Notwithstanding six flights over the past couple of weeks, most everything else came in twos - two 4-hr bus rides, two ferry crossings, two European Championship qualifiers, and a lost and found lap-top. Enough adventure and ups and downs to satisfy wander-lust for the rest of the year (maybe?). Time now to re-focus back on North American soccer.
My 2019 foreign vacation comprised of a trip to the Baltics with a couple of Euro qualifiers thrown in, allowing reacquaintance with an old friend, the Green & White Army.
Yip, that merry band of eternal optimists that religiously follows the Northern Ireland national team around the European continent, espousing now familiar anthems, ‘Please Don’t Take Me Home’, ‘How Do We Get There - I Don’t Know’ and ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire’, even when he’s not!
I wasn’t completely cut off. Mixed news filtered through aplenty from Quebec during my sojourn, plumbing the depths, conceding three first-half goals at home to Orlando and losing Nacho for what sounds like an eternity. Will we ever see him again? But the pendulum did swing favourably too, as Real Salt Lake and The Sounders came to town, both leaving with empty pockets.
I was six hours ahead and had just landed in Frankfurt when my iPhone produced happy news from Canada describing how goals from Browne and Taider had sealed the RSL success, despite Montreal’s best efforts to make its faithful fans, sweat it out until the bitter end.
We’d reached Tallinn by Saturday, a one night stop before catching the ferry next day to Helsinki. The Guinness was good, as you would expect it to be in a pub with the name, ‘Mad Murphy’s’ as we settled in to watch the Champions’ League Final. Actually we still hadn’t settled properly when disaster struck. Penalty to Liverpool!
Only the second minute, and I knew it was all up. It was going to be a long evening, but surely the Impact would at least beat Orlando?
The evening turned out shorter than feared, after meeting Vassili, a Ukrainian wrestling coach at the bar, intent on conversing and drinking Irish whisky.
Attention drifted away from the match. Not a bad thing. We were joined by a happy couple, Vassili’s friends, who were due to marry the following weekend. I abstained, untempted by the offer of the ‘mountain dew’. Didn’t stop our new friend however, who concluded the night putting his arm around me pointing to his chest and proclaiming ... “Me! Shaktyor Donetsk! But now, also, me, LIVERPOOL!!” Mountain dew was clearly having an effect.
Now further east, we were seven hours ahead of Montreal. Before leaving the bar I googled expectantly. Within a touchscreen tap, high hopes immediately transformed to even more despair. I glanced at my friend, disgusted look, rolling eyes, “Impact are two down at home!” She couldn’t have cared less, but telling someone was still effective therapy, even if they weren’t listening. The night was becoming longer again.
It was 3-0 by the time we got back to our apartment. I fell into bed, hoping to wake up next morning and discover Liverpool’s sixth European Cup had all been a bad dream, and a stunning comeback had taken place in Montreal East. I don’t need to remind anyone how all that went!
The hero of my trip wasn’t Bolton’s Josh Magennis, who scored Northern Ireland’s winner in Estonia, neither was it Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair who did the same late-on in Borisov. In fact it wasn’t a footballer at all, rather a young ethnic-Russian/Latvian who goes by the name, Taigers Fomicovs.
A nightmare start to my first day away, in our anxiety to remove all our bags from the 22 bus from Riga International Airport, before a jumpy, impatient driver pulled away, I realized a few minutes later, I’d left behind my laptop and iPad.
I never expected to see either, ever again. Crestfallen and angry at myself, reporting the loss at Matisa iela police station the following day was a whole other story.
But, after embarking on the morning Helsinki ferry with my football hangover from the previous night still way too fresh, I checked my emails. There was one from Taigers. It began, “I think you lost something in Riga.” Attached were pictures of my belongings. Sheer elation became immense relief. What were the chances? Then I realized, I hadn’t yet quite got my hands back on my belongings. They were in Riga, I was on a ferry to Helsinki after which I was returning to Tallinn and not returning to Riga for over a week. Anything could yet happen. Worse, was there an involvement of organized crime?
Doubts and negative-thinking increased after a few dubious exchanges with the finder, not least when he totally ignored a request to courier the item to Tallinn, to meet with my arrival back there in a few days time. Glad he did though after reading performance reviews of some well-known courier companies operating in the region.
Our first morning back in Tallinn coincided with the arrival of many foot-soldiers of the peaceful and good-natured, Green & White Army. My immediate reaction upon waking however centred on MLS.com, which delivered the good news; another Impact triumph over Seattle Sounders. Not quite sure why Montreal seems to have the Indian sign over the men from the north-west, but that’s 5 wins in 8 all-time meetings. They must hate the Impact!
Taider again, was the inspiration, without whom Cabrera would almost certainly have been the villain, his foul allowing Sounders to establish a lead from the spot.
But all’s well that ends well, even if the game was one between two shadow squads. A vital three points for the Impact keeping them well-placed in a very tight race for play-off positions.
The arrival of some good friends from Belfast and bumping into a few unexpected ones, heralded my Friday, a day before the game against Estonia. It also meant a slight hangover on the big day. Alright, it wasn’t so slight! When you’re separated from your pals, and only see them every six months or so, sometimes even longer, and all get together for a game in a foreign land with hospitable hosts, well, guess what’s going to happen.
A couple of local bars in the old town, ‘Route33’ and the intriguingly monikered, ‘Pub with No Name’, had hung out the flags for the travelling fans, reducing prices for beer and food.
My friend, who had planned to leave before the actual matches took place, begun getting caught up in all the atmosphere. Gradually, then much faster, regret emerged ... “I wish I was staying for the football now.” Of course I knew this would happen, but some people just don’t listen (until it’s too late).
Tallinn has a beautiful old town. Well-preserved and quaint, gothic spires and narrow cobbled streets, a perfect environment for the 1200-strong Green & White Army to march to the stadium, about 2.5km away.
The songs were plentiful and varied, some locals joined in, others stood by and watched, many snapped pictures from an increasing array of cell-phones. The Irish fans broke ranks occasionally to hand out souvenirs, green ones obviously, to local kids who looked on in bewilderment.
It was a hugely happy scene, un-choreographed for the most part, everybody just seemed to know what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Spontaneous and beautiful. Moments like these make soccer.
Hady Raphael of CultureSoccer.com joined me from Montreal when I reached the stadium. We had planned a short pre-match pod-cast, followed by another at the conclusion.
The game itself, was a tale of two halves. Estonia won the first, despite a bright opening by the Irish, whose fans by the interval had replaced much pre-match optimism with a concerned ‘oh! here we go again’ mood.
But a couple of substitutions in the early stages of the second-half done the trick, and two late goals spaced three minutes apart had the men in green singing for all they were worth. It was surprising how much alcohol they managed to smuggle into the stadium. Clearly security had been more laid back than intended. The green end was not only ripping, it was dripping, as it sung the boys home.
Tallinn you might have expected to be bouncing that evening, but it was fairly quiet, the relieved Irish requiring rest and a recharging of the batteries. Not even the Green & White Army is immune to a couple of heavy nights, especially after enduring an emotional 90 minutes. Euphoric the match eventually was, but only after nerves were frayed and desperation reached. Rollercoasters take it out of you.
The next morning I was on an early coach to Riga to meet with my destiny and hopefully my lost belongings. I had arranged a meeting in a hotel with he who possessed my laptop and i-Pad. Not one, but two Embassies had furnished me with sound advice, each telling me to be very careful and that if at any point I felt in danger I should get myself as far away as possible and call the police. Each also advised that the person could be looking for a significant amount of money.
I don’t mind admitting I was nervous, and proceeded with a fair degree of trepidation. Fears may have been allayed somewhat had there been some Irish fans on my coach (backings), but they weren’t arriving until later in the day. Riga was a convenient location for direct flights to Minsk for the second Northern Ireland game hence the reason to go there.
Taigers arrived bang on time. His girlfriend carrying my things. The fact that she was there reduced my anxiety significantly. He handed me the equipment and in very basic English said, “Do not leave your things behind in Riga again. You are very lucky. People in Riga are not always honest.” I’m glad he was, and even more relieved that he seemed a nice guy, only wishing to return my electrics.
I gave him a reward of course, which hadn’t been demanded. My faith in human nature restored, I sat back in the hotel lobby, had a nice beer and went out to enjoy the sunshine.
The Green & White Army was reduced by half for the trip to Minsk. Without any degree of planning, I ended up on the same flight from Riga as many familiar faces. Many more had other arrangements to get to the Belarusian capital, there weren’t too many direct flights from Tallinn, and others had connected via Frankfurt. Accessing across a land-border was out of the question unless a visa had previously been attained. Some did drive across, but with no visa required for arriving at the international airport in Minsk, most arranged flights.
Expecting an old grey, ugly city with not much to do, we were pleasantly surprised by Minsk, once home to Lee Harvey Oswald before infamy discovered him.
It is in fact a modern, sprawling metropolis, borne from the ruins of the Great Patriotic War (WW2), with enormously wide boulevards dissecting streets upon streets of Stalinist architecture. Beautiful sunshine and 30+ degrees added to the brightness. The Upper Town, down to the Svislac River had plenty of bar, restaurant and nightlife to keep the thirstiest and hungriest of Irishmen fuelled and happy.
Borisov, where the next day’s match would take place however, was everything we had expected of Minsk.
Arriving there at 1430 for a match that was kicking off at 2145 was not a decision blessed with the greatest foresight in the world. Despite the local club, BATE (from the motor and tractor works, for whom former Arsenal midfielder, Alexandr Hleb plays) being Belarus Premier League Champions for the past 14 years, the city has been forgotten by time. Industry prevails, and restaurants and bars are at a premium. It would not be a good place to spend a weekend.
The game, and the previous one against Germany (0-2), was moved to Borisov, due to preparations on-going at the Dinamo Stadium in Minsk, for the European Games which begin on 21 June.
We found a half decent pizza place to eat but it took in excess of an hour’s walk from the bar where the the majority of Irish fans had settled.
There was an abstract atmosphere prevalent in the city, no sense of a major international event taking place later that night. I expect it’s conceivable in a place now blasé with domestic club success, that local enthusiasm had been doused by the country losing all three qualifiers so far. Signs of local interest were no more detectable at the stadium, as kick-off approached.
Three and a half sides of the venue were empty, only the Ulster Boys making all the noise behind one end. About 300 soldiers, not of the Green & White Army variety, populated an area away to our left, the rest of the seating developed gradually from empty to sparsely populated. And when they managed to get a chant of “BEL-AR-US” going late in the first-half, the visiting response was a chorus of “We forgot that you were here.”
Official attendance, recorded as 5350, seemed somewhat high. Undeterred, the 600 travellers provided fantastic vocal backing to their team throughout.
Normally, Northern Ireland would take a draw away to Belarus all day long, but with double-headers against mighty Germany and Holland to come, admirably they continued to push for a winner late in the game. A positive and assured display was rewarded when Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair, their top performer on the night, popped up on the left side, jinked into the box outside one defender making an angle to shoot and despatched his low drive past Alyaksandr Hutar’s outstretched left leg.
It was Paddy’s first-ever international goal. There were 4 minutes left on the clock. A timely intervention by Ballyclare’s finest, his folks in the crowd, an early gift for his mum celebrating her birthday the very next day. The Green & White Army were in raptures, exalted into seventh heaven and vociferously displayed their optimism in song. “The Germans don’t believe ussssss, We’re gonna’ win the group ….”
Mr Lechner, the Austrian referee, added 4 minutes, but their favourites never looked like relinquishing a precious lead. Four games played, 12 points. It gives the Dutch and Germans something to think about. Chances of qualification remain slim, but at least the platform’s there to go head to head against two larger nations generally expected to ease through the group.
Who knows? The ball is round, and anything can happen ……