Monday, 13 October 2014

Latvia v Turkey. 13/10/14

"Marian Pahars, Pahars, Pahars, he's taking us to Paris, to Paris, to Paris, and that is why we like him, we like him, we like him."

Latvia 1-1 Turkey. Skonto Stadions.
Monday 13/10/14
When Michel Platini came up with his idea for the international week of football - spreading qualifiers for Euro 2016 from a Thursday through to a Tuesday - most people described it as crazy and a cynical idea just to help boost Uefa and television companies coffers.

Of course, it is fashionable to slag off anything that football governing bodies do these days without giving a second thought to what it could actually mean. This brainchild of Monsieur Platini's is a case in a point as it actually turns out to be a fantastic idea.

Riga Old Town - a delightful area
Yes, you've read that right. Absolutely no grumblings from the good people at McCarthy's Football Travels. How can there be when the week of football is the sole reason you can take in a spine tingling international encounter between two heavyweights of the game like Latvia and Turkey?

Without it, this trip to the Baltic's would have been as pointless as giving a kiss of life to a rasher of bacon. The whole purpose of it was of course to watch Estonia v England but unfortunately beer, vodka and women conspired to create the mother of all hangovers which meant I ended up missing the entire game fast asleep back at the hostel.

Can't whack a bit of Soviet architecture
These Latvian's have certainly got their priorities right
I did however wake up in time for another heavy night on the sauce post-England game, meaning that the Monday bus journey from Tallinn back to Riga was about as fun as colonic irrigation (Google image search it if you are unsure). Having had just a few hours stopover in the Latvian capital en route to Estonia, this was a good chance to explore and it was a wonderful place. Not quite in Tallinn's league in terms of old town and drinking, but nonetheless a fine city with the added bonus of a fair bit of Soviet architecture thrown in. We do love a big Soviet building.

Skonto Stadium through the gloom of a Riga Monday evening
After an afternoon of hungover walking around, it was off to Skonto Stadions, home of Latvia and Skonto Riga. The popularity of this game was such that you could walk up to a small booth outside the entrance to the carpark and part with £10 worth of Euros for a ticket. An absolute bargain to see Southampton legend Marian Pahars' boys in action.

And that wasn't the only bargain available at Skonto. Any food inside Wembley Stadium is like paying £72 to have a lump of dead horse served up between two stale pieces of bread yet here was £3 for a gigantic plate of sausage, potato and sauerkraut. Sod stadium snacks, this was a full blown meal for two that would not only leave you full up for at least two hours but also clog an artery in an instant.

Stadium food doesn't come much better than this
I wasn't the only England fan taking advantage of the week of football - there were two England flags inside the ground and countless people from our septic isle spread throughout. That meant the Latvia merchandise kiosk - which consisted of a table and a couple of shirts hung on a wall - did a roaring trade with yours truly getting swept up in Euromania and purchasing a delightful scarf.

The Latvian merchandise kiosk doing a roaring trade
Skonto Stadion itself is bloody weird. Behind one goal the stand only stretches around 2/3rds of the pitch before meeting a huge brick building from whence the teams emerged. Behind the other goal there isn't even a stand - just a car park. Small single tiered efforts abound down both sides and with most of the noise escaping the wide open spaces the atmosphere was best described as flat.

The English get behind Latvia for the evening

Latvian Gasheads
That was despite the best efforts of the English contingent (Latvia for tonight, we're Latvia for tonight, we know we are we're sure we are we're Lativa for tonight etc etc) and the group of what seemed to be ten thousand schoolchildren situated in one corner just shouting LAT-VI-A over and over again.

Car parking behind the goal is very League Two

The main stand of Skonto Stadions
Skonto Stadions

The football itself wasn't particularly appealing either. Turkey dominated the first half as you would expect and went ahead through an absolute rocket of an effort from Bilal Kisa early in the second. The lead didn't last long, Latvia equalising through Valerijs Sabala from the penalty spot.

You know it has been a poor game when the highlight is undoubtedly supplied by the chairman's column in the programme, as it was on this occasion with the Latvian FA man telling his supporters they could expect the team "to fight for every ball and the middle square centimeter" - whatever that is.

Inspiring words about the middle square centimeter
A 90th minute red card for Latvia's Gints Freimanis came too late to allow the disappointing Turks to take something from the game. And that was that.  Having set off from London Gatwick three days earlier looking forward to Estonia v England, having to settle for a rubbish game between Latvia and Turkey wasn't exactly an ideal return for four days of traveling the Baltics no matter what brilliant, brilliant countries both Estonia and Latvia are.

But at least I got see a 11 blokes kicking a ball around eventually. And for that, hats off to Michel Platini. Long live the week of football.

Latvia v Turkey - games don't come bigger than this

The crowd go wild as Latvia equalise from the penalty spot
Latvia: Aleksandrs Kolinko, Kaspars Dubra, Aleksejs Visnakovs, Vladislavs Gabovs (Gints Freimanis), Janis Ikaunieks, Valerijs Sabala 1, Eduards Visnakovs (Deniss Rakels), Artus Zjuzins (Viktors Morozs), Aleksandrs Fertovs, Antons Kurakins. 

Turkey: Volkan Babacan, Semih Kaya, Gokhan Gonul, Umut Bulut, Arda Turan, Gokhan Tore (Hamit Altintop), Oguzhan Ozyakup (Bilal Kisa 1), Mehmet Topal, Ozan Tufan, Caner Erkin, Olcay Sahan (Buyuk Adem).

Attendance: 6,342

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Estonia v England. 12/10/14

"You came all the way to Estonia and have just slept through the game? You English are so crazy."

Estonia 0-1 England. A. Le Coq Arena.
Sunday 12/10/14
London Gatwick to Tallinn is, according to the ever accurate source that is Google, 1125 miles as the crow or in this case, Air Baltic plane flies. So a return trip to Estonia's capital weighs in at a hefty 2250 miles. You would therefore have to be a total idiot to travel all that way for a game of football which you end up sleeping in your hostel through then, right?

Right. And that well and truly leaves me in the idiot category. A  browse through previous entries will quite quickly highlight that that is clearly the case, but even in the unruly world of McCarthy Football Travel's nobody has ever gone on a trip for a game of football and failed to make the game.

Pint of Coq
How did this happen? Quite simply, beer and women. It's a dangerous mix, like a wheelchair and an escalator. One minute you are looking forward to England taking on Estonia, the next you are drinking test tubes of a vile green substance suspiciously called cocaine, the next you are going home hammered at 3am, the next you are going out again with a girl you've just met at 3.30am and finally you are leaving a nightclub with the sun already up and people heading to church.

There were such high hopes for this Estonia trip as well. Leaving Riga - the capital of wonderful Latvia - early on Saturday morning, a swift four hour luxury coach journey was all that was required to reach Tallinn.

Russian flag flying in Tallinn - might be revisiting
this photo in a few years if Mr Putin get's his way
The main bus station in Tallinn was handily placed miles out of town and with the six other Brighton fans who had rendezvoused on the bus, the decision was taken to try and walk into the Old Town. Nobody seemed prepared for how cold it was going to be (Estonia, a former part of Russia, cold?! Who'd have thought it) and so the search was called off early in favour of "a quick beer and food stop" - which lived up to its name if you define "quick" as five pints and three hours.

Test tubes of cocaine
That was the start of a slippery slope. From there the famous Pub With No Name was found. This is a pub genuinely called the Pub With No Name, as opposed to a pub that hasn't got a name and it became apparent this was the main place to drink for England fans. The beer of choice? A pint of cock, or A Le Coq to give it its full and proper name which was surprisingly good and easy to drink given the standard of some of the stuff you get in the Baltics. Too good, in fact.

Nels returns with another round of test tubes. A dangerous game
After The Pub With No Name came a bar where said cocaine was taken. These were strange, luminous green shots that came in test tubes and were meant to leave the drinker feeling legless. They certainly did that at €1 a pop and after an unhealthy amount of cocaine and 3am beckoning, it was home time.

Or at least it should have been. Back in the hostel you see was a girl who worked there and, having finished her shift,  was desparate to go out. And what better opportunity for a young English chap to soak up the sights and sounds of Tallinn then with a local taking him clubbing at 3.30am on a Sunday morning? Only an idiot would turn it down....

Future wife number 137
Early confusion led to me accusing her of just wanting to go out so she could marry me and get a visa. Once we'd established that as an EU citizen she didn't need one, things went swimmingly including visiting a club that had a cage around it's dancefloor and a heated debate with a passionate local after a song involving the terms "Vladimir Putin" and "he's coming to you" came to the fore.

Leaving a club at sunrise - never a good sign
It's always a risk when you leave a club and it is daylight and that risk came back to bite me well and truly on the bottom by the time I finally woke up - at 3pm local time. No worries - a quick walk around the city to do some sightseeing, a quick beer in the Market Square and then a quick nap and kick off at the Le Coq Arena would definitely be made. Famous last words those, as that quick nap ended with half time already out the way and England about to score through Wayne Rooney to win 1-0.

England fans gather ahead of the big game

Old Town Square
Missing a game you've traveled over 1000 miles to should be lesson learnt. Well, no not quite as having slept all day we powered through the beer again all night, being the only people in the quaint Venus Bar until 3am when  the entire club was quite incredibly shut for Mike attempting to take his t-shirt off for the 3rd time.

Beautiful Tallinn - if you are awake to see it
Tallinn was a beautiful place, England got a vital three points in the same round of games that the likes of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands all struggled - and I missed most of it in bed. Still, at least there was plenty of Coq to be had.