Thursday, 31 March 2011

Örebro SK


On the eve of the Swedish football season Andy Hudson brings us an exclusive interview with John Alvbåge and introduces us to the biggest team in Sweden you may never have heard of, until now....

A quiet revolution was taking place in the Allsvenskan last year; a revolution that went almost unnoticed on these shores. A revolution instigated by a Finn.

When I mention Örebro SK to most English people there’s an immediate look of confusion. When they think of Swedish football they’ll think of AIK or IFK Göteborg or that 1994 Swedish national team. When they think of Swedish players they’ll think of Zlatan, of Larsson, of Brolin and Dahlin; players who all register as a result of becoming etched on your brain when accomplishing much outside of Sweden. Due to the ability of the Finnish coach Sixten Boström there’s a quiet hope that Örebro, runners-up in the Allsvenskan twice in their history and runners-up in the Svenska Cupen (Swedish Cup) a solitary year, could start to make in-roads on the collective brains of fans across Europe.

Boström took over at the Behrn Arena in 2008. One of his first acts was to dispose of the 442 system and change to a 433 system. Fans said that the change of system would not work and early results suggested that they would be right. But Boström held his nerve and his tactical ideaology. Coaching and savvy dealings in the transfer market for players such as Roni Porokara helped the system to bed. In the words of John Alvbåge, Örebro’s goalkeeper and fans’ favourite, Boström “changed the club’s DNA; we were quite a boring, defensive team to watch but now we attack and are a spectacular team to watch”.

After finishing sixth during the 2009 campaign there were hopes amongst players and fans that the club could improve. Alvbåge told me he “had a dream that we would be a top team but I didn’t actually think we would be. But I did know that we had it in us; if you look at our first choice team we have top quality in every position”.

Shot-stopper and fan favourite John Alvbåge 

Stand-out performers last season were players like Nordin Gerzić, the creative heartbeat of the side; the American international Alejandro Bedoya, signed from Boston College at the start of the 2009 season and who seems to run a marathon every game; the central defensive pairing of Magnus Wikström, a giant figure at the back who rarely loses a header, and Michael Almebäck, one of the fastest players in the Swedish top-flight; and Alvbåge himself, the Swedish back-up ‘keeper at the 2006 World Cup and who will surely find himself in another international squad soon courtesy of his top-class, consistent performances. Still to have his “special day” since signing for the club originally as a youngster in 2003 before moving away for a three year spell first at IFK Göteborg and then the Danish club Viborg before returning to the Behrn Arena in 2008, Alvbåge points to the 3-0 home victory against Helsingborg, who would go on to claim second place, in August 2010 as an “awesome day for the club”.

Last season saw Örebro finish third and and as such will take their place in the Europa League qualifications rounds during the summer of 2011. There was much talk of Boström leaving the club at the end of the season. Scandanavian media linked him to the vacant Finland national team role when ex-Örebro player and youth team coach Stuart Baxter left the position in November 2010. According to Alvbåge it would have been “a catastrophe for the club if he had stopped his project; his style of play is still under development and we have come so far”. As the club gears up for their 2011 season opener against IFK Göteborg they have their influential manager still at the helm.

Örebro SK manager Sixten Boström 

Boström’s project is vital to the future of the club in the eyes of the fans and players alike. Alvbåge also identified other improvements needed for the club to progress even further in 2011. “We can be better everywhere” he told me, “but if we look only on the pitch then we have to perform better away from home next season; we are so strong at the Behrn Arena. If we can add one or two experienced players to our young squad then that will aid the team for the season ahead”.

According to Niklas Landmark, a Behrn Arena season ticket holder, there’s agreement in the stands with Alvbåge. “Qualifying for Europe has helped us keep most of our players but if we can add a couple to the squad with experience, along with a striker who will reliably score, then we can be in the title race in 2011”.

Örebro have made close-season signings to complement their forward options. Two signings made for the 2011 season are Kosovans; hopes are high that at least one will become a reliable goalscorer. Valdet Rama has arrived with Bundesliga experience with Hannover 96 while Kushtrim Lushtaku has signed from 1860 Munich. Combine these players with the youthful talent of Marcus Astvald, who improved a lot during 2010 and is the Swedish player to watch in 2011, and other recent signing Andreas Haddad, who scored 8 goals in 14 games for Superettan team Assyriska FF last season, then there are goals in the team.

Örebro's Behrn Arena has become a fortress

And how do I think Örebro will get on in the coming season? Away form is vital but if they manage to keep hold of their youngsters during the summer transfer window then there is no reason why they won’t be challenging for the title. If Alvbåge can cement his position as the best goalkeeper in the Allsvenskan then Örebro will be very difficult to beat .

2011 could end up being the greatest season ever for the club if they break their duck and clinch some major silverware. Beyond this season they may very well struggle as bigger clubs will take their crown jewels such as Boström and Alvbåge. I’ll be at their second home game of the season, a Monday night game against Gefle, reporting for EFW to see what kind of start they make.

Andy is the editor of Gannin' Away

- Feel free to comment below - 

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Rayo Vallecano v Real Betis

Rayo of Light

Rayo Vallecano 1-0 Real Betis (27:03:11)

Rayo Vallecano are on course to join Real Madrid, Atleti and Getafe in becoming the fourth Madrid based team to play in La Liga next season. Dermot Corrigan, himself based in Madrid, is an Irish journalist who regularly writes on Spanish football....

The biggest Liga Adelante game of the season. First against second, pitting the clubs with two of the biggest fan bases and most successful histories in the Spanish second division against each other. With no La Liga action this weekend due to the international break, it seemed an obvious way of spending a Sunday evening in Madrid.

Rayo Vallecano are traditionally Madrid’s third team, with a history of bouncing between first and second divisions, and past players of the calibre of Laurie Cunninghan and Hugo Sánchez. The last decade has been disappointing, but recent seasons have seen them back on the up, and a 4-2 home win over Córdoba in early February saw them top the La Segunda table. It seemed Rayo were set for return to the top flight for first time since 2003-04.

Within a few weeks though the club was in turmoil. On 27th February the team walked onto the pitch before a game at relegation threatened Huesca carrying a banner saying ‘Basta de impagos’ or ‘enough with the not paying us’. Huesca won 4-1 and Rayo began to tumble down the table. Players spoke in the media of only receiving wages for seven of the last 18 months. Club president Teresa Rivero responded by stating that if they wanted to act so unprofessionally then she wouldn’t pay them at all until the end of the season.

Class-struggle at Rayo wasn’t a surprise. Rivero’s husband José María Ruiz Mateos heads the controversial and now struggling Nueva Rumasa business empire, and was once close (too close) to Franco’s governing elite. Meanwhile, Rayo’s roots are in the working class barrio of Vallecas and its left-leaning fans are known for flying Che Guevara banners and pre-civil war Spanish Republic flags. Not an ideal match, then, in fairness.

Such culture clashes between fans and owners are easily recognisable for Betis fans. Monty Burns look- and act-a-like Manuel Ruiz de Lopera finally left last summer after 18 controversial years in charge, the last four of which featured increasingly angry fan protest amid ongoing judicial investigations into financial shenanigans at the club. Lopera's sale to fellow oily-haired businessman Luis Oliver was ruled void by the investigating judge, who handed control of the club’s shares to a fan’s grouping lead by Betis legend and former Spain left-back Rafael Gordillo. The fans rejoiced but Lopera and Oliver are still fighting the decision, and no end seems in sight.

Despite the off-field problems Betis started the season in flying form, topping the table with some impressive performances (including a 4-0 home win over Rayo in October) and even beating an almost full strength Barcelona in a Copa del Rey second leg in January (although FCB went through easily on aggregate). Then - in typical Betis fashion - the wheels came quickly off and four consecutive defeats post the winter break, along with more stories of financial woes, saw them slip out of the automatic promotion places.

In recent weeks though both teams have been avoiding off-field matters and concentrating on getting back in promotion form. This resurgence has been helped by stuttering from their closest promotion rival Celta Vigo, including a 3-0 home defeat to Recreativo Huelva on Saturday evening. This meant Betis went into Sunday's big game a point ahead of Rayo at the top with Vigo a further three points back.

Adding spice to the tie was that Betis coach Pepe Mel had previously spent four seasons in charge at Rayo, leading them up from the Segunda B in 2008 before feeling Rivero's boot in February 2010. Also, Betis’ Brazilian central midfielder Iriñey and leading scorer Ruben Castro had previously spent time in Vallecas. It all seemed very nicely set up.

I’d not been out to this part of Madrid yet, so I collected my ticket early and spent a few hours before the game doing a bit of an explore. Vallecas has more of an ethnic mix than other parts of Madrid - with South American chicken restaurants, North African hairdressers and Chinese supermarkets alongside the more typical Spanish style shoe shops, patisseries and pokey bars on every corner. Some vacant retail units were plastered with posters advertising recent protest marches against Spanish government cutbacks, while bus shelters were decorated with anti-Rumasa stickers. My favourite was the one showing the company’s bee symbol getting hit by a ‘Rayo’ lightning.

Rayo Si, Rumasa No

There were also plenty of green-scarved Betis fans having a beer on streets around the ground, mingling easily with the home supporters. The only angst visible was directed at the Rayo board. There was a heavy enough police presence, with mounties clip-clopping around, but a generally relaxed mood. Having said that, an hour before kick off about 20 masked fans set fire to a squad car and started throwing bottles at the police, who responded with batons and arrested the troublemakers. I was in a nearby bar having a beer and a calamari sandwich at the time. When I arrived fans of both teams were posing for photos by the car’s shell and there was no more hint of trouble.

The atmosphere heats up around the streets of Teresa Rivero

"We've not come to park the bus," announced Betis gaffer Pepe Mel

Inside, the stadium rang with chants of ‘Rayo si, Rumasa no’ both before kick off and during the game, while banners displayed around the compact 15,000 seater ground included the easily translatable ‘Rayo Vallecano Solución Ya’. My Spanish didn’t stretch to understanding the longer anti-Rivero songs, but the word ‘puta’ was regularly audible. Then at the 15 minute mark the home fans all round the ground simultaneously held up red and white cards, and chanted ‘Rumasa vende ya’, or ‘Rumasa sell now’ . This refrain would have been very familiar to Betis fans. Their version - ‘Lopera vete ya’ or ‘Lopera go now’ - had the same tune and stresses.

With all this anger and energy being vented it was not surprising that Rayo began the game at full tilt. The noise from the ultras behind the goal to my left never let up, with the fans bouncing up and down constantly and screaming at any meaty challenge (especially from Rayo right back Coke) or half-chance for the home side. An early header from a corner flashed just wide, and Rayo looked most likely to make the breakthrough.

As the game settled down however, most fans in the seats around me got increasingly nervous. Betis were content to sit tight and look to break with Iriney comfortably controlling the midfield, while up front Emaná’s quick feet looked the most likely source of a goal. The constant picking, splitting, chewing and spitting of ‘pipas’ (sunflower seeds) betrayed the crowd's growing unease.

Betis came out with more attacking intent after half-time, and Ruben Castro had a powerful snap-shot well saved before Molina’s shot grazed the bar. The Betis travelling contingent in the far top corner of the stadium were by now in good voice, as were the many Beticos sitting among the home fans. One guy in green below me in particular was regularly on his feet, prompting volleys of mostly good natured abuse from his neighbours in red and white.

The home fans, as per usual, were in good voice. There's often a better atmosphere here than at city neighbours Real Madrid.

As the game went on more and more of the home fans’ anger was directed towards ref Amoedo Chas, and he perhaps understandably let it get to him. Twice mass howls of ‘mano’ and ‘amarilla’ lead to harsh bookings for deliberate handballs from Betis players, while Rayo centre-forward Aganzo just saw yellow for a nasty challenge that ended Betis centre-half Belenguer’s involvement. Then on 66 minutes Belengeur’s replacement Arzu couldn’t properly clear a simple cross. Rayo forward Piti quickly controlled the dropping ball at the edge of the box before arrowing a left footed volley in off the post. Cue much more frenzied jumping and screaming and Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ over the stadium’s speakers.

Both managers quickly made a few changes, but Rayo's Sandoval's worked better and they saw the game out with few problems. Their fans behind the goal relaxed a little - and at one point displayed a long banner proclaiming ‘No a la guerra imperialista en Libia’, before greeting the final whistle with a long rendition of ‘El Rayo es de la Primera’.

My view of the game on the journey home was that the home fans' passion and energy won the day, with a weak ref letting himself be bent to their will. Someone without a soft spot for Betis might argue, equally persuasively, that a tight game between the division’s two best teams was decided by one moment of class from a Rayo player. Either way it was an excellent night’s entertainment and neither club will be over disappointed with their weekend. With Vigo still struggling, it looks likely that both will be playing top flight football next year, unless more off-field problems intervene.

For more of Dermot's work, head to his website at HERE.

You can also follow both Dermot and European Football Weekends on Twitter

- Feel free to comment below - 

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

FC Copenhagen v Brondby

Fingerprints - Sign o' the Times

FC Copenhagen 3-1 Brondby (20:03:11)

Around a year ago prior to the FC United v North Ferriby United game, me and my mates noticed a group of lads we haven't seen before in our local, clad in expensive 'hoolie-chic', writes Matt Wilkinson. Not the usual sartorial look for an Evo-Stik Premier League game, granted, so we asked them who they followed. "Brondby" was the answer, followed by a friendly explanation of their touring the North-west of England on their own European Football Weekend. 

A bond was formed and we promptly showed them the best pubs Manchester can offer on a Saturday night together with all the drunken buffoonery that entails. A pledge was made that night that we were to come and visit the guys for the FC Copenhagen (FCK) v Brondby (BIF) derby game (the 'New Firm', no less) sometime next year. And so it was a few months beforehand cheap flights were secured together with dodgy accommodation (more of that later!)

However, bad news was broken to us a couple of weeks before, it seemed the Brondby guys were boycotting the game. We were welcome to attend the game on our own, but after the explanation for the boycott, there was no chance of that happening, given FCUM's own history of protest and defiance. The previous derby game at Parken (FC Copenhagen's ground) was riddled with crowd trouble, so Brondby as a club felt duty bound to take action. This resulted in the novel idea of fingerprinting every Brondby fan in order to obtain a ticket. Naturally this didn't go down well with the fans, and all the various supporters groups vowed to boycott the game forthwith.

We were promised a lively weekend, whatever happened, so landed in a chilly Copenhagen to find our lodgings. Four of us had made the trip from Manchester with one of our crowd having a well-deserved reputation for securing the cheapest possible accommodation, resulting in being booked into (delete as applicable) the coldest, insect-riden, noisiest, smelliest hotel room around. And this weekend was no exception. Cheap? Yup! Subterranean? Yup! Sharing with insects? Yup! Site of a terrorist bomb explosion? Yup!

Anyhow, the game was set for Sunday afternoon, and as it was Friday night,our hosts treated us to a tour of Christiania (If you like your 'smoking', you'll love the place!), before an informal tour of the deserted Brondby Stadion, or as they prefer to call it, 'Kim Vilfort Stadium'. A beery night followed, but we were encouraged to turn up on Saturday for the peculiarly European tradition of supporting the team during training.

Brondby's training ground is next to their stadium, so easy enough to find, we weren't however counting on finding 1,000 of their lads supporting the team as though it was the game itself, tifo banners, flags, flares were everywhere... not the kind of thing you'd find at Carrington, Cobham or Melwood...

Brondby IF fans show their support to the first team ahead of the derby clash with FC Copenhagen, which they were boycotting in protest at the requirement for a fingerprint to purchase a match ticket

After yet another Tuborg induced outing around suburban Copenhagen and the next day a hungover morning stumble around tourist sites, we were directed towards the centre of town towards the only bar that was big (and stupid) enough to show the game to all those not attending. The pub had five bars on four levels. Although it was a generic Irish themed bar, it was slightly more reasonably priced than anywhere else, (i.e £4 a pint as opposed to £7!) so we grabbed a spot and waited.

Minutes later we noticed a roar coming down the street, so went out to have a look and noticed around 1,000 Brondby lads marching with a huge banner making their feelings known regarding the fingerprint issue, along with numerous smoke bombs, flares, and a Viking roar which told me to get out of the way. The lads began pogoing down towards the Irish bar amidst clouds of noxious yellow smoke and I promptly lost my space in the bar, doors shut, giant security staff having none of my dumb Englishman routine.

They'll be coming down the road...

All was not lost, our friends from Brondby had found refuge in a Scottish bar round the corner, and we squeezed inside. We we're reliably informed by our friends that losing 1-0 to FCK would be seen as a decent result, so should Brondby score, we anticipated things could get lively. However, in the 25th minute, Brondby did the unexpected and actually took the lead through Nicolaj Agger (Daniel's cousin) and the place erupted like nothing I'd ever seen. 

Complete pandemonium, glass pint pots were smashed against any surface, people were jumping on top of and behind the bar, grabbing and smashing anything in sight, lots of hugging, grabbing and shouting into each others faces... this is how I imagined the Viking hordes pillaged North East England in the Ninth Century. Me and the English lads crouched in an almost foetal position to avoid the flying glass (and beer of course).

The joy didn't last for long, the inevitable arrived just after half time with an equaliser from Cesar Santin. From then on in, FCK took control and scored a couple more to finish BIF off, with ex Chelsea man Gronkjaer netting the third. Naturally the mood changed to one of disappointment, and even anger in some quarters, with lots of people arguing with each other, bar staff, security and inevitably, the Police.

Not the greatest ending to the weekend, and we didn't even get to the game. But thanks to the support, friendliness, hospitality and outright passion of the Brondby lads, it was certainly a weekend to remember...

Good beans?

Before the days of taking fingerprints to watch a football match; European Football Weekends went to this fixture. Read about that match day experience HERE.

Follow both Matt and European Football Weekends on Twitter

- Feel free to comment below - 

Monday, 28 March 2011

Royal Antwerp FC

The Royal Family

Royal Antwerp 2-1 R Boussu Dour Bor. (26:03:11)

I once confessed to a member of the Guardian Football Weekly team that I hate flying so much, it takes episodes of their podcast to take my mind from thoughts of imminent death during flights. If you're reading this Bob Holness, Fiona Bruce or any of the other hosts of Call My Bluff - that's actually TRUE. So a trip to Belgium on the Eurostar - which exchanges the faffery and nervousness of flying with relative luxury - will always be placed next to a big tick in my book.

In recent years, fans of Forest Green Rovers have bonded handsomely with those of Royal Antwerp. It's a love-in that has blossomed through this blog. Past European Football Weekends have been frequented by both sets of fans, and now those fans go and see each others games on a fairly regular basis. This was one of those trips; EFW is a advocate of both clubs, so we went to join them. Brighton, Lewes, West Ham, Barnet, Whitley Bay, and Swindon fans were also on-board. One big happy Royal Family.

Forest Green Rovers + Royal Antwerp = Love-in

What's two hours on a train through a tunnel between friends when you have Stuart Fuller from the Ball is Round trying to explain  the classic 2004/05 Malaga teams 3-1-3-1-2 formation using empty beer cans as props? We were pulling into Antwerp's majestic train station quicker than you can say 'quizzical looks all round'.

We headed straight to the nearest Irish pub (come again? - Ed.). Yep, we broke one of the oldest rules in the EFW handbook; Page 7, section 3 clearly stipulates that Irish pubs should only be frequented on Irish soil. Personally, I couldn't give a mouse-sized shit about the English national football team - other opinions are available - but they were playing Wales and a few of the lads fancied watching it.

We moved on straight away after the game to a belting pub called The Great Old (Royal Antwerp's nickname) opposite the stadium. This pub used to be a hangout for the hooligans connected with the club, but times have changed and now it's most welcoming. Great beer too.

I simply adore The Bosuilstadion. It was built in 1923 and rather looks as though it hasn't had any work done to it since. If you look up 'Old Skool' in the dictionary, then you'll see a photo of Royal Antwerp's stadium printed underneath. On talking to a few fans though, and John Chapman - a journalist who used to cover the club - plans are afoot for a new stadium in the city. And Royal Antwerp want to share it with their bitter rivals Germinal Beerschot. Beerschot - they'll lose the Germinal bit of their name next season - want a 70/30 share of any profits in the new place, Antwerp of course fancy it should be 50/50. The plot thickens....

We love The Great Old (repeat to fade)

The stand to the left is known as The Fishbowl*. *This is the only note I took on my phone for this report during the whole weekend, so I'm telling you this fact, whether you like it or not.

Royal Antwerp have now been allowed to get involved in buying players again. This was blocked previously as they couldn't give necessary financial assurances to the league. However, the situation is still pretty grim. It's very complex - as always - but the club is still heavily in debt. There's an ongoing battle with one Tony Gram who leant Antwerp some money and got nasty when the loan was not repaid. Word is, Eddy Wauters ended up paying from his own pocket. There was also a deal where the club sold the stadium and grounds - at a knock-down price in order to keep going.

Eddy Wauters, who he? Well, he lived in the US for 12 months in 1957 (when in his early twenties) and he played for New York Hakoah. They won the league that year and Wauters celebrated by taking the team out on an open top bus with Marilyn Monroe on-board. As you do. Anyway, he went on to manage The Great Old, and now he's the Chairman. Talking of The Great Old - he is 77.

Green (sort of) Army. The away fans were few in number, but then again Royal Boussu Dour Borinage is a bit of a mouthful to squeeze into song. Most fans have given up trying. 

Life's a bench. Stuart Fuller from the Ball is Round enjoying life.

Flares are back. Not sure what I'm doing here, but I've got that stupid grin fixed onto my boat race. Must have been good. 

Floodlight porn, tick. 

See, I didn't just sit about drinking all day and singing songs. I did find out a bit of background for you in between the ale. And we had plentiful amounts of that. They say travel expands the mind.; any trip to Antwerp certainly expands your waistline. It doesn't take a Ph.D to work out that a day at the football with a group of like-minded lads will end up in the pub. After the game which the home side came from behind to win 2-1, we headed for the bar at the stadium - which again, is magnificent, danced to Neil Diamond, met some of the players, went back on the pitch, emptied the club shop, you know - usual gubbins.

After that it was into town. Evidently, if you're in a pub in Antwerp and fancy drinking, it'll stay open until whatever time you like. Good new for having the time of your life. Bad news if the clocks go forward and you fancy getting up the next morning to watch a Belgian Division 4 game without feeling like death warmed up.

Berchem Sport 1-1 Racing Mechelen (27:03:11)  

A bit of a fancy breakfast - boiled eggs and soldiers since you ask - and a bucket full of coffee later and we were on our way to Berchem Sport v Racing Mechelen just one stop on the train back into Brussels. It turned out to be a perfect pit-stop. The sun was officially beating down, the beers started to flow again, colour returned to our cheeks and a very nice lady sold us a special commemorative match-day program with a free CD of club songs for €2. They also gave away club umbrellas in the club *cough* megastore for every €15 spent. Quite handy when it was hotter than Greece.

Racing Mechelen have a fearsome reputation for football hooligans. Happily, today their fans weren't up for any bother. They gave their team great backing, lit flares, added a riot of colour to the day and were very welcome visitors. 1500 of them turned up, 300 of whom arrived by train. We know this because at games of football in Belgium you have very obvious plain-clothed policemen who appear to know every single fan by name. They dish out information and seem to be well respected.

The game ended up 1-1. In truth, the quality of football on offer wasn't too much different to the previous night at Antwerp. It's not tremendous, but match tickets are cheap and it really is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. So, Berchem Sport and their manager Bert Selleslags can be quite happy with their performance in the Ludo Coeckstadion. Are those names funny? They made us giggle. And as for Racing, they will be promoted to Division Three next weekend all being well.

The train home was marred by myself hosting a podcast. Stuart Fuller and Andy Hudson from Gannin' Away batted away the questions. I hope this broadcast never sees the day of light. I can assure you Barry Glendenning and James Richardson are safe in their Football Weekly jobs. Anyway, it was a good laugh. European Football Weekends always are. You should try one someday.

Brolly good show from Hans

 There is a light that never goes out

  Racing Mechelen fans were out in good numbers

What's not to like?

Follow European Football Weekends on Twitter

For lots more photos from the weekend CLICK ME.

The Ball is Round version - well worth a read, as always.

- Feel free to comment below - 

Friday, 25 March 2011

Zonal Marking in Barcelona

Have I Got Nous For You

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame puts down his chalkboard to head to Barcelona.... 

Well, I must say, I’m rather disappointed. We’ve come all this way to Barcelona to see a game at the Nou, and it’s not what I expected. OK, the little number 6 is controlling things from the centre of midfield, and the number 10 is a threat upfront, but it’s a tiny little ground and it’s not even full. Mes Que Un Club, seriously?

Only joking! We are indeed in Barcelona for a football match, but this is not the Nou Camp, it’s the Nou Sardenya, home of CE Europa. Europa can’t make any claim to being ‘more than a club’ – they compete in the Tercera Division, the fourth level of the Spanish pyramid, in one of eighteen regional groups.

Me enjoying a San Miguel

CE Europa 3-0 Palamós (20:03:11)

The club has a proud history, however. Their glory years came nearly 90 years ago when they won the Championat de Catalunya and were Copa del Rey runners-up in the same season, but after decades in the wilderness, they won the Copa de Catalunya back-to-back in the mid 1990s, beating the mighty FC Barcelona in the final both times. For Barcelona, it was very much a lesser competition and a reserve side was fielded on both occasions, but look at their line-up for the second final, in 1997/98, and it’s still packed with big names - Hesp, Couto, Bogarde, Reiziger, Amor (Sergi), Roger, Oscar (Xavi), Giovanni, Mario, Pizzi (Anderson), Jofre (De la Peña). To beat those players is remarkable achievement for a little club like Europa.

Their opponents today are the rather less illustrious Palamos. Palamos have brought a travelling army of seven supporters, two of whom look like girlfriends of two of the other five – the girls sit together talking, paying little attention to the game but enjoying the San Miguel from Europa’s quaint little clubhouse in the corner of the ground. The Palamos squad emerges from the tunnel, and with more players than fans, it’s a slightly bizarre pre-match ovation between the two.

Europa come out a couple of minutes later. I immediately like their kit – white with a blue ‘V’ across the front, reminiscent of the Brescia away kit sported by Roberto Baggio in his final seasons as a professional. More significantly, in the wake of the previous week’s tsunami, the Europa players are carrying a Japanese flag, and pose with it for the team photo. There’s also a minute’s silence before kick-off.

 Europa emerge with their Japanese flag

(Incidentally, this week Richard Littlejohn wrote a column in the Daily Mail on the subject of the tsunami, claiming we shouldn’t feel sympathy for Japan, because of events that happened in a war some 70 years ago, in classic Littlejohn ‘try and turn topical event into cause for race hate’ fashion.

If you missed it, choice quote – “Before every one of the weekend’s Premier League football matches, for instance, fans were forced to stand and observe a minute’s silence for Japan. Why?... Of course, there is a commercial incentive here for the Premier League. No doubt the Japanese TV rights are up for renegotiation soon.”

Well, I doubt there’s much demand in Japan for television rights for the Spanish fourth division. Maybe people simply want to show respect? Football is actually very good at this sort of thing – more on that later.)

The sensible older fans in the seats with their newspapers

Anyway, there was a lovely atmosphere around the ground. Before kick off, the stand was populated mainly by elderly locals who sat reading the club’s free Catalan language newspaper, but the ground filled up as the game went on – with younger fans, families, groups of girls. There’s a reason for that - immediately after this match, first Europa’s juniors and then their women’s side plays in the same ground – it’s essentially a whole Sunday of football for the price of a single admission, and with the fantastic weather and cheap drinks on offer, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience simply sitting on the warm steps and casually watching. I recalled reading an interview with youth coach Pavl Williams on Tom Williams’ (no relation) excellent blog, where he said (excuse the long quote):

“Spain, Italy and France have all won World Cups in the last 15 years and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that these countries have more community-focused sport programmes than we do here. For example, I went to watch some junior teams in Catalonia last year and remarked on how smart the teams looked in their full matching kit and tracksuits (they were about nine years old). A friend of mine who lived in the area picked up on this and informed me that the boys all arrived on their own team bus, having been picked up from their deportivo in the middle of their town where hundreds of locals regularly turn up to watch them play. The boys weren’t playing at any sort of high standard, but the sports club was a symbol of pride for the local population and they backed it heavily. In turn the local government provides superb facilities including great playing surfaces and top coaching. This is all part of a national strategy for sport development that has a strong vision of how their football should be played.”

From only three hours sitting in the sun at the Sardenya, the family spirit around the stadium was obvious, and Europa hold a place in the local community that equivalent sized clubs in England can only dream of.

 Half time meant a chance for some kids to run around on the pitch

There were still some proper ultras, however. Europa (like many Spanish clubs) have a designated plonker who stands behind one of the goals and chants songs throughout the game through a tannoy (“Public address system. Tannoy is a brandname.” /Partridge). I say songs – often this seemed to descend into making noises in the vague tune of a classic chant, particularly the one to the tune of ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys. He was accompanied by a hardcore of about twelve, one of whom set off a ridiculously loud firecracker a mere thirty seconds after the minute’s silence had ended.


I’d never been to a non-league game abroad before, and was very impressed by the football on show. Not necessarily by the quality itself – there were wayward passes aplenty and some terrible set-pieces – but by the intention to play good football. Europa insisted on trying to play short goal-kicks from the back – there was never a desire to hit long balls, and an artificial surface (which was watered before both halves) kept the game flowing nicely.

The standout player was the Europa number six, Ivan Alvarez, who played in front of the back four and sprayed passes from flank to flank – kind of an amateur version of Xabi Alonso, though with the appearance of Daniele De Rossi.

 The ultras celebrate the first goal – firecracker man can be seen getting his matches out again in the top left

Europa raced into a 1-0 lead in the first few minutes, before Palamos went down to ten men later in the first period, which rather killed the game as a spectacle. There was still time for two more Europa goals, however – the second was superb, a long passing move worked its way like a rugby attack from left to right until the player at the far post, Remo, found himself in space. He brought the ball back inside, beat two players, before slotting a shot past the Pepe Reina lookalike in goal. By the time 90 minutes came, the game was long over as a contest – but, as the spectators remained in their seats or moved to the clubhouse, the day’s action at the Sardenya had only just begun.

Barcelona 2-1 Getafe (19:03:11)

I was one of 850 supporters at the Sardenya – the previous night at the Camp Nou, there were one hundred times more people around me, for Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Getafe.

I’d been told not to expect much of an atmosphere at the Nou Camp, that the ground was essentially another tourist stop these days – great against the top teams and for the derby against Espanyol, but soulless and quiet for the normal matches. Getafe falls into the category of a ‘normal’ opponent.

This was not a normal match for Barcelona fans, though. The previous Tuesday, French defender Eric Abidal received devastating news – doctors had found a tumor on his liver. As a result, this game was about Abidal – the fans flocked to the stadium to put up banners wishing him well, both sets players emerged from the tunnel wearing t-shirts saying ‘We love you, Abi’, and before the game a video was played of Abidal’s memorable moments in a Barca shirt. There was a solid three minutes of applause whilst this played, tears from some fans around us, obvious emotion from the players. Xavi told El Mundo Deportivo that hearing the news was the worst moment he’d experienced in his career, the lowest he’d seen a dressing room – and we can assume the rest of the playing squad felt the same. Abidal watched the match from his hospital bed across the city, having undergone an operation on Thursday – Barca, of course, wanted to win for him. This, I can assure you, was the very opposite of a ‘soulless’ sporting atmosphere.

The Camp Nou

The game itself was decent – Barcelona played great football but wasted too many chances, and Getafe got a late goal which caused panic around the stadium. We were sat in the right-back spot for the first half, so were in a good position to watch Dani Alves – though of course, he spent most of his time much higher up the pitch. I’ve outlined before how important Alves is to Barcelona, and sampling his pace and stamina from close quarters was great. He is nothing if not entertaining – within seconds of the start he committed a terrible late tackle on Getafe’s left winger and got himself booked, but midway through the first half he opened the scoring with an absolutely sensational swerving half-volley from 25 yards that flew into the top corner. It was an exceptional goal.

The main man, of course, was Lionel Messi. As someone who spends his time writing about tactics, I’m wary about talking too much about the football on the pitch in this piece. A large part of what makes EFW great is the detail about what happens off it – but I must make an exception for Messi, simply because he’s the best player I’ve ever seen play. You can rest assured that if I had encountered the best burger, pint glass, ticket stub, crowd chant or toilet roll holder I’ve ever seen, I’d discuss those too.

Messi took my breath away twice in the first half – first with a clever flicked pass by the corner flag, played by one foot, off another, into the path of his teammate, and then again with a Zidane-style pirouette to win the ball in a 50-50 challenge. On another two occasions he did things that were so good I laughed out loud – before half time he picked up the ball on the left of the box and dribbled all the way to the right looking for a pass. Seconds later he got the ball once more, and dribbled all the way back to the left again. In the second half, he won possession on the halfway line and was fouled at least twice on his way to goal, but managed to keep his balance and, even more amazingly, the ball.

Two things struck me about him physically. One, his amazing upper body strength which helps him hold off defenders and keep on running. In an age where so many attacking players are content to fall to the floor and buy a free kick, it’s brilliant to watch Messi relentlessly hold onto the ball, like a kid in the playground who knows there’s no referee to give a foul, and so has to play on. Secondly, a strange one – his ability to stop quickly. He can be running at full speed and then suddenly puts the brakes on, coming to a halt within two yards. Because of that, he gets to loose balls first, and his movement becomes even more difficult to pick up. He didn’t score, but he was wonderful. Ludicrously, in the newspaper Sport, a readers’ poll published on the Monday showed he only received 8% of votes as Barca’s best player. That only sums up how much is expected of him, as he was the best player on show by a distance.

The final relevant football trip in Barcelona was the journey up to Montjuic, a large hill in the south of the city. This area has considerable historic significance – most notably, the President of Catalunya, Lluis Companys, was executed at the castle by the Franco regime in 1940. Some 150 years earlier, the fortress at Montjuic was crucial in determining the length of the prototype metre – two French astronomers measured the distance from Dunkirk to Montjuic (the two are on the same longitude), and the ‘metre’ was decided as being one ten-millionth of that distance. Remember this – it will come up in a pub quiz one day…

The Olympic Stadium

Companys was commemorated by having the stadium at the top of the hill named after him, which was used by RCD Espanyol, the city’s ‘second’ football club, from 1997 to 2009. It’s more famous for being the main stadium in the 1992 Olympics, though, and you’ll probably recognise the part of the stadium that holds the Olympic torch – famously lit by an Olympian archer firing an arrow into it in the opening ceremony.

The Olympic torch

The surrounding area formed the main Olympic Park for the 1992 games. It’s a strange, mysterious, slightly eerie complex. The Olympic Stadium sits at the top of the hill as the centre point, and is in decent shape - good enough to have hosted last year’s European Athletics Championships, in fact. Down the hill is the Palau Saint Jordi, which hosted the gymnastics, volleyball and handball events nineteen years ago, and now is an O2-style multipurpose venue, most frequently used for concerts. Across from that are the Piscines Bernat Picornell – an outdoor pool which appears abandoned, and an indoor pool which I thought was the same, until I saw three fully nude old men sitting on the side of the largest pool. I didn’t take photos.

There’s also an Olympic Museum up there (though it was closed when we went, on the Sunday), and a large plaque recalling the years when the Spanish Grand Prix was held on a Montjuic Street Circuit – which looked a bloody brilliant track, but bloody dangerous too – two-time Emerson Fittipaldi withdrew from the 1975 event because of safety concerns, and he was sadly provided right, as five spectators died following a huge crash. The race never returned to Montjuic.

The old Grand Prix circuit

It’s a fascinating place to visit, but as a Londoner visiting an expensively-assembled but largely desolate Olympic Park, it does make you worry…

West Ham fans would be interested in Espanyol’s decision to move away from the Companys, too. It says a lot about football that the stadium is considered fit for European athletics’ most prestigious event, but not good enough for a mid-table club with modest ambitions. The stadium has a certain charm about it, but the running track and inaccessible location mean it’s simply not a football stadium. 20,000 people in a 55,000 stadium looked terrible.

Espanyol now play at the Cornellà-El Prat, a proper football stadium located outside the city, not far from the main airport. The supporters are much closer to the pitch and much more numerous. Everyone’s happy. The one shame is that the new stadium has not been named after Dani Jarque, the Espanyol captain who suddenly died of a heart attack aged 26, in the same month the club played their first game at the new ground.

I hardly need to tell you that Barcelona is a fabulous city – fantastic architecture, famous museums, great food. Most of what I got up to can be found in your standard guide book. However, as a British male, and therefore seeing any foreign landform as something of a challenge, I’d recommend climbing up Mount Tibatabo, previously only known to me because it was part of a joke in an episode of Friends. It’s to the north of the city, and most people get up there by taking a tram and then a ‘funicular’ (a type of shuttle train), but if you like a mildly challenging climb, give it a go.

I couldn't find any instructions about how to get up there on foot on the whole internet, so here's a quick guide - take the Metro to Penitents, and cross the main road onto the Carreterra de Sant Cugat, the mountain road. Head up that for about 20 minutes, past a road on your right and past a couple of abandoned-looking restaurants on your left, then take a path on the left, which runs past an old house on your right. Continue upon that path until you get to a road, and when a sign points you turn right and join the mountain road, carry on along the path to the left of centre, which takes you directly to the top.

The ground is occasionally very steep and unstable, so wearing walking boots is very important - and the path was completely deserted from the bottom to the top, so probably not best to do it alone, It took about 90 minutes from the Metro to the summit.

At the top is, bizarrely, an almost completely empty theme park - the oldest amusement park in Spain, apparently, and seemingly retaining most of the original rides.

Dominoes and dice on a game of chess? This is what happens when you bring up a generation with those '99 board games in one' sets

The park isn't worth bothering with, but the beautiful church, the Sagrat Cor, certainly is. Slightly strangely, you can get a lift to the top - and then after climbing some spiral steps, you reach the highest point for mile around - and all your climbing is rewarded with this stunning view over Barcelona...

We drifted somewhat from football here, so to round this report off, here's a picture of the Olympic Stadium (just right of centre, near the coast) and the Nou Camp (dead centre) from the top of the Sagrat Cor..

Most people I've spoken to seem to have been to Barcelona already - if you haven't, I'd fully recommend it.

You can follow both Michael Cox and European Football Weekends on Twitter

Michael is the genius behind the football tactics website Zonal Marking. You can also catch him on the Football Weekly podcast and if you do Facebook - he's on there as well. (And so are we - Ed).

Like this? You might also like Juliet Jacques on Marseille v PSG

- Feel free to comment below - 

Olympique de Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Le Classique!

Marseille 2-1 Paris SG (20:03:11)

Juliet Jacques lives and breathes the Stade Vélodrome experience in Marseille for the so-called French clásico...

Olympique de Marseille vs. Paris Saint-Germain: the most heated fixture in French football. This is a battle of old and new, with L’OM, founded in 1899, casting themselves as the grand masters of French football in contrast to PSG, formed in 1970, in an attempt to create a force in the capital where there had been none; and of north and south, capital and province, intensified by the Marseillais’ resentment towards perceived Parisian privilege.

They are also the nation’s only two clubs to have won European trophies since former France manager and L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot’s dream of continental competition became real. PSG secured the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996 by beating Rapid Vienna with a single goal, three years after L’OM’s famous victory over AC Milan in Munich to become the first French club to win the European Cup.

It is impossible to recall L’OM’s European triumph, without considering the match-fixing scandal which soon overshadowed it. Two days after L’OM won the Champions League, they retained the Division 1 title by beating PSG 3-1 at their Stade Vélôdrome, but their joy was short lived: an investigation soon began into their last Ligue game before the European final, a routine win over struggling Valenciennes, a game which, it was proved, L’OM had attempted to fix.

The European Cup victory stood, but L’OM were stripped of their Ligue crown, ending a run of five consecutive titles, which had begun in 1989 when Franck Sauzée’s last minute winner against PSG won both the match and the championship. L’OM were demoted at the end of the 1993-94 season, having finished second – to PSG, whose side featured Brazilian stars Valdo and Raï, as well as David Ginola and George Weah.

Neither club had since been champions until last season, when manager Didier Deschamps – captain of L’OM’s European Cup winners – masterminded L'OM's first title since that traumatic summer of 1993, This year, Le Classique plays a significant part in deciding who rules France: L’OM and PSG have been part of a five-team title race, alongside Lyon, whose seven consecutive wins (from 2002-2008) were the envy of both clubs, and Lille and Rennes – smaller clubs who would be far more popular champions than either of those who contest Le Classique: PSG are hated by fans of many other French clubs for the same reasons as by the Marseillais, whilst L’OM are despised for their ostentatious spending and the air of corruption which has the club has not shaken off since the collapse of notorious President Bernard Tapie.

Arriving into an area that feels (and is) closer to North Africa than Paris, I meet Frédérique, a friend of a friend who has kindly offered to show me around France’s second largest city. I tell her that I’ve come to see Le Classique. “Oh la la!” she says. “You know how much they hate each other, right?” I say yes, and ask why she thinks this is.

“It’s historical, but really, I’m not sure they know any more,” she tells me. “There’s always violence.” Football is not her thing – she is much more excited about the Moto GP in Qatar – so I have to explain to her that after Yann L, a 20-year-old PSG fan, was killed during fights between L’OM’s Tribune d’Auteuil Ultras and PSG's Kop of Boulogne supporters, the French police decided to ban away supporters for these matches – 169 people have been arrested around this fixture during the last decade.

Fréd's big passion, besides motorbikes, is for ancient history: she explains to me whilst driving around the Vieux Port that Marseille was founded by the Greeks, 2600 years ago, and that the city has always refused to accept authority, either from the Italians or, when it passed into French rule, Paris. It produced one of my favourite writers, Antonin Artaud, whose disavowal of any ideology made him too radical even for the Surrealists, and two of France’s most maverick footballers, Éric Cantona, whose briefly played for L’OM before falling out with Tapie – and then the French Football Federation – and the Franco-Algerian star Zinédine Zidane, who never did.

Zidane left French football after helping Girondins de Bordeaux to the UEFA Cup final in 1996: unable to secure the man who would lead France to the World Cup, L’OM, spending big on returning to Ligue 1, signed instead Nantes playmaker Reynald Pédros, whose missed penalty cost Les Bleus a place in the Euro ’96 final. After that, Pédros never recaptured his form, and L’OM would not resume their place amongst the European elite.

Walking down La Canabière, where L’OM paraded their trophies in May 1993, I see how passionate this city is about football. There are L’OM fans everywhere, some already singing of their hatred for PSG. A group see me wearing a replica shirt from 1992, and immediately I discover their favourite from the team of Abedi Pelé, Chris Waddle, Dragan Stojković and others. “Papin! Papin!” they yell: I smile and wave before heading into the OM Boutique to find a souvenir. I pick up a pennant which lists all the honours from L’OM’s history: the 1993 title is listed, the club refusing to accept the ruling of the Paris-based FFF.

I turn off Marseille’s most famous street and find the Mémorial de la Marseillaise on la Rue Thubaneau. On the wall is the date '30 juillet 1792’: the day on which the National Guard marched on Paris, singing what became known as the Marseillaise, permanently adopted as France's national anthem on the establishment of the Third Republic, after the attempts of Napoleon I, the restored monarchy and the Emperor Napoleon III to ban it.

Sadly, the gates are closed. Although the Memorial is in a building that became the Jacobin Club headquarters in 1790, hosting the most extreme revolutionary faction, Fréd tells me that the Mémorial is new: a much more recent construction, in fact, than the Memorial des Camps de la Mort, which recalls those killed in the Holocaust which (at least in Theodor W. Adorno’s eyes) ended the Enlightenment that produced the Revolution of 1789.

Fréderique takes me to Marseille’s most radical building, Unité d’Habitation (literally 'Housing Unit'), designed by the great Modernist architect Le Corbusier. Hugely influential on Sixties Brutalist architecture, this “machine for living in”, which holds 337 apartments on 12 stories as well as medical, sporting and educational facilities, immediately becomes my favourite building. There is an exhibition in the foyer of photographs by Matthieu Parent, showing people at work: artists with their canvasses, writers at their desks, musicians in their studios. Le Corbusier aimed for his masterpiece to transform the lives of the city’s proletariat: instead, it has become highly desirable for bourgeois artistes with an interest in experimental architecture, as removed from public taste as when it was built in 1952.

Fréd and I take Le Petit Train, climbing one of the many hills on which Marseille stands, up to the thirteenth century basilica at Notre Dame de la Garde. There, 162 metres above sea level, we look over the entire city, then enter the church, where people are lighting candles (Fréd jokes that the many L’OM fans light them in prayer for a home win), and see stones all over the walls thanking the Virgin Mary for various miracles.

Stepping outside, we see the bullet holes from the Second World War. The cathedral was crucial in liberating Marseille: the North African troops knew a passage into the building and up to the roof, from which the French Army could rout the surrounding Nazis. We step around the corner: we can see one stand at the Stade Vélodrome, L’OM’s stadium, built in 1937 for the 1938 World Cup, the tournament overshadowed by the ascendancy of Fascism – winners Italy played their first round and semi final matches here, switching to Paris – and black shirts – for their quarter final victory over France.

Fréd leaves to watch the Qatar Moto GP, and I head to the stadium. I enter what calls itself the Musée L’OM: there are handprints belonging to a number of the club’s greats. I see prints belonging to Jules Dewaquez, star of the 1926 and 1927 Coupe de France winning teams, Algerian defender Jean-Louis Hodoul and others, and a few small exhibits commemorating L’OM’s back-to-back titles of 1971 and 1972, then the golden age of the late eighties and early nineties. The small ‘musée’ feels like a ruse to tempt me into another OM Boutique, and the exhibit celebrating the Champions League triumph is obscured by boxes of DVDs featuring L'OM's finest victories, priced at 25 euros.

I meet Frédérique’s friend Laetitia three hours before kick-off: we can already see supporters stood on the Virage Nord, which hosts L'OM's feared Ultras. Drinking in a bustling crowd of fans, she says she’s not optimistic about retaining the title – she expects it to go to Lille, who beat L’OM in their last home match. A win will at least knock PSG out of the race: like everyone else here, she desperately wants L’OM to transcend the disappointment of their Champions League exit and beat their hated rivals.

I take my place in the Tribune Ganay Haut, the stand I saw from the Notre Dame de la Garde. None of the terraces have roofs, and I can see some of Marseille’s skyscrapers over the tops of the Virages Nord and Sud. These stands gradually fill, apart from a small section in the Nord occupied by police, where the away fans would usually be. Without the opposing support, the Ultras have nowhere to direct their anger – until PSG come out to train, when the whistles and boos are intense.

PSG’s players head back down the tunnel, and the Marseillais concentrate on their own club. The Nord fly flags of Argentina, to celebrate playmaker Lucho González and former PSG defender Gabriel Heinze (who swore he’d never join L’OM but did after Manchester United blocked his desired switch to Liverpool) and Ghana, in support of Abedi Pelé’s sons Jordan and André Ayew, both in the squad for Le Classique.

Just before kick-off, the Nord crowd raise placards, covering the Virage with L’OM's badge: after seventies legend Josip Skoblar joins the captains on the pitch, there is a request for a minute’s silence for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims. It’s not impeccably observed, but the Nord Ultras cover the sky blue L’OM badge with red, forming the flag of Japan – a moving, kind-hearted tribute from a group usually noted for their fierce hostility.

After an open start, L’OM’s playmaker Mathieu Valbuena is fouled on the edge of PSG’s area. Heinze wins the argument over who will take the free kick, and curls a perfect shot past Grégory Coupet to put the home side ahead. Nearly full, the stadium erupts: PSG hurriedly restart. The veteran Ludovic Giuly and Brazilian playmaker Nenê threaten, and after Nenê hits the post following comical L’OM defending, PSG midfielder Clement Chantôme follows up to score.

This is met with a strange silence. The PSG players pause, stare at the empty space next to the Nord’s quietly furious Ultras, and then race over to embrace manager Antoine Kombouaré. L’OM press hard to restore their lead: on 37 minutes, striker André-Pierre Gignac, the player in this side whom I find most intriguing, crosses for André Ayew to head the champions into the lead. Gignac, a man proud of his Romani gypsy heritage who joined L’OM for a huge fee in the summer despite his disappointing part in France’s World Cup debacle, has been struggling, but is slowly winning over the crowd after three recent goals: this is his only contribution, however, and during a goalless second half, he is substituted.

L’OM unnerve their fans with some careless defending – new acquisition Rod Fanni is especially lax at times – but they hold on for their thirtieth victory over PSG, which leaves them four points behind Lille. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent: certainly for the fans and police involved with Le Classique, much is simplified by their absence. L'OM have proved repeatedly over the years that their greatest enemy is themselves, but for now, they have succeeded, and I walk away with 50,000 others, happy that the Provence has asserted itself over the capital.

Thanks to Commando Ultra '84 for the photos

You can follow both Juliet Jacques and European Football Weekends on Twitter

You can read more of Juliet's work at The Guardian.

Like this? You might also like Michael Cox from Zonal Marking on Barcelona

- Feel free to comment below -

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Legend - The Pride of Greece

Olympiakos sealed an incredible 13th title in the last 15 years with a crushing 6-0 victory over City-rivals AEK Athens at the weekend, making it their 38th title in their illustrious history. We wanted to find out a little more about the fans of Greece's most followed, and most successful club, whilst at the same time delving into the mindset of some of the most passionate fans in world football.

Nik Storey a follower of the Greek club and Manchester United, took some time out to interview ‘Goal News’ reporter, and Olympiakos fanatic, George Nikokiris...

George, great to meet you, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed; what a great job you have, following the club you have adored since a child and reporting on them at the same time?! Yes I am lucky to have such a job, I love my profession and I love Olympiakos of course. But I am a professional first and foremost, and despite having the passion for the club like a genuine fan, it would be wrong of me to put this before my job.

Absolutely. So, we have to ask, how does it feel to retain the title in such an emphatic manner (6-0 at home to AEK)? For the fans it was the best, simply marvellous. To mathematically secure the title so early, making it impossible for Panathinaikos (PAO) to catch us is such a good feeling. The win, or ‘siesta’ as we call it in Greece, was great – beating AEK 6-0 for the third time!

Very nice indeed! And fans were quite nervous going into the game after losing to PAOK the week before, and suffering from the media backlash that ensued after the victory at home to PAO? True, but I always felt confident with our home record being what it is this year; we are trying to stay on course for a Greek record: a 100% win record here at the Karaiskaki! In Greece, we always try to find reason to denigrate the best, no matter what the subject matter; This record speaks for itself though, no matter what the detractors say about us getting all the decisions in the league – it evens out in the end, doesn’t it – and well our football has been quite fantastic.

The club’s 38th title? Tell us a little more….Well it is incredible [the 38th] really; out of all the other Championship winners, the combined total is 37!! For example PAO have 20 and AEK, 11.

Do the Olympiakos fans have a name, aside from the ‘Red and Whites’? ‘Thrylos’ or Legend. This name was created in the 1950’s after we achieved 6 titles in a row. We have managed 7 in a row more recently of course, and we really proud of the fact that we are strong in all sports: Basketball, Volleyball, Polo etc. [Olympiakos is a club name, representing many different sports not just football].

Tell us about the fans then, the Ultras? The Greek fans are the most passionate in my opinion, and Olympiakos fans are no different. We have a special ‘Gate’ in the stadium, ‘Gate 7’ where the Ultras sit and which is dedicated to a tragic event which occurred in early February of 1981; ironically it was game in which we beat AEK 6-0 – at the final whistle the fans went to celebrate outside of the stadium and the doors at this gate were not fully open; in fact they were virtually closed and there was pandemonium. Tragically, 20 of our fans and 1 from AEK died from the crush that ensued. Every year Olympiakos fans pay their respects at a memorial for all 21 people, and in Gate 7, 21 seats are painted black (the rest being red) depicting the number 7.

A dreadful tragedy indeed, very sad. Could you tell us a little more about the passion of the Olympiakos fans? Whilst we do have a select group of ‘die-hards’, much like the Kop and Stretford End say in England, the majority of the stadiums here are enthusiastic and passionate throughout the game. And of course, I would say we have the best atmosphere here at the Karaiskaki, we create a carnival atmosphere and our home is our ‘Castle’. For a recent away game with Lazio for example, we took 9000 fans to Olympic stadium in Rome, which is more than other teams from Greece.

Nice. Presumably that is also down to the fact that you have the most supporters in Greece? Ha yes, of course we have more fans – and this is largely down to the success of the club; when a team wins more titles, it gains more followers as you can appreciate - ask Manchester United! The 1950’s success was probably the start of this, but it is also because Olympiakos originated from the port Piraeus and football being the working-class sport it is, the working class modus operandi of the area undoubtedly made the club popular.

How does the fan split work in Athens with so many clubs, including the likes of bitter rivals Panathinaikos and AEK Athens? And how important is the social class issue you allude to? PAO fans for example are theoretically from the more affluent Northern suburbs of Athens, near Filothei and Kifissia; AEK fans closer to the centre. Olympiakos fans originate from the Port but we have support from everyday common people in the likes Crete, Corfu, Patra, Northern Greece, everywhere!

Tell us about the camaraderie amongst fans, the songs they sing? I remember sitting with the Olympiakos fans at Old Trafford in 2001 and the noise was simply incredible, the loudest ever heard at the ground! We have a great cohesion and unity. Since the tragedy Olympiakos is like one big family, a ‘religion’ if you like. You are right about the atmosphere we create, regardless of the fixture and the result, the fans sing until the final whistle. We like to jump in unison, use our arms to salute the players as one, everything!

And your favourite chant/song? Ah my favourite song was from the Juve quarter finals. We had scored a 90th penalty to keep us in it to take back to the OAKA in Athens, and out came: ‘There in the high, high Delle Alpi, we left it red, to remind them (Juve fans) of the 90th minute. In the Delle Alpi thousands of us went, and lived unique moments as we showed our passion; to Torino for you Olympiake! My God do me a favour and let our crazy dream come true, for our ‘dead’ to see us in the Final!!’ Also our singing to Saja the AEK keeper Saja, at 6-0 during the recent game; in a previous 6-0 with AEK the fans asked the goalkeeper to ‘use the scoreboard to count the goals’ – last weekend we asked Saja to do the same. Ha, so funny.

The pyrotechnic element - How do fans get the flares into the stadium?! In England there are strict security procedures before entering. The police are simply unable to stop this so they don’t bother. It has always been a staple feature of the Greek game; It can be dangerous, but more often than not it is a bit of fun, and the key is to deal with it in the stadium.

It wasn’t always a happy story for the red and whites though was it? No you are right, the fanaticism also stems from a lot of angst we suffered as a club in the years between 1988 – 1997, the ‘stone years’ as we call them; we didn’t (and couldn’t) win a title, but more than that we were living with great economic problems here in Greece. Nobody was willing to take hold of the club and take it forward – until of course Mr Kokkalis came along! His investment (he owns a telecommunications empire and other businesses) started in 1993, and he brought in top coach Dusan Bajevic shortly after. The money meant lots of new signings, and the fans were awarded for their patience with a 1st title 10 years, and more recently a brand new Karaiskaki Stadium, which meant no longer sharing the Olympic Stadium with Panathinaikos.

Which fellow Greek fans do you secretly admire? Whisper it (laughs) PAOK fans; along with us, they have the most songs! I’m not overly bothered about supporting the other Greek teams in Europe if I’m honest; though of course the Greek National team is different, we all come together to support our country and there is rarely an issue between fans of different clubs.

Describe to me a typical derby day, starting with pre-match festivities? The derby days are very important to Olympiakos fans and Greek fans in general. The outcome of the game goes way beyond the actual result of the game! Up to 4 hours before the game. Many fans will come together to sing songs, mainly in cafeterias. Whilst we may have one or two beers in a café, there is certainly not the same pub culture you have there in England (and relationship with alcohol). We will drink café frappe instead and talk about the upcoming game with great passion and insight.

Occasionally there may be arranged fighting in the centre of Athens – this is not good but a symptom of the passion and rivalry that exists; but this isn’t just Olympiakos, or football even – this is a problem we have in general in Greece, across all sports. Perhaps similar to the hooliganism culture in England in the 70’s and 80’s; though again, I must stress this is the minority, and gladly this type of behaviour is seen less and less.

How has the advent of the new law preventing automatic travel for Super League fans impacted on the famous Greek match-day atmosphere? For the last 7-8 years, the away fans are forbidden to travel to games unless it is a Cup Final. The system has failed the Greek fans, as it will not stop the violence. The real issue is the apathy! If I hit a player for example, the police will not come to my house to arrest me, its crazy!

Ah, are you talking about the incident this season where the AEK Athens fans came onto the pitch and surrounded Dusan Bajevic, a couple of whom actually punching the Serbian manager? Yes that is one example. Can you believe that they hit him because he left them for Olympiakos years ago? It is a revenge for them as they think he is a traitor to this day. Mad! There was no punishment for the fans who did this! The political system just does not want to get involved. It’s the system, the corruption, everything!

All-time favourite player and why? Ah, need you ask?! Pedrag Djordjevic! Simply an amazing player who could do everything with his trusty left-foot! He won 12 Championships in 13 seasons with the club! AEK only have 11 titles in their history!

Pedrag Djordjevic - a symbol of Olympiakos' "Golden Age" of 12 championship trophies in 13 years

Aha I agree! Like the Greek Ryan Giggs then? Indeed, very similar in some respects!

And what would be your all-time favourite season and why? The 1998-99 double season! We also reached the last 8 of ECL, it was a great season!

If EFW travelled over for a match, would we/they be made welcome and are there any bars we can meet with local fans near to the stadium on match days? Of course! Red-store café at the stadium would be a nice atmosphere, and there are also many places to eat or drink at the stadium in general - it’s like a small shopping centre! Tickets are relatively cheap too, depending on the game (£18 or so).

As an aspiring referee myself, the officiating in Greece isn’t great is it? It isn’t but we are seeing a small improvement year on year. Kakos is a very decent referee, and there is more money being pumped into refereeing at Grass roots. We have hope.

Is it just that a culture of bribery and corruption has polluted the very epicenter of the Greek FA and thus the refereeing standards? That ‘offside goal’ for Panathinaikos springs to mind? The system is not the best for sure. But although many say that the referees are bribed by the top clubs, I’m not so sure. There is no proof of this for me. Of course the referee was terrible in that moment but what can we do? It wasn’t right but these things even out over a season. I saw a penalty decision that went for United recently [Liverpool game in the FA Cup], and nobody in England says that Gill and Ferguson are paying the English referees!

And the pitch invasion after the victory? Look, they went to celebrate because it was a vital victory, and only a handful of people were idiots; hey you get them at games don’t you? Before the AEK game, our President told the fans not to go onto the pitch if we were to win the title and they obeyed this. Simple. Our fans are very respectful and we celebrated the title from the stands with the team.

So, we are coming to the end of this interview now - If you could sum up why Olympiakos fans are the best in the world in one sentence what would you say? Because we are the most crazy, football is our religion!

Finally, having regained the title from arch-rivals Panathinaikos, what are the club’s ambitions for next season? Doing better in Europe presumably after a disastrous start to this particular season? Yes, we must complete the team with a few more signings, and importantly, to trust Valverde. He is a great coach and I think we will do better next season in the Champions League.

Many many thanks Georgo! My pleasure.

Nik's day job is as a tactics guru. He's written recently on: Barcleona, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick and Chelsea v Man Utd

Like this? You might like the EFW article with fans of Aris Thessaloniki

- Feel free to comment below -