Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas from EFW

And a cracking 2012 full of European Football Weekends, peace and happiness to you all. Thanks a million to all of you who have logged on to read these pages during 2011 and huge props to all of you who have contributed articles, photos, useful information and the like either on here or over on the EFW Facebook page or forum.  We've built a little community of kindred spirits on EFW and you're all absolute stars. *wipes away tear*.

It's been a busy year for EFW judging by all these tickets (below). More of the same in 2012? We'll see....

Monday, 12 December 2011

Legia Warsaw v Cracovia

Louder Than Bombs

Legia Warsaw 0-0 Cracovia (10:12:11)

During June of next year the streets of the Polish capital will be pounding with football fans ready to embrace Euro 2012. The Polish FA will ensure that there are ladies dressed in traditional Polish folk costumes stood on every corner, and Uefa will insist that those fans drink only Coca-Cola, Castrol or Carlsberg and that no food should exist in Warsaw outside of McDonalds. 'We care about Football' is the Uefa motto. Not when temperatures dip below freezing they don't. Michel Platini and Lennart Johansson had waived their free passes for this match leaving Stuart Fuller and I - dressed in more layers than a mille-feuille vanilla slice - to brave the cold.

It's fair to say that both Stuart and I are obsessed about European football. But we do like our culture too and so where better to kick off our day in Warsaw than with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science. It is after all the tallest building in Poland and from its viewing terrace on the 30th floor we reckoned on being able to see at least two of the cities football stadiums. What we hadn't factored in was a giant display of adidas Tango balls placed in front of the entrance of the building. Our eyes lit up, "That's the best sight I've seen since I saw the current Mrs Fuller waltzing down the aisle" beamed Stuart. At the top you can actual make out Legia Warsaw's ground (just) and the new national stadium which you get a stunning view of. We learnt that the palace was a gift from Russia; it was hated at first but now begrudgingly accepted, and that the Rolling Stones were the first major rock band from abroad to give the Poles some satisfaction by playing here in 1967. However, with no sign of Mick and Keith and none of the 3000 rooms resembling a Legia Warsaw museum. It was time to kick on.

The Palace of Culture and Science looking an absolute picture, no?

Danny in adidas Tango heaven underneath the entrance - tick.

For less than £2 you can get a lift to the top and see the new national stadium. What's not to like?

Legia's base, Łazienkowska, lies just south of the city centre. For less than a quid the number 151 bus plonks you right outside the ground. Their football museum was shut and the queue for the pub we'd been recommended was enormous so we chose to soak up the atmosphere inside which had already been echoing across the city.

At a recent Europa League game, the Legia Warsaw fans unveiled a banner declaring the legend, 'We hate everyone'. Unless you're from or support Szczecin (MKS Pogoń), Sosnowiec (Zagłębie) and Elbląg (Olimpia) - they're all actually friends along with ADO Den Haag whose colours we saw all around the stadium - then you're an outsider. Speaking to a few fans beforehand I gather that this steams from some comedy match-fixing in the early nineties. Going into the last game of the season Legia and ŁKS Łódź topped the table and won their final games of the season by cricket scores against teams who'd possibly been slipped a few bob. The PZN (Polish FA) were having none of it and awarded the title to the third placed team, Lech Poznań. Grudge matches and hooliganism have reared their head ever since.

Inside the Polish Army Stadion or if you will the Pepsi Arena, for the record I prefer the former, there was of course a pulsating atmosphere complete with some textbook choreographed singing. It's like this every week here. I can't think of a single ground in Britain where there's relentless noise for 90 minutes during every game. Away to our left in the Żyleta - the stand where the ultras gather which translates to, and you'll like this, 'razor blade' - all dressed in white were the Legia hardcore. They know the score: don't wear black. 'The Black Shirts' is the nickname of their hated rivals in the city, Polonia. "We hate those bastards" said the chap to my right. There's a shock.

It is impossible not to tap your foot along to the rhythm of the beat as anthemic brilliance pours from the lungs of every single fan. They sung louder than the bombs that had flattened most of Warsaw during World War II and wiped out over half of their inhabitants in the process. Loud, beautiful and proud: Warsaw is definitely back.

There are flags and banners everywhere you look on the Żyleta. Many of them date back over 30 years; those flags are incredibly important to the fans. Every club has them and it's important to keep an eye on them because every other clubs supporters/hooligans would like to steal them. In fact, at our game the next day, ŁKS Łódź v Śląsk Wrocław, fans took down their flags in order to protect them before trying to rip down the fences to attack each other. The flags are seen as trophies from winning any battle; the older the flag, the more important. If you're able to steal a treasured flag of another club, you then hang it on the fence during the match against that team - upside down, naturally - and then burn it. The same thing occurs with scarves, t-shirts and everything, but the flags are most valuable. This is unlikely to occur during Euro 2012.

Anthemic brilliance from the Żyleta

All white on the night

Stuart and I weren't dressed in white - doesn't disguise the beer belly - and we hadn't stolen any Lech Poznań flags during our whirlwind tour of their stadium on the morning of this match so we took up the clubs kind offer of a spot in the press box for two minutes before moving to be nearer those fans. I should add that the reason we were in Poland in the first place is that we've been employed to write a guide to Euro 2012. So like a couple of estate agents from Homes Under the Hammer, and in between all this nonsense, we were actually doing some work; clutching a couple of clipboards and putting ticks and crosses next to stadiums, transport systems, hotels, local cuisine and every single different Polish beer we could lay our hands on. Na zdrowie!

The game - which was, fact fans, the 1000th to be played at this stadium in all of its various guises, finished 0-0. But the fans, them again, didn't seem to react to anything that occurred on the pitch. When a player was clean through on goal they didn't raise or lower their voice. It was just unwavering support throughout. If they'd have won 4-0 or lost 0-4 I'm guessing it wouldn't have made any difference. Could you imagine Old Trafford rocking to its very foundations during a bore draw at home to Wigan? No, of course not.

At one point a few Legia fans tried to break through into the away sector. And sort of halfheartedly a number of Cracovia fans tried to break out of their end, but security dealt with it swiftly and there wasn't any actual trouble that I noticed anyway. Considering they were second from bottom in the league, Cracovia were backed by an impressive following of around 1500-2000. Bizarrely a lot of them didn't turn up until the second half prompting a cracking visual display of flag waving. There were definitely fans of Lech Poznan in among them - another fan friendship - and by all accounts a few supporters of Polonia Warsaw had also popped in to lend a verbal volley of hatred towards Legia. 

The impressive Cracovia support dressed in black. Obviously. 

I'd been polishing up on my Polish all week in preparation for the post-match press conference. So whilst mumbling away about a pretty dull scoreless match for twenty or so minutes I can confirm that neither Legia gaffer Maciej Skorża nor Cracovia boss Dariusz Pasieka - who was sporting a magnificent Cracovia scarf - said dwa piwa proszę (two beers please) or jestem z zespołem muzycznym (I'm with the band). These were two of the three phrases I'd learnt. The other one allowed me my big moment in this gathering when it came to my turn for asking a question. Slightly tentatively and with clammy palms I leant into the microphone and asked Czy ten pociąg staje w Warszawa? (Does this train stop in Warsaw?). Unsurprisingly, thirty seconds later Stuart and I were out on the streets of Warsaw and in need of a beer.

Our attempt to blend in with the locals back at the bus stop failed miserably. Fire crackers and flares have been banned from Polish stadiums in attempt to clean things up ahead of Euro 2012, but action outside of the ground is a different matter. Flares were let off - which both warmed and cheered us up - and then came the fire crackers; nobody batted an eyelid other than two English daises who jumped out of their skin. We'd been rumbled.

We ended up back in the old town of Warsaw watching Real Madrid get humped by Barcelona in a pub full of the worst type of plastic fans known to man. They'd never been to the Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabéu or even along the road to Legia or Polonia Warsaw. And yet they saw fit to scream every time Ronaldo, Cesc or Messi got the ball, and smashed glasses on the floor when the goals rained in. Get yourselves to a live game lads. There are 500 or more reasons to love watching football in the flesh, because it's not all bad you know.

What was bad was Stuart and I attempting to sing karaoke in the wee hours of the night. So apologies to all those gathered in the Pub Ślusarni. It wasn't pretty. I opted for (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash whereas Stuart cleared his throat, and most of the pub, to Bryan Adams Summer of 69. We don't make a habit of this, but we'd had one of the best days abroad watching football in our young-ish lives, and we've been to a few places. Poland is officially the new Germany in terms of watching football; cheap beer, superb fans, crumbling stadiums; brand spanking shiny new ones, history, friendly locals, cheap and largely efficient transport the lot. Get yourself over there, you won't regret it.

Meanwhile back in the old town at night it's Happy Christmas from Warsaw...

...and a very Merry Christmas to you all from EFW. *wipes away tear*. 

For loads more photos head to the EFW Facebook group HERE, or click on Stuart's photos THERE.

There's videos of the Legia fans from this match HERE and THERE.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Crvena Zvezda v Partizan Belgrade

The Belgrade Derby: A World Phenomenon

Crvena Zvezda 0-2 Partizan Belgrade (26:11:11)

The taxi ground to a halt with the floodlights of the Marakana rising in the distance, writes Andy Hudson. A single policeman tried to control the traffic from six different directions; the angles of his hands lost amidst the steam billowing from his mouth. “You should take them to a whorehouse after the match; that’ll relax them and is what everyone should do here at least once,” the taxi driver mumbled to the lad in the passenger seat. Three of us sat shivering in the back seat, English only speakers and oblivious to the Serb delights the taxi driver had in mind for us for afterwards.

With time still on our side we made our way back towards the centre of town and a traditional Serbian restaurant called Mala fabrika ukusa, 2km away from the stadium instead of the place we were originally heading to which was set in the shadows of the Marakana. There was to be no pre-match pies for us; honey glazed pork served with horseradish ice-cream was knocked back with pints of Jelen before we braved the icy cold for the walk to the stadium.

We left the restaurant and hurried off in the direction of the ground. After turning two corners we could see the huge floodlights looming across the skyline, yet before we could see them, we knew what direction we were heading in; we followed the distant noise coming from the already packed Marakana. There wasn’t much talking amongst the home fans as we made our way under and over roads; across a small park; all the while getting closer to the stadium.  A nervousness hung in the air; similar to any other city on derby day.

A huge floodlight looms across the Belgrade skyline. As does the cities biggest tree. 

As we cut up along Ljutice Bogdana, one of the few streets that separate the Marakana from Stadion FK Partizan, we could hear flares going off in the stadium. My heart raced. The air had the smell of bonfire night and cutting through was the sight of people racing to the security gates. We had VIP tickets for the West Stand and headed up the stairs from reception. The section we were in was heaving with not a spare seat and plenty of people packed into the back rows. We quickly decided not to waste too much time trying to get our seats, with the throng of people crammed in it would have been foolish to try and get in. We had a word with one of the club staff who took us back downstairs and explained to security that we were to be in the stand amongst the Zvezda masses.

The greatest firework display I’ve ever seen then sparked to life to my left, in the North Stand, home of Delije, the Heroes. Three stands of the Marakana burned with red flares while fireworks exploded over the stadium. Smoke drifted across the pitch as the players emerged from the tunnel, densely obscuring the view:

The South Stand, home of Grobari and a second Partizan fan-group, Južni Front, seemed to be doing nothing. They were merely waiting. As soon as the Delije fireworks were coming to an end, they started their own

The match kicked-off with the whole stadium singing. The atmosphere could have powered a small country. Everyone in the North Stand was stood with scarves held aloft, more impressive than anything that could be mustered on the Kop at Anfield. The smoke hung in the stadium air, obscuring my view of the Partizan fans over to my right. From my standing position just next to the North Stand, stood in a packed gangway where every fan was singing, all if could see was red and white. Flares continued to go off several times a minute, with the firemen on the track behind the goal kept busy by the large number hurtling towards the pitch.

An explosive start to proceedings

Lovely flag, but where are those flares?


I’d heard stories about how intimidating the atmosphere could be; how violence rippled across everything and that even for a neutral there’s an edge that can be troubling. Yet I never interpreted any of this for violence in any way; it was far simpler than that: this was passion. While some may disagree with me on this point, but flares being thrown on an athletics track where they are collected and quickly put out is a lot different to fists being smashed against another fan’s head. Not once did I feel threatened; neither before the game nor during.

Zvezda enjoyed the best of the opening exchanges though chances were at a premium. Flares in front of the South Stand caused a fire on the athletics track and then a fire was started at the front of the stand when pitch covers were set ablaze by the Partizan fans.

With every attack the noise increased and then three quarters of the Marakana went crazy with excitement as the referee awarded Zvezda a penalty. With the home club having taken the precaution of removing the plastic seats from the South Stand, the track filled up only with flares as Evandro stepped up to eventually take the spot kick. With many home supporters around me either peering through their fingers or turned with their backs to the pitch due to nerves, the Brazilian screwed his penalty wide of the post to cause the only period of silence amongst the Delije. That silence was only to last a moment as the noise suddenly increased to drown out the celebrating Grobari . Meanwhile, a few seats were being hurled onto the track from the East Stand, where one of the fractured Partizan fan groups, Zabranjeni, were congregated.

As half time arrived I made my way to the club shop to buy a hat and to thaw out my body. Despite the red hot atmosphere, it was the coldest I had ever felt at a football match. Meanwhile, down on the pitch, most of the Partizan players shivered in their dugout having seen their path to the tunnel blocked by a cascade of flares thrown by Delje.

With no let-up in the atmosphere, the game drifted somewhat during the second half. The real quality was with the fans. A huge red and white flag covered much of the North Stand – those not under the flag held aloft flags. As Delje started up a rendition of Od rođenja mog, many fans around me passionately joined in, some with tears in their eyes.

That love song to Zvezda, with the translated words of:

Ever since my birth,
there hasn’t been a day without your name,
not a day, not a year,
Red Star.
Only with you,
will I remain forever,
Red Star.

It was meant to stir their red and white heroes on to victory. Yet it was Partizan who would go on and break Zvezda hearts.

Anyone got a light?

With twenty minutes remaining, Zvonimir Vukić beat two defenders and fizzed in a low shot to break the deadlock. Then Marko Šćepović collected a long through ball and, having raced beyond his marker, slotted past the home ‘keeper to send the South Stand into raptures. Ken and Chris, who were in the West Stand but down near the South Stand, standing amongst a mixture of home and away fans, observed later than as Partizan celebrated they thought fights were going to break out around them; the moment passed without violence.

As the final whistle attempted to pierce the noise of the crowd, both the North and South Stands were still in full voice, the air around the stadium was that of dejection; similar to at a party that has quickly, and unexpectedly, run out of booze. We headed back to the centre of Belgrade to join the Saturday night revellers in the Three Carrots pub. As the other lads left late on to go to the airport, I left for the hostel, ready for another three days in the city.

I spent a lot of time talking to Zvezda fans during those days. The inevitable question would arrive immediately after they found out I had been to Marakana: “So, who do you support?” It was a question I had heard many times since my arrival; every stranger who met each other, whether they were both Serbs or Serb and English, had asked the other person that. By the end of my first pint after the match I had perfected a confident answer; the confidence growing not just as a result of the impression left on me by the Marakana support, but by the derby hurt glowing in the eyes of the person talking to me. “I’m Zvezda, who do you support?” A grin would sweep across the face before the reply: “Zvezda! Me too. We’re the best team. What did you think of our supporters?”

One Zvezda fan summed up their feelings of what makes the Eternal Derby so special: “The Belgrade derby is a world phenomenon. The standard of football is low but everything else is top class. That’s why it’s the biggest. We have the best atmosphere; the loudest chanting; the most tension, switching between love and hate”.

Sunday resembled one huge hangover, not just in my head but also across the city. Shoppers shuffled along the street looking down; coffee shop couple talked in hushed tones; the Red Star Belgrade fans, numbering many more than Partizan, were hurting. I passed through the usual sights during those days and spent time at a newspaper that produced a profile on me and my observations of the derby. Talk was already of the return fixture and revenge, though by the time it rolls around, Partizan could have secured a sixth successive title. Whatever happens over the course of the season, the greatest atmosphere at any football match in Europe will be in Belgrade, screaming from both the North and the South Stands.

I'll chuck in a few Serbian dinar if you hold both clubs scarves aloft....

....will this do?

Aye lad. #DoublePageSpread

Follow both Andy Hudson and European Football Weekends on Twitter

For more of Andy's work head HERE or indeed THERE

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

BSK Borča v Vojvodina

The Calm Before The Storm 

BSK Borča 0-4 Vojvodina (26:11:11)

It's the morning of The Eternal Derby in Belgrade. Before living and breathing that dream fixture, Ken Morton and friends took in a match in relatively serene surroundings...

The Luton Ibis is far from glamorous but the prospect of a big European derby made it slightly easier to rise from my slumber. It was 05:30 and myself and EFW newbie Chris Sobey smartly made our way to Luton airport for our Wizz Air flight to the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade. I had travelled down from Aberdeen the night before and our heads were still slightly dull following quite a few beers in the hotel bar. But we were off to see the ‘Eternal Derby’ between Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade; no better hangover cure I thought.

We entered the airport and our excitement was turned to nervousness as we saw the queue of around 500 people waiting to go through security at the airport; the result being a 45 minute wait and then a quick dash to the departure gate. Sweating, due to the sprint to gate 18, as we took our seats we were greeted by a very attractive stewardesses. As we took off I explained to Chris what he was about to experience and the current situation around the Grobari where infighting had led to a split. I explained that there was a risk of trouble and the city was on high alert. All this talking meant thirsty throats and we necked a few beers before touching down on Serbian soil.

Hello operator, could you get me Kenny Legg and Danny Last on the line please. We need to arrange two plane tickets to Belgrade. Quick. Sharp. 

We were greeted by a low-lying fog, which was to be prevalent throughout our trip. Sometimes it is difficult not to pre-judge, but I suppose it added to the mystique of this previous war torn country. We met Gannin’ Away’s Andy Hudson on board the waiting shuttle bus that whisked us off to Slavija Square in the centre of the city. Wow…it was cold and damp, and you would think I would be used to it living in Aberdeen! Chris and I were staying at a hotel close to both stadiums called the Villa Senjak so we decided to meet Andy later. Passing bombed out buildings, cracked pavements and old Fiat cars we finally made it and agreed to meet up later to travel back into the centre.

Andy had arranged tickets for the game through his Serbian contact so the venue to meet was the Three Carrots Irish pub. 2 derby tickets, 13 plus pints, 6 shots and 2 kebabs later, myself and Chris stumbled around the fog-strewn streets at 4am trying to remember where the hotel was. The high alcohol intake wasn’t intentional, but sitting in the back room of a bar with both Red Star and Partizan fans, we found that as soon as our beers were almost finished, another would magically appear on the table in front of us, joined by a shot.

Waking up, face down eating my pillow, I wondered if the morning fog outside was ticker than the one inside my head, but I didn’t have much time to think as we were off to the Three Carrots to meet Andy and his Serbian contact Nenad for midday. We all jumped into a taxi to the first game of the day…BSK Borča were at home to Vojvodina. Our taxi took us to a small suburb of Belgrade and the 3000 capacity Borča Stadion to be exact. BSK were formed in 1937 and are traditionally a lower league team but won promotion to the Serbian Superliga in 2009. Vojvodina, on the other hand, are a more experienced team having been regular competitors in European competitions. The stadium consists of two uncovered terraces running length side of the pitch, an open end behind one goal, a fire engine in the corner and a complex that consists of clubrooms and restaurant behind the other goal.

We're BSK Borča, we do what we want...

We were slightly late for kick off and missed the first goal but it soon became clear that the home side were severely lacking in skill and Vojvodina unsurprisingly added another before half time. Hair of the dog or a rest from the biting cold? You decide but a break from standing on ice by having a pint and a pizza in the adjoining restaurant at half time made us all feel a bit more energetic. Upon reaching the terraces again for the second half, delayed because the electricity was too weak to quickly cook the pizza, we saw the game was now 4-0 to Vojvodina! I’ve never been to a game with four goals and missed three before so that’s a first for me – yet Chris missed all four. The remainder of the game was spent watching the Ultras of Borča (10 adults and 15 kids) enthusiastically sing such well known hits like BORČA CHAMPIONS, BORČA CHAMPIONS or the classic SIT DOWN IF YOU LOVE BORČA! Their efforts was pale in comparison to the slightly larger and noisier away support who bounced relentlessly up and down in true Balkans style.

13 pints and 6 shots please bartender

Ken Morton is site editor of which as well as documenting his love for MVV Maastricht also covers Project 50 – Ken’s attempt to visit each of the top 50 derbies in world football. He can be found on Twitter at @mvvschotland

Tomorrow on EFW: Andy Hudson on Crvena Zvezda v Partizan Belgrade. Expect fireworks.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Gamba Osaka v Vegalta Sendai

The Japanese Newcastle

Gamba Osaka 1-0 Vegalta Sendai (26:11:11)

Newcastle United fan Michael Hudson travels to Osaka to see the Japanese version of... Newcastle United...

There are two ways of getting from Nagoya to Osaka by train. The Shinkansen takes just under an hour and will set you back the best part of sixty quid each way; a combination of local and rapid trains is more than twice as long, half the price and perfectly timed to allow you to read at least halfway through the Blizzard while sitting next to a bloke in a gauze face mask whose head keeps falling against your right shoulder. Like the recent Manchester derby, there wasn’t any contest.

My meticulously planned timetable almost goes awry when I’m late leaving my flat, the ten-minute sprint to the station bringing on a sweat which at least ensures the neighbouring seat stays empty until we’re halfway to Kyoto. I go straight through the ancient capital then jump on the wrong train when I change in Osaka and end up travelling half the way back. It’s just turned half past twelve by the time I get to the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, home of Gamba Osaka’s ageing Banpaku Stadium, and the first person I see as I get off the monorail is Ben Mabley, Blizzard contributor, Gamba ultra and my host for the day.  “Welcome to Osaka,” he says, buying the first of many Suntory Premium Malts.

As we drink, we talk J.League, the Glazers, Twitter, Takashi Usami (the 19-year-old midfielder currently on loan at Bayern Munich), Gamba’s proposed new stadium – called, tentatively I hope, the Field of Smile - and Akira Nishino, whose contract the club declined to renew after a decade in charge, one J.League title, three domestic cups and an Asian Champions League. We separate at kick off when Ben goes to join the ultras in the sold-out home end and I mix in (if you can ever use that phrase when you’re the only person in five hundred not wearing a yellow shirt) with the Vegalta Sendai fans at the opposite side of the pitch.  Smoke bombs explode above the blue and black Gamba flags as the Vegalta support – led by a man with a megaphone and Unity Japan t-shirt – run through a repertoire including songs to the tune of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by The Ramones and ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’.

Howay The ガンバ大阪

With two games left and Gamba four points behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol, the home side are unsurprisingly nervy, even after South Korean striker Lee Keun-ho heads them into a 22nd minute lead. Fortunately, most of Vegalta’s chances fall to Shingo Akimine, whose efforts at goal land as wide of the mark as an editorial in the Daily Mail.  At the final whistle, with Kashiwa dropping two points at home to Cerezo Osaka, both sets of players line up to bow to the crowd, Nishino takes to the pitch, and I slip out to meet Ben back at the bar.  After staying back to help the other ultras to tidy up the stand, he arrives twenty minutes later and introduces me as a Newcastle fan. “Newcastle?” an English-speaker asks excitedly, stretching the first syllable like a pair of knee-length socks. "A lot of Gamba fans think of themselves as the Japanese Newcastle," Ben explains. "As cities, they have a very similar relationship to the rest of the country and the same kind of accents." “Newcastle played here in 1996,” another of the ultras tells me. “Ferdinand, Asprilla…they were pissed off that the crowd wasn’t very big but our football culture wasn't developed at the time and most Japanese fans only knew Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Now everyone knows of Newcastle as one of the biggest clubs." I’m starting to like Gamba Osaka by this point. I really, really am.

Erm.... answers on a postcard please

Back off Napoli

I like them even more a couple of hours and a subway ride later when Ben and I are the only foreigners at the Gamba ultras’ end of season party.  All-you-can-drink-and-eat for £25, and this being Japan there’s a longer queue for the buffet than the beer. “We’ll be back lots,” Ben tells the barman in Japanese as the singing kicks off in the centre of the room. I load up a paper plate with spaghetti, Vienna sausage and pizza slices, chug another Suntory beer and shake hands about twenty times with a fan whose only words of English are ‘Michael’, ‘Newcastle’ and, in what’s clearly a dig at the pink shirts of city rivals Cerezo Osaka, ‘Pig fuckers’. Or that’s what I kept telling myself, anyway. Ben winds up translating as the ultras quiz me on the “Tyne-Wear derby” and English fan culture. “English fans look very excited,” someone says. “Well, sometimes,” I reply, thinking the afternoon’s atmosphere was far louder than in most Premier League grounds, St James’ Park included.  The night ends on Ben’s sofa, convenience store cans to hand, watching Newcastle United grab a draw at Old Trafford. It’s better than we managed in Osaka – in 1996 they stuffed us 3-1.

You can follow Michael Hudson and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Michael is the editor of The Accidental Groundhopper 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Barney Ronay interview

Barney's Version

Armed with some rubbish questions from EFW and some gems of her own, Lizzy Ammon clicked the heels of her favourite pair of red shoes together three times before marching off to meet Guardian sports journalist Barney Ronay...

Thanks for taking time away from Guardian Towers to talk to us. There are probably quite a few people reading this that would like to enter the world of football journalism. What advice would you give them? Erm. If you mean paid football journalism then good luck. It is, like everywhere else, a shrinking sector. I still think the traditional way is the best: find something you can do that editors will want, and which makes you stand out. Traditionally a good way of doing this was simply going abroad and knowing all there is to know about whatever’s going on in South America, or Narnia or Syldavia.

For others getting on a freelance match report list, doing entry-level production shifts in the office and getting a foot in the door that way. Alternatively perfecting a skill: being better than anyone else at tactical analysis, or funnier than anyone else, or more thorough. This is the real way to get into it now: by doing something of your own to that standard on the web and making it brilliant and unignorable.

I got into journalism by starting my own writing website called The Pitch. It was crap, mind, but no one else was doing it back in the day so that didn’t really matter. In fact I have a theory I was the first person ever to do it like that. You are all my children.

This is a bit of a hot topic in the twitter and blogospheres at the moment - Should aspiring journalists be prepared to have their work published without getting paid in order to get their old size nines in the door? Yes. It’s also the only way in many other professions. It’s the same in the law these days. You’ve got to be willing to be exploited for a bit. There is a grand tradition of getting a foot in the door by hawking yourself out. Believe me, paid newspaper journalists are just as alarmed by people writing for free. Many feel they’re going to be put out of a job by the endlessly fecund part-timerism of the blogosphere.

Do you read any football or cricket blogs? Some sometimes. People are very talented. There is a lot of good stuff out there. And also a lot of crap, but even that has its charms.

You've written a book or two - any plans for another? Yes. I’m putting together something at the moment. It’s a love letter to a grand vanishing sporting institution, and a stalkerish fan-boy meditation on one of the great wasted talents of our age. It may or may not be any good.

Moving seamlessly onto the England football team, just as expectations were scrapping on the barrel of the ocean they go and beat the world champions. They're now a shoe-in for Euro 2012 aren't they? England have a terrible record at Euros outside this country. I think they will be unable to string together successive performances like that one against Spain. Everything is against them at these summer tournaments: southern European style weather, the patient rhythms of international football, hard pitches, inexperience of our home-bound players of living abroad for weeks at a time. They aren’t ever quite good enough to overcome these inbuilt disadvantages. And that’s it really. No great mystery there.

But if they did go on and win it, are you the type that would paint your face and run naked into the fountain at Trafalgar Square whilst beating your chest? No. I would be pleased for all those terribly honest and well-intentioned  - and maligned - coaches who work in our football at lower levels.

But what kind of message would it send out if England did win anything? Neglect your youth systems! Have a centralised money-driven super league! Countries who look after their players tend to win these things.

If I loved the system  - if it could be made to resemble a little more the self-sustaining German one – and England then won something that would certainly be worth cheering.

Does the prospect of Team GB playing football at the Olympics quicken the Ronay pulse? No. Football should not be at the Olympics. No professional sport should be. In fact no team sport should be there. Eight gold medals for each of the eight guys in a boat? Come off it. They should all share one. No way one eighth of a boat should get the same as Usain Bolt. By my calculations, on the one gold per boat system, Steve Redgrave currently has about 2.5 goal medals. Fewer than Bradley Wiggins, which sounds about right. Having said that I did love the 1996 Olympic football competition, which I watched on TV in Brazil. Nigeria. What a team.

I'm guessing you'll be sent to cover some weird and wonderful events at the Olympics. Are you up for penning 1800 words on the equestrian qualifying heats? Are you looking forward to the Olympics?  Are we (London) going to put on a decent show or will we embarrass ourselves as I cynically predicted when we were awarded the games? It will be all right. Don’t forget: it’s only two weeks. Go on holiday and you’ll miss it. Plus there are far worse things going on these days than, say, Boris Johnson setting fire to his hair with the Olympic torch. I think everyone has calmed down a bit about the Games. As Stringer Bell might say, it is what it is.

Danny, the owner of this site, says I’m allowed to ask you a couple of cricket related questions. So

a) What is the best match you’ve ever seen live? Er. England v West indies Test at Lords in I think 2000 was pretty amazing. Cork’s match. For knockabout fun there was a Sunday league match at the Oval between Surrey and Hampshire in about the same year where Surrey scored over 400, I dropped an Adam Hollioake six in the Bedser stand, the young KP went berserk for Hants for a bit, everyone was drunk and sunburned  and it was just one of those days. Also, seeing the Waugh era Aussies really close up for three very hot days from the edge of the rope round the Parks in Oxford was pretty special. The next year the Windies came and I played football with Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Curtly was very good.

b) Do you enjoy covering county cricket?  What’s your view on the domestic one day competition – should it be 50 overs – like the old days? I love county cricket. There often is nothing better. And of course it should be 50 overs. What on earth are we playing 40 for? It is insanely perverse.

So, EFW are offering you free tickets (but not really) for either the front row of the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Allianz Arena or the front row of the pavilion on the first day of the next Ashes test at Lords. Which would you like? Come on. Lord’s.  No offence, the Champions League final, but you happen every year.

This is the European Football Weekends website so I probably out to ask you about Europe, football and weekends. But I know nothing about any of them so this will have to do as a question:  Have you ever been on a European Football Weekend? I’ve been to quite a few matches in Europe, and yes often at weekends. I really enjoyed being in Vienna for three weeks at the last Euros. That was wonderful. Best memory of the tournament was watching Spain three times and seeing them get better and better. There was a beautiful moment in Innsbruck when a thunder storm passed over the Alps while David Villa was scoring a hat trick against Russia. Aye. It were proper champion.

Are you one for collecting sporting memorabilia and if so what's your most treasured item? No. Not my thing at all. I have loads of good bits and bobs including a signed David villa Barcelona shirt I was given but have ended up wearing to go running in. It’s been washed loads of times and the signature still won’t come out which is a bit embarrassing.

What's your favourite football ground? The Valley. Friendly. Urban. Childhood memories

And the worst? Birmingham. Sorry. I just always have a nightmare there. Press box is freezing and depressing

You pop up on the Guardian's Football Weekly now and again. Have you done any other broadcasting, TV or radio? I helped write a film called From the Ashes about Ian Botham. I’m on TV now and then – those talking head shows, or a news channel in search of a bit of blah. I used to be on the radio all the time but then the BBC stopped paying £35 a go so like a wretched mercenary hack I gave up doing it. I did Chelsea TV Paperview the other day. It was quite good but I was so late I doubt I’ll be asked back.

Is Alan Hansen worth his 40 grand a week on Match of the Day? Of course not. I quite like him. He’s a good pundit. But nobody should be paid that amount of money to do anything. It’s pointless and debauched. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. That’s what I say.

Richardson, Glendenning, Wilson and Ronay could do that job for a fraction of the price, no? I’m not sure the BBC could stretch to Barry’s remuneration. But James Richardson should be hosting football on the BBC without a doubt because he is the best.

And now for the hard hitting stuff:

EFW readers are a classy discerning lot. Can you recommend to them a book, a wine and a piece of music or album to download…..

Book: Aldous Huxley Antic Hay (brilliantly funny).

Wine: Any of those nice £15-ish New Zealand French grape rip-offs.

Music: whatever. I’ve spent all day today listening to the Pogues. So The Pogues.

And your favourite Ginsters Pasty to go with those?  Iain Macintosh thought long and hard about this question. It’s an important matter. I do like the standard football-issue chicken balti pie, that slightly rubbery pastry melting into the hot sweet sauce. The only other fast foot I can recommend is the McDonalds basic cheeseburger. That is an absolute design classic. Tiny cubed onions, salty gherkin, mustard-ketchup mix, sugary bun to balance the salt sting. It is an unexpected treat.

Thanks for your time Barney - just some quickfire predictions before you start researching the equestrian:

Champions League winners? -  Real Madrid

Euro 2012 winners? - Germany

Women's javelin gold medallist at the London Olympics? – Some big lass with tight pants on


You can follow Barney Ronay, Lizzy Ammon and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Barney is the author of The Manager and Any Chance Of A Game. He also bears a canny resemblance to the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, so he does

Like this? Lizzy also interviewed Iain Macintosh for EFW

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Napoli v Manchester City

This Is How It Feels

Napoli 2-1 Manchester City (22:11:11)

What's it like, as an away fan, to visit one of the most famous grounds in world football. One that houses fans so passionate and vociferous that the noise from a goal causes a seismic shift in the city? Lifelong Manchester City fan, David Mayor, reveals all...

Due to the effects of the on-going global financial crisis I hadn’t expected to go to any of Manchester City’s away games in the group stages of the Champions League with the draw approaching. But having rushed from work to a City Centre pub to watch it, there was a certain inevitability that I’d at least look into possible routes of getting to them once the draw had thrown up Bayern, Villareal and, most excitedly for me, Napoli.

Around an hour after getting home that evening I’d seen suitable flights from Manchester to Rome for less than £50. At this point I considered the factors that would decide if I’d purchase these or not. These were the state of my bank balance, my potential danger/safety and the fact that we were playing away in arguably the most atmospheric stadium in Europe. Being the responsible adult that I am, and after deliberating for somewhere in the region of 30 seconds, the latter of those factors won this particular round-robin of clashes with a more than healthy goal-difference.

Fast-forward about three-months and you’d have found myself, Big Chris and Ant in the departures lounge of Manchester Airport at 5.50 on a Monday morning. As you all know, two of the possible explanations for drinking at that time include being in an airport or going to an away game. Fortunately they don’t cancel each other out so we managed a quick pint before boarding the flight which was your usual mix of lads drinking extortionately priced half-cans of Magners and well-dressed Italian businessmen. Personally I took-up a kind-of middle ground here by wearing an Adidas trackie-top whilst catching-up with world affairs by reading The Times. The two hour-flight passed while I pondered such issues as ‘will the incoming Conservative government address Spain’s catastrophic unemployment rate,‘ ‘can sex addiction be considered an illness’ and ‘aren’t Bury doing well.’

As, it seemed most of our fellow Blues on board had planned, I’d decided we’d stay in Rome on the Monday night. I was a little ashamed about this as I’d been to Rome before and felt I was guilty of “believing the hype” regarding Naples reputation for safety by thinking we’d enjoy a more relaxing day drinking exploring the capital’s cultural riches.

So with bags dropped at the hotel and pasta and wine consumed we walked to the nearby Coliseum. Now for all the history associated with the place, one barely mentioned, yet significant, moment was the major huff I had with a tour-guide there in 2004. While hanging around waiting for the tour to begin, she asked us the reason for us being in the Eternal City and I excitedly told her that were going to watch Lazio v Roma the following evening. She proceeded to scoff at the idea that people would travel to Rome with the primary intention of watching a football match.

Deeply embittered by this seven years on, and the fact I don’t get a great deal out of the most recognisable historical landmarks, I decided having a pint in view of the Coliseum was a better use of my time and money than paying €10 to go in there again. With Ant joining me we were soon rewarded for this decision when, on receiving a second beer, we were given the most elaborate-looking cheese and ham toasty. History 0 Mayor 1.

The rest of Monday consisted of a bit of a stroll followed by, at regular intervals, the all-too familiar exchange:

“Shall we go in there for one?”
“Let’s have a walk around, looks nothing special in there”

Ten minutes later

“No let’s see what’s up here”

Five minutes later

“Can we just effin go in there?”

Fortunately (I’d hate to give away which one was me in that exchange) it wasn’t long before we were enjoying many ‘one’s’ in various places and talk inevitably turned to tomorrow and what we were to expect in Naples. The general consensus was things wouldn’t be as bad as they were being made out but we just had to have our sensible heads on and adhere to the safety advice the club had provided. In addition, EFWs good leader, Danny Last, had provided a specially commissioned Napoli/City friendship logo (the shade of blue caused concern he’d actually given us a Real Oviedo/Everton friendship logo by mistake but he deserves the benefit of the doubt here) which would surely diffuse any volatile situation.

With some heavy heads we made our way to Roma Termini station for the 10.49 to Napoli Centrale the following morning and being honest, the regularly asked, hilarious question of ‘are you packing steel underpants,’ was now beginning to haunt us. The area around Termini isn’t the best to settle a few nerves and even the most joyous of activities that is buying cans before boarding a train to a football match felt a little subdued.

Once on the train a couple of other City fans came and sat in the carriage and it was re-assuring that they didn’t look the types to turn the journey into a two-hour banging on windows sing-song but just wanted a chat and a laugh discussing David White, the journey to FC Midtjylland and that kids who watch City now will grow up never having known any different. Bloody kids being young when we’re good!

Upon departing the train in Naples the dreaded ‘welcome party’ didn’t materialise, but a more welcome, welcome party did in the form of the local Carabinieri and my great mate Isra. The Carabinieri met us with smiles and simply wanted to know where we were staying and if we knew how to get there, which was another in the tick column for those of a more nervous disposition, while Isra raised the bar with a handshake and enthusiastic man-hug.

David and Isra with the specially commissioned Napoli/City friendship logo. (Note to self: sort out ink on printer) 

Isra, by the way, is someone who I’m surprised hasn’t made the pages of EFW before as he is, amazingly enough, a big fan of the game we call football who lives in and travels around Europe watching it. An Atletico Madrid fan who now lives in Italy, he was a more than welcome addition to our party mainly because he’s a grade A chap. Additionally he also speaks Italian and had been to Napoli before so his experience and language skills were appreciated.

Having chosen to stay across the road from the station we were surprised at how quiet the area was as it had been categorised by all and sundry as no-go. The hotel also had a bar, which was welcome, but after a quick one we got the taxi down to the Port area Stazione Marittima, as advised, from where we would later be shuttled to the stadium. We were in good spirits at this point. We were now “four-handed” the station area and hotel had been fine and we were about to go to the safe area of the port.

Once at the port we weighed up our options and took the unpredictable decision of going to the first bar we came to. It contained around 20 other Blues and included the bloke who ran the supporters club I went to games with from the mid-nineties to the early-noughties. There was something quite brilliant in sharing a beer and a laugh with someone on route to the Stadio San Paolo in a way that’s no different than when you did it before Upton Park, Filbert Street, Bescot Stadium etc I sensed his satisfaction that he wouldn’t have to add to the couple of hundred thousand times he’d said ‘no cans on the bus please lads’ on this particular away trip as well.

We then headed directly towards the area where we would be transported to the stadium which was a weird sort of tunnel that, again, thankfully had three (that’s three rather than free unfortunately) bars. I could tell this place was going to have quite a relaxed feel as you could hear that our fans were now happy to engage in a song or two. For a couple of hours ditties celebrating heroes of years gone by were intertwined with those about our current range of world-superstars which included the questionable allegation that David Silva gets pissed up on San Miguel.

With everyone in good spirits, we moved onto the heavily guarded buses around two hours before kick-off and were on our way. The singing continued although to my great disappointment no-one seemed to want to join in the praise of Tricky Tricky Ricky Ricky Holden, preferring instead to concentrate on our mercurial little Spanish playmakers (alleged) drinking habits.

I knew the journey to the stadium wasn’t exactly spitting distance but I didn’t expect it to take over an hour and myself and Isra believed they were deliberately delaying our arrival at the stadium. We weren’t complaining though and with just under an hour or so to kick-off we were obviously in the vicinity as you could see various Napoli fans having a pre-match drink of their own. In this way it was very similar to going to a British game as an away fan on the coach. Lots of locals looked at us and there was the occasional exchange of hand-gestures but nothing to write on EFW about.

We all got off the buses and made a short walk to the stadium along a cordoned off street. Up a small, fantastically graffitied, ramp type thing, tickets checked and there it was. Through one of the gang-ways I could make out the stand (opposite the camera on TV) and could see a packed crowd and the NAPOLI CLUB and BLUE TIGRE banners that I have seen on TV and in pictures a hundred times. If 2004 German Tour guide woman could’ve seen me at this point it may have given her some insight into why someone might travel from England to Italy go to a football match.

Blue Moon...

....Now I'm we're no longer alone. (bobble hats off to David for *that* bit of headgear - Ed.)

Once in view of the pitch I was completely awestruck. The players were out warming up but the crowd, as it has at matches for 25 years, fascinated me. Directly to our right was Curva A with Curva B far away in the distance to our left. We had about half an hour to kick-off at this point and there were different things catching my eye every couple of seconds although nothing could prepare for the teams entrance on the pitch.

Having had quite a fascination with Ultras over a number of years I consider myself pretty clued up on all things tifo but no-one could have failed to be impressed by this. The two curva’s produced immense displays but seemingly the whole stadium had something going on. It was everywhere, huge surfer flags, flares, card displays, message banners, sparklers (see and while I’d seen whole stadiums immersed in colour and flags before, the chaotic nature of this really was on another level.

You shouldn’t be surprised to read it was also the loudest stadium I‘d ever experienced and again it seemed every single Parteponi was getting involved. It was a tough task for the 800 or so of us to make ourselves heard and every time there seemed to be a break in the noise and the first strains of ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘It should’ve been ten’ were belted out, it was soon drowned out by, what sounded like, the whole of the city of Naples whistling.

Now I can’t do justice to, or begin to include, everything that was noteworthy that happened in the stadium. It was an absolute cauldron of noise, colour, smoke etc and for two hours I was in football watching heaven. It was everything I’d ever wanted to get from the experience of going to a match and I was watching the club that I love. Of course we got beat and I felt that anxious urge of wanting us to get that equaliser as I would at any match but while we sat, kept in the stadium after the match, I still felt a strange sense of elation.

Curva A in the distance, just beyond the Bob the Builder stewards in the foreground. 

Napoli fans in the Curva A with their version of the EFW Napoli/City friendship offering. Pretty, pretty good. 

As we watched it slowly empty (and the local fans nick the Champions League banners that cover the perimeters of the stands) I could hear conversations of the “Mancini got it wrong with the full-backs” and “De-jong’s lost it” nature going on behind me. I’ve never been one for this kind of post-match analysis but I found it especially unappealing at this time. Everyone’s different, and I had on this very trip been described as being a ‘bit too much of a glass half-full Blue’ but having just watched Manchester City play at Napoli, sitting five points clear at the top of the league after winning the FA Cup a few months earlier I didn’t think I, or they, had too much to be complaining about.

The bus journey back to the port was understandably more subdued. Well that’s except for the hundreds of local cars that passed us beeping horns and waving their flags and scarfs out of the window. But for us on board, there did seem a bit of relief that things had passed without any major problems and most were looking forward to getting back to their hotel for a night-cap or two.

This was where our only major issue arose. Once dropped off at the port we were left to our own devices to find our way to the hotel. I’m still unsure as to why the Police hadn’t arranged for taxi’s to be on hand as they’d seemed to have everything else tied up in this regard. Anyway, walking in search of a cab around midnight, with no idea where we were going wasn’t ideal and the situation was intimidating as cars would drive past with drivers and passengers glaring at us. Thankfully after 10 minutes we managed to flag one down and were relieved to be on our way to the hotel.

As we entered the hotel bar I was just thinking how well the trip had passed when another City fan came in who looked petrified. Shaking, he ordered a drink and told us how the group he’d been with had just been attacked and one of them stabbed. He said the Police had been on the scene immediately and the victim seemed ok and had gone to hospital. Obviously that situation could have been worse but it was an extremely sobering moment listening to him describe what had happened.

We stayed up for a couple of hours and chatted to our barman who was, naturally, a Napoli fan and a sound bloke. He expressed concern about what had just happened, told us stories of games he’d been to over the years and asked if it was true that everyone in Manchester supports City which, being nothing if not honest, we all nodded vigorously at.

It was an early start in the morning to get the return train/flight, all of which again went smoothly. Personally, I’d had an amazing time. It was certainly different than those who went to Bayern or Villareal would have had but I knew this when booking. The other trips I’ve had abroad to watch a game are as much about the laugh you have with your mates/meeting opposition fans etc as the game you’re going to. This one was always going to be different. It was always going to be about the moment I could see the Stadio San Paolo and the few hours that followed and that, my fellow European Football enthusiasts, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

You can follow David Mayor and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Borussia Dortmund v Schalke 04 - photo special


Borussia Dormund 2-0 Schalke 04 (26:11:11)

Yesterday, Nick Coppack went to see surprise package, Borussia Mönchengladbach beat their near neighbours FC Köln to storm to the top of the Bundesliga (click HERE for those photos). What could possibly beat that? How about being in a crowd of over 80,000, a day later, at one of the biggest matches in world football, BVB v Schalke 04.. yes sir.. photo us up, Nick...

You can follow both Nick Coppack and European Football Weekends on Twitter.