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55 Football Nations – for the love of the game

Matt Walker with Doxa midfielder Vasilis Papafotis

By Leo Leonidou

AN English football fan is taking his love for the beautiful game to new levels with an epic journey across Europe.

Matt Walker aims to be the first person to experience top division league football in all 55 Uefa countries in one season, with 55footballnations.com showcasing his ongoing travels.

“I wanted to take a break from my normal life and do something involving football, travel and a challenge,” explains the 40-year-old British justice ministry statistician. “I thought up the idea around Christmas 2015 and then started planning and saving money.”

Walker began his sporting odyssey with the Dila Gori v Lokomotiv Tbilisi match in Georgia last June, and plans to conclude his journey by May of this year with a flying visit to Montenegro. In between, he is taking in matches in countries as diverse as the Faroe Islands, Ukraine, Albania and, of course, Cyprus – which is the 36th leg in his journey.

On the island at the end of last month to attend matches hosted by Apoel, Doxa, and Ermis, Walker has already become the stuff of sporting legend, appearing in the media in almost 30 countries, and featured in The Guardian, BBC Sport, La Gazzeta dello Sport and L’Equipe.

But despite the coverage, the Fulham fan is completing his entire mission without sponsorship or media contracts of any type. “I actually think this helps keep the project fresh and real. I make all my own decisions. They aren’t always the right ones. But they’re mine!”

Ultimately, the goal is a book: “An exciting narrative that will probably be published in the middle of 2019; a book based on this potent fusion of creaking trains and strained limbs; I’m 6 foot 6 and my legs are still recovering from endless minibuses hurtling around Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Caucasus!”

Here in Cyprus, the experience has been a little tamer. Europe’s biggest football fan attended three local matches – Doxa Katokopias v Alki Oroklini, Apoel v AEK Larnaca, and Ermis Aradippou v Olympiakos Nicosia – and found the time to speak to Sunday Mail about his fascinating journey…

 

Why only Uefa nations?

The 55 Uefa nations worked nicely within one year. It offered an amazing contrast of landscapes, cultures and football styles. The other confederations are already on my mind for future challenges!

 

How do you decide which fixtures to attend?

I’m always looking for an interesting story. I visited IFK Mariehamn from the Aland Islands – shock 2016 Finnish champions despite travelling by ferry to every away game – and the incendiary derby between Cracovia and Wisla in Poland. I chose AFC Bournemouth because of their interesting rise up the English league system.

I do try to avoid the big cities – 55 Football Nations isn’t about watching Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Juventus – where possible. But naturally it sometimes comes down to logistics: who is playing in the nearest location or at the most convenient time. It’s much easier in smaller countries. I’ve seen multiple matches in Cyprus and also in Israel, Belarus, Iceland and Denmark. But my minimum is one top division league match in each of the 55 Uefa nations.”

 

How do you interact with the fans?

My usual tactic is turning up really early at the stadium! It worked best in countries like Scotland, Belarus and Moldova where the hardened support arrive the earliest, often to have a beer – which sadly isn’t possible in Cyprus. I explain I’ve chosen their team, normally over bigger rivals, as part of my project. The fans are mostly very welcoming, letting me to stand and sing with them, telling me great stories, buying me drinks and inviting me to future fixtures which, sadly, I can never attend.

I normally sit or stand with the home fans, though not always with the hardcore support. It’s good to get different perspectives when you watch so many games. I’ve been bouncing with Brondby and Trabzonspor behind the goal and watched from good seats in the main stand at Borussia Monchengladbach and KAA Gent. As a Fulham fan, I gave up my season ticket for this challenge. I almost always get behind the home team on my football travels. But I only really have one team!”

“The unexpected media coverage has also opened doors. I’ve spoken directly to host clubs in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine where the language barrier made it difficult to speak to fans. It doesn’t always work. I tried to contact Doxa, Apoel and Ermis –- none of the clubs responded to my messages!

 

How do you feel the standard of play in Cyprus compares with that of other countries?

I would put the league roughly on the same level as Romania or Israel. I saw several matches in those countries and both have similar patterns of play, with decent technical players and passing football. There is also a chasm between the top teams and the rest.

 

The Cyprus national team has never qualified for a major international tournament. Any suggestions?

International football success is very much dependent on population and affluence. You will get an Iceland, Latvia, Northern Ireland or Slovenia every so often, especially with the expanded Euros, but it’s always going to be tough for Cyprus with its population of around one million against the major nations.

You need to get more Cypriots playing more minutes of football. There are probably more foreign players in Cyprus – 20 of the starting 22 at Apoel v AEK – than any other Uefa nation. And the football association needs to do more, within EU regulations, to encourage clubs to pick Cypriot players rather than foreigners who, whilst adding professionalism, undeniably hinder the national team.

 

Football hooliganism, corruption, and match-fixing are recognised issues in Cyprus. How does the island compare to other countries in these respects?

I have heard of hooliganism incidents in Cyprus – the ball boy injured by a firecracker was a very sad story – but fortunately saw no problems at the matches I attended. I would have been surprised if there were any issues at Doxa or Ermis given the low attendance (approximately 130 and 250) at these matches.

I can’t really comment (on corruption and match-fixing). I know there have been problems in Cyprus, but also Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Sweden in recent years. The tremendous goals at all three of the top division matches I saw in Cyprus would be difficult to mock.

 

Do you travel from place to place or head home in between?

“A mixture of both. My longest trip has been five-and-a-half weeks through eight football nations: Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. I will be on the road for over two thirds of the year, but it’s good to go home, write up my notes and do some washing.

It can also be affordable, as London is a great transport hub – it was much cheaper to fly from Larnaca to Malta, my next football nation, via London than directly.

My long-term girlfriend is also a fan of international football. She loves the project and visited me in Turkey and Latvia. She’s been with me to the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana, Euro 2016 and will also be at the World Cup in Russia.”

 

Where have you experienced the most challenging bureaucratic issues?

Russia. The visa process is expensive and time-consuming. The Russian Embassy in London even called me to check why I was visiting two cities not on the usual St Petersburg-Moscow route! I did meet some friendly fans and had a good week there, but it was more challenging than most countries, especially with only a hundred words of Russian.

 

Which of the matches you’ve attended were the most memorable?

My match in Kosovo was a blast. Drita were 3-1 ahead in the unlikely city of Gjilan. Liria scored two goals in the last ten minutes to make it 3-3 before Drita forced an injury time winner. The Drita management invited me out to celebrate with the team afterwards. Great times!

Then there was the match between match between Vitebsk and Krumkachy in Belarus. It was a grey day and I expected a dull match. Vitebsk were 2-1 up after 11 minutes. But the real drama was in the second half when Krumkachy goalkeeper Kostyukevich scored from his own penalty area. And was then sent off 20 minutes later for a professional foul. It somehow ended 2-2!

 

For more information on Walker’s journey, visit www.55footballnations.com

 

You can also follow his adventures on:

 

facebook.com/55FootballNations
instagram.com/55FootballNations

twitter.com/55FtballNations

 


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