Groundhopper: Basque identity against Spanish identity

In our first Groundhopper feature for a fair while, Gethin recounts his recent visit to the Basque Country, as he took in the San Mamés and Mendizorrotza, whilst also catching a brief glimpse of the Ipurua Municipal.

By Gethin Boore

The Basque Country, famous for its politics, pinchos and football. Four teams represent the Basque Country in La Liga, Athletic Club Bilbao, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alaves. All four of these clubs have supporters who want to be an independent Basque nation as there is various Basque flags proudly flown around stadiums. I went to Euskadi, as it is known in the Basque language, to see two matches and to discover how big football is in this region.

The first match I went to was at the famous San Mamés for Athletic Club Bilbao against the Swedish miracle men Östersunds FK. Athletic Club is undoubtedly the most political club in the Basque Country. They have a famous policy of only allowing players from the French and Spanish Basque and Navarre to play for the club, and football fans around Spain embrace this. Some players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have all departed from Athletic to join clubs in other countries, leaving fans frustrated as one supporter referred to Athletic Club ‘as the biggest club in the world’ and doesn’t understand why they would leave a club like this.

The admired rule resulted in success for Lehoiak (the Lions) as they are one of three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera Division, alongside Barça and Real Madrid. They are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football with several La Liga titles and Copa Del Rey cups to their name.

They usually appear in the UEFA Europa League, which is the competition I got to to see this glamorous club play in for the first time. Their opponents were Östersunds FK from Sweden. Located in the Northern part of the country and founded in 1996, the last few years have been incredible for them. In 2016 they were promoted to the Allsevenskan for the first time, and now, after a year in Sweden’s top division, they’re the only team from Sweden to be playing in a European competition this season.

We arrived in Bilbao on match-day and the second I arrived, I sensed that Athletic were playing at home. I wandered around the city looking for the Spanish football newspaper “Marca” and in every bar and shop there was an Athletic flag in the windows. It was clear that Bilbao is a football-mad city. As it was time to head towards the stadium you would pass the odd Athletic shirt and an Östersunds shirt in the city centre, and the atmosphere was building more every yard.

We finally arrived at the San Mamés. This was not the first time I have laid eyes on this incredible stadium, as me and my Dad wandered around the ground last year when we visited Bilbao for the first time, but Athletic were not playing at home, but even then, you could still clearly sense that the people of Bilbao live for the beautiful game.

When Athletic are at home, it’s ten times better. As kick off was getting nearer, more and more supporters would come out on to the streets. A huge street leads up to the stadium that is full of bars with Athletic flags, scarfs and memorabilia, which might be familiar for Wales fans who attended the game against the Basque Country in 2006 at the old San Mamés, which was located in the same site as where the new stadium is now.

Amongst the Athletic supporters were Östersunds fans. Throughout conversations we had with Östersunds fans, they were saying how proud they are of their team and their incredible story, which is similar to Eibar’s amazing story in La Liga.

With around half an hour to go till kick-off, it was time to head to the ground. In the vicinity of the old stadium, it was full and it was a big game, as Athletic were yet to get a victory in Group J. The other game in the group was in the German capital, as Hertha Berlin hosted Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. The last time Athletic Club and Östersunds met it ended in a 2-2 draw in Sweden. Athletic had also drawn 0-0 away to Hertha and lost at home against Zorya, so the only option was a win for Athletic if they wanted to keep their European hopes alive.

Inside the stadium, it’s even better, with the pitch as green as ever.

San Mamés stadium.

In the first half, both sides came very close, and it was an even game. Athletic came the closest following Raul Garcia’s powerful that was brilliantly saved by the keeper. In the second half, Athletic Club took the lead thanks to veteran forward Artiz Aduriz’s header. The Swedes rarely attacked in the second half, and it was fair to say that Athletic deserved the victory.

Personally, I thought it was a great game, as there were many chances created, which added an extra excitement to the game, but what was really significant was the atmosphere. As soon as the club anthem was blasted out, there was non-stop singing, and the roar when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible. In the other game, Hertha won 2-0 meaning Athletic were third in the group and Östersunds sat first in the table.

As the city of Bilbao fell quiet, it was another brilliant Spanish football day out. It’s becoming a bit more than a hobby now.

On the Friday, we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Last year, I went to the Anoeta (Sociedad’s stadium) to watch them play against Basque rivals Alaves. The home side won 3-0 but the most standout thing that day was the Alaves support.

In Spain, not many away fans travel to watch their team play away from home, but Alaves brought at least 2000 supporters to the 2016 European capital of culture. It may be local for them, but the support throughout the day was incredible, both in the stadium and around the city centre.

It was also in 2016 I went to watch Osasuna face Real Betis. Osasuna is located in Pampalona, which is in the Navarre region. The debate about whether Navarre is in the Basque Country has been going for decades, but in the El Sadar (Osasuna’s stadium) there were numerous Basque flags proudly shown. The away side won 2-1 with a last minute goal.

Back to this year, and when me and my family were on the way to San Sebastian, we stopped at the town of Eibar. This is a very small town located right in the middle of the Basque mountains, but what’s so significant about this place is the football. Incredibly, Eibar has a team in the Primera Division, and has been on an incredible rise through the Spanish pyramid. Their promotion from the Segunda division in 2014 was the start of something special. They’ve been in La Liga for a few years now and have established themselves as a top-tier side.

Eibar is a club that’s linked with Scottish football. Their ultras group is called “Eskozia La Brava” which translates to Scotland the brave in Basque. They admire the passionate support the Scots have, and have a mosaic located in the town about the connection between the two sets of supporters.

Ipurua Municipal Stadium

The ground is tiny for a club in such a huge league, but the club itself is very friendly. We asked the front desk in the stadium if we could go inside the Estadio Irpura. They politely said no, but did give us a free pin badge and a poster of the 2017-18 squad. In the town, there were many, many Eibar flags in windows, which shows the support this incredible club has. It was very clear what the team’s incredible journey meant to the town.

As we arrived in San Sebastian, we passed the Anoeta on the motorway going into the city centre, and there was work going on there. Ever since Sociedad moved from their old stadium (Atocha) the fans have complained about how far the pitch is from the stands. The club has taken notice of the situation and have a plan to move the stands closer to the pitch, which will complete in 2019.

In the town centre, it is clear that the people of Bilbao has more passion for their club than the people of San Sebastian have for theirs, but you would spot shirts and flags in bars and fake merchandises in tourists stores alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.

After a walk around the city and stuffing ourselves with Pinchos, it was time to watch my favourite Spanish team play; Real Betis. Me and my Dad watched the game against Getafe in an Eibar fan bar in the middle of the old town in San Sebastian. Betis thankfully came from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 to continue their strong start to the season. Another day in the Basque country, no game, but plenty of football involved.

On the Saturday, we departed from San Sebastian with a copy of “Marca” to recap the Betis game and to see what they had to say of it, and headed to the Basque capital, Vitoria.

The team located in Vitoria is Deportivo Alaves, and Liverpool fans might be familiar with this club, as they faced each other in the 2001 Uefa Cup final which ended in a 5-4 victory to the Merseyside club. Since that final, Alaves have been stuck in the Segunda Division and Segunda B.

However, in 2016, they were finally back in La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to lose to Barcelona in the last official game at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid’s old ground. Like Eibar, they’ve had a fairly slow start to the season, and are clearly missing their manager that was with them last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, who left for English side, Southampton.

My second and final game of the trip was at the Estadio Mendizorrota between Alaves and Espanyol. My first impression of the city of Vitoria is that it’s again, like Bilbao, football mad. It’s not a city that attracts many tourists, and there was a better vibe and atmosphere.

In the old town, many civilians were out enjoying pinchos, with most of them wearing Alaves tops. Every Saturday, it’s market day in the old town in Vitoria, and it was really busy. As it was match day, maybe a few more people came out than usual. After a few hours enjoying the pinchos in the Basque capital and a walk around the city, it was time to head towards the direction of the ground.

For this game, I went with my Dad, as usual, my sister, who went to the Sociedad-Alaves game last year, my cousin, Tom, and my uncle, Rhys, who went to the Athletic game as well. For a year, I’ve been non-stop chatting about the Spanish football results with Tom, and it’s clear that maybe he wasn’t very interested, so it was good to bring him to his first taste of Spanish Football and to realise why I love it so much

On the way to the ground, we stopped in a bar to watch the first half of the game between Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, which was the 16:15 game. The Alaves game kicked off at 18:30 local time, but there wasn’t exactly many people in the bar we were in.

As we headed closer towards the Mendizorrota, the atmosphere was building. In the distance, we could hear drums and people singing, and as we got closer, it was getting louder. Suddenly, as the Alaves team bus came through, something incredible happened. An incredible flow of pyros appeared out of nowhere, and all you could see was a wave of red and orange. The singing was loud as well, and it was something to inspire the team following their bad start.

Alaves fans on the day.

A couple of weeks before this match, Alaves hooligans were caught in the spotlight. On a day when they were at home to Real Sociedad, Racing Santader ultras travelled from the Cantabria part of Northern Spain, to fight Alaves fans. Many videos went viral in the and the footage was brutal.

On match day in San Sebastian, me and my Dad spoke to some Alaves ultras and they kindly gave me a scarf. After the pyro show, we wanted to see if we could see them again, and within five seconds, we bumped into an individual that we met. He remembered us straight away, and he looked delighted to see us. He was with another person that either I don’t remember or wasn’t at the game against Sociedad. They took us to a bar in the middle of numerous apartments and introduced us to new people and people that were there last year. The group in fact have been banned from following Alaves away.

In the bar, there were loads of Alaves memorabilia on the walls, and chants were sung. After a good hour, it was time to head to the match. On the way, we were discussing how much we hate Real Madrid. I refer to Madrid as General Franco’s team, and so do they. We hate Madrid with a passion, and we forever will. As a Welshman, I should have a “soft-spot” for them because of Gareth Bale, but I don’t think there’s nothing that can change my opinion. As we said our goodbyes, we met up with Rhys and Tom and headed straight to the turnstiles.

Gethin with Alaves ultras.

There’s something about the stairs that leads to the stands in some Spanish grounds. The concourse are quite low so you face up when you’re walking, and then just face the pitch, which is something special. I remember it at Levante, and the same here. In some concourse’s, you walk through the turnstile and you face the pitch straight away, such as Betis and Athletic.

Enough about concourse’s, we had a decent view from where we sat. It was an old-school ground, which might be reason for the incredible atmosphere. It was much better than Athletic’s, which was pretty special as well. As the players came on, there was a “tifo” in the Ultras with a picture of a young boy wearing an Alaves shirt with the numbers 1921, which was the year when the club was founded. It was brilliant, almost every person in the ground was chanting, and it was something else.

To make it all better, Alaves scored an absolute screamer to make it 1-0 within four minutes, and the roar then was something I’ll never experience again.

In the first half, Espanyol was by far the most attacking team, but they were reduced to ten men towards the end of the half. Still, Alaves had a few chances, and in the second half, both sides had good chances. Even though both sides attacked frequently, Espanyol definitely deserved to win and it was fair to say that Alaves were pretty rubbish and need to start performing better. Espanyol had a glorious chance to equalise right at the death, but the keeper’s heroics ensured Alaves secured the three points.

When the full time whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and the singing again couldn’t be stopped. It was a huge victory for Alaves, their second of the season.

This was sadly the end of another incredible Spanish football trip in the Basque Country. Football is a huge thing in this country and many people think that La Liga is rather dismal. Fair enough, that’s your opinion, but if you go to watch clubs like Alaves, Athletic, Betis and too many more to name, you soon realise that La Liga is much more than Barça and Real. In the Segunda Division, it’s so tight it’s actually astonishing. The Mendizorrota was my eleventh Spanish ground in total and my tenth in just over a year.

Once again, another top class Spanish Football weekend.


Estádio do Dragão roars under Sérgio Conceição

A recent trip to the Estádio do Dragão got us thinking about Porto and their devastating start to the season under Sérgio Conceição..

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Off the metro at the last stop, out into the blistering October sunshine. At first, it’s hard to see it, as it stands elevated above your initial eyesight. As you cross the road, journey up the stairs, you’re suddenly welcomed by the Estádio do Dragão. This wonderful, yet modern stadium, stands like a giant overseeing the city of Porto. Futebol Clube do Porto’s guardian.

From your elevated position, you’re able to see the iconic Douro River run through the length and breadth of the city, with stand-out colourful architecture all along the banks. The stadium’s grey outer-base isn’t in keeping with the city’s, that much is true. But the fact that it stands out like a sore-thumb, perhaps adds to that cauldron-like intimidation visiting players and fans alike, feel upon arrival. You sense that once at full capacity, the Estádio do Dragão – Stadium of the Dragon once translated – roars like no other.

Inaugurated against Barcelona on 16 November 2003, the stadia’s capacity holds just over 50,000. This match also saw a then lesser-known Lionel Messi making his first-team debut for Barça at 16 years old.

Unfortunately, the day I visited wasn’t a match day. Porto were playing the previous night in a Portuguese Cup third round tie at lesser-known Lusitano GC Évora in the city of Évora. Their hosts from the III Divisão were no match for the Primeira Liga giants as they were dispatched 0-6.

Nevertheless, whilst walking through the Estádio do Dragão, you sense it was purposefully built for a club of real stature. Images of Porto’s recent successes welcomes visiting sides all along the tunnel and inside the dressing room. From José Mourinho’s all-conquering side of 2002-04, Andre Villas-Boas’ unbeaten league and Europa League winners of 2010-11 and Vitor Pereira’s dramatic late-win against Benfica, thanks to a pot-shot by Kelvin, to more or less seal their 27th title. All of these triumphant scenes must create a sense of general awe amongst some sides, and fear amongst others.

Porto’s UEFA Europa League win in 2011 along with Brazilian cult-figure, Jardel.

Porto is a club rooted in football history. Founded in September 1893, FC Porto came to being from a secret ambition that became a reality. António Nicolau d´Almeida, a fine sportsman and an expert Oporto Wine trader, was invited by the F.C. Porto president to a game against Club Lisbonense. The president, José Monteiro da Costa, went on to unite the efforts of the local community that included a strong English expat community in Oporto. This led to the extinction of a club called Grupo Recreativo “O Destino” in favour of F.C. Porto. It was the beginning of a structure built on a strong foundation –  that became the team we now see today.

Nowadays, Porto are experiencing something of a rebound following a dismal spell under the guidance of now Spain national team coach, Julien Lopetegui. Former Porto and Portugal winger, Sergio Conceicao, has them playing in a dynamically flamboyant style. He has overseen an unbeaten start to the season – having won 10 of their 13 competitive matches, only drawing away at Sporting Lisbon, and losing twice in the UEFA Champions League to RB Leipzig and Beşiktaş. They sit atop the Primeira Liga, having scored 25 goals whilst conceding the mere four. Sérgio Conceição has Porto well and truly back on the domestic march.

Porto manager, Sérgio Conceição.

The former Nantes manager, who turned down Leicester City’s advances following Claudio Ranieri’s sacking in early 2017, has turned Porto’s fortunes on its head. Although never a club for real struggles in the modern day, under Julien Lopetegui they became a one dimensional and dismal side to watch.

A stadium operator told me: “It was awful under Lopetegui and I’m amazed how he somehow managed to land the Spain national side’s manager role.”

Yet, it seems that Conceição’s vigour is the perfect remedy. Usually known for his technical ability as a player, it also needs remembering that this was the player who was once sent-off, then decided to spit in the face of an opponent, before taking his shirt off and throwing it towards the referee. He was also at the centre of a melee when playing for PAOK at Aris, when plastic was thrown towards him from the crowd and he somehow got red-carded for it.

His career took him from a humble beginning at Penafiel to Porto, on a journey through Italy with Inter Milan, Parma and two spells at Lazio –  where he’s still revered today – before another spell at Porto, and then some late form with Standard Liège and PAOK – via Kuwait’s Al Qadisia. The full-circle manner of his career says a lot about the link he has with the Porto faithful.

Discipline has been the formula under Sérgio Conceição. He is renowned from his time at Nantes to have subjected players to double training sessions and a stricter, more precise style of management. When hiring Conceição, you also buy into a culture and vision – a way of life.

Veteran Spain icon, Iker Casillas, is enjoying something of a renaissance in goal. Fellow Spaniard, Ivan Marcano, is playing better than he ever did under Lopetegui. Danilo has become a real force in the centre of midfield – and seems destined for a big-money move one day. Conceição’s biggest success story, however, is Vincent Aboubakar. The Cameroonian is enjoying a second-chance in Porto, having been discarded on-loan to Beşiktaş by Lopetegui. He seems full of confidence, fulfilling potential that was all so often obviously there, romping the domestic scene with seven goals in nine games.

Falcao, Moutinho, Rodriguez and González – Porto’s recent glories.

Up next for Conceição’s side is a local derby against Boavista. They are also high-flying compared to previous years, and will undoubtedly pose a threat to Porto as they look to keep the momentum going in their march on the league. But you sense that Conceição’s Dragões are destined for domestic success this year.

As the stadium operator said: “It’s all different under him. He understands the club. His focus, concentration and pure desire to win. That’s what Porto is all about.”

Remembering an Él Colchonero

A visit to the Vicente Calderon in 2016 gave quite the unexpected insight into football fandom as an Él Colchonero was remembered.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Considerable amounts of time and effort goes into following a football team. Weekends are swallowed, despite the game only lasting for 90mins. You also spend vast amounts of money supporting your beloved over the years, without taking any extra-curricular activities into account. You experience highs and lows, perhaps one more-so than the other dependant on where your loyalties lie. Furthermore, you go through life supporting a team, only to pass away with the men in power hardly ever noticing the time, money and energy you devoted to the cause.

Actually, all of this depends on who you class as the men in power. Do you believe these to be the Middle Eastern sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, American debt-loaders or numerous low-profile shareholders? They might hold the power at club level, but do they hold the power at fan level? Some owners might say they do, but deep down they’d reluctantly accept not. The ones that hold power over the fans are other fans. These might be battle-hardened individuals or someone that hasn’t missed a game in donkey’s years. They might not command respect, but they certainly deserve it. They’ve been there, seen it and done it – no matter what level your team plays at.

This leads me to being outside the Vicente Calderon in September for a La Liga match. Atleti were playing Sporting Gijon on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Around an hour before kick-off, many had gathered outside a bar opposite the grand stadium. Chanting could be heard, smiles could be seen. Atleti had started the season in decent fashion, immediately picking themselves up from a second Champions League final defeat in three years to their cross-town rivals, Real Madrid.


Atleti fan with a Diego Simeone printed home shirt.


Diego Simeone’s name echoed around the Madrid streets. That previous day he announced the 2016/17 season would be his last with the team, meaning Atleti would head into the new 70,000 Estadio la Peneita with a new manager. The news spelled disaster to an outsider like me, but the Atleti fans seemed proud to have had Diego Simeone lead their team since 2011.

It is no coincidence that Atleti have seen improved fortunes with El Cholo at the helm. He’s a true warrior and wears his heart on his sleeve in every meaning of the phrase. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as other Los Colchoneros managerial greats like Ricardo Zamora, Helenio Herrera and former Atleti player and four-time coach, Luis Aragonés. They are part of the Atleti history and so will Diego be.

Nevertheless, a sudden spell of silence engulfed the previously joyful fans. Something wasn’t right. The street opened like the Red Sea being parted by Moses. Around 40 fans took centre-stage, standing still with flares lit above their heads. Tears were shedding down some of the faces. They began chanting but not like previously heard. This was actually a remembrance.



I normally despise the modern society element of taking your phone out to film everything a tad out of the ordinary, but that is exactly what I did. Despite the back-tingling atmosphere which struck each and every one in the surrounding area, this was actually a moment to behold in a rather sinister way. It showed what fan culture truly meant.

The flares eventually died out but the embracing continued. An emotional fan by the name of Alby approaches having seen me video what had just taken place. He asks if I could send it over to him, given the person was an Atleti ultra and one of his best friends who had died a fortnight earlier. He mentions that the crowd included the deceased’s girlfriend and sister.

He emphasises: “He was taken too early and this is how we celebrate his name.”


Fans gathered outside the Vicente Calderon stadium.


At times during the football season, you spend more of the week with your friends and fellow fans than you do at home with your family. Perhaps you go from watching your team at home on a Saturday, to seeing them play a midweek European fixture and play a domestic away the following weekend. You might not have handpicked the individuals you spend this vast amount of time with, but you share more highs and lows with them than any outsider could care to imagine. You look out for each and every one because you all believe in the same thing. Together you celebrate or anguish, sing and shout, laugh or cry.

The match played out a 5-0 victory for Atleti against an awe-struck Sporting Gijon side. This was an appropriate celebration of a lost life. From what my limited Spanish gathered, the deceased wasn’t mentioned once by the stadium operator. His family, friends and fellow fans wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest though – they had just given him a better send off than anyone could hope for and his team had also delivered.

That day, an El Colchonero was remembered.

Graça e Classe: An Appreciation of Arsenal’s Edu

Chris Weir talks about Edu, the former Brazil and Arsenal midfielder, and gives his view that the Brazilian was an essential part of Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ side.

By Chris Weir.

After 105 minutes of the 2005 FA Cup final , an exhausted Robert Pirès trudges towards the touchline. Arsène Wenger has one eye on the penalty shoot out, and wants to shore things up against a rampant United attack by bringing on a sub. He turns to Edu.

In those fifteen minutes, Edu Gaspar does what he’s always done, playing without fuss, passing and moving in midfield, conducting the play.

By the time Vieira slammed home the winning penalty, everybody knew that Edu was on his way out. Two disappointing contract offers had convinced him to go to Spain, with rumours that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia were considering an approach. In the end it was Los Che who got their man.

It was an ending that did the club and the player a disservice. Whilst Vieira will rightly be considered as the star of the Invincibles midfield, his right and left hands were made in  Brazil. Gilberto Silva was his usual partner, his positioning and defensive nous freeing the captain further forward. Edu would wait in the wings, a most able deputy for both, fitting seamlessly into the the role of playmaker and playbreaker when needed.

Grace is a word that comes to mind whenever Arsenal fans think of Edu, the unassuming Paulistano.

Grace in how he carried himself on the field. He had no pace to burn, nor did he need it. His balletic football brain helped him anticipate and evade most tacklers.

Grace in how he played the game. He was Brazilian, yes, but saw no utility in samba flair. The simple pass was his natural realm, his kingdom the sliderule ball to Pirès or the lofted wedge to Henry. His dance was the shuffle into space, creating a pocket to receive the ball before sending it on its way again. Pass, move, repeat.

Class is another word that comes to mind. He was never an automatic starter, but not once could he be seen sulking on the bench, or sullenly complaining of poor treatment. He accepted his place in the team, and his sometimes peripheral, yet always vital, role in the squad.

An example of the man. After winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, Gilberto Silva arrived in North London, unable to speak much English and playing outside his country for the first time. Edu was quick to take his compatriot under his wing, despite being a direct competitor for his place in the starting eleven. Gilberto was effusive in his praise, telling Amy Lawrence in the brilliant book ‘Invincible‘;

‘Even though he’s younger than me he behaved like a big brother. He was fantastic to me, the way he helped me’.

It hasn’t always been easy for Edu. Shortly after signing from Sao Paulo for £6 million, he arrived in England only to be sent back home for having a forged passport. Not long after, his sister was tragically killed in a car accident. His life had gone from dream to disaster in a flash, and he admitted his head was ‘wrecked’.

After being granted an EU passport he brought his extended family with him to London, where they were supported and given time by his new club.

“What we all went through made me mentally much tougher. I had come to a new country with a new language and I had to make new friends” he admitted to the Evening Standard in 2001.

Edu’s class off the field was matched by his displays on it. For most Arsenal fans, the highlight was a frosty Milan evening in November 2003 against Inter. The Italians had outclassed Arsenal in the return fixture at Highbury a few months before, and the Gunners needed a win to secure passage to the next round of the Champions League.

Whilst two clinical goals saw Henry take the plaudits, Edu led a pack of non-regulars in delivering an audacious performance, helping Pascal Cygan and Ray Parlour give the Milanese a 5-1 pasting. As he whipped off his shirt in celebration after scoring the fourth goal, he slammed on the dividing glass between the fans and the pitch. This really was happening, he seemed to say. This really was real.

For all of his ability though, Edu is probably best remembered for what he represented to the club. Class, yes. Grace, indisputably.

Most of all, though, he represented quality. Having a player of his calibre on the bench was a luxury Arsenal could afford. Seeing him replace Patrick Vieira after 65 minutes never concerned the Highbury crowd. Likewise, coming on to replace Pirès in that FA Cup final, Gunners fans knew what they were getting – a reliable performer. It’s a shame the club didn’t realise what they were losing that summer, nor how long it would take them to replace it.

Edu’s time at Valencia was marred by injury, the Brazilian only managing fifty appearances in his four years at the Mestalla. His five year contract was terminated with one year to spare, and his fortunes didn’t change when he signed a short deal with Corinthians back home in Sao Paulo. Again, his contract was cancelled, this time after just four games in 2010. It was a disappointing finish to a career that had so often been frustrated by injury and bad timing.

Still – class and grace, graça e classe.

In Amy Lawrence’s aforementioned tome, Edu’s description as a man “much loved for his effortless friendliness” helps explain his appointment as Corinthians Director of Football in early 2011. At 34, he was helping manage Brazil’s richest football club, brokering Paulinho’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. A final gift to the Arsenal faithful, perhaps.

More recently, he helped facilitate Alexandre Pato’s January transfer to Chelsea in 2016. It seems a role well-suited to a footballer universally liked and respected, wherever he’s been.

Edu Gaspar should always be remembered for his skills on the pitch. He epitomised class and grace, and in doing so symbolised everything that made Arsenal Invincible. How they’d love to have him now.

Taeguk Odyssey: Looking Back on South Korea’s March to Football History

An in-depth view at South Korea’s mercurial journey during the 2002 World Cup they part-hosted.

By Chris Weir

“FIFA rules do not allow co-hosting of the World Cup. As long as I am FIFA President that will not change.”

Joao Havelange was not a man to be taken lightly. The Brazilian had revolutionised FIFA in his 22 years at the helm, turning it into a commercial monster with the World Cup as it’s flagship product. His word on football was almost always the last.

It was a surprise, then, when South Korea and Japan were announced as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup in May 1996.

The bid decision didn’t sit well with the Japanese, who until the eleventh hour had been confident of securing the rights on their own terms. Kenji Mori, the J League’s managing director, put it bluntly:

“This is the worst case scenario.”

The co-hosts were far from friendly neighbours, with Koreans having lived under the colonial rule of the Japanese for nearly fifty years, only being liberated after World War Two. With this announcement, a centuries-old rivalry would now be played out in a footballing arena.

Granted automatic qualification as hosts, both were expected to perform by their associations.  Japan had Parma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, the poster boy of Asian football, whilst Jun-ichi Inamoto had become the first of his country to play for Arsenal.  Shinji Ono, meanwhile, had just won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and the nation were hopeful of a respectable showing on home turf.

South Korean expectations were equally high, if a little less realistic. Seol Ki-Hyeon had struggled for Anderlecht despite becoming the first player from the country to score in the Champions League, while Ahn Jung Hwan hadn’t set the world alight with Serie A’s Perugia.  Most of the squad was still based in Korea, including stalwart and captain Hong Myung-Bo, in a league that was busy finding it’s feet.

There were also questions off the pitch, some suggesting that coach Guus Hiddink wasn’t approaching the job with the gravitas it needed.

According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, his relationship with girlfriend Elizabeth was met with raised eyebrows in a country that favoured discretion and deference, while Hiddink’s decision to pick players based on their ability rather than background irritated rather than inspired. It was typically singleminded – part of the reason he was sacked from the Real Madrid job two years before was for stating publicly that Los Merengues lacked professionalism under president Lorenzo Sanz.

Hiddink’s lack of popularity wasn’t helped by his team losing most of its games as a guest in a CONCACAF tournament a year earlier, as well as being spanked 5-0 by the French at the Confederations Cup. His reputation was already wavering after a bitterly short spell with Betis followed the disaster in Madrid.

The future, for all parties, wasn’t clear.

Certainly, nobody expected footballing history to be made. France were heavy favourites for the tournament, with the top scorers of Serie A and the Premiership in David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry being fed by Zinedine Zidane. The latter had just scored that goal to win the Champions League for Real Madrid at Hampden,and was at the peak of his imperious powers.

Argentina were the other hot ticket. Everywhere you looked they had experience and quality, even on the bench where Marcelo Bielsa – demigod to footballing hipsters the world over – directed matters in his inimitable style.

With the draw made, the Koreans were placed in a difficult group alongside Poland, Portugal and the United States. Everybody expected the Iberians to qualify, but second spot and a ticket to the next round seemed achievable. Despite being ever present since 1990, the Americans had qualified from the group stage just once, while a weak Poland team was making its first appearance since 1986.

It was the latter who lined up against Team Korea on the 4th of June, the Europeans starting brightly with some early attacking forays.  The wall of noise greeting every Korean attack was deafening, something akin to the roar facing rockstars as they walk on stage at a concert.

Still, it was nothing compared to the hysteria unleashed in the 26th minute, when Hwang-Sun Hong swept in a cross from the left hand side. Where his marker was is a question that remains unanswered.

Hwang-Sun Hong celebrates scoring against Poland

Joy turned to euphoria in the 53rd minute, Jerzy Dudek palming Yoo Sang-Chul’s screamer into the top corner. The Koreans had arrived, with Polish coach Jerzy Engel admitting his side had been bested by an energetic and enthused display.

After one game Korea were top of the Group, with Portugal coming unstuck 3-2 against a dogged USA. The hosts found the Americans a similarly tough nut to crack, only salvaging a late draw with Ahn’s 78th minute equaliser after Clint Mathis had opened the scoring.

As reported by Andrew Salmon in the Korea Times, the game itself was dominated by the recent death of two schoolchildren in a road accident involving American troops stationed in the country. It made for a tense atmosphere, but a draw suited both teams.

Portugal’s 4-0 trouncing sent Poland packing, but in truth it was a solitary highlight in a tournament that embarrassed the Selecçao. In their final game where a draw would do, Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al. failed to turn up , with Park Ji-Sung scoring the type of skilful finish that would see him earn a subsequent move to PSV. A one-nil victory for South Korea and passage to the next round.

The Japanese had also managed to progress, two wins and a draw meaning they finished ahead of Belgium and Russia in Group H. Sadly for the Samurais, however, they were then eliminated by a potent Turkish side inspired by Hasan Şaş. Ümit Davala’s 12th minute goal meant Korea stood alone as Asia’s last hope.

By this stage, their skill and fitness was winning many plaudits. Hiddink’s ability to spend the three months prior to the tournament fine tuning his squad was paying handsome dividends. The Koreans were hungrier, fresher, imbued with the confidence the Dutchman had instilled in them.

Still, everybody expected normal order to be restored when they faced Italy in the second round. The eager Korean attack would surely fire blanks against the world’s best defence. Even if Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta were both missing for the Azzurri, Gianluigi Buffon would stop the shots that Paolo Maldini deigned to let through.

It wouldn’t be long before the celebrations turned into accusations.

Korea signalled their intent from the off, winning a penalty in the opening minutes which Buffon managed to claw away, before Christian Vieri silenced the home crowd with a typically forceful header. What followed was an archetypal Italian performance right up until the 88th minute. After Christian Panucci failed to clear a simple cross, Seol swept a left footed shot gratefully home. Extra time and the golden goal loomed.

Given the cynical nature of the Italians throughout, it was perhaps a surprise that the only red card came for Francesco Totti, with referee Byron Moreno showing him a second yellow for diving. The Italians were apoplectic, but fury turned to despair when Ahn nodded in a whipped cross from another future PSV player in Lee Young-Pyo.

Francesco Totti having been sent off against South Korea.

The fireworks crackling overhead were matched by the wild celebrations on the pitch, as the Korean bench ran to embrace their hero goalscorer. The result cost Giovanni Trappatoni his job, and a nation it’s pride.

It would be the highlight of Ahn Jung-Hwan’s career. 24 hours after that fateful goal, the  Perugia chairman cancelled his contract in perhaps the world’s worst case of sour grapes. Still, Ahn had other things to focus on, like a quarter final clash with Spain.

Before they won everything, the Spanish had an unshakeable tag of underachievers on the biggest stage. Chock full of quality yes, but too prone to failing under pressure and the hot lights of expectation. If you were to ask any Spaniard about the game in Gwangju today, you’d no doubt be greeted with a flurry of Latin profanities. Iván Helguera summed up the mood of a nation when he bemoaned “what happened here was robbery“.

Looking back on the highlight videos would make even Ashley Young wince at the lack of fair play. Spain were denied two clear goals, the first off the shoulder of Kim Tae-Young after Helguera was penalised for shirt-pulling. The second was a ruled-out header from Fernando Morientes. Despite frantic Spanish argument, The Egyptian referee agreed with his linesman that the ball had run out of play before being crossed. The highlights, which have surely been played in many a Spanish household since, showed otherwise.

The game went to a penalty shoot out and, after an ill-looking Joaquín missed, the talismanic captain Hong-Myung Bo fired Korea into the semi final. Whilst Hiddink gushed about dreams coming true, Iván Helguera admitted the torture that game had inflicted in a later interview with AS ;

“In my clenched fist, I had all the helplessness I felt inside, and I think that of the 39 million Spaniards who had watched that game.”

The debate about the apparent favouritism displayed towards the home side would continue, and still lingers today 14 years on.

Despite it though, Korea were now in a World Cup semi-final, in their home country, just 18 months after being rolled over 3-1 in the Gold Cup by Paulo Wanchope’s Costa Rica. The footage from the time speaks for itself, as a whole nation exalted in a state of unequalled, unfiltered joy. “Hidonggu” had led his youthful charges to footballing history.

Still, there’s wasn’t much time for celebration. Whilst few could argue that this was the worst German team in a generation, they had a dangerous amount of talent in their squad. Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow had been part of the team that reached the Champions League Final with Bayer Leverkusen a few months previously, whilst their star player Michael Ballack was also a fixture. Oliver Kahn would go on to win the award for the tournaments best player, whilst Miroslav Klose was on the upward curve of an astonishing international career that would see him against Turkey to win the trophy 12 years later in Brazil.

It was here where the music stopped. Germany are the experts at ruining everybody’s fun, and Michael Ballack’s bittersweet strike (a booking meant he would miss the final) condemned the Koreans to a painful exit in a game that had the entire country gripped.

In the aftermath of the match against Turkey, president Kim Dae -Jung publicly thanked Hiddink and his men for their heroic display, whilst Korean Air guaranteed the coach four years of free air travel after the unprecedented events on the field. A divisive figure a month before, Hiddink was granted honorary citizenship as well as having Gwangju stadium renamed in his honour.

Nobody could have expected such success to last, but still many were left deflated when South Korea exited the 2006 World Cup at the first hurdle, edged by Switzerland and Raymond Domenech’s France.

The dream was over.

By that time, Hiddink had returned to PSV, winning three Dutch League titles and bringing them to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Only the away goals rule helped opponents AC Milan into that final in Istanbul, with Park Ji-Sung’s displays earning him a move to Manchester United in the summer.

Still, Korea’s run to the semi-final will forever be remembered, albeit with different emotions depending on whether you find yourself in downtown Seoul or at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.  But for Hiddink, Hong Myung-Bo and the vibrant Red Devils, this was a time where Eastern Promise well and truly delivered.

Why It’s Time We Put the Sleeping Giants Myth to Bed

Chris Weir provides an intriguing spin on the ‘sleeping giant’ myth that haunts the likes of Aston Villa and Newcastle United amongst others.

By Chris Weir.

On Saturday, Aston Villa’s relegation to the Championship was confirmed. In his post-match interview, Joleon Lescott drew the ire of fans and commentators alike by suggesting that relegation was almost a “relief” for the players. I understand completely where he’s coming from.

Since Martin O’Neill left under a cloud in 2010,  Aston Villa’s trajectory has only been downward. Despite their fate being sealed after a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, fans are optimistic about returning to the Premier League next year. After all, this is a club that won the European Cup in 1982, who play to almost 50,000 ardent supporters every week in the UK’s second largest city. They are a ‘sleeping giant’.

Except that no, they’re not.

It’s this kind of fallacious logic that saw fellow ‘big club’ Newcastle go down in May 2009, and which again sees them flirting with the drop this year.

Newcastle and Aston Villa are not ‘big clubs’ in anything other than a sentimental sense, and even then only to their own fans.

I don’t want to seem unkind. I think both clubs are institutions in the British game, each with glittering histories and loyal supporters. Players like Alan Shearer and Dwight Yorke left indelible imprints on the footballing landscape.

Yet I’ve watched countless games, particularly involving Newcastle, where the fans set such high standards for their mediocre players that they’ll never be happy. I invite anybody to argue that starting Jack Colback in your midfield will bring European football back to Tyneside, for instance.

I get it. Newcastle’s situation is unique. They are the sole football club in the UK’s sixth largest city. They have the Toon Army, a fantastic fanbase as fervent and loyal as any throughout the country. Wherever you go in Newcastle city centre, St.James Park looms like a watchful gargoyle over its footballing cathedral.

Still, I can’t remember the last time fans won football matches. I can’t remember the last team decibels translated into points, or shirt sales into goals.

Football, like everything in life, is worth only as much as you are willing to put into it. In Randy Lerner and Mike Ashley, Villa and Newcastle have two of the Premier League’s most recalcitrant owners. In Ashley’s case, it took fan protests for force him to shell out on transfers in the summer – a strategy that has failed woefully, as several promising signings have failed to deliver on the pitch this year.

Giorginio Wijnaldum has withered apathetically after a promising start, while Aleksandr Mitrovic is gaining a reputation more for his aggression rather than his goals. The players already there have also flattered to deceive. Moussa Sissoko scored his first goal of the season at the weekend – hardly the kind of form that would see Didier Deschamps racing to call him up to the France squad for this summer’s Euros. The less said about Papiss Cissé, meanwhile, the better.

Villa’s problems are perhaps even larger. A focus on the French market, with the signings of Jordan Veretout and Jordan Ayew, has been combined with an emphasis on diligent but inferior youth products like Ciaran Clark and past-it mercenaries like Micah Richards.

No wonder, then, that Lerner has had the club up for sale for almost two years now without finding a buyer.

In the dugout,the appointments have been nothing short of disastrous. Alex McLeish, former manager of arch-rivals Birmingham City, was a non-starter both in PR and footballing terms, whilst Tim Sherwood will always be more successful as an internet meme than a serious sporting coach.

Villa’s relegation, and Newcastle’s similarly likely fate, is a product of poor club management and strategy. There can be no denying that the clubs are where they  should rightfully be, at the foot of the Premier League table.

Still, football has and always will be about the fans. These two groups of supporters deserved better from the clubs they give their money to. They expect better from the teams they grew up with, who are supposed to represent the areas where they’re from.

In this sense, it is not the clubs who are the sleeping giants – it’s the fans. Villa and Newcastle supporters should wake up and demand that their clubs be treated with more respect than mere distractions by uncaring owners.

Only then will change sweep through the boardrooms at St.James and Villa Park. Only then will they be able to call themselves big clubs, looking to the future rather than the past.

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