There is no rest for the wicked. 55 Football Nations experienced a whopping 14 league matches over the 28 days of February. What were the best moments from travels that covered six football nations: Malta, Italy, France, Andorra, Gibraltar and Spain?
Hibernians stadium sits in the humdrum industrial town of Paola, part of the urban sprawl that radiates from the Maltese capital of Valletta. I clambered around warehouses and discarded rubbish to reach the low-slung stadium where the exotic names of Senglea Athletic and Tarxien Rainbows, Floriana and Hamrun Spartans battled. It was lower league English from the outside, very Maltese from the inside. The one covered stand offered a peerless view of Senglea, the soft colours and graceful rooves around the Grand Harbour contrasting sharply with the mechanical yellow of the harbour cranes. The cranes move, sometimes edging forward as if to meet a corner. A battered scoreboard in one corner reflects a scoreline from a past season. This was not a modern sporting scene. But I liked it.
Hamrun Spartans fielded the familiar dark locks of former Italy defender and 2006 World Cup winner Christian Zaccardo. I met Marco and Gio at Catania railway station. “We filmed Zaccardo in Malta” said Marco, the producer, all shaven head, sharp wit and dark sunglasses. The duo were covering my journey from Sicily to Crotone for Rai 2, the Italian television channel. Filming. Coffee. Cigarette. Chat. Our travel had a beat and a purpose. Gio, a cameraman from the Veneto, was more laidback, worldly. We diverted through a Crotone car park that was beginning to resemble the Great Lakes in the torrential rain. Marco looked worried about his trousers. Gio ploughed through. The two were different, equally good company. They worked through the night to put together a terrific two minute montage from two hours of footage. Forza Crotone!
Crotone were the story of Serie A last season. Montpellier shocked French football with their title win in 2012. The city of Montpellier is buzzy and endearing. The barman at The Egg, a craft beer bar named after the city’s ovular main square, talked about the nightmare of the windy streets, virtually all pedestrianised. Bad for beer deliveries but a joy to meander without traffic. The cars can have their fun driving through Montpellier’s mini Arc de Triomphe. You can’t do that in Paris. The open Promenade de Peyrou offers commanding views over the west of the city. Louis XVI said that no constructions could be built higher. The Stade de la Mosson, a clunky over-sized beast, is a rare exception. The medieval rules in Montpellier.
Montpellier sits in the shadow of the Pyrenees. I drove up them to reach Andorra, ignored Google Maps and followed the signposts for Andorra La Vella. It wasn’t always the shortest way. I detoured around Encamp, five miles from the capital, spotted the football stadium and people watching a match. Encamp – the only Andorran team with their own stadium – were playing the early kick off against Penya. I ditched the car. The scene was spectacular. The winter sun reflected off the artificial pitch and a mountain loomed high on the horizon. The match was goalless when Penya defender Ramirez handled on the line. It was a great save. He was sent off and Sosa converted the penalty. This was a perfect 10 minutes. I had two other matches to watch though and drove onto the dispiriting capital.
Andorra to Gibraltar took four days. A long drive back to Montpellier, a train to Madrid, another to Córdoba, one more to Algeciras, a bus to La Linea de la Concepción and a walk across the border. Back to Britain. Or a British Overseas Territory. You meet people in Gibraltar. It’s that sort of place. I bumped into Desmond Reoch, former president of the Gibraltar Football Association, in the bar underneath the Victoria Stadium. He was sun-kissed and friendly. I watched Lions play out a nil nil against Gibraltar United with Jonathan and Paul, United’s club secretary and president. Their switches between English and Spanish were fascinating to listen to. I was back the next day to meet Europa FC, last season’s champions. They gave me a scarf and stories as Europa came back from a goal down to beat Glacis United. Gibraltarian football has a stunning setting and a welcoming feel.
55 Football Nations has loved the bizarre side of football. And there are few more unusual places than Andorra and Gibraltar. But it has lacked a little star quality on the pitch. Antoine Griezmann, scorer of three more goals than anyone else at Euro 2016, is one of the most valuable players in world football. A Griezmann shot in the opening moments, saved by Sevilla goalkeeper Rico, was merely a teaser. Antoine was quiet. He gave the ball away twice in midfield. He tried a rabona and fell over. Sevilla’s early bluster was then bullied away by Diego Costa. Antoine became the star. He allowed Costa to reep his havoc up front and dropped deep. Griezmann picked up the ball outside the penalty area, a few sure touches, the ball was blasted beyond Rico with his weaker right foot. He coolly converted a penalty won by Costa, beautifully flicked the ball into Koke’s path for a fourth and anticipated Saul’s pull back for his hat-trick. Greizmann scored four in Atlético’s next match. Seven league goals in four days.
An unusual setting, an entertaining Italian film crew, a labyrinthine old city, a perfect ten minutes, football bonhomie and the perfect modern forward. Six very different highlights from a mad Med Feb.