Sometimes there is a lack of time to write proper articles. Too many interesting things happening in a short amount of time. The list of songs and bands I wish to write about, and the list of obscure travel destinations I wish to cover on my blog, is endless. This week it was a busy week football-wise with both the draw for the qualifiers for the Europa League, the final stages of the European Championship Under-21, and a very interesting tie in the Norwegian Cup. I summarise it in this article.
NM CUPEN (Norwegian Cup): Alta IF – Tromsø IL : 1-0
It rarely happens that a derby takes place between two clubs from above the arctic circle. There are very few clubs in the sparsely populated and cold places far north of the arctic circle, a derby between such clubs usually only occurs on amateur level. This Wednesday 22/6 was a rare exception when Alta IF took on Tromsø IL in the Norwegian Cup. Both Alta and Tromsø are above the polar circle, so this was a very fascinating game. There are more derbies between clubs from above the polar circle, but those are usually amateur teams in the 3rd and 4th division of Norwegian football (which contains extremely northern teams such as Vardø, Kirkenes and –closest to the North Cape– Honningsvag). But this game was different: Alta IF is in the second highest division of Norwegian football, while Tromsø is in the top division (and thus has the honour of northernmost top division team in Europe — in case one is not including Greenland to be European, as that league contains teams further north, including the team from Qaanaaq, which is the northernmost competitive club worldwide) so Alta-Tromsø for the Norwegian Cup was actually a derby between two clubs above the polar circle who both are playing at a quite decent level AND the game was for the official national cup tournament rather than a league game in the amateur levels of Norwegian football.
Tromsø is the only top division team in Europe playing above the polar circle (if we don’t include Greenland as European) and it is a club that had its successes. It has played in Europe several times and famous teams such as Chelsea, Red Star Belgrade and Galatasaray fell victim to the sub-arctic climate when playing Tromsø in the freezing cold and often in a snow storm. For the fans of Tromsø it must have been odd to have to travel for once to a team even further north: Alta is even further north in Norway, in the county of Finnmark, the northernmost county of the nation which also contains the North Cape and the border with Russia (formerly the border with the Soviet Union). The Isberget, the fan club of Tromsø, travelled to Alta by bus, a report of this very fascinating voyage is on their website (it is in Norwegian though): http://www.isberget.no/news/844/66/En-cupdrom-tok-slutt
Here we see the fans posing halfway the trip on a signboard indicating how far north they were and how close to the northernmost point of mainland Europe they were (PS: those with fear of heights should not visit this fjord !): http://www.isberget.no/uploads/images/A%20laget%20Cup/Isberget%20på%20Kvænangsfjellet.jpg
Other than the rare fact of a derby at high level football with two teams above the polar circle involved, this game was interesting for other reasons too: it was played indoor. While, since the acceptance of artificial grass (which I strongly support and like) Tromsø has no issues to play outdoors anymore, Alta –being even further north– has to play some of their games indoors when the freezing cold doesn’t allow outdoor football. When the Alta Idrettspark cannot be used, the Finnmarkshallen are used. This is an indoor sports arena opened in 1996, with a true football pitch and a 1000 places for the spectators:
You can see the dome and the small stand for the fans on the right hand side.
The turf is artificial grass ; unlike many football fans, I actually like artificial turf I must say.
Anyways, the game was held indoors and Alta (the second division team) won the "above the polar circle derby" 1-0. The game, according to the Tromsø fans, was quite odd with the ball sometimes hitting the roof and once even been stuck between the roof and a bar just below the dome. Also, the acoustics were quite odd according to the reports. That said, congrats to Alta and I for sure hope they can get far in the cup tournament. It would be amazing to see a team at the edge of mainland Europe play in the Europa League.
I must also admit to be a bit jealous as this must have been a really unique game to attend, especially with that bus travel.
EUROPEAN UNDER 21 CHAMPIONSHIP:
The final in Denmark is yet to be played and is showing Spain (the world and European champions in regular/non-age-restricted football) taking on surprising Switzerland. The game for the 3rd position is however played already and the winner of the bronze medal is a surprising name: Belarus!
The Belarussians, the big surprises of this tournament, took on big favourites Spain in the semi-finals, and only in extra time the Spanish could keep the Belarussians out of the final: 3-1. Belarus however had everything to play for in the third place game, because other than the bronze medal, the winner of this third place would qualify for the soccer tournament of the Olympic Games (along with finalists Switzerland and Spain, who are both qualified as well). So there was a lot at stake other than the honour of winning a bronze medal. Belarus completed their fantastic record on the tournament and beat the Czech Republic in the third-place game. 2 minutes before time, Yegor Filipenko scored the only goal in the game to not only award Belarus a bronze medal, but also a ticket for the Olympic Games’ football tournament. A fantastic achievement of the isolated former USSR republic, who will participate in the Olympic football tournament for the first time. Belarus thus keeps rising in football: their A squad is still in the running for at least a play-off spot in the qualifiers for the European Championship 2012 and has grasped some excellent results lately (including a 0-1 victory in France and a 1-1 draw versus France in Minsk) and the domestic champions BATE Borisov have last year become the first Belarussian team to survive the winter break in a European competition. I am happily watching this happen, as Belarus is a country that does appeal to me (probably because of my interest in USSR history and Soviet architecture).
DRAW FOR THE EUROPA LEAGUE QUALIFIERS
In Nyon, the draw took place for the first two qualifying rounds (the first two of four in total) for the Europa League. While the Champions League, with each year the same teams, is getting a deja-vu experience, I do like the Europa League because it offers a platform for obscure teams from rarely shown leagues to be in the limelight for a moment. While any type of cup football has something absurd (because so much depends on luck with the draw), I do like the Europa League I must admit. In the first two qualifying rounds, a few interesting ties came out:
First qualifying round (30 June and 7 July):
Daugava Daugavpils (LAT) – Tromsø IL (NOR)
The New Saints (WAL) – Cliftonville FC (NIR)
Vestmannaeyjar (ICE) – St Patrick’s Athletic (IRE)
KR Reykjavik (ICE) – IF Fuglafjørður (FAR)
Hoping for victories of Tromsø and Vestmannaeyjar personally, while in the British Islands derby I’m more or less neutral but it’s an interesting derby nonetheless. In the Iceland-Faroe Islands "derby" I’m also quite neutral but for the nordic derby feeling it remains an interesting game to watch.
Second qualifying round (14 and 21 July):
Sant Julia (AND) – Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv (ISR)
FC Minsk (BELA) or Olimpik-Süvälan (AZE) – Gaziantepspor (TUR)
Crusaders FC (NIR) – Fulham FC (ENG) or Runavik (FAR)
KR Reykjavik (ICE) or IF Fuglafjørður (FAR) – Zilina (SLK)
Streymur (FAR) – Banga (LIT) or Qarabag (AZE)
Koper (SLOV) or Shakhter Karagandy (KAZ) – Vestmannaeyjar (ICE) or St Patrick’s Ath. (IRE)
Paksi SE (HUN) or UE Santa Coloma (AND) – D. Daugavpils (LAT) or Tromsø IL (NOR)
Xazar Lankaran (AZE) – Maccabi Tel Aviv (ISR)
I here hope for victories for both Israeli teams and for Turkish team Gaziantepspor, for victory for Crusaders unless they’d play against Runavik instead of Fulham (both very little chance of that happening), for victory for either KR or Fuglafjørður against the Slowaks of Zilina, for victory of Tromsø should they qualify for the second round, victory for Vestmannaeyjar should the qualify for the second round, and in case of Streymur-Qarabag consider me a neutral (in case Qarabag does not make it to the second round I’d hope for a Streymur win).
The chances of my hopes coming true are slim in some cases, but I don’t take football that seriously that it matters that much. Simply catching a glimpse of these games would be already great, as this is the most interesting part of European football season. The moment only the better teams remain and the obscure ones are out, it becomes less interesting. So bring on these qualifiers!