, but did not start to appear in the major tournaments until the 1980s. Nepal made their World Cup debut in 1985, when they lost 2-0 at home to South Korea. Two weeks later, Malaysia were held 0-0, again in Kathmandu. Nepal lost both away games, 5-0 in Malaysia, and 4-0 in South Korea. Four years later they lost all six games, and again did not score in attempting to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. Not surprisingly, they sat out the 1994 tournament. They also sat out qualification for 2006 (withdrawing after the draw was made – avoiding a match with Guam, who in turn also withdrew without playing). The first goal and second point was in the qualification for 1998, a 1-1 draw with Macau, while four years later they beat Macau twice (matches played in Kazakhstan) while losing the other four games in the group. With the change in recent years to two legged matches at the start of the competition, Nepal drew Timor Leste, (East Timor to you and me) in the last World Cup. This gave them the advantage of an opponent without a suitable ground, so both matches were played in Nepal. Nepal won both of these, 2-1 and 5-0, and even drew the home match of their second round game against Jordan. This of course was immaterial, as the first leg was played in Jordan, and Nepal were 9-0 down (lets repeat that in teletype fashion – nine) from the first leg. Overall, Nepal have won 4 of their 28 World Cup games, and drawn three.

The first leg of the games will be played in the Indira Ghandi Stadium in Guwahati, North Eastern India. The stadium has been recently renovated and used for the home games of North East United in the recent Indian Super League. Reports suggest sizable and vociferous crowds, which is what India will be hoping for. The second leg, five days later will be in Kathmandu at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium.


India ( in Blue) Line up before losing 4-0 to Australia in Qatar, 2011

Cambodia v Macau

Cambodia have been playing International Football since 1956, playing as Khmer or Khmer Republic before switching to the name of Cambodia. They opened with a home game against Malaya in qualifying for the Asian Cup. They lost this 3-2, and the return leg in Malaya by 9-2. They were regular participants in Malaya’s annual Merdeka tournament, gaining the occasional draw, and finally started to win games in 1967, playing a group of Asian Cup qualifyers in Burma (now Myanmar). They then beat India 3-1 and Pakistan 1-0, but lost to the hosts by 1-0. For the 1972 Asian Cup, they actually won through qualification, playing in the finals for the first and only time. They beat Kuwait to reach the semi-finals of what was just a six team finals tournament. They lost the semi-final to Iran (the eventual winners) and the 3rd place play off to hosts Thailand.

Cambodia’s opening World Cup was in 1997, playing in a four team group searching for places in France the following year. The games were home and away and they started poorly, losing 8-0 to Indonesia in Jakarta. They got a point from the return game, but lost home and away to both Uzbekistan and Yemen. It was a similar story in 2001, trying to get to the Japan/South Korea World Cup. Cambodia managed to draw one home game (1-1 v Maldives), but they had already been beaten 6-0 in the Maldives, and went on to lose twice to each of Indonesia and China. Cambodia did not play in the qualification for Germany 2006. They lost twice to Turkmenistan in 2007, while in the last World Cup, they beat Laos in the home game, by 4-2 – but were 4-2 down after 90 minutes of the return in Vientiane. Two extra time goals gave Laos the second round game against China. Cambodia’s last competitive matches were also in Laos, in qualifying for the 2014 South East Asian Championships. Cambodia win two (against East Timor and Brunei), and lost two (against Laos and Myanmar).

Macau played their first international, at home to South Korea in 1949. They lost 5-1. The second attempt was at home to Australia, some 21 years later. Macau lost 9-0. Five years later, they tried again with Panama is the rather surprising choice of visitor. This was Macau’s first win, by 2-1. Competitive football started with Asian Cup qualification matches in the Philippines, with the opening game on Christmas Day 1978 ending in a win for South Korea. They then lost to China as well, but beat the hosts in the final game of the series.

Their opening World Cup game was in 1980, playing for a place in Spain 82. Macau only had to make the short trip across the Pearl river to play three games in Hong Kong – again over the Christmas period. They lost each game by 3-0 to North Korea, China on Christmas Eve, and to Japan four days later. In 1985, playing for a place in Mexico 86, Macau were in a four team group with China, Hong Kong and Brunei. Hong Kong and Macau played standard home and away games, although the Brunei vs China games were played on neutral venues – one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Macau won both games against Brunei, but lost the rest.

Macau sat out qualifying for 1994, but were back in the hunt for the 1998 World Cup. This time the group was against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia and Nepal. Nepal however withdrew without playing, and Macau lost all six games, scoring only once and conceding 46. These games were played in only two venues, so Macau played three games in Malaysia, and then three in Saudi Arabia. Four years later, the same format was used for a group including Japan, Oman and Nepal (who did turn up this time). The games were played first in Oman, and then in Japan. Macau drew their first game in Muscat, and won their last game in Tokyo. Both of these were against Nepal. The four games against Oman and Japan were all lost.

Macau and Nepal were to meet again in the 2002 qualification games. Again neither were to play at home (although originally they were planning to play in Nepal). The other teams in the group were Iraq and Kazakhstan, with the first series of games in Baghdad, and the later series in Almaty. This time Macau lost all their games. As with the other teams I have mentioned, the last three World Cups have started (and finished) with two legged games. For Macau, the opponents in 2003 were Chinese Taipei (aggregate 1-6), then Thailand in 2007 (aggregate 13-2) and finally Vietnam in 2011 (aggregate in 13-1).

Macau’s last competitive game was a 3-2 win over Mongolia in the East Asian championships preliminary qualifying. Having drawn with the tournament host Guam, and then losing to Northern Mariana Islands, Macau were already incapable of qualifying. Mongolia did still have an outside chance. The one advantage for Macau is as Northern Mariana Islands are not FIFA members, the match did not count against them in the FIFA Rankings.

 

Chinese Taipei v Brunei

I have already mentioned something of the Taiwanese history. They have been playing international football in Asian tournaments since 1954. Indeed they entered into the 1954 World Cup, but withdrew without playing, the other two teams in the region, Japan and South Korea ending up settling the finals place in a two legged game. Similarly, four years later, they withdraw after being drawn to play Indonesia They then ignored the next four World Cups completely before finally trying their hand for qualification in 1977, ahead of the Argentina tournament the following year.

Although members of the Asian Confederation, Chinese Taipei were something of an inconvenience, thanks to the politics which meant the chance of meeting China itself was not acceptable. However, the solution was found by placing Chinese Taipei in with Australia and New Zealand. Oceania did not have its own qualifying groups at the time. Hence in 1977, the Taiwanese team lost twice each to Australia and New Zealand, and did not get a match on home soil. Both Australian games were played in Fiji, with Chinese Taipei’s first World Cup game being a 3-0 defeat. They lost 2-1 in the second game and then played two games in New Zealand, losing both by 6-0

In 1981, Australia, New Zealand, and Chinese Taipei were joined by Fiji and Indonesia, Chinese Taipei were defensively frugal, not conceding a goal in four home games, three of them draws, with Indonesia beaten by 2-0. All four away games, played in a 16 day period were lost.

The qualification for 1986 saw another political misfit joining in. Chinese Taipei played against Israel, as well as their two old foes, Australia and New Zealand. No home games this time, as theu travelled to play two matches in each of the opposition countries, losing them all, and conceding 36 goals in the process. Nothing learnt from their relative success in the previous series.

While Israel were again made to play Oceania teams in preparation for the 1990 World Cup, Chinese Taipei did not have to face them again. Instead their involvement was limited to a two legged game against New Zealand, losing 4-0 at home, 4-1 away

For the 1994 World Cup, Chinese Taipei were at least allowed into Asian qualification, in a group of five teams until Myanmar withdrew. Their other three opponents were Iran, Oman and Syria – this was a two venue group with the opening six games in Iran, then six in Syria. Taiwan lost all six of their matches, conceding 31 goals in the process. For 1998, the mix of opposition was more varied – Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. Again it was a two venue tournament, with a series of games in Malaysia, followed by a series in Saudi Arabia. Chinese Taipei started with a 2-0 defeat to Saudi, (in Malaysia), but then beat Bangladesh by 3-1. Their third game saw them lose 2-0 to their hosts. A week later, they drew with Malaysia in Saudi, but then lost 2-1 to Bangladesh before crashing 6-0 to the second host. As Bangladesh only got points for beating Chinese Taipei, the Taiwan team avoided finishing bottom of the group. It was a similar story ahead of the 2002 World Cup, the group games were played first in Uzbekistan, then in Jordan, with Turkmenistan is the fourth team in the group. Chinese Taipei fell to six defeats and did not even score a goal, while conceding 25.

You may have spotted it above – from the 2006 World Cup onwards the first round in Asia was a straight knock out game, and in November 2003, Chinese Taipei had to face Macau twice, winning the first match 3-0 at home, and then adding a 3-1 away win. The reward for this success was a group with Palestine, Uzbekistan and Iraq. Now all the Taiwanese home games were at home, but most of their travels were to alternates. They did play in Uzbekistan, but met Palestine in Qatar, and Iraq in Jordan. It almost goes without saying that they lost all six games.

For the last two cups, the draw has been less kind, and Chinese Taipei have fell at the first hurdle, to Uzbekistan (11-0 aggregate) and then extremely narrowly to Malaysia. Malaysia won the first leg 2-1, and extended the lead twice in the first half, each time being pegged back to level on the day. With 15 minutes to go, Chinese Taipei took a 3-2 lead from the penalty spot. However, this turned out to be the final goal of the game, and they went out on away goals. The goalscorer was Xavier Chen. Chen was born in Belgium to a French mother and Taiwanese father, and played in the Belgium under-19 team. He was then persuaded to switch allegiance to Chinese Taipei, but apparently has played only one game for them. AT the time, he played for Mechelen in Belgium, but he is now playing in mainland China. Since then, Chinese Taipei has played in two East Asian Cup qualifying tournaments, and one for the AFC Challenge Cup – Each time they have managed a solitary draw but lost their other games. The last East Asian group was played in Taiwan, where they were beaten by Guam and Hong Kong. In the final match, they drew 0-0 with a North Korean side who had already secured the place in the finals later this year.

Brunei’s world cup history is somewhat shorter. The country only became independent in 1984, after nearly a hundred years of being a British protectorate, (with a small gap when it turned out protectorate did not mean protected – at least against Japanese forces during World War II). Brunei have played in only two of the World Cup qualifying tournaments, attempting to achieve a place in the 1986 and 2002 finals. On both occasions they were placed in four team groups. These were groups with home and away matches, although while Brunei did indeed play both Hong Kong and Macau both home and away in 1985, they did not play either in Brunei or China for their games against the Chinese – instead these were played one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Incidentally, both Hong Kong and Macau visited Beijing, with Hong Kong winning their game there, and in doing so both qualifying for the next round and causing a riot among local soccer fans, rather embarrassingly for the Chinese officials, who had to get the army out to restore order.

Anyway, back to Brunei, who did not enter in the next three World Cups, but returned to the fray in a bid for a place in the 2002 finals. The opposition was Yemen, India and UAE, and all six were lost, with Brunei not even scoring a goal, (they conceded 28). In fact, Brunei’s greatest success had come in 1999, just not in official internationals. A Brunei team had been playing against the states of Malaysia, and Singapore in a Malaysian competitions since the 1920s when all were part of the British empire. With a population much smaller than most of the states, Brunei were not generally known for their successes, even after Singapore (who frequently won the title) pulled out in the mid-nineties. In 1999, Brunei shocked the Malays with a win. They beat Sarawak in a match that to date is the only final for both teams, and the only time two teams from Borneo reached the final. (Sabah, the other Borneo team has lost on three occasions). It was also the last final (to date) to be played at the historic Merdeka Stadium in central Kuala Lumpur. The team representing the Brunei FA was replaced in 2005 by DPMM, a team owned by their former goalkeeper (who just happens to be the Crown Prince of Brunei).


DPMM playing a Malaysian League match against Kedah in 2007

Having sat out the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Brunei found themselves under FIFA suspension due to “government interference with the football association”. The argument hinged on the fact the FA had been suspended (along with many other sporting institutions in Brunei) for not correctly submitting paperwork. This was one of the periods when FIFA was authoritarian on such issues (they have always been remarkably inconsistent over such things). Brunei’s authorities did not quickly resolve the dispute, despite the effect this had on DPMM who had almost completed a first successful season in the Singaporean S-League. They had already won the league cup. The situation was not resolved until late in 2011, well after World Cup qualification had started DPMM returned to the S-League in 2012, finishing as runners-up twice (2012 and 2014) and winning the league cup in each of those year. The head coach for 2014 was former Blackburn Rovers coach Steve Kean, and he also took on the national team for their four games in the South East Asian Cup qualification last October. This resulted in four defeats for Brunei at the hands of East Timor, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Chinese Taipei should take this tie without too much difficulty.

Yemen v Pakistan

While Nepal may consider it unfortunate that they were not-seeded, when a draw that took place after the February rankings had been released would have been easier for them, Yemen have a similar problem from being seeded. It also shows the volatility of the seedings that win in a home friendly against Afghanistan pushed Paksitan 17 places up in the World rankings.

Other more local issues also conspire against Yemen. Just ask yourself when the FCO ever considered the Yemen a safe place to go to. Certainly not for many years now. Yemen is one of the generally ignored hotspots of International politics, as it does not have the comparative oil wealth of its immediate neighbours. One result of all this is that there has not been an international game played in the Yemen since 2012, when Palestine won there in a friendly.

South Yemen was a former British Colony that had been abandoned as more trouble than value, while the North was formed after the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918. The two generally got along with each other, despite occasional short lived disputes. Still the unification in 1990 certainly did not lead to prosperity. South Yemen played at various levels of football from 1965 to 1989. They only entered for one World Cup, the 1986 tournament when they were drawn against Bahrain and Iran. This was at the height of the Iran-Iraq was, and when the Iranians withdrew rather than playing games at neutral venues. The South Yemen – Bahrain games were played in March and April of 1985, with the first game played in Aden, South Yemen. Bahrain won this by 4-1, and a 3-3 draw in the home match saw them through to the next round. The Bahrain game was not only South Yemen’s only home World Cup tie, it was their last home match of any type. Curiously, the last tournament they played in was a tournament in Kuwait, soon before they united with the North, which also involved both Iran and Iraq (South Yemen lost to both, while they drew 0-0 with each other). The South Yemeni side did bring their international career to a halt with a win, 1-0 over Guinea, in the same Kuwaiti tournament

Like South Yemen, North Yemen also started to play international football in 1965. In fact both territories debuted in the 1965 Pan Arab games in Egypt. South Yemen starting with a 14-0 defeat by the hosts on September 3, while their Northern counterparts went down 16-1 to Libya. Like the South, North Yemen entered for the 1986 World Cup and played in March and April of 1985. North Yemen’s World Cup debut was a home defeat by Syria, 1-0. They then lost 5-0 in Kuwait, and 3-0 in Syria before returning to home soil to wrap up the campaign with a 3-1 defeat by Kuwait. North Yemen did enter the 1990 World Cup and played Syria and Saudi Arabia in qualifying. They lost three games by 1-0, and the fourth (Syria away), by 2-0. The game in Saudi Arabia was the last game played as North Yemen.

The first game for the United team was a 1-0 win in Malaysia, part of preparation for the 1990 Asian Games in China. At this time the captaincy of the side was rotated between players from North and South. At the games themselves, Yemen drew 0-0 with both Thailand and Kuwait before losing their third game, by 2-0 to Hong Kong. Next up was 1994 World Cup qualifying, with a two venue, five team group. Yemen’s first World Cup game was a 1-1 draw with Jordan, in Jordan, and they followed this up with a 5-1 thrashing of Pakistan. Iraq showed themselves somewhat stronger, and beat Yemen 6-1. Yemen then beat China 1-0, before heading to China for the second legs. Here they again drew with Jordan, and again beat Pakistan, but lost to both Iraq and China finishing third in the group. Only Iraq progressed.

Four years later, Yemen beat Cambodia twice, and drew with Indonesia twice, but came second in a group where Uzbekistan beat them twice. This was a home and away group, as was qualifying for 2002, where they came even closer to getting through the first round. Yemen won two of their three home games, beating Brunei and UAE, and drew with India. Away from home, they also drew with India and beat Brunei, but lost to the UAE. India had an identical record, but UAE won four games (all the homes and Brunei away) to win the group by a point.

This was enough success to mean that when the lowest seeds in Asia played knock out matches, prior to group games for the 2006 World Cup, Yemen were not in those lowest ranked teams, and went through to group matches with UAE, Thailand and North Korea. Crucially none of these had played in the first round, and Yemen finished bottom of the group, with one win (UAE – home) and two draws (North Korea Home, Thailand Away). North Korea won the group. For the 2010 World Cup, Asia played two knock out rounds prior to groups. Yemen won through the first of these, with an aggregate win over Maldives (3-0 home, 0-2 away) but then lost to a single goal in Thailand after a drawn home game. Yemen were given an exemption in the first round for the last world cup, but despite having staged the Gulf Cup (which includes Iraq) at the end of 2010, by the time of the games against Iraq in the summer of 2011, Yemen was considered an insecure country to play in. Iraq won 2-0 at home, while the return match was played in Al-Ain, UAE and ended scoreless

Pakistan came into existence with the partition of the sub-continent in 1948. Their first international match was a friendly in 1950, when they went down 5-1 in Iran. Two years later they played a small tournament, the Colombo Cup in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), drawing first with India (0-0) but then beating both the hosts and Burma. They did not try for the World Cup until the 1990 edition, when they were grouped to play home and away games with Kuwait and UAE. Pakistan’s first Word Cup game was a 1-0 home defeat by Kuwait, they then lost both away games before scoring their first World Cup goal in a 4-1 home defeat by UAE.. I have already mentioned the 1994 campaign insofar as they lost both games to this year’s opponents, Yemen. Pakistan actually finished bottom of the group with eight defeats out of 8. They scored just twice. They increased the goals scored yet again for the next World Cup, going up to three. All three were scored against Iraq, two at home and one away, but Iraq were to hit 6 in each game. Kazakhstan also played in the group and put ten goals past Pakistan. In qualification for 2002, Pakistan were not to play at home, but only in Lebanon and Thailand. The fourth team in the group was Sri Lanka (now under current name). Again Pakistan increased their goal tally, reach five goals in the six games. Four of these were against Sri Lanka, including Pakistan’s first World Cup point from a 3-3 draw in Lebanon. Hence Pakistan gained their first draw in their 19th World Cup game.

Moving onto knock out games, Pakistan played Kyrgyzstan over two legs in 2003, well ahead of the 2006 finals, losing both games aggregate of 6-0.They have since increased their run without scoring to three World Cups, but have managed draws in the away leg against Iraq played in 2007 (after losing 7-0 at home), and the home leg against Bangladesh in 2011 after losing the away leg 3-0. The “away” match to Iraq in 2007 was played in Syria – so this is not the first time Pakistan have been helped by problems abroad.

Apart from Yemen not enjoying home advantage, the first leg being played in Qatar, Pakistan have gained moderate results in recent competitive games including wins over Macau and Bangladesh in 2013. This gives them hope that they may finally win a World Cup game, and actually win the round.


Sri Lanka v Bhutan

Sri Lanka became independent from Britain, along with India and Pakistan in 1948. It operated under the name Ceylon until 1972. Their first international football matches where in the Colombo Cup (already mentioned for Pakistan) in 1952, when first India and then Pakistan beat the hosts 2-0. Although Colombo (when not detecting in a dirty raincoat) is the capital of Sri Lanka, the Colombo cup was not fixed to the city or country, and was played in Burma, India and Pakistan in successive years. It was in India, in 1954 that the Sri Lankans first drew with the hosts, and then beat Burma. Sri Lanka made their world cup debut in the qualifying games for 1994. They were drawn in a two venue five team group with games in Japan and the UAE. They also had to play Thailand and Bangladesh. Their first World Cup game was therefore a 4-0 defeat by UAE in Japan. No goals were scored in the 8 game series, 28 were conceded and all 8 games were lost.

Only one venue, Qatar was used for the four team group including Sri Lanka ahead of the 1998 World Cup, this started poorly when Sri Lanka went down 3-0 to the hosts, but they improved to get a 1-1 draw with India, and then beat the Philippines by 3-0. Two venues, Lebanon and Thailand were used before 2002, with Pakistan making up the group. Sri Lanka got nothing from games against either host, but they managed to draw the first game against Pakistan (3-3), and win the second match 3-1. Sri Lanka started 2006 qualifying with a two legged game against Laos, drawing the away game 0-0, and then winning the first World Cup game to be staged on their own turf by 3-0. This gave Sri Lanka home and away matches with Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In Colombo, Sri Lanka managed draws (both 2-2) with both Indonesia and Turkmenistan, but they lost the other four games. In the last two tournaments, the first series of two legged matches also turned out to be the last, Qatar winning both games before the 2010 World Cup, while the Philippines accounted for them last time out, with Sri Lanka managing a draw in the home game


Action from the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup in Sri Lanka

Bhutan, a small landlocked country in the Himalayas is the first country in the World to measure Gross National Happiness. According to Business Week magazine, it is quite good at this. Being rated the happiest country in Asia. Happiness does not require being defeated in early World Cup qualifying games, and as far as I know, this is only the second time that Bhutan have been included in the draw for the World Cup. On the previous occasion, 8 years ago, Bhutan were drawn to play Bahrain but thought better of the idea and gave their opponents a walkover.

Bhutan first appeared on the football scene in 1982, with a 3-1 defeat in Nepal. They played 8 local games, all losses before going into hibernation for a dozen years. On their return they lost a few matches in the South Asian Cup and then entered the qualification rounds for the Asian Cup. This meant four games in Kuwait, with Bhutan scoring only in the last of these, an 11-2 defeat by Yemen, the group hosts beat them by 20-0. By June 30 2002, World Cup Final Day, the record of Bhutan in international football was simple. Played 20, Lost 20. Naturally they were bottom of the FIFA rankings. They also had never staged a home game. Then along came the Dutch advertising agency wondering who was the worst team in the World, (spurred on by the Netherlands failure to reach the 2002 finals). They decided to invite the lowest pair of teams of the FIFA World Rankings to play a challenge match. Montserrat accepted the challenge, but with their home crowd having been destroyed by a volcano, a single match in Bhutan was agreed. FIFA agreed to play this on World Cup final day, a few hours ahead of the main event. Wangay Dorji put Bhutan into the lead after five minutes as Bhutan took the initiative. It took more than an hour before the score was increased, Dorji scoring from a free kick. With Montserrat tiring at the end of the game, Bhutan eventually won 4-0 and Dorji completed his hat-trick. The referee was an Englishman, Steven Bennett. Bhutan did not exactly push on from this, losing all three games without scoring in the next South Asian tournament, but they had got the taste for staging the occasional home match, and were rewarded with the early qualifying stage for the 2004 Asian Cup. The opponents were Guam (beaten 6-0) and Mongolia (0-0) which put Bhutan through to the next stage. Six matches in Saudi Arabia in which Bhutan lost every won without scoring a goal. Bhutan’s third and most recent win was in the 2008 South Asian Cup, where they beat Afghanistan by 3-1 in Sri Lanka. Bhutan are now in last place of the FIFA rankings, the only team without a ranking point, which means they have lost every game played for the last four years – they have played 11 games in that time, but the run actually goes back 19 games since the win over Afghanistan.

Despite their low rankings, Bhutan are actually unbeaten in home games. The three matches mentioned in this piece (two wins and a draw, no goals conceded) are in fact the only games they have played at home. I suspect Sri Lanka will gain enough of an advantage at home, that it will not matter if Bhutan can retain this status for the return game.

Tesco 0, Cheltenham Town 0.

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

I have heard that Tesco’s recent figures have been poor. Sales and profits are down. So what will Tesco do next? Well, first there is the blood-letting stage. Those senior executives believed to have taken the wrong decisions will lose their jobs. Please do not worry about them though. They will receive a big payout as they leave the job, and in most cases they will soon find another highly paid position*. After that there will be some analysis of where they are going wrong. Following that there will be some action to try to regain their market share. I am not certain what that action will be, but I am sure they will not be increasing prices while keeping for the same, or even an inferior product.

While the overall figures for League-2 Football are not suffering after a quarter of the season has been played (the average for the division is exactly the same as last season*, while all the higher divisions have seen a drop), some clubs within League-2 have seen a significant drop. Mansfield are 19% down on last season, Newport County and Oxford United both find their custom down by over 14%, while Cheltenham Town are 15.7% down so far. However, none of Mansfield, Newport or Oxford also saw a significant drop in attendance last season. Indeed, both Mansfield and Newport had a big increase on the back of promotion into the division. Cheltenham’s attendances for 2013-14 were 8% down on the season before, and even though 2012-13 was considered a successful season, it also saw a 5% fall in crowds. So it appears that over 25% of Cheltenham’s support has ebbed away in a three year period.

So where is the blood-letting? In football, responsibility tends to lie with the managers. So much so that more than half the managers of professional football clubs are changed every season. Not all of these are sacked for failure. There is much poaching of successful managers by ambitious clubs with bigger budgets. It is therefore quite surprising that after Arsenal’s Arsene Wegner, the two longest serving managers are Exeter’s Paul Tisdale and Cheltenham’s Mark Yates. If they are good managers, why has no one poached them? If they are not good managers, why have they not been sacked?

But then, unlike Tesco, most League-2 football clubs (certainly true in Cheltenham’s case) are not profit making enterprises. I can understand why they may not wish to have to make a payout to sack their manager. It is less clear why a contract was renewed at the end of an unsuccessful season, which saw the club falling well short of the previous season’s level of achievement, and as already mentioned losing 8% of the customers en-route. This season’s even larger fall in attendance is partially a knock on from the season before. Despite results being vastly better, a high portion of the customer base pays for the full season in advance. Hence disillusioned support from 2013-4 (many of whom did not bother to go to matches at the end of the season) do not show up in the figures until the new season. I know that a large number of season ticket holders did not renew, even if the full scale of the problem has not been made public.

So, surely the club will not be increasing prices? The base claim is they are not doing so, with the general price remaining unchanged over the last few years. However, four years ago they came across the idea of Premium price matches, designating about six games a season where prices across the board were £1 more than the standard cost. At some stage since then, the Premium has been increased to £2. Generally the games chosen are those where the away team are expected to bring more support. The logic being that the away fans will turn up regardless of the £2 extra charge (and generally this is correct). The catch is that the home support also has to pay the Premium prices. The first game this season to be declared a Premium game was the match against Northampton. The extra charge did not deter visiting supporters, but the home crowd was around 400 down on the previous game. The total crowd has been given as 2447. Let’s assume that after we take off season tickets, junior robins and other complimentary tickets, 1500 paid the extra £2, so an increase in revenue of £3000, which once we deduct the VAT comes down to £2500. Now according to the club chairman, the average take per ticket is £11*, (this is after deducting VAT, which is why I deducted it above). In other words, those lost 400 fans cost the club £4400 and the overall for the day is down by £1900. Of course, there were other factors in play for the Northampton game, in particular, there was racing in Cheltenham which has a triple disincentive to the club, (increased traffic congestion, the closure of the racecourse park and ride, and the fact some people may wish to have “A Day at the Races”*). It was already planned that the game against Oxford United at the end of November was also to be a Premium game. Now, with a home draw against Swindon in the FA Cup we have added another at the higher price into the budget.

While Swindon is an attractive visitor, a close neighbour and a division higher than ourselves, the FA Cup has been attracting reduced attendances compared to League games for some years. This is considered to be down to two reasons – the fact the competition has been devalued by the top clubs not putting out their full first team, and the fact season ticket holders have to pay for admission in cup matches, so if a season ticket holder is going to miss one game, why not miss the one not already paid for?

Raising prices seems like a move borne out of desperation. It appears we have already conceded we will lose the match, so we must maximise the take from a single game. Revenues for the game are shared, and the extra £2 includes VAT, so for each paying customer we will only gain 83p. For each customer lost, we lose £5.50. I agree we are not likely to lose as many as one in six of those who would have come to the game, so we will take more at the higher price. I cannot estimate how much more we lose as those who do not turn up will not go into the bar, buy a programme, a raffle ticket or use the catering in the ground.

One can only guess too whether or not some of those coming to the FA Cup game will feel they do not need to come to five games over a seven Saturday period, and so decide to miss one or other of the later games in the month instead. If any do, then that is a loss of £11 per person at the Wycombe game, £12.67 for the Premium Oxford game.

I can almost guarantee that in order to improve their figures, Tesco will first of all wish to increase the footfall, the number of people entering the stores, even if this means lower prices and more advertising; in short a cutting of margins and less profit in the short term. By contrast, our football club is responding to lower attendances by trying to squeeze more money out of each individual still paying. They are doing this without presenting any improvement in what we will be on view. This is not a recipe I would expect to create success.

 

* Notes.

1) At some stage, Tesco may decide to cut costs by reducing shop and warehouse employment. Where I will not waste my sympathy on high paid executives with large pay outs, the lower paid employees will suffer more if they lose their jobs, and in no way can be held to blame.

2) Actually, crowds in League-2 are marginally down. The divisional average is the same (so far) as last season but the incoming clubs have slightly more support than the outgoing clubs, meaning there is an overall decrease of about 125 fans per game, just under 3%

3) I am taking our chairman at his word on this. I would love to see the breakdown

4) Copyright, the Marx Brothers, and later Queen.

The Coppa Italia Job

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

So, the boss lady wants me to drive her around Italy and Southern France, covering both the first two weekends of the English League season. A disruption to the start of my season, but of course, not bad enough to rob me of all football.

Hence on Sunday afternoon, we arrived at a second rate hotel, halfway between Florence and Pisa, and after a decent interval made my way to the nearby town of Pontedera.

For many years, the divisions of the Italian League were called Serie A, Serie B, Serie C and Serie D, although for some reason Serie C was split into C1 and C2, and hence was both the third and fourth levels. Serie D is very regionalised, with nine regions. A few years ago, Serie C1 and C2 were re-launched as Lega Pro, but still with two levels, and regionalised divisions in both. The support for this level of football has been shrinking. About a decade ago, I remember recording that the Italian system like the English had over 100 clubs showing average attendances in four figures. The English numbers have actually increased in the last decade, but European Football Statistics only recorded 74 in Italy last season. The Lega Pro in 2013-4 consisted of two levels of two divisions, and a total of 69 clubs. For 2014-15, it was decided to change this to a single level consisting of three regional divisions. Hence Serie D, for the first time since I have taken an interest in these things is actually the fourth level.

While none of the league divisions in Italy start this early in the month, the Coppa Italia is underway. My experience in other countries shows cup competitions that either have an open draw, or actually give the smaller teams home an advantage with chances to play bigger teams and even home advantage by right. Not so, Italy where everything is biased in favour of the selections from the top.

In the first round, there are 15 ties, all on the grounds of Lega Pro clubs, the away sides being either Lega Pro or lower. I admit to being uncertain of how qualification is achieved, although there is a Coppa Italia Lega Pro (which would be the equivalent of the FA Trophy in England), and maybe a Coppa Italia Serie D as well. There are also regional cups. The 15 winners go into the second round, where all 20 home teams are from Serie B. At the time of the draw, Serie B had 21 teams, due to the bankruptcy of Sienna. However, Novara (one of the relegated teams) appealed against this state of affairs and gained what can only be seen as a pyrrhic victory. The league decided to return to 22 clubs, by promoting an extra club, rather than by reprieving a relegated one. The position went to…., after rivals, Pisa could not file all documentation by the deadline.

So, at the time of the draw, one of the 21 Serie B teams suffered and away draw, along with the 15 winners from the previous round and four more Lega Pro clubs which had byes. There will be 16 games in Round 3, and 12 of the Serie A teams enter at this stage – all 12 will play at home. After 8 games in Round 4, the 8 qualifying teams will all be away to the privileged few, the final 8 teams from Serie A, (AC Milan, Torino, Inter, Napoli, Roma, Fiorentina, Juventus and Parma) enter with home matches in the middle of January.

Pontedera play at the Stadio Ettore Mannucci, which they will share this season with Tuttocuoio, now in the same division. It sits on the Northern side of a town which I did not actually visit. It has a running track and a high fence, which means elevation is required to view the game well. The main stand, probably a fifties or sixties construction made mainly of pre-cast concrete, (including the roof) had around 360 seats in a good position, and a further 480 in front where the views are questionable. Alongside this is what I normally think of as a “meccano” stand – uncovered and held up by scaffolding, which seemed to be the abode of the local “ultras”. On the far side is a substantial and long uncovered stand, with two more small “meccano” constructs as an adjunct for when the away team has a lot of followers. The substantial stand which is raised (on clearly visible concrete supports), so as the views will not be bad has a large fence down the middle to separate home and away fans. There is no spectator accommodation, or access behind the goals.

Last season, Pontedera finished 8th in the top division of the Lega Pro, which qualified them for a play off, (8 teams in a knock out for one Serie B place). The visitors Messina, (from Sicily) were the champions of their ground of the second Lega Pro division. Messina are on the rise again in their complex history. A Messina club was in Serie A for two seasons in the sixties – with two intervening bankruptcies, (both within a couple of years at the end of the 90s), a new Messina club managed three seasons in Serie A from 2004, but this too went bankrupt when back in Serie B. The assets were sold by the courts in a blind auction, but the club, now named AC Rinascita Messina were in Serie D. They won promotion out of this in 2013. Amazingly, considering the distance from their home town, which means that if travelling home by road straight after the game, they would still miss breakfast, Messina had about 60 fans in their section, with a good number of flags on show.

Pontedera have never been higher than their current status, but do have one claim to fame with Marcello Lippi starting his management career here. The club are nicknamed Granata, a reference to the colours they normally play in, although for this game, Messina played in Red (with a yellow chevron), so Pontedera were in all white. I think these were not the official shirts for the season – both teams lined up as 1-11, and there were no sponsors names on either club’s shirts.

Messina will not play Pontedera in the league, but with only two regions last season, they did have to travel this distance to play Tuttocuoio, (who used a different stadium then).

Pontedera has the better of the early exchanges, but there shooting was woeful, and by the middle of the half, Messina were well on top. As such, it was no surprise when they took the lead. A well taken free kick by Vincenzo Pepe providing the opening score. Messina did not push on from this though, and instead fell back to the own defensive areas, giving Pontedera a better chance. Still the equaliser came as something of a surprise – Luigi Grassi’s free kick from the right being easily covered by the Messina keeper, but he mishandled it and saw it sneak just inside the far post.

Pontedera were again prominent at the start of the second half, the very first attack resulted in a shot against the cross bar. Messina again worked their way back into the game with Pepe beating the keeper only to see his shot cleared off the line. The decisive moves came just after the hour mark. A Caponi corner headed in powerfully at the near post by wing back Gregorio Luperini to put Pontedera ahead, and then three minutes later the home side won a penalty. The decision was unusual in itself, as the referee deemed contact was made inside the area, but the fouled player fell to ground outside the zone. There was hardly any dispute, so Messina appeared to accept it. Grassi gratefully took the chance to increase the lead. Messina did try to get back into the game, but the home goalkeeper, Matteo Ricci, who had looked shaky early in the game was now well in command, in particular making saves from Bonanno and substitute Izzillo. To add insult to injury, Messina’s veteran 40 year old striker Giorgio Corona managed to get himself sent off in injury time

I was talking during the game to a local referee, who assured me that Pontedera were a full time professional team, and that the majority of Lega Pro clubs are full time. When one realises that Pontedera, like half the Lega Pro clubs cannot average 1000 spectators per game, it is surely no surprise that so many are falling into a financial abyss.

My route through France does not take me close to any matches, so I make a point of adding Varese into the itinerary. Here I choose a hotel good hotel to compensate for the previous two nights staying in bog-standard chain hotels at rather ridiculous prices. The Kyriad in Nice is adjacent to some of the car parks for the new stadium, and I make a note that if the prices return to “sensible” after the high season, it may simplify a trip to the ground. Meanwhile the Palace hotel in Varese is one of aging grandeur, but well decorated . My wife is so impressed we quickly decide to make this the base for both of the last two nights. This is despite the SatNav system failing to pinpoint where the roads to the hotel run. It correctly identified the location of the hotel, but had it as accessed via a steep grass path, rather than the tarmac roadway from the other direction.

The hotel is only about a mile from the Stadio Franco Ossola – named after a local hero who appeared only a few times in Varese colours before being sold to Torino, where he was one of the “Grande Torino” team who dominated Serie A until the Supergra disaster.

To describe the ground as splendid hardly does it justice. It is an oval, as often found in Italy, with curved ends. Old concrete stands, (no specifically marked seats) runs around both ends and the east side, the southern curve – being the away end – is lower than the rest. Most of this is in two tiers, but the front tiers is almost entirely useless, as, as well as having a tarmac track, there is also a cycle track which has been added sometime after the stands were built. From the curves, the lower tier therefore only views the track, and not even the cycles on it. As the backing is reduced on the straights, there is a view of the fencing from here. On the east side, a small gap has been made halfway along, with glass, rather than fences and a bit of cover above. The viewing from here is helped by a gap in the advertising boards (standard modern video type). I reckon half a dozen wheelchairs (with owners) could use this, but there was only one on the day.

The main stand is on the west side, a simple construction, with a paddock in front, (although this is also rendered almost useless by the cycle track). AS Varese are Serie B, having dabbled with Serie A only for a couple of short periods in their history, (and with financial ruin slightly more often). Juve Stadia hail from close to Napoli, and have never played higher than Serie B. They were relegated at the end of last season.

I am not certain if the home team’s colours, white with a red St. George’s cross means I should give them all my support. I would have thought that the cross was more a symbol of Milan than Varese, but looking at the official website of the Province shows a coat of arms which is based on the cross, (Wikipedia failed me here, showing the wrong coat of arms). The club has an up and down history, with a Golden decade (1964-75) in Serie A. However the club dropped out of Serie B a decade after falling from Serie A, and did not re-appear at this level until 2012. Financial collapse and reformation took place in 2004, at which time the club became AS Varese 1910. AS Varese start this season on -1 points

The visitors were from Castellamare de Stabia, and are the fourth of a string of clubs from the town, (with the current club claiming history from its predecessors), AC Stabia played one season (1951-2) in Serie B, and folded in 1953, the name Juve Stabia came from another club in the town which came to prominence after its rival had folded. This club, actually SS Juventus Stabia had been formed in 1945 and folded in 2001. In 2002, a nearby Serie D club, Comprensorio Nola moved into the gap, changing the name to Comprensorio Stabia immediately, and SS Juve Stabia 12 months later. They rose to Serie B in 2011, but were relegated at the end of last season.

Juve Stabia had the better of the early chances without really threatening, and the opening goal went to Varese. Pereira Neto claimed a push in the back. I cannot say this was not a foul, but he went down with theatrical relish. It was enough to convince the referee anyway and Arturo Lupoli took the penalty well enough. In the following period, we had chances at both ends, but with both sides employing a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 for Varese, 4-1-4-1 for Juve), one found the midfield was not backing up close enough to have a chance. Both Neto for Varese and Ripa for Stabia had shots parried to a safety.

The crowd does not appear to mind this though, and they reserve their venom for the assistant referee who is consistently, correctly (and rather too frequently) raising the offside flag. Varese do make a couple of chances late in the half, which are spoilt by their own lack of competence.

Juve Stabia again make a good start to the second half, as they try to get back into the game, but these are fleeting chances which the home defence blocks with ease. In the 53rd minute, Neto surprises most of those in the ground with a speculative lobbed shot from distance. It catches Pisseri in the JS goal well off his line, and the Varese lead is 2-0. It leads to a flurry of activity was William Jidayi, the most impressive of the Juve Stabia midfield lets fly from around 25 yards, with the shot just glancing the lower side of the crossbar to make it 2-1. Even the home supporters applaud this effort, but they are happier a minute later when their team attacks down the right, producing a low cross which Lupoli meets within the six yard box for 3-1. The game has now livened up considerable, with chances at both ends even if the Varese ones look the most likely to be completed. A fine save from Pisseri keeps the score at 3-1 in the 70th minute when Andrea Cristiano has a shot after a good combination move with substitute Luca Tremolada. Just after we see the added time board go up, Juve have a free kick on the left, which is crossed in for Marco Migliorini to get a glancing header and give the 18 travelling supporters a little late hope. Varese seem incapable of holding the ball for the final three minutes to give a comfortable finish, but they are good at tackling back, so Juve Stabia do not get a further chance.

I sat in the main stand, having parked in the car park behind the south goal, (nothing was busy for this low key match). The police however, took this as a full scale operation and did not allow anyone back into the car park until all 18 JS fans had left the ground, got into their five cars (in the same car park) and then had a few minutes to get away. The fact that they drove directly into areas where home fans were allowed to be while the same fans were not permitted to go back to where the JS fans had been seemed to be lost. I recommend the ground to anyone, except those requiring a quick departure, (including any attempt to reach the town centre or railway station from the main stand).

 

French Finales.

Friday, June 20th, 2014

What I assume is the final trip of the season starts with an early ferry from Dover to Calais, I do not use this service very often, but with no bookings available for the return trip via the tunnel, this was the only option. Unlike the tunnel ferry tickets can be discounted and services like aferry.co.uk and travelsupermarket offer fares not shown on the company websites. Even then, we had to make a booking that did not allow for extra time in our Sunday game to get the better far, and trust that the company would be lenient if we arrived a little late. The discounted tickets are important – they are less than half the cheapest alternative fare.

From Calais, I have to drive to a different channel port, Le Havre. Despite the three hour drive, this is the best way both in time and money terms. As we have plenty of time, we avoid the toll roads as far as Abbeville, where we stop for a short while and take lunch. My passengers, Paul and Kevin both try a local “artisan” beer, which does not impress them much. I have to have coffee as the only man on the trip with a driving licence. We take the motorway from Abbeville to Le Havre, incurring a toll fee of €8.

The hotel, Le Parisien is opposite Le Havre station and is of the “does the job” class. We take a breather before heading to Gonfreville l’Orcher – a dormitory town around a 15 minute drive away. The stadium is not far from the centre, and is the home of Etente Sportive Municipale Gonfreville l’Orcher, which not surprisingly is generally abbreviated to ESMGO.

The sixth level of French Football is run by the regional associations, while the levels above are within the remit of the FFF. Each of the associations runs a single top division, generally known as Division d’Honneur. The number of other divisions below this differs from region to region. Most devolve the power at lower levels to district federations. As champions of the Division d’Honneur Normandie, ESMGO will be promoted to CFA2 for next season.

All of the regional associations run cup competitions for affiliated teams, and the majority of them operate a Senior Cup. In Normandie, this is the Coupe de Normandie Seniors. ESMGO were given home advantage for the final, (some regions do this, some play at neutral grounds), with the visitors being the second team of Le Havre AC, (a member of CFA2; again the highest and lowest levels that enters the cup varies from Region to region although I have not looked into them).

The stadium is a typical French municipal facility. A modern track and a single stand. In this case there is no spectator access around to other parts of the ground. As is common, other sports facilities are incorporated into the structure, or the area. The stand itself is quite large, and must hold more than 1000 seats. It is well elevated, and needs to be to allow viewing over the surprisingly high fence to the front. The roof sits high above the seating supported by a series of double curved wooden beams, which gives it an attractive appearance. The dressing rooms must be somewhere within the structure, with the players and officials emerging from underground to an area inside the track. A refreshments area has been set up to one side of the stand, and is doing a roaring trade, mainly selling sausages and chips. I indulge in the standard sausage, while Paul has the spicy version, (merguez). I have to wait a while for fresh chips to be prepared which gives me an advantage, Paul complains his are not as hot as they should be.

Confusion in the area leads to ESMGO’s first goal

Entrance to the ground is €5, a single sausage and chips is €2.50. There is no programme, but I obtain a copy of the team list quite easily.

As for the game, it was a slightly strange affair, there was no shortage of competent football on show, but there seemed to be a lack of passion. The Le Havre side were very young, with an average age under 20. One or two looked a lot younger; Kevin was quick to point out Hery Randriantsara, only a little over 5 feet tall, and not much over 7.5 stone (from Le Havre web site), completely dwarfed in the midfield by an opponent around 6 foot and probable twice the weight. Still looking through the lists on the web page, he was nearly six months past his 19th birthday and by no means the youngest in the side. Le Havre have already updated the web pages with the squad lists for next season, and some of the players have graduated from the U-19 squad to the second team in the summer, while other players noted from earlier match reports seem to have left the club before this game. One of the Gonfreville substitutes is listed as a member of the Le Havre second team for next season!

With a goal midway through the first half, and a second about 15 minutes from time, ESMGO seem to be cruising to a victory, and a very late goal from the visiting substitute Jordan Cuvier does not change this.

It is common to precede games like this with another, lesser final and when we arrived at the ground, the Final Enterprise was in progress. This is works league with rules demanding the majority of players are with the company concerned. Although these matches are all on the fff web site, and hence quite easy to find out about, the level of football was extremely poor

After returning briefly to the hotel, we headed into town. Our first stop was the Brasserie Paillette, which appears to advertise itself as selling a local beer brewed since sometime in the 16th century. The beer bearing the name was in fact a very poor (and surely mass produced) lager. The place is also a very successful restaurant, which means they were far too busy to discuss the finer points of their less than fine beer with foreigners who do not speak the lingo. So after a very quick quarter litre, we repaired to Le Trappist, about a ten minute walk away. This is a popular spot, with a young clientele who appear to enjoy good beer. Not surprisingly most of this beer is imported from Belgium, (I did try a French Trappist beer which I also enjoyed). The best beers were bottled and at at least €5 for a third of a litre, were often double or triple the Belgian prices. Still, it was very busy and boasted two televisions from which we saw the end of the Uruguay-Costa Rica game and the entirety of England v Italy (except when too many others blocked our view).

In the morning, we had plenty of time, even though I slept late. We ended up taking breakfast as a café overlooking Le Havre plage before heading back almost past the hotel and heading back to Abbeville. With time on our hands, the drive to Bully-les-Mines was made without resort to toll motorways. We stopped briefly for coffee (or beer for non drivers) and a sandwich about an hour before reaching our destination.

Bully-les-Mines is a former mining town, (the clue is in the name) just outside Lens. It seems better built up than Gonfreville, but also very closed on a Sunday afternoon. Refuelling the car was done by use of a petrol station with automated payment. We closed in on the ground just under an hour before kick off. Parking was impossible on the road outside, but we found a place nearby.

Etoile Sportive Bully-Les-Mines (ESB) play at the Stade Rene Corbelle, a municipal facility, but without a track. It once had a cinder track, but most of this is grassed over, while one straight has been lost to the new stand. There is a bar and refreshments at the top of the stand, and a balcony with the seats below it. Because the bar has a curved front, there are actually fewer rows of seats in the centre than the wings. It is also possible to watch from any point around the edge of the ground, where an old concrete barrier runs outside the old track. There are a few steps of terracing on the far side to the main stand, and this is a very popular viewing point. There are three more full size pitches between this and the railway lines.

I have long thought that passion in French Football is a product of the North, with the best supporters being the followers of Sang et Or, the blood and gold of Racing Club Lens. It appears that this spills over to the neighbouring towns.

ESB sit two divisions below Le Portel Stade, the visitors who play in Division d’Honneur. If the standard policy when entering a cup match as underdogs is to sit tight and hit the opponent on the counter, this news has not reached the North of France. The policy of Bully was to hit them quick, and hit them hard. By the ninth minute Portel were already reeling from the onslaught and it was no surprise when Bully went ahead, and two minutes later, it was 2-0.

Le Portel appeared capable of playing better football, but could not match the home sides desire to win. We thought the corner might have been turned when the visitors pulled one back with still only 23 minutes on the clock, but we were wrong. Bully were not finished by a long way, and powered forward again and again, soon returning to a two goal advantage and increasing this with a fourth goal just before the break.

In the second half, Le Portel struggled to come to terms with the disaster of the first period. They had more of the ball, more chances but Bully now defended resolutely, having something worth defending. There was only one goal in the second half, as the score was brought back to 4-2, and in fact there were almost as many close calls when Bully counter-attacked as created by Portel trying to get back into the game.

One feature of these cup finals, and other low level games in France is rolling substitutions. It did not have too much of an effect in these games, with a total of seven substitutions on the Saturday, (although both sides left one player on the bench throughout the game, so they only used 13 each). On Sunday, both sides used their allocation of 3 replacements, and then returned one of the original line up. In Le Portel’s case this was for injury, while Bully appeared to do it for tactical reasons. When I went to the same cup final in Nord Pas de Calais two years ago, there were no less than 13 changes, four of which came in the last two minutes of injury time as supposedly better penalty takers were returned, (one had his penalty saved, and one was not in his team’s five penalty takers). #

I appreciate the idea that allowing more changes, and hence more players to take the field could mean better player retention, but it seems that the rules are used to break up the play with masses of changes after the break, and players off the field for just a minute or two. Sale Town of the Cheshire League, for example made 7 changes in 90 minutes when I saw them lose to Grappenhall with one player returning after missing ten minutes of play, and one of the players on the pitch for just three minutes. If a player regularly only plays in the final five minutes, is he really going to want to stay with the team. In my mind, a better solution would be to continue to limit the number of substitutions during play, but to allow extra substitutes to take the pitch at half time. Hence the replacements would generally get 45 minutes of play, while the option is still there to make changes in case of injury or to change the tactics.

After the match, it was onto the motorway and back to the channel as fast as we could go. I had not been able to book the later ferry so we wanted to make sure we go the one booked. We made this with a few minutes to spare, and in fact found the boat to be half empty.

Overall, this was a good weekend away. Thanks as always for Paul and Kevin for the company.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 5

Friday, June 13th, 2014

My last few days were to be spent in more familiar territory, the Netherlands and Germany. I did not know about the exact fixtures when I started the trip, but knew various play offs and cup finals had to be arranged. Indeed before I started, the only options for the Tuesday were a couple of low level games in Germany and Austria, or a return into Poland. I did know about the play offs to win promotion from the German Regionalliga to the 3. Liga would start on the Wednesday, but also that the options, which were likely to be Neustrelitz and Sonnenhof Grosaspach were both going to cause difficulties with the travel.

Then up comes the Netherlands play offs. With the addition of the National Topklasse (one each, for Saturday and Sunday) as the top level of Netherlands Amateur football, (which is of course, semi-professional), there has to be promotion and relegation. There are three regional leagues (Hoofdklasse) below the Topklasse, and all three champions go up at the expense of the bottom three. But then there are the period champions. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the playing season is divided into roughly even groups of matches and the winner of each period goes into the end of season play offs. As the automatically promoted team may well have won (at least one) period, and teams can win more than one, additional teams may be included from second place down in the league.

In the Netherlands Hoofdklasse, there are three regional groups, and three periods per group. They then play a round robin within each group, with each team (normally) getting one home game. The three winners, and the fourth from bottom team in the Topklasse then play semi-finals (two legs) and final (single match, neutral ground) to decide the final club in the Topklasse. So the fixtures were not known at all when I started out, and even when I spotted them (about a week’s notice), I did not know who would be at home. The Saturday semi-finals were to be played Tuesday and Saturday. When the fixtures were eventually settled, it was Ajax Amateurs and SteDeCo at home in the first leg of the semi finals. As SteDeCo’s home in … involves two buses from the nearest rail station, I chose Ajax. On a very wet day, an artificial pitch may help.

This meant Amsterdam joined Prague and Budapest as a major cities on this tour where I saw football without venturing into the city centre.

This game was at the Ajax Amateurs pitch at Toekmost. The main pitch there is used for the Eerste Divisie Jong Ajax team, the Ladies and the most senior (A1) of the many youth teams. The main pitch is grass, but the Amateurs use an artificial surface, no doubt shared by other teams. Ajax Amateurs themselves run three adult teams and a veteran’s team. They are a curious combination, being simultaneously part of Ajax, and apart from the Professional team. In the past, I am told the team has been used to blood youngsters who are likely to go on into the professional game, but with Jong Ajax now in the league, they are now a purely “amateur” outfit, which of course, in a Netherlands context means semi-professional.

Most of the budgeting for Ajax Amateurs appears to come from the professional club, and they also have the benefit of the facilities and stewarding. They do not even feel the need to charge an admission fee. I am not sure if the coaches are shared. Players may come from those who have not made it to the professional ranks, but are just as likely to transfer in from outside. The top scorer, Dennis Kaars came from another amateur team in the Amsterdam and I have seen reports that he will transfer to Sunday football, with Hoofdklasse team de Dijk for next season. I might like to go there, if only to see if the Wikipedia drawing of red, blue and with chequered shirts is accurate.

Kaars opened the scoring quite early in the game. He is a pacy forward that caught the eye, (and made me ask whether he had come through the Ajax academy). Noordwijk gave good account of themselves, but were always looking suspect to the pace of the Ajax attack. They levelled from the penalty spot, but went behind again when a Kaars shot, saved by Amerzni was then hit in by Kenneth Misa Danso.

Noordwijk’s problems really started in the 33rd minute, when Kai van Hese pulled back Kaars as he tried to run through. I thought there were other defenders that might have been able to get back, but Kaars had the pace to go clear and the referee red-carded the defender.

Noordwijk still defender well until the hour mark, when Sergio Cameron hit the third in from a difficult angle. A couple of minutes later, there was a foul from an Ajax player that incensed temperments. I did not get a clear view of the initial foul, but I did see Bryan Braun push over an Ajax player. The original foulee was booked, but Braun had to go and Noordwijk were down to nine men.

This was too little for them, and Kaars got his second soon after, followed by Cameron (penalty for hand ball), and substitute Ronday in the final minute added to the score

As this was the second pitch at Toekmost, a small stand (around 240 seats) and four steps of concrete terracing opposite, resulting in a lot of wet spectators, I will go back for Toekmost 1 most likely for a league match involving Jong Ajax.

Meanwhile, I was given more information from a referee’s assessor, who was at the game as a spectator. Unlike the clubs, he seemed perfectly happy with the KNVB plan to force promotion on the champions of the Topklasse starting in 2015-16, despite the fact that hardly any of the teams in the Amateur leagues desire promotion. The team Achilles 29 came up at the start of the season, under a three season trial arrangement. During this season, they have played as an amateur team with only a couple of professional players. They have struggled to make the grade and eventually finished bottom of the table. They had been promised that they would not be relegated at the end of the season, but also that promotion was not an option. The results prove that although amateur teams frequently beat the professionals in cup matches, this does not mean that they are good enough to compete on a week in, week out basis. When I saw Achilles earlier in the season, they were comfortably beaten vy the Venlo outfit VVV, 3-0 and it was clear the main difference between the two teams is the fitness levels. Next season, Achilles are committed to a 50-50 professional/amateur team, which may do better, but would surprise me if it really worked. At the end of the season 2014-5, Achilles have the option to pull out, but the league will not relegate them even if they finish bottom again. Should they stay in the League for 2015-6, then they will have to employ at least 11 full time players paid at least the minimum wage, and a number of full time youth players who can be paid a less wage. At the end of 2015-16, there will be automatic relegation, and if the Netherlands FA gets their way, the winners of the Amateur title will be promoted.

I remain uncertain about the logic of adding the three reserve teams to the lower division, (or as they are titled, “Jong”). The trio, along with Achilles brings the number of teams up to 20, while the Netherlands FA actually proclaims 18 as the ideal full strength. My assessing friend said the 18 would be achieved again by not replacing clubs that fold. Still it seems like a brazen dereliction of dut by the league to have a policy that expects clubs to fold, and if the financial standing of the Eerste Divisie is so poor, surely having two extra (home) fixtures dates is a good thing? At professional football clubs, an extra fixture should increase income to a greater extent than it increases expenditure. There is a full reserve division as well as the reserves in the main league, but there is no direct relegation and promotion route for these clubs. Feyenoord were particularly incensed that the clubs chosen to send their second teams in league were PSV, Ajax and Twente, but not the Rotterdam outfit who feel that their status as a member of the “big three” should have given them primacy. I wonder if they have considered a play off after the Amateur championship, between the winners and the reserve competition winners, for the promotion place? When TOP Oss where relegated a few seasons ago (as part of a earlier reduction of numbers), they were pleased to be able to regain their place later, replacing one of the many teams to fold from professional football in recent years. (RBC, Veendam, AGOVV and Haarlem have all dropped by the wayside, many others are threatened). Even the big three have all had to restructure themselves from debt mountains, (which had the positive effect of opening the competition and allowing teams such as AZ and Twente a chance to win the title).

There are many in the Netherlands who believe that their FA are pursuing a utopian league, while not recognising the problems they have at the moment. They now have a promotion/relegation system about to be placed upon teams that do not want it. They have introduced reserve football to the professional leagues, while not having a structure to promote and relegate these

Anyway, from Amsterdam I headed to Braunschweig – a straight forward enough journey with just one change on the route. It had not escaped my notice that it had been an extremely wet day and when I reached my hotel room, trying to sign onto the internet was my first priority of the day. Before I could get connected, there was a call – Dirk was at the reception. Dirk is a German groundhopper who I have known for many years, he lives in Braunschweig and supports the main team Eintracht. He was going to join me for the evening game at the town’s second club FT Braunschweig, who were to play the Neidersachsen Cup final. This is one of 21 “Lander Pokale”, which are important as they serve as qualification competitions for the following season’s German cup. Only teams in the two divisions of the Bundesliga and the top four from the 3.Liga qualify directly. In recent years this has been recognised with increasing crowds and several thousand would be expected for the evening, although with 24 places from 21 competitions, the most populous (Niedersachsen, Westfalen and Bayern) get two places each, so only local pride was at stake.

Anyway, Dirk’s news was bad news – the game was off due to a waterlogged pitch. I said I did not know, as I had not yet got onto the internet, (which was not coming up on my computer). I wondered if there was any other football to keep my run going. Dirk thought that any game was likely to be off as well, the weather having been so poor. Dirk then went out to sort out where his car was parked, but was to come back within 30 minutes to show me around the town.

I found that while I could not get on-line from the computer, I could by using the slab I call a telephone. Searching the match calendar of the kicker website, I found two minor games – one at Bezirksliga level in the Braunschweig area, (Level 7 in the German pyramid) and one a level higher, some 40 km away in Bevenstedt, just outside Hildesheim. The calendar had been updated with the call off at FT, but still had these lower games on. Dirk said that although he had a car from work, it was for business purposes and even driving an 80 km round trip could get him into trouble, but he did check the times for me. If I could get to the local station in about 30 minutes, there was a train for the 20 minute run to Hildesheim and although a bus should get me into Bevenstedt ten minutes before kick off, a taxi might be a better idea. I meanwhile had checked the lower, more local game and discovered it also was off, but neither home or away website for the Bevenstedt game had a comment on the matter.

And so, I set up. Dirk decided who could not make it, still organising his forthcoming three week trip to Asia. We agreed to meet when I got back for a meal and a drink. I quickly headed back to the station, caught the train to Hildesheim and with the help of a taxi found the ground with time to spare. More importantly it was open and they were taking admission money. It was game on, even if the grass was a little long and unkempt and it appeared that the club had neglected to mark out the lines clearly (probably due to the weather). Even better, the ground boasted a quite modern stand with more than 200 seats, situated by the halfway line. The usual food and drink options, including the club bar were situated near the entrance, but having agreed a meal for later I settled on coffee. There was also a match programme, given away free. Admission was €6.

The match had been brought forward from the following weekend. I did not find out why. Bevenstedt were in the comfortable position that no result from this match, or any other match in the league could mean they would finish other than in third place. Only the champions get promoted (as it happens, the champions are Arminia Hannover, the only other member team of this league I have ticked, even if when I went in 1998, they were three levels higher when I went). The visitors HSC Blau-Weiss Schwalbe Tündern were in 9th place and could go up or down two places depending on this and other results, which meant the match would certainly occur on next season’s fixture list. Bevenstedt were on top from the start and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 21 minutes. Playing some very neat passing football despite the uneven and damp surface, they added a second before half time. Immediately after the break they pulled the lead up to 5-0 within ten minutes, Tündern substituted their goalkeeper between the third and fourth goals. It did not appear to be apportioning blame or injury (the sub was waiting to come on when goal three was scored), but merely to give a player a run out. The substitute may have regretted being brought on as he conceded two within his first six minutes on the field. The game turned though, Bevenstedt did not deliberate take the foot off the pedal, but their goals dried up. On 72 minutes, a visiting sub pulled a goal back. Two more followed in the next seven minutes to make the score 5-3. Meanwhile, Bevenstedt revealed their final substitute as a rather overweight bloke with glasses, and quite clearly not of the fitness levels the rest of the team were showing. He spent several minutes joking with those in the stand who clearly knew him before coming onto the field with about five minutes (including injury time) to play. There were lots of calls to “give the ball to Markus” (or the equivalent in German) from the crowd, and he tried to keep in a forward position. I am convinced he did not play the ball once during his five minutes of fame. The final score was 5-3 despite the home keeper being made to make one good save to keep it so.

Third goal for Bevenstedt

I had been asking at half time about getting back to the station, no one appeared to be driving straight after the game, but I was given directions to the bus stop by a young lady who had some English. I asked her again about Markus at the end of the game and the first comment was “he is not a normal player”. I had gathered that already, but why was he on the field. It was in fact a reward for many years of service to the club. One cannot argue with this type of sentiment in a game that does not matter. When I left the ground with just a vague direction to a bus stop, my Sat Nav said if I walked all the way to the station, I would miss my train by about five minutes. As I had arrived by taxi, I did not know the bus times out so I felt lucky to arrive at the stop and find there was an hourly service to the station – especially as I had less than five minutes to wait.

So it was back to Braunschweig, seeing Dirk again and heading to his favourite local Greek restaurant, where I have to admit the food was good, and very good value for money. We talked about Dirk’s forthcoming trip to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei in which he planned 24 flights in a three week trip, including travelling between Borneo and Java four days in a row. I said I had looked at the fixtures and even considered making the trip, but uncertainty about work prevented me from doing this as an alternative to my Eurotrip. I would have forgone a fixture though to spend longer on Borneo, especially if there was an overland option between the games there.

Office building in Braunschweig, used by the company Dirk works for!


Dirk also persuaded me to change my plans for the final day of this tour. I was going to Nöttingen, who had a promotion play off, trying to rise into the Regionalliga (fourth level). Instead, Dirk recommended 1. CFR Pforzeim at a level lower. The club is a recent merger and as such is in possession of two stadia, both good and old. Originally the team had favoured a ground at Holzhof, but difficulties in getting permission to update it, meant Brötzinger Tal had become the ground of choice. This game was slated as the last ever game at Holzhof, and would be a German Groundhopper’s day out (not that this necessarily is a recommendation). As a groundhopper, I do tend to head for grounds that may be having their last hurrah, rather than the more important game on a ground I can visit another day. Added to this, Pforzheim is the more easily accessible of the two, Nöttingen being some 45 minutes from the rail station, with no buses back. There was also the precaution that if I arrived in Pforzheim in good time, and it was off, then it would still be possible to get to the slightly later kick off at Nöttingen – and both could be done without changing my pre-booked hotel.

Pforzheim – time for a beer!

There were a number of German groundhoppers in Pforzheim, having arrived at the ground from various parts of the country. However, the news was that the building works at the alternative ground, Brötzinger Tal was unlikely to be complete for the start of the new season, so Holzhof would continue to be used. 1. CFR were a merger about four seasons ago, and they felt at the time that by combining forces, they could move up from the Verbandsliga Baden, which is level six in these parts. At regional levels, the different areas use different combinations of league names, so where as it is always true that Oberliga is above Verbandsliga, which in turn is higher than Landesliga, with Bezirksliga, Kreisliga and finally Kriesklasse lower down, one cannot say that a specific league name refers to a specific level. In Neidersachsen, where I went on the Wednesday, there is no Verbandsliga, so Landesliga is level 6, the same as Verbandsliga Baden.

Anyway, merging the two teams in Pforzheim has not achieved the desired objective, and the club has sat at the same level for the four seasons since merger. To add insult to injury, another team in the town, Pforzheimer Kickers has come through and is now on the verge of rising to the Oberliga. I would be very surprised to find the average crowd now is much greater than that given to either of the two clubs before merger. There may be some advantages through the merger, such as if they have managed to keep all the sponsors from both clubs on board, and the combined committee should be stronger, but I bet there are people on both sides now that do not view the merger as a success.

With only a few hundred present, the Holzhof is easily fit for purpose without renovation. As I understand Brötzinger Tal is also in this category, I cannot see what the club is building for. It has a large stand, with more than 1000 seats, albeit bench seating. There are a number of steps of terracing all around the rest of the group, and although the section behind the far goal has been closed off and is overgrown, the rest is in very good order. On the levels above the terracing at the town end is the normal catering, I bought myself a Bratwurst, and could have had coffee or beer as well. The club house is immediately outside the ground, but this no longer appears as if connected to the club. They would not let me even use their loo.

The game itself was no great shakes; for most of the time, the visitors Hiedelberg-Kircheim appeared to be the better side with Pforzheim doing little other than lobbing balls into the area for easy clearance. The style changed somewhat when Kircheim had the audacity to take the lead. After this Pforzheim finally got their game together, the passing was more on the ground and crisper with far many more passes reaching completion. This created the chance for substitute Jannick Schram to level the scores after Pforzheim had been behind for fifteen minutes, and may have brought them a win in the last 20 minutes. In the end though, my tour was completed with a 1-1 draw.

The switch from Nöttingen to Pforzheim brought me one final piece of good fortune. On arriving in the town, I noticed there were a lot of people and noise in the centre. Not that common on a holiday (as this was). Needless to say I investigated, and was delighted to discover that the event was an open air beer festival. I took a quick beer there before the game, but then somewhat delayed my journey out of the town, so I can take more than one more after the game, and also enjoy the rather good rock covers band that is playing.

The Original Badebier, which is not a Bad Beer

 

Afterword – looking back on the trip.

The tour consisted of 23 games in 21 days, no days off and two double headers (both in the Czech republic, both starting in Prague). Two games were goalless, but the rest contributed 76 goals to my total. All matches were my first visit to the ground. There were two matches called off due to waterlogged pitches, and twice I had been intending to go to Nöttingen, but changed my mind. There were nine home wins, ten draws and only four away wins. The only game on a neutral ground was a draw, but went on the extra time and penalties.

1. Viktoria Achaffenburg confirmed relegation when I saw them, finishing 18th of 19. Wurzburger Kickers ended up in 11th place

2. Austria Salzburg won the regional title, with Seekirchen finishing 10th of 16. Austria Salzburg lost 3-0 at home in their promotion play off to FAC Team fur Wien, after drawing 2-2 in the away leg.

3. Donaufeld won the Wiener Liga, and promotion to Regionalliga Ost, but there is only one promotion place, so Stadlau, despite finishing second, stay put.

4. This was the final game of the season for Wiener Neustadt and Admira Modling, Neustadt finish 8th, Modling 9th in a ten team league with only one relegation spot.

5/6. We saw Maribor take the title in another ten team league. Celje were practically safe after drawing at Krka, and confirmed this in the next match be winning at Triglav. Krka also lost on that occasion meaning the order of the bottom two was only decided when Krka beat Triglav on the last day. This should have meant Krka entering a play off against Radomlje, the runners-up from the second division, but the second division champions (Dob) declined promotion, meaning Radomije went up without a play off, and Krka kept their place.

7. St Gallen finished 7th, Sion 8th in the Swiss League (again ten teams, one relegated)

8. There are still two games in the Tirol Landesliga to play as I write this, and Kundl are still in the “Possible relegation” zone as the numbers vary depending on how many teams are relegated into the division. I think that the relegation from Regionalliga West will be one to Voralberg and two to Salzburg, meaning Kundl are safe. Reutte are in a safe mid-table position.

9. 1. HFK Olomouc finished in a safe mid-table position. Breclav surprisingly one twice in their final four games, and finished second to bottom. With both relegated teams from the second division being Prague based (and hence going to CFL), Breclav may yet avoid relegation

10. Admira have completed their programme, and have just enough points to be sure of safety. Stechovice still have a game to play and are in mid-table

11. Trinec won their last two home games, while losing in Ceske Budejovice, ending in mid-table. I’ll discuss Taborsko at match 18

12. Thanks to a surprising away win at (already crowned) champions Legia Warsaw, Ruch Chorzow finished third and made it to Europe. Wisla Krakow finished 5th.

13. With Dunajska Streda losing their last game at Ruzomberok, while Nitra won on the last day, DAC escaped the drop by two goals. Spartak Trnava had already confirmed their third place, and home defeat to Slovan Bratislava on the last day did not change the positions.

14. Having brought themselves back into contention with the win over Belchatow, Zabki’s remaining away games were a defeat to Stroze, and a draw at Chojnice, although they did win their last home game. Chojnice’s draw was just enough to save them from relegation. Belchatow won their game at Stroze, and took the title with a 4-0 win over Sandejca Nowy Sacz on the final day, overtaking Leczna who lost at Stomil Olsztyn but still took the second promotion spot. Zabki therefore ended up in third place.

15/16. These relegation group matches in Poland confirmed Lodz and Lubin as relegated, Bielsko-Biala finished 2nd in the relegation group, Cracovia 6th with Kielce 5th.

17. Bohemians Praha had a big win, 7-1 against Frydek-Mistek, which means although relegated, they were spared bottom place by two points. Sokolov finished 6th

18. With both Taborsko and and Hradrec Kralove drawing in this round, Ceske Budejovice’s 1-0 win put them just ahead of their rivals. All three won the following week. On the final day, Hradrec Kralove won 1-0 at Pardubice, knowing that a win had to be enough for promotion as Taborsko and Ceska Budejovice, (both starting one point ahead) were playing each other in Sezimova Usti. The crowd for this game is quoted as a somewhat incredible 7465, nearly ten times the figure I saw there. Perhaps Taborsko froze under this scrutiny, certainly they were 3-0 down in 16 minutes, and eventually lost 6-0, meaning they finished third, behind Ceske Budejovice and Hradrec Kralove.

19. Despite winning the cup, Ujpest have been refused a license for European Competition, so Diosgyori take the place in the Europa League.

20. Malmo won 1-0 at second placed Elfsborg in the next round, and take a six point lead into the World Cup break. The next game are in the first weekend of July

21. Ajax Amateurs needed to defend their 6-1 lead in the second leg, which they did not do well, conceded six goals. However, they scored two to just win through 8-7 on aggregate, and then beat SteDeCo 5-2 to win promotion to the Topklasse.

22. The Niedersachsen cup final has been held over to the start of next season, Bavenstedt finished 3rd, and Tündern 9th in their league. They will meet again next season

23. The match I did not go to in Nöttingen finished 0-0, but Nöttingen won promotion to the Regionalliga with a 1-0 win in Salmohr in the second leg. 1. CFR Pforzheim finished 7th and Kircheim 10th in their 15 team division

 

Eurotour of 2014 Part 4

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

With the kick off time at Cracovia being 18.00, and the overnight train leaving for Prague just before ten, it was an easy walk back to the station for the train. For my third overnight of the tour, I could not get a sleeping compartment and had to settle for a couchette. I was somewhat fortunate in only having one room mate, a retired Canadian. With no socket to plug in my anti-snoring machine, I was also lucky that my companion did not found my night noise very disturbing. I wanted to get another double header onto the trip, and I needed to return to Prague due to a minor disaster on the Monday. When I was dragging my case to the station it fell and the handle broke. I thought the best solution was to go for an instant replacement from the shop at the station. I then had the mad repacking on the shop floor to re-arrange my goods and allow the shop to dispose of the broken case. I thought I had taken everything with me, but then realised there was another pocket I had not emptied. This contained my oyster card, headphones to allow me to listen to music from the computer and most crucially my Sat.Nav system. I realised the mistake within an hour of leaving the city, and with the help of the train conductors, managed to phone back to the shop who found my stuff and promised it to keep it safe and sound until I returned. I am pleased to say this was a success and hence the temporary loss of stuff was only a temporary inconvenience.

Having collected my possessions, and placed them safely in a left luggage locker, I took the metro to Strizkov, six stops from the main station. From here it is a short walk to the ground of Bohemians Praha. When the original Bohemians Praha folded, the people running Strizkov saw the opportunity pick up some of their supporter base and quickly registered the change of name for their own club. I suspect they intended to try and gain the lease of Dolicek, and re-create an image of the original club. This hardly new in the Czech republic or even in Prague. The current Dukla team is another club that took over the original name some time after club had merged with, and decamped to Pribram. However the fans at Bohemians had a different idea, taking inspiration from the goings on n England and especially at AFC Wimbledon, they decided not to follow some other club owner but to own their own club. With Bohemians Praha name taken, this club is now Bohemians 1905. Crucially, the supporters’ club got to use Dolicek. I am not certain their venture would have been a success otherwise. After this, relations between the two Bohemians clubs were not helped by a dispute over the use of the kangaroo on the club badges. Both in fact now use almost identical badges including the kangaroo.

The ground is Strizkov is listed by the Czech FA as SK Prosek, which I think is the name of the hospital near to adjacent. It is a straightforward affair, with a single stand filling almost the entire length of one side and containing some 700 seats in a mixed variety of colours which looks quite pleasing from the distance. All the buildings are behind one goal, while there is room to stand opposite the main stand between the grass pitch and the adjacent poorly maintained 3G surface. It least if it does belong to the hospital, anyone who injures themselves on the creased surface where the carpet has been allowed to ride up in ridges will not have far to go for treatment. Despite the return of poor weather after my week in the hot sunshine of Poland, Bohemians had decided that the small number of visitors from Sokolov should be segregated on the far side. Until it started raining, I am sure they were happy there, but maybe some accommodation should have been made. I estimate the total attendance at the game around 140, with the away fans numbered in single figures, so I do not think this was really a high security situation. The Sokolov fans had a drummer and made a lot of noise from the start for such a small group. The home fans had no less than four trumpeters, although they were more sparing in their contribution to the musical battle. We had to wait around 15 minutes before they started their concert with a rendition of “Yellow Submarine”. Bohemians know they must finish in a relegation position, while Sokolov start her day in fourth, but too many points behind to catch any of those above them. A classic was not in prospect, and a classic was not delivered. Sokolov were always the better team, but somehow it was Bohemians took the lead ten minutes into the second half. The equaliser came some twenty minutes later, but neither team had enough to chase after a winner.

Now picture a single track railway line winding its way across rolling green hillsides. It could almost be England, except of course for the existence of a single track railway line winding its way across the rolling green hillsides. With the train for the forty minute journey from Besenov to Vlasim being a single unit railcar, I was slightly worried that the unit could be filled with away football fans. In fact none came by train, and my only worry was noticing that the speaker on the train kept on announcing stations, and then the train running straight through without stopping. Vlasim is the crossover point where trains in each direction can pass, and all trains have to stop there. My first impression was of a very small quiet town, (but democratic, there was a queue to vote in the Euro elections). Then you reach the castle. This is actually a stately home, mainly converted as a museum, and with extremely extensive landscaped garden leading down to the river and containing a number of buildings including a faux Chinese pavilion, clearly designed by someone who had seen pictures, but never the real thing.

My game was important, the visiting club, Dynamo Ceske Budejovice started the day third in the league (three games) to play, just one point behind Hradrec Kralove, and two behind Taborsko, so I was envisaging a considerable crowd for a ground where the quoted capacity of 6000 owes a lot to the imagination. SO I made sure I was at the ground in good time, and knew my way back to the station – there may be as little as 10 minutes to get back for my train, (which would mean more than five waiting at the station).

Going for the ever popular, “header wide of target” option

In reality, it was all quiet as I paid my 60 Kcs to enter and another 10 Kcs for a programme. I was hot from the walk and immediately bought a bottle of water and sat on the benches outside to admire the views. I decided against having a Klobasa (the Czech red fatty sausage),while noting that this was also the name of a home sub. With everything quiet and no massive invasion of away fans, it was easy to pick up my team sheet, and even have a beer before kick off as well. The ground consists of a small stand, (not more than 400 seats) with bench seating over grass each side of this. On the far side are a few rows of open seats, while the ends are flat. You can walk all the way around, except a small area near the entrance (which while fenced off, does include more bench seating). The pitch was in perfect condition, and despite average attendances under 500 (this game had 360), they have installed one of the pop-up sprinkler systems seen in the Football League. In the end, there were only a handful of visiting fans, and these did not even group together during the game

Ceske Budejovice (in Germany, they say Budweis) were the better side throughout the game, but they found it very difficult to get a goal. The only goal coming midway through the second half, when a free kick from Bruncik from the right evaded everyone and run straight into the goal. Although there was a lot of time wasting at the end, it felt unnecessary, the home side rarely looked capable of scoring. Still time wasting works well when the result is an occasional booking, which itself wastes time not added on. In the end, we had one minute of injury time (as we actually had the trainer on the field), but nothing extra for time wasting or substitutions. When the other results came through, neither Hradrec Kralove or Taborsko won on the weekend. This meant that Ceske Budejovice went to the top, thanks to their superior goal difference.

The Nepstadion still sets there in Budapest, close to the Keleti Stadium. They do not build them like this anymore. At its peak, it held 104,000 – its capacity today is quoted at 56,000. For the Hungarian Cup Final, 22,000 turn up

I will not use the name Ferenc Puskas Stadium. To be called Ferenc Pukas you need to be the best, and this stadium, a relic of the soviet age does not deserve that name. It is a large bowl with a tier of seating all around. A second larger tier sits above the first on the side opposite the main stand. The main stand itself is the only thing that has been refurbished, and the only area with cover. It is given over entirely to VIP and Media.

I had a 1000 Forint (about £3) ticket using the Hungarian FA’s less than easy booking system. This was required as the signs clearly said no tickets on the day. I chanced my luck with the media accreditation and was told no, and then they changed their mind and said yes, so I got my upgrade, the teamlists and a free cup of coffee!

The ground currently holds 56,000. Around 22,000 turned up. That means the upper tier was uninhabited, the fans from the two clubs filled (but nowhere near 100%) the two ends, and a curiously quiet four blocks immediately opposite the main stand had small groups of people in them. These tickets were not on sale on the net (if they were, I would have had one), so I am not certain who they were. They were not wearing colours, while most of the rest of the crowd were in colours, including most in the hospitality area and some of the media. I have two guesses – one that they were mainly foreigners who found out about the game late and got tickets through contacts from the hotels, or that they were stragglers left over from the Amateur Cup final held as a curtain warmer, (my train times did not allow me to double up). There were quite a few leaving the ground after this as I arrived.

On the field, it was a very open game, Ujpest took an early lead and never stopped trying for a second. Diosgyori often looked the better side but did not seem to have the routes through the defence, meaning Ujpest had more chances. Most teams would have tried to shut up shop, play out the last few minutes, and the Ujpest bench appeared to be in that mood, waiting to make an injury time subsitution as the board went up for three minutes injury time. Diosgyori found the gap at this moment, and Basca levelled the scores from close range

Diosgyori had Tamas Kadar sent off six minutes into extra time, and the game died down a little, going to the almost inevitable penalty shootout. Diosgyori missed two, none were saved, Ujpest won the cup 4-3 on penalties

From the moment I had arrived at the station, it was clear that there was a major security operation on, with massed police at the station, and plenty of police moving around the area. There were blockades quite a distance from the stadium in all directions. Everyone heading to the stadium had their ticket checked, supposedly against ID, but as I entered through the press zones, I never found out for certain. My name, date and place of birth were printed on the ticket, and one had to carry ID card or passport. The question then remains, are flares, smoke bombs and crackers permitted or are the searches just not that thorough? During the game, we had plenty of competitive singing from both ends of the stadium. It appeared that despite the greater distance, Diosgyiori had slightly more and noisier fans than the local Ujpest team, but Ujpest made up for this with more flares and fireworks. There were a couple of moments though when a level of peace was restored. During the second half, I noticed that identical banners, exhorting all Hungarians to get to Bucharest for the European qualifier in October was displayed at both ends, while on the 30 minute mark the fans gave each other space to mention their pet hates (naturally also hated by the other team). Ujpest chanted about their hate of Ferencvaros, while Diosgyori’s complaint was against the Hungarian FA, and in particular the president thereof. It appears these two parties are held jointly responsible for the current situation where every top division match is considered a major security concern.

From Budapest, I took the quick route to Malmo, on board a rather packed out Wizzair A320. Wizzair are the airline that pulls out all the stops to make Ryanair look good, the flight was packed out and at Budapest, you are made to queue in a room that is nothing more than a large warehouse. Still, it meant I could have breakfast in Budapest and an early afternoon coffee in Malmo.

Marching band. Malmo style

It was a strange afternoon, the police were around in force, but acting much quieter than their counterparts in Budapest. One was not certain if they believed there was a risk of trouble or not. It is of course a very pleasant city in good weather, and coffee is one thing that is not particularly higher priced than in England.

As one walks south from the centre, you can easily pass all three of the Malmo stadiums, all of which have been used by Malmo FF at some time in their history. First up is Malmo Idrottslats, which now has an artificial pitch and is used by Sweden’s leading ladies team, (now called FC Rosengard). The pitch was in use for training and the gates were open, so I asked permission and took a couple of photos.

You then cross a park, keeping the lake on your left to take the best route, before arriving at the main complex

The old stadium, which you pass in order to reach the new one was also in use (for Athletics training). I believe Malmo IF, a lower division team currently play there while Malmo FF did until the new stadium was built. When I asked at the gates, I was directed down to the track

As with most new built stadiums, the New Stadium, Malmo has fine viewing lines. It has been built square to the pitch, with very little space between the pitch and the stands in order to give a much better atmosphere then the Malmo Stadium next door. For most of the circumference it has two uniform tiers. The exception is the north (or city) end, given over to home support. This single tier is deeper than those on the other sides, and above it is a sheer face in which the glass windows of offices or sponsors lounges overlook the pitch. Above the scoreboard there is a small balcony providing a great viewing position. As well as this balcony being a standing area, the large area below is also terrace, capable of holding 6000 standing spectators for a game like this, but then being converted to 3000 seats for European or International games. In the front of the area is a raised platform where one supporter stands, back to the game to orchestrate the chants from behind. They may as well convert the away supporters section to standing as well, as practically no one was sitting there. AIK seemed to have bought more banners and flags than the home team, and almost the full front row wore near identical shirts. The font few rows were left empty, with banners in front of the support and their own conductor (with megaphone) on the otherwise empty seats. There is no doubt that the supporters were very aware of goings on, on the pitch (unlike some German games I have been to recently, where I thought the crowd was almost blind to the game. When AIK got a free kick or corner, the chant at the home end would break off as the fans whistled their displeasure.

A lot of the displays at the ground hark back to the fact the club has won 20 Swedish titles, the most of any club. One corner has the word ROY, a picture of the current England manager looking somewhat younger than he does today and the five years (1985-1989) that marked his management of the club. In five years of Hodgson, Malmo won five Swedish titles. He also won two for Halmstads. Only one other England manager has first won the Swedish title, and Sven only did it once.

Malmo had the better of the early exchanges coming close twice in the first five minutes. In the 17th minute, Robin Quaison of AIK went down in the penalty area and got a booking for his dive. They actually showed the whole move again as a replay on the screen, bring forth laughter and derision from the home support, seeing clearly that had made the correct decision. With both sides playing a 442 the game was quite open, but Malmo’s left flank was clearly the most creative area of the game, from where Forsberg hit a shot against the post in the 27th minute. It looked as if it would go scoreless to the break, but the Malmo defence took their eye off the ball, it was knocked forward to Eero Markkanen to score for AIK. The second goal also went the way of AIK, this time scored by Quaison, who must have been as surprised as anyone when his shot went through Olsen’s grasping hands, while the keeper is sure to be blamed, the defenders will also have to question the space given to the scorer.

Five minutes later, Malmo pulled a goal back in rather strange circumstances. There was an incident near the benches and two AIK players as well as the one just substituted stopped to argue with the home bench, but the referee had not stopped play, and the ball was moved forward for Molins to score. The referee was clearly bemused by the situation, and the linesman and fourth official, both on the side seemed none the wiser. In the end, the sanctions were yellow cards for Goitom (AIK, who had just been substituted) and Jansson (Malmo, a sub who never came on). It is quite unusual to get your yellow card five minutes after leaving the pitch! There was also a marked contrast against other games in that the lighting of flares immediately after the goal brought whistles of protest from some fans, two Malmo players went to their fans to tell them to stop, and the game did not restart until the flares were out. With no security presence at the home end of the pitch, I doubt if any other action occurred, even though the culprits must have been videoed.

Meanwhile pulling one back meant that each home attack was greeted with a wave of expectation, followed by a groan as the players managed to mess it up. With 15 minutes to play, Mallmo tookthe adventurous decision to take off a full back for an attacking player. Then Molins was bought down, just inside th box by Orofi. Molins himself took the penalty and placed it at perfect saveable height, for the grateful Carlgren to push away. There were more complaints from the home fans when AIK’s Lorentzson was slow to leave the pitch injured, and did not get a booking, but the referee added no less than six minutes on. In the fourth of these minutes, Forsberg, who had been the player most responsible in the second half for not getting his shots and crosses delivered had a cross blocked for a corner, then took the corner which was only half cleared. Cibicki picked up the ball with his back to goal, took a couple of paces away from the goal and then shot the equaliser on the turn. Malmo were already two points ahead of second placed Elfsborg before the game started, but face their strongest rivals on Sunday in the last game before the world cup break.

After the game, I again kept the lake to my left, admiring the late evening colours, and the fountain which was lit up, I made my way to the local brew house, where I decided I was sampling at least something of what was on offer despite the charge of £6 for a half litre. That is six times the cost of some drinks I had taken in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It was good beer though and I had a chat with another of the clientele, a AIK supporter down for the day who was not certain whether to celebrate his club getting a good away draw to the league leaders of mourn the points lost from 2-0 up. He did know that either way, beer was the answer. He asked me (in perfect English, of course) if I was a groundhopper, he tried to charge his phone from my charger (which is not very good), and he bought me a beer.

Spending slightly longer than I should, in the pub, a further combination of factors meant I missed the first choice train out. Not a major loss, but it meant spending 90 minutes waiting for a connection at 4 in the morning, when the original choice was to travel for two extra hours (going to Aarhus and back) to use up the time. The factors were enjoying the pub, a slight delay on a connecting train from the local station to Malmo central and the actions of one of AIK’s less helpful supporters, who had stuck a club sticker on the left luggage locker controls. If you put a sticker on a touch screen panel it just does not work (do not try this at home), and by the time I had removed the sticker and recovered my bag, I was left waiting for the next train.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 3

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Next stop, Poland. The country has gained a reputation as being a difficult place for groundhoppers to go. Serious crowd problems have led to membership card systems, and although one can generally get in, using the passport for ID, there are exceptions to the rule and some high security matches where it is just not possible to gain entry at all. Having not been for nine seasons, I dipped my toe back into the water last season, by trying for a press pass for a couple of matches. One of these, which may have been the worst match for hooliganism in the country was Lech Poznan v Legia Warsaw, while the other was Piast Gliwice v Korona Kielce. Lech turned me down, and there was no way I was going to try to get anywhere close to the stadium without a ticket, but Gliwice was happy to let me in for a match in which they failed to live up to their league position, only managing a draw which contributed to them dropping out of the Europa League placings.

Not far from Gliwice is Chorzow; both are former mining and industrial towns in the area of Silesia close to Katowice. I stayed in Katowice last year and was disappointed by the place, feeling I might have been better off heading into Gliwice which has a bit of history to it. Ruch Chorzow responded positively to my request for a ticket, so I decided to stay in the town itself. The approach by rail is grim, the line passes no end of dead industrial sites, where even the demolition seems to have drawn to halt, leaving concrete skeletons sticking out of the ground as a reminder of the times when the area had full employment. However, the town centre is very different – a bright and cheerful pedestrian street (with a bus/tram route running in one direction down the centre), there are plenty of cafes and people enjoying the arrival of warm sunny weather after the dreary rains of the week before. It is not an exciting place, the only building that really catches the eye is the post office at one end of the street, and when I went back after the game, there were few options for beer and food. The Blues Hotel is on the main street, and is a well modernised hotel, even if the entrance (off a courtyard from the main road) is somewhat dreary. I arrived by train, a suburban line out of Katowice which as I discovered was run by a private company and not included on my interrail ticket. I left by tram, more frequent, but slower to make the journey and running along a more modernised road, past the Slaski Stadion which has been well used in the past for international games. The gleaming office buildings on the Katowice to Chorzow road paint a start contrast with the dead industrial landscape of the rail route. It appears that rather than regenerate the areas used in the past, they are being ignored, and neighbouring areas are now used for development instead.

From the hotel, it is a 20 minute walk down to the stadium. Plenty of life around the stadium, and there is a ticket kiosk, so I could probably have managed to buy a ticket. When I ask to find the press accreditation point, I am just waved through and end up in the press room inside the stadium, without first collecting a pass. However, inside the stadium I am introduced to Donata, who I had communicated with by e-mail, and she actually gets a card sent up to me in the stand. Not really required, as I would only now need it to go to post match press conference. There is a newspaper style programme, which was available both at the ground, and also at the club shop in the town centre.

The stadium is clearly recently modernised with the exception of the stand, which provides the only cover. All around the rest is clean fresh concrete steps, most of which (but not all) has seats bolted down. The steps curve around both ends of the stadium, and there is still room if they want to use the ground as a (grassed) track. One end was practically empty, and I asked about the lack of away fans. A journalist told me this end was closed due to incomplete building works, while Donata said Wisla Krakow fans were refusing to travel due to a disagreement with the club’s owner. With Legia having taken the title, and Lech the runners-up spot, there is one Europa League place still to be awareded. Ruch Chorzow start in prime position, three points ahead of Wisla, although only two up on Gdansk, who had already played their game in this round, and beaten Lech. The Polish Ekstrkalasa, or top division now has 16 teams, and after they have completed home and away fixtures the league splits into two sections for single round robin groups, meaning each team plays a 37 match season.

The game started well, plenty of football was being played, creating chances at both ends. I though Krakow appeared to be the better side, and I was not surprised when took the lead midway through the half. If anything, this stung the home side into action, and they levelled through a penalty five minutes later and then took the lead and were now clearly on top. A second penalty, awarded just before half time allowed the teams to go in level at 2-2. Sadly, the second period did not live up to the excitement of the first. Ruch’s best player (and second goal scorer), striker Grzegorz Kuswik went off injured at the break, while Wilde Guerrier, a winger who was making things happen for Wisla dropped back to a more defensive position. As the half drew on, Wisla seemed happy to settle for a draw, conceding a couple of yellow cards for time wasting. As in the game the year before at Gliwice, I failed to understand this approach – a win was within either team’s grasp, and the winner would have been favourites for the Europa league slot. With Ruch facing both Legia and Lech (and both away) in the next games, I feel they have certainly missed the boat here.

Wisla score their penalty




You can’t beat a good Eastern European Floodlight Pylon.

There is a nice little café next to Bratislava station, where they sell the decent Slovak dark beer, and have enough English to understand when I ask for it. I was not intending to stop here, but the train from Katowice into Bratislava stopped just outside the station for 15 minutes, meaning I just missed a connection. With just 30 minutes to wait to the next train, what else is one to do but sample the local beer? The trains to Dunajska Streda are not listed on the Interrail App I have on my telephone. I also cannot find them on the German rail site, normally one of the best train sites on the net, but from the Slovak rail site, I do manage to download the times in a pdf file. The reason I could not find the trains on the App is simple, the interrail ticket is not valid on this route, as it is run by an independent company. It is then hit or miss whether your ticket is accepted on the train, depending on whether the train staff know the rule, and whether they can tell you there is a problem across the language gap. The result is that Peter, on different trains to me, and actually staying in Dunajska Streda gets away with it, while I pay €2.55 on the outward leg, and €1.50 for the return. The trains run by Regiojet and nice modern stock with internet connections, although it did not work on the train I went out on.

I am met by Peter at the station, and we wander into town. It is a reasonable town, but with nothing particular to commend it. We go into a bar just off the town square, where we find the dark beer is not the Slovak beer, but imported wheat beer from Munich, at twice the price. We drink it anyway before completing the short walk to the stadium. The area around the stadium is surprisingly busy, my experience of Slovian football has always involved small crowds, except for an important game at Slovan some 15 years ago. The league table shows the home team to be six points above the last place (only one relegation) with two games to play, that border line between safe and mathematically safe. Spartak Trnava have their Europa League spot booked regardless of the result.

The answer is in a footnote at the bottom of the table. DAC (the general abbreviation of Dunajskastreda Athletic Club) were to have six points deducted from the final table, but they were not shown yet, so the lead over Nitra was actually goal difference only. Why the Slovakians should deduct points and not show them immediately is a local issue. Why the points were deducted is not. One of the early games in the season for DAC was fixed. As it happens, DAC lost the game by 4-0; now betting syndicates fixing matches do not make their money on the heavy favourites for the game winning the match, and no one in their right mind bets on the actual score. The bets are placed early in the second half (when the score was 2-0) for at least two more goals to be scored by the winning team. Naturally this happened. Looking at the video of the game, one can see the defending is atrocious, but cannot safely say the score is fixed. Still four DAC players, (one of which was not in the pitch, having been substituted at half time were charged). Only one of the quartet admitted the charge, but three DAC players and one from another amateur club suffered lengthy bans (for a professional footballer, a 14 year ban is the same as Sine Die). As the points deduction was applied as well, I guess there was some complicity from the club in the affair, although it was not enough to actually throw them out of the league.

Peter had said he had arranged two press passes. I tend not to bother in Slovakia, it was easily possible to pay €5 for entry, despite the big crowd, and one can normally wander around to the press area to pick up the team list. As it happened, we were not added to the list, but were let in as press anyway. The stand areas were full and we ended standing at the back of the press area. We even managed to get something to eat and some very strong alcohol (a local schnapps), as guests of a very drunk Hungarian in the VIP zone, whose English was good enough to invite us in, and tell us he supported Ferencvaros, (although his shirt said Celtic). It was not good enough to tell us why he was at the game (with VIP ticket), or to sort out a ticket for Sunday’s Hungarian Cup Final.

The ground consists of a quite old main stand, with a larger, newer stand opposite. The main stand has been extended with uncovered seating in front of an an office building, and provides a sheltered area acting as technical areas and I think some wheelchair accommodation. The opposite stand has a paddock in front, I think this had bench seats, although no one sat on them.

Both ends are curved behind the grass track, and consist of segmented open concrete stands. The ground is technically all seated, but I would say that over half the crowd did not sit down at any time during the game. Some of the seating is bench, rather than individual seats, especially on the curves. Both covered stands appeared close to full, and the open seating at the town end was close to full, (this is where we would have probably ended up if paying our €5). The main singing section for home fans was in the newer stand, The far end held around 200 Spartak fans, with a line of police in full riot gear (very hot with no shade, and temperatures around 25C) between them and the pitch. Peter has seen a game abandoned due to the antics of these fans, so it may be the police presence is required, but it does not appear they are going to cause trouble today. The game was not bad, DAC needed to points and Spartak were not there to be rolled over. There was only one goal, scored after just 11 minutes when a direct free kick from Szabo curled inside the near post. The game stayed entertaining throughout, despite a little time wasting from DAC near the end, (two yellow cards for time wasting, but the time concerned was not added on at the end – so probably a good deal for the players getting booked). I think this was the best atmosphere for any game I have been to in Slovakia, with both sets of fans singing throughout. At the end of the game, home fans were allowed to celebrate on the pitch, but they were polite enough to wait for the Sparta players to leave first. Nitra lost in Bratislava and hence DAC were celebrating safety, but with only three points margin and a game to go, and a not insurmountable goal difference advantage, there is a risk that the celebration is premature. The crowd of 7009 was the biggest in the country this season, and about three times the average crowd at DAC, (or in the league generally).

I have a couple of beers with Peter, leaving him to complete his meal when I head back to Bratislava. From there it is the night train to Warsaw. I have a sleeper booked, with a lower berth, but it is old Polish rolling stock. The only electric socket is a shaving point, and this does not actually have electricity. I explain to the steward that without power for my anti-snoring machine, I am going to disturb the other passenger, and he moves me to a compartment on my own! Still, I sleep better with the machine, so I arrive tired in Warsaw. Fortunately, my excellent choice of hotel allows me to check in straight away. It’s the Hotel Maria, and receives my recommendation as a hotel labelled as two stars, but would be a good three star hotel if they added a lift! Entering the city at one station and leaving from another, the hotel has the advantage of direct tram links to both.

Rested a little, spending some internet time and using the hotel printer to sort out a ticket for the Hungarian Cup Final, I venture out into the midday sun, (well, I am an Englishman). The city seems larger than most I visit, and has a lot of contrasts, big modern steel and glass blocks near the centre, where we can see it is not completely Americanised – there is only a Starbucks in every second block, contrasting with the meticulously rebuilt “old town”, (it was near to completely destroyed in response to an anti-Nazi uprising in 1944). Even before the war, the old town is not as old as the new towns I had visited in Austria and Slovenia the previous week! There is plenty of open space, but also a massive amount of apartment blocks, and thousands of small shops and roadside stalls, selling just about everything, (although when I asked for shoelaces in a shoe shop, the answer was nyet).

The remodelled National Stadium, as seen from the Old Town

The station for the suburban train to Zabki was typical of the contrasts. One approaches from a dreary street, but to the other side is an ultra modern shopping mall. The train is a rickety computer special, and seats are at a premium. Fortunately, the journey time is only seven minutes. Knowing that I want to leave the station heading away from Warsaw, and seeing what appears to be steps under the line at that end of the platform, I follow other passengers that way. As it turns out, the steps are under construction and the passengers clamber down the three foot drop to the rail level and then just walk across the track. I follow suit gingerly, but resolve to find a better way back to the station. The other end of the station has a path from where a road crosses at level crossing gates. The path runs between the tracks.

The ground is easy to find, and again it follows the Polish rule of contrasts. One side is a really modern concrete stand, while the other is a few rows of rather decrepit open seating. Behind both goals is just wire fencing, with enough advertising banners to prevent any free viewing through the cracks. There are hardly any people outside, half an hour before the start, but most are queuing, either to buy tickets, or to get through the security check to the gates. I am more fortunate, two nice ladies by the central entrance to the stand have a list of VIPs and a small pile of press cards. One of the press cards has my name on it, and I am ushered inside. While those going through security may have drinks bottles confiscated, my option to get water is by taking a similar bottle from a vending machine.

It takes me a few minutes to get water, get a team sheet and then notice some people have programmes and so I go in search of these. They are hidden behind the desk at reception. The programme is a rudimentary affair, four pages of A5 containing the team squads, league table and a team photo. It appears to be only on offer in a VIP area, and to those in the press area that ask for it. I did think that the far side was not actually going to used, but just on kick off, around 20 or 30 Belchatow fans were admitted to this area, most of them missing the actual start of the game.

1

First Penalty, the scorer has turned out of the frame to the right

Belchatow started the day in joint top position with Gornik Leczna, while Dolcan Zabki were six points behind in fourth place having dropped points at home to relegation threatened Rybnik at the weekend. When the game started, it was easy to see Zabki dropping points again, with Belchatow enjoying all the early possession and creating several chances. However, careless tackles in the box seems to be a feature of the Polish game at the moment. After two first half penalties at Ruch on Monday, we had two more here. Both went to Zabki and both were scored. Belchatow came back strongly after the break, making twin substitutions, at half time. I cannot recall any other team not just playing with twins, but bringing both on as substitute at the same time. Why they did not start is not clear, as one of the pair is the club’s leading scorer this season. Anyway, their game was livened up, but Zabki held out until the 70th minute before conceding a goal. Belchatow were not a team for giving up easily and they camped in their opponents half after scoring, but this was to no avail, and the score finished at 2-1. With a total crowd of 650, and only around 20-30 away fans, it was quite amazing to see how much of a security operation was employed to make sure the two groups never met. Clearly, if Zabki defy the odds and win promotion, few is any top division games will take place in this ground. The word is that Polonia in Warsaw could stage their games. Polonia were top division until last season, but their continual financial crisis’s finally caused the club to fold, with a new body starting at level six of the Polish leagues. Even then there were reports that the first game for the new club had to be abandoned when it was interrupted by Legia fans.

The name Dolcan, by the way, is a sponsor’s name belonging to a house building company. They have restyled the ground with the name Dolcan Arena, but while this is written in large letter on the side of the ground, the club do not even include it on the programme, where the venue is listed as Stadion Miejski w Zabrach, (which you can translate as Zabki Town stadium). Ironwork on one of the gates refers to MKS Zabki, (MKS basically means Town Sporting Club, and is a relatively common prefix). It appears though that Dolcan is part of the club’s official name, as SSA Dolcan Zabki. The second gate had the word Dolcan added in ironwork that does not quite match the rest of the gate.

Back down to Silesia, or more precisely, Podbeskidzie. I had to ask what exactly what this club prefix means. It appears it is a name for this ill defined region of Silesia, that would prefer not to be judged with the decayed industrial zones further north. So the best definition would be the “pretty and scenic part of Silesia, close to the Czech and Slovak borders”. In European terms, it is also termed as part of the Beskids Euroregion. This is an example of the type of Eurobabble that gets the Union a bad name. An attempt to promote together for areas in three countries at the point of intersection. The town of Bielsko-Biala is therefore twinned for this purpose with relative neighbours, Frydek-Mistek in the Czeck Repbublic and Zilina in Slovakia. I suspect the only common ground here is those groundhoppers who have been to all three. Meanwhile a European grant is being sought in order to buy a hyphen and a second name so as Zilina does not feel left out in this hyphenated company. The town of Bielskp-Biala is extremely attractive, although my choice of hotel, situated in the old town centre did not seem so attractive when I realised the final stage of the ten minute walk from the station meant dragging my bags up a steepish hill with cobbled paving. The room was also too close to the cathedral, which while being very pretty, has a clock the chimes the hour and quarters. It does appear to stop at night, but then restart at six. I wanted a slightly later alarm call. It is quite a small centre, and I was surprised when wandering around to come across a group of four English groundhoppers, including Eddie. Pete had told me that he thought Eddie was going to the same game as me in Krakow the next day, so I had sent him a text message without reply. It was in fact a mixed message, as Eddie was flying to Krakow and spending time there, before seeing football in Bielsko-Biala and Gliwice. However, they had a tale of woe to tell. They had been told on arrival at hotel that match tickets were near impossible to get, as the game was already sold out. Their hotel knew a friend of a friend and had secured their tickets, but Dave Cox was apparently also wandering around, having failed at the stadium earlier (all closed). I had an e-mail from the club telling me that I would not get a press pass, but I could buy a ticket on the day. They did not say they were already sold out. The reason there was a problem at this less than attractive game is that the stadium has been undergoing a complete rebuild, and only the area behind one goal has been completed, limiting capacity to not much over 3000. Not being one to worry, especially as the station offices were probably still closed, I was easily persuaded back up the hill to the pub attached to the local brewery, (I had already spotted this, and had decided I was going to visit the bar anyway). So a pleasant hour was spent trying the local pale and red ales.

I got to the ground just under 90 minutes before kick off, spotting Dave Cox en route, who said that despite originally being told sold out, they had found him a “poor view” ticket. The first reaction I got at the ticket office was “not possible”, but they were quite sympathetic to the fact I had been told I would be able to buy a ticket. These were not job-worth employees but people who wanted to help when there was a genuine difficulty. Eventually they found some more front row seats with limited viewing. When I said I would take these and then try to move higher up the ground to the press benches, a quick phone call was made, and instead of buying a limited view ticket, I was given the press card denied by e-mail! In the event, there were plenty of spare seats, and I moved from the press box (which was busy, and behind glass) to a seat near the top. While all the tickets had been sold, I imagine quite a few season ticket holders were missing this game. It was of importance to confirm the positions, Bielsko-Biala would be safe from relegation with a win, while only a win could delay Widzew Lodz in being relegated.

When completed, the ground will be a compact two tier stadium and I would think completely seated. For the moment, only the area behind the goal is open. There are a lot of flags flying, but I noticed the number reducing during the second half as club stewards collected most of them in. A singing section was set at one end, slightly around the corner, but the whole stand joined in on occasion. No away fans were permitted, and there were no signs of any trying to break the ban, plenty of police on show just in case. The first period was quite frustrating, with Podbeskidzie on top, but struggling to get any shots on target, the resolute visiting defence seemed to be always in place to block the shot. However, when Pawela successfully turned the Lithuanian defender Leimonas, he was pulled down and we had yet another first half penalty, with Podbeskidzie 1-0 up.

For a long time, it appeared it may stay that way, the Widzew defence were strong enough to withstand the attacks, but they could not put the home goal under pressure. The home attackers were not clever enough to get past the defence. When close to goal it was either an intercepted pass or shot, while from further out, they booted every shot high into the stands. The second breakthrough came just on the hour, when a foolish defenders’ pass gave space to the home attack – and Damian Chmiel became the grateful recipient. The game did open up a bit then, and a third goal was added on the stroke of full time. From the team list, I noted that Podbeskidzie is basically an all Polish side, (the exception being a Slovakian goalkeeper), while the visitors were a veritable league of nations, naming players from 8 different countries. My biggest disappointment here is they did not bring on Kevin La France to give me an opportunity to refer to the player as a French born Haitian defender. I do not think I have used the phrase before!

All six English groundhoppers at the match headed for a bar attached to the castle, which was selling a variety of Polish beers, which we sampled until soon after midnight before turning in.

The umbrellas on the right side of the castle mark the bar

I see Dave Cox again at the station before making my way to Krakow, he has picked on the slow bone-shaker as far as Katowice, but I need to stick to the not much faster and not much quicker service provided by Polish railways instead of the independent company. It is better to know my rail ticket is OK, then to hope they accept it. Dave was paying as he went. I last visited Krakow in 2003. It was a great city, but the then undeveloped Wisla ground was a very wet place to watch football. The city remains beautiful, but it seems to have become much more commercial in the last decade. While I made my way with difficulty when I visited Auschwitz, there are now tours offered on every corner. Of all places, I hope Auschwitz has not become a tourist rip off point as well. I headed down to the football ground of Cracovia, not far from the city centre with a little over an hour before kick-off. I had no trouble in entering as press, although all the signs suggested that I could easily have paid 25 Zloty for a good ticket.

Not so easy for away fans perhaps. Only about 30 in at the start of the game, this doubled in the first ten minutes and then increased massively around half time. The attendance was 6276, but much of the stadium was empty. Except on the South side, it is a single tier stadium with the stands behind the goal having a roof stepped up higher than that along the north side. The noisemakers in the home fans have seats, (they do not sit) behind the goal at the “City End”, while the away corner is at the other end. When all the away fans were in place, we had a fine amount of competitive singing between the two groups. The main stand was two full tiers, and a mini-tier centrally positioned for VIP boxes. This means the roof here is again stepped up from the two ends. An unusual feature at the end furthest from the city (and hence not far from the away fans) is a cut away section immediately behind the goal. I estimate around 600 seats have been sacrificed to create this flat space with a wall at the back. It was being used as a crèche, with a small playground to the back of the area, some children and most parents stood at the front of the section and watched through the mesh fence. I have never seen this type of feature in a prominent pitch side position elsewhere.

Creche and away supporters, early in the game


And again, just before the equalising goal

The relegation positions from this lower group are close to settled, while both teams (Cracovia and Korona Kielce) knew their positions in the Ekstraklasa would be secured with a win, they also had two further games to get the points and even then, these would only be required if Zaglebie Lubin could secure all nine points from their final games, (starting after our game finished at Gliwice where the other hoppers I had seen at Bielsko-Biala would be). Cracovia had the better of the first half, but as at Podbeskidzie the approach play was wasted with poor passing, poor shot selection and blocking defenders. This time we did not have a penalty to break the deadlock, so instead had to rely on a goalkeeping error. This came from a long distance shot by Damian Dabrowski on 37 minutes, which having kept low, somehow evaded the grasp of the Kielce goalkeeper. In the second half, Korona, playing towards their own fans – now all present and in good voice – looked by far the better side but they had the same problems as Cracovia did in the first half. Ball goes down the wing into a dangerous position and then gets crossed to a defender. The equalising goal came midway through the period, through persistence, two shots were blocked by defenders, a third was punched away by the keeper. The punch landed within the area and had dragged the keeper off his line and a well placed shot went over his head back into the goal. Korona lost Piotr Malarczyk to a second booking with one of the three added minutes already taken up. Despite it taking over a minute to get him off the field, the referee did not see fit to add an single extra second to the game. A 1-1 draw will probably satisfy both teams, but leaves both sets of supporters feeling their own team should have won it. Lubin lost the later game, so both will be in the top division to try again next season

So, while I had cheated and gained press passes for all four games, I saw little evidence that there is a real problem accessing the stadiums in Poland. I am sure I could have bought tickets for all the games except Bilesko-Biala an hour before kick off. I would only shy away from two clubs with clear security problems, Lech and Legia