Dentures, Dogging and a dancing Nun

How many people can honestly say they have seen football history being made in the flesh?  It is amazing to think just how many people today in their 60’s were at Wembley on the 30th July 1966 when England won the Jules Rimet trophy considering the official attendance was only 98,000, or how many Scottish fans sat on the crossbars at Wembley in 1977.  We have all seen remarkable games in our time – West Ham United 8 Newcastle United 1 in March 1986 was one that sticks in my memory, as too does the 2006 FA Cup final when West Ham came within a misguided kick into touch of beating Liverpool in Cardiff.  But two games for me are really special.  And if I offered up a prize of a million pounds (which I am not I hasten to add) you would never for the life of you guess them.

Back in 2002 I stumbled across a book that changed the way I watched football.  I was browsing in Borders in Charing Cross Road one day after work and I picked up a book by Charlie Connelly called Stamping Grounds.  The first thing I noted was that it appeared Charlie came from my neck of the woods – South East London, the second was it was a book about travelling to watch football, which just so happened to be my favourite past time.  In the previous two years I had “done” Barcelona, Milan, Madrid, the European Championships and had the World Cup in South Korea on the horizon.  I was an old hand at it.  But this book was about travelling to watch football in a place I could not even locate on a map – Liechtenstein.  It was his story of deciding to follow the tiny Alpine nation in their quest to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.  Few books in life truly inspire you but here was one that did just that.  I was by now a seasoned European traveller, having been to the San Siro, Camp Nou and Olympic Stadium in Munich but the booked opened my eyes into the intimacy in following the underdog, the teams no one had heard of.

I came back from the 2002 World Cup a changed man after reading the book and the first thing on my agenda was to plan a trip for myself to the little principality in the mountains.  I ended up going back a year later I loved the peace and quiet of the place so much.  On my first occasion in September 2003 I saw them play Turkey, on a foul night with rain pouring down the mountain side.  It was also my first ever game as a member of the press, and following in Charlie’s footsteps went to the tiny office of the Liechtenstein FA to get our pass and personally be greeted by the whole office.  The game itself was nothing to write home about – a 3-0 defeat went to form.

Home coach Walter Hormann knew a thing or two about football when he said after the game ‘I think these Turkish players will be the top in Europe if they carry on like this.  I was satisfied with my team. Losing only three goals was a good result for us against this team. We just could not cope with them. It was impossible to stop them when they had the ball.’

Two years to the day of my last visit I pulled our hire car into the car park of the Hotel Sonnerhof, Liechtenstein’s most prestigious venue.  This was an early birthday treat for CMF.  Champagne was on ice and we sat on the terrace watching one of those scary automatic lawnmowers do its business whilst the silent Alps enveloped us.  I had managed to get agreement to take in the game later in the evening as Luxembourg were visitors in a qualification game for Germany 2006.  About two hours before kick off we heard the distinct sound of football chanting from the “town” centre.  Surely there couldn’t be any passionate fans gathering for a beer already?  Our curiousity got the better of us so we headed through Harry Zech’s vineyards and into the main street (there essentially is only one street for pedestrians) where a rowdy group of 4, yep I stopped and recounted them twice, Luxembourg fans were having a beer and a little sing song.  The noise was enough to warrant the local police coming down to “have a word” but it was all in good nature….

So what made this trip so memorable?  Well apart from spending time with my lovely wife, we saw history.  For that night, goals by national hero Mario Frick, Benjamin Fischer and Thomas Beck in front of just under 1,000 fans saw Liechtenstein record only their second ever competitive victory at home in their history.  It was also the first time that they had competed a “double” over anyone, having beaten Luxembourg 4-0 away and ensured that they would not finish bottom of the qualifying group for the first time ever.  We celebrated into the night in carneval style as the locals went wild.  Well not quite.  The residents in the hotel hardly knew there was a game on, although they had been asked to keep the restaurant open for the officials (including us).

So after a peaceful night (what else would you expect), we set off for a day of sightseeing around the country.  Not many places in the world you can say that!  We started off in the centre of Vaduz, getting our passport stamped in the tourist office (number 1 on anyone destination lists), then saw the false teeth display next door before stopping in the Baron’s souvenir shop to buy some tat – snow globes always go down as gifts for those who have everything and you don’t really like.  We dropped by the FA’s offices just to say thank you, and they presented us (well me) with a team shirt – not just your everyday replica either – one with that fancy mesh on the inside that is designed to trick players who take their shirts off to celebrate.  Football shirt culture may come and go but such a historical item will one day be a hierloom for the Fuller dynasty and has rightly taken its place in the TBIR museum (aka the shed).

We headed up towards the castle, not open to visitors but still commanding a great photo opportunity across the valley.  We stood there in relative peace for a minute or so before we heard some lustful moans coming from the car park behind us.  Trying to be discreet we turned to see a bloke, dressed in what looked like an Alpine ski outfit, with bobble hat on, peering into the open window of a car (a Opel if you are even more curious) where a woman was bouncing up and down, almost slapping her spectator in the face with her ample boobs.  I assume somewhere under the mass of fat was a bloke, although judging by her furious bouncing I would hate to think what state he would have been in!  I explained as best I could to CMF what the practice of Dogging was and where the term originated from but she simply didn’t believe me.  As if by magic, the man in the ski suit turned slightly to reveal a dog on a lead – I thank you!

It was hard to pull ourselves away (note I refrained from using the word “off” in that instance) but it was hardly a Silvia Saint or a Rita Faltoyano production so we continued to climb the mountain. Just a few hundred yards up the hill we saw a site that chilled us to the bone.  Coming down the path was a group of Nuns.  This was like something out of the Sound of Music…at the front of the group, the “leader of the pack” was singing and dancing…every few seconds the rest joined in with a clap.  What a lovely scene – so happy in life, in a perfect setting and just about to see a huge naked women being shagged in a car watched by a bloke in a tight lycra ski suit…and his dog.  Did we say anything, should we have said anything?  Of course we didn’t we just carried on our way at great speed!  What an end to a perfect trip!

For a number of reasons we think the Rheinpark stadion is one of the best in the world – but don’t just take my word for it, listen to what Liechtenstein’s most famous scribe has to say – ladies and gentlemen – I give you Charlie Connelly, author of “the finest book ever written about Liechtenstein football” (not my words, but those of When Saturday Comes), Stamping Grounds.

This in his own words, is Charlie’s story…..

The book that started the whole adventure was called “The Little Tour: Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino” written by Giles Playfair in years gone by.  So why did you choose Liechtenstein from that?
“It was purely that I’d bought the book on a whim in a second hand shop on the same day I’d read in the paper that Liechtenstein had conceded the quickest goal of the World Cup qualifying round the previous evening, sixteen seconds into their game in Israel. I put two and two together and got Liechtenstein, but then I was never any good at maths. It’s a bizarre book that one: like a cross between The Lady Vanishes and The Mouse That Roared starring Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael.”

Liechtenstein is not known for its tourist properties.  Having spent so long in the country, what would be your one “must see” tourist attraction, McDonald’s excepted?
“There’s going to the pub with Ernst Hasler of course, but in terms of a more conventional attraction… the castle above Vaduz looks quite nice, I suppose. You can’t go in it though”

When you first went there, did you get a Liechtenstein stamp in your passport from the tourist office?
“I did of course, although that passport has long expired now. It also had my entry visa for the Principality of Sealand too – I’m prepared to wager that mine was the only passport in the world bearing those two stamps.”

When you decided on Liechtenstein and then looked at their qualifying group did you really expect them to lose every game in that qualifying ground?
“Before I went I thought it was quite likely, yes. Their performance in the first home game against Austria though, when they only lost 0-1, made me think they were capable of at least a draw against one or two other teams in the group, maybe more than a draw. They were well-organised, particularly defensively, and I thought if they could just have a bit more confidence in themselves going forward goals were not out of the question.”

You showed almost totally loyalty to them, spending a fortune on a last minute trip to the game in Spain.  Have you seen them again since the book was published?
“Quite a few times, yes. I’m still in touch with a lot of the people from the book, so get to games when I can. I even went to see FC Vaduz in a UEFA Cup tie at Livingston a while back, where they were robbed by a ‘Clive Thomas’ moment – a last gasp ‘winner’ was ruled out when the ref blew for full time between the ball leaving the player’s boot and crossing the goalline meaning Vaduz went out on away goals. Scandalous. Me and my mate Matt were the only Vaduz fans in the ground. We contemplated attacking the referee and goading the local fans and police into, you know, ‘having some’, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.”

We have always rated the Rheinpark stadium as our favourite in the world simply for a location that cannot be beaten.  Where would you place it in your list of grounds visited?
“In terms of location it’s well up there, yes. My favourite ground on that score would be EB/Streymur in the Faroe Islands, on one of the more remote islands right by the sea with mountains all around; it’s like the football ground at the end of the world. The old national stadium there at Toftir was great too, a ground that was actually dynamited out of the hillside to create a flat enough surface to play on. I’ve been to the Olympic stadium in Sarajevo a few times too, and am quite partial to that as it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I literally bumped into Sepp Blatter there once on the pitch at a gloriously disorganised ‘Football For Peace’ friendly game. Platini gave me a filthy look. I gave him one back. I certainly wasn’t at home to Mister Snooty, I can tell you.”

Being a Charlton Athletic fan and all that comes with it today, are you now used to that hopeless feeling in following the perennial underdog?
“Oof, when your first season as a Charlton fan sees them relegated from the old Second Division by a mile, you don’t have to get used to the hopeless feeling, it’s there right from the start.”

Based on the Liechtenstein team you watched back in 2000, what level of team were they?  Barnet?  Gravesend & Northfleet (I refuse to call them Ebbsfleet)? Welling United?  Thamesmead United?
“It’s impossible to say, really. When you can play the big teams in Europe (and sometimes England too) and regularly only lose by one or two goals then you’ve got to have something. But then when you’re only playing a handful of games a year you’re going to raise your game accordingly I suppose. There are some very good players there – Mario played several seasons in Serie A – and the team now is almost entirely professional. On the evidence of the games I saw I’d say they’d be capable of holding their own in League One, maybe.”

Was you ever tempted to stay at the Park Hotel Sonnerhof overlooking Vaduz?  We have stayed there twice complete with its fancy robot-like lawnmowers, and even dined next to Sepp Blatter one night
“Ooh, posh. Get you. No, I preferred keeping it real in the ghetto down in the valley.”

Harry Zech esssential gave up the game to concentrate on his winemaking.  How good is his wine?
“Very good. Seriously. It even travels well: sometimes when you have a great bottle of wine or a fantastic beer the location has a lot to do with it, as I found to my cost when I spent a lot of money ordering a case of tremendous wine I’d had on a terrace overlooking the vines at a Yarra Valley winery in Australia once only to find that in south London it was pretty ordinary. Same with Uzbek beer. Harry’s wine tastes as good outside Liechtenstein as it does inside though.”

You must take some responsibility for putting the country back on the map since the book was published.  Have you been back and if so did you get an open top bus procession through Vaduz?
“I go back quite a lot as I’ve still got friends there as a result of the book. It’s more the players and Ernst Hasler who gets the recognition: I think Ernst has actually signed more copies of the book than I have.”

Have you ever thought of turning the book into a film, and who would you want to play you?  Peter Sellers would have been perfect to play Ernst Hasler.
“Ha! Yes, he would. For me it would need to be someone with an outsized head, short legs and a penchant for slapstick. WC Fields would have been good, I’d say.”

Did you ever meet the Prince Hans Adam II?
“Yes, on Liechtenstein National Day once. I made a tit of myself, predictably.”

What was your best memory of the whole adventure?
“If I had to pick one it would have to be the Spain game. Playing one of the best teams in the world and playing out of their skins to ‘only’ lose 0-2: the elation at the final whistle was extraordinary, as if Liechtenstein had won the World Cup itself. I was on as much of a high as the players and fans, grinning like a loon for days afterwards.”

A night out in Sidcup or Vaduz?
“That’s very kind of you, but I’m spoken for.”

Out of all the small nations, Liechtenstein probably stand the most chance of moving up to the next level.  Do you think that this is due to their league structure with their teams being able to compete in the stronger Swiss league rather than their own.  Surely this is the only way someone like Scotland could improve?
“It’s possible, but most of the clubs are in the lower divisions in Switzerland which wouldn’t be all that great in terms of quality. Vaduz, by far the strongest team in Liechtenstein, only recently broke into the Swiss top flight for the first time. I think the secret, if there is one, lies in the coaching: identifying your strengths and weaknesses and adapting to them accordingly. Liechtenstein’s coaching structure is very good, right the way down to the kids.  Also, moving Scottish clubs to Switzerland would be pretty expensive for the fans. Ha! This is a joke I am making.”

Did you see any crime whatsoever in Liechtenstein.  We were once frowned at for sneezing in one of the cafe’s in the pedestrian street, and on one hot day in September I was told off for standing in one of the fountains.
“The only crime I saw in Liechtenstein was when the England fans arrived for the Euro 2004 qualifier and started smashing things up and fighting with each other. Ernst Hasler’s late night, beer-fuelled singing is pretty criminal, but other than that, no, it’s a happy little crime-free nation. Well, I can’t vouch for what goes on behind the doors of some of the banks, but you know what I mean. I must try standing in a fountain, it might get my picture in the papers.”

If you could do it all again, what would you change?
“Probably the performance in the last game in Bosnia. Didn’t exactly leave the campaign on a high that night. Also my hairstyle wasn’t great back then; I think I was doing it myself with a set of clippers. I’d change that in hindsight.”

Did you ever get so engrossed with the team that you referred to them as “we” when you were back at home?
“Oh goodness, yes. Still do”

New Zealand were one of the surprises of the World Cup yet are probably at the same level as Liechtenstein.  Do you think there is mileage in having a world tournament for the smaller teams – like a plate competition running parallel to a main one?
“No. For a start it wouldn’t be financially viable: no big TV network would be interested and sponsors wouldn’t exactly flock to a tournament where the showpiece final would be between, say, Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein (although, come to think of it, they are the only two double-landlocked countries in the world, fact fans). If it was going to run alongside the World Cup and European Championship qualifiers the strain on the calendar would be too much. If you mean the smaller nations competing in a separate competition altogether instead of the World Cup I’d be dead against that. The small nations have just as much right to be in the World Cup as the big nations and they’d be financially crippled if they were turfed out of the World Cup. Football should be a democracy: at the start of every World Cup each of the two hundred plus teams competing, be they major European nations with World Cup wins or Pacific islanders playing in front of 500 people should have a theoretically equal chance of winning it. That’s where the magic is.”

What are you up to now?
“I don’t write about football anymore; looking back, the Liechtenstein book was probably a therapeutic exercise in reassuring me that there was some magic left in football away from the Premier League and the places where cash is king. I moved to Ireland a couple of years ago so am following Charlton from afar, which is actually the best way to follow them these days. I’ve written a book called ‘Our Man In Hibernia: Ireland, the Irish and Me’ which comes out in September, part of which details how I’ve fallen for gaelic football and hurling since I’ve been here. Just waiting for Ireland and Liechtenstein to be drawn in the same group, although they’ve got Scotland this time:I’ve already been approached by some Scottish papers so you never know, I might end up writing about Liechtenstein again.”

We are very grateful to Charlie for sparing the time to chat and you can catch up with his adventures on Twitter.

So what was the other game I hear you ask…well that will remain a secret for a few more weeks, known only to me, Heney and a dozen Latvians.

twitter / theballisround

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