Saturday, 9 August 2014

Ground 236: Grainger Park Boys Club

It was July 1977, in the middle of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, that the king came to Tyneside. Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion of the world, toured the streets on an open-top bus, had his wedding blessed at South Shields Mosque, played darts at Gypsies Green Stadium and sparred with young hopefuls at Newcastle's Grainger Park Boys Club. "A fantastic experience," thought 16-year-old Kenny Wharton, who turned professional with Newcastle United just a year after meeting Ali.  "The feeling I had at being in his presence has never left me." Wharton went on to make 335 appearances in eleven seasons at St James' Park, where he played alongside Kevin Keegan, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne, won promotion to the first division and memorably applied the coup de grace to a 4-0 revenge humbling of Luton by sitting on the ball in the middle of the pitch. "Grainger Park was a big part of my young life, helping me develop as a player and get the opportunity to play for my hometown club."

Grainger Park Boys Club has been providing chances for young footballers like Wharton since it opened in in a room of the Toc H Hostel in 1928.  A more recent graduate, Rotherham midfielder Conor Newton, joined Newcastle United's academy and won a Scottish League Cup medal while on loan at St Mirren in 2013. Earlier in the year Papiss Demba Cissé had been at the club's Denton Road home to hand out sponsored shirts. “We’ve got nothing,” secretary Nicola McCabe told George Caulkin of The Times. “Most kids struggle to pay their £2-a-week subs. But we would never stop a child from playing football if they can’t afford it.”  With over 200 members and 13 different teams, it costs £10,000 just to keep going every year.  "Grainger Park is one of the forgotten clubs," said McCabe.  "It's massive to get someone to come here to Scotswood."

"A road to nowhere," The Independent headlined an article on the Scotswood Road.
It was once the "workshop of the world", ringing to the sounds of shipyards and armament factories - during the First World War up to 78,000 people, or a quarter of the city's entire workforce, were employed at the giant Armstrong-Vickers plant - but Scotswood's jobless rate had edged past 25%  by the time Wharton made Newcastle's first team.  Today, after four decades of demolition ball regeneration, the munitions, battleship and locomotive works are all but gone,  replaced by business parks, enterprise centres and car showrooms.

There have been changes at Grainger Park Boys, too, the club entering a senior side in the Tyneside Amateur League for the 2007-08 season and since placing twelfth and fifth in their two seasons in the Northern Football Alliance's second division.  Three years younger, Whitburn Athletic come from a South Tyneside village with a footballing heritage of its own, but are fortunate not to be more than a single goal behind at the end of a first half in which Grainger Park have the build-up play but not the finish, the visiting keeper making a smart one-handed stop when a green shirt does get a shot on goal.  Thirty minutes in, with Whitburn outpassed but not outbattled in midfield, a low cross evades several pairs of feet and is turned in at the post.  "About time," a spectator says.

The away team manage a handful of long-range attempts but can't find a way past a defence marshalled by the impeccable Dale Robson, Grainger Park having a goal wrongly flagged offside before killing the game with a second in the 74th minute.  The sun beats down, dog walkers pause by the railed off pitch and Hadrian's Wall hikers walk west towards Carlisle.  "Canny game," one says, rightly. "Everything on the ground."

Date: August 9th 2014
Admission:  Free

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Ground 235: Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre

My World Cup started in the third week of May with two flights and a taxi, the latter from Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport to the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti (El Monumental for short), the home of Club Atlético River Plate. I was met by Andrew Aris - last seen outside the turnstile block at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium in 2002 - Aldo Baccaro and Juan Cruiz La Banca, whose nine-hour tour of the stadium took in a first-team training session, the club museum, a theatre, cinema, subsidised cafeteria, gymnasium and primary school, all located on the underside of the terracing where Argentina fans celebrated the 3-1 win over the Netherlands in the final of the 1978 World Cup.

El Monumental

Omar Larossa played 64 minutes of that final. "I wish I could tell you, to put into words," he said to an audience at Boca's La Bombonera, his voice creaking with emotion, "how it felt to kiss the Cup". Larossa was flanked by three of the 1966 quarter-finalists branded "animals" by Sir Alf Ramsey, Antonio Rattin - "an outstanding player," thought England's George Cohen - a genial figure at 77 years old. "Bobby Charlton was a wonderful midfielder,"  the ex-politician remembered after hearing where I was from.  "Bobby Moore," rhapsodied Silvio Marzolini, once rated the finest left-back in world football and later Diego Maradona's coach. "A great man."

At Boca

Two days later I was at Racing Club for a press event with the 1967 club world champions.  Juan Carlos Cárdenas, scorer of the decisive goal as six players were sent from the field in Montevideo, prominent among the guests.  "Celtic were a big team," he recalled.  103,000 fans had seen the first leg at Hampden Park, 100,000 more packed El Cilindro for the second.  From there it was a short hop over the river to Uruguay, the same journey made by over 25,000 Racing supporters for the third and final leg almost half a century before. "Where are you from? Which team do you support?" the customs officer asked me at the port town of Colonia del Sacramento. In Monetvideo there was a gate on the main street for the 1930 World Cup winners, though La Celeste's current crop could only labour to a single-goal victory over Northern Ireland on a rain-sodden pitch at the Estadio Centenario. A few days by an Atlantic beach in Punta del Diablo were followed by a second division play-off back in Colonia - the crowd swelling into double figures as a neighbouring school let out for the afternoon - and an overnight cross-border journey to Porto Alegre, killing a morning at the bus station before the 21-hour trip north to Sao Paulo.

Street football in Sao Paulo

I arrived in Latin America's biggest city on day three of a crippling public transport strike. There was a rope drawn across the Metro entrance and a taxi queue that stretched all the way around the concourse.  We edged forward like a defensive wall for an hour and a half, handlers shouting destinations along the line as they tried to whittle it down.  "We are always in favour of football but this tournament is more about money than sport," a fellow passenger said as we finally left Tiete Station in the rear view mirror. "The government doesn't have money for anything except FIFA." There was just as much cynicism at the Arena Corinthians itself, where football photographer and fixer extraordinaire Caio Vilela  took us four days before the tournament got underway.  "When will it be finished?" I asked. "Sometime in the second half," came the now familiar reply.

 Uruguay's Estadio Centenario

Rio de Janeiro on match day one was a very different place.  Chileans mixed with Colombians, Argentina fans played beach football with a combined France and Scotland team, and Brazilians thronged the Copacabana Fan Fest.  "There are different  queues to buy and pay for your beer," moaned one English fan, "and only about fifty toilets for everyone to use."  I chose to watch Spain play the Netherlands from the beach outside, the Atlantic lapping just metres away as Robben turned Ramos, Pique and Casillas into Boumsong, Bramble and John Karelse.  A few days earlier I'd clambered sweatily up Sugarloaf mountain with Paul Finnerty, taken a wrong turn and seen England's oceanside training complex from above.  One half against Italy aside, it would be the only impressive thing about Roy Hodgson's team. 

Brazil vs Croatia on Copacabana Beach

Enough buses. From Rio I decided to fly back to Porto Alegre.  The temperature dropped by ten degrees and the French fans were all congregated in a single city centre bar.  A member of their Football Federation arrived in a sponsored car, supporters lining up to pose for photos.  "If he was one of ours we'd be queueing to throw things at his head," said a bemused waiter.  I watched England lose to a Balotelli header in the company of an Irishman, two customers and a bar owner round the corner then headed back to the hotel.  "Not much of an atmosphere, is there?" mused Laurie Hanna. The next morning a broken door foiled my plan to meet up with the Honduras squad pre-game, leaving my mood no more positive than the graffiti - No Fifa, FIFA Go Home and Sem Copa among the politer messages - lining the Goal Walk on the way to the Beira-Rio ground.  I ducked back out of the cordon to see Laurie in a bar owned by Andre Vieira, a Copa Libertadores winner with Luis Scolari's Gremio in the mid-1990s before a peripatetic career took him to Switzerland, Romania, Moldova and Costa Rica.

Inside the Beira-Rio

Honduras could have done with him in a starting eleven which was reduced to ten when Wilson Palacios was dismissed in the move that led to France's first goal, Karim Benzema coolly converting a penalty awarded when Palacios barged into Paul Pogba.  The Brazilians in the crowd - supporting the underdogs with memories of the 1998 final yet to abate - whistled in derision, the woeful French support countering with a muted 'Allez Les Bleus' before attempting to start yet another Mexican Wave.  Benzema was instrumental in the second strike,  the first ever use of goalline technology at a World Cup sending the BBC's Jonathan Pearce into on-air meltdown. Inside the ground, the boos just got louder.  While Honduras hacked and harried, France - with Matthieu Valbuena buzzing and Yohan Cabaye at his imperious best - controlled, Benzema scoring a third goal with eighteen minutes left.  "I'm sorry," Andre told Laurie, his Honduran flag a souvenir of the 2010 tournament, when we returned to the bar post-match.

Waiting for kick-off

When the French left the Australians arrived.  My final afternoon in Brazil was spent watching Germany demolish Portugal in the company of a few hundred Fanatics dressed in matching hoodies, t-shirts and baseball caps.  I flew back the next day, beating England home by a week. No luxury hotels for me but no contest when it came to who had the better time.

Laurie Hanna's Honduras flag (on the left), the only banner covering a FIFA sign. 

Roll on mid-January and the African Cup of Nations.

Date:  Sunday 15th June 2014
Admission:  $90

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ground 234: Estadio Profesor Alberto Suppici, Colonia del Sacramento

An hour across the River Plate from  Buenos Aires, the tiny port town of Colonia del Sacramento has sandy beaches, tile-and-stucco colonial architecture, Uruguay's oldest church, a cobblestoned centre and a lower-league football team founded by the brother of a World Cup winning coach. Put it this way, it didn't take much arm twisting to get me there. 

Just over a week until kick-off in Brazil and one day before the national squad plays its final pre-departure friendly, the domestic league resumes with the quarter finals of the second-tier promotion play-offs.  Plaza Colonia - tenth of fourteen clubs in the regular season but still chasing their first top-flight place since 2005 - host Deportivo Maldonado, who finished the 26-game league campaign seven places and six points better off.

Better off in other ways, too.  Since 2011 Maldonado - average crowd roughly 218 -  have earned over $14 million trading players to European clubs.  Willian José, winner of an U20 World Cup with Brazil and a Copa Sudamerica at Sao Paulo, moved from Maldonado to Real Madrid, his national teammate Alex Sandro to Porto and Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia to Juventus on a season long loan.  Although none of the three had ever turned out for the Uruguayan club, their status as Maldonado players meant the sales tax dropped by as much as 75% compared to trading directly out of Brazil or Argentina.  "Damaging tax avoidance," the Argentinian authorities call it.  Deportivo operates “in exactly the same way as any professionally run football club,” counters Malcolm Caine, a British businessman who bought out the previously member-owned organisation in 2010 together with Graham Shear, a London-based lawyer who represented Kia Joorabchian's MSI group during the inquiry into Carlos Tevez's move to West Ham. “Our investment includes infrastructure, managerial, technical know-how, medical and other facilities as well as player development, training and player transfers,” Caine told Bloomberg by email.   Uruguay's 'ghost deals' -  over $70 million in transfer fees were routed through nine clubs between 2000 and 2011 - have now attracted FIFA's attention, with four Argentinian sides fined in March for their part in trades with Montevideo's Atletica Sud America "that were not of a sporting nature", while the Uruguayan government raised the tax on player transfers from 4 to 12.5% last year in an attempt to curb the flow of registrations through its domestic league.

 Things are much lower key at the ground itself, with no more than a couple of hundred supporters and a two-man press team inside by the time the sides emerge on to the pitch.  The away side limber up by doing shuttle runs between their team coach and the river, a pair of riot policemen greeting acquintances with kisses as they don shields and helmets nearby.  The home fans drink mate and dress in wooly hats and hoods despite it being the kind of day which would see English supporters don shorts and t-shirts and go topless before half time.  The loudest handful group together behind the goal accompanied by two drums, four flags and a stray dog.

The opening half drones by in a hail of aerial balls and whistles, the fussy refereeing soon attracting the ire of everyone in the crowd.  Moldonado have a couple of set pieces and an offside header turned around a post; Plaza run a lot but get no closer to a goal than the corner flag.  Long before the interval the substitutes are lined up, swapping gossip and high kicking to the right of the bench.

The second forty-five starts with a firecracker and an elderly coach setting off at Fun Run pace to retrieve a lost ball.  He's only halfway back when Moldonado break quickly, 2013 Peruvian league title winner Miguel Ximenez enticing the keeper away from goal before smashing into the corner. "Gol!" comes the throaty roar from the visitors' section. "Get moving," a home fan screams at the substitutes.  Plaza make a double switch, the crowd swells by a dozen or so as a neighbouring school empties, but the linesman's flag denies them twice as Moldonado hold out for a comfortable win. Four days later, Plaza score twice in the away leg to progress to a semi-final with Rampla Juniors.  "An inexplicable defeat," the loser's website says.  It's a word which defines much about Deportivo Moldonado. 

Date: June 3rd 2014
Admission: 150 Uruguayan pesos (under £5)

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Football Art: On the Streets of Sao Paulo

Every four years, from around a week before the World Cup gets underway, the people of Rua Fradique Coutinho begin to paint their street.

A sticker album provides the template for the adults to chalk outlines across the road.  The Brazil flag is in the centre, filling both lanes.  On one side is Fuleco, the colourful armadillo chosen as the competition mascot, and the badge of the Brazilian Football Federation.  To the other is the tournament emblem and flags of all 32 competing nations.  "It's the World Cup so it's only right to include everyone," one resident tells me.

The artwork is a community enterprise. "We let the kids paint when they're over 5," says a man in a Brazil shirt directing cars around the top of the national flag.  "It's how we all started.  Now the adults do the outlines and keep everything safe from traffic."  The murals are finished one side of the road at a time, two plastic chairs tied with string controlling movement on this busy Vila Madalena street. Drivers manoeuvre respectfully around the paintings, many blowing horns and shouting encouragement to the children working on the ground.  Other residents paint kerbstones and walls, string yellow and green bunting between trees or sit looking on from an open-front bar with a TV screen showing rolling football news and World Cup warm-up matches.  "You'll see these all over Sao Paulo's poorer neighbourhoods," says photographer and local fixer Caio Vilela. "When I was their age we used to paint on any communal wall we could find.  You really felt the World Cup was on its way."

On a neighbouring street we find Brazil flags strung across gates and car bonnets above a giant Fuleco image.  Families congregate outside, streetlights illuminating  the murals in what has become one of Sao Paulo's most fashionable locations.  "This is the only place in Brazil I've seen street signs warning cars to slow down because children are playing football," Vilela remarks.  "It's a remnant of the old Vila Madalena.  Nowadays you have the upper middle classes in high rise buildings, restaurants, film companies and art workshops.  That's why there's always so much paint around."

"This is what the tournament should be about," observes Spirit of Football's Andrew Aris as artists young and old break off work to pass around a ball that's travelled through 25 countries and over 17,000 hands on its way from Battersea Park, London, the cradle of modern football, to the streets of the country that, more than any other, is the beating heart of the game. "But the people who make football come far behind the chance to make money nowadays.  Money that could have been spent on them but that they'll never see."  On cracked tarmac, out of sight of FIFA's preferential lanes, unfinished stadia, exclusion zones and five-star hotels, the essence of the game endures where it began and always remained: on an open patch of ground, with shared endeavour and that simple, instinctive pleasure - irrspective of gender, nationality, class, caste, creed, colour, age, intellect or ability - that humans derive from moving a ball between feet.

Brazilian street football and neighbourhood art remains free in Sao Paulo and hundreds of other host cities throughout the FIFA World Cup.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Ground 233: Estadio Centenario, Montevideo

The streets of Montevideo were unusually quiet on the afternoon of July 30th 1930.  An official attendance of 93,000 was recorded inside the city's Estadio Centenario for the first World Cup final, although the stadium was already full two hours before kick off and thousands more travelling supporters either arrived late or missed the game altogether due to fog and congestion at the port.

The Centenario - the name a nod to the hundred years since Uruguay's first constitution - had been purpose built for the tournament in nine months, it's rain-delayed opening meaning eight of the competition's eighteen fixtures - and all of the opening three - were played at the nearby Parque Central, home of Nacional, and Penarol's Estadio Pocitos, which was demolished a decade later.   Built on old grazing land and designed by Juan Antonio Scasso, two of the Centenario's tribunes, Amsterdam and Columbes, were named after the cities where Uruguay's footballers had earned Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928.  Thirteen countries had agreed to take part in FIFA's new competition, three of the four European entrants - Belgium, Romania and France - travelling for a fortnight on the same ship, picking up the Brazil team on the way, and welcomed by 10,000 Uruguyans when they finally arrived.  In the absence of rivals England, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain,  Uruguay and neighbours Argentina - beaten finalists after a replay in the 1928 Olympics - were favourites to lift the Goddess of Victory trophy.

And now here they both were in the final itself, the Argentineans departing Buenos Aires to cries of 'Victory or Death!'  Pablo Dorado put the hosts ahead, Carlos Peucelle and Guillermo Stabile reversing the advantage before half time.  Uruguay, thought a local newspaper, "suffered a thousand deaths" before Pedro Cea's 57th minute equaliser. Santos Iriarte smashed in from 25 yards nine minutes later, and Hector Castro - left with only one hand after a childhood accident with an electric saw - headed a fourth from Dorado's cross.  Back in Buenos Aires women carrying Uruguayan flags were stoned and the country's consulate was attacked, mounted police discharging revolvers as they fought to drive the protesters back.

Tonight's game promised to be a more sedate affair, Northern Ireland the visitors in a friendly arranged as one of two World Cup warm-up matches before La Celeste sets off for Brazil.  The Centenario's elliptical stands are almost full, its famous 98-metre Art Deco tower glittering under floodlights.  Despite showing signs of its age - open to the elements, the bucket seats are dirt-spattered, cracked or ripped out entirely leaving many in the crowd sitting on stone steps while the executive boxes are more reminiscent of Kenilworth Road than Wembley - the stadium oozes character and scale, the view from the back of the Tribuna Amsterdam soliciting a genuine "Wow" as I make it to the top of the steps. From the back wall - so low you can bend at the waist and hang over the top of the stadium - thousands are still snaking across the dirt ground waiting to get inside.

Drums rat-a-tat, trumpets flourish and a dance band sambas in a corner, the colours reflected in a moat separating the supporters from the pitch.  The crowd respectfully claps the end of God Save the Queen, playfully whistles the scoreboard display of the visiting side then roars expectantly as Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani get proceedings underway.  The pitch, slicked by a few hours' drizzle, suits Uruguay's fast interplay but the Irish dig in and press the halfway line, restricting space and heralding the first attempts at a Mexican wave a mere 15 minutes into the game.  The only noise - abuse for the referee excepted - comes from vendors touting churros, crisps and Coca Cola.

Uruguay - unofficial world champions since defeating old rivals Argentina in October - 
finally rouse the crowd on half an hour, Cavani and then Forlan drawing a stunning double stop from Roy Carroll, who ends up clattering a post while turning the second shot away for a corner. Forlan's replaced at the end of an underwhelming forty-five minutes, Espanyol's Christian Stuani the replacement as Oscar Tabarez tries out alternatives to the injured Luis Suarez.  It's the substitute who finally breaks the deadlock, Cristian Rodriguez's slaloming run opening up space for Cavani, whose dinked pass finds Stuani in front of goal.  "Uruguay, Uruguay," the Amsterdam belts out.  It's a sound, form, luck and Luis Suarez's fitness permitting, which might yet rumble all the way across Brazil.

Anticipation is bubbling on the streets of Montevideo, with national flags replacing election posters in shop windows on the Avenida 18 de Julio.  "People are massively excited," UK ambassador Ben Lyster-Binns tells me.  "There's a huge amount of affection for English football here, especially with Suarez doing so well at Liverpool.  The dream scenario is that we both go through, though if England win nobody will want to speak to me for at least a week."  "There are many obstacles in our way," captain Diego Lugano had told a pre-match press conference, "but nothing can take away our dreams."

Date:  Friday 30th May 2014
Admission:  150UYU (about £4.60)

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Football and Odessa

"In 1888, great events began to take place in my life: I was sent off to Odessa" (Leon Trotsky)

“There is magic even in the name,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in Behind the Iron Curtain.  “Nowhere in the world has air like Odessa,” Sergei Shmatovalenko – a seven-time league champion with Dynamo Kiev – recalled of his childhood in the Black Sea port city.  Shmatovalenko, like  1986 Ballon d’Or winner Igor Belanov, Ukraine and Russia international  Ilya Tsymbalar, the USSR midfielder Leonid Buryak and 74-time capped former Leverkusen and Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin, progressed from the city’s youth academies to acclaim around the world.   Viktor Propopenko - who took Shakhtar Donetsk into the Champions League and became the first coach of the Ukrainian national team – Euro ’88 runner-up Viktor Pasulko, Nikolai Morozov and the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy each has their own Odessa connections, passing through the blue-and-black shirted ranks of Chernomorets, the city’s dominant club side and winners of two Ukrainian and one USSR Federation Cups.  “Not only the pearl of the Black Sea but also the footballing centre of Ukraine,” the mayor’s office boldly states.

                                    Isaac Babel, born in Odessa in 1894, executed 1940.

As with almost everything of substance in Odessa, football emerged from the port.  British sailors started playing the game in the dockyards of the Russian Empire – “Football is an English sport with a big ball.  Usually it is played by people with solid muscles and strong legs – a weak one would only be an onlooker in such a mess,” a St Petersburg-based periodical had observed in the late 1860s - long before a group of traders and workers from the Indo-European Telegraph Company founded the Odessa British Athletic Club in 1878.  As the first team in the whole of Tsarist Russia – St Petersburg Football Club wasn’t formally established until the following year - Odessa’s footballing pioneers were initially restricted to games against visiting British crews or fellow  telegraph workers based across the border in Romania.  In 1884, the year Ukraine’s first officially recorded football match took place in Austrian-ruled Lviv, Odessa’s expatriate players laid out the country’s only permanent pitch off the fashionable Frantsuz'kyi Bulvar (French Boulevard).  By the turn of the century local players such as the remarkable Sergei Utochkin – a multi-talented sportsman and aviator - were being invited to participate, though it wasn’t until 1910 that a city-wide championship was arranged.  The all-conquering British were joined by the recently-formed Ukrainian sides Odessa United Sport Club, Sporting Club and Sheremetievskiy Sport Club.  Sheremetievskiy opened the tournament on March 5th 1911 with a 3-0 win over Odessa United, the foreigners seeing off Sporting 3-1 in the second game.   Two years later a combined Odessa side featuring “five Englishmen, four Russians and two Jewish members” lifted the All-Russian Championship by defeating St Petersburg 4-2 in front of 4,000 spectators at the French Boulevard ground only to be – dubiously in the eyes of  those from the host city - stripped of their title for breaching competition rules on the permitted number of foreign players.

Names such as Carr, Perkins, Jones and Jacobs featured prominently in the early years of Odessan football – Ernest Jacobs scoring twice in the victory over St Petersburg - but the expatriates’ hegemony would soon wane.  City champions in the competition’s first two seasons, OBAC were beaten by Sheremetievskiy in 1913 and could thereafter manage no better than third place before disbanding four years later.   Capped once for Russia, Grigoriy Bogemskiy had played and scored in the 1913 Odessa side and assisted Sporting Club to the first of two city titles the following year.  “He had rather a flabby appearance,” the writer Yuri Olesha recalled, “but the sight of Bogemskiy dribbling upfield was one of the most spectacular sights of my childhood.”  

Sergei Utochkin, one of Odessa's footballing pioneers.
Revolution, civil war and the Soviet Union’s early international isolation forced Bogemskiy abroad – he would play in Bulgaria and win a Czechoslovak title with Viktoria Žižkov – and saw football begin to serve an explicitly political purpose.  The local secret police founded Sparta Odessa in 1923, while the city representative side were second only to Kharkov – the national capital while Kiev remained tainted by association with the fleeting Ukrainian People’s Republic – in three of the first four Ukrainian SSR championships.  Sparta became Dynamo in 1926, were the first recorded opponents of Dynamo Kiev (a 2-2 draw on June 17th 1928) and lifted their first city championship in 1933 as burgeoning crowds led to the construction of two new areas.  The Pischevik, named after the food workers’ union, held its first game in 1927; the following year a 10,000-capacity stadium was completed in time to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing.   The Pischevik was renamed when it became the home ground of SKA Odessa, the club side of the Red Army’s Odessa Military District, who were founded shortly after the city’s liberation from Romanian occupation in 1944.   The Komsomol underwent a name change of its own, the three-sided Spartak Stadium nowadays hosting rugby, lower-league football and, for almost three years prior to November 2011, the city’s Ukrainian Premier League side, Chernomorets Odessa.  

Chernomorets were founded as Dynamo Odessa on March 26th 1936, the year the first all-Soviet league competition took place.  The original Dynamo had already folded, the local authorities instead drawing the city’s best footballers together at a new stadium which had recently been constructed on land initially set aside for a boating lake in Shevchenko Park.  Named after Stanislav Kosior, general secretary of the Ukrainian SSR until he was purged in 1939, it held 22,000 spectators and was constructed in the classic Soviet elliptical roofless-bowl-with-running-track design.  “You cannot imagine a more wonderful spectacle,” Yury Olesha eulogised.  “Above the sea, the stadium is so much like a dream.”  With the team promoted to Group A of the Soviet League in 1938, the ground was soon hosting the likes of Spartak Moscow and the Dynamos of Kiev and Tblisi, although a disastrous second season in which Odessa were trounced 8-0 by champions Spartak and lost 6-0 at home to Dynamo Moscow, meant Chernomorets finished bottom of the fourteen-team top league and were relegated back to the second-tier.   The playing staff was subsequently transferred to another club, the merged sides  christened Spartak Odessa, and the team placed straight back in the top-flight only for the whole league to be suspended ten games into the season on June 24th 1941. 

Post-war Odessa was a markedly different place.  Under Romanian occupation for 907 days from October 1941 to April 1944, only 200,000 people - roughly a third of its pre-war population – remained in the city. The 1926 Soviet census had counted 158,000 Jews resident in Odessa.  In November 1944, military officials calculated the figure was a mere 48. In his memoirs, the film director Sergei Eisenstein reflected on the possible fate of the baby whose bouncing pram had featured in the most famous scene of his Battleship Potemkin.  “What is he doing?  Did he defend Odessa as a young man?  Or was he driven abroad into slavery?  Does he now rejoice that Odessa is a liberated and resurrected town? Or is he lying in a mass grave, somewhere far away?”  Like everything else the city's football teams took time to recover, SKA’s run to the Soviet Cup semi-finals in 1959-60 heralding the start of a decade in which both they and Chernomorets (semi-finalists themselves in 1965-66) took part in the Soviet Top League. The 1970s saw SKA relocated to Tiraspol in the Moldovan SSR and Chernomorets take third place in the Soviet-wide league table, behind only Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow – an event which is still widely ranked  as the high point of Odessa’s footballing history.   

 Playing table football during the city's April 1st celebrations

Last ever holders of the USSR Federation Cup (a post-season tournament roughly comparable  to England’s League Cup) in 1990,  Chernomorets were placed alongside SKA in the newly-organised Ukrainian Premier League two seasons later. Chernomorets – coached by Viktor Propopenko and with CIS, Ukraine and Russia-capped Yuriy Nikiforov marshalling their defence - lifted the first Ukrainian Cup through an extra-time Ilya Tsymbalar goal against Metalist Kharkiv, twice finished league runners-up and won the Cup again in 1994, defeating Tavriya Simferopol on penalties in the final.  SKA folded in 1999, their name briefly resurrected in the 2012-13 Second Division; Chernomorets, three times relegated, had recovered to finish fifth in the UPL, lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian Cup Final and thereby qualified for this season’s Europa League, where they navigated a group including PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb before falling 1-0 on aggregate to Lyon in the round of 32.  

The winter break saw five foreign players depart the redeveloped Chernomorets Stadium. “Given the extremely difficult socio-political situation in Ukraine and Odessa….we were forced to meet the persistent requests of foreign players and their families who are extremely concerned for their safety,” the club’s website reported.  With owner Leonid Klimov – a fireman turned banking and real estate magnate – a parliamentary deputy and prominent supporter of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, the future funding of the club remains uncertain, leaving manager Roman Grigorchuk reported to be looking for a new job.  The recent unrest in the city - Chernomorets and Metalist Kharkiv ultras implicated in the running street battles with pro-Russian demonstators which culminated in 48 deaths after Molotov cocktails set a building ablaze -  saw the scheduled home fixture with Karpaty Lviv played instead at the Obolon Stadium in Kyiv, 3,200 fans witnessing the goalless draw which left Chernomorets - among the early season pacesetters - having to settle for another fifth-placed finish.  For the city’s football fans setbacks are nothing new.  “Odessa,” thought the US academic Charles King, ”disappoints as much as it inspires.”

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Roof are Going Up: Willington AFC 0 Jarrow Roofing 3 (McBryde (2) and Myers)

 Danny Carson facing Willington walls.

 Home spectators on the touchline

 Team news and the tea hut hatch

 Assistant manager Ian Davison ponders a Roofing substitution

 Waiting for the whistle.

 Goalmouth scramble aftermath.

Where there's a will: Richie McLoughlin on the pitch

And the promotion celebrations begin...