Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

USA v Jamaica, Wednesday 3rd July 2019, 8.30pm

August 6, 2019

After the Memphis visit and the Redbirds game it was time to head south to Louisiana and Mississippi to spend some time with Jen’s family. I didn’t see any sport this time but we got lucky in that the unseasonably high water levels in the area extended the craw fish season to coincide with our stay. The highlight was a craw fish boil at Jen’s Dad’s house where eighty pounds of of the crustaceans were purged, seasoned and boiled before being tipped into a canoe shaped bowl for us to pick at. You twist off the head, suck out the juices and then peel and eat the tail. It’s what they would have wanted.

After a week of family stuff it was time to return north to catch the boat from New York back to Southampton. Whilst it had been a leisurely drive on the way down we had to do the journey back over four days. First stop was five hundred miles away in Nashville, a city where we’d stayed for a couple of days on the way down.

I hadn’t been too impressed with Nashville. The bars in Music Street were competing for custom by trying to drown out the noise of their competitors and these days I prefer something quieter. We eventually found one with just an acoustic singer but it took some doing. Even worse was the homeless problem. Every corner or doorway seemed to have someone camped out. I appreciate numbers are more concentrated in the tourist areas but it was disappointing to see the extent of the problem.

One women on the street asked Jen if she could have the lunch left-overs that Jen had brought out from the bar with the acoustic singer. Jen handed it over and later commented to me that whilst we’d done that umpteen times when living in South Africa, she’d never been asked for left-over food in her own country before.

On a slightly more upbeat note, the Johnny Cash museum was worth a visit, although at more than twenty dollars a head it seemed expensive to me. I voiced that sentiment to the cashier and he nodded his agreement with me. I should have left it at that, but then went on to mention that I doubted I’d have considered paying as much as that to actually see him play live. That earned me a glare.

The other museum that we visited was dedicated to The Dukes Of Hazard and ran by a minor character that I’d forgotten even existed. They had some interesting memorabilia including original scripts and it gave me a chance to pose next to the General Lee. Or at least one of them.

We didn’t make it into town for the return visit as we were only able to stay overnight and we had plans for a game at the Titan’s Nissan Stadium. For convenience we stayed across the river at the Quality Inn next to the stadium. I’m glad we did, as being able to walk to the ground saved us the $40 car park fee, which was actually more than the $35 that I’d paid for my match ticket.

Whilst the stadium is more normally used for American football it’s too early (or too late) in the year for that and so the game that we were here for was a proper football match, between the US and Jamaica. My first game of the season was a semi-final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which judging by the far from sellout crowd may not be a particularly prestigious trophy.

Our tickets were for high in the upper tier. The 55,000 capacity stadium wasn’t particularly well attended though and that gave us the option of sitting just about anywhere we fancied. We started off in the upper tier but moved to a central position a handful of rows from the very back. I was like watching ants, but you got a good idea of formations and with the whole pitch in view at all times you could watch the action without the need to ever move your head. Or your eyes.

The hosts looked sharp early on and soon took the lead with a well-worked goal, celebrating to the somewhat overused Seven Nation Army.  Unfortunately for fans of the White Stripes hoping for the tune to be reprised, the American momentum was promptly halted by the arrival of a thunderstorm sufficiently concerning for the ref to order the players to the dressing room and an announcer to order the rest of us to go and hide in the concourse.

The delay went on for over an hour and a half and by which time I’d had enough of standing in the concourse. Our initial upper tier vantage point had allowed me to work out which areas of the stadium were both undercover and with spare seats and so we moved to the back part of the lower tier, near to a corner flag.

With the teams still in the dressing the crowd amused themselves with Mexican waves and chants of “Let’s play soccer”. One fella ran on to the pitch to retrieve a stray ball and was swiftly bundled to the floor by armed security and hand cuffed. It seemed a little over the top in the circumstances. Although maybe he could have considered himself lucky not to have been shot dead.

The game was a lot tighter after  the restart with Jamaica pressing harder than they had done before the interruption. The Jamaican cause wasn’t  helped by the tendency of their keeper to palm the ball into the path of incoming strikers though and it ended up 3-1 to the hosts.

I’m glad that we had a result in normal time as it was six minutes to midnight when the final whistle blew and by that stage of the evening I didn’t fancy another half hour of extra time or even penalties. I think one of the things that I like about football is its relatively short duration. Thunderstorm delays not withstanding.

Gimnastica Segoviana v La Granja, Sunday 24th February 2019, 5pm

May 9, 2019

Whilst we’d flown into Madrid on this break, I’m much happier staying somewhere less busy and so Jen and I spent five nights about an hour away in Segovia. It’s just like most other Spanish towns in that the historic centre remains intact, with the usual castle and cathedral, but it has the added attraction of a Roman aquaduct. Apparently there is no mortar between the blocks and all of them are held in place by nothing more than gravity. I’ve worked on plenty of construction projects that skimped on materials like that too.

A further benefit of basing ourselves in Segovia was that it was on the route of the Madrid to Santiago de Compostela Camino. Never heard of it? Me neither, I’d thought it started in France, but it turns out that there are loads of different pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostela.

This meant that we had two easy options for going for a walk. On the morning of the match we struck out in the direction of Madrid, walked along the route for a couple of hours and then retraced our steps back into town. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, unless cows count, but there was a decent mountain in view for the outward stretch.

Next day we walked towards Santiago de Compostela. We cheated a bit by driving to Zamarramala and starting from there but it cut out the urban section of the walk and a big hill. We walked for a few hours to Los Huertos and back, stopping in the same cafe for breakfast on the way out and then lunch on the way back.

This time we had views of fields, with the track stretching out in front of us into the distance and the odd hawk hovering overhead.

Having exhausted the easy Camino options we decided to our next walk should be at the snow covered mountain that we’d had as the backdrop. It was a few miles away in the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park and peaked at around 1800m. It seemed a good idea initially but without spikes it was fairly treacherous underfoot. After a series of slips we drove back down the hill a couple of hundred metres until we got below the snow line and then did a few miles along a forest track instead.

So, Segovia has some decent historical features and it’s a great base for a walking holiday. It’s also famous for suckling pig, although I thought the ones that we had were too old at six weeks. I prefer the two week old ones with the thinner skin that we get in KL. Segovia has some decent bars too and we visited just about all of them.

Fortunately it also has a football team, Gimnastica Segoviana, that plays in the fourth-tier Tercera Division. Just as fortunately, they were playing at home during our stay, although good planning on my part in selecting Segovia as our destination might actually have had more to do with it.

The six and a half thousand capacity Estadio La Albuera is on the edge of town and as four hours walking earlier in the day was enough we took the car. There wasn’t much of a queue at the hole in the wall ticket window and we picked up a couple of eight euro tickets for the stand on the far side.

I’ve no idea how well attended Segoviana’s games usually are or whether the fact that their opponents, La Granja, are from just a few minutes drive away had made a difference, but there was a lengthy queue to get through the gates.

Once inside we walked around the back of the goal which, just like the other end, had no seats or terracing. There were barriers though, so anyone wanting to stand could get close up to the action.

Our stand seemed to be the popular one and we had to walk the full length of it, passing the counter that was serving alcohol free beer and low strength Radler shandy, to find an area with few people in it. To our left we had the local ultras, some of whom preferred to face away from the pitch so that they could better coordinate the singing.

I didn’t notice any La Granja fans, but even with the traditional reluctance of Spanish fans to travel away, you’d think some would have made the effort to make the short trip.

The main stand opposite us looked a lot older than our section and I think is the one original stand remaining, which dates it to the stadium opening in 1978. It holds around about 600 and from what I could hear it had the benefit of a lack of drums.

Anyway, enough about the ground. It’s the shirts that made my afternoon. Not so much Gimnastica, who were turned out in an unimaginative Barcelona style kit, brightened up with a Burger King logo.

La Granja, though, had oddest shirt I’d ever seen. At first glance I thought it featured peanuts or maybe potatoes. After a closer look I concluded that it was probably baked beans. Eventually, after some zoomed in photography I spotted small morsels of pork among the beans, so presumably it was some sort of stew, possibly a dish that their village regards as their local speciality. No doubt there will be a parmo shirt somewhere in the Boro’s future.

La Granja’s play was as bad as their kit. Their defence didn’t have much confidence in their keeper and panicked whenever they thought he might be given something to do. Further upfield was a diminutive number ten with a temper as short as his stature and who looked unlikely to go the distance. Somewhat surprisingly, Segoviana failed to take advantage and the teams went in level at the end of a goalless first half.

With the sun getting lower and in our eyes, we took the opportunity to switch to the opposite side of the ground for some second half shade. As we made the move we got a decent view of the hills from the steps at the end of the stand.

We started off inside the barrier, leaning back against it but were soon moved behind the railings by someone dressed up as if he were on the coaching staff but who was actually turned out to be little more than a fifty year old ball boy. The change of location gave us frequent close ups of the right back for La Granja being given the runaround.

The game remained goalless until twenty minutes from the end when an indirect free kick missed everything but the visiting keeper‘s fingertips. If he’d been just that little bit more hapless then he would have got away with it.

The goal seemed to intensify the bad feeling between the keeper and his defence. One fella was in a constant state of fury because the goalie would never play it short to him. Bizarrely, the first time the keeper did throw him the ball was from a goal kick. The defender just blasted the ball back at him in frustration. On taking the goal kick correctly, the keeper found his man again only for Mr. Angry to let it roll under his foot and out for a throw in.

There was some quality from the home side though in the final moments as one of their strikers ran from deep leaving at least three La Granja defenders floundering. He rode their increasingly wilder lunges, kept his feet and then twatted the ball home with the keeper getting his fingers nowhere near this time. The two-nil win for Segoviana and the stew on the visitor’s shirts will have given the headline writers an easy caption.

Getafe v Rayo Vallecano, Saturday 23rd February 2019, 1pm

May 3, 2019

It’s always good to squeeze in a holiday in Spain and as Madrid is one of the airports that works well for our route we broke our journey back to the UK with a few nights in nearby Segovia. Madrid works well for football too and a mid-morning arrival fitted in very nicely with the lunchtime game at Getafe. Well, lunchtime for me anyway. I doubt many Spaniards would think of one o’clock as being anything more than time for a late breakfast.

I’d checked the Getafe attendances and even with them in the dizzy heights of a Champions League spot they hadn’t been anywhere near selling out their seventeen thousand capacity Estadio Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Whilst that meant that I could have bought a ticket at the stadium office I had a crack at their mainly Spanish website and booked my seat in advance instead.

Forty euros got me a spot at the front of the upper tier in the Lateral Alta which is the uncovered stand along the side, opposite the covered main stand. Forty euros is way more than Jen considers good value for somewhere to spend an hour and a half knitting and so I left her in a nearby coffee shop and followed the crowd up the hill to the ground.

The stadium is just over twenty years old and oddly it seems to be named after a former player. Not a former Getafe player but someone from Getafe who turned out mainly for Real Betis. Even odder is that Senor Perez is only forty-six now and so had a ground that he apparently never played at named in his honour whilst in his mid-twenties. Why would you do that? It’s like us naming the Riverside after Keith Houchen or Robbie Blake and I don’t remember either of those names even making the voting shortlist.

I entered the ground at the main stand and walked around behind the goal before being directed to my seat in the sun. It has been a bit chilly earlier on but the lack of shade meant that I was overdressed in a jumper and jacket.

Getafe were in blue with fellow Madrid-based team Rayo Vallecano sporting a Peru kit. Whilst Getafe were having about as good as season as you can get, the visitors were struggling at the other end of the table and came into the game on the back of a run of three defeats.

Mata opened the scoring for Getafe half an hour in, taking the ball across the goal before turning and wellying it into the far top corner. It sparked mass scarf twirling from the home fans and a blast of The Final Countdown from the speakers.

There were no more goals before the break and my seat gave me pole position for getting in the queue for a coke and a bacon sandwich.

With a crowd of only eleven thousand I took advantage of the available seating to find a different vantage point for the second half, moving to the back row behind the goal to my left. There was a welcome breeze blowing in and I was able to stand and lean against the perimeter wall.

Getafe seemed well on top but were caught out when de Tomas equalised with a well placed shot from the edge of the D. It was at the opposite end to me but I reckon it bounced a couple of times before crossing the line and the keeper should probably have done a bit better with it.

The goal was enough for a handful of home fans to head for the exits despite there still being half an hour to go. Fourth in the league and drawing an hour into a game obviously isn’t acceptable to some people.

It was a shame for those that cleared off when they did as it didn’t take Getafe long to regain the lead and clinch the points. Mata broke free and unselfishly squared for Molina to tap into an empty net. Scoring the winner earned Molina a rendition of the Nicky Bailey song as he was subbed off a few minutes later. Possibly with a few lyrical amendments.

The result kept both teams in their pre-match positions, with Getafe still on course for the Champions League and Rayo eyeing up a swift return to the Segunda Division.

Boro v Ipswich, Saturday December 29th 2018, 3pm

March 29, 2019

The second game of my Christmas trip to the UK was another home game for the Boro and this time involved a catch-up with Paul and Aiden. I usually see Paul a couple of times a year for gigs or football tournaments but with Aiden it’s generally once every three or four years and almost always a festive fixture at the Riverside.

We had a spare ticket too, but Paul’s dad, Mike, who would have come in the past wouldn’t entertain it. Tom was working and as Harry was at his nanna’s, it went unused.

We were in the West Upper and the first half was spent catching up on each other’s news. Aiden had just retired. That seems weird. It shouldn’t really at fifty-four, but just being fifty-four in itself seems weird. Mid-fifties. How did that happen?

Half-time discussions quickly turned to how crap we are. I don’t see a lot of the Premier League on the telly as the time difference in Malaysia makes it an arse on, but for Paul and Aiden who are able to watch the likes of Man City or Liverpool, it must have been like sitting through a different sport.

I thought that the inclusion of Howson at wing back and Wing in midfield made us a bit more adventurous than in the game I’d watched three days earlier, but maybe that was more a reflection on the relative merits of Ipswich and Sheff Wed.

Still, the result worked out better. We’d taken a first half lead through a Hugill penalty that nobody seemed to appeal for and then second half sub Tavernier capped a livewire performance with a goal. That’ll be him dropped for a while again then.

Overall though, nobody was much impressed with anything at all and by the time the full-time whistle blew half the twenty-three thousand crowd had already cleared off. It’s the time of year when football is supposed to get you out of the house and away from that between Christmas and New Year stupor, yet most people seemed keener to head back home. That speaks volumes.

Boro v Sheff Wed, Wednesday December 26th 2018, 3pm

March 28, 2019

After the lay-over for the FIFA Club World Cup it was back to something a little more mundane and a visit to the Riverside for my first Boro game in eight months. My son, Tom, has a season ticket for the South Stand and I thought that it might be time for my grandson, Tom’s nephew, to join us in what is probably the liveliest part of the ground.

The last time Harry came with me to the Riverside the highlight of his day was spotting a squashed rat on Borough Road. I’m sure he must consider Middlesbrough to be infested with rodents as despite him keeping a good eye out all afternoon he was surprised not to see another one.

His ticket was seventeen quid. He’s eight years old. Actually he wasn’t even eight as his birthday wasn’t until the following day, so still seven. With the booking fee we paid about fifty quid in total for the pair of us to get into the cheapest area of the ground. I doubt that many small kids get taken to the match at those prices.

The lack of rats wasn’t the only change for Harry. Last time we’d been in the West Upper and he was only on his feet when we scored. This time everyone around us stood from the start and so in order to see, anyone Harry’s height  had to stand on a seat. He was a bit reluctant at first as I think his Mam has rules about feet on chairs, but he soon got the hang of it, even joining in with some of the songs. I think his Mam probably has rules about swearing too.

Boro were terrible. We were set up to with five at the back, protected by three holding midfielders. That left Stewie in no-mans land and Britt isolated up front. Sheff Wed had former Boro player Adam Reach in their side and as such he was nailed on to score. He did. Strange to think that he couldn’t get a game for us in the promotion season, but if he came back now he might very well be our best player. I doubt he’s improved much in his time away so it’s more a reflection on our rapid decline.

The Sheff Wed fans had a decent song for him, to the tune of The Beautiful South’s Rotterdam. They milked it all afternoon in what was a rare successful away day for them.

The support from around us mainly comprised frustrated chants of “attack, attack, attack” and, after an out of character moment of positive intent, a sarcastic rendition of “We’ve had a shot”. However, despite the cynicism from the rest of us, Harry remained confident that we’d equalise up right until the final whistle. It’s great to be eight. Or seven.

 

Real Madrid v Al-Ain, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 8.30pm

March 26, 2019

The final of the FIFA Club World Cup was the second game of a double-header evening at the Zayed Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The later kick-off came with a significant drop in temperature which I welcomed but it made it cold enough for Jen to choose to clear off back to our hotel.

Most of the River Plate fans who had cheered their side to victory in the earlier third-place play-off also chose to clear off and that enabled me to move from my designated seat to one along the side, lower down and about level with one of the penalty spots. It seemed a few other people were doing the same and there was a fair bit of re-positioning going on in the run up to kick-off when the actual ticket holders for those seats eventually turned up.

Whilst I was surprised at the drop in temperature, it could have been worse. We’d been for a look around an old fort that morning and the taxi driver reckoned that we were in for their once a year rain downpour. Fortunately it didn’t happen. The fort was ok, but in a Trigger’s Broom sort of way, with just about all of it looking like it had been re-built over the years.

There was a museum attached to the fort that I enjoyed more. It had a selection of photos showing the development of the city over the last fifty years or so. Best of all was an early picture of the Zayed Sports stadium that we’d be attending.

As kick off neared I looked around at the fans. There weren’t anything like as many Real Madrid fans around as there had been from River Plate and those I did see looked decidedly like locals. I’m not really sure how they take pleasure from supporting a global concern against their hometown team? Although I suppose they probably saw the two teams as operating in different worlds. It’s as if the Boro were somehow pitted against Norton’s George and Dragon. You can’t switch your allegiance from the bigger team just because you usually walk your dog across the opposing team’s Sunday League council pitch.

Happily, there were plenty of Emeratis supporting Al-Ain who had progressed against the odds as host club to knock out the champions of Oceania, North America and then South America to reach the final.

Madrid had all the big guns on the field including Bale, Kroos and Benzema. Ramos received solid but essentially good-natured booing every time he touched the ball. Modric got a cheer when announced and was a pleasure to watch. He was always looking to start something off and a quarter of an hour in took more applause when he opened the scoring with a curled effort into the corner.

The goal and Ramos baiting aside, there wasn’t much noise from the home fans and there was even less in support of Real. After a while the couple of thousand River Plate fans who had stayed behind after their game started singing their own songs and drowned everything else out.

Al-Ain were almost on equal terms soon after the opening goal when pantomime villain Ramos foiled their best efforts by clearing one off the line. Shortly afterwards a second home effort was ruled out for offside.

In truth though I don’t think Al-Ain really believed that an upset was on the cards and so the European Champions were never in any real danger of losing. The title was in the bag when Llorente added a second on the hour. Ramos nodded in what must have been a very satisfying third Madrid goal as we entered the final ten minutes to put the game out of reach.

I nipped out not long after that as back to back games is pushing my limit for football in one evening. I heard the roar of the crowd for an Al-Ain consolation as I walked away from the ground and the more muted response to a fourth and final Real Madrid goal a couple of minutes later as I approached my hotel.

River Plate v Kashima Antlers, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 5.30pm

March 21, 2019

There are no direct flights from Malaysia to the north-east of England, so when I travel back to the UK I’ve got to break the journey somewhere. Usually I change planes in London or Amsterdam, but for my Christmas trip home I went via Abu Dhabi. The UAE Is not somewhere that has ever appealed to me as somewhere to live and as such I’ve knocked back any number of enquiries for jobs in the region over the years. This time though the final of the FIFA Club World Club Cup was taking place at a time that fitted in with the flights and that’s as good as reason as I’m ever likely to have for paying the place a visit.

The logistics were very easy and a forty quid online ticket from FIFA covered both the final and the third place play-off that took place as a double-header. We were only staying for a couple of nights and so we didn’t need a visa, whilst our hotel was just across from the Zayed Sports City stadium. It was also only about ten minutes in a taxi from the Sheikh Zayed mosque, which is just as well as my original plan for whiling away my time at a sanctuary for injured falcons didn’t come off.

I’m not really a fan of big modern buildings but I was happy to wander around the enormous mosque mainly to look at the tiling. I’m renovating a house and in my latest manifestation of geekiness have developed an unhealthy interest in reclaimed Victorian ceramics. It took a bit of effort to get in though. Not so much for me, but Jen was required to dress up as Obi Wan Kenobi with a shawl and a head scarf. My time and money-saving suggestions of a tea towel or a cardboard box with eye holes were dismissed as grossly disrespectful and she chose to buy the necessary gear from a department store that no doubt did very well out of improperly dressed tourists.

There were lots of River Plate fans wandering around the mosque in the hours before their third-place play-off game. No doubt they too were marveling at the elaborate encaustics whilst cursing the limited opening hours of the hawk hospital.

Later that day Jen and I made our way over to the stadium with plenty of time in hand. Just as well really as it was almost as much of an arse on getting in to the ground as it had been the mosque. I got away with a small, yet still prohibited, camera but had a pen no bigger than you’d find in a bookies confiscated. These posts struggle for accuracy at the best of times but my memory is so poor these days that if I can’t make a few notes then you can’t be confident that anything I write here is in any way accurate.

Still, this one was easier than most to check later. It was the third-place play-off featuring River Plate, fresh from their much disrupted Copa Libertadores triumph against Boca Juniors, taking on the champions of Asia, Kashima Antlers.

Iconic is a much over-used word but I think that the River Plate kit of white shirt, diagonal red stripe and black shorts counts. Kashima were in a somewhat less iconic red combo. There were at least six sections of River Plate fans, maybe five or six thousand or so of them, compared to a small but vocal section of a hundred or so Japanese fans just to my left. A few local fans, some supporting Abu Dhabi’s own Al-Ain, others wearing the global uniform of a Real Madrid shirt, made up the numbers in a crowd that was officially announced as being seventeen thousand.

The River Plate fans made an incredible racket all the way through despite the game meaning little to them. I mean, you win the Copa Libertadores against your greatest rivals and before you have the chance for a triumphant home-coming you have to pitch up at a Micky Mouse tournament only to switch off and lose your first game to the team that qualified by being local.

Play was fairly even in the early stages up until former Jeonbuk Motors goalie Kwoun Sun-tae picked up an injury and had to be subbed. The replacement keeper’s first job was to pick the ball out of the net as River Plate went one up from a corner. Strangely their fans barely celebrated. The goal brought the Asian Champions out of their shell and made for a much more open game but the Argentinians went two up late on and then added a couple more in the final moments to rub it in. It’s a shame that River Plate hadn’t turned up in their semi-final as I’d have liked to have seen them take on Real Madrid for the title.

 

Viettel v Binh Phuoc, Saturday 29th September 2018, 3pm

March 19, 2019

In our time over here we’d only been to Vietnam once, a trip to Saigon a year or so earlier. It was an interesting place so we thought we’d see if Hanoi was just as good.  Turn out that it is, with the added benefit of being to gawp at the actual remains of their former leader Ho Chi Minh, rather than just wander around somewhere like his 1970’s decorated palace searching in vain for the advertised elephant’s foot umbrella stand.

The walk through Mr. Minh’s mausoleum was very well-managed. The queue snaked through the grounds for a few hundred yards but under covered walkways. It was kept moving at a good pace by some very smartly dressed soldiers and once inside, as you might imagine, there was extremely chilly air-conditioning. You weren’t allowed to talk or take photos, in fact you weren’t allowed to do anything but walk. Jen was told off for crossing her arms whilst I did my best to stifle a cough.

The route eventually ended up in a dimly-lit room with a corpse in a bed. He looked a bit like his photo on the main stand at the game we went to later, but a little waxier.

Other highlights were a big lake near to our hotel surrounded by eating and drinking establishments. The roads were closed off for the weekend to allow people to stumble around with less chance of being killed by the traffic.

We walked to the match on the Saturday afternoon and had to dodge scooters on the pavement as well as cars on the roads. We also had to dodge a bloke smoking a bamboo pipe that was at least a foot long.

The Hang Day stadium is pretty run down, but that’s the way I like them. We arrived about an hour before kick-off and there were lots of people milling around the main entrance. Vendors were selling snacks that may have been cooked a while ago and were unprotected from flies. You could wash them down with something cold. Or at least you would be able to if the cans and bottles weren’t just sitting in the sun rather than a cool box or fridge.

As we had sufficient time we did a circuit of the stadium. It was quieter around the back and we spotted a couple of soldiers. They seemed much more relaxed than the ones on duty at the funeral home.

If we’d been inclined we could have had haircuts at the back corner of the ground. That’s something the Boro should start offering during matches. I reckon there would be a decent queue of people keen to escape watching the soul-destroying set-up of five centre halves and four defensive midfielders taking turns to lump the ball forward to a single striker ill-equipped to do anything with it.

Anyway, this game was free to get in to and the sounds of partying that we’d heard coming from inside were due to the home side Viettel having already clinched the second division championship with a couple of games to spare. Not quite Charlton’s Champions but you take what you can get.

There were two tier stands down each side, with open terracing to our right and a wall to the left that backed on to housing. Potential there for “Once more and we’ll stick a knife in it”. The home fans were celebrating their promotion with their band and by waving a variety of flags. The carnival atmosphere was mirrored on the pitch where Viettel, in white, seemed to be applying the ‘Tuncay’ rule whereby the build up to any chance must include at least one fancy but ineffective flick. Binh Phuoc were in green shirts with a red band. Or red shirts with a green yoke. Hard to say really. Either way the best chances in the half went to the hosts, but poor finishing and some decent keeping kept it goalless at the break.

Our first half viewpoint in the stand opposite the tunnel had become less attractive as the sun got lower. When it began to shine through the gaps in the structure on to the backs of our heads we were forced to move to an area where the sun was blocked by a stairwell. At half time we took the opportunity to move upstairs and take advantage of the better shade provided by the roof.

The excitement level rose soon after the restart when the away coach was sent to the stands. Maybe the sun had been a bit much for him too. It didn’t seem to change much on the pitch though as the champions continued to press ineffectually for a goal to complete the coronation.

With a quarter of an hour to play it was the turn of the players to lose their composure. We had a minute or two of argy-bargy before Binh Phuoc switched off from the subsequent free-kick and an unmarked header put Viettel a goal up. It sparked just the sort of celebrations that you’d expect.

A few minutes later another header doubled their lead and we sloped out leaving them to it. Game and season over.

Davao Aguilas v Ceres Negros, Saturday 22nd September 2018, 4pm

February 15, 2019

Getting to see a game of football in the Philippines turned out to be a lot more trouble than I’d imagined. The first time we went to Manila I checked for updates at the hotel before setting off to the match and discovered that not only had the venue been changed, but the match would be played behind closed doors.  Even so, I still fancied my chances of somehow getting in, or at least I did until our taxi driver took us to the Rizal Memorial Park rather than the Rizal Memorial Stadium and the traffic was just too bad for us to get to the right location in time.

On the plus side we saw some weird blackface performance in the park where only the armpits gave them away.

I’m a trier though and so three months later we made a return visit to Manila. This time the ground was in the north of the city in the middle of nowhere and with limited hotel options. Very limited, with the view from our window giving some idea of the neighbourhood. There weren’t any bars nearby either and Jen and I spent the latter part of that evening drinking beer on the steps of the hotel whilst security men with shotguns patrolled the nearby petrol station forecourt.

Still, we were there for the football and the stadium was within walking distance. If it had been a little further I suppose we could always have got one of the retro looking shared taxis that cruised around.

We arrived a good half hour before kick off only to find that the pitch wasn’t marked and that the game had been moved to a different city. Probably behind closed doors and possibly the day before for good measure. Terrific.

I thought I’d missed my opportunity but two months further on a cup competition, the Copa Paulinho something or other threw up a game at the same Rizal Memorial Stadium that we’d tried to reach five months earlier. This time I booked a hotel overlooking the ground, so as long as the four-hour flights weren’t unduly delayed we would only have to rely upon a taxi driver finding the hotel, rather than the football ground. That’s always an easier proposition.

It turned out that the stadium isn’t actually that far from its namesake park. In fact we walked it along the seafront the next morning in under an hour.

If we’d done that the first time rather than rely on a taxi driver who didn’t know the football ground existed we could have saved ourselves two hours in traffic and two return trips.

This time though, it all worked out. The stadium, which was built in 1934, reminded me of one that my mate Paul and I had wandered around whilst in Poland for Euro 2012. That Polish place had been built in anticipation of an Olympics that used other venues instead and by now was magnificently run down. As was the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Nobody wanted any money for admission and so I took my place in the main stand. The only concession to modern life was the artificial pitch with those little black bits of rubber flicking up from the surface.

Davao Aguilas were in white with red and blue trim with Ceres in black. Davao took the lead a quarter of an hour in when a corner was glanced in at the near post. Despite the goal coming so early on it was enough for the Ceres coach to immediately haul off his big lump of a centre-half. Perhaps he’d taken a knock. I hope so, for his sake.

Davao had about twenty fans at one end of the main stand, including three drummers. None of them looked particularly old so it might have been a school trip of sorts. They were rattling out a chant of “Davo, Davo, Davo” to the tune of No Limits. The early goal got them fired up, not that they needed it when it’s a choice between watching your team or an afternoon of algebra. Maybe they’d think differently if they had someone like Tony Pulis slowly squeezing any possible joy from watching their team. Quadratic equations might very well be preferable then.

Ceres just seemed to have a handful of fans but they made a disproportionate amount of noise by taking advantage of the good acoustics created by the main stand roof. Mind you, the noise that they made was pointless, just some oh, oh, ohing to the tune of Go West. Noise for the sake of it really. I was temporarily distracted by the old industrial light fittings above us that would be worth a decent sum to a salvage yard.  Strange how your mind wanders.

The teams went in at the break with just the one goal separating them, but it didn’t take Davao Aguilas long afterwards to double their lead with a penalty. Within two minutes though Ceres had pulled one back when a corner was missed by everyone except the fella who tapped it home from close range.

The Ceres goal was the cue for some argy bargy and a Ceres player escaped a sending off despite having put an opposition player in a headlock.  Davao weren’t so fortunate though and one of their players did walk shortly afterwards, for a second yellow. He seemed somewhat frustrated at the apparent inconsistency.

After everyone had settled down there was a strange lack of urgency from the Ceres players.  They were slowly trotting up for corners and staying down far too long after any contact. I began to wonder if the game was two legs, or if a single goal defeat somehow put them through. More likely, they thinking about the possible end of season approaching and the opportunity to head off on their holidays. Fair enough.

Maldives v India, Saturday 15th September 2018, 7pm

November 29, 2018

Whilst I suppose most ground hoppers concentrate on completing a league, or on ticking off grounds where they have seen their own team play, I’ve lately had more of an interest in ‘collecting’ countries where I’ve seen a football match.

Initially it was quite easy working my way through the territories near to Malaysia, but after a while it takes a bit more of an effort. Bangladesh wasn’t somewhere that I’d initially thought I’d go to, what with all the fuss over shootings, bombs, the security fears around cricket tours and the like. But, it seems to have calmed down a bit lately and so when I saw that the final of the SAFF Cup was scheduled for a free weekend I booked flights to Dhaka.

My first impression was the chaos. I’ve been to India a couple of times and have also braved the traffic in Manila but nothing came close to the congestion on the roads in and around the Bangladeshi capital. Lorries, buses, cars, tuk-tuks and finally bicycle rickshaws vied for position in what were often five or six informal lines of traffic on roads marked with two or three lanes. It made it the maddest place I’ve been for getting from A to B.

I took a ride by rickshaw and even something of that size struggles for space on the roads. The ‘driver’ was able to nip through a few of the backstreets, which helped a bit and it had the added bonus of letting me see sellers with baskets that were full of chickens that were stood upright and presumably tied in at their feet.

It seems that not many westerners pop over the Dhaka for a weekend break and we were objects of curiosity, more so than most places I’ve been and we posed for numerous photos with people. I called into the former house of the assassinated president who had led the country to independence and I ended up in conversation with one fella who was desperate for my opinion on why Simon Jones and Marcus Trescothick had faded from the Test scene so soon after the 2005 Ashes win.

We also had a wander around the grounds of an old fort, which turned out to be a rare oasis of calm in what was otherwise mainly bedlam.

Our hotel was carefully chosen to be within walking distance of the Bangabandhu stadium as there was no way I was going to risk travelling all the way to Dhaka and then missing the game due to traffic. As we set off for the match it was as busy on foot as it was by rickshaw or taxi and we had to fight our way through a crowded market.

We didn’t have tickets in advance as the hotel had wanted 100x face value. Yes, five thousand Bangladeshi takas for a fifty taka ticket. That’s fifty quid for a fifty pence ticket! I politely declined and we took our chances, ending up paying a twenty taka premium to a kid outside the ground for two tickets in the Category 1 south stand.

Whilst buying the tickets we acquired a new friend, Bob. He told us that he lived nearby and that he was unmarried due to being orphaned as a child. There are some people who might view the absence of in-laws as a bit of a positive in a spouse, but he didn’t see it that way. Bob was supporting the Maldives on the basis they were playing local rivals India, although a lot of others around us were supporting India on the basis that India didn’t really get on with Pakistan. There was a real animosity towards Pakistan, I suppose stemming from the past skirmishes both before and after independence.

One fella had a bit of a pop at me for being English, on the basis of our colonial past. He was keen to point out that they were doing fine without us and that they wouldn’t like us back. I reassured him that we’ve enough on our plate sorting out our own infrastructure without getting involved in other countries. He seemed happy enough with that and wound his neck in for the rest of the game.

The 36,000 capacity stadium was a bit run down with some posh bits incorporated into a couple of the stands for VIPs. There was a large picture of the father of the nation away to our right in the ground named after him. The usual running track and advertising boards affected our view a little, but on the plus side we had a roof in our section that included overhead fans.

I think the SAFF Championship is a qualifier for another competition later in the year and its lack of prestige was highlighted by India sending their U23 team. That said, it gave the grown ups from the Maldives a decent opportunity to pick up a trophy and that’s exactly what they did.

A goal on the break in each half clinched it for the Maldives. We left just before the end and missed the injury time India consolation. The early dart failed to mitigate the impact of any of the traffic or crowds. I imagine that it remains equally chaotic every minute of the day and night.