Sunday, 31 May 2015

Go Soccer, Go USA!

As a kid the 1980s were great, weren't they? Kerry Dixon was the real-life Roy of the Rovers, in my mind the A-Team actually existed and the greatest album of all time, Appetite for Destruction was released by Guns n' Roses. There was no political correctness about Hannibal smoking a cigar while smashing a building down with a crane built by Mr T. Letting off steam at football matches was the norm.

Fast forward thirty years. Individual ivory doors kicked in of rooms in a previously impenetrable Swiss Hotel that corrupt FIFA officials were staying in. I imagine the officers had hand guns raised before taking off a trademark pair of sunglasses, holding their badges in the air and screaming, "FBIIIII!!!" The permatanned, poorly coiffured individuals with overly hairy chests and huge moustaches did not have a moment to rise from their beds before a young lady of the night, probably thirty years their junior had to jump out of bed with only a silk duvet to cover her private parts before wailing, "NOOOO! HOW CAN WE PUT THIS ON EXPENSES THIS TIME?"

Quite why it is down to the US of A to have had the balls to crack their whips is quite embarrassing. We have had official after official decry how awful FIFA is without taking any measured steps to physically do anything. England has a new stadium that it needs to fill to balance its budget - there goes boycotting World Cup qualifiers. Sponsors are 'monitoring the situation closely' so they state. Punchy call. I have no intention of attending either World Cup. Not only was the bidding process a disgrace (and Moscow accidentally set fire to computers with evidence as the aforementioned items were past their sell-by date) but also following political issues in Russia and the deplorable treatment of workers in Qatar I wonder why anyone should feel they want to either.

We need to join forces with major footballing nations and create a new FIFA that is not based in a secretive tax haven such as Switzerland. You have the feeling, though that there are too many fingers in too many pies at this late a stage to boycott tournaments. Football Associations of countries that provide the biggest draws are cash strapped - that is why Brazil plays so many matches abroad. At the very least you would hope that as a gesture of goodwill, Russia and/or Qatar are stripped of hosting the World Cup and the USA is given the chance to (even though they did host it in 1994). Those in the FA should grow a set. Boycott FIFA. And if UEFA does not put up a strong stance, boycott the Champions League. Realistically, we are more likely to see heads roll as TJ Hooker throws a baton at the villains but without any major consequences.

Please reallocate where the World Cups are taking place. We would love it if such a plan came together. Then we could press Turbo Boost before Knight Rider brings football towards a fairer playing field.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Lisbon (a) Part 3

Spare time for me these days is used in a more constructive manner. Family, work and Chelsea leaves me with only a few free hours to relax. The days of scanning badges until the early morn much to the annoyance of my spouse are over. Sleep is needed. Middle-age is causing changes - for example, when buying a weekend newspaper I don't just read the sports section and chuck everything else in the recycling bin anymore. Even the literature pullout is being analysed. Plus, reading these parts of a newspaper help me catch my forty winks. It is for these reasons (and due to my Chelsea friend, Numero Uno encouraging me) that it has taken eight months to come round to summarise the third and final part of visiting football stadia of Lisbon during my whistlestop 36-hour tour when we played Sporting last September.
Stadium number six of seven was that of Casa Pia Atlético Clube. It certainly had a feel of, "we don't like strangers around 'ere" and club workers seemed bemused that someone was walking around taking photographs of a ground that only contains one stand. I had to ask permission from the club secretary to walk within their confines which is located in the middle of nowhere, and not an easy one to find had it not been for google maps.
An athletic club that again boasts a multitude of sports within its framework, it was formed a hundred years ago. From what I understand the club came about due to the splitting from another club in Lisbon. Unfortunately, there is little else I can add of interest as notes that I made were on my mobile phone. And this phone was flushed down the toilet by my youngest. All I remember was that slap-bang next to the stadium was a house belonging to a pigeon fancier. And there were dozens of the little pests also wondering what a Chelsea fan was doing on their territory.
The club secretary showed me photographs of the club's side from 19th century.
I bid a swift farewell but was grateful that they spent some time explaining the history of the club which ended up being wiped from my iPhone's memory.
Last but not least is Clube Futebol Benfica. Founded in 1895, the club plays at the Estadio Francisco Lazaro on Rua Olivério Serpa. With a capacity of 1,500 fans, the stadium sits on top of a row of shops. Yes. The area has a lovely feel of community. A stone's throw away lies a food market. Locals sat outside in a square playing cards and dominoes. You felt safe and calm.
As per usual I blagged it. Having asked for entry inside the ground, not only was I given a friendly tour by the club's President Domingos Estanislau but he also proceeded to print out a history of the club for my perusal. This was very kind on his part... the only problem being that I only had a couple of hours left until my airport check-in and his colour printer was working at a page a minute!
The ground was a beautiful site considering it is built on top of other buildings. The ticket office for sweet. Purists would be scornful that the pitch was astro, but who really cares?
It is yet another club on the continent that is generically sporting in nature - football is not its only pastime - it also boasts a successful field hockey and roller hockey side. And no, please do not ask what the difference is. One team plays with roller skates and the other uses shoes?
The enthusiasm and passion shown for his club and the boasts about former players (Paulo Bento began his senior career there in the late 80s) who were part of Clube Futebol Benfica made me want to be involved in his club too! This is how important a sport which is about 11 people trying to kick a ball into a net can be. Not only is it a healthy pastime, but also one that fuses a community together in a small neighbourhood of a large city. Having played rugby at small clubs in the past, the social importance of having such a hub cannot be underestimated.
What is important in life? Money? Badges? Ask yourself this question - if you could live life in the moment and are a true fan of football, surely being a president of a football club (even one as small as this that plays just in regional leagues) must be one of the most enjoyable jobs in the world.
Many thanks to all those who made me feel so welcome at their football clubs. The groundsman with an axe. The physio who offered me a free ticket to watch her side play. The ladies hanging players' kits to dry on the pitch they played on. The ticket booths at the stadia.
Priceless memories from kind people who seemed simply happy with life on another enjoyable away trip to watch Chelsea play in Europe.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Chelsea 1 Palace 0

Were you like me twenty or thirty years ago? That hopeful Chelsea fan who thought that even if you were 30 points behind the league leaders with 30 points to play for - that your team could in theory still mathematically win the league on goal difference? Now, with our fourth league title in a decade imminent the thought process was different. Actually wanting a draw up at the New Library so that it meant I would not miss us winning the league at home. Being delighted that Liverpool will have to form a guard of honour for our side (will their fans again claim a boycott of high ticket prices now that the rest of the season means nothing to them?) Knowing that we can relax and enjoy our football for the rest of the season despite the poor refereeing decisions and injury blows to key players that we have suffered.

This has been a fantastic season on many fronts. The main importance for me is that the club finally seems to be a going concern. We are actually in profit. Our youth teams are winning trophies and providing real, credible talent for the future. Our ladies' side is top of the league. You remember when we were taunted that we would fade away should Roman leave? Well now it actually doesn't materially matter if he does or not - that is how strong a position we are in.

One can compare us to many other clubs who promised so much but are now in the doldrums. Blackburn, Bolton (£173 mio in debt!) or even Blackpool to name a few. No, the moral of the story is not to avoid investing in a football team that starts with the letter "B", but to put our achievements in perspective. Newcastle and Sunderland are sides that regularly pull in 40-50k fans through their gates and look at where they are. This could have been us.

Our path to where we are today could be a Hollywood film with slo-mo tv replays of important goals a la NFL that try to glamourise key match moments. I remember seeing the NY Yankees play in Tokyo for a pre-season friendly and simply could not fathom how they could sell out a whole stadium. And the foreign fans stayed until the final inning when even in a league game most tend to leave by the 7th of 9 once an outcome seems certain. Now we are the team going on tours to large arenas abroad. We need - but most importantly earn - the tourist money.

For me the two most memorable moments of the season? John Obi Mikel scoring and Wilfred Zouma hitting the ball so hard and high that it managed to hit the underside of the roof of the East Stand Upper. Matches? Lisbon, doing a whirlwind tour of many stadia in 36 hours. A visit to Maribor chatting to a young girl in a wheelchair. Her government would not stump up $100 for an upgrade to an electric one (and she refused my cash offer to help) - nor supply her apartment block with a disabled entrance.

Both winning the League Cup and the League once again brought a tear to my eye. Chelsea is important to me. I plan my holidays around fixtures. I know which carriages are the closest to entrances and exits to Stamford Bridge en route to and from the ground so that I can be efficient with my time. I know the ins and outs of away travel at every ground we regularly visit. I know how to get my daughter to meet and have pictures taken with Chelsea players. Whilst I am the one who is secretly trying to keep my cool while inside feeling like a pre-teen at a One Direction concert. She could not care less and at the age of six has not once since mentioned having photos taken with JT, Peter Cech and Diego Costa.

Jose said once we won the league, we should move on. He is right. Already I look forward to next season and one new away that I cannot miss - Bournemouth. Fingers crossed for Brentford too - there are far too many Northern teams in our division which one would not mind were kick-offs not changed to ridiculous times making journeys more arduous than they should be.

Well done and thanks Jose. It is so good to have you back.