Groundhopping. I didn’t know the word- or the concept, even- existed when I started, which was probably early in my long stay in South Korea, crossing the country to watch the national team play in Busan or watching Incheon United play away for the first time in Suwon (both trips feature in this reflection on my years watching football in South Korea). As I have grown more familiar with the hobby, my attention has been drawn- through personal and online encounters- to those serious groundhoppers, guys who post hundreds of games a season or who have reached three figures for grounds around the world or even a single country. For me, however, it has remained a strictly amateur pursuit.
My 2014/15 season was spent in the Basque Country and this was the year I was hoping to join the pros. It’s a groundhopper’s paradise, the Basque Country, with teams throughout the Spanish football pyramid, as well as a few entrants in the lower echelons of French football. Unfortunately, the usual list of excuses- work, money, travel costs, an inability to say ‘no’ to a Sunday morning kickabout, hangovers- put paid to my ambitions of climbing the rankings. My end of season numbers are not great, but I did manage to see 14 of Spain’s 20 top-flight teams, at least one game at each of the top four tiers of Spanish football, and games in the first and fifth levels of French football, so I am pretty confident I got a good feel for the game in the region.
Grounds: 15 (13 of which were new)
Goals: 72 (at a reasonable-ish 2.5 per game)
Home wins: 17
The low grounds-to-games ratio is due to what was a growing love affair with Real Sociedad. My Basque base was San Sebastián and the local team were gathering a lot of attention following the arrival of David Moyes as manager in November. Most of what I saw of Real Sociedad happened at the back-end of 2014, but it was in January this year when my fandom reached its peak.
The first month of the year is a proud time for all Donostiarrans- the Basque name for the locals– as it is the time of the town’s largest celebration: the drumming festival, Tamborrada. I was clearly caught up in the swelling of local pride, watching Real Sociedad five times during the month, starting with a 1-0 win over Barcelona. It was a backs-to-the-wall, nail-biting win with Iñigo Martinez looking like the star defender some predict he will become. In mid-January there was Moyes’ crisp eating incident as the txuriurdin exited the cup against Villareal, but by the end of the month my love affair was starting to wane. The 4-1 dismantling I witnessed at the Bernabeu may have had something to do with this, but mainly it was that my wife and I also began looking at our next move around this time. Having dedicated the first five months of the season to Real Sociedad, it was now time to get out and see what the Basque Country had on offer before it was too late (19 of the matches and 8 of the new grounds came after Christmas). The final months of the season were an excellent time to be watching football in the Basque Country. At the top end, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Eibar may have only finished 7th, 12th and 18th respectively, but lower down Bilbao Athletic, Portugalete, Arenas de Getxo and Gernika all achieved promotion from their respective divisions, while Real Union made the promotion play-offs and won the Copa Federacion (a Johnstone Paint’s Trophy equivalent). As groundhoppers begin to put together their itineraries for the 2015/16 season, I can’t recommend highly enough that they squeeze in a visit to the Basque Country. At every level, there are some great stadiums, passionate supporters and good football. There is the opportunity to watch football at variety of different levels and, if you’re lucky, even two different countries in a single day or weekend. There is great food, great beer and great people. If you are still not convinced, here are a few highlights (and a couple lowlights) from my 2014/15 season.
BEST GAME: Real Sociedad 4-3 Sevilla (La Liga, Anoeta, February)
Not only did I get a free ticket- a kind gentleman gave me his ill grandson’s season ticket- but I got to see a seven-goal thriller. The lead changed hands on three occasions, which all proved too much for the Good Samaritan I was sat with who left when Sevilla went ahead with ten minutes remaining. Club legend Xabi Prieto got the last-minute winner for the home side.
Honourable mentions: The Internet may have made it seem like David Moyes’ crisp-eating was the most entertaining part of the Real Sociedad’s 2-2 draw with Villareal, but this was a proper cup tie…Paris Saint Germain (5-0 versus Saint Etienne) and Real Madrid (4-1 versus Real Sociedad) lived up to their Super Club™ billing on the occasions I visited them.
BEST PERFORMER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
While I’d always appreciated the player, I hadn’t ever really got the whole Cult-of-Zlatan-thing. That changed on the weekend I read his autobiography and saw him score a hat-trick against Saint Etienne. #iamzlatan
Honourable Mentions: How come people still don’t get Karim Benzema?…Real Sociedad are a different team when Carlos Vela plays…Ruben Castro had a bad year off the field, but was too good for Osasuna’s defence on it.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
I’m not being contrarian here. These two are undoubtedly the world’s best and I’ve even managed to put my Manchester United bias aside and acknowledge Messi as football’s Supreme Overload. However these footballing Demi-gods had a shocker once I showed up. Ronaldo was suspended when I visited the Bernabeu, while Messi was sat on the bench when Barça visited Anoeta. People love to talk statistics when comparing these two, well here are mine: €160 spent on tickets for 45 minutes of football and zero goals. Thanks, guys.
(Dis)Honourable Mentions: Spanish fixture organizers; Eibar were half an hour away, but regular Friday night, Monday night and 10pm Saturday night kick-offs made even that short journey difficult…Tickets; my collection of Korean come in all colours and sizes, while Spanish ones come either in white or in- environmentally-friendly, but far less collectable- electronic form…Non-alcoholic beer in stadiums; just don’t bother…Finally ending a two year run without a 0-0 draw (I posted five in total this year, worse than one in six).
BEST YOUNG PLAYER Geronimo Rulli (Real Sociedad & Argentina) David Moyes can add Rulli, along with Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley, to the list of young players he gave a chance to. Moyes replaced regular keeper Zubikarai with Rulli in December and the young Argentine went on to establish himself as La Real’s regular first choice keeper and ended the season with a national team call-up.
Honorable mentions: Iñaki Williams will be some player once Bilbao find out how to best channel his undoubted talent…Sorry for stating the obvious, but Marco Verratti, Isco and Aymeric Laporte are all worthy of the hype and ridiculous buy-out clauses.
BEST STADIUM: San Mames (Athletic Club, Bilbao) Proving new-build stadiums need not be just a concrete bowl on the a near-suburban industrial estate, the new San Mames sits beautifully just outside the city centre.
Honourable Mentions: This award was always going to be a toss-up between these two fantastic new-builds, but the brilliant Nouveau Stade in Bordeaux loses out for being slightly further from town and slightly smaller than San Mames…Stadium Gal was the first Spanish ground I visited this season. It’s beautiful and so close to France that you can smell the garlic…The Santiago Bernabeu is alright, I suppose.
BEST GOAL: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid (vs Real Sociedad) Bend it like Benzema!
Honourable mentions: Esteban Granero, Real Sociedad (vs Villareal)…Carlos Vela, Real Sociedad (vs Atletico Madrid)…Either of the free-kicks scored in Portugalete’s home defeat to CD Martos in the Tercera Promotion Play-offs.
BEST FANS: Girondins de Bordeaux The home fans were great when I visited the Stade Chaban-Delmas in December and absolutely fantastic in creating a party atmosphere on the night they opened their brand-new home in May. They also did this when I sadly wasn’t there to witness.
Honourable mentions: Osasuna‘s fans great an intimidating atmosphere that helped do so well in La Liga for so long and undoubtedly helped them to survive- just- relegation to the third tier this season…In the week of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the fans of Aviron Bayonnais managed to strike the perfect chord between national tragedy and fifth-tier local derby…Club Portugalete; they bought me beer and have a Welshman in their ranks. What more do you want?
Please follow the links in the post and have a look around the blog for all the posts from the Basque Country (and beyond); it really is a great place to watch football. It has been a pleasure to share my experiences with people and will hopefully continue to do so once my next move, which takes me to Vietnam, is finalised. Given my likely work commitments and the geographical concentration of football teams in the country’s south, I will likely be staying in the amateur ranks of groundhoppers for another season, but I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.