Flickin’ Hell


First published back in 2010, this post on some of the stranger accessories available through the years for Subbuteo generated a lot of interest.

Nearly ten years on and there are even more add-ons available, to bring the game into the 21st century.  One look at eBay and you can find the following items:

TV Studio with Sky Sports branding

Champions League Players entrance arch

Champions League advert boards

Premier League centre circle graphics

In March 1947 in the small Kent village of Langton Green a game was invented that literally changed the past times of millions of children around the world.  A chap there called Peter Adolph created a set of plastic footballers that he wanted to market in a game called “Hobby”.  Unfortunately he could not get a trademark on such a generic name so he settled for the slightly similar Falco Subbuteo which was a bird of prey also known as the Eurasian Hobby (see what he did there…). Continue reading

The most passionate football nation in Europe


This article was first written back in 2011 but is one of the top five viewed posts I’ve ever published – if you view it in terms of population of the highest ranked country, then everyone there would have read it….twice.  Below was the original article and ranking back then with an update today to see how things have changed in the last eight years.

Two weeks ago I met a chap from Iceland at Copenhagen airport.  His first words to me were “I’m the most passionate football fan in the world”.  He had seen my Lewes FC Owners badge and knew exactly who the Rooks were, what league they were in and where they were in the league.  In fact when I randomly fired obscure non league teams at it he could answer every single question on location, league and position.  Curzon Ashton, Lincoln Moorlands Railways, Quorn.  You name it, he knew the answer.  He told me he watched about twenty games a week on the TV and Online, and devoted his whole life to following the beautiful game.  He showed me his list of “favourite” teams from across Europe.  His main team was KR Reykjavik back at home but also he avidly followed (deep breath here):-

Celtic, Rosenborg, Basel, Benfica, Helsingborgs, Rapid Wien, Olympiakos, Liverpool, AC Milan, Barcelona, Brondby, HJK Helsinki, Skendija Tetovo, Buducnost Podgorica, Hadjuk Split and BATE Borisov.

But this meeting got me thinking.  Which nation are the most passionate about their own domestic league?  My new “friend” in the thumbs up Inbetweeners way had claimed the Icelanders were – with just 12 clubs and a population of 328,000 he thought that more people watched top flight football in Iceland as a percentage than any other nation.

So in a spare moment (OK, hour) last week I fed all the relevant information into the TBIR super computer to see what the results were.  Now, it is hard to be very exact and so I had to make a couple of assumptions.

  • Population figures were taken from the CIA database
  • To calculate the attendance of the league I took the league average attendance per game from 2010/11 (or 2011 in case of summer leagues) and multiplied by the teams in the league – this would roughly show the number of people who went to top flight football in a two week period (i.e a home game for each club). The bible for any statistical world is of course European Football Statistics.
  • Obviously there is a small amount of overlap with away fans attending games so I took off 10% from the total to avoid double counting.
  • I was unable to find league attendances for Andorra, San Marino or Malta. In addition there isn’t a league in Liechtenstein as their teams play in the Swiss league.  However, the remaining 49 UEFA-affiliated Leagues were included.

The results were indeed very surprising.  The top ten “most passionate” countries about their own domestic league have an average FIFA ranking of 53 (and a UEFA one of 23).  There is only three countries in the top ten that are in the FIFA top ten, and the top three are all ranked by FIFA at over 118, and over 44 in Europe.  So in true TBIR Top of the Pops style lets countdown from 10 to 1.

10th place – Switzerland (1.32% of the population watch a top flight match in 2010/11 season – Average attendance was 11,365 – Top supported club FC Basel who averaged 29,044)
Despite its peaceful aspect of mountains, cow bells and lakes, football in Switzerland is a passionate affair that often boils over into violence. The best supported team, FC Basel are now a regular in the Champions League Group Stages which has seen their average attendance rise to nearly 30,000.  Their average attendance for the Axpo Super League would be better if the two teams from Zürich realised their potential.  One cloud on the horizon in Switzerland is the financial stability of clubs – we have this season seen Neuchâtel Xamax go to the wall and several others are in a precarious position.  However, football is still seen as the number one sport, and with top flight clubs distributed across the country it is clear to see the appeal of the domestic game, especially as on the national side they have had a good few years.

2019 update – Switzerland has now dropped out of the top ten, falling to 11th place as of the end of the 2018/19 season, replaced by Sweden. Average attendance was 11,273 but for the first time in nearly 20 years, the best supported club wasn’t FC Basel.  Champions Young Boys of Berne averaged 25,781 last season perhaps indicating a shift in power in the Alps? Oh, and Neuchâtel Xamax FCS have been born out of the ashes of the original club and are now playing in the Super League, whilst neither team from Zurich has finished in top spot.

Continue reading

The strange case of the Saarland National Football Team


The who many of you will probably say. Indeed up until a few months ago I would have been in that group that would have struggled to place the region on a map of Europe. But thanks to the day job I’ve become quite familiar with the South-Westish corner of Germany and the Federal State capital, Saarbrücken. Saarland is the smallest non-city state in Germany and from a footballing point of view has lacked a top flight team for some years. FC Saarbrücken were actually invited to take part in the inaugural Bundesliga (hence why today they can use the “1” before their name) with some controversy as they weren’t seen as one of the better sides or having the historical success that other sides in the region had.

In that first season they finished bottom and were relegated, and bar a two year spell forty years ago, have been yo-yoing between the lower tiers ever since. Today they play in the fourth tier of German football, the Regionalliga SüdWest.

But go back further into the history books and you find a story that is as confusing as it is bizarre in today’s current climate.

Due to the post-war partition of East and West Germany, Saarland was separated and handed to the French to administer.

The Saarländischer Fußballbund (SFB) was founded on 25 July 1948 in Sulzbach and a new league structure was created under the name of the Ehrenliga (rough translation – The Honour League) with clubs taking part from across the region. That was except FC Saarbrücken who accepted an invitation to join Ligue 2 in 1948. The club won the league at a canter (playing under the name of FC Sarrebruck). In order to compete in the top flight they needed to become members of the French Football Federation and were put forward for election than none other than Jules Rimet. But the other clubs were having none of it and voted overwhelmingly not to accept them.

Without a league to play in and not fancying the Ehrenliga they thought outside of the box and arranged a tournament where some of the best sides in Europe were invited to play in a knockout tournament in the 1949-50 season known as the Internationalet Saarland Pokel. Unsurprisingly, the home side won the inaugural tournament, beating Stade Rennais 4-0 in the final.

They followed that win with high-profile friendliest with the likes of Liverpool (won 4-1), Real Madrid (won 4-0) and a Catalan XI (won).

The tournament only ran for another season but three years later the European Cup was born. Whilst the in were now back playing in the German football pyramid, Saarland was still considered a separate state (more of that in a minute) and campaigned UEFA to be given one of the 16 places in the first ever European Cup. Friends in high places perhaps had the final say and FC Saarbrücken were included. Their campaign was short-lived as they lost 7-5 on aggregate to AC Milan.

One reason why Saarland had been able to get a place in the tournament was down to them being officially recognised as a nation by FIFA. After that vote by the French Football Federation to decline their membership back in 1949, they struck up the idea of applying direct to FIFA to be a member of the world footballing family and surprisingly their application was accepted in June 1950. The twist here was that at the time neither East or West Germany Football Associations were recognised by the world’s footballing governing body.

Their first game was played in Saarbrücken in November 1950 when they beat Switzerland 4-2. They played a handful of games in the next couple years but their crowning glory was their involvement in the qualification for the 1954 FIFA World Cup to be played in Switzerland. Irony (or warm balls?) saw them drown in the same group as West Germany and Norway, with only the group winner progressing to the final tournament.

In the first group match they travelled to Oslo to face the Norwegians and took all two points (as it was back then) coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Their positivity was then dampened by a 3-0 defeat in Stuttgart to West Germany and a goal-less draw back in Saarbrücken to the Norwegians. But as there was only two points for a win, West Germany’s 5-1 victory over Norway didn’t secure them the top spot but instead set up a win or bust game between Saarland and the Germans in Saarbrücken.

The watching world were forced to wait for the long footballing winter break to finish before in March 1954 they faced each other. A win would have made Saarland possibly the most unlikely World Cup qualifier ever but it was not to be. West Germany won 3-1, progressed to the tournament in Switzerland and four months later won the World Cup for the first time, beating Hungary 3-2 in what became known as the Miracle of Bern.

Saarland continued to play games, mainly against B-sides or willing nations although their didn’t fare too well, losing heavily to Uruguay, Yugoslavia, France and Portugal in their next few games. In October 1955 they beat France 7-5 in the Ludwigparkstadion in Saarbrücken in what was to be their final victory and in June 1956 played their final ever game as a Nation, losing 3-2 to the Netherlands in front of 65,000 in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Their final record as a FIFA member was: –

P 19 W 6 D 3 L 10 GS 36 GA 54

Saarland held a referendum in 1955 as to wether it should rejoin the Federal Republic of Germany or become an independent state under the guidance of a European Commissioner. Over 97% of those eligible to vote did so with 2/3rds rejecting the independent state option and thus starting the wheels in motion for Saarland to once again become a State within the Federal Republic. The date set for that transition was 1st January 1957 meaning that Saarland withdrew from FIFA prior to Christmas in 1956 and became part of the DFB where they remain to this day.

Head coach Helmut Schön went on to manage the West German National side and oversaw their 1966 and 1974 FIFA World Cup campaigns, becoming the first ever international coach to have held the UEFA European Championships and FIFA World Cup honours. He went on to be awarded one of the first FIFA Orders of Merit in 1984.

Saarland’s sojourn into International football may have been brief but the impact lasted for decades. They are one of only three national sides (East Germany and South Yemen being the others) where their FIFA membership and international record hasn’t been merged into the new national state.

All that glitters certainly isn’t gold


It is a clear free-kick on the edge of the Inter Milan box.  25 yards out, dead centre and ten world-class players queueing up to create some magic.  86,000 fans wait expectantly.  The stadium all of a sudden lights up with tens of thousands of mobile phones, trained on the pitch, the owners of them choosing to view the incident through a small screen rather than with their own eyes.  Welcome to Modern Football.

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It was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss.  A major industry event in Barcelona coinciding with Barcelona’s Champions League tie against Inter Milan.  I wasn’t the only one who had the same idea and almost everyone I bumped into during the day around the conference centre mentioned they were heading to the Camp Nou for the game.

For many of them, especially our cousins from across the Atlantic, would be attending their first ever game.  For me it was Charlton Athletic versus Burnley at a decaying Valley back in 1974, so a visit to Europe’s biggest stadium isn’t a bad way to lose your cherry.

For the club, European games are a gold-mine for the club.  With season tickets not valid for these games, it is all pay and with so much demand for seats, the club set the price high….eye-watering, vertigo-inducing high.  By the time I bought my ticket I paid €109 for a place in the top tier, almost closer to the stars than the gutter.

IMG_4486

As you climb up towards the Gods you see that the Camp Nou is far from a world-class stadium behind the veneer.  The stairwells are cramped and show their age – some parts of the stadium haven’t been touched since 1982.  Whilst there are plans in place for an upgrade and expansion of the stadium in the near future, today it is light-years away from the image of the club on the pitch.  At half-time fans have to queue on stairways to get a drink or something to eat, with the narrow concourses dangerously overcrowded.

The seating areas are basic to say the least.  Seats exposed to the hot Catalan sunshine have faded over time, offer little leg-room and are exposed to the elements.  It’s hardly any different to the San Siro, the Stade de France or Stadio Olimpico.  But few who visit care, they are here to watch the magic on the pitch..in theory.

I took my seat just as the teams came out on the pitch.  My first sign of the demographic of the fans around me was when the club anthem, Cant del Barca, fired up.  All around me the phones came out, videoing the scene.

The couple in front of me settled down for the next 90 minutes.  Each of them had a carton of popcorn and got their phones out.  As the game started he pressed the record button on his phone, she fired up her Netflix app and started watching ‘The Good Place”.  Welcome to the world of the Modern Football Fan.

Resplendent in their £70 shirts (or £99 if you want the ‘vapour’ version whatever that is) and half/half scarves, they are the perfect fans for Barca.  Spending close to £500 on a single visit to the Camp Nou is what Modern Football is all about.  Popcorn-eating, Netflix-watching fans who actually don’t care what happens on the pitch but have at least Instagramed their visit and ticked off another tourist destination.

The free-kick in question caused quite a stir.  Not for the quality of the strike but for the tactic used by the visitors in laying a player on the floor to stop the genius of a free-kick hit low to take advantage of the jumping wall.  The fan in front captured the moment on his phone and replayed the moment first to himself and then to his non-interested girlfriend, missing the resulting corner and goal-line clearance.

I’m sure my neighbours aren’t unique either in the Camp Nou or in most other major stadiums in Europe.  The huge increase in commercial and TV revenues now means major clubs and their stars are as big as movie stars, and people are prepared to pay top dollar to watch them.  That means clubs are prepared to price-out some of their traditional, loyal fans who turn up close to kick-off, don’t spend in the club shop or overpriced concessions stands.  Unfortunately, that is Modern Football.

As a self-appointed Football Tourist I have nothing against the sentiment of travelling around the world to watch football, but that is what it should be – watching football.  Not watching football through a lens, or watching US hit TV shows.

 

Be careful what you wish for would-be Premier League clubs


Over the weekend I had a lively debate with a Wolverhampton Wanderers-supporting friend who was venting his anger that eight out of their first ten games in 2019 would be moved for TV purposes. My argument was that he should have known what he had signed up for at the start of the season. Whilst Wolves are the current ‘fad’ club, fuelled by significant overseas investment from a long line of messiah’s who would make the club “the biggest in the world” within a few years.

For all we know, Fosun International’s claims may be right. Wolves fans, who have suffered years of boom and bust (significantly more of the latter than the former), are quite rightly full of beans at the moment, blinkered to the pit-falls of their owners current strategy. Unfortunately, they are in a crowded race of other high net-worth club owners, all trying to make their club the biggest in the world.

Few football fans or commentators would have predicted Manchester United’s current predicament of looking at a League Cup trophy as a good return from their season, but they are now behind their “noisy” neighbours in terms of on and off field success. Who would have seen that a decade ago? And it’s not just City. Add in Chelsea and a resurgent Liverpool. Spurs new stadium could see them finally make the step up to that level too. West Ham, with their 50,000+ stadium they play at for a hugely subsidized fee, could potentially move into that elite category if they find owners who are willing to invest in the squad.

Why? Why are wealthy individuals investing in clubs? Whilst fans may believe it is to deliver on-field success, at the end of the day it is simply an investment, one which they expect to grow substantially over time. Part of that growth is based on success on the field, but the English Premier League is like no other – it is the potential returns off the pitch that fuels that interest.

Most clubs now make more money from TV than from gate receipts, which in its most basic form means that the fans have become less important than the TV slot, which is why you won’t see club owners complaining when they have to play on a Friday night 250 miles away. There will be some noises made about “the difficult journey for our loyal fans” but no one involved is prepared to go out on a limb and say “no”.

So, the situation for clubs like Wolves, or further down the leagues, Leeds United won’t get better any time soon. Success on the pitch means compliance off it. But what if there was no TV revenue of substance? To understand a little how that would look fly 1,375 miles east to Belarus.

In the next few weeks Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics, or BATE as they are more commonly known, should wrap up their 13th consecutive title, a European record also held by Norway’s Rosenberg. The former works team from Belarusian’s biggest tractor manufacturer rose to become the biggest club in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1992. Dinamo Minsk, funded as most other “Dinamo” clubs within the Soviet Union by the Military, were the biggest club and had won the Soviet Championship back in 1992 but since then their dominance has waned and in 1996 the company, and consequently, the football team were taken over by successful businessman Anatoli Kapski. A decade later and the club had retained their title at the start of their record-breaking run.

That initial investment happened at the right time as other clubs struggled to find their feet in Belorussia’s post-independent world, whilst money started to flow from UEFA and their commercial partners into European competition. As each season passed and BATE celebrated another title, the prize money from their forays into Europe got bigger and bigger, which in turn saw them build a stronger and stronger squad.

They became the first, and only Belarusian side to feature in the Champions League Group Stages, a feat they have repeated on four occasions and can include wins against Roma, Bayern Munich and Athletic Bilbao. Each game played in the competition just adds another obstacle to the remaining teams back in the Belarusian Football League.

Without meaningful domestic TV money, no other club stands a chance of competing in the foreseeable future. This is the alternative scenario for fans who feel that the TV companies have too much influence over the Premier League. I’m sure there will come a time when Dinamo Brest, owned by Middle Eastern company Sohra, will challenge for the title but until then, domestic fans will have to make do with the odd domestic cup and a long-shot at the Europa League.

So, what do we want? The devil or the deep blue sea?

Many thanks to Steve Menary for his excellent background on BATE in October’s When Saturday Comes.