In the Hall of the Mountain Kings (FC Ararat Yerevan)

As a boy some of the mystical names of Soviet football really fascinated me, exciting names like Zenit Leningrad, Torpedo Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan seem so beguiling yet somehow impossibly distant. It comes with unbridled joy on my behalf to have visited two of those boyhood wonderments in one trip.

Ararat Yerevan were formed in 1935 as Spartak Yerevan and spent many seasons in the second tier of the Transcaucasian League where their main rivals were Dinamo Tbilisi. Yerevan made it to the Soviet Top League for the first time in 1949 but it was the 1960’s that was to prove the making of the club, a decade which also saw them change their name from Spartak to Ararat in homage to the mighty and iconic mountain peaks that backdrop the city of Yerevan like a shrouded pathway to another continuum.

Despite relegation in 1963 the “White Eagles” surged back to the top tier in 1966 and stayed there until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Winners of the Soviet Top League had been few and far between outside of the major cities of Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The turn of the decade, though, saw something stirring in the South Caucuses when Ararat finished as runners up in the Soviet League to Dynamo Kiev. Despite changing managers half way through the 1973 season new incumbent Nikita Simonyan oversaw a sensational league and cup double as Ararat won the league by three points ahead of Dynamo Kiev and also defeated Kiev in the Soviet Cup Final. The feat is immortalised by a huge statue of all the players and the trophy that looks out towards Ararat’s long time home, the gargantuan Hrazdan Stadium.

The Hrazdan Stadium and the statue commemorating Ararat Yerevan’s 1973 Soviet Union League and Cup double and 1975 Soviet Cup win.

The championship naturally meant competing in the European Cup for the first time an Ararat distinguished themselves by defeating Viking Stavanger and Cork Celtic before bowing out at the quarter-final stage to mighty Bayern Munich. Ararat won the Soviet Cup again in 1975 defeating Zorya Voroshilovgrad in the final but the following years runners up positions in both the League and the Cup signalled the end of a golden era for the “Wings of the Soviets”. Their second round defeat to West Ham United in the 1975/76 Cup Winners Cup tournament was their last foray into European competition for two decades and not before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a return to Armenian football.

The Armenian League started in 1992 and Ararat won the League and Cup double the following season. However, it has proven to be their last championship to date and despite four more Armenian Cup successes in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2008 the league has been dominated by city rivals FC Pyunik who have won 14 of the 25 Armenian championships since independence. Ararat’s last sortie into European competition was in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup but they lost ignominiously to Swiss side Bellinzona, 4-1 over two legs, in the first qualifying round.

This season has been a real struggle for the once mighty White Eagles and they have propped up the six team league since the opening rounds. With such a small number of teams it means clubs play each other six times in a season and although they technically occupy a relegation spot the Armenian First League is made up almost entirely of reserve sides. Of the two first teams in the second tier, Erebuni will finish a distant last and the other side, Kotayk Abovian pulled out of the league and their results were expunged.

Between 1971 and 2015 Ararat played their home games at the incredible Hrazdan Stadium, hewn into a hillside its tiers lurch above the cityscape and its four iconic floodlight pylons can be seen for miles around. The ownership of the stadium fell into private hands and after a falling out between the owners and the Armenian FA over a proposed renovation programme to obtain a UEFA four star rating, no one has played there and, indeed, even the pitch was ripped up and not replaced. Since their eviction Ararat have played at the equally superb Republican Stadium but recently, due to poor results and lack of support, the more modest Ministry of Finance Stadium (also known as the Mika Stadium) has hosted their matches.

Despite free entry to the Mika there is scant interest in today’s game against FC Shirak from Gyumri. Officially 500 are in attendance although in reality less than half that figure was present, football fans in Armenia are apathetic due to constant allegations of bribery and corruption in the game. Seemingly more interest and excitement was obtained at the adjacent sports hall for an important Futsal match. Ararat look a poor side and the visitors, backed by a small band of supporters who have made the trip to the capital, soon rack up a three goal lead. Ararat did pull one back just before halftime but rarely threatened a comeback until an injury time goal made the final score seem closer than it actually was.

It is an enduring tragedy of Armenian football that its best loved and traditionally its best supported club languish so far away from their competitors. Sadly with finance a problem and a dispute between Ararat’s owners and the Armenian FA, it would seem that position is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

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Saturday May 20th 2017 – Armenian Premier League

FC Ararat Yerevan 2 (Safaryan 44, S.Mkrtchyan 90)

FC Shirak Gyumri 3 (Hovsepyan 7, Prljevic 36, Poghosyan 43)

Att: 217 (head count, officially 500 present, played at the MF Mika Stadium)

No admission charged, no programme

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From Landhof to Joggeli (FC Basel)

FC Basel were formed in 1893 and are one of Switzerland’s most successful clubs with twenty Swiss Super League/ Nationalliga A titles to their name. Only Grasshoppers Zurich with 27 have more although they haven’t won the championship since 2003. FC Basel have dominated the Super League recently, their first title did not come until 1952/53 but eight of their titles have come in the last eight seasons such has been their superiority.

They were formed after a meeting in the Schuhmachern-Zunft restaurant and one of their early captains was Hans “Joan” Gamper who went on to form FC Barcelona. From the early days FC Basel played at the Landhof stadium in Kleinbasel which still exists as a football ground with a large stand and clubhouse. The Landhof even held a few international matches for Switzerland, including a 9-0 win for England in 1909. Since FC Basel vacated in 1967 the club used it as a training ground but since the 1990’s it just been used by local sports clubs.

The club moved into the old St Jakob-Park stadium which was replaced with the current arena style stadium between 1998 and 2001. During this time FCB played their home games at BSC Old Boys’ Stadion Schützenmatte. As the stadium, designed by Herzog and De Meuron and known locally as “Joggeli”, was chosen to host six games in Euro 2008 St Jakob-Park was expanded to hold 42,500, although some seats were later removed to a more manageable 37,500. The venue also hosted the 2016 Europa League Final between Liverpool and Sevilla.

The arena is surrounded by retail outlets and the shell of the stadium is wrapped in translucent membrane which can be illuminated. It was not lit up today on a very soggy afternoon and looked, I have to say, a little uninviting from the outside. Inside though is a different story, food outlets and souvenir stalls are abundant and a very healthy crowd gathers for what is expected to be an easy win for the hosts who had already mathematically won the league.

The visitors, FC Thun, are in no mood to roll over for the perennial champions and lead 1-0 and 2-1 before Basel scored a third goal a minute from time to capture what looked to be three more points. However, Thun’s Serbian forward Dejan Sorgić spoilt the celebrations with a deserved equaliser with the last kick of the game, a goal which completely a highly impressive hat-trick.

FC Basel have that air of a well run club from top to tail, their reserves play in the third tier at the Stadion Rankhof which is also used by their official feeder team, the fourth tier club, Concordia Basel.
St Jakob Park is easy to find and most spectators catch the No.14 tram from the city centre.

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Sunday May 14th 2017 – Raiffessen Super League

FC Basel (1893) 3 (Steffen 24, Elyounoussi 76, Die 89)
FC Thun 3 (Sorgić 17,64,90)

Att: 26,844 (at St.Jakob Park)

Admission: CF20 (£16) free programme

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Bucharest Days (Romanian Groundhop 2)

It seems impossible that a year ago 14 groundhoppers from the UK, Germany and Denmark headed to Bucharest for Andrei Otineanu’s first Romanian Groundhop. We witnessed so much to celebrate about this amazing hobby and also saw the incredibly sad side of football when Dinamo’s Cameroonian player Patrick Ekeng passed away in front of our eyes. Much has changed in the interim, Andrei’s idea of promoting sport in Bucharest for his thesis has seen him move to Łódź in Poland to continue his studies and the undoubted stars of last years hop, Fratia, have disappeared amid allegations of cooking the books. The Brotherhood of rejected players is no more and those that wanted to carry on playing have found other clubs.

So could Andrei organise a second Groundhop from his new base in a foreign country? Would it be too much work without being present to chase people up and get enough interest for it to happen? Of course he could! His energy and enthusiasm plus the help of his good friend Alexandru Fieraru on the front line in Bucharest meant all the second edition of the Romanian Groundhop needed was hoppers!

Eventually the number of attendees settled at a creditable 21 with 18 from the UK, Juergen Schneider and Carsten Pikulik from Germany and France’s very own Pierre-Julien Pera who runs he excellent Eastern European-centric website Footballski.fr

With the hop due to start at Comprest on Friday afternoon many flew into Bucharest on the Thursday to afford a bit of time for sightseeing. Then, as is the wont of Eastern European football, the Comprest game got moved. As luck would have it another game, the second tier game at CS Balotești got moved as well to Friday morning!

Balotești were hosting Olimpia Satu Mare who endured an arduous ten hour, 352 mile, coach ride from their home close to the Ukrainian border. To the delight of Balotești’s unexpected foreign guests the club issued a small four page programme for the game and these were snapped up in double quick time. With the hosts just one place above the relegation spots and Olimpia in seventh in the table an away win was expected. Maybe it was the ridiculous journey that took its toll on the visitors but they never got their act together and Balotești earned a much needed win with a terrific header from Alexandru Eugen Nica separating the sides.

Liga II – Friday May 5th 2017 (11 am)

CS Balotești 1 (Nica Eugen 22)
Olimpic Satu Mare 0

Att:117 (at Stadion Central Balotești)

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So with the unexpected bonus game out of the way, Andrei duly appeared with the bus at 4pm ready for the first official game of the hop the First Liga game between FC Voluntari and ACS Poli Timișoara. Voluntari were formed as recently as 2010, the short termism of clubs in Romania is frightening!
Voluntari play at the Stadion Anghel Iordănescu, a burly and prolific centre forward for Steaua and Romania, which was built in 2010 for the new club in what appears to be a new town to the north east of the city. The hosts took the lead but were pegged back when visiting centre forward, Pedro Henrique, successfully conned the referee into awarding a penalty. Justice was done, however, when the hosts bagged what proved to be the winner just after the break.

The home team had been backed throughout by a small band of ultras in our sector. What made them special was that their average age must have been well into their 60’s. They banged drums and yelled through megaphones for the whole game with the elderly “capo” resplendent in a sailor’s cap! We had noticed our bus had been well and truly been boxed-in in the car park which made the 35 minute trip to the 8.30pm kick off at Concordia extremely tight with just a 45 minute window between games.

Liga I – Friday May 5th 2017 (6 pm)

FC Voluntari 2 (Balaur 9, Popaduic 49)
ACS Polu Timisoara 1 (Pedro Henrique pen 26)

Att:960 (at Stadion Anghel Iordănescu)

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We arrived in Chiajna with six minutes elapsed into Concordia’s bottom of the table clash with bankruptcy bound ASA Târgu Mureș. With 8 games of the play out series completed both sides had only managed one win and seven goals between them so we hadn’t exactly missed much. The game looked nailed on as a 0-0 until the hosts unexpectedly scored twice in eight minutes mid way through the second half. The Stadionul Concordia was opened in 2007 and luckily had a 3G surface so the massive thunderstorm that broke out did not threaten the game. It’s a traditional English style ground with four rectangular stands and has the Biserica Sfântul Nicolae as an imposing backdrop.

Liga I – Saturday May 5th 2017 (8.30 pm)

CS Concordia Chiajna 2 (Grădinaru 71, Cristescu 79)
ASA Târgu Mureș 0

Att:672 (at Stadion Concordia)

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The Satuday morning game took us to the small town of Snagov. Until 2016 FC Snagov had been plying their trade in the third tier of Romanian football before suffering relegation. Then in the summer of 2016 FC Snagov found themselves taken over lock, stock and barrel by Metalul Reșița.

This season has been tough for Metalul having to field a very young side and today’s opponents where FC Brașov, a club with a decent top flight and European pedigree. After the opponents dominated the first half they held a one goal cushion, and a comfortable away win seemed on the cards until one of Metalul’s more experienced players, Mihai Dina, delighted a modest crowd (despite free entry) with a high quality equaliser on a bobbly surface at the otherwise excellent Stadion Voinţa.

Liga II – Saturday May 6th 2017 (11.30 am)

CSM Metalul Reșița 1 (Dina 63)
FC Brașov 1 (Răchişan 24)

Att:155 (at Stadion Voinţa)

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After lunch we toddled over to the ground of FC Metaloglobus to see the second string of FCSB (the preposterous new name of Steaua, long story) take on Atletic Bradu. As we arrived the adjacent ground, the Sport Complex Ion Tiriac, was hosting a fifth level game between CSM Unirea Dobroești and VK Soccer. It had not long kicked off so the majority opted to sit in the sun and watch a 3-0 win for the home team.

Liga V – Saturday May 6th 2017 (4 pm)

CSM Unirea Dobroești 3 VK Soccer 0

Att:58 (at Complex Sportiv Ion Tiriac)

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Metaloglobus have won promotion to the second tier for next season and its no surprise Steaua opt to use their excellent facilities for their reserve team matches. FCSB dominated the game with a slick passing game, but couldn’t find the net leaving the visitors with a single goal victory.

Liga III – Saturday May 6th 2017 (6 pm)

FC Steaua București II 0
Atletic Bradu 1 (Ruţă 36)

Att:86 (at Stadion Metaloglobus)

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Sunday began with an 12 o’clock kick off at Stadion Spartac, home of Progresul Spartac ’44 who we had seen on the hop last year when their first team played at the excellent Electromagnetica ground. Today is a fifth tier clash between Progresul’s reserves and the optimistically titled Power Team. Progresul’s ultras, who we had so enjoyed their company last year, turned up en masse for this one and blue smoke bombs were let off for the occasion. The home side won easily, 7-3, in a stadium that has been decorated with the ultras cartoon versions of themselves.

Liga V – Sunday May 7th 2017 (12 pm)

Progresul Spartac II 7 (Diț 11,14, Georgescu 36,Cirdeiu 43,53, Calancea 49,60)
Power Team 3 (Burlacu 50,80, Gheorghe 65)

Att:57 (at Stadion Progresul Spartac)

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The hop ended by kind of going full circle with a game at AS Romprim. Much of the disbanded Fratia set up that won our hearts on last years hop have moved here including their coach from the Congo, Aime Lema, and Tudorel Mihailescu, the 51 year old goalkeeper who still plays in the fourth tier despite only having one arm. Sadly today they are no match for AS Tricolor who field a beast of a striker and his hat-trick paved the way for an easy 5-1 win as lightning crackled alarmingly close the ground during a heavy thunderstorm. The Stadion Romprim is excellent with sizeable stands on both sides and, wait for it, a bar that sells beer during the game! It also boasts an old school scoreboard at one end of the ground.

Liga IV – Sunday May 7th 2017 (5 pm)

AS Romprim 1 (Batchabi 83)
AS Tricolor 5 (G.Pristoliam 19,28,62, Ologeahu 70,Parvu 78)

Att:45 (at Stadion Romprim)

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With a great mix of stadiums and games as well as eating and drinking like kings the second Romanian groundhop was a tremendous success and enjoyed by all in attendance. Young Andrei is a knowledgeable and likeable host who puts tremendous effort into these trips. You cannot fault his enthusiasm either as he has announced the date of the third Romanian Groundhop already! It will take place in and around Timișoara with the date being the weekend of September 22nd to 24th 2017.

Andrei left and Alexandru right

An expanded version of this post will appear in a future edition of Football Weekends magazine. To order your copy please visit:
https://www.footballweekends.co.uk/about-our-mag/

Distant ETO

Győri Egyetértés Torna Osztály Football Club or ETO FC Győr as they are more commonly known were formed in 1904 and have a rich history of European competition participation and the no little matter of 69 seasons in the Hungarian top flight, the Nemzeti Bajnokság I.

The club are four time champions of Hungary, the most recent of which came in 2012/13. So why you might be asking are the club currently languishing in the murky depths of the regionalised third division? Győr’s most recent season in NB I was 2014/15 when despite finishing eighth in the then 16 team league the club were found guilty of breaching licensing and financial regulations and were demoted to the third tier.

The Győr club has undergone many name changes over the years and these Include the name of Rába Vasas ETO Győr for which they are probably best known to English football fans. This was the club’s name in the 1984/85 when they were drawn against Manchester United in the old Cup Winner Cup competition.

Győr’s past European pedigree is truly impressive. They had been crowned Hungarian champions for the first time in 1963/4 and the success meant a tilt at the European Cup the following season. The green and whites defeated Chemie Leipzig, Lokomotiv Sofia and somewhat forgotten Dutch club Door Wilskracht Sterk before drawing the mighty Benfica in the semi final. The home leg was played in front of 62,000 people at the old Népstadion in Budapest and the Portuguese won 1-0. Braces from the legendary Eusebio and José Torres in the second leg ended Hungarian hopes of success.

Continued success in Europe saw the club move into a new stadium in 1967, the ETO Stadion. Initially it had a capacity of 25,000 but in its later existence this had been savagely cut to 14,000. In 2008 Győr moved again to a new stadium, hotel and a total white elephant of a shopping centre complex on the eastern edge of town called ETO Park. It has two huge modern double tiered stands on either side, one end has nothing other than a scoreboard while the hotel end has a blink and you will miss it tiny section of terracing for away fans. After the old Ferenc Puskás Stadion in Budapest was decommissioned and the Groupama Arena was opened the Hungarian national team played several home internationals at ETO Park.

After the success of clinching the NB I championship in 2012/13, the club faced huge problems when in 2015 its owners, Quaestor Financial Hrurira, went bankrupt. Unable to operate ETO Györ declared debts of 200 million florints (over £500,000) to the Hungarian FA. The enforced demotion was inevitable as the club looked to just survive and regroup in the third tier.

This season has been one of hope for Győr as they are challenging for promotion from NB III and also enjoying a run in the Magyar Kupa. Having already eliminated top flight Debrecen (1-0) and Komárom (7-1), the draw was harsh for the green and whites as they were pitted against NB I league leaders Vasas FC.

Tonight Győr played some scintillating attacking football with Lukas Szabó really catching the eye up front. The hosts were never out of this contest until virtually the last kick of the game when Vasas substitute Yevhen Pavlov prodded home an undeserved winner.

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Tuesday November 29th 2016 – Magyar Kupa 8th Round 

ETO FC Győr 2 (Rácz pen 39, Szabó 46)
Vasas FC 3 (Saglik 11, Remili 80, Pavlov 90)

Att: c.2,000

Admission HUF 1,000 (£3) Programme Free

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Still Top in Oss? (FC Oss)

“No one likes Oss and we don’t care”, so says a cleverly worded banner at the rear of the stand populated by the ultras of FC Oss. For this is the current name of the club far better known by their previous name of Top Oss. Formed in 1928 as KMD (Klein Maar Dapper, which means Small But Brave) however the club soon changed their name as many other clubs already had the name KMD. The new name was TOP (Tot Plezier Ons, which means For Our Pleasure).  The club became TOP Oss in 1994 to more clearly identify with the town they represented. Sadly six years in 2009 the club dropped the “TOP” altogether and became FC Oss. Looking at the ultras flags though many of them still refer to the club as TOP Oss.

The club were briefly professional in the 1950’s when they competed in the Tweede Divisie but rejoined the amateur ranks in 1957. They only turned professional again as recently as 1991, after three amateur championship wins, and have mainly competed at the second level Eerste Divisie. A brief one season spell in the third level Topklasse in 2010/11 resulted in the club returning to the Eerste as Topklasse champions.

In 1996 the club were granted permission to renovate the old Top Oss Stadion, and work on the new grandstand started a year later. The north and west stands were completed by the end of the 1998/99 season with the North stand providing changing facilities for the amateur wing of the club. The remaining end has a “Talentencampus” opened in 2008 to house young players. Unusually FC Oss and near neighbours NEC Nijmegen have a combined youth academy system.

Oss had a reasonable season last campaign, finishing ninth, but have recently sold a number of players including goalkeeper Luuk Koopmans to PSV and back in January  Kevin van Veen  went to Scunthorpe United for 300,000 Euros. Tonight’s visitors are FC Emmen who finished fourth in last seasons table but lost out in the play-offs. The visitors look like they could be strong contenders again this campaign as their breezed to a very comfortable win, celebrated wildly by their small band of travelling supporters.

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Eerste Divisie – 07/08/2015

FC Oss 0
FC Emmen 3 (Deul 27, Kolder pen 53, Danso 72)

Att: 1,987 (at Frans Heesen Stadion)

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