Asif Burhan, who began blogging for Kick It Out during the 2012 UEFA European Championships, provides readers with a look at the social and cultural impact of football nationally and globally.
Asif has travelled to over 75 cities around the world watching more than 100 games. His trips have been entirely self-funded and unsupported, a personal odyssey to experience as many different footballing cultures as possible.
Here, he blogs for Kick It Out on his excursions at home and abroad. He tweets as @asifburhan.
12 May 2017 - Crystal Dunn
“I feel left out because I didn’t play with boys” – Crystal Dunn
Unlike most of her new European team-mates at Chelsea Ladies, Crystal Dunn did not have to prove herself against boys growing up. Yet it is not a path well-trodden.
Ahead of World Cup and Olympic winners, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Heather O’Reilly, the first Dunn deal from the United States was by a 24-year-old sociology major without the glittering international back catalogue of the others and with another fundamental difference.
Dunn is now a trailblazer and a leader, a young American abroad, with everything to prove. A role model for her game, her country and her race. I spoke to Crystal after “An Audience with Ladies’ New Blues” at Stamford Bridge in association with Plan International – Global Charity Partner of Chelsea FC.
You were one of four high-profile Americans to come to Europe this year but you were the first and the youngest, so for you, why now and why here? Is helping to develop the popularity of the WSL something that appeals to you?
“So to be honest, I didn’t come into this saying oh I’m going to develop a whole league. I think that’s a lot of responsibility, to tell you the truth. For me, I don’t see myself as a player that can do all that. It’s been great for me to come over but for other people to think that I could potentially help this league grow, it’s something that is amazing. It’s not what I set out to do, but if I can help in anyway – it’s important to leave a footprint.
“With me being the youngest and possibly being one of the first to leave, I think just stems from where I am in my career. I’m 24, I’m not old but I’m not young, and I feel like there’s still so much growth still left in me. I’m now onto my fifth year on the national team and I want to continue developing myself as a player and performing at that stage. For me, it was a really scary move, I cry almost every other night, I feel like, but I think it was important for me to challenge myself”.
Reading a little about your career, it seems you’ve gone through many stages – high school, college, NWSL, through the National Team age-groups and played in many different positions. Could you just say a little about how your role on the pitch has changed over the years and are you now comfortable playing in your best position?
” I look at myself and I think I can play out wide and I think I can play up top. With that being said, if I’m asked to play centre-mid I would be up for the challenge. It’s about being open-minded and I’ve always been open-minded as a player.
“I’ve always just wanted to be on the field. If the coach is saying, “you’re playing in goal”, I’m like “ok, that’s scary” but I’ll deal with it, you know. For me, it’s all about being diverse. I think, the way the women’s game is moving, I feel like you have to be open-minded, you have to be diverse. You never know where you fit in one formation versus another. You want to be that player, that coach says regardless of what we’re playing, she can be on the field. I think for me that’s how I got settled where I am now”
At Chelsea, you’re playing alongside, amongst others, a qualified lawyer and a financial analyst. You’re a sociology major, is that something you plan to go into when you finish playing? Is this where the men’s and women’s game diverges in that female players need to have another career path marked out?
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t graduate college. I studied sociology but I don’t have an official degree. I left college to go pursue my professional career. Yes, I do feel there’s a pressure on the women’s game to have that back-up plan.
“You feel like as a woman, oh man, if soccer doesn’t work out, I need something. I think it’s grown in a way, yes I want to look at my life aside from soccer but I could focus on that a little bit later.
“I don’t necessarily think I need to have a back-up plan. I think now, it’s ok to feel you can live in the moment and enjoy what you’re doing. In the later years of your career, you can start branching out and figuring out what you want to do.
“With the sociology major, I love kids, I think that’s really why I picked up sociology. I love analysing life. I think, I’m a real people person. I love to picture myself in another person’s shoes. I like to see myself in a different way. Sociology was something I truly enjoyed studying”.
You’ve played with and against some of the all-time great leaders and personalities of the game in the United States so what’s it like playing with Katie Chapman, what kind of a captain is she?
“Chapman is somebody I’ve never experienced before; she is a complete warrior. She’s somebody who leads by example, she rallies the team together. At aged 35, with three kids, I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how she has time for herself, I don’t know how she has time to focus on her sport and on her craft.
“She has a family, that’s something that a lot of us don’t know what it feels like. I can barely remember to make dinner for myself or, you know, focus on only me. I can’t imagine doing that for three others that I have to watch out for. For me, she’s an incredible leader, she goes through so much on a daily basis that we never know about. She’s just a complete robot on the field. She’s just so strong and so structured, it’s incredible.”
You were in the preliminary squad for the 2015 World Cup but didn’t quite make the cut, what was it like watching a team you were so close to being a part of go on to glory? Is there a tinge of regret you weren’t a part of it?
“You know, it’s one of those things where, yes I would have loved to be at the World Cup. As much as I wanted to be there, I think there was a greater outcome for me not to be a part of that team. If I’d have gone, I wouldn’t have played a minute. As much I would have loved being a part of something great, I wouldn’t have truly felt complete.
“For me, I needed to be left behind so I can show how I am as a player and let the world see me for what they haven’t seen. It was one of the greatest setbacks I’ve had in my professional life but I don’t take it back for anything”.
However, you did go to Rio last summer and played a big role in the Olympics, scoring against Colombia. What was that whole experience in Brazil like, what it’s like travelling around as a representative of the most famous team in the game?
“Yeah, it was incredible. Being an Olympian is something I can hold dear to my heart. Granted, I wish we finished a bit higher than we did but I think it gives me that drive to want to be at the next one. I think I definitely have four more years in me. There’s so many more things I want to achieve in my career”.
Now that you are living in England, how have you found it travelling to and from the States for international games? Have you had to change your preparations/training schedules around US games?
“No I’m accommodated really nicely, I do fly business when I go back to the States. That flight is not easy. The time change, I would say, is a bit harsh at times. For me, it’s the price I paid, it’s what I knew going into signing for Chelsea. I knew that the flight to and from was going to be long. but it’s been accommodated”.
While around 40% of the players in the English men’s league are black, there is nowhere near the same representation in the women’s game. Why is what and what needs to be done to change that?
“I think, to be quite honest the men have it down. The men truly focus on stats, they focus on who’s the better player, they don’t look at image, they don’t look at anything other than, is this player performing.
“I think in the women’s side we tend to not only focus on that. I think it’s getting better; I think there are more players that look like me coming up. I do think for a while, it was about what you look like, who can be marketable, who can sell tickets.
“In the men’s game they don’t care if you have one follower on Twitter they don’t care if you have a billion followers on Twitter. If you’re producing, you’re producing, and you’ll be in that starting line-up. I think the women’s game is slowly coming up but I think we have some way to go.”
10 May 2017 - Christine Müller Bartels (Part Two)
In the first part, Christine discussed her first memories of football growing up. In part two, she reflected on the problems she has encountered in her job.
“The first players I taught were both North African – one from Egypt, one from Algeria, but in the end, the coach at the time Félix Magath, stopped the private lessons as the club wanted to make it more professional, so they started to use a language school in Wolfsburg. I then went to France and Spain for a year as part of my studies. When I returned to Germany, the club had a new coach, Dieter Hecking, who realised that the players were not attending the language school so they contacted me again to work with Junior Malanda.”
Bernard Malanda-Adje, better known to everyone as Junior Malanda was a Belgium under-21 international who signed for Wolfsburg in the summer of 2013 from Zulte Waregem at the age of 19. A close friend of Kevin De Bruyne and Kick It Out ‘Next 20’ Ambassador, Romelu Lukaku, Malanda tragically died in a car crash in January 2015, aged just 20.
“He was the first one to come to me from the Wolfsburg first team and due to his kindness and courage to learn and speak German, I wanted to continue with the team after his death. I had such a good impression of football players because of him. From the beginning, I realised that this young man learned to live a well-organised life. I could always rely on him.
“When I started teaching footballers I thought it might be difficult to convince them to come and work with me but that hasn’t been the case. The players who learn with me are very motivated, always kind and polite. So it’s really nice to work with them and I’m always proud and happy when I see them use some of the phrases they learnt with me in interviews.
“In that way teaching footballers is more rewarding than teaching my school pupils French or Spanish as I can’t be with the children when they go abroad to use what I’ve taught them. Unlike my pupils, the footballers always bring their books and are prepared. I don’t want to exaggerate but sometimes I think my children at school can learn a thing or two from them!”
Christine is currently working with Borja Mayoral on loan to Wolfsburg from Real Madrid.
“I started to work with Borja last year, he was still looking for an apartment at the time. Now he has moved into one, I visit him there. Sometimes his brother also joins in the lessons too. For them it is their first time in a foreign country but he is very open and also tries to speak with his team-mates and fans in German. He has got a great character, maybe he was a bit shy at the beginning but now it’s so much fun to work with him. We laugh a lot together and after a year he’s able to talk to me without using any Spanish words. As far as I know, he is enjoying life in Germany – apart from the weather!”
Christine was invited to translate at the recent UEFA Women’s Champions League match between Wolfsburg and Olympique Lyonnais – her first experience of working within the women’s game. It was there I met her.
“I didn’t know a lot about the players to be honest. At the moment my schedule is full teaching the male players but in the future I don’t see why I couldn’t teach female footballers. VfL Wolfsburg Frauen have an international team which is very successful (twice Champions League winners) and I can imagine it must be quite interesting to work with one of their players and to learn about their experiences in the game.
“It’s not just the players who learn during our German classes, I also learn a lot about their traditions, their culture and their way of life in this extraordinary profession. That is something I really appreciate.
“Sometimes I get frustrated when people think, ‘of course male footballers like to be taught by you’, as I am a woman of the same age. That’s not fair as anyone who has to learn a language knows how difficult it is. How many people say they want to learn a language and never do, or give up after starting? It’s a lot of work and that’s why I always respect the decision of any player to learn German and I’m told many of the fans and their team-mates also do.”
9 May 2017 - Christine Müller Bartels (Part One)
In his latest feature, Asif spoke to Christine Müller Bartels, Language Teacher at VfL Wolfsburg, on the importance of communication in football.
In the 21st century it is difficult to imagine our top football leagues being anything other a multi-national amalgam of the best players from many different countries.
We take it for granted that these young footballers will soon pick up English and know exactly the right thing to say to the media in the knowledge their every word will be scrutinised by millions around the world. Yet, how many of us could do the same under the spotlights in such a high-pressure environment?
Being an exceptional athlete does not always equate with being a natural orator, especially when not speaking in your mother tongue. These are different a set of skills which need to be learnt and taught.
At Bundesliga club, VfL Wolfsburg, this is the unseen, yet vital, job of language teacher, Christine Müller Bartels. This is her story, as she starts by telling me about her first memories of football growing up.
“My father used to take me to watch Wolfsburg at the old VfL-Stadion am Elsterweg when the team were playing in the Zweite Bundesliga (Second Division). I remember being very impressed by the atmosphere but I was very young and never imagined that I could work within the football industry later.
“When I was a student, I was offered the opportunity to work at the VIP tent at the stadium. Soon after, in 2002, the club moved into a new stadium (the the 30,000 Volkswagen Arena) and I continued to work there on the weekends. Meanwhile, I started to study French and Spanish at the University of Göttingen. I now teach both languages at a school in Wolfsburg. My mum is a teacher so I always knew what it meant to stand up in front of a class so it seemed natural for me.
“As Wolfsburg is a small town I heard one day that the club were looking for a teacher with French language skills. Luckily for me, I got the job and started to work teaching some of the players from the under-23 side. Later on they asked me to work with players from the first team.
“In an average week, I work from my home which means the player comes to me. Or sometimes I drive to his apartment two times a week, it depends. In the past I’ve been teaching three players at the same time but now I prefer to work with only one or two as it is easier for me to organise.
“I think it is better to keep a professional relationship with my students, which can sometimes be difficult as it is one-on-one and kind of personal – sitting at a table, having a conversation for about 90 minutes twice a week. Therefore, sometimes, you automatically end up talking about private things but only when the lesson is over, that’s it. I would never ask for pictures, autographs, tickets or anything else. I am their German teacher and I want to make sure they speak my language as well as possible. That’s the most important thing for me.
“At the beginning the players always believe that they will never be able to speak German as they think it’s a difficult language. That’s why I always start with useful phrases to say to team-mates and for sending messages. Very often the times of our classes change due to the player’s training schedules. The club send me training times to make it easier for me to organise classes so I’m always up to date and can offer two dates to each of them. Normally the classes take place after training in the evening at 6pm.
“For them football is everything so when things are going well on the pitch they are in a good mood. I really see that in my German classes. Although they are always professional, it’s easier for them to talk about everything when they are winning. If they are not doing well, or injured they are maybe more reserved. It’s difficult to explain but you kind of feel it, because they live for the game and we talk about football. So it’s part of my work to deal with both sides.”
13 March 2017 - Karina Le Blanc
Asif met former Canadian international goalkeeper Karina Le Blanc in March 2017, where he discussed the 2015 Women’s World Cup and her thoughts on the rise of the women’s game.
Looking back the FIFA Women’s World Cup quarter-final, it was the moment the game took off in England but for Canada it was heartbreak and the end of your career so what are your memories of the World Cup in general and that game?
Having the World Cup at home was special because obviously when I first started playing there was like 8 people in the stand. To end my career at a sold-out stadium.
It was the biggest-ever Canadian crowd to watch their National Team in any sport.
Yeah, it was one of those things where the game has grown so much so there was beauty in that, there was beauty in the way our country responded to it.
There was sadness in the way the game ended and there was sadness obviously it being my last game ever wearing that jersey for Canada. But looking beyond, looking at the women’s game, there been so many positives from it.
As you said, it was the moment that England took to their women’s team and for me part of the legacy of being an athlete is leaving the game better than when you came into it. To be able to see not only our country be proud of our girls but England have their country be proud of their girls. That was something pretty special.
You obviously didn’t know before the game it would be your last so can you give me some insight into how you felt and what you did at the end?
You know you try not to think about that. I was hoping my last game would be the Final of the World Cup at BC Place. For me I wanted to retire at home and to be able to do that last wave in front of the Canadians who inspired me for almost 18 years of my life playing for the National Team.
Before that game and during the game you’re just wanting to win, because you’re wanting to win. Even when the last whistle went down and I went over to one of my team-mates and she said “I’m sorry” and once she said sorry, I was like what?! I think that was when it hit me. I thought, this is it. I got a couple of emotional words, Christine Sinclair gave me a hug and she said to me “you’ve made me a better women”, that was pretty special. Then you just go through that moment.
I think that’s what that last lap was about for me, I’m usually one of the last ones to sign autographs anyway. I usually drive the security crazy, because they’re like “ok Le Blanc, let’s go!” I remember being that young girl where my hero didn’t have a second for me and then I met somebody who signed an autograph for me and I said I’d never be anyone but that person.
It was about getting that last lap and about thanking the fans and I think that’s what that moment was about. That, as special as it may have been for a fan, It was just as special for me.
After being part of the National Team for so long, was it difficult watching Canada last summer in the Olympics?
Rio? I loved it! I went there on the other side. I went there as an analyst and as media. I enjoyed every moment of it. I left the game when I wanted to leave the game where a lot of athletes don’t get to. A lot of athletes have to leave because of injury or not being good enough.
I think that what was special about it, I got to walk away when I wanted to walk away. For the girls to get back-to-back bronze medals, I was crying with them on the podium. Absolutely being so proud of them.
That was the biggest thing for me, I felt so proud being a Canadian, so proud to be part of their journey. The next generation now grows up expecting to win medals.
Could you just talk a little about your time at Portland Thorns?
I mean, for me, my time in Portland, I’ll never forget. They had a chant “You’ll never beat Karina, you’ll never beat Karina” and I went back there this year and they have their different chants, they have their different moments. They make a player feel so special, they make you feel like gold.
I think that what creates the atmosphere, they make you feel so special. Even when I got traded to Chicago and even when I went back, I knew where a chant they always used for opposing goalkeepers and they did it for me and I put my thumbs up and the place went crazy.
They make you feel special, that’s one of the most important parts of being an athlete, you want to play for your city and want to feel loved and feel they believe in you. That’s one thing that city has got down.
They love the game, whether it’s men or women, it does not matter, they’ll show up and cheer and give you that extra bit of energy. For me, that’s what will always make Portland one of the most special places in my heart because even when I go back there not as a player they make you feel special.
Could I get your thoughts on the recent She Believes Cup?
That’s what’s great about the women’s game, they’re used to be clear favourites but there’s not any more, the game has definitely grown. That’s what beautiful about it, it’s truly anybody’s game.
As you see in the She Believes Cup, like England beat the US on their home soil and it’s no longer like “Oh my God!” Anyone can win on any given day because the game has grown, players have become better. It about teams now, not individual players.
What are your thoughts on the number of American players coming over to Europe now, is that something you ever considered during your career?
I think it’s part of the growth. I’m happy for those players. For me, the best league at the time was in the US. I wanted to play in the best league against the best players. Now there’s so many good leagues. You get a different style of play, different coaches. You get to experience the game in a different way. I think that’s what beautiful about it. There’s no longer just one place to play.
And If you were to pick a team to win the Euros?
17 November 2016 - Ferenc Puskas
“Looking back, I seem to have so much to thank football for in my life”
He was more prolific than Pelé, had a deadlier left foot than Maradona and was a tactical revolutionary long before Cruyff. He was the first man to score in a World, Olympic and European Cup final and he played for three of the greatest teams in the history of football. He was arguably the first global superstar of the game but its least well-known. He was Ferenc Puskás and he died ten years ago today.
His was a life and career shaped by the changing politics of the world around him. Born on the outskirts of Budapest in 1927 as Ferenc Purczeld, his father felt compelled by the nationalist government of the 1930s to change the family name to the more Hungarian-sounding ‘Puskás’.
When he began his playing career in 1943 his country was allied with Nazi Germany. Post-war, fearing reprisals against his family due to their German ancestry, he rejected a $100,000 offer from Juventus to stay in Budapest. He went on to become an icon in a socialist state and was a made a nominal major in the Hungarian army as the captain of the national team. Then as Russian tanks rolled into Budapest following a failed uprising in 1956, Puskás, like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, defected, technically becoming a deserter, a transient political refugee seeking employment.
After vowing never to set foot again in his country, Puskás was banned from all footballing activity by UEFA in 1957, at the peak of his powers. When he attempted to return to the game at the age of 31, he was rejected by Italian clubs as overweight and briefly considered by a Manchester United team looking for players after the Munich Air Crash, but then under a fascist government in Spain he scaled new heights in an unlikely partnership with another all-time great, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the first and most stellar of Galacticos.
Puskás went on to coach teams in all six continents of the world but never returned to Hungary until invited back for a reunion in 1981. He was not officially pardoned by the government until 1993. In 2002, the national stadium, the Népstadion (People’s Stadium) was re-named after him.
Yet none of his remarkable story off the pitch would be remembered today were it not for his remarkable exploits as a player on it. During the 1950s, in an age before European competition and before World Cups were televised, his legacy was nevertheless felt throughout the game. He was the star and fulcrum of the Hungarian team that dismantled England twice during the 1953/54 season – 6-3 and 7-1. The first, England’s first-ever defeat to foreign opposition at Wembley, the second in Budapest, England’s record defeat of all time. It prompted The FA into the kind of coaching and tactical overhaul that is nowadays biennial but unthinkable in the cradle of the game before then. A decade later, the English right-back at Wembley in 1953 would become England’s first full-time manager and lead them to World Cup victory.
Led by Puskás, the Hungarians seemed to like footballing visionaries. Conquering all before them, it is difficult now to comprehend how dramatic their impact must have been. As the late Sir Bobby Robson explained: “We saw a style of play, a system of play that we’d never seen before, none of these players meant anything to us. They were men from Mars as far as we were concerned.”
The Magical Magyars were in the midst of a 31-game, four-year unbeaten run which had brought them the 1952 Olympic title and took them to the 1954 World Cup Final. In The Story of the World Cup, Brian Glanville describes them as “the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game. They had squared the circle, solved football’s equivalent of the riddle of the Sphinx: how to reconcile the traditional skills, the supreme technique, of Continental football with the strength and shooting power of the British”.
At a time when teams played in a 3-2-5 formation, Hungary’s masterstroke was to pull their centre forward, Nándor Hidegkuti, deeper into a play-maker role behind the forwards Puskás and Kocsis, leaving the opposition centre back with no-one to mark. With one of the half-backs dropping to play alongside his centre back and a goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics, willing to come off his line and play with his feet, it was a tactical revolution. According to Glanville: “Though nobody applied the term at the time, it can be seen with hindsight that Hungary’s tactics were an early version of 4-2-4″. It was a system imitated throughout the world, most notably by Brazil in winning three of the next four World Cups.
In Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich’s excellent collection of interviews, Puskás on Puskás, the man himself admitted: “Regardless of tactics, you’ve got to have the players to make the tactics work; it was the players themselves that made it possible”. At the heart of the team was Puskás, who according to Glanville was ‘the star of stars, a squat little Budapest urchin-figure, plastered hair parted down the middle, with superb control, supreme strategy, and above all a left-footed shot which was unrivalled in the world’.
A small Budapest side, Kispest were nationalised in 1949 and renamed as the army team, Budapest Honvéd (defenders of the Motherland). The national coach Gusztav Sebes conscripted the best young players around the country to form the nucleus of a great side at club and international level.
When Honvéd, went on a tour of Britain in December 1954, playing in front of huge crowds it awoke UEFA to the potential of midweek floodlit games between their member states’ national league champions. The hysteria of the English press in proclaiming Wolverhampton Wanderers as ‘champions of the world’ after defeating Honvéd at a deliberately flooded Molineux prompted another journalist Gabriel Hanot to propose the set up of the first European Champions Club Cup in 1955.
Puskás, later playing for Real Madrid would win the competition three times and become the leading goalscorer in the most celebrated club side of all time, the FIFA Team Of The Century, scoring four in the 1960 European Cup Final and a first half hat-trick in the 1962 Final which they ultimately lost to Eusébio’s Benfica.
Despite his two year ban from the game, Puskás ended his international career for Hungary with 84 goals in 85 games, more than Pelé. Had he remained in his country following the 1956 Uprising, he would surely have become the first footballer to score 100 international goals. His record of seven European Cup final goals may never be broken – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have two apiece.
Yet Puskás was not merely a goalscoring machine, he was a player who brought joy, a street footballer always known as Öcsi (kid). He over-ate, he smuggled from the west and made fun of those in the establishment who nevertheless used him as a role model. A man who was the antithesis of the modern player off the pitch, but a thing of wonder on it and it is fitting that the annual FIFA prize for the ‘most beautiful’ goal scored each year is called The Puskás Award.
Speaking at the inauguration of the award in 2009, Sepp Blatter remarked: “It is important to preserve the memory of those football greats who have left their mark on our history, Ferenc Puskás was not only a player with immense talent who won many honours, but also a remarkable man.”
20 June 2016 - England v Wales
One of the key aims of the Klick It Out campaign is to raise awareness about the impact of football-related social media discrimination.
As part of a series running throughout our campaign, we’ve talked to fans, players and broadcasters, most of whom are united in both their love of football and their experience of discriminatory abuse on social media.
In our latest feature, Asif Burhan, resident blogger for Kick It Out who detailed the first part of his experience of the European Championships here, reflects on his time in Lens for the England v Wales game.
“I got one for 150.”
“That’s really good, I’ve got 600 on me – just in case.”
“You can’t really put a price on it, it’s how much you’re willing to pay, it’s a big money game, there won’t be another one unless we reach the semi-final.”
It was the biggest match of the UEFA Euro 2016 group phase. No question. All of France’s games went on general sale, England v Wales never did. This was ‘trés grand’. A perfect storm of two passionately supported neighbours playing in the smallest stadium in the finals, as close to the British Isles as possible.
Tickets were the talk of the train north from Paris to Lens. My previous attendance at England matches had ensured I qualified for one at the face value of £42 but the vast majority of England fans were planning to scramble around in Lens for the few tickets that inevitably made it onto the black market.
At Euro 2004, I met a Dutch fan at the England v Portugal quarter-final and I asked him if he’d been at the Netherlands’ match the previous night. He pulled a face, “I’m not interested in watching the Dutch. I want to watch England, they are the most exciting team in the world.”
If those days of the “Golden Generation” have passed, there can be no doubt that watching England in a tournament match is something apart from watching any other country in the world. Other countries may have better players, better fans or more success but there is something unmistakably feral, passionate, perhaps even desperate about an England match abroad, like the best horror films.
Excitement comes in many different forms and it doesn’t always have to be a piece of skill on the pitch. That is why football has become the biggest sport in the world – its unique ability to mean so many different things to so many different people.
None of the pre-match gimmickry which had been enjoyed elsewhere as part of the interactive Euro 2016 match experience worked in this game. The entrance of the dancing mascot “Super Victor”, the cheer decibel counter, even the kiss-cam was met by the shrugging of shoulders and folded arms from the England fans until the French MC just admitted defeat. Yet when the teams came out and the national anthems sung, the noise was frightening.
However, that kind of atmosphere has often created fear and anxiety amongst the players representing them, and it did so again as England toiled in the first half. There were angry remarks about Raheem Sterling’s effort, Dele Alli’s touch, Wayne Rooney’s positioning, Harry Kane’s free-kicks… and Joe Hart. They were booed off at half-time, heading only for humiliation. We were desperate.
It is little surprise then that Jamie Vardy, with all his history, should appeal to the England fans, they themselves forever condemned by their roots and chequered past. They sung for his introduction at half-time and they were proven right as the Leicester forward’s goal-poaching instincts turned the game.
Vardy will never win everyone over, and neither will our fans, yet on this day, you would have to be made out of stone not to have been thrilled by England’s comeback. Whatever else happens now in France, the scenes which followed Daniel Sturridge’s injury-time winner will sustain many an England fan, including this one, until the next World Cup.
On the short walk back into the city of Lens, the two sets of fans mingled freely without any hint of antagonism, goading or segregation. Many of them supported the same clubs, and on the trains out to Paris and Arras, they shared their Euro 2016 experiences and plans.
Next to me sat a Russian in an England shirt, opposite were two Germans who had been to the game and were heading straight to Stade de France for that night’s match. After watching the world champions play out the first scoreless draw of the finals even they might have admitted, on this day at least, England were the most exciting team to watch.
15 June 2016 - Euro 2016
One of the key aims of the Klick It Out campaign is to raise awareness about the impact of football-related social media discrimination.
As part of a series running throughout our campaign, we’ve talked to fans, players and broadcasters, most of whom are united in both their love of football and their experience of discriminatory abuse on social media.
In our latest feature, Asif Burhan, resident blogger for Kick It Out, discusses the first part of his experience at the European Championships in Paris.
“Are you upset?” asked my friend Russell, as we walked out of the Paris Fan Zone after England’s 1-1 draw with Russia on Saturday (11 June) night. I wasn’t. I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened in Marseille that day. People had been asking me for months why I wasn’t going to England’s opening match of UEFA Euro 2016, I’d made a conscious decision to avoid that game as soon as the draw had been made.
Coming back to where we are staying in Paris each night and going through the news from home websites and social media has become a depressing experience. Since the wonder of Dimitri Payet’s goal in the opening match, it’s hard to find evidence of actual football matches being played in France – blame this, and avoid that, when my experience of international football tournaments is all about appreciate this and get involved in that.
Russell, at his first tournament, ostensibly to follow Northern Ireland is beginning to realise this. Trying to convince him to arrive at stadiums hours before kick-off has been hard work, especially when he’s still feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking but he can, I hope, now see why.
Getting to a rainy Parc des Princes and standing in the middle of Croatian fans jumping up and down while twirling flares are things I’ve seen before but will never ever fail to create goosebumps. In and around the Parisian Fan Zones, hearing the Irish and Swedes mingling has been riotous in the good sense of the word. My highlight of the Irishmen’s never-ending attempts to woo Swedish women was a group of ten giving two young women a full rendition of “Thank You For the Music” in the middle of a street.
It all started for us the day before, picking up a pair of tickets for the pre-tournament concert in the Champs de Mars Fan Zone under the Eiffel Tower. Having been to three matches now, don’t let anyone tell you about “tight security” at the games, it was nothing compared to the concert where it took an hour of repeated and thorough body and bag searches from military policemen, armed with guns as tall as me for us to get in.
Yet, it was worth it as Enrique Iglesias, Will I Am, Zara Larsson and David Guetta captivated us for four hours on a balmy night at an event none of the 80,000 present (the biggest attendance of the tournament) had paid for.
There have been incidents, two young boys of North African descent were almost set upon by a man when he thought the boys had tried to get into his backpack, a woman picked me out and felt the need to pat me down when she lost her phone (she had dropped it on the floor). Outside Stade de France, watching Spain v Czech Republic in a bar with Swedish fans, the police suddenly entered and kept us inside for nearly half an hour ushering us over to one side while the area was cleared and a reported controlled explosion of a suspect package took place. When I was searched entering the stadium later, a black Frenchman, on discovering my tablet, asked “is that a bomb?” at which the Irishmen behind me quipped “I don’t think he’s ISIS”.
As long as events like those in Marseilles and Orlando occur, then profiling, despite all it’s ugly and divisive consequences will regrettably continue. I have lived with it all my life, and, growing up in Belfast before coming to live in England, so has Russell. Moaning about it on social media or writing about it from your bedroom is not going to end it.
Tournaments like this offer us a wonderful opportunity to change people’s stereotypes using the shared language of football. The impressions you create on the people you meet from other countries here are taken home to those countries and spread. Just ask Russia. The associations of being English do not have to be arrogance, violence and fear. That’s not me and it isn’t what the people I know out here represent.
So let’s all hope by the end of the tournament, like the England team’s disappointing results, these are stereotypes we can transform because outside of the England media bubble there is a wonderful football tournament being enjoyed by the rest of Europe. Let’s not vote ourselves out just yet.
The wonder of Kelly Smith
She is, and always will be, a legend of women’s football.
Marieanne Spacey, England Assistant Manager
In the 43rd minute or an ordinary game of football, an extraordinary 37-year-old did something which got me out of my seat. That doesn’t happen often these days. With a sway of her hips and a balletic pirouette, Kelly Smith left her marker Ana Borges, to quote a better writer than me “rushing past like a fire engine going to the wrong fire”, before dissecting Chelsea’s back-line with a perfectly weighted through pass.
Saturday’s match, like many finals, was a disappointing one. Regular watchers will know Chelsea played well below their standards and Arsenal’s superbly executed game-plan and hunger won the day thanks to a fantastic goal. Women’s football doesn’t need people like me endlessly praising its progress and quality. There are only so many “breakthroughs” it can make.
Records like attendance figures can be manipulated by clever pricing and offers, statistics tailored by context, but people who watch football, know football and they know quality when they see it, and Kelly Smith oozes it.
Just to see her first touch is a blessing. In that one moment, Smith demonstrated everything Mia Hamm once said about her. “Her touch is different class – everything’s clean, everything’s with a purpose. The pace of her passes is always perfect and she can score at will too”.
The problem with enticing so many children with free tickets to boost crowd figures is that they are too young to remember just how good a footballer Kelly Smith is. Her appearances now are often cameos, in Arsenal’s last game she wasn’t even named in the 16-player squad.
When she came on for the second half against Chelsea last month in the FA WSL, their coach Emma Hayes said she was still Arsenal’s biggest threat: “It shows what a wonderful player she is,” Hayes remarked.
In my lifetime, England has produced two footballers who can justifiably have called themselves the best in the world – Paul Gascoigne for a short-time before his injury in 1991 and Kelly Smith around the middle of the last decade.
In 50 years time, people may look back to last summer’s World Cup as Year Zero for women’s football. Yet this weekend was the 46th Women’s Cup final. It was 23 years before The FA felt it worthy enough to put its name to the competition and 45 before it felt it deserving of a place in its national stadium.
A living legend of the game herself, Marieanne Spacey, who spoke so eloquently at Kick It Out’s Women’s Raise Your Game conference in Birmingham, was starring for England in a World Cup 21 years ago. Remarkably, a 16-year-old Kelly Smith was almost picked for that tournament but was unable to accept the call-up as she was taking her GCSEs. She had to wait 12 years to play at the highest level of the women’s game.
On September 11, 2007 in Shanghai, England were expected to beat Japan but after a poor first half they fell behind. In two minutes, Kelly Smith produced two moments of magic which put England ahead and left us with an image which is timeless. The picture of her kissing her left boot would have gone viral in this age of social media but for women’s football in this country its iconic effect truly “inspired a generation”.
At 28, Smith was the third-oldest member of a squad contained young starlets, Eniola Aluko, Siobhan Chamberlain, Karen Carney, Lianne Sanderson, Alex and Jill Scott, Carly Telford, and Fara Williams who eight years later were the leaders of England’s squad in Canada. Spacey told me:”I think those young players looked up to Kelly Smith as a role model and she certainly delivered. She had all the skill in the world on the pitch, but also off the pitch, that determination, that real drive to be the best that you can be”.
Faye White, her captain for club and country, believes if Smith had played in a World Cup earlier than 2007, she would be rated higher than Brazilian legend Marta: “For me, Kelly works harder and tracks back”.
Citing her 50-yard winning goal against Russia at Euro 2009, White said: “She did things on the pitch, other people couldn’t even see.”
New Arsenal signing, Jodie Taylor, the woman who transformed England’s World Cup last summer when she came on against Norway, has only recently started training with Smith at London Colney. She was equally effusive: “You have to say she’s England’s greatest footballer of all time; I just wish I’d been able to play with her when she was at her peak.”
On Smith’s last appearance at Wembley during the London 2012 Olympics, she had missed a penalty in the win over Marta’s Brazil.
Here, she missed the opportunity to move ahead of former team-mate Julie Fleeting with a record-breaking seventh FA Women’s Cup final goal, when she hit the crossbar with a second-half header. Yet, these were mere footnotes in a display which demonstrated all her quality and qualities. When Chelsea missed a chance to equalise late in the first half, Smith raced back to berate her defence before calmly pointing out where they went wrong.
In the post-match press conference Arsenal manager Pedro Martinez Losa couldn’t praise her highly enough: “She gave us exactly what we needed from the tactical part, but also character on the pitch, so I can only say ‘thank you Kelly’.”
In her interview for the BBC, Smith admitted: “Playing in front of all these fans, playing at Wembley was just an unreal experience, one that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life”.
Watching her play over the years is something I will always cherish for the rest of mine.
Corina Schröder and Women's Raise Your Game
Growing up in the small town of Dingden, Corina Schröder could have never imagined she could have been speaking, in English, as an inspiration, a role model to women who attended Kick It Out’s Raise Your Game conference and hung on her every word.
Looking over a career which has brought her two German, two English and two European titles as well as a German Cup, Schröder is disbelieving. “My dream was never, ever to play (at that level), obviously it’s a dream of everyone, but I never had it in my mind”.
“I came to football because my mum played football, my dad and my older brother, so on the weekend we all came together. I support Schalke because my dad and older brother supported Schalke, I had to support Schalke. I liked Olaf Thön, because he played for Schalke”
At 15 she joined the newly independent Frauen Bundesliga side FCR 2001 Duisburg or Die Löwinnen (Lionesses), where she joined another north-west native, the legendary Inka Grings, who had already played for Germany at a World Cup and the Sydney Olympics.
“Inka Grings helped me a lot. In my career, I played as a forward, then left midfield and then at Duisburg in the youth team they told me left-back is your position now. I was like ‘Hmmm, I don’t want to play there’. I didn’t know how to play that position but then they talked me through it and I played my first game in the Bundesliga, I was 16 years old, in that position”
In 2009, Schröder won the DFB Pokal (German Cup) and the UEFA Women’s Cup but decided to leave the Ruhr to play for Turbine Potsdam, close to Berlin. “I had played there for eight years, I had a lot of friends there,” Schröder reflected.
In 2010, she lost to her old club in the semi-finals of the Pokal but beat them on penalties after two semi-final legs of the newly-named UEFA Women’s Champions League, eventually winning the trophy in Getafe.
“It’s always not nice to play against your old team but you always want to tell them, ‘look, I went to a better club’”. With Schröder, Potsdam won the Bundesliga in 2010 and 2011 and as Duisburg fell away into insolvency, Potsdam reached another Champions League final; but have now fallen behind themselves in Germany due to the financial investment at VfL Wolfsburg and FC Bayern.
Schröder moved again to further her career in 2013, taking an ever bigger chance by joining a club trying to eclipse their city rivals in a new league. Liverpool Ladies had finished bottom of the FA WSL in 2011 and 2012 and it was to prove a baptism of fire.
“We played against Everton in my first game, in my first three situations I was playing on the ground, I think she fouled me but the referee didn’t give it.”
The signings of Schröder plus England’s Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie from Everton propelled Liverpool to the next two English titles but all of them have now moved on as Chelsea and Manchester City have moved ahead on the domestic front.
Another first for Schröder was when she became Birmingham City Ladies’ first-ever foreign player earlier this year. Injury has given her time to pursue her degree in Economics. Her team-mate, Kerys Harrop who spoke alongside her at Raise Your Game, is a lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton and stressed to the mentees that ‘education is very important for women in football’.
Kick It Out’s Education and Development Manager, and Raise Your Game organiser, Troy Townsend thanked them for coming and added “There are so many opportunities beyond the pitch, and we keep on stressing that message to people wanting to work in the industry, but Corina and Kerys telling their own story adds a lot, especially as they combine playing alongside studying and working.”
FIFA's Women's Football and Leadership Conference
“We need to work for women’s football and women in football”
Gianni Infantino, FIFA President
So many good ideas and pure intentions – surely this was not the same FIFA we have read about for the past year? Gender equality had become a key issue in the recent presidential election and candidates were asked about their plans for reform in this regard.
On only his second day in the job, Gianni Infantino, the new President, opened the second FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership conference on the foothills of Zurich, speaking of the need to work to make women’s football much better in commercial terms.
The inspirational Billie Jean King, who was one of the last to leave the conference satisfying every demand for a photograph, explained in great detail the struggle she had when she set up the Women’s Tennis Association.
“We had three dreams: that any girl would have the place to compete; be recognised for her accomplishment, not just her looks; and be able to make a living out of the sport”.
She felt in tennis that had been achieved and spoke of her pride when she saw Serena Williams winning $4 million at a single event, even though she admitted she herself had won less than $2 million throughout her glittering career.
The recently retired Abby Wambach, the leading international goalscorer in the history of football, carried on the theme.
“My dream is that every girl has the opportunity to make football her career. So many talented players are missing the opportunities because they don’t have the backing to make it their only job.”
She was thankful that as an American, she played for a president like United States Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati, describing the continuing success of the now three-times world champions as ‘his baby’.
As Gulati explained, babies do not come cheap. They require continuous investment which he has provided. He urged other national associations to do the same, championing FIFA’s redistribution of wealth and arguing that a few hundred thousand might not make the difference to the United States or England, but it could help a smaller national association’s women team qualify for the World Cup.
Gulati agreed with me when I asked him whether the United States Women’s National Team were under pressure to keep on winning to sustain interest in a league that has folded in the past.
Gulati observed that although attendances had plateaued after the post-World Cup surge, the plateau was now higher than before, representing a real growth. And as Billie Jean King had pointed out earlier, ‘pressure is a privilege’.
Asisat Oshoala, who is on the verge of joining Arsenal Ladies, suggested that some in Africa believe women are not supposed to engage in sport. She was told it was just not possible to have a career in football and felt pride that she is now well-known in Nigeria for her sporting success. She urged FIFA to do whatever it takes to push the women’s game forward.
“When you spend more money there is more attention on the game; that is what we want,” Oshoala said.
Barbara Slater, Director of Sport at the BBC, amazed the audience when she revealed that only a third of the English audience for the FIFA Women’s World Cup were women compared to nearly half for the men’s World Cup, pointing to a potential area of growth. To do that, Wambach argued it required competitions in between the World Cups to sustain interest: “We need the (women’s) Champions League to be out there, we need the names to become household names, to be talked about”.
Amanda Davies, from CNN, pointed out the difficulties for broadcasters in selling the women’s game. In England, bad news sells. As if to prove the point, reports of Eva Carneiro appearing in court and Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test seemed to have been of more interest back home than events in Zurich. Slater added: “If you’re going to show something on the screen, it’s got to look good and have a tremendous atmosphere”.
A member of the audience asked if bundling TV rights with the men’s game was the way forward. Moya Dodd, FIFA Executive Committee member, believed in some circumstances it could be, highlighting the way that the Swedish league had done so, establishing a growth in audience.
Pointing to the way, men’s and women’s Grand Slam tournaments are played concurrently, I asked Billie Jean King if she thought men’s and women’s matches or tournaments could be played together. King admitted that she had thought about it and liked the idea.
Citing the example of her own country, she claimed women’s football traditionally attracted fans from ‘white suburbia’ while the men’s game attracted more ‘Latinos and the Hispanic community’. Playing the games together would therefore benefit both.
“The men would increase their demographics and the women would increase their demographics,” King suggested.
This idea of mutual benefit had been expanded on earlier by Michael Kimmel, a Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, who said men and boys have to be engaged in promoting gender equality. He pointed to several studies from home and the workplace that demonstrated where there was gender equality, women did not merely receive a larger slice of the pie, both sexes received bigger slices because of it..
Therefore, International Women’s Day should be not passed off as a day to simply be ‘nice to women’ but a day to reassess how and why we should all strive for equal rights. As Kimmel pointed out – “Gender equality is not a conversation about other people, it’s a conversation about us. It doesn’t need to be a win-lose, it can be a win-win”.
Rayo Vallecano's La Liga clash against Barcelona
“I’ve played at big clubs such as Barca and Real Madrid but Rayo has given me more, not just in sporting terms, but on a personal level too, it’s helped me feel closer to people and see problems that maybe at another club you wouldn’t see, and this makes one a better person.”
Roberto Trashorras, Rayo Vallecano captain, Copa ’90 documentary
Last week when Arsenal chose to display the word “LONDON” before their Champions League match at home to FC Barcelona, it was met with predictable ridicule on social media. London is famed for its plethora of leading club sides – six in this season’s Premier League – all with unique identities, born from their surroundings and history, to make claiming yourselves as representatives of the city impossible.
In Europe, away from the centralised legacies of former Eastern Bloc countries, it is rare to find more than two leading clubs in any major city. Despite a history of regionalised teams, the metropolises of Paris and Berlin have been reduced to one each. While Atlético’s recent and continuing successes have reminded all of us that Spain’s capital is more than just a team always referred to locally as “Madrid”, most people would be hard-pressed to remember the third team in the city.
The southern suburb of Vallecas is not on anyone’s list of must-see attractions in Madrid. However, unlike Charlton or Crystal Palace, it is part of the city’s underground network and has a rich footballing history. It was here that Atléti won its first two league titles as Athletic Aviación de Madrid, a name that belies the myth that Real Madrid were the only club influenced by Franco’s regime.
When Atléti moved out in 1943, Rayo Vallecano became the club of this downtrodden barrio. With Atléti moving again this summer closer to their rivals in the north of the city, Vallecano will be left as the sole representatives of the working-class south. Whether that will be in the top flight remains in doubt. Vallecano’s existence has been that of the proverbial yo-yo. However, being in Madrid has its benefits, attracting many a star player, both in the ascendancy, like Diego Costa and Álvaro Negredo, and those who had already surpassed the height of their performance like Laurie Cunningham and Hugo Sánchez. Currently, it is the home of former Manchester United “starlets” Bebé and Manucho who’s career paths from here is anyone’s guess.
While seven of the 20 Premier League clubs are named after a region or landmark of a city, only three (Levante, Betis and Vallecano) in Spain’s top flight are. Vallecano are also the only team competing with two other city rivals so they take extra pride in representing their suburb. Anyone who saw the excellent Copa 90 film, The Pride of a Working Class Neighbourhood, would understand how Rayo Vallecano stand apart in so many ways. Their stadium was named after a woman, Maria Teresa Rivero, a Margaret Thatcher lookalike and La Liga’s first female President. Their away kit is plastered with an anti-homophobia rainbow stripe. Their third kit displays the pink ribbon promoting breast cancer awareness. If the hipsters knew where they were, Rayo Vallecano would be their club of choice.
Estadio de Vallecas, hemmed in by housing and overlooked by tower blocks, is adorned with anti-racist graffiti. The night before the game, two homeless men slept under the main stand untouched by the club or police. The entrance to the ‘fondo’ behind the south goal where the Rayo ultras sit is named “Wilfred”, after their former Nigerian goalkeeper, Willy Agbonavbare who lived in Madrid until his premature death from cancer. “Refugees Welcome” and “Sankt-Pauli” stickers adorn the back of the bucket seats. As a “tourist” there for a couple of days, it was hard not to feel like an intruder at a private social gathering. Twice I was politely asked not to take photos of the Bukaneros, a testament to their beguiling insularity.
Yet ideology is no match for the greatest attacking threesome perhaps the game will ever see. Watching Lionel Messi in the flesh is always something divine and seeing him in competitive action in such a tight stadium only served to make the other 21 professionals on show look like cart-horses in comparison. Others play with the ball in front of them, with Messi it is part of him.
Unlike the gigantic curved stands of the other two stadiums in Madrid, the eleven-row Wilfred ‘fondo’ is straight and so close to the touchline you can pat the players on the back as they take corners. With everyone standing throughout the game, when the ball was in the opposite corner closest to us, the game became a matter of guesswork.
Alas for Rayo, the three South Americans up front for Barcelona were in no way perturbed by the Bukaneros’ intimidation for it was very much in the South American style. Instead, it was the Rayo keeper who spilled the ball in front of his own ultras straight to Ivan Rakitić to score the crucial opening goal. Well I guess he scored as I saw the net ripple – it was too close to us for anyone to actually see the ball enter the net.
Thereafter, two red cards and three Lionel Messi goals gave us the scoreline that everyone had predicted. It was Barcelona’s tenth consecutive victory over Rayo Vallecano in the five seasons since their return to La Liga.
Yet the fact that they are still there playing the Spanish champions shows that Rayo Vallecano are here to stay, in their own way, in their own part of town. In an era of super-clubs more interested in brand loyalty than supporter loyalty, that is something to be celebrated.
Northern Ireland's qualification to Euro 2016
“You’re not stopping us, you’re not stopping us, you’re not stopping, you’re not stopping, you’re not stopping us!”
Northern Ireland fans, 8 October 2015
If you thought international football was a boring gap in the club season, you need to understand what it means to countries other than your own. The expanded UEFA Euro 2016 was meant to be the final nail in the over-bloated coffin of biennial qualification tournaments. Yet, as the heroics of Iceland produce results that may have qualified them for an eight-team finals, never mind a sixteen-team tournament, the improbable story of a misunderstood country of 1.8 million people has gone under the radar.
Not since Pat Jennings’ heroics at Wembley in November 1985 has Northern Irish football known a night like this. It was a day that many including my long-time workmate and friend from Belfast, Russell Woodside, 34, never thought he would witness. As their qualification campaign began with wins away to Hungary and Greece and home to the Faroes and Finland, I felt certain from March that the self-styled Green and White Army would reach the finals automatically. Certain enough to book a trip six months in advance of Thursday night’s match. For Russell, a lifetime of disappointment and near-misses had created a well-worn pessimism that foresaw something going wrong between now and the finishing line. Trailing Hungary and down to ten men last month, all of Russell’s fears were being realised. Until Kyle Lafferty’s improbable injury-time goal proved that history can be overcome and stereotype overturned.
History and stereotyping are two powerful words in Belfast. For first-time visitors to the city like myself and Annisa (a Catholic) the meaning of everything we saw and were told about by Russell and his partner Debbie, was difficult to grasp and perhaps impossible to relate to. Annisa, looking for an authentic Belfast souvenir to take home found the “Ulster Souvenir Shop” with its overtly pro-Protestant range a hard place to find something suitable. As Debbie told us “there is nothing neutral in Belfast”.
As a young girl, Debbie and her family travelled to Spain to witness Northern Ireland’s greatest moments in football. The least populous nation to ever reach multiple World Cups (three in all), they defeated the hosts with ten men in Valencia before succumbing to France as they had done at the same stage in 1958.
The 1958 World Cup was only the second that “Northern Ireland” had entered. Up until 1950, the Irish FA had maintained a policy of picking an all-Irish team, even after the formation of the FAI in the Irish Free State in 1921. In qualifying for 1950, four players played for both countries in surely the only instance of footballers representing two nations in the same tournament. Thereafter, FIFA decreed in 1953, that neither team could call themselves “Ireland” and the football entities of “Northern Ireland” and the “Republic of Ireland” were created.
On a whistle-stop tour of the city, Russell and Debbie, both Protestants, drove us along the Falls Road past the Sinn Féin party offices with its dramatic memorial to hunger-striker Bobby Sands, but were unwilling to stop to let us take pictures of the pro-Republican murals. Minutes away, the Shankill Road was another world in the same city with its Loyalist displays, commemorating the Ulster Volunteer Forces contribution to the British effort in the First World War.
Windsor Park is located in the very heart of the Protestant area of Belfast, an unwelcoming venue for the Catholics of the city. I was told by one prominent Catholic native of the city that she would never go there and consequently had no interest in supporting the Northern Ireland team. That is not to say it is a Protestant team, three of the squad on Thursday are Catholic, as were former Northern Irish captains, Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon.
The stadium, undergoing a complete stage-by-stage rebuild is now more than halfway to becoming a venue recognised as deserving of top-class football but its surroundings cannot be ignored. Known as “The Shrine” to supporters of Linfield, in “The Football Grounds of Europe”, Simon Inglis acknowledges that “for the people living less than a mile away, across the M1 motorway in the strictly Catholic area of Andersonstown, Windsor Park is nothing less than an alien stronghold of “Orange” loyalists”.
On Thursday night, there were none of the sectarian songs which, I was told, were commonplace at Northern Ireland games in the past. After the third goal went in, the crowd began to sing “Are you watching James McClean?” in reference to the Derry-born midfielder who appeared seven times for their u21 side before declaring his allegiance for the Republic of Ireland.
30 years without a major tournament has meant McClean’s has been a path chosen by many of the current generation, like Darron Gibson. The Gibson case prompted FIFA to rule that anyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to play for either country. With Northern Ireland qualifying and the Republic of Ireland possibly not, the hope for the footballing future of the North is that the next generation make a different choice. If that is the only thing Northern Ireland’s appearance on the big stage next summer achieves, it will help make it less likely that another generation will grow up without watching Northern Ireland at a major finals.
For people like Russell, who grew up on stories about Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong, next summer is theirs. There are no Gareth Bales in this squad to intimidate the opposition, their goalscoring hero, Josh Magennis was a goalkeeper until six years ago. A hideously tough draw for World Cup qualification offers no guarantees that another finals lies around the corner. This was Northern Ireland’s chance of a lifetime, and they grabbed it. Judging by the celebrations on the streets of Belfast after the game, they are going to enjoy every second. Let’s hope that it’s a party as welcome to all-comers as I was made to feel on a night that will live long in the memory.
Chelsea Ladies winning the WSL
“You don’t win the league every day. I’ve waited 20 years for this feeling. . . I came to Chelsea three years ago for this moment and it’s here and I’m going to savour it and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Eniola Aluko, Chelsea LFC and England
So Chelsea are the club holding back the progress of women in football? Not if you were in Staines on Sunday.. The men’s game may have tried its best to deflect the armchair audience with a set of fixtures across Europe to whet any appetite but there were no happier footballers in the world than the players of Chelsea Ladies upon the final whistle.
Chelsea started the game slowly but in their first counter-attack the theme of the evening was set as their four attackers, Gemma Davison, Ji So-Yun, Fran Kirby and Aluko sprung forward with a pace and verve that surprised first-time watchers of the game like my friend Russell.
As the players waited in the tunnel for the signal to come out onto the pitch and captain Katie Chapman joked with spectators, Aluko looked focused and lost in her own thoughts. Her anguished tears as Chelsea lost a similar two-point lead on the final day of the last season were never going to be repeated as her speed and trickery stretched the game early on and created the space in which the other three forwards could thrive and score four unanswered goals between them.
The match may not live long in the memory, the early goal from FA Cup Final goalscorer Ji settling any home-team nerves and once the league’s top scorer Beth Mead uncharacteristically missed a clear chance in front of the watching England manager, the outcome was never in doubt. Yet every one of the record 2,710 crowd in Staines will remember being there. This was my second visit to Wheatsheaf Park in a month and for the second time I was impressed with the efforts the club made to make the game an authentic “Chelsea” experience. The sight of John Terry in the stand makes for a great photo in the newspaper but most people in the stadium did not even realise he was there. Everyone will remember the sounds of Liquidator and Madness plus the team photos, face paints, pens and club flags handed out for free as you entered the ground. Yes, you can make jokes about Chelsea’s “plastic flags”, like a former Liverpool manager, but no-one scoffs at the freebies handed out at other sporting events or conferences and these ones were not embossed with a sponsors logo. All were official Chelsea goods and paid for the club. A free £3 flag in exchange for buying a £5 ticket to a top-level match is a good deal in anyone’s eyes.
For Chelsea Ladies, the goal of domestic dominance for this year is complete. All the players joked as they came off about how they were due back in training today for Thursday’s Champions League first leg match against Glasgow City. An English club is yet to appear in the revamped UEFA Women’s Champions League and if Chelsea really are to go “One Step Beyond” they and the equally well-resourced Manchester City Women must be striving for a place in Reggio-Emilia in May.
2015 has been the year that has broken barriers in women’s football and for that everyone involved in the game should feel rightly proud. Try to take anything seriously and there will always be people who patronise. When asking Ana Borges for her autograph, two men asked if she could write down her phone number as well, she gave them a withering look of disdain. However, the bigger the strides women’s football makes, the more inconsequential small steps backwards like that seem.
If you really want to help women in football, go and watch them play. As the game petered out in the second half, one of the pre-teen girls in front of me began to show her friends pictures of her mum on the cover of Elle magazine. “Oh, I’d love to be a model” sighed one of them. When I was that age, I only wanted to be on the cover of football magazines, it is players that inspired me as a child and it is the players of Chelsea Ladies who should be heralded as role models now so one day young girls are showing each other the cover stars of She Kicks magazine as well as Elle.
7 July 2015 - Women's World Cup
“I really have seen everything now”
BBC commentator, David Coleman after Pelé shot from the halfway line and missed.
Let the Women’s World Cup Final be a lesson to you. Never embarrass the United States of America on the world stage. In the 2011 final in Frankfurt, Japan survived an early onslaught from the favourites to win the title on penalties. The United States Women’s team have been on a four-year mission to right the wrongs of that night.
No one has epitomised that more than Carli Lloyd. Her two goals in the Olympic final at Wembley exacted revenge on the Japanese. Two more on Sunday were the product of pure hunger and desire. The breathtaking third, the result of inspiration from a woman playing at the height of her powers.
The Women’s World Cup Final was the last major football match I had not seen in person. The highest scoring World Cup final in history, a hat trick in the final and a goal from the halfway line – I really have seen everything now.
Many of the thousands of Americans who travelled to Vancouver to watch the game were part of US Soccer’s largest nationwide fan collective, the American Outlaws (AO). The AO first came to my notice when they outnumbered the travelling England fans in Rustenburg at the 2010 World Cup finals.
For them there is no difference whatsoever in supporting their men’s or women’s teams. As Dan McCooey, a prominent member of the Seattle branch of AO told me, “if they are wearing the shirt and representing my country on the world stage, I don’t care what they are”.
Erik, a Colombus Crew fan had been on a road-trip with his friend from Ohio with the ultimate goal of being in Vancouver to see his country win the World Cup. I first met him in Seattle, I bumped into him again at the AO pre-game supporter party in Downtown Vancouver, a wonderful event for people of all ages which ran until 1am and was attended by the families of Abby Wambach and Ali Kreiger and the sisters of Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux.
Added to those that attended on Saturday night were thousands who arrived in buses on Sunday, a mass movement reminiscent of the Argentines crossing the border for the men’s World Cup Final this time last year.
It was the AO’s overwhelming presence which made the final such a special occasion, they who organised the supporter march through Downtown which stopped traffic. Around three quarters of these fans were women and girls of every age, I met people from as far away as New Jersey and Texas, every one of them uniquely dressed in some sort of red, white and blue outfit which marked them out.
When so many people care so much, it creates a burden of responsibility in the players who represent them on the field which was borne out in the performance of Lloyd.
Many of the official England supporters’ group, EnglandFans regularly attend various youth tournaments, such as the recent Under-21 finals in the Czech Republic, sometimes with the help of The FA in securing tickets. When someone asked in the fans forum about a possible allocation for the Women’s Euros in Sweden two years ago, they were merely pointed in the direction of the official UEFA website.
Why not award caps to England members for attending women’s internationals? It would certainly boost attendance and give those in other parts of the country a motivation to watch the women around the country rather than being forced to traipse down to Wembley to watch the men in friendlies. More importantly it would forge a bond between the fans and the team, a bond so evident watching the United States.
It was noticeable that the US supporters at the game recognised every member of their squad. They are superstars to them, even more so than the men’s team, because the women are winners.
This can have its downside as well. Members of the AO were extremely disappointed that their team did not go on a lap of honour with the trophy. None of them signed. They would argue that it was a matter of public and player safety, such was the hysteria and clamour to get to them. One American woman dryly remarked, “right now, we need about five Hope Solos”.
It would be nice to think that one day the Lionesses would receive such adulation. Maybe, they prefer the way things are. Adulation brings a pressure to perform. Had the United States finished third, they would not have been praised for it.
If England is to make the final step and actually win a World Cup then we need to draw on the broadest talent pool available to us, players from every part of our society.
The late night exploits of our women in Canada shouldn’t be forgotten about when the men retake centre stage. To emulate them, the young girls here need to have women role models in the game, just like the thousands of American girls who will never forget being in Vancouver on Sunday.”
4 July 2015 - Women's World Cup
“I slept a few hours, I woke up and I’m still thinking about how football can be that cruel with #ENG and Laura Bassett. That was so sad.”
Ten minutes into the FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final between Japan and England, the Texan man sitting next to me with his teenage daughter, herself a college player, turned to me and said “England likes the long ball, don’t they?” His daughter couldn’t name her favourite England player, she didn’t know their names.
At the end of the game, she still may not have learnt their names but she and the watching world had a learned a new found respect for English women’s football. I bumped into a Canadian shortly after who remembered me as “the man from Essex where they all drive Cortinas”. He summed it up when he said “Before this match, England didn’t have validation in this tournament, until today, on this performance, they deserved to play in the final”.
The sudden manner of the defeat meant there was little time to wallow. Unlike the quarter-final, neither side spent long on the pitch, both squads disappearing without meeting the fans. After the game, I met with my lifelong friend of five days, Denise McCooey, a pitch-side photographer, and we went for something to eat. While we waited, they showed the highlights of the game on a TV, the slow-motion replays of Laura Bassett watching her sliced clearance float over her own goalkeeper, the horror on the face of Mark Sampson, Toni Duggan flat out and face down on the turf. It was then it hit me, a lump in my throat. As I finally got a reliable wifi connection, I started to read all the tweets sent during the game. It was heartbreaking.
After the natural splendour of Vancouver, Edmonton is something of a come-down. Low-level and nondescript it doesn’t captivate in the same way. My incredible host Ivana, who had lived and travelled all over the world, told me that as a city covered in snow for many months of the year, the people were the city’s greatest asset. When Ivana departed after the match to fly to The Bahamas, I was left alone in the apartment with her three cats. While my friends in England slept, their company far away from home helped me through a difficult evening.
For Bassett, the support now will be overwhelming and rightly so. She will be back in WSL action almost immediately and has an FA Cup Final at Wembley to look forward to. Football now is so all-encompassing there is no time to dwell on victory and defeat, the next challenge is always close at hand. While we as fans can console ourselves that the Lionesses exploits have inspired so many others which in future may lead to an even better team capable of honours, we miss the individual stories of players who will not have another chance, for whom this was it.
I later bumped into five of the England squad drowning their sorrows. They seemed less downbeat than me. Perhaps the release of tension after weeks away had relaxed them. I inquired as to how Bassett was – “in bits”. I emphasised to them how proud everyone back home was of them and how they’d be coming back as heroines. Let’s hope so.
29 June 2015 - Women's World Cup
“Sitting here watching GASCOIGNE with @FranKirbyy It all seems so relevant now, Goosebumps hearing him speak about WC semi final #Surreal”
Toni Duggan, Kick It Out ‘Next 20’ ambassador
When Canada’s 20-year-old midfielder Ashley Lawrence scored in her team’s final group game against the Netherlands, she performed a celebration that resembled the “Let’s All Have A Disco” jig made famous by Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle, during the 1990 World Cup.
I tweeted that similarity, tongue firmly in my cheek, not believing for a second that they were related. Lawrence and four of her team mates retweeted me. “You are spot on!”, she replied. As a dejected Lawrence traipsed round BC Place, commendably signing everything thrust in front of her, I introduced myself and she explained “yeah, we were watching a Gazza video the night before” Proof that successful footballers do inspire the next generation.
There was a time when men’s, not women’s, football was unfashionable and disparaged. It was called the 1980s. The landmarks of Hillsborough and Italia ’90 marked a watershed in English football but to those who lived it, there was one undeniable “JFK moment”. Tuesday 26th June 1990 in Bologna when David Platt swivelled onto Paul Gascoinge’s 119th minute chipped free kick and convinced a hitherto doubting nation that it could actually win the World Cup.
25 years and one day later, England’s Women defeated Canada. Let us all hope, the professional footballers of 2040 may look back on the small hours of a balmy Saturday night as the moment women’s football in England went mainstream.
I have bored people for two years about this. I had hoped it was going to happen during the Women’s Euro in Sweden in 2013. England went in as one of the favourites and collapsed. Now further away, playing on synthetic surfaces in debilitating heat, with everything against them, they well and truly proved their English-ness in the World Cup quarter-final. Take a lead and hang on to it for dear life.
This was the moment of their lives and they knew it. The players from both sides stayed out on the pitch for an age. As the unused substitutes like Duggan went through a rigorous warm-down, they were cajoled and teased in equal amounts by Fara Williams and Karen Carney before both sets of players signed and took selfies with their fans. It was clear that footballers who had spent a career playing in front of maybe a few hundred people wanted to soak up every second of this very special occasion.
Back home, even gone 2am, people were still watching and living it. People who didn’t watch before and, because England won, people who will watch again. Important people with influence who will draw in more and more people. A virtuous cycle.
Premier League fans who claim they don’t care about England, only the club game, would do well to remember they are merely the golden egg. As his emotive new film testifies, Paul Gascoigne and the England teams he inspired in 1990 and 1996 are the golden goose. Teams that inspired what became what became known as our “Golden Generation” of players. More importantly, Italia ’90 created an unprecedented demand for the game which Sky was only happy to satiate with a blank chequebook. Higher wages, better quality, bigger crowds.
Can all this happen in the women’s game? The WSL is starting from a lower base but that merely gives it more room to grow. Calls for more investment and sponsorship are easy to make but why don’t the clubs do more? These international footballers now burdened by our expectations are, one way or another, employees of multi-million pound football clubs. Arsenal. Chelsea and Liverpool could play more women’s games in their club stadiums not in some faraway non-league ground. This already happens regularly in France and Germany and would encourage more fans to venture down well-trodden pathways.
Yet, these are questions for another day. If “Gascoigne” the movie teaches the England women anything it should be the frustration of not quite achieving your destiny. Gazza was 23 when he cried in Turin. Bobby Robson consoled him by telling him he’d play in many more World Cups. He was wrong.
As an England fan I’ve waited my entire adult life to watch my country to play in a World Cup semi-final. Years and thousands of pounds have slipped through my fingers in that pursuit. For the players, none of us can even imagine the physical demands and personal sacrifices that lead to a professional career. Like Gascoigne, no one can know if there will be a next time. Let’s save our tears for another day.
26 June 2015 - Women's World Cup
“These players are used to playing in front of not many spectators. They’ve worked all their life to play in these big matches and they’ll be ready for it”
The heat is well and truly on at the seventh FIFA Women’s World Cup and for once, an England team has proved it can cope with the demands. When their quarter-final kicks off at a sold-out BC Place on Saturday afternoon in the hottest part of a hot day, England will be one of only five teams who can win the FIFA World Cup.
Yesterday, downtown Vancouver basked in sweltering temperatures in excess of the UK. Volleyball, not football, was the sport of choice for the locals in David Lam Park overlooking False Creek. The England players themselves have been enjoying the sights of a city regularly listed amongst the best places in the world to live.
I am fortunate enough to have briefly met the majority of the England men’s and women’s team. It will not surprise anyone to know that most of Roy Hodgson’s squad were business-like, a photograph here, a firm handshake there. The women have been far more informal, genuinely interested in your opinions and more willing to open up.
It is unlikely a male player would tell me a leading international was “not as good as she was” or that England “would have to play a lot better” as various female players have. This is not because I have some privileged position, I have never held media accreditation in my life, but because I have simply been there to watch them.
Any of us could be. Once the spotlight of this World Cup has waned, these international footballers, not just the English ones, will be almost immediately ploughing their trade at a WSL ground near you, while the men continue to hog the headlines with their pre-season tours, unsubstantiated transfer gossip and empty promises for the season ahead.
Football used to be littered with apocryphal tales of players catching the same bus to the game as the fans and drinking in the same pubs afterwards. It still happens in women’s football. It cannot be denied that once you personally interact with footballers, you are emotionally invested in their progress and success. They feel like friends. They could be yours too if you only went to watch them more.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert in women’s football. Neither am I someone who is disenfranchised or disillusioned by the men’s game, a hipster looking for something different.
It’s not about who’s better or worse, they are all at the top of their game. The standards of the men’s game shouldn’t be a stick to beat the women’s game with and vice versa. I can’t see why it is any less interesting if I’m watching men or women at the very top of their profession.
A parent wouldn’t belittle the achievements of a daughter against that of a son so why should we be any less excited if it’s Jack or Lucy thumping the ball in the top corner for England? Their sacrifice and effort is the same, and the difficulty of the challenge equal. It should be appreciated as such.
The eleven women who take the field at BC Place tomorrow afternoon will be invested with all kinds of hopes and burdens from intellectuals, feminists and sexists alike.
To have made it this far, they are already heroines. Overcoming prejudice and apathy, not just throughout their youth but even at the start of this tournament from a silent majority who will become suddenly vocal should England return to Vancouver for a World Cup Final next weekend.
Mark Sampson’s Lionesses are heroines because they have knocked down doors that weren’t always open to women in our game.
In The Sunday Times, Alex Greenwood admitted to not even realising their was an England women’s team until she was 10. Everton’s technical director, Andy Spence claimed Greenwood was one of a select group of girls invited to trials, now they are turning up in their droves. Her success in this tournament is to hopefully inspire a broader pool of talent to come through in the next generation, to give them more opportunities.
However, opportunity now knocks for this squad, a kind draw means the route to a World Cup Final is suddenly open to them. They will never have a better chance. After all the hardships, they have encountered making it here, facing over 50,000 Canadians at the end of the Earth will be nothing to them. They are playing for themselves and their place in history.
They don’t need to make us proud on Saturday night. We should already be proud.
COME ON ENGLAND!
UEFA Women's Champions League Final 2015
“Football is a simple game; 22 (wo)men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Within nine months at the start of the 1960s, two baby boys were born in Leicester. Both aspired to be professional footballers, both signed for Leicester City in their teens, but only one of them made it.
While Gary Lineker was winning Golden Boots for Leicester, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and England, Colin Bell was making 40 appearances for FC Mainz in the 2. Bundesliga. Whatever he achieved in the game, he was always going to struggle to live up to his fabled namesake of the 1970s, The King of the Kippax, nicknamed Najinsky for his endless running.
Yet, on 24 May 2015, Colin Bell did something no Englishman or woman has ever done. He managed a team in a UEFA Champions League Final. Uli Hesse, author of Tor! The Story of German Football, told me that Bell had coached various reserve and youth teams across Germany over the last 20 years before focusing on the women’s game in 2011 when he was appointed manager of SC 07 Bad Neuenahr.
When they went into administration in 2013, Bell took over the reigns at 1 FFC Frankfurt. In Germany, as in many countries, the trend has been away from specialist women’s teams to a growing domination of teams affiliated to men’s clubs.
No one better demonstrates this than Frankfurt’s opponents in Berlin, Paris Saint-Germain, whose investment in their women’s team and recruitment drive has matched that of the men’s team. They had almost as many German champions in their team as their opponents, explaining why they have been dubbed “Paris Saint-German”.
A city of two halves, Berlin is currently undergoing a major renovation. A U-Bahn extension from the Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz means that most of the famous central thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, has been dug up. Somewhat ironically, the mass of scaffolding has been adorned with 70-year-old black and white photographs of a city reduced to rubble following the Second World War. Also dotted around Berlin is artwork depicting “legendary moments” from previous men’s UEFA Champions League Finals in anticipation of the 60th at the Olympiastadion in just over weeks time.
This was my fifth UEFA Women’s Champions League final in a row, but for the first time the men’s and women’s finals were divorced. The women’s showpiece brought forward to avoid a clash with the FIFA Women’s World Cup which starts on the same day as the men’s final.
So, the women’s final stood alone. Previous finals had been marketed together but now there was not a single poster or reference to the women’s showpiece. Even arriving at Eberswalder Straße station in the north of the city, there were no branded signposts and no mass of football fans leading the way to the stadium.
Yet, in the next block, around an old communist open-bowl of a ground, there they were. The people who had come, not because they fancied watching a game before the men’s final. Not, as last year in Lisbon, on the promise of a free pop concert afterwards, but because of their interest in a women’s match, men and women, young and old.
Every women’s final since 2010 when UEFA introduced a single-match showpiece on a neutral ground has attracted a crowd of at least 10,000. Not to be sniffed at when the resident club at the Freidrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportspark, BFC Dynamo, attract an average of 2-3,000. However, one look at the ground told you why. Bucket seats on crumbling open-air terracing which circled at least 50 metres from the edge of the pitch.
Martina, the owner of the hotel I was staying at, thought it “disgusting” that the women were forced to play there in such a decrepit ground. An estimated €2 million had been spent on renovating the stadium for this game. Aside from the temporary corporate hospitality tents, it was difficult to see where that money had been spent.
Notwithstanding the facilities, the capacity was limited and, with a German team featuring in every final since 2008, always like to sell-out. French and German fans were searching for spares outside the ground so someone was making a profit from this demand. Not UEFA though. Two years ago, Frankfurt played in front of over 50,000 fans when the game was played at Munich’s Olympiastadion. At €10 a ticket, that’s half a million in gate receipts.
With the men’s and women’s final being played apart for the first time, there was no excuse regarding a stadium clash. What a message of equality it could have portrayed had UEFA held both finals in the 74,000-capacity Berlin Olympiastadion? The same stadium which had sold-out for the opening game of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
How many more young girls would have had the opportunity to take selfies with members of the victorious Frankfurt team, who jumped into the stands to celebrate with their friends and families before patiently signing every programme, shirt and ticket and posing dutifully for every photo.
It was not just the fans who the players made time for. Most spent considerable time in the mixed zone speaking in a variety of languages. Kosovare Asllani who came out with wet hair, shivered in the cold for more than half an hour after she was cornered by SVT.
Clutching a latté to her chest like the trophy she didn’t get her hands on, you didn’t need to understand Swedish to hear the pain in her voice. She walked away to compose herself at one point so close to tears was she. The picture she later posted on Instagram conveyed her disappointment to the world.
In contrast, Spanish superstar, Vero Boquete was beaming. The cup she held was silver, shiny and “very heavy”. Insisting on giving interviews in English, she explained how Frankfurt’s greater experience told in the end. Her own experience of losing last year’s final with the now defunct Swedish club Tyresö FF had made it all the sweeter.
Like most of the female players I have spoken to at all levels of the game, Boquete’s heroes growing up were men. “My favourite player, unfortunately, has always had to be male because when I was growing up, I had no female role models in football.” In an interview for FIFA.com, Boquete described how she now feels special pride when young girls tell her, “I want to be like you”.
Asllani and Boquete are shining lights in the women’s game. Yet until, the authorities and media give them the stage and exposure they deserve, the next generation of female players will continue to look to men and until that changes, women’s football sadly cannot progress.
This summer’s World Cup finals offers the BBC here in the UK, a chance to change that, but wider interest is once again dependent on parochial success. What a lot of pressure to put on Mark Sampson’s squad.
A men’s World Cup can hold everyone’s interest for 64 games because fans know players from every country due to endless exposure to European club football. Until WSL teams start succeeding in the Champions League, matches like Thursday’s will continue to pass us in England by.
Philosophy Football - 20 years on
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
Wearing a T-shirt has become awfully important again recently. In the synopsis of their 20th birthday exhibition, “Philosophy Football” claim that “the T-Shirt is a utilitarian platform well suited to the expression of dissent”. After collecting the 1987 Ballon D’Or, Ruud Gullit dedicated his award to a forgotten political prisoner. “Nelson who?” asked journalists. The then European Footballer of the Year was wearing “Stop Apartheid” T-shirts long before it became fashionable. On meeting Gullit many years later, as President of South Africa, Mandela reportedly told him, “Ruud, I have lots of friends now. When I was on the inside, you were one of the few”.
Twenty years ago, the Albert Camus quote above helped to change the way we in England looked at our national game. This pre-dated Eric Cantona and his sardine metaphors. It was more than a year before Football Came Home. A fledging association called Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football had just launched. I wonder what happened to them?
Inspired by a football-themed night of programming on BBC2, Mark Perryman, a hitherto little-known marketing consultant, and Hugh Tisdale, a freelance graphic designer, came up with an idea for a cheap Christmas present to hand out to their friends and family. In the same year that Baddiel and Skinner gave football punditry a kick-start, Perryman and Tisdale decided that wearing a football shirt did not have to mean becoming a walking billboard for your team’s latest sponsor.
In other countries, football had always been intrinsically linked to discussions about politics and culture. Here in England, that was never acknowledged. Football matches had always been a recruiting ground for political parties. Yet the thought of football as a cultural event was limited to a famous Monty Python sketch. Football was seen to be for the dregs of society – the unwashed, and the uneducated.
Through time, sport has always been opined on by great thinkers. Anything that regularly, and so casually, captivates mass audiences has to have political power. Perryman and Tisdale’s gift was the ability to take that power and use it to say something worthwhile. Whether challenging accepted views or just making you smile, the quotes they have captured on cotton started a trend. Football as a thinking person’s game. Whoever would have thought it in the early nineties?
For Philosophy Football, T-shirts eventually became the cash cow to finance more adventurous projects. On the day they celebrated their 20th birthday, The FA announced England had arranged to play away to Italy. The irony was not lost on Perryman, for it was watching England away to Italy in 1997 that sparked the second and more pervasive part of Philosophy Football’s influence.
Choreographed fan displays have been part of European club football since the 1950s when a group of Hajduk Split fans, inspired by newsreel footage from the 1950 World Cup, set up their own self-funded “torcida”. After witnessing Italians create a huge tricolour in the Curva Sud of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico during their National Anthem, Perryman’s suggestion that he organise something similar at Wembley was met with scepticism from The FA. Nearly two decades later, “Raise The Flag” has become as much a part of the England international scene as overhype and underachievement.
Their reputation has grown to the extent where Tisdale’s meticulously-planned designs have provided the backdrop at several Champions League finals, this year’s Europa League Final and to promote causes and commemorate events at numerous other matches including the “No To Racism” message created, on behalf of Kick It Out, before England played the Netherlands at Villa Park in 2005.
More than just a pretty picture, Raise The Flag, initially set-up, funded and run by the fans, was intended to empower supporters at a time when many were being priced out of the game and superseded in significance by television. Even if just for a fleeting few seconds, fan displays remind the audience how essential the spectators are to the spectacle. E Pluribus Unum.
Jacqueline Rich has worked alongside the pair since 1998 as a distributor. For her, every T-shirt has marked a mile post in their journey and her life.
Here’s to another 20 years of memories.
Camus, Clough & Counter-Culture: 20 Years of Philosophy Football is taking place between the 3-31 October at Rich Mix, in Shoreditch. To find out more about the exhibition, click here.
Ireland V England 2015
“When we said we wanted Ireland-England to pass off without incident, I think someone misunderstood”
For only the second time in a decade, I was not in the city hosting the UEFA Champions League Final. Berlin in 2015 was particularly enticing to true lovers of the game. The contrast between the Catalan blaugrana and the Italian bianconeri in an historic city at the crossroads of Europe meant the German capital was the place to be this weekend. A festival to celebrate the heights this wonderful game can reach.
Yet, I gave all that up for Dublin, for a soulless, goalless draw. An early kick-off and a post-season date had sucked the life out of the game. It easy to blame the paucity of the teams, but the history of this fixture suggests that a draw was always likely.
For a few years from 1988, England v Republic of Ireland became the Chelsea v Liverpool of the international game. Four fiercely contested games, low on quality and goals but rich in significance for Ireland who didn’t lose any of them. Then came the events of 15 February 1995 which shamed a nation preparing to host the 1996 European Championship finals.
It took 18 years for The FA to risk staging such a fixture again. A friendly at Wembley, part of The Football Association’s 150-year anniversary celebrations, passed off without major incident. “You’ll never beat the Irish” sang the jubilant men in green at the final whistle as Ireland completed a fifth match without losing to England.
I had long feared the scheduling of this game, initially an evening kick-off on a Sunday night following the Champions League final. Dublin was too close, too familiar for England fans not to take a long weekend here. The prospect of one or more English teams in the European Cup final could have led to club rivalries spilling over amongst fans from different countries who watch the same Premier League teams.
In the event, I had overestimated the quality of English club sides and underestimated the change in Dublin since I had last visited as a student. The make-up of the city’s inhabitants had changed to such an extent that there were more Spaniards and Brazilians in and around Temple Bar on Saturday night than Englishmen.
More significantly, moving the kick-off to 1pm had the double-edged effect of keeping this England fan from staying out too late on Saturday night and those around me from drinking before the game. There was the usual “No Surrender” during God Save The Queen but none of the IRA chants which had marred the Scotland v England match.
In an hour-long preview of this game on Setanta Sports, Irish journalists discussed the significance of the relationship between the two countries on the football field. It was Ireland who became the first foreign team to defeat England on home soil at Goodison Park in 1949. It was England who Ireland met in their first match at a European Championship and World Cup finals. It was an Englishman who masterminded Ireland’s greatest successes.
Jack Charlton came out onto the pitch before the game to a rapturous standing ovation from both sets of fans, worthy of an English World Cup winner and the man who revolutionised Irish international football. Yet, it was not always this way. When Charlton came out for his first home game as Irish manager in Dublin, he was met with a banner “Go Home, Union Jack”. In Irish eyes, success changed everything. In English eyes too, his intransigence when facing England, led to him being labelled a “traitor”.
Long before, questions of dual allegiance became commonplace, Charlton redefined our concepts of nationality, fielding every player of requisite quality available to him, whatever his upbringing or accent. It was not universally acclaimed, but it worked.
There is a story that when England lost to Ireland in 1988, Andy Townsend was cheering the English. Two years later, he was starting against them for Ireland in the World Cup. He was Ireland’s captain in 1994, when England failed to qualify. Now, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish is faced with the same choice but such is the ever-shifting diaspora of populations, every country has faced this dilemma. Ireland’s competitive advantage in this area has disappeared.
Setanta had billed the game “More Than A Friendly” but the truth is when the stakes are high, winning becomes less important than not losing. This may explain why Ireland and England played out a fifth successive bore draw.
Such was the insipidity of the contest, England fans were not held back in the Aviva Stadium to allow the Irish fans to disperse as everyone had presumed. We came out onto a narrow pathway beside the canal leading back into the city and merged with Irish fans heading in the same direction. This was unthinkable 20 years ago.
Maybe it was progress, maybe it was a one-off but if it required a tedious 0-0 draw to prove that English and Irish fans can co-exist side-by-side then perhaps 90 minutes of forgettable football was a price worth paying.
Switzerland v England
“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and The Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Harry Lime, The Third Man, 1949
Outside St. Jakob-Park before the game, locals queued up to take part in various skill challenges in order to win a Swiss T-shirt with the lyrics of their National Anthem printed on it. While the travelling England fans belted out “God Save The Queen” every half hour or so, the Swiss anthem, voted on democratically, like almost everything in this idiosyncratic country, seemed to lack the same fervour, “it has been shown with several vox pops taken that many people do not know it at all, and only a small percentage can recite it all.”
Democracy and peace may not be conducive to producing art which stirs the soul but it does make Switzerland an ideal environment for a stable banking system and a safe-haven for refugees escaping war-torn homelands. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia has been massively beneficial to the “Swiss Nati”. A staggering seven of the 14 players who took part in their last-gasp World Cup defeat to Argentina in São Paulo derive from the Balkans. Add in Johann Djourou, African-born to Ivorian parents, Gelson Fernandes, born in Cape Verde, Ricardo Rodriguez, born to Spanish-speaking parents, Gökhan Inler, Turkish parents, and it becomes clear that this team is the definition of “multi-ethnic”.
Let’s be clear, there are no Diego Costa-style cases here. None of the Swiss team have been hurriedly “naturalised” having represented other countries in the past.
The majority of the team were born in Switzerland and came through the Swiss youth system. Three were part of the U17 World Cup winning team of 2009. They have grown up together under the same flag and represent the diverse nation they call home.
However, one cannot escape the feeling that they aren’t as Swiss as they could or perhaps should be. If, for example, Kosovo was recognised by FIFA as an independent state, it is highly likely that the likes of Xhaka, Shaqiri and Behrami would have chosen to represent their parents’ homeland and not Switzerland. Their choice has blocked the path of what some may consider more “home-grown” players. Should any of this matter in this day and age?
Well, what if Switzerland was England and those players were representing us? We like to think of ourselves as the bastions of multi-ethnicity but how representative is our National Team? Yes, we have black players, but those players have tended to derive from former colonies in the Caribbean, players with English-sounding names. A bit easier to accept than a Mesut Özil or a Stephan El Shaarawy. When Ugo Ehiogu was called up by Terry Venables in 1996, a school friend of mine found it hard to understand, “he’s not really English though?” Even Monday’s match winner, Daniel Nii Tackie Mensah prefers to be known as Danny Welbeck.
Half of that Swiss 14 are also of Muslim descent, hardly representative of a country with a 5% Muslim population. Former professional Anwar Uddin, one of the few British Muslims to play in the English leagues, told me that when rising through the ranks of the star-studded West Ham academy, his religion was something he kept low-key. His approach contrasted to that of import Frederic Kanouté, who having played alongside other Muslims in the French leagues, arrived at West Ham asking team-mates where he could find the local mosque.
The lack of British Asians breaking through has been well documented but where are our British Africans and British Americans? We all have many friends who are first and second-generation immigrants so why are these players not better represented in Roy Hodgson’s squad? Are the exotic-sounding Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana (both grandchildren of Spaniards) as diverse as we’re going to get?
In her dissertation on the influence of foreign players drafted into the Polish national team, Anna Bonar talks about the difficulties of integrating them into the most ethnically homogeneous country in Europe. Quoting sports sociologist, Dr Wojciech Wozniak, “first there must be changes in the society for there to be the potential to accept the same changes in sport. A homogeneous Polish society shouldn’t be represented by a multicultural national team, we’re creating fake situations, that’s why they are so hard to accept”.
However, England is not a homogeneous society. Could it be pride that’s preventing us from accepting “foreigners” into our national side, after all, it tends to be countries like Poland and Switzerland, which struggle to qualify for major tournaments, who have gone down this route isn’t it?
Well, the recent success of Germany has blown that assumption. Donato, Marcos Senna and now Diego Costa for Spain. From the oriundi who helped Italy win back-to-back World Cups in the 1930s to Amauri and Thiago Motta. In England it took us five years and a man-of-the-match World Cup performance for us to even accept Owen Hargreaves.
Bonar goes on to explain the significance of speaking the language, citing the example of Damien Perquis, a defender of Polish extraction, born and raised in France and speaking only French. His inability to communicate with his team-mates hindered his acceptance into the squad. In a country like Poland which has fought over centuries for its independence, “the language became a symbol of Polishness, which people are very proud of.”
The English too are not renowned for learning other languages and it seems inconceivable that a player could play for England without speaking English. There are tales that when they used to play up front for Germany, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski communicated in Polish. Uddin told me how this could become a problem within the team dynamic: “If two players are only communicating in their own language, it has to be a problem.”
Here is where “500 years of peace and democracy” plays its part. Switzerland never went to war to protect it’s language or religion. It is a country with four official languages, none of which are English, increasingly the lingua franca of the country’s youth and business world. Maybe this makes it more accepting of a multi-ethnic national team, which communicates in different languages and follows different beliefs.
To coin a phrase, Switzerland has always been a country of immigrants, but so has England. So why are we still waiting to bring through our Xhakas and Shaqiris, Mehmedis and Džemailis?
At the UEFA Super Cup final
“At the very top, we have reached the point where you almost spend for the sake of spending. . . because the act of spending adds value to the brand. Real Madrid’s acquisition of James Rodríguez for £63 million seems to be Exhibit A”.
Gabriele Marcotti, The Times
After the game, while the others sat on the Real Madrid coach, he came over to the fans and was mobbed. Kids pushed and shoved frantically to get a selfie with or their shirt signed by the man for whom seemingly nothing is impossible. Yes, I’m taking about Florentino Pérez.
The last time I went to a UEFA Super Cup Final, England had never had a foreign manager and Germany, winless at a major tournament for the first time since the war, were in the crest of a footballing slump that would prompt a root and branch overhaul of their game in the hope it might pay dividends a decade later.
The year was 2000 and the game, won by Galatasaray SK in Monaco was better remembered as featuring one of the most eagerly-awaited debuts in world football. That summer, Luis Figo had crossed the rubicon. A famous footballer had become an infamous one, leaving FC Barcelona for the then-European champions, Real Madrid CF. Their new club president, Florentino Pérez, had fulfilled an election pledge to smash the world-record transfer fee and meet a buy-out clause in Figo’s contract and a new word passed into the lexicon of the football world – Galactico.
In the 14 summers since, it has become a matter of who rather than if Real Madrid will buy and for how much. The roll call a who’s who of footballing fashion trends – Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, Robinho, van Nistelrooy, Robben, Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Özil, Modric, Bale and now James have all been trotted out at the Bernabéu to juggle a ball and utter the words “Hala Madrid”.
In that time, Real Madrid have only won the UEFA Champions League twice, the same as FC Bayern and fewer than FC Barcelona, and both triumphs were somewhat fortuitous. Yet, in that time, the brand of “Real Madrid CF” has been superseded by that of “Los Galacticos”. Back in 2000, they were already the most successful club in European history, they always had been since the 1950s and they have the FIFA “Team of the Century” award to prove it. Now they are something more – the richest and most glamorous club in the world too. It’s all about the brand.
James Rodríguez, the star of the World Cup and the second Golden Boot winner Madrid have signed after Ronaldo in 2002, is what Pérez would call an “investment footballer”. “Zidane, for example, was a cheap signing as his arrival allowed new commercial deals and generated revenue. We don’t have rich benefactors putting money into the club: our model sustains itself”. An ongoing European Commission may conclude otherwise.
However, where will this leave football and their star players in the long run? Tim Vickery despairs at this “compulsive ego-buying” where the world’s best players are concentrated in an ever-diminishing elite of superclubs. “Either they can’t all get a game or they can’t all express themselves to the best of their abilities because some of them will have to do a job for the side”.
Vickery cites the example of how Angel dí Maria was touted around as a transfer makeweight last summer, responded by having the best season of his career only to be rewarded with more transfer speculation. He “can’t believe this is for the good of the game”.
As well as James, Madrid last night fielded Bale Benzema, Kroos, and Modric – all potential playmakers but forced to sacrifice their own potential in a team built to service the strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo.
For all his goals in Brazil, it was James’ last appearance in defeat against the host nation in Fortaleza which best demonstrated his talent. In adversity and under intense physical intimidation, he continued to be Colombia’s central driving force, carrying the ball from deep time and again, the focal point of his team. Had he chosen to stay at Monaco, he would have been their number ten both in name and number.
Last night, James started from on the left side of a midfield three and looked ill at ease for most of the first half, rarely venturing beyond Ronaldo ahead of him and comically skewing a clearance into his own penalty area in the 34th minute presenting Sevilla with their best chance of the game.
In contrast, 11 years after creating a new position for Andrea Pirlo at Milan, Carlo Ancelotti now deployed his other major signing Toni Kroos in the same role. Kroos, my choice for this year’s Ballon D’Or, looked assured but unlike James, he wasn’t bought as the leading goal scorer in the World Cup and will face different expectations. On the night, the Madrid fans were chanting for “Isco, Isco” long before Ancelotti withdrew James and admitting afterwards that the Colombian had “a few more difficulties”. Watching “Hamez” trying to overcome these difficulties and justify his position in the most expensive team in the history of the game will be one of the more fascinating aspects of the European football season.
Thursday 17 July - Never say never again
Rio de Janeiro – São Paulo (223 miles)
São Paulo – Washington DC (4748 miles)
Washington DC – London (3669 miles)
Total – 26,208 miles
“Regrets, I’ve had a few,
But then again, too few to mention,
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption,
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway,
And more, much more than this, I did it my way”
My Way – Frank Sinatra
The circumference of the Earth is 24,902 miles. I’m neither rich nor sensible enough to have done it the easy way. Spending the tournament on a beach-side hotel in Rio de Janeiro was never an option, nor a desire, of mine. Yes, Rio had the final, but none of the fascination for this supporter. If World Cups were all about one city, they’d be called the Olympics, and poorer for it. In two years time, Rio will have all the focus it craves but this was a tournament for the people of Cuiaba, Manaus and Natal to shine, for the best matches to be played in Fortaleza, Salvador and Porto Alegre, and history to be rewritten in Belo Horizonte.
Arriving back in São Paulo the afternoon after the World Cup final was a depressing experience. Not a single person wore a football shirt, there was no singing in the streets, the paraphernalia adorning the Fan Fest and World Cup stadium had been removed. The city had returned to normal life.
One of the many English people I met on a night out in Salvador was a West Ham fan. “You know I spent a few days in São Paulo, and I feel like I didn’t crack the city. I’d like to go back some time and really crack it”. I’ve been to Brazil three times now and have come away feeling unfulfilled each time. Brazil defies all normal logic. Travelling around its diverse cities and through its vast states, a test of patience and perseverance. I left each place I visited with a feeling that I’d have liked to spend another day there, and that’s unusual for me. Yet this is the nature of the beast, the whirlwind of the World Cup moves so fast that relaxing and enjoying the view means missing something somewhere else.
What have I gained? Shamefully, no new Portuguese. Events like this are dominated by a lingua franca and we all know what it is. On separate occasions I heard people from Belarus and Germany bemoaning the lack of English spoken in Brazil.
I have a new deeper respect for the Brazilian people who met the challenges of dealing with vast swathes of foreigners with calmness and respect. Major events tend to bring out the best in a nation. Remember how nice we were to each other during the Olympics? Anyone, like me, who was in Donetsk and Kharkiv two years ago could never have foreseen the events of this summer. Who can tell what the forthcoming general election will mean in a Brazil with all the same problems that brought the people onto the streets a year ago.
What have I lost? Money, obviously. Time with the people I care about. Weight, people who gain weight on abroad are not spending enough time exploring. I’ve missed more actual World Cup action than I have in my entire life. I’ve not seen a single minute from France v Germany nor any of the trophy presentations. The rest of my month will be spent utilising my iPlayer app.
On my way home from the 2010 World Cup Final in Johannesburg, I shared a taxi with a journalist from São Paulo. I told him that night, my 100th game outside the UK would be my last. I was retiring from international football. He didn’t understand my thinking, “but the next World Cup is in Brazil, how can you not go to that?”
He was right, I was wrong. That night, I thought that after watching the World Cup Final, there was nowhere else to go. I’d already been to five of the host cities in Brazil and, in any case, with two Champions League finals and an Olympic games in London, the best sport was coming to me.
I’ve learnt in the last four years that getting older is not always about doing new things but sometimes finding new ways of appreciating the things you already love. For that reason, I have you to thank.
Due to the wonderful opportunities given to me by Danny Lynch and Richard Bates at Kick It Out, blogging and tweeting from the last two tournaments has enabled me to share the stories that would have been lost in the midst of a less technologically savvy time.
Journalists are there to follow the players, but international tournaments are about the fans. If “This Time for Africa” was the slogan for 2010, then this was the tournament for The Americas. The numbers from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the US dwarfing any brought from Europe.
For us saturated on a unbalanced diet of perpetual Premier League and Champions League fat, the World Cup was another set of games. For the American continent, they had waited for their time to see their stars and they were determined to maximise it. The Argentinian songs will live far longer in the memory than anything Lionel Messi did on the pitch. Asking Colombians about their misunderstood country was more important than how to pronounce one of their player’s names. David Luiz’s defending in the semi-final affronted me only in the effect that it had on the Brazilians around me, like my friend Vanessa.
Telling people these anecdotes in a pub a month later is not nearly as gratifying or relevant as sharing it instantaneously on social media. According to Twitter, one of my pictures from the Brazil v Colombia match was viewed by over 141,000 people in a day. It is out there forever, a legacy. Ten years ago, I would have shown it to a few mates and left it gathering dust in a photo album.
For these reasons, I’m never saying never again. A European Championship next door in France then a World Cup in Russia, the one country in the world even more perplexing than Brazil, a country I’d definitely like to crack.
Tuesday 15 July - The party is over
Foz do Iguaçu – Curitiba (396 miles)
Curitiba – Rio de Janeiro (420 miles)
Total – 17568 miles
“Football is the world’s most popular professional sport, the game of the people. To win the World Cup is the pinnacle, the ultimate accolade.”
Michael Caine, Hero – The Official Film of the XIII FIFA World Cup.
When Mario Götze chested down and struck home the goal that won the 20th FIFA World Cup, two tall, young blonde guys, who had hitherto watched the game quietly in the overwhelmingly Argentine section of Copacabana beach, raised their arms to the night sky and shouted “JA!”.
A large, muscular man in a Boca Juniors shirt immediately went up to them from behind, squeezed their shoulders and patted them on the back. He then turned to me, a look of anguish on his face, tears not far from his eye.
Football is many things to many people. But no one can ever doubt the power of the World Cup. That moment said everything about why so many people want to feel a part of this global phenomenon. It couldn’t have happened in Berlin or Buenos Aires where partisanship would have dominated, but only in Brazil at this specific moment in time. Blame it on Rio.
The morning of the World Cup final I’d decided to catch the cable car up Sugar Loaf mountain, there was no better day I figured to record a panorama of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches than on the last day of the FIFA Fan Fest I planned to be part of later. I’d expected huge queues for one of the “must-do” attractions in the city but was surprised to find none.
Much of the activity in the city was around the FIFA Ticketing Centre a short walk away in Botafogo. People hung around the closed gates in the vain hope FIFA would suddenly discover a new tranche of unsold tickets and Brazilian touts were busy trying to sell “boletos” to the game.
The going rate was $2000 or 4000 Brazilian reals (£1168). By the time I walked back this had dropped to $1500 which is a lot less than tickets were going for at the 2006 final in Berlin. I was severely tempted. When else would I have the chance to attend a World Cup final in the Maracanã? Never was the answer. Yet, I was denied not by a lack of funds but by a Brazilian bank limit on cash withdrawals of 800 reals ($360). Frustrating.
So like thousands of others, the beach it had to be. Travelling on the metro with the mass ranks of singing Argentines it felt like the right choice. There would be far more fans on Copacabana than in the Maracanã.
Watching the World Cup final on Copacabana beach may have sounded like the ultimate in “I’ve been there, done it” experiences but for much of the time it was a very uncomfortable way of trying to enjoy something. Packed in so tightly you couldn’t move, a man urinating in the crowd, beer and sand being thrown around in excitement with every threatening attack. Strangers hands on your shoulders for support, emotional and physical, and the very real possibility you might get buried alive if Argentina scored. I’m too young to remember, but this seemed to me the quintessential terrace experience of yesteryear.
Why put yourself through that when I could have watched at home for free? The atmosphere, camaraderie, the sense of occasion, of being part of something much bigger then yourself.
Around me, word of a solitary Englishman spread like wildfire amongst a section of the Argentine ranks. “Eh, what about the Malvinas?”, I was soon asked. The Argentines wanted to share their cans of beer with me (I don’t drink), implored me to join in their songs and all pointed at me when they recited one of their favourites – “El que no salta es un ingles, un ingles” (He who doesn’t jump is an Englishman).
When it came down to it, they watched the match impassively. The singing was now only sporadic as the minutes ticked by and the tension grew. The only goal no doubt brought euphoria in Germany but it was met with near silence where I was watching.
Thus, the end of a month-long festival of the game was remarkably anti-climactic. The huge screen on Copacabana cutaway from the action immediately and a Brazilian band starting performing on stage so none of the victory ceremonies were displayed. The pitch-black beach emptied rapidly leaving a pile of waste and crying Argentines in the sand. The Cariocas who’d been deprived of their beach for five weeks suddenly reappeared, swimming in what must have been a freezing sea and playing beach football as if rekindling the classic stereotype.
A strange set of circumstances meant I went out that night with a man from Kenya and a woman from California. Three people from different continents going out in a fourth. We headed out to the arches of Lapa for one last night on the town. Even though it wasn’t as busy as it had been when I first arrived two weeks ago, the streets were still teeming with football fans from all over the world determined not to let the last night of the World Cup slip away quietly.
We stayed out until 6am. When we arrived back in the Zona Sul, the sun was rising over Copacabana and now dormant Argentines were everywhere, sleeping in cars, tents, on benches. Yet, this famous, famous beach, the focal point, and for some the only point, of the entire tournament was close to being deserted.
The party was over.
Saturday 12 July - Crossing the border into Argentina
São Paulo – Foz do Iguaçu (518 miles)
Total – 16,752 miles
“Poor Niagara” Eleanor Roosevelt
Anyone who has had the misfortune of knowing me will know about Iguassu Falls. I go on about it all the time. It’s so good, I’ve now done it three times, both sides of the border. So six times in all I have been awe-struck by the first sighting of what provoked the First Lady of the United States to utter those immortal words.
Iguassu Falls is not the biggest waterfall in the world, or the highest, it does not have the most cataracts or even the greatest volume of water. Yet it is the best. I’ve not seen all of the world’s great sights, but Mother Nature cannot possibly have been so generous twice.
Four years ago, in the long three-day break between the semi-finals and final, I’d set out to fill the gap by flying north from South Africa to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Victoria Falls. Staying in Zimbabwe and crossing into Zambia, what I remember most is not the actual waterfalls but where I stayed. In a hostel where herds of elephants walked by, where monkeys were as common as people and where black rhinos lurked in the bush.
Similarly, I planned to get “back to nature” this time staying in a wonderful “eco-lodge” less than a kilometre from the entrance to the National Park surrounding the falls.
Across the road from me was the Parque das Aves, where you could get up close and personal with a cornucopia of birds from the magnificent Harpy Eagle to the human-killing Cassowary. The last thing I was expecting was to walk into an aviary full of macaws of every colour, swooping across my face.
The Brazilian side of the falls is a wonderfully engineered piece of theatre. From the park entrance, you take a double-decker bus for nearly half-an-hour through non-descript woodland. Only towards the end do you begin to hear a noise, a muffled roar and then it hits you. The Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), the largest and most powerful of the 275 separate waterfalls which spread over 3km. Walkways take you face-to-face with the Diablo. The spray leaving you at once drenched and exhilarated. A permanent rainbow framing the cataract like a piece of Photoshop.
The next day was a chance to view the falls from the other side, which meant crossing the border into Argentina. A journey of three buses and a wait at border control. Entering into the Argentinian town of Puerto Iguazú, you suddenly remembered which country was still in the World Cup. Traders displayed clothes lines of replica shirts, the car flags which had gone missing in Brazil were everywhere here. Our Brazilian bus was sarcastically applauded and cheered by the locals sitting outside a pub.
The majority of the falls lie on the Argentine side so here there is greater scope for exploration. The undoubted highlight for me was taking the long and precipitous walk to the top of the Garganta del Diablo from the opposite side and staring down into the throat, a frightening miasma of spray and wind. Unfortunately, the unusually high level of the river meant this part and several others were closed off for safety reasons. Luckily for me, I had had the opportunity twice before but a pity for the many who came here for the World Cup and may never get the chance again.
As I took the miniature train back to the park entrance, I was suddenly engulfed by a group of boisterous Argentina college kids visiting the falls. Walking off, thoughts moved away from the falls back to the football. They marched triumphantly singing the soundtrack of the finals “Brasil, decime que se siente. . .?” (Brazil, tell me how it feels?) The song you will hear throughout the World Cup final.
It had occurred to me, that I was almost equidistant between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. I wondered which city might be better to watch the World Cup final in. Heading to Buenos Aires, one of my favourite cities in the world, could have meant being there for the team’s homecoming on Monday.
However, crossing the border back to my hostel in Brazil, I knew which way the wind was blowing. The route was lined with thousands of cars heading north. Even the designated bus lane was full of double-decker Crucero del Norte coaches from Buenos Aires full of blue and white-shirted teenagers, both boys and girls, all on the 46-hour (!) overland journey to Rio de Janeiro.
As they waited to go through passport control at the pitch-black border, they did what Argentine fans have been doing non-stop for five weeks. They jumped up and down and sang. “Brasil, decime que se siente?. . . Messi lo van a ver, la copa que va a traer, Maradona es más grande que Pelé!” (Messi will see, what this cup will bring, Maradona is better than Pelé!)
It was then I knew, my two-day “holiday” was over. Like hundreds of thousands of football fans, there was only one place I wanted to be, where anyone could want to be this weekend – the weekend of the 20th World Cup final. It was time to get back there….
Friday 11 July - The Brazilian double whammy
Belo Horizonte – Rio de Janeiro (272 miles)
Rio de Janeiro – São Paulo (223 miles)
Total 16,234 miles
“Come on, come on Argentina,
Come on, we’re going to win,
For these crazy supporters,
Won’t stop, won’t stop cheering for you”
Arriving in grey São Paulo the afternoon after Brazil had been knocked out of the tournament it was easy to believe there had never been a World Cup in the country. Whereas the majority of cars had flown at least one Brazil flag, now there were few flags to be seen on the motorway between Rio and São Paulo.
In previous tournaments it had always been the Dutch who had provided the travelling colour but having been in Salvador, it was clear that the Dutch were not here in great numbers. The same could not be said of Argentina. The numbers they had taken to the two previous World Cups in Germany and South Africa had been large, the numbers here in Brazil were staggering.
Once again, the São Paulo Fan Fest was full hours before the game. The Argentines I had met at the bus station didn’t hold out any hope of getting a ticket to the game. At least $2000 was the going rate, maybe $5000. They only intended on watching in the Fan Fest. They were to be disappointed again.
There’s didn’t seem to be any English-style pubs in São Paulo to watch the game so instead there was a diaspora of people milling around open cafes and bars, standing in the open air and squinting at televisions that were ill-fit for mass audiences. They needn’t have strained their eyes, for there was nothing in the game to get excited about. Once again, as against Switzerland, the real competition was between the two sets of fans watching the match around me – Argentinians and Brazilians.
Following on from the previous night’s result the Argentines revelled in asking their hosts, “Cuanto? Cinqo, seis, SEITE!” to which the Brazilians replied with “Penta-campeon” and a full hand of world titles. “Two cups is as many as Cafu has won”. To which the Argentines responded with their own seven-fingered salute.
In the end, the Dutch went out of a fifth major tournament on penalties, and the Argentines, despite scoring as many knockout goals as the much-derided 1990 team, were in another final against their own nemesis, the Germans.
It is at this point that yours and my experiences will diverge. It has often felt that the actual matches have got in the way of me having a good time out here. Football is the reason all these thousands of people come together, the catalyst. Yet the reactions which occur due to the catalyst are made of the elements at your disposal. There are no more combustible elements than the Argentine barras.
While I read about people at home going to bed, bemoaning the lack of quality and excitement and debating over whether Ron Vlaar should have taken the first penalty, so the Argentines in São Paulo erupted, 24 years of hurt spilling out as albiceleste-shirted fans appeared from everywhere – from around me, from out of the Fan Fest and eventually from out of the stadium.
80,000 had been the estimate of travelling Argentines in the city. Heaven knows who many more will come on Sunday now. Thousands upon thousands congregated outside the city’s Theatro Municipal, their wonderfully original and evocative songs filled the cool night air, their unique hand-wringing gesticulations betraying the depth of their emotion.
For Brazilians, it was the double whammy, knocked out one night, and forced to watch their greatest rivals win the next. Their derogatory songs about Maradona and Messi now seemed devoid of meaning. “S***, isn’t it?” one told me.
Riding the metro back to the bus station, the train bounced with jumping Argentines. As I walked in front of a large group of them marching back into Tiete rodoviária, Brazilians lined up either side with cameras and phones recording us like a conquering army returning from battle.
For myself and Argentina, the story would go on. For São Paulo, it was the end of the World Cup, and that meant a mass exodus out of the city. All roads led to Rio de Janeiro.
Wednesday 9 July - Humiliated, and in their own country...
Salvador – Vitoria (520 miles)
Vitoria – Belo Horizonte (324 miles)
Total 15739 miles
“Football is an unpredictable game. All the statistical evidence reinforces the observation that on any given day the worst team can win, that favourites are more vulnerable than in other sports, that the place for the random, the chaotic and the unexpected is surprisingly large in football. To gauge if not the ultimate fate, then at least the spirit and feel of the nation by the performance of one’s national football team is a risky choice for a culture”
David Goldblatt, Futebol Nation
It happened at 3-0. When Toni Kroos rolled the ball into the Brazilian net for a third time in 24 jaw-dropping minutes of World Cup football. Vanessa, the beautiful girl sat next to me burst into tears. Not the fake fingernail into mascara gloop you see every week on a reality show. It was a spontaneous well of emotion – all hope lost, the realisation of a dream shattered.
If I remember nothing else from this World Cup, I will remember that. Anyone who is truly passionate about this stupid game, will have cried those tears because everyone loses more than they win. The World Cup is the greatest event that humankind has ever produced precisely because it takes hopes of victory and produces a river of tears, a mountain of broken hearts. 31 losers and one winner. Until the next time, when that winner will inevitably lose as well.
But Brazil? Brazil have lost many times. On penalties, in acrimony, due to individual mistakes, but never like this. Humiliated and in their own country. I could reel off the records set last night in the Estádio Mineirão, but it would be trite. Suffice to say, the World Cup in 84 years, has not seen a result like it. Nothing to compare to the Mineirazo.
At half-time, I apologised to Vanessa. I’m not sure why but I’m English and that’s what we do. Together with her husband they had travelled around the country watching many games. She was complimentary about the English in Manaus who she said “never stopped singing”. They had tickets to the final but were now not sure if they’d go. She was worried what such a defeat might mean in her country. The crowd had already turned their anger towards Dilma Rousseff. The President had not deigned to appear at any of the games since being booed at the Opening Match, now she would be handing the trophy over at the Final to a team that wasn’t her own.
Later, Vanessa came to my rescue as three Brazilians in front of us mocked their team by singing German songs throughout the second half antagonising the Brazilians behind us who, led by a young girl, charged at them. A beer was spilt over me and stewards piled in. A cameraman and the military police appeared. Instead of throwing out the troublemakers, the stewards only created a barricade. I didn’t even see the seventh German goal.
Those who say they’d rather lose a tight 1-0 are mistaken. Of all the ways to lose, Mexico’s defeat to Netherlands was for my money the worst way to lose, defeat snatched from the hands of victory. A final score of 7-1 leaves no room for doubt. At the end there was the extraordinary sight of Brazilians cheering the final German goal and joining in with the chants of “Super Deutschland”.
Afterwards, like me, many Brazilians went into the German section to join in their celebrations. Girls danced to songs they had no idea the meaning of, photos were taken, hands were shaken, everlasting moments shared. Football fans are not stupid egomaniacs, every team has a limit and the Brazilians knew they had reached theirs. Beaten by a better side.
As I walked back to the bus station, inevitably getting lost on the dimly-lit back streets, I saw that even in Brazil, the world kept turning. People hung out of bars solemn and sharing black humour. The episcopal church was having a late-night service and the streets were strewn with homeless people trying to sleep amidst the din.
Brazil is still the same country it was a month ago. It has had some memorable nights to look back on but it will wake up today to all the same qualities and problems it has always had. Belo Horizonte was overloaded with military police hours before the match, who’s fully-armoured officers barricaded government buildings and stopped and searched local youths in full view of the watching public. It seemed overbearing and unnecessary.
In contrast, around the stadium, the mood was joyous beforehand. Brazilians danced and frolicked in the sunshine. Their new Maradona “coke-sniffer” song once again to the fore. A blow-up sex doll of Lionel Messi was tossed around. A man skilfully painted head to toe in green, provoked chants of “ulk-ee, ulk-ee” everywhere he went.
Now all that joy which travelled south from Fortaleza is lost forever based on the outcome of one game of football. How sad. Yet, as a country moves on, it will never forget the moment all that expectation evaporated. It was the moment Vanessa Arnez Floris cried for a nation.
Monday 7 July - Not the only one
Fortaleza – Belém (706 miles)
Belém – São Paulo (1533 miles)
São Paulo – Salvador (905 miles)
Total 14895 miles
“The true melting pot is not the US, it’s Brazil because in the US they live together but they don’t integrate each other, in Brazil, it’s much easier to be part of the similar confusion of things. How you live with the other is more relaxing here.”
Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
For months, this had been the night upon which my entire World Cup odyssey across Brazil rested. Getting tickets for the two quarter-finals in the north-east of Brazil seemed so logical on paper. Then I tried to plot a path from Fortaleza to Salvador. They seem relatively close on the map, how difficult could it be?
Well, first of all there was no viable route over land. It would have taken well over a day to travel by bus. The route I was forced to take was the only one available to me in the end. So, hours after watching Brazil defeat Colombia, and only half an hour after learning on Twitter that Neymar was out of the tournament I embarked on my “three flight night”, with all the airport procedure that entails. Unlike my first day in the country, everything had to run like clockwork. Thankfully it did.
At São Paulo airport, I met Chris from London, who’d also made the same improbable journey, although he had booked six months in advance and saved himself one flight – two instead of three. On landing at Salvador shortly after 9am, we met Howard from Worcester. Both of them had been in Brazil since the start of the tournament and both were staying until the end. Neither had lost any of their enthusiasm to be out here after three long weeks on the road. A week into my trip and a long way from home, it was life-affirming to know you are not the only one.
Unlike Fortaleza, which was, surprisingly to me, overwhelmingly a city of white people. Salvador was the first city I’d been to in Brazil where black people weren’t a peripheral minority. At the airport, two female models, one white, one black, representing Budweiser handed out drinks vouchers. There were black tour guides in the city. The manager and staff at my downtown Hotel Imperial were all black. I point this out only because this is not true in the rest of Brazil, not the cities I’ve been to. Salvador, even more than Rio de Janeiro is the true melting pot of the country.
For the third World Cup running, FIFA have used the quarter-final matches as an opportunity to spread the “Say No To Racism” message. Robin van Persie and Bryan Ruiz were ideal spokesmen to read out those messages, as had Thiago Silva and Mario Yepes the night before. All four, captains of truly multi-ethnic teams.
Yet, as I looked around the thousands of empty seats in the sheer stands of the Arena Fonte Nova, this multi-ethnicity was not replicated. In 2010, a new FIFA policy of selling cheaper, category 4, tickets only to local residents did allow black South Africans to attend matches in sizeable numbers. Although, the same was attempted this time, it seems to be only white Brazilians who are attending the games.
Leaving a World Cup stadium for the second night running, scores of children, nowhere near wealthy enough to attend a World Cup match, harangued fans walking out for any official used freebie they could get their hands on. The match-specific Coca-Cola and Brahma beer plastic cups are the greatest prize. After every single game fans have literally left carrying towers of these trophies in their hands, even though each drink costs 8 and 10 reals (£2 and £2.50) respectively.
Later, two young boys offered me 20 reals for my only Coca-Cola cup which he’d felt in my bag. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out he would have only offered me twice the price of the drink, if he knew he could sell the cup for much more. More than £5 for a used cup? What a World Cup we live in!
Two rows in front of me at the game was a black face I did know in a Manchester City shirt. Over a decade after last travelling with him, I had randomly bumped into Ed Makurah at a World Cup quarter final over 5000 miles from home. Together with Tom Simpson, yet another Englishman travelling on his own, we headed into the historic Cidade Alta, after the game.
Later, Ed led us into a live music venue where locals were going crazy for a Brazilian guitar combo. The style of music called Pelo, traditional to Bahia, was more a fusion of blues and jazz than anything samba. The men on the dance floor moshed rather than shimmied. After witnessing Costa Rica come within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the World Cup semi-finals, it was fair to say it had been a night that confounded all expectations.
Having led us there, The Mercurial Makurah soon vanished into the night. He’d been out in Brazil for two weeks, mainly in the north of the country and was flying home the next day. “Not interested in doing Rio and São Paulo” he told me.
After only one unforgettable night out in Salvador, it was easy to see why!
Friday 4 July 2014 - Jogo Bonito it wasn't....
“How can I say I’ve seen the World (Cup) when I haven’t seen Brazil?”
Tonight, I watched my 12th World Cup finals match, stretching back to my first in Hamburg eight years ago. By and large, I’ve tried to choose quality over quantity – one final, two semis, two quarters….and England v Trinidad & Tobago. Yet, despite my best efforts, I’ve always missed out on watching one nation.
Just over a year ago, Brazil played Mexico in Fortaleza during the FIFA Confederations Cup. A country beset by rioting and social injustice, overspending on stadiums for a team no one believed in. Something happened that afternoon which changed everything. Perhaps a watershed moment in the life of a nation. The way a stadium sang its own national anthem didn’t lower the murder rate or enrich the favelas but it did give a country pride, and when you don’t have much else, pride in your nation is like an opium.
The special buses which took ticket holders from the tourist strip to the stadium free of charge, ironically rode for the most part alongside an abandoned train line which separated the main road from the inner cities of Fortaleza. Yes, the people who literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks. It was humbling.
As we grew closer to the Castelão, the bus went through some of these suburbs and deposited us over a kilometre from the ground. On a scorching afternoon, we then had to walk down a specially fenced-off road either side of which lay the local residents who lined the route as if we were on the last leg of a marathon.
As I was due to fly out of Fortaleza a few hours after the game, I was forced to take my suitcase to the match. A first for me, and not what I’d choose to do in temperatures approaching 100 degrees in the middle of a Brazilian inner city.
I’d set off for the stadium especially early so I walked almost alone through this FIFA “catwalk”. Every five yards, small children tried to sell me “Aguas/Cervezas” as if their drinks were magically more “gelada” than the people either side of them.
As we got to the stadium concourse, the police were quick to move on any hawkers without the official FIFA licence to sell at the ground. I made sure I bought my iced water from an unofficial seller, a boy no more than five, there with his mum.
Sometimes you can build experiences up in your head beforehand and feel colossally let down when they don’t meet your expectations. Tonight was not one of those nights.
I knew that I was totally engrossed in the match when I realised it was 44 minutes before Luiz Felipe Scolari caught my eye. Anyone who’s ever watched a match involving the Anti-Sven, would know Felipão’s antics are pure box office by themselves.
Perhaps there had been no need for any melodrama in that first half, because his team played magnificently. Early goals, of course, help, but England have scored plenty of early goals in big tournament matches and looked lost as to what to do next. Brazil kept their foot on the throttle for the entire half. If world football has produced a more sinuous mover since Garrincha, than Neymar, I’d be surprised. 1-0 at half-time was a poor reflection on their increasing domination.
There are plenty of theories as to why England can’t do better in tournaments. On a day that Brazil and Germany made it to the last four yet again, I began to wonder whether we really want success as badly as other nations.
I’ve never heard a crowd so full of desire, hunger and anguish as a Brazilian crowd, this is my third visit. They weren’t encouraging their players, or even just shouting for them, they were screaming at them – “VAAAIII, VAAAAIIIIIII!!!”. When a Colombian broke from midfield in the last 10 minutes, a woman behind me wailed at the chasing Oscar: “foul him, foul him”. Jogo Bonito it wasn’t, but a naked desperation to win.
Oh, and when they win, what a place it was to be….
Friday 4 July 2014 - The dark side of Brazil
São Paulo – Fortaleza (1474 miles)
“(Adolphe) Herbster was contracted by the ambitious city fathers to turn Fortaleza into “the Paris of the North” – and you can only hope they got their money back”
The Rough Guide to Brazil
“Remember, Rua “A”” my host Iza emphasised as I asked how I should get back to the out-of-town house I was staying at. All very well in theory, but in practice, Rua A, looked identical in almost every way to Ruas B, C and D in this white-washed grid-like suburb. None of them had street names.
When I asked how I should get into the centre, I was left at a street corner with a forbidding-looking policeman and told to get on a bus having no idea where it was taking me. One 30 minute, high-speed, pot-holed journey later, I was left at a terminal in another suburb, I asked another policeman if I could walk to the centre. He said I should get a bus. That was their answer for everything!
Finding a reason to be in Fortaleza was hard work. Not being able to afford to stay on the beach front, I had been thrown in at the deep-end of the city, the parts most tourists will never see. The chaotic “Centro” area, when I eventually reached it an hour later, was one endless market place. Everything was for sale. Shops were primed with teams of Brazilian-shirted assistants, ready to jump on anyone making eye contact. Outside the shops, mobile hawkers congested the pavements making them almost impassable. Remarkably, in the centre of the city there was not one official banner, flag or mention of the FIFA World Cup.
Less than ten minutes away was the Atlantic and that short walk changed every perception of the city. Coming at the city from this side, Fortaleza was everything a tourist could dream of. If its never ending beaches could not match the peerless natural beauty of Copacabana, a brisk Atlantic breeze made the water a haven for surfers while ensuring the place was never as oppressive as it might have been in spite of temperatures which never fell below 25 on a winter’s night.
After six, this area came into its own, as thousands of locals flocked here with their families and friends. This endless promenade was the place to be – Rio de Janeiro without the tourist hordes, and better for it.
Iza’s younger sister, Nada, spoke for perhaps every teenager in the city when she told me “in Fortaleza, there is only the beach, there is nothing like museums or culture”. Which is all very well if you are a visitor and sun, sea and sand is all you’re after, but what about if you live here?
Aside from an albeit magnificent stadium, it is difficult to see what the city has gained from staging the World Cup. Special buses which will transport fans in between the airport, stadium and beach front will cease to operate once the circus leaves town tomorrow.
Days in which Brazil have played have been declared public holidays, so called férias. The act of a benevolent government you might have thought. Yet, travelling around Fortaleza the night before the game, made you wonder. The rush-hour traffic was probably the worst I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. The férias have the effect of keeping locals off the roads on match days and thus keeping the roads clear for the “important people” – the foreigners.
The military police were a noticeable presence right along the main tourist strip. Yet, walk a few streets away from the sea and a different picture emerges.
Barely two blocks from the hotel that the Colombian team were staying in, a man stopped me and pointed to the contexts of an uncovered cardboard box. At first glance, in poor light, I thought he was trying to sell me one of three sleeping dogs, but they were not dogs but three sleeping children aged 2-4.
When I finally caught a taxi home, turning off the main strip, two girls no more than 14 started chasing the car, desperately trying to attract my attention, blowing kisses at me.
This, unfortunately is the hidden reality of cities like Fortaleza, The World Cup didn’t create these social issues and sadly cannot solve them. It can act as a magnifying glass however.
Earlier in the day, a group of about 25 children had staged a sit-down protest close to one of the busiest piers on behalf of “Projeto Cartão Vermelho”. This is one of a number of groups hoping football will encourage people to speak out and and stamp out the sexual exploitation of adolescents. If the World Cup manages to secure greater funding and awareness for causes such as this, then that, at least, is one legacy Fortaleza will benefit from in the years to come.
2 July 2014 - Brazilian Schadenfreude
Porto Alegre – São Paulo (530 miles)
Total – 10,247 miles
“Something happens in my heart,
Only when it crosses the Ipiranga or the Avenida São João,
When I arrived here I didn’t understand anything,
Of the hard concrete poetry of your street corners,
Of the discreet inelegance of your girls”
Sampa, Caetano Veloso
I’m going to come clean. I prefer São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. There, I’ve said it. I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me but I’ve visited both cities twice now and I’m sure. My choice probably says more about me than the cities in question but there’s something of the bustle and pace of the sixth biggest city in the world that appeals to me.
One in five Brazilians can claim to be Paulistas, that’s over a staggering 40 million who live in the state. At times, it can feel like every one of those is walking the central streets at the same time. Add to that mix, an estimated 80,000 Argentines and São Paulo was definitely the place to be yesterday.
For the fourth day in a row, I missed the start of the first game. One o’clock kick-offs suit no-one but TV schedules. The designated FIFA Fan Fest in the centre of town was long since full to capacity, such was the mass migration from south of the border. It wasn’t until the second half that I was “settled” watching the game standing outside a bar just the other side of the FIFA big screen.
Here too, the Argentines had set up base camp, sitting centre stage at the wooden tables whilst an assortment of Brazilians – young girls, old men, city workers, and drifters – slowly gathered in number around them.
As Argentina laboured on the pitch, so the Brazilians schadenfreude grew. “E-lim-i-nado, E-lim-i-nado” as the game went into extra time. A Swiss flag was produced to great cheers. The Argentines did their best to respond with their trademark songs. With the game locked in stalemate, the chanting and singing around me grew increasingly tit for tat, a verbal battle to humiliate the other.
And nothing is more humiliating in this part of the world than to have your sexuality questioned. “Argentina, maricónes”, “Messi, viado”. “Pelé likes to sleep with boys”; Argentinians like it in their “cules”. There were no winners in this debate and this was not only men singing, as many women joined in too.
The small group of Argentines had born the brunt of this abuse for most of the extra time period. Ángel di María’s late winner was like a pressure valve being released. A group of no more than about five, picked up the wooden tables and smashed them on the ground. At least two glass bottles were hurled at their Brazilian abusers which included young girls. In the stampede to get away, this blogger was pushed to the ground, camera in one hand, phone in the other. Luckily all three survived unscathed.
Within seconds the sirens were blazing and a squad of riot police took formation nearby and began a peculiar ritual of thumping their own shields in a show of force which generated more photographers than fear.
The perpetrators were long gone and the mood quelled. As the final whistle went, groups of Argentines congregated outside the Fan Fest entrances to celebrate as only they know how. Shirts swung over their heads, a bouncing mass of joy and passion. Groups of young Brazilians met their challenge and engaged them.
The next half hour was a demonstration of what makes football irresistible, its power to influence the masses undeniable. No announcements, no piped music, no Wembley “DJ”, no point, really. Just raw, unadulterated passion and feeling. The songs were familiar and new, funny and moving. Children and dogs used as props, flags and scarves as extensions of limbs. It was spellbinding.
Belgium v the United States could easily have been an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” job. I finally got into the Fan Fest, despite having my sweets and water confiscated by an over-zealous bag-searcher. I’d expected the Americans to dominate in numbers, but was surprised by the support for Belgium, much of it from Brazilians and Argentines, as well as a group of Turks and the single Canadian I met, Karin. Anti-US sentiment has a long and varied tail.
A much better game of football, Belgium surprisingly dominated but found Tim Howard defending his goal like a latter-day Custer. Extra time again, this time with an even more dramatic denouement. Approaching midnight it might have been back home, but it felt strange for me to say my goodbyes at the final whistle, shortly after half past seven local time. It felt like I was leaving the party just as it was getting started, but I had another flight to catch.
After four days of retracing old ground, it was time for me to enter unchartered territory.
1 July 2014 - A man for all seasons
Rio de Janeiro – Belo Horizonte (272 miles) – Belo Horizonte – Porto Alegre (835 miles)
Total so far – 9747 miles
“Grêmio was an unambiguously German club, by language and membership, and intended to keep things that way, rebuffing players and members from other ethnic groups.”
David Goldblatt, Futebol Nation
It wasn’t supposed to be like this! What part of a World Cup in Brazil included the bits about wind, rain. . . Algeria in the last 16? That’s exactly what awaited me in the deep south of the country.
Two days in the chaotic sweat box that is Rio de Janeiro had left me worse for wear, fatigued and covered in insect bites. One week on from the southern hemisphere’s shortest day, the thermometer outside the Copacabana Fan Fest immediately after the Netherlands had grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat against Mexico, read a scarcely believable 35 degrees Centigrade. Nearly 100 degrees in mid-winter!
That day, I had been the only mad Englishman who wore trousers on the beach, now I was the only mad Englishman without a jumper or a jacket. Being a man for all seasons was proving beyond me.
Nine years ago this month, Porto Alegre was the first Brazilian city I visited. Then, heading north from a Montevideo winter, it seemed sub-tropical. Now heading south it was like Manchester on a wet Monday afternoon. To drop 20 degrees in a day was a shock to the system, but that was not the only thing that makes the south of Brazil feel like another country.
Historically, a state of predominantly European immigration, the people on the streets rushed around like London commuters, barging past me on the streets in stark contrast to the dawdling Cariocas who were forever blocking my path.
Porto Alegre’s two clubs produce, perhaps, the fiercest rivalry in Brazilian club football. SC Internacional were founded as a counter to the European-dominated Grêmio club, welcoming players of all origins, hence the name. For this reason, Grêmio, the club where Ronaldinho first emerged, still refer to their rivals as “macacos” (monkeys) and there seems to be resentment that their larger and newer Arena de Grêmio was not chosen to host World Cup matches. According to Grêmio’s vice-president Eduardo Antonini: “That hasn’t been explained to us. This city is passionate about its football and instead the World Cup has gone to other places with less footballing tradition.”
The Estádio Beira-Rio in which I saw Brazil destroy a strong Paraguayan side 4-1 in 2005 was then a simple Latin American two-tiered open bowl. Now, thank heavens, it has a magnificent, new leaf-shaped roof. Watching a team in all-white toil against Algerians in all-green within such an enclosed stadium gave this match “that Cape Town feeling” early on.
Algeria enchanted the locals with their flamboyant skills on the ball and daring counter thrusts. The chant of “Ei, Ei, Ei, viva Algerie” grew louder with every passing minute in which they frustrated their illustrious opponents. With tactics Rommel would have been proud of, Les Fennecs (Saharan Desert Foxes), harried the Germans into mistakes and always threatened a goal. Alas, like Rommel, they eventually succumbed, but not before leaving a lasting impression on the watching world.
Inevitably, as the 43,063 crowd drifted out of the stadium, the rain started to fall again. The promised metro extension to the ground had never materialised so most, like me, were faced with a 4km walk back to the city centre. That seemed like an awful long time to get wet so I felt the need to invest five reais in a capa de chupa, one of the transparent plastic raincoats so beloved of sports fans in a downpour. Such was the blustery wind, my capa, was in turns, blown off my head or asphyxiating me. Another day at the World Cup had finished with me completely drenched, this time in rain not sweat.
The World Cup had come to an end in the southern states, it was time to head back north.
30 June 2014 - Survival of the fittest - or the luckiest
Washington – São Paulo (4748 miles) – São Paulo – Rio de Janeiro (223 miles)
“The World Cup is when Brazil appears to the rest of the world as winners – winning, and sometimes losing, in style”
Of all the places that my best laid plans could have started to unravel before me. The capital of the richest country in the world is the last place I would have expected to have let me down. An hour’s delay on my United Airlines flight departing from Dulles airport felt like it could be fatal flick on my fragile line of dominoes.
An hour late into São Paulo meant almost certainly missing my next flight to Rio de Janeiro, paying for a hotel there which I’d already booked but couldn’t use, and most worryingly of all, having to find another, and certainly prohibitively expensive, way to get to my following destinations in this gigantic country.
On “Planet Football” there are few “I’ll get the next one” scenarios available. There just isn’t a next one. You are competing with hundreds of thousands of people for the scarce resources of tickets, hotels and transport. It’s survival of the fittest – or the luckiest.
As I scrambled my way around the vast Guarulhos airport forcing my way through thousands of yellow-shirted Colombians also on their way to Rio, I realised I’d got to my departure gate 10 minutes late.
Yet, lo and behold, a miracle. A “meteorological incident” (fog) had delayed flights into Rio. I was saved! However, the delayed flights then created a backlog which pushed a 45 minute delay well past the hour mark. Once we took off, there was no landing slot at Santos Dumont for us, so the plane was forced to circle the breathtaking lagoon below. Brazil v Chile kicked off. As the land beneath us ground to a halt, the passengers of Gol flight 1706 were stranded in a football limbo.
When we eventually landed, the game was half an hour old and both teams had scored. The normally cocky Brazilian fans were quiet and tense. Occasionally they vented their spleen at Howard Webb but that was outweighed by frustration with their own players.
Penalties seemed inevitable from the start of extra time until the 119th minute when Mauricio Pinilla worked a one-two outside the box and found himself clean through on goal. The domino effect of Brazil going out of the tournament at this moment were seismic. Financially, culturally and above all politically, the ramifications would have been felt up and down the country.
Financially, the tournament would have lost millions in lost revenue. The Fan Fests would have ceased to be the places to be. Food, drinks and merchandise unsold, the multiplier effect felt throughout the land. Culturally, there was the prestige. Brazil don’t lose World Cup finals matches to Chile. Everything the country thought it knew about its Seleção would have been exposed in front of their own fans. Politically, who knows? The protests which have been relegated from the headlines could have easily become front and centre once again without a winning team to report on.
All this rested on the finish of a journeyman striker, and like me at the airport earlier, the relief was palpable as the ball struck the crossbar and came out. When Gonzalo Jara struck the inside of the post with his penalty to confirm Brazil’s progression into the quarter-finals, the country knew their World Cup dominoes were still standing – for now.
Like me, Brazil got lucky.
Total: 8640 miles
27 June 2014 - My third World Cup begins....
London – Washington DC (3669 miles)
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why. . . fly the Atlantic?. . . We choose to go to the moon. . . and do these other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Rice University, Houston, 12 September 1962
In the last few months, I’ve tried to explain to a friend why I’m taking time off work and spending a small fortune to attend games I can watch for free at home.
“I’d like to go to Brazil” she tells me, “but I can go another time”. Going to Brazil is no longer the voyage into unknown territory it was for most of the competing teams the last time they staged the tournament in 1950. For a recently post-war England still in the midst of rationing, the prospect of attending the World Cup in person must have seemed as realistic as flying to the moon.
Now, an out-of-season return flight to Rio de Janeiro might cost an average worker a couple of weeks’ wages. However, the Brazil I, and hundreds of thousands of others are travelling to this month is not the same country you’ll read about in Lonely Planet. To quote from “All Played Out”, Pete Davies’ incredible tome on Italia ’90, I am currently on my way to a quadrennially orbiting celestial body called “Planet Football”.
The FIFA World Cup is a whirlwind. An awe-inspiring thing of beauty and intrigue to observe from the outside. An exhilarating, frightening thing to be inside. Something that will leave you far away from where you started.
Normal rules of time and space no longer apply. Teams and tactics honed over two years can be devastated in the time it takes a Uruguayan goalkeeper to punt the ball from one end of a pitch to the other – ask Roy Hodgson. Likewise, everything you think that you understand about tourism goes out of the window as sheer weight of numbers turn a trip into a pilgrimage.
2014 is my third World Cup. In 2006, I flew in and out of the country, like a moth attracted to a flame, five short trips lasting no longer than a couple of days each. In 2010, I stayed for the last nine days of the tournament by which time three-quarters of the teams had already left the party. Now, I’m staying out for the final 16 days – an inconsequential period in most people’s lives, yet an eternity in World Cup terms.
Every World Cup somehow manages to up the ante. Germany was a big country in European terms, South Africa was three times bigger. Brazil is the size of a continent. Next time, the tournament will straddle two continents in Russia. After the world’s biggest country in 2018, perhaps FIFA has nowhere else to go. Except maybe Qatar.
The person I am now, at the start of this journey, will be radically different to the one that hopefully returns in one piece in mid-July.
They say World Cups define the greatest footballers.
They define fans too.
May 2014 - Lisbon - UEFA Champions League finals
“La Décima is so important, it’s more than the World Cup.”
If anyone should know, he should. On Saturday night, Iker Casillas, became only the third man in history to lift the World Cup, European Championship and European Cup as a winning captain. One World Cup, two European Championships, three Champions Leagues, five La Ligas and a child with Sara Carbonero. It’s not fair. Yet for over an hour he was set to be the fall guy. At fault for the Atlético goal which seemed destined to cost his team La Décima.
I have never won a World Cup Final but I am one of the 1.5 million people in the history of the world that has been lucky enough to have attended one, the one Iker helped win with his match-winning save from Arjen Robben. Yet, the celebrations that day on a freezing night in Johannesburg were nothing compared to what I was in the middle of at around 21.40 on Saturday. The main Rossio square of Lisbon was the scene of the biggest party I’d ever been part of. For five minutes, I couldn’t stand still long enough to tweet what I was experiencing for the Madridistas jumping all over me. And all this was only because the match had gone to extra time.
Forget all the stuff about Bale and Ronaldo, La Décima was won when Sérgio Ramos headed home that unforgettable 93rd-minute equaliser. In the 48 minutes before, I’d never seen so many people intensely focused on a game, such was the unbearable tension of the occasion. There was only the sporadic, collective howl of pain as the man, the Portuguese commentator referred to as “Garat Vile” missed another chance. After the equaliser, the singing never stopped, the three goals in extra-time were just the icing on a cake that had already been baked. I actually had no idea that the final goal was a penalty until I read it online several hours later. Real Madrid would almost certainly have won on penalties, such was the psychological blow to Atleti, who had lost the grip on their only other European Cup Final in identical circumstances to a stunning last-gasp equaliser from a centre-back in 1974.
Yet, Lisbon was a city of two finals, and it is no exaggeration to claim that Saturday’s was only the second best of them. On Thursday night, VfL Wolfsburg retained the UEFA Women’s Champions League in extraordinary circumstances. Two down at half time, the second half was perhaps the most memorable I’d ever seen in a final – and I was in Istanbul in 2005. Woflsburg drew level, fell behind again, before eventually winning 4-3. The celebrations afterwards were no less remarkable. I was one of hundreds of fans who scrambled under a small opening in the metal fencing of the main stand, ripping my jeans in the process, to get close to the trophy presentation. Winning captain and player of the match, Nadine Kessler, clambered over a five-foot high barrier to join the travelling Wolfsburg fans. When the players had finished partying, the fans had their opportunity as thousands engulfed the pitch to watch an R n B concert which was still ongoing when I showed my age and chose to leave just before midnight.
I have been told by women, that I shouldn’t be another man who compares the men’s and women’s game, that they are different sports. True, but the fact is, unlike tennis, they are under the same governing body. Whatever the mistakes of the past, they are now branches of the same tree not different trees. For instance, Kick It Out, who celebrated their 20th birthday with an anniversary dinner at Wembley last week, may not have have imagined in 1993, that women’s football would be part of their remit. Times have changed. The Women’s Champions League, which didn’t even exist until 2001 now occupies an important place in the annual week-long UEFA Champions Festival. Perhaps there was a time when the only females at an event like this would be attractive ones working on behalf of the official sponsors. They are still there (MasterCard still found an excuse for using models in shorts and knee-length socks) but now most of the girls at the Festival were budding young footballers, taking part in ongoing matches and competitions on the synthetic pitch around which everything revolved.
The last three women’s finals in London and Munich were played in central locations and rewarded with big crowds. The Munich final was played in the heart of the Champions Festival itself within the Olympiapark, which, no doubt, helped swelled the attendance to a staggering 50,212. Lisbon could have staged the final at the centrally-located José de Alvalade Stadium but chose instead to follow the example of Madrid in 2010 and go out to the suburbs. The women’s final was actually held in Belém, more famous for a Unesco-listed monastery than for its football team. As the girl selling tickets to the final admitted to me, “in Portugal, football is all about the men”.
Yet curiously, by the end of the game the sparse attendance at the start had almost doubled. Might this have been because word had spread that they could be witnessing a classic final? Sadly not, most of the people pouring into the stadium after the game had begun were teenage girls who had turned up specifically for the post-match concert by some guy called Anselmo Ralph. It was his face, not that of any of the footballers that was used to sell tickets in Lisbon. Yet gimmick or not, although no official attendance statistics have been released, there was certainly more than 10,000 people in the stadium by the end of the game and for giving the deserving players of both teams a sizeable audience UEFA deserves some credit.
Most of the travelling supporters at the game were unsurprisingly German. Not just fans of Wolfsburg but many, many Bayern Munich fans who had booked their tickets to Lisbon months ahead in the expectation of seeing their men play in a fourth final in five.years, but who had now chosen to come to support “their girls”. Proof that supporting men’s and women’s football is not mutually exclusive. When I mentioned to a Bayern fan that next year’s final will be in Berlin, he said with typical modesty: “Yes, that’s means we will play there three times next season – against Hertha, in the German Cup Final and in the Champions League Final”.
Where will the women’s final be played? Berlin does not not have a second suitable all-seater stadium so could 2015 be the first year both finals are held at the same venue? The Olympiastadion did stage the opening match of the 2011 Women’s World Cup and drew a crowd of 73,680, more than the 2006 men’s final at the same ground and the biggest-ever crowd for a women’s match at any European venue until the 2012 Olympic Final. With German teams having competed in 11 of the 13 Champions League Finals, it would make economic sense for UEFA to use a larger stadium but do they have the vision?
In an interview for UEFA Champions League Weekly, Wolfsburg’s Martina Müller talked about the increased awareness of the team in her city. “You can’t walk freely through the streets now, people recognise you. And you can hear people whispering behind your back, ‘hey, is that her from the VfL?’ It’s all very sweet, and we’ve worked hard to get there”. Müller, who equalled her illustrious namesake Gerd by scoring winning goals in two successive European Cup Finals, probably doesn’t have the same problem outside of Germany. The day after the women’s final, several of the Wolfsburg coaching staff and two of the players were strolling casually through the main thoroughfare of the city. In all likelihood, both players were probably internationals. Regrettably, I didn’t recognise either of them. I felt ashamed by my own ignorance.
One player I certainly would have recognised is Marta, the five-time World Player of the Year, dazzled throughout the final. Her every turn and shimmy drawing gasps of appreciation from the crowd. Her two goals were both sublime, befitting the stage, yet as in the Olympic Finals of 2004 and 2008 and the 2007 World Cup Final, she ended up in tears, on the losing side. Compare this to Cristiano Ronaldo, who capped an anonymous display in his final with the inconsequential fourth goal yet still contrived to steal the show by whipping his top off. Maybe Brandi Chastain was on to something all those years ago.
Marta will be one of six official Brazilian ambassadors at next month’s FIFA World Cup, alongside legends from each of Brazil’s five World Cup winning teams: Mario Zagallo (1958), Amarildo (1962), Carlos Alberto Torres (1970), Bebeto (1994) and Ronaldo – the one without the abs – (2002). Her story is arguably greater than the others, who could all legitimately claim to have been inspired to achieve greatness by the generation of players before them. There was no one in Brazil before Marta. Her tale befits her name, succeeding in spite of the odds, not only in coming from a remote part of northern Brazil but also opposition from male members of her own family. Now she is an inspiration for the next generation. According to Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery, “it’s a total before and after, it’s impossible to over-exaggerate the effect that she is having. . . . the success that Marta is having is legitimising the game for millions and millions of girls and women in Brazil.”
And surely this is what events like this are all about. While armchair viewers in England opined on the Champions League final, another match in-between the Championship and League One play-offs, for all the people in Lisbon this week, football demonstrated its unique ability to change people’s lives forever. Instead of being the man, who cost Real Madrid La Décima with his misses, Gareth Bale is now the man that secured it – a legend in his own lifetime. For the tens of thousands Madrileños who made the day-trip to Lisbon, it will be forever a weekend of joy/despair/both depending on their allegiance. And for the hundreds of thousands who were in Lisbon during the week they can always say “I was there” when football history was made. As Casillas said afterwards, “it is a great privilege to make millions of people happy; not only the people who came here to Lisbon, but also the people watching it on television and in all countries.”
For me, it’s not more than the World Cup though, because the World Cup is that incredible experience amplified and lasting every day for an entire month. Trust me, the best is yet to come. . .
April 2014 - All English UEFA Women's Champions League clash
“Has there ever been a bigger match between two English club sides?”
It would be nice to think that the self-proclaimed “ITV name-caller” was uttering those words at The Hive on Sunday afternoon for they would ring true. Alas, they were spoken almost exactly ten years ago before the first-ever all-English UEFA Champions League tie between Arsenal and Chelsea.
Remember 2004? A time when Arsène Wenger was about to win his sixth major trophy in seven seasons and never lost to Chelsea, when John Terry and Wayne Bridge were team-mates and best mates and when expert analysis for the two games was provided by respected broadcasters, Andy Gray, for Sky, and Ron Atkinson, for ITV.
In the maelstrom of “Battles of Britain” that followed (ten games between Chelsea and Liverpool alone!), it is easily forgotten how special that first one seemed at the time. Tyldesley would no doubt call it an “’I was there’ night”, a turning point in the landscape of the English game.
Chelsea, the archetypal “cup team”, never looked back as Arsenal and Manchester United’s Premier League duopoly was forever broken. When Wayne Bridge famously wrong-footed Jens Lehmann at The Clock End, it felt like a huge moment. History has proved it so. Chelsea fans still sing about that goal.
Champions League moments such as the Bridge goal stay with us because they are instantly relayed and endlessly replayed to millions of us through the medium of television. While not quite a “JFK moment”, I can certainly remember where was I was at the time, flicking between that game and ITV2 as Ludovic Giuly’s equally iconic goal for AS Monaco simultaneously eliminated Real Madrid and brought an end to the era of “Zidanes y Pavones” better known here as the Galácticos.
It would be nice to think a decade from now, someone would be looking back wistfully on yesterday’s historic moment in the English women’s game. A UEFA Champions League quarter-final between serial champions Arsenal usurped by a challenger wearing all-blue. The script is almost identical, but it is one few outside the 1,054 attendance at The Hive will ever get to read, let alone commit to memory. For, unbelievably, this biggest-ever match between two English club sides was not being shown anywhere on British TV. Nowhere.
Most of the football fans in the North London area, even the ones around Canons Park tube station, closest to The Hive, were amongst the 35,663 heading to Wembley to watch a final between teams from the third and fourth tier of the men’s game broadcast live on Sky Sports. However, this staggering depth of support shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat the women’s game with.
Women’s football on TV is very much a chicken and egg situation. Which should come first? It is not shown because it is believed people will not watch it, but how can they watch it if it’s not on TV? Catch 22. Carol Wallinger who travels up and down the country following the women’s game, was irritated that Eurosport had chosen to screen two of the other Women’s Champions League quarter-finals rather than the all-English one. This is perhaps because in Germany, women’s football attracts sizeable viewing figures.
For those of us who remember women’s football existed before London 2012, perhaps the most iconic TV images came when England opened UEFA Euro 2005 at the then City of Manchester Stadium. 2.9 million people watched a 17-year-old called Karen Carney steer a dramatic last-minute winner high into the Finnish net before embarking on a celebratory run Marco Tardelli would have been proud of. It is something she is still reminded about now, most recently by me! That match was also attended by a European Championship record crowd of 29,092. Proof that the game can attract both TV and stadium audiences simultaneously.
Yesterday, Carney now a “veteran” of 26, captained Birmingham against her former club with a controlled performance on the right wing including a spectacular volley from 50 yards which brought a smile to everyone’s faces including her own. A winner of the Champions League forerunner, the UEFA Women’s Cup, in 2007 with Arsenal, a unqiue double is now only three matches away for her and team-mate Rebecca Spencer.
As in the two previous rounds, Birmingham City will play the home leg of their semi-final against Swedish team Tyresö FF at the home of the club, St. Andrews. This is in stark contrast to Arsenal who once again decamped to The Hive. As several people were keen to impress upon me, “it’s not their home ground”. Arsenal did play their opening WSL game of 2013 at the 60,000 Emirates Stadium. Surely this of all games was the one where the club should have allowed the team to play at their home ground.
Since the Emirates Stadium opened in 2006, only one branch of the club has won any trophies. “Of course, It would have been nice to play in a big ground”, full back Alex Scott told me afterwards while generously conceding it would have made no difference to the result of the tie. Carney said playing European ties at St. Andrews represented a “breakthrough” for the sport.
Trying to guess if playing in a big stadium will lead to bigger crowds is an impossible science. The evidence would suggest it does. By playing their round of 16 ties at larger stadiums, both Arsenal and Birmingham more than doubled their gates. Also, by playing at smaller grounds, many WSL teams are playing outside the metropolitan areas their names suggest they represent. We all remember how moving grounds affected the numbers watching Brighton and Hove Albion. Now look at them. Attracting an average in excess of 27,000 at the Amex Stadium.
You might argue that as The Hive wasn’t even half full yesterday, a crowd for a woman’s match would be lost inside a stadium like the Emirates. However, with Arsenal playing in Borehamwood, Birmingham, in Stratford-upon-Avon, champions Liverpool in Widnes the WSL is attracting a different sort of crowd to those who would watch the men’s teams, perhaps losing a future crop of players to the game and sending out a subliminal message that women’s football is somehow lesser than its city-dwelling counterpart.
So, Manchester City, the only new team in WSL 1 this season, should be lauded for their ‘vision” in staging their games within the ever-expanding Sportcity complex, emulating the “European model” of an inclusive sports club for all.
My friend Delroy brought his family to the game yesterday. His 14-year-old daughter Gabrielle and friend Charlotte got their pictures taken with some of the England internationals mingling in the player’s bar after the game. The sort of access unimaginable in the men’s game in this day and age.
Both girls play football but were unfamiliar with many of the other players because they simply have not been exposed to them on TV. While most children growing up now are more familar with the male players of Barcelona than Barnet, the European exploits of women such as the players of Olympique Lyonnais in reaching four Champions League finals in a row have been lost to a generation.
This is unfortunate for the players involved who work and train just as hard as male players to reach the pinnacle of their game. Considering most are still forced to juggle their football careers around their work-lives, arguably more. Perhaps, UEFA who have tied the showpiece finals together since 2009 should do more to intertwine the competitions, at the very least by selling the lucrative TV rights as a combined package for both tournaments.
While we as TV viewers, over-analyse every nuance of Manchester United and Chelsea’s first-legs this week, it is worth remembering that this year’s only guaranteed UEFA Champions League semi-finalists are the women of Birmingham City but sadly, they may have to win the Lisbon final for anyone here to notice.
6 January 2014 - Billericay - A tribute to Eusebio
“His face had a pristine innocence and beauty in repose, his movements were graceful yet enormously powerful. If Europe had found a rival to Pelé in spectacle and efficiency, then this was unquestionably he”.
Brian Glanville, The Story of the World Cup
In one of his most iconic pieces of football commentary, the late David Coleman summed up the life and times of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira as he thrashed home the second of his two goals for Portugal against Brazil in the 1966 World Cup.
“EUSÉBIO!!! Oh my word, have you ever seen anything like that?! Eusébio – the European Footballer of the Year and tonight has looked the greatest footballer in the world”. Praise indeed when one considers the player hobbling about on the wing that evening at Goodison Park was some guy called Pelé.
As some today lament that Cristiano Ronaldo has had the misfortune to be playing in the era of Lionel Messi so Eusébio may regret that he was a contemporary of Pelé. Although Eusébio undoubtedly eclipsed Pelé in 1966, Portugal did not win the World Cup that year while Pelé won the two before and the one after.
Young, gifted and black and born just 15 months apart, their careers were intertwined from an early age. They shared a language, the same nicknames, Pérola Negra (Black Pearl) and O Rei (The King). They were superstars and trailblazers in an age where racism was not perceived to be an issue because other black players, for the most part, simply did not exist.
Their paths first crossed at an invitational tournament in 1961, Pelé’s Santos led Benfica 5-0 before an unknown nineteen-year-old was thrown on with 30 minutes left. Eusébio scored a seventeen-minute hat trick but Benfica lost, 6-3.
Eusébio’s greatest moment came in 1962, in what many connoisseurs regard as the finest European Cup final of all time. It was only the seventh edition of the fledging tournament. Real Madrid had won the first five, Benfica the sixth, and now these two heavyweights came face-to-face in Amsterdam. Thanks to a first-half hat trick from Ferenc Puskás, the Spaniards led 3-2 at the break before the 20-year-old Eusébio roared past an ageing Alfredo di Stéfano to win a penalty, which he converted, before slamming in a free kick to cap a stunning 5-3 victory. At the end, Puskás symbolically handed his shirt to the new king but Benfica have never again won a European trophy to this day.
European Cup winners for a second time in succession, Benfica thus qualified to play in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup. Awaiting them, inevitably, were Santos and Pelé. 3-2 to Santos in the first leg in Rio de Janeiro and then on an historic night in Lisbon, Santos led again, 5-0 with Pelé, at the peak of his powers, producing arguably the performance of his life, scoring three and generally running riot. Eusébio scored one of Benfica’s two late consolation goals in a 4-8 aggregate defeat.
Pelé famously never played at Wembley Stadium, Eusébio may wish he never had done. The first of three painful Wembley losses came in the 1963 European Cup Final. Despite opening the scoring through Eusébio, Benfica were denied a third consecutive title by a Gianni Rivera-inspired AC Milan. Eusébio was to score again in defeat in the 1966 World Cup semi-final to a hitherto lacklustre England, suddenly galvanised by two-goal Bobby Charlton. The iconic image of Eusébio using his sweat-stained shirt to wipe away the tears of semi-final defeat pre-dated Gazza by 24 years. After losing European Cup finals in 1963, and 1965, Eusébio and Benfica made it a hat trick of defeats against Manchester United at Wembley in 1968, two more goals by Bobby Charlton and an inspired performance from George Best.
If his career, may have brought more famous losses than victories, then that cannot detract from his individual greatness. Whilst some may belittle his records within Portugal as those of a flat-track bully in a two-team league, his international scoring achievements were just as phenomenal. 46 goals in the old European Cup, second only to Alfredo di Stéfano, 41 goals in 64 internationals for Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo has recently surpassed both marks, but it has taken him considerably more matches.
And while some may claim CR7 is now Portugal’s greatest-ever player, it is harder to dispel the notion that Eusébio was Africa’s greatest ever. Born in what was then known as Portugal East Africa to an Angloan father and a Mozambican mother, he was the first black man to win the coveted Balon D’Or, 22 years before Ruud Gullit became the second. Samuel Eto’o may have more medals and Didier Drogba more talismanic effect but in terms of sheer ability, Eusébio has not been matched.
Or has he? One may debate the rights and wrongs of an African footballer representing his colonial fatherland but the truth is had Eusébio turned out for a free Mozambique we would probably have never heard of him. 1966 was eight years before Zaïre became the first black African nation to even reach the World Cup and 24 before Cameroon became the first to win a match. Mozambique has never qualified for the World Cup. How many more Eusébios of that era were never discovered?
This weekend, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira passed away and Portugal begins three days of national mourning, Not for the first time, the last word should go to José Mourinho, whose father Félix once saved a penalty from the great man. The self-proclaimed Special One eloquently summed up what it means to be a legend. “I think he is immortal. Guys like him never die. The history is there and history does not let him die”.
Rest in Peace.
29 December 2013 - Marrakesh - FIFA Club World Cup Championships
“Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.”
Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit
“They are not ready for the World Cup”, sighed one of a pair of random Germans I was sharing a taxi with. It is something that has been said a lot this past year but it is not Brazil he was referring to, or even Russia or Qatar, but the country which, in the last 25 years, has bid to host the World Cup finals more often than any other.
Four times unsuccessful in the bidding process, it seems inevitable that the next African World Cup will be staged in Morocco. Last week, new stadiums in Agadir and Marrakesh, staged the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time and will do again in 2014. A new 80,000 stadium in Casablanca will be opened in time to stage the final of the Africa Cup of Nations which Morocco will host in 2015.
For me, like many other England fans, the past few weeks has been a steep learning in everything “Manaus”, the city most couldn’t find on a map last month but which will become the centre of our world on 14 June 2014. The same scare stories which were thrown in South Africa four years ago seem to have been recycled this time around – rip-off hotel prices, the murder capital of the world, life-threatening diseases (AIDS last time, dengue fever this time). Most of this is water off a duck’s back to the seasoned football traveller. We’ve heard it all before. Far more important to us, and rarely talked about by journalists who are ferried in and out of stadiums long before and long after the game, is being able to get to the ground on match-day.
The Germans and I had been strangers in the night ten minutes previously but forced into a cab-sharing marriage of convenience as, like hundreds of others we had found ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere 10km outside the city of Marrakesh following FIFA’s annual showpiece finale FIFA Club World Cup is a tournament is much derided in this country despite English representation in four of the ten tournaments, yet I was staggered by the number of Brazilians who had travelled from Belo Horizonte to Marrakesh, outnumbering the Bayern München fans in the city. In the event, those who came to see their team, Atlético Mineiro, in the final had a wasted journey as the South American champions crashed out to Raja Casablanca in the semi-final. Thus Raja, only invited into the competition to garner local interest, became the first “home” team to reach the final since the inaugural tournament in 2000.
When I tried to explain to a local that in England, most non-Chelsea fans enjoyed watching the then European champions lose last year’s final to Corinthians he seemed surprised. To him, a fan of Agadir, everyone was a Raja fan now. This was Morocco’s opportunity to become world champions. From the early hours, the city’s main square, Djemma el-Fna was teeming with people from all over the country gathering in the name of Raja. It was impossible to walk ten metres without stumbling upon someone selling something in the colours of the team. Being there, it felt like a huge occasion.
Yet when I asked people how I could get to the stadium, I frequently drew a blank. It appears that there was no public transport laid on whatsoever, a first in all my years watching international fixtures around the world. I ended up sharing a taxi with a pair of Austrians (Alaba fans) who told me they had same experience watching Bayern’s semi-final in Agadir. After a half an hour drive along a road out of the city we were dropped off a “ten-minute walk” from the stadium. When after 20 minutes walking through what Danny Dyer would call “shallow-grave territory” we still couldn’t even see the floodlights of the stadium, I began to have my concerns.
It was then the kettling began. After a first police checkpoint, thousands of people were forced to walk for more than a mile in-between metal crash-barriers, no more than a few metres apart and lined the whole way by Moroccan police. It seemed nonsensical as we were surrounded by acres of wasteland and the stadium wasn’t even in view. Along the way, anyone looking Moroccan was sporadically stopped by the police and asked to show their ticket, whilst English-speaking foreigners were waved through with a smile.
Close to the stadium, our progress was halted for no apparent reason by a police barricade. We were in the middle of nowhere and there were no cars on the dirt track which passed as a road. The massive local interest in the game it seemed had led to overcrowding in the sections behind the goals which only went on sale to Moroccan nationals. We were then told that foreigners could go in another way which involved climbing over the barriers and walking around the thick blue line. A few Moroccans tried this as well, those who outran the police got in, others were caught and probably spent the game in custody. It was chaos.
This is not the first time I have experienced this in North Africa. In 2006, a group of us had tickets to the Africa Cup of Nations Final in Cairo between the hosts and Côte d’Ivoire. On that occasion, playing the “foreigner-card” paid no dividends, the military police prevented us from getting anywhere near the ground as the 70,000 stadium was already full to bursting point with locals who had got in without tickets several hours before the game. The national stadium in Tunis is not in Tunis at all but in the far-flung suburb of Radès but at least there was a train there. Even the World Cup Final in Johannesburg was an urban transport nightmare. Special buses laid on for the match left thousands of people stranded in the deserted CBD after the match at the mercy of taxi drivers.
Here in Marrakesh, three of us had paid 150 dirhams (£11) for the taxi to the stadium but were forced to pay 300 for the same journey back. As the driver explained, “before, from the centre, there were many taxis, now there are few”. Simple demand and supply if you like but a problem that Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini who I both saw at the match, didn’t have to encounter.
I bring this up now because this will be the biggest problem that fans going to Brazil will face. Not getting there but getting around. According to Tim Vickery “in late November it was announced that 14 more infrastructure projects have been cut from the list of World Cup responsibilities. Most are projects of public transport in Brazil’s clogged-up cities – the very area where society had most to gain”. We, in England are no strangers to such broken promises. The area around Tottenham Court Road will continue to be a building site into 2014 despite Crossrail’s initial intention to be up and running for the 2012 Olympics. However, I worked in the Olympic Park every day during the London Games and saw how public transport in and out of the venues became an integral part of the “Olympic experience”. The happy, dancing purple-clad Games Makers who lined our routes then were a far cry from the humourless, gun-toting gendarmes I encountered in Marrakesh.
FIFA’s intention to take its tournaments to new countries is laudable. In the past six weeks, I have come across a deep-rooted passion for the game in the three cities I have visited – Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh. When one adds Agadir, Fez and Tangier to the mix, Morocco has more than enough urban centres to stage a World Cup. Yet, building state-of-the-art stadiums is not enough. The infrastructure around them needs to be in place before, not several years after, the competition. It is a lesson Morocco will have to learn if it is to make it fifth-time lucky.
21 November 2013 - Casablanca - Senegal v Côte d'Ivoire (part II)
It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory”
As Time Goes By, Casablanca, 1942
Like many things in life, football and movies are remembered by how they end. The result of the football match I went to last weekend is that the golden generation of Côte d’Ivoire, with all their European superstars, qualified for a third successive World Cup finals at the expense of a young, inexperienced Senegal side. Simple enough.
Often though, stories are not remembered how they should be. The fact is thar Senegal not the Ivorians deserved to win. Yet, no one will remember this, the alternate ending lost in the sands of time. How apt, in a city most famous for a line in a film that was never actually uttered.
Travelling around the world to watch football is a choice I’ve made in life. A choice that has enriched my existence immeasurably and left me with more stories than I could possibly tell in the remainder of my years.
However, as any itinerant football fan will tell you, it is not like being a tourist. Nothing like it. A tourist can visit a site and it will be the same experience any day of the year. Travelling to big events means being in a certain place, at a certain time. It is a fight. It means railing against airline fares rising out of all proportion; block-booked, but not necessarily full, hotels; temporarily overburdened public transport systems; against other people fighting to be there too. Why? For the love of your team and the glory of being there. Yes, it means that much.
For me, a Muslim travelling alone, there has been an added struggle. That of doing it all in a “post-9/11” world. A friend of mine never really understood what I meant until she travelled with me to Munich and was staggered that we were stopped by undercover polizei as we strolled through the Hauptbahnhof. Different countries fear different groups. In Russia, for example, I have had no problem whatsoever on three visits because their idea of a “terror threat” is someone from the South Caucasus, not me.
There, a British passport is an asset. In Casablanca it was my downfall. While thousands of others were waved through a chaotic immigration system, My biometric passport wasn’t even checked beyond my Islamic name. I was immediately, and embarrassingly marched through the crowds to a private office where the validity of my identity was laughed at. “Who is this?” as my picture was held up to be ridiculed. I think it’s a good likeness.
Apparently, Moroccan immigration had been having a problem with false British passports. This failed to explain why the only other people detained from a London Gatwick flight were a Muslim couple from Ilford, also hailing from the Indian sub-continent.
Normally, when you are stopped by immigration, you are asked a serious of questions to assess your credentials. What is the purpose of your trip? Where will you stay? How much money are you carrying? This was something else, something I have experienced every time I have returned to Europe from Latin America. No questions, no answers. Just sit there and wait. . . and worry.
All my best-laid plans of settling into my accommodation before the match were whittling away by the second to the point where it seemed I might miss the match altogether. Perhaps it was when I played the “journalist” card that things started to happen and my passport magically appeared and was stamped in minutes.
My host, Mehdi, who had shown admirable patience waiting two hours for a stranger, suddenly had a race against time fighting through Casablanca’s rush-hour traffic to get us to the match. The national anthems were being played inside the stadium as we parked in the side-streets. We raced by a huge line of people queuing by a small tin shack to buy the 40 Dirham (£3) tickets and entered into a half-full stadium where a crucial World Cup qualifier had already kicked-off.
Whereas British stadiums magically fill up in the five minutes before a game and are deserted either side of half-time. This one was fuller at the interval than at any point in the first half, as Senegalese fans migrated around the open bowl to stand behind the goal their team would attack in the second half. In common with many grounds around the world yet to be given the homogeneous FIFA/UEFA makeover, you never have to leave your seat to get refreshments. Old men balancing aromatic trays of whatever local speciality you could desire and a rhyming couplet of sales banter save you the trouble. How sad if this tradition is lost in Brazil as a result of the World Cup.
On the opposite side to me was a huge bank of Senegalese fans, who, I was told, are resident in Morocco. The Senegalese FA had deliberately chosen Casablanca ahead of more proximate cities. I had feared a lack of atmosphere as Morocco is a long way from either country but the two groups of Ivorian fans who never stopped dancing throughout the match added to the unique feel you can only get at a game in Africa.
Senegal had been willing but blunt in the first half. With Demba Ba missing – not called up to the squad – long balls up to Papiss Cissé had failed to bear much fruit and the dangerous Ivorians always looked like they might score on the break.
After half-time it was a different game. Senegal upped the pace on a cold night knowing their World Cup destiny depended on the next 45 minutes. The Ivorian back-line was stretched and started to make mistakes, repeatedly giving fouls away. Not least the one by Didier Drogba in his own box leading to the penalty which substitute Moussa Sow converted.
Senegal continued to press and press. Then deep into stoppage time amidst a goalmouth scramble the ball fell to Salif Sané with the goal at his mercy. The ball dribbled wide. Almost immediately, Yaya Touré swept upfield in trademark fashion and Salomon Kalou put the ball through the Senegal goalkeeper’s legs and into the net. Players from both teams collapsed to the turf. Such is football.
Upon the final whistle, Drogba ripped off his shirt and led his team in a victory dance in front of both sections of their support.
For Senegal too, there was a standing ovation. Les Lions de la Teranga had played like the kings of the jungle but Elephants never forget how to survive. Sadly, the pride of lions today will mean nothing when it is Côte d’Ivoire and not Senegal playing at the FIFA World Cup 2014.
If only Salif Sané had taken that chance? If only Ingrid Bergman had not got on that plane? Life could have been so different.
It could only happen in Casablanca. . .
15 November 2013 - Casablanca - Senegal v Côte d'Ivoire (part I)
“I think (African nations) may have a stronger chance than any of the European teams to be perfectly honest because of the climate.”
Roy Hodgson on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil
On 8 June 2002, in Daegu, South Korea, something unique happened. An African team won a match at the World Cup finals managed by a black African manager. It hasn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since.
34 teams have represented Africa in the FIFA World Cup since 1934, only nine have been led into the finals by home-grown coaches. If one excludes North Africans, this number drops to three out of 21.
So what chance black managers getting employment in a predominantly white country like our own if they cannot even get jobs in predominantly black countries?
It seems likely that Nigerian Stephen Keshi will manage his country in next year’s World Cup. Extraordinarily, Keshi is not on the ten-man shortlist for FIFA Coach of the Year despite landing the biggest continental title of 2013 and in the process becoming the first man in history to captain and manage an Africa Cup of Nation winning team. “Nigeria is surprised when they cannot see the name of their super coach among the world’s greatest technicians. Why such an exclusion? Is it because he is black? Or is it the result of the inconsideration for Africa?” Arsène Wenger is on the shortlist, when did he last win a trophy?
In a recent column, Henry Winter bemoaned that “one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will not qualify for Brazil 2014. . . If Blatter and Platini were concerned about quality, they would enlarge the European allocation”. Yet, the history of African football is littered with stories of great players who just missed out on a World Cup finals place, Abedi Pelé, George Weah, Tony Yeboah are just a few contemporary examples. The fact is, Portugal and Sweden are in the play-offs because they were not good enough to win their groups. Senegal and Côte d’Iviore were both unbeaten group winners yet only one of them will make it to the World Cup.
Imagine if the European Championships’ most successful side, Germany, had not qualified for a World Cup since 1990. Yet this is the case in Africa. Seven-times African champions, Egypt won six out of six in their group and were rewarded with a play-off against World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana and a 6-1 first-leg hammering. Their wait for a World Cup place will go on beyond a quarter of a century. Continental champions in 2006, 2008, and 2010, Egyptian footballers, like Mohamed Aboutrika, an African Footballer of the Year, will not be remembered outside their own continent.
It is worth remembering that it took FIFA 40 years to guarantee Africa even a single spot at the World Cup finals. The historical restriction on World Cup places denied generations of African teams the chance to perform on the big stage. Who knows where African football might be now, if they had been given the chance to make their mistakes and learn from them in the 1950s. Like England, humbled in the last Brazilian World Cup by the United States and embarrassed by Hungary in 1953 and 1954 yet World Cup winners in the next decade.
Cameroon’s swashbuckling breakthrough to the last eight in 1990 directly led to Africa gaining an extra place (three) in 1994. The only time this has happened without an expansion of the World Cup itself. As a result, then African champions, Nigeria qualified for the first time, captained by Stephen Keshi. The authority and respect he gained in that time makes him an accepted leader as coach of a now established African power.
However, Keshi has been this far before. He remarkably qualified African minnows Togo for the 2006 World Cup. Yet, after a row with star striker Emmanuel Adebayor, he was jettisoned in the build-up as the federation turned to the German, Otto Pfister.
It is a familiar tale in Africa, an overseas appointment stepping in for a tournament, respected as a neutral outsider with experience of Europe but with little reason to aide local development in the long term. We could be talking about our own league. Home-grown managers don’t have the experience for the top jobs but how will they gain that experience if they are not given the chance in a top job? A vicious circle.
Tomorrow in Casablanca, I will see which of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire make it to Brazil. Both will be managed by Frenchmen, former internationals, Alain Giresse and Sabri Lamouchi.
At their first World Cup in 2006, the Ivorians were managed by the French go-to guy, Henri Michel, who had previously taken two other Francophone African nations, Morocco (1994) and Cameroon (1998) to the finals. In 2010, they hired a different sort of go-to guy. Sven.
On their only previous finals appearance, Senegal was taken to the quarter-finals by another Frenchman, the late Bruno Metsu. So enamoured was he with the country, he converted to Islam, changed his name and married a Senegalese woman. Abdou Karim Metsu was buried last month just outside Dakar following a funeral attended by the President of the Republic who labelled him a “hero among Senegalese heroes”.
It is to be hoped that some day soon the people of West Africa will be eulogising about their own leaders in a similar fashion. For now, as before, they will look to the French and Alain Giresse will be feted across the continent if his Lions of Teranga can overcome a 3-1 first leg deficit and turn the Stade Mohammed V into an Elephant’s graveyard.
31 July 2013 - Billericay - Germany Women v Norway Women (part 2)
“It’s football, it’s good quality and it’s a major final. Why should football people be allowed not to care just because it’s women playing?”
In the world today, there is no more popular sport for women than association football. This is true in terms of participation, crowd figures and television audiences. So why is it not the most successful? Why aren’t Alex Morgan, Homore Sawa and Lotta Schelin as wealthy and well-known as Jessica Ennis and Maria Sharapova?
Before, I went out to Sweden, I tried to canvass the opinion of many friends and journalists about this. In the main I hit an information black wall. People just didn’t reply to me. Either embarrassed by their own lack or knowledge, worried about doing a “John Inverdale” or, most probably, because they just didn’t care. You know who you are.
At a Kick It Out conference a couple of weeks ago, a man propping up the bar introduced himself to me. He was Lyndon Lynch, the coach of the England cerebral palsy team. He is the only living football manager to win a World Cup for England at any level of the game. His story is one that humbles me and shames those who fail to recognise his achievements.
He said something that stuck in my memory. When he told people he met that he worked in Paralympic football, they all assumed he was in charge of the blind team. When he told them it the cerebral palsy team instead, they lost interest. It just wasn’t as “sexy”.
That is the crux of the matter, for whatever reason, women’s football just isn’t perceived to be “sexy”. We live in an age of media bandwagons and “trending”. Issues of ephemeral significance can assume global importance if you press the right buttons. However, despite its immense worldwide potential, no one wants to push the women’s football agenda. Other causes, like self-perpetuating “transfer” stories are perceived by editors to be of more worth than actual real football. Sometimes, reading the press, it is almost like football has ceased to be a game of skill, fitness and tactics between eleven players but merely an extension of Championship Manager.
An increasingly irritating phenomenon of modern live sport are the repeated celebrity close-ups at any crucial moment of a game. Wimbledon has got it mastered. The “Royal Box” offers us ample opportunities to show us how someone with a one-day interest in tennis reacts whenever Rafa or Novak misses a backhand. The celebrated recent BBC documentary on Andy Murray was undoubtedly given cross-market appeal by contributions from all and sundry from Sir Alex Ferguson to, er, James Corden.
Celebrity spotting was become a major part of sporting tournaments. If a pop star/film star/Royal is gripped by some event it tends to make us think we ought to be as well. When Kate Middleton turned up at various venues at last-year’s Olympics it gave that event a boost and a day in the media spotlight.
Yet, did anyone spot any celebrities at the UEFA Women’s Euros? Indeed, were any leading members of FIFA and UEFA seen? The likes of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini famously employ helicopters to attend two or more matches per day at a World Cup, but the president of UEFA only bothered to turn up for the Final of his most significant women’s tournament. Sepp Blatter, who will be the first to tweet a picture of himself meeting any political figure, did not mention the championships at all. The truth is, they have no interest in doing so. They are voted in by National FAs, and these are run by men whose primary concern is the men’s game – the cash cow.
Imagine the publicity generated if David Beckham had attended any of the England women’s games? Trite but true. The FA managed to concoct some sort of liaison role for him at the last World Cup which seemed to consist of him clapping and looking increasingly concerned in a grey waistcoat. If that was, as it appears, merely a PR exercise, why could it not come up with something similar for the women’s team?
From 1930 to 1950, England, so sure of their own superiority in men’s football, did not deign to enter the first three World Cups. By the time they did participate, they had found the rest of the world had passed them by in terms of tactics and technique. We are still playing catch up.
Now, we are in danger of letting the same thing happen in our women’s game. Fourth favourites going into the tournament, England were comfortably the worst team in Sweden. The team that beat us 3-0 in our final game, France, reacting by sacking their manager when they lost on penalties in the quarter-finals. Yet, what has been The FA’s reaction to our humiliation?
Is that a tumbleweed?
I’m not a hypocrite. In a few weeks, the men’s football season will start and I like many of you, will be engrossed by the 24/7 soap opera that is our national game. However, my interest in women’s football did not start nor end with the UEFA Women’s Euro.
Immediately after the final, whilst food shopping in a suburban Co-op in Solna, I overhear two distinctly English voices. Lisa and Sam from Sussex, part of the “She Kicks” magazine team, had been out in Sweden for the entire tournament and visited every host city.
They talk of the hospitality and enthusiasm of the Swedes. As they recount their travels, they gaze into the distance. It is a look I recognise, it is one I myself have had at the end of many tournaments in the past. I am envious.
They were already talking about saving up to attend the next Women’s World Cup. I too, plan to go to Canada in 2015 and I hope that, by then, a few more people will take women’s football seriously.
Football is still football. At its highest level, it is exciting, fast, unpredictable and utterly compelling. Anyone who bothered to watch the UEFA Women’s Euro 2013 Final would realise that.
29 July 2013 - Solna - Germany Women v Norway Women (part I)
“They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near,
But to me it seems quite clear,
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. . .”
When people look back at the record books they will see that Germany won the Women’s European Championship in 2013. Just like they did in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2009. Nothing special. They always win right? No biggie.
Serial winners rarely get the credit they deserve while they are in the midst of a trophy winning streak. It is one thing to keep on winning year after year in an individual sport. Roger Federer won five Wimbledon titles in a row because he was simply better than everyone else. It is harder to make that excuse in a team sport. Roger Federer is still Roger Federer year after year, only older, but teams change both in personnel and dynamics.
It is harder still to dominate in international team games. The best club sides become the richest and can use that money to invest in the future and consolidate their position at the top. Nations cannot do that to the same extent. They are limited by their own population.
This is why serial winners in international football are exceptionally rare. Only two countries have retained the men’s World Cup and none since 1962. Yes, Spain have won the last three major international trophies, but over the course of only four years with the majority of the same players.
Most of the German team that won a sixth straight European title would not have been able to remember watching the team that won in 1995. Forward Lena Lotzen was only a year old at the time. Therefore, to keep on winning over an eighteen-year-period (they also won the World Cup in 2003 and retained it in 2007) is truly exceptional. Phenomenal.
Their fans bob up and down at the end singing the traditional “Alles ist schön”. For them, in 2013 “everything is beautiful”. This has undoubtedly been the year of German football. They have won all three senior UEFA tournaments. FC Bayern and VfB Wolfsburg in the men’s and women’s Champions League and now the women’s national team have earned the title “Europameister” too. No wonder their celebrations are so choreographed.
It is arguable whether this Teutonic domination is good or bad for the women’s game. It is very noticeable that apart from Europe’s largest country, Russia, every one of the twelve teams at the tournament were from western Europe. Five out of the twelve were from Scandinavia alone.
This is not a recent phenomenon either. Everyone of the eleven tournaments has so far been staged in and dominated by western Europe. This compares unfavourably with the men’s version where the Soviet Union, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were to the fore in early tournaments.
On the global stage, there seems to be more democracy. The largest economic powers in four continents, the United States, Brazil, Germany and Japan have all reached the World Cup Final whereas each of the nineteen men’s finals have been monopolised by Europe and South America.
This demonstrates the enormous potential of women’s football. Factor in that the women’s teams of countries like Australia, Canada, China, North Korea and Norway are more successful than their men, then it is clear that sponsors should be attracted by the chance to target markets not yet fully exploited by the men’s game.
After the match, I am frustrated not to get closer to the trophy lifting and celebrations as I am on the Norwegian side of the stadium. Soon after receiving their silver medals, the players come over to where I am standing, to be commiserated by their friends and family. Despite missing a golden opportunity to defeat the holders and a country more than twenty times more populous, they are surprisingly relaxed and upbeat. There is regret, but no tears. They sign every autograph and show no desire to leave the pitch.
I chat briefly to the sister of left-back Toril Akerhaugen who poses for pictures with her nephews. She tells me that for Akerhaugen, one of six of the team to play for Stabæk FK, it is as novel and as special an experience as it is for the fans watching. They are used to playing league matches in front of a couple of hundred fans. Even in defeat, this is the greatest moment of their sporting careers. For those moments after the final, it is touching to see these players as real people, mothers, daughters, wives, sisters – women.
Women first but footballers too. Footballers, who at the end of three weeks of a wonderful football tournament have proved, that unlike in other sports, they can captivate and thrive independently of the men.
Tack för festen.
29 March 2013 - Paris - Spain v France
“[Karim Benzema] shows an inconceivable and unacceptable contempt for the jersey he has the fortune to be able to wear.”
Eric Domard, Front National
National Anthems never used to be played before World Cup matches. Players used to sprint onto the field, wiggle their ankles for a few minutes and then play a game.
In the 21st century, football has become a form of show business with every little move magnified by a media microscope and replayed to death on a 24-hour, worldwide scale.
A huge part of the modern “show” has become the pre-match team-line up. The issue of whether or not certain people shook John Terry’s hand has become a national obsession for nearly three years and will re-emerge again on Easter Monday should erstwhile England captains, Terry and Rio Ferdinand both start in an FA Cup replay. (For the record, I have shaken John Terry’s hand.)
In the international game, we have the added choreographed drama of the National Anthems. The moment when a camera stares directly into your face and aloof, millionaire footballers briefly go eye-to-eye with the watching plebs, like you and me.
Travelling the world has taught me many things. One is that most people dislike their own national anthems (the exception to this rule tends to be in newly independent countries). Many want to change their anthem – the words, the dreary tune, the connotations with war and crusade. This is true here, where as recently as last year a groundswell for a new “English” National Anthem of Jerusalem was championed by, among others, David Cameron.
For an international footballer to admit this would, of course, be heresy. Since Roy Hodgson became England manager, he has insisted every player sing God Save the Queen. It is a move widely praised, particularly as certain former managers could not and one former captain famously admitted to miming the words. Yet, Hodgson’s coach, Gary Neville, never sang the anthem in 85 appearances.
Have England have ever had a better right-back than Neville?
Singing the anthem has now become a sign of passion and patriotism. Older readers will remember Chilean Iván Zamorano belting it out before a 1998 World Cup match against Brazil – John Motson said it was his most memorable moment of the tournament. Chile lost 4-1.
Last week, Karim Benzema, arguably France’s best player, was criticised for not singing La Marseillaise before games. Benzema has now gone over 1000 minutes without scoring for Les Bleus. I am sure the criticism is just a coincidence. On Twitter, the majority felt Benzema unpatriotic for not singing. One, @AlexisGerot, called him “Ennemi de la République”.
Others pointed out how a man of Algerian descent may feel uncomfortable singing about washing your furrows in sang impur (impure blood).
Patrick Vieira (107 caps) once said “I do not understand, this is a false problem. I never sung it but that does not mean that my heart is not pounding. Lilian Thuram sang it but that does not mean that he loves France more than me.”
As I wait to go through security at St. Pancras station, I am stuck behind a group of teenage French schoolgirls on their way home. They apologise for their bad singing and start asking me if I know Doctor Who – it is their favourite apparently. I quiz them about Benzema. They are unanimous in their condemnation. “If he doesn’t want to sing, he should be kicked off the team” Like our own talisman, Wayne Rooney, Benzema has had a “colourful” private life involving prostitutes. Naturally, this has shaped the public’s perception of him. One of the girls, Brunelle, said Benzema was “a dirty man”.
In Paris, while David Beckham lorded it at the exclusive five-star Hôtel Le Bristol, I stayed in a flat in the 18ème arrondisement in a small room with two triple bunk beds. The area is known colloquially as Goutte d’Or (Drop of Gold), a haven, historically, for immigrants of North African origin – like the Benzema family. The nearby market is a congested beehive of trade, more Arabic souk than Champs-Elysées. This is the Paris most tourists never see. The wrong side of the tracks from the adjacent Gare du Nord where the queue for taxis to get somewhere else is phenomenal for a city with such a cheap and efficient metro system.
I stay with three Ivorian brothers living in Paris. One of them agrees Benzema should sing as it is France that gave him an opportunity in football, but, understands if he chooses not to. Another, my host Claude Marcel, says he will be supporting Spain rather than France.
Of course, France’s 10 singers plus Benzema were beaten, like everyone else in the last seven years, by a team who never sing their National Anthem. Spain’s 252-year-old Marcha Real does not have any official lyrics.
Would this team of proud Asturians (Juan Mata, David Villa), Andalucians (Jesús Navas, Sergio Ramos), Basques (Xabi Alonso), and Catalans (Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Víctor Valdés, Xavi) sing about a king who they may, or may not, feel represents them? Does it matter?
In 2007, the Spanish Olympic Committee held a competition to create lyrics for Marcha Real. This was the winning entry chosen in January 2008:
Long live Spain!
Let’s sing together,
with different voices,
and only one heart.
Long live Spain!
Five days after, the proposal was withdrawn due to a public outcry over the supposed nationalist tone of the verse. Later that year, still without a song to sing, the Spanish National Team won UEFA Euro 2008.
Spain are now double European and World Champions.
When Karim Benzema’s name was announced over the PA at Stade de France, it was met with widespread derision, booing and catcalls. Around me, La Marseillaise is sung ferociously and badly out of tune, by the people in the cheap seats (€15). Even I sing – I like the tune and know the words.
Karim Benzema is, once more, the only member of L’Equipe that does not sing. “No one is going to force me to sing La Marseillaise”
The game started with Benzema to the fore. The young guy next to me, who had booed, started shouting “Allez Karim” and chanting “Ben-ze-ma, Ben-ze-ma”. At half-time, things looked good for the French. Spain had been frustrated and Franck Ribéry had nearly put France ahead just before the break.
Then Spain scored, slightly against the run of play, France were reduced to ten men and all hope began to drift away into the bone-chilling Parisian air. Benzema was substituted on 82 minutes. Once more the derision.
There are those who will say that this is just theatre, banter. I have never been booed by 80,000 people. I can only imagine what it would feel like. I doubt if Karim Benzema would find it very funny. I’m only guessing, but I think he would find it very personal being singled out and condemned by people who do not share his particular ethnicity.
This is not what I would call Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
One man who did share Benzema’s Algerian heritage is Zinedine Zidane. It has been wrongly alleged, that his father was a collaborator in the Algerian War of Independence for the army of the Fifth Republic. You know the one whom La Marseillaise glorifies. In 108 appearances for France, Zizou never sang La Marseillaise either.
With him, France became World and European Champions at the turn of the century.
I’m just saying. . .
15 March 2013 - Barcelona - Barcelona v Milan
Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young,
We’re gonna die young,
We’re gonna die young,
The end of an era? Not a bit of it!
They (including me) had come to write this Barcelona team off once and for all, but the great ones always make a show-stopping comeback don’t they? That’s what makes them box office. And this Barcelona team is indisputably great. When Roy Keane tells you it had been “a pleasure to be here” you know you must have witnessed something special.
Remontada (comeback) had been the word of the day, trending all over the Spanish-speaking Twitter-sphere before, during and after the match. Tuesday 12th March 2013 will forever be remembered in Catalonia as el noche de la remontada, the night FC Barcelona overturned the previously insurmountable deficit of 0-2 to make Champions League history.
“Apotheosis” screamed the front page of Catalan daily Sport the morning after. By 11am, the paper had sold out in every store I visited on Wednesday. Such was the clamour to remember what had been a momentous night. For an institution that never fails to remind us that it is “més que un club”, this had been more than a football match.
Whoever picks the tunes at Camp Nou, seems to be a big fan of the artist also known as “Ke Dollar Sign Ha”. Die Young boomed out over the PA three times during the night. “Making the most of the night” didn’t seem like a particularly positive message to send to a team on the verge of elimination from the UEFA Champions League. The mood of the locals I spoke to seemed similarly resigned – “it’s going to be difficult”. Even Gerard Piqué, the man who has won something every year since 2007, said “we cannot win every year”.
They need not have worried. Everything is possible when you have Lionel Messi. On my travels, I had seen Messi win his first Champions League medal in 2006 and receive a standing ovation wearing an Argentina shirt during a World Cup qualifier in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. But remarkably, I’d never seen him score a goal live. That was put right after only five minutes.
When properly motivated, as on Tuesday night, Messi combines Cristiano Ronaldo’s consistency in goalscoring with Wayne Rooney’s hunger and work-rate. In addition to that, he has something that neither of them – or perhaps anyone else since Diego Maradona – has. It’s his ability to beat a man from a standing start that is so thrilling to witness first-hand. In the country which gave us the word “matador”, it is no surprise that he has been adopted as one of their own
This was an honour not bestowed on Maradona himself when he played for Barcelona in the early 1980s. He complained that he was often disparaged by the locals as a “sudaca”. An injury-hit and illness-plagued Maradona did not enjoy his best years at Camp Nou in what was, relatively speaking, a fallow period for the club.
Barcelona’s starting line-up against Milan featured eight Spaniards, seven graduates of the fabled La Masia youth system and only two “outsiders” bought in from South America, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano. While Maradona’s time here may be forgotten, Alves and Mascherano will be enshrined in legend as part of the greatest team in the club’s 114-year history.
Football is, perhaps, the nearest thing we have in life to a pure meritocracy. Alves and Mascherano will never be loved in the same way as local graduates like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, but they were star performers on Tuesday. Both foreigners more than compensated for any lack in ability with a ravenous desire that earned Mascherano, a man who once played on in his youth for River Plate after sustaining a broken leg, a rapturous standing ovation from nearly 100,000 people when he was substituted.
When you’re that good, any differences pale into insignificance. If, for example, Lionel Messi came out as gay, would anyone at the club really care? They would almost certainly love him all the more for it.
However, prejudice is most easily revealed when times are hard. We, in England thought racism in football was an issue shelved to the annals of history as we lived through The Blair Years of economic stability and Premiership prosperity. Now we are in an age of austerity and financial fair play, recent events have forced us to think again.
For now, football at FC Barcelona is in the midst of a five-year Golden Age. Success has followed unparalleled success. Yet, as people in the game love to tell us these days, football is cyclical. Barcelona’s majestic cycle could have ended with Champions League elimination on Tuesday night. Indeed, Mascherano was so nearly the villain of the piece in the 38th minute, when his desire momentarily turned into impetuousness. His mistimed header allowed M’Baye Niang a clear run on goal only for the Frenchman to shoot against a post. 67 seconds later Messi scored his second goal and the rest is history. Nothing better illustrates the precariousness of sport at the highest level. FC Barcelona regain their place in the pantheon, Niang could become a forgotten man at Milan amidst the sideshow that is Mario Balotelli. . . sadly cup-tied on Tuesday night.
On arrival at El Prat airport, I’d overheard two teenage boys chatting about how, after the match, they would go out clubbing before catching a 6am flight across the peninsula to watch Malaga’s Champions League tie the following night. I was momentarily envious. It was the sort of crazy thing I used to do regularly back in the day. I felt old. Until I remembered the game I would be watching on my next trip overseas.
Howard Donald once sang “someday soon this will be someone else’s dream”. As you get older and more experienced, you learn to pick and choose which battles to fight. FC Barcelona’s three defeats to Milan and Real Madrid now seem inconsequential because they won that mattered. “Someday soon” another team will replace Barcelona as football’s standard bearer, but not yet. They will be Spanish champions for the 22nd time in June and still the team everyone wants to avoid in Friday’s draw for the UEFA Champions League.
Neither of us is prepared to “Die Young”.
30 June 2012 - Kyiv - 2012 UEFA European Championships final
“But it’s just the price I pay
Destiny is calling me”
Mr Brightside, The Killers
Arriving at a major football tournament for The Final sounds like a dream. Why bother with the other 30 games when you can go to the most important, the only one that everyone will remember?
Actually, it’s much like arriving at a nightclub at 2am, as the last song is playing and the lights have just come on. All the people you were really interested in at the start have long since gone, back at home with their loved ones. Three weeks of hope and expectation have ended in broken hearts and dreams for the majority like the debris that litters a nightclub floor.
All that are left are the die hards, the people who have to be there (the officials and the media) and the people who have nowhere else to be (like me!). And even they will be forced to go home soon. Everyone, I speak to agrees. There is a lingering sense of sadness about a tournament Final, the party’s almost over, just one last song left to play. Would it have been better to have left earlier like everyone else?
If you want to go to a sporting event for the occasion, go in the first week. That’s when everyone is sure to be there, anyone can dare to dream and everything seems possible. Reality in sport hits you hard. The reality of knockout football: elimination. It is sudden, brutal and unexpected, ask the Germans, just like when those lights come on after hours of darkness.
Yet, there is still one couple smooching in the corner refusing to leave. This is what Spain and Italy are to club UEFA Euro 2012. It is six years since Spain decided to leave any party early. And Italy may not turn up every time but they are always likely to be there at the end.
The day before The Final, Kyiv, as much as a city of almost 3 million people can be, is like a ghost-town compared to the festival I have witnessed in Donetsk and Kharkiv. As I walk through the densely wooded Hidropark and discover the secluded riverside beach that skirts the east bank of the immense Dnipro which splits Kyiv, it is only local people I come across. Not one of the estimated 10,000 Swedes who lived on this island two weeks ago now remain.
Visiting the main tourist sites, high up on the opposite side of the river, football fans now only exist in dribs and drabs where before they were floods. The only things that gives away that a football tournament ever occurred in this city are the omnipresent UEFA banners and signs.
That’s right, how could I forget? For while in England they fret over David Beckham and the Olympics and Andy Murray and Wimbledon, here in Kyiv tomorrow night, the biggest sporting event of the year will take place. (The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics is not a sport!)
So yes, it is worth sticking in around until the end – the final song is rarely the best one, but it is often the one you remember the whole experience by, long after everything else fades from the memory.
The lights may be on in Kyiv but I’m not leaving yet. . .
15 June 2012 - Billericay - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
And so I’m back, and incredibly UEFA Euro 2012 goes on without me. Somehow watching matches on television in the comfort of my own home feels empty. Where are the thousands of strangers from all around the world? There is no oppressive heat and humidity here. No one is making me queue up 15 minutes to overpay for a soft drink.
I was only away for four days but I am a changed man. Physically, I have lost half a stone in weight (5% of my mass), mainly through the sweat which saturates my unwashed clothes. My skin is several shades darker. The exposed parts of my body are covered in insect bites after one too many night in a cheap hostel bed. I am seemingly irrevocably dehydrated and I cannot watch television for more than half an hour without falling asleep in my chair.
Put simply, I am shattered. It is this feeling, more than the money, the waiting around at airports or the endless physical exertion, is what stops people from doing what I do more than once or twice in their lives. There is no instant remedy, only rest. It will take my body a few days to recover.
But recover it will, and then what remains? The memories, ah, the memories. . . I’m sure there are reasons for visiting far-away cities like Donetsk (www.footballopolis.org/Donetsk.htm) and Kharkiv (www.footballopolis.org/Kharkiv.htm) but I struggle to think of them. It is football that has put these places at the forefront of global consciousness for a few days this month, just as we will become overly familiar with Cuiabá, Manaus and Natal in the summer of 2014.
My memories of the matches I saw while I was out there is vague and fragmented. I missed both of Andriy Shevchenko’s headers against Sweden as I chatted to Masha and Katrine in the Donetsk fan-park. I remember telling my Dutch friends how “terrible” Poland were just as Jakub Blaszczykowski scored perhaps the goal of the tournament so far against Russia. But I will never forget the atmosphere, the feeling those goals generated amongst thousands of people I will never know. You just don’t get that watching Match of the Day.
And, most importantly, it is the people you meet. From every corner of the world, every age, every race, every social background, they come together to watch a football match. Don’t expect to make friends for life, you almost certainly will not. These are holiday romances, brief flirtations between people who almost certainly would have nothing in common in the real world. In random places around the world, I hope people will keep the pictures they took of me and remember me as the guy they watched that game with. Just as I will never forget every person I have mentioned in this blog and many I have failed to mention.
I used to do “normal” holidays with my friends. City breaks, relaxing on a beach, sampling some exotic dish in a local restaurant. However, travelling to watch football is something more, something better. The most intoxicating of all drugs, I have become an “event junkie”!
Of the seven billion people on this planet, more have no interest in football than do. Yet, there is no single activity which matters to more people around the world. To those who say they only care about club football, go attend a major international football tournament and say it doesn’t matter. Ukraine will never forget what Gary Lineker euphemistically called “Shevchenko Day” any more than people in England will forget where they were when Gazza scored against Scotland during Euro ‘96. 16.3 million people in this country watched England beat Sweden in a non-decisive group encounter, 16.3 million people will never any Premier League match.
Being an Asian abroad, I have never found to be much of a problem on these trips. On the contrary, it is often helpful, an ice-breaker. True, I have a hard time convincing people I am English:
“Where are you from?”
“But where are you FROM?”
But once they understand my heritage, they are usually as fascinated by me as I am with them. I guess optimistically, or naively, I never expect to be treated differently. Often, I am, but one bad experience does not reflect an entire country, any more than one bad man does not reflect his entire race.
To anybody thinking of travelling abroad to watch a football match, just do it. It requires a great deal of planning, commitment and determination, but doesn’t anything truly worthwhile? I have now watched over 100 football matches outside the United Kingdom, including some of the greatest matches ever played, and there is not one regret. Only the memories of being part of something – something far bigger than myself, and occasionally, in the case of the big finals, something that will last forever in history.
It is almost certainly the greatest thing I will ever do, and it could be the greatest thing you do too.
14 June 2012 - Kharkiv - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
Kharkiv Airport 0200
“Matches against Holland have cost me years of my life. But I wouldn’t have missed them for anything. Those matches always breathed football of class, emotion and unprecedented tension. Football in its pure form”
Der Kaiser – Franz Beckenbauer
Almost eight years ago to the day, I was lucky enough to watch Germany play The Netherlands in Oporto during UEFA Euro 2004. It was the last, and least memorable, of the seven previous tournament clashes between these two bitter rivals. Then they were two teams in transition. Now, behind Spain, they were the two best teams in the world, oozing attacking talent and both expecting to win the tournament.
The night before in the Kharkiv Fan Park, my three Dutch friends and I were approached by three Germans looking to sell an extra ticket they had to the game. Immediately, the banter began to fly back and forth.
Dutch – You’re only selling your ticket because you know you will lose.
Germans – We prefer to go straight to Kyiv now.
Dutch – So you can get to the airport early for the flight home tomorrow?
Germans – No, so we can reserve our seat for The Final, we will make you a postcard if you want and send it to you back in Holland.
Dutch – Oh, like the ones we sent you from Johannesburg two years ago.
And so it went on. . .all in perfect English! “We in Holland, we all speak German. We just don’t want to!”
The morning of the match, the Dutch guys went out early to get hold of some orange face paint. Their plan was to create a YouTube video of themselves dyeing a German football shirt orange. A random German, Sebastian, was found in the hostel and invited to cry in mock despair as this act of “sacrilege” was filmed. It was all done in good humour. Would an English fan have seen the funny side if The Three Lions had been similarly desecrated?
Two years ago in South Africa, it was all about K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag and Shakira’s Waka, Waka. The two inescapable songs of this tournament have been Oceana’s “Endless Summer”, the official song of UEFA Euro 2012, and The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, the song played after every goal is scored and the template for a thousand football chants around the world.
To that tune, the most popular Dutch chant doing the rounds in Kharkiv, is “Alle Duitsers zijn homo” (All the Germans are gay) sung by thousands at a time whilst jumping up and down in glee. No Dutchman would consider this chant to be in the least bit homophobic, it being a reference to an allegation of a “gay combo” within the German 2010 World Cup squad. There is no way this song would be heard in an English ground today without a huge national debate breaking out.
Another scorching Ukrainian afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-30s, mean that most of the fans making the 15 minute walk to the Metalist Stadium from the nearest metro stop look as tired and bedraggled as I feel. There is no singing, no discernable excitement. If it wasn’t for the fact, that half of the throng were sporting ridiculous orange outfits, this could be any old rush-hour crowd on its way home after a long day.
The sun finally sets just before the match kicks-off ensuring a boisterous atmosphere within the ground. The Dutch, going into the game handicapped after losing their first game, make the early running but don’t take their chances. The Germans then take theirs to effectively win the match at half-time despite a late Dutch rally in the second half.
There is a feeling of anti-climax at the end. Results elsewhere mean that, despite two wins, the Germans are not definitely through and, in spite of two defeats, the Dutch are not definitely out. The mood of the fans leaving the stadium is therefore as subdued as it was two hours before.
Suddenly, for about 5 minutes, every street light in this remote suburb of Kharkiv go out, pitching thousands of visiting foreigners into complete darkness. The locals begin to chant “Oo-cry-een-ah!, Oo-cry-een-ah!” in comic recognition of the deficiencies of their own country. It was the kind of thing that the doom-mongers had predicted would occur at every turn in this, from a western standpoint, misunderstood and largely unexplored country. In my four days here, I can honestly say it is the first thing that was gone wrong.
I am now waiting at Kharkiv airport waiting for my flight home. The departure lounge is full of German fans on their way home or back to Lviv for their final group match. The Dutch squad pass through customs to only the mildest of barracking. The handful of Dutch fans dotted around are not goaded like they might have been. There is only simple analysis of the match between the people of two countries with much in common.
The poison that contaminated this match 20-25 years ago when they these two nations last had the best two teams in the world seems to have dissipated. Now Germany v The Netherlands seems much more like any other international match where two magnificently-supported nations play each other and the better team usually wins.
Isn’t that what football should be? Or is that all just a little too boring?
13 June 2012 - Kharkiv - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”
Blanche Dubois – A Streetcar Named Desire
It’s amazing how your life can turn on a chance meeting or an impulsive decision that can take you off one path and hurtling in a completely new and exciting direction.
I had originally planned to catch an overnight bus or train from Donetsk to Kharkiv to save on the cost of an extra night in a hotel. On my previous visit to Ukraine, I had caught overnight sleeper trains from Kyiv to Moscow and back again, meeting some very generous people from both countries and being taught the words to the momentous Russian National Anthem. Three years on, I still cannot help myself but to sing along every time I hear it.
Unfortunately due to the timetables available, travelling overnight this time would have meant missing that national anthem, and more importantly the match that followed it. The group A clash between Poland and Russia always promised to be an intriguing watch in a country which had had historical territorial disputes with both.
Therefore, I decide to accept the cost of being driven to Kharkiv. A four-hour drive “max” I was promised. Eight hours later we arrive. Having taken a short detour to visit one of Ukraine’s super-monasteries in Sviatohirsk and taken several breaks for drinks and several more as the driver’s car repeatedly over-heated on another impossibly hot day in this “Endless Summer” of UEFA Euro 2012.
I checked in to my Kharkiv hostel having missed two-thirds, and all the goals, of the Czech Republic v Greece match. Tired and determined not to miss any more action, I decide to stay in for this one and watch the second match in, what was, an empty hostel. While I was in the bathroom, I heard more English-speaking people checking in. I ask them if they are going to watch the match with me. They said no because they were being driven to the Fan Zone right now. I enquire sheepishly, “you haven’t got room for another one in the car have you?” They ask, they do and five minutes later I am going out with three complete strangers, with no idea how I will get back to the hostel. I didn’t even know the name of the hostel. And so my life went down a different path.
The three Dutch guys, all in their twenties, are from Breda. They had driven from there for their country’s match against Germany the next day. On their way, they had stopped off at various points in Germany, Poland, and almost the entire width of Ukraine. By some quirk of fate, almost simultaneously, I had arrived at the same hostel travelling from the opposite direction.
Like all Dutch fans, they are a riot. Their wicked sense of humour is at turns aimed at me and then at each other. And like all male visitors to this country, they are mesmerised by the beauty of Ukrainian women. On this night before the match, they had foolishly decided not to wear the Dutch uniform of orange from head to toe. Almost every local woman in the Fan Park was on a mission to have their photograph taken with a group of Dutch or German fans. Not wearing orange, all the girls we talk to refuse to believe they are Dutch and move on (Being English on this night is no help whatsoever!)
Shortly after the match finishes at 2330 local time, the main Fan Zone shuts down but we notice people heading into a VIP area. 100 hryvnya and we are in. Behind the white curtain, it appears like I have entered some sort of hedonistic underworld. Scantily clad dancers gyrate on podiums, surrounded by local women and an army of drunk Dutch and German fans. The mood is incredibly laid back and welcolming. As I dance with my new Dutch friends. One of them, Rik tells me “look, you see all the Dutch guys are dancing and having a good time, all the Germans are standing around looking at the women” He is broadly right!
The music stops at 4am but the night does not. I had arranged to get a taxi home with the Dutch guys but they had disappeared. It turns out they went home and straight to bed – the second mistake they made that night! I had just got talking to a young girl, Daria, who even by Ukrainian standards, stood out for her incredible beauty. She later proved her intelligence when I asked her to read my blog which she described as accurate and “very interesting”!!!
Her friend, Anna, was getting friendly with another Dutch guy whom I’d yet to meet. Not sure what to do next and worried about how I was going to get home. I made my second impulsive suggestion of the night. “Why don’t the four of us all share a taxi and go back to my hostel?” Amazingly, they agreed. I had started the night going out with three strangers and now had three completely different strangers in my room. They stayed until 7am. We swapped life stories and phone numbers but I am sure none of us will ever meet again.
Travel alone, I may do, but it would be impossible to manage abroad on my own for very long. If I had listened to the hysteria in my own country a couple of weeks ago, I would never have come to Ukraine, believing I would not be made to feel welcome. That could not be further from the truth. A trip like this is always a leap of faith into the unknown. My faith in football’s ability to bring people together will mean I will always be prepared to take the risk.
By the time I finally got some sleep, all of two hours (!), the fierce early morning sun was already beginning to blaze through my window.
So much for my quiet night in!
12 June 2012 - Donetsk - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
England did today, what England tends to do in big matches. They took the lead, then sat back and lost the lead, but, at least, this time, they did not lose the game.
As usual with big-tournament matches, I come across people from a variety of countries – Brazilians, Canadians, Dutchmen, Poles, Serbs. The guy I’m sat next to in the stadium is a heavily-tattooed Israeli. However, it is one flag that I see time and time again – the white, blue and red stripes of the Russian Federation. Donetsk is closer geographically to Rostov than my next destination Kharkiv. Yet, these Russians have not crossed the border. They are Ukrainians of Russian descent. This so-called “ethnic schism” was brought into sharp focus by the 2004 Orange Revolution when the country threatened to split into two.
In the sparkling Donbass Arena, these “Russians” easily outnumber the French as the English fans biggest rival in the singing stakes. Just before the match starts, the first chant goes up “Rossiya! Rossiya!”. An England fan turns to me and asks what they are saying with the look of a guy who has heard this one before. During the course of the match, it would be a constant refrain. On the day that Ukraine entered the tournament, it seems strange that some of their countrymen should openly support another country.
Issues of race are not always black and white.
At UEFA Euro 2008, co-hosts Switzerland were the first country to be eliminated; Austria won only one point and failed to score a goal from open play. The finest quality international tournament of the decade always lacked that vital edge that comes from having a successful home team.
After Poland fluffed their lines on opening night, it was left to Ukraine to give this tournament a shot in the arm when they kicked-off against tournament veterans Sweden. Unlike the city-centre fan zones of every other host city, the Donetsk version was on the south-west edge of town. With the game kicking-off less than an hour after France v England finished, getting there from the Donbass Arena in the north meant sacrificing the start of the match.
When I arrived 20 minutes into the game, there was standing room only at the back of this vast open space. Seemingly everyone was wearing a yellow shirt. A small Ukrainian boy caught my attention as he darted around me in excitement. After a while his exasperated mother chose to vent her frustration in my direction. When I replied in the only way I could – “ang-liy-ski” – instead of giving up, she spent the rest of the match trying to communicate with me using any old English words or phrases that she had picked up from pop-culture.
Her 22-year-old daughter was then summoned to use her iPhone to find the right words via an online translator. “Sorry” they kept on saying for not speaking better English. My embarrassment at my failure to have learnt anything useful to say in Russian was multiplied. I was in her country after all.
When they worked out I was here alone and planning to walk back to my hostel after the match (around midnight local time) they were horrified! “Many crazy people!!!” as she put a fist to her face to demonstrate the imminent physical danger I could be risking. After several further attempts at miscommunication, the woman disappeared for ten minutes and re-emerged with one of the ever-helpful, English speaking volunteers. Acting as translator, she told me the family were so worried for my safety they insisted I walk back with them.
They would not take no for an answer!
As Andriy Shevchenko proved that Chelsea form is temporary but class is forever, a ferocious firework display illuminated the night sky in Shcherbakov Park. Thousands of locals marched out in unison chanting “Oo-cry-een-ah! Oo-cry-een-ah!”, like an army of benelovent budgerigars. Masha forcibly grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the park and we set off on the long walk home.
Where Switzerland and Austria slept, Ukraine was now fully-engaged. A first European Championship finals match had brought a first victory and the Ukrainians were determined to make the most of it. Cars blared past, with people hanging out of them waving yellow and blue flags. Men jumped off the bridge into the cooling waters below. Random guitarists appeared from nowhere to play and sing songs. Every city bench was crammed with teenagers. It was no ordinary Monday night!
For Masha and her newly-extended family, the walk home had now entered its second hour. If I had gone alone, I would have long since reached my hostel and this post would have been written on the night the events occurred! At least another half-hour’s walk from home, and sensing the family’s weariness, I offered to pay for a taxi home for all of us. We parted outside my hostel, but not before, Masha’s daughter, Katrine, gave me her contact details and asked me to stay in touch.
It was my last night in Donetsk. I would almost certainly never return. Why would I want to come back? How can you possibly top days like this – watching England play France in one of the finest football stadiums in the world and then witnessing the joy of a new nation into the small hours of the night in the company of locals.
Every day of a major international football tournament is like a lifetime in a day.
Being part of them makes you somehow feel immortal.
11 June 2012 - Donetsk - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
Donetsk 0400 (Local Time – BST + 2)
I’ve made it! Six months of planning, anticipation and fretting have brought me to this nondescript hostel close to the eastern extremities of Europe to watch a football match.
The five-hour stop-over in Istanbul gave many of the England fans an ideal opportunity to “refresh” themselves in the airport’s Sports Bar and Restaurant. No doubt riled by the sight of the Republic of Ireland playing in their first major tournament in a decade, two or three of the most refreshed briefly sing songs about The IRA as the plane to Donetsk taxis along the Istanbul runway. One wonders what the few French followers on the flight make of it all.
Yet, my mind drifts back a few minutes earlier, to the most inebriated of all the England contingent took time out to befriend a young Korean guy as they boarded the plane together. He had travelled from east to west, an even greater distance across the globe for the same reason – the love of a simple game.
Football will always unite more than it divides.
On the way from the airport last night, I tell my taxi driver, a guy in his early-twenties, that in the UK, rightly or wrongly, Ukraine is famous for two things at the moment – racism and Yulia Tymoshenko. A Russian speaker, like the majority of eastern Ukrainians, he looks perturbed and replies: “Racism in Donetsk? Absolutely nyet!
Say Donetsk to the vast majority of people across the world and if any of them can think of anything, it is the word “Shakhtar”. Over the last 15 years, the richest man is Ukraine Rinat Akhmetov has turned his football team into one of the European elite, UEFA Cup Winners in 2009 and now firmly established in the UEFA Champions League
That he has done, predominantly, by investing heavily in young Brazilian players of various ethnic backgrounds. Today, Donetsk became the eastern-most city ever to stage a UEFA finals match mainly due to the prestige it has accumulated on the back of the talent of its many black footballers.
I walk around the baking streets of Donetsk all day, stupidly rejecting the free public transport on offer to all match ticket-holders. As in almost every other country I have visited, I am stared at as I pass every person. Yet, here the looks are not the ones of fear and suspicion I get in western Europe. A Muslim man travelling on his own, in many countries, to many I am a potential ticking time-bomb. Here, I am simply a curiousity. Not even the four black African students who hold up a lengthy queue of photo-takers at the Donbass Arena with their shoddy picture-taking antagonise the locals, only a comment from a Ukrainian girl about the poor quality of his camera phone.
The recent BBC Panorama programme showed us all, that there people in Ukraine, like there are in every country, who behave in a clearly racist manner. Yet, on my second visit to this vast country, I am yet to meet one person like that.
I hope, I will still be able to say the same when I leave in two days’ time.
10 June 2012 - Stansted Airport to Istanbul - 2012 UEFA European Championships finals
Stansted Airport 11.25 BST
No matter how many times I do this, the anxieties are always the same. Is this the right day? Has my passport escaped from my pocket? What if there is another Asif Burhan who takes my place?
The outbound flight is the wellspring of any trip to watch football abroad. Miss it, and there are no second chances. No one will postpone the game for me. I can’t go again next year. An investment of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds instantly goes down the drain.
To my eternal lamentation, it has happened to me once. Three years ago, a missed bus and a delayed train meant I missed a flight to watch England play in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has a shiny, new capital city so England will never again play in Almaty. A once in a lifetime opportunity and a chance to make a thousand references to Borat passed me by forever. In life, you only regret the things you don’t do.
But that was then, and this is now. I am at Stansted airport on time. I am checked in and waiting in the departure lounge.
Tomorrow the eyes of the world will focus on a football stadium in eastern Ukraine. . . and I will be there!
Sunday 10 June 2012 – Istanbul, Sahiba Gökçen airport, 2120 (BST +2)
A trip to the European Championship begins naturally enough with a stop-over in. . . Asia. Istanbul’s Sahiba Gökçen airport is in on the “wrong” side of the Bosphorus for most visitors to this unparalleled city. I first came here seven years ago for the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final – yes, that one! A match that will live in the memory far longer than I will.
I’d like to think that this is not the only airport in the world to be named after a woman but Google is not forthcoming with any definitive alternatives.
In another continent I may be, but my journey east is not over. Donetsk is another 650 miles to the right on the map.
Still I am now closer to the city than the England players were in Kraków