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.

Advertisements

A former State of mind


Modern football is rubbish.  We’ve all heard that and at some point we have all bemoaned fixtures being moved by Sky, the rising cost of a bit of plastic to sit on and those football tourists who turn up at grounds and just take lots of pictures rather than watching the game (shocking).  But sometimes it is actually bloody great.

With our footballing authorities doing everything possible to ensure that every “big” country qualifies for major tournaments, the International Break now lasts for six days, every month.  Premier League clubs (and the fans) must hold their head in their hands, holding that the underpaid, over stressed footballers return safe and sound on their private jets from 20 minutes of exertion against Andorra or San Marino.  Of course, there are no such things as easy games in International football, and the qualifying games for France 2016 are taken very seriously indeed.  With 53 nations competing for just 23 places it means that countries have to win at least three games to get a playoff spot in all honestly.  And there were those who thought that it was tough when the tournament used to be just 8 teams!

But, with the new structure of qualifying games there was the opportunity for an ultimate road trip, if you are interested in that sort of thing.  Six games, potentially six different countries?  Sounds rubbish I know.  I mean who would fancy seeing Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, Norway and Denmark on consecutive days? Well me for a start.

Alas, this was one trip that I was never going to get official sign off for.  Despite being the most understanding wife in the world, even I could n’t swing that trip, especially as it was the Current Mrs Fuller’s birthday in the middle of the set of games.  But being the good lady that she is, we reached a compromise that would see me jet off to the Baltic’s before heading back in time for jelly and ice cream.  I was happy with that – after all I’d seen enough of Norway and Denmark in the past five years, yet never set foot in Lithuania or Latvia.  That’s enough to get anyone’s pulse racing.

15487437071_3f37759af7_oI’d heard good and bad about Vilnius and Riga.  The good – UNESCO Heritage Old Towns, cheap food and drink, the world’s best Christmas tree (Vilnius – as voted for by CNN); The bad – the gloomy weather, the stag and hen parties, the language; and the downright ugly – the Soviet-style architecture and the fact I had to fly with Wizzair, one of those airlines that lure you in with cheap prices and then want to charge you for wearing clothes or breathing their oxygen on board.

My plan quickly came together – afternoon flight to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania where I would take in the game against Estonia.  The following morning up before the dawn chorus and on a bus to Riga where Latvia would be taking on Iceland. Two new countries, two new grounds.  What could possibly go wrong?

One downside was that I wouldn’t see much of Vilnius, landing as the sun went down. It’s supposed to be a beautiful city but from touch down to departure on my executive bus it would be 11 hours of darkness. My taxi driver from the airport offered to show me the sights of the city on the way to the hotel.

“There is Ikea. Now we go to McDonalds and then a brothel” I managed to convince him that McDonalds, being opposite my hotel was actually a better alighting point.  “But no titty-titty?” He looked crest-fallen that I preferred a McFlurry to a “naked help-yourself buffet” but soon cheered up when I gave him a 10 Litu note as a tip (which incidentally had a picture of the Kemp twins on).

I’d struck lucky in picking a hotel not only because it was opposite a 24 hour fast food outlet but because it was a 5 minute walk to the LFF Stadium. Oh, and a bar offering 50 pence beers open until everyone had gone to bed, which as I learnt later, was about 6am.

15303880200_62d9376dea_oFootball isn’t exactly one of the most favourite past times in Lithuania.  According to my taxi driver guide watching domestic football ranked alongside ironing and stoning olives in terms of leisure activities.  Last season the SMSCredit.lv A Lyga, the top division in Lithuania had an average attendance last season of 744. It’s all about basketball on a Saturday and a Sunday, with the national team having won bronze at the Olympics three times out of the last six Summer Games and are currently ranked 4th in the World Rankings.  But come national team football team games, the fans come out in force which was evident as I walked up to the LFF Stadium with an hour to kick off.

In terms of current UEFA rankings, Lithuania are down in 41st place, alongside the likes of Albania, Moldova and Cyprus.  Drawn in a group with England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and San Marino they would have targeted games such as the visit of Estonia as a “must-win” if they were to stand any chance of qualification.  A 2-0 win in San Marino in the opening game was all that could have been asked.  Now was the time for Igoris Pankratjevas’s team to step up to the mark and get one over on their Baltic rivals.

Lithuania 1 Estonia 0 – LFF Stadium – Thursday 9th October 2014
Good job the weather was a little bit kinder in Lithuania than back in London.  The LFF Stadium would be a brilliant place to sit back and top up your tan in the middle of Summer, but in mid-October where temperatures and rain can fall there is little shelter from any of the elements.  This stadium, which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Conference Premier, albeit a three-sided, 3G version.  Despite their apathy for the domestic game, the national team was a different story.  By the time the teams had lined up for a UEFA sponsored “Say No to Racism” PR photo, the ground was almost full.

15490233582_e118b063f6_oThis was a must-win game for Lithuania and that is exactly what they did.  The very impressive Bundesliga (two) winger Arvydas Novikovas was the stand out player, causing all sorts of problems for the Estonian defenders although it was his left-wing counterpart who set up the winner. for Mikoliunas to clinch the points with 14 minutes to go. Estonian keeper Pareiko spilled a shot from distance into the path of Matulevičius, but appeared to make up for the slip with an excellent smothering stop. However, the ball rebounded to the centre-forward who crossed for the substitute to nod in the winner.

With the game finishing a few minutes before England’s game with San Marino, Lithuania leaped to the top of Group E.  Was that the high point in Lithuanian football history I asked the coach in the press conference?  It appeared my question got lost in translation as his answer was “Our football may not have been beautiful but three points are the most important thing,” Thanks for that.

I headed back down the hill to the hotel.  Despite the Estonian fans with bulging wallets queuing for the bar, the hotel decided that a 12pm closure meant just that.  Boo.

5.30am was a cruel mistress on Friday morning but I had a bus to catch.  The Lux Express rolled into Vilnius bus station bang on time, looking like a tour bus used by rock giants such as REM, The Rolling Stones or Right Said Fred.  I’d paid a whopping €25 for my “executive” seat which turned out to be almost airplane Business Class quality.  Throw in free drinks, free Wi-Fi and free movies on demand and you couldn’t have spent a better four hours.  Well, perhaps if they had a few stewardesses wandering up and down selling….best stop there.

15493547971_954346c647_oThe landscape looking flat.  And gloomy.  It was fair to say that the highlights of the trip could be packaged on a Vine video.  The gloom gave way to rain as the coach eased into Riga.  First impressions weren’t good.  It looked like I had been transported back to 1970 Soviet Union.  Depressed looking people, huddled together around sparsely stocked market stools and old fashion trolleybuses rattling up and down the streets.

First impressions can be wrong.  A five minute walk from the confines of the bus and train station and the outstanding beauty of the Old Town (another UNESCO Heritage Site) revealed itself to me.  Wow.  I had “New York Neck” after 30 minutes, constantly looking up at the stunning architecture.  Lunch (£3.50) was a huge local dish of chicken and potatoes, washed down with a pint of Livu (35p).  After an afternoon snooze it was time for dinner – huge steak, pepper sauce and more beer (£8).  Good job the plan was to walk to the Skonto Riga stadium although a couple of bars along the way were too good to miss, for local aesthetic reasons.  I passed one of the Irish Bars in town.  With England playing next door in Tallinn in 24 hours, a number of England fans had descended on Riga and taken up residence in the Irish Bar, belting out almost note-perfect versions of Wonderwall and Park Life.

Latvia 0 Iceland 3 – Skonto Stadium – Friday 17th October 2014
It seems to be a common theme developing here of incomplete stadiums.  Whilst the stadium in Vilnius had three sides, Riga’s national stadium had 2 3/4.  At one end the present of a large sports hall had taken up part of the stand giving the stadium a strange unfinished look.  Latvia haven’t had the best of times since their appearance ten years ago in the European Championship in Portugal.  That team featured Marians Pahars and Aleksandrs Kolinko and impressed the watching world, coming away from the sunshine with a 0-0 draw with Germany.  A decade later and the dynamic duo were back together, although Pahars had swapped his magic boots from a snazzy black raincoat and was now the national coach.

15495449221_2632b88166_oAlas, Pahars couldn’t recreate the magic.  Iceland were head and shoulders above the home side, cheered on by a rowdy contingent as they scored three second half goals, including one apiece for Sigurosson (Swansea City) and Gunnarsson (Cardiff City) to give us some British interest.

The game wasn’t a classic but once again it was good to see the home fans had turned out in big numbers.  Over 6,000 home fans were in the Skonto Stadium, about 5,700 more than would normally be in here for a domestic league game.  Like their neighbours in Lithuania, football isn’t the biggest leisure activity.  Excluding tucking into the superb food and drink, Ice Hockey is the sport of choice here with crowds for domestic games often topping five figures.

I headed back to the Old Town for a nightcap.  Some of the quaint pavement cafes and bars had been replaced by megatropolis-style clubs, all touting their wares through women wearing nothing more than strategically placed flannels.  This was the Riga that I had read about not the one I had enjoyed earlier in the day.  I resisted the temptations on offer, with that small voice in my head reminding me I had to get up in four hours for my flight home.  See, sometimes I do listen to common sense!

Luton at most times of the day isn’t something to sing about, but after a nearly three-hour flight, squeezed in between Mr Sweaty and Miss Fidget I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the tarmac.  Welcome home.  As the saying goes, the greatest journey starts with the smallest step. Two new countries ticked off the list, two decent cities that ticked all the EFW boxes.  Go, before it’s too late!

 

 

On the verge of greatness


With England about to take on the 2nd worst international team on the globe, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane on one of my first overseas trips to watch football.

On the 20th November 2002, I came within seconds of witnessing footballing history. I was in the tiny principality of San Marino, sitting on the edge of the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy, watching the world’s oldest sovereign state play one of the newest, Latvia, and there was just a minute left on the clock when a San Marino corner appeared to be handled in the area by a Latvia player. The score was nil-nil and had the penalty been given it would have meant a first ever win for the country after some fifty internationals. Alas it was not to be. Latvia attacked, a free kick was awarded and from the resulting kick the ball was erroneously diverted into his own net by a San Marino player for the only goal of the game. There was 13 seconds left of injury time. Played 53, lost 52, drawn 1 read their record now according to the records.

Ten years ago I came up with a bright idea, or at least I thought it was. I wanted to travel to Europe’s smallest footballing nations, in order, until I saw one of them win. The likes of Malta, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino rarely get an opportunity for a win so I figured this could be a long journey. And so this was why I was sitting in the makeshift press area of the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle along with a reported crowd of six hundred. I say reported because there certainly wasn’t anywhere near 100 in the first half but as soon as word spread that “this could be the night”, the locals literally walked here.

This was the third “leg” of my trip and so far I had seen two heavy defeats for the underdogs, firstly in Vaduz as Liechtenstein had been spanked by Portugal, and then Malta had been humbled by Denmark. I arrived in Rimini with hope in my heart and Euro in my pocket. Rimini likes to think it is the Cannes or Marbella of Italy. But on a cold morning in November it just looked like Skegness on a bad day (is there a good day in Skeggy?). Even the most ardent Italian Lothario looked like Sid James in Carry on Girls and there was no sign of the famous Italian supermodels in their teenie-weenie itsy-bitsy swimwear. Fortunately I was not staying long and my carriage awaited me. Well, a local bus that whisked me through the Italian countryside and up, up and further up until we broke the clouds at the border with San Marino, a little less than 10 miles from the Italian Coast.

Back in 2002 not everyone had the internet to research places. And by not everyone I mean I didn’t at work, and at home I had to pay £19 per month for dial up charges for my 64Kbps Compuserve product. This was the dark days before the dawn of the internet we know and love today. We all remember looking at those “entertainment” sites where pictures took an hour to load and then just when it got to a good bit, someone would come in the room, or the telephone connection would fail. Looking back now and trying to describe what it used to be like to the kids seems so unreal. Twitter was something birds did, YouTube was something Alan Brazil used to say, Facebook was a make up catalogue and Googling was reserved for using binoculars near the nudist beach at Brighton.

So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in San Marino. I had looked for a guide book before the trip without luck. I certainly didn’t expect such a mountainous place. The bus continued to climb upwards, towards the highest point of the enclave, the 750metre Monte Titano. On the way up to the city of San Marino (population 4,493) we passed the Stadio Olimpico. It was too good an offer to miss. I hoped off the bus and had a wander into the ground.

It was certainly a grand title for basically an athletics ground with one covered stand. I tried to recall when the Olympics had been held in San Marino but couldn’t for the life of me remember when. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the lower reaches of the Ryman League. Work was continuing on the other side of the ground where a second stand was being built. Apparently UEFA had decreed that to gain their 2 star status to continue to host International games they needed to have a capacity of at least 1,000. I queued up for the official tour, and ninety seconds later it was all over. A visit to the gift shop saw me come away with a car sticker.  Everyone who went to the shop got a car sticker.  They were free and the only item in stock. I could hardly be more excited for the big game. Continue reading

Milton Keynes today, Pretoria tomorrow…


twitter / theballisround
Milton Keynes seems like a strange place for an international friendly, but it has actually staged 2 in a week – and there have been no complaints about their pitch.  It is obvious that the town/stadium is on some kind of inside track as they were included in the 2018 World Cup bid submission in almost a two fingered salute to other better placed and easier to get to venues.  Easier to get to I hear you ask – yes exactly but we will come onto that in a minute.

Firstly an apology.  Ten days ago I spoke about Denmark v Senegal as being my last game of the season yet here I was sitting in the sulty summer heat of Buckinghamshire watching one of the final World Cup warm up games.  Ghana had for some reason delayed their departure to South Africa preferring to head to the delights of roundabout city instead of an alpine training camp.  They had come in for some stick from their own fans for heading to Milton Keynes instead of Durban, but if you close your eyes then they both look the same anyway. Continue reading