Prior to the other post on this blog, my last football writing was way back in 2001 when as a student with too much time and a sparse CV I helped out a flatmate who had been roped in to being the Sports Editor of the student rag. The gist of my last piece written for the award-winning student newspaper (as it is described on my CV) was the fact that the influx of foreigners at Chelsea was restricting the progress of two potential future England internationals who were struggling to make an impact in the first team. However, I may have just misjudged the prospective talents of Jon Harley and Jody Morris!
Since deciding to give writing another try I thought it best to embrace the advances in publishing that have occurred in the subsequent ten years. Whilst looking at numerous blogs and twitter feeds of like-minded individuals, one thing that jumped out was the fact that a number of bloggers follow more than one team, often stating allegiance to a continental European team or teams.
This led me to the bastion of all good football debates, the local boozer on a Friday night. After concluding that Fabio has indeed lost the plot, John Terry isn’t a very nice man, the FA disciplinary procedure is bonkers and Alexis Sanchez is going to be the next superstar, I raised the question of folk following teams abroad. The outcome of the ensuing conversation is that we all had a team we preferred in each major and some minor European countries.
The reasons behind these ‘soft spots’ were various. Some had an affinity to a team from attending one of their games or visiting the ground whilst on holiday. A common shout was ‘oh I had their strip when I was a young un’. Others were just an appreciation of a team and their football, whether it is at present or back in the day. The Ajax team of 1994 featuring Kluivert, The De Boers, Overmars, Kanu etc was a common pick.
Even when it came to some countries where no visit had taken place, no strips were owned and no great teams stuck in the mind, the gaps were filled in by whether your ‘real team’ had ever played against a team from the country in question, or whether you had ever managed them to success in Championship/Football Manager. What did become apparent is that whilst some of these foreign allegiances are permanent, some can be changed, often at the drop of the hat. Some admitted to doing a ‘Luis Figo’ and moving their support from Barca to Real and one individual admitted to crossing the Glasgow divide.
Being proper blokes, we decided that a list was required to document these preferences and allegiances. My journey up and down Europe started with Newcastle United. Not perfect by a long stretch, but that is who I was stuck with and alas I can’t exactly change now.
Crossing the English Channel and it is our old friends the French. Ligue One has a multitude of big clubs such as Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux. However my team in France is Paris Saint Germain. This stems from an appreciation of the footballing skills of George Weah and David Ginola in the early nineties. Kevin Keegan once thought he had signed George Weah for Newcastle for it to transpire that NUFC had been used to bump up the price PSG wanted from AC Milan. As it turns out, settling for Ginola was no bad thing, who produced scintillating football upon his move to NUFC.
Crossing the Pyrenees in to Spain and I avoid the obvious El Classico pair and follow Valencia. My affiliation to Valencia came about as a result of watching one of the best attacking displays of football I have ever seen. In May 2000 Spain had three clubs in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Barca were drawn against Valencia and Real Madrid were pitted against fellow European giants Bayern Munich. The prospect of an El Classico final was very real, yet Valencia had other ideas. They lined up against Barca at the Mestalla and under the direction of Hector Cuper, attacked from the very start. The team featured the likes of Gaizka Mendieta, Claudio Lopez, Gerard, Miguel Angel Angulo and the man of the match Kily Gonzalez. Valencia raced in to a 3-1 half-time lead and scored again in the final minute to take a 4-1 lead to the Camp Nou. From this game my Spanish team was Valencia. They managed to get to the final despite a 2-1 defeat to Barca in the second leg. In the final however they were unable to repeat their semi-final performance and were dismantled 3-0 by a Real Madrid with goals Steve McManaman, Fernando Morientes and Raul.
A short hop across the Iberian Peninsula in to Portugal and my team here is Sporting Lisbon. This stems from Sporting being the first continental team I seen grace the turf at SJP in a pre-season tournament way back in 1992. Sporting were adorned in their familiar green and white and featured a young winger by the name of Luis Figo.
Jumping over a couple of countries and we land in Italy, home to the first exposure most people of my age had of continental football. The Premier League launched in England with much fanfare way back in 1992. As the Sky press will tell you, this was the turning point in English football with new money deals and TV coverage changing the game. Back in 1992 Sky was only in one million homes in the UK, a fraction of the 10 million plus household that currently subscribe. For those looking for a live football fix on terrestrial TV it was a case of tuning in to the newly launched Football Italia on Channel 4. Channel 4 showed live games on a Sunday afternoon and a highlights show midweek. My team quickly became Lazio, partly due to a certain P Gascoigne showcasing his skills but mainly due to the goalscoring talents of Giuseppe Signori. I would watch game after game hoping to see Lazio awarded a penalty in the hope of being able to marvel at Signori’s one or two step spot kick.
Up over the Alps and in to Switzerland and my pick there is FC Sion. I have never seen FC Sion on play nor could I tell you a thing about them, apart from they once sold Marc Hottiger to Newcastle United. The connection is that flimsy, and I don’t defend it, they are my Swiss team and that is that.
Travelling across the border in to Germany and my Bundesliga team are current league leaders Borussia Dortmund. German football was not widely screened, but when I did manage to catch a glimpse of Dortmund I was amazed at their luminous yellow shirts. My fondness for them was confirmed when they knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League back in 1997. I don’t have any major dislike of Manchester United, but back then they had just clawed back Newcastle’s 12 point lead and won the Premier League yet again, so I took some mild satisfaction in their defeat.
Hanging a left on the map and it is in to Belgium. Not exactly a hotbed of football, the Belgian League’s main clubs are Anderlecht and Club Brugges. My Belgian team however are the delightfully named Yellow Red Koniklijke Voetbal Club Mechelen, or KV Mechelen if you prefer. This tale is a strange one, and i am not too sure of the origins of my allegiance myself. Trying to piece it together, a childhood friend had an uncle who played in the Belgian league after being released from NUFC. In turn this friend’s uncle became friends with Phillipe Albert who at the time was playing for KV. Tenuous to say the least, but there are no rules involved in this game and therefore my Belgian team is KV and their delightful red and yellow striped kit.
Heading north from Mechelen over the border in to Holland and it is a case of one of the more obvious selections with Ajax of Amsterdam being my team of choice. As mentioned in the introduction, this selection is based solely on watching the 1994/95 Ajax team. Prior to Van Gaal’s charges winning the 1995 Champions League it had been 21 years since Ajax had been victorious in the European Cup. The 1995 final in Vienna between Van Gaal’s Ajax and Capello’s Milan was not a classic by a long stretch, but the fact that 13 of the 16 were Dutch and the bulk of those had come through the Ajax academy is the reason the Amsterdam club hold my Dutch preference.
Passing back through Lower Saxony and then heading north, the next stop is Denmark. Back in 1989 Newcastle United signed a Danish International by the name of Bjorn Kristensen from Aarhus Gymnastikforening, or AGF as they are thankfully known as. Benny was one of the first foreigners I seen pull on the black and white, and he was no world beater, he had character and an air of mystery as European international playing for NUFC. My affiliation was confirmed when I was allocated AGF whilst playing a very peculiar ‘play by mail’ football game whilst at secondary school. This game probably involved some blokes playing the games out on Championship Manager then sending the results back, but it was strangely addictive, waiting for the postie to deliver your match report.
Sailing across Skagerrak from Denmark and the next stop is Norway. I have been to Norway twice, mostly recently in 2005 to watch Bobby Robson’s NUFC toil to a 1-1 draw at the Ullevaal Stadium against Valerenga. Despite eye-watering beer prices and sub-zero temperatures, a good time was had by all. However this was not the first football match I attended in the Kingdom of Norway. Way back in 1997 I was packed off to Norway on a school exchange with the aid of some EU funding. I had the misfortune of having to stay with a blonde Norwegian girl and her family as there were more females than males on their side of the exchange. Halfway through the trip and we found ourselves watching FK Haugesund v Stromgodset at Haugesund Stadion. Whilst I didn’t recognise any players in the home line-up, the visitors featured Jostein Flo, once of Sheffield United and brother to future Sunderland flop Tore Andre. Two friends and I turned up adorned in our black and white stripes much to the bemusement of the locals. The match started with the crown counting down from 10 to 1 with the two players taking the centre once one is reached, very bizarre. The two teams played out a 1-1 draw and from that day my Norwegian team has been FKH. I have since taken them on various journeys on Football Manager, reaching the Champions League group stage on two occasions!
Travelling cross-country through Oslo and over the border in to Sweden, it’s not far to travel before arriving at Gothenburg. I will embarrass myself and admit that my first thought of Gothenburg when young is that it was where Batman lived, but I was soon put right on that. My appreciation of IFK Goteborg stems from watching them in the early days of the Champions League, watching the likes of goalkeeper Tomas Ravelli, midfielder Hakan Mild and future Manchester United winger Jesper Blomqvist as well as Football Manager utility legend Niclas Alexandersson.
The first country on my travels where I struggled to find any affinity to a club lies to the east and Finland. I recall watching UEFA cup games back in the day where Kuusysi Lahti and MyPa came up against English clubs, but alas nothing stuck in the mind.
Sailing across the Baltic and I will bypass the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia but promise to return to them briefly later.
At approximately the same time that I was cementing my love of football, the Iron Curtain was falling, and Poland was one of the first. I am not sure how but as an 11 year old I came to own a Legia Warsaw football shirt, and therefore it is they who have my support.
Heading south from Poland and there are only a few countries left (I promise). The next point of call is the Czech Republic. Back in the heyday of cheap flights and no environmental taxes I found myself in Prague on more than one occasion, and as with most trips we factored in a trip to a football ground on our travels. However our trip to Letna Stadium was far from glamorous, with no stadium tours available or even a view of the inside to placate us. It did however have a club shop which took my credit card in exchange for a shiny new Sparta Prague home shirt, thus making them my team.
The obvious place to go after the Czech Republic is Slovakia. Following the Velvet Divorce in 1993 Slovakia again became a sovereign nation. For the first ten years they were definitely the poor relation as far as football went, with the Czech Republic reaching two European Championship semi-finals. However the tables have turned recently with Slovakia qualifying for the first World Cup in 2010 and making it through to the knock-out stages. My visit to Slovakia was in the summer of 2006 and during a wander of a riverside park in Bratislava my friends and I stumbled across a football stadium. We soon deduced that it was the home of Artmedia Bratislava who had recently dispatched Celtic in a Champions League qualifier. The ground was built up on three sides and had an open gate at one end. We pushed the gate and went through and before we knew it we were stood pitch side in front of the main stand. There was not a soul in sight and all we lacked was a football to take full advantage. Further investigation cemented Artmedia’s place in our hearts when it transpired they wear black and white stripes. Like many central and eastern European clubs they have changed their name on several occasions and are now know by the difficult to pronounce FC Petrzalka 1898.
The final point of call on the detailed section of the journey takes us in to Hungary. From watching various NUFC history videos as a child I was well aware that the last trophy won was the 1969 Fairs Cup when United overcame Hungarians Ujpest Dozsa in a two legged final. In 1992 Ujpest returned to St James Park to take part in a four team preseason tournament, along with the aforementioned Sporting Lisbon. My allegiance to Ujpest was confirmed during the same European jaunt that featured Bratislava further up the Danube. As was becoming a regular feature, we sought out football grounds and found ourselves at Szusza Ferenc Stadium in northern Budapest. However, as with Sparta Prague, there wasn’t really a great deal to see, and we soon found ourselves in a local hostelry surrounded by confused locals not used to six Brits frequenting their boozer well out of the city centre. Ujpest have also been involved in perhaps my most successful Football Manager game, winning five league titles back to back along with a Champions League quarter-final.
That concludes the detailed travels.
Honourable mentions go to Levadia Tallin of Estonia, Ventspills of Latvia, Zeleznicar of Serbia and Dinamo Zagreb who have all faced NUFC in european competition in recent times. Intrigued to see whether my friends and I are slightly bonkers or if anyone else has such a wide array of European teams?