Planes, Trains and Tickets – 9 days seeing games in Europe

The jet lag is gone now and so, for the most part, is the Tube cough that I picked up from the not so great air in the London Underground. It was a fast-paced, hectic, often tense ‘holiday.’ Nine days in England and Spain with my 16 year old son to see games. It’s becoming what we do but this one was pretty ambitious. I timed it so we could potentially see all four Champions League semi-finals with the potential to fill in many days with league games. We were never realistically going to see all four semi-final games but we didn’t know which, if any, we would see as we got onto the plane. That was the twist. Every other soccer trip I’ve done, I’ve left with tickets in hand for all the games we planned on seeing.

Chronologically, here’s how it went…

April 29 – Vancouver

This day actually began the night before when I tried to check in for our flight and got a strange message saying I couldn’t and would have to do so at the airport. I started wondering why that would be the case. I knew  my passport was fine and I knew my son’s expired in June but had checked and the UK allowed entry as long as you had 30 days left on it after your planned return home. I looked further. Spain did not have the same rule. You needed three months. Shhhiiiittt.

Up early and off to the passport office. “It would really be up to the airline and immigration agent to let you onto the flight or into the country when you land. Can’t guarantee it but we have the ability to do a passport today for you. Just fill out these forms and get back here asap.” Had to boot out to UBC to get my wife to sign off on the passport application and then back downtown. Super helpful woman there then went through them all and got them set up for a quickie passport. Then she asked for Tavish’s current passport and saw that he was 16. “These are the wrong forms. These are for people under 16 years of age.” We looked at each other, her already thinking of a solution, me crestfallen, Tavish fully distraught. “We can do this though. Here’s the adult form, you can be the guarantor. Give me two references we can call and we’ll do our best.”

1.5 hours later we had a passport and were making our way to the airport, arriving in plenty of time. Government offices take a fair bit of flack but I was so impressed by the professionalism and willingness to go the extra mile of the staff there. When I left the pick up window with passport in hand I went back to the people who had made it happen and thanked them individually.

Practical tip: Check your passport before you leave and don’t make assumptions about how long it needs to be valid for.

April 30 – London

Trips like this take an unusual amount of planning. Spurs v Ajax at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was on the day we arrived. We then had a flight to Spain that left the next day. We had arrived at Gatwick and were leaving for Barcelona through there as well. Our trains to and from Gatwick went through Victoria Station so we stayed walking distance from there in Pimlico.

We pushed through the jet lag, dropped our bags in our room and used our Tube day pass to full effect. Tavish knew where he wanted to go. This would be stores like Palace and Supreme in SoHo which because they are so cool are closed far more days than they are open. That was the case for Palace who apparently needed a few days to put their summer stock on shelves. Supreme though was open and had a line and a security guard outside. I let him do his thing and wandered around waiting for a text to let me know he was ready. The mythology around Supreme is mind-blowing if you’re not familiar with it. Tavish now has a pair of purple nylon Supreme pants that cost more than I have ever spent on a pair of pants. His money though so good for him getting something he says he can wear for a few months and then sell for more than he paid (this is a big thing for teens these days).

Game time loomed. We went back to the hotel. We’d got a text from the person who said he might be able to help us get tickets letting us know it wouldn’t be happening. We knew that one was a stretch. We looked online at viagogo.com. Prices starting at GBP 400. We tried Craigslist. One ad for a pair of tickets. GBP 300. Texted offering 300 for the pair. He agreed. Asked us to come to his hotel in Leicester Square. Queue Benny Hill music as get over there by tube, taxi and foot as quickly as we can only to discover it was some kid having a laugh at our expense. No tickets and time wasted. Headed to the stadium to see if we would have better luck.

Spoiler: we didn’t.

Prices held at GBP 400 per ticket even once the game was 15 minutes in and Ajax had already scored. More buyers than sellers and the guys selling were pros and not worried about time ticking by. Ended up being on the same tube back as one once we gave up and talked to the guy. Showed me all the events he was going to the next few months. Must have been more than twenty and they were all over the world. Young guy with several guys in his ‘crew’ working with him. Some scouts for police, some likely security given the money he must have had on him.

So a long 30 hours with nothing but stress and disappointment ended up with us going to bed but not before I went online and made the most extravagant purchase of my life: two tickets for the Barcelona v Liverpool game at the Camp Nou the next day. No way we were going there and not seeing that game. And given our flight got in about 2.5 hours before game time there really wasn’t time to source tickets once we got there.

Practicals:

  • The tube in London is awesome. It’s also packed most of the time but trains come every few minutes. Get a day pass. Way more economical than individual tickets and saves you having to buy tickets all the time. Gatwick is a surprisingly good airport. Security is staffed way more than Vancouver (we waited over 30 minutes in line when we left YVR; we were through the whole process in under ten minutes both times we flew out of Gatwick on this trip).
  • Buying tickets on Viagogo.com is not pleasant. I found it a deceptive site that didn’t list their fees clearly and did not make it as obvious as it should what currency you were dealing with. At the end as you pay all of a sudden you are paying in Polish Zloty as they are based in Poland. You’re looking for a professional, credible site that gives you confidence in the process when you’re dropping a lot of money in tickets. In the end, I got PDF’s of the tickets right away and there were no issues with them.
  • If you’re going to be moving around a lot on a trip like this put a priority on location for your hotel. Your early morning commute to airports and train stations doesn’t need to be complicated by adding 30-60 minutes to the trip because your hotel is nowhere near your departure point. The hotels we stayed in were picked for convenience of location more than anything else. They are not the places I would have booked if I was travelling with my wife. Amenities were irrelevant. We barely spent any time when we were awake in any of them. Comfy bed, decent ratings online and modest prices (the money was all going into tickets) were the criteria.

 

May 1 to 4: Barcelona

Flight mercifully was not delayed. Having just dropped a serious wad on tickets I was a prime candidate for ending up on the evening news if a flight delay was going to cause us to miss FCB v LFC at the Camp Nou. All good though. Picked up four day Metro passes at the airport, checked in to our hotel 400m from Camp Nou and joined the party. Tens of thousands of people all outside, on the streets, in adjacent parks. Loads of people selling cold Estrella beers on the streets for 2 Euros. Super festive. Got in soon after the gates opened an hour or so before kickoff. Front row of the top tier behind the goal (three tiers behind the goal, five on the main stand on the sideline). Fantastic view of the rest of the stadium and a great tactical view of the game.

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View from our seats at Camp Nou for Barcelona vs Liverpool

By the time Messi scored his second on a stunning free kick to make it 3-0, we felt we had experienced what would be the high point of the trip. A crowd of over 98 000, two Messi goals right in front of us on a beautiful night in an iconic stadium. It was what I had talked about wanting the trip to be before we left: Exciting, meaningful games featuring the best players in the world playing in iconic stadiums in great cities. This would be hard to top.

The game was on a Wednesday night so we had two game-free days to see Barcelona before seeing Atletico Madrid playing Espanyol at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat. That meant a return visit to Futbol Mania, an epic soccer store we’d been to five years earlier, for a needed pair of boots for Tavish and seeing some of the sights. He ended up with some newly released white Copas. If I’d had to convince him to get those instead of an eyeball searing pair of Nikes made of tinfoil and plutonium I’d have considered it a stalemate but he went with the leather Copas. So even though they’re not black that’s just good parenting plain and simple.

Futbol Mania in Barcelona (left) and Tavish with his new laceless, white adi Copas

It’s now much easier to buy tickets for La Liga games online than I remember it being in the past. They generally aren’t available until a week or two before the day the game is being played but you can buy them relatively simply. Getting the Espanyol tickets was no problem and the Metro got us to within a 15 minute walk of the stadium (Barcelona’s Metro is fantastic by the way. We never waited more than three minutes for one and they were always clean and much quieter than London’s).

Action from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid. Griezeman (left) not as popular here as he is in Madrid and France.

This game was a pleasant surprise. Well-designed stadium built ten years ago. Open concourses, great sight lines and tight to the pitch. The fans are unapologetic in their support for the city’s “other” team. We had joked that you never see people wearing Espanyol jerseys in Barcelona and it’s easier to find a Barca jersey there than a bottle of water but Espanyol fans look like they know how to have fun at games. Didn’t hurt that they ended up beating a listless Atleti side 3-0 but it was a really enjoyable game day experience for us and for everyone but the 50 or so Atleti fans who travelled to watch.

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More from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat or RCDE Stadium in Barcelona

Had to race back to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to Barcelona Sants train station to get on the train to Madrid. The high speed trains in Spain are fantastic. It took three hours to get there on a very smooth train that hit 300km/h. Like the rest of Europe for the most part you leave and arrive from a central point in the city. Grabbed a cab, there must have been over fifty waiting to pick up people from our train and others outside the station, and got to our hotel around midnight.

Practicals:

  • Go see games where the home team is not a global brand. The supporter culture is very real and there were very few turistas like ourselves there. Same for Getafe v Girona below.
  • Even in May, Barcelona was packed with tourists.

 

May 5 – Madrid

We had tickets for the Getafe v Girona game in the south of Madrid and planned to go straight to the Bernabeu to see about tickets for that knowing that we had a flight that night back to London.

Getting to Getafe was frustrating. I allowed two hours and we still missed close to 30 minutes of the first half mainly due to our journey being interrupted by a closed section on the Metro that forced us above ground and onto a bus to a station that we weren’t planning on going through.

Getafe FC are a great story this year. Formed in 1983 (from the ashes of previous iterations of clubs that had operated there) they had risen from the bottom division and spent all but one of the last ten or so seasons in La Liga Santander (the top division in Spain). Now for the first time they were battling for fourth place and the last berth in Champions League for next season. Their opponents were also battling. They were fourth from the bottom though and trying to stave off relegation. So not exactly a UCL semi-final but still a highly relevant game.

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in the 17000 seat Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Getafe controlled play after an early goal (that we missed) and then notched a second soon after a Girona red card. The game tailed off after that and Getafe got three points nearer to playing Champions League soccer next season.

Getafe v Girona. One trying to get into Champions League for the first time; the other trying not to get relegated. And yeah, so much for thinking seats in the second row would be a good idea…

Getting to the Bernabeu from Getafe was much simpler than getting to the Getafe stadium. We joined the surprisingly long line for the ticket windows and had a scalper swing by within seconds. Chopped his 300 euro gambit for a pair of good tickets down to 150 very quickly and he escorted me to a nearby bank machine. Tough day for scalpers. Demand for Real tickets seems to have plummeted in light of their poor season and Villareal were not a big draw. The stadium was less than half full. Factor in that Ramos, Bale and Benzema didn’t even dress and the game didn’t have much lustre. That said, it ended up being full of attacking play with those who were playing, especially Marcelo, seeming very loose and wanting to put on a show. Final score was 3-2 Real.

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Once again it was a race to get out of the stadium and into a cab to go pick up our bags and get to the airport. We spent 22 hours in Madrid but managed to see two games.

Practicals

  • Barajas Airport in Madrid is excellent in terms of layout, staffing and getting through security quickly
  • Getting tickets for both games (one in advance; one at the stadium from a scalper) was easy
  • We flew EasyJet back to Gatwick because it was one of the few flights we could do at that time of day back to London. First time flying it. They dinged me $110 for having a back pack in addition to my one carry-on suitcase. It was buried in the terms of the ticket. The cost of the actual ticket was right around $110. Buyer beware.

 

May 6 – London

Arrived at our hotel near Shoreditch, which has been in the news recently as an example of resistance to gentrification in London. Did another day walking around London sites before getting a fish n chips takeaway and getting to bed fairly early as we had an early bus to Liverpool waiting for us in the morning.

 

May 7 – Liverpool

As I alluded to, trains are the way to go for inter-city travel in Europe but the only trains we could take that would comfortably get us into Liverpool from London in time for the game were 6-8 times more expensive than the bus so we went with that. It was not enjoyable. Six hours getting to Liverpool with no stops (and no wifi).

This was the game we knew we had the best chance of getting some friend of a friend free tickets for. And after shelling out for tickets in Barcelona, I really wasn’t in a position to splash out again for the return leg. Problem is we wouldn’t know until sometime the day of the game. Finally got the text fours away from game time soon after we’d checked into our Air BnB (hotel prices in Liverpool the night of the game were outrageous). Our tickets were waiting for us. Met up with friend and friend of a friend for a couple of drinks and then jumped in 12 seater van for a two quid ride to Anfield. We were on a total high. The game could have been a nil-nil drabfest and we would have been okay with it. Just seeing those two teams again and being at Anfield for the first time, down low with the Kop looming to our left was enough.

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Us and the Kop

 

But it would be much more than that.

No Salah, no Firmino. Down 3-0 from the first leg. There really wasn’t much reason for Liverpool to be optimistic, be it players or fans.

The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.

The Kop was not buying that narrative. Capacity is just over half of what was at Camp Nou. The noise, mainly from the Kop, was relentless. I’ve been to two World Cups, two Euros, EPL games and many other games in Europe, North America and Africa. This was the best in terms of atmosphere. And with each goal Liverpool scored it just intensified three fold. Not only were we spitting distance from the Kop, 14 rows up from the field, but we ended up being at the end where Liverpool scored their second, third and fourth goals. The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.

Perhaps the saddest part of the trip was after the game while we were still in the stadium just looking around as the players celebrated on the field. I turned to Tavish and said, “You know you’ll never see a game like this again?”. He quietly replied, “Yeah, I know.” It’s easier to take when you’re in your fifties to know that you won’t see a game like that again. Not so much when you’re sixteen.

We soaked in some of the post-game celebrations on the way back to where we were staying but we were drained and had another bus ride back to London waiting for us in the morning. Our 18 hours in Liverpool had been well spent though.

Practicals:

  • Go see a game at Anfield. The bigger the game the better I’m sure but I asked guys behind us if it’s always like that and they said it’s always pretty close to what we saw and heard.
  • I don’t use AirBnB much but this one was almost a life saver. Great host and great location

 

May 8 and 9 – London

As mentioned at the outset, I booked our dates to allow for the possibility of seeing any and all of the semi-finals but with no line on tickets for the Spurs v Ajax game in Amsterdam and the only combo of flights from Manchester to Schiphol and back to Gatwick that would allow us to catch our return flight back to Vancouver clocking in at close to $900 for the two of us by the time a final decision had to be made, it was a no go.

Unable to access my DAZN account in the UK, I had to use a VPN and pay for the game on B/R Live (Bleacher Report). It was the best $3 I’ve spent in a long time. Just as people were recovering from the drama of the Liverpool comeback, Spurs decided to take it a step further. If you know of two games in the same competition, in any sport, that pulled off the same degree of drama that these two games did, let me know. I’d like to see that because Spurs scoring three in the second half away from home with no Harry Kane and the last one coming on the stroke of the five minutes of injury time being up was one-upmanship of the highest order; pure “Hold my beer Liverpool.” It left Tavish and I half shouting, half laughing at the laptop when Spurs scored the goal that makes the Champions League Final an all EPL affair.

  • VPN’s come in handy, just not for DAZN
  • Hotwire is generally great for booking rooms when you’re not fussy about too much but since you don’t know what you’re getting until after you book (to get the best deals) it can cause a problem if you need to be highly sensitive to location. I tried to get something close to London Bridge Station but ended up a 25 minute tube ride further away than what I thought we’d be. When you’re on your fourth or fifth day of being in a different city each day and getting ready to head home. I should just have splurged a bit and got a hotel much closer to where we had to be in the morning.
  • Train service to Gatwick is excellent and really no longer than taking the tube to and from Heathrow. There’s no advantage to buying these tickets online ahead of time though

We flew home the next morning. I’ve done a few of these dedicated soccer trips now starting with the World Cup in 2014 but for all previous ones I had tickets for all the games we planned to see in my hands before we left. For this one, of the six games we hoped to see, I only had tickets for two (Espanyol v Atleti and Getafe v Girona). We ended up seeing five as we couldn’t get in to Spurs v Ajax in London and that was enough numbers-wise and more than enough quality-wise. Tavish is not prone to hyperbole at all but his Instagram posts after the Camp Nou and Anfield games were “best two hours of my life” and “life changing” respectively. I’d have to agree with him. The two legs of the Liverpool-Barca tie will go down as being among the most memorable in Champions League history – and we saw both of them.

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The impact of cars

UPDATE Nov 29: So six weeks, almost to the hour, after my brother in law was admitted to hospital, he was released. He went home last night with 20 boxes of medical supplies related to his tracheotomy and feeding tube. He’s seven surgeries in with more to come in the short and long term but he’s home and we’re all very happy. The medical attention he has had has been amazing. His friends have been just as amazing in their support for him, my sister and their kids. Seriously, you want friends like his. Both his and my sister’s employers have been models of how you hope companies react in these situations. There’s good that has come out of this but it’s come at a heavy price.

As much as I argue below for better awareness of cyclists on the road the biggest thing I will take away from this is my brother in law’s resilience and calm, measured determination to get through this and get back to a regular life. He’s not kidding himself about any of this. It’s a serious trauma he went through and is still going through but the acknowledgement of this and the willingness to confront it with a positivism that is very real, that knows the many challenges that still lay ahead, despite still being in an acute phase of recovery, is frankly stunning and very inspiring.  

 

This is the first MMCB article not about soccer.

My brother in law just spent his third night in an Intensive Care Unit last night. He will be there at least another week. He has had several surgeries already and has many more to come. He’s married to my sister and has two kids and a dog. He works and he has been a volunteer coach in his community in both hockey and soccer. He’s also an avid cyclist who completed the Whistler Gran Fondo in September. And as I told him a few years ago, he’s the nicest guy in our family.

He was riding his bike late afternoon on Tuesday, wearing a bright green cycling jersey and clearly had the right of way. A car, seemingly in a hurry, didn’t see him. 

He took pretty much the entire force of the collision on his face. Everything there is broken in multiple places. Everything. Plus a broken arm. He has no brain injury though. The doctors have made it clear his helmet saved his life.

My sister, niece and nephew (and many, many others) are a razor’s edge from grieving his death. My sister’s voice has never sounded like it did when she first called me. It was just so heavy with shock, detached from its normal vigour.

There are more and more cyclists on the road and even though this means fewer cars in traffic, too often they are seen as an inconvenience to drivers at best and the enemy at worst. Cyclists have an equal entitlement to the road. There is no eminent domain for car drivers when it comes to roads vis a vis cyclists.

Vancouver has built several bike lanes and instead of this being broadly embraced, too many drivers and radio hosts, who seem to feel their job is to create civic frenzy, demonize those who created them and those who use them. The derogatory caricatures I’ve heard applied to cyclists is just another example of how divisive western societies are becoming. This insistence on creating the “other” that “regular folks” can and should oppose is dangerous and leads, in this case, to drivers not believing they need to look for, see and, yes, accommodate cyclists because they are somehow less worthy of the spaces they are sharing. Cyclists are not an inconvenience to their commute, not a drain on their tax dollars, not an undesirable element in society but too many see it this way. In reality, they are very much like the rest of us. Fathers, mothers, partners, sons, daughters, commuters, coaches, volunteers and generally very nice people who live and work in your community. The message needs to become that using roads, whether in a car or on a bike, carries more responsibilities as these roads increasingly are shared with a variety of things on wheels. 

So please re-think how cyclists fit into our transportation network and start acknowledging the benefits of separated bike lanes in high traffic areas and bike friendly streets in quieter arterial routes rather than focusing on perceived negatives. As I write this I’m resisting the impulse to spew anger towards those who oppose this idea because it somehow impinges their birthright to shave a few minutes off their travel time. I really want to but that’s divisive too so I’m just asking that you recognize the very real life consequences of not respecting cyclists and how vulnerable they are on roads. I’m also asking that we all get a bit more organized and allow more time to get to where we need to go so the trip is not characterized by tension and impatience. Yes, some cyclists are assholes and reckless and yell rude things to drivers. That’s wrong but the damage they can cause is completely asymmetrical to that that a disengaged or angry driver can in their fast moving 2000 pound torpedo.

I’ve just started to teach my youngest son to drive. We’ve already covered how to look for pedestrians and cyclists. It will continue and be repeated many, many times. It starts there.

I started riding a bike again this summer. Partially motivated by my brother in law, partially by other friends. I really enjoy it but I’ve already had close calls. What I already see though is that cyclists can do their part too. Where there are bike lanes, use them instead of busy roads (I will never understand seeing bikes on Broadway when there are excellent bike routes a block away for the most part). Be courteous. Communicate your intentions with hand signals. Try to make eye contact with drivers at intersections. Wear a helmet. Wear a helmet. Wear a good fucking helmet and strap it on properly

It’s been an eye opening last few days. My brother in law has a long recovery ahead of him but he will recover. My sister’s voice will recover. Some cyclists are not so lucky. Don’t wait until it’s a cyclist you know that is badly injured or killed before you start to change your behaviour. Please.

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Going straight to the top

Ran into a former coach at our club yesterday and it reminded me of one of my favourite coach stories. Most people who read this will know what an International Transfer Clearance (ITC) is but briefly for those who do not it is a FIFA initiative designed to curb unscrupulous agents preying on young players, generally from poorer countries, who are desperate to get tryouts and contracts with professional clubs in Europe. It forces clubs to get an array of intrusive questions answered so as to ascertain that the player and his or her parents are legitimately in the country to eliminate the chance that an agent has charged them a large sum of money to arrange a trial when in fact many, in the past, have just been abandoned to the streets when they reach Europe.

So ITC’s serve a purpose but their implementation has been extended to every player between the age of ten and 17 regardless of the level of play or country. That means we get 10-20 players every year who move to Vancouver and need to fill out an ITC just to play low level recreational soccer. Clearly ITC’s were not intended to stop kids who have moved to Canada from playing recreational soccer but there are no exceptions to the policy.

In theory, once their ITC application leaves Canada and goes to the national association of the country they moved from, if it is not responded to in 30 days, the player is free to play. There are often side issues that lengthen that though.

So back to Tim, the former coach at our club. He was coaching a U16 or U17 Silver team (fourth of five levels of play) and had a new player who was keen to play. The 30 day deadline came and went but there was no clearance from our governing body. Tim asked our admin staff to look into it and the query flowed from our club to the District to the Provincial body and to the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). And then nothing. We couldn’t get an answer. Tim was not impressed and was increasingly upset at the ridiculousness of this player new to our club not being able to play. He persisted, going through the established channels, but with every non-response he got more impatient as this dragged out over close to three months.

So, as is not too unusual on the west side of Vancouver, a very affluent part of the city, Tim decided he was done dealing with underlings. Instead he decided to go right to the top to get this sorted out. He picked up the phone and called the then new CSA President (and now FIFA Vice President) Victor Montagliani! Tim had never met or talked to Victor before so it’s not like he was leaning on him as a friend to get something. He just called him and asked, persistently, that Victor figure out what had happened and fix it.

And the best part is…Victor, to his credit and my amazement, did just that.

He took down the details, made a phone call or two and got back to Tim days later saying the problem was solved and the kid was now eligible to play.

I’m not going to hang anyone out to dry over what the problem was but it was a simple clerical error on the Canada side of things and Victor was able to get someone to look into it quickly, realize what the mistake was and rectify it.

So the next time you don’t have a ref show up to do your game or you’re not sure if a field is closed due to inclement weather, you know who to call.

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Messi’s El Clasico goal: so many coaching points

It was spectacular theatre. Thirty seconds left in injury time when the clip starts with Pique receiving the ball three yards off his end line. Eighteen seconds later the ball is in the Real Madrid goal and Barcelona have won the Clasico at the Bernabeu 3-2. How does that happen? This is how…

91’30” : Sergi Roberto plays a pass back to Gerard Pique drawing Mateo Kovacic and James Rodriguez towards the centreback. Pique audaciously lifts a pass beyond both to Sergi Busquets.

91’32” : Both Roberto and Pique are already moving forward to support the ball. Sergio Busquets does what Busquets invariably and flawlessly does. He takes a silky touch to settle the ball, drawing Kovacic back towards as well as pulling Ronaldo forward to him. His second touch breaks the press from Ronaldo and Kovacic and does two things. It is placed in Roberto’s path in such a way that he receives it in stride and so that Luca Modric is tempted to pinch in and intercept it. Roberto gets their first and in four seconds from the time Pique plays the ball, Barcelona have played two passes that have allowed Roberto to break clear of four Real Madrid players.

At this point, context is important. Beyond the score and the time remaining, keep in mind that Real Madrid have lost Sergio Ramos to a red card and did not bring on another defender because they were losing by a goal at the time of the ejection. Having had to replace the injured Bale with Marco Asensio and Casemiro with Kovacic, due to Casemiro being on a yellow and likely just one more foul from a red, Zidane opted to take Karim Benzema off and put Rodriguez on. Real Madrid were essentially playing with three at the back: Dani Carvajal, Nacho Fernandez and Marcelo. As Kovacic had pushed up, Toni Kroos had dropped off.

91’35” : If you freeze the video at 91’34” you see Marcelo move over to try to tackle Roberto. You also see Asensio on the far side. Real Madrid have six of their nine outfield players in the attacking third with less than thirty seconds left and the game tied when they are down a man. Add in the fact that Messi is on the field and this is unforgivable on their part. It’s about to get worse though. Marcelo can end this madness and preserve the draw by simply fouling Roberto for the price of a yellow card at 91’36’. One tactical foul and Roberto does not charge forward across the halfway line. Real Madrid get goal side before the free kick is taken and the game is done. This does not happen though and Roberto is into the Real Madrid half in what becomes a 6v3 at 91’37”. Note where Pique is and note that you cannot see Ronaldo at all. In fact the next time you see him is at the end of the clip complaining that others should have done more.

91’39” : Barca’s 4-3-3 utilizes width in attack and you see it here from Andre Gomes, Jordi Alba and even Ivan Rakitic to some degree. The ball to Gomes forces Carvajal to go wide and Alba, having made an amazing overlap run pulls him even further. Rakitic maintains width on the right that forces the recovering Modric to pay attention to him. Messi at this point slows as he sees Alba’s run has forced Carvajal, Kroos, and Fernandez to drop deep while Modric drifts back rather than sticking tight to him.

91’45” : If you pause here you can see the combined effect of Alba’s wide penetration and the deep runs by Pique, Suarez and Roberto. They have opened up room at the top of the box for Messi to swoop into. He holds his run until he sees the space will be there and Alba will be able to first time the ball back into it. To top it off, Suarez uses his body perfectly to ensure Fernandez will not be able to get close enough to block Messi’s shot. It’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. As the ball goes in nobody is closer to the Real Madrid goal than Pique. He started the play 18 seconds earlier a few yards from his own goal line.

You can categorize the mistakes made as felonies and misdemeanours. Here’s how I see the crimes stack up:

Real Madrid pressing so many players forward to win the ball back with 30 seconds when they are down a man and do not need to score: FELONY

Modric pinching to try to win the ball off Roberto and failing: MISDEMEANOUR

Marcelo (who had a great game otherwise) not taking Roberto down when he had a chance: FELONY

Ronaldo not chasing back: MISDEMEANOUR

Once it got beyond this point I don’t see much blame for Carvajal, Kroos and Fernandez. They were dealing with a 6v3 that incorporated Messi and Suarez. If they had denied a goal in that situation they would have deserved medals. Barca played it perfectly though and Messi lived up to his reputation as the greatest player ever to score with ten seconds remaining.

Rarely does such a high profile game end in such a spectacular manner and with a passage of play that offers us so many coaching points as coaches. You may find more. If so, feel free to mention them in the comments.

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Analyst analysis

Just sent a DM on Twitter to a group of like-minded soccer moaners and groaners. It was regarding one of the colour commentators on a Canadian broadcast of a game.

“XXXXX makes Capt Obvious look like an enigma.”

With Jason de Vos’ decision to leave TSN and take a position with the CSA, there was been a handful of suitors pushed in front of the camera in the hopes that one will bring the quality insight he was known for. The bar was raised and while it’s maybe unfair to expect the same standards of those new to the craft it’s still important that those selecting and those selected aspire to a high level of analysis rather than falling back on generic banter and passing off the obvious as expert analysis.

Current production values seem to favour candidates who were former players, have an accent relatable to the masses and/or a degree of confidence that is not aligned with their  current chops as an analyst. So far I remain underwhelmed.

Here’s a better recipe.

Take someone with a keen eye for the telling detail, with the ability to relate it economically and clearly. Viewers don’t need to be clubbed with gegenpressing details for three minutes amid a digital swirl of lines and circles on a monitor. They need relevance delivered coherently with the occasional bit of humour that oscillates between cutting and self deprecating.

Focus on specifically why goals were either created or conceded without incessant cliches. Simply regurgitating what the play by play guy has said with no embellishment beyond whiter teeth and a hipper haircut does not pass for analysis.

Yes, there will always be the realities of TV production values and the concomitant necessity of putting someone in front of the camera that can string words together smoothly while not being physically repulsive. But really it has to be both function and form and when in doubt favour the former over the latter.

 

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How you really keep girls playing soccer

This will rub some people the wrong way.

There’s another round, in what seems like a long series, of empowerment, ‘follow your dream’ types of programs and products coming our way. There are celebratory t-shirts for you to buy and a chance to interact with idols. This we are told will help keep girls playing soccer. This will motivate them to start playing if they aren’t already.

The Canadian women’s national team won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. Vancouver hosted the CONCACAF qualifying tournament the year before.  We hosted the U20 Women’s World Cup in 2014 and the full on Women’s World Cup in 2015 with the final being here in Vancouver. We then repeated as bronze medalists at the Rio Olympics this past summer. These were all exciting events. I bought tickets for the Women’s World Cup and also went to most of the Olympic qualifying tournament games. Those five years from 2011 to now have seen a tremendous rise in interest in the Canadian Women’s National Team as well as the U20’s.

And in every one of those years since 2011, enrolment in girls’ soccer in Vancouver has gone down.

But how can that be? They have role models. They flock to see their idols play in full stadiums against the best teams in the world. They buy jerseys and go to autograph sessions.

Here’s why. There’s a huge difference between sustenance and the occasional treat. Women’s soccer events, on and off the field, are treats. They make you feel good for a short period of time and you look forward to them but they do not sustain you. Sustenance requires a steady flow of the food necessary to make you stronger and smarter. The occasional snack for someone who is otherwise getting what they need nutritionally is totally fine and can be motivating but it does not keep them going long term.

You know what keeps girls playing soccer long term, what sustains them? Their parents and their coaches.

Parents who facilitate their play by providing time, money and an emotional investment in girls soccer. Parents who find the right club by asking the right questions of the right people. They register them, get them to training and games, encourage them to keep playing through periods of doubt, buy the necessary equipment, tell them that they really enjoy watching them play and show that they value team sports and what can be learned from them. They advocate for their daughter when necessary, help breed confidence in them by telling them its okay to take some chances and have them not work out all the time. They celebrate their victories and tell them that losing a game is just something you use to learn from and that teamwork is about respecting both the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates and being able to work with both. They put the same resources into their daughters’ sports needs as they do for their sons.

Some kids need more of this support than others regardless of whether they are a girl or a boy but at some point they will need the guidance of a parent to calm doubts and keep them playing. Those moments are crucial. They have to be recognized quickly and acted upon deftly.

As parents facilitate and support, coaches engender trust and respect in the pursuit of helping players get better at the game.

All players need to trust that their coach wants the best for them and respects them as a person as well as their ability to contribute to the team’s efforts regardless of the level of play. And once that bond is established, players hope their coach is committed to be with their team long term. Coaches who take players from their first years right through to U18 are absolute gems of people. To spend ten plus years working with a group of girls, showing them that you want to be part of their soccer experience from the time they enter grade school to the time they leave it, that you enjoy it and will stick it out through years of training sessions on wet, windswept fields; that you won’t walk away from them after 7-0 losses and won’t make the experience more about your ego than their enjoyment. These are the people keep girls playing soccer. These people provide the lifeblood that keeps girls playing. To suggest that the occasional sugary treat does is insulting to so many men and women I know that have worked within an age group that starts with helping to tie their shoelaces and ends with tears and hugs when the last U18 game is played.

I have no issue with the elite level women’s players generating products that provide little hits of excitement. They are more than entitled to leverage their abilities and success on the field to pursue options that I’m sure they genuinely feel are beneficial to young players. The issue is that we need parents, primarily, but also coaches, to recognize that this does not replace the long term efforts needed of them to keep girls playing the game.

The hits keep coming but, as already stated, the numbers keep dropping. The key is to get more parents to facilitate and more coaches to commit.

Parents have to get them to the field and coaches have to keep the field engaging. It’s a symbiotic relationship between parents and coaches. They either strengthen or weaken each other. Involved, supportive parents motivate coaches. Those coaches in turn resolve to create better team environments and the result is that a higher percentage of girls keep playing.

Conversely, parents who don’t support their daughters’ soccer and who abide by or are the cause of poor attendance at training and games make it easy for coaches to lose interest and walk away. Coaches who run poor sessions and create a culture of nonchalance despite the best efforts of parents on the team also cause attrition.

Everybody likes the simple solution. Everybody wants to believe that the latest fad diet that lets them eat their favourite foods all the time is going to make them lose weight and/or be healthier overall. The quick, easy fix will always have the ear of the public with their regularly crossed fingers and willing credit cards.

Keeping girls playing soccer does not have a simple solution. How could keeping young people engaged in a pursuit from age six to eighteen not require the care and cultivation of many motivated people throughout those twelve years? It’s a long term project. It needs as much dedication and resilience from parents and coaches as we ask of the players themselves.

You want your daughter to keep playing soccer? Focus on sustaining them with what they need over many years rather than placating them with what looks good short term.

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Coaching the competitive recreational team

I’ve always bristled at the idea that teams are either elite/high performance or recreational/grassroots. I think there’s a substantial group of teams that don’t tidily fit into these two categories. I’d call them competitive recreational teams and they fit closer to elite/HP than purely grassroots.

The parameters

So what do these teams look like? What distinguishes them from the other two categories? Let’s start with this:

  • Players are not playing at the highest level available either by selection or choice
  • Generally training twice per week; sometimes three times
  • Players accommodated when it comes to playing other sports as long as soccer remains at least on par with other sport(s)
  • Liberal playing time policy, usually mandated by club but where not, the coach adopts this

In addition to being the Technical Director for a large Vancouver youth club I also coach my son’s team. They recently started the U15 season. They play at the third level of play. It’s called Gold and follows after BCSPL (BC Soccer Premier League; 8 teams in the province, six of which are in the Metro Vancouver area) and the MSL (Metro Selects League; usually 10 to 16 teams depending on the age group; all teams in Metro Vancouver). I should note that our club, despite being one of the largest is not allowed to put teams in MSL unlike almost all other clubs in Metro Vancouver. This is down to the fact our District, gatekeepers for determine how MSL will function among its clubs, has opted to put one, ostensibly, District run team in to represent it. We are in the process of challenging this and requesting to be given the option to put teams into this second tier of play. BC Soccer has stated that the only High Performance levels in the province are Whitecaps Residency programs and BCSPL. All others are grassroots.

That sets up where our club fits in and helps explain why we created a program called Gold Plus for our U11 and up Gold teams. Sometimes players don’t end up at the level they want and want to stay within touching distance of that through a program that provides extra club based support. This is what Gold Plus does. It’s perfect for the competitive recreational teams at our club.

The last things I’ll make clear are…

1. I have gone out of my way to proactively contact coaches at both MSL and BCSPL about players on my team that I think are capable of playing at those levels of play. I’m on my third kid and my 17th season coaching kids professionally. I’m over the vanity kick that sees coaches horde players to win titles at lower levels of play. Besides, it’s my professional responsibility to move players on to higher levels and I take that seriously.

2. Because I have coached professionally a long time, have played at a high level for many years before that and have a life that is thoroughly immersed in the game, my teams should do well, should win leagues and do well in Cup play. Again this is not intended as anything other than a road map to the many other coaches with similar level teams that might not have coached as long or have the background in the game I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I have motivated players, many of whom could and/or should be playing higher but choose not to. Im making no claims to being a coaching genius. I’m aware of the inherent advantages I have in terms of relative experience as a coach and relative pick of players.

The approach

Here’s what I’m trying to do with my 2002 boys.

1) Our focus

At this level you are doing well if you can count on getting a quarter turf field twice per week. If you’re lucky there’s three of you on the field at the same time and you can rotate getting a half field every third session. That is huge and should be planned for.

Last year we were that team that trained twice per week on a quarter field. About half the team (I carry 15) opted for a third Academy session through the club. Median attendance was about 12-13. The year before when we were U13 we were able to rotate through a half field with two other teams both nights we trained. As the players were new to 11 a side at U13 that and the fact that we were able to play a lot of games in the spring helped us tremendously.

Our sessions were either in 75 minute slots or 90 minute slots. Ball rolling time is paramount and a near obsession for me. I want to wring as much out of those minutes as possible. Water breaks are 30 seconds tops and they get just one, maybe two. As much as possible, sessions are planned, accounting for the space we have, to flow from one element to the next with a minimum of set up between them. As much set up as possible is done before the players start.

Here are the key aspects that we have focused on:

Initially at U13:

  • Spacing and general roles and responsibilities in a 4-3-3
  • Confidence on the ball and encouragement to maintain possession and play through opponents’ pressure as much as possible
  • Early decisions on and off the ball (recognizing situations and acting on them)
  • Quick ball movement

Then on top of that at U14:

  • Adaptability to other formations
  • Breaking lines with passes (in all thirds)
  • Deception in passing
  • More sophisticated movement in attacking third

Now at U15:

  • Engaging training sessions that create game-like scenarios via SSG’s
  • Creating a strong team identity
  • Giving them the confidence to dictate how games are played

Playing out from the back as a first option is so heavily engrained in them that when we were playing a Coastal Cup quarter final game against one of the top MSL teams and protecting a 1-0 lead with ten men (we need to work on the coach’s son avoiding stupid red cards) our CB’s were still splitting wide and our keeper was throwing to them despite a four to five man press at the top of our box. I won’t lie. I told him to “mix it up” after a few of those (while wildly gesticulating to pump it over their press). We ended up winning 2-0 but in retrospect it was a defining moment for them. Despite playing against one of the better teams from a league above them they showed the composure in a difficult situation to play through pressure. Lumping the ball down the field had become such a foreign concept to them that it didn’t dawn on them to fall back on it.

Players who had been with me in the past had already been subjected to my thoughts on teaching positional play (link) and I had purposefully favoured intelligent players over physical players as I knew I would be expecting them to develop confidence in possession and that comes primarily from soccer specific intelligence, even before technique. We have players that still, mainly through physical growth issues, have a touch that would suggest they play down a level, yet are very effective on a team that has the won the league both the years they’ve played 11 a side because they have an understanding of the game that is beyond the average player they play against both at their own level and when they play MSL teams in tournaments and Cup play.

2) Fitness (is a waste of time)

Literally. I had my players in training for 2.5 hrs per week last season. Dedicating time to fitness exercises without a ball is counter-productive. If I felt it was important to improve them substantially in terms of aerobic fitness, I’d really need to commit at least 20 minutes of each practice to that. A bit less for anaerobic but it would still be a chunk of time given the rest periods between work. My experience is that it’s a waste of time.

These players have never run a lap under my watch. They’ve never done doggies/suicides/shuttles. There’s no time or need for that at this level. They get their fitness, game fitness, from the small sided games and the insistence that the tempo stays high with few breaks. When we play SSG’s, there are always balls within easy reach. My asst coach and I fetch them if necessary so the players can keep playing. We keep spares in our hands and throw them in to keep play moving. Again, we carried fifteen players both seasons. We played many games with one or two subs. We won the league by 19 points in a 16 game season. That may suggest we are clearly at the wrong level but the reality is that we only won three games by more than one goal. We lost one and tied one. The games were competitive but we consistently rallied and/or hung on to get wins and out of shape teams don’t do that.

That 20 minutes spent playing 3v3 with a two touch restriction is giving them similar fitness plus touches on the ball, combination play, physical strength from 50-50 balls and shielding and hundreds, not exaggerating, hundreds of opportunities to sense, calculate, consider, decide and act.

3) Very little time on set pieces

Almost all work on set pieces was based on playing out from the back on goal kicks. Next was short corners. Direct free kicks were either direct shots at goal or keeping possession with a short pass if we were out of shooting range. Wide free kicks were played in for headers (which very rarely materialized).

I’d guess two thirds of our corners were played short. We scored three times last season off of short corners. We didn’t score once on long corners.

Direct free kick don’t need much in the way of contrivances. The keepers at these ages are still very small relative to the full size goals they protect. Identify players who can strike a ball well, know their range and have them hit for goal when they’re within that range. Nothing fancy.

4) Don’t create divisions

I touched on this in another thing I wrote here. I don’t pick team captains and I don’t pick MVP’s after games or after the season. They’re peers. They’re teammates. They’re teenagers. It’s hard enough being a teenager these days. They don’t need a hierarchy imposed on them by adults to maintain a competitive edge in training. They don’t need an adult telling them one or two are special and are the ‘captain’;  particularly when it’s really just a ceremonial title and serves little function. It just serves to divide and categorize them. Even if you let the players pick the captain themselves. I  italicized let because you’re actually telling them they have to vote for a captain. They are not choosing to do so and by turn you are forcing them to pick some over others and create the division between them themselves.

5) Check in with them

They’re playing at a competitive recreational level but it doesn’t mean that’s what will always work for them. Some of them may be ready to try to make an elite level teams. Some may want to drop down to more grassroots level. Your job is to discuss this with them and their parents and, if a move up or down is plausible, to try to facilitate it. We don’t own players. They are not chattel. We coach to serve them and their needs.

6) Miscellaneous

  • Nothing in training should involve standing in a line for more than ten seconds. This follows on the idea of treating training time as being very important and maximizing what you can get done in that done.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. You want them to focus? You have to set the example if you want buy in.
  • FIFA 11+. I’ve been doing it as an injury prevention warmup for the last 7-8 years. I have found it really effective and I have insisted that our U11 to U18 teams at our club do it as well. You never know, with certainty, in the end what factor is responsible for injuries occurring or not occurring but I definitely feel this has been a contributing factor to very low injury rates on my teams. I don’t have them do any stretching unless they have been told to do so by a physio to aid recovery from an injury.
  • Small Sided Games (SSG). There is nothing that will get you as much bang for your buck as well chosen, conditioned SSG’s that bring out the elements of play that you are targeting. At U13 and up, learning principles of play, positional roles and responsibilities, fitness, tactical awareness and technical refinement can all be done most effectively and organically through SSG’s. Possession games fall into this category as far as I’m concerned even though most aren’t necessarily directional (ie attacking a goal, defending another goal).
  • Be demanding. Tell them the truth. Both the good and bad. It’s far more important that your players trust you rather than they are your pals. They need to know you are on their side when it comes to helping them improve as a player. When they see that your critiques are honest but delivered empathetically, they will concomitantly take praise to hear more rather than seeing it as just meaningless platitudes. I had a parent tell me the players were tired of a coach who relentlessly praised everything the kids regardless of whether it was right, wrong, good or bad ‘to boost their confidence’. They just ended up tuning him out. They were old enough that it just felt patronizing after awhile.
  • Have a session plan. On paper and on you during practice. Have variations you can quickly go to if you end up with fewer players than you were expecting (sadly more common than ending up with more players than you were expecting). Make quick notes on how to improve or add to what you’re doing based on how its going. Being adaptable is necessary at this level. Your commitment level isn’t as high as it is for elite level teams so you need to be able to adjust if the numbers don’t match what you need for your plan.

 

If you’re coaching a competitive recreational team you probably have multi sport athletes that see soccer as either one of two or three priorities or that its a secondary priority for them. Your job is to respect this and try to make it work for the individual while they have to respect that they are part of a team. Issues around commitment are most common manifested around playing time. This is where I find a smaller squad is handy. Finding appropriate playing time for those that are at every practice is much easier. If you’re operating within club policies on playing time (ours is half a game minimum every game in the absence of discipline problems and unexplained absences from training) then its much easier to do this with fewer players. With 15 on the squad, I average 13-14 each game. Two to three subs is very manageable. I generally just roll them through every 15 minutes or so. It lets me keep some players on the whole game if necessary while ensuring everyone else is getting two thirds to three quarters of the game. And when you do end up playing the odd game, or half a game if some get injured during a game, its not a big deal for 11 of them to play the whole game with no subs. They’re already close to doing that .

If you’re aware of the environment you’re coaching in and attuned to what’s realistic for your players you will win the battle to keep them playing. If your training sessions are appropriate for the age and level, progressive in terms of equipping them with confidence and ability  you will win the majority of the battles on the field. Note that they are related. If you can retain players who have been following a plan you have laid out you will have success on the field and that success will tie the players to the team and also help reduce attrition.

Get them to U18 and if they’re confident, capable players who want to continue into adult soccer,  pat yourself on the back. You’ve done a good job.

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