Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sporting Gijon B v Real Oviedo

Segunda B or not to be?

Sporting Gijon B 0-0 Real Oviedo (26:09:10)

Planning any football trip to Spain from abroad is of course a logistical nightmare. Matches in the top two divisions are only pinned down to a day and kick off time 10 (ten) days beforehand. And if its games lower down the football pyramid you're after seeing, then just 5 (five) days prior notice is given. I can only conclude that the wine and nibbles at the Spanish FA must be so good, the men in suits like to assemble every seven days, no less.

Gathering any information is another minefield. And don't for un minuto think several daily football newspapers will help. Yes, of course up to ten photos of Jose Mourinho and CR7, but no danger of any actual dates and kick off times for anything below Xerez in Segunda Division. And if you do support Xerez - don't hold your breath - you'll get two lines at most.

Anyway, enough of the ranting. Despite this debatable debarcle throwing up the odd Monday night nightmare - it can occasionally land you with a jackpot. So it was then that 24 hours after watching Sporting Gijon tackle Valencia in La Liga, I was back at El Molinon for this Asturian local derby between two teams that - lets be honest - don't like each other very much.

Normally, Sporting Gijon B play their games in the 3,000 capacity Instalaciones de Mareo, he said checking his new Spanish bible the Guia de la Liga 2010-11 - comfortably the best €4 I've ever spent. However, with this match deemed to be Grade A - or whatever mark is attached to a fixture that gets hooligans excited - it was switched (at the last minute obviously) to El Molinon.

You'll never walk alone? The approach to El Molinon along the Playa de San Lorenzo is surely one of the best in football.

I'll have a 'T' please Bob.

200 Real Oviedo fans with their newly purchased 'Puta Gijon' (bitch/slag Gijon).

Puta Oviedo.

These are dark days for Real Oviedo. A few days before this derby they were beaten 1-0 at home to Mirandes. They didn't have a single shot on target. Worst still, only 4000 fans turned up in a stadium that holds over 30,000, and that was with an offer of free tickets to friends of season ticket holders. What must Sid Lowe - their most famous fan - be making of all this?

Hang on a minute, talking of Sid Lowe, he was very much the talk of the town between the Sporting Gijon fans and I prior to this match. Sid is really well respected in Gijon and this article goes a long way to explaining why he is in the running for the key to Gijon, and that despite his allegiances lying 15 minutes down the road in Oviedo. Sid was at this fixture last season, but sadly he couldn't make it for this one.

The older fans of Sporting Gijon prefer to talk about Real Madrid as being the main rivals. Talk to any younger fan though, and its Real Oviedo that brings them to the boil.

Sadly, only 200 away fans bothered with the short journey north. They were bused in and out with the minimum of fuss. Aside from a destroyed toilet block in the Grada Norte, the match passed of without incident despite a fractious build up of tension beforehand - mainly in the local media. Futbol, canticos y sin incidentes que lamentar (Football, singing and no incidents to report) declared La Nueva España the following morning.

With this being Gijon, I started the day with a stroll along the Playa de San Lorenzo and sat down for a hearty lunch with the wife before meeting up with the local fans. You can throw away the Lonely Planet guide in this town. Its foodie heaven, and you simply can't go wrong. All-sorts of fish, bull and horse (horse) meat, strong local cheeses and ciders were all downed in La Tabacalera and El Requexo respectively.

First impressions as you pitch up at El Molinon aren't too favourable. Currently - from the outside - it looks like a building site. In fairness, this is Spain's oldest stadium, and rather than move. they're renovating parts of it bit by bit. The temporary ticket office (actually a tent) and the club shop (actually closed) are set aside over the road from the ground. Inside, its a perfect fusion of red and white seats, there's no running track and the acoustics are spot on. It gets very loud when the fans get going, and boy do they get going - for the whole game.

Your probably wondering why I've rattled on for the thick end of a thousand words without mentioning the actual game. That's because there wasn't much to talk about. The fans were of course brilliant. I sat next to the Real Oviedo supporters who - despite being few in number - were fantastic. The home fans raised their voices in response, and if anything the atmosphere here was better than the previous days La Liga match. 6103 was the official crowd. It sounded more like 61000.

Fuera Fuera Fuera?

Si, es verdad.

Gavin Henson had a good view of the match.

Yeees! Pechu was back back back. See previous report from the Sporting Gijon v Valencia for more on this legend. Apparently, he has his own Facebook appreciation society. I'm signing up for that and no mistake.

The main talking point was the red card issued to Oviedo's Aitor Sanz in the first half. It was a very soft dismissal for a push, and that ruined the game as a spectacle from thereon in. Aerbitro mamon is the phrase you're looking for I believe. The most pressing issue for the Sporting fans afterwards though was the fact that they all have to lose weight. Why? Because their shirt manufacturers will be Kappa next season. They're not very forgiving on those with a slight problem in the belly department. And every Sporting Gijon fan wears their colours on match days. Chorizo sales are set to dip accordingly.

What else? Ah, yes. Note to those who spin the wheels of steel on a match-day in the stadium: We football fans DO NOT want to hear Black Eyed Peas version of I gotta feeling at every single match we attend. That song is the curse of mod€rn football. Give me strength, or better still, pass me another bottle of that local Asturian cider. After a few of those you'll be swinging a fast shoe to anything - aside from the Black Eyed Sodding Peas obviously.

So that was the end to my Spanish footballing marathon. Four live games spread out over three weekends and I loved every single minute - as you might have gathered. I'd seen Sporting Gijon first and second teams in action, and they'd scored a total of nil goals between them, nada. But, I came away loving and embracing the club. If you want to sit in silence at the Bernabeu watching football, that's fine. If you want passion, a riot of colour and deafening noise with your football then choose El Molinon, choose Sporting Gijon.

Is this the longest team bench in football? It spreads the whole length of the pitch.

Ahora mas que nunca (now more than ever) we are Sporting.

Apart from these chaps obviously.

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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Sporting Gijon

Cider with Rojiblancos

Sporting Gijon 0-2 Valencia (25:09:10)

I've been in like with Sporting Gijon for years. Primarily, they reeled me in with their name (he-hon) which I take great delight in saying, and in recent years they've won me over with their fans - the best in Spain. They're one of the very few clubs in La Liga whose supporters travel in huge numbers to away games, and sing vociferously for 90 minutes.

To get myself in with the Rojiblancos, I introduced myself on the clubs fan forum a few weeks before this match with Valencia. After an initiation ceremony - in which I was asked my views on bullfighting, and more importantly if I preferred my Spanish tortilla with or without onion - I was made very welcome. Juan - a fan of 30 years - was to take me under his wing and be my guide for the weekend.

The region of Asturias is legendary for its food, and with good reason. The portions are enormous, but that doesn't detract from the quality. After arriving in town, my wife and I pitched up at El Pozu L'Arena - a local Sideria (ciderhouse) for miners, and a place so good it was to bookend our weekend in Gijon. We had a four course meal in here for €12 which included every culinary delight you could dream of, and free wine. Woof.

Juan had invited EFW to Bar Texas near to the El Molinon stadium a couple of hours before the game. The atmosphere is explosive around the ground on match days, and you won't go far wrong in any of the bars - all of which have Sporting Gijon memorabilia adorning the walls, and I love that. After learning a few mandatory new phrases; Puxa Sporting, Puta Oviedo and aerbitro mamon (Up Sporting, Bitch [Real] Oviedo and the referee is a w@nker) we were flying.

It was a relief to be in the pub at all to be honest. Hours earlier I'd found myself locked in the stadium - the oldest Spain. I can think of worse places I suppose. As my hotel was just around the corner, I thought I'd try and find a 'magic door' for the standard EFW on the pitch snap. I found it without any problems, eased myself onto the pitch, and got one of the television crew to take the photo. Job done, and feeling quite chuffed, I went to get out again only to find the same door had been locked. Twenty minutes of feeling slightly sheepish followed until eventually, a bemused security guard set me free. And relax.

On the pitch - tick. Now how do I get out?

Pre-match outside Bar Texas with my new pals.

Valencia CF have arrived to the crease this season having to bat away a much publicised mountain of debt, the loss of their best players Villa and Silva, and a new stadium that's ground to a halt halfway through the building process. In the face of all that adversity, they've started this season like a team on fire, which is fairly apt, as they love a fire in Valencia.

Fans of novelty items in football grounds would have rejoiced as the two teams took to the pitch through two enormous inflatable bottles of cider. Ah, cider, more of that later.

And so to the game itself. It was total football from La 'naranja mecanica' (clockwork orange) early on. Topal opened the scoring in the 6th minute with the 100th goal of this La Liga season -he said casually throwing in a very impressive statistic - and three minutes later Soldado added Valencia's second, and his first league goal for the club, he said adding another.

I couldn't help but notice a chap behind me in the crowd. He'd been on his feet the whole game giving frightful abuse to everybody. Juan giggled and told me his nickname is Pechu (the chest), and he's famous in these parts. If you're ever within a country mile of the Grada Norte on a match day, you won't fail to notice him, and learn a few hundred new swear words in the process.

The two sides emerge through the cider bottles - as you do.

Topal scores La Liga's 100th goal of the season, and I will surely collect a prize of some-sort for taking this award winning (?) photo.

Pechu wasn't best pleased. Obviously.

The Valencia fans were loving it though. All 20 of them.

Roared on by the home support - even at two goals down and being slightly outclassed - Sporting Gijon fought back like caged tigers in the second half, but to no avail. Diego Castro caught my eye for the home side. A player in the mould of Paolo Di Canio, and one I'd pay to watch every week. For Valencia, it was all about Manuel Fernandez. The Portuguese international - who has had a couple of brief spells on loan at Everton - was immense.

Valencia's support was pitiful. Twenty fans for a club of that size is pathetic. I don't care how many excuses you want to come up with, I simply couldn't believe they would bring so few fans. Lewes FC take more than that to away games, well sometimes. Anyway, at the end of the game, Juan and his friends made a beeline for those fans that had made the journey. A bit harsh having a pop I thought, but I needn't have worried. They simply shook their hands and wished them luck.

Fair play to those Valencia fans that did travel though. They had the time of their young lives, and looked to have been on the local sidra (cider) all afternoon. Well, when in Gijon as they say.

As well as its food, Asturias is renowned for it's scrumpy-like cider, a small bit of which is poured from a great height into a large, finely-blown glass. to be drunk straight away, before it loses its 'fizz'. In other words its a recipe for getting snot-flying drunk in a very short space of time. At €2 for a large bottle, its cheap and very moreish. As usual here at EFW, we couldn't help ourselves, and we spent a very long night drinking cider with the Rojiblancos. A perfect night.

The EFW guides for the weekend. Cheers lads.

And if you know your history. They've been playing here since 1908.

Bootiful. The local police watch on in their fancy footwear.

Don't mess with tradition. Cider poured from a height. And then downed in one. Refreshing.

Sporting Gijon are a very different club in terms of Spanish support. They like to think of themselves in terms of a Liverpool. I'll go with a West Ham. Tremendous, vocal fans that regard themselves as a tight-knit family.

Next up for Juan and co. was a trip to Zaragoza. Over 20 supporters groups were organising travel, and over 2000 fans were expected to make the trip. Bad results and performances have no affect on the loyalty of Spain's best fans - the Gijonesas. If you're thinking of travelling with them to an away game, then mark down the visit to Deportivo La Coruna in your notebooks. They take up to 9,000 fans to that game. We're up for it if you are? Adios.

El Molinon.

The Ultra Boys.

Scarves o'clock.

Puxa Sporting!

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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Racing Santander

Life's a Beach

Racing Santander 2-0 Real Zaragoza (19:09:10)

This just in: Santander is brilliant. Want to know why? Then pull up a chair, and I'll try and explain.

Our belly is never far away from our thoughts here at EFW so it was pleasing to discover that the locals in Cantabria take their food very seriously. If you want beer as well, then that's cheap and plentiful, and what's not to like about a stadium that's just a goal kick away from a perfect sandy beach on one side, and surrounded by scenic mountains on the other?

Pretty much every bus heading east on a matchday will take you to the El Sardinero football ground, but why do that when - on a nice day - the alternative is a walk along those beaches having a couple of beers here and a few tapas there? (nope, got me there - Ed.).

Before we got some sand in our toes, we stopped off in Plaza Pombo whereby several hundred Racing fans were kicking off their day by exchanging football stickers. This is common Sunday practice in many Spanish towns. I wish it had been a regular occurrence in Lancing, West Sussex around the beginning of the 80's when I was after completing my Panini album. Spanish football expert Sid Lowe has written more on this fine art. Go and check it out.

Got any swaps? Football stickers are exchanged in the Plaza Pombo.

Back onto the beach then for some pre-match food. Burgers and chips for around a tenner right? Wrong. Fresh seafood for us. Cheap as well. And here's a tip: fancy a small beer in Santander, then ask for a caña. And if it's a lovely, big cold beer you're after, then ask for a cañon. So, altogether now: Dos cañons por favor. Just to make sure, do that 'big glass' gesture with your hands, the one you learnt to good effect in Prague.

Racing Santander had been kind enough to offer EFW a press pass. This being Spain however, it took me the best part of an hour to pick it up. Spain is an unbelievable country, but when it comes to any sort of bureaucracy, then be prepared to be very patient. Luckily, I was stood next to a six-foot cow opposite a giant spaceship in the queue, so that past the time nicely. Turns out his [the cow] name is Tula - the club mascot, and that [spaceship] is their equivalent of Wembley Arena - only six times more architecturally pleasing on the eye.

It's not often a pre-match meal makes it into the photo section, but this is Cantabria. And a starter at that.

Come 'ere ya daft cow. Tula and Danny alleviate press pass queue boredom.

Real Zaragoza announce their tactical plan early on.

Just over 13,000 had pitched up for this, the fourth game of the La Liga season. There was only around 50 odd Real Zaragoza fans there. With very few exceptions, away fans just don't bother to travel in this league. The home fans stuck up with a hearty rendition of 'Feunte de Cacho' (Fountain of Cacho) - a song about a brunette telling you where to drink water at 2am - and we were away.

Imediately, it became clear that Racing's preferred formation at home was the old 4-4-1-1 whilst opposing coach Jose Gay had opted for a 4-2-3-1. My thoughts turned to inverted pyramids. Actually, did they 'eck as like. I read about those formations in Marca before the game, so Zonal Marking and Johnathan Wilson can sleep tight.

My thoughts actually turned to beer. Inside the stadium only beer sin (without alcohol) is advertsied. I had a little word though. Turns out you need to do a nod a wink to the bartender, and then out comes the proper stuff, poured into a big tumbler. Who knew?

There is nothing a Spanish referee likes more than to dish out a few yellow cards. Splendidly, the man in the middle for this match was called Jose Louis Gonzalez Gonzalez. Gonzalez Gonzalez was licking his lips as early as the 5th minute when home skipper Munitis tried to take out Leo Franco in the Zaragoza goal. It was to be the start of a very strange afternoon for Gonzalez Gonzalez (no apologies for heavy repetition of his name). He later to a fancy to disallowing perfectly good goals. One for each side as it happened.

Los Verdiblancas in fine voice.

The Fuente de Cacho. Altogether now 'Ayer te vi que subias....'

Gol, gol, gooooool? Not if Gonzalez Gonzalez has his way. Offside mate. Or a foul. Take your pick.

Manuel Arana was at the heart of everything Los Verdiblancos had to offer. After Racing had taken the lead, I struck up a conversation with a chap called Antonio in the ground. He'd been coming here for 30 years. As such his season ticket was discounted by 35% to around €500 (individual match tickets at Racing Santander cost between €30-€60). Just as we were singing his praises, Arana produced another bit of exquisite skill to set up the second goal and that was that. 2-0 and frantic nodding and high fives all round.

Arana will inevitably end up at Real Madrid. They hoover up all of Racing Santander's talent. Gento, Amavisca, Helguara, Munitis and more recently Canales have all gone to the Bernabeu. Usually, whenever Real Madrid have won the European Cup, an ex-Racing player has been an integral part of their team. I was hoping to catch Canales the week before in the Bernabeu, but there he wasn't. He's signed up for five minute substitute appearances there instead of being the linchpin of another side.

After the game I joined the locals in La Tasca, the bar that is attached to the ground. The fans told me of crazy games against Athletic Bilbao whereby - not too long ago - 5-6000 away supporters would go to both matches. Crowd trouble, and politics put a stop to that though and nowadays just a few hundred brave souls travel. Also, they were quick to point out that Racing are innovators; the first team to be broadcast live on Spanish television, to have a shirt sponsor, sign a foriegn player, and to play in an overseas tournament - in Paris in 1933 I'll have you know.

With all that information stored and the words to 'Feunte de Cacho' embedded in my memory forever, I stepped across the road to rejoin my wife for a walk along the prom. Life's a beach sometimes eh?

Post match analysis in La Tasca.

Followed by more food...

....and a Santander sunset. Good old life.

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Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Real Madrid CF

La Noche en Blanco

Real Madrid 1-0 Osasuna (11:10:10)

It took less than the time it takes for the board to revolve for me to put pen to paper and sign up for three Spanish European football weekends in a row. It wasn´t all going to be about futbol on this trip, but you know, I quite like it and that.

First up was a return visit to the Bernabeu to see Jose Mourinho try and maintain his record of not having lost a domestic home match for around seventy-five years.

I was hoping the match would be a little more entertaining than the pre-match blurb. It would be very easy to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Real Madrid winger Pedro Leon - so lets do it. His press conference beforehand consisted of the following "It won´t be easy. I am sure it will be a difficult match and they [Osasuna] will give us some troubles. We need to focus on ourselves. We just hope that we do well in our next match, as well as those that follow." And people ask me why I prefer to interview football journalists rather than players.

Prior to the match, my wife and I sank a few beers in a museum - as you do. The Museo de Jamon has got a little more touristy over the years, but any place that sells over 100 varieties of ham and cheese, and has a few stalls around a bar which knocks out beers for €1 a pop gets my vote.

Look who joined us in the Museo de Jamon.

How do I get a ticket to see Real Madrid is a question I get asked all the time. Well, aside from the Barcelona match (impossible I´m afraid, unless you have very deep pockets) it´s not too difficult. The official website now has a very user friendly ticket option, but I thought I´d take my chances outside.

Match tickets start at €45 if you fancy watching the action unfold in the 4th tier, and rise to a whopping €100 for a pitch-side seat. With individual match tickets costing so much, a season ticket makes perfect sense, and they can be brought for as little as €226. With this in mind, lots of socios choose to sell their tickets on match days and make a tidy profit in the process.

I was lucky enough to met a chap called Jose outside (Jose? You couldn´t make it up - Ed.). Jose sold his season ticket to me for €35, and with a swipe of his credit card I was in. I´m unsure as to whether this was all above board, but this wasn´t really the time for questions. I got my head down, made no eye contact with security and plonked myself down in my seat, ten rows from the front of the action. Lovely.

How to make 25 instant new best friends in the Bernabeu Part 1: Tell those around you that Barca are about to lose to Hercules at the Camp Nou. I did this, then several minutes later it was confirmed on the big screen, and the quizzical looks I´d previously received turned into pats on the back.

Rub yer eyes and look at that. Barcelona 0-2 Hercules. Gulp.

The Ultras Sur not too disappointed with events in Barcelona.

The Ultras Sur struck up with a celebratory rendition of the Barca anthem, with a slightly alternative ending of "Barca, Barca, MIERDA (shit)". The rest of the stadium just clapped along politely and blew the odd vuvuzela.

Seeing as this was Mourinho´s first game in charge, I was fairly surprised with the muted reception he received as he emerged. In fact, returning Osasuna coach Camacho - who spent fifteen years as a player here, as well as a couple of brief stints as coach - was welcomed back with much warmer applause. Evidently, you have to earn the respect of the crowd at theBernabeu. Reputations, and they´ve seen a few come and go here, count for nothing.

As it happened, Cristiano Ronaldo did play. He was absent for the midweek internationals due to ankle-knack, but in a nod to Ryan Giggs, he made a miraculous recovery to play for his club. TheMarca newspaper has taken to calling him CR7 this season. That sounds like something out of Star Wars to me. He loves to strike a pose, but during this match, there was nothing to it.

The Bernabeu crowd are notoriously hard to please. And when Khedria dragged a shot wide just before the break, out came the white hankies and wolf whistles. This wasn´t good enough.

Last season, Real Madrid announced a record income of €442.3m. The official website accidentally forgot to mention that they´re still €244.6m in debt, but I have an idea of how they can clear that. All you can buy at half time is cans of Coke for €3 a go, beer without (without) alcohol and Real Madrid crisps. Of course Real Madrid crisps. Start serving up beer and pies to the 10,000 or so tourists that pitch up at every game and they´d clear that debt at the drop of a sombrero. We want pie.

A crisp profit, but where's our pie?

Ooh it's a corner.

Can he kick it? Yes he can.

Things picked up in the second half. Within minutes of the restart Osasuna had the blind cheek to win a free kick after Cavaliho had scythed down their striker. They rushed forward in numbers, and this was the cue for Ozil to work his magic. Just as he´d done in the World Cup he broke away like a young whippersnapper, ran the length of the pitch and delivered a cross toRonaldo. He shot - he always shoots - it rebounded off the outstanding Ricardo in goal, back to CR7, who then forgot his lines and passed to Cavaliho to cushion a right footer into the net. 1-0.

Ozil oozed class in that second half. He was subbed just before the end and was the recipient of aBernabeu standing ovation for his troubles. He might just be a Real Madrid number 23 that delivers the goods. Unlike the previous incumbent of that shirt.

It's just a step to the left. Ozil teaches the timewarp (again) to Marcelo.

Too much pre-match jamon y queso amigo. He'll be back.

Kick ass.

Unlike the majority of the 70,000 crowd, I stayed until the end. Begrudging applause greeted the final whistle, rather than the boos which were reported back in England by a few journalists that weren´t there [cough] Henry Winter.

Even with a huge crowd, it´s very easy to hop on the metro opposite the stadium and be back in town within 20 minutes. The reason I love Madrid so much is that there is always something happening. After Los Blancos in the Bernabeu it was time for La Noche en Blanco. It´s an annual music and arts festival that sees museums, theatres, cinemas and galleries open all night. Concerts and street performances spring up all over the city. We drank in some culture and then a few beers. Pasar la noche en blanco (no sleep all night) - indeed.

Mañana mañana. A proper Spanish breakfast the next morning did the trick.

For lots more photos from the game CLICK ME.

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Thursday, 9 September 2010

Tom Williams talks football in France

Allez la France

Aside from messing around on Twitter all day, I have to deal with a great deal of enquires from football fans asking how they get tickets for matches abroad. Of those, only about 2% concern games in France. Why doesn't a trip to our 'friendly' neighbours register on English fans thrill seeking agendas?

I walked around the office today and asked a few people their thoughts on French football. They just shrugged their shoulders, and blew their lips out - rather like Robert Pires used to. I loved it when he did that.

I think Le Foot has lots going for it, but what do I know? Tom Williams knows. Tom is a sports journalist based in Paris, and works for the Agence France-Presse agency covering French football. He's also the editor of Football Further, a tremendous website covering the French game - in English - as well as a bit of tactical chat.

Brilliantly, Tom agreed to talk to EFW about French domestic football. Le Foot in the grave? Let's see shall we:

French football has taken a bit of a beating lately thanks to Les Bleus abysmal failure in recent tournaments. Tell us something positive that's happening in the domestic game in France...I think one of the consequences of the World Cup was a realisation in French football that the game needs to regain the trust and the support of the fans, principally by encouraging attacking football and making sure supporters are entertained. It hasn’t yet translated into an avalanche of goals (Ligue 1 currently averages roughly a goal per game less than the Premier League), but it has produced some really eye-opening results. Caen, who won Ligue 2 last season, beat Marseille and then Lyon in their opening two league matches by playing some really enterprising football and the big teams are all currently struggling for form, which obviously makes the league a bit more dynamic. There’s also the customary crop of young players on the verge of big things, and France’s success at the Under-19 European Championship in Normandy immediately after the World Cup showed that there are reasons to feel optimistic about the national team’s future, despite all the doom and gloom of the past few years.

And the Coupe de France throws up the odd fascinating story doesn't it? It does, yes. It’s a great competition and one of the best things about it is the rule that grants home advantage to the lower-ranked teams. There are also no replays, so it makes it much harder for the top teams to swat aside lower-league opposition. Guingamp won it in 2009 while playing in Ligue 2 and Calais reached the final in 2000 despite playing in the predominantly amateur fourth tier. Quevilly (also fourth division) were last season’s fairy-tale side, beating top-flight Rennes and Boulogne-sur-Mer before losing to eventual winners PSG in the last four.

We're hooked already, which is the best city in France to head for our European Football Weekend? I’d strongly recommend a visit to Bordeaux. It’s a beautiful place, the entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and they’ve got a magnificent tram system. Stade Chaban-Delmas is a proper crumbly, atmospheric stadium as well – and Bordeaux have played some lovely football over the past few seasons – but I’d be lying if I said my favourite thing about the city wasn’t the tram system.

You're based in Paris. That has to be the biggest city in Europe with the least amount of interest in football no? Interest in football in Paris is very difficult to gauge. On the one hand, the city’s only got one major football team (who’ve only been around for 40 years), it’s full of snooty Parisians with no interest in the game and it doesn’t feel like a football city. But on the other hand, the Parc des Princes is one of the most thrilling places in Europe to watch football when there’s a big game on, every second bloke on the metro seems to be reading L’Equipe, the banlieues are teeming with kids who eat, sleep and breathe the game, and a million people poured onto the Champs-Elysees when France won the World Cup in 1998. Football tends not to intrude into all areas of life as it does in England or Italy, but football fans here tend to be extremely knowledgeable and surprisingly passionate.

PSG have a complex fan base don't they? If they're not fighting opposing fans, they can end up fighting amongst themselves...PSG’s fan base is a perennial source of concern. When PSG played Marseille at the Parc des Princes last season, the OM supporters boycotted the match en masse in protest at security restrictions but the PSG fans fought amongst themselves and one guy was beaten to death. It all boils down to long-standing feuds between various groups of supporters. The club was only set up in 1970 and it soon attracted a hardcore, right-wing following that the management of the time – desperate to fill the stadium – were quick to welcome. But because there’s so much appetite for football in the banlieues, in the 1990s PSG took steps to attract fans from ethnic minority backgrounds as well. Broadly speaking, the ancestors of the right-wing boot boys (known as the ‘Boulogne Boys’) stand in the Boulogne end and the North African kids from the suburbs stand in the Auteil end. That’s where the tension stems from and it can make for a pretty strange atmosphere at times.

Is it generally pretty safe to watch football in France though? In general it's pretty safe, although you tend not to get families going to matches as much as you do in England. Certain clubs have a reputation for trouble, but there's very little fan-on-fan violence. Most incidents tend to involve groups of 'Ultras' either lobbing flares onto the pitch or trying to provoke the police. And if you decide to take on the French riot police, you really do need your head examining.

Has the government 'repression' of ultras seriously affected the stadium atmosphere? There were quite a few unsavoury incidents last season and, barring the odd arrest, things have been a lot calmer so far in 2010-11. The most notable changes have been at the Parc des Princes. The hardcore PSG fan groups have all been broken up and are no longer allowed to stand together in the ground, leading many of them to boycott PSG's home fixtures. There were only 22,000 fans at PSG's first game of the season (in a stadium that seats 47,000), and while there have been lots of positive noises about the new, family-oriented atmosphere and the disappearance of the hooligans, I can't help but think it's a bit of a shame. Clearly, no-one wants to see stands full of racist thugs or fans from the same team attacking and killing each other, but the atmosphere at PSG used to be really special. A lot of people in France talk about the 'Premier League model' in reverential terms, without realising what a staid and sanitised experience watching top-flight football in England has become. They might not realise what they've got until it's gone.

Is it expensive to watch football in France? I think it depends where you go. Big games between the big clubs can often cost an arm and a leg, but if you were watching Caen, for example, you'd be paying about €180 for a season ticket in the cheapest seats and €15 for a one-off match ticket.

The beer isn't cheap is it? A night on the beers in France can seem outrageously expensive when you grew up drinking £1.49 pints of Fosters in your local Wetherspoons (as I did). A pint of lager in a Parisian bar can cost €7 or even €8, with ‘Happy Hour’ pints still setting you back €5 (about £4.20). There are bars in every city where you can drink cheaply though; you just have to steer clear of the tourist traps.

Can you recommend us a nice bottle of red to enjoy with our post-match meal? I wish I could. My wine knowledge is pretty abysmal. Merlot's supposed to be pretty decent though, isn't it? And if that's no good, it'll only set you back half a week's wages to get a round in.

How many daily football papers are there in France, and are they worth reading? L'Equipe is the only national sport daily, but regional papers like La Provence (Marseille region), Sud Ouest (Bordeaux region) and Le Parisien tend to have pretty good football coverage. I think L'Equipe is a fantastic read, mainly because their football coverage is only about football. There are no paparazzi pictures of footballers stumbling out of nightclubs, no hatchet jobs on unpopular players or managers, and no journalists shamelessly twisting coaches' words in search of a quote that can be ripped from its context and turned into a juicy story. When a coach gives an interview in L'Equipe, his words are just printed verbatim, which I find really refreshing. I know some people think L'Equipe is a bit dry - and they do publish an awful lot of transfer rumours - but if your interest is primarily in the game, rather than the soap opera that surrounds it, it's a breath of fresh air.

I take it there's saturation coverage on television as well? I wouldn't say it's saturation coverage, no. As I said before, football doesn't muscle in on mainstream culture in France in the same way as it does in England. But you can still watch all the football you could possibly want to. Canal+ shows all Ligue 1 matches as well as the Champions League, the Europa League and the big matches from England, Italy and Spain. France's games are all on terrestrial TV, while there are magazine shows similar to Football Focus over the weekend and a Match of the Day-style highlights programme on Canal+. I am yet to discover a French equivalent to Tim Lovejoy or James Corden though.

How refreshing. What's the punditry like then? Standard stuff or controversial and compelling? I'd say it's pretty good in general. There's much more informed debate than in England and the ex-pros who appear on TV don't come across as plaudit-spouting morons like (some of) their English (and Scottish) counterparts. Guys like Christophe Dugarry and Bixente Lizarazu can usually be relied upon to stick the boot in, particularly when the national side are concerned. There were some fantastically heated debates during the World Cup, including a stand-off on live TV between Lizarazu and Raymond Domenech that ended with Lizarazu calling Domenech a liar after Domenech said the France 1998 team had refused to speak to the media. French football coverage is also noticeably less insular than its English equivalent, mainly because there are high-profile French players and coaches working all over the world.

I'd say in general, English football fans aren't too enamoured with French domestic football. Is that reciprocal? No, it's the complete opposite. The Premier League is very popular in France and a lot of French football fans have a second, English team (which, for obvious reasons, is almost always Arsenal). It's mainly because French players have played such a significant role in English football over the last 15 years or so. I'm sure English football fans would take much more of an interest in Ligue 1 if, for example, Jack Wilshere was loaned out to Marseille or David Beckham chose to wind down his career at Monaco.

It's been a while since French football fans were swinging a fast shoe down the Champs Elysees in celebratory mode. Has the doom and gloom of the national team rubbed off domestically? Yeah, a lot of people are pretty fed up with football at the moment. France has long had a fairly sniffy attitude towards football and in the wake of the World Cup, there was no end of philosophers, politicians and right-wing nut-jobs crawling out of the woodwork to criticise the game and its spoilt/disrespectful/useless players. French football is at a bit of a crossroads. The international team's problems have been well documented, but there are problems in the domestic game too. Debts are mounting at an alarming rate (from an aggregate deficit of €34m in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in 2009 to around €100m in 2010), largely because French clubs traditionally rely more on money from player sales than teams in the other major European leagues and there's just not much money being spent in Europe at the moment. To make matters worse, young players are being 'poached' by the big European clubs before they've even represented the team that formed them (Gael Kakuta going to Chelsea from Lens, Man United taking Paul Pogba from Le Havre etc.). It's not enough to turn people away from the sport in droves, but it is worrying.

Give us a couple of names of players to look out for in the future that we might not have heard of...Rennes' academy has been voted the best in France for the last five seasons in a row and they've got a few gems on their books at the moment. Holding midfielder Yann M'Vila has started all of France's first three games under Blanc – having been named in Domenech’s provisional World Cup squad – and played with remarkable assurance for a 20-year-old, while Yacine Brahimi has got the same kind of jaw-dropping technical ability as Kakuta and is now a regular member of the Rennes first team after spending last season on loan at Ligue 2 Clermont. Toulouse’s Etienne Capoue is another one to look out for. He’s a slick holding player, similar to M’Vila, and was linked to Barcelona in the summer.

And presumably those guys will get hoovered up by clubs abroad as soon as they're good enough to sign a boot deal? That is the current trend, yes, but there are exceptions. Eden Hazard, Lille's brilliant Belgian winger, is one of the most coveted young players in Europe, but he’s been admirably consistent in voicing his belief that he will learn much more playing regularly for Lille than he would sitting on the bench every weekend at one of Europe's supposed glamour clubs.

Talking of M'Vila and Rennes, they've just sold Gyan to Sunderland, but Leroy and Mangane look decent. Shall we stick our €'s on them for the title? They're a top side and they've got some supremely talented players, but the thinness of their squad counts against them. That's often the problem for clubs like Rennes, Lille and Toulouse looking to break into the European places. Only Lyon and Marseille (and, at a push, PSG) can afford to have well-paid players sitting on the bench and Bordeaux's spectacular collapse in the second half of last season showed what can happen when a successful team suddenly runs out of steam. Auxerre qualified for the Champions League last season by being extremely solid and playing on the counter-attack, but it helped that they were lucky with injuries.

Propping up the table as we speak are AC Arles Avignon. Forgive my ignorance, but they're new to me. Can you shed any light on Les Lions? At the start of 2006 they were playing in the amateur fifth division but they’ve been promoted four times in five years and are now in the top flight for the first time in their history. Coach Michel Estevan is the man chiefly responsible for their Wimbledon-esque rise but he was almost fired following a strange series of events in the summer. Club president Jean-Marc Conrad offered him a bumper two-year contract extension (complete with €600,000 severance clause), but without having consulted anyone else on the board. Conrad was promptly sacked and Estevan looked to be on his way out as well after he was suspended for going to the French Professional League in a bid to get his original contract restored, before the new co-presidents, Marcel Salerno and Francois Perrot, had a change of heart. The club made a load of quite random summer signings, including former Watford favourite Hameur Bouazza and Greek internationals Angelos Basinas and Angelos Charisteas, and to cap it all, their new assistant coach is Robert Duverne, the former fitness coach whose legendary training ground strop in South Africa became one of the defining images of France’s World Cup fiasco.

On a personal note, look at you with your 4000 plus followers on Twitter. See people do love French football...I think it just shows how influential French football continues to be, despite Ligue 1 not being a tremendously popular league. There are French players and coaches working at some of the most glamorous football clubs in the world and what happened at the World Cup only served to pique interest (or perhaps just good old-fashioned schadenfreude) in what happens on the other side of the Channel. I have to be careful though. Start tweeting live updates on Brest v Valenciennes on a Saturday evening and you’ll find that you lose followers at the rate of roughly one a minute.

Far be it for me to *cough* plug my own site but I'm told you read EFW. Yes, I’m a big fan. It’s become so easy to follow football exclusively using television and the internet that you forget about the primary importance of watching live football. The joy of discovering a new ground (and with it a new town or city) while travelling in support of your team was one of the factors that made football such a phenomenally successful sport in the first place.

Any other football blogs - French or otherwise - you'd point us towards? I’m a bit of a tactics nut, so I’m a regular visitor to sites like Zonal Marking, Santapelota and The Arsenal Column. I also like quirky statistics websites like Mirko Bolesan and The Best Eleven, and there are some great videos at The Backwards Gooner.

That's it Tom. Thanks a million for taking the time to talk to EFW. My pleasure.

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