Europe United follows Matt Walker’s unprecedented challenge to experience top-division football in all 55 UEFA countries in a single season.
In June 2017, Matt said farewell to his job, surrendered his Fulham FC season ticket and set off for Georgia, the first stop on his mission. He would end his adventure eleven months later in Montenegro, having conquered the continent and captured the imagination of its sporting media.
His epic journey would pose its challenges. Yet no amount of airport confusion in Iceland, unusual betting activity in Latvia, spectator bans in Albania, disturbances in Kosovo or ropey breakfast buffets in Moldova would make Matt miss a matchday. And then there were the games themselves: showcasing the full spectrum of footballing theatre, from the truly sublime to the utterly ridiculous.
Matt’s trip would also bequeath him footballing wisdom beyond his imagination. Not only would he learn that Liechtenstein had its very own ‘golden generation’, but also why one football club in Gibraltar is benefitting from a television gameshow, who in La Liga’s mascot is a giant anchovy, how Tony Adams fared in his managerial spell in Azerbaijan, and just what Bosko Balaban is up to these days.
This is the story of one fan on a once-in-a-lifetime experience: travelling to Europe’s unseen corners, talking with its unsung supporters, and tracing the beautiful game across the breadth of our brilliant, bizarre continent.
Jade Craddock: Can you tell us how on earth you came up with the idea for the project behind Europe United and how you went about turning that idea into a reality?
Matt Walker: I love football and travel and, when I needed a break from my office job, it seemed natural to combine the two. It was a moment of brilliant insanity, inspired by a story about football in Liechtenstein, that pushed me towards visiting all 55 UEFA nations in one season. I then decided to focus on top-division football, offering consistency yet also allowing me to take in the extremes of the European game.
I spent 18 months saving money for the trip but couldn’t start planning in earnest until the first fixtures were released in early 2017. The most important factor to consider was when each league took place (the earliest started in February 2017, the latest finished in June 2018) – I really didn’t want to miss the end of the Kazakhstan Premier League season! I then sketched out my plans, first taking in the 12 summer leagues then clusters of nearby countries. I set up a website and social media channels, but attracted very few followers until after I hit the European football road in June 2017.
JC: A lot of people consider themselves to be football fans, but your adventure is something else altogether, what was the general reaction from other football fans? Did you come across any other fans with equally ambitious adventures?
MW: I found that most football fans were really quite envious (who wouldn’t want to take a year off work to watch European football?!) and full of genuine admiration. But I think many realised that it was also a massive challenge and that it would be much more sensible, but hardly as book-worthy, to visit the 55 UEFA nations over a much longer period.
It does seem to be the British who like a crazy challenge – I met an Englishman in Georgia who was cycling from Cheddar to China – but Miguel, who features in the Portugal chapter of Europe United, was trying to watch a match at all of the stadiums in the top two tiers of Portuguese football in one season.
JC: Your journey took in a fairly comprehensive list of fixtures, but were there any particular teams/stadiums/cities that you wish you’d visited? And outside of Europe what’s the number one football target on your bucket list?
MW: It would have been amazing to visit ÍBV, who play their matches inside a volcanic crater on the Icelandic archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar, or to venture inside the Arctic Circle to watch Tromsø in Norway. However, I couldn’t afford such expensive and time-consuming detours on this manic trip. On a more mainstream note, I must experience a match at the San Siro before they knock it down, and Buenos Aires is one of the great football cities I have yet to visit.
JC: European football has become generally more accessible, in most part because of the Champions League and Europa League, but was there a particular team/league you came across that you felt deserved more attention from the footballing world?
MW: Israeli football is fascinating and, in many ways, it mirrors the country itself: the game is deeply political, struggles for wider recognition and reflects the cultural fusion found in this slither of the Middle East. Israel has so many influences – evidenced by the variety of surnames on each team sheet – that I had to check the nationality of every player to see whether they were a domestic player or a foreign national. The stadiums were also unique and I enjoyed the passionate atmosphere inside them.
JC: With so much football, both English and European, on TV, has anything been lost from live football? Does it still have the same appeal?
MW: Televised football really is a different sport: it’s not live (I’ve experienced lags of up to one minute!) and you can’t see the entire match. I do enjoy watching football on TV as well as the live game, but I get frustrated that I can’t see every player at all times on the screen. But, for me, the biggest difference is the lack of other distractions at live football. I watch a TV game with the cat jumping in front of the screen, mobile phones flashing and food and drink being wantonly consumed. At a live match, it’s you and other fans all getting behind the same thing at the same time. I still think, rather like going to gigs, the appeal of the live game will endure, although VAR may stretch that to a certain extent.
JC: Which team/league on your journey was the biggest surprise for you – either in a good way or a bad way?
MW: Kosovo – in both ways. The Kosovan league was ranked the worst in Europe when I visited in 2017/18. Kosovo had only joined UEFA in 2016 and therefore its teams had had limited opportunities to accrue ranking points. But I was surprised by the skill and intensity on show during Drita’s thrilling 4-3 win against Liria. It was also clear from speaking to the Drita management that football was a way for Kosovans to reflect their independence and passion. But, less positively, there was also some unexpected crowd violence during that match at Drita.
JC: It’s often said that football is a common language, was that borne out in your travels?
MW: Pretty much. It’s easier to walk into a bar and strike up a conversation about football than almost any other subject, regardless of the country. I found that football always provoked a reaction even in countries, such as Georgia and Belarus, where it’s not the most popular sport. There must be few places in the world where football isn’t watched or talked about.
JC: I thought I was perhaps the only person to remember Bosko Balaban, yet he crops curiously on your travels, what was the strangest/most surreal experience along the way?
MW: My most surreal experience was arguably venturing into the Negev desert to watch a fourth-tier match with some Israeli film-makers. The wonderful food, the stunning sun-kissed setting – even more welcome in the depths of January – and the humour of my new friends made for a totally unique experience that I knew would be impossible to replicate anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, it’s the focus of my Israel chapter in ‘Europe United’.
JC: The project was something of an epic journey that saw you travelling for many months. How did it feel when you finished watching your fifty-fifth and final match at Montenegro and it was all over? When the English league finishes in May and there are no international matches scheduled, personally I’m at an utter loss, was there that sort of comedown afterwards or in fact were you glad to have some time off from watching football – albeit presumably only a short while because you were off to Russia for the World Cup?
MW: I felt an enormous feeling of achievement when I watched football in my final UEFA member, but it was tinged with a little sadness that my first mission was over. I certainly missed the adrenaline rush from the football. I knew that every match was not only a different experience, but also one that I would reflect in Europe United. However, by the end, I didn’t miss spending days between matches staying in hotels and wandering around old towns – I had a seen enough of both, at times I felt like Bill Bryson on speed.
The World Cup in Russia, where I watched three matches, was a fine ending to my exciting year of football. I would probably have watched more World Cup matches in obscure cities in Russia had I just not spent the previous summer watching league football in obscure cities in Russia. And I also had a book to write.
JC: I wonder, after your 2017/18 exploits, how did you spend the 18/19 season? On a personal level, you had Fulham back in the Premier League for a season, but had your attitudes/appetite for English football changed? How did the experience of watching English football compare after having experienced so much other football?
MW: I wrote the second draft of Europe United in Indonesia and Laos and therefore missed the first chunk of Fulham’s disastrous 2018/19 season. By the time I returned to London in December 2018, we were all but relegated. I watched the remaining matches at Craven Cottage, but it was strange having so little meaningful football to connect myself back to my own club.
I was fortunate to watch only a handful of dead league matches during my European football travels. I like my football to be competitive. I refuse to watch friendlies and don’t get me started about third place play offs at major tournaments!
It’s much better now at Fulham as, like all teams at the beginning of a new season, we have something to play for. I also enjoy watching matches with my dad and old Fulham friends. It’s somehow more relaxing. I may care more about the result when Fulham play, but it was quite intense bouncing around foreign football stadiums trying to find people to talk to.
JC: I know you caught some English matches live in the 2017/18 season but presumably not as many as normal and perhaps not as much English football in general, what if anything did you miss about the English game/matchday experience?
MW: The away fans. Craven Cottage is a favourite amongst travelling supporters and we tend to get good numbers, even for midweek matches, that are often swelled by London exiles. There was a certain frisson missing in many leagues where fans don’t have the means or motivation to travel to away games. It would have made Alanyaspor’s remarkable 4-3 win at Trabzonspor, after being 3-0 down, even more memorable had there been more than one travelling fan.
JC: The English Premier League is often celebrated in a European context, in terms of its standard, visibility etc, but how did your travels leave you feeling about English football, and what perhaps it lacks in respect of other nations? Is English football in a healthy state?
MW: English football is certainly rich. Domžale, who won the Slovenian title twice in the mid-2000s, told me that their entire budget was less than £2 million per year. Fulham have players who don’t even make the first team who probably earn more than that!
Perhaps, with all-seater stadiums in the top two division, the spontaneity has gone forever in English football now. I certainly enjoyed the standing areas in Norway and Sweden and being able to rock up and get in on the door at matches across eastern Europe.
JC: There seems to still be big divisions between the state of football in Europe, is there any possibility that these will shrink or will the bigger leagues/nations just get bigger and the smaller ones get smaller, do you think? Are we in danger of even losing some leagues?
MW: The financial chasm will grow thanks to the global popularity of the major leagues and recent tweaks to European competitions aimed at keeping the very biggest clubs happy. Two of the top players I watched in Croatia have just moved from their home league to Birmingham City (Ivan Šunjić) and Luton Town (Simon Sluga), rather emphasising the monetary difference between the Croatian top flight and the English league system.
The Croatian league will struggle on with money from transfers and middling leagues in the likes of Poland, Sweden and Switzerland will continue to attract decent crowds. But others may well have to merge to renew flagging interest in domestic leagues and make them more competitive.
JC: How did your travels change your perceptions of European football as a whole? Is it moving in the right direction?
MW: European football is moving in three directions. The big leagues are getting richer and stronger. The mid-sized leagues, such as those in Belgium and the Netherlands, are still healthy, but struggling to keep up. The rest are reliant on UEFA money or wealthy benefactors and receive next to no additional income. The globalisation of the game hinders the smaller leagues as, sadly, more people watch Real Madrid from their couch rather than their local side from the stands.
JC: Do you still follow those leagues, and in particular, teams, that you visited? Is there any one team you have a particular affinity for now?
MW: I still follow some of the teams from my travels, especially clubs where I met great fans such as Brann Bergen (Norway), Arsenal Tula (Russia) and St Gallen (Switzerland). The red (well, purple!) carpet was also rolled out at Maribor (Slovenia) and I’ve received invitations from the club to watch them play in European competition.
JC: For any football fan who wants to broaden their experience of European football away from the big leagues, what would be your suggestion both in terms of a league armchair fans can follow and a league for those wanting to experience it live?
MW: I recommend persevering with the irritating Passolig identity card system and watching Turkish matches both in Istanbul – one of the world’s essential cities – and somewhere in Anatolia. The contrast and the atmospheres are sure to be fascinating, and Turkey certainly rewards travellers, and football fans, who venture outside its biggest city.
JC: Your project involved both your love of football and travel, how much did the experience reinforce or perhaps test those?
MW: It definitely reinforced both, but I loved the combination the most. I was travelling to a football beat. My challenge took me to places that I had wanted to sample for some time, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Albania, and others, like Switzerland and San Marino, that I had already visited and would have preferred not to have to return to. My travels were a democracy of European football though and I sometimes had the best experiences in the most unlikely of places. With all due respect to the world’s oldest republic, I would prefer not to visit San Marino for a third time though!
JC: What does the 19/20 season have in store for you? Do you have any other football pilgrimages lined up?
MW: Of course. I’ve just watched all 24 teams play at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt in nine days, relatively easy compared to taking on UEFA. I am visiting the Azores in September to watch Santa Clara play at the most westerly stadium in Europe’s top leagues. And my next long-haul trip is to Mexico to watch several matches and brush up on my Spanish. I might need it for my next continental challenge!
Our thanks to Matt and Jade for this excellent Q&A.
Europe United by Matt Walker
riverrun 9781787476127 hbk Aug 2019