Trains, Planes and a Crazy Taxi Driver

“The beer was vile so I again plumped for pear cider all the way from Cornwall! The old BATE stadium was adjacent to the bar and it seemed a pity we weren’t playing here – proper old skool stadium.”

When Chelsea’s UEFA Europa League draw was made I knew that I would miss PAOK as I was on holiday, whilst Vidi in December was a non starter, thus I fancied Bate Borisov in Belarus due to it being a country I hadn’t previously visited.

Visa

This was no straight forward trip to arrange even for Tommies Tours. The easiest way it seemed was to fly via somewhere to the capital of Belarus, Minsk, Borisov was about an hour away. The flight was touching £300 and the return was via Istanbul with a four-hour wait there as well. I explored the other options and flying to neighbouring Lithuania seemed a decent choice and again a country I hadn’t visited. However, by going this way you required a visa, what a stupid situation this was, if you fly into Minsk a visa isn’t required but entering any other way you need one – it should be all or nothing.

The visa seemed reasonable at £60 on top of the £143 flight to Vilnius, but problems lay ahead. The Belorussian Embassy in London would not answer any emails or phone calls, it was a complicated visa form thus I needed to speak to them. Eventually we decided to pay £100 for a visa company to assist us, which I must say they did well – the train to Minsk came out at £30 – not bad for a return which took over two hours both ways.

So flights booked and the visa arrived in time and match ticket was purchased for £17.50. The usual ticket collection was in place and with luck at our hotel, which by the way was excellent – kudos to Billy for booking, at least he didn’t moan about the hotel.

Baltic States

We flew to Vilnius via Stockholm where I refused to pay €12 for a pint at the airport but cracked and paid €9 for a bottle of pear cider – no logic in that. We arrived in Vilnius and a decent night was had. It wasn’t a poor place by any means but, my understanding is that compared to the other Baltic states such as Estonia and Latvia, Vilnius isn’t the nicest of the three. Maybe we weren’t there long enough but there was it seems only one street with bars and there wasn’t many, although they were decent. The beer was fine, we did look for a late bar, but to no avail we couldn’t find one, albeit a good outcome probably due to us having to catch the 06.15 train. There was passport control procedures at the station and the border crossing was nervous, they inspected our passports like they were looking for gold, but when they got the stamp out I knew we were in.

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Catching a glimpse through the taxi window

The station in Minsk was a taxi ride away to the hotel where we passed the renovated national stadium – it looked impressive, as far as floodlight go it was porn, they were like gigantic tennis rackets.

Check in

The hotel bar was open when we arrived at 10.00am thus beers were ordered and we refused to pay the €77 for an early check in. We checked in at 12.00, showered and headed back to the bar and left for the mini bus to Borisov. Once again, this was a contentious decision as most were staying in Minsk till later – kick off wasn’t until 21.00, Google had shown a couple of bars in Borisov but the driver firstly decided to drop us of at the impressive stadium on the outskirts, I mean who wants to go in the stadium at 14.00 – he eventually managed to find a bar – the obligatory shamrock was outside and it had wooden decor inside. This area was grim, I’ve travelled a lot and this city was the grimmest I’d visited: it had nothing going for it.

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Old ground walls.

Ordering food and drink was a nightmare, the waitress brought us two plates of cheese balls instead of the chicken and chips we ordered, she didn’t understand what a vodka and orange was: we were in Belarus! The beer was vile so I again plumped for pear cider all the way from Cornwall! The old Bate stadium was adjacent to the bar and it seemed a pity we weren’t playing here – proper old skool stadium. It seemed that some Chelsea fans were happy to stay in one bar but I wanted to say that I’d been to more than one, so we decide to head off to bar Pinta.

Crazy driver

The taxi arrived and promptly expected us to walk through the mud and puddles to it. Billy was having none of it and we persuaded her to drive to an area not as muddy. She drove off and whilst pulling out of a junction I could see the lorry drivers eyes, we were lucky – I’m sure someone had just given her a set of keys and said drive, she was character but wasn’t fit to be behind the wheel. To make matters worse, bar Pinta didn’t exist, to save our embarrassment of going back she came up trumps and took us to bar Dogma her local. It was a great bar and the thought of grim Borisov soon vanished.

The local Chelsea fans were there and wouldn’t take no for an answer regarding buying us a little drink, large shots of vodka were bought and I swear we couldn’t say no. A bear of a man then came in with a ‘Cymru am byth’ jumper (Wales for ever) but he was in no mood for a laugh, he was the sort of guy who you didn’t want to upset, he persuaded us to join him and share his jug of vodka, a man of little words, a gentle giant perhaps, but possibly ex-forces. Came across as a bit of a nutter.

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Vodka man

We eventually managed to free ourselves from vodka man and got to the ground. The evening sky was the same as the city, dank misty and grey. Chelsea scraped a win and the trip back to Minsk was a thirsty one, the hotel bar was crammed with Chelsea until the early hours of the morning where most realised they had a plane or train to catch.

Grim

I can’t really judge Minsk as I didn’t see enough but the contrast between Belarus and Lithuania was immense. Belarus people seemed regimented, and it seemed like a job for everyone, whilst when we arrived back in Vilnius everyone seemed jovial and happy. Borisov is the worst place I’ve ever been to, although I’m in Albania soon…

Four flights – ran a mile to catch a connection

Two trains

One nutter

One crazy taxi

Vodka – lost count

Beer- mostly good

Food – good

One grim city.

Tit-for-tat mentality sees fans pick up the bill

The sudden increase in ticket prices across UEFA club competitions is football’s quiet scam, with away fans losing out more often than not.

With Valencia following the recent Spanish trend of upping ticket prices once drawn against English opponents, Manchester United officials reacted by announcing they’ll again be returning the favour.

3,800 Valencia fans who visit Manchester for the UEFA Champions League group tie will now be charged £77 instead of the original quote of £55. The added £22 will subsidise Manchester United fans due to visit the Mestalla in December – who were also quoted £77 – with any additional revenue being donated to the Manchester United Foundation.

If you’re a Manchester United fan due to visit the Mestalla, this may seem like karma being served. But read between the lines and you’ll soon realise this is yet another example of tit-for-tat behaviour which results in fans picking up the bill – only difference being they’ll be Valencia fans, not Manchester United.

True, Valencia are in the wrong for increasing the price to such an extortionate amount, but the issue surely lies deeper in the commercial opportunism which seems to be swallowing the game as a whole. This isn’t the first case of such nature. It’s quickly becoming football’s quiet scam.

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The Old San Mamés Stadium. Image: Wikimedia

I was part of the travelling United contingent visiting Athletic Bilbao for the 2011/12 UEFA Europa League last-16 tie. Eye-wateringly, Athletic increased ticket prices and charged United fans €90.00 for the second-leg at the Old San Mamés. Whilst United fans never begrudged paying the fee demanded, it was a hard one to swallow due to it being a 350% increase on the €20 fee the visiting Lokomotiv Moscow fans were asked to pay in the previous round.

Then in 2016, the Spanish gave way to the Danish as FC Midtjylland charged Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay earlier in the tournament.

“I can understand that it’s expensive for a Manchester United fan to see FC Midtjylland and that they are angry, but that’s how it is,” explained Jacob Jørgensen, the club’s commercial director, at the time.

Then last season, Manchester United faced a UEFA Champions League last-16 tie away to Sevilla. The Andalusians triggered a series of complaints from United supporters after charging £89 for them to watch the first leg in Spain. Branding the prices “unfair” and “excessive”, United –  similar to the present day with Valencia – reacted by raising the cost of tickets for Sevilla supporters travelling to watch the return leg at Old Trafford to £89 and said they would use the extra proceeds to help refund their own fans.

Sevilla responded by then subsidising their own support, whilst Valencia may still decide to do the same. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop the issue from rising to the fore again in the future and Manchester United fans aren’t the only side to have suffered of late.

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The Wanda Metropolitano built in 2017.

Atletico Madrid announced ticket prices of £79 for Arsenal fans in last season’s UEFA Europa League semi-final, in comparison to the £36.50 paid by Los Colchoneros for the first leg at the Emirates Stadium. However, Arsenal confirmed they would also make up the difference, ensuring their fans paid the same price as Atletico fans for their visit to north London. Only difference being they would be doing this out of their own pockets, not by transferring the cost to Atletico fans.

Still the scam recently caught up with leading Belgian side Anderlecht. They were ordered by UEFA to partially refund Bayern Munich fans for their 2017/18 Champions League group match. The Belgian club charged visiting supporters €100 per ticket for the game at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, which Bayern won 2-1, with the visiting fans throwing fake money on the pitch in protest. UEFA ruled the price was excessive and instructed Anderlecht to reimburse Bayern by €30 per ticket.

In a statement released at the time by their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body, UEFA said: “RSC Anderlecht is ordered to contact FC Bayern Munich within 15 days to compensate their supporters with an amount of €30 per ticket to those away fans located in the upper tier section (sections S14, S15, S16 and S17).”

This incident followed Anderlecht fans calling their very own hierarchy a “disgrace” in April 2017. They accused the club of “a lack of consideration” over high ticket prices for the Europa League quarter-final home tie with Manchester United. A banner stating “€40 for a standing place? Shame on ‘our’ directors” was attached to railings at the main entrance to the Belgian club’s Constant Vanden Stock stadium prior to the match.

All of the mentioned examples happened in UEFA licensed tournaments. The association’s recent ordering of Anderlecht to refund Bayern supporters shows the occasional right-minded individual remains part of the organisation after all. Nevertheless, the issue requires further attention, otherwise supporters will keep on picking up the bill in the future.

*Update*

Football Supporters Europe are asking UEFA to amend and clarify Article 19 – Paragraph 3 of its Safety and Security Regulations at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent clubs from using loopholes in the regulation, for example by charging regular season ticket holders or members much less than away fans. The most effective way to make the regulation as fan-friendly as possible would be to change the regulation to: “The price of tickets for supporters of the visiting team must be no higher than the cheapest tickets available for home fans in the respective categories.”

They are also calling on UEFA to continue to enforce its regulation by obliging clubs to compensate the affected fans in cases of a breach of the ticketing regulation. However, early arbitration rather than retrospective disciplinary proceedings would minimise these cases.

They further call on all clubs playing in European competition to adopt self-regulation mechanisms, taking the purchasing power of the respective country of the visiting team into account, therefore encouraging more supporters to travel from countries with significantly lower wages and salaries.

More at this link.

Increased Europa League ticket prices, Why the surprise?

Danish champions FC Midtjylland are charging Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) for next month’s Europa League tie – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay during the qualifying stage back in August. Here we take a look at the reason why.

By Danny Wyn Griffith.

Danish champions FC Midtjylland are charging Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) for next month’s Europa League tie – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay during the qualifying stage back in August.

Manchester United fans and the British media have since rightly cried foul over the excessive-looking increase in price. However, this shouldn’t be any kind of surprise to the fans who are used to following the club along Europe’s shores.

February 23rd 2012, Manchester United scraped past Ajax 3-2 on aggregate in the Europa League last 32 round, despite being defeated 2-1 by the Dutch giants at Old Trafford. The same night, Athletic Club Bilbao beat FC Lokomotiv Moscow on away goals at La Catedral after the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate.

Both victorious sides were drawn together for the next round in what would prove to be their first meeting since the famous 1957 European Cup Quarter-final. That tie has forever been embedded in European Football history having seen Los Leones beat the Busby Babes 5-3 in the first leg at home in Bilbao, before heading out of the competition to a 3-0 defeat at United’s temporary home at Maine Road, with late-greats Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor scoring in both legs.

The 2011-12 UEFA Champions League campaign had gone much the same as this term’s; having seen United finishing third behind FC Basel and S.L Benfica in their much-fancied group.

Whilst no United fan would have been overjoyed at the demotion, many were quietly licking their lips in taboo-like manner at the European cities, grounds and bars that were potentially waiting for them in the Europa League – much like this year.

Having first of all visited The ‘Dam, United drew the Basque side and many a Red were glad to be looking at a Spanish euro-away that didn’t include the usual suspects of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal etc.

The Basques were also well known for their love of red wine and hospitality off the pitch – whilst being renowned for their la furia never-say-die attitude on it – all of which made the tie a standout amidst the draw.

What wasn’t to be expected was the eye-watering increase in ticket price that saw Athletic Club charge United fans €90.00 for the second-leg at the Old San Mamés.

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Second leg stub from the San Mamés

Whilst I and many other a Red never begrudged paying the fee demanded, it was a hard one to swallow due to it being a 350% increase on the €20 fee the visiting Lokomotiv Moscow fans were asked to pay in the previous round.

Given this, we really shouldn’t be surprised at the £71.00 being asked of us for the upcoming FC Midtjylland tie in Denmark. Especially given the ground’s capacity is a mere 11,800 and we were only given a marginal 800-ticket allocation.

“I can understand that it’s expensive for a Manchester United fan to see FC Midtjylland and that they are angry, but that’s how it is,” explained Jacob Jørgensen, the club’s commercial director, on the Danish club’s website.

He continued: “We are in competition with Manchester United to move forward, and their huge turnover and amounts of TV money are so much greater than ours. I think we put up a very fair price, as we could easily sell out even if we made it 1,500-2,000 kroner (£150+) per ticket.”

To be honest, you can’t actually blame these smaller continental sides in increasing the prices when they draw United, due to the ever-recycled line of ‘We’re Manchester United, the world’s biggest club and we have 659million fans worldwide’ that is spouted by Ed Woodward and the marketing department to lure our next commercial partner in Mongolian dumpling manufacturing.

I’m just surprised Paul Scholes hasn’t come round to calling that particular line boring yet.

Nevertheless, opponents have now realised that if the regular match-goers aren’t willing to pay the going-price, many more will supposedly be waiting in the wings to do so.

One only needs looking back a couple of months to remember the away-end at CSKA Moscow being full of Moscow Reds – no disrespect meant towards them.

We are now that global brand the club vowed to become over the last decade or so. With that comes the burden of foreign clubs hiking prices for their Cup Finals against us and it’s the supporters picking up the tab once again.

This isn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last time we do so either.

 

First published in Red News Issue 231 on 23/01/2016.

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