Upon This Rock (Gibraltar)

The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was formed in 1895 and is one of the oldest operating national associations in the world. Football on the isthmus dates from the 1890’s and were kickabout games on the British Garrison which had been built in 1704. In 1901 the first organised match was reported between a civilian Gibraltarian XI and side representing the military, which would become known as Prince of Wales FC. The match took place on a grass pitch inside the racetrack that had been laid on the flat land between Gibraltar and the frontier with Spain and is believed to have been close to the site of the present day Victoria Stadium.

The first golden period for Gibraltarian football came with the reconstruction of the Victoria Stadium in period at the end of World War II. The site was originally a military pitch and had been in use since 1926. The new facility attracted many professional clubs and GFA representative sides took on the like of Real Madrid (a notable 2-2 draw!), Atlético Madrid, Real Valladolid and more exotic opposition like Red Star Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Wacker Innsbruck. In the period 1949 to 1955 many UK nationals did their military service in Gibraltar and military football leagues proliferated. The Army had three pitches out by Europa Point and there was another pitch in the town centre, generally known as the Naval Ground.

This period of unprecedented success for the GFA ended when in 1956 the Spanish government banned their clubs from playing on the peninsula and four years later the UK ended National Service reducing the number of military personnel in Gibraltar by some 90%. In 1971 the Victoria Stadium was again rebuilt, this time by the Royal Engineers. The GFA upgraded the pitch and athletics track in 1991.

Gibraltar’s first attempted to join UEFA in 2007, but their bid was overwhelmingly rejected. Spain had lobbied FIFA citing the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 as a basis for declaring the proposed national stadium of Gibraltar as being built on disputed land and was contrary to FIFA’s constitution. However, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, found in favour of Gibraltar and UEFA had to agree to provisional membership. By 2013 the GFA were formerly voted into full membership with only Belarus and Spain voting against them. This allowed the tiny nation of just 30,000 people access to all international and European club competitions. Similarly to the Armenia and Azerbaijan scenario, Spain and Gibraltar will be kept apart in competition draws.

The GFA’s problems, however, did not end there even when finally elected to UEFA they could not host games on a stadium they did not wholly own. Ownership of the venue was largely with the Government of Gibraltar. The 54th member nation of UEFA then had to play its home international matches in Portugal in the Estádio do Algarve in Loulé. There were schemes to build a new national stadium at Europa Point and also Lathbury Barracks but neither came to fruition.

The issue was resolved by the Government selling the stadium to the GFA for £16.5m, largely funded by grants from UEFA. The sale price would be reinvested in other venues for sports displaced by the sale and in upgrading venues in time for the 2019 Island Games. The new Victoria Stadium will be UEFA Category 4 compliant with a capacity of 8,000. The new project will start in early 2019 and take two years to complete. Football will continue to be played while work progresses but there it was decided there would be no football tournament in the Island Games due to the construction plans. This tournament will be held instead on Anglesey in June 2019.

Gibraltarian clubs’ European matches had been held at the Victoria Stadium, including Lincoln Red Imps’ famous 1-0 win over Celtic in July 2016, but the move into sole ownership allowed national team games to be staged in Gibraltar from the start of the new UEFA Nations League.

On the domestic scene a Gibraltarian Football League has existed since the 1895/6 season when Gibraltar FC were the inaugural winners. The most successful side were the military side Prince of Wales FC, who had won 19 titles by the time they disbanded in 1953. It has taken the rise of Lincoln Red Imps in recent years to overhaul that total and they now stand on 23 titles of which includes 16 of the 18 championships contested since the turn of the new millennium. Only wins by Gibraltar United (2001/02) and Europa (2016/17) have punctuated their dominance.

The first game today is between St. Joseph’s, the oldest club in the Gibraltarian League system having being formed in 1912, and Gibraltar Phoenix. The two sides are very evenly matched and lie fourth and fifth in the ten team table at the start of play. It ends goalless although it is a reasonably interesting game. Despite free entry a very modest crowd gathers for this 4pm kick off.

Saturday November 24th 2018 (16.00pm) – Gibraltar First Division

St.Joseph’s 0
Gibraltar Phoenix 0

Att:62 (at Victoria Stadium)

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Such is the conveyor belt use of the artificial surface at the Victoria Stadium, only half an hour separates this game from another First Division contest between Lynx and Mons Calpe, named after one of the two Pillars of Hercules. Lynx are struggling in eighth place in the table while Mons Calpe are fourth. The match goes true to form and Mons coast to very comfortable 3-0 in pouring rain. Lynx are a noticeably poorer team than the other three watched today despite having one of the famous Chipolina brothers, Kenneth, in their rearguard.

Saturday November 24th 2018 (18.15pm) – Gibraltar First Division

Lynx 0
Mons Calpe 3 (Sastrie 24, Pereyra 33, Pegalajar 90)

Att:71 (at Victoria Stadium)

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There was an option to see a third straight game at 20.30pm, a second tier clash between Manchester 62 FC and College 1975, but it was nice to have an evening meal in the old part of this historic area.

As a footnote occasionally planes cannot land at Gibraltar airport in high winds and bad weather. This can result in planes landing at Malaga airport instead, and the obvious delays that ensues. Could be worth factoring this possibility into your travel plans.

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Baltic State

Having enjoyed a football weekend in the Estonian capital of Tallinn a few years ago I decided it was high time I ticked off the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania.

Arriving in Rīga on Ryan Air’s joy filled red eye flight from Stansted the Latvian capital soon wins you over with its imminent walkability and stunning architecture including several Art Nouveau structures. But before you even think about your transfer from the airport to the city you must take a look at the stunning Military Aircraft Museum next to the terminal and opposite car park P3. Once you have satisfied your Cold War intrigue a transfer to the heart of Rīga takes twenty minutes. It is worth stating that car hire is very good value and you can take the vehicle you hire into either of the other Baltic nations without any extra charge or additional insurance.

Football in Latvia is beset by money problems and poor support. Since independence in 1991 Skonto Rīga was always the biggest club in Latvia, winning 14 league titles in a row before Liepajas Metalurgs ended their monopoly in 2005. Skonto would only win one more championship before suffering a calamitous and fatal bankruptcy in December 2016. The Skonto Stadions is a very decent stadium, albeit three sided, and is now used by FC Rīga.

The SynotTip Virsliga (Higher League) operates with just eight clubs, six of which have only been formed since the turn of the 21st century. My first taste of Latvian football comes at Rīgas Futbola Skola. The RTU (Rīgas Tehniskās universitātes) Stadions has a large temporary looking bleacher style stand on the near side with in excess of 200 seats. On the opposite side there are two small terracing units one labelled for the away side and one for the home team “ultras”. Less than ten away fans from reigning Higher League champions Spartaks Jūrmala.

It is €5 entry on the day although e-tickets can be bought in advance for €3. Just before kick off the RFS “ultras” arrive bedecked in shirts and scarves and banging drums. Despite their fervour the home side barely muster a shot on goal and Spartaks coast to a 2-0 win. The official attendance was 330 although my head count made it considerably less.

Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga

FK Rīgas Futbola Skola 0
FK Spartaks Jūrmala 2 (Svārups 34, Dmitriev 77)

Att:330 Entry €5

Luckily the game did not overrun so the ten minute dash back across the river was made in time to see the 3pm kick off between Metta/Latvijas Universitāte and Valmiera Glass VIA get underway. Metta play at another very basic ground called the Rīgas Hanzas Vidusskolas laukums just a few minutes from the Skonto Stadions. It is €4 entry and there is again a long bleacher style seated stand down one side. This was a real slow boiler of a game, after an hour of mind numbingly tedious tiki-taka passing the two sides shared four goals in the closing stages including a couple of superb strikes.

Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga

FK Metta/Latvijas Universitāte 2 (Dzhamalutdinov pen 77,87)

FK Valmiera Glass Via 2 (V.Jaunzems 62, Cipe 83)

Att:250 Entry €4

An evening in old town Rīga capped a fine day out with a cross border trip to Lithuania to look forward to in the morning. It is worth mentioning here that there seems to be an issue with Lithuanian top flight where matches can change location at quite short notice. Thankfully the Lithuania FA website (lff.lt) is just as accurate and informative as its Latvian equivalent. My planned double was the 1pm kick off between Kauno Zalgiris and FK Atlantas, which had already been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, and then the 6pm match between FK Stumbras and FK Trakai at the S.Dariaus ir S.Gireno Stadionas.

However, a quick check up before the three hour drive south from Riga to Kaunas showed that the Stumbras game had also been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, which left the obvious dilemma of waiting around for a few hours for a match at the same venue or find an alternative match. I quickly found a 4pm kick off in the Lithuanian Cup at Šiauliai but it would be impossible to make kick off in time. A quick look into the murky depths of the Pirmā Liga, the Latvian second tier found a very handy 7pm match in Olaine for the intriguingly named FK Super Nova.

The Lithuanian top flight game was interesting, a more pacy English style of match instead of the short passing games witnessed north of the border. It was to prove a very entertaining match in a very basic venue normally used by Zalgiris’ and Stumbras’ second teams. The game ended 2-3 to the visitors who thoroughly deserved their win although the hosts nearly levelled in injury time.

Sunday April 2018 – Lithuanian A Lyga

FK Kauno Žalgiris 2 (Kloniūnas 13, Joan Figuereido 87)
FK Atlantas 3 (Baniulis 7,54, Šinkus 85)

Att:155 Entry €3

The gap between matches meant a comfortable drive back to Olaine which lies around 15 miles south of the capital. FK Super Nova were formed as recently as 2000 and previously played at the Ostvalda Vidusskola Stadions some twelve miles away in Imanta. They seemingly have quite good support and totally unexpectedly a modest but colourful programme was handed out free of charge. The Olaines Stadions turned out to be the best one of the weekend, a large back of seats with the central section covered with a roof. Opposite this a church and railway track provides a scenic backdrop. Super Nova now share this ground with local side, AFA Olaine.

The standard of football was pretty poor with a seeming inability to stop giving the ball away at every opportunity. The game was won by the hosts when a rare half decent cross was knocked into the net to the evident delight of the home fans. It seemed to me that the match was more a social event for families with the actual match being a secondary concern. The club are clearly trying to generate a family atmosphere and have an angry looking star as a mascot!

Sunday April 29th 2018 – Latvian Komanda Pirmā Liga

SK Super Nova 1 (Strautiņš 77)
FK Smiltene/BJSS 0

Att:228 Free entry, free programme

It proved an interesting break in two of European football’s backwaters.

An expanded version of this review will appear in a future issue of Football Weekends Magazine.

The Struggle Within (Fort William F.C.)

Football in Fort William arrived late as the Western Highlands region is much more interested in shinty, a traditional Scottish Gaelic game played with wooden sticks. Comann Camanachd A’ Ghearasdain (Fort William Shinty Club) date from 1893 and Kilmallie Shinty Club from 1929 so their long standing foothold in the town meant that the town did not have a football club until 1974.The club has always played at Claggan Park, an enclosed pasture in the foothills of the Ben Nevis mountain range. The stunning backdrop is rightly lauded as one of the best in Europe but the peak is not actually Ben Nevis itself, but a hill called Meall an t-Suidhe. The venue itself has a decrepit covered stand on one side of the pitch but this is now fenced off and condemned. There are now two identical modular Arena Seating units with around 70 seats each on the opposite side. The pitch is close to the River Nevis and is prone to waterlogging. In an attempt to help the pitch recover from the shocking winter the club turned the pitch ninety degrees in December which has left the playing surface decidedly narrow and the stands now behind either goal. Fort William FC initially contested friendlies and entered cup competitions such as the Scottish Qualifying Cup, the Inverness Cup and the North of Scotland Club. The clubs’ remote location meant there was no obvious league competition for the fledgling club to join. The club eventually joined the North Caledonian League for the 1983/84 season and finished runners-up to Muir of Ord before winning the title the following season. The club were in the ascendancy and joined the Highland League for 1985/86. It’s been another tough season on the field for The Fort, with five games left they have already conceded 156 goals including a 2-12 loss at home to Cove Rangers, a 0-10 at home to Fraserburgh. However, the nadir came when they visited reigning champions, Brora Rangers, at Dudgeon Park. The 16-0 thumping was just one goal away from Fort’s record defeat of 17-0 against Peterhead in 1998.Assuming Fort do finish bottom of the table this season it will mean they have been wooden spoonists 16 times in the 33 seasons they have been in the Highland League. This includes a run of four seasons finishing in last place, the fourth of which, 2008/09, saw them secure just one point all season in a 1-1 draw with Wick Academy. The size of their problem can be measured by looking between 1996/97 and 2013/14 when in those 18 seasons the club were bottom of the table 14 times.Their on field struggles have been well documented, but its immediate future lies off the field as all six board members announced in January that they will be stepping down at the end of the current campaign. This includes primary benefactors Stewart Maclean and Gerald McIntyre whose cash injections have kept the club afloat and funded the tortuous road trips needed in the Highland League. Despite a thriving academy set up the Forts have always struggled to attract players of sufficient quality often resorting to shipping in players from Glasgow and Inverness. Their traditional dragnet for local talent is from the surrounding areas of Lochaber, Oban and Speyside as well as the Isle of Skye. However, this flow of talent has dwindled since the closure of the Lochaber Welfare League, a summer competition, in 2016. Fort William has produced players of a very decent standing, Bolton Wanderers legend, John McGinlay, started his career at Claggan Park, while ex Chelsea and Swindon forward Duncan Shearer was also born in the town.The club have notified the Highland League that they are likely to resign from the competition at the end of the current campaign. The club have an EGM this week to decide whether the club will join either the Scottish Amateur set up or rejoin the North Caledonian League. Another option, should there be no offers of new blood and financing, would be to fold the club altogether.If the club rejoin the North Caledonian League for the new season their nearest opposition would be Inverness Athletic who are located in Muir of Ord. The away trip to Thurso would take over four hours each way on the 173 mile journey.It would be a real tragedy if this doughty but luckless club call it a day. Claggan Park is an iconic British football ground but undoubtedly these are troubled times at this remote outpost of the beautiful game.indexSaturday April 14th 2018 – Highland LeagueFort William (0) 0Formartine United (3) 6 (Barbour 22,35,51, Rodger 38, Gethins pen 59, Crawford 65)Attendance: 94   Admission £7, free teamsheetGalleryIMG_7411IMG_7409IMG_7342IMG_7408IMG_7381Fort William 140418 028IMG_7355Fort William 140418 018_edited-1ticket

Over The Rainbow (SV Zulte-Waregem)

The current club SV Zulte-Waregem is the result of a 2001 merger between former top flight club KSV Waregem and Zultse VV. KSV Waregem were formed in 1925 as Waereghem Sportif and spent nearly 30 seasons in the top division of Belgian football. Their best finish in the top flight was fourth which they achieved on three occasions, most recently in 1992/93. Waregem also won the Belgian Cup in 1974, defeating KSK Tongeren 4-1 in the final. They also had a decent pedigree in Europe, even reaching the semi final of the UEFA Cup in 1985/86. They defeated Aarhus (6-2 on aggregate), Osasuna (3-2), AC Milan (3-2), Hajduk Split (won on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw) before bowing out 7-3 on aggregate to 1.FC Köln.

Ten years later Waregem ended their time in the top division and by 1999 had sunk to the third tier. By 2001 debts had become insurmountable and the club only survived in any form by merging with Zultse VV, adopting the latter’s matricule and rebranding as SV Zulte-Waregem.

The newly merged club won promotion to the top flight in 2004/5 and a year later defeated Excelsior Mouscron in the final to win the Belgian Cup. This took “Essevee” into the UEFA Cup the following season. After successfully negotiating a group that included Austria Wien, Espanyol, Sparta Prague and Ajax, the Reds succumbed to Newcastle United in the round of 32.

The 2012/13 campaign saw Waregem finish runners up in the Pro League to Anderlecht falling just two points short of the title. A second Belgian Cup came the clubs’ way last season when they defeated KV Oostende 4-2 on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels.

The new club had its offices in Zulte but used the former home of KSV Waregem, the Regenboogstadion. The “Rainbow” Stadium was opened in 1957 as the host venue for the UCI World Road Cycling championships. The name of the stadium comes from the rainbow jersey worn by the World Road bike champion. The stadium holds 12,500 at present but work is underway to in fill two more corners, the lakeside corner already being opened and used to house away fans. The stadium was significantly renovated in 2015, to become UEFA compliant, the club had previously held many of its European ties at Gent. Once the corner stands have been completed the stadium will hold 14,300 people.

Tonight’s game is a big derby match against near neighbours, KV Kortrijk. The away fans released a big red flare as the game kicked off while Zulte’s ultras released red and green smoke bombs in the steep terrace behind the goal. Its a noisy start to the game but the visitors puncture the fervor when Teddy Chevalier arrived unmarked in the hosts penalty area to open the scoring. Zulte almost immediately levelled with a goal from Peter Olayinka. Kortrijk took the lead again on 40 minutes when Bennard Kumordzi nodded in a lose ball. Again Zulte had the chance of an almost instant reply when they were awarded a penalty. However the chance was missed when Timothy Derijck’s weak spot kick was saved by Thomas Kaminski in the Kortrijk goal. Moments into the second half though, Zulte had their equaliser when Onur Kaya netted in front of the ultras.

Despite both side going for it in an open second half, there were no further goals and perhaps a draw was the right result. Kortrijk’s fans were clearly pleased with the result as their fans let off a barrage of red smoke bombs outside the ground much to the consternation of the local police.

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September 9th 2017 – Jupiler Pro League (09/09/2017)

SV Zulte-Waregem 2 (Olayinka 15, Kaya 49)

KV Kortrijk 2 (Chevalier 13, Kumordzi 40)

Att: 9,000
Admission €20 no programme but teamsheet freely available from press area.

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Kings Of A Wild Frontier (Royal Excel Mouscron)

The original Royal Excelsior Mouscron were formed in 1922 as Stade Mouscronnais. They adopted their current name in 1964 when Stade merged with rival town team ARA Mouscron. Mouscron is a French speaking city with the border separating it from the French town of Tourcoing. Mouscron (the “s” isn’t actually pronounced) itself was a French town until the 19th century.

The clubs’ greatest achievement was in 1993-94 when the finished as runners up to Sint-Truiden in the Belgian Second Division. The club were also Belgian Cup finalists in 2002 and 2006 losing to Club Brugge and Zulte-Waregem on each occasion. 

In 1990 Excelsior merged with Rapid Club Luingnois. The club qualified for the UEFA Cup on two occassions, the first was in 1997-98. The “Frontaliers” defeated Cypriot side Apollon Limassol before losing 6-1 on aggregate to FC Metz. The second occasion was 2002/03 when Icelandic side Fylkir were beaten before Excel lost heavily again in the next round, this time 7-3 on aggregate to Slavia Prague.

Just a year or so after their European adventures, Excel hit severe financial problems in 2004 and were forced into a fire sale of their best players in order to survive. It should have served as a warning to the club but in 2009, when the side was managed by former national team hero, Enzo Scifo, the club collapsed. Manchester City offered to by the ailing club as a nursery club but the offer fell through and Excel were forced into liquidation.

In order to preserve professional football in Mouscron and at the Stade du Canonnier, home to Excel since 1930, talks were entered into with nearby club RRC Péruwelz, who themselves had been formed in 1921. Talks were successful and Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz were formed taking the the latter’s matricule of 216. In the time honoured tradition the failing club had their matricule, in Mouscron’s case 224, removed by the Belgian FA.

Some supporters of RRC Péruwelz were unhappy at leaving their own Stade de la Verte Chasse, and formed their own amateur club Péruwelz FC. 

2012 was a great year for the new club, they became champions of the third division and also won the historic Trophée Jules Pappaert. The following season the club were promoted to the too flight having finished as runners-up to KV Oostende. 

In something of a surprise move this season the club has reverted back to the name Royal Excel Mouscron and have dropped the Péruwelz reference despite retaining Péruwelz’s matricule.

Mouscron’s traditional home, the Stade du Canonnier, was most recently renovated in 1999 when a new main stand was opened. The club also own a huge training complex called Futurosport which covers 23 hectares and itself has a show pitch with a seated stand for 1,000 people. Due to its hemmed in location amongst residential streets the Canonnier will never be able to be expanded much beyond its current 11,000 capacity and the clubs’ owners have earmarked the potential development of a new stadium at the Futurosport site in the not to distant future.

This evening’s visitors are mighty Club Brugge sitting on top of the Jupiler Pro League with maximum points from the opening five rounds of games. However, Excel have also made a useful start to the campaign but its Club that attack from the offset of this match. Somewhat against the run of play the hosts were awarded a penalty which pacy frontman Jonathan Bolingi gratefully converted. The lead lasted barely eight minutes when a sweeping Brugge move saw Stefano Denswil drill home an equaliser. However, the 14 time Belgian champions were stung again just before half time when Excel scored again with a towering header from Bolingi. The visitors dominated the second half but could not find a way through a well drilled Mouscron defence. The hosts survived five minutes of stoppage time to record a famous victory.

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Sunday September 9th 2017 – Jupiler Pro League 

Royal Excel Mouscron 2 (Bolingi pen 18,40)

Club Brugge KV 1 (Denswil 26)

Att:9,579 

Admission €12, free teamsheet given away in supporters bar.

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Phoenix (FC Pyunik)

FC Pyunik have achieved so much in a relatively short period of time having been formed as recently as 1992. Initially they were called Homenetmen Yerevan and in their first season they shared the first Armenian Premier League title with Shirak Gyumri 

In 1995 Homenetmen rebranded as Pyunik which is the Armenian word for Phoenix. However, the club ran into problems and did not compete in the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The club were reborn in 2001 with a new owner, Ruben Hayrapetyan. Rather than rejoin the League in the second tier Pyunik absorbed First League champions FC Armenicum so they were restored to the Premier League. Pyunik immediately won their fourth league title finishing well clear of runners up Zvartnots-AAL. 

It was the start of huge success for Pyunik, the club’s ethos of signing the best Armenian players from other clubs as well as quality players from West Africa. They would win ten straight league titles between 2001 and 2010. They have only won one championship since, in 2014/15, but to highlight their domestic dominance their 14 titles is ten more than the next nearest challenger, Shirak Gyumri. Pyunik have also won eight Armenian Cups and nine Super Cups.

Their academy system produced Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He joined the the club aged 6 in 1995 and made his professional debut at 17 in 2006. He would join FC Metalurh Donetsk in 2009. 

The club played at the massive Hrazdan Stadium until 1999 when they moved to the Republican Stadium. When the Republican was being redeveloped Pyunik used their own stadium, a 770 seater stadium which was built in 2004 after they acquired the former Kilikia Sports Complex. Since 2013 their first team games have been played at the Yerevan Football Academy Centre on the outskirts of the city. 

The clubs’ reserve side, Pyunik-2, have won the Armenian First League four times although not since 2007. They play their home games at the eye catchingly quirky Pyunik Stadium and it is here that we watch them take on Armenian First league leaders, FC Banants-2. The First League is made up entirely of reserve teams other than Erebuni who prop up the table. Banants were eight points clear of second place Pyunik at the start of play and tear into the hosts from the off. A hugely entertaining game ensues but the hosts are never really in the contest. Over 100 people watch the game, the ground has a pitch length seated stand with a media stand in the centre. It’s a decent facility and well worth a visit for a second tier game. 

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Armenian First League (22/05/2017)

FC Pyunik II  2 (Khatuev 17, Hovhannisyan 89)

FC Banants II 4 (Hambardzumyan 8, 20, Melqonyan 81, Safaryan 84)

Att:119 (at Pyunik Stadium) 

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Power and Motion (FC Dinamo Tbilisi)

When I was a kid, Dinamo Tbilisi were a real European powerhouse, state sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs they had some magical players that formed the back bone of the Soviet national team. The likes of Aleksandre Chivadze, David Kipiani, Vitaly Dareselia, Tengiz Sulakveledze and Ramaz Shengelia won many Soviet caps between them and four of them would win Soviet Union Footballer of the year award between 1977 and 1981. Their zenith in European competition was their 1981 Cup Winners Cup Final win over East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. Under respected coach Nodar Akhalkatsi Dinamo had dispatched the likes of Kastoria, Waterford United, West Ham United and Feyenoord before goals from Dareselia and Vladimir Gutsaev saw them triumph, 2-1, in front of a meagre crowd of 4,750 people in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion.

From the formation of the Soviet Top League in 1936 to the break up of the Union in 1991, Dinamo were one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the top flight, the others being Dynamo Moscow and Dynamo Kiev. Dinamo Tbilisi’s undoubted star player in those early years was Boris Paichadze who scored over 100 goals for them and was voted Georgia’s greatest player of the 20th century. Dinamo’s home stadium is named after him and his statue stands outside the entrance gates. Incidentally Dinamo or Dynamo as a prefix for football clubs comes from a corruption of Greek (dynamis) and Latin (motio) words for “Power in Motion” and was first coined by the Belgian inventor of the electrical generator, Zenobe Gramme.

Since their 70’s heyday Dinamo continue to produce wonderfully talented players who progress to a bigger stage like Temuri Ketsbaia (Newcastle United), Shota Arvaladze (Rangers), Kaka Kaladze (AC Milan), Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City) and Levan Kobiashvili who enjoyed an extensive career in the Bundesliga with Freiburg, Schalke and Hertha and is the only Georgian player to date to win 100 international caps.

The Georgian Premier League, now sponsored by Erovnuli, has changed to a spring to autumn season from this season after a mini transitional campaign in 2016. The transitional season reduced the number of clubs in the top tier from 12 to 10. It is interesting to note that during Soviet rule a number of the smaller Tbilisi clubs like Lokomotiv, Tolia, SKIF and the cities’ oldest club, Shevardeni, competed in a separate Georgian League.

We arrived in Tbilisi for the 13th round of games and an enticing looking game against defending champions FC Samtredia, the most westerly located club in the top division. On a rainy evening a small crowd gathers at this vast stadium which can hold 55,000 spectators. Originally Dinamo played at the old Central Stadium which could only accommodate 35,000 so with the club’s golden era of the 1970’s a bigger venue was needed. The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Dinamo Stadium, built on the same site, was opened in 1976 and designed by architect Gia Kurdiani. It could hold 75,000 people and contemporary reports suggest an attendance of 110,000 watched Dinamo’s epic win over Liverpool in 1979. In 1995 the stadium was renamed in honour of Georgia’s greatest player Boris Paichadze and an international match against Germany that year also reputedly saw 110,000 gather.

In 2006 the stadium was turned into an all-seater arena style stadium with a drastically reduced capacity of 54,549. The stadium looks to have barely 600 people present (although the official gate says 1,200) all are housed in the main stand except for a small band of Dinamo ultras in the far corner who bang drums, light a flare or two and display banners supporting the disputed territory of Abkhazia. About fifteen minutes into the game and the police scurry towards one end of the stadium, suddenly around 50 fans from Samtredia arrive. Sadly a handful of them choose to display an “M13 Ultras” banner with a prominent swastika. Disappointingly there was also no attempt to remove it.

The hosts play with no little swagger in the first half and establish a comfortable looking two goal lead. However, the reigning champions come out for the second half in fighting mood and soon level the scores. However, their good work is undone when the best player on the pitch, Dinamo’s Bachana Arabuli scored in injury time with a truly monumental header. An exciting game in a magnificent stadium, it’s a shame so few pay the 65p required to watch this grand and historic club.

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Sunday May 21st 2017 – Georgia Erovnuli Liga 

Dinamo Tbilisi 3 (Arabuli 26, 90, Lochoshvili 37)

FC Samtredia 2 (Mtchelishvili 63, Datunaishvili 76)

Att: 1,200 (at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena)

Admission: 2 Lei (65p), programme 1 Lei (32p)

Gallery

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