Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The art of watching football while on holiday

There used to be a three-stage process when I wanted to watch a football match while on holiday with my family. Stage One: mention as an obvious joke the fact that FC Unpronounceable have a home game against The Totally Fucking Unknowns in the Bob Fazackerly Clipboards League in the very week that we happen to be renting a cottage in the neighbouring town. Laugh along as your wife says something like, "What sad, desperate failure of a human being would want to go and watch such an utterly shite, pointless sporting event like that?" 
The high octane thrills of the Estonian League (Pic: TQF)
Stage Two (the crucial stage. The breaking point): mention it again two days before the game with the vague outline of a plan. Remember that match I was talking about the other day? Yeah, I know, stupid waste of time, ha ha, but it happens to be on the same night where we have nothing really planned, and it turns out that these two teams have a bit of history. Two red cards in the corresponding fixture last season. Could get tasty. Nice little stadium too. Might be able to get a piece out of it for 'When Saturday Comes'. Then cower humbly as your wife unleashes her disbelief. "You're seriously thinking about going to watch this bollocks? Seriously?" Yes, quite seriously.

Stage Three: Permission was not exactly given during Stage Two, but there's no stopping me now. It's time to forge the plan and execute it with added details. "There's a lad playing for FC
Unpronounceable I once saw running out for Partick Thistle reserves. It'll be interesting to see how he's getting on all these years later in the Slovenian league." By this point, the family's given up. Just shut up and go to your fucking game.

The three stages are no longer necessary. It's now taken for granted that I will find a crappy game to attend - somewhere, somehow, no matter how deep we are into the summer, regardless of which obscure corner of the globe. It's already factored in to the holiday. And although there was absolutely no need for me to see Levadia Tallinn against Pärnu LM (Estonia D1, 2015 - crowd: 50) or FC Zell am See versus a Forgotten Czech Division Three side (Austria pre-season friendly, 2005), I very much appreciated the chance to sneak in and observe how other towns watch their teams. 
Istra Pula v Hajduk Split, August 2015. I was there (pic: TQF)
It's the ultimate Quiet Fan experience. You have nothing at stake, and your already relaxed holiday mood allows you absolute detachment. You smile condescendingly at the rage of the upset locals as the referee soaks up a verbal manslaughtering in a language or a dialect you don't understand. Although I understood enough when walking away from Istra Pula's unlikely 4-1 hammering of Hajduk Split a couple of years ago (Croatia, D1) to know that the home fans were very, very surprised, and delighted too.

This year we went to magnificent Iceland. It didn't take me long to look away from the spectacular scenery and scan the fixture list. In July it's the European competition qualifying rounds for all of those inconveniently small nations that Uefa wants off its hands by August at the latest. Just a 20-minute bus ride south of Reykjavik city centre I found the ground of Icelandic champion HF Hafnarfjördur, who were entertaining Vikingur Gøta of the Faroe Islands in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. If I was still having to go through the ritual of Stage Two, I could have exclaimed to my wife and daughters: potentially millions at stake! In just a few weeks these teams could be playing Juventus or Real Madrid! (They won't.)

Iceland in July - it must be Champions
League. Wahay! (pic: TQF)
Arriving way before the locals, who have a habit of showing up five minutes before kick-off as though they know how not to waste too much of their lives, I spotted a brace of noisy lads in sky blue shirts shouting, "Vikingur!" Away fans from the Faroes, and I assumed they would be the only two. But they weren't - there were around 150 of them by kick-off, with a huge repertoire of songs, and in boisterous mood having eliminated Trepca 89 of Kosovo the week before in the first round (as you'll know). They probably came in the same plane as the players and officials, most of whom they seemed to know personally judging by all the smiles and waving as the team came off the field after the warm-up.

By this time I'd enjoyed one of the cheapest cheeseburgers in Iceland (around €8), and got my ticket (around €16). I also bought a coffee from the youth team fund-raising stall and checked out the public chill-out lounge under the main stand - perhaps the only one in Europe. Or maybe all Icelandic clubs have them. They seem to be a very chilled-out nation overall, despite the receding glaciers.

Those were my Unique Icelandic Fan Experiences. The game itself was about National League standard. Tellingly, one of the best players on the field was a former Lincoln City loanee, Steven Lennon, and he wasn't that good either. He delivered the corner that a Hafnarfjördur defender headed in just after half-time. But Vikingur equalised late with a penalty and it finished 1-1, which was probably two goals more than the game deserved. Still, you had to be pleased for the enthusiastic travelling fans.

Vikingur equalise and they are celebrating
 on the streets of Gøta (pic: TQF)
Six nights later the Icelanders won the second leg in the Faroes 2-0. I've no idea how many Hafnarfjördur fans made the return trip. Not as many as will travel with them if they make it to the group phase and are drawn against Real Madrid. Meanwhile, I get to tell people about the time I went to a Champions League game in Iceland. As thrilling a story, no doubt, as the time one August when I saw St. Johnstone play Rangers in the Scottish League Cup group phase (1976), or Inverness Thistle play Hibs in a pre-season tournament (1978), or Benfica in their old concrete bowl (1990), or Sparta Prague for 50 pence during eastern Europe's early capitalism phase (1993), or Paris St Germain against Brescia in a 0-0 draw.

Yes, dear grandchildren, I once saw Roberto Baggio play. No, not in the World Cup final. Where, then? It was high summer in the French capital around the turn of the millennium. In the Inter-Toto Cup. What the fuck was the Inter-Toto Cup, Granddad? I can no longer really remember, lad. The most important thing is - I was there.

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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