Monday, 23 October 2017

Italy and the Rugby League World Cup 2017

2017 will mark the second time that the Azzurri have qualified for the Rugby League World Cup.

Great strides were made in their first appearance in the World Cup in 2013, and hopes are high that they can at least reach the Quarter finals this time around.

In 2013, Italy were drawn in Pool C alongside Scotland, Tonga and co-hosts Wales.  Their tournament began with an upset victory over Wales at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.  In their second match, they took on Scotland. The match turned out to be a thriller and it was tight with the game ending in a high scoring draw.

All Italy had to do then was win their last group match against Tonga after Scotland won their match and finished with the same points. Tonga had nothing but pride to play for after their hopes of qualification had vanished but they shocked the Azzurri by keeping them scoreless and eliminating Italy from the World Cup.

Wounds were licked and Italy dusted themselves down to begin qualification for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.  The first stage of qualifying involved having to finish in the top 3 in their 2014–15 European Shield competition.  Italy only managed to secure qualification for the 'final qualification tournament' after winning their second to last game against bottom placed Ukraine.  Italy finished the Shield in third place with 3 wins and 3 defeats in six matches.

The final qualification tournament consisted of 6 teams - the top three teams from the European B tournament, the winners of the European C tournament and seeded nations Wales and Ireland. The winners of each group qualified for the World Cup, while the runners-up faced each other in a play-off match to determine the final spot.   So it all came down to a Play Off v Russia for a place on the plane to Oz.  Italy demolished Russia 76-0 to seal qualification

Now ranked 14th in the world and heading into the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, a strong squad has been selected, below are a few names who will be an integral part of the Italian squad.

Terry Campese: Former Canberra Raiders and Hull KR half, Terry Campese, played a pivotal role in the Azzurri qualifying for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup after impressive performances against Serbia and Russia. Returning to Australia in 2017, Campese is almost certain to feature and will provide some much needed direction around the halves.

James Tedesco: Tedesco was only 20 when he made his international debut in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, and whilst in that tournament he was pushed into the centres by captain Anthony Minichiello, Tedesco is almost guaranteed to be starting fullback for the Italians in the 2017 event.

Paul Vaughan: The former Canberra Raiders forward will bring some much welcomed grunt to the Italian forward pack, with the prop forward certain to build on his impressive performances for the Italians in 2013.

Joel Riethmuller: Seven Test veteran, Joel Riethmuller will not only bring a wealth of experience to the Italians at World Cup 2017, but the former North Queensland Cowboy and current Northern Pride player will bring some much welcomed knowledge and experience to the squad.

Mark Minichiello: The younger brother of Anthony, and Italy captain. Mark has had a hugely successful career and, for the past couple of seasons, has plied his trade in the English Super League with Hull FC.

Former player, and member of the 2013 squad, Cameron Ciraldo is the coach of Italy and is assisted by ex Australia and Azzurri full back Anthony Minichiello.  Minichiello was also involved in the last World Cup as a player and his experience in the game is invaluable.

Ciraldo (l) & Minichiello

Ciraldo said of Minichiello, who played 302 matches for Sydney Roosters and captained the club to Premiership success in 2013. “To be honest I don’t think we would be in this position if it wasn’t for Anthony,” 

“It was through him pledging his allegiance for the last World Cup qualifiers five or six years ago that we started to build a team and some sponsors, so I am incredibly grateful that he has decided to join the coaching staff.”

Minichiello said the opportunity to represent the country from where his father had emigrated to Australia at the age of 13 in a Rugby League World Cup was among the highlights of his illustrious career.

“It was a really proud moment. The joy of my family to represent their heritage and play with my brother again was something I will never forget,” he said.

“All the players had photos in the dressing room of their grandparents or parents and it created a really good feeling amongst the boys. There wasn’t any pressure on us to win the World Cup but we had a really good group of players and it was fun.”

Ciraldo’s grandmother was born in Calabria and his grandfather came from Sicily.

“They came out here for an opportunity and worked their arses off to create a better life for their family, so when I think about the sacrifices they made I get pretty emotional and I am just really proud to represent them,” he said.

Despite a long history in international Rugby League, Italy will face three relatively unknown opponents when they make their way to Australia for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

Fiji, Ireland and USA are in their group this year and only the USA Hawks have played Italy before.  The last encounter between the two nations being at the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup in England. On that day, Italy ran out 40 – 16 victors over the USA team at The Shay in Halifax.

With each of their opponents set to boast plenty of NRL and Super League experience, the Italians will have a difficult task ahead of them if they are to progress from the World Cup group stages for the first time.

Forza Azzurri!!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

S.P.A.L. on the march


I wrote an article last year about the possibility of Crotone getting promoted to Serie A, which they did, and the trend of ‘unfashionable’ clubs earning the right to play against the big boys. Well, it looks like it may happen again this season as one team are currently in the automatic promotion places in Serie B as we approach the business end once again.

S.P.A.L. 2013, better known as Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor (or simply SPAL) are based in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna. They have played there home matches since 1928 at Stadio Paolo Mazza, named after Paolo Mazza (chairman of the club from 1946 to 1977).

The club was founded in 1907 as Circolo Ars et Labor by the Salesian priest Pietro Acerbis, then was renamed in 1913 as Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor.

They are the club that gave legendary Italian coach Fabio Capello his first taste of professional football at the tender age of 18 during a halcyon period when the club had a regular place in the top flight of Italian football. Under the stewardship of President Paolo Mazza, the Biancazzurri finished fifth in Serie A in the 1959-60 season and contested the Italian cup final in 1962 narrowly losing 2-1 to Napoli, having crushed Juventus 4-1 in the semi-final.

Former players reads like a who’s who of Italian football - Edy Reja, Carlo Mazzone, Osvaldo Bagnoli, Armando Picchi, Ottavio Bianchi and Luigi Del Neri have all plyed their trade with the Biancazzurri.

Reja and Capello were an intrinsic part of the team’s midfield during the mid sixties and both were later honoured for their achievements at the club’s centenary celebrations in 2007.  Bianchi was the man who brought Maradona to Napoli and centre-half Carlo Mazzone coached Ascoli, Roma and Brescia.  Osvaldo Bagnoli on the other hand, will forever be remembered as the tactician who masterminded the glorious 1985 scudetto winning team from Verona , the last time a provincial side got their hands on Italian football’s biggest prize.
Stadio Paolo Mazza

But as the 1970’s began, SPAL’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and the club suffered successive relegations to find itself cut adrift in the barren wastelands of Serie C.  Towards the end of the decade and Mazza’s reign at the helm, SPAL managed to claw back up to Serie B but by the start of the eighties it had returned to the lower reaches where it has stayed ever since, apart from an all too brief return to Serie B in 1992. By now financial mismanagement was starting to catch up with the club from Ferrara and in 2005 it was declared bankrupt.

The saviour came in the shape of businessman Gianfranco Tomasi and the club was renamed SPAL1907. By the time of their centenary in 2007, the club’s very existence was again in jeopardy and as former players returned to Ferrara to mark the special occasion, it served as a harsh reminder to their loyal followers of just how much the club had given to the game in Italy and just how bad things had become.

In the summer of 2012, after suffering a second bankruptcy, the club was refounded for the third time as Società Sportiva Dilettantistica Real S.P.A.L. and would begin life in Serie D.

In July 2013, SPAL merged with the other local club in Ferrara, Giacomense, owned by the Colombarini family.

The new team, born from the merger, was named S.P.A.L 2013, with the Colombarini’s transferring the structure of Giacomense to SPAL with Walter Mattioli stepping in as the new club president.

Under the new management, the Biancazurri quickly found their feet and, with two promotions in three seasons, they restored the football pride in the city of Ferrara as new ambitions arise with fans already dreaming big.

Coach Leonardo Semplici enjoys an attacking brand of football and, along with President Mattioli, has stated that the club’s strategy doesn’t involve big spending, but rather developing certain ideas and programs to make a competitive team with a humble identity that relies on, above all, teamwork.

Promotion from Lego Pro was secured last season and the club’s first campaign in Serie B for over 25 years was meant to be one of consolidation.  Little did they know that, with goals from ex Leeds man Mirco Antenucci, Milan loanee Gianmarco Zigoni and veteran ex Lazio man Sergio Floccari then the dream may well become a reality.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Story of Calcio Storico

Calcio fiorentino (also known as calcio storico "historic football") is an early form of football that originated in 16th-century Italy. Once widely played, the sport is thought to have originated in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. Here it became known as the giuoco del calcio fiorentino ("Florentine kick game") or simply calcio; which is now also the name for association football in the Italian language. The game may have started as a revival of the Roman sport of harpastum.

Calcio was reserved for rich aristocrats who played every night between Epiphany and Lent. Even popes, such as Clement VII, Leo XI and Urban VIII were known to play the sport in Vatican City. The games were known to get violent as teams vied with each other to score goals. In a historically famous occasion, the city of Florence held a match on February 17, 1530, in defiance of the imperial troops sent by Charles V, as the city was under siege. In 1574 Henry III of France attended a game of "bridge fighting" – put on in his honour during a visit to Venice; the king is recorded as saying: "Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game".

Over the centuries, there have been numerous sources that testify to the presence of the Calcio Storico Fiorentino as early as the 15th century. The Florentines usually found themselves in the streets of the city or in the main squares starting matches like the ones you can see today during the re-enactment. The occupation of public spaces by young people was regulated, later, to avoid disturbances and problems in the organisation of the city; in this way the squares became the officially designated places to play football. The balls were often handmade with the outside made of leather and the interior filled with rags or sometimes with animal bladders filled with air.

Throughout the Medici age, what had been a popular pastime was reorganised and became a discipline practiced by the noble classes. Florence began to be the scene of numerous clashes between the people, often divided into teams, and headed by the most illustrious personalities of the Florentine families. The noble character gave rise to the term of Football in Livery, referring to the livery and elegant clothes worn by the players. The official rules of calcio were published for the first time in 1580 by Giovanni de' Bardi, a Florentine count.

The period designated for the games was generally that of Carnival; the famous game on 17th February 1530 in particular went down in history, when Florence was besieged by the army of Charles V. The Florentines, despite the seriousness of the situation, started nonetheless the Calcio Florentino game in Piazza Santa Croce!

The Calcio Storico Fiorentino players could, therefore, take revenge on those nobles who lived the game as an aesthetic moment in which to show off their precious clothes thereby losing the recreational and authentic aspect from which this street sport was born. The citizens of the aristocratic families, in fact, organised the games in the most important parts of Florence and added that a procession in honour of the race. Residents were invited to attend as spectators to watch from the stands built around the city square. All the districts of the Calcio Storico Fiorentino participate in the parade, although the final only includes two teams.

Piazza Santa Croce

Interest in Calcio  waned in the early 17th century. However, in 1930 it was reorganized as a game in Kingdom of Italy under Mussolini. The game was widely played by amateurs in streets and squares using handmade balls made of cloth or animal skin. Today, three matches are played each year in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence in the 3rd week of June. A team from each quartiere of the city is represented:

  • Santa Croce / Azzurri (Blues)
  • Santa Maria Novella / Rossi (Reds)
  • Santo Spirito / Bianchi (Whites)
  • San Giovanni / Verdi (Greens)

After playing each other in two opening games, the two overall winners go into the final which occurs each year on June 24; this is San Giovanni (St. John)'s Day, the Patron Saint of Florence. The modern version of calcio allows tactics such as head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking but sucker punches and kicks to the head are banned. It is also prohibited for more than one player to attack an opponent. Any violation leads to being thrown out of the game.

Matches last 50 minutes and are played on a field covered in sand, twice as long as it is wide ( approximately 80x40 meters ). A white line divides the field into two identical squares, and a goal net runs the width of each end. Each team has 27 players and no substitutions are allowed for injured or expelled players. The teams are made up of four Datori indietro (goalkeepers), 3 Datori innanzi (fullbacks), 5 Sconciatori (halfbacks), 15 Innanzi o Corridori (forwards). The Captain and Standard Bearer's tent sits at the centre of the goal net. They do not actively participate in the game, but can organise their teams and sometimes act as referees, mainly to calm down their players or to stop fights.

The referee and his six linesmen referee the match in collaboration with the Judge Commissioner, who remains off the field. The referee, above everyone else, is the Master of the Field. He makes sure the games runs smoothly, stepping into the field only to maintain discipline and reestablish order in case of a fight on the field.

The game starts when the Pallaio  throws and kicks the ball towards the centre line, then at the first whistle and at first the ball rests on field, 15 forwards or Corridori begin fighting in a wild mixed martial arts match- punching, kicking, tripping, hacking, tackling, and wrestling with each other in an effort designed to tire opponents' defences, but which often descends into an all-out brawl, trying to put, pin down, force to submit as many players possible; once there are enough incapacitated players, the other teammates come and swoop up the ball and head to the goal. Then followed by a small cannon firing; the shot announces the beginning of the contest.

From this moment on, the players try by any means necessary to get the ball into the opponents' goal also called caccia. The teams change sides with every caccia or goal scored. It's important to shoot with precision, because every time a player throws or kicks the ball above the net, the opposing team is awarded with half a caccia. The game ends after 50 minutes and the team which scored the most cacce wins.

The prize is also interesting, because along with the Palio di Siena, the winning team used to receive a Chianina, a type of cow. However, the prize has been reduced to a free dinner for the winning team; the players earn no other compensation.   

More popular than ever, Calcio Storico Fiorentino has kept the form of a historical event amongst the most important ones of the city and region.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Anglo Italian Cup

The Checkatrade Trophy has taken its fair share of stick this season, and rightly so. But another tournament caused a stir a few decades ago and was kindly put out of its misery.
The initial Anglo-Italian Cup was played as an annual tournament from 1970 to 1973. The first final was abandoned early due to violence, with Swindon Town declared the winners. During its time the tournament had a reputation for violence between fans, but it returned as a semi-professional tournament from 1976 before it was abolished again in 1986.
In 1992, the Anglo-Italian Cup was re-established as a professional cup for second tier clubs - it replaced the English Full Members Cup.  Strictly professional, and open to clubs from Serie B in Italy and the Endsleigh Insurance Football League in England, the competition reverted back to its original name and format. 

Scheduled to be played throughout the domestic season, it felt like a proper cup competition.  This version of the Cup ran for four seasons, until 1996, before being discontinued due to fixture congestion.
It did have a certain romance about it (on paper at least), no other club competition in the world could throw together potential couples such as; Pisa v Middlesborough, Portsmouth v Fiorentina, and Blackpool v Verona.

Following a slightly odd English-only preliminary round, the traditional fixtures between two groups of four, an English semi-final, Italian semi-final and Anglo-Italian final, March 27, 1993, saw Derby County outclassed by Cremonese at Wembley Stadium. An impressive crowd of 37,024 saw the Italians prevail 3-1. The Anglo-Italian Cup was back.

In one of his last games before leaving for Barcelona, George Hagi helped Brescia dispose of Notts County in the 1993-94 final. In front of just over 17,000 fans at Wembley, under half of the previous year’s attendance, interest appeared to be waning again.

While attendance figures were down, more worryingly, the number of headlines reporting Anglo-Italian crowd violence was up. With the Hillsborough disaster and the tragic events at Heysel painfully fresh in the memory, crowd control and crowd behaviour were under scrutiny. Away from the cameras and spotlight of top-flight fixtures, too many fans were using the Anglo-Italian Cup as an excuse to release some pent upanger and aggression. Also hampering the competitions existence, were a number of clubs complaining at the number of fixtures.

In what was a second to last throw of the Anglo-Italian dice, Notts County went one better in 1994-95, defeating an Ascoli side including Oliver Bierhoff, 2-1.

The Anglo-Italian cup took its final bow in 1995-96. Genoa triumphed 5-2 in a Wembley final against Port Vale while the group stages had thrown up some truly unique match-ups in which both Brescia and Salernitana won on a cold and wet night in Stoke, Southend Utd went as far south as Salernitana, Ipswich Town rolled back the European glory years as they hosted Reggiana, and Luton Town were thrashed by Perugia and Genoa. It was nonsensical, naughty, and yet oddly captivating.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Joe Baker - A Brit Abroad

Joe Baker

 Joe Baker was an English international footballer. He was the first player to have played for England without having previously played in the English football league system and for scoring over 100 goals in both the English and Scottish leagues.

Born in Liverpool to Scottish parents on 17 July 1940, Baker’s life on the move began almost from birth.  The son of a sailor, he moved from Merseyside to the Scottish border town of Wishaw, Lanarkshire when he was six weeks old.

He remained in Scotland for the remainder of his childhood - and many would claim his international affinity would have been more closely suited to the tartan of Scotland than England.

He spoke with a broad Scottish accent, but Baker’s club career could actually have begun in England. He spent a month on trial at Chelsea but was not offered a permanent contract.

After that Baker returned to Scotland and in 1957 joined Edinburgh side Hibernian, where he remained for four years.

It was during that first period that Baker decided to move on from Hibs and experience football in another league – but it would not be in England.

Instead, the diminutive forward opted for a move to Italy and Serie A, where he joined fellow Brit, and some may say ‘fellow Scot’, Denis Law at Torino.

In 1961, Baker was transferred to Torino for £75,000, after the Hibs board refused to give him a £5 wage increase from his existing wage of £12 a week.  Despite scoring a winning goal in a Turin derby match against Juventus, his time at the Italian club was short and almost ended in tragedy. Baker was involved in a serious car crash, which meant that he needed life-saving surgery and spent over a month on a drip feed.  
It was a generally unhappy spell as Baker did not like the press intrusion, which meant that he and teammate Denis Law spent most of their time in their Turin apartment.


Law, Peronace and Baker

 It is fair to say the time spent in Italy was on mixed for Baker and he struggled to make an impact.

There were off-the-field incidents with paparazzi – including one infamous incident where he knocked one unfortunate member of the press into a Venetian canal.  His tumultuous time in Turin came to an end in 1962

It was a prolific career for the striker, who upon leaving for Torino in 1961 had notched up an impressive tally of 102 in 117 league games, and 159 goals in all competitions – and famously once scoring all four goals in a 4-3 Scottish Cup victory over city rivals Hearts.

In later years he represented Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Hibernian again and Raith Rovers – as well as two brief stints in charge of Albion Rovers.

Baker passed away in 2003 at the age of 63.

Below is an article, written by Baker, for Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, in December 1961. In it, he talks about his experience in Italy and the reasons he went there.

My Life in Italy by Joe Baker

“JOHN CHARLES, apparently, is thinking of making this his last season in Italian football. Well, big John has had a good run there, and perhaps he has had enough. Jimmy Greaves? Somehow things don’t seem to have worked out for him. I had hoped he would settle in as Denis Law and I have done. Our combined verdict on this still-new-to-us life in Italy is … it’s terrific!

Perhaps we have been lucky. But even when I saw the advantage of moving to Italy—mostly financial, of course—I never dreamed it would be anything like it is. Where in Scotland—or England—would a team get home from an away game at 2am…to find a packed railway platform with thousands, yes, thousands, of fans waiting to greet them? It happened to us.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Or where would you find, for an ordinary club practice match, more than 7,000 fans yelling their heads off at a goal in such a game? That’s Italy … and Italian Soccer fans!

Italian football? Well, I’m living and learning and, having had one sobering taste of discipline, I can say I’m really beginning to understand the differences between the way we played it at home and how I have to now.

What one has to get used to, particularly as a centre-forward is much closer marking than at home. I call the wing-half, left or right, who has to mark me, the “gluepot”.

The system in Italy is for the centre-half to lie behind the entire defence, on patrol for trouble. Thus I have a wing-half covering me.

Italian football is rather more defensive than ours. This is especially true of visiting teams for the idea is to try to hold a point. That is a generalisation, teams do vary in style to some extent. I don’t mind the closer marking now, particularly as alongside me there is Law.

If I can lure my “shadow” for a “walk” it creates a space which Denis can move into with the result he alone can bring.

I suppose the recent scenes in the match between Roma and Birmingham have had people at home throwing up their hands and exclaiming: “Those foreigners, the way they play football!”

I wasn’t at that game. That same night I was playing for Torino against Manchester City at Maine Road where, l am proud to say, the Baker brothers, Gerry for City and I, got four goals between us, with a crowd of relatives looking on.

Let me say this about the differences in the game back home and in Italy. It took me some time to get over the checking and obstruction. But you do NOT hope to get the crash-bang tackling which we so readily accept back home.

And you do NOT get the injuries, at least nothing like the serious ones, as you do in British football. A player breaking a leg in Italy is unheard of, yet it is almost a weekly happening at home. So, rules or no rules, there is something to be said for the way the Continental game is played.

I was niggled when I first met the obstruction tactics. I got to such a pitch that, against Lanerossi, I wasn’t able to control myself. To my regret I took a swing at an opponent and was sent off for the automatic two-game suspension. May I add that I was more than normally provoked.

Until that day I had never had a referee even question my game, wherever I had played. It was a bitter lesson, but I learned from it.

Training in Italy is very different from that at home, and nothing like as hard. We have the heat to contend with, of course, and it would be foolish to train as I used to do. But discipline is far more strict.

We train mostly in the late afternoon. We can go to the ground in the morning for showers, but the main session begins later. It comes easy to me. No lapping. When you run it is part of an exercise. And there is far more ball-work, which makes training interesting all the time.

For three nights before a match we have to be in bed by ten-thirty. This is a strict rule which we—Denis, Hugo and l—have no trouble in keeping. I must here introduce Hugo. But for him I might not be out here. We are cousins, have been pals for years.

When Torino came for me I realised that the toughest part of the move would be that of being on my own, knowing nothing of the language. So Torino took Hugo, too. It is written into my contract that he stays with me—Denis Law hadn’t signed then.

Now Hugo has a job in a local insurance. We three share a flat but soon we hope to move into a handsome villa, overlooking the city. Another club training rule which is different from any at home is that we must, repeat MUST, sleep for two hours before a game. At first I scorned this. I wasn’t used to it and had difficulty in dropping off.

Now I know it is an excellent idea, and they have to knock extra loud to waken me. I feel better for it and more ready to go when the time comes. Before a big game we may be collected together in a hotel for days to ensure that we get maximum rest.

There are no language difficulties at our pre-match talks because Gigi Peronace is usually around to translate for Denis and I. But even without him I don’t think we would be hampered. Soccer tactics scan to have a universal language.

A word about fans. The Italian types, for all their fanaticism, are not the fierce partisans that the Scots are. And they are funny in their way.

For instance, those practice games at which they will turn up in force … it shook me to hear practice goals getting an ovation, particularly when some of these games are defence v attack, with seven players on the attacking side!

Possibly because we are fair-haired, Denis Law and I are easily spotted when we are out in town. And we are still something of a novelty. But it is fatal for us to stop if we are taking a stroll.

Before we know where we are a great crowd surges round, some for autographs, but mostly they just stand and stare! It can be very embarrassing, too, to be having a meal and to look round to see dozens of fans pressed against the restaurant window. But it is all very friendly.

My greatest night so far is the one when we beat Juventus, our greatest rivals. I managed to sneak past John Charles to get the winner. You should have seen what happened afterwards!

For hours that evening the traffic was at a dead stop. Thousands of Torino fans filed behind a boy tolling a most mournful bell as he led a series of black coffins with the word “Juventus” on one and the names of Charles and other Juventus players on the them!

That gives you an idea of the fantastically fervid atmosphere for soccer in Italy. To me, a new boy and a foreigner, it is a big challenge. But it is simply great and I haven’t had a moment of regret about my move.”

Monday, 13 June 2016

Euro Totti

Euro Totti
The Man.The Legend. It'sTotti

As Euro 2016 begins, my mind is taken back to the summer of 2000. This summer was to be my first, and only, experience of a major football tournament as I, along with a mate, decided to apply for tickets in the ballot for Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium and see where it got us.

Well, the ballot was a success and we were rewarded with tickets for group games in Bruges, Liege and Amsterdam as well as the final in Rotterdam. As the tournament got closer, anticipation built and we, more than anything, looked forward to the final and hoped England would make it (yes I know, I know….but I was young and naïve etc etc).

We were based in Antwerp for a few days taking in the charm of this lovely city and, after getting my first taste of proper Belgian lager, travelled to our first game in Bruges, France v Denmark. Yep, we’d managed to get tickets to see the World Champions…Zidane, Henry, Barthez, Blanc et al. I spent most of the match just watching the greatest player I have ever seen on a football pitch, the mercurial Zidane…at the peak of his powers.

France on the attack v Denmark in Bruges

Sadly, we never made it into the centre of Bruges as our train into the city was met by Police who ushered us onto buses straight to the ground. Our bus was full of vociferous Danish fans on the journey to the ground, and they barely noticed our 1999/2000 edition Wigan Athletic shirts, which could easily have been mistaken for French tops from a distance ( or if they all had bad eyesight etc) .


Thirteen years later some 2,500 inebriated Wiganers made the same journey, but I bet you never got chatted up by four female* Charlton fans eh? I know who the winner of this competition is …* they were all a bit butch.

France won the game easily with goals from Blanc, Henry and Wiltord. Henry’s goal was class, he got the ball on the halfway line and 3 touches later it nestled in Schmeichel’s net.

Our next scheduled game was Germany v Romania in Liege, but that same day England played Portugal so we decided to scrap the game and watch England instead…..England lost 3-2!! But on the plus side we spend the night drinking copious amounts of Duvel and Kwak so we’ll call it a draw.

Amsterdam Arena

Before we were due to head to Amsterdam for our next scheduled game, we were drinking in the centre of Antwerp and as we came out of the pub a familiar face was walking across the main square. Italian legend Francesco Totti was strolling through Antwerp (with his stunning girlfriend…makes you sick doesn’t it). I whipped my camera out….yes camera… and asked for a photo but he casually ignored me as he chatted on his phone, I took it anyway and the cocky git happened to turn round at the last moment and look straight down the lens. Chuffed to bits with seeing a true icon, we followed him… (I maintain we were going to the next pub and just happened to go in his direction) and spotted him going into an Italian (obviously) restaurant to meet fellow player Demetrio Albertini (again this is just hearsay, we didn’t stick around outside of the restaurant for a bit at all, that would be very sad!!).

Amsterdam was our next stop to take in Spain v Slovenia. After a day sampling the many delights of this city, including a fella knocking on the hotel door asking if we wanted any ‘Charlie’, we politely declined and took in the England – Germany game that night in the city centre and were glad to report that all white plastic chairs were accounted for the morning after.

Raul opening the scoring for Spain v Slovenia

Spain won the game with goals from Raul and Etxeberria in the fabulous Amsterdam Arena, this was a state of the art stadium in 2000, and it still baffles me how the final wasn’t held here in favour of Rotterdam’s De Kuip, which is an inferior stadium in every way.

We headed home in high spirits (Amsterdam has that effect) and counted down the days until our return for the final. England crashed out to end that dream and we watched the tournament unfold as France and Italy made it to the final in Rotterdam.

So off we flew again and spent the day soaking up the atmosphere in the city centre. The day had such a buzz about it and fans mingled all over the city, not many people asked about our Latics shirts, as this was pre Premier League era no-one had heard of Little Wigan.

On our quest for food we walked and walked past restaurant and restaurant until we literally reached the ‘Other Side of the Tracks’. We had hit the roughest part of Rotterdam and hastily retreated before anyone spotted us, and made it back to the relative safety of the French fans.

We arrived at the ground and, after bumping into ex Arsenal striker Alan Smith, took our seats in the Italian end….lucky for me with my love of all things Italian.

The match itself was fairly uneventful, the highlight being the body painted girls who were ‘dancing around a bit’ before the game. Things were going to plan as Italy opened the scoring through Marco Delvecchio, the Azzuri fans were partying and praying for the final whistle.

Dejected Azzuri players after the final

Then it all turned sour for the Italians, Wiltord equalised in injury time and David Trezeguet scored the Golden Goal winner to earn France the European Championship to go with the World Cup. The Italians were shattered, I felt their pain as it is a heartbreaking way to lose any game, never mind when it’s the National Team.

Trezeguet with the winner

We left soon after, hiding our Latics shirts which could have been mistaken for French shirts….WHAT IF THEY HAD KNIVES ETC ETC…and returned home with happy memories of our European adventure.

Allez Les Bleus