Really rough guide for the travelling fan
International football: don’t you just love it? Well, not really, especially if you’re a fan just getting into the domestic league season across Europe and could do without an exhausting foreign trip – in some cases, to apparently the end of the earth – to follow your country.
Still, the 2014 World Cup qualifying matches do provide me with many fond – and not so fond – travel memories, especially as far as the Home Countries are concerned. I wish Northern Ireland well in Russia, where I have visited many times, tomorrow. Moscow is a scary, helter-skelter place, in which all is not often as is not seems. Corruption? I could not possibly comment.
But I recall hearing about a club visit, many years ago, when a fellow scribe was refused entry on landing because his office at home had not secured him a visa. Stupid or what? A substantial amount of roubles handed over to a certain official would have gained his release but, he declined, was held in an airport cell overnight and transported back to Blighty the next day. Needless to say, he missed the game.
More personally, on a trek to Moscow, I was advised that I should take only an official hotel taxi to any destination. With the official taxis having all been nabbed, I had to ride in the concierge’s “friend’s” car, which spluttered its way through the vast, traffic-choked roads to the opposite side of the city, narrowly avoiding numerous collisions and getting there in twice the time it should have taken and for four times the fare. The driver’s homicidal stare decreed I had to pay up. There was no room for discussion.
Mind you, to walk home alone in the dark of night from Windsor Park, where Northern Ireland play Luxembourg on Tuesday, is not for the faint-hearted, either. I’ve done that a few times and all kinds of worrying thoughts go through your mind. I’m happy to report, though, that nothing nasty ever befell me in Belfast.
Not sure about Astana, in which the Republic of Ireland play Kazakhstan tomorrow. Never been there. But I’m told that it’s up-market OK and guarenteed to have an “Irish Bar” – as does every town or city in the world – that will keep the “Boys in Green” well oiled until long into the nights.
Craven Cottage on Tuesday evening, where the Republic meet Oman in a friendly, is likely to be more fan friendly, if not as air-miles exotic. Can’t see any problems down by the Thames, though a late-evening stroll through the riverside park to the Tube station can prove a bit hairy. Again, not for the faint of heart.
To Moldova, where England play tomorrow. Now there’s a spot. I’ve been to the former Soviet Union state twice and, when I was there, it stunk of abject poverty – from the shanty-town buildings adjoining the national stadium in Chisinau, the capital, to the plaintive calls to my hotel room at 3am desperately enquiring if I required any “room service”. Of course, I did not.
But perhaps the lady of the night was simply asking whether the young international striker, and his two team-mates, had enjoyed the company of her friend earlier? Sadly, my Moldovan was not good enough to fully understand her query. I just hope that Roy Hodgson does not have similar escapades to unravel on his trip into Eastern Europe.
I suspect not. These days, the FA control freaks just don’t miss a trick. Nor, either, should there be any nocturnal problems when England play Ukraine – another country, I can reveal, that is noted for its after-midnight phonecalls – at Wembley on Tuesday. The environs of North London can be a bit dodgy, granted, but the England lads will be staying a long way away at some luxurious hotel.
Serbia? Not been there, either. And don’t want to, to judge by colleagues’ unimpressive reports of Belgrade, even now, in peace time. Scotland take on the Serbs at Hampden Park on Saturday – not sure I’d want to visit the Glasgwegian hostelries on a weekend night, either – and it is Wales who have to visit Novi Sad on Tuesday. Is Novi as sad as Belgrade … or Glasgow?
Wales meet Belgium at the Millenium Stadium tomorrow and, apart from probably being stuffed by the ever-improving Belgians, the locals will still enjoy later getting stuffed in Caroline Street, the curry-and-chips kebab-u-like pedestrianised walkway in the city centre. It must surely beat downtown Belgrade, Novi Sad, Antwerp or Brussels any day. I’ve been there, seen it and got the stained tee-shirt. Lovely!
At least Scotland, on Tuesday, meet Macedonia at Hampden. I’ve been to the Macedonian capital of Skopje, admittedly not long after the hostilities on the war-torn border with nearby Kosovo, and it was grim there. We shared a hotel with many soldiers and the atmosphere was seriously tense. Hardly conducive to composing great copy.
But us journos are battle-hardened veterans, filing effortlessly from football’s frontline when all around us are running for cover. OK, maybe sometimes bricking it as the real troops sort out the gun-toting locals, but it’s all part of the job. Next week, I wouldn’t mind covering Cyprus v Iceland in sun-drenched Larnaca. Sounds like a nice quiet game. Just my cup of tea.