Etiquette and practicalities in the early rounds of the Champions league

TamU did the job then, and will now play Levski Sofia next Tuesday. You can see highlights of the 2-0 win here. Well done to TamU for having special offers which nudged the crowd up to 5,600-odd. Haka beat Honka 2-0, highlights of which you can see here.

Now for a look at the practicalities of European football in the qualifying stages.This is the extended version of the programme notes from tonight’s game, reproduced with Tim’s permission:

It’s again that time of year. European football has descended on Tampere United!

Why do we bother to play domestic football? People answer that question in many different ways. Of course we all like to play and watch regular games week in week out; the excitement that goes with winning big games, being domestic champions is huge. But increasingly, for the more successful clubs, domestic leagues are just a means of getting to play in Europe. Every player, official and fan of most teams will dream of drawing a Liverpool or Real Madrid in Europe; of having a great run in a European cup.

We’ve been rather fortunate in our short history. Our game last week against SS Murata of San Marino represented our 25th UEFA tie in just 6 seasons. Not many people know, but Tampere United is already in the top 20 of all time club appearances for the UEFA Intertoto cup. We’ve almost started to take it for granted that we will be competing in Europe each summer. But there are many clubs around Europe who are larger in most respects than us, that rarely get the chance. Let’s make sure we savour the opportunity each and every time.

It is quite surprising that we have never played in a country twice in Europe (if you count Serbia and Montenegro as the two separate nations they are today). And by playing so many different teams with their different styles, we have learned how to play European football. Some of our older fans will remember well the disaster of our first UEFA appearances against Pyunik Yerevan of Armenia. A 6-0 aggregate loss, and lets be honest, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Since then, only FF Kalmar of Sweden has succeeded in beating us home and away (and that was pretty fortunate as well). It is a different ball game when you play in Europe, and these days we have no reason to fear opponents. Even the so called mighty Lazio couldn’t win in Tampere. Charleroi of Belgium thought they only had to turn up to win, and we have secured tremendous away wins in places like Croatia and Montenegro. Learning how to win in Europe takes time.

I heard a few comments in the last week along the lines of “not very good result, only winning 2-1 in San Marino”. It was not a bad result at all. Away wins are hard to get anywhere in Europe, especially in the Champions League qualifiers. We had the professionalism and experience to do what was needed, and SS Murata are no mugs. It was a satisfactory performance. I noticed that Drogheda of Ireland (who incidentally stayed in the same hotel as Tampere United) did not beat Libertas of San Marino two nights later, yet they beat HJK of Finland last season in the same competition. No UEFA win is easy.

The summer time is an exceptionally busy time at Tampere United. The league is in full swing and the UEFA games require an extraordinary amount of behind the scenes work. If you are successful, the games come every week. UEFA have finally regionalized the Intertoto cup, but in the Champions league qualifiers you can be traveling over very large distances. It’s not easy organizing trips to Baku or Belgrade with a few days notice! In practice, the people at the clubs who organize the games need to be considering 4 fixtures in parallel.

For away games, one of the first things to consider is entry visas. Not much of a problem for Western Europe, but even then, when you have non-European players, Daniel for example, we need to be careful to avoid a fiasco at the airport. And when we play in the Balkans or further east, where do you go for (e.g.) Armenian visas? Can you tell me where the nearest Armenian embassy is to Tampere? Apparently it’s a cash-only back-street alley in Tallinn. I know because I went there with 25 passports in my pocket back in 2002.

OK, so you got the visas. How are you going to get there? Basically there are two alternatives; private charter or scheduled flight. For the Manchester United’s of this world, there is no problem. Roll out the private jet. But for Tampere United, organizing the travel is far from easy. In the summer time, there are rarely 25 empty seats on planes with one or two weeks notice. And anyway, do the schedules meet the needs of professional athletes? We’re not a bunch of tourists; we need to consider the game and practice schedules and the tiredness factor of early starts, late arrivals and multiple transit stops. It is very exhausting to arrive in Azerbaijan having traveled for 24 hours by bus from Tampere to St Petersburg, flight to Moscow, flight to Baku. In Romania, it was bus to Helsinki, flight to Budapest, flight to Cluj and then a 7 hour bus ride to Pietra Niemt. And checking in to busy airports with all the team baggage tests the patience to the maximum, not to mention the worry about whether all the team kit will get transferred to connecting flights. You’ll look rather silly turning up to an away game with no boots or shirts! (This happened to one team visiting Tampere, but luckily their luggage arrived just in time on another flight).

So is the answer a charter flight? Well problem number one is that they are very expensive. You will pay over €50,000 for a longer away game. For Intertoto games, that’s pretty much your match fees gone just getting there! Having found a company willing to charter for you, the problems are not over. How many people will be carried, what baggage weight is allowed? This is important, because it determines how many fuel stops are required, and charter fuel stops need a lot of negotiating. When we went to Armenia, we needed two stops each way in deserted airfields in Belarus and the Ukraine. On the return journey, at 3am, we were denied a stop in Simferapol and were flying around the Black Sea looking for fuel like a taxi driver looking for an all night gas station! Eventually we landed in Odessa. Not all airports are very well geared up for charter flights. Again, in Armenia, it required patience, money and negotiating skills to get us back on our plane. Q: “where are your boarding passes” A: “it’s our own plane, we don’t need them”, or “it’s now 1am and our border guards go home at midnight. Please wait another hour while we wake them and call them back”. You get the picture?

So you’ve landed. Transportation can be a real headache in away games. We prefer to make reciprocal arrangements with our opponents, because they know the local companies better than we do, and vice versa. So far, we have had our team bus break down 4 times. In Romania the old bus provided for us conked out twice going and once on the way back. Marooned on the side of mountain roads with horses, carts and goats for company, is a fairly comical situation! Even last week in San Marino, the bus driver managed to run out of fuel as we were returning from training to the team hotel. And talking of hotels, so which one to stay at? They all look good in the brochures, but it takes many emails and phone calls to establish if they will be suitable. In 2003 we arrived at one destination at around midnight to be told “sorry, misunderstanding, no rooms available”. This was gamesmanship that needed firmly correcting. A traveling team needs a lot of rooms. The players have twin rooms, and officials’ single rooms. The kit manager, Timo Hakala, needs a larger room because he has all the kit to sort out and organize. Then the biggest headache to work out with the hotel management is the diet arrangements. I am afraid that local spicy curries or heavy starchy food is not ok! Players need meals that should be relatively high in carbohydrate, 55 – 70 % of total energy. They need approximately 1.5 times more energy than the others in the party, etc. And we often need to eat at times when the restaurant is not open. For example, as recently as last week, the kick off time was 9pm so it is after midnight before we need our dinner. Without negotiation and extra money, these things will not happen.

Practice facilities for the team need to be arranged. UEFA allow that visiting teams may use the match stadium 24 hours before kick off. We’ll need to be supplied with balls, colored bibs, cones to mark out a practice pitch, bottled still water, fruit, and so on. Again, this may sound obvious and easy, but you are reliant on the hosts. They often barely speak English, they never speak Finnish, and they are sometimes not that keen to help you; you’re the enemy. (It should also be said that many teams, including SS Murata, are exceptionally friendly and will do anything to make the stay a pleasant experience.)

Prior to any UEFA game, there are many non-playing matters that need attending too. One of these is the 10am UEFA meeting on game day. This meeting is mandatory and follows the same agenda whether it is Liverpool v Milan in the final or Grevenmacher v Tampere United in round 1 of Intertoto in Luxemborg. The facilities are examined, the goals are measured, security is discussed, and the kit sponsors are approved, and so on. I can recall a few classic moments in these meetings, but my favorite was in the Faroe Islands when Skala officials were asked by the UEFA delegate at what time they would be opening the stadium gates for fans? Answer: “We don’t have any gates”! Last season, FF Kalmar of Sweden managed to get them selves into trouble by forgetting to attend the meeting! We didn’t even know which Tampere hotel they were staying at. At 11am we tracked them down and I accompanied the delegate and an ad-hoc meeting took place in the hotel lobby. That was one pissed off UEFA official.

Another important event is the pre-game banquet. People either love or hate these formal occasions, but they serve a role in ensuring fair play and sportsmanship. Both clubs and the UEFA delegate are usually treated to a fantastic meal and the friendship can be made that will last a long time. I still keep in occasional touch with some officials of clubs we have played. These banquets need some arranging, protocol does not allow for a quick burger at MacDonald’s. Gifts are exchanged. Normally each club provides each other with a really nice memory such as silver plate or glass ware with inscriptions noting the occasion. But in addition, smaller tokens of gratitude are presented to all, and speeches are made. Inscribed silver plates do not grow on trees. In the big picture, this kind of attention to detail could easily be forgotten amongst all the other tasks that need arranging, but it would be a terrible insult to forget such things. Does everyone speak the same language at the banquet? Not normally. We’ve needed translators in various places in the past. I recall one amusing incident told to me by the Kalmar officials. We were chatting at a wonderful restaurant on the waterfront and their chairman told that the previous week they had brought the officials of Estonian club, FK Trans Narva, to the same place. The Swedish officials spoke either Swedish or English. The Trans Narva officials spoke either Estonian or Russian. The UEFA delegate was from Ireland if I recall right, and no translators had been arranged. The end result was a banquet where neither side said a single word to each other! These occasions are time consuming affairs, but normally well worth it. I’ve noticed over the years that the smaller the club, the friendlier they are. For the little fish in the pond, it is a great experience that rarely happens and is enjoyed to the full. For the bigger fish, it is a ritual that is performed so often that it has lost its feelings and is more of a nuisance than a pleasure. At Tampere United we pride ourselves on being a friendly little club that treats all opponents and their officials with total respect and courtesy.

The most important matter for UEFA football games is that Ari Hjelm gets our team properly prepared for winning the game! But this selection of background activities mentioned here are vital to that as well. The non playing matters like these banquets are important to the image of not only Tampere United, but also Finnish football. And then it needs to be remembered that our office staff have tremendous pressure to quickly organize all the match day stadium preparation and ticketing for all the home games, all done with very little prior notice. Then you multiply all the above out by four matches being arranged simultaneously at any one time, and it becomes clear just how much work is needed. Is it worth it? You bet it is.

All the best

Tim Rowe, Vice Chairman


5 Responses

  1. hey! i’m going to cali this weekend and won’t be back until september…here is the website i was talking about where i made extra summer cash. Later! the website is here

  2. i assume the tuesday game will be in tampere? if so, bummer– i arrive in tampere the very next day!

  3. Yes, it will. There is the Haka game on Thursday the second, though. What are you doing in Tampere?

  4. workshop in political communications at the university, then a couple conferences… long story short, i’ll be around tampere for most of august. definitely have the haka game down on my to-do list. big thanks for the blog– it’s really taught me a lot about the finnish league.

  5. Aha, I’m starting an IR masters at UTA in September. I had no idea they were running something like that, I would have been interested had I known. I think you will be staying at Lapinkaari, probably the best place I ever lived as a student. You’ll have a great time, I’m sure.

    Email me via my profile and we can sort out going to the Haka game together, if you fancy it.

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