The Unstoppable Rise Of Shakhtar Donetsk
WORDS: VADIM FURMANOV
Last weekend saw Ukraine’s biggest derby game end in yet another victory for the all-powerful Shakhtar Donetsk. Now, after years of unchallenged hegemony, one Dynamo Kyiv supporter asks how this great club has come to be living in Shakhtar’s shadow and when, if ever, they will reassert themselves…
Another derby, another defeat for Dynamo Kyiv, but it wasn’t as easy for Shakhtar this time.
66,000-plus fans braved the near-freezing conditions at Dynamo’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, hoping to see their side finally get the edge over their fierce rivals from the East. Had Ideye Brown put away his sitter in the 54th minute, they may have got their wish. Alas, Brown managed to hit the crossbar with the entire goal at his disposal, Henrikh Mhitaryan gave Shakhtar the lead twenty minutes later and, just like that, the Donetsk side once again emerged victorious in the Klasichne, Ukraine’s own version of the Clásico.
This was Shakhtar’s third straight victory in the derby this season; they ran out 3-1 victors in the reverse fixture in Donetsk in early September and dispatched Dynamo from the Ukrainian Cup later that month in a 4-1 rout. Three-time defending champions Shakhtar are certain to make it four in a row; with seven matches left to play they have an astonishing 66 out of a possible 69 points and are 17 clear at the top. They are a cut above the rest in the Ukrainian Premier League and have left Dynamo in the dust in their relentless assault toward yet another league title. Make no mistake about it: as much as a Dynamo fan like myself hates to admit it, Shakhtar are without rivals in Ukrainian football.
It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, Shakhtar’s ascendancy to the apex of Ukrainian football is a relatively new development and represents an anomaly in a country where Dynamo has always been the undisputed standard-bearer.
The (Non) Rivalry of the Soviet Era
To understand this seismic shift in Ukrainian football we must look back and examine the historical roles of both clubs, dating back to the Soviet era. The first country-wide competition in the Ukrainian SSR was held in 1921. The teams were not proper clubs, however, but city selections consisting of the best footballers from the participating cities.
Dynamo Kyiv, founded in 1927, won the trophy in 1936, the first time the competition was open to clubs and not simply city selections. Shakhtar were founded that same year as Stakhanovets Stalino; they were named after the Stakhanovite movement, while Stalino was the name of the city of Donetsk at the time. In their first match they were defeated 3-2 at home by Dynamo Odessa in the quarterfinals of the 1936 Ukrainian Championship. Dynamo were also an inaugural member of the first Soviet-wide championship in 1936, in which they finished runners up to Dynamo Moscow, and, following the expansion of the top flight in 1938, Stakhanovets were also included.
In the first ever Ukrainian derby, contested on July 18, Dynamo won 2-0 in front of their home fans thanks to a brace from Pyotr Laiko. At the time, of course, the match was not know by that name and did not stand out in the fixture list; it was just one contest among many between the six Ukrainian teams competing in the top flight at the time.
Following the Second World War, Dynamo slowly but surely began to consolidate their position as the elite Ukrainian representative on the Soviet stage. In 1961 they won their first Soviet Championship and, in the decades to come, under the reigns of the legendary managers Viktor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovskyi, they would conquer the Soviet top league 12 more times, the most championships of any team, as well as nine Soviet Cups. They left their mark in Europe as well: two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup trophies, in 1975 and 1986, as well as a 3-0 UEFA Super Cup victory in 1975 over Bayern Munich, elevated Lobanovskyi’s teams to a legendary place in Ukrainian football lore.
The Ukrainian derby, as such, did not exist. Dynamo looked to the Soviet capital, Moscow, for their prestige derbies. Dynamo Kyiv vs Spartak Moscow was usually the most anticipated match in the fixture list, while matches against Dynamo Tbilisi of Georgia were also characterized by a certain romantic flair. Dynamo were historically so superior that other Ukrainian sides were not seen as rivals to the capital club. That is not to say that other Ukrainian teams never made their mark on the Soviet football scene; Zorya Voroshilovgrad (now Zorya Luhansk) shockingly beat out Dynamo for the league title in 1971, and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s famous side from the Eighties twice won the championship.
Ukrainian teams fared better in the Soviet Cup. Karpaty Lviv became the first and only team from outside the top flight to lift the Cup in 1969, before Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro won it in 1988 and 1989 respectively. It was in this competition that Shakhtar Donetsk excelled. They won the trophy in back-to-back years in 1961 and 1962, and again in 1980 and 1983. They twice contested the Soviet Super Cup against Dynamo, losing both times on penalties.
In short, Shakhtar achieved modest success in the Soviet era but they were no match for the might of Dynamo Kyiv. Dynamo were simply peerless in Ukraine, and there were reasons for this other than just footballing prowess. Being situated in the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, Dynamo enjoyed the patronage of Ukrainian Communist Party leaders that the other sides did not have. It did not hurt that Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, head of the Communist Party in Ukraine from 1972 until 1989, was a fanatical Dynamo supporter. Dynamo’s connections served them well, as promising young players and managers from elsewhere in the republic were pressured to make the move to the capital.
Lobanovskyi was asked to leave Dnipro and become manager of Dynamo by Shcherbytsky himself. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that no other clubs were able to break Dynamo’s hegemony over Ukrainian football, but the Soviet system was quickly disintegrating, leaving the door open for challenges to Dynamo’s primacy.
Independence and the Emergence of a Challenger
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Ukrainian Premier League, Dynamo initially remained far and away the most successful team in Ukrainian football, winning nine of the first 10 championships. The only exception was the inaugural edition of the UPL, which consisted of two group championships and a final between the winners of the groups. Tavriya Simferopol, an unheralded side from the Crimean peninsula, defeated Dynamo in the final for their first ever piece of silverware. But the decade belonged to the capital club, who won the next nine UPL titles in a row.
Following the return of Lobanovskyi as manager in 1997, Dynamo once again became a force in Europe. Led by the deadly strike partnership of Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov, Dynamo were quarter-finalists in the 1997/98 edition of the Champions League and nearly made it to the final the following year, going down 4-3 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Though the Soviet Union no longer existed, Dynamo still enjoyed their structural advantages inherited from the Communist era, including access to the prestigious formerly state-run academy.
In the first half of that decade, Shakhtar hardly threatened Dynamo’s domination. They were runners up in the 1993/94 campaign but steadily fell down the standings in subsequent seasons, dropping as low as 10th place in 1995/96. That season, however, would prove to be fateful in Shakhtar’s history.
On October 15, 1995, Akhat Bragin, President of Shakhtar, was assassinated by a bomb in the stadium, while Shakhtar were playing Tavriya. Bragin was succeeded by Rinat Akhmetov, a businessman and oligarch who soon began to invest heavily in new players and a luxurious training complex.
Results followed immediately. Following Akhmetov’s ascendancy to the Shakhtar presidency, the club has not once finished outside the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League. They were runners up every year from 1996/97 through 2000/01 and won the Ukrainian Cup in 1995, 97, and 2001. Then, the following season, Shakhtar finished one point above their rivals and finally nicked the league title away from the perennial powerhouse from the capital. The result that made the difference was Shakhtar’s 2-0 derby victory over Dynamo in Round 25. Shakhtar had officially announced themselves on the Ukrainian football scene.
A Changing of the Guard
In the 2000s, Ukrainian football seesawed between the two clubs. Following Shakhtar’s inaugural triumph, Dynamo reclaimed their title as Ukraine’s best the following season and retained the league the year after that. But they could not hold on to their status as the undisputed top dog.
Dynamo and Shakhtar evenly split the spoils over the decade – both sides becoming champions on five occasions. No other side even broke into the top two; the Ukrainian Premier League effectively became a two-horse race.
For Shakhtar, this could be seen as a massive success; a 10th place finish was not far removed in the collective memory of their faithful, so being in contention for the title was a dramatic improvement. But for Dynamo, the emergence of a worthy opponent represented an unprecedented disruption of the status quo. Long used to being the cream of the crop, they suddenly found themselves challenged by, and even losing out to, the upstarts from the East. Even worse was to come.
The seminal moment of Ukrainian football in recent years came in the 2008/09 edition of UEFA Cup, as Shakhtar and Dynamo were drawn together in the semi-finals.
With the aggregate score at 2-2 and away goals even late in the second leg, a place in the final was up for grabs when, a minute from time, Shakhtar’s Brazilian winger Ilsinho burst in from the flank, expertly cut inside to beat his man, and sent a low shot into the far corner to send Shakhtar through to the final. There, a 2-1 extra time victory over Werder Bremen gave Shakhtar their first piece of European silverware – it was the Donetsk outfit’s ceremonial crowning as Ukraine’s new elite club; Dynamo may have won the league that season, but Shakhtar’s European glory was far more memorable.
Shakhtar have been all but unbeatable since: three straight Ukrainian Premier League titles, two more Ukrainian Cups, and two Ukrainian Super Cups. Dynamo’s only trophy during this time has been a solitary Super Cup in 2011 and, although they defeated Shakhtar, it was scant consolation for losing out on both the league and the cup to their great rivals.
This season, the league has been more one-sided than ever. Shakhtar are on pace for a record-breaking points total, while Dynamo risk falling out of the top two for the first time in their history. Moreover, Shakhtar have convincingly won every single Klasichne this season, while Dynamo’s latest derby victory in the league came in April of 2011.
To add insult to injury, Shakhtar are now the flag bearers for Ukraine on the continental stage. They have been to the knockout stages of the Champions League in two of the past three seasons, while Dynamo only returned to the group stage this season after a three year absence and were unceremoniously dumped out in the first round. Dynamo, for so long Ukraine’s finest, have been unseated. Ukraine belongs to Shakhtar.
So, how did such a changing of the guard occur? For starters, in the post-Soviet environment, Dynamo’s institutional advantages, while still existent, could no longer safeguard them against the forces of a market economy. Akhmetov’s wealth and patronage of Shakhtar could not have been possible in the USSR, but in the free-for-all capitalism unleashed on the former Soviet republics by shock therapy, Akhmetov was able to make a fortune and use it to fund his local football club. A new academy encouraged the development of local youngsters, while a generous transfer kitty ensured Shakhtar’s competitiveness in the global market. Additionally, while it may not be directly responsible for the team’s successful results, Shakhtar’s new stadium, the Donbass arena, opened its doors in 2009, a reflection of Akhmetov’s dedication to elevate Shakhtar’s prestige to equal and even exceed that of Dynamo.
But simple economics alone cannot account for Shakhtar’s rise and Dynamo’s fall. It is not as if Dynamo are struggling financially; their owner, Ihor Surkis is a successful businessman who is not hesitant to open up his wallet for the sake of his club. The dynamics of the shift in Ukrainian football are more complex. Ever since Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke on the bench during a match in May 2002 and passed away a week later, the role of manager has been a revolving door position at the club, with no one man lasting more than two full seasons. Lobanovskyi casts an immense shadow over the club even in death, and his successors have been unable to replicate his achievements. The inability to come to terms with Shakhtar’s rise has led to an impatience with both managers and players, in contrast to Shakhtar’s prudence and stability. Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu has been at the helm since 2004, while Dynamo have gone through 12 different managers in this period.
Meanwhile, the Dynamo academy, no longer receiving funding from the state, is not the vast pool of talent it once was, and the recent transfer histories of the two clubs also reflect the stark difference in policy. For example, after Shakhtar sold Willian to Anzhi for €35 million, they mitigated his departure by bringing in Taison from Metalist Kharkiv for a fraction of that cost, leaving them in the black for the season. Dynamo, meanwhile, in an attempt to challenge Shakhtar’s sudden supremacy, went on a sending spree this summer and bought internationally recognized players Niko Kranjcar, Miguel Veloso, and Raffael, for a combined €23.5 million. While Veloso has become a fixture in the midfield, Kranjcar and Raffael struggle to get a start. Sometimes it feels as if Dynamo’s transfer policy is conducted not with a vision for the future in mind, but with the haphazardness of a teenager playing a computer game.
The future looks bright for Shakhtar, but Dynamo are by no means a defeated club. Surkis is more than willing to spend money, but Dynamo need a vision and a project for the future – confidence in newest manager – former Ukraine boss Oleh Blokhin – is a must.
Even Shakhtar fans must recognize the importance of Dynamo’s revival for the sake of the vitality of Ukrainian football. A one-horse league is no fun for anyone. Whether Dynamo can reverse the trend of Shakhtar’s supremacy is up in the air. Shakhtar, for their part, will enjoy this moment of unparalleled domination for as long as it lasts.
Vadim Furmanov is a football blogger with a heavy focus on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as a supporter of Dynamo Kyiv. You can follow him on Twitter @passive_offside
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Seattle vs Portland: The Great Northwest Derby
WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF
The MLS may be a relatively new league, but the passion of the Great Northwest Derby, between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, runs deep. We take a look at a rivalry based on two distinct civic identities, with a hostility driven by subtle distinctions in principles and ethos…
In early March, the MLS dedicated the third round of their 2013 season to ‘rivalry week’. It was no surprise that the showpiece match was to be the Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers derby.
Quite simply it is the fiercest MLS fixture in America. Ex-Fulham and Cardiff striker Eddie Johnson who now plays for Seattle said “I played in some rivalries when I was in Europe [but] this is a pretty special game.’
Kasey Keller, who played for Millwall (including their last ever game at the Old Den) has compared it to the enmity between the Lions and West Ham United, saying that the off-field opposition between the two Pacific Coast Football teams was a ‘cool thing’, whilst stressing he did not condone violence.
Likening relations between Sounders and the Timbers to a century old East End Blood feud may be stretching the point, but the fact is that Seattle vs Portland is associated with rancour and ill-will. More so than any other fixture – or ‘match-up’ as the Americans call it – in the MLS.
Major League Soccer was created in 1993, as part of America’s bid to host the 1994 World Cup. In a league that is only 20 years old, the two Pacific Northwest giants have a history which stretches way back to the 1970s and the glamorous, but ill-fated NASL. In MLS terms that makes it positively prehistoric.
The teams are two-and-a-half hours’ drive apart (miniscule to US tastes), and they lack the big city feel of New York or Chicago, where traditional sporting teams are entrenched, invariably choking aspiring newcomers. The Seattle Supersonics NBA Basketball team were also recently relocated to Oklahoma amidst much acrimony. This leaves the only professional sporting contest between Seattle and Portland as the MLS derby in this sports obsessed region. Further strengthening the belief that this rivalry, already huge, will grow even larger.
It already stretches back almost 40 years, encompassing six different league or cup competitions. In their first ever meeting on May 2 1975, Portland beat Seattle in a NASL play-off game, causing the majority of Timbers fans in the 31,000 crowd to storm the field in ‘raucous fashion’. It was a provocative act that some from Seattle have never forgotten.
Other notable incidents have included the Timbers Army, the Portland hard-core supporters or tifosi, as they prefer, constructing a 20-foot-high banner of the club’s mascot Timber Jim – a reference to the Portland’s extensive logging tradition, pivotal to the town’s early years. The artwork showed him sawing down a representation of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle tower with a chainsaw. So intrinsic is the structure to the city of Seattle’s consciousness, and so offended were many from Seattle by the artwork, it would be like Sunderland fans displaying a 20 foot banner of the Tyne Bridge being destroyed, at the Stadium of Light, before the start of a Tyne-Tees derby.
Local cult figure – and ex-Portland Timbers forward – Roger Levesque also fanned the flames when he scored for Seattle against Portland a few seasons back. He celebrated provocatively by impersonating a falling tree, with team-mate Nate Jaqua miming a woodcutter using an imaginary axe at his feet. (Seattle legend Levesque is so hated by Timbers fans that when he once played for Portland as a guest player in a friendly they incessantly booed his every touch.)
There have even been reported instances of trouble away from the stadium between the two sets of fans, although everyone is keen to stress that official tifosi from both sides were not involved. Thankfully organised trouble is unheard of.
Derbies can revolve around geography, economics, politics or religion. In the region the two teams were born into, the Great Northwest, their rivalry has been described as an argument about civic identity, with a hostility driven by subtle distinctions in principles and ethos.
Songs from both sets of tifosi reflect this.
Sounders fans can often be heard to sing,
Seedy little city on a river of piss
We’ll drink your beer and shag your sis’,
with the Timbers replying, to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine:
“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire,
Put Seattle on the top,
Put Vancouver in the middle,
And we’ll burn the bloody lot”
Seattle call those from Portland drunk, laid-back, work-shy hippies, with the reverse mocking those from the bigger city of Seattle as dilettante pseudo-sophisticates: in other words fair weather prawn-sandwich-eating-pretenders waiting for the next fashionable thing to be seen at.
Yet, to level that accusation at all Sounders fans would be as unfair as to describe every Manchester United or Arsenal fan as such. The reality is that the team from the Emerald City appear to be a progressive and well-run club (incidentally the nickname is a reference to the evergreen forests of the area. With the emerald influence being seen in Seattle’s bright green current home top, the colours of which, apart from the embossed Space Needle as their badge, have been described somewhat intriguingly as ‘rave green and capital blue’).
All season ticket holders can vote on the direction of the club, including the fate of the general manager, a concept taken from the Barcelona model of elections for team presidents. Indeed, the Sounders have sold more season tickets than any other MLS club in the league’s 13-year existence and proudly boast a higher average attendance than that of Tottenham Hotpsur.
In a league with historically unrelated names such as the New York Red Bulls, Seattle fans voted for the team’s name, which has historical links with the original Sounders of the NASL and the Seattle Sounders who played in the USL; they even have a 53-piece marching band, the Sound Wave – the only such band in MLS.
Yet, geography does have a part to play too. As Adrian Hanauer, a Seattle shareholder, said recently, “We’re pretty isolated up here, the only…cities until you get to California,” continuing, “There’s nobody else for us to hate and battle with.”
Just as there is pride in the Sounders from their fans, there is also a great regional satisfaction from Seattleites in their city as it undergoes an economic resurgence. Through being a hub for ‘green’ industry and sustainable development, the city is imperceptibly moving away from its more well-known corporate image of Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks.
Jason Quillin, a London based Sounders fan who hails from Seattle, said, ‘Timbers fans are seen as quite rowdy Thirty-somethings, who view us as a bunch of sober families’, but, as he continued, ‘we get three times as many fans as them at all our games and have won far more trophies than they have. In fact they haven’t won anything. We consider them to be like our little brother, or our ‘noisy neighbour’. They’re still jealous Nirvana came from Washington State’.
This view was echoed by the Seattle tifosi and their intimidatingly large banner at last season’s game which simply read, ‘Decades of Dominance’. For a derby game in 2009 they displayed another to Portland, stating, ‘Tonight our History becomes legend’ – to which, in a cup game a few months later, The Timber Army with a huge effort of their own, cheekily replied, ‘Tonight your legend becomes History…’
Equally, the Timbers also have a reputation for being a club embedded within their community.
It may be a town that lies in the shadow of the corporate behemoths of Seattle, but it is a place where locally sourced food abounds, and nationwide chain stores are hard to find.
Perhaps because Portland supports local products, businesses and initiatives, they also support their local team. Think of a regionally proud and distinctive city such as Glasgow, Bilbao or Marseille, where you would be hard pressed to find a shirt from a team that lay outside its environs and apply that principle to Portland.
The Great Northwest is a place where innovation, change and risk-taking run deep – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson called the region a ‘great, free and independent empire’. With that in mind, it is a tribute to its people – Sounders and Timbers fans alike – that their independent streak involves embracing the world’s favourite game far more than any other part of the United States.
This is a proud constituency that has bred timber logging, the aerospace industry, Microsoft, and re-invented the coffee shop; offered a musical platform to Paratrooper and guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and of course Kurt Cobain. A place where interest in rugged activity is admired, where the spirit of free-thinking that goes against perceived opinion is respected, and with a counter-culture deeply embedded in its DNA that is greatly welcomed by its natives. Perhaps with these features in mind, it really is no surprise, that the Seattle vs Portland derby is the biggest in US football.
“Any other rivalry in this league has sort of been created,” said current Seattle boss Sigi Schmid, “This rivalry has history. That makes it the best rivalry in the league.”
Note: The Sounders have a superior 42-29 (nine draws) head-to-head advantage dating back to 1975. Seattle fans have witnessed four second-division championships and three Open Cup titles, while the Timbers Army has yet to celebrate a trophy.
The last derby game, on 16th March 2013, ended in a 1-1 draw in front of 40,150 at the CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington State, with the Timbers Costa Rican striker, Rodney Wallace, scoring a 90th-minute equaliser to level Eddie Johnson’s 13th-minute opener – much to the joy of the 500 travelling members of the Timbers Army.
Seattle’s Space Needle was based on the Stuttgart Tower in Germany. In the 1999 film, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, it served as a base of operations for the villain Doctor Evil with the word Starbucks written across its saucer.
You can see more on the visual displays of the impressive pre-match derby banners, here:
You can follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29
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Mexico vs USA: First-Generation Dilemma
The rivalry between Mexico and the USA doesn’t need much extra spice but, for the first generation Mexican-Americans living north of the border, there is a big decision to be made. Dominic Bliss spoke to US soccer fan and journalist, Luis Bueno, about a dilemma that involves much more than sport…
How much does the prospect of tomorrow’s match excite you?
Speaking, not as a journalist but as a fan, this rivalry is the top thing in soccer for me. MLS is great and the US national team playing other games is great too, but everything else is below this. It is a battle every time and it doesn’t matter if it is a friendly or a qualifier – neither side wants to lose to the other.
How did you come to support the United States despite your Mexican heritage?
My parents were born in Mexico, while I was born in the United States, so I am first generation and there are a lot of people like me – first generation – that will support Mexico and they won’t support the US national team at all. That is mainly because their parents’ patriotism is pretty strong when it comes to Mexico and they try to make sure they pass their culture along to their kids – the language, the food – and part of that is soccer and the Mexican national team.
So, I would think I am in the minority, but there are more and more fans of the US within that sub-community of first generation Mexican-Americans. For us, I think it is more personal because it is a family rivalry, where the older generation supports Mexico and the younger supports the United States.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with Mexico fans in the UK, but they can be a bit arrogant, and for years they have had reason to be. They were dominant in this region for a long time and nobody else could touch them, but that started to change a bit in the mid-Nineties, when the US started to improve and Costa Rica started to get better.
Costa Rica won in Mexico in a qualifier in 2001 and, since then, it has levelled out. I think a lot of US fans – not just Mexican-Americans – see that arrogance from Mexican fans and there is a feeling, not of anger, but of, “Give us some respect.”
A lot of times we feel that the US has been disrespected because they don’t acknowledge the growth that the US national team has undergone and they don’t acknowledge that the US is a quality opponent. From Mexico’s side, they see their rivals as Argentina and Brazil – they think they are at that level, and I think that adds to the situation because we think we are their neighbours and we should be their top rivals. They do acknowledge the US as a rival, but they also like to get a piece of Argentina whenever they can.
So you grew up with parents who support Mexico…
Yeah, they have always supported Mexico and a lot of the family are die-hard Mexico supporters, who always used to tease us about the US national team. They didn’t consider us a rival, but as a nice little team, while they were the big boys. That certainly added to it on a personal level.
I know Mexican-Americans feel a loyalty to Mexico, including myself. My parents own a home in Mexico and I have lived there on two separate occasions in my life; my kids are in a dual-immersion programme, so they speak Spanish as well as English. So, for me, there is a huge influence and I really identify with the Mexican culture.
There are Mexican-American players, like Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo, who are US internationals, and that side of it is just going to keep making this rivalry grow. There are a lot of kids who will have to choose who to play for once they get older.
What was it like for you once the pendulum started swinging towards the USA?
When I was younger, in the mid-Nineties, the US couldn’t compete with Mexico. Then we tied 0-0 there in a qualifier in 1997 and that was really exciting because they always bragged about the Azteca and we shut them out there.
But, of course, nothing will ever top the moment in the World Cup 2002, when the US beat Mexico 2-0 in the Round of 16. That was a singularly fantastic moment for US soccer fans.
The American soccer magazine, Howler, designed their first cover around the fact that the United States had won away to Mexico, even though it was only a friendly! Having said that, depicting Jurgen Klinsmann in an Apocalypse Now scenario was worth the hyperbole…
I haven’t seen that, but I can definitely see why it made the cover. The Azteca is where US teams go to die, basically. Historically, all teams have struggled there – Jamaica has had six-goal and four-goal losses there – and the Mexican fans draw so much confidence from playing in that stadium. They have such a swagger there and the feeling that nothing can go wrong, and before winning that friendly last year, the best the US had was the 0-0 draw in 1997.
The smog, the altitude and the fact that you are playing against a really good team in front of 100,000-plus fans has such an impact.
The 1993 Gold Cup Final was played down there and Mexico beat the USA 4-0 – it was like a Mexican hat-dance as they just had their way with the US team. They always hark back to that, but this last friendly was a great moment because the US did what many thought couldn’t be done. Some people are trying to write it off as “just a friendly”, but this week they are going to play there again in a qualifier and it is going to give the US confidence to know now that they can win there, because they have won there.
Have you been to a game at the Azteca between these two sides?
In 2009, I went down there for the qualifier and the US scored really early, but Mexico tied it up in the end with an 82nd-minute winner. For most of the second half I was thinking, “Can they actually get the draw here?”
Then they got the goal and I realised that it can’t happen! That was always the impenetrable wall, but now it has been taken down and that is going to add a lot of spice to this match.
What makes the rivalry so fierce?
They are neighbours and there is so much Mexican influence in the United States now. The Mexican national team can come and play in any number of US cities and draw 60-70,000 people. Just seeing that great support here, and how lacking the support for the United States is by comparison, makes you feel that the US soccer fans might have a chip on their shoulder. They are thinking, “We want that sport for us” and the team here is becoming more successful.
The Mexican fans get it – they get what the US fans want and, like the situation for myself, you get a lot of families where the older generations support Mexico and the younger generations support the US. That leads to trash-talking, making bets and taunting – it can get pretty heated.
There are ‘Ultra’ sections among many MLS sides, so do the US fans make themselves heard in the stadium during games against Mexico?
The atmosphere is great. I was at the Gold Cup Final in 2011, at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, where Mexico won 4-2. There was a little over 93,000 people there and I would say 10-15 per cent were US fans. The problem for US fans, in that kind of setting, is that they are outnumbered.
What if they played Mexico in Seattle, for example, where US soccer fans are more prevalent?
There is a lot of backlash against playing there because they use an artificial surface and I think US soccer wants to avoid that, but I think that would be great. Even in Portland, where they can only get 18,000 in, I like to think that, like Seattle, you would get a majority of US fans. It might only be like 60-40, but I think you would see a majority and that is something this rivalry hasn’t seen.
US fans and players have said since 2002 that, if they played Mexico anywhere outside of Mexico, the US will win. They proved that in the World Cup, but when they play here the US team has all the comforts of home, until they get to the stadium, where it’s full of Mexican fans. It’s the Azteca without the altitude and the smog!
- Read how the rivalry with the USA has grown into something important in Mexico, as Guadalajara-based journalist, Tom Marshall discusses the history of the fixture with TheInsideLeft here.
You can follow Luis Bueno’s soccer-specific Twitter feed @BuenoSoccer
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Ashton Fate: Supporting Bristol City
WORDS: TOM BARNETT
Hooked by the sights, the sounds, the smells during a snore draw with Huddersfield, it’s fair to say picking Bristol City on the back of a 0-0 at Ashton Gate was not the most glamorous beginning to a footballing love affair. But joyous pitch invasions and tear-stained defeats were just around the corner…
My relationship with Bristol City hasn’t been the most traditional.
In the early days I was in danger of following Manchester United; they had won the first ever game of football I’d been properly taken in and hooked by (the 1996 FA Cup final; in hindsight I haven’t the faintest idea how that was the game which sucked me in tight, as it was a dross affair), and they were the team on the telly all the time. But I never really sat that well with them; I got as much enjoyment out of watching Borussia Dortmund’s 1997 Champions League triumph as I did perhaps any of Manchester United’s successes.
They weren’t the “one love” for me (and, much as I still follow them, neither were Borussia Dortmund), and growing up in the middle of West Berkshire didn’t make going to the footie on a Saturday afternoon easy. My nearest team growing up were a Division Two-bound Reading, and even going to see them required some serious transportation efforts. My immediate family enjoy and acknowledge football, but don’t really follow a team as such. But just as I was in danger of falling into a kind of footballing limbo, my Bristol-based family offered a way out, with a trip to see Bristol City.
Despite not being that “into” any particular team, I was football mad at the time. It’s not hard to see what going to my first-ever club game would mean for me, particularly when your first visit is to Ashton Gate; the sounds, the smells, the songs… it was magnificent. It might have been an utterly unremarkable snore draw with Huddersfield, but it was enough to get me hooked.
I lived too far and was a little too pint-sized to go week-in, week-out, but I started following City from afar. In 2002, however, my fandom took a serious test when my parents moved to Kenya and, being 13 at the time, I figured I ought to go with them. This test was furthered by the fact that, surprisingly, football mad kids in Kenya haven’t heard of Bristol City. They’d barely heard of West Ham or Manchester City either – or, indeed, the concept of Bristol – so maybe that wasn’t so weird at all. Nevertheless, when you have to explain who you support – and you’ve only followed them for a year – it gets weary.
My interaction with City during this time barely went further than their website and the clips of Sky Sports News shown on South African satellite TV, but in hindsight that probably made them seem kind of exotic, and only added to the allure. We won the LDV Vans Trophy during this time, but while it put a smile on my face, I must confess I didn’t exactly go to sleep buzzing. Not yet. It’s weird to think that even a few years later it would have been 10 times easier to follow them; I’d have been able to listen to them online, watch highlights via proxies, but a 16k internet connection and lack of these resources online made that somewhat tricky.
When I returned to the UK from Kenya, I started going to see City slightly more regularly, getting ludicrously excited whenever I did, or whenever there was a game on TV. At the time we were challenging to get out of Division Two, and we came agonisingly close in 2004, finishing just outside the automatic promotion places, but at least in the Play-Offs. This was my first real experience of City and the potential of success, and just the nature of being in the same country and actually able to follow games via the radio or television made it all that much more tangible. Unfortunately I was unable to attend either Play-Off semi-final leg (against Hartlepool) for logistical and exam-related reasons, but caught both on TV and, I can assure you, lived and breathed every moment – and, if I’m being honest with myself, May 19th 2004 was the moment fandom became love.
The first leg finished 1-1 in Hartlepool and was finely poised going into the return at Ashton Gate. We were clear favourites having finished some way ahead of Hartlepool on points, however they took an unlikely lead on the hour mark and, despite swarming their area, we didn’t look like scoring. Then, on 88 minutes, Marc Goodfellow popped up to score an equaliser. I remember going ballistic just at this alone; 120 seconds later I was running around the house like a boy possessed as Christian Roberts smashed the ball in during injury time to seal the win, and our place in the Play-Off Final. That night I most definitely went to bed buzzing.
Thanks to what, in hindsight, was an act of incredible generosity from my Dad (who, while liking football, was hardly interested in Bristol City or the Division Two Play-Off Final), I was able to attend the game against Brighton in Cardiff. It was a pretty unremarkable match; we had a lot of the ball but precious few chances and Brighton won through a Leon Knight penalty kick – not for the first time that season, as I’m sure many of you will recall. As we left the ground there were tears in my eyes and no doubt in my heart that this was truly love.
The two years that followed saw me working a Saturday job and therefore finding chances to go to see City few and far between, but thanks to improvements in technology I was able to follow them in ways I’d have never thought possible even 18 months before, watching highlights online and cheekily checking my phone at work for text updates. And, when I did go to see City, they were always the best days. Not on the pitch so much; following our Play-Off Final loss, Danny Wilson left by “mutual consent” and we brought in Brian Tinnion, one of the club’s favourite all-time players, but a disaster as a manager.
I then went off to university in Cardiff, and as following City became a short train journey away, it became something more of an obsession. In 2007 we finished second in League One and were finally promoted, following a 3-1 home win against Rotherham; my first ever pitch invasion on a glorious sunny afternoon. I remember my uncle, who usually took me to see City, telling me “You know, these are the good times Tom, make the most of it” – pessimistic perhaps, but not wrong. Still, there were some better times to come first – including the best.
Having been bookies favourites to go straight back into League One, against all odds (literally) City spent a huge chunk of the 2007/08 season at the summit of the Championship. At first this was constantly tempered by “let’s just get enough points to stay up; the Premiership can wait for another day.” But, week after week, we were getting results. We’d occasionally get picked apart, but we clung in there, and by the time March came around we were still in the running for automatic promotion. A poor run of form meant we finished the season in the playoffs, where we were drawn against Crystal Palace – who since Christmas had been the outstanding team in the division. We had a history of bottling it in the Play-Offs in League One and, frankly, I didn’t expect much this time around.
Due to a university commitment, I was unable to attend the away leg at Selhurst Park (however with my ticket already in pocket for the home leg of the semi-final, this was just one of those things), but was able to watch on TV and I remember shouting the pub down (alone and with some slightly embarrassed friends, it must be said) during a fantastic 2-1 win, including a stunning winner from David Noble. The scene was set for the return leg to be one of the great nights in City’s history; I just don’t think any of us realised how great.
Ben Watson did his best to spoil the party by putting Palace level on aggregate just after 20 minutes. In the 50 minutes that followed we were the better side, endeavouring well and creating a host of chances; but the tie remained level. Then, with about 20 minutes to go (if my memory serves me right), Palace won a penalty – I remember that, even in the moment of sitting a little over 100 minutes away from the Premier League, I was thinking: “Yeah, can’t argue with that”.
At that moment it was all unravelling; we’d had a good run, a great season, and it was amazing to still be involved as May drew on. The future looked incredibly bright and, even as Ben Watson took a few steps back before taking the penalty, I didn’t feel anywhere near as nervous as you might imagine. It was as close to Zen as I’ve ever felt at Ashton Gate. I mean, there were still 1,000 butterflies fluttering in my stomach but you’d think it would be about a million.
Then, somewhere, somehow, a player as good and as in-form as Watson managed to hit the post. And, I have to say, at that moment I knew we were going up. Not thought, not hoped, not even expected; I knew.
The atmosphere after that penalty miss was unlike anything else I’ve ever known at any sporting event ever. We still had to find something to win the tie yet over 19,000 in that ground just knew we would find a way, the way we had done all season long. As extra time dawned, the feeling around the ground (for me) wasn’t so much “we can win this” as “we will win this”. It’s hard to explain; it wasn’t arrogance, it wasn’t even confidence, it was something else. And then, sure enough, in the 14th minute of extra time, Lee Trundle cut inside and scored an absolute peach of a goal; a goal worthy of appearing in any end of season review in its own right, but in these circumstances a goal which meant more than anything to tens of thousands of people around Bristol that night. Palace were sunk; even as the second half of extra time began people started lining the pitch for an invasion. When Mickey McIndoe scored a free kick in the dying minutes, all that was left was bedlam. Pure, incredible bedlam, in a half hour period that currently feels like the greatest experience I’ve known.
I wish that the story could end there. You could give this article the tag “Hollywood” if it did. However, you probably already know what happens next. If you don’t, here’s a quick summary. We lose the Play-Off final 1-0 to Hull, a goal which would never have happened if Bradley Orr had realised how injured he was (a butterfly effect theory that I’ll save for another day). After our moment in the sun we retreated further and further into the shade, and at the time of writing we sit at the foot of the Championship, with League One football beckoning once again.
I’ve dedicated most of the words in this piece here to a period of time between May 2004 and May 2008. It’s now March 2013. Since then, I’ve moved to London but have still been back to Ashton Gate many times, even throwing in a number of away trips as well. On the pitch it’s been mediocrity and the realisation of where we truly are in the pecking order. Off the pitch… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
To finish; I can’t help but sometimes question whether or not I can be regarded as a “true” Bristol City fan. In myself I feel it, but in the eyes of others I might seem slightly fair-weather; due to finances I’ve only been able to attend five games in the last 12 months, and three of those have been in London. Additionally, my earliest memories of football are not the ones that I wish they were (instead of an Eric Cantona winner against Liverpool, I find myself wishing that Brian Tinnion scoring in a floodlit replay at Anfield to knock them out of the FA Cup in 1994 was, for instance). It’s a question of identity and one that, while I feel certain of the answer, I can’t help but feel different from other City fans and the way they’ve experienced the club growing up.
But then I ask myself; would a fair-weather football fan really choose Bristol City as the source of their armchair comfort?
You can follow Tom on Twitter @tmbrntt
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Valiant Hope: Supporting Port Vale
WORDS: TOM BOURNE
Wearing his Port Vale tracksuit into school the morning after a 6-0 defeat showed the world that Tom Bourne was truly in love with his club and, while the glory days of John Rudge may have been followed by a dismal descent, he remains smitten with the club his Dad first introduced him to in 1987…
I have often been asked what it was like growing up as a Vale fan in South Birmingham. I lie. I have never actually been asked that. However, it led me to think how I define my relationship with my club.
My older brother, Peter, describes his long love affair with Italian club Torino as akin to that of his mistress. I suppose Vale in some ways felt like my dirty little secret in those early years. Born and raised among a sea of Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion supporters, I was often met with howls of derision when telling my classmates of my football team. If not quite at Accrington Stanley levels of ‘Who are dey?’, it would be fair to say that there weren’t any other Vale supporters, or indeed many lower league supporters throughout my school years. But then again, supporting the Vale has also been about more than following a football team. It’s beena way of life. Supporting what it is generally perceived to be an ‘unfashionable’ club certainly hardens you to life’s travails. I compare many of the themes from my favourite film, On The Waterfront, with supporting the Vale. Love. Loyalty. Trust. Faith. Hope. Also, the concept that power corrupts is something that Vale supporters can readily identify with, after the club was taken to the brink of extinction over the last couple of years through chronic mismanagement.
I suppose every fan says they didn’t choose their club; it chose them. That was not entirely true in my case. During my first Vale game in 1987, a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Mansfield Town in the old Fourth Division, my father turned to me and informed me that I could either support the Vale or support no one at all. Whether it was the noise of the crowd, the intoxicating smell of tobacco or simply that the cold had led me temporarily to lose my ability to reason, I didn’t need to be asked. My father also informed me that not every game would be as exciting as my first. He is nothing if not honest my father. In fact, I didn’t see the Vale lose for what seemed an eternity – an FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City in January 1991. A defeat I still haven’t forgiven Vale’s mercurial midfielder Ray Walker for, after his glaring miss in front of the Bycars End. So began my love affair with the Pride of the Potteries, one that would be tested to the limits by events, both on and off the pitch, over the subsequent 25 years.
Following the crowd has never been of importance to me. Even as a young boy, supporting a club that at times it felt like no one else in the world did, was an exciting, exclusive club. Wearing my Port Vale tracksuit to infant school the Monday following Vale’s 6-0 FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa was a typical example. Pride in defeat was just something I’d have to get used to. Supporting the Vale always felt more of an adventure growing up. Perhaps as every match was effectively an away game for us. Thoughts of Vale’s impending home clash with Derby County would usually enter my mind around lunchtime on Friday, something I credit for my lack of success in Science. Double Biology would be spent with more thought as to whether Martin Foyle would overcome that troublesome calf strain. Travelling via British Rail was a novelty at first, though soon led to weariness with news of the customary cancelled 18.06 from Stoke to Birmingham.
My two early heroes were Darren Beckford and Robbie Earle. The departure of the pair in 1991 for a combined fee of nearly £2 million came as a bitter blow. I naively assumed that, like me, they would be with the Vale forever. This would be my first real lesson that footballers weren’t like supporters, their motives and desires being polar opposites. With the exception of the great Roy Sproson, a true one club man, hanging on to a successful player for Vale or any lower league club proves nigh on impossible.
Little did I know, but for much of my childhood I would enjoy the most successful period in Vale’s history. The problem with experiencing this as a child is that you never think it will end. The Glory Years that couldn’t last. Promotions, the club’s first Wembley visits and a side expertly managed by John Rudge took Vale to the brink of the Championship play-offs in 1997, being just a few of the many highlights. From the moment of Vale’s famous FA Cup victory over then holders, the mighty Tottenham Hotspur, managed by Terry Venables, the club’s fortunes really took off. I still smile while remembering Jimmy Greaves’ quote that “the only trouble Spurs will have is finding the place”.
As Saint and Greavsie was a staple of my weekends, this was something I was prepared to forgive.Incidentally, that was a game I was deemed too young to go to, so I had to make do with watching the scores come in on Grandstand from my grandparents’ house in Lincoln Road, Burslem. That and the subsequent commentary from the ubiquitous Tony Gubba on Match of the Day are memories that stay with me for life. Being unable to attend midweek home games whilst at school, this would become a familiar feeling – being out of range of BBC Radio Stoke’s coverage, impatiently waiting for the pages of Ceefax to tick over.
Under the astute management of the legendary Rudge, promotion was secured the following year after a two-legged play-off victory over Bristol Rovers. Memories fade as you age. However, my father buying me my very first Vale kit in the aftermath of the game and then buying fish and chips from Waterloo Road as the Rovers kit man ordered enough for a disconsolate squad sat on the coach outside will never fade. The haunted look on the faces of the Rovers players was my first real introduction into just how emotionally draining football could be. It would become a feeling I would share many times over the coming years.
The Nineties also saw Vale’s fierce and passionate rivalry with neighbours Stoke City rekindled. Indeed, the Vale enjoyed the better of many of the encounters during this period. However, the two clubs’ fortunes have headed in rather different directions since. It may have stemmed from my father regaling tales of Vale’s run to the FA Cup semi-final of 1954 and the subsequent injustice of Ronnie Allen’s winning penalty that denied Freddie Steele’s side a shot at history or maybe I’m simply a product of my environment, but West Bromwich Albion has always felt in some ways a more significant fixture to me. Whether it be watching Vale’s 3-2 win at the Hawthorns in an executive box courtesy of family friends (the only time I’ve sampled life among the prawn sandwich brigade) to Ian Taylor’s winner at Ossie Ardiles’ table topping side, the victory and orange ball in the snow at Vale Park, to the heart-breaking Play-Off Final defeat of 1993, the Baggies have played a significant role in my football life. Whilst not everything was milk and honey under Rudgie, it was a fantastic period to support the club. Average gates rose from a dispiriting 3 to 4,000 in the 1980s to just under 9,000 by the mid-nineties.
The club’s first Wembley visits (twice in a week) were memorable events for rather differing reasons. The first, taking over 25,000 for our victory over Stockport County in the Autoglass Trophy being a particular childhood highlight. The Play-Off semi-final defeat to those pesky Baggies a week later, despite finishing the season with 89 points – at that time a record without gaining automatic promotion – reminded me just how those Bristol Rovers players felt that afternoon. A rather sobering statistic is that eleven of the sides in the Second Division that season have gone on to play in the Premier League, including four out of the top six in the table. Only Vale and Stockport County have failed to join that elect group. Even clubs such as Hull City, Blackpool and Wigan Athletic, all lumbering around the bottom of the table in decrepit old stadiums, have tasted the big time since. Nevertheless, promotion followed the season after, and although much of the subsequent time in the Championship was spent flirting with relegation, Vale competed on a level playing field and often got the better of teams like Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester City and Albion. Monday mornings at school were a particular favourite after the Vale had seen off another of the local ‘giants’.
While many would identify their favourite game as either their first, a cup final or a big win over their closest rivals, mine would be a rather different one. During the 1996/97 season, for a fleeting moment, Vale looked as if they might achieve the unthinkable – promotion to the Premier League. As laughable as that sounds now, a 2-0 win on a gloriously sunny afternoon at Oxford United over the Easter period left Vale in fifth place with only a handful of games to go. For just one moment I dared to dream. Alas, a defeat away at Stoke City all but ended Vale’s hopes. The side’s tired finish to the season was a foretaste of things to come. Despite another Valiant cup performance against the eventual double winners, Arsenal, in 1998, the end was nigh.
While the club’s success during my early years very much reflected the innocence of childhood, Vale’s recent off-the-field woes sharply mirrored a downturn in my own health. The departure of Rudge in 1999 heralded the end of an era. The collapse of ITV Digital and the introduction of the Bosman ruling had already made the task harder for smaller clubs to compete. Administration and relegation at the turn of the new millennium marked a sharp decline in the club’s fortunes. Hopes that the fan ownership of V2001 would signal a return to better days promised much but delivered little. Other than an LDV Vans Trophy win in 2001 under Brian Horton, the intervening years saw possibly some of the most depressing performances on the pitch under the hapless management of Lee Sinnott and then Dean Glover. Not only was the football abject, but the club was also taken to the brink of extinction through pig headedness, incompetence and mismanagement on a colossal scale.
An irrevocable breakdown in trust between the fan-led board and supporters, a failure to secure much needed investment, spiraling debts and ultimately administration marked the nadir in the club’s recent fortunes. However, those same themes of faith, hope, love, loyalty and truth were demonstrated en masse. The Supporters’ club, local media and protest groups combined to uncover some of the more Machiavellian developments. The recent exit from administration and the finalisation of the club’s takeover will hopefully see the wheel turn full circle and signal a return to better times. After all of that, how do I feel about the Vale now? Older. Wiser. Slightly more cynical, but not less passionate. What started as a dirty little secret has become something more translucent and more visceral. One Love. My Love.