Hate at first sight

“This isn’t a football match. This is a battle, and we are all fighting in it. Players, fans, everyone. We don’t want to beat them, you understand? We want to f***ing embarrass them.”

These are the words of a Hammarby supporter I speak to before my second visit to one of Stockholm”s derby matches. The words could just as easily have come from a Djurgarden fan, because that’s how these matches work around here. Sure, the match is the main event – but there are so many more victories to be had than winning the game. Who can cover the lampposts around the stadium with the most stickers? Who can produce the best tifo? Who can be the loudest? Who can go the craziest at half time (that’s a thing here) and so much more. It often feels like the game is not a battle as my new friend suggested, but a war – fought on many different fronts.

This is the first time the two sides have been in the same division for almost a decade, and you can really tell. The hype has been building for months now, with both DIF and Hammarby fans sending me messages on Twitter promising hatred, passion and carnage – three valuable ingredients to a football rivalry. I attended AIK – DIF last season, but this one felt a little different.

Back then, the guys I was with had said things like “we get these buses every season” or “we always meet in this park”. With the last home game against Hammarby coming over six years ago, it means that many DIF supporters would never have experienced the derby as an adult. This was all new. They say that your first love is the strongest, and perhaps the same can be said of your first hatred.

I thought I was going to miss out on this game, all thanks to an Excel spreadsheet. I had been eagerly awaiting the tickets going on sale, only for someone to run frantically to my desk at 9:57 – a whole three minutes before they would be released. By the time I had dealt with the problem, I was being faced with the words “no availability” in Swedish. As I prepared to go and change my colleagues screensaver to pictures of various abusive hand gestures, I decided to email the club directly. They informed me they had a 100 or so left in reserve, and agreed to sell me one. The trip was on, and John’s screen would remain free of me calling him a knobhead, at least for now.

I like to arrive early for matches in Europe, instead of squeezing in one more pint at 14:47 like we do in the UK. I got in to the Tele2 arena about 40 minutes before the game starts, and was greeted by a huge range of tifo materials in the DIF section where I would be located. Confetti cannons, streamers, torn up paper, flags, banners – they had it all. It was less clear what to expect from Hammarby, with a large green and white banner at either end of the away stand the only clue at this point.

Many DIF fans were still in the pub at this point, while Hammarby were in the stadium earlier. I also noticed a large number of Hammarby fans who had bought tickets in the home section making their way to the away end. This was done in highly subtle fashion, climbing over the segregation and then walking round the bottom of a police observation tower and jumping into the away end. I didn’t count exactly how many did this, but it was between 50-100 , thereby boosting the number of Hammarby fans inside the stadium even further than the sold out allocation of 4,000,

20150824_183628

They made great use of this early advantage, starting the anti-Djurgarden songs and bouncing up and down as the clock wound down until the scheduled 7pm kick off. I say scheduled, because a Stockholm derby starting on time is simply unthinkable. These matches are delayed so frequently that they last about as long as the average NFL game. Despite the fact that everyone knows the game won’t kick off for some time later than scheduled, the stadium was packed by 6:45, with the DIF supporters behind the goal collecting their tifo materials to welcome the players to the pitch. Instructions were left on the seats as to what to do. If you don’t speak Swedish, the gist of it is “Don’t throw anything until the players come out, then go ******* mental”.

20150824_175733

From what I could see around me, I know the entrance was going to be good – but I wasn’t prepared for quite how good it really was. The stand exploded into an inferno of red, yellow and blue, streamers flying through the air, the sky blocked out by confetti and hundreds of flags waving in unison. Alongside all this was an unbelievable amount of pyro – the Djurgarden terrace looked like someone had bombed a firework factory. My pictures don’t really do it justice, because I didn’t want to be a tourist and only took a couple once I had finished throwing everything around me that I could find but believe me…it was really something special. In an era when colour and passion is being replaced by YouTube celebrities and people have furious discussions about “net spend” outside of football stadiums, this was a wonderful reminder that football isn’t about spreadsheets, it’s about supporters.

20150824_190258 - Copy

The Hammarby supporters also produced an extremely nice tifo, although due to my lack of Swedish I didn’t initially understand it until it was explained on social media after the game. A huge banner was held up along the entire stand painted with the pictures of many well-known supporters who have sadly passed away in recent years. This was accompanied with a banner which read “Hammarby never left your hearts, you will always be in ours”. There were also many green flares across the whole of the stand, adding to the huge amount of smoke that had filled the stadium. As a result, the players headed back off and the game would not start for another 28 minutes (I checked).

20150824_190201

During this break the noise from both ends of the stadium was absolutely non-stop. This was my third DIF match so I knew what to expect from their superb supporters, but I was also deeply impressed by Hammarby. The only experience I had with Hammarby fans before this game had been the abusive comments they left below my articles whenever I said something nice about DIF, but their claims about top quality support were being backed up by the tremendous support coming from the away stand. At one stage they kept up one anti-Djurgarden chant for 10 minutes without pausing for breath, getting louder and louder with each rendition. Of course, the DIF supporters had many insults of their own to fire back with, and I would happily have watched 90 minutes of the two sets of fans abusing each other without the need to even play a game at all.

20150824_190249 - Copy

However the referee did eventually decide to let the players kick a ball about, and in the opening minutes it was the visitors who would take control of the game. DIF had been challenging for the title just a few weeks ago, but a damaging defeat to AIK seems to have ended that dream unless something spectacular happens in the coming weeks. It has been quite some time since DIF won a derby, and the nerves were obvious for their blue shirted players – despite Hammarby hovering just above the relegation places.

20150824_190256 - Copy

Just moments into the game, the early pressure from Hammarby would pay off. A through ball played towards the striker looks as though it will be intercepted, only for the defender to misjudge it completely. The goalkeeper came rushing out to try to make up for his teammates mistake, but the ball was lofted over him and came to rest in the back of the net. The large Djurgarden banner which ran along the length of the stand read “We stand together as one behind you, now fight for your team” – advice that it took the players less than five minutes to ignore. 1 – 0 to Hammarby, and the away stand was sent into absolute chaos, a number of flares appearing and no doubt hundreds of bruised shins would also appear in the morning. In comparison, clearly their players had listened to the huge “HAMMARBY ATTACK!” banner in their stand. I can compare the noise to when I saw the away stand at Lazio celebrating a goal against Roma, and there had been 20,000 of them!

The DIF supporters also deserve credit for their response to the goal, falling silent for only a matter of seconds before they were singing again, even louder this time with a renewed purpose. Just like I have observed in Serbia, Swedish fans really see themselves as having a responsibility to the club. If the players are not performing, it is because they aren’t singing loud enough. The capos were soon leading encouraging chants to try to urge their players on to an equaliser or more. Still, it was Hammarby pressing forward and winning a number of corners, each Hammarby corner taker facing barrages of abuse when they had to get close to the stands.

DIF were eventually able to get themselves into the game after the opening 25 minutes or so had been almost completely green and white, but they were not able to find a way past the determined defence of the away side. Much to the frustration of the Djurgarden supporters, the score would remain 0 – 1 as the half time whistle blew.

Now in most countries, half time is where a terrible DJ hosts a competition that nobody cares about while the supporters go off for a pint or a ‘meat’ pie, but in Sweden things are a little different. During big games like this there are often displays during the break, and I could tell that was going to be the case here once more as soon as the large flags appeared and covered both ends. This is the telltale sign that something cool is about to happen, with the flag being used as protection from CCTV so that those involved can hand out the pyro, put on masks and that sort of thing. The police and stewards know about it of course but pleasingly, can’t do anything about it.

20150824_203540

It was DIF who acted first, turning the stand into a fireball with flares being ignited both on the terrace and in the seats in the top-tier, once again creating waves of smoke that would delay the game further still. Indeed, as the players emerged for the second half, the match should have been entering injury time. While Hammarby did not put on a huge display during half time, they did burn a number of Djurgarden scarves and shirts which they had stolen at some point – another European tradition!

20150824_203225 - Copy

If that was the case, Djurgarden quickly had something to say about it. They looked like a totally different team after half time, absolutely bossing the opening minutes of the half. The pressure was almost constant during this spell, and if they had converted all their chances they could have been winning 3 or 4 – 1 rather than continuing to trail by a goal. Of course, Hammarby had enjoyed a similar spell of dominance in the first half, it’s no exaggeration to say this game could have easily ended 4 – 4 or higher.

It was inevitable that DIF would score if they maintained such a high level of pressure, and the only real surprise was that they had to wait until the 58th minute. There were two incidents inside the box almost at once, one of them that certainly wasn’t a penalty and one of them that probably was. I believe the referee blew his whistle for the wrong foul, but perhaps justice was done overall. The run up from the penalty taker was unconvincing, but he still managed to beat the keeper and find the net, his equalising goal sending the home supporters into delirium. I often talk about the unity between players and supporters in European football, and there was a nice metaphor for this after the goal. With Djurgarden on fire on the pitch, the fans made sure the stands were also on fire to celebrate the equaliser – with plenty of flares set off once again. Swedish ultras must buy trousers with incredibly deep pockets to have all this pyro on hand, because the supply seemed never-ending.

Talking about never-ending pyro leads me nicely into the Hammarby banner which was displayed about halfway through the second half, one of the best and most creative banners I have ever seen inside a football stadium. I recently counted exactly how many this was and I’m on a total of 117 stadiums, which gives you an idea of how much I liked this one! It became clear what the away fans had been doing during the half time break, as ‘ONCE YOU POP YOU CAN’T STOP’ was unfurled from the top tier – accompanied by a picture of the Pringles mascot waving a flare about. I realise some people won’t be a fan of using something commercial in a banner, but I absolutely loved the creativity. Bulldogs, skeletons, ex-players – these things appear on tifo banners all the time, but this was something truly new that hasn’t been seen anywhere before. Once the banner was displayed properly, the away end was set alight by a huge number of flares (both green and red), and true to their word – they would continue burning all the way to the final whistle.

20150824_211614 - Copy

All the furious Hammarby fans who have previously left comments on my articles were right in one respect – your support is most impressive and was consistently loud throughout. Whereas the Stockholm derby last year was a clear victory for Djurgarden in terms of support, this one was very equal. I classify Djurgarden fans as some of the very best in Europe, and Hammarby now must also be added to this list where AIK failed to make the grade last time around. (Sorry, DIF fans!)

If it was loud in the away end before, it was about to go absolutely off the Richter Scale. I’ve watched the goal a few times on YouTube since and I still can’t decide if it’s a great strike or if the goalkeeper deserves to be sent to a North Korean labour camp for letting in such a shot. Whether it is goal of the season or a catastrophic error, the result was much the same. 2 – 1 to Hammarby, and absolute scenes in the away end. The roar was so loud that it felt like I was standing in the away end itself rather than being at the opposite end of the ground, as the away supporters celebrated taking the lead with just 20 minutes to go. The players jumped over the advertising boards and ran to join their delirious supporters – it was moments like this they had been dreaming of since securing promotion last season. For the DIF supporters, their hopes of playing European football seemed to be going up in smoke faster than the flares which continued to burn around the ground.

But there was still to be one twist left in this marathon match which was now approaching three hours since it was supposed to start, and it would ensure that a game that was balanced in the stands would also end level on the field. Popular Djurgarden player Nyasha Mushekwi (known as Super Mush) from Zimbabwe thumped an unstoppable header beyond the reaches of the Hammarby goalkeeper with around ten minutes to play. This time the reaction was less one of joy from the home supporters and more one of relief, they have lost so many derbies recently that they must have been fearing the worst. To keep up their push towards the top of the table they really needed to win, and threw a number of players forward in the closing stages. They did win a couple of corners and were able to get the ball into the box, but the goal that would have sent the stadium into orbit around Planet Scenes was not to be found. The referee finally brought to an end another marathon Stockholm derby, the final whistle coming after 10:00pm for the game which was supposed to end at around 8:45.

It was already my suspicion that Sweden was the best place in Western Europe to watch football, and this game proved that my visit to AIK – Djurgarden last season was no fluke. The matches are exciting and with a pretty good quality of football, while the stands are full of people who are there to support the team rather than just to show off their business partners or Facebook friends. The tifos are spectacular and the support lasts for 90 minutes, while even half time contains more colour and excitement than an entire season in the Premier League. Djurgarden hate Hammarby and Hammarby absolutely despise Djurgarden, but supporters of both clubs should love the fact that they are regularly able to take part in some of the best rivalries in the whole of football.  If you are thinking of taking a European football trip of your own and you’re not quite ready to go to Belgrade, this is the next best thing!

While there would be no winner of the battle this time around, Sweden as a country is certainly winning the fight against the threat of modern football which has already ruined the sport in so many places. With Hammarby looking very much safe from relegation this time around, the war between Stockholm’s triangle of hatred will continue to rage on.

 

The following pictures of the amazing tifo were kindly provided to me by Djurgarden themselves, all credit to Järnkaminerna, Helena Avermark.

dif tifo

dif tifo 2

 

 

Fallen giants – The Crvena Zvezda story

This is the first in a new series which will look at mighty clubs around Europe that are facing serious problems now that the glory days have faded away, whether on the pitch or in the stands. I feel that enough has already been written about the likes of Leeds United, Rangers and Parma, I want to tell the stories of clubs that are very rarely told in English. Later in the series we’ll go to Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy and more, but we’ll start in my favourite country to visit in the world – Serbia.

Crvena Zvezda, more commonly known outside Serbia as Red Star Belgrade are one of the most historically significant clubs in world football. They are the only club from the former Yugoslavia to have won the European Cup (arch rivals Partizan being the only other to reach the final, losing in heart-breaking fashion to Real Madrid), and regularly contested the later stages of the tournament throughout the 80’s. They were also involved in perhaps the craziest thing to ever happen at a football match, when they travelled to Dinamo Zagreb in 1990. Although war did not break out for another 18 months following this clash, the gigantic riot between Delije (the ultras of Red Star) and the Bad Blue Boys (the ultras of Dinamo) is seen by many as the start of hostilities.

Of course, Red Star Belgrade are also well known in England for being the last side to face Manchester United before the plane crash which killed so many of their highly promising team in 1958. United had lead the match 3 – 0 at half time, before Zvezda scored three goals in 12 minutes to earn a draw. The Serbian club have been deeply successful throughout their history, adding 26 league titles, 24 domestic cups and the now defunct Intercontinental Cup to their greatest ever success, the previously mentioned European Cup in 1991.

Red Star Belgrade

Despite all this success, the greatest thing about Zvezda isn’t their trophies or unique history. It’s not their beautiful kit or iconic stadium. It’s not even their matches against Partizan Belgrade, the best football match in Europe and a derby only challenged in ferocity anywhere in the world by River Plate vs. Boca Juniors. No, above all, the most special thing about this club is the supporters. The stadium is not always full and you can see empty seats at plenty of matches, but one thing is constant – Delije will be there. The history of the Balkans means that the people are spread out all over the continent, and passionate supporters of Zvezda travel to every match from all over the place. Whether they walk to the stadium from their house round the corner or spend hours on a train, the supporters back them every step of the way, just as passionately in hard times as they did in the glory years.

IMAG0008

It is very fortunate for Zvezda that the supporters show such unwavering loyalty, otherwise there might not be anyone left in the stadium at all. While the 1991 success was the greatest moment in their history, it also proved to be the start of a chain of events which would take the club from being one of the greatest in the world, to relatively unknown outside of their own borders. The story of the ownership of Red Star Belgrade is not one of mismanagement and mistakes, but indeed one of betrayal.

Thanks to a friend of mine who is a passionate Zvezda supporter now living in the UK (@DusanMano on Twitter), I have put together the series of disasters and scandals which culminated in Zvezda being beaten 2 – 0 by Kazak side Kairat Almaty in the stadium where Barcelona, Bayern, Milan and the rest used to fear to tread.

Having reached the peak of European football, it was inevitable that Europe’s elite would come calling for the star men. Zvezda players were snapped up by Milan, Real Madrid, Inter, Roma and Sampdoria (a hugely successful club back then). Good money was paid for these players and it could have helped secure the financial future of the club for life, but the influx of wealth came at the worst possible time. With Serbia now at war, all the money they made from the sales of the likes of Savicevic and Pancev was kept by the government. This meant that not only had Red Star lost the core of the side, they didn’t even have anything to show for it in their bank account.

IMAG0007

With the Yugoslavian league of course broken up due the fact that, well, Yugoslavia didn’t exist anymore, Zvezda began to compete in the Serbia and Montenegro league instead. In the first seven years of this competition they would only lift the trophy once, rivals Partizan adding five trophies to their collection and one trophy for FK Obilić, a club who were being funded by Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. The story of this club during Arkan’s time is worthy of a lengthy article in itself, with reports that supporters would go as far to point guns at opposition players during matches, in addition to the fact that Arkan was such a powerful figure that opposition players were terrified to score against them.

Obilić faded as a threat once Arkan was murdered in early 2000, with Red Star benefiting by lifting back-to-back titles. However, disastrous financial decisions would once again prevent the club from building on this dominance, and it allowed Partizan to begin to dominate Serbian football. Zvezda president Dragan Džajić is one of the most legendary Serbian players of all time, and holds the record for both the most goals and most appearances for the club. However, Džajić is well known to have signed a number of 50/50 deals with agents for top players at the club. This meant when players were sold for good money (including Nikola Žigić), the club would only receive half of the cash. These 50/50 deals resulted in the club once again receiving far less than they should have.

IMAG0743

However, the worst was yet to come, with club captain and Zvezda hero Nemanja Vidić departing to Russia in highly controversial circumstances, which would later come to trial in 2011.

This turmoil off the field finally caught up with the club, and Zvezda began the worst spell in the history of the club. Partizan took away their title in 2007/08, and the ribbons on the trophy would be black and white for six seasons in a row. The club which once ruled Europe had been knocked off their throne in the way that Manchester United displaced Liverpool in England, and it was not just in Serbia that Zvezda supporters would suffer. From beating Bayern Munich, Rangers, Marseille and Real Madrid, in the 00’s they suffered defeats to Tromsø, Dinamo Tbilisi, FC Levadia and even Bolton Wanderers! The best performance in Europe from Zvezda since the turn of the century has been two appearances in the group stages of the UEFA Cup/Europa League, a far cry from the glory days, and all so preventable if the club had been run with even the slightest degree of sense.

Unfortunately, sense has been a long way away from the president’s box at Marakana for a long time. After Džajić eventually left the club due to ill health, he was replaced by Dragan Stojković – commonly known as Piksi. This was to be another example that demonstrated being a superbly talented player when wearing the shirt of Red Star does not mean they are the right person to be running the club. Piksi gambled everything on the club reaching the Champions League, but missed out in the most unfortunate fashion. Zvezda were drawn against Italian giants Milan in 2007, the year that Italian football was hit by the biggest scandal ever. Milan were originally thrown out of the competition which would have given Zvezda a pass to the next round, but were reinstated just in time to travel to Serbia. Despite a brave performance over the two legs, Red Star were beaten 3 – 1. Milan would go on to be the champions of Europe that season.

Following this narrow failure, Piksi would infuriate the supporters by selling off the majority of the team who had taken them within touching distance of returning to the most prestigious of competitions. He was already unpopular with Delije for his attempts to limit supporter power at the club, and this would be the final straw. A combination of fan unrest and falling out with the Mafia lead to Piksi departing the club, and the ownership of Zvezda would consistently change hands over the next few years.

The club which was once the jewel in the crown of European football was now being treated as a way to make a quick bit of money for your mates. The Zvezda academy had consistently produced highly talented players who would help the club to succeed for a couple of seasons, before being sold on to a richer team for a good price. This reliance on youth was abandoned and instead of pursuing the best young players available, the president would ensure that players were recruited based on whether or not their parents were able to pay them a bribe. Genuinely talented players were released (many of them ending up at Partizan), while the rich kids would be kept on.

This shady transfer policy was present in all areas of the club, with many Zvezda supporters telling me about players who were clearly only signed to get someone a nice signing on fee bonus. Signed for an inflated price and on high wages, these players would play a handful of games before moving on somewhere else, getting extremely rich from Red Star Belgrade without offering anything in return. In the 90’s the club had players who you felt would die for the club, these legends replaced by players who could barely be bothered to run around a bit.

Zvezda were able to lift the league title again at last in the 2013/14 season, but surrendered it meekly to Partizan again last time around.  Despite the disappointment of losing the title without much of a fight, the real disappointment came in Europe and the earlier mentioned visit of Kairat Almaty. Any European match is special for this club, but especially this one. There had not been any European football at Marakana the season before, the debts of the club spiraling so high that UEFA had banned them from taking their place in the Champions League.

So it came to be that the kind of side who Zvezda would have scored double figures against in their glory days came to Marakana and dominated from the first minute, taking advantage of an early red card to win 2 – 0, a result which actually flattered the hosts. Had the goalkeeper not put in a sensational performance, it could have been 5 – 0 or more. Despite this devastatingly poor result serving as the culmination of three decades of their beloved club being abused by the owners, the members of Delije sang long after the final whistle, their chants had not even stopped when the ball had hit the back of their net. These loyal supporters deserve so much more than they have been given, and it does not seem like there is any light at the end of the tunnel for this most historic and proud of clubs.

A week later, Zvezda took the long journey to Kazakhstan for the return leg and were beaten 2 – 1, confirming their exit at the earliest possible stage. From being the kings of Europe, the years of Zvezda being run by people without even 1% of the passion of the supporters has sadly seen them take their place with the paupers.

Dragisa Binic of Red Star Belgrade holds up the trophy with other members of his team at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari, Italy, after they won the European Cup Final against Marseille, 29th May 1991. They won 5-4 on penalties. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

Where Eagles Dare

The football season only seems to be over for a couple of weeks these days before the next one rolls along, and that was definitely the case for 2015/16. Indeed, I still had the bruise on my leg from celebrating Gareth Bale’s winner against Belgium in my last game of 14/15 as I headed to Emmen for the first one of this campaign – a first round qualifier for the Europa League.

While my Dutch club is and always will be Feyenoord, I also have a lot of admiration for Go Ahead Eagles. They made the list of the top supporters I saw live in 2014 for their incredible performance at De Kuip, losing 5 – 0 and still making more noise than anyone else who came to Rotterdam that season. It says everything about the underdog spirit of GAE that their supporters actually made more noise during this 5 – 0 defeat than they did last season, when they won 1 – 0!

wpid-20150702_193206.jpg

Sadly the Eagles were relegated from the top flight last season after unexpectedly losing in the end of season playoffs. They had spent 17 seasons in this division before being promoted in 2013 so it is perhaps no surprise to see them go down, but their great supporters will definitely be a loss to the division. Still, the bright spot for Kowet supporters was the fact they finished top of the Fair Play League, with the Netherlands qualifying for an extra spot in the Europa League this season – setting up this clash with Ferencváros, the runners up in Hungary last season and the most famous club in the country.

To put the difference in the size of the clubs into some context, Zöld Sasok won 33 major trophies since the last time the club from Deventer did so, making it one of the most difficult draws possible for the Dutch side. Still, after not playing in Europe for 50 years, you might as well take on one of the big names rather than a trip to TNS or Andorra.

Work is currently ongoing on the Eagle’s home stadium, so the game would take place in Emmen instead. I knew this before buying a ticket, but sadly I did not know where Emmen actually was. As the Netherlands is a pretty small country, I assumed it would be pretty close. Geography lesson – it’s really really far away. Three trains, a metro and a taxi later I arrived at De JENS Vesting stadion at around 7:20pm. It was pretty obvious that most of the Go Ahead Eagles fans had been getting drunk since 7:20am, wandering round in a topless drunken haze of confusion which you only get with a sunny European game.

Around 7,500 fans had made the trip from Deventer for this ‘home’ match, a 180km (110 mile) round trip for a first round tie having just been relegated a couple of weeks ago. Great support, and one which is certainly worthy of a better team than the one they have. I was initially confused to see only 80 – 100 people in the away section, when I knew that around 400 had travelled. I thought that perhaps some people had been denied access to the stadium after causing trouble earlier in the day, but was later sent this article by Hungarian Ultras which contained some interesting information.

wpid-20150702_195546.jpg

Many Ferencváros supporters, especially the hardcore element, are currently boycotting matches due to the ridiculous security measures which are in place. If you had a look at the Hungarian Ultras report, ‘vein scanner’ is not a mistranslation – the club appointed security will actually check your blood to make sure it matches with what is on your mandatory ID card. Worse still, these security guards have been involved in all sort of beatings and even a shooting – with the deeply unpopular club president cracking down on dissent in the harshest of ways. I am only thankful he isn’t friends with Vincent Tan, or I’d have been found at the bottom of a river back in 2012.

The supporters who did not take part in the boycott seemed to mostly be the older supporters or those who were a little younger and probably didn’t understand what was going on. I also suspected that many of them were people who lived in Germany or the Netherlands, taking the chance to see their team without having to take a long flight home.

With kick off drawing near, the home supporters displayed several large flags – the most eye catching being a ‘NO ONE SHOULD GO WHERE EAGLES DARE’ banner which ran the length of the pitch. There was also the customary pyro (this time in red and yellow) and streamers sent firing in to the air. Jupiler League or not, they were up for this! One of the best things about the Eagles support is how varied their songbook is, and they showed off a number of these as the match was about to get underway. From passionate chants about their love of the club to the simply but effective “We are Eagles, who the **** are you?” there can’t have been many games at this stage of the competition with a better atmosphere.

wpid-20150702_195650.jpg

Having looked up the away squad on Wikipedia, the only player I instantly recognised was Zoltan Gera, now 36 years old. “Hmm, if their best player is Zoltan Gera, maybe Eagles will have a chance…” I thought as the game kicked off. Two minutes later, Zoltan Gera scored to make it 0 – 1. That’s me told, I guess.

It could have gone two ways on the Eagle’s big day at this point, the players and supporters being deflated by such an early goal and going on to a heavy defeat, or rallying together as if it didn’t happen and keep fighting for a good result. The supporters chose the second option, carrying on singing as if nothing had happened. However it took the players longer to recover from the setback, with the Hungarian team running rampant at times. It was only some great play from the goalkeeper which kept them in the game for the first thirty minutes, it could easily have been 3 or 4 – 0 in these early stages.

For most Eagles supporters this would have been the first time in their lives they had seen their team play a competitive game in Europe, and they weren’t about to let the result spoil the party for them. They continued to sing, jump and generally do all the things drunk football supporters enjoy, including threatening to clash with the away end. Despite most of the travelling Hungarian fans not actually being in the stadium, there were still plenty of people in the away end ready for a rumble. The big fence between the two sets of supporters meant it was never actually going to happen, but there were plenty of invitations to meet up after the game given out, presumably not for a quick pint and to swap scarves.

wpid-20150702_205434.jpg

A few Eagles fans began to get frustrated close to half time, with two of them in my section having a pretty intense argument, which ended in them shoving each other and having to be pulled apart. They continued to give each other angry looks from across the stand. I think we’ve all had an argument with someone supporting the same team at one stage, mine was at Sheffield United away when someone was screaming at Peter Whittingham for being “crap and lazy” after he’d scored two goals and created another. Whittingham would later complete his hat-trick, resulting in me doing an elaborate dance in this guys face and him leaving early.

Just when it looked as if these two Eagles fans were going to come to blows, the magic moment that Deventer had been waiting 50 years for came. With just seconds to go before half time, the red and yellows won a corner in front of the largest block of their supporters, with the ‘Eagles dare’ banner I mentioned earlier. These Eagles certainly dared to go where seemed impossible, forcing the ball home from the corner and leveling the score against one of the most successful clubs in Europe.

As you’d expect, the place went completely wild. In between the plumes of red and yellow smoke and the bodies leaping everywhere, I noticed something which showed how truly unique football can be. In the middle of the celebrations were the two guys who had been threatening to bash each others faces in 10 minutes ago. Instead of fighting, they were now hugging each other and jumping up and down with delight. It was a really cool moment to witness, and one that says a lot about what being a football supporter is all about. Most of the time it’s annoying, it regularly makes you angrier than a teenage girl on Tumblr and can often feel more like duty than enjoyment. However, all of this is worth it for the times like this when something truly brilliant happens.

wpid-20150702_204801.jpg

The Eagles had been pretty poor for 44 minutes, but thankfully possession stats and shots on target count for exactly nothing if you can’t stick the ball in the back of the net, and that is exactly what they had done.

It was party time in the second half, as Kowet saluted their team for having already achieved more than most people expected them to do in the whole competition. The players were also extremely fired up by grabbing the unexpected equaliser, and indeed if any team was going to win it in the second half, it looked more likely to be them. The ‘home’ side had a number of chances to go to Hungary next week with the lead, falling just short of pulling it off. Whether they go through or not, the memories of the goal celebrations will stay with the GAE supporters for at least another 50 years.

wpid-20150702_214400.jpg

Whether the adventure ends here or they make it through to the next round, this small but great club can truly be proud that they went where eagles dare.

wpid-img_20150702_220123.jpg

A fire in my heart for you

There was a time I thought I would probably never go to Cardiff City Stadium again. There was a time I thought that Wales would never qualify for a major tournament in my lifetime. After Gary Speed’s death, there was a time I wondered if I could ever enjoy supporting the national side again. There was a time. On a rain soaked Friday night in Cardiff, the greatest Welsh side in living memory changed everything you thought you knew about football in our small but proud country.

Wales are the team who are capable of a few good results, but will always let you down in the end. We’re the team who constantly put ourselves in good positions, before throwing things away in the most unlikely or heartbreaking way possible. Not any more. Not this team.

In my time following Wales before this campaign, we have seriously threatened to qualify for a tournament twice. The first time was in 2003, a campaign which included a 2 – 1 win over Italy – my favourite Welsh game from the day it happened until the 12th June 2015. After looking as though we may top the group and qualify automatically, a slump at the end of the campaign meant we had to settle for the playoffs. We could have drawn Norway, Slovenia, Latvia or Scotland, but of course we got Russia. The team produced a heroic performance in Moscow in a 0 – 0 draw, but a 0 – 1 defeat at home meant we were resigned to watching a tournament on television once again. It later emerged that the Russian player who had set up the winning goal had failed a drugs test, but of course UEFA did nothing about it and the result was allowed to stand.

The second time was more recently, in the build up to the World Cup in Brazil. I didn’t agree with the appointment of Gary Speed at the time, but he very quickly proved me wrong – bringing a passion and togetherness to the Welsh side which we are still reaping the benefits of today. The revival came too late for Euro 2012, we lost our first four matches and were one of the very first nations eliminated. However, we saw the rewards of Speed’s work in the second half of the campaign, beating Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria and deserving to beat England but falling just short at Wembley. This meant there was real optimism for our next campaign, which would have the team Speed wanted from the very start, allowing us to give it a good go when it really mattered – not when we’d already stopped checking SkyScanner for flights to Rio. Tragically it was not to be, as Gary Speed passed away from his battle with depression before the campaign begun.

I got a text from someone I barely speak to saying “Do you know what’s going on with Gary Speed?” I initially ignored it, thinking he was talking about the great revival that Wales had enjoyed and was going to ask me about getting him a ticket for a game. It wasn’t until 20 minutes later that I checked my phone and found several more messages asking “Is it true about Speed?”. I was concerned, thinking he might have been offered a job at a Premier League club and was leaving us. I raced to the BBC Sport homepage and saw that it was much, more worse than I could possibly have imagined. Our leader, our most capped outfield player and our former captain had gone.

I didn’t go to the next few Wales games, the first time since my first game in 1996 I had missed consecutive home matches for the national side. I didn’t want Chris Coleman to be the manager, because I didn’t want ANYONE to be the manager apart from Speed.

Eventually I came back, but I didn’t know if I could ever feel the same way about the team after what had happened. That was until I realised that although Gary Speed had passed away, we didn’t lose him. His spirit is personified perfectly by the 11 players on the pitch, his name is sung from the stands in every game, and his dream of taking a Welsh side to a major tournament is more alive than ever. After a 0 – 0 draw in Belgium and a 3 – 0 win in Israel we dared to dream that it was finally happening for the first time since 1958, but this was the night it was time to stop dreaming and start believing.

The atmosphere before the game was like nothing I have ever known for a Wales fixture. So many of our more casual supporters had (understandably) been driven away by years of failure, uncaring players and uninspiring football. Those issues have been melted away with the fire of a dragon who roars once more, taking Wales to places they have never been before. Welsh band the Super Furry Animals performed before kick-off, closing their set with ‘I’ve got a fire in my heart for you’. There could not have been a more fitting choice, this Welsh team has put a fire in the football heart of the country once more.

There was a better atmosphere in the 45 minutes before kick off than there had been at any point during a home game since 2002, and the roar when the players emerged told you that this was going to be something special. Quite how special was still to be revealed.

After a spine chilling rendition of the anthem it was straight down to action, with Belgium quickly showing why they are rated as the second best side in the world. They were absolutely all over us in the first 15 minutes, in previous years we would have crumbled, let in a couple of goals and left the 3,000 or so travelling Belgians to party for the rest of the game. Not this time. The sold out home crowd of 30,000 came together as one to back the team and inspire them to levels of performance that didn’t seem possible. A defence made up of players from Reading, Hull City and Swansea stood up to Eden Hazard (player of the year in England), Kevin De Bruyne (player of the year in Germany) and Christian Benteke and said “Not today. Not here”.

They throw themselves into every tackle with everything they had. They blocked the ball with any part of their body they could throw in the way, and when one of them was not able to stop an attacking, one of their mates was there to do it for them.

Together stronger has been the motto for the campaign, and it’s never been more true than it was here. After the chaos of the opening 15 minutes when I was worried we’d suffer a significant defeat and lose the momentum for the campaign, the home side grew into the game and began to enjoy some possession and chances of their own. The noise inside the stadium was something I didn’t think I would ever hear in the UK again. It was honestly as loud as the most recent Belgrade Derby I attended. Never mind the cliche of Wales having a 12th man, they had a 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th in the stands with them.

25 minutes played. After the nervy start, Wales are enjoying a good spell and Belgium are showing signs of panic that this might not be as easy as their 2 – 0 victory here in the last campaign. Nainggolan attempts perhaps the worst backpass in the history of football, the ball dropping to Gareth Bale inside the penalty area. With one movement he turns on the ball, and fires it between the legs of Courtois into the back of the net. Instant mayhem. There was a kid who was roughly 14 years old stood in the row in front who’ll probably need a note from his mum to excuse him from school on Monday, because my celebration absolutely wiped him out. I’ve been to a lot of matches at Cardiff City Stadium, and it’s never shaken like this. The outpouring of joy was not just celebrating a goal, it was celebrating a rebirth of the national team, 57 years of disappointment drifting away into the night sky, replaced by the rarest of emotions for our supporters – belief.

There were still 65 minutes of football to be played after the goal, and it felt like 65 hours to most people within the stadium. I remember looking at the clock after 32 minutes, looking back what felt like an eternity later to see if we were in to injury time, and it said 33:10. Despite the clock moving at the same speed as a snail on ketamine, the belief never wavered. Not for the rest of the first half, not for the 10 minutes after half time when Belgium had what felt like a million corners in a row, not ever. Zombie nation has become the latest Welsh football anthem thanks to a half time party in Brussels, and it was joined by many of the old favourites, including the poignant tribute to Gary Speed – this was his triumph as much as it was anyone elses.

With 20 minutes to go, the Welsh fans produced one of the best things I have ever seen or heard inside a football stadium anywhere in the world. Indeed, when I reached this part of the article I had to stop for a couple of minutes and go for a walk around the house to get rid of the chills it gave me. The Welsh anthem is one of the most beautiful in the world, and I don’t think it has ever been sung quite like this. I rewatched it on YouTube to check it was as good as I remember, and the Sky commentator remarks “Time just stood still while they were doing that”, and indeed it did. When the first line of the anthem was belted out Belgium were on the attack, but the greatest ever rendition of the greatest anthem stopped them dead in their tracks. It was the most powerful impact I have ever seen a crowd make on a football game, and I have seen a lot of powerful crowds!

After that moment I knew we had won. Even if Belgium scored twice and won the game, we had won. Welsh football was back from the dead and our time has come. Not even the team that wins the trophy next year will have a moment like that. When I’m too old to go to football anymore and sit in my armchair telling my grandkids about how I used to hide flares down my pants, fall over seats and get beaten up by Italian policemen, I’ll tell them about this moment. When somebody asks why football is my greatest and longest passion, I’ll tell them about this moment. In the future when Wales are disappointing again, I’ll think about this moment and remember exactly what makes supporting this team so rewarding, despite the fact we’ll never win a trophy. If I had a super power which allowed me to relive one moment over and over again, it would be this one.

Still the clocked moved slowly on, and still the Welsh fans sang. 15 minutes to go now, and it’s still 1 – 0! Ten minutes to go, our defenders are repelling wave after wave of attacks and Gareth Bale is dead on his feet, but it’s still 1 – 0! Just minutes left, and Belgium win 4 or 5 corners in a row, but somehow, any way we can, they are repelled once more. Courtois goes up for a corner and I had a terrible flashback of the moment I saw Reading’s goalkeeper score a 97th minute equaliser, but our rock solid defenders came out on top once again. King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans have officially been outdone for the title of most heroic defence by Wayne Hennessey, Chris Gunter, Ashley Williams, James Chester and Jazz Richards.

Every single one of them put in the performance of their lives, especially captain Ashley. I don’t think any player has improved more dramatically following Swansea’s rise to success than Williams, he has evolved from someone I never rated as any better than average to an absolute giant in the heart of our defence, there’s simply no nerves when he has the ball or squares up to an attacker, you know he’s going to take care of it.

The 90th minute arrived, and there was yet another magnificent rendition of our anthem. I had bellowed the one on 70 minutes with what was left of my voice, but I was too nervous to even open my mouth for this one. We didn’t win this type of game. We never win this type of game. Injury time seemed to last forever, the two minutes indicated surely becoming at least four. It didn’t matter. There was to be no equaliser for Belgium, and the final whistle sent the stadium into a scene of pure madness. I hugged half of the population of Wrexham. I danced to zombie nation on my seat with the drunkest man in the world. I bashed my shins off what felt like every seat in the stadium, and I noticed that my right trainer had come completely apart during the celebrations earlier in the game.

The never-ending joy was reflected by 30,000 others, the Canton End of the stadium a sea of dancing green, yellow and red bucket hats. It wasn’t as good as Italy in 2002, it was ten times better. As chaos erupted all over the stadium, there was one area of calm – on the field. The entire squad gathered in a huddle in the centre circle, the unity of the team being perfectly displayed for all to see. The job isn’t done yet, but it will be if we get two wins from games against Andorra, Cyprus and Israel. Even with the memory of all the false dawns in the past, there is nothing that can stand between Wales and the dream of a nation now.

I’ve got a fire in my heart for you…  

wpid-img_20150613_113836.jpg