Monday

A Journey Into The Unknown


Mid-August always sees several of Britain's top clubs have their embryonic league campaigns inconvenienced by the pesky qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. The third and fourth placed Premier League sides from the previous season, plus whichever two lucky clubs manage to scrap successfully for the top two places in Scotland, are required to navigate this obstacle before they can properly take their places at the top table of European football.

Inevitably, the opponents for this tie (which the big guns probably view as a right pain in the arse, whatever they say about not underestimating the other side) will be from Eastern Europe. Throughout football history, teams from the former Eastern Bloc have been viewed with the traditional suspicion and often awe. The 1980s saw the powerful emergence of crack East European outfits, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the influx of foreign players to the Premiership, began to significantly (although not entirely) demystify the football culture of the region.

Nowadays, there is a very high probability of drawing a (possibly little-known) East European side in the qualifying rounds of the European competitions. In the Champions League third qualifying round, roughly one-third of the teams are from Eastern Europe. In the UEFA Cup second qualifying round, this representation increases to almost fifty percent.

But enough of the history lesson - books such as those by Jonathan Wilson or Simon Kuper will provide a much more comprehensive account than The Angle... would dare to attempt. Instead, this article's aim is to examine the way that our football teams and media approach such European ties. As always, there is a strict and unbreakable code...

Fig 1.0
The Scale of Difficulty of East European Away Legs (SDEEAL), brought to you exclusively in association with



All of the above adjectives are employed to describe European away matches in Eastern Europe. Awkward (or awkward-looking) matches tend to be against teams from countries without a significant footballing pedigree, and who don't necessarily pose a real footballing threat. However, the perceived awkwardness is understood to stem from the distance that must be travelled to play the game, the state of the opponent's pitch (even if the match is moved to their country's national stadium after "UEFA safety concerns") and the fact that the game will probably be covered on an obscure television channel here in the UK.

What distinguishes potentially tricky ties from simply tricky ties, you ask? Well, ignorance. A potentially tricky trip could be to a relative unknown, or a European debutant - they might provide a stern test, but could just as easily be put to the sword by a straightforward professional performance. Quite simply, the "potentially" part serves as a get-out clause for the media correspondents. Genuinely tricky trips tend to be to better-known opponents, perhaps once-great clubs that have fallen upon rather more modest times. As Coxie pointed out in the previous article, any semblance of a European record back in the day is enough to strike even the slightest bit of fear in a media pundit ahead of a tricky European tie.

Tough ties, at least in the qualifying stages, tend to be the sole domain of the Glasgow clubs. While their English counterparts look far stronger on paper than their opponents (before the SDEEAL model is applied), the Old Firm risk being paired with rather more formidable propositions before they can reach the group stages. Rangers' clash with Crvena Zvezda (yes, we all know who they really are...) was therefore labelled "tough" accordingly.

All clubs will rather avoid having to make a daunting trip at this stage. Such matches take place inside vast concrete bowls that pass as "Olympic" Stadiums, packed to the rafters with a partisan crowd, who generate a hostile atmosphere. Sadly, the modern era of satellite telecommunication denies us the grainy images and muffled commentary that further enhanced the alien unfamiliarity of away matches in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s. Dynamo Kiev used to be the paradigm of daunting trips, but the description now tends to be more sensibly restricted to genuinely daunting footballing opposition such as Barcelona.

However, nothing compares to the away match that nobody wants - Turkey. Although the menace of such journeys peaked with Galatasaray in the 1990s, visiting sides are still given a typically warm Welcome to Hell. Fearsome banners and relentless chanting, all drenched in a generous helping of goat's blood, are separated from the wide-eyed visitors only by a line of Turkish military. All of which is guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of any Premiership tourist, apart from Graeme Souness.

There are signs, however, that the mystique of East European away trips is fading. Teams are hardly flying with Aeroflot and staying in log cabins in Siberia before such matches. Despite the taming of the perceived terror of these away legs, a few cliches remain intact. Teams are still said to to face a journey into the unknown, against teams they no almost nothing about. In fact, managers are surprisingly happy to admit their relative lack of knowledge of their opponents, and that they have relied on DVDs and sending their unfortunate right-hand men to see them in action. The Angle... has no idea why they bother - we can guarantee that the scouting report will inevitably draw attention to the East Europeans being well-drilled, with the ability to run all day.

So, when you're tuning into ITV4 or Channel Five to see your team take on Lokomotiv Chernobyl away, bear our latest offering in mind.

Adam.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Very funny!

A propos Dynamo Kiev epitomising the daunting trip, Ian Wright once explained the real benefit of England qualifying in the group stage of the European Championship like this:

'Now we don't have to go and play a qualifier in some muggy gaff like the Ukraine or somewhere.'