Pele Museum, Lugansk – Музей Пеле

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The Pele Museum in Lugansk is, frankly, utterly surreal.

Thousands of miles away from Brazil, near the Russian border, it’s a shrine to Nikolai Khubodin’s childhood infatuation with the greatest player ever.

Nikolai, who played for his home town team Zorya Lugansk, heard about him on the radio in 1965 when he was ten.

Continue reading Pele Museum, Lugansk – Музей Пеле

Pele Museum, Lugansk – Музей Пеле

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Yes there really IS a Pele Museum in Lugansk.

Lugansk is in Ukraine. Twenty miles from the Russian border,  it  is the easternmost major city in the country and has about 500,000 inhabitants. 

There is a Pele museum in Santos, where Pele played for the local team, which is about 7,000 miles away from Lugansk.  I hope to visit the Santos museum later this year. 

Continue reading Pele Museum, Lugansk – Музей Пеле

Kickin’ Kiev – Ukraine 2 France 0


So it’s Ukraine’s to lose. Finish feeble France off and the World Cup will be all the better for it.

Les Bleus were bleu-dy awful and this must rank as Ukraine’s greatest day in football – the moment the champion chokers beat a world power convincingly.

Continue reading Kickin’ Kiev – Ukraine 2 France 0

Monty Python and the Holy Bale – Macedonia 2 Wales 1

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Time was, when the surreal stuff, the weird and wonderfully wacky ways of Welsh fans were the defining characteristic of a trip and indeed, the sole reason for going. Away games were the closest we might get to a journey to Mars or being in a rock band.

I can remember the concierge of Baku’s Hotel Grot, as it should have been called, asking me: “Why your friends throw TV from 16th floor window?” He wouldn’t have understood the answer: “Because they’re from Bala.”

Continue reading Monty Python and the Holy Bale – Macedonia 2 Wales 1

Zagreb – where’s our breakfast Mr Mayor?

The crack Canadians
The crack Canadians

We’re a broad church at the Wales fans’ team. No, really.

So when three Canadian gap year types got chatting to some of our number on the train from Graz to Zagreb, they were invited to play for the team the following day.

And to our surprise they turned up for the rendezvous at 4pm on the day before the trip to Osijek. Well oiled – how did they know this was part of the deal? Adam Soil (goalie), Brian Weatherseed (blonde hair) and Rob Cooley  are travelling around Europe. In Hungary last we heard.

The trophy cabinet at the NK Zagreb training ground where the game was played

The mayor of Zagreb (still trying to find his name on the internet) kicked the match off apparently at the very plush training ground of the first division side NK Zagreb.

I didn’t know this fact otherwise I would have taken a picture of the kick-off. Just to add to the surrealism. And then he invited us all for breakfast on the day of the game.

And, even more surreal, the invitation was later rescinded for some family reason (Hmmm, isn’t that what politicians all over the world say?).

As per usual we slipped into a four-goal deficit in what seemed like seconds. And our top front man Owain from Aber was too knackered to last the first half.

Then keeper Greg hurt his leg – he’d done a half-marathon the day before. And a second keeper

Which one's the dummy?
Which one’s the dummy?

So half-time came and Adam, three days into his European holiday of a lifetime, stuck his hand up to be goalie for the second half.  He has a scary twitter nickname folks @evilsalty – go and follow him.

I like to think my half-time pep talk to the Canucks made a difference (‘Listen lads, as we say in the UK, run your bollocks off’ – they nodded as though they knew what it meant).

Man of iron and top Wales goalscorer Will Johnson took the field after running a marathon the day before in Graz (show-0ff). What’s he on? I reckon he could outlast Lance Armstrong even if Armstrong had swigged a bucketful of EPO/steroids/dopedisguiser.

Dog, left, Ton Pentre rock star Dowling, right, love a picture. @evilsalty is congratulated
Dog, left, Ton Pentre rock star Dowling, right, love a picture. @evilsalty is congratulated

And we pulled a goal back through the multi-talented Johnson, scoring for his tenth fans’ game in a row. A Gullit-esque rocket header from a corner .

And then came the highlight. Man off the S4C soap opera Rhys Hartley gave away a penalty in the box and Adam from Toronto (full of some sort of concoction) had to face it.

The Croat hit it low to the keeper’s left and well, would you Adam and Eve it?, our man danced across to save it with his left foot. The penalty taker made it to the rebound first and fired in a cannonball which ricocheted off Adam.

A double-save from a penalty. A Wales fans’ first, surely? Big Nev eat your heart out. And definitely the highlight of the game, if not the week.

We showed those pesky Croats how to take a penalty when ex-Croesyceiliog hotshot Huw made it 6-2.

We’ve had ex-international Malcolm Allen, former League of Wales players, the Doc Marten-wearing barman from the Irish pub in Graz matched up against 1978 World Cup star Hans Krankl.

But, the biggest guest, for me so far has been @evilsalty

The 1938 NK Zagreb side’s keeper wasn’t a patch on ours

Osiwreck – Croatia 2 Wales 0

When your opposition coach asks for ideas on Facebook and then quotes Kipling as an inspiration well you don’t feel confident, this is Wales after all, but you don’t face the game with the usual sense of impending doom.

Why ask Davor from Dubrovnik for his snippets of wisdom? Maybe Stimac”s cuckoo, maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing. A useful straw to clutch at when you’re at the bottom of a pit of despair.

Then Kipling and the poem ‘If’. Bit of a cliche these days. Old hat. Tired.

Six-one stays with you doesn’t it? I think it’s already erased ‘Russia’ on my heart. You want any straw to clutch at to give you hope. Gareth Bale cleaned out the tubes last Friday and managed to avert further Welsh catastrophe.

Anyway, Igor Stimac, crazy Croat, I hoped, might be in for a surprise.

Social media failing

Maybe what we did wrong was to not go on to Facebook and give Igor Stimac plausible but useless advice on our chaps. Eg ~ Ben Davies is like Bale, just a few years younger. You’ve got your hands full there Eeeg ~ he’s bloody fantastic, Modric better mark him. And your striker.

Any old bollocks, we should have just found someone who knew the lingo and primed him to fill up Facebook with all manner of cock and bull. After all, all’s fair in love, war and football.

Osiwreck

Osijek’s Gradski vtr, incredibly, means City Garden and must be one of the most ironically named stadia in the world. It is one hell of a concrete-cancer, moose-ugly gargoyle of an arena and it’s no surprise to find a wikipedia reference to it as unfinished. That’s not the bloody half of it.

The main stand has 13 priapic pillars emerging from the top tier, (see pic) an architect’s way of saying “Yep, we’ll be finishing it off any minute now.”

No cover anywhere and boy are we glad it didn’t rain during the match otherwise, with my dicky chest, I’d be dead and there’d have been no one left to clap the players off the pitch cos we’d all have left on 52 minutes after the second goal. Some of us would still be in casualty (obviously I would be in the mortuary).

The athletics track surrounding the pitch was a faded light blue like it had been left unused for months.

And we got a taste of 80s terracing with a fence topped with inward~facing railings. When they scored, we even got a Croat nutjob standing on the dividing railing, quite impressively, gloating. He was very lucky refreshments were served in plastic glasses. If they’d had a massive TV screen they would have screened Top Gun at half-time, just to you make you even more nostalgic.

GOOD – for hanging flags and feeling cooped up and taking us back to an era when we were all treated like the oppressed scum we, deep down, knew we were.

BAD – for 21st century football, a good view of the game, keeping that nasty rain off us.

So, no sense of intimacy or of feeling uplifted by a grand setting where history would be played out.

The trouble with being sixth seed in the group that we’ve been farmed out to second-rate stadia at Novi Sad and Osiwreck and my initial thought that it would help us rather than the home side has been wide of the mark. 

The locals in both places have got behind their boys magnificently it has to be said, through gritted teeth. In future we need to play in cosmopolitan capitals where the locals are a bit harder to please, less easily impressed and deeply sceptical of the coach’s corny, passe use of ‘If’ to inspire his illiterate players (are any players apart from Bellamy vaguely literate these days?).

The big improvement here on Novi Sad was at least my pen wasn’t confiscated, we didn’t get stuffed – always a bonus –  and there were refreshments behind the back of the stand. Oh luxury.

If we ever have to play here again, I recommend we concede the game.

Kipling

Shame to say, I’ve never read him but we’re all familiar with the tales of Jungle Book and If.

‘If’ might be only two letters long but it’s the biggest word in Welsh football history isn’t it? A few of my ‘if’ moments:

1 If only Joe Jordan/Paul Bodin/I hadn’t introduced that blonde in Amsterdam to that bloke from St Asaph (insert your own nemesis) . . .

2 If only Hughes had fielded Earnie against Russia in 2003, we’d have won Euro 2004.

3 If only I had stopped watching Wales back in 1998 I’d be at least 20 grand better off and a lot a happier.

Comedy goals

Ashley Williams’ backpass left Lewis Price with a stinker of a clearance. From behind, it looked like Price didn’t have a lot of options if he wanted to clear successfully.

Now the dust has settled, it was the most comic Welsh disaster for, er, at least five weeks. Specifically, last month’s second in Novi Sad which obviously at the time was not comic at all but a sin against humanity. But once your inner anguish subsides you have to accept it was a classic example of footballing fiascos.

And it set me thinking, there’ve been quite a few over the years. At the time they weren’t funny at all. Several have made me severely ill. But once the bile settles, and you’ve snotted out your chest phlegm in a tamping rage, we’ve racked up some notable achievements.

1 Paul Jones’ hat trick for Slovakia in the 5-1 fiasco at home. Gift-wrapped clangers of the highest quality rewarded with a permanent exile from the No 1 shirt. A wounding way for a great keeper to go out. But, hey, this is Wales, this is our destiny.

2 Coleman coolly playing in an Italian at Anfield in 1998 with a peach of a backpass. A rare mistake by our Jack general, who it has to be said could well be the best left back we ever had. At least Ashley Williams could lamely and legitimately moan about mud, the captaincy armband constricting the blood flow to his freezing cold knuckles and how rotten Osijek is.

3 Didn’t Mark Aizlewood fuck something up badly against Bulgaria in 1994? I don’t recall the details, just the huge sense of brain-bursting anger.

There must be many more. In fact, it must run into hundreds. Please feel free to leave your own personal favourite defensive cock~up below.

One more thing – why don’t we get the benefit of some of these comedy goals? On a plate. With a dinky little chocolate and a wink from a foxy policewomen the local rozzers have roped in to make up the numbers. Just asking.

Crisis? What crisis?

From the deathless sludge soccer of Serbia to the more acceptable muddy mediocrity of Croatia. So, yes, it was an improvement. Then again, being whacked with a truncheon by one of the Croat Robocop policeman might have been an improvement – could have shown off my bruises and made up some fairytale to impress people.

At least we’re no longer on the edge of the cliff being eyed by the coastguard through his binoculars as a possible casualty.

We’ve peeped over the precipice and it’s business as usual. Not much of an achievement. But after last month, about all we could hope for.

And, saving grace of saving graces, at 2am in the Tufna nightclub, the DJ pumped out the Clash’s Rock the Casbah, ten years after I spend an entire campaign badgering idiot DJs across Europe to show some taste.

At last, a straw to clutch.

Wales 0 Belgium 2

Gary Speed WalesWelcome to ‘Plucky Wales shoot themselves in the foot’, episode 95 (or choose your own number).

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, when maybe we were on the verge of a breakthrough with a decent squad, a good performance goes to waste in cruel style. Only Wales games can produce so many ‘so-near-yet-so-far’  moments.

It all started so well. Full marks to the visiting Belgians for unravelling a ‘Respect Gary Speed’ banner in their end before and during the match. You’ll be forever given credit for a magnificent gesture. They even had the good grace to lose the fans’ match beforehand 11-2. We should have realised they’d launched a charm offensive.

Then, there was then a sermon from Mount Fifa before the match. Was I the only person who found this bizarre?

Someone read out, as if it had been printed on a tablet of stone, an earnest lecture on ‘Fair Play’ in the manner of a schoolmaster declaiming Leviticus 3:24 loudly, knowing that your life would be forever changed as you were struck by a thunderbolt of  .

I’m all for fair play and, fair play, it was very good common sense. But it was ridiculous.  Any sermon from Sepp Blatter is, er, tainted.

Anyway Fifa, fair play to you wonderful gents, did the Panorama show last year get your goat and inspire the marketing bods to respond with ‘a brainwave’?

Jolly good show.

The match

Everyone I spoke to before the match seemed scared of the Belgians and could take no comfort from the fact that we’ve got good players too. Let’s just write that again in capitals – WE’VE GOT GOOD PLAYERS TOO.

And it showed. We played really well until the sending-off. After the sending-off we continued to play really well. Passing was very good, composure was amazing. Coleman criticised the team last month against Bosnia for going forward too early and not holding on to the ball for long enough. Thoughtless play.

He was right. Last night the lesson was learned and I was deeply impressed by the guts we showed.

Talking to media types before the match, they felt the players didn’t care about Wales, couldn’t be bothered and were uninterested. With some exceptions (Church was mentioned), up their own backsides.

But I wonder if I spent several days before a big game at training and waiting if I’d be a bit listless and uncommunicative (they are footballers after all). The performance did not lack character or effort. It seemed to me that once on the pitch their professional ‘football head’ if you like, kicked in and automatically they did what they were trained for to the best of their ability.

And for me the proof was that at 1-0 down in the second half we could barely hear a peep from the Belgian fans. Seems that they could see we were playing well and the game could end in 1-1. Pigs might fly, but at 1-0 and playing as we did, it DID seem that 1-1 was on the cards.

And then, hey presto, Plucky Wales shoot themselves in the foot.

The ref

I don’t blame the ref at all. The Collins tackle, from a long way away, had me praying for a yellow card immediately.

Another bad start in an opening game – it reminded me of the Minsk match in 200o when Bellamy was red-carded in the dreadful defeat over there.

The ref wasn’t to blame for their first goal and, again, from a long way away may have g0t the free kick decision wrong but that didn’t cost us the game. So why blame the ref?

James Collins

A few years back I used to think there were two James Collinses. One played for Cardiff City at centre-back and was brilliant. The other played for Wales and in his first ten games seemed to make a bad mistake inevitably punished. The two couldn’t possibly have been the same person, it seemed.

His performances for Wales improved hugely to the point where he was bloody fantastic in Moenchengladbach, for example, and his commitment couldn’t be faulted.

In short he either had stinkers or stormers. Then, you couldn’t make it up, last night  he had a stormer for 25 minutes and stinker for a microsecond and that was enough to get him sent off. The two extremes  of James Collins’ play were captured in a 25-minute cameo that epitomised his entire career. In the history of the game that’s unusual – it’s fair to say he has a unique talent.

For what it’s worth I hope he returns after the ban. But with Darcy Blake doing so well ever since he first lined up in the side, he seems to be destined to be third choice  centre half. Will he quit Wales, seems to the question?

Chris Coleman

 Coleman’s five at the back starting line-up was common sense. Collins saved our bacon several times before throwing himself into the frying pan with a flying hack.

Then the back four were superb. Have never seen Adam Matthews, for instance, play so well. From that sending-off on, no one performed badly.

Coleman, with the game still at 1-0, then introduced attacking subs in a bid to get a point. So, tactically, he’d thought through what was required and the implementation of the plan was derailed by the sending-off.

Afterwards his defence of Collins, while wrong, was great man-management. He could have kicked him hard but he showed Collins he still had belief in him and wants him to stay in the squad. Classy.

It seems to have been difficult for Coleman to knit the squad together with the ghost of Gary Speed hanging over this side.

His forbearance in the light of what happened to Gary Speed has been exemplary – the fans singing ‘Gary Speed’s Barmy Army at matches are unlikely to change that to ‘Chris Coleman’s Barmy Army’ soon.

But I’ve been impressed with the serious dignity he has brought to the job and deserves credit.

Where now?

Well I’m off to Novi Sad. Updates to follow. For what it’s worth I fancy us to win as Serbia are on a downer and if we are to do anything in this group we have to beat sides like Serbia. A second defeat and we are in last-chance saloon. No side ever gets through the qualifiers having suffered three defeats.

For once, the marketing types have come up with an appropriate slogan ‘Time to Believe’. Last night the players performed – to my surprise – that they do, something I had doubted. Most fans

But I believe this campaign is gonna be a lot more fun than we ever suspected.

No consolation, but why couldn’t the Belgians have picked a few of their fans instead