Monday, 1 March 2021

The Beauty of Germany's Third Division

Living in England, only once in my life have I attended a match in Germany's 3. Liga. It came last year in what turned out to be the final round of fixtures before COVID-19 sent Germany into lockdown and stopped all football for several months. The match in question at the flyeralarm Arena saw FC Würzburger Kickers draw 0-0 at home to SV Waldhof Mannheim 07 in what really wasn't a good advert for Germany's third tier. And don't get me started on the fact that the only beer on sale inside the ground was non-alcoholic... Nonetheless, I was and still am very much in love with German third division football. 

Moving there almost four years ago, my brother spent a year living in the German city of Cologne where he was introduced to one of its local sides Fortuna Köln by some colleagues and several times saw them in 3. Liga action (when I visited him there were no matches on). His accounts of how very different life on the terraces was at such games compared to the all-seater stadia back home very much intrigued me but it was actually earlier than that when I became captivated by Germany's lowest national level division.

Before that though, first of all, there are several reasons why the 3. Liga is so fascinating. The league was formed in 2008 as a new national level division to sit between the 2. Bundesliga and the varying regionalliga divisions that had, until that point, sat directly below it and one perfect example of its intrigue is its mix of clubs. I once, a few years back, read an article talking about the league's mix of fallen Bundesliga giants and classic names from the old East German Oberliga. Obviously, with the nature of promotion and relegation, not all the teams mentioned in said article are still present in the league but, at the time of writing, there are still enough of these names that fit the bill.

In terms of ex Bundesliga clubs in the division, TSV 1860 München, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, KFC Uerdingen 05 (formerly Bayer Uerdingen), and MSV Duisburg, for exmple, were all at one point or another big name top flight sides. Amongst that list are two former Bundesliga champions, an ex runner up, and several DFB-Pokal winners not mention a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup runner up. Several other teams in the league have briefly played Bundesliga football including a couple of the ex East German sides as well as FC Ingolstadt 04 who were promoted to the top flight for the very first time as recently as 2016 though were relegated after just two seasons.

Most East German sides have struggled post-reunification and, as mentioned, several fallen giants from the east also now sit in Germany's third tier including Dynamo Dresden and 1. FC Magdeburg. Dresden sit behind Berliner FC Dynamo as East Germany's most successful club with 8 DDR Oberliga titles to their name, 8 runners up finishes and seven FDGB-Pokal triumphs whilst in Europe they were UEFA Cup semi-finalists in 1988-89. In more recent times they are famed for taking 30,000 away fans to a DFB-Pokal clash with Hertha BSC at Berlin's Olympiastadion in 2019. Magdeburg, meanwhile, defeated AC Milan in the final of the 1974 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and like Dresden also have several domestic league and cup triumphs to their name. The current 3. Liga also includes FSV Zwickau who were East Germany's first-ever champions and FC Hansa Rostock who were the Oberliga's final champions pre reunification as well as Hallescher FC, formerly known as Chemie Halle. Notably, fellow East German sides FC Energie Cottbus, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, and Chemnitzer FC have all in recent years played in the 3. Liga with Jena UEFA Cup Winners' Cup runners up in 1981.

The league, which also happens to be the highest level at which reserve sides can play, also includes amongst all those old warhorses from both east and west much newer names such as Türkgücü München who, at the time of writing, are competing in the third tier for the very first time. Not so long ago that mention of new and old could have also extended to the league's stadiums as there were some real old skool, often kitsch, open-air terraces amongst the new modern era stadia now favoured by many. Sadly, the former are becoming less and less common. A lot of clubs have played in modern arenas for quite some time now and although in recent times there have still been a few clubs in the division using retro venues most of them no longer play in this league. Amongst others, Carl Zeiss Jena, Holstein Kiel, Preußen Münster, and SpVgg Unterhaching are all ex 3. Liga clubs that have not yet moved into modern arenas. Meanwhile, Uerdingen who currently play in the division are having their very much old skool venue upgraded. But for some real nostalgia on the current stadium front see FC Bayern II/1860 München, VfB Lübeck, and SV Meppen. 

The stadiums of Kaiserslautern's and Türkgücü are also worth mentioning too. Kaiserslautern's Fritz-Walter-Stadion although, perhaps, looking more modern due to various upgrades was originally built in 1920. Whilst as for Türkgücü, their usual home is not up to 3. Liga standard so they have this season been mostly groundsharing at the Grünwalder Stadion home of 1860 and FC Bayern II but have also played several matches at Munch's Olympiastadion. This famous venue is surely one of the country's most historic sporting arenas alongside the other Olympic stadium in Berlin. It's just a shame that due to COVID fans are currently not allowed to attend these games.

The host of famous club names from years gone by and old skool stadia if you look hard enough, as I have mentioned above, are probably what first led me to take note of the 3. Liga. But what actually made me fall in love with it was some good old fashioned final day drama.

Having visited Germany with friends for the first time in 2014 to see my beloved Newcastle United play in a pre-season Schalke Cup tournament I went back home and started following German football with far more interest than normal. This eventually took me to the final day of the 2015-16 3. Liga season.

Now I'm not usually one to advocate the illegal streaming of football but wanting to follow the final day of the 3.Liga season and nowhere in the UK legally broadcasting it I turned to the internet.  As my fascination with German football continued to grow I had become more interested in the German lower leagues and wanted to watch some of the action for myself. Live in-person at the stadium fourth and sixth tier action in Berlin would eventually follow before that aforementioned 3. Liga match in Würzburg last year but I would have to start by watching from home on my laptop. I managed to find a stream of the ARD Sportschau coverage, which was a type of around the grounds show that I believe the Germans call Konferenz, and settled in for what turned out to be a cracking couple of hours with relegation still to be decided. 

With VfB Stuttgart II already down, any two from Energie Cottbus, Stuttgarter Kickers, SV Wehen Wiesbaden, and SV Werder Bremen II were set to join them. For Kickers a win would be enough to keep them up whilst two points behind them Cottbus could also stay up with a win. Bremen and Wiesbaden were a point behind Cottbus and therefore in a slightly more difficult position but, nonetheless, victory would potentially give them a chance of survival if other results went in their favour. 

Bremen found themselves 2-0 up at the break against VfR Aalen and won 2-1 whilst Kickers lost 1-0 at home to Chemnizter, but the real drama came at Cottbus and Wiesbaden.

There were tears in the stands of Cottbus' Stadion der Freundschaft when 1. FSV Mainz 05 II took the lead early in the second-half but after an equaliser eight minutes later there were eventually scenes of unbridled joy when on 77 minutes Cottbus found themselves 2-1 ahead. The whole stadium went wild as Cottbus fans looked towards safety and another season of 3. Liga football. But alas for those exuberant fans disaster eventually struck... Two minutes from time Mainz grabbed an equaliser and in stoppage time retook the lead as the stadium very quickly turned into what felt like a morgue and Cottbus abruptly found themselves relegated.

So now you are thinking but what of Wiesbaden and who actually went down with Cottbus? Bremen and Wiesbaden started the day level on goal difference with -15 whilst Kickers had -13. Kickers losing 1-0 saw them move down -14 with Bremen also joining them on -14 and the same number of points due to their 2-1 win. A slightly higher number of goals scored ended up being enough to see Bremen finish above Kickers and secure themselves safety but for Kickers, survival would end up hinging on events in Wiesbaden where there would be more late drama. Very late.

An early Wiesbaden lead at home to VfB Stuttgart II gave them hope but a second-half equaliser severely dented their prospects. When Wiesbaden retook the lead on 83 minutes they were still going down thanks to having scored fewer goals than Kickers who they now joined on -14 goal difference and, like Bremen, the same number of points. Kickers finished their match outside the relegation zone, but with Wiesbaden still deep into injury time those connected with the Kickers had to wait a short while longer to see if things would stay that way.

At this point, as I sat watching on my sofa, I was almost ready to turn off when the commentator at Kickers was abruptly interrupted by shouts of "Tor im Wiesbaden!!!" (Goal in Wiesbaden). It was the 94th minute of the match and suddenly on my screen, I saw wild scenes of players running off full pelt to celebrate with each other and fans going beserk in the stands. Wiesbaden had just scored a third goal and now 3-1 up would be moving to a goal difference of -13 which would send Stuttgarter Kickers on -14 down with Cottbus and keep themselves up. No sooner did the opposition kick-off again then the full-time whistle blew at Wiesbaden's small, neat, and compact looking Brita-Arena home - Out of nowhere Wehen Wiesbaden were somehow officially safe from the drop.

After several hours of sheer drama with an extra dramatic finale that even the Hollywood scriptwriters could not have written those involved could breathe a little easier whilst I could sit back ponder what the hell I had just witnessed! It was then that I quickly realised I had fallen in love with Germany's third tier. A picture of the Brita-Arena was even the desktop wallpaper on my computer at work for a short while. God, aren't I cool!

Three seasons after that final day drama Wiesbaden would actually find themselves promoted to the 2. Bundesliga though they only lasted a season before heading back down whilst Cottbus would secure promotion back to the 3.Liga after two seasons away only to suffer relegation again at the first attempt. Relegation and promotion actually seems to bring a lot of drama to the 3. Liga and not just involving Cottbus and Wiesbaden. 

In 2016-17, SC Paderborn 07 thought they had completed a third straight relegation when they finished third bottom of the 3.Liga just three seasons after their maiden appearance in the top flight but were saved thanks 1860 München's owner failing to pay the league's licence fee. 1860 were duly relegated to the fourth tier Regionalliga Bayern and Paderborn got a reprieve. 1860 would soon be back in the third tier whilst as for Paderborn well they truly made the most of their reprieve by finishing runners up the following season before a second successive promotion saw them right back in the Bundesliga again after what had been a rather lively five years for the club.

There was more drama at the end of the 19-20 season though this time at the other end of the table. League winners FC Bayern II had, of course, been denied promotion as a reserve side meaning second and third would go up automatically with the fourth placed side partaking in a play-off match. 1860 München missed out completely by losing to an Ingolstadt side who had started the day two points above them with Ingolstadt ending their match in the second promotion spot behind Eintracht Braunschweig but that was not the end of it. 

With the DFB nowaday's streaming weekly a 3. Liga match to international viewers free of charge via YouTube fans like me were able to watch live pictures of Ingolstadt's victory but the real drama, however, came in the dying seconds at Würzburg. The home side who had started the day in the second promotion place soon found themselves in a play-off spot behind Ingolstadt on goal difference thanks to being 2-1 down against Halle. In the third minute of stoppage time, however, Würzburg were awarded a penalty, and a chance to draw level. Doing so would move them back above Ingolstadt to secure automatic promotion and suddenly condemn Ingoldstadt to a play-off match against the third bottom 2. Bundesliga side. Würzburg duly scored the penalty whilst Ingolstadt, despite coming back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to lead 3-2 on aggregate against 1. FC Nürnberg in their play-off tie missed out on promotion thanks to conceding a 96th minute goal that made it 3-3 and saw Nürnberg saved by the away goals rule.

I continue to follow the 3. Liga with interest from afar and having now even attended a match in the division hope to soon get back to Germany and attend many more. Of course, with or without me in attendance, the drama will no doubt still continue and, as I write, the famous name of Kaiserslautern currently sit two points above the relegation zone just waiting to bring, neutral viewers at least, more excitement as the season draws to a close. Meanwhile, one point above Kaiserslautern sit Viktoria Köln who now claim the title of Cologne's second club, behind Bundesliga side 1. FC Köln, having been promoted to the division in 2018-19 the same season my brother's side Fortuna were relegated from it. But by then Philip was living in Arizona.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

The Full Story of How Tasmania Berlin Became the Worst Team In Bundesliga History

It all started off so perfectly, a 2-0 win in front of just over 80,000 spectators, but it only went downhill from there. When SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin joined the Bundesliga for the very first time they became record breakers for all the wrong reasons. Despite the perfect start, Tasmania ended the season as the worst Bundesliga side of all-time and 55 years on they still hold that title.

When in 1965, West Berlin's only Bundesliga side, Hertha BSC, had their license revoked and were forcibly relegated for breaking the league's player salary rules, the DFB (German football association), for political reasons, were uncomfortable about the idea of not having a Bundesliga team in the city. Of course, the city of Berlin was at that time divided by the Berlin Wall but not only was West Berlin separated from the East of the city, situated in the middle of East Germany, it was also separated from the rest of the country of West Germany for which it was part of. Already isolated from the rest of the nation, without a top flight football club it might have felt even more isolated. To resolve this issue SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin from the then second tier Regionalliga Berlin were given Hertha's place in the top flight. 

"It was a political decision that Tasmania came to the Bundesliga," noted Heinz Rohloff, the club's reserve goalkeeper who would play a significant number of games during the season when their first choice stopper was injured. Rohloff's comments emphasise the aforementioned nature of his team's promotion but although the powers that be deciding to keep Berlin represented in the Bundesliga was not a surprise, choosing Tasmania to fill that role was by many seen as exactly that.

Although Tennis Borussia Berlin and Spandauer SV had finished above Tasmania the season before, Tennis Borussia, who had lost in the Regionalliga the play-offs, were considered by the authorities to be the weaker of the three whilst Spandauer declared they were not interested in joining the Bundesliga. Because of this, it was Tasmania who unexpectedly got the gig.

Tasmania, who's name is believed to derive from the fact that one of its founders had been planning to move to Australia, were added to the Bundesliga just two weeks before the start of the season. With Tasmania's players having no idea that their side would be promoted to the Bundesliga at such a late stage many were on holiday when the decision was announced as the Regionalliga, in which they expected to play, did not start its season quite so early. Defender and captain Hans-Günter Becker, for example, claims he was lying on a beach when his friend came running over to tell him news having heard it on the radio station RTL whilst first choice goalkeeper Klaus Basikow says he was on a camping holiday in Lake Garda when he heard the news. 

Barely a month before Tasmania's Bundesliga campaign got underway saw a film called Repulsion win an award at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival. The film tells the story of Carol who left alone in her apartment, when her sister who she shares it with goes on holiday, suffers a number of nightmarish experiences. Although nothing to do with football or indeed Tasmania, the film is worth noting as it does share striking parallels with Tasmania's season which one would argue was itself a very long series of nightmares. Having said that, despite the horrors that would follow their season did get off to the perfect start.

The season opened with 81,524 turning up at West Berlin's Olympiastadion to see the city's new Bundesliga side in action and they were not to be disappointed as their side gave little indication of the terrors to come in the season ahead. That evening there were joyous scenes across the city as the hosts ran out 2-0 winners against Karlsruher SC. Karlsruher had finished second bottom of a then 16 team Bundesliga the previous season but with the league now increased to 18 teams and Hertha who finished a place above them being forcibly relegated the club had kept their top flight status.

All Tasmania's home fixtures were played at the Olympiastadion that season as their usual home was not fit for Bundesliga football, it would be the same for fellow minnows Blau-Weiß 1890 Berlin in their lone Bundesliga campaign some twenty years later.

It was always going to tough for Tasmania in the Bundesliga. For a start, many of the players were not even fully professional. Not only that but the team did not have proper training facilities and more often than not there was no money for overnight stays on away trips. Bearing all this in mind it was, I suppose, unsurprising that, unfortunately, after their opening day win six straight defeats followed. During this run they three times conceded five and once conceded seven. The first of those defeats was a 5-0 loss at Borussia Mönchengladbach and so big was the gulf in class that Basikow would later say that it was after this game that reality set in and they realised they "didn't really stand a chance" of surviving in the Bundesliga. Basikow actually watched that match from the sidelines though thanks to an injury in the warm up.

Those six straight losses were followed by a 0-0 draw away at 1. FC Kaiserslautern before a further ten defeats in a row. Their 3-0 defeat to Meidericher SV (nowadays known as Duisburg) on matchday 10 was followed by losses of 6-0, 5-0, 5-0, and 4-0 with Tasmania scoring only twice in those ten games of which the last was a 3-0 defeat against Karlsruher, the side they had beaten at home in their opening match. 

A 0-0 draw at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 19 was followed by yet more defeats as the club managed only two draws, both 1-1, in their next thirteen league games, a run that included, a 9-0 defeat at home to Meidericher, before, at last, another win! A 2-1 home win over already relegated themselves Borussia Neunkirchen was the penultimate match of the season and it was followed by a 4-0 defeat away at FC Schalke 04.

Tasmania finished the season with just eight points after a paltry two wins, four draws, and a massive 28 defeats. This was a record that left captain Becker regretting his side having joined the Bundesliga and he would soon say: "We should have turned down this offer from the DFB." You can kind of see his point especially when you look at the league table in more detail. Tasmania finished 14 points behind their nearest rivals and 17 points from safety. This came in an era of two points for a win, remember, so would have seen much greater margins if three points were awarded. Under the current points system second bottom Borussia Neunkirchen would have finished some 21 points above them. which equates to seven wins. Also supporting Becker's argument is the list of records the club broke that season...

For Tasmania, it was, in fact, a record breaking season for many reasons. The club's victory in their penultimate match brought to an end a Bundesliga record 31 game winless run. Winning just two games all season was another Bundesliga record, as was their record of scoring just 15 goals during the whole campaign, which was less than half what the league's top goalscorer Lothar Emmerich (31) had managed, whilst the 108 goals conceded that was another record too. It seemed as if Tasmania had broken just about every unwanted record going and made it nigh on impossible for them to be beaten hence why they all still stand today (although winless streak only just as we shall see). The 827 paying spectators who turned up for the draw at home Gladbach was also lowest ever attendance for a Bundesliga match and the only time in the league's history there had been a sub 1,000 crowd for a match. Those two records also still stand and the 827 figure was a far cry of 80,000 plus who had attended the club's opening home game, in fact, it was almost 100 times lower. 

These days the club find themselves in the lower echelons of German football with 827 probably considered a half decent attendance. Their very modest ground is situated barely five minutes from the iconic former Berlin Tempelhof Airport which closed in 2008. The place is now known as Tempelhofer Feld and used a recreational space it is, including the surrounding land, the largest inner city open space in the world.

On the field, Tasmania ended seven straight seasons in the sixth tier Berlin-Liga with promotion to the fifth tier NOFV-Oberliga Nord a couple of seasons back - the Bundesliga is on a different planet to this. In 1973 SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin went bankrupt and were reformed as SV Tasmania Berlin with the current club seen as as a continuation of the former Bundesliga side. In their current incarnation, their most successful period started in 1981 when a promotion saw ten straight seasons in the third tier but even that probably seems a world away now.

Just last month Schalke, Tasmania's final opponent in the Bundesliga, on a horrific run of form themselves, came within 90 minutes of equalling Tasmania's 31 game winless record but after 30 Bundesliga matches without a win managed to put four without reply past TSG 1899 Hoffenheim meaning Tasmania still holds the record. However, whilst some would be embarrassed by this record, Tasmania seemingly see it as almost a badge of honour, if only because it has put them on the map. Without that infamous season cementing them in the record books, no one would have heard of Tasmania. It kinda makes them a lot more famous than other teams of their ilk.

Club owner Almir Numic grew up a supporter of Schalke's arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund so in some ways would have been happy to see them break the record but from a Tasmania point of view he wanted the club to keep hold of this infamous record, recently saying: "This story is simply part of our identity." Numic also pointed out how the record benefits his club: "It is true that our only Bundesliga season was five and a half decades ago, but we are always a topic nationwide. We don't really have to do anything for this advertising, which makes us more interesting for sponsors."

Many of Tasmania's supporters were also keen to keep hold of the record too and when Schalke visited the Olympiastadion to face Hertha Berlin at the beginning of January several of them turned up outside the stadium with a banner that read "Save the record for Tas".

In fact, even Becker would eventually admit that Tasmania's infamous Bundesliga campaign was "a unique, unforgettable and despite everything a great time."

Tasmania Berlin remain the worst team in Bundesliga history and it seems they would not have it any other way!

Saturday, 16 January 2021

How Spain's Copa Del Rey Is Now Capturing the Imagination

Everyone loves a good cup upset, well everyone bar those on the receiving end at least, and when it involves a bunch of part-time minnows playing regionalised football winning at home against a top tie giant then it truly is the real deal. 

For the perfect example of this most heartwarming of events, the classic 'cupset', you don't have to look much further than last week when third tier Segunda B Group 3 side UE Cornellà defeated the might of Club Atlético de Madrid in Spain's Copa del Rey. Although, due to COVID, a lack of spectators meant the full-time whistle was not accompanied by the usual pitch invasion there would have no doubt been many celebrating locals elsewhere. There was still delight on the faces of the celebrating players and no doubt wild scenes in front television sets around the area as fans watched the action no doubt accompanied by the obligatory fast paced ramblings of a loquacious Spanish commentator.

For fans in countries such England, France, and Germany, David versus Goliath ties are very much commonplace and upsets certainly not unheard of but in Spain, however, such scenes may still seem to many a little alien. For many years, up until the end of the 2018-19 season, by the time flight sides entered the competition only 12 lower league sides remained and not only that but at this point, all ties suddenly reverted to a two legged affair. This meant that not only did amateur or semi-professional sides rarely get the chance of facing an FC Barcelona or a Real Madrid but on the rare occasions that such matchups did occur having to play two legs as opposed to a one-off tie made knocking out one of the big guns not far off impossible and very rare. 

This format also gave Spain's biggest clubs such an advantage to the point that seven of the past nine winners of the competition had been either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the country's two biggest clubs, and you had to go back ten years to find the last time neither side made it to the final. Because the format was so weighted in their favour their smaller rivals even in the top flight did not consider themselves having any chance of progressing in the competition and therefore did not take it seriously preferring to concentrate on the league, and often survival, making that advantage even greater. 

A huge adjustment to the competition's format ready for the beginning of last season, however, has now changed all this with last years final, not yet played to due to COVID, consisting of neither of Spain's top two and coming at the end of a tournament that had seen plenty of upsets along the way.

Under a new format, just 20 sides would participate in a preliminary round before 56 one-off tie first round matches that included all bar four top flight La Liga sides (the four involved in a new Supercopa de España) who would enter in round three. Seeding would remain in place meaning increased numbers lower league opposition would regularly get drawn against top flight sides whilst the lower ranked team was always given home advantage to perhaps make the seemingly mammoth task just that little bit easier. That one-off match format, with extra-time and penalties, if needed, to settle the match on the day, meanwhile, would remain in the place all the way up until the semi-finals which would be two legged affairs before reverting to a one-off tie again for the final which would still, naturally, be played a neutral venue.

126 teams in total would enter in total with 84 coming from outside the top two divisions, including amongst varying third tier sides, all winners and runners up of each group in the fourth tier Tercera División as well as all the winners of the fifth tier Divisiones Regionales groups (in all cases excluding reserve sides competing in the divisions).

Allowing fifth tier sides to enter was another massive change as under the previous format only clubs within the top four divisions could enter whilst for many years in the competitions past even fourth tier sides had not been admitted with only selected teams from the third tier allowed to participate alongside first and second division clubs.

These new changes would surely help support the little guy for once and were clearly a welcome change. However, despite the difficulties smaller clubs have faced in the past, and despite the fact that certainly in recent times the competition has not been revered in the same way other domestic cup competitions elsewhere have, it still does have a rich long history and one that does include some real moments of note. Yes, even before most recent format changes the Copa del Rey still had the odd tale of fascination. 

Such occasions include when Real Madrid's B team, then known as Castilla CF, reached the final of the competition in 1980 only to lose 6-1 to none other than their parent club, and that season's league champions, Real Madrid. That final appearance gained Castilla a place in the following season's UEFA Cup WInners' Cup where they lost to West Ham United in the first round. About ten years later rule changes meant B sides were no longer allowed to enter the Copa del Rey. 

Another interesting event in the history of the competition came in 2009 when third tier regional league side AD Alcorcón managed to break through the harshness of the two-legged system to defeat giants Real Madrid. Based in the same city they astonishingly defeated their near neighbours 4-0 at home in the first leg and qualified for the next round as their opponents only managed a 1-0 win in the second. As mentioned, this kinda shock generally did not happen in Spain at the time and that made it all the more remarkable, especially with it being a 4-1 aggregate win as opposed to say a one goal margin.

Another rare example of lower leagues side thriving in the two legged set up, of which they aren't many, came in 2011-12 when CD Mirandés beat three top flight sides en route to an 8-3 aggregate semi-final defeat against Athletic Club of Bilbao. Villareal and Racing Santander were both defeated 3-1 on aggregate before they knocked out Espanyol on the away goals rule after a 4-4 aggregate scoreline to become the first side from outside the top flight to reach the semi-finals in ten years.

But although events such as those involving Alcorcón and Mirandés have been extremely rare in the past that is, of course, as I keep telling you, no longer the case. I've written previously on this blog about the Coupe de France and Germany's DFB-Pokal, both of which have a fascinating tradition of cupset's and I would go as far as saying that the Coupe de France is the greatest domestic knock-out competition in the world (just ahead of the FA Vase, look it up). But while the Copa del Rey has not generally been a competition that's captivated me its recent dose of fairytale excitement has piqued my interest. 

The first big shock under last season's new format came in the first round when La Liga side, and UEFA Cup finalists in 2001, Deportivo Alavés lost at fourth tier Real Jaén. Jaén were out for revenge as whilst both second tier sides some six years earlier the pair had met on the final day of the season in a relegation decider that Alavés won to stay up and send Jaén down. Since then Jaén had been relegated a second time whilst Alavés had been promoted back to the top flight meaning there was a now seemingly a massive gulf between the two sides when they met. But you would never have guessed it was Alavés who were the top flight side as they lost 3-1 to the team three divisions below them.

In the second round fellow La Liga side Getafe lost 2-0 at third tier CF Badalona whilst in the third, two more La Liga sides lost to third tier opposition with Atlético Madrid losing 2-1 at Cultural Leonesa and SD Eibar being defeated 3-1 at CD Badajoz. Meanwhile, at the same stage, Barcelona needed a 94th minute injury time winner to defeat UD Ibiza who were in their second season of third tier football after two straight promotions. Extra seats were installed in Ibiza's Estadi Can Misses home for the match with 6,445 spectators present in a ground that usually held about 4,500. Based on the party island of the same name, the club's fans were celebrating wildly when they took the lead after just nine minutes as they came close to what would have a ginormous upset against a club who had won four of the previous five finals.

Barcelona and Real Madrid both lost in the quarter-finals with Basque rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Club set to meet in April to finally complete that 2019-20 edition of the competition after the final was postponed due to the COVID pandemic. To get to that final Sociedad had to beat second tier Mirandés 3-1 on aggregate in the semis with Mirandés becoming the first team from outside the top flight to reach the semis since they last did it themselves as a third tier side in 2012 a feat I, of course, mentioned earlier.

Although last years final has yet to take place, this year's competition is already well underway with top flight sides RC Celta de Vigo, Córdoba CF, and SD Huesca both last week losing to third tier regional league opposition alongside Atlético Madrid. It was those men who gave Barcelona run for their money last season who defeated Celta as Ibiza romped to a 5-2 victory, Córdoba, meanwhile, defeated Getafe 1-0 to see the visitors lose to third tier opposition for the second season running whilst Huesca lost 2-1 at CD Alcoyano.

That victory for Alcoyano has secured them the visit of Real Madrid to their 4,850 capacity Estadio El Collao home in the next round with seeding meaning all third tier sides still left in the competition will face to flight opposition at home. There are six clubs in total from the third tier still left with all clubs below that level having, unfortunately, now been knocked out. CDA Navalcarnero and SCR Peña Deportiva, who both beat second tier sides in the last round, face Eibar and Real Valladolid respectively whilst Ibiza welcome Athletic Club, Córdoba face Real Sociedad, and Cornellà, fresh from defeating Atlético Madrid, now face another giant in the form of Barcelona.

England, France, and Germany all have an affinity for the little guy and love a good footballing upset. In England they talk of the 'magic of the cup', the Germans use the phrase 'Der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze' meaning the Cup has it's own rules, whist in France they nickname the minnows 'Petit Poucet' (Little Thumb) and 'Cendrillon' (Cinderella). Spain and the Copa del Rey seemingly does not have these traditions but this love affair must surely now be catching on. We shall have to wait and see if this revitalised competition brings us any more shocks in the next round but whatever happens with that there are bound to be plenty more shocks in the years to come. After all, the Cop del Rey is now guaranteed to give us lots of David vs Goliath match-ups every single year and they'll all be settled on the night so tey big won't be given second chance if they end up being embarrassed!

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Tasmania Berlin and the Unwanted Bundesliga Record Which Could Have Been Equalled Today (But Wasn't)

This is a short post for my readers to enjoy as I have not posted for a couple of weeks and because events this afternoon are worth a mention. Schalke 04 (actually my favourite German football club but that's another story) today won 4-0 which, even with Matthew Hoppe becoming the first ever American to score a Bundesliga hat-trick in the league's history, would not ordinarily be worth writing about. However, today's result was significant as it stopped Schalke from equalling a very much unwanted record. Failure to win today would have seen the club equal Tasmania Berlin's record of 31 straight Bundesliga games without a win which is an all-time recording being the longest winless streak in Bundesliga history.

If you have read my whistle-stop tour of football in Berlin then you will be no doubt aware of Tasmania Berlin as you will if you also read about my trip to Berlin a few years back. Featured in Football Weekends magazine my trip included a visit to see Tasmania away at Füchse Berlin in a sixth tier Berlin-Liga match. If you have not read either piece then you will probably not have heard of them at all. Tasmania, both in their current guise and the original club before they went bankrupt have gone mostly unnoticed for all of their history bar one season in the top flight where they made a name for all wrong reasons. Their story as I wrote about in those earlier pieces on Berlin football is definitely worth revisiting.

When in 1965, Berlin's only Bundesliga side, Hertha BSC, had their license revoked and were forcibly relegated for breaking the league's player salary rules, the DFB, for cold war related political reasons, were uncomfortable about the idea of not having a Bundesliga team in the city. To resolve this issue SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin who had failed to gain promotion through the play-offs were given Hertha's place in the top flight and so began the worst season in Bundesliga history. Tasmania would win just two of their 34 league games losing 28 and ending the season with just eight points, some 14 behind the team directly above them, and go on a 31 match winless streak which is also a Bundesliga record.

In 1973 SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin went bankrupt and were reformed as SV Tasmania Berlin. Under their new guise, Tasmania's most successful period started in 1981 when promotion saw ten straight seasons in the third tier. More recently, seven straight seasons in sixth tier Berlin-Liga ended with promotion to the fifth tier NOFV-Oberliga Nord last season.

It is believed that the club's name comes from the fact the founders of the original club had been planning to move to Australia with Tasmania their preferred destination. The club used the city's Olympiastadion for home games in their Bundesliga campaign before returning to their usual home of Werner-Seelenbinder-Sportpark. The very modest ground is situated barely five minutes from the iconic former Berlin Tempelhof Airport which closed in 2008. The place is now known as Tempelhofer Feld and used a recreational space it is, including the surrounding land, the largest inner city open space in the world.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

The Minnows Who Captured the Nation's Hearts and Turned Kenny Dalglish Into a Pantomime Villain

Even Jeremy Paxman got in the act by asking on Newsnight: "Is Kenny Dalglish a big girl's blouse?" The former Liverpool legend and at the time Newcastle United manager was seeing himself ridiculed by everybody and his side cast as the pantomime villain. Not even two years earlier, under the stewardship of Kevin Keegan, United had been everyone's 'second team' but suddenly it seemed as if the whole world and his dog were desperate for them to lose. The issue? Dalglish kicking up a fuss about having to play an FA Cup tie away against a group of part-timers from the GM Vauxhall Conference.

When Premier League side Newcastle United were drawn away at Stevenage Borough in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January 1998 it was one of those classic David versus Goliath ties with the two sides separated by 99 league places. Newcastle were a side that included £15m Alan Shearer, signed less than two years earlier for a then world record fee, whilst Stevenage had Giuliano Grazioli a man who manager Paul Fairclough joked had cost the club "Three packets of crisps and a Mars bar." The contrast was stark.

But whilst many would have no doubt been looking for an upset on the pitch they would find even more drama off it. The furore started when details of a phone call between Dalglish and Fairclough were leaked to the press. On the phone to Fairclough, Dalglish had demanded the match be switched from the Hertfordshire based club's small 6,000 capacity Broadhall Way stadium to Newcastle's home ground of St. James' Park stating Stevenage's ground was not fit for purpose. What was seemingly a spectacular PR own goal for Newcastle became even worse when a delegation from the club, including their safety officer, turned up uninvited to inspect the Broadhall Way stadium.  At this point, things really got heated with Stevenage accusing United of "Big brother tactics" whilst Dalglish apparently told Stevenage chairman Victor Green that he was "not running scared" and would happily play the non-league side anywhere "even Hackney Marshes." Dalglish and Newcastle's antics had done their damage, however, and Daglish was by now public enemy number one and being lampooned by the press and indeed much of the nation, Jeremy Paxman included. 

The whole saga over the suitability of the stadium to host such a big game came to an end when an FA committee declared the venue safe to hold the match and Newcastle reluctantly accepted the decision. FA spokesman Steve Double said: “We always rely on the safety authorities and both they and the police are happy for the game to go ahead and therefore so are we."

Newcastle and Dalglish were not the only ones who came in for criticism, however. Stevenage chairman Victor Green was condemned for hiking up ticket prices for the match by 400% which enraged many fans. There would still be a full house, however, even with several thousand temporary seats installed to increase the capacity. As well as making a killing from ticket sales they also received £150,000 from Sky Sports to broadcast of the match across the country on satellite television. It was not just Sky Sports and the British public taking an interest, though. Whilst the tie had captured the imagination of the nation it was also to be screened in 25 different countries and even made the back page of the South China Morning Post, for example.

If Newcastle were hoping to avoid an upset with an easy victory then they got off to the perfect start in the match itself when Shearer, returning from an ankle injury, headed home from a Keith Gillespie cross after just three minutes to give the visitors the lead. The comfortable afternoon they would have been hoping for, against a side lying 17th in the Vauxhall Conference remember, never materialised, however, and the hosts drew level four minutes before the interval. After a Gary Cranshaw corner sent the ball into the box Giuliano Grazioli touched it home from close range in front of the away end to bring jubilant scenes from the other three sides of the ground. The noise was deafening and almost echoed around the whole country. The minnows were suddenly level. An uneventful second-half saw the match finish 1-1 and Stevenage force a replay. Naturally, Dalglish said afterwards: "The conditions suited them more than us," but at least he would now get his wish to face Stevenage at St James' Park...

The antics of Newcastle and Dalglish in the lead up to the match had made the result even sweeter and Stevenage's heroic performance brought comparisons with what had happened in 1972 when non-league Hereford United stunned the nation by defeating Newcastle in a third round replay. But whilst the media and public alike revelled in Newcastle's struggles most realised it would be a very tough ask for Stevenage to go one better and actually defeat their opponents when they were to meet in a replay ten days later.

For the rematch, two goals from Shearer were enough to see Newcastle win the replay despite an unconvincing performance which saw Crawshaw pull a goal back for Stevenage on 74 minutes and bring a nervy finish. It was also claimed by some that Shearer's first goal, acrobatically cleared by Mark Smith, did not actually cross the line. Newcastle would eventually reach the final and lose to Arsenal whilst Stevenage who twice gave them a good run for their money would get their revenge in 2011 when, by then a league club, they defeated Newcastle 3-1 at home in the third round. There were no complaints about the pitch or the stadium on that occasion, however. 

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Fans Can Return To Football Except In Reality Many of Them Can't - Far Fewer Clubs Will Be Allowed To Admit Spectators Now Than a Month Ago


UPDATE 10/12/2020: It has today been announced that even in tier 3 lockdown areas fans are now allowed into 'non elite' football grounds albeit at half the numbers allowed in tiers 1 and 2.

No doubt BBC/Sky/ITV News will be all over the supposed return of fans to football next weekend. 'Elite' clubs are now permitted to admit spectators again, albeit in very limited numbers, and the mainstream media will no doubt hail this as a success and interview fans saying how wonderful it is to be allowed back into their team's stadium. That's great, but unfortunately, it will completely ignore the fact that rule changes mean more teams in England are no longer allowed to admit fans than were just a month ago, before this latest four week lockdown brought 'non-elite' leagues to a halt. It will fail to showcase the stark realities for most clubs up and down the country which are far from celebratory like the news reports will show.

Some Background Information

When football clubs playing what is classed as 'non-elite sport' started their league campaign's in September they did so because they'd been told spectators were allowed back into their grounds. Clubs at step 3 of non-league football and below were allowed to admit 30% of their league minimum required ground capacity into their stadiums. Of course, this did not apply to 'elite' clubs where fans were still not allowed but for non-elite clubs, this change was welcomed with open arms.

Since these rules came into place I have attended numerous football matches in the region where I live, mostly at steps 5 and 6 where up to 300 fans were allowed into grounds. For a few better supported clubs this was problematic but for most, it meant a return to normality and a saving grace for clubs who in many cases were on the verge of financial ruin because of this pandemic. In the North East rising COVID figures saw the Durham and Northumberland Football Associations reduce by half the numbers of spectators allowed in grounds but for most of the country they carried on with original crowd allowances and things running in many cases rather smoothly. 

Football Suddenly Stopped

So above was the situation before, by no means perfect but invaluable for many. This situation completely changed, however, on 15 November when a countrywide lockdown in England saw all non-elite football suspended for four weeks. Many supporters, me included, were dismayed by this news and no doubt so were the clubs. There was, however, the belief that after four weeks things would return to as before and the football could easily restart as if nothing had happened. Alas, this was a little misplaced... 

Latest Update - Can Restart But Many No Longer Allowed To Admit Fans

New tiered restrictions that are to come into force on 2 December when this current lockdown ends state that clubs in the highest level tier three restrictions are not allowed to admit any spectators even at non-elite level. This will spell disaster for clubs up and down the country as unlike before half the country is now seemingly in tier three. Under the old tiered system before this latest lockdown, even in the areas with the toughest restrictions fans were still allowed at non-elite level so this new change came out of the blue and was unexpected by most. Another change sees clubhouses not allowed to open for clubs under tier 2 restrictions meaning even where clubs are allowed spectators another vital source of income has been shut down. The North East actually experienced this rule as part of the extra restrictions I mentioned earlier that were put in by the two local football associations. It's a nightmare.

Leagues Delaying Their Restarts: The Disastrous Effects These New Restrictions Are Already Having Before They've Even Came into Force

With fans not allowed, restarting league campaigns is not viable for many non-elite clubs as the income spectators provide is vital for paying bills and things like player wages. Albeit the players are of course part-time as this level they still get paid, in many cases per appearance so no competitive matches mean the clubs don't have to pay them. Another issue is that in some leagues half the clubs would be allowed supporters on their terraces whilst half would not - this would create an uneven playing field which would be grossly unfair. Because of this many leagues have cancelled or delayed the restart of their seasons. In steps 5 and 6, the Northern League and the North West Counties League are to name but a few who have decided against restarting next weekend whilst the step 3 and 4 leagues have yet to make a decision on their restarts. 

Going Forward

So there you have it, hundreds of football clubs up and down the country who have happily been playing in front of spectators since the end of August have now been told they can no longer play in front of their fans causing unthinkable damage for these clubs and chaos to their league campaigns. The question now is how do things proceed? Leagues will no doubt review the situation in the coming weeks and these leagues I guess can extend their seasons through next summer if necessary but the extent of the financial implications are harder to gauge. Regarding the financial side of things, one must ask about government funding. There was recently announced a winter survival package which will give £14m worth of funding via grants and loans to clubs between steps 3 and 6 but how this will all work has yet to be fully explained and the uncertainty does not help. This has helped put us in the current situation as a lack of financial clarity is part of the reason varying leagues feel they cannot resume as planned.

Please Spread The Word

Of course, all the headlines have been about the forthcoming return of fans to elite football and this is how the narrative will no doubt continue but as you have seen the reality is vastly different and needs to be brought to attention. Please share this article and bring the grave news of this plight to a wider audience. 

We are currently in a complete mess and It's difficult so see way out other than allowing spectators to return.

One Final Thought

One final point of note though. If clubs at the lowest level of elite football are allowed in some cases 2,000 spectators in at tier two then why are the tier two clubs in the divisions directly below, if they restart, still only allowed at most 600 fans in (that is the unchanged maximum allowed at step 3 as agreed in August)? Why for non-elite clubs the continuation of these number restrictions when the clubs above are allowed much higher numbers of spectators? Surely the largest non-league step three and below stadiums could easily accommodate close to 2,000 spectators as the elite teams can at step 2 and above? Just another example of how ridiculous this situation is.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

The German State That Once Had Its Own National Team and Even Faced Germany Itself For a Place at the World Cup


The border that separates France and Germany has a somewhat complicated history. Strasbourg, nowadays a firmly French city was once upon a time under German control whilst the German state of Saarland has at times been governed by France. Even today the popular French greeting of 'Salut' is still commonplace in this German speaking area, albeit having been Germanised to become 'Salü'. But although, its very earliest years apart, in footballing terms Strasbourg has always been strictly French the story of soccer in Saarland is far less straightforward. Saarland's tale is one that includes not just its own national team but also an ultimately failed World Cup qualifying campaign that hinged on a final match showdown against none other than their German neighbours to the East.

"I feel German I didn't want to stop them getting to the World Cup," said player Kurt Clemens after Saarland lost to West Germany in their final qualifying match for the 1954 World Cup. Clemens' feelings towards West Germany after the game do nothing but highlight the complicated situation in Saarland at the time. Many Saarland residents felt German and did not want to be a semi-autonomous state that was part of France as they at that time were. Luckily for them, Saarland would soon be reunited with West Germany, at the beginning of 1957 in fact, and to this day remains part of what is now a unified Germany. But Saarland's history prior to 1957, even in just the first half of the twentieth century alone, saw the people of this small state change nationality several times and, of course, even have their own national football team.

Over the centuries Saarland, which currently has a population of just over 990,000, has changed hands several times but after World War I and the treaty of Versailles it was governed by Britain and France. A referendum in 1935, however, saw the residents vote to be ruled by Germany as it had been previously and this lasted until the end of World War II. After the Germans were defeated in another world war the French wanted to get their hands on Saarland again due to its large coal deposits and that is exactly what happened. Saarland would actually have its own flag and even its own constitution but it was, despite some forms of autonomy, essentially under French supervision. This was something that, as mentioned, the people of the Saar never really enjoyed. Possibly because of this dissatisfaction at French interference, in 1954 those in the state were offered the chance of complete independence via a referendum. The public of the Saar voted against independence, however, as they wanted a return to Germany. Because of this a return to German rule was, of course, granted just three years later to see Saarland leave France and rejoin its German neighbours to the east once and for all.

Although officially becoming part of France shortly after the war ended in 1945, maybe because of the degree of autonomy it was given, Saarland soon established its own football association and never joined the French Football Federation (FFF). Having said that, despite the fact that they had formed their own association, local club 1. FC Saarbrücken joined France's Ligue 2 as a guest team for the 1948-49 season. Unfortunately, things did not end well for them. Despite winning the league comfortably, a proposal from president Jules Rimet for them to officially join the FFF was rejected by the majority of French clubs and resulted in Rimet's resignation and Saarbrücken quitting the league.

After leaving French football, Saarbrücken went on to create a short-lived invitational tournament considered a forerunner to the European Cup and when the European Cup was created soon after became Saarland's sole representatives despite having by this time actually rejoined the German league system. Saarbrücken were able to play in the European Cup because the Saarland football association had by then successfully applied to join FIFA, for which they became a member in 1950, and Saarland was therefore recognised as an independent nation for footballing purposes. Saarland remained FIFA members until the state rejoined Germany in 1957 and during this period Saarland at one point, as we know, came close to qualifying for the World Cup at what would have been West Germany's expense.

Saarland's national football team played their first match in 1950 and their last just six years later, a total on 19 matches. Most of the matches Saarland played in were international friendlies but they did partake in a three man European qualifying group for the 1954 World Cup where they faced Germany and Norway both home and away. This would be the second real dose of competitive international sport for the state having taken 36 athletes to the 1952 Olympic games in Helsinki, although this did not include a football team. Saarland's football side were coached by a young man named Helmut Schön who would later lead West Germany to European Championship success in 1972 and World Cup glory on home soil two years later but this time around he would be watching them from the opposing dugout. 

Having opened with a 3-2 win away in Norway the home match against the Norwegians was a 0-0 draw with a 3-0 defeat away in West Germany sandwiched inbetween before that final showdown between the pair. A win or a draw for West Germany would see them finish top of the group and qualify for the World Cup whilst a win for hosts Saarland would see them draw level on points with the West Germans. Despite the West Germans having a superior goal difference, finishing level on points with Saarland would mean, as per the rules in those days, a play-off match to decide qualification and if that finished level then a coin toss. 

The 'Biggest football festival on the Saar' as the matchday programme called it took place in Saarbrücken at the end of March 1954 but did anyone in Saarland actually want their team to win? Having claimed after the match he was relieved that the Saar lost, an ageing Clemens speaking to German newspaper Volksfreund in 2018 remembered an uncomfortable incident in a local sports shop a few days beforehand and said: "Suddenly the owner's daughter was standing in front of me and roared: 'Insolence that you dare to play against Germany - I hope they'll beat you ten.'"

A full house of more than 53,000 locals attended the match to supposedly cheer on West Germany but over 40,000 spectators had also attended the home match against Norway so maybe there was actually some support for the Saar after all. Not only that but, despite a narrative that everyone firmly wanted the hosts to lose, Saarland forward Herbert Binkert, also speaking to Volksfreund, said: "We weren't interested in politics we just wanted to play football," suggesting that some of the Saarland players would have been happy to win the game. 

Play football is exactly what they did as well almost taking the lead early on only for the Dutch referee to declare a Saarland goal offside. It was, of course, West Germany who won the match though and when Saarland did finally score on 67 minutes the West Germans had already found the net twice thanks to goals from Max Morlock who these days has a stadium named after him in Nuremberg. Saarland's goal came from the penalty spot but was followed 16 minutes later by another West German goal, this time from Hans Schäfer, that saw the visitors win 3-1 and qualify for the World Cup and we all know what happened next...

"We would certainly not have become world champions with Saarland," Clemens said after West Germany won the 1954 World Cup final in what became known as 'The miracle of Bern'. Although the story of West Germany winning that World Cup after defeating Puskas' Hungary is one well known throughout the footballing world Saarland's story post that qualification failure is not. To be fair, however, there is not much of a tale to tell. That match with Germany was not quite the end for Saarland but they would play only nine more times before they were disbanded. All of those games were friendly matches of which only one was won. Then, before you know it they were gone for good. Mind with the world champions on their doorstep did anyone really miss the Saar team? 

Most within the Saar supported West Germany in that 1954 final and with Saarland's Telesaar tv channel not showing the match some went to great lengths to watch it. Many close to the West German border could pick up the broadcasts from West German channel ARD whilst others could pick up broadcasts from France, but for some this was not possible. Those who could not pick up a signal with their usual aerials had to get creative and often with difficulty build larger tv antennas to get the match. Of course, many people could not afford a television though and had to listen on the radio rendering those signal problems moot. For the players of the Saarland national team, however, watching the game was certainly not a problem. The whole squad was invited to Bern where they cheered on from the stands the team that earlier in the year had beat them.

Perhaps West Germany winning that World Cup was the beginning of the end for Saarland, after all, mass support for the West German team from the Saarland population showed that most of them were German at heart even if their passports said otherwise. As we know it took less than three years after that day in Bern for Saarland to rejoin West Germany and with it bring to an end the shortlived adventure that was Saarland's national football team. After a lone qualifying campaign and a few friendlies, they had very quickly disappeared never to return. The state of Saarland lives on but firmly as part of a now unified Germany. There are, nowadays, only limited hints in Saarland of its former Frenchness, that phrase Salü being a major one, whilst anything even remotely close to independence of any kind, in football or elsewhere, is completely non existent.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

David Ginola and the Cross That Saw France Fail to Qualify for a World Cup


Surrounded by reporters, not long after the final whistle in Paris, perhaps in heat of the moment, David Ginola looked absolutely shellshocked: "C'est terrible, c'est terrible," he whimpered. A mistake by none other than himself had led opponents Bulgaria to victory with seconds left to play and seen France fail to grab the point they needed to qualify for the World Cup. The visitors would be playing on the world's greatest stage the following summer but those representing the tricolour of blue, white, and red would not. Ginola had a few more words of despair then hurried off shaking his head. All these years later and some have still yet to forgive him.

Despite a recent bribery scandal, at the beginning of October 1993 French football was still on the crest of a wave. At the start of the summer Olympique de Marseille had become the first French club to win the European Cup, or indeed any European competition, whilst two French sides had reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup. And, although the national side were not favourites to win next years World Cup in the USA many certainly believed Les Bleus still had half a chance of lifting the trophy for the first time.

France had not yet actually qualified for next summers tournament but only needed one point from their two remaining games, both at home at the Parc des Princes, against lowly ranked Israel and certainly better but still unfancied Bulgaria. The idea that they might not qualify seemed a fallacy. 

Everyone knew the Israel game was supposed to a formality and a straight forward victory as, after all, France had already put four past them without reply in the reverse fixture. The newspapers were talking as if France had already qualified with one publication in the build up running with simply that Q word as one of its headlines. The matchday programme, meanwhile, used the title "Let The Party Begin" and the VIP section of a prominent Parisian nightclub had been reserved for the players after the match. All the talk was of America next summer and not of Israel at the Parc des Princes in the here and now.

It would be described by some as a trauma and certainly, France's defeat to Israel was unexpected. Israel were in front after 21 minutes but France managed to come from behind to lead at the break with Ginola. arch nemesis in the next match, grabbing the second. The win seemed in the bag until Israel equalised seven minutes from time but a draw would have been enough to see France qualify. Unfortunately in the 90th minute disaster struck. Israel ran forward and in the blink of an eye won the game 3-2 scoring to leave French manager Gérard Houllier looking rather glum in his technical area.

Perhaps the anger and frustration would have been worse had it not been for the fact that France still had a second chance. Defeat to Israel depressing as it may have been was not the end of the world or indeed France's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup tournament. They still only needed a draw in their final game. Another month would pass before the Bulgaria match and the despite Michel Platini stating: “This [Israel] defeat is the worst result for the France team for forty years," the general consensus amongst the nation did not change, France would surely still be in the States next summer. There was no blame game just the belief that the eventual outcome would be World Cup football next year. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way and sports daily L'Equipe compared the performance against the Bulgarians to that of a village team. 

Didier Deschamps captain for France on the day would years later say in reference to the Bulgaria match: "The Parc des Princes contains my worst memory." Deschamps as we well know would be captain of the France team that won the World Cup on home soil almost five years after the Bulgaria debacle but that was won at the new Stade de France not yet built when qualifiers for 1994 took place. Others, however, took their anger out on one man in particular. Manager Houllier said of David Ginola: "He sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football," and would later call him a bastard in his autobiography. Whilst although forward Eric Cantona never used such flavoursome words in his condemnation of Ginola he too never forgave the man either. His crime came in the form of a cross into the box.

The nightmare began not as a nightmare but with France taking the lead and their World Cup place looking assured. They went in front through Cantona on 32 minutes and although they conceded five minutes later they were still on course to grab the point they needed. One Bulgaria goal would put a dagger through French hearts though so things probably were at least little bit nervy albeit seemingly nowhere near panic stations. Jean-Michel Larqué who commentated on the match for France's main free to air tv channel TF1 disagreed, however, and felt there had been severe anxiety from the word go: "As soon as they entered the field they were trembling," Larqué said of the French side. Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria's star player at that time,  also thought along the same lines and said: "The French were so scared they played with their buttocks clenched." Mind, trembling or not the French side were seemingly holding on for the required point they needed as the match drew to a close and it wasn't until the 90th minute that things went pear shaped. 

The footage of Ginola slumped over the advertising hoardings at full-time looking absolutely deflated is now iconic and he is the man who will forever carry the can for France's failure to qualify for USA '94. With seconds left to play France were awarded an indirect free-kick to the right of the box. Ginola, who had entered the field as a substitute some twenty minutes earlier replacing Jean-Pierre Papin who'd set up Cantona for his goal but had failed to head the ball clear before the equaliser, saw the ball knocked to him by Vincent Guérin. Ginola decided to cross the ball into the box hoping to find Cantona but unfortunately for Ginola, his cross missed everyone and bounced out of the box to the feet of a Bulgarian. Bulgaria promptly went up the other end and scored and that was that the Bulgarians won the match and France had failed to qualify. In other words "A crime against the team," or at least that was another phrase Houllier would use to describe the incident. Ginola's actions really did upset him.

It seemed to many that Ginola struggled to come to terms with what happened that night and indeed he wrote in his autobiography in 2000: "It is something which will haunt me for the rest of my life." Ginola, in 1993 playing for Paris Saint-Germain, did, however, go on to have a successful career in the English Premier League so perhaps those events did not completely destroy him and besides, years later he would be more philosophical on the issue: "The whole thing is such a long time ago I don't care anymore. I didn't kill anyone. I made a mistake on the pitch." Houllier never did forgive him though, in fact, things turned into a feud which got so bad that in 2012 Ginola unsuccessfully tried to sue Houllier for defamation.

Houllier for all intents and purposes would not take any responsibility for France's failure to qualify. In his post match press conference, he declared that despite the loss he would keep his job and said: "My contract lasts through the end of 1994. I'm going back to work." Houllier's assumptions were misplaced, however, and he was soon replaced by his assistant Aime Jacquet. Under Jacquet, France would reach the semi finals of Euro 96 just two years after the American World Cup they missed and, as the whole footballing world well knows, followed that up by winning the ultimate prize two years later. Their 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil, however, did not include substitute Ginola or indeed much of the starting line up from that Bulgaria match. 

With Zinedine Zidane the star of the show, Marcel Desailly, Emmanuel Petit, and captain Deschamps were the only three players who started that Bulgaria clash to enter the Stade de France pitch for the 1998 final, although, alongside them were Bixente Lizarazu and Youri Djorkaeff who had both been substitutes in 1993. It probably would have been four but Laurent Blanc was sent off in France's semi final win and therefore banned for the final. Ginola himself played ten more times for the national side after the Bulgaria match with his last cap coming in 1995 against Azerbaijan. Injury prevented him from playing in the next match against Romania and he was never picked again. Ginola would regret missing out on playing in a World Cup on home soil and said the nation's victory was: "fantastic for the French people, but on the other hand, from a personal point of view, it was terrible."

After that 1998 triumph France won a second successive major tournament when they triumphed at Euro 2000 under Roger Lemerre, Jacquet's assistant, which capped off what had been a rather successful seven years following the 1993 disaster - far more successful than it had been for Bulgaria despite them reaching the semi finals in the USA. France won the World Cup again in 2018 and thankfully for them, those three triumphs mean their football is not defined by that November night in 1993.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Forgotten Team of Chernobyl: The Football Club Put to an End by the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster


9 May 1986 was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for FC Stroitel Pripyat but the club never lived to see it. That day in early summer the club were supposed to play FC Shakhtar Oleksandriya in a Ukrainian league match, what was the fourth tier of Soviet football, and it would be their first ever match in their brand new stadium. But unfortunately, the match never took place and the new stadium lay empty in fact so did the whole town. Nearby events that took place just under two weeks earlier shook the world and brought an end to life in this treelined town of Pripyat. But whereas people still well remember the now more than 30 years empty town that was home to the workers of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant very few remember its football club.

Considered the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, events on 26 April 1986 left large parts of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable due to high radiation levels. This was caused by events at the VI Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Plant, otherwise known as Chernobyl, during which reactor number four was completely destroyed. This affected the now infamous nearby town of Pripyat which was evacuated just days after the incident and has remained all but empty ever since. The excellent Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham gives a blow by blow account of the event, the aftermath, and the lives of those involved. I could rave on all day about his brilliant book but of course one of thing he does not tell us is the story of FC Stroitel Pripyat.

Formed in the mid 1970s, according to Belarusian football blog A Ya Vse Chashche Zamechayu initially most of Stroitel's line up came from the nearby village of Chistogalovk although others claim the club originally consisted of construction workers working in the local Chernobyl nuclear plant and this would explain the club's name because Stroitel translates into English as 'builder'. Regardless of the club's beginnings, however, and more on that shortly, it does seem that for much of its existence the club's playing squad consisted of workers from the nuclear plant along with the odd player brought in from Kiev. 

Playing in the fourth tier, in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985 Stroitel were champions of the Kiev region qualifying for the Ukrainian championship that completed the season and for which the winners were granted a place in the third tier Soviet Second League that sat below the First league and the Top League. In 1985 the club ended the season just four points behind top position and what would have been a promotion in what was the clubs most successful season of all whilst in contrast in 1982, however, they had finished bottom of the eight team Ukrainian championship and in all other years not mentioned did not qualify for it. Playing in the lower echelons of Soviet football the club naturally was not a team of big name stars but one name of note was Anatoly Shepel a former Soviet International who had two League titles and one cup triumph to his name as a player with Dynamo Kyiv. Shepel never actually played for Stroitel on the pitch but for a short while did take up the role as manager of the club during this period of success in the eighties.

It was Vasili Kizima Trofimovich, a man heavily involved in the building of Chernobyl's nuclear plant and the creation of the town of Pripyat, who was the man behind the formation of the town's football club. “We have people in four shifts and nowhere for them to go and rest," he explained. "Let them go and watch football and drink beer." The rest, as they say, was history as many did take up his offer of watching football with home crowds averaging at 2,000 for much of the club's existence. Considering construction of the town did not begin until 1970 and at its height it had a population of barely 50,000 such support was actually fairly impressive. 

With only the most basic of stadiums, however, it was eventually decided that a new one would be needed for the club and so one was constructed. The new Avanhard Stadion was built complete with an athletics track and a 5,000 seat grandstand. It was a stadium the town could be proud of or at least they would have been if the whole area had not have been evacuated shortly before it was due to open.

The week before the grand opening of Pripyat's new stadium, Stroitel were to play in a Kiev regional cup semi-final against a team called Mashinostroitel Borodyanka. However, as the story goes, in their final training session before the match the Borodyanka players were interrupted by an army helicopter which landed on the pitch. Out of helicopter came two military officials who told them that the following day's match was postponed. In the early hours of that day, the now infamous incident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had happened. 

We all know what happened next for the town of Pripyat, contaminated with radiation leaking from the nuclear plant's destroyed reactor, it would be evacuated with its residents never to return and its shiny new football stadium would lay empty never to be used. But as for the football, well Borodyanka actually went on to win the cup that year and FC Stroitel Pripyat would eventually return as FC Stroitel Slavutych with Slavutych being the name of a new town created for many of the displaced residents of Pripyat to reside. This new side, however, would be dissolved after only a few seasons. Their hearts were not in it. 

The end of FC Stroitel started on that day in April 1986 and their story is one rarely told. In the midst of such a horrifying disaster, one that shook the whole world, the story of the local football club, just one of many subplots to a far bigger tale, was never deemed overly important. But for many of those who lived in Pripyat, FC Stroitel had probably been a significant part of a former life that they would soon come to mourn.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Football Book Review: The Farther Corner by Harry Pearson

A brilliant book from start to finish.

In The Farther Corner Harry Pearson returns to North East football which is the scene of a previous book of some 25 years ago called The Far Corner. His first book saw him visit many North East grounds from top flight right through to non-league although this latest book is set mostly amongst the delights of the Northern League. However, regardless of the matches he takes in, Pearson still manages to fill the pages with many witty observations akin to what we saw in the first book whilst even more so than in that first offering they are interwoven with many tales from North East football's past across the professional and amateur game.

Pearson's interest in the history of North East football brings up some fascinating tales from the game and also paints a vivid picture of the hard life amongst the coalfields of County Durham and Northumberland, as well as the steelworks of Teesside, that were an existence for many in the region across large parts of the twentieth century. With memories from friends, family, and others with a history in the local football scene to draw upon the book is rich in detail of the inner workings of North East football's past and its importance within its local communities. The book particularly immerses itself in some of the great non-league teams of the past, particularly the great (perhaps not so) amateur sides such as Bishop Auckland who won a record ten FA Amateur Cup's for example whilst also covering the ups and downs of the regions three main professional clubs.

Whilst the book includes many tales from the past it also covers the more recent era of not just football but Pearson's life in general with many anecdotes bordering on the peculiar. All of this is set around a season of non-league football and the specific games he attends where he has a sharp-witted awareness of his surroundings and the people present. This comes with the ability to poke fun at some of the inane habits and characteristics of some of the supporters he comes across as well as football fans in general.

This is a brilliant book from start to finish that involves lots of chuckling to yourself at Pearson's humorous observations as well as getting engrossed in his fascinating stories from North East football's past. On a scale of 1 to an absolute belter, I'd say it is an absolute belter.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Day When Borussia Mönchengladbach Almost Pulled Off the Impossible: The Story of the Incredible End to the 1977-78 Bundesliga Title Race

Borussia Mönchengladbach were defending champions having won the Bundesliga title each of the previous three seasons. But despite going into the final day of the 1977-78 season in second behind 1. FC Köln on goal difference there was seemingly no chance of Gladbach making it four in a row. Gladbach's goal difference of +30 put them 10 goals behind Köln on +40 and with Köln playing bottom of the league and already relegated FC St Pauli the title was, therefore, this time surely out of reach or so everyone thought. But a routine afternoon of Köln winning the title turned out to be not so routine after all thanks to one of the craziest games in Bundesliga history.

In 1978 Borussia Mönchengladbach were not just a top side in Germany but one of the best in Europe and had reached the previous season's European Cup final in Rome although they lost to an all conquering Liverpool side. Gladbach were managed by Udo Lattek who would go on to eventually become considered an all-time great by winning 15 major trophies as manager of Gladbach, FC Bayern München, and FC Barcelona. He already had three Bundesliga titles to his name and had won the European Cup with FC Bayern in 1974. Gladbach also had big names on the pitch and their squad included West German internationals such as Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof, and Jupp Heynckes as well as then European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen, a Danish international.

Whilst Gladbach went into the final day of the 1977-78 season hoping to pip 1. FC Köln to the title Köln were hoping to clinch their first Bundesliga title since 1964. Their squad also included some star names in Toni Schumacher, Herbert Zimmermann, Heinz Flohe, and Dieter Müller, all fellow West German internationals. Köln's manager Hennes Weisweiler had himself been in charge of Gladbach just three years earlier and like Lattek would also end up classed as an all-time great. Retiring with 11 major trophies to his name he also just like Lattek had three Bundesliga titles to his name by this point as well as having won the UEFA Cup in 1975.

In the penultimate weekend of the season, Köln laboured to a 2-1 win at fourth placed VfB Stuttgart whilst Gladbach defeated Hamburger SV 6-2. Although they both entered the final weekend challenging for the title, neither sides campaign's had been out of this world. Gladbach had lost four times in the opening half of the season, Köln five. But with eight defeats in total compared to Gladbach's six Köln just edged in front of their rivals by virtue of having drawn fewer games. It was a competitive era, however, and winning it at a canter like Bayern often do these days very much uncommon. Besides, the league table still showed they were the two best sides in the country and the pair had numerous big name stars that many other clubs just did not have.

On on April 29, 1978, that final day, Gladbach were at home to Borussia Dortmund (BVB) though with their home stadium being renovated the match was played at Fortuna Düsseldorf's Rheinstadion. Köln meanwhile were away from home in Hamburg where opponents FC St Pauli were based. Both matches kicked off at 15:30 and it did not take long for goals to go in, at least not in Düsseldorf... 

By 15:52 Gladbach were 4-0 up after a stunning opening period and were really going for it but with Köln taking the lead after 28 minutes in their match they would need plenty more goals. Gladbach had gone 1-0 up within a minute thanks to Jupp Heynckes who had been part of West Germany's 1974 World Cup winning squad. He scored with a looping header. Twelve minutes later Heynckes grabbed his second with a low drive whilst a minute later Carsten Nielsen headed home to make it 3-0, one of 23 goals the Dane would score in a Gladbach shirt. Then on 22 minutes 22-year-old winger Karl Del’Haye, signed from Alemannia Aachen three years earlier, made it four by running with the ball from just inside his own half before confusing several defenders then firing the ball into the net from almost 15yds out. Some brilliant football but Gladbach weren't done there - they would be 6-0 up by half-time. Heynckes completed his hat-trick nipping in to slot the ball home on the line before later a through ball saw Herbert Wimmer hit the ball over a sliding out keeper and into the BVB net.

With Köln 1-0 up Gladbach would need to score plenty more goals in the second-half and in what was turning out to be an incredible game did exactly that. For their next goal, Heyneckes looked like he barely touched the ball but just about got a head onto it and the 'keeper who'd rushed out had no chance. 59 minutes gone Gladbach were 7-0 up and It did not take long for 7-0 to become 8 and then 9-0. Nielson turned and fired home before Del’Haye grabbed his second by knocking the ball home after his initial shot was saved. As noted by supporters in the stands who were following events in Hamburg via portable radios, by this point Köln had grabbed a second in their match, however, and were still firm favourites for the title but, nonetheless, Gladbach were really giving it a go.

Heyneckes then grabbed his fifth of the match as the keeper who blocked his first effort didn't quite manage to keep the ball in front of the line from the rebound. Köln scored goals either side that Gladbach tenth, one before and two after, they were 5-0 up and the title was all but theirs but still Gladbach were not done yet. Ewald Lienen, in his first of two spells at the club, made it eleven by controlling then firing the ball home on the half volley before in injury time a through ball saw Christian Kulik, seven years into a ten-year spell at the club, run from just outside the box before firing home from almost 15yds out to finish off the rout and give a final score of Borussia Mönchengladbach 12-0 Borussia Dortmund. 12-0, but trying to overturn a ten goal deficit in the goal difference column they had, however, came up three goals short thanks to Köln's 5-0 win. "We'd rather score a dozen goals than Cologne lose at St. Pauli," said the Gladbach striker on the morning of the match. They did exactly that but on unfortunately in this instance, it was still not enough.

Despite losing out in the title race, Gladbach's supporters headed home very impressed with their team's performance but others less so. Accusations of match-fixing would unsurprisingly be voiced after such a performance and even as it unfolded live many were suspicious. As the goal updates filtered through to Hamburg some St Pauli fans feeling something wasn't quite right even started cheering on their opponents Köln. Of course, everyone involved denied this especially the BVB players themselves. They did not do it on purpose they had everyone believe and right back Amand Theis admitted regarding the poor performance that: "The shame has accompanied us for years." Nothing has ever been proven and it's generally accepted these days that the match was played fairly. 

If the match was embarrassing for BVB then none more so than their goalkeeper Peter Endrulat. Playing in place of injured first choice keeper Horst Bertram the game was most definitely the beginning of the end for the 23-year-old at the club as the as the following day he was told his contract would not be renewed. A short lived career saw him go on to make 60 appearances for 2. Bundesliga Nord club Tennis Borussia Berlin.

Endrulat was not the only departure at BVB post the 12-0 debacle as manager Otto Rehhagel was also fired the day after the match. He would go on to manage various other clubs across Germany before coaching the Greek national team to shock European Championship glory when as rank outsiders they unexpectedly won the Euro 2004 tournament held in Portugal.

Others not sacked by BVB did not get off scot free, however, as their poor performance was rewarded with a DM2000 fine for each player. 

For Gladbach's five goal star of the show it was also the end as Heynckes had announced he was retiring after a distinguished career that saw two spells at the club and 39 caps for West Germany. He would go on to have a managerial career almost as successful as his mentor Lattek starting at none other than Gladbach a year later when Lattek quit to join unbeliebably BVB having just won the UEFA Cup with Gladbach. Gladbach won five league titles over the course of the seventies, three with Lattek in charge, and twice finished runners up but have yet to win a Bundesliga title since or indeed even finished second again. As for the team that pipped them to the title on that final day, Köln have also yet to the title again though dd twice finish runners up at the end of eighties. Manager Hennes Weisweiler left at the end of 1979-80 season and moved to America to briefly manage the New York Cosmos.

Considering, as mentioned, neither side would win another title, in some ways that April afternoon in 1978 was the last hurrah for both Borussia Mönchengladbach and 1. FC Köln. And as for that 12-0 win well it was and still is the biggest ever winning margin in Bundesliga history. The match was also listed 43rd in 11 Freunde magazine's greatest matches of all-time. A truly crazy scoreline that saw one of the most surreal final day title races in football history - Even if the final outcome was the one everyone had predicted beforehand!