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.

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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.

 

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The eye of the Tiger


As post season tournaments go the La Liga World Challenge takes some beating. Not for the quality or even the sides involved. No, this is simply for the random nature and complexity of the format. Even the most savvy of football experts I know failed to explain it to me other than it was a chance for some of the lesser La Liga sides to get some sunshine and play a bit of pressure-free football. Valencia in Ohio, Espanyol in Ecuador and Europa League champions, Sevilla in Morocco all playing a single game, if there is a format to the challenge then it’s as clear as mud how it works.

I’ve already made my feelings known about these post-season games but being in Brisbane for a work event when the game between The Roar and Villarreal was taking place was an opportunity not to miss. The games played this week in Sydney with Chelsea and Spurs the guests had been played out in front of huge attendances (83,500 and 71,500 respectively). Would the same interest rub off on the locals in Queensland?

17813466433_d5e84c38f4_kIf Melbourne was an AFL dominated city then Brisbane’s passion was Rugby League. Then Union, Cricket, AFL and finally “soccer”. The Brisbane Roar are one of the most successful A-League franchises, winning the Champions title in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Calling the 52,000 capacity Suncorp Stadium home is both a benefit and a disadvantage for the club. The plus side is the ultra-modern facilities and a passionate band of fans who took up residence in the north stand. With such facilities they can attract commercial revenues that some other clubs can’t. However, with 52,000 seats to fill each and every home, the stadium can sometimes have a sparse feel.

The Suncorp Stadium sits a few minutes walk from the Brisbane River. From the South Bank area of the city centre it’s a short hop over the William Jolly bridge, not forgetting to look to your right as you do and the impressive city skyline. Then up the hill passed the backpacker hostels and all the beauty they bring before you hang a left into Caxton Street, a downhill stretch of superb bars and restaurants that buzz on a match day. The tip here, so the locals tell me is not too peak too early. The trap is at the top of the hill – Honey B’s, which should need no explanation and is best left until after the game when you can share your emotions with the locals.

17811489664_6efc0f8784_k (1)The road wasn’t exactly rocking when I wandered down an hour before kick off. The locals seemed as perplexed as I was about this game. The Australian A-League finished 3 weeks ago with Melbourne Victory taking the crown after beating Sydney in the Grand Final. La Liga concluded 10 days ago with Villarreal finishing in an impressive 6th place and qualifying for the Europa League.

With the rest of my work colleagues deciding to stay behind in one of the steak restaurants up the road I’d gone out on a limb here. We can get good steak, served by some of the “friendliest” waitresses and washed down with some decent local brews any time right? Football with a cold meat pie and a pint of XXXX is much more important…surely?

Brisbane Roar 3 Villarreal 0 – Suncorp Stadium – Wednesday 3rd June 2015
In the 68th minute Villarreal’s night was complete. Two-nil down and any chance of a way back into the game had been lost when Vietta’s “cheeky” chipped penalty clipped the top of the bar. After a long season in La Liga the faces of the players told of a journey too far. The Spaniards had arrived in Australia last week, taking in and beating Adelaide United before arriving on the Gold Coast.

18246292718_52cdca54d9_kThe sparse crowd of just 9,000 suggested a couple of things to a neutral like me. Firstly, based on the comments I heard from a number of fans was that they hadn’t actually heard of Villarreal, which wouldn’t entice them from the bars of South Bank. Secondly, whilst Brisbane Roar get some decent crowds, averaging 11,600 for their A-League games down significantly from last season’s almost record high of 18,000, a post-season meaningless, despite what the marketing spin said, was a game to miss, especially as thirdly, ticket prices weren’t exactly set at a level that would encourage the locals to attend.

This was my first taste of watching an A-League team and I have to say I was impressed. New manager, ex-Portsmouth and Coventry City striker John Aloisi watched on, with former Ipswich Town Dutch maestro Frans Thijssen overseeing his last game in the dug out, the Roar passed the ball up, down, left and right with consummate ease. They were always looking for that killer ball behind the Villarreal back four.

The major surprise was it took 40 minutes (aka two beers) for the home side to take the lead. The intricate Brisbane passing play finally found teenage midfielder Devante Clut on the edge of the area and his shot easily beat Carlos Sanchez in the Villarreal goal. They doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time when Solorzano finished from close range after a sublime pass from playmaker Thomas Broich.

The second half saw much of the same from the home side. Roared on my the noise of the fans from The Den they went in search of the third goal. The boos of disapproval at the decision by the referee to give a penalty against Brisbane’s Hingert when the Argentinian Luciano Vietto clearly dived, as the big screen TV’s verified. However the officials blushes were spared when Vietto tried to take the piss with his resulting spot kick, trying to dink the ball over the Roar keeper. Boos turned to cheers when his kick bounced off the top of the bar and over. To add insult to injury Clut added a third after a well-worked effort a few minutes later.

17813451083_353f6e0908_zThree-nil wasn’t probably a fair reflection of the possession or attacking intent. The Australians dominated a tired-looking Villarreal and could have put them to the sword. But with a watching audience back home, and the Spanish commercial partners invested in the concept of the La Liga World Challenge, perhaps the Australians took their foot off the gas towards the end. I doubt it will be the same situation next month when Liverpool are the guests. That night the stadium will be close to capacity, the fans will be in full voice, the bars and restaurants of Caxton Street will be pumping and Honey B’s will certainly be buzzin’.

Messi back to prove a point


Faced with another weekend of rain and cancellations, the Daggers Diary team headed to the Costa del Messi to do a scouting report on Manchester City’s next opponents.

In November 2012, Dagenham Dan, Neil and I were on our way back from a trip to Borussia Moenchengladbach, when the subject of Dan’s impending marriage to Aimee came up. Having wondered aloud about whether we would be able to continue our trips abroad for football, we had an idea as we made our way back to the hotel.

1655894_10153812848150223_1876244631_nFast forward to the wedding last July, and Neil is making his best man speech at the aforementioned wedding. About half way through, Neil produces a copy of the contract written up in the back of the car from that Germany trip, which allows Dan to continue his trips abroad with certain conditions. One of these is that Aimee will continue to come along with us on a Barcelona trip at least once a season, but will have unfettered access to Dan’s credit card for the duration of the weekend. So, in front of all of the assembled guests, Aimee signed the contract, and so it is with this in mind, that we find ourselves here in Barcelona for the weekend.

It has been an interesting few weeks for Barca. There has been the announcement of the stadium redevelopment, in favour over a move to a new stadium; we’ve had the resignation of club president Sandro Rosell, over the Neymar transfer from last summer, as well as a home defeat by Valencia, and Dani Alves criticising fans for staying away from the home leg of the cup semi final against Real Sociedad, which to be fair did start at 10pm on a Wednesday night. Given that the game was also on local television, it’s probably why many stayed away, although an attendance of nearly forty thousand still wasn’t that bad.

Throughout the week leading up to this trip, the weather dominated the news programmes. Whether it be the flooding in Somerset, or the Thames lapping up against the western suburbs of London, it was the seemingly endless wind and rain that dominated the bulletins. Continue reading

Plymouth away or double Barca? Tough choice


Plymouth Argyle away on the cold and wet English Channel or Barcelona v Granada on the sunny Med?  Difficult choice for the Daggers Diary team.

Today, the Daggers travel to Plymouth, hoping to maintain an impressive start to the season that has seen us in the dizzy heights of a play off spot. Given my pre-season pessimism, I would have said that would have been an insane thought had anyone bought up the possibility back in August.

Dagenham Dan and I though are not heading west. Instead, we are flying out from the Eddie Stobart Aerodrome (a.k.a. Southend Airport) for our first trip of the season to Barcelona.

Up until a couple of months ago, kick off times were not confirmed until around ten days before the game, meaning that booking flights was a nightmare. We could never be sure of when the game you were going to was going to start, meaning that we might be able to book an early flight for the Saturday, but would invariably end up coming back on the Monday. On our early trips to Spain, we would fly in and out of Girona, coming back on the first flight home on the Monday morning. This would mean getting to the bus station for 3am, for an hour’s journey to the airport. There were a couple of occasions where the game had finished around 11pm, so after just a couple of hours sleep, we were on our way home, bleary eyed and very tired. The sight of a conga of people waiting to board the plane back to Stansted in an otherwise deserted departure building is not one I wish to see for some time.

As these trips become more frequent though, the planning has got better. Now, we go for the home game preceding a Champions League fixture. In one of his less busy times, Dan went through the fixtures for the last few years and discovered that Barcelona almost always played on a Saturday before playing in Europe. That kind of detail has helped us out several times, and certainly it has done with this weekend, as we depart early Saturday, and return on Sunday evening. The schedule has us out of the country for about thirty six hours, which is plenty of time for three games. Continue reading

Gareth Bales on us


It’s not often you get the opportunity to travel from one end of the footballing spectrum to another in just a few hours.  But today was one of those days.  After the highs of Lewes’s win at Wingate & Finchley yesterday it was a rude awaking at 3am for the trip to Madrid, on the first flight out of Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport.  So early was the departure that I had the BA lounge to myself for a good 15 minutes.  Still no Marmite though, but that is another story.  As the plane hugged the Atlantic coast of France I looked back on my previous trips to the Spanish capital, each memorable for different reasons.

9893199025_1e372f1884_b (2)In 1998, the Current Mrs Fuller and I made our first ever trip to Madrid on Debonair.  Remember them?  They flew from London Luton and went head to head with Easyjet for a number of years.  We pitched up in the middle of the Summer, not realising how hot Madrid could be.  A tour of the Bernabau raised temperatures even more, although the roof-top swimming pool of the Emperador was certainly a bonus (Madrid tip number 1: Not only an excellent rooftop pool but a huge buffet breakfast).

Two years later and we were back again.  In lieu of Christmas presents to each other we had invested in four consecutive weekends in European destinations that just happened to have four of the biggest football teams in Europe.  Milan, Madrid, Munich and Rome.  What an outstanding month.  Only it seemed such a good idea when we booked it in July.  Come January time and CMF was “just” five months pregnant.  Not handy for walking up to the top tier of the San Siro but she was a trooper and so I decided to treat her to a seat in the lower tier at the Bernabau.  Oh how she enjoyed sitting in the Fondu Sur with flares for company.  Nobody has ever mentioned that passive flare smoke is bad for unborn babies so that is OK.  In those days the East side of the stadium only had three tiers, rather than the five elsewhere.

Four years later and I was back to help Spain celebrate their 500th fixture.  And how were us party guests treated?  With water cannons in the streets around the ground, unprovoked baton assaults on the fans in the stadium and the racial abuse of Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips.  The actions of the Spanish police went unpunished although their FA were fined $87,000 for failing to act on the abuse from the crowd. So that makes it all alright then. Continue reading

Derby Day in Barcelona


Whilst the UK huddled under an umbrella last weekend, trying to keep warm with some FA Cup good cheer, the Daggers Diary team headed over to their warm weather retreat in Barcelona where the main event was a city derby with a distinct lack of atmosphere.

Back in November, the population of Catalunya went to the polls on the possibility of independence from Spain. With the economic difficulties affecting much of southern Europe, the issue of going it alone has risen to the forefront again. It is felt in Catalunya that they provide more to Spain that they get back from the central government in Madrid.

catalunya-espanyaThe result of the election was the separatists won a majority of the votes cast, although it actually has no legal standing in Spanish law. However, the issue of independence or nationhood for the region has always been simmering under the surface and much of this has been centred around the city’s main football club. Read almost any history of the club, and it will tell you of people going to the stadium during the Franco era, and speaking and chanting in Catalan, when the language had been banned by the central government. The club even had to change its name, from Futbol Club Barcelona, to the more Spanish sounding Club Futbol de Barcelona. It may only be a small change to those looking in, but to those fans at the time, it meant a great deal. Continue reading