What’s the Big Idea

July 1st, 2012

While UEFA’s executive met in Kiev this week, they could congratulate themselves on another successful tournament, far from the worst fears (or wishes) of the BBC’s Panorama.

It has not been without incident, but overall the football has shone above other concerns. The legacy is eight large stadia, many of which will rarely be filled again, built at great expense to local taxpayers, during a recession.

In better economic times, UEFA had decided to expand the tournament. There will be 24 teams contesting Euro 2016 in France – France also staged the finals (which meant four games then, semi-finals, 3rd/4th play off and Final) of the initial tournament back in 1960. On that occasion, there were only 17 teams in contention. Although Ireland played (and were knocked out in the preliminary round), there was no British participation, except Arthur Ellis refereeing the final.

For 2016, France is a safe pair of hands, there is no need to build many new stadiums after a recent World Cup there. The new stadiums in Lille and Nice were long overdue anyway, but UEFA were supposed to announce the bidding process for 2020 during the Kiev meeting, and there was a problem.

The problem was, there were only three bids, and none were ideal. Turkey had come close in the voting for 2016, and is still the favourite, but they would need to work on improving stadiums, and the country’s infrastructure is not well suited to the influx of fans. Past problems between Turkish fans and visitors during club matches, and an ongoing corruption scandal that sees some Turkish teams unable to compete in Europe do not help any Turkish bid, but the biggest problem is that Istanbul is a very plausible candidate for the 2020 Olympics, and staging the Olympics and the Euros in the same summer may is surely beyond any country’s capacity.

The alternatives are the Celtic (capital C) bid of Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, or a hastily prepared by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Only the first of this pair put in a bid on time, with Azerbaijan adding their name after Baku had failed to make the Olympic short list. (International sports organisations find it difficult to work together, so UEFA had a deadline to submit bids of 15 May 2012, while the IOC announced their shortlist (Madrid, Tokyo and Istanbul) eight days later. Apart from Baku, the other city whose candidature ended in May was Doha, Qatar.

And so UEFA have ratified the idea of a pan-European tournament. Having launched the idea in his pre-finals speech, Platini is claiming it as his own, and it may well be. IN an earlier speech he floated the suggestion that the 2022 World Cup could be pan-Arabia, rather than limited to the single state of Qatar.

What Platini suggested was that 12-13 stadiums could bid to stage around 4 games each in a 24 or 32 country (yes, he did suggest 32), tournament. Going by the current favoured formats, of dividing the teams into groups of 4, and then a knock out section for the final 16 teams, (it would be 16 from either 24 or 32), then a 24 team tournament requires 51 matches, and for 32 teams, you need 63.

Platini’s assertion that the travel across Europe is made easier by the new low cost airlines suggests that he has seen them advertised, but never tried to book flights himself. For example, Wizz Air provides flights between London and Kiev, and will sell me a ticket booked a month in advance for around £200 return. I could have bought a ticket to the Euro final ten days before it was played. The match ticket was not expensive, but Wizz Air wanted over £500 for the return flight. Regular supporters of England or of clubs who use these airlines to travel abroad know that it is imperative to book quickly, and many are hovering over their computers as soon as the draws are made.

But this does not mean Platini’s ideas are without merit. To build more stadiums which are not required by the domestic game, and therefore have no use after the tournament is madness – even in good economic times, while UEFA’s baseline for a tournament (2×50,000 seat stadiums, 3×40,000 and 4×30,000) can only be met by a small number of elite countries. Glancing at the current lisitng for the Turkish Superlig, it has three stadiums over 50,000 but no more over 40,000 and only two at 30,000+. All the first three, and one of the others is in Istanbul. Azerbaijan and Georgia are in a similar position with 50,000+ national stadiums in both capitals, but then the next best in each country holds just 30,000.

I do not believe a pan European tournament randomly selected could work, no country’s supporters could follow their team if the matches were in Gdansk, Glasgow and Geneva within a week, but if we looked at it another way, and said that Group A was, for example to be shared between Hamburg and Berlin, Group B between Glasgow and Dublin, Group C Zurich and Geneva, Group D Barcelona and Madrid, Group E Baku and Tblisia, Group F St Petersburg and Helsinki, then this could work. Each of the stadiums gets at least three matches, with one of each pair staging a first round knock out game as well.

Under this plan, the first knock out round is on a weekend (maybe Friday through to Monday), with the quarter finals the following weekend (Saturday and Sunday) either on four stadiums in a single country, or at least neighbouring. The teams then stay in the same neighbourhoods for the midweek semi-final games, and the final on the next Sunday.

The biggest difficulty with this idea, and with any other realisation of the Platini suggestion is in making sure the ticket sales kept up well. A series of matches pairing Portugal, Czech Republic, Greece and Serbia might not pack them in, in downtown Baku. It may be necessary to have a series of potential hosts waiting, but none announced for this stage until the 24 teams are known, so as each pair of cities includes a local “host”.

Meanwhile, Platini has made another point, and while I agree with the point made, I would take the opposite conclusion. Platini has said he is opposed to the use of technology because it would in time be more and more invasive. I agree, it will be, but I do not believe the game can stand still. It is no good for television audiences across Europe to see decisions questioned and shown to be wrong on a weekly basis. Platini is right to say that the officials made two mistakes, not one in not awarding Ukraine a goal against England. The ball did cross the line, but a player was offside.

I am unconvinced about the goal line technology only because I am unconvinced about it working, but I am sure that this can be successfully introduced, it will be the thin edge of a wedge, with offside decisions coming next under TV scrutiny and others in time.

 

Eurotour 2012 – Part 2, Scandic.

May 25th, 2012

After the Austrian Cup final, it was a straight forward but lengthy change to get to Denmark, the overnight train from Vienna to Hamburg takes more than 12 hours, and then with a further change at Fredericia, one arrives at Randers with over 20 hours on the rails. As with my arrival in Austria, this meant I was in town about three and a half hours before kick-off. I had found a hotel in the town centre, at slightly less than seriously overpriced. I took the chance to wander slightly around the town centre. It is compact, and has few old style buildings, but it is never going to become a tourism hot spot.

The Randers Stadion, (now officially the AutoC Park) is conveniently only about ten minutes walk from the railway station. The hotel was 15 minutes walk from the station. Naturally we are talking opposite directions! The stadium has a modern feel to it, thanks to new stands and a very modern metal lattice work cladding these. However, once you enter, you find that the north end is steps of very unreconstructed terracing, without even the benefit of a few safety barriers. Most of this was not in use though, with one corner housing a few home fans, and another taken by the small number of travelling fans. A few low steps carry on around most of the rest of the stadium, probably the remnants of the old terraces, but renovated, and mainly converted into seats. There is still a terrace for about three quarters of the length behind the south goal, and this is where the popular support stands. A small group however take a block of the stand above for singing and the waving of flags. The new stands have been built above and behind the old ones, raised up by steel girders, so as at its closest point, it is some three meters above access to the seats. The main stand maintains a common height and roof line with the East and South sections. This stand as a single tier and is backed by a massive glass wall behind which are two levels. As far as I could see, the lower one of these was a VIP lounge, while above there were even more exclusive executive boxes, broken only in the very centre for the TV camera gantry.

Live television has created a series of Monday night games in the Danish 1st Division, (which like the Austrian 1. Liga is actually the second division). The division has 12 teams playing a 26 game season, and two places in the Superliga up for grabs. As the Monday night game, the two teams I was watching had a game extra to play, while most of the league had four games to go. Esbjerg, for some reason had played an extra game, and this gave them a lead confirming their place as champions. Randers started the night in second (and had to finish it the same way as this was the only game), with a three point lead over Vejle-Kolding and Viborg, five over Bronshoj. The visitors, Vestsjaelland are mid table, five points ahead of the highest relegation place, so relatively safe.

Both sides played five man midfields with just one up front. The home team using the 4-2-3-1 which now seems to be in vogue while Vestsjaelland settled for just one man shielding the back four in 4-1-4-1. The game made a quiet start, with nothing more than half chances, but Randers should have gone ahead half way through when Tidiane Sane headed over from a position almost underneath the bar. As it was, it was Vestsjaelland that opened the scoring, Rasmus Festersen playing a neat one two with Nicholas Sandberg before stroking the ball under the keeper. It really should have been two within mimutes, Sandberg pulling back a cross to Kristian Uth, who did not use the space he was given and shot wide. The set back did at least create a little urgency in the home side’s play bringing on Frank Kristensen from the bench and switching to 4-4-2 before the break. The change however looked more like panic then plan, Randers launched a series of long balls and early crosses that were easily defended. This feeling that all was not well in this part of the state of Denmark was accentuated by a quick team talk, with the home side coming back onto the field for a fresh warm up some five minutes before the second ad break of half time had even commenced. As it happened though, the rest was notas good as a change, and Randers continued to look hurried in their play. Salvation came from an unlikely source, Vestsjaelland centre half Lasse Nielsen pushed at Christian Keller, who was making a rare foray upfield. This gave Randers a free kick from a little over 20 yards, which Ronnie Schwarz curled inside the near post.

The goal calmed down the home side a little, but did not improve their competence, with crosses, (mainly from the left) proving easy for the visiting defence, who almost took the lead again – a corner being delicately headed onto the top of the crossbar. With the left flank proving so troublesome, (as Randers did nothing on the right), they kept chancing different combinations, and almost made a break through when Keller cut in from the position and then back heeled to the right full back Thomsen, his cross found Sane in space, but the Ugandan did not improve his record, shooting narrowly over.

With seven minutes to go, and while waiting for a right wing cross, Randers brought on Dutchman Remco van der Schaaf, replacing the original left winger, (he had a spell on the right, and an earlier substitution replaced that left winger). Ven der Schaaf first action was to get into the centre of the box and powerfully direct a header from the corner into the goal. Defending towards the end was slightly desperate as Vestsjaelland pushed for a point they must have though they deserved, but Randers held out to take the points, establishing a six point cushion, which must put them close to securing a return to the top flight after a single season away.

From Randers, I took the train back down to Germany, changing at the charmingly named.

The town marks the central point of the Danish Rail Network, if not the whole country. Natuarally, I wanted to know what tourists might do here. Answer “Change Trains”, if one wants more detail, they get off trains, and then get on other trains, and hope there is not long to wait, as you are a long way from anywhere, and all the station offers is three platforms and a 7-11 shop. And what are the primary occupations of the locals? Farming, serving in the 7-11 shop and trying to ignore foreigners making cheap jokes about the place name. Now there is an idea, it had never occurred to me that I could make a cheap joke out of the name of this town.

If I find the time to write it, Tuesday will be described in Part 3 of this blog, along with other German grounds visited. Suffice to say, I returned to Denmark over land and sea the following day, making the crossing between Puttgarten and Roby on the boat train and heading into Copenhagen. Back on my first ever trip to Copenhagen, some 23 years ago, the local derby between Brondby and Lyngby was the highlighted game out of three visited, all in the top division that season. The ground was crammed with about 7,500 watching, whereas the other two games, both also in the top division barely topped 1000. For Brondby, the young Peter Schmeichal was in goal, while Brian Laudrup led the attack, but all four goals in a 2-2 draw came from Christensen. Indeed three were scored by Bent Christensen, without the requirement for own goals, both teams had a player of this name. Brondby were 2-0 up with only a few minutes to play before Lyngby’s Bent Christensen, and then Fleming Christensen scored to give Lyngby a draw. When the game finished, my travelling companions and I would have made a quick dash to Kobenhavns Idraetspark, (now simply call Parken, which was only a nickname then) to see Boldklub 1903 lose to AGF. Three years later, B1903 merged with another club sharing the national stadium, KB to form FC Kobenhavn, and the Bronby/Lyngby rivalry moved somewhat down the order of importance in Danish football.

Much of Denmark is quiet, unassuming, flat, expensive and not very interesting. It just has to be conservative, with a small c. Copenhagen is not like most of Denmark, it is chaotically busy, noisy, expensive and interesting. It is one of those cities that you need a map to explore, but you are best off keeping the map in your pocket, heading down side streets and only getting the map out when you need to find your way back to the hotel. In the summer, at least, it is an ideal cycling city and one can be stunned by the mass of bicycles on some roads – or simply stunned by one as traffic regulations and cyclists never mix. It is possible that Copenhagen has more bicycles than any other European city, but it is also possible that it has less cycle helmets. I reckoned that the proportion using head protection was hardly more than 1%, which may even be less than the portion with rigged up (surely in some cases, home-made), bicycle prams attached to the front to ferry one or two youngsters around.

Just to make my point about the oddities behind the scenes, I cut down Vestergade, parallel to the main shopping street. At one end, this is part of the mainstream with eateries and a (rather expensive) brewpub. At the other end, there was a Goth’s fashion shop, an S&M outlet and club and a Cornish Pasty Shop. I bought (at a very reasonable price) a cup of team from one of these establishments, no prizes for discovering the proprietor had a Cornish accent.

The S-Tog (equivalent to Germany’s S-Bahn) takes you to Lyngby Station which is a mile or so from the ground, but there is a bus as well. The Stadium is well kept, but just does not look like the stadium of a club in a major European League. It is a stadium with a track, and low, single tiered stands running the full length of both sides. On the west side, where I was, the stand is mainly made out to seats, with just a small area of standing under cover at the very end. Opposite, only the central section was for seating, and this had some boxes at the back, the other two thirds were kept as standing areas. Admission at 150 DKK would, I think get you into the standing, and at least some of the seating areas. I noticed that advance booking brought the price down by 5DKK, but I did not test out the system to see if this is countered by booking charges later in the process. A free A4 programme (four pages only) is handed to you just inside the gates.

The footpath behind the main stand!!

As the viewing area curves behind the goals first of all there is a series of stepped uncovered terrace, but then this gives way to a grass bank. The steps are delineated with concrete, but the infill, normally concrete, gravel or dirt is in this case grassed and the grass has been recently mowed. And then there are the hedges. All the areas separated not by unsightly fences but by thick, green hedges. If you take the path behind the main stand, then you can hardly see the stand for the greenery. All the hedges have been kept in immaculate condition. This club does not need a groundsman, so much as a gardener.

The most popular are for home fans was the clubhouse corner where beer and sausages could be obtained while waiting for the game to get exciting. The home fans were in the opposite corner, and had been segregated. The fact that temporary catering facilities had been put into this area suggests they do not always bother with segregation. Serving the beer over the fence between the pitch and terrace helps in one regard though – you are not going to invade the pitch if it means knocking over the beer supplies!

There was not a lot of excitement anyway, Lyngby should have had a chance on 19 minutes when confusion between Brondby’s goalkeeper and defender almost let in Fetai, but he could not control th e ball and ended up in a heap with the goalkeeper and defender, which the referee accurately interpreted as no foul by anyone. Lyngby did take the lead on 31 minutes, with probably the best move of the game, Thomas Rasmussen taking the ball down the left wing and slipping it inside to Anders Christiansen, who in turn threaded the ball forward to Emil Larsen to power the ball in. Larsen missed a golden chance to increase the score three minutes later, and the home team maintained their ascendency up until half-time.

Brondby did come out for the second half trying to look a little more determined, and created a couple of half chances, but their heart did not appear to be in it. The best chance of the second half came from a free kick taken by Lynbby’s Kim Aabeck mid way through. The Brondby keeper stopped this but let it spin out of control before dropping onto just before any home forward could get onto the loose ball.

The Main stand curves slightly at the ends. The table on the left of the picture is for the sale of sausages

The Brondby fans made a great deal of noise throughout, while the home fans were generally quiet. Still, Brondby’s biggest cheer was for the news of goals at Nordsjaelland, which ensured that FC Kobenhavn were not champions. Only time will tell whether they were cheering for defeat for the team that has become their rivals, or for the eclipse of their own relevance by the new kids on the block, in the same way that FCK’s dominance has cast shadows over clubs such as Lyngby.

Lyngby, after all were the champions in 1992 when the merger created FCK. Winning the title in their first season, and playing at the refurbished Parken, FCK may have always had advantages, but they have taken time to build up support. FCK now have the biggest supporter base in Denmark (which is a reason why they are hated by other supporters), and they actually now own Parken, while Lyngby’s ground is still in municipal hands. FCK have really come to dominate since the turn of the century, winning 8 of the last 12 titles, Brondby have won two of these, but not since 2005. At least they have developed their facilities, and it now holds more than twice the crowd it could accommodate back in 1989. I visited Nordsjaelland in 1999 when they were known as Farum, and had just turned professional on joining the league’s Division 2, (third level). This was a marker in itself, as most of their opponents were not full time. It just paid off as they scraped fifth place which earned them promotion due to a reorganisation of the structures. Nordsjaelland were promoted to the top flight in 2002, and took on their current name after one season at the top level

Nordsjaelland are also using a different model to other clubs, I have been told emphatically that they did not buy the title, and in fact had only the 8th largest budget out of the 12 Superliga clubs. When they buy players, they buy cheap, but they develop most of them themselves, and through a series of more than 60 affiliated clubs in the area. Through the affiliates, known as Fodbold Samarbejde Nordsjælland (Nordsjaelland Football Co-operative), Nordsjaelland have a well run scouting network, developing players for the professional club. FCN participate in developing the training programmes, whereas the affiliates remain independent.

Overall, Danish Football is in a much better state than it was when I first watched a few games. The crowd of 1988 that watches the Lyngby game was a low figure, highlighting the lack of importance of the games. Three of the games on the last night had crowds over 10,000 with almost 20,000 at FC Kobenhavn. Denmark have been moving up the UEFA co-efficient table (club performance in European competitions), and are now ranked significantly higher than Scotland (hence two Champions League places, and less qualification to reach the group stages). While Denmark’s 1992 Euro success was based on players playing abroad, they now have a much greater number of their best players back in their homeland. TV money has proved the catalyst for this, but the knowledge that Denmark is not a footballing backwater, (if not yet in the European Premier League), has led to increased crowds, and their has been a rash of ground improvements to accommodate them.

Lyngby, who fell into bankruptcy in 2002, despite climbing back from non league football with promotions in 2003, 5, and 7 (and 2010 following relegation in 2008) have not been a beneficiary of the boom, and Brondby’s fans will find their cheering of Nordsjaelland success to be ironic if they too are consigned to the shadows.

And so to Sweden, making use of their fixtures being spread over Wednesday and Thursday. 4 on each in the Allsvenkan – which translates as All Sweden and is the National League. The second division in Sweden is called the Superetten. The first division, which is regionalised North and South has never been a National League, and since the National League started, it was the second level, until the Superetten started in 2006, (basically as Allsvenkan II). There is a direct train from Copenhagen to Halmstad which using the new bridge takes around two and a half hours. I then had two hours to book into a hotel and freshen up before travelling on. The trouble was that the “hotel” I was staying in also refers to itself as a “Hostell”, and uses that as an excuse not to have 24 hour service. In fact the only check in times were 4-7 in the afternoon, during which I was to be either travelling or at the ground. Fortunately, after a quick phone call, I found out I could leave bags there and get my key later from a key safe. Two trains were required to get me up to Borås, home city of IF Elsfborg, a short ride on the main line, followed by over an hour on a branch (ran by a different company). Even the main line has single track sections, and the 30 minute ride took over twice that. Fortunately, I had allowed a margin of error, getting the next train to Borås and staying on it for one extra station to Knalleland. Maps show a complicated road lay out between the station and the ground, but actually, it is all part of a retail park, and you can simply walk straight across the car parks, completing the journey in about five minutes.

When it was completed in 2005, the Borås Arena was the first modern ground in Sweden. IF Elfsborg celebrated moving in by winning the Swedish title for the fifth time a year later. It had been 45 years since they last won the title. Since then they have maintained a challenge, but the sixth title has so far eluded them. After 11 rounds of this seasons, Elfsborg are top, six points ahead of Malmo, but it is a 16 team, 30 game season. The only other time I have seen Elfsborg play, it was away at Halmstad in2003, with Halmstad then league leaders, but Halmstad did not go on the win the title, (they last won in 2000). The Swedish League is now considered one of the most open in Europe, with the last seven titles going to seven different teams, Djugårdens, Elfsborg, Göteborg, Kalmar, AIK, Malmo and Helsinborgs. The visitors to the Borås Arena, BK Häcken started out in third place, and are the highest place team who have never won the title.

Pesentation of teams before kick off. Even though it is an artificial surface, it needs maintenance, and was being watered before kick off. As the kids (in centre circle) were entering the playing area, with their “Give Racism the Red Card” banner, one of the automatic sprinklers started up, giving many of them an impromptu soaking.

The Boras Arena is a square ended stadium with an up to date artificial surface. There are two tiers of seats along the long sides, and single tier stands behind the goals. I think these are supposedly all seats, but there is an fact a mix between proper seating and benches, with most preferring to stand in the benched areas. It is of goalpost type construction with a lattice at the front of the roofs supported by steel post, but no blockage of the viewing lines. The lattice is below the roofs to the side, but above the ones behind the goal, allowing it to also support giant monitor screens. The Ryavallen, which the Arena replaced is next door to the north and is now used mainly for Athletics. It’s main stand almost backs onto the north stand of the Arena, with a section between the two roofed off, allowing covered access at the main entrance to the Arena.

The Arena itself is shared with Norrby IF, a club two levels below Elfsborg who also used to play at Ryavallen. It is owned and operated by an investment company, with IF Elfsborg as a major shareholder. IF Elsborg were founded in1904 as Borås Fotbollslag, but changed their name two years later, “because too many teams included Borås in their name”. One hundred years later, no major team appears to have Borås in the name.

Most of the seats in the main stands sell at 250 SKR, with tickets behind the goal available at 140 SKR. The programme, which costs 20 SKR is pocket sized, and unfolds to the equivalent of ten pages. It also serves as a 50/50 lottery ticket, that is to say half the proceeds are a lottery prize.

Elfsborg, playing a 4-4-2 formation and a team that is 100% Scandinavian, (one Dane, one Norwegian, nine Swedes), got off to the perfect start with a goal after just six minutes, Stefan Ishiaki took a free kick out on the left wing, and it went through a crowd of players, probably just getting a slight flick of deflection on its way into goal. This should have suited them through the half, as they allowed Häcken the majority of the possession, and then when they picked up the ball from defence they fired a long ball to one or another wing, or through to the forward. Certainly they appeared to be the more likely to score again before the break, at least until BK Häcken really should have levelled things on 39 minutes. Häcken were playing 4-3-3 with all three of the forwards being African imports – Majeed (Ghana), Chatto (Nigeria) and Makondele (DR Congo). The team maintained a tactic that was simply, “get the ball to the Africans”, after which the 8 Swedes tended to stand and watch. For this, the closest they came to the goal, Majeed actually started things by robbing a defender near the edge of the area, chasing for possession and then passing to Makondele. Makondele exchanged passes with Chatto, which left him with only the goalkeeper to beat, or as it happened, time for a soft punt into the goalkeepers surprised arms.

AT each end of the stadium were giant screens which showed the match as it was going on, with action replays of non-contentious decisions (generally near misses by the home team were replayed, fouls were not). They also relayed every goal from other matches being played in the Allsvenkan that evening, which did not appear to add up to many interruptions, and gave us updates on the odds for our game – 15 minutes in, betting on the game staying 1-0 would have earned one a return at 10-1, by 15 minutes into the second half, it had dropped to 2.5.

The trouble was that although there was plenty of attacking play, it was very one-dimensional, with no alternative plans on offer. Elfsborg prefer to defend in depth and then launch long balls forward as soon as they get possession. Their opponents were also strangers to the art of patient build up. Elfsborg’s approach should have paid off in the 72nd minute, when a rare defensive error meant the long ball game had left Elfsborg’s Lasse Nilsson with a run at goal, he was quick, but inaccurate with his shot, so instead dived over the keeper. This one at least did not fool the referee, and Nilsson received a yellow card for his efforts.

Still, diving is a tactic worth trying if you only get a yellow card 50% of the time, when Niklas Hult found himself as the only home player in the opponents half on receiving a long ball 8 minutes later, he evaded the first challenge, but as soon as he entered the area (with no one close to being a potential target for a pass anytime within the ten minutes still to play), he made contact with the challenge and then went to ground in much the same way as a brick does, if you drop it from six feet. For reasons I never fathomed, the referee did not book Hult as well, but instead awarded a penalty. Nilsson converted, which at last confirmed the wisdom of not taking offers at 10-1 for 1-0.

It should have been more, Chatto received his second yellow card just as the injury time board was displayed, and in the four minutes of injury time, both Ishizaki and Hult contrived to miss chances for Elfsborg.

From the outside, the Norh stand, and you can see the back of the adjacent Ryavallen’s stand

From there, it was just the matter of getting back to Germany, with a very brief overnight stay in Halmstad, and then onto Copenhagen and Hamburg. This last train was problematic. I think the Germans do not like sending their best trains or staff to Denmark. The train out of Copenhagen was overcrowded due to Danes heading to a game in Hamburg, and noisy as not surprisingly, an international in Hamburg is an excuse for much beer to pass through Danish supporters. The train lacked indication of seat reservations, as the electronics for this was not working, leaving a lot of passengers taking seats only to be moved on as others got on with reservations, and of course not knowing whether the seat gained, (the one I am typing from) would be lost to a passenger getting on down the line.

The fault also meant there was nothing either hot or cold in the buffet car. The steward made a point of showing me a melted twix bar, but could not offer sandwiches, coffee or chilled drinks. Its over two hours from Copenhagen to Roedby, where the train enters the ferry. One has to hope that the Danes’ supplies of canned Carlsberg last out until they can get more supplies.

Eurotour 2012, Part 1 – Austria.

May 22nd, 2012

The gap between play off semi-finals and final in England has let me with the chance for a short trip to Europe, but with the catch that I had to book the flights before being certain who was playing on which day in the semi-finals, let alone if my boys would reach the final. Once we had confirmed that we would at least be in the semi-finals, we knew that our first leg would be at home, and the second leg would be away, most likely on a Thursday at either Crawley or Southend. The final day of the season changed this around, and we while the away leg was still a Thursday night, it was in fact at Torquay. And I had a nice early flight ticket (from Heathrow).

So my Thursday night timetable (times are approximate) was something like this.

21.30 – Marlon Pack scores a direct free kick, three minutes to play. Its 4-1 on aggregate to Cheltenham

21.40 – final whistle after five minutes of injury time, and a couple of Torquay fans on the pitch

22.00 – the on-pitch celebrations end. Head into the social club attached to the ground, “Boots and Laces”, for a quick (but non alcoholic drink).

23.00 – with some of my friends staying in Torquay and heading into town for more alcohol, I head back to the car

23.45 – pull off the motorway at Exeter, buy diesel and coffee

01.00 – Spend about an hour sleeping (in the car) outside a deserted service station not far from Yeovil

03.00 – Spend about an hour on the internet at the motorway services on the M3

05.00 – Arrive in the area of West Drayton, park car at the quiet end of a housing estate and walk across to bus stop.

05.06 – bus is on time!

05.30 – Arrive Heathrow

05.45 – Clear security (no queue)

08.00 – Leave Heathrow, bound for Vienna. The flight is fine, but why do they have to insist on making the passengers uncomfortable by cramming them on an overcrowded bus before allowing them to board the plane? Sleep through flight.

11.30 (Austrian Time). Arrive Vienna

12.18 First train – S Bahn towards town

12.39 Switch to another S-Bahn line

13.02 – On the “Railjet”, which is in fact an ordinary enough train from Vienna to Graz. You can get the internet (for free) on this train. Try to reply to a call from Cheltenham, which is probably about play off final tickets, but cannot get through. Leave text and e-mail messages.

14.33 – Arrive Graz. The next stage of the journey is by bus, but the “Railbus” does not connect with the “Railjet”. A bus went 15 minutes before I arrived, and I have two hours to wait for the next one.

15.00 – Having confirmed bus departure point, and bought a reservation for an overnight train on Sunday, I have the answer to what to do with the rest of the free time. It involves beer.

16.30 – Leave Graz

17.30 – Arrive Wolfsberg, the whole journey done according to schedule, so its three hours to kick off. Meeting me at the Station was Kevin, one of three other English hoppers already into longer Eurotours of our own. We were to take in three games together, while another of the English contingent was to join us at the second game only

Main Stand at Lavantthal Arena. The “junk” on the track will be used to make up the presentation stage

The game I am heading for is WAC/St. Andra v LASK in Austria’s 1. Liga. The “W” in WAC stands for Wolfsberg, (not to be confused with the German Wolfsburg). St. Andra is a nearby and smaller town. LASK is often referred to as LASK Linz, but this is not strictly correct as again, the “L” stands for Linz. (Pedants may like to tell me that it is actually Wolsberger and/or Linzer). Following in the now common practise, the 1. Liga is of course, the Austrian Second Division. WAC/St. Andra have actually confirmed themselves as champions (and there is only one promotion place) the previous week, rendering the result of this match against second placed LASK as academical, although with a promotion celebration, it will still be the first time the ground has been sold out.

It must be a good place to watch from – it’s near the bar!

One gets quite close to the ground before its location becomes clear. There is not a lot to the place, and there appeared to be deceptively few people walking towards the ground, and trying to find space in the nearby parking areas. Suddenly, one walks past the swimming pool, and the ground is in front of you, and chaos is ensuing. The ticket sales window is marked “Ausverkauf”, and people are still pushing in to try and get their pre-ordered tickets. I had spoken to the club and exchanged e-mails earlier in the week, and been promised one press pass and one match ticket. There was no ticket waiting despite this, and the girl hurriedly wrote our names on two press passes. Not surprisingly when we made our way up the area was somewhat overcrowded. The stewards did not know where the press enclosure was, or that there was a press room we could visit first. The pitch is within a running track, and the only covered accommodation is a stand that runs about the length of one side. Common with many others in this part of the world, there is a pathway along the top of the seats, but this has been broken up by a very plush VIP area in the centre, which has been added over the original path.

The opposite side has a few rows of uncovered terrace with a grass bank extending beyond this, the away enclosure is just a small area of grass banking with a couple of safety barriers, and as the grass bank runs around the corner, there is more space for home supporters to sit on the grass banking. This area even has its own bar, whereas in the main stand, one has to visit the bars and Wurst stalls behind the stand, or simply wait for the beer to be brought to you. Oddly, the size of this space id defined just be a temporary barrier and two stewards – they could have added room for a couple of hundred more by extending this further, even if views would have been distant, from beyond the curve of the track. The town end of the ground is closed to spectators.

Away fans enclosure of protest. No prizes for getting the name of the person they want out. Not only is Her Reichel being pictured as Pinocchio, but something is leaking from the end of his nose!

As a game of football, it was a poor advert, and we had given it up as goalless long before WAC/St. Andra scored in the 89th minute. What little football played in the game was actually played by the visitors, playing with a more direct approach, WAC always seemed to try to play the ball around, perhaps looking for a perfect goal but instead conceding possession. The crowd was announced at 5000, although I suspect it was less than this. It was however too many in most areas. Locals tell us that some or all of next season’s Bundesliga games will be switched to Klagenfurt, which is best part of an hour’s travel away. This could lead to a curious situation where the games moved, because WAC’s Lavantthal Arena cannot cope with the prospective crowd, are in fact played in front of a less crowd than those kept in Wolfsberg. Meanwhile, LASK, despite being in contention for promotion until the week before our visit, have not been awarded a licence for either National Division next season. This will probably be resolved, but at the moment there is a risk of them being demoted. The LASK fans that made the journey were in the mood for protest, and clearly laid the blame for the problems (which are financial) on the club president. With Austrian football dependent on the largesse of sponsors, as it cannot possibly pay its own way on gate income alone, (and the TV income is not great here), the job of the club president is to secure the sponsorship required to provide a budget and keep the club in the manner the fans would like to expect. At many clubs, the club president is the main sponsor (RZ Pellets at Wolfsberg), while other sponsors are often companies that would like to do business with the main sponsor. LASK is one of the old style, where the president is not providing from his own pocket. Having managed to argue with, and hence lose two major sponsors in the last year, the fans demand he should leave is perhaps, not misplaced.

For the records, I did not pay, and could not see any admission prices, while a 4 page A4 programme was given away free.

Celebrating in the now familiar style.

Reversing the last parts of the previous day’s journey, I returned to Vienna on Saturday morning. I had time to book into my hotel before using the local U-Bahn services to get myself to Simmering, within the city’s southern suburbs. Austrian Football has two National Divisions of just ten clubs each. The teams play 36 matches a season in a double round-robin system. Generally these are full time professional clubs, although attendances alone can certainly not support this. The third level is the semi-professional Regionalliga, which comprises of three Divisions, Ost (East), West and Mitte (Middle). Promotion opportunities for the Regionalliga teams are limited, with just 1½ available per season. Before any reader complains that it is not actually possible to promote 1½ teams, I would say this is the closest approximation to the truth. Each of the three divisions having just ½ of a promotion place available. The bottom team in the 1.Liga is relegated and replaced by the winner of a play off between two of the three Regionalliga champions. The third champion gets to play against the team finishing second to last in the 1. Liga. All of this is subject to limitations, such as a requirement to gain a licence for promotion, or to keep hold of one to avoid relegation, and the fact that reserve teams are no longer allowed in the 1. Liga.

Relegation from the Regionalliga is more straight forward, there being 9 state leagues at the next level down, and these are divided among the Regionalliga on a strict 3 to 1 basis, so the Champions of Burgenland, Vienna and NeiderOsterreich will all gain promotion to the Regionalliga. Licence requirements still exist, but are easier to comply with, and reserve teams can reach this level (10 of the 48 clubs are reserves). My match was at 1. Simmering SC, champions of the Wiener StadtLiga in 2011, but now at risk of returning to the lower league. An interesting and well thought out development borders one side of the ground. From the road, this looks quite typical with businesses on the ground floor, and housing above, but one end of the ground floor of the development is the football club’s clubhouse, and with the pitch level significantly lower than road level, the basements of the building include the dressing rooms. Just outside the clubhouse there is a balcony providing an elevated view of the pitch, something not available to those selecting to sit. Two rows of seats, the front one being at pitch level are provided on below the balcony level, and on the far side. On two sides of the ground, there are grass banks with a level area at the top, and this is where the majority of the crowd are watching from. There is a sizable encampment of visiting fans from Wiener Sportkub enjoying the sunshine on this bank, regularly regaling us with songs about how good they are and that they were going to score in a minute. Their efforts no doubt fuelled by an additional bar open on that size. The quoted attendance of 750, paying €10 for adult admission will be the best or close to best of the season. No programme was available. Sportklub were incidentally, the second Austrian club I visited, back in 1989. St. Polten, whom I visited the day before Wiener Sportklub were at home again the day before I was to see SK again. This was the last game at St. Polten’s Voith-Platz, which is to be demolished.

Simmering take the lead with an early penalty

If the fans of Wiener Sportklub thought they were going to have an easy day, they were mistaken. Simmering took an early lead with a 6th minute penalty, and then increased this on 33 minutes. The task for WSK was made more difficult with one of their forwards getting marching orders for a second booking early in the second half. The player concerned then had his “Joey Barton” moment as he appeared more violent after receiving the card then before it. A third Simmering goal was added midway through the half, giving a final score of 3-0. Not only does this lift Simmering out of the relegation zone with two games to play, but it also helps their goal difference, a vital matter if two relegation places are to be chosen from one team now on 33 points, and four on 34.

Within a few minutes of the game finishing, we were in a taxi – four of course is the ideal number here, as the journey we had planned, not much over 3 miles cost €16, a lot on your own, but quite manageable when shared. As I have mentioned, Wiener has one of the nine Stadtliga that make up level 4 f the Austrian pyramid. Below this there is no symmetry, as each of the areas defines the best system for lower football. In Vienna, this means two parallel divisions, (called A/B, but I think it is basically a North/South distinction, with those in group A being more Southerly). In most other areas, covering mush greater geographical footprints, the number of divisions increases as you drop down. The structure in Vienna, below the Stadtliga, is Oberliga, 1. Klasse, 2. Klasse. In Vienna at least, there are only a few reserve teams in the league structure, and these are the reserves of teams playing at a higher level. For those in the Wiener Liga structure, your reserves play parallel leagues to the first team, and are promoted and relegated on the first team’s merits, not their own, (Belgium runs a similar structure). The reserve fixture invariably kicks off either two hours before or after the first team game, at the same venue, but not necessarily the same pitch.

We went to the Franz Hölbl Anlage, home to KSV Monte Laa of the 1. Klasse A, (and also of SV Wienerberger who play one division higher). From the entrance, one climbs to a bar and dressing room, and then have to move higher again to the pitch. What one then found was two railed of pitches, one grass, one artificial. The grass pitch had advertising hoardings as infill, and a couple of rows of bench seats on one side. Peter insists that the pitch itself is named the Anker Arena, (after the club sponsors), and the unsold advertising hoardings certainly had this printed on them, and the name was used (with that of Franz Hölbl) on the official team sheet. Then again, Peter would be happy to count the artificial surface as another ground if her were to visit it on another day, whereas I tend to consider it to be another pitch of the same ground. Such subjects can cause endless debates in groundhopping circles, and I believe that I am now in a minority over some of the grounds I have visited twice, but counted as just one ground. Of course, to non groundhoppers, it is debates like us that prove that we are obsessive anoraks who cannot get a girlfriend, (but then both Peter and I are married). Admission to the ground for this game was free, although the signs said that SV Wienerberger charge €5. Not surprisingly there was no programme.

Seating at Franz Hölbl. Peter is the one shading the sun from his eyes, and effectively hiding two other hoppers from the view

The football at this level was poor to say the least, it lacked any sort of pace at all, and was clearly an end of season match of little importance. The home side, who like to take the name KSV Anerbrot Monte Laa to honour their main sponsor, took the lead early in the game, and increased to 2-0 before half time. The visitors, Margaretner AC had to make a hurried change to the teams before the start as their team captain, Ulrich Stabel was late arriving. He came on as substitute after just 21 minutes, but really made an impact 11 minutes from the end, pulling one goal back. Margeretner then scored again in the final minute to secure a draw from the game. Up to that point, the most interesting thing about the away team was their kit. All black, but in order to publicise a Turkish café as sponsor, a hashish pipe and the sponsor’s name shown on the front

The Viennese Leagues always have a few Sunday morning fixtures. At Stadtliga level, I had noticed three, two with kick offs at 10.15, and one at 11.00. My original plan would have sent me to Donaufeld, for a 10.15 kick off, but by the time I had taken breakfast, checked out of my hotel and taken my first U-bahn of the day to Westbahnhof where I could lock up my baggage, I calculated another U-Bahn would get me to Florisdorf only around half an hour before kick-off, leaving me with a long walk and a short time. So instead I took the U-Bahn to Stadlau and rather lazily took the bus four stops, (this is what happens when you have a day ticket). There is an adjoining S-Bahn Station, and if you approach from this side, you see a big gate announcing FC Stadlau, and leaving a gap where some sponsors name has been added in the past. The gate is not used, and is only notable for a couple of containers next to the gate, one of which is marked USA Exhibits. The actual entrance is from around the corner, past a car park, two other pitches (at least one artificial surface) and a small swimming pool. Although the football stadium has a running track and a large stand and is enclosed, the dressing rooms are actually shared with the swimming, and all the players enter the pitch via the pay gate. They did not, however, pay €7 to get in.

This is Stadlau!


Surprisingly, I failed to get a team sheet. Austria has one of the most sophisticated systems for player registration, and even at the lowest level, the referee will have a computer in his dressing room. He enters the team list into the system before kick-off, this gives an immediate check on suspensions or other irregularities. This can then be printed from any computer with access to the internet, but at Stadlau, the printers were in the referee’s room, and he did not know how to manipulate the software to print me a copy. I settled for writing it down by looking at the announcer’s computer screen, and then checking against the internet later.

Still the pulled out the stops in other ways, with dancing girls to greet the players as the entered the pitch, and a more than acceptable match. League positions suggested a home win was on the cards, but this reckoned without Rainhard Siegl, who scored early for the visitors, ISS Admira Technopool early in the first half, and then again midway through the second, after Wendl had levelled for the home team just before the break.

An Admira Technopool free kick blocked by the wall

The pitch also shows American Football markings, and appears to be shared with the Donau Dragons. During the second half, I discovered there were three other groundhoppers present, from Germany and Poland, (there are a lot of Germans on the circuit, but this was the first Pole I had met). They were going onto DAC, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia for a 5.30 game, making use of the fact the station outside has direct services to Bratislava. Oddly, they had planned to leave this match 15 minutes early to catch a train, which in an anathema to most British hoppers. They said this was not their preference, and then checked their train times, realising there was another train to Bratislava after the match finished, and it would still get them to their destination 45 minutes before kick-off, they changed their plans.

Possibly the best feature of Austrian Football – the answer to the question, “Where’s the bar?”, is “Over there, next to the pitch”, although of course, there will always be an indoor bar as well, in case of poor weather!

For those riding into Slovakia for the afternoon, it may have been clock watching, I had only a few stops on the buses and U-Bahn to Prater for the Austrian Cup final, with plenty of time to pick up my ticket (€32.50 for a good seat, although this was with two additional charges added to the face value of €28). I even had time for lunch before the match, knowing that of we had extra time and penalties, I cold be in a rush later.

Despite renovations when staging the European Championships, the Ernst-Happel or Prater Stadion in Vienna is showing its age. One enters the ground, goes straight up concrete stairwell and through another gate to your seat. There is no plush modern concourse to provide a massive choice of overpriced comestibles, just small rooms with a limited choice. With the match taking place at four o’clock on a very hot afternoon, the organisers did not help, opening the side of the ground where fans could swelter in the sun, but using only a few of the shaded seats opposite (the main VIP area). This also meant no fans, (only VIPS) anywhere near the actual cup presentation. Still, my €32.50 bought me a very good seat, which I then changed twice, firstly to move away from a smoker (you can still smoke in Austrian stadiums, even in the stand at WAC, which had a wooden roof), and then to get out of the burning sunshine. There were no programmes on view outside the stadium, or at the entrances, so I went in thinking one had not been published, but on reaching the seats, I found that one had been left on each seat. I am not sure if this extended around to the seats behind the goals.

Unlike many stadiums, the roof of the Prater is lower opposite the centre line compared to the end. The line of the top of the third tier of seats, however is even all the way around.


SV Ried brought the most fans, who made the most noise, and dropped the most litter


The Salzburg fans bask in the Sunshine.

Red Bull Salzburg dived and cheated their way to winning the Austrian Cup final, completing a double with an emphatic 3-0 win over SV Ried. They were ably assisted in this by Thomas Einwaller, who clearly has no idea that it is possible for a football to fall over without being fouled. Now do not get me wrong, Salzburg’s opponents were not afraid to make the odd dive themselves, it is just that Salzburg took more tumbles, more often, and were clearly better at this aspect of the game. The first major decision of the game was a penalty that gave Salzburg the lead after just ten minutes, and this was for a dive. Sadly for the visitors, when one of their players took the chance to fall over in the area early in the second half, the referee ruled that this was a clean challenge. I find all this cheating somewhat disconcerting, and especially the fact that the officials seem oblivious to it going on. I assume they do not suffer the same level of scrutiny as given by, say, “Match of the Day” in England, as surely the criticism would be so severe, they would either learn or resign. On one incident, the referee awarded a questionable free kick to Ried. As the players were running back, a Salzburg player “bumped” into Ried player and collapsed to the ground. All three of the officials seemed blind to this happening, taking action only when the repercussions of the incident almost led to a fight, (well fists were raised but not used – this is Austria). After seeing me get irate over the diving and officialdom, two very attractive young ladies took time to ask me what I was doing in Austria. The said that part of the fun of Austrian football is all the crazy refereeing decisions, and seeing who can make the most theatrical fall to the ground. Not only that, the actually seemed disappointed that I was leaving the country that evening (overnight train), and therefore could not have a drink with them.

Salzburg are actually capable of some quite good football, and having gained an early lead, (which became 2-0 in the 14th minute), most of the possession was with Ried. As their moves inevitably broke down, Salzburg could then counter attack with pace on both wings (Svento and Zarate) as well as through the middle (Leonardo). Zarate and Leonardo are two of the worst divers in the team, but Svento impressed me. For those of you of the right age, you may remember Dick Dastardly of “Wacky Races”, whose plots to win the races always backfired and led to him losing. My thought was that he clearly had the best car, as he could get ahead to try and bring these plots against the other drivers. Hence, I concluded, if he just drove fairly, he would have won all the races anyway. Salzburg also have the ability to win without recourse to cheating, but choose not to do so. The difference, of course between the real world and TV cartoons is that in the real world cheating does work.

In the end, the record books show, Salzburg holding the cup

Top of the Klasse.

April 23rd, 2012

Football wise, it has been a long winter. The combination of working away from home, and actually having the wife at home to visit on the weekends has put the longer trips out of my mind – except when my wife wants me to take her into France, and then two times out of three this does not allow Football. At least the relative success of Cheltenham has meant that a period where I see them almost exclusively at the weekend,(with a diet of revisits in the general Manchester region during the week) was more than palatable.

Seasons change, as does home club form. At the time of writing, Cheltenham have not scored in five games and 77 minutes. It is a testimony to their earlier season form that even this record is not enough to take them out of the play off zone. With Cheltenham playing at Southend on a Friday night (no goals for us there),my first thought was to use the Channel Tunnel for the weekend, especially as I had an old ticket with the validity about to run out. I booked Monday off work, mainly because I did not want to drive from Belgium to Manchester in an evening. As it happened, the validity of my Eurotunnel ticket ended not on the Sunday, but the Saturday, and due to it being the first week of school holidays, there was almost no availability on the tunnel anyway. So my tunnel trip was instead scheduled for 25th March, when I did indeed drive from Wingene in Belgium, to my flat in Didsbury, arriving back at around 23.30.

One I visited earlier – KVC Wingene in action against Blue Star Poperinge.

I was tempted but not too tempted by a variety of possibilities for the weekend, as March gave way to April – but this left me too indecisive and as often happens with the “cheapo” air fares, one needs to pick up straight away. Anyway, a short trip with little time between the games for sightseeing is best done to the old familiar countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Still, fares were showing rather high, and I almost gave up the idea until I saw that I could fly BA to Amsterdam within a sensible budget. If I’d driven with Eurotunnel, then I would have tried to start early enough to get into the Netherlands, so this was ideal. Although not taking the trip, Paul generously allowed me to stop over at his place and park the car there, meaning I had just the slight target of the 05.46 train from Horley to catch my 07.20 flight at Gatwick.

Not the Montfoort Stadium. Instead the ground of neighbours MSV ’19

Even with the hour of time difference and the length of walk at Schiphol from Plane to Car Hire, I had some time to spare, and wandered into Utrecht for a while before heading to the match. In the Netherlands, the cities are generally more interesting than the towns. Indeed, most small towns in the Netherlands are much of a muchness, and somewhat dull. Pleasant (but dull) housing surrounds a pleasant (but dull) shopping area with a few small bars and restaurants and at least one supermarket. Driving must be done slowly, as it is never clear who has priority at a junction, but most cyclists assume that they own the road. It is, of course, possible that they do. The football grounds are almost always on the edge of town. Montfoort is no exception in these regards, although a couple of church spires and a windmill gave some respite on the skyline.

A football club bar should celebrate football, at least that’s what they think in Montfoort

Arriving at the grounds, one sees a neat small ground with a modern stand. Above the stand are the letters MSV’19. This is not the club I am going to see. Research shows that MSV play at the fourth level of regional Sunday football – so a ground with its own stand is quite something. Next to the MSV ground is a sports hall, and walking past the sports hall, one gets to Sportpark Hofland, home of vv Montfoort. This again is typical of the beast. Most of the surrounds of the ground are flat, but paved. On one side, a small stand has a small amount of elevation giving those inside a line of sight just above the benches. These seats, maybe 200 or so, provide all the cover. Each side of the stand are slightly raised grass banks, while in one corner, there is the clubhouse. This is typical of the type, Netherlands club bars are generally quite spacious, with a large bar area for drink, and food from a separate counter. There are more tables and chairs outside, in an area slightly enclosed. You can drink beer within sight of the pitch from this area, or through the clubhouse windows, but views will not be the best. You cannot take the beer to the other parts of the ground. I noticed that when someone walked out of the zone carrying the drink, they were quickly stopped by the stewards who had a quiet word after which the spectator returned to where he could legitimately finish his drink. While the professional leagues in the Netherlands suffer from a degree of hooliganism which goes beyond that remaining in Britain, the non-League game is one of tolerance, and four figure crowds can quite happily stand around the ground without even trying to goad the opposition.

Welcome to Montfoort. The teams enter the field to both sets of banners. Fans with a long memory will recognise the two footballers on the Montfoort badge from so many old programmes. Students of geography may note the wording VV Montfoort. Holland. Normally, the pedantic in me corrects the name Holland except in the two provinces of the Netherlands which are historically Holland. Montfoort is in Utrecht province, although close to the border with Zuidholland

Football in the Netherlands, below the two professional divisions is split into Saturday and Sunday football, with supposedly equal structures in each. This is the second season in which the top division of these two leagues is call Topklasse, and is national. The “Amateur Champion” is now decided by an end of season play off between the two TopKlasse champions. The winner of this can be promoted to the professional league, if they desire and have suitable facilities. The runner up can take the place if the winner declines. IN practise, there is next to no movement between the professional and amateur leagues.

The split into the Saturday and Sunday games is mainly on religious grounds. The protestants would never play on Sundays, whereas the Catholics always do, (this is true across much of Western Europe, countries are predominantly Roman Catholic are also predominantly Sunday football (or more recently Saturday night)). Saturday afternoon comes from the protestant communities. In the Netherlands there are more Saturday clubs towards the West, whereas in the area close to the German border, the Sunday leagues hold sway. With the West being more densely populated, there is a tendency for Saturday football to hold sway.

Apart from the National final, the Saturday and Sunday clubs can meet in the National and District cups. The rule for such meetings is that a Saturday club can refuse to play on a Sunday, but a Sunday club cannot refuse to play Saturday. Both legs of the national final are always on Saturdays.

Spakenburg are one of the top amateur teams in the Netherlands, and have won the overall championship 4 times, last season they came second in the Saturday Topklasse behind local rivals (the grounds are adjacent), IJsselmeervogels. Their neighbours went on to become overall champions, their 7th title. The derby match between these two had become the stuff of legends, and a capacity 8,500 saw the match played a week before my arrival. As a Spakenburg fan said to me “We did not play well, but we won”. This meant that Spakenburg went to Montfoort as top of the league, and with quite a following, two supporters coaches were parked outside the grounds, and judging by noise and colours, they provided over 50% of the spectators. Montfoort have been one of the beneficiaries of recent changes. They were not in the old Hoofdklasse before the Topklasse was formed, and after finishing fourth at the Eerste Klasse level, they won promotion after a series of play offs. Last season they went up again, and again it was via play offs, and not the one direct promotion place. This season, it appears as if the rapid rise is going to end, and they are secure in the relegation zone.

Not surprisingly, Spakenburg dominated the game. They managed to hit the cross bar no less than three times, while home keeper Johan Verkerk was announced as man of the match. Then, just after an announcement of a minimum four minutes injury time, Montfoort attacked on the break, the ball dropped to Chanan Brandsma on the left side of the penalty box, he kept his nerve and put the home side ahead. Spakenburg were shocked to be behind in a game which they should have comfortably won. From the kick off, a player went on a run down the wing and was brought down, the free kick was blocked for a throw on, the throw on was blocked for a corner. The corner was long, and Roy de Vies found space to sweep in a shot. 1-1. The result really did not help either side, with four games to play. Spakenburg lost top spot to Rijnsburgse Boys, while Montfoort are still four points short of the play-off position in their attempt to avoid the drop.

Admission to the ground was €8, and a free A5 programme was available. This consists of four pages of text, mainly squads, league tables and fixtures, surrounded by a glossy professionally print cover and advertising. Around 1250 turned out for the game. I was told that the creation of Topklasse had done a lot for this level of football, with a higher quality of football and much better crowds. Although both Spakenburg and Rijnsburgse Boys were rumoured to apply for promotion last season, I do not think either want to go up. Last season, Oss were promoted despite losing both legs of the final to IJsselmeervogels. Oss had until recently been in the league, and anyway, there was no relegated club as RBC had been declared bankrupt. The main point against taking promotion is the amount of work required to create a suitable stadium, and the costs of running a professional team. Most of the professional clubs carry significant debt, while generally the “amateurs”, (Topklasse is officially semi-professional), can balance their books.

Two weeks after this trip, Rijnsburge were held at Noordwijk, while Spakenburg have played twice more since my visit to Montfoort and scored 12 goals. Spakenburg therefore are back on top as I publish this, but Montfoort are now beyond hope, with relegation confirmed.

It goes without saying that I was not going to take a flight in search of just a single game of football, and I did not stop at Montfoort, instead I headed south and to Belgium. A variety of factors make this the most popular destination for groundhoppers heading regularly into European football. The factors tend to be ease of access, quality and variety of beer, chips with mayonnaise, and only then the football. Belgium towns have kept some of the idiosyncrasies lost in the Netherlands. Most towns are centred on a town square with one or two old buildings and a mixture of bars, restaurants and banks. Themain shopping areas tend to be on radial roads leading away from this square, and while the outskirts are not far different to suburbia elsewhere, the houses are certainly not all the same. On the contrary, one never sees two identical buildings next to each other. Even closer to the town, where at first glance one may find a row of similar terraced houses, a closer look will show that each has a little difference to its neighbour, even if this is just a decoration above the windows. It is this style, a homogenised non conformity, that best sums up Belgium.

As in the Netherlands, the professional league consists of two national divisions. The difference here is that while regionalism and semi-professionalism certainly starts at level 3, it is a more gradual transition. There is also a great deal of movement up and down the divisions with no artificial barrier placed in the way of promotion. The League comprises of four divisions, Division One has 16 teams, which means after 30 matches, they go into play off groups of unnecessary complexity. Most people preferred the straight 18 team league, but of course the increase in number of meetings between the top six, and the television contract for these hold sway. Division Two has 18 teams, and Division Three has 36, in two regions of 18 teams each. One team from team from each is promoted, while three enter play offs with one team from the higher division. There are two direct relegation places and one relegation play off place from each. Division four has four divisions of 16, with the same promotion structure, but no less than three direct relegation places, and one place again in the play offs. Up to 14 teams can lose their fourth division place.

Having gone weeks since the trip, without the time or impetus to finish the article, I am settling for brief notes and photographs from each of the three Belgium clubs visited on the trip.

First up was Leopoldsburg. As a club that bears my name, I thought it appropriate for what was actually my 200th ground in the country. Leopoldsburg also is one of those clubs that seems to always be in the bottom two divisions of the Belgium League. The club is known as KESK Leopoldsburg. The first “K” stands for Koninklijk, (it means royal), which can be seen in the name of most Belgium clubs with over 50 years of history. The “K” was actually awarded to the Excelsior FC Heppen in 1993. They merged with the more recently formed SK Strooiendorp Leopoldsburg in 1999. The new club kept those things that were of most value to Heppen, the “K”, the word Excelsior, and the Stamnummer (it may only be 3904, but it is still nearly 5000 less than the other club in the merger). I do not know when a much earlier Leopoldsburg club (with the far more impressive Stamnummer of 288) disappeared from view, but as the Belgiums tend to recycle their grounds, it would not be a surprise if KESK’s secondary ground had been used by this club. As it is, their Heidestraat ground is actually in Heppen, a good couple of miles from the centre of Leopoldsburg. The full name of the club is Koninklijk Excelsior Sportkring Leopoldsburg.

The ground is on the edge of town, nearly merging into the woods. At one end it has a neat stand built over a bar right up at one end of the pitch. The same side has a little cover in front of the dressing rooms, and a traditional single story long and narrow “cantine” (translates as bar) at the other end

I watched most of the game from the far side, where low cover runs the full length of the ground. The small structure visible at the end is an additional bar, allowing those in the stand to buy beer.

Admission was €8, and the crowd was quite small, I estimated it around 150. There was no programme as such, but an A4 printed sheet including the team names was made freely available around 20 minutes before kick-off. Quite a few of the fans came from the away team, Witgoor Sport Dessel. I had to question them as one of the names on the teamsheet had the wrong number. This makes them ask what you are doing there. It is not always easy to explain, even though every club in Belgium at this level has seen occasional English and German groundhoppers in attendance. As one I saw Witgoor at home earlier in the season, it was not a very exciting game, and was settled in Witgoor’s favour by a single late goal. The fans I had talked to had no hesitation in pointing out that scorer on this occasion, Alban Grepi was the player I had asked about.

 

It was the Belgium fourth division again the following day. The name Everbeur belongs to a small part of the small town of Averbode. Their football team started in the 1930s, joining the Belgium FA in 1932, (there were local unaffiliated competitions as well in those days), and after periods in more local leagues, making their way into the 3rd level of the provincial League (Brabant) in 1935. They rose to the second level in 1937 and to the first provincial league in 1943. A season later they reached the National League. 1944-5 season was lost to the war, and Everbeur stayed in the National League until 1951. After two seasons back in the provincial league, they were again promoted in 1953, but just before the season started, the Belgium FA hit them with a bombshell, no less than 13 of their players were suspended for taking illegal payments, (which means any payment at all, as they were all amateurs). With the guts ripped out of the team, they were relegated at the end of the season. They also lost their ground at this point and almost went out of existence. Still, they ploughed on, despite relegation at the end of 56-7 season which after which it was 51 seasons until they again reached the top provincial level. Their lowest point were the seasons 1989-91, spent in the fourth provincial league. There is no further down to go.

Slowly, their fortunes improved, but they were still at the third provincial league until 2006. Then three rapid promotions, 2006, 2008 and 2010 and they are back in the league for the first time since that disastrous 1953 season. They club had moved to their current home in 1978, and adopted the name K. Everbeur Sports Averbode in 2005.

Today the ground is next to the local sports centre, and this provides some shelter for the standing spectator, plus of course, the obligatory bar. The seating stand, a modern steel construction is on the opposite side. When I arrived at the ground, it seemed likely they would again change division in an even year, but this time, it would be a relegation.

Their hopes were not improved when within 30 seconds of the kick off, visitors KFC Sint-Lenaarts were 1-0 ahead. There was a fair crowd here, around 300 on a sunny afternoon. The admission price was €9. As at other matches, an A4 printed sheet was made available with the teams just before kickoff. As it turned out, this was intended as an insert into a full A4 programme which was carried around the ground to those who wanted it during the first half. No specific price appeared to be charged for this, but the programmes were only given to those who also bought a scratch card.

The match turned on the referee’s decisions. In the 26th minute, the visiting keeper managed to foul a home forward as he broke through. The referee gave a penalty and sent the keeper off. St Lenaarts had a substitute keeper to bring on, but this still means over an hour with only 10 men, and Everbeur had pulled level from this first penalty.

Not content with this, the referee awarded not one, but two penalties to Everbeur in the second half.

Having scored from the penalty spot in the first half, Shabi misses this chance to put his side 2-1 up with the second penalty.


With then minutes to play, Everbeur take the games third penalty, van Aerschot putting his team 2-1 ahead.


The Sportcentrum side and cover. The bar is within the Sportcentrum

With the visitors pushing forward to try and make up for this, Everbeur scored again in the final minute, recording a 3-1 win. Since then they have won two successive away matches, both against teams in the relegation zone, which have pulled them above the danger zone and makes survival at this level for another season more probable.

I was fortunate, I was not returning to the UK until Monday morning, and the fixtures had provided me with an extra game, albeit in the depths of the second provincial league. Although it was still a Brabant club, I first had to find my way around the Brussels Ring at a busy time of a Sunday evening. This was one of the times the satnav system was not playing ball, insisting that the roadname I gave for the ground was in fact a small driveway leading into a farm. Having looked up and down the roads in both directions and found nothing, I tried asking three small children (about 10 years old, I guess) playing ball in said driveway. One of them told me, in a language I understood (which means neither French, nor Flemish), to go back to the main road turn right and head to the cross roads. From this direction, the ground was clearly sighted, and it was still ten minutes before the start when I entered, although not through this gate.

The entrance actually must once have been connected to the road by a path, but this has not been closed off by a business, meaning a walk around the businesses and the side of a field to enter.

The home side, Denderzonen Pamel, were promoted last season and have accumulated just about enough points to ensure survival. The visitors, US Rebecquoise, still had hope of sneaking into the play offs, but it would depend on others as well as themselves. Still, they did their bit at the start of this game, 1-0 up with a third minute penalty, they tore through the home team to be 3-0up in just 21 minutes

No. 9 for Rebecquoise, Bert Sleewagen opened the scoring with a third minute penalty, and here in the 21st minute, he is seen scoring his team’s third goal.

It cost €6 to enter the ground, around 150 people were present. There was a cantine/bar by the entrance, and the fact that a team sheet was given out as I entered the ground meant no searching for the official lists and time for a quick beer before kickoff.

Low cover, filled most of the length of the far side.


Not all the cover is in good repair – the partial blockage of the pathway is the home “dug out”

With five minutes to go to half time, the game took an unexpected turn, Denderzonen Pamel pulled a goal back, and then a minute later were awarded a penalty

Damien Wets scores from the spot. Denderzonen Pamel 2-3 US Rebecquoise. Four minutes before half time, but as it turns out, the final goal.

Early in the second half, I am near the corner flag, when Rebecquoise’s Jeremy Paduwat commits a foul and receives his yellow card. He then says something, loud enough for me to hear, but in a language I do not understand (i.e. French or Flemish). It is enough to make a few young ladies (probably players’ wives or girlfriends) by the clubhouse door actually gasp in shock. Paduwat then just walks to the dressing rooms, never glancing back to see the inevitable red card. I imagine that he got some stick himself from his manager later, as down to ten men, it was a constant struggle for Rebecquoise, once so solidly in command to hold onto the points. There are no goals in the second half, but just before the end, the numbers are levelled again when a second booking causes Pamel’s Jeroen Walravens to leave the field.

 

The World’s Smallest National League?

February 27th, 2012

You may ask what is the smallest National Football League? Well, the Pitcairn Islands (population 67) does not have a league, and neither does Vatican City (the smallest state by area – although in this case the 770 ‘citizens’ all have citizenship only for the period of their assignment to the Vatican, and resume their original nationality when returning home). I am sure someone will come up with Clerical Cup and other Vatican competitions, but this is not a national league.

In terms of area, Monaco is the second smallest behind Vatican on the World lists, with less than a square mile. There are quite a few countries with lesser population than Monaco, including San Marino (and Gibraltar if you wish to count it) in Europe, but at 35,000, Monaco claims less than a quarter of the population of the smallest London Borough (I’ve excluded the City of London itself).

Monaco is curious in football terms. On one hand there is AS Monaco, playing in the French League with use of Stade Louis II within the principality itself, but then there is the local league without a ground within the state, and hence playing on two venues in France. The two are at Moneghetti and Capd’ail. Both the grounds are right up against the border of Monaco, with Cap d’Ail being just across the road from the Arches at one end of the Stade Louis II, while wayward shots at Moneghetti must seriously risk entering Monaco.

I was on a five day weekend, mainly at the wife’s behest, and so a visit to the Monaco league was not to be my only match of the weekend. A pure footballing weekend in these parts would be a good idea, there are some matches on Friday night, games at various times around the Saturday, the local leagues (from Level 6 down) play mainly Sunday afternoons, and AS Monaco play on Monday, (as well as the Monaco League competition). I was limited however. It was sightseeing during the day, no matter that it rained near continually during the trip, and while I had the evening’s available, the only potential Saturday match would be a revisit to Nice, which I gave away.

So it meant that only Friday and Monday evenings would include football. A strange weekend if ever I had one. The Friday night match was at Etoile FC Frejus-St. Raphael, in the French National League (which for the uninitiated is their National Third Division). I have never understood the Raison d’etre of the French National League, and yet there appears to be no move to rationalise it. Covering the whole Country, with a lot of Friday night games, the league has to be fully professional, yet the average crowd this season is given as 1655, with a quarter of the clubs managing less than 600 spectators on average. Even these figures may be exaggerated – after the game I saw, the home web site estimated the crowd at 1000, while the visitors said 900, (tickets are sold, so an accurate figure is possible). My own guess is that the Martigues estimate is on the low side.

The club itself is a recent merger of clubs in the two neighbouring towns. As EFC Frejus, they won promotion to this level in 2009, and in their merged form they have kept their status. They play at the Stade Eugene Porcin in Frejus. The first thing one says about this stadium is that it is French. At least (from the spectators point of view) it is trackless, with the viewing areas square to the pitch. It has the almost standard cantilever stand along one side. The opposite side and behind one goal is lined with some quite highly stepped concrete terracing, looking as if it has been recently installed and renovated. Probably to mark the 2009 promotion and merger.

The one unique point is two traditionally styled towers by the entrance, containing the ticket booths, one of which backs onto a refreshment stall. As far the game, well the lower divisions have a reputation for dull football, and this match fitted well with the reputation. I think the home goalkeeper may have made two saves during the game. His opposite number made none at all. If he had made one save, then the game would have ended scoreless, instead of 1-0 to Etoile. The goal was a well taken turn and shoot by Matthieu Scarpelli. It was scored just less before the hour mark, and only minutes after his side dropped to ten men after Delcos was sent off.

And so on to Monaco. I did a little research on Monaco’s major football team, and the relative status of the rest. AS Monaco is of course the principality’s only side in the French system. They play fully as a French team and are indeed affiliated to the French Football Federation. While first team games are played at the Stade Louis II, they have a total of four adult teams and no less than 13 youth teams. Apart from the first team, all the others play their home matches over the borders in France. AS Monaco seconds play in the CFA (level 4) in Menton, while the third team play at Moneghetti and the fourths at Cap d’Ail in the district competition, Ligue Cote d’Azur. The top division of the District League also includes US Cap d’Ail, who play in the top division of the Ligue Cote d’Azur, (level 8 of the French system). Monaco’s teams play at levels 9 and 11. Apparently, the Stadium in Menton is used by two French teams as well as Monaco II, with the highest one also in the regional leagues (Level 7 of the system).

The Federation Monagasque de Football organises two football competitions, added to by a number of seven-a-side competitions. There may be women’s and youth football as well, but it does not get a mention on the web site. The competitions are the Challenge Prince Rainier III and the Challenge Ville de Monaco. These are not referred to as national football competitions within, but as Football d’Enterprise, (Football for Companies). All the teams in the league are Monaco companies, or other places of work (such as La Poste or Hopital de Monaco). When I asked about the matches at the stadium, and referred to the league as a national league, I was similarly corrected. Most of the players actually work for the companies concerned, as they are only allowed a limited number of outsiders. Apart from being one of these guest players, it appears there is no competition in Monaco for local players who are not employed by Enterprises with competition membership, and hence the only avenue for their football ambitions is across the border in France, (or of course, AS Monaco themselves). The rules allow for a maximum of five who do not work directly for the company concerned, but no more than 3 in any one category, the categories being “assimilated”, for direct family members of employees, “waivers” for players not connected with a company or “other business” for players connected with a company indirectly – which could include seasonal workers when not working, or contractors from outside. All of these categories can only play for one team if they do not work for another company with a team, so there is no room here for a transfer market.

The stadium at Moneghetti. The stadium is in France, but the apartment block and church behind the goal are in Monaco. The only clear spectator areas is at the near end of the building along the side, and a small area (used for parking of bikes) from where I took the photo.

There is international competition, Monaco regular enters a team in the EFSA (European Federation for Company Sport) tournament, a biennial competition. Monaco are staging the competition 21-23 June this year. Monaco also enter teams in competition against other non FIFA nations such as Vatican City or Gibraltar.

There are some other differences to games in England, but which I have seen in French Amateur Football, either at CFA or regional level. Firstly, the points structure, four for a win, two for a draw and one for a defeat (which means you only get a zero for forfeiting the game, or if you are found to be at fault for an abandonment), and secondly rolling substitutions. The number of substitutes is not limited, and players substituted can return to the field of play, except during the final ten minutes of the game, (a player who has not been on the field of play can still enter late, but a replaced player cannot come back).

But the differences go beyond this; this is the only league I have watched, where the rules specify games are limited to 40 minutes each way. The reason for this appears to be time constraints, allowing two matches to go ahead on the same pitch in an evening. Although on the day I watched, (and this is not uncommon), there were two matches at one ground and one at the other, all matches are short. This at least maintains the same conditions in all games. Finally, although my game was too clean to require it, there is a “sin bin”. A player receiving a yellow card is removed from the play for a period of five minutes. A second offence will still result in a sending off, and I assume more serious offences can lead to direct dismissal.

The competition is in two divisions, the Challenge Prince Rainier III is the top division with ten teams playing nine games each in the regular season, while the Challenge Ville de Monaco has two groups of six teams, playing only five games in a regular season which is already complete. Both have some sort of knock out at the end, with the two finals played back to back – the only two Monaco games to be played in Stade Louis II. There is promotion and relegation, both of last seasons Ville de Monaco finals are in the Prince Rainier III this season.

Cap d’Ail. In common with the Stade Louis II next door, this stadium sits above a car park. In this case it is used for the Marriott hotel next door.

My groundhopping has always taken on strict rules, especially when watching more than one game in a day, or other over circumstances where part of a match is missed. Basically, when I make plans, I must allow myself the chance to see every minute played in a game, and then if something goes wrong, and poor traffic conditions or a delayed train mean I miss a small portion of the game (how small is not defined), then I will still count the match. When travelling between matches, it must be physically possible to see the end of game 1, and the start of game 2 before I can consider it.

I was tempted by the idea of seeing the 18.45 kick off at Moneghetti, and the 20.15 at Cap d’Ail, but despite the fact I may be able to do the distance in under ten minutes (if I did not get lost), this still would not be enough and parking at both locations is a problem. So in the end I went to the early kick of at Cap d’Ail, pausing at the other ground just briefly (I was double parked, the only way I could stop close by – but I was in a row of double parked vehicles).

Not surprisingly, with the use they get, both grounds have artificial surfaces. The ground at Cap D’Ail is caged, except that there are a few steps of terracing on one side, with (closed) areas which could be used to sell refreshments. The number of spectators varied slightly during the game, but generally, I counted them at six (including myself). The game was between SMB administration and SMA. The company SMB (Société des Bains de Mer), which also features another team in the division, (SMB slots) runs some of the best known casinos and hotels in Monaco. SMA is Société Monégasque d’Assainissement, which sounds better than its English translation –the Monaco Sanitation Company. Incidentally, until SMA was founded in 1938 as a separate company, sanitation was the responsibility of SMB. The idea being that they were given a monopoly on running the casinos, but they also took responsibility for garbage as part of the deal.

Cap d’Ail looking towards Monaco.

The game was as poor as any match I have seen this season. Whereas I managed to mark down the starting XIs into 4-2-3-1 formations, neither side really kept their shape well. What was clear was that SMB Administration (second in the league at the start of the evening, and destined to go top for a week until the leaders played again), were by far the better of the two sides. 3-0 up before SMA scored with a rare shot in the 15th minute, SMB extended the lead to 5-1 at the break and 11-1 at the end of the game. Such high scoring is not entirely typical – the average goals per match in the league is around 6, and the only other double figure haul was when league leaders Ribeiro Freres defeated bottom placed SMB Slots by 10-0. Before the game, I found the one league official in the ground, and he allowed me to copy the players names off the official list. I know they are correct as before kick off, the referee called each player out from the list, and checked the numbers were correct.

This rigmarole, a minute’s silence before kick-off, and a full ten minute break at half time meant we were running late. I actually left the ground at half time, crossed the road (and national border) to Stade Louis II, bought a ticket for the second division game there and returned to Cap d’Ail. I did not run, but still completed this in four minutes flat. At the time, I thought my game could run on to about 8.25, but in fact the referee compensated for the late start, by shortening the second half. It was a decision I thought odd, considering we had a ten minute break and three minutes injury time in the first half. Somehow, I suspect the locals take a pragmatic view. All that could have happened in a longer game was that SMB would increase their dominance to more than the 10 goal margin seen.

No doubt I will get some stick from the purists for including a game that barely exceeded 70 minutes, and had uneven lengths of halves. Frankly, I admit that even if this was to be seen as an extra game, it lacks something. As the supposedly major game of my evening, (as the other was no less than my third visit to the stadium). As a ground that I am claiming as a tick, it only just gets to pass muster – I did after all see the whole game, and the score counts.

As mentioned earlier, I ran across the border at half time and bought a ticket for the game at Stade Louis II – which gives away the fact I did not stay for the second of the evening’s games at Cap d’Ail. It was a wise choice, for the second division game was full of entertainment and interest.

The arches as views from inside the Stade Louis II.

I have a good past record watching Monaco, having seen them seven times, including twice at home and with the team winning five and drawing twice on my watch. However, they are well in the past, being based mainly on time I had to visit the South of France while working, and all seven previous visits came while Arsene Wegner was in charge of the team. One of the victories I had seen Monaco record, was on my visit to Racing Club de Lens. That was of course when both teams were doing well in the top division, now both are in division 2, and Monaco appear to be at risk of dropping lower.

Lens are known for actually having support, even for away matches – a rarity in France where distances are much greater than in England, and where games are much less likely to be scheduled with the convenience of the fan in mind. (Consider how much the convenience of the fans is taken into account in arranging televised games in England, and then think what less consideration must be like). Still there were around 100 visitors in on corner of the ground waving the colours, Sang et Or (Blood and Gold). The team actually played in a greenish hue of blue, with just a small amount of bright lime green trim. These are not colours that could invoke pride, so it is no wonder that only the traditional strips are on show. Monaco played in the familiar diagonal red and white halves. The first half contained plenty of chances at both ends, but no goals, Monaco had looked better earlier in the game, and started the second period strongly as well. This time they got it right, scoring quickly, and then adding a second. Two nil up ten minutes into the second half, and cruise control sets in.

Meanwhile, with no improvement in the situation, Racing Club bring on the youngster Thorgan Hazard. Thorgan’s elder brother, Eden is expected to move to the Premier League in the summer with clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea chasing his signature. Assuming he is a better player than his brother, I can well understand this.

Thorgan changed the climate of the game from the moment he took the field, and crossed the ball for Toudic to pull a goal back within two minutes. Toudic then missed the most open of a number of chances that went astray as Lens attempted to level the game. The game went into injury time with Monaco still ahead, but three minutes later, Lens finally got the equaliser.

Some Monaco fans may well think they were robbed of points that would have lifted them out of the relegation zone, but this would be to misrepresent the game. Lens should have scored their second much earlier, based on the dominance they held in the closing stages, and the chances created.

England C Team in Gibraltar

December 26th, 2011

Once the laws of football had been formalised, it did not take long for them to spread across International borders, and almost inevitably, the first International game was played as far back as 1872. By 1906, football had become so professionalised that there was little room for the amateur in international football, and England started fielding an all Amateur International XI as well. Their first game was played in November 1906 and resulted in a 15 (fifteen) -0 win against France. The side for that match included players from South Bank, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Old Malvernians, Old Foresters and Luton Town.

I am not certain if that game was entered as an official first team international for France, but most of the Amateur teams early games were against the full international XI of their opponents, (which meant they awarded full caps, while England did not). The England Amateur XI won their first 17 games and went unbeaten through the first 20. (To be accurate, three of these games were played by the team as a GB XI, as they were part of the 1908 London Olympics). In March 1909, the England Amateur team beat the full International team of Germany by 9-0, and a month later they beat Belgium 11-2. Both these results are still recorded as the record defeat for the National teams concerned.

Credit to Belgium though, as a year later, they gained a 2-2 draw with England (Amateurs) in Brussels, the Amateurs first failure to win. 1906-10 was a golden age for English International football with the Senior team also managing 18 unbeaten games between defeats in Glasgow in 1906 and 1910. The Amateurs finally lost in Copenhagen in May 2010. Denmark were the team beaten in the Olympic final, in 1908 and again lost to “England” in the 1912 final. The FA claim that England Amateur teams played at the 1908, 1912, 1920 and 1936 Olympics, but non English players may have been included in the latter pair.

I do not have a full record of England Amateur games, but one notable fixture, 28 January 1939 saw England beat Wales 5-2 at Whaddon Road, Cheltenham. Although by that time Cheltenham were a member of the professional Southern League, GE Perkins was in the England XI. By that time, the England Amateur XIs had become quite London based. Apart from Perkins, only two players were not Londoners, the goalkeeper G. Whitehead (Bury Amateurs) and T.H. Leek of Moor Green. I am saddened to note that Bury Amateurs changed their name to AFC Bury at the start of this season.

The England Amateur team was disbanded in 1974, basically because the distinctive name “Amateur Football” was being scrapped. The move was slow coming, and by 1974, many Amateur players were receiving so much boot money, that semi-professional clubs could not compete.

Still, with a strong distinction between the professional game (as in Football League) and semi-professional (or amateur), as in everything non-League, there was a case for a representative XI at this level and so in 1979, an England Semi-Professional XI was started. The first game was a 2-1 victory over Scotland, at Stafford Rangers in May 1979, with the Netherlands beaten at the same venue a week later.

Since then, the name of the team has morphed to the England National Game XI, and now England C, but the team has always been effectively the same, a representative side of the Football Conference, with the odd player entered from the lower leagues. Players have always come from the English non-League system (but including some playing for Welsh clubs), with I think just one exception. Kevin Todd, who I remember as a part of the Newcastle Blue Star team of the late 80s, made his one appearance in 1991, after signing for Berwick Rangers.

The England C team (using its current name) was not even limited to Englishmen. While only three players have been capped for both the C team and at Full cap level, I can easily name an equal number of players later capped for other nations. For the record – the players who moved up to the England squad were Alan Smith (Alvechurch) and Steve Guppy (Wycombe),with Peter Taylor (Maidstone)dropping to the semi-professional team in 1984, eight years after he won a full cap. Meanwhile, in the early days, I clearly remember Eammon O’Keefe moving up from playing in those first two England games, to play for Eire after switching from Mossley to Everton, Barry Hayles has gone on to play for Jamaica, while Junior Agogo has played for Ghana. The first two of these at least were English born. Agogo was born in Ghana.

In recent years, the shape of the Conference has changed. The effects of two promotion and relegation places has been to open up the Football League to those worthy non-League clubs which previously did not have the chance to improve themselves, but in reverse, the Conference itself has become the resting place for some many clubs with a lengthy Football League history behind them. Some of these clubs are getting far bigger crowds then their replacements; compare Grimsby, Luton and Stockport with Cheltenham, Morecambe and Macclesfield. Not surprisingly, these clubs have stayed full time professional, and the more ambitious clubs among the rest have also gone full time, boosted by increasing attendances and owners who put money in, (surely not still under the illusion that there is a pot of gold beyond any promotion rainbow?).

So, as the distinction between the Conference and the Football League has been eroded, in terms of professional clubs and even in wages offered, the choice of running a England representative side for players from Conference level down is looking more and more arbitrary. Players do not take the drop in level simply to get into the England team, but they can get into the team by taking such a drop, while many of last season’s team cannot play this season, as they are with either Crawley or AFC Wimbledon and hence moved into the league.

To my mind, the whole business of the England ‘C’ team is very arbitrary. Why do we award caps for one group of professional football players, while we have other groups of better players who are deemed too good to earn England ‘C’ honours, but fall far short of the standard required for England ‘A’. (The rarely used England ‘B’ designation is normally used for a reserve team of players picked from the same pool as the ‘A’ squad).

The only criterion I see the current XI being based on is to make it competitive in those tournaments it enters, and to neither overwhelm, nor be overwhelmed by its opponents. This at least is achieved, with the eight games 2009-11 resulting in two draws, five English wins, all by a single goal and a 1-0 defeat to a Portugal XI in the final game of the last International Challenge Tournament.

For England’s first International of the 2011-12 season, one could easily believe the squad had the ability to overpower their opponents. All but two members of the squad coming from the Football Conference, the odd couple being from Conference North. This predominantly professional squad was to play Gibraltar. The Gibraltarian League being an all amateur combination, played on the single stadium within the territory. Only a couple of players from Gibraltar have moved on to play semi-professionally in the lower levels of Spanish football, and there are no full professional players at all in the squad. The local newspaper’s sports reporter, loyal to his team tells me that one or two players have been offered chances in England or Spain, but have not taken them up; and as the game is played, one can see that there is some talent around and maybe some players could have made a higher grade with full time training and coaching.

The England team is very different to the one that played in the previous season. The age band, everyone over 20 and under 24 is very narrow, and only four players have played for England ‘C’ before, totalling only six gaps. The left back, Sean Newton (himself a late call up to cover for the inevitable absences in a team playing abroad on a Tuesday, when everyone has played club football on a Saturday) has two caps and is the only England player to have scored for the team before.

Lack of experience, difficult transport regimes, and little training together would all conspire against a team that one would expect on paper (or for that matter on a 3G artificial surface) to be far stronger than their opponents.

For the Gibraltarian team, there was no lack of preparation, the squad had been chosen weeks in advance and had been training together far more often than most club squads in the territory. Apart from the hope of a good game, and a close result in the match against England, the objectives of the Gibraltar FA are somewhat different to those of England. Soon after the Gibraltar FA was formed, it affiliated with the Football Association, and for many years had the same rights as any of the County associations, even though it did not enter clubs into FA Competitions, but seeing the explosion in the numbers of UEFA members, including the inclusion of other micro states (Andorra, San Marino) and dependent territories (Faroe Islands), there was a very good case for Gibraltar to join UEFA.

The GFA’s original application for membership came in 1997, and FIFA pushed it out to UEFA for consideration. If Gibraltar were accepted as a member of UEFA, then FIFA membership would also follow. Back at the time, FIFA were proud of the fact that their membership numbers made it the biggest international organisation in the world, currently 208 members, compared to just 193 in the United Nations, and at the turn of the Millennium it seemed there were opportunities for more to be added into the mix. Gibraltar ceased to be a part of the English Football Association and with the territory enjoying a similar autonomous role, to say the Faroe Islands, the candidacy looked good.

But there was one hurdle to overcome, and it was a big hurdle in the form of Spain. As soon as the Spanish Football Association (prompted by the government) objected to the inclusion of Gibraltar within UEFA, the plan was scuppered. I still believe the Spanish FA’s threat to leave UEFA if Gibraltar should be allowed to join is a bluff. With the National team for once on top of the World, and with Real Madrid and Barcelona carrying all before them on the club fronts, it seems they have a lot to lose by carrying out their threat.

UEFA went a step further than simply refusing Gibraltar’s application, they changed the rules and said that in future, only a recognised Nation could become a member of the organisation (I think this now applies to FIFA as well). This is not retrospective, so the continued participation of the Faroes and others is not in doubt. Now for a long time, FIFA has said that members should not appeal through local courts, but should apply to the Court for Arbitration in Sport in the case of any dispute. Gibraltar did just that – and won. The CAS said that the new rules could not be applied retrospectively, and any applicant that had attempted to join earlier had to be accepted on old rules. (This does rule out a floated move by Greenland to join, and delays any application from Kosovo until they gain full independence). After an appeals process, which did not change the decision, UEFA felt they had no choice, and in December 2006 announced Gibraltar were provisional members, to be rubber stamped by congress the following month. Congress involves the 52 countries (at the time) having one vote each, and with an intensive lobbying operation from the Spanish (with the threat of Spain pulling out to the fore), Gibraltar’s application was refused by 45 votes to three (with four abstentions). The three who voted in Gibraltar’s favour are believed to be England, Scotland and Wales

Gibraltar are pushing on with lobbying to bring the issue back to UEFA in the future, but despite confidence among some of the officials on the Rock, I feel it will be a long time before there is an change.

The following match report was written for the non-League Daily web site, and appeared there the day after the match.

The England C team were humbled by a well organised Gibraltar side at the Victoria Stadium, going down to a 3-1 defeat in their first game of the season.

England C can call on any players outside the Football League, which at the top level means 24 teams of mainly full time professional players, but any number of semi-professionals in the lower divisions. Gibraltar has only two divisions of Senior football, comprising a total of 16 teams, and generally amateur status. Yes, it is true that Gibraltar can put out Manchester United players, but that is only because there is a team by that name in the local league. Two Gibraltarian players do play in the Spanish Leagues, but only at semi-professional levels.

The game started in frenetic fashion, with more pace on display than purpose. England settled into a 4-4-2 formation, and appeared confident that they could play an attacking game. Gibraltar chose a more defensive minded 4-1-4-1 format, but from the word go they took the game to their opponents.

The story for most of the first half was Gibraltar attacking with pace and flair, particular the pair who play in Spain, Joseph Chipolina, the left full back was a constant threat overlapping, while winger George Cabrera was the threat on the other flank. England managed to stand firm despite numerous attempts, and should have taken the lead on 38 minutes, Danny Rose crossed from the left and Adam Boyes shot against the bar. Lindon Meikle then attempted to get a grip on the loose ball, but shot high and wide. This cost England dearly, as we were suddenly treated to a display of pace from Lee Casciaro, swopping passes with George Cabrera and then firing Gibraltar into a deserved lead.

Gibraltar appear too quick for the static English defence

After the break, England came out with six changes, but few differences. The goalkeeper, three midfielders and both strikers were swapped. Before the new grouping had even managed to greet each other and exchange names, the referee spots a stray hand where it should not be. Gibraltar’s Aaron Perez nets the resultant penalty. 2-0.

For the next six minutes, England are just wondering what has hit them, and then thinking it may be worse, with Robert Guilling hitting the post after a good interchange between Cabrera and Perez – then it was worst. Guilling was allowed to stand alone on the half way line, where he was picked out with a perfect crossfield ball, running on alone before shooting past the advancing Preston Edwards.

If Gibraltar ran out of steam after the hour mark, it was a sign of how much they had put into the early part of the game. Anyway, England continued to be disorganised, and despite having more of the ball, they could rarely show either enough guile or strength to worry Jordan Perez in the home goal.

Gibraltar stuck to the game plan, 4-1-4-1 throughout, although they were flexible enough to rotate some of the players positions within this system. Roy Chinpolina, who had an excellent game started off shielding the back four, and later joined it. Cabrera took up the lone forward position from Lee Casciaro allowing Casciaro to drop back, while Brian Perez and Aaron Payas had excellent games wherever they played.

Penalty – Gibraltar’s all important second goal.

England did get a goal back with less than ten minutes to play, it was knocked in by Connor Jennings at short range, following a rare defensive mix up for Gibraltar. England commanded possession after this, but there was never a suggestion that the goal was anything but a consolation.

Marks must go to Fairclough for demanding that his players went forward to applaud the home crowd at the end of the game. The crowd had chanted throughout (one of the few chants surely that uses the name of the organisation G-F-A, rather than the country). At the end they were calling again for UEFA recognition as well.

England. Jonathon Hedge (Tamworth) (Preston Edwards (Ebbsfleet)), Shaun Beeley (Fleetwood), Sean Newton (AFC Telford), Jamie Turley (Forest Green), Rory McAuley (Cambridge United) (Adam Watkins (Luton)); Lindon Meikle (Mansfield), Jai Reason (Braintree), Danny Rose (Newport County) (Kenny Davis (Braintree)), Robbie Willmott (Luton) (Ashley Chambers (York)); Adam Boyes (Barrow) (Connor Jennings (Stalybridge)), John Paul Kissock (Luton) (Michael West (Ebbsfleet).

All substitutions at half time, with Reason dropping from midfield to defence.

Gibraltar. Jordan Perez, Ryan Casciaro, Joseph Chipolina, Joseph Chipol (Jason Pusey 82), Lee Ferrary (Daniel Duarte HT); Roy Chipolina; George Cabrera (Gareth Lopez 89), Brian Perez (Jeremy Lopez 85), Aaron Payas, Robert Guilling (Kyle Casciaro 66); Lee Casciaro

Referee: A. Bacarisa (Gibraltar).

Attendance: Approximately 800

Gibraltar is a curious place to visit, very welcoming and an odd mixture between Spanish and British. Public transport and the border crossings are now straight forward, so visiting the territory by crossing the border from Spain is now quite easy, as is using Gibraltar airport as an entry point into Spain (you walk across the Spanish border, about 100 yards from the airport terminal). One curious point, soon to be changed is that the only road into Gibraltar runs straight across the airport runway, and so closes when a plane takes off or lands, (fortunately, there aren’t many flights). If driving, queues to cross the border can be several hours in length, entering Gibraltar early in the day, and leaving from mid afternoon onwards. Even during the game, I could see the line of cars across the runway until well into the second half, I was told this meant a one hour delay if I had left the territory at that time. A new airport terminal is being built, and then a tunnel under the runway which will alleviate some of the problems and allow more flights into Gibraltar.

The Stadium is next to the airport, and consists of a single cantilever stand over around 1000 seats. On the far side, some concrete seating has been built up, but this was not used for the International.

Friday Night on the A55, and other North Welsh Comments

September 30th, 2011

The Key road in North Wales is the A55, a dual carriageway that takes the traffic from the end of the M56 and winds it past the coast, quite spectacularly in some cases, before joining with the old A5 if one crosses the Menai Straits to Anglesey. Working south of Manchester, and finishing around lunchtime on a Friday, and fixtures down this road are easy to get to. Friday night football is not rare in Wales, but most of the grounds staging it are floodlit and return again and again. It is only at the start and end of season that there is some variety. And so I found myself running down the road two Fridays in a row, at the end of August. Despite supporting many resorts, the traffic was not overtly heavy on either date, and so my runs were simple in themselves.

On the North Welsh coast, the jewel is Llandudno, a resort made popular in Victorian times, and with the imposing hotel frontages along the bay. If you look on the internet, many of these hotels still charge quite high rates despite a tiredness and lack of recent investment. If you go beyond the room rates to the reviews, the words “Don’t stay here!” turn up with alarming frequency.

Coming from England, the seaside towns between the border and Llandudno are brasher, dependent more on the working class shilling brought in by the railways. None more so than Rhyl, which does its best to be a mini-Blackpool on the North Welsh coast even if its equivalent of the golden mile appears to be no more than 400 metres, and then in nickel, flashing glaringly at those driving along the coast road.

There is still a lot of business here – over two million visitors a year, although as most of them are day trippers or staying for a single night, the local economy is always has one eye on the weather forecast in an area where the weather can change (and never for the better) at the drop of a hat.

Missing the grandeur of Llandudno and the brashness of Rhyl, I ended up in Prestatyn. This is a more comfortable town, but with little except a beach to welcome the visitors. The Halcyon Quest Hotel is in the Good Beer Guide, but would never make a good hotel guide. Still, it was not overpriced, the landlord (when he arrived) was welcoming, the beer and the breakfast were both good and I slept well.

My first game of the weekend was Kinmel Bay Sports, formerly known as Abergele Rovers, but now based (playing wise) at the local leisure centre, and (socially) at the Kinmel Bay sports and social club. Unusually the change in name and venue marks a merger with a local Girls team! They have benefited from recent changes in the Welsh Pyramid and have found a place in the second division of the Welsh Alliance. They may not have to finish particularly high to get promoted this season. The Cymru Alliance, which covers the Northern two thirds of the principality, wants to expand from one division to two, while the FA of Wales wants to re-arrange the borders between the Welsh Alliance, and the Welsh National League (Wrexham), with the latter taking on those Welsh Alliance clubs in the North East Wales area. I am not sure exactly what this means, but I am told the line between the two leagues will be drawn just east of Prestatyn, and will take a small number of teams out of the Welsh Alliance.

On arriving at the ground, the first thing I saw was a couple of the other groundhoppers attracted by the Friday night game here. A slightly odd choice as rather than avoiding a clash, they were now playing at the same time as both Rhyl and Prestatyn. We also had the dubious pleasure of being able to hear the sounds of a nearby funfare. To be honest, this is not one of the more interesting grounds on my trips. The dressing rooms were built into the leisure centre, with the referee and his assistants changing somewhere inside, and then locking their bags into their car, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the security provided.

Three officials are not always provided in this league, but Liam Gray showed some initiative in this respect, bringing both his father and grandfather along to run the lines. I cannot recall ever seeing three generations of the same family officiating at a single game. Liam is a young referee, quite recently called to officiate in the Welsh Alliance. Not surprisingly he also has an older brother, currently refereeing in the Cymru Alliance.

The Referee’s Grandfather is in the foreground

Most of the surrounds to the playing surface were closed to the public, no spectators at either end, and the far side was used only for the team benches. Near to the centre, there was a wooden barrier, where the majority of the crowd (counted at 34) gathered. From about a third of the way town, the pitch-side became a cage enclosing floodlit tennis courts. There were a couple of more open pitches further away and beyond the tennis courts.

A strong wind blew across the pitch throughout the game, making the evening very cool, but at least we did not suffer rain, as there was no shelter to be had. I thought the home side had the better of most of the game, but they went behind to a first half penalty and only levelled when an on the line clearance was adjudged just over by the well placed linesman. We were charged £1 for a programme, but no admission charges for what does not get above being a public park. The only refreshments were a vending machine within the centre, offering a 50p coffee. I needed the warmth, as the match itself was doing little to raise the temperature.

Llandyrnog United led at half time, thanks to a penalty shortly before the break, Kinmel Bay levelled with 15 minutes to play and that is how the game finished. Dropping one other hopper near a railway station, I found my way back to the hotel and had a couple of pints before turning in. Another of the hoppers actually stayed at the same place, but I did not see him again until morning.

On a greyish morn, where the threat of rain was always made, but never quite delivered, I made my way to Penrhyncoch. This is a small village not far from Aberystwyth in the centre of the country. The distance is not much over 80 miles, but as an indication of the difficulties that Welsh football suffers, it took me around two and a half hours to complete. This is similar to the journey Llandudno had to make for the game I saw, and trips that Penryncoch make on a pretty regular basis. I only counted 50 people at the game, (the official attendance figure was 70), and I can be sure that not all of them paid the full £4 admission, and a further pound for a programme. It is hard to see how this club is surviving, and to create a second division can do nothing to improve the standard of football in this part of Wales, it is surely more of a bid by league officials to make the own competition seem more important.

Cae Baker is a smallish ground, quite tidy with a two separate covered areas, one providing around 50 seats, the other had standing for a similar number of people. On that side, there is plenty of space, but when I wandered around the other side for the second period, I was amazed how tight the space was, with a small area where there was no spectator space at all and then a very narrow grassway. The biggest thing that this club has is a very good clubhouse, just across the road from the ground, (this may be the main road, but there are no busy roads in Penryhncoch).

Note the club name on the stand, CPD Penrhyncoch FC, CPD being the Welsh equivalent of FC. The same dual usage is a feature in the programme and elsewhere at the club

As the match started, we finally got the heavy shower we had expected, and I went to the back of the seated area to view the game. I thought Llandudno edged the first period which ended scoreless, and seeing how they allowed the ball to run away from them, I was expecting better after the break when they were to play up the slight incline. In the first four minutes, Llandudno had two chances, and I thought I was right, but then Penrhyncoch scored – a long shot from Josh Shaw. This completely changed the complexion of the game, and the homesters will count themselves unlucky not to have added two or three more, while the visitors never threatened again. As it was, 1-0 was the final result.

The small cover which sheltered me from first half rain is to the right, with the main stand out of shot

This was not my final match of the day, as there is a regular evening fixture in the Mid-Wales League (South). The match is St. Harmon & District v Rhayader Town (reserves). I had seen this fixture in 2009, and said I would not bother to return in poor weather, (no cover at the ground), but it had brightened up as I drove east along the A44, and so I went along. On arriving at St. Harmon, I noted the figure on my odometer as I passed the Sun Inn, used for dressing rooms. One then drives for over a mile, past the showgrounds, (it is the local show that causes the late kick off time), and left for about a quarter of a mile along a narrow drive (hoping no one is coming the other way). A mere 1.8 miles from the dressing rooms, you arrive at the playing fields. Parking is in the farmer’s yard opposite the ground entrance. I know of no ground further from its dressing rooms than this one. Some people I know have seen St Harmon on a different ground, closer to the main road, but this too was over a mile from the Sun Inn.

Despite only offering a roped off field, this match had the largest of the three attendances for my games over this two day period, based at least on my own head counts. Both the Cymru and Welsh Alliance websites official showed figures well in excess of my numbers, whereas there is no official figure for St. Harmon. For the record, I put the number down as 68 hardy souls paying £2 to view this game on an unsettled evening, which at least stayed dry.

St Harmon – the joys of fields in Wales

When I came two years ago to the same match, it was level (2-2) at half time, but then Rhayader scored three without reply in the second period. This time the difference was the game was scoreless on turning around. Rhayader still scored their three goals after the break.

A week later, I was back in the principality, but this time travelling further along the North Coast before dropping down to avoid reaching the Menai straits, and ending up in Caernarfon. I had visited Caernarfon Town in the mid 1980s, when the club were at the top of the game. They had entered the Lancashire Combination in 1980, and as 1982 Champions, they became founder members of the North West Counties League, initially in Division Two, but winning promotion after only one season. Two seasons later, they won a further promotion and were in the Northern Premier League. I visited them in 1986, the first of two seasons when they finished third in the league, and they may have believed a place in the Alliance (now Football Conference) awaited. To make the matters of their best season better, my visit was for a second round FA Cup match. Stockport County had been beaten in Round 1, and despite the fact I saw a scoreless draw, Caernarfon then won the replay at York to reach the 3rd Round, (they drew 0-0 to Barnsley, and lost 1-0 in the replay this time).

The decline of the club has been almost as rapid. They were relegated in 1990, to the Northern Premier’s first division. They came close to returning after one season, but then the FA Wales threw the spanner into the works, insisting that Welsh clubs were no longer permitted in the English pyramid. Caernarfon were one of the clubs that resisted the change, and spent three seasons as exiles, with home match being played on English soil. When the Welsh clubs finally won their court case in 1995, it was too late for Caernarfon, and instead of returning home in the NPL, they instead joined the League of Wales. Except for one season in the Cymru Alliance they stayed in the League of Wales (later Welsh Premier League) until 2009. They then again spent only one season in the Cymru Alliance, but this time left through the wrong door, and so now find themselves at the third level, the Welsh Alliance.

But not everyone has suffered from the vagrancies of Welsh Football Politics. Caernarfon Wanderers gained a place in the Welsh Alliance’s second division, founded a season ago and partly offsetting the FA of Wales’ demands for smaller divisions. After a single promotion they are in a position to challenge their neighbours, with the first ever Caernarfon derby at League level.

With its well preserved castle, and city walls, Caernarfon is a fine city to visit on a Sunny afternoon. However, if one climbs less than a mile outside the walls, one comes across a dismal housing estate. On the edge of this estate is Cae Top. It seems to me that there is a habit of mixing English and Welsh words in the naming of football grounds in these parts. Certainly the words Top (Caernarfon Wanderers) and Baker (Penryncoch) do not sound very Welsh, so should I presume to semi-translate them as Baker’s Field and Top Field? If so, I could remember I have already been to a ground called the Top Field, to see Hitchin – a team playing in Yellow and Green and nicknamed the Canaries. Familiar ground maybe for the Caernarfon Town fans.

Anyway, Cae Top is a simple, railed off pitch, and not fully enclosed. Slightly down the hill, new School buildings are in the process of construction, and this has led to a freshly tarmacked driveway down one side of the pitch which leads to a new car park, currently fenced off behind one goal. This is destined to become a staff car park for the School, but with few matches on school days, and especially not during school hours, one hopes the Football Club will also be permitted to use it.

The club currently has a small stony car park, and it was clearly going to fill quickly, I settled for street parking just outside, making sure to leave plenty of space for the frequent bus service around the corner. The officials of both clubs were very friendly and helpful. One of the visiting officials explained the Caernarfon Town club was being rebuilt on a more financially sustainable basis and with a more local accent. All but one of the players are now Welsh speakers. This contrasts greatly with the old style for some of the bigger clubs in this part of Wales, were a Liverpudlian accent was more common than a Welsh one. Indeed, while the costs of renting grounds and losing spectators did not help the club during their exile, players’ expenses may well have been lower!

As for the game, Wanderers may have pulled level in terms of status, but they were still behind on playing strength. For thirty minutes, some wasteful finishing kept the visitors out, but then they pushed on and eventually won by four goals to none. It will still go down as a good day for the home side, with a crowd of around 500, easily the best seen at Cae Top. For me, the biggest downside of travelling this far from home for a Friday night game, is the drive home, so I welcomed a the fact that Steve Munday, who I had met in the town earlier travelled back as far as Birmingham

 

Island Games

July 24th, 2011

The Olympic Ideal is alive and well. Whether or not any of the original ideals still cling to the expensive and overbearing presence due in London next summer is certainly open to debate, but the ideal has been replicated across the world in many smaller contexts. The best known alternative games here is the Commonwealth games, and I believe French speakers have an equivalent in the Francophone games. The format is popular in Asia, with the Asian games provided a continent wide tournament, and others such as the South East Asian Games providing a more local competition for fewer nations. Even at national level, the provinces of Indonesia come together for their own national games.

But you do not have to be nations to compete. The concept is open to any group to combine together for competition and friendship, with a linked theme connecting the various competing groups. The concept of Island Games therefore would not be a surprise in areas where many Islands. And so we have such combinations at the Central American and Caribbean games, and the South Pacific Games. The latter includes a football competition that was used as part of the qualification procedure for the 2010 World Cup. It was intended that this year’s South Pacific Games would again be part of the World Cup qualifying competition, until it fell foul of FIFA regulations. While it was alright to have places not affiliated to FIFA playing in a competition that formed part of the World Cup, as happened with Tuvalu (their games were simply ignored by FIFA), it is not acceptable to have a FIFA member of the Asian Football Confederation (Guam), playing in Oceania qualifying. Even though Guam are one of only four FIFA members who have not entered for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA are not prepared to simply ignore their results.

One has to wonder though about the International Island Games Association though, simply as it does not specify any geographical limitation. One should not wonder though, as this is in fact one of the most successful games around. Commencing in 1985, the Island games have been run every two years, and regular increased in size. The initial games involved 15 islands, and some 700 competitors. In fact the games, which were started in the Isle of Man, have always been dominated by islands with some connection to Britain. The fifteen included the Isles of Man and Wight, Shetland and the Orkneys, Guernsey, Jersey and Ynys Mon. The other mainstays were Scandinavians, Froya, Hitra, Gotland, Åland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Two came in from further afield, the mid-Atlantic British territory of St. Helena, and the Mediterranean Island of Malta. Only Iceland and Malta have not remained as members, both leaving after 1997 and both now giving their attention to the European Small Countries Games (the smallest nine countries in Europe).

Flying the Flag – the Red and White of Greenland.

The Island games added three more of the British in 1987, Alderney, Sark and Gibraltar, (the only member of the Island games which is not an Island). In 1989, Greenland joined – Greenland has similar status to the Faroe as an autonomous Danish territory, although they timed an application to FIFA at the wrong time, and won’t be trying for the World Cup any time soon. 1991 saw two more join, the Canadian Island Province of Prince Edward Island, (who have now resigned due to lack of funding), and the Estonian Island of Saaremaa. In 1993, the games reached the South Atlantic with the Falklands joining, and the next additions also added to the scope, the Cayman Islands and Rhodes in 1999, followed by Bermuda in 2003. In 2005, one more British Island group, the Western Isles joined, while the most recent member (2007) is Menorca from the Balearics.

So the organisation is dominated by the British, with 15 members being connected to Britain. These are five overseas territories, (Bermuda, Falklands Islands, Cayman Islands, St Helena and Gibraltar), five crown dependencies, (Alderney, Sark, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey) and five which are parts of the British Isles, (Isle of Wight, Western Isles, Shetlands, Orkney and Ynys Mon). With the exceptions of the two Mediterranean islands, all the rest are Scandinavian.

In terms of population, the Islands vary from just 600 on Alderney, to 140,000 on the Isle of Wight. I took a brief look at the association rules, and they recommend that any new members should not exceed 125,000 in population, and must be true Islands (i.e. no more like Gibraltar). They also say a maximum of 25 members. I am not certain that maximum is strict, but the games cannot easily expand more. Around 4000 people are on the Isle of Wight for the games, (3500 contestants, plus officials, and supporters). At least half the Islands are not potential hosts as they could not cope with this influx, and an increase in the number of islands would reduce further the potential to rotate the tournament.

It is worth considering the number 4000 people for the games, widely publicised, and the official count of athletes which sat just short of 3500. The last winter Olympic games brought just 2566 competitors to Vancouver.

So far there have been 14 editions of the Island games, with 10 of the Islands having taken their turn to be hosts. In 2013, Bermuda will be the 11th, while Jersey have their second games confirmed for 2015, and it is expected that Gotland will again be hosts in 2017.

The games covers 15 sports from Archery to Windsurfing, but with around 500 of the competitors in 25 teams (15 men’s, 10 women’s) football is the biggest of the sports here. For the record, three of the members of the Island games association members are also members of FIFA, although none of the three are countries in their own right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands both send their own teams to the Olympics, while the Faroe Island’s international recognition is limited to FIFA.

Jersey take on Menorca in Cowes

Nine different football grounds were in use, as the games spread across the island. The Isle of Wight is home to four members of the Wessex League, steps five and six in the English pyramid, which means the grounds are enclosed, with some covered accommodation and floodlights. The rest are used for Island League matches. Most of these are somewhat more open, with the pitches merely roped off, rather than a permanent rail. The ground at Oakfield was exceptionally tight, with just a small bank on one side for most of the spectators. The one thing that all the grounds selected do appear to have in common is a good club house.

In most of the sports of the games, the spectators consist of friends, family, a few competitors watching on their free time, and maybe the occasional local. There were two casual “supporters”, one from the Isle of Man, the other from the Falklands who were staying at the same B&B as me, but both were former officials with their teams. The one sport that attracted a significant outside crowd was football. There were a good number of groundhoppers who made the trip from various parts of England, who while being interested in the football, were also trying to maximise the number of grounds visited on the trip. I would also hazard a guess the locals were more prominent in watching the football than most of the other sports, with the home team naturally attracting more locals than other teams.

I could not justify a full week off work for the trip, although after three days on the Island, I was regretting this. I instead chose to stay for three days starting on the Sunday, (the opening day for football). The plan was for seven games, four on Island league grounds which would be new to me, and three on Wessex League grounds not visited for over 25 years. The only two grounds that I did not visit had both been on my itinerary when the games were held on the Isle of Wight in 1993, and a day trip allowed me to go to West Wight, East Cowes and Ventnor. As it turned out, I added an eighth game to my list, the only one to be played on the Monday morning, and for me a rare viewing of the ladies game.

I had to leave home for the trip around 8 in the morning, but this allowed my drive down to Southampton to be comfortable, arriving over 30 minutes before the 11 O’clock Red Funnel ferry. This drops one at East Cowes around an hour later, and I easily had time to check into my Bed & Breakfast (in Shanklin) and then drive back up to Brading for a 3 O’Clock start. Admission for the game, (individually for all games) was set at £3, but I was fortunate in being able to obtain a season ticket for £20. A small saving over an eight game trip.

The Ladies in Action – Jersey v Hitra at Oakfield

Brading is a neat and tidy ground, that has added a small stand and floodlights since my earlier visit. At the entrance, I obtained a tournament brochure (£3) and a matchday programme (20p). The latter contained the names and squad numbers for the two teams involved, and was printed on green card folded over to four pages, A5 size. The squad numbers turned out to be generally accurate at all the games I saw, except this first one. The game was Rhodes against Greenland, and provided an entertaining start to the trip, with a sting in its tail. It was played in very hot sunshine, the highest temperatures we were to enjoy on the trip. Much of the rest of the time, it was more traditional “Football Weather”, with us giving thanks not to get too much rain at those grounds without covered accommodation. Greenland played a very open and entertaining game, and had a fair support, most of which appeared to be their own Women’s team. They also came with a match commentator who had to watch from the clubhouse, about 30 yards behind the goal as this was the only place where he could get the connections allowing him to broadcast the details to his homeland. Still, the Greek side were too strong for Greenland, and spurning an early chance by missing a penalty, Rhodes were 1-0 at half time and increased the lead soon after the break. Greenland brought on their third substitute, Steve Broberg with seven minutes to play, and he scored within a minute of entering the play.

This caused the Rhodes team some anxious moments, which were really not necessary, and were compounded by their own foul play. As injury time started, and with the ball as far away from their own goal was possible, a stupid but violent tackle earned a red card. This meant five minutes of injury time with ten players for Rhodes, but with this almost up, the goalkeeper, already booked for time wasting collected a ball just outside the penalty area and hence picked up his second card. Rhodes therefore finished with nine men, although they did take all the points.

Greenland had a fair modicum of support at the game, even if most were from their other teams, such as the Ladies Football team, they also had a radio commentator, who had to watch from the clubhouse somewhat too far behind the goal, as it was the only place he could get a connection allowing him to broadcast direct to Greenland. The Channel Islands had a TV crew at the games, giving some delayed coverage on the following morning’s news. I did not notice much else in terms of media coverage.

I travelled on to Cowes Sports, where the only stand was still there as a memory of my previous visit. Here the game was Jersey v Menorca, in the same group as the Rhodes v Greenland game. To be honest, this game was not as entertaining as the previous one, but it was of a higher general quality. All of these who had watched the pair seemed in agreement that the evening game would settle the group, and the other pair were liable to suffer two further defeats. As it was, Jersey who became stronger as the match went on, scored a goal in each half against their Spanish opponents. Despite the match being played in good spirits, we again had an injury time sending off, and it was a Menorca player who saw red.

Up bright and early the next morning, I started my tour at Oakfield, which was to be the first of the Island League clubs I visited. Indeed, I was to go there twice, first for this Ladies game, (the only match being played on Monday Morning), and then the next day for a men’s game. The ground is in a residential (and slightly run down) part of Ryde, and is the tightest of the grounds, with most of the spectators settling on one side, where there is a slight grass bank. The spectators mixed somewhat with an overflow of players and officials on this side. Behind the goal were two buildings, a bar which incorporated a small area with tables, and a dressing room block which also provides a minimal covered area. The game was Jersey against Hitra. Hitra is a small island off the coast of Norway. Both sides had played the day before, Hitra losing 3-0 to Isle of Wight, while Jersey had gone down 5-0 to Åland. I am not a great fan of Ladies’ football, and this was not a game to change my prejudices. It was just played at too slow a pace. Some of the Jersey ladies showed a little skill on the ball, but this was spoilt by a failure to master teamwork, or to support the player with the ball. Jersey’s Jodie Botterill frequently found herself alone up front, and uncertain what to do. Greater support would have resulted in the final score being much more than the six goals to one that Jersey eventually won by, and Botterill could well have done more than score a hat-trick. The biggest cheer of the day from a crowd that exceeded 100, must have been for the Hitra goal, a fine long distance effort.

The Western Isles and Åland at Newport

From Oakfield, I went on to Newport, where St Georges Park, despite now being over 20 years old, still has a feel of being a new ground about it. It is very square and while it has a good main stand, the three other pieces of cover still look as if they are there to meet some foolish piece of ground grading, and a single, larger area would have looked better. Still, it is a good functional ground, and the tea bar was inviting. The match was the Western Isles and Åland. The Western Isles are the Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland, where most of the local football is an amateur summer league. I noticed that with these games in mind, the Highland Amateur Cup quarter finals involving Back and Carloway were postponed for a week. The general feeling on the Western Isles is still very much against any sport on a Sunday, and it had been agreed in advance that they would not play on the opening day, but could use the rest day (Wednesday) instead. As it happened, they were conveniently drawn in the three team group of a 15 team competition, and hence were only asked to play on Monday and Tuesday. Åland is an island betwixt Finland and Sweden. It is governed by Finland and speaks the language of Sweden. It has a football team, IFK Mariehamn in the top division of the Finnish League, but players from this team were not used in the Island games. The game was hard fought, the Western Islanders are a resilient team, strong in defence but eventually Åland took control, and two second half goals settled the game. Åland had of course already played on the Sunday, when they had drawn 3-3 with Saaremaa

Lining up for the anthems at Rookley

The third game of the day was at Rookley. Being the only game scheduled at this venue, it brought in a flood tide of groundhoppers who had varied their choice of games earlier in the day. It may have been thought of as an odd venue. The club here had picked up only one point from 20 Island League third division games in the season past, and ended with a goal difference of -202. Perhaps it was a reward for not giving up. It is a very pleasant set up, with a fine club house, and a lot of space around a roped off pitch. The Sun came out to great us again, after dull weather earlier in the day. Still, this was not the biggest game in the tournament. The Falkland Isles had already lost to Guernsey 5-0, while the Isle of Man would be clear favourites after a 4-2 win over Gotland. There was no doubt that the Manx would be looking for goals as well, as holding a goal difference advantage would clearly help them out when facing Guernsey in their third game. In the first half this was the way of things, with the Isle of Man starting the scoring on ten minutes, and reaching 5-0 by half time. The second half was somewhat different, and only one more was goal was added, just five minutes before the end. As it turned out, Guernsey were in the process of beating Gotland by 5-2, so the two were to go head to head level with the same goal difference and each having scored ten goals.

I had met Steve Munday earlier in the day, and he was eager to persuade me to drive around some of the good beer guide pubs on the Island, while I preferred the idea of getting back to Shanklin before drinking much. Steve’s plans carried the evening, but driving back to Shanklin we attracted the notice of the local police. Fortunately, I had not over indulged, and comfortably passed the breathalyser test – but because the stop came within minutes of leaving the pub, we had to wait around for fifteen minutes before I could be tested, (this reduces the chance of a false positive). Fortunately, this did not prevent me from having a couple more pints in Shanklin, after the car was parked. Steve actually disappeared part way through this to try out another pub.

Although what would happen if the Isle of Man’s game against Guernsey was a subject of conversation at the Tuesday morning game, it was not the only subject. I had already seen Rhodes having two players sent off at the end of their victory over Greenland. In defeat to Jersey, the story was worse and they had three more sent off (two in an elongated injury time period). Events after the game did not help matters, and another red card was reported as being shown after the final whistle. Rhodes have previous as well, famously having five men sent off in a game in a previous tournament. A disciplinary committee was quickly set up to look into the matter, and we soon heard that Rhodes were not only out of the football tournament this time, but would not be allowed into games football tournaments in 2013 and 2015.

The only game on the Tuesday morning was at the Isle of Wight Community Centre, just a couple of hundred yards from the Cowes Sports ground. The venue was similar to Rookley, in having a large field, roped off pitch and a good clubhouse. Most teams in the games were playing three games in successive days, the sort of schedule that would have Premier League managers tearing their hair out. Not quite the attitude for these teams. Alderney and the Falklands were planning an extra game if they did not meet each other, with a special trophy, “The Small Islands Cup” available for the better of the two footballing Islands with the lowest population.

The Tuesday morning was a little more relaxed, in so far as the two teams involved had only played once each in the only three team group. I had already seen the Western Isles lose 2-0 to Åland, so Saaremaa who drawn 3-3 with Åland in their first game knew that a better result would see them top the group. All the advantages should have been with the Estonian side, who of course had taken a day’s rest while the Western Isles were playing. While most sides in the tournament were made up of players from different clubs, and wore kits showing Island badges, Saaremaa wore the kit of FC Kuressaare – a first division side that plays on the Island. Their entire squad was made up of players from this club, although not all the first team regulars could play. The rules did not ban those from being with a professional club, but only those players either born on the Island, or who had passed the residency qualifications could play. One of the features of this was that the players’ shirts had names as well as numbers on their backs, but not every player was a member of the first team squad, and so the others had other players names on their backs. Still the game turned out similar to the Western Isles game the previous day, as they defended well, but showed little promise going forward. Scoreless at half time, Saaremaa scored early in the second period, but only hit a second with five minutes to play, ending up with the same record as their rivals.

This was to be the highlight of the day, all four of the other teams I was to see would go into their games with two defeats each from their earlier games. First it was a rather hurried ride back to Oakfield to see the Falkland Islands again, this time against Gotland. Both may have lost twice, but there was never any chance this game would be close fought. The Falkland Isles were 3-0 down at half time, and 6-0 down on the hour mark. They pulled one back, and ended up on the wrong end of a 6-1 defeat.

After this, I had plenty of time before the final game. With Steve again as passenger, we headed towards St Helens and Bembridge, for no other reason than I had been here on family holidays near enough forty years before. I remembered very little of the villages as I sat on the green and ate fish and chips. Steve, unsurprisingly was again checking out the good beer guide pubs. I do know we used to stay in static caravans, (we did not have a car, so we certainly could not tow one). It was good to hear similar accommodation was used by many of the games competitors.

Then it was onto Shanklin – this was the best of the Island League grounds we visited, with low banking each side of the pitch. In the same way as there was no surprise when the Falklands had lost in the afternoon, it was also a straight forward victory as went down 5-0 to Ynys Mon, (the Welsh Island better known as Anglesey).

And so ended my trip – a rushed drive across the Island meant I was on the Ferry around 45 minutes after the match finished, along with several other car loads of hoppers who had also rushed across from Shanklin.

The tournament of course carried on. The Wednesday was a rest day, but there was still one feature – a penalty shoot out between Åland and Saaremaa, which decided that the Finnish side could play in the semi-finals. They were joined at this stage by Jersey, Guernsey and the hosts. The other sides with the exception of expelled Rhodes would play again in placing matches, The Falklands 3-1 win over Alderney have them 13th place overall and the “Small Islands Cup”. The other placings were Westen Isles 12th, Greenland 11th, Gotland 10th, Ynys Mon 9th, Isle of Man 8th, Menorca 7th, Saaremaa 6thand Gibraltar 5th.

In the semi-finals, 816 saw the Isle of Wight beat Jersey, while Guernsey defeated Åland3-2. The following day, and the fifth game of the week for the final four. Jersey beat Åland by 5-1, and over 2000 saw the hosts win 4-2 over Guernsey to take the title. On the same day, Åland took the Women’s title with a 5-1 win over the Isle of Man, Greenland took the Bronze with a 1-0 win over the Western Isles.

The official crowd figures, not finally published until two weeks after the event, showed a total of 11,000 spectators at the games. (Some of the figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, as with the majority of the spectators having passes, counting was a little loose – still, I think the total will not be far out). Most of the spectators did not pay on the day. There was a £20 football season ticket available, or a £25 games pass (which allowed the purchaser to use the bus services as well as enter any games event). All competitors also had a games pass, (indeed, a lot of the time, they were expected to use the local bus service to get from their accommodation to the venues).

There were a few other items to report from the organisation of the games, such as the opening days games were started without National or Island anthems, they were not delivered to the grounds in time. The rest of the time they were played. Some of the groundhoppers that stayed until the Thursday were annoyed when the 7th/8th placing match was switched at short notice from 11.30 to 10.00 kick off, to allow the Manx players to go on to support their ladies team afterwards. The support for other teams within your island is a feature of the Island games, but football benefits most from this, as the matches are relatively short, and of course the timing is known, as opposed to sports that just book the venue for the morning. Still, in helping out one group by changing a fixture, the organisers antagonised others who thought they knew the location and kick off of the match. Future organisers should consider setting the dates and venues, and allocating matches to them later – this will mean that one can be certain of a match by just turning up, while services such as the internet and twitter could inform people of the actual fixtures.

Within the multi-sport environment, football does tend to grab the headlines, plus more than its fair share of resources. I remember my first trip to China, and skipping through some of the sports pages of old copies of the English Language China Daily. There was an editorial commending the Chinese on a record number of medals at the Asian games, held in Beijing earlier that year. But, the editorial added, the average Chinese citizen would swap them all for just taking the Football Gold. There is enough dissent in the Islands game circuit, that football could miss out on some future games. This would not be the end of football at the games, other sports miss out from time to time, (there were no gymnastics on the Isle of Wight for example, but seven of the Islands instead held a gymnastics competition in Jersey soon after the games finished). Football could miss a games, and then return for the next one.

In the meantime, and as a possible prelude to an amicable divorce, with a football competition separate from the games, it has been announced that a four team tournament will be held next summer in Gibraltar. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man will take up the challenge. This new competition will be called the “International Challenge Shield”, and the organisers hope some of the other islands will join later.

Changes for 2011-12

July 17th, 2011

I have been asked a few times to produce a Changes List for this close season. This is the first draft, and will be updated with matters of fact, plus a few missing leagues.

Changes 2011

World Cup 2014 – Starting with a Whimper.

June 21st, 2011

Almost without notice, the qualifying trail for the 2014 started last Wednesday (15 June 2011). The opening game was played at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva on the Island of Trinidad. However, Trinidad & Tobago was not one of the countries participating in the opening game. The match was played here due to the fact there is no suitable stadium on the Island of Montserrat.

Montserrat is a small, British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, and had a population of under 6000 before it was devastated by volcanic eruption in 1995. That means its size is about one third of that of the Isle of Wight, but since the volcano, an exclusion zone covers the southern half of the Island, including the capital Plymouth. Around half the original population has left, either to other Caribbean islands or to Britain, (quick as a flash in an emergency, Britain granted right of abode to those from Montserrat three years after the disaster struck, and citizenship four years later).

Not surprisingly, Montserrat is one of six countries with zero points in FIFA’s ranking system. That means they have not won or drawn a game in the last four years. In their case, this only adds up to four matches – three in a Caribbean Cup qualifying group last October, and one match only in the last World Cup – a 7-1 defeat by Surinam (also played in Trinidad & Tobago). Back in 2004, they were allowed to play their world cup game at home, losing 7-0 to Bermuda. This of course was not useful as they had already lost 13-0 away. Of the 25 games since Montserrat started playing International football in 1991, they have won just twice, both matches in Caribbean Cup qualifiers against Anguilla, in the spring of 1995 (i.e. pre Volcano) – 3-2 in Montserrat and 1-0 away. (This earned them a match against St Vincent & Grenadines in the next round, losing 9-0 and 11-0). It is not surprising to find that Anguilla are also in that six team group with no international point in the last four years. Anguilla did pick up a victory during last year’s Caribbean qualifying, but as the opposition, St. Martin are not FIFA members, this match did not count in the rankings. Also in the bottom six are San Marino (only ever win was a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004), Andorra (last win was against Macedonia in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, although they had 2 scoreless draws in 2005), American Samoa (famous for losing 31-0 to Australia in 2001, they have lost all 33 games played after beating Wallis and Futuna (another non affiliated nation) in their first ever international), and Papua New Guinea (who have only played one game in the last four years, but have been better, winning their last World Cup match back in 2004)

Not surprisingly, Montserrat were beaten in the game, losing 5-2 to Belize. Belize are ranked 172 in the World. With the bottom ten of CONCACAF’s 35 members in this knock out qualifying round, Belize are the only non-Caribbean side at this stage. Deon McCauley, who at the age of 23 has already played football in Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as his native Belize had the honour of scoring the first goal of the 2014 World Cup. He went on to complete a hat-trick.

This is not the end of the story. There should have been a second leg match in Belize four days after the opening game, after which Montserrat could be named as the first side knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, but a combination of the government of Belize and FIFA intervened.

Even before the match, the government of Belize had stated that the Football Federation of Belize (FFB) were not a properly registered association and could not officially represent the country. This dates back to the last election for the FFB executive and president in December. After the election, the government set up an “independent” Sports Investigation Committee. The sports minister has been quoting from an as yet unpublished report, which apparently says that by refusing to accept nominations from one of its members (the Belize Premier Football League, the country’s leading league),the FBB had broken its own rules. With the alternative candidate banned, the incumbent, Bertie Chimilio had a free run, but anyway he also handpicked the district representatives who were responsible for voting him back in.

A standoff between the government and the FFB appears to have been going on throughout the year, and FIFA who are notorious unfriendly to governments who interfere in footballing affairs,( with the obvious exceptions of dictators like Gaddafi), gave Belize a deadline before its recent congress, to sort out the situation by the end of the month of June. This deadline would, of course have allowed the two qualifying matches to take place, and give Belize a short window to sort the situation out before the next international match.

It was the government of Belize which took the step that brought proceedings to a halt. They wrote to FIFA in the week before the Montserrat match to state that the FBB did not have the right to represent the nation, and could not fly the Belize flag or play the Belize National Anthem at the match. These symbols are considered to be important, when in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea refused to allow the South Korean flag or National Anthem to be used at matches between the two Koreas in their part of the peninsular – the matches were switched to neutral China. The North Koreans did play in South Korea as scheduled.

Anyway, the match in Trinidad last week went ahead, even without the sanction of the Belize government, but faced with a letter saying that the Belize government would not provide police or security for the match, FIFA finally intervened and suspended Belize from World Football on Friday. Citing Government interference, FIFA have said that any action taking by the government against the office bearers of the FFB would not be recognised.

Meanwhile, a new association has been formed in Belize, the National Football Association of Belize, and on Saturday it elected its first President. Representatives of all the district associations in Belize were present, along with those from the Belize Premier League and the Super League of Belize. With the exception of the Super League, these are the same groupings as would have voted for the FFB president, (not necessarily the same representatives of those associations). The vote was won by Michael Blease, but no list of alternative candidates has been mentioned.

The Super League appears to be a rival league to the Premier League, but not registered with the FFB. This appears to have been the case for some time, although the FFB have not been taking normal action against an unaffiliated league, as McCauley, the hat trick hero from the opening game is a player with Super League champions, City Boys United. One would normally expect a player with an unaffiliated league to be excluded from international participation.

FIFA have given Belize only until 10th July to sort out the situation and play the match. It seems this is not good news for Belize, as neither party is close to giving ground. A similar situation involving Brunei was only recently resolvedafter 18 months of suspension from FIFA. In the end, the newly formed National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam was allowed to take over, (which means that FIFA did give in to the local government), although I understand that FIFA are pretending otherwise.

Assuming Belize are suspended, they may not get any thanks from Montserrat if the island gets a bye into the group stage. While it is great for even a small nation to be involved in the World Cup in a small way, it would be a mistake to say they want to go beyond the first match. The top six CONCACAF nations are exempt from the first group stage, so if they get through, Montserrat will have to bear the expense of a six match group with little income from their home games (the game last week had a crowd shown as 100 by FIFA). FIFA have plenty of money to spread about, but they do not use it to support teams in playing their qualification games.

FIFA do not always back officers of National Associations against their governments, as one can see from the situation in Indonesia. Since 2004, the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) has been run by Nurdin Halid. Halid is a controversial character in Indonesia, and has been charged with corruption for his business activities on several occasions, and has suffered two jail terms during his tenure as PSSI president. At the beginning of the year, another business man, Arifin Panigoro set up his own football league in competition to the Indonesian Super League. The Indonesian Premier League started in January with many of the country’s top clubs running teams in this, although under different names to those operating in the PSSI supported league. FIFA did back the PSSI against the rebel league, and promised to enforce bans on players in the league from International football, (so unlike the situation in Belize there). Still, FIFA had threatened to suspend Indonesia from International Football because the government had interfered by appointing a commission to look into corruption within the PSSI.

However, since then, FIFA have had a change of heart and decided that the status quo cannot be supported. Sometime around March, FIFA decided they had rules preventing a convict from being a National FA President, but they have also banned Panigoro and two other candidates. With the election of new officers twice delayed by the PSSI, FIFA gave the PSSI until June 30th to elect new officers or face suspension. The June 30 deadline has been relaxed by FIFA after the PSSI realised that its intended election could not be held, as they had not given the electors 28 days’ notice. The election should take place on July 9th, with FIFA’s deadline to avoid suspension being 10th July. This should allow Indonesia to play their first World Cup qualifying match, scheduled in Turkmenistan on July 23rd.

Anyway, it will be Asia that gets the “honour” of the first teams knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, and they will also lose the most teams in Preliminary Rounds before the main draw takes place on 31st July. There are eight Asian qualifying matches on 29th June, with the first second leg on July 2nd. This match is between Timor Leste (aka East Timor) and Nepal and is being played in Kathmandu. Timor Leste, like Montserrat does not have suitable ground at home, but have reached the dizzy heights of 200th in FIFA rankings, thanks to a draw in Cambodia in 2008. Seven more Asian teams will be knocked out on July 3rd; four Concacaf teams (apart from Belize or Montserrat) will fall during July, followed by another 15 Asian Teams from a second round at the end of the month.

Of FIFA’s 208 members, Mauritania, Guam and Bhutan did not enter, and Brunei could not enter due to their suspension not being lifted until after the local draw had been made. 28 teams are scheduled to be knocked out before the 31st July draw. 175 countries will be in the draw, while Brazil is exempt to the finals as hosts.

ASIA – 43 out of 46 members participate. 23 knocked out in two qualifying rounds by the end of July. The surviving 20 go into five groups of four (six games each). Ten teams go through to round 4, where they are placed in two groups of 5 (eight games each). Winners and Runners-up from these groups go to Brazil. Third placed teams play each other, with the winner in an inter-Continental Play Off. Qualifiers will play a minimum of 14, but as many as 22 games to reach Brazil.

AFRICA – 52 out of 53 members participate. 12 teams knocked out in a First Round played in November. The remaining 40 play in ten groups of 4 (six games each), with the group winners going into a knock out round with the winners going through. So a place can be achieved with only eight games played, and not more than 10. Five teams go through

CONCACAF – 35 Participants, of which five are knocked out in the first round. The second round involves 24 clubs (six exempt) in six groups of four. The six winners and six exempt teams go into four groups of four. Six teams (winners and runners up) go into a fourth round which is a group of all six (ten games each). Three make it to Brazil, and one goes into a play off. If exempt in the first round, a qualifier would still play 14 games. If one of this month’s winners gets through on the Play Off, they will have played 22 times.

Oceania – 11 participants, but non FIFA members Tivalu and Kiribati also take place in the Pacific Games which makes up the first stage. This is the only confederation that does not play home and away, but 10 countries (not including New Zealand) play in a tournament in New Caledonia. They three qualifying from this will have played six games. These three play with New Zealand in a home and away group (six matches) with just one Champion going into an inter-Continental play off. The winners are also Confederations winners and play in the 2013 Confederations cup.

COMNEBOL – The most straight forward. Brazil are exempt, and the other nine matches play a league (16 games each) with the top four going through and the fifth team in a play-off.

UEFA – Europe has 53 participants. The teams are divided into nine groups. Eight will have six teams (10 games), while one will have just five (8 games). The winners all qualify, so one team will qualify after just 8 games. All but one of the second placed teams play off for four extra places, these are European only play-offs. One unlucky second placed team does not get a second chance. For political reasons, Armenia cannot play Azerbaijan, and Russia cannot play Georgia.