Football Beyond These Shores

by Mike Barnes

Supporting Cambridge United can feel like hard work, even if it’s really a labour of love. But, as with many things in life, a sense of perspective is often helpful. I’m lucky enough to have watched games in other European countries, where the spectator experience is very different. By that, I don’t mean it’s necessarily either better or worse, but it helps to appreciate how a shared endeavour like football can unite nations and cultures.

I’ve been among big crowds in large stadiums in Barcelona, Berlin and Kyiv, but I’ve also watched games at what felt like the very edge of the football world – a sensation I regularly experienced in the Latvian capital Riga, where I lived for a while at the beginning of the century. In a country where football trails behind ice hockey and basketball in terms of popularity, the game has never really attracted big crowds, but happily my time in the tiny Baltic nation coincided with the start of the most successful period ever for Latvian football.

At Skonto stadium, close to my home, Skonto Riga habitually won humdrum league games against pedestrian opponents, often by large margins and usually in front of crowds no bigger than a few hundred, rattling around the 10,000-capacity arena. Skonto would win the league title every year, ensuring a couple of games in the Champions League qualifying rounds before elimination at the hands of Bulgarian, or similar, opposition. One such memorable occasion saw the Latvians defeat a hopeless Barry Town side 5-0, the highlight an amazing strike by Skonto captain Mihails Zemlinskis from inside his own half.

I was at the first post-independence encounter between Latvia and Russia. Around 50 per cent of Riga’s population is ethnic Russian, so it was a friendly with an edge. Russia won 3-1 on a snow-covered pitch, with Latvia skipper Vitalijs Astafjevs, who was with Bristol Rovers at the time, hitting a late consolation for the hosts. More high-profile was a goalless draw against Sweden that proved to be Latvia’s first step on the unlikely path to qualification for Euro 2004. The sizeable contingent of Swedish fans grew increasingly disgruntled as not even Zlatan Ibrahimovic could break down a stubborn Latvian rearguard.

At the other end of the scale, the raw emotion of the 2007 Ukrainian Cup Final in Kyiv between Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk will live long in my memory. Anyone who watched the recent Champions League final or the climax of Euro 2012, when Spain thrashed Italy 4-0 to complete their unique treble, will have seen the revamped Olimpiyskiy Stadium in the Ukrainian capital, and very impressive it is too. Back on that humid May evening in 2007, however, I was in a crowd of 64,500 at the old Olympiyskiy, a vast bowl of a gladiatorial arena, before its reconstruction.

The rivalry between the Dynamo supporters in their home city and the Shakhtar fans from the east was friendly, if a little edgy. Dynamo versus Shakhtar has always been a tasty affair, and the Kyivites had the upper hand that year in games between the two. Some locals said it was nothing compared to the Soviet-era rivalry Dynamo fans enjoyed with Spartak Moscow but, with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution still fresh in people’s minds, political uncertainty hung in the air, adding to the tension. 

Dynamo tried to play flowing football, while their opponents resorted to a physical game and a large amount of diving egged on, it seemed, by a less than even-handed referee. Dynamo went ahead on the hour, triggering firecrackers among the Ultras and providing the National Guard with the excuse they needed to move in and attack at random. Innocents were beaten and public outrage expressed, but the matter was swept swiftly under the carpet despite damning TV evidence.

As Dynamo took control, their fans goaded the opposition with taunts of “get back down your mines”, Shakhtar being the pitmen’s team from the industrial east of Ukraine. The heated atmosphere grew as the heavens erupted and lightning forked the sky. Dynamo increased their lead and lost a man, and the inevitable Shakhtar onslaught began, with shots raining down on the Dynamo goal. By the time Shakhtar had pulled one back with a minute left, the orange half of the stadium was empty.

The Bundesliga is often said to offer Europe’s best fan experience and, from my evening at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin watching Hertha against Red Bull Leipzig last year, it’s hard to disagree. The stadium’s place in history contributes its own unique atmosphere, but I was struck by the leisurely woodland stroll from the U-Bahn station in Berlin’s western suburbs that eventually gave way to numerous stalls selling currywurst and beer, around which fans sporting the blue and white of Hertha gathered convivially.

It was the season’s last home game for Hertha while Leipzig, backed by some 10,000 travelling fans among the 62,000 crowd, were on course for Champions League qualification at the first attempt. The hardcore Hertha Ultras filled the giant amphitheatre’s Östkurve and were in full voice before, during and after a game which their team meekly surrendered 4-1. The Hertha defence was clearly already on holiday and Leipzig took full advantage of their hosts’ hospitality, with Timo Werner’s brace the highlight.

There was no less passion on display when I caught a glimpse of league football in Iceland, where the top flight is of approximately League Two standard. A top of the table clash between Knattspyrnufelag Reykjavikur and Stjarnan in 2014 promised the best domestic football the volcanic island nation was likely to muster. The home side, known as KR for fairly obvious reasons, were the Icelandic title holders, while Stjarnan had finished third, allowing both sides a tilt at European competition. KR had been eliminated in the Champions League by Celtic while Stjarnan put out Motherwell before succumbing to a 9-0 aggregate defeat to Inter Milan.

Like most matches in Iceland, this was a local derby – nearly all the 12 teams in the Icelandic Urvalsdeild are based either in Reykjavik or its suburbs. KR is the capital’s biggest club (a relative term in Iceland), while Stjarnan are based in the Gardabaer area of Reykjavik. The 2,500-capacity stadium comprised an all-seater stand along one side and very little else. By kick-off time, a substantial crowd had assembled, with flags being waved and the black and white of the home side liberally on display. There was no official segregation, no police and barely any stewards. KR supporters occupied about two thirds of the stand, alongside a large following decked out in the blue of Stjarnan.

It was end to end stuff right from the kick-off and the home fans soon had a goal to cheer, but then saw their team defending frantically as Stjarnan surged forward. KR went in at half-time with their single goal lead intact, though nobody could quite understand how. The players on both sides were all Icelandic nationals, with a few interesting exceptions. The visitors counted an American and a Dane among their number, while striker Gary Martin, born in Darlington and a former Middlesbrough trainee, led the line for the home side. Highly rated by the locals, he was subjected to a storm of invective (in English) after a succession of missed chances.

Stjarnan came out like a train for the second half and soon had the equaliser. They had dominated so much that it was no surprise when they then took the lead, much to the disgruntlement of the home supporters. KR introduced Togolese international midfielder Farid Zato-Arouna – an ungainly figure with odd-coloured boots who proved largely ineffective and reminded me of Igor Latte-Yedo – and Uruguayan defender Gonzalo Balbi, who is apparently the brother-in-law of Luis Suarez. A draw looked inevitable when KR levelled, but Stjarnan were not done and grabbed the winner with just three minutes remaining.

My favourite country for quirkiness is Belgium, where I saw Les Diables Rouge (or De Rode Duivels) defeat Azerbaijan 3-0 in a Euro 2008 qualifier in Brussels. It was an odd game. The Belgians had struggled in their previous qualifiers against largely mediocre opponents, and had been beaten by Serbia only four days earlier. The Azeris had little to offer and the rejuvenated Belgians took full advantage, playing a skillful and fluid passing game that was a true joy to watch – an early sign of the years to come, perhaps? In fact, the scoreline failed to fully reflect their dominance, but some Azeri theatricals and a rather flatulent display from the Latvian referee didn’t help. 

Belgium opened the scoring, Timmy Simons converting from the spot after the Azeri keeper had hauled down Emile Mpenza, with Belgian fans unrestrained in their disgust at the appearance of only a yellow card. Whistles quickly gave way to euphoria though when Kevin Vandenbergh doubled the lead. The Azeris’ sheer ineptitude and some clownish refereeing contributed to an especially eventful night for future Spurs man Moussa Dembele, who was with AZ Alkmaar at the time. In the space of just seventeen second-half minutes, Dembele came on as a substitute, scored Belgium’s third goal and was red-carded for violent conduct as the Azeris’ Oscar-winning antics conned the referee one last time.

The theatrical theme was also evident during the half-time entertainment, which saw a bizarre five-a-side game involving players dressed in giant inflatable cans of Jupiler beer attempting to propel an oversized inflatable football into inflatable goals. Lacking only the wheezing laughter of a disgraced former BBC presenter, it was pure Jeux sans Frontieres, exemplified when one poor wretch went off with a puncture. 

Overall, my favourite football excursions have been to Spain. There is an awful lot of theatricality in Spanish football, with the referee inevitably playing the role of pantomime villain. Officials are habitually conned by players with very bad acting skills, yet somehow it all adds to the entertainment. Histrionics aside, it’s refreshing to see referees allowing open and free-flowing football as well as a generous amount of physical contact, while penalising the more cynical and serious challenges.

I saw Malaga defeated 2-1 by Almeria in an Andalusian derby in 2015. A 10pm kick-off at La Rosaleda gave the boisterous Malaga fans plenty of time to stock up on whatever fuel they needed to sustain an impressively choreographed barrage of noise for the full 90 minutes of what became an increasingly bad-tempered affair. In amongst the Malaga faithful, an unlikely blend of young local diehards and middle-aged expats, I enjoyed a match-night atmosphere that could not have been more different from anything I had experienced in England, with relentless chanting and a sea of blue and white flags unfurled at every opportunity.

It was a scrappy game that grew tetchier as it progressed. A disputed penalty won it for Almeria, giving the Malaga supporters licence to be even louder. It was incredible, but the home fans were somehow resigned to their team’s misfortune and seemed to be saying “It’s Malaga, what do you expect?”. Israeli striker Tomer Hemed scored both Almeria goals as the visitors hung on with the clock nudging midnight, the contest degenerating in a glut of yellow cards, two of them in eight minutes for Almeria defender Michel. Well, what did he expect? It’s Spain!

This article first appeared way back in Issue 1 of Under The Abbey Stand. It’s sold out now, but if you’re lucky one might pop up on eBay for thirty quid.

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