Archive for the ‘The European Game’ Category

The 4000.

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

It has to be typical of my record that a landmark number, the 4000th ground ticked should come courtesy of two low level matches in France. I had thought of slowing down for a week, so as number 4000 would be the new Spurs ground – but stuck to my standard plans, so it should be 4004.

I had a pleasant enough drive to Hauts-de-France, finding a route that avoided most jams, and also avoided all but one section of toll road. The last section, €2.10 south of Rouen for a 10-minute saving is a regular toll for me.

I still pitched up in Vimy over an hour before kick-off and took some time to wander around the town. There is little here to suggest it was a mining town, and you do not see the old slag heaps until you take the roads north from here. The name of the ground, Stade de la Mine, does give it away a little

This is a large ground, with four pitches. Two of these have cover. The one nearest the entrance has a long building providing cover in front. The whole pitch has an old, concrete railing around it and I suspect it was the main pitch at sometime in the past. It was being used for Junior games on the day.

The main pitch is above this, with a very modern concrete stand and a club room at the top. This has carefully used the slope the area is built on, so as you can exit at the back of the clubhouse to an area that includes parking, although this is not used.

The main pitch is one sided, with standing accommodation in front of, and both sides of the stand. Team benches and protection of the team tunnel provide marginal loss of viewing. The other three sides of the ground are accessible, but are surrounded by high mesh fences which make viewing poor

The game was at Regional 1 level, the sixth tier of French football. There are two groups in Hauts-de-France, a northerly one that is for clubs that were in the old Nord Pas de Calais region and one for the Picardie area. With three promotion places available, I am not certain how the second teams are rated.

US Vimy are the second team, but a win in this catch up game would put them in with a chance of catching league leaders Valenciennes II. USM Waziers were mid-table. US normally stands for Union Sportive in French club names, USM means Union Sportive des Miners – another reference to coalmining in this region.

The match was entertaining in places, and it was good to hear support from both sides in the 200 or so watching. However, this is France so it was not surprising that it was ultimately frustrating. Waziers forced a save with an early free kick but rarely threated to get closer. Vimy dominated the proceedings but actually only put in two shots that the visiting keeper needed to save as well as hitting the post in the first half.

The rest of their play involved losing the ball due to poor crossing or taking a pot shot against the protective fencing from a point outside the area.

I had given up on the idea of a goal long before the inexplicable eight minutes of injury time. To my surprise, Waziers who looked happy to take the draw did not disrupt this with substitutions. It is rolling subs at this level but not only did they not roll in this game, we only had five of the six available between the teams take to the field.



The second part of the journey was more fraught. The injury time meant it was 17.00 when I hit the road, and a traffic jam just south of Lille meant another 6-minute addition to the Sat Nav’s predicted 42-minute original prediction.

In fact, I lost a little more with a traffic light left turn into the road for the ground and missing the drive to the ground’s car park and hence picking a nearby street parking slot.

Still, I was in with time to ask the announcer to see the team lists before the players came out, so all was well.

Tourcoing is very close to the Belgium border, we are talking yards, not miles, and the surrounding streets have a Belgium feel. No two neighbouring house have the same frontage or indeed the same roof height.

The tight ground with a bar behind the stand, a food stall to one side and urinals that were not behind closed doors also feels more Belgie then French.

The feature of the Stade Van de Veegaete is an old stand, with the roof supported by concrete pillars about half way back. Access was available on three sides, but not the far end where a row of bushes and trees marks the boundary and an old building is close to the pitch on the stand side. As at Vimy, there are more sports pitches outside.

The game is one division higher than the afternoon match and is part of a full fixture list, rather than a make up game. Visitors, Chantilly are already relegated before the game, and will be in the Picardie section of the next level. The home side are just in the safe area, although safe areas in this league are movable.

National 3 had a nominal three teams per division relegated, but unlike England, the geographic borders are fixed so if an extra team drops from above, so a team is an extra team is relegated, while if the division does not take a team from National 2, there is a reprieve.

For this group, there is little chance of reprieve as Arras are coming this way – but if the National League 2 tables stay unchanged, it will be three down. There are two more from Hauts-de-France immediately above the relegation zone, so everything is still up for grabs

Hence it was important for Tourcoing to grab the points, and they did this in a reasonably efficient if unexciting manner. Despite this game delivering goals, the earlier one was the more entertaining contest.

Chantilly had nothing to offer and Tourcoing could have run up a big score if they had upped their game a little. Instead we have wide players who refuse to attempt to cross without first beating their opponent and attackers who are frightened to challenge for the ball in the area.

The goals were scored around a quarter of an hour into each half. The first half one coming when a player beat his opponent and crossed for a short-range knock in. (An almost identical build up a little while later resulted in the same player managing to lift the ball over the bar from three yards out).

The second half goal came when one of the wide players, Adim found himself in space in a more central position. Frustrated with not having a player to lose the ball to, or a misguided cross to deliver, he instead shot straight into the goal.


Switching to Belgium for Ground 4001, I went to Saint-Symphorien – just outside Mons and not much over one hour’s travelling from my overnight rest. The place itself does not come to much, it is not apart from the built-up areas of Mons, and has a small centre with a church and a café. The ground is right on the edge of the village. It has a small covered area along one side, while the rest is for standing only. By the standards I am used to in Belgium, the bar area is quite small, and unusually the lady is selling match tickets here. You pass through the bar to get pitch side.

The bar itself is selling for cash – at most grounds, the cash desk is separate to the bar and you collect tokens for your drink. It is a system I have always found works well as I can pay up for the half time coffee before the game starts. This in turn speeds up the selling process at the break, unless you suddenly realise you have to queue twice.

Many of the clubs in Belgium manage a great deal of success in persuading local companies to add a little sponsorship, and erect the boards on high scaffolding in prominent areas. This one has less of this, and the sponsors boards are used as infill for the barrier, and there are still some gaps around the pitch. Typically, there is a floodlit training area and second pitch behind one goal, with a third pitch visible behind this.

The floodlight pylons for the second pitch are old concrete type, while the main playing area has the modern, thin and metal pylons. It has been quite common for teams to have floodlights for training and on secondary pitches, while not providing them on the main surface.

The game gives me the third scoreless draw in the five matches on this mini-trip to France and Belgium. It is, however by far the most entertaining game of the quintet. The reasons for this were quite simple – both teams were quite committed at all times to trying to win the game. The tactics they used were also those that amateur players can comply with. Get the ball forward and make sure that there are people in the danger zone when you deliver the ball.

There are still more than a few pointless shots from distance that end up miles from the target, but defences have to work a lot harder than in the French amateur and semi-professional levels to clear the lines.

It is also a relief to see a wide player and his full back work together on the wing, so as trying to beat a defender and put a cross in is not the only option. (It appears to be compulsory in France). The simple act of touching the ball back a couple of yards when you route is blocked by two defenders means the ball is delivered to the area far more frequently.

The visitors, RCS Brainois came into the game two points ahead of Union Namur at the top of the table, with two games to play. A visiting supporter I spoke to told me they had already missed several chances to tie up the title.

Despite having to wait on one of their players, Brainois had the better of the first period and a good deal of the second. After picking up a copy of the team sheet, I had to ask as the Brainois team was a player short. I was informed the player who they were waiting on was Mathieu Vlaminck, a tall blonde striker who I felt was a Peter Crouch wannabee. He came closest in the first period, hitting the post. The photo of him is of this incident.

However, at the end of the game the force was with the home team and it would have been very plausible to see them snatch the win. The change in fortune occurred when Oumar Traore came on as substitute, and although his first attempt to strike the ball resulted in a mishit that went off for a throw on, he forced a fantastic block from the visiting keeper minutes later and later was brought down for a professional foul (or whatever this is called in an amateur league), meaning Brainois’ Natan Schallon left the pitch a couple of minutes before his team mates.

At 75 minutes, the referee called a short stop for the crowd to give a short round of applause. I was not sure exactly what this was for, but it appeared to be connected with home keeper Michael Cordier, who wore number 75.

Despite this, six substitutions, a sending off and the trainer on the field about three times, there was not a second of added time, leaving many of the visiting fans feeling short-changed as they needed the win. My feeling was that if we were to get a goal in those missing few minutes, it would have left Brainois without even the point they gained

I used to know the intricacies of promotion and relegation in Belgium, and it was always one of the most complex in Europe. At least when the national leagues were in a 1-1-2-4 pyramid, with no geographical constraints, every team had the same process to go through to gain promotion or avoid relegation.

The current reform came at a time when my number of trips to the country were tailing off, for mainly practical reasons. The new pyramid is formatted 1-1-1-3-4 and gets more complex because of the split in Flanders and Wallonia.

The top two divisions are the professional league. I say two, but it is really just one and a half as the lower division gets by with just eight teams.

The third level, also National is called the First Amateur League. In reality, this is fully semi-professional and quite a good standard of football, teams and stadiums. Subject to licensing rules, there is promotion and relegation between this level and the professional leagues.

A team relegated from the First Amateur League drops to the Second Amateur League, which has three divisions, two for Flanders, and one only for Wallonia. The logic for this was that there are more Flemish clubs than Wallonian. Certainly, when I was picking up the teams at the third and fourth levels in the old league, I did spend more time in the Flemish speaking areas.

The next level down is the Third Amateur League, which has two division in each region. This means that for a team at third level in Flanders, there is a choice of two leagues to be promoted to, while in Wallonia, there is only one division of the Second Amateur League, restricting promotion places. Still, all champions go up along with at least one play-off winner.

The play-offs still give places to period champions, and at this level (30 game season), the three periods are the first ten games, games 11-20 and the final ten games. A postponement does not change the period a game is in. RCS Brainois won both the first two period titles, so are guaranteed a shot through the play-offs whatever may occur in the championship

Still, this result drops them behind Union Namur for the first time this season, and the play-offs are not the place for a off form team to try and rescue their season.

An odd twist is that while this is the first season at this level for RCS Brainois, promoted from the provincial leagues last season, Namur were due to be relegated not just to the top provincial league (as they ended in a relegation place), but one division more for financial reasons. They rescued their place at the fifth tier table, (as opposed to 7th) with a close season merger with Fosses-la-Ville who had managed to win promotion from the provincial league to the Third Amateur. Hence the official name of the Namur team is now Union Royal Namur Fosses-la-Ville

Eurohop – Part 1

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maribor Ultras in Domzale.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Pizzaman in search of the all elusive sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austrian civilization – beer and football

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

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

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

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

The Price is Right? Selling Football by the Euro.

Friday, April 27th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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, 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 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.


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 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.