Sterker door strijd

Football has a very unique power. It’s the power to set the mood of an entire city, for better or for worse. I saw it in Sunderland in 2014 when their last gasp derby win over Newcastle sent the entire city into a state of euphoria, and in 2013 I was in Dortmund for a 3 – 2 home league defeat which put the nail in the coffin of their title defence.  In 2015, the city hit by this footballing phenomenon would be Rotterdam.

Feyenoord never beat Ajax – it just doesn’t happen. Going in to this KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) match, the Rotterdam side had won just one of the last 21 meetings, a 4-2 victory inspired by John Guidetti. This was the 4th classic I have attended, with previous results being 1 – 2, 0 – 1 and 0 – 0. The goalless draw was the away match in Amsterdam, which I watched from the home stand due to the longstanding ban on away supporters. 0 – 0 was probably the only result that would have allowed me to get away undetected, but it could easily have been a three or four goal victory. After chances were cleared off the line, shots bounced off the post and the Ajax goalkeeper pulled off a couple of saves that were frankly ridiculous, I resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to see a win in this most hate-filled of fixtures.

But the Feyenoord of 2015/16 is a different beast. Local hero Dirk Kuyt has rejoined the club at long last, and the new manager has gone with a revolutionary tactic from last season of signing some players who are not rubbish at football. Kuyt’s goals are rightly grabbing the headlines, but Elia and Kramer have also had a big role to play. The city motto of Rotterdam translates as ‘Stronger through struggle’, and after plenty of struggle last season, the club is certainly stronger this year.

In the second round of the Dutch Cup it’s likely you’ll end up facing an amateur side or someone from the Jupiler League (second tier), but fate had different plans this time around. Feyenoord vs. Ajax. De Klassieker. Winner takes all. I spoke earlier about football having the ability to change the mood of a city, and it was plain to see here. As I walked from the train station towards the stadium, it looked like even the little old ladies with walking sticks looked like they were ready to pull a flare out of their handbag. Some years ago I lived in Leeds, and it is similar to Rotterdam in the way that everyone supports the local team. While Sparta and Excelsior mean that Rotterdam is not a true one club city, the overwhelming majority are for Feyenoord.

In the league these matches always take place on a Sunday, usually at 12:30 or 14:30. As a result the atmosphere doesn’t always reach the full potential that comes with such a strong hatred. No such worries here, with a Wednesday night 19:45 kick off and plenty of time for pre-match drinking to ramp up the atmosphere further still. Speaking of pre-match drinking, there were definitely some significant hangovers on Thursday morning. For those readers who don’t know about Varkenoord, it is the training ground for Feyenoord during the week, and on matchday it’s a bar where people drink as though it’s the last day before beer gets banned forever. There is a limit of 20 beers per person on each trip to the bar, and most people were getting the most out of this quota.

I’m not a season ticket holder this season as it wasn’t clear at the start of the season how much longer I would be living in the Netherlands, and the cheap cost of Dutch football would have been rather cancelled out by having to jump on a plane every week. This meant that I wasn’t able to get a ticket in my usual section of the stadium (Vak W), and instead was on the other side of the ground in Vak E. This was the first time I had been to a Feyenoord match outside of Vak W and had been a little concerned that the atmosphere would not be as good, but as one person said to me on Twitter “Every block is the crazy block tonight”.

After sinking a couple of pre-match beers to ease the tension (I had intended to buy two, but the queue was so long I bought four) I headed in to the stadium. One of the best things about De Kuip is that the atmosphere is almost always very good, even on the days when the opposition is not exactly inspiring. However, it has another level which is only reached on very special nights. Last season there was the epic 4 – 3 win over Zorya Luhansk, the impressive dismantling of Sevilla and a totally wild night against Roma, but the lack of European football has meant that midweek madness at De Kuip has been sadly lacking. Well, the battle mode was well and truly engaged for the famous and beautiful old stadium this evening.

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While the intense hatred and noise was to be expected and had been seen many times before over the years, there would be something the likes of which has never been seen before, not just in Rotterdam, but anywhere in Europe. South America has seen some truly gigantic flags over the years, with Colombia and Argentina in particular producing some absolute monsters. I knew there was going to be some kind of display to compete with the outstanding one seen against Sevilla last season. While that display contained more detail, this one was well and truly one-of-a-kind, the biggest flag ever displayed inside a European stadium.

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This picture is used with permission from frMelvin1908

Down it came from the very top of the grand old stand, a seemingly never-ending design which stretched from the ceiling to the pitch. It was the flag of the city of Rotterdam, the green and white stripes joined by the emblem and “stronger through struggle” motto that I have previously mentioned. When the flag was fully unfurled it was time for the finishing touch, with ‘the tub’ being set alight by red flares, green and white smoke and even fireworks shooting high into the darkened sky before exploding – basking the stadium in a green and white light. It was a truly awesome thing to witness, and something which will be seen and envied all over the world in the coming days. Having watched quite a lot of non-league football when I lived in the UK, this flag was literally bigger than several stadiums I have watched matches in.

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Ajax entered the field to a chorus of whistles, their every touch treated as though they had run out on to the pitch kicking a puppy, chewing with their mouth open and waving an ISIS flag. A tidal wave of hatred swept down from the stands, every last person on their feet and getting involved. There are many clubs that talk about having a 12th man, but this is one where it really does feel as though the crowd has an influence on the outcome.  If that is the case, it was not true for the opening stages of this game. Despite Ajax having a very young squad this season, they did not seem as if the intimidating atmosphere was getting to them too much. The early chances all belonged to the men in the ugly luminous green shirts, looking like a group of stewards who had got lost and found themselves on the field.

Feyenoord of last season would probably have crumbled (Ajax scored the winner after just six minutes last season), but this time the defence stood firm. There were plenty of tasty tackles, a theme that would continue throughout the game. Without any away fans it was down for the players for there to be a mass brawl, and they didn’t disappoint with several flashpoints throughout the game. The referee handled the match well in my opinion, another official might have handed out more yellows than the Coldplay song and a couple of reds, but he was sensible and made sure that the match would end with 11 vs. 11.

The second half was a big improvement from the home side, and it was reflected in the atmosphere. The first half had been loud but with some quieter periods due to the nervous tension and the memories of former failures against the greatest rival of all, but these melted away in the second half, with every supporter inside the stadium giving 100% to try to help the team to victory. I was able to start a couple of chants in Vak E when it got quieter, with the person next to me commenting with the typical directness in the Netherlands “You try hard but your Dutch is very bad”. Cheers mate. Still, the atmosphere was absolutely bouncing by this stage as the clock ticked down to 20 minutes remaining, with a 22 man brawl close to Vak W putting the noise levels even higher than they had been previously. Somehow no cards were produced despite five or six players very clearly trying to beat the crap out of each other, the only punishment being several Ajax players getting soaked in beer for foolishly venturing too close to the stands.

There are no replays in the Dutch Cup, so the anti-climax of a 0 – 0 draw and a replay in the capital was not possible. Someone was going out tonight, whether it was in the remaining minutes of the game, in extra time or, god forbid, penalties.

This dreaded option was feeling more and more likely as the clock ran down, when it seemed that surely they would not be needed. Ajax’s defence was split by a perfect pass, leaving the goal at our mercy. I was already preparing to celebrate, before the ball somehow missed the goal completely. Ajax’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident, limping off the field to be replaced by the deeply unpopular Jasper Cillessen. His walk from the halfway line to the goal will have felt like it was much further indeed, as he was whistled, jeered, booed and given one finger salutes from just about everyone in the stadium who wasn’t so nervous they had forgotten how to move.

Feyenoord had been coming more and more into the match as time progressed, and now they sensed blood in the water. Coming on as a substitute in a big game is hard enough, but there is extra pressure when doing so as a goalkeeper. A series of corners were won as the new stopper faced a fearsome opening test, and Elia in particular was causing all sorts of problems for the Ajax defence. In the opening 20 minutes I had feared history repeating itself once more with yet another victory for the side from the capital, but now it seemed as though, at long last, there was hope to inflict a rare defeat on the old enemy.

Time was running out, and I had already resigned myself to extra time and penalties. As well as the stress of this outcome, there was also the fact that I would probably miss my last train home, enjoying a night at Rotterdam Central Station before the first one in the morning at 5am. Fine if Feyenoord won, but having to do so after a defeat would probably see me give up on football for a couple of months and turn to a minority sport that nobody cares about like tiddlywinks, synchronized swimming or rugby  instead.

Four minutes of injury time are signalled, and I’m just praying that we get through to extra time unscathed. Ajax have a reputation for scoring late goals matched only by Manchester United when Alex Ferguson was in charge, and I had visions of the ball bouncing in the net after deflecting off the right back’s arse. Would they find a way to score? They always bloody score…

The four minutes are almost up, when Elia goes on what would prove to be his last twisting and turning run of the evening. He won a free kick a couple of yards outside the area, but much too far to the left of the goal for it to be a shooting chance. There would be time to whip the ball into the box one last time, hoping for someone to get a touch on it and send De Kuip into delirium. It’s played towards Dirk Kuyt, but he’s surely being too closely marked by Veltman to do anything with it…

In real-time it only took a second, but for those people with Feyenoord in their hearts it surely felt longer. The cross is fairly weak, but Veltman makes a mess of it and directs it towards his own goal. It’s headed to the corner of the net, but it seemed like Cillessen would get there. Oh, hang on…

He’s missed it.

It’s in.

Feyenoord have scored.

The roar.

Bedlam.

De Kuip has descended into absolute mayhem, a mass of writhing, celebrating, incredulous and joyful mayhem. I’m hugging the guy next to me who made fun of my Dutch, while half a beer bounces off my head having been hurled into the air somewhere behind me. People surge over the seats and down the stairs, most of them simply not knowing what to do with themselves. This never happens. It never happens, but somehow, it has. We celebrate until our voices give in, until the best we can do is a rasping croak of joy.

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The next hour seems to float by like a montage in a film. There is no time left after the goal. The final whistle blows. The players give a lap of honour. Super Feyenoord plays on the announce system, the stadium jumping, dancing and falling all over the place. The party goes on and on long after the players have left the field, and the huge flag is unfurled once more. Flares are ignited around the ground, and the sky fills with green smoke again.

The stadium begins to empty, every single person I pass by has a very special expression, one that only comes with a late winning goal. It’s a daft smile and an expression that says “Wow, that really happened”. When I had arrived a couple of hours ago Rotterdam had been a city full of nervous tension and aggression, now it is simply the purest form of happy. All the way down the stairs and all the way into the streets around the stadium the singing continues. Two friends who had been stood in different stands see each other, and sprint towards one another before falling to the ground in celebration. “JAAAAA!!!!!”

The queue for the tram is singing, and another tram already packed to the rafters passes by. It’s bouncing up and down so much that it looks like it might come off the rails. I hear two of the stewards talking “Last fucking minute! I don’t believe it!” he says. Finally I make it on to a tram, and we make it bounce up and down just as much as the others that had passed us by.

Cars are blowing their horn, people look suspiciously like they’re about to jump in the fountain, and the whole city seems to be shining a little brighter. There is a party going on at the Central Station for the supporters who live outside the city, and the songs can be heard from each and every platform, each train that departures spreading joy to another part of the Netherlands.

This was the night this city had waited for since January 29th 2012, the last time Ajax had been defeated. The night people had dreamed of, only to have these hopes crushed again and again. Whether Feyenoord go on to win the trophy or not, it doesn’t really matter. No longer will this rivalry be dismissed as one-sided or a walkover. No longer will Feyenoord supporters have to take the insults of their capital city foes for failing to defeat them once more, or have to deal with the sneering attitude towards Feyenoord from many within the Dutch media. It was the night the struggle ended, and the strength began. That’s football. That’s what it can do.

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Every loser wins

As I stand in the rain on an uncovered terrace is Bosnia, tears falling from my eyes as a squad of delirious footballers celebrates in front of 750 even happier supporters, I think about football and its unique ability to change your life.

To those who don’t understand, those who don’t ‘get it’, the events unfolding in the away end will seem bizarre. Here was a group of people who had spent a lot of money to travel hundreds of miles to watch a 2-0 defeat while getting soaked to the skin, and yet most of them will remember it as the best night of their lives.

With ten minutes left to go, text messages started to arrive that Cyprus had scored in Israel to go 2-1 up, as mums, dads, girlfriends and mates across Wales delivered the good news. This goal left the score in our game meaningless, Israeli’s would need to score twice to keep their hopes of overtaking us alive.

With the away end going absolutely mental over a goal they hadn’t seen scored by a player they’d never heard of, the players realised something was up. Substitute James Collins ran over to the away end, shouted “are they losing?” and then ran off back to the bench beaming with delight.

Bryn Law, TV presenter and most of all, Wales supporter, was also there. “Bryn Law, what’s the score? Bryn Law Bryn Law what’s the score?” sang the travelling fans, with the white haired veteran of the Welsh team jumping up and down with delight before holding up “1-2” on his fingers, causing the Wales supporters to celebrate all over again.

To see Law celebrate in this way was a fitting way to complete the emotional journey this team, this set of supporters and this country had been on. In 2011 he had broken down while giving an interview about the passing of great friend and Welsh legend Gary Speed. It was the darkest moment in the history of Welsh football, and one that it felt as though we would never recover from.

Speed will never be forgotten and his death will be a tragedy that follows us forever, but just four years later his team had delivered the ultimate tribute. Tears of sadness had turned to tears of joy, as Wales reached a major tournament for the first time since 1958.

Mathematically we qualified because Israel lost to Cyprus, but in reality it was not here that qualification had been secured. That had been done by finding a way to win in Andorra despite playing very poorly on a pitch that was even worse. It was done by defending heroically in Brussels. By holding on to victory against Cyprus despite playing most of the game with ten men. By going to Haifa and playing Israel off the pitch. And of course, it was done on that magical night against Belgium in the Cardiff City Stadium.

These results did not happen by chance. They came about through a wonderful effort from everyone involved with the FAW to bring the nation together. The Welsh team had often suffered from players not wanting to play for the country, especially a certain winger that played his football in Manchester. There had also been problems in the stands, with Cardiff and Swansea supporters clashing on occasion, as well as some issues with Newport fans. This has well and truly been left in the past now, with Wales probably the most united team in all of international football.

Like the majority of people inside the away end on the night that will live forever in Welsh football, I’ve been to every away match in this campaign. A long drive through the Andorran mountains after UEFA only revealed the venue a week before the match. A Megabus home from Brussels at 4am, arriving at 7am and going straight to the office in a not particularly good state. Getting drunk one night and booking Israel away with a 16 hour stopover at Kiev airport…both ways. Flying to Cyprus via Belgrade and then doing five weeks of physiotherapy after tearing two ligaments in my knee celebrating the winning goal, and then finally flying to Tuzla (the smallest airport you can ever imagine) before getting a shuttle bus to Sarajevo at 2am with the driver stopping at a petrol station on the way to speak to six massive Bosnian men sitting in a Landrover. These are memories that will live with me forever, and I’ve been able to meet many new friends along the way who I will make more lifelong memories with in future campaigns.

These stories are not unique to me. In fact, everyone has them. Someone I met had flown in via Istanbul, a couple of others from Budapest, many from Belgrade and others in Zagreb, Frankfurt and more. Especially for our supporters from North Wales who don’t have the convenience of Cardiff and Bristol airports, it can be a real challenge to follow an international team away, but it’s always worth it.

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As games go, this wasn’t the best – but with the conditions and what was at stake it was never likely to be. Bosnia were the side that needed to win, and they came out quickly to open the game. With Dzeko missing they were robbed of their biggest attacking threat, but they still looked to be a good side. They are certainly better than Cyprus and Israel, and I strongly expect them to make the playoffs in the coming days. If they do make the playoffs, it will be very difficult for whoever comes to Zenica. The small stadium is packed full of Bosnia’s craziest supporters, including a guy on an apartment balcony overlooking the stadium who waved a flare about with his wife after the opening goal! Wales fans taunted him with “you’ve only got one flare” after he failed to repeat the celebration the second time around.

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With Wales having two separate away ends there was also time for some chanting at each other, the main stand supporters singing “We’re so dry it’s unbelievable” and “Where the ****ing hells your roof?” to us, with “You posh bastards” and “£16, you’re having a laugh” coming in response (tickets were only £8 in our section). There was also a touching moment where both away ends sung “sheepshaggers” at each other, a uniquely Welsh way to show affection.

I could write more about the game, but honestly there is no real point. For the closing stages hardly anyone was even looking at the pitch, with the away supporters either going completely mental or sat anxiously waiting for Israel to bring on Sergio Aguero to score twice in injury time.

For once, the heartbreak never came. With “We love you Cyprus, we do” coming from the away end, time expired and with it, so did 57 years of waiting. Our small nation has long been the joke of international football, mocked by English supporters as they qualified for tournament after tournament when we couldn’t make a single one. At one stage below even the Faroe Islands (and 100 other teams) in the world rankings, nobody is laughing now. We will take our place on the world stage, and we will deserve every second of it.

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The Welsh players sprinted over to the away stand, sliding on their bellies across the turf in a state of ecstacy. Wales fans jumped around, sang song after song and wiped away tears. The moment we have always dreamed of but never expected had arrived, and many people clearly just didn’t know what to do. A version of the national anthem was sung so loudly that it was as though we wanted Gary Speed himself to hear it. Wherever he is, he will be very proud of what was accomplished here.

The players took pictures with flags, danced along to the songs and joined in with the chanting themselves. Gareth Bale is a Champions League winner, but that didn’t stop him from singing Hal Robson-Kanu chants while being carried around on Aaron Ramsey’s back. A mention must go to Joe Ledley, who produced dance moves so good they almost outshone his beard.

The celebrations went on and on in the away end, nobody wanting to leave despite the continued rain. After a short coach journey back to Sarajevo, myself and a friend found an Elvis themed bar that was open until 4am. Two bottles of rakija were consumed along with enough beer to sink a battleship, with the owner of the bar kindly letting us pick the music. I didn’t know how I would celebrate qualification if I ever experienced it, but dancing to Zombie Nation underneath a poorly done painting of Elvis Presley now seems the obvious answer.

So to return to the opening paragraph, this Wales campaign has indeed changed my life. I’ve been to places I could never imagine visiting otherwise, I’ve felt the kind of happiness that you just can’t get from many other things in life, and I know that even if Wales never reach another tournament or even win another game, it will have all been worth it. Together Stronger was the motto of the campaign, and it could not be more accurate. We faced up to every long journey, every challenge and every hangover in an airport departures hall together. The dragon has woken, and his fire burns brighter than ever before. France, we’re coming.

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This is Slavia

Think of Prague and what comes to mind? The astronomical clock dating back to 1410? A thousand places to enjoy a local beer for less than a Euro? English tourists on a stag do hilariously dressed as Borat? I saw all of those things on my visit to the city, but I also witnessed one of the most unexpectedly brilliant atmospheres I’ve ever seen.

When I went to Borussia Dortmund for the first time, I knew it was going to be loud. When I went to Feyenoord vs. Ajax for the first time I knew it was going to be intense. When I watch Wales play football, I know I’m going to get drunk and talk about how brilliant Hal Robson-Kanu is with some bloke from Wrexham. This one was a little different, as I wasn’t sure what to expect from the biggest rivalry in the city of Prague. I’d heard some good things about Slavia supporters in the past, but with Czech football culture not enjoying the kind of exposure that Germany, Poland, Serbia and more recently Sweden does, I had no real evidence to go by.

Still, with a few days holiday left from work, a return flight available for 40 Euros and a couple of grainy YouTube videos, I decided to see what Slavia vs. Sparta was all about. It wouldn’t be a disappointment.

Sparta regularly win the league in the Czech Republic while Slavia regularly win nothing, so there was little doubt which set of supporters I would identify with best. I initially planned to go in Tribune Sever where the Slavia ultras are housed, but while celebrating Wales’ winning goal in Cyprus I had torn two ligaments in my knee which made it difficult to stand up for long spells of time, never mind jumping up and down, leaping over seats and generally going a bit mental, so I did the next best thing and booked a seat in the block next to them. It was the first time on one of my trips I hadn’t gone in the most hardcore block in the stadium, and it will also be the last assuming I don’t end up getting anything amputated when Wales go to Bosnia in a couple of weeks’ time.

Even though it was a shame not to be in the thick of the madness, the Slavia supporters would put on one of the most memorable displays of support I’ve ever seen. As is often the case for matches in Europe, the drama had started outside of the stadium with a march to the ground from the Sparta fans. Parading through the streets of Prague in big numbers under a huge blue, red and yellow banner, there were some small clashes as they got close to the stadium – mostly kept under control by the Czech police who were dressed like missing members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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A couple of cans of beer were thrown at the Slavia supporters, and a yellow smokebomb caused a police horse to jump in the air and almost kick his rider off, but it was mostly peaceful in terms of violence. In terms of chanting was the complete opposite, as both sets of supporters insisted that the other one f*ck off. Eventually Sparta made their way into the stadium, but not before turning the road outside the stadium red yellow and blue.

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With the stadium completely full some time before kick-off, it was the Slavia fans who were making all the early noise – the capos at the front of the stand whipping the crowd into a bit of a frenzy. There was a great atmosphere as the players came out but there was one thing missing from usual, neither set of supporters displayed a tifo. I had seen what certainly looked to be tifo materials on the seats in Tribune Sever, so I was very surprised not to see anything done to start the game. “Maybe Czech fans don’t do tifos…” I thought to myself. It turned out I was partially right, as the Slavia fans had indeed not planned a tifo. Instead, they had planned four!

There have been some one sided results in derby matches in recent years. Perhaps most famous is Manchester City destroying United 6 – 1 on their own turf, the game which signalled their arrival as a serious title contender – lovable losers no more. Then there is the darkest moment in the history of Hibs, when they were crushed 5 – 1 by Hearts. Losing by this margin to their rivals at Pro Evo would have been bad, to do it in a Scottish Cup final unthinkable. DIF 9 – Hammarby 1, Villa 5 – Birmingham 1, a 5 – 2 win for Rapid in the Vienna derby…the list goes on.

The point I am making here is that this derby should be remembered as being just as dominant, only this time it was in the stands rather than on the field. Slavia absolutely ran the show in the stands, with a display that will live long in the memory and no doubt be mentioned in arguments between both sets of supporters in the bars and cafes of Prague for just as long.

Even the most hardcore of Sparta fans will be forced to admit their away end was disappointing, especially when the march to the stadium had been so impressive. No such disappointments in the Slavia end, the action on the field almost a sideshow compared to their performance, featuring even more choreography and costume changes than a Madonna concert.

Tifo one

The first tifo featured a banner which read ‘Slavia Praha Ultras’ along the length of the stand, signed with all of the names of the various groups. Some clubs, most notably Borussia Dortmund and Partizan Belgrade, have a deep divide between ultra groups which can lead to violence and arguments (Partizan even have two separate away ends), so this was a clear display of unity from Slavia. The message was obvious “We’re all working together for you, work hard for us”. In addition to this banner, almost every supporter in the stand held up a banner – creating a visual masterpiece and getting the half off to the best possible start.

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Tifo two

The second tifo was a simple card display, with ‘DERBY’ written in blue text on a red and white background. Not too sure about the message behind this one, but I felt as though it was a reminder to the players just how much it meant to them and how much the game mattered. With Slavia recently enjoying some financial investment, it served as a reminder that some things are more important than money.

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Tifo three

Before the game I had noticed that the majority of Slavia supporters were wearing red t-shirts with Tribune Sever written on them and a picture of Bart Simpson. Presumably they felt as though Matt Groening probably wouldn’t be at the game and they wouldn’t be forced to have a 30 on 30 fight in a field against the Simpson’s legal team. Bart was also featured in the third tifo of the match, wearing a Slavia shirt on a large banner which took up most of the stand. With Hammarby supporters producing a Mr Pringles banner in the last European derby I visited, I’m now looking forward to which popular character will pop up next.

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Tifo four

Whether its Oasis not singing Wonderwall to the last song of the evening or the 1812 Overture ending with someone setting off a cannon, it’s always important to have an impressive ending to your show. This advice was certainly followed by Tribune Sever, with their fourth and final tifo also being the best one. Yet another long banner was run along the front of the stand, with red, white and black material running up to the top row. With a mostly even first half coming to an end, Slavia supporters made one last effort to inspire their team to score the opening goal.  Once the stand had been fully covered by these banners in their team colours, the top part of the stand burst into flames, dozens of flares being set off in a line.

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You often hear about pundits mentioning “The football Gods” deciding that something should happen. While if there is a God he probably has better things to do than ensuring Barnsley miss a penalty, it was hard to argue here that Slavia had earned some divine intervention. I have been lucky enough to see some truly amazing goals scored live in my lifetime, and of all these spectacular, magnificent goals, this one will certainly be remembered as not being one of them.

With just a few seconds left until half time, a Slavia player directed a fairly weak shot at goal. The Sparta goalkeeper seemed to collect it easily, but then somehow conspired to chuck it over his own goal line. If you imagine an 80 year old snail which had just taken a considerable amount of heroin, that still doesn’t quite do justice to how slow this ball was moving. It seemed as though the goalkeeper had time to get up, go and buy a pie, wash it down with a pint and still get back in time to stop it going in, but somehow it made it over the line.

Time had stood still in the Slavia end while the ball was trickling in, and it then descended into madness. The tifo was still being displayed as the goal was scored; causing banners, flags and flares to fly about everywhere. These supporters had been forced to wait a couple of years for a derby victory, and they were certainly making the most of it now it seemed as though one might arrive. The half time whistle blew almost immediately after the goal was scored, but the resulting scenes went on for some time into the break.

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The smoke had completely covered the stand by this stage, meaning all you could see was the occasional fist punching out of the gloom, and the occasional person wandering back up the stairs in a daze, trying to remember where they had been standing a few minutes ago.

Eventually the players headed back out and the second half got under way, with the action on the pitch remaining quite balanced. Slavia were having more of the ball and were able to win a number of corners, but Sparta were by no means out of the game and had some opportunities of their own to send their travelling supporters into delirium.

Speaking of the travelling supporters, they would finally come to life a bit in the second half, and although it was not really in a way to be particularly proud of, this kind of thing is a feature of intense derbies in Europe. The away end at Slavia is situated in one of the corners, and of course fate would have it that the longest series of corners during the match would come just in front of them. With the hatred Sparta have for Slavia and the added anger of being behind, you don’t have to be Einstein to predict what would happen next – the game delayed for several minutes while beers, flares and explosive crackers were thrown on the pitch in the direction of the player trying to take the corner.

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Some stewards ran on the pitch to collect these objects, while two more stood next to the corner flag with umbrellas to allow it to be taken. Presumably at the next derby they’ll ask to be in charge of the family stand, leaving away end duty to someone else.

The game got back underway after a few minutes, with Slavia supporters directing plenty of abuse at their neighbours for this little outbreak of violence. There would also be a mild disturbance in the home stand, with a group of stewards entering Tribune Sever to try and kick someone out of the stadium. Have you ever had a really bad idea? Sending that girl a drunken text at 3am? Encouraging your mate Barry to drink 22 Jaegerbombs on his 22nd birthday and then going to hospital with him?

No matter how bad your worst idea may have been, being part of a group of five or six stewards piling into the middle of a group of several thousand ultras is without question worse. It’s safe to say that their target did not end up missing any of the game, and they soon legged it down the stairs and back to safety out of the stand – never to return.

Time was winding down on the game, and the Sparta fans clearly gave up hope on their team scoring a goal – deciding to set of all of their pyro with about 10 minutes to go. It would prove to be the final act of defiance from Sparta, turning their corner of the stadium into a sea of flames. While their performance had overall been very disappointing, they did have some signs of life in the second half and ensured that the derby was not completely one sided. Still, if it had been a boxing match it would have looked a bit like Mike Tyson versus Milhouse

The noise from Slavia was immense by this stage, but with seconds left it looked as though the party would be ruined. A long ball was played into the box, with a Sparta player somehow unmarked in the box. He was a maximum of five yards out, and had the opportunity to score a last second equalising goal in a derby, not only that, but right in front of the most hardcore opposition supporters. It’s the kind of thing you dream about as a player, but his dream would become a nightmare – somehow conspiring to miss the easiest chance of the game. If it had been a less important game, or even if it had been earlier in this one you felt as though there was no chance he would have missed, the pressure proving too much on this occasion.

With this final scare survived it was party time for the red and white side of Prague, the last blow of the whistle from the referee sparking a big smoke show and even bigger celebrations, the pitch once again totally obscured by the resulting pyrotechnics. The players went to join their supporters as the celebrations went on and on, capped off by the winning goalscorer joining the ultras in the stands and leading a number of chants, the rest of the players joining in and happily bouncing around in a way you sadly never see in the top games in England.

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Sparta have been the dominant force in Prague for some time, with Slavia forced to watch on as their rivals lifted trophy after trophy. Only time will tell if this will be remembered as a single happy memory or as a seismic turning point in the history of this rivalry and indeed Czech football, but all of that stuff doesn’t matter yet. In the city which is famous for being watched over by a statue of the Good King Wenceslas, it is Slavia who are kings of the city until the next time these two sides meet.

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Dreams

Football is all about dreams. Whether you are a Real Madrid fan dreaming of an 11th European Cup or a supporter of a non-league side dreaming about making the 1st round of the FA Cup, everyone has that one ambition they’ve waited their whole lives to see become a reality. If we didn’t have dreams, it would be very hard to justify some of the things we do for the teams we love. As a personal example, I wrote a rough draft of this article while setting on a bench at Amsterdam airport at 3am. I’d flown back from Cyprus a few hours ago, and had six more to wait before my flight back home to Wales. In any other situation I would be utterly miserable, but instead my only emotion was excitement. Excitement, because my own personal dream might just be coming true.

You see, it’s not just clubs which have a dream. There’s the English dream of football coming home, and the Dutch desire to finally win a World Cup. Brazil dream of playing the game as beautifully as possible, while neighbours Argentina has a burning passion to end their long wait for a trophy. For some of us however, the dream is not as ambitious as actually winning a tournament. We just want to get there.

I was seven years old when my dad took me to my first ever Wales game, a World Cup Qualifier against San Marino. Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes both scored twice along with Andy Melville and John Robinson as my new heroes strolled to a 6 – 0 victory. Of course, being so new to football I had no idea that San Marino were utterly awful and assumed that life as a Wales supporter would always be this easy. A few months later I was allowed to stay up late as a special treat for our next game, as I excitedly waited for Wales to run away with another crushing victory. We lost 7 – 1.

Wales, I discovered, had not been to an international tournament since 1958. In our last match at the highest level we had been knocked out by a 17-year-old Pele. And so, disappointment followed. I saw Wales lose our first match at the Millennium Stadium 2 – 1 to Finland, and witnessed a 0 – 0 draw with Armenia so depressing that FIFA could have quite rightly abandoned the entire sport afterwards. So, Wales were pretty consistently terrible in the first five years I followed them, but I would soon discover  their favourite trick – raising your hopes before crushing them in the most painful way possible.

Just as I had got used to Wales being a bit rubbish then suddenly…we weren’t anymore. We were good. Really good. We drew with Argentina and the Czech Republic in friendlies, before beating the mighty Germany thanks to a goal from Robert Earnshaw on his debut. The best day was yet to come, as we faced Italy in qualifying for Euro 2004. Buffon, Nesta, Cannavaro, Pirlo, Del Piero…they were no match for Savage, Pembridge, Delaney and co. Craig Bellamy scored a winning goal with 20 minutes to go that still ranks as one of the most exciting moments of my life, and we were top of the group after two games. We won the next two also, and the nation dared to dream once more.

But of course, it all went wrong. We let in a series of late goals against Finland and Serbia and Montenegro that lead to a second place finish behind Italy, resigned to the playoffs. We could have met Latvia, Norway, Slovenia or Scotland, but instead we met Russia. Of course we did. Still, I dared to dream as I watched our side battle to a 0 – 0 draw in an intimidating atmosphere in Moscow. A few days later the Russians visited the Welsh capital for our biggest game in years, but embarrassingly negative tactics from Mark Hughes meant we lost. I waited until my mates I watched the game with had gone home, then cried alone in my room. It was the first time Wales had broken my heart. The second time came just a few days later when it turned out that a Russian player had failed a drugs test, but they wouldn’t be punished for it. We had been cheated. Again.

Older Welsh supporters would not have been surprised by this. In 1977 we had lost to Scotland in a crucial World Cup qualifier, a Joe Jordan handball in the penalty area robbing us of a chance to go to Argentina. Then there was the Paul Bodin penalty miss in 1993, ensuring that Romania went through instead of us, and many more tales of woe. I was lucky that the Welsh football team had only ruined my life once, some people have been doing it for decades.

After this campaign Wales went back to their standard position throughout my life – totally crap. Between October 2007 and September 2011 the only competitive games we won were against San Marino, Liechtenstein and Azerbaijan. Gary Speed arrived as manager during these dark times, starting poorly but soon inspiring the team back to the heady days of 2002. It was already too late to qualify, but Speed inspired us to wins in three of our last four games – the only defeat a very unlucky 1 – 0 loss at Wembley where we really should have taken a point. On the 12th November 2011 we destroyed Norway 4 – 1 at Cardiff City Stadium in our best performance in years, it really could have been 8 – 1. Optimism abounded that Speed would lead us to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the players and supporters truly united as one.

Two weeks later, Gary Speed had passed away following his battle with depression. After a short high, Welsh football was now at its lowest ever point. I couldn’t face going to the next 13 matches, eventually watching the team again for the first time at the end of the failed campaign. As this absolutely wonderful video on Welsh football states, the supporters who travelled away to Belgium didn’t even realise that we were witnessing the start of something special.

Because when this campaign came around, something had changed. We won in Andorra. We claimed another magnificent draw in Belgium. We tore Israel apart at their own stadium. Cardiff City Stadium was home to one of the greatest nights in our history, as the team ranked 2nd in the world was deservingly vanquished. Suddenly, we were top of the group with just four matches to play. If we could go to Cyprus and win, we’d have one foot on the plane.

Welsh fans descended on Cyprus in their thousands. Whether they were meeting girls with questionable morals in Ayia Napa, sitting on a beach in Larnaca or enjoying the 42 degree heat in Nicosia, they were all there because they had a dream. A dream that this time Wales wouldn’t let us down. This time we wouldn’t be haunted by despair and bad fortune. This time we would make it. This time…

20 minutes to go in Cyprus, and the hosts clearly hadn’t read the script. Rather than allowing us a comfortable victory to move us just two points from qualification, their resolute defending had ensured the score remained 0 – 0. Our away support has been incredible throughout this campaign, but it was nearly silent throughout this match due to the overwhelming nerves we were feeling. With Joe Allen and Joe Ledley both missing the midfield was struggling to create the chances we needed, and even star man Gareth Bale was having a bit of an off night.

With 15 minutes to go I began to fear the worst. I could just imagine a Cyprus player finding the net after his shot deflected off a defenders backside, and yet another campaign ending in heartbreak. If we lost this it would surely give Israel the confidence they needed to get a result in Cardiff, then we’d need to go to Bosnia to win and…oh god, oh god, oh god.

Speaking of God, 10 minutes to go and I have been reduced to making deals with the big man himself. “Just let us qualify for one tournament” I thought “and I’ll never ask you for anything ever again”. Wales have a corner, but the chance is wasted.

Nine minutes to go. It’s still 0 – 0, and Welsh supporters from Nicosia to Newport have their heads in their hands. It’s happening again, isn’t it?

Eight minutes to go. Wales have the ball deep inside the Cyprus half, frantically pushing forward now. We win another corner, but it is cleared easily. We win back possession, and it ends up with Jazz Richards on the right hand side of the pitch. He looks up once and notices Gareth Bale inside the box. He whips in a cross, but it seems as though it’s too close to the defender. Still, Bale challenges for the ball, meeting it powerfully and…

It’s in. It’s f***ing in!

The away end collapses into delirium. I’ve travelled to the game with a number of friends, all of whom have the same dream as me. One of them wordlessly raises his arms in the air, while others leap around wildly, arms flailing with joy as our dream becomes reality. Before I know it I am four rows away from where I started, waving my shirt around my head and hugging a man I’d never met before and probably never will again. This was not just another goal celebration, because this was about so much more than three points. This was the moment we knew that this time it was happening. No more pathetic failure, this wasn’t even going to be a glorious failure. We were going to do it.

Wales have waited 57 years to reach an international tournament, and the wait for the final whistle after Bale’s goal felt as though it was at least that long. There was still time for Cyprus to have two half chances, but the defence stood firm as it has done for the entire qualification campaign, and finally the referee brought things to an end. Several Welsh players sank to the ground with exhaustion, while the away end went crazy for the second time in ten minutes. I jumped on close friends and total strangers alike, realising the moment our small but proud nation has longed for for so long was finally arriving. This result did not clinch qualification mathematically, but for me it was the moment I knew we would do it. The team forms a huddle in front of the away end, a visual demonstration of the ‘Together Stronger’ motto for the campaign. You could tell from the looks on their faces that they knew just as well as we did. This was it.

Now, all we need is one more point and Hal Robson-Kanu will be a Panini sticker. I’ll take three weeks off work and sleep in a campervan in France. I’ll sing the national anthem at a major tournament. I’ll cry, a lot. BBC pundits will have to pretend they know anything about Chris Gunter. 1958 will become just a year, rather than a curse. One more point, and my longest and most unlikely football ambition will become a reality.

Most of the time being a football supporter is pretty bad. You’ll sit on a coach back from Preston after spending your Saturday watching another 3 – 0 defeat, you’ll get the piss taken out of you, you’ll spend every penny you have watching players who don’t know you exist and wouldn’t care even if they did. But these are not the moments we think about when we think about football. We think about that last-minute goal in the derby. We think about the unlikely giantkilling in the cup, and we think about the time our tiny village team shared a cup draw with Manchester United, Liverpool and company. We think about the moments that make it all worthwhile, and boy do those moments make it worthwhile.

Wales will never win a tournament. We might not even qualify for another one in my lifetime, but it doesn’t matter. At around 11:20pm in Nicosia, Gareth Bale proved that sometimes dreams do come true. There is a flag at every Wales game home and away that reads ‘Fe godwn ni eto’, or in English ‘We will rise again’. They were right. We will. We have.