Remember this – Qatar is too hot to host a World Cup! Now, if you told this to players from a struggling Icelandic side back in 2010 when they were suffering third degree burns from near melting artificial grass in the Centenary Stadium in Malta (the little one with a single stand next to the Ta’Qali – Pats fans will remember it), they’d have broken down in tears, had they any bodily fluids left!
While in the shade it was a grueling 36, out on the pitch Ton Caanen’s Valletta side were paving the way for a meeting with St. Pats while black shirted, fair haired Northern European simply stopped moving. But nobody cribbed, nobody objected, it was/is football.
Where is the solidarity of nations when players are asked to walk out in boiling Baku, sweltering Sarajevo or Cork? Where is the uproar to have to endure physical exertion in far off Gyumri (Georgia), Shymkent (Kazakhstan) or Belfast (Northern Ireland)?
Last night Shamrock Rovers returned to European football with a straightforward tie in Luxembourg, yet it’s not going to be mild and forgiving in the little statelet that Irish and other European taxpayers are keeping in business.
Don’t mistake my disbelief with disinterest, I like European football, in fact the way it is now is almost a perfect storm of giving everyone a bottle of orange and bag of crisps for showing up. Every little patch of rock or dirt, or dirty rocks, gets to feel special, for a fortnight at least.
The romance of the whole thing can turn the heart of even the most hardened cynic. When a village (or block of flats in Russian terms) of less than 4000 can welcome a powerhouse from a relatively respectable European footballing country, to a ground which makes Parnell Park look like Croker! In fact, any League of Ireland ground would be better than the Hibernians Stadium in Paola, Malta. The fact that yours truly managed to play a couple of rugby matches there tells you all you need to know! But this little Maltese team will have a chance to experience what generations of players always wanted to. Then the next day go back to work – in the bank, in the bar, on the bin lorry.
While Rovers are played in the modern day version of “The Mouse that roared” and big spending Dacia from Moldova are in Tetovo, Macedonia, Balzan Youths made their European debut against Sarajevan giants Zeljeznicar, battling to a 0-2 loss.
Balzan is one of those typical blink and you miss it places in Malta, no longer a village but a section of the urban sprawl from Valletta to Mdina. Yet they have managed to develop solidly after bringing on board backers (and players) who were formerly 100% Floriana FC.
Proper business planning and bringing together good players with support staff, coupled with youth development, has seen them make strides in local football. Even though they faced certain defeat it is nice to see that teams can budget sensibly, not buy matches and still succeed in leagues that are less than reputable.
But back again to this midsummer thing. On Thursday, West Ham are once again in Europe. Lusitans of Andorra visit Upton Park in what will be new Coach Slaven Bilic’s first competitive game.
Winning both legs is vital for the club and making the Group Stages a must, otherwise the club will see too soon that all might not be rosy in the East End garden.
And our own UCD are in action against Dudelange of Luxembourg, Pats up in lovely Riga to play Skonto and KR of Iceland travel to the 2nd city of Munster to play Cork City.
Realistically, three of four Irish clubs should progress, though it would not be surprising to see UCD make it four from four. While there are questions to be asked about playing games in midsummer, with continental temperatures up in the 30s, this is the one time of year when everyone can dream of a little bit of glory and enjoy being part of history.
While more and more professional football destroys hope and dreams, we can enjoy the madness of competitive football before the fun is taken out of it all by the “big boys”. I guess in the end, the big boys don’t have to endure midsummer footballing madness. Their players are in nice Alpine training camps while their administrators do what they can to continue getting around FFP. And boy, that Qatar is hot!