Monday, July 30, 2012

Making decent progress with the first draft of the book for 'More Than a Game'. The idea is to retell the story of Africa 2010, The 2011 Copa America, the 2011 New Zealand Rugby World Cup and, of course, the 2012 European Championships all within the pages of one printed book. I am using a lot of the original blog material plus plenty of personal thoughts that weren't included online in the More Than a Game blogs.
Starting to look into printing costs as will likely self-publish and market the book myself using this website. Hope to get some initial publishing costs later this week.

Was the hottest day in Latvia's history yesterday - 36 degrees. A couple of days earlier I managed to get a lung-full of tear gas prior to Skonto Riga v Hajduk Split. Rather ironic that I got through Euro 2012 without a single incident of hooliganism, only to be confronted by a firm of 100 Croat nutters on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening in Riga. They attacked the police with chairs and fireworks before the police responded with teargas. I inhaled the teargas as I approached Skonto stadium, nosily attempting to see what was occurring between the Croats and the local police. A few days earlier, several hundred Polish hooligans travelled up to Liepaja, on Latvia's west coast, and caused absolute mayhem in the name of Legia Warsaw. Football hooliganism is almost unheard of in Latvia. It is of course one of the most famous exports from Poland and Croatia.

Will keep you posted about the book in the coming weeks.
 
 
Monday, July 9, 2012

A handful of extra Euro photos taken by travel companion Neil:
 
 
Thursday, July 5, 2012

Euro 2012 is well and truly over and all that remains are the fantastic memories. Our attention will soon turn to Brazil 2014, so remember to check out this website in the coming weeks for news of the very big project More Than a Game has planned for 2014. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to get involved in the Brazil 2014 project so make sure you stay up to date with our news.

 
 
Sunday, July 1, 2012

I had to lock myself in my flat, switch off my phone, and close all the curtains on Saturday to try and keep myself out of trouble.

Sunday evening is, of course, all about the Euro 2012 final between Italy and Spain. I am back down Kiwi Bar with a few of my mates, swapping tales, feeling a little strange to be watching the final on a pub TV screen. There is a good mix of Italian girls, Spanish lads, Latvians, tourists and expats present to watch the Spanish master-class. It’s not as if the Italians even play badly; Spain simply look like they’ve come from another planet…maybe they arrived in that space ship that’s parked in the middle of Warsaw. In some senses, they have changed football forever.

Readers of MTAG might not be surprised to hear that the Euro 2012 party didn’t finish at the final whistle. It is probably three before I am finally back in my flat after what must be the 20th party night this month. Wherever we travelled in Ukraine and Poland during the Euros, we always heard the Brazilian song 'Ai Se Eu Te Pego' by Michel Telo. The tune will forever be associated with Euro 2012 and, as it is Brazilian, we will no doubt be singing and dancing to it again in 2014:
Time to begin finishing the blog tomorrow, add a few links and extra detail to earlier text, uploads dozens of photos, eat properly, sleep more than three hours per night, get in contact with the new friends made in Ukraine, Germany, Belarus, Latvia and Poland…and start planning for the 2014 Brazil FIFA World Cup.

Thank you Ukraine and Poland! 
Brasil aguarda!

Euro 2012 final:
Spain 4 Italy 0 
 
 
Friday, June 29, 2012

Warsaw, Poland – Riga, Latvia

Just before going to bed, Zen Meister refused to let me give him any cash for my bed in the hostel. “Pay me back with a couple of vodka shots next time I see you. You are a guest of Germany,” he tells me.

After three hours sleep – above average for the tournament I’d say – I am up at 5am and tip toe out of the room so as not to wake Philip Lahm or Zen Meister. A 25-zolty taxi ride and quick cup of coffee later I catch the 15-euro, 12-hour Ecolines double-decker to Riga.
Before boarding I promise myself that I won’t drink any alcohol for a week and will try to sleep most of the journey. The bus is full and sat next to me is a lad from Belarus who travelled down to Warsaw for the football. He stinks of alcohol – reminding me of what I must have smelt like on many bus journeys – and tells me that he missed his bus back to Minsk after last night’s match and ended up kipping down in the bus station where he knocked back 700mils of vodka. By the time we reach the Lithuanian border, Zhenya insists on me sharing a beer with him and when we get to the Lithuanian town of Panevezys, a few hours later, a Ukrainian-Latvian lad, Andrejs, who used to play for Skonto Riga football club, adds a bottle of Ukrainian Balsams to the mix, while Zhenya and I take it in turn to buy rounds. Somehow, I can’t imagine this scenario playing out on a UK National Express.

Back in Riga any plans to go straight to bed are instantly shelved. I pop on my new Ukrainian football top and get myself down to Kiwi Pub where I meet Johan and American Jeff, who got back from Ukraine earlier this week. After all the chat about being extra careful in Ukraine, Jeff survived the delights of Kharkiv, Odesa and Kyiv only to get mugged (cash, credit cards, phone and keys stolen) and knocked out with a blow to his head on his first night back in Latvia.

We are all still buzzing from our Euro adventure and 24 hours on from the semi in Warsaw I find myself on a boat floating down the Daugava River with around 100 partygoers on board; trance and house tunes pumping out into the early hours when it is soon light once again. I guess the Euros really won’t be over until I wake up on Monday morning after the final. 
 
 
Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rzeszow – Warsaw

The five-hour bus from Rzeszow to Warsaw is full of people either catching flights from the capital’s international airport or travelling up to Warsaw for tonight’s semi between Italy and Germany. I am very happy to have a ticket for this match and to meet up with my German friends, Philip Lahm and Zen Meister, but Warsaw is also my exit point home from the Euros.

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Warsaw and instantly find the human traffic, noisy construction sites and concrete all a bit overwhelming. Only London, Paris and Frankfurt have more high rise buildings than Warsaw amongst the EU countries. Zen Meister has booked me a place in the same hostel as him and his mates. I just really hope it’s not out in some far flung suburb of this huge city of nearly 2 million.

German efficiency! I don’t know how he’s pulled this off at such short notice but Zen Meister has managed to book us the most centrally located hostel in all of Warsaw. Oki Doki Hostel is also homely, friendly and reasonably priced, even for such an auspicious day as the Euro 2012 semi-final.

I am so relieved to find the hostel without having to trudge off to the outer limits of Warsaw and instantly find Philip Lahm and Zen Meister chilling in the hostel bar. They are top lads and certainly added to the fun when we met them in Lviv three weeks ago. Or was that three months ago? They drove across from Frankfurt with two mates last night, taking around 10 hours for the journey here. Two more of their mates are due in on the express train from Berlin later this afternoon.

So done in am I by it all that I don’t venture more than 100 yards from the hostel all day and in the late afternoon with all six of the German crew having arrived we are content to enjoy pre-match beers in the hostel bar and then taxi it across the Wisla and down to the stadium. If you have a match day ticket then public transport is free during the Euros. However, perhaps it is age but, Zen Meister and I agree that a few zloty for a taxi is well worth the investment on this occasion.

I always find the knock-out stages of football tournaments a curious affair. Most of the real fans have long since returned home and been replaced by a new breed of fan who flies out at extortionate prices for the big ticket games. To be fair, Germany have their usual keeping-it-real horde of thousands but the Italian support is nothing short of pathetic considering this is a Euro semi.



Warsaw National Stadium is like a city within a city; an enormous space ship that has entered Earth’s atmosphere and plonked itself down in the middle of the Polish capital. Within its circumference steep concrete staircases, lifts and escalators transport football fans to each of its four tiers. It might only seat 55,000 spectators but I am struggling to think of another stadium that feels so vast within its interior. You could imagine a kid getting lost in here and not getting found for another week.

Three facts to consider for those – me included – who wrote off Italy from the very start of this tournament: 

- Prandelli is undefeated in competitive internationals, recording nine wins and five draws to date.

- The Azzuri finished with the best defensive record across the nine qualifying groups, conceding only two goals.

- Italy have never lost to either Germany or West Germany in a competitive fixture…

…no wonder nearly all of my German friends seriously think they will lose tonight’s match.

Star faces in the press zone include Arsene Wenger, working for Eurosport and Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who look like a couple of naughty schoolboys chuckling over text messages they’ve received.

Quick observations about the early exchanges in the Italy v Germany match: Balotelli’s and Cassano’s movement is causing the Germans big problems Gomez looks too isolated; Ozil looks underutilized. 

When Balotelli puts the Italians 2-0 up with his brilliant strike after awful defending from the Germans, a stunned roar goes up around the stadium. Most Poles seem to be supporting the Italians, but they can’t quite believe the Azzuri have put the Germans to the sword. Truthfully, the Germans don’t get much luck in the early exchanges but Pirlo, Buffon, Cassano and Balotelli are the four stand-out players on the pitch with the normally brilliant Ozil deteriorating from running the German show to not being able to hit an accurate pass. Clearly, Loew shouldn’t have stuck with Podolski whose best days seem to be behind him, while Schweinsteiger is clearly still struggling with injury. At 2-0 Italy look like they might extend their lead to three or four but a last minute penalty for Germany, dispatched by Ozil, sets up a frenetic last few minutes of injury time. Each time the ball is down the Italian end, the German keeper, Manuel Neuer, comes sprinting out of his box and downfield in search of an equaliser. At one point he is even forced into a defensive clearing header on the half-way line as Italy threaten to break away and score in an unguarded net, ice hockey style. It is too little too late however, as Balotelli sprints over too hug his mother in the crowd and Buffon punches the air in joy. Italy are in the Euro 2012 final and thoroughly deserve to be there.

I take a final long glance around the stadium. This is the end of Euro 2012 for me. I no longer have the time, cash, transport options or energy to travel back to Kyiv for the final. After seven matches at Euro 2012 I will be content to watch the final down the local pub and return to the comfort of my own bed afterwards. It has been a fantastic adventure. All that remains now is to enjoy a commiserating beer with my German friends and to get myself out of Poland tomorrow.

After half an hour trying to hail taxis, made a little more difficult by one of the lads having a wheelchair, we get back to the hostel. All of the German lads are gutted but all concede that the better side won on the night. Previous plans to go clubbing have been abandoned and I sit up for an hour with Zen Meister discussing football and, more importantly, the meaning of life. We’ve both had a fantastic time at this tournament. When you think of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the fun we’ve had, you have to conclude that yes, football is more than a game. 
 
 
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rzeszow - Sandomierz - Rzeszow

I could sleep all day and then I could sleep another whole day on top of that.

I meet Ania at noon and we take a 90-kilometre bus ride to Sandomierz, an historic Polish city which dates back to the Middle Ages. Its gorgeous old town is perched on a hill overlooking the Vistula and San rivers. In 2010, the Wisla washed away almost the entire lower town in an apocalyptic flood that took over 30 lives across the region. Evidence of the scale of damage it still apparent as you approach the city from the south.

Today, Sandomierz’s old town is experiencing a tourism renaissance after being featured on a popular TV programme filmed here. It is a quiet, laid back place with lonely cobbled streets, shaded outdoor cafes and a gorgeous town hall square. There is also a cathedral, a castle and a dozen or so churches one of which contains macabre (disturbing) paintings of beheaded saints. After spinach pancakes we take a stroll close to the river and up through a water-free gorge the steep sides of which are shaded from the afternoon sun by banks of thick vegetation. I'd never heard of this place before but it is certainly well worth a day or two of your time.

Sidestepping two Polish skinheads in paramilitary fatigues we get the two-hour bus back to Rzeszow to watch the first semi-final between Portugal and Spain. I feel absolutely done in and can hardly keep my eyes open at times, never mind make interesting conversation with poor Ania who must by now be thinking I am the most boring person she’s ever met.

I feel like I have seen an awful lot of Portugal recently. I attended all three of their group matches in sunny Ukraine and this tempestuous zero-zero feels more like torture than fun at times. There isn’t much between the two teams with Portugal’s pressing game making the Spanish appear human just for once.

Sphinx closes up for the night but the staff allow Ania and I to hang around for the second period of extra time and then the penalties. Spain have lost three of their six tournament penalty shoot outs including against England at Euro ’96 – the only time England have actually won the spot kick lottery. It seems bizarre that the Portuguese should keep Ronaldo back to take the fifth penalty, which is never going to happen as Fabregas’ effort goes in off the post and sends the Spanish through. So is it to be the Spain v Germany final almost everybody predicted? Ronaldo's forlorn expression resembles that of the decapitated saints in Sandomierz church. 

Spain 0 Portugal 0 (Spain win 4-2 on penalties)

 
 
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lviv, Ukraine – Rzeszow, Poland

In the pitch dark a lone security guard appears and tells me I can wait for my Poland-bound bus on the third floor of Lviv bus station, which is rather reminiscent of the 1970’s Sci-Fi serial Space 1999’s ‘Moon Base Alpha’. Up on the third floor a dozen or so punters try to sleep but none dares – it appears – to lie down on the benches. After 15 minutes of surveying the scene for potential nutters, I slip my shoes off and curl up in a ball on top of my bag on the bench. I am just drifting off to sleep when I feel what seems like a punch in my back. I turn to see a moustachioed security guard. “Nye mozhna” he growls having just given me a small taster of his truncheon.

It appears that the rule is you must have at least one toe touching the ground at any given time. So, if you can pull it off, you can actually lie on the bench provided that a toe connects with terra firma. All around the ‘waiting hall’ Polish and Ukrainian transit passengers are stretched out like performing sea lions while the guards that are supposed to be here to protect us, patrol the room like prison guards ready to pounce on anybody committing a misdemeanour.

By around 5am, 15 hours after leaving Brovary, I drift off to sleep in a seemingly impossible upright position and awaken with a start just minutes before my bus leaves. All 46 seats on the bus are taken and with my near oversleep my award is one of the five crammed seats on the back row. Twenty days on from when I travelled here in the opposite direction the villages close to the Ukrainian border seem considerably more modern and affluent than I remembered them to be on the route in. I guess that is how you assimilate to your environment. I am pretty sure that I am actually going to suffer from a culture shock when I re-emerge on the other side of the Ukrainian-EU Stargate.

We spend two hours at the border leaving ‘Borderland’. Every bag is meticulously searched and each passport and visa closely scrutinised. It is difficult for most Ukrainians to leave their country, even for a foreign holiday. Visas are costly and approval by no means certain, particularly EU/Schengen visas.

I must admit to feeling rather sad leaving Ukraine. I have had a fantastic three weeks here and, as I mentioned previously, I now regret that I never lived here for a short period of time after considering that option a decade or so ago. It is a place where everything feels possible and impossible; where the air seems charged with electricity. Yes, there is a madness here; life is often extreme and harsh yet, it is also uniquely ‘real’. In many ways Ukraine feels like Europe as it once was, without the bullshit. Weren’t the summers like this when we were kids? Didn’t the vegetables and fruit taste this fresh and delicious? Didn’t we use to party without being told what we can wear and what time we have to go home?   Dyakuju Україна

Re-emerging from the Stargate vortex in the European Union, everything in Poland feels, shall we say, ‘boring’. In Rzeszow it is the back end of the morning rush hour and the city is chocker with commuters and western cars. It is Poland but it could just as easily be Germany, the Czech Republic or Austria. All these places are beginning to look the same. It is all so…..so normal.

Just to add to my EU culture shock, the weather is also as cold and wet as an English summer’s day. For the first time in three weeks I reach for my jacket. The temperature didn’t dip below 23 degrees morning, noon or night during my time in Ukraine.

Pod Ratuszem hotel, just off Rzeszow’s main square, only has an expensive double room left. I am so tired and travel worn that I take the hit but am slightly compensated by them bringing me a complimentary breakfast to my room. I scoff it down, slurp back the coffee and spend the day sleeping, snoring like a bear and occasionally hallucinating.

In the evening, slightly recovered but definitely spaced out from my time travel, I meet my friend Ania, who lives near Rzeszow. We have a top night out taking in the bars and cafes of central Rzeszow, partying through till about three, I guess. Ania lives a good way out of the city so with a double room going begging I suggest she crashes down at my hotel to avoid an expensive taxi.

Just drifting off to sleep in the hotel there is a knock on my door. “I am sorry; your friend cannot stay here. She must leave.” Like I said, welcome back to the EU.

 
 
Monday, June 25, 2012

Kyiv – Lviv

Young puts it in the top corner and one missed Italian kick later, Cole steps up to put England through on penalties. My subconscious surely couldn’t be so cruel as to serve up a dream about England beating Italy a few hours after being knocked out in Kyiv?

In central Kyiv, Oleksa parks up and I leg it to the Dynamo Kyiv shop to buy a Ukrainian national football shirt. This will be worn with pride in the coming months and is the ultimate memento from my fantastic time in Ukraine. Valeriy Lobanovskiy, Oleh Blokhin, Ihor Belanov and Andriy Shevchenko. Add the name Oleksa Popovych to this list of Ukrainian legends. I had never even met Oleksa before I came to Ukraine and yet his friendship and hospitality has gone way beyond what I might expect from even my best friends. We part company at Kyiv bus station promising to meet again in Kyiv or England or the Baltics.
It is another 540-kilometre journey from here to Lviv although leaving at 4pm, we are not due in until 3.30 in the morning. Once we are out of the big smoke with its amazing skyline, the Platini Highway west passes the familiar golden domes of churches and monasteries and thick pine forests that stretch for dozens of miles. Old ladies by the side of the road sell brooms, garlands and fruit kompots. We are hurtling along the Platini Highway at a top speed of 50 kilometres per hour. Imagine when we are forced to shudder to a stop as an entire village cross the Ukrainian equivalent of the M1 motorway with a large herd of dairy cows. Neil and I both suffered bouts of vivid hallucinations during our sleep-deprived time in Ukraine. Maybe I am imagining it all.

For the first time on the trip, violent storms aside, the weather is miserable as we head out west. Many of the towns we stop off at are also a little grim to say the least. I am not too happy at the news that thanks to the Platini Highway the bus is expected to get in to Lviv bus station at 2am, not 3.30am. That is Lviv bus station eight kilometres from the city centre, pitch dark, on my todd and with just 4-euro worth of Hryvnia on me after the Ukrainian shirt purchase.

Just to add to the fear, six gangsters get on the bus at one grim, rough-around-the-edges, dead end town at around 10pm. I don’t fancy getting off the bus at Lviv with these boys for company. They are though carrying some mystery packages and get dropped off 20 minutes later at a petrol station out in the sticks where a top of the range car with blacked out windows is awaiting them.

My fear necessitates zero sleep and total focus for when we do finally pull into a pitch black Lviv bus station at 2am. The only sign of life is five taxi drivers and a stumbling drunk. It is very much the night after the night before. 
 
 
Sunday, June 24, 2012

Kyiv

I awaken with a serious case of PMT – Pre-Match Tension. England in the quarters tonight, exceeding my expectations already. Somehow, this could be our best opportunity to make it to at least the semi since 1996. Maybe the first final of my lifetime? Doubt it – the vodka must be clouding your vision.

While England’s ‘bwave’ four thousand are preparing for the big match with copious amounts of beer in Khreshchatyk, we are picnicking it forty kilometres away by the banks of the Dniester River with Vita, Oleksa and his sister. It is sun, shashliks, Georgian wine and good company in temperatures topping 30 degrees. All around us locals BBQ below the trees and swim in the river in their speedos and bikinis, some of them the wrong side of drunk to be diving off tree branches into the strong currents below. Zhigulis serve as temporary pantries and mobile discos; lunch time soon becomes 6pm.
Neil won’t be coming to the match with me. He’s had some tragic news from home and flies back tonight from Kyiv to Luton just as Italy v England kicks off. This isn’t the place to go into the details but the circumstances of the tragedy remind us that we must live life each and every day.

Oleksa drives us into Kyiv and drops me close to the Olympic Stadium, where Neil and I part company. I must say Scotland played a fine tournament and helped make the trip what it’s been. Ukraine has been reminiscent at times of some of the road trips we did together in this part of the world ten or fifteen years ago. I am sad to part company with Neil. He will spend the night on the floor of Luton Airport before flying home to Glasgow tomorrow morning. I don’t envy him what he’s got to go home to.

Dropped off adjacent to the Olympic Stadium, I end up with a panic on my hands after it turns out I cannot exchange my England voucher for an actual ticket here at the matchday stadium as some officials had told me and need to find some way of getting to the Dynamo Kyiv stadium instead. With it mobbed everywhere I jump on the metro to Arsenalna and taxi it, drenched in sweat, from there to the Dynamo Kyiv stadium, a good couple of kilometres away from the Olimpiski. Walking back along Kreshchatyk the atmosphere is good but I can’t be doing with hanging around an ‘English pub’ with a load of England singing ‘You’re shit but your girls are fit.’ I am very selective about the England I hang out with at tournaments and prefer to meet the locals and away support of opposing teams.

In Ukraine, kiosks are open 24 hours per day which means I can bag a 1715 from a kiosk for 7 Hryvnia, instead of the ‘30’ they are charging at some of the pubs on Kreshchatyk, and stroll down to the stadium, beer in hand, with an hour to spare until kick off. 
We haven’t seen a sniff of trouble in Ukraine but in the England end of Kyiv’s national stadium  Aston Villa and Blackburn are rowing with each other while England are threatening some Azerbaijan who have naively placed their flag overlapping an England flag. Close by two gobby female squaddies are turning the air blue with quite possibly the highest number of swear words it is plausible to fit into a single sentence. The two angelic Ukrainian girls adjacent to me have clearly never seen or heard anything like it before and blink in shock. “F##k off, you f##king f##kers!” exclaimed in the midst of the Villa v Blackburn hard talk.

But love or hate England the fans are passionate beyond words. Roy Hodgson’s Barmy Army echoes around the stadium and could be the vocal work of 20,000 not 6,000. I am more than annoyed Rooney is starting. He looked seriously unfit against Ukraine and his touch was poor. He was abysmal for England at the World Cup in South Africa. Quality for Man United, rubbish for his national team for all but a handful of matches since 2004. 

The match starts at frenetic pace with Italy hitting the post and Glenn Johnson almost scoring from 8 yards out within the first five minutes. Both sides are going for it and the tackling is, on the whole, amazingly clean when you consider the playing styles of the two sides. I am stood with a top lad from London called Christian, who has flown in for the quarters. He’s a forty-something business lad who knows his football and makes more sense than the whole row of muppets stood on their seats for the entire match in front of me.  Parker and Gerrard are playing well as is Italy’s Pirlo, who could well end up being the player of this tournament. Balotelli is also causing England some serious problems with his movement although his finishing looks a bit lacking and Terry, aside from pace, seems to be dealing with him.

The second half is more a case of hanging on for England although with the clock ticking down injury time at the end, a better delivery on the overlap from Cole down the left wing would have left Carol with a free header in the centre after losing his marker. As the ball comes back into the box, there is a collective gasp as Rooney goes for the overhead kick which will win it for England. He always manages it in the TV ads he’s paid a fortune for to endorse but with destiny before his eyes he fails to get a proper connection and puts it miles over the bar. England could have stolen a semi-final place in the very last minute. 
Extra time is a largely dull affair brightened up by England’s vocal efforts behind one of the goals. Roy Hodgson’s Barmy Army don’t pause for breath for the whole thirty minutes. Once Parker is taken off, England are a spent force. What would we give for bringing Lampard on in extra time instead of a totally inexperienced Jordan Henderson?

Somehow Italy are seemingly content to play for penalties. I guess they know how this ends. This time around though I have a sneaking feeling we will do it. Lady luck seems to have been with us in Ukraine and when Ashley Young has the chance to put us 3-2 up after three kicks apiece, you realise that we are potentially three hundred beats away from making it to the semi.

When his shot smacks back off the bar that familiar sinking feeling is back. Buffon seems to double in size and belief. We have been here before: 1990, 1996, 2004, 2006…Cole misses…2012. 46 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.

I don’t even bother to stay and applaud off the England players. I have been here too often. I’d rather focus on how the hell I am gonna get back to Brovary as it is already half past midnight when the penalties finish.

I grab another beer from a kiosk and march down Kreshchatyk with the 60,000. At the metro station there are literally hundreds of riot police and militsia, suggesting they expected England to get knocked out and not take it well. They even have militsia riding the metro. I am the only England riding all the way to Lisova where I phone Oleksa and he kindly comes to pick me up.

Yes, Italy were better than England but they have reached finals themselves where they have played negative football and not deserved to progress. We also had our chances tonight: in the final minute of the ninety and leading on penalties. Fortune favours the 'bwave'.

46 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.