A football ramble

wsc303Two intrepid travellers plan to spend over half a century watching games in all of UEFA’s ever-changing territories, writes Tristan Browning

My friend and I do one foreign football trip to a different European country every year, with the aim of completing the whole of UEFA by the time we are done. Seeing a game at every club in the English league – “doing the 92” – at least has the advantage of offering a fixed number. “Doing the 53” seems to involve hitting a moving target, dictated just as much by politics as by action on the pitch.

UEFA was founded by 25 nations in 1954, and only 17 of those took part in the qualifying rounds for the first European Championship six years later. Move on 50 years and the break-up of the Soviet Union and defections from other confederations mean that the club has more than doubled in size. For international groundhoppers, the airmiles soon add up.

We started out with a puritanical desire to watch only truly rubbish football in gritty backwaters. As fans of Tranmere and Watford, we would recognise it when we saw it. However, the beauty of any collection is that the collector can dictate the rules. Basic country-bagging soon won out. Our trip to Nice for the visit of Lille in 2008 blew both of our initial criteria out of the water. Despite the 0-0 scoreline, watching a top division match full of internationals could never be described as “rubbish”. A freak snowstorm back in England delayed our flight home, giving us an extra day on the Cote d’Azur, which didn’t exactly add to the hardship.

Many of the clubs we have watched have gone on to prove how much worse a standard we could have chosen. Seven of the 22 clubs we have visited are now playing at a lower level than when we attended, while four have ceased to exist in their previous form.

Slovenia’s Olimpija Ljubljana have gone from riches to rags and back again. Malcantone Agno in Switzerland were reincarnated as their original club Lugano. Kamen Ingrad in Croatia and Portugal’s Estrela Amadora have been suspended due to financial chaos.

One of the joys of our extended groundhop has been the chance to see the contrasts and similarities within European football. The intensity of the atmosphere at Nice was to be expected, but flying to Scotland for the more sparsely attended Stranraer v Hamilton game showed that a club has value to its community and fans regardless of its size. Similarly, a vibrant crowd made for a passionate atmosphere at Lucerne, but we saw what could be the least intense capital city derby in Europe as Levski Sofia took on Slavia in front of barely 4,000 fans.

We can be forgiven for having spent more time looking at the view of Snowdonia at Porthmadog than at the ropey fare on offer on the field. But we should have paid more attention at Dinamo Zagreb, where we missed a goal created by the skills of teenage starlet Luka Modric. We were too busy studying the odd design of the floodlights.

The obsessive gene required to embark on this adventure in the first place means that choosing the next destination is all part of the attraction. We have to juggle the safer destinations in the west with more adventurous options in east. The scope for unusual destinations also has an influence. Europe may be the governing body, but Israel and Turkey, among others, give the opportunity to see a game on Asian soil. Visiting the enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla provides the possibility of attending a Spanish league match taking place in Africa.

The target may well expand further, making our odyssey even longer. Kosovo are expected to become UEFA’s next member. Who knows, even Gibraltar, provisional members for two months back in 2006-07, may eventually convince Spain to stop vetoing their applications. Still, for now, 53 is the magic number. I imagine a day in 2053; we have one final country to tick off and are trying to persuade a burly steward on the turnstiles in Kazakhstan that our zimmer frames do not constitute dangerous weapons.
We returned to our original ethos this year as we sampled the grime and drizzle of Germany’s Ruhr region. A blood and thunder 1-0 win for Rot-Weiss Oberhausen over Babelsberg in the bottom six of the German third division gave us some suitably industrial football. It leaves us with 12 down and 41 to go.

From WSC 303 May 2012