The tide has turned


Michelle: What do you prefer? Astroturf or grass?
Rodney: I don’t know, I’ve never smoked AstroTurf

It’s been almost ten years since I started The Ball is Round.  Back in 2006 I was at my Football Tourist peak, dashing off to somewhere new almost every other week.  European football was opening up for us all with the Internet giving us the answers to the important questions about local public transport and ticket buying procedures, whilst budget airlines seemed to be falling over themselves to open up more exotic routes.  It was certainly the golden age to be a fan of football rather than just being a football fan.

Today the mystery and glamour of the Eternal Derby (take your pick between Rome, Belgrade and Sarajevo) has been well and truly debunked thanks to Social Media.  We’ve all stood on the Sud Tribune at the Westfalonstadion in Dortmund, right?  Or been hit by a toilet brush as the Spakenburg derby.  European football no longer holds any surprises.

So in some ways the purpose of The Ball is Round has diminished, or rather our objectives have been achieved.  I hope that we’ve helped a few people discover there is more to life that Sky Sports and the sanitised Premier League.  We’ve all grown a little bit older and when I meet the few bloggers who were still around a decade ago, we no longer talk about daily website hits or #FFs.  Those who are still left write because they love to write not for any commercial gain.

My day to day work has become all-consuming.  My writing has had to take on a more serious tone about intellectual property infringements (with the occasional slant towards football such as this white paper published this year) rather than the slant I have taken before on the beautiful game.  Virtually all of my “golden generation” peers have quit or have severely reduced their output, beaten into submission by the need to cover every Premier League team/player/story from a “new angle”.  The likes of Danny Last, Damon Threadgold, Kenny Legg (3 of the 5 who along with David Hartrick and I put together the 500 Reasons to Love Football website) and Andy Hudson have all given up their writing.  I blame Leicester City – after their achievement last season there is nothing left to write about football.

My role at Lewes FC has also meant I have had to smooth the edges to some of the things I have written about in the past.  Putting anything controversial into a blog could land me with a “bringing the game into disripute” charge by the FA.

So whilst the words may become further spaced out, I haven’t yet fully given up the ghost.  Yesterday, for instance, saw Lewes travel to local rivals Eastbourne Borough, for a Pre-Season Friendly.  One of the perks of being Chairman is you do get access to almost part of the game.  So instead of a predictably mundane match report from our 2-0 defeat on Boro’s new 3G pitch (hence the classic quote at the start from “Go West My Son”, one of the first episodes of Only Fools and Horses), here’s a few “behind the scenes” pictures instead.  If you are really interested in reading my match report then go wild here.

So where are we going next – Birkirkara FC


After the low-key win in Andorra it was a relative surprise that our next opponents turned out to be Birkirkara from Malta.  After their goal-less draw in Malta two weeks ago against the Armenians, Ulisses FC, the odds were stacked against the “Stripes” when they traveled to Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan.  But they won 3-1 meaning that they progressed in European competition for just the third time in their history.  In fact the game was only their fifth victory in thirty eight European games and a spot in the Second Qualifying Round gives them a chance to equal their best ever run in the competition.  Their finest moment came in 2010/11 when they got to the Second Qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Slovakian Champions MŠK Zilina, although they did win the first leg of that tie in Malta.

The club were formed in 1950 and are four times winners of the Maltese Premier League as well as winning the Maltese Cup five times, the last of which was back in May when they beat Hibernians to qualify for the Europa League.  Ten years ago the club were coached by former Arsenal striker Alan Sunderland.  Whilst their UEFA ranking is 356th, they have a relatively impressive squad with 10 players capped at full international level by Malta, including captain Gareth Scriberras whilst defender Alejandro Moreno has over 40 caps for Venezuala.  Their danger man is the very experienced Fabrizio Miccoli who has played for Fiorentina, Juventus and Lecce although he is best known for his 74 goals in 165 games with Palermo.  Coach Gionvanni Tesesco also had a decent career in Serie A and was actually an unused sub when West Ham lost to Palermo in their last European adventure back in 2006.

4581521355_858677dc11_bThe club play in the centrally-located town of the same name which with over 22,000 people, is the biggest town on the island.  Their ground, the Infetti (meaning “infected” in Italian by the way!), is an athletics stadium with basic facilities and a capacity of just 2,500 but the good news is that the game will actually be played 3 miles down the road at the 18,000 Ta’Qali National Stadium is just 3 miles away – Ta’Qali is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”.  Birkirkana itself is just 5 miles from the airport and 4 miles from Valletta and Sliema.  Regular bus services run between the towns, including the N21 and N38 although very little routes (just the 106 from the University every 30 mins)  seem to run to the ground meaning a walk along dusty roads to get there from civilization.  It is located next door to a large vineyard and the Aviation Museum.

Malta is the only other country apart from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) that drives on the left. Drive is a loose term as speeding as fast as you can, not using your breaks and overtaking three abreast is not exactly something we see on single carriage roads in SE9. Accidents are common place, which makes travelling by big sturdy buses all the more appealing. As 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet you wont struggle if you need anything.

With the Hammers host the first leg, they will be looking to build up a comfortable lead before they head to the sunshine in Malta.

 

 

 

 

Is that all you have at home?


12389631394_b0baf187aa_zDespite all the grumblings of being a Non-League fan, we have it quite good in England.  Down here in the seventh tier of English football we often see crowds break the four figure barrier, even on occasions pulling in bigger crowds than teams in the Football League.  In the Evostik League North, FC United of Manchester average nearly 1,900, whilst five other clubs have recorded crowds of over 1,000.  In the Ryman Premier League Maidstone United continue to set the standard, averaging over 1,700 whilst both Margate and Dulwich Hamlet can lay claim to gates in excess of 2,000 so far this season.  Down at The Dripping Pan we’ve averaged just over 500 so far this season, a figure that would have been much higher if our lucrative game in January against Dulwich Hamlet would have gone ahead.  Whilst every club at our level wants bigger crowds and has to constantly fight to grab the attention of the fan who parks their car outside the ground before heading off on public transport to the Premier/Football League side down the road, we aren’t doing that bad when we look at the situation in other European leagues.

Bar Germany, nowhere else in Europe has such an extensive league pyramid.  In fact, scratch below the surface of the major leagues in other countries and you will see games played in front of one man and his dog.  Whilst the best support leagues in Europe rarely change from season to season (Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France), the worst supported leagues may raise an eyebrow or two. So here is your definitive guide to the five worst supported top football leagues in Europe*

5th Place – Montenegro (average attendance – 473)
The “Black Mountains” of the Balkans, Montenegro only got their place at the UEFA table in 2006. Prior to that they were lumped in with Yugoslavia (until 1991) and then Serbia.  Water Polo is deemed to be the most popular sport, although a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics for Womens Handball has given rise to anpther distraction from watching the domestic T-Com Prva CFL.  The best supported team is FK Sutjeska Nikšić of course, who regularly attract crowds of nearly 1,000 although the biggest club is FK Budućnost Podgorica who have fallen on harder times and have to make do with just crowds of around 700 floating around the 12,000 capacity national stadium, the Pod Goricom.

4th Place – Faroe Islands (average attendance – 472)
With a population of around 50,000, the fact that 1% regularly watch the domestic EffoDeildin is actually pretty impressive – significantly more than virtually every other nation in the world.  Considering the only other leisure activities involve puffin watching, lace knitting or sheep baiting, then football is actually a very passionate affair on the islands.  B36 Tórshavn are the best supported and most successful side, regularly trying their hand to progress in the Champions League qualifying rounds.  They play at the national stadium, the Gundadalur, a short work from the bright lights of central Tórshavn in front of an average 774, with derbies against HB often attracting crowds of over 2,000.

3rd Place – Wales (average attendance – 324)
6013190150_0da9e359be_zDespite the promise of three European spots for the twelve teams who complete in the Corbett Sport Welsh Premier League (plus a fourth spot for the winners of the Welsh Cup), the clubs fail to attract the attention of the Cardiff City/Swansea City/Wrexham/Newport County supporting locals.  Add in the distractions of major European Rugby Union most weekends and you can see why the domestic game struggles to grab the attention of the locals.  In the past few seasons, Neath FC tried to raise the bar by bringing in players like former Football League sharp-shooter Lee Trundle, but soon found themselves in financial ruin and out of the league.  Today, most games are played out in front of less than 500 fans with Bangor City the best supported, gaining some new fans after their run in the Champions League qualifying competition this year and their picturesque Nantporth ground on the banks of the Menai Straits.  Port Talbot Town, sitting in between Cardiff and Swansea are bottom of the attendance list, although their Victoria Road ground allows you to watch games from the comfort of your car.

2nd Place – Latvia (average attendance – 276)
It’s all about Ice Hockey in Latvia when those long winter nights descend on cities like Riga.  Football takes a back seat, despite a decent national team showing over the past few years.  Domestic crowds in the catchily-named SMSCredit.lv Virsliga are on a par with the majority of teams in the Ryman Premier League with only FK Liepāja breaking the 1,000 mark.  Stadiums are more akin to county league standards although the beer is cheaper.  The big Riga derby played between former champions Skonto and Metta is normally played out in front of a 90% empty national stadium.

1st Place – Estonia (average attendance – 255)
this-is-first-division-football-tallinn-styleAs an outsider, you may wonder what Estonians have to do if it isn’t pitching up to watch a game of football each week.  Well, having visited the beautiful city of Tallinn I can suggest that the local “attractions” keep the locals amused come 3pm on a Saturday.  Add in some cheap beer, even cheaper local spirits and their love of Ice Hockey and Basketball and you can understand why an average Meistriliiga game is only watched by 255.  The best supported team, Flora Tallinn who play in the 10,000 all seater Le Coq Arena often break the 1,000 mark but the rest of the league get crowds that wouldn’t look out of place in the Ryman League South.

* We do not have any figures for potentially smaller leagues such as Andorra or Malta.

New kids on the Rock


Three weeks ago the European footballing world officially welcomed its 54th member when Gibraltar were included in the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifying.  Their journey for acceptance on the world footballing stage has been a tortuous one, filled with inconsistencies and back-stabbing that has dogged the governing bodies for years.  Despite not being “at war” or even military-ready against any other nation, it has taken longer for Gibraltar to be allowed to compete than the former Balkan states, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia or even Greece and Turkey.  And that has been because one nation has disputed their authenticity to be considered an equal member.  One against fifty-two other nations – no brainer? Well, it would be in most circumstances but when that nation is the most successful footballing country of the last fifty years then the rules change.

13173336393_571287081d_bFormed in 1895 by British sailors, The Football Association of Gibraltar first applied to FIFA back in 1997 and despite not actually having a stadium capable of hosting an international game the Swiss big cheeses said a big Yes in 1999 and passed the manilla folder down the road to Nyon to UEFA.  Immediately Spain started to throw their castanets out of the pram.  Whilst the rest of Europe was moving to closer, forgiving not forgetting the conflicts of the past, Spain were creating a problem over a 2.3 square mile rock that they hadn’t owned for over 300 years ago.  It seemed that their lobbying worked as in 2001 UEFA changed its statutes so that only associations in a country “recognised by the United Nations as an independent State” could become members. On such grounds, UEFA denied the Gibraltar’s application.  Of course that ruling should have meant the immediate expulsion of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but that never happened.  Whilst the rest of Europe started qualifying for the 2004 European Championships hosted by Portugal, Gibraltar consoled themselves with a trip to Guernsey to take part in the Island Games Tournament.

There was still a hope that FIFA would allow them to take part in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.  Other British Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla were allowed to line up in the qualifying tournament but the invite to Gibraltar got lost in the post it seemed.  Instead of a shot at a trip to Bavaria to enjoy a month of football, Fräuleins and frikadellen, Gibraltar headed to the Shetland Islands for another shot at the Island Games title. Continue reading

Long live the European Football Weekend


Whilst Danny Last’s famous site closed its doors just over a year ago, the EFW is still as big as ever.  This weekend Danny himself, Big Deaksy, Kenny Legg, Huddo Hudson, Spencer Webb and myself got familiar with the German beer, sausages and football at the weekend, our paths almost crossed with the Daggers Diary team who made the foray into Düsseldorf territory as part of their four game, three countries road trip.

About a year ago, Neil, Dagenham Dan and I made a trip into Europe to take in a game in four different countries over the course of one weekend. Even as we were making our way back from Oostende to Calais to catch the train back home, there were already plans to repeat (or improve) on the trip in 2013.

Despite the schedule of four games in such a short space of time, the only mad rush between games was between Koln and Venlo, and that was comfortably achieved without too much drama.

So this year, we thought we should try to do it all again. Obviously with different venues (fixtures permitting), but to attempt to repeat our 2012 trip would be great. A weekend was selected, and then we set about going through the games, seeing which ones we could feasibly attend. We selected four games, and unlike last year, they would all be in the top division of the respective leagues. Except that the French league was causing a bit of a problem, and after all of the others were more or less confirmed, we were kind of hoping that Lille would be scheduled for the Sunday evening, so that we could get a fifth game in. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to happen, so we would have to make do with just the four.

Of course, while we have got lucky with the fixtures and kick off times, there have been other things where we (or more specifically Neil), haven’t been so fortunate. Last year, about a week before the trip, Neil had an accident in the car, which meant that we ended up hiring a vehicle for the weekend. This year, the car hasn’t been the problem, but instead over the New Year period, Neil managed to break his wrist. This meant that, for a few days the trip was in the balance before the hospital proclaimed that the break should be healed in about a month’s time, and in plenty of time for the trip.

I say we have been lucky with the fixtures, and to a certain degree, we have. While Dan and I will be attending four new grounds (it’s two for Neil), we have potentially missed out on a couple of other games. For example, Anderlecht have a home game on the Friday of our trip, while Borussia Dortmund are at home on the Saturday night. Having already booked tickets for the other games as well as the hotels, we have decided to stick to the planned games. However, both clubs are ones that we all want to visit, but as we have found out before, getting tickets for Dortmund can be difficult.

So, now that we are half way through February, Neil’s fracture is healed, and we are on our way through the channel tunnel towards our first stop on the trip, Nijmegen.

Meeting Dan at Chafford at just before eight in the morning, we were lucky enough that the Dartford bridge was not too clogged up, and once across, we were able to make good progress on to our meeting point with Neil at Folkestone services. Arriving just after nine, we were able to sort out payment for Dan’s car parking before we carried on towards the Channel Tunnel. Booked on the 10.50 crossing, we were (after having breakfast in the terminal), through and onto a train, earlier than planned.

The trip to Nijmegen takes about three hours, and so once we emerged into the French sunshine at Calais, we hit the motorway and headed east to the Netherlands. Continue reading

One man, one month, 31 matches = one legend


We all know people who seem to spend their whole lives watching football. We tend to think that when people say they have seen two or three games in a weekend, but what about if you met someone who literally saw a game a day. For one whole month. That takes some beating, but back in April we did actually meet someone who was doing that. And we were very very jealous indeed. Continuing our series of “extreme” football fans, I give you the legend that is Thomas Rensen.

Your adventure was a work of genius. It made all of us football lovers green with envy. So where did the idea come from?
I always wanted to go on another InterRail, travelling by train through Europe for 31 days. Last time I did that, in 2000, it was in the summer. I saw plenty of big stadiums in Europe, but no matches because of the summer break. It was then that I thought that the next InterRail will be in April or September, because then I can see a few matches. That idea grew and grew, why just a few matches, why not one match a day. Would that be possible? In February 2010 I tried to see whether it was possible on paper and in March 2010 I decided to do it. Continue reading

In nine weeks time….


….the season will be all but over.  Due to the strange fixture computer this season we have a staggered end to the season.  The Non Leagues wind down on the last day in April, the nPower League the following week, and then the Premier League does a solo turn for two weeks, as if it needed any further help in getting attention.  Indeed this could be my one and only chance of the season to actually see a Premier League game or two.

With no summer tournament this year we will have to wait until mid July before we can get our fix of domestic action again.  Can you last that long?  Can I last that long?  I doubt it so my eye has already started wandering over to Europe to see what games I could venture to during a long dry June.  So here are my games of the week should you decide, like me that you simply cannot wait any longer.

Thursday 2nd June – Head over to Denmark for the clash of the day when the 2nd Division Øst nears its climax and Lolland-Falster Allancen take on Herlev at 3pm in the Scandic Live Arena in Nykøbing.  As it is a national holiday the game kicks off at 3pm meaning there will be plenty of time afterwards to spend ridiculous money on beer in the bars of Falster.

Monday 6th June – Fancy a bit of local derby spice, a real footballing legend and some UFO action?  Then head to Malmö, just on a train and go forty five minutes north where you will find the small town of Landskrona.  They will be taking on local neighbours Ängelholm, who hail from the town most noted for a “celebrated” UFO landing in May 1946.  But the main reason to come to this game is to cheer on Landskrona BoIS manager, Henrik Larsson.  Yes, that Henrik Larsson who is in his second season at managing the black and whites.  Don’t expect too many fireworks, or even atmosphere, but the beer is nice and last time I went the girl on the turnstile let me in free as she was busy getting off with one of the substitutes in the turnstile booth.

Thursday 16th June – Been paid?  Taken out a new mortgage?  Then head north to Norway where Odd Grenland v Valerenga at 5pm will leave the ladies drooling in the Tippeligaen.  Located 100km south west of Oslo, and no more than a £100 taxi ride (aka about 10 minutes) from Oslo’s Torp airport where Ryanair make themselves at home.  The ground was good enough for Elton John in 2009 so it should be good enough for you.

Wednesday 22nd June – Surely the only gig in town is the FC Honka v FC Haka at 4.30pm in the Finnish Veikkausliga.  Fly to Helsinki and then hop on a bus to Espoo, the second largest city in Finland and enjoy the oldest stone wall in Finland, dating back to 1777 whilst listening to some melodic death metal group, Children of Bodom who are the biggest name locally.

Monday 27th June – Had your fill of puffin recently?  No, nor me but is that enough to make you head north to the Faroe Islands for the local derby between HB and EB.  In fact every game is a local derby on the islands, and with the whole Vodafonedeildin being played across just two days you can take in more than one game.  Take your flight from Copenhagen, buckle up as you come into land at Vágar Airport, known as one of the most challenging in the world for pilots.

So there we are.  Five options for you.  Of course you could also head to Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia for some more European action, or west to the MLS in the USA.

There is one further option, but you will have to wait and see about that one. But trust me it is the best day out ever.