Wednesday, 12 May 2010

KF Laçi (Albania)

Klubi Futbollit Laçi are a meat and potatoes team from the city of Laç in the mountainous Albanian region of Lezhë. The club formed in 1965 under the fine name of Industriali Laç, but they didn't make it into their nation's league until 1992. They've spent most of their league history in the second tier of their national league, bar a short spell one step down in the 2006/7 season. But last season they finally won the first division title, and finally find themselves in the 12 club national Superliga.

Their Stadiumi Laçi is in a beautiful spot, dwarfed by the city's craggy mountains on all side, and holds an initmate 5000 fans - a number that it often stretches to the limit with pleasingly bonkers and lively fans.

However, in December of last year the club became embroiled in what has become known as the Gramozi Incident. After an emotionally charged away trip to their Southern Albanian Superliga rivals KS Gramozi Ersekë, there was an on-pitch despute between Laçi defender Jetmir Nina and Gramozi's Kosovar goalscorer Genc Iseni. After a heated exchange, Iseni punched Nina to the ground. While he was down a number of Gramozi players also steamed in, kicking him unconscious and sending him to hospital for some time.

On the way out of the ground, the home fans pelted the Laçi bus with stones, and unrest continued on into the night. As a result of this. Gramozi were ordered to play their next three games behind closed doors, and were fined 300,000 Lek - just short of £2000, but still quite a big sum out that way.

Lively old game, football in Albania...

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Grimsby Town (England)

This week Grimsby Town were relegated out of the English football league for the first time since they were elected to it 99 years ago. That they didn't make it to their centenary is something of a footballing tragedy for a team with such a long history and great fans. But it's not always been doom and gloom for The Mariners.

Formed in 1878 as Grimsby Pelham, they play, not in Grimsby itself, but the nearby East Lincs seaside resort of Cleethorpes, and in their beautiful old Blundell Park stadium have the closest ground in the UK to the coast. They came together back in the early days of association football when the members of Worsley Cricket Club decided they fancied taking up the new sport to keep them busy on the long Victorian winter nights.

Their first spell of league football started in 1892, when the English game first stretched to two national divisions. Indeed, they even made the top flight for two seasons in the early 20th Century, but after a couple of bad seasons found their way out of the structure for a couple of years until they found their way back in 1911. Back then only they and Hull City were officially allowed to play on Christmas Day, because of the curious demands of the fish trade. That tradition was never revoked, but neither club has called on it for a great many years now.

Thier highest ever league position was when they came fifth in their second stint in the old first division in 1935. And in 1939 they lost an FA Cup semi final to Wolves at Old Trafford in front of 76,962 - to this day still the Manchester ground's highest attendance. Since then the club has regularly yo-yo'd up and down the leagues, narrowly missing out on promotion to the top flight on more than one occasion.

Blundell Park's Main Stand, running along the north side of the ground, is said to be the oldest stand in the football league, dating back to 1901, while the more recently built Findus Stand that lays opposite, offers spectacular views of the shipping traveling up and down The Humber Estuary, if the football gets a little difficult to watch.

Noteworthy former players include Wimbledon's FA Cup hero keeper Dave Beasant, Tony Ford, the all time record holder for an outfield player in England, with a massive 931 appearances, the free-scoring Clive Mendonca, Wales international John Oster and orange-hating England manager Graham Taylor. They've also got a pretty impressive roster of former managers. Southampton's cup winning coach Lawrie McMenemy saw some early action here, Hungarian Elemér Berkessy became the first foreign manager on English soil back in 1954, but most impressively, Liverpool legend Bill Shankly put in a three year stint at the club in the early 1950s.

Grimsby Town is a great old club, in a fine part of the world and with some of the friendliest and funniest fans in the country. I hope their spell in non-league is a temporary one and they bounce right back and climb their way back up the leagues as soon as they can. 

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Saturday, 8 May 2010

Landskrona BoIS (Sweden)

First things first - you want to know what BoIS means. Well, the letters stand for Boll och Idrottsällskap. Glad you asked? And in case you're still interested, roughly translated it means Ball and Sports Society. Simple really.

Anyway, BoIS, as they're thankfully known for short, come, would you believe from the Southern Swedish town of  Landskrona, just a short hop over the Öresund from Copenhagen. They formed in 1917 - the Swedes as neutrals not immediately troubled by the ravages of WWI - after the merger of IFK Landskrona and the more exotically named Diana BK. They were one of the twelve founder members of the Allsvenskan, the highest level of Swedish football, in 1924, although recently they have been more firmly planted in the Superettan - the country's second tier.

Their earliest star was a chap called Albin Dahl, who played for them between 1915 and 1921 before moving onto their most local of rivals Helsingborgs IF in a dubious transfer believed to be the source of the bad blood between the pair that has lasted to this day. They've also got a bit of a thing with their other neighbours from the Scania region, Malmö FF, and matchs between any pair of the three are among the liveliest in all Scandinavian football.

Their trophy cabinet isn't one of the busiest in world football, as they have just a single Svenska Cupen
win to their name from back in 1972 - although their best ever season was in 1938 when they came a close third in the league, and achievement they are still sadly yet to match.

Most recently they've leapt into the world football spotlight as the hosts of Swedish football legend Henrik Larsson's first managerial appointment. let's just hope that some of his magic rubs off and they soon work their way back to the top of the pile.

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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Diriangén FC (Nicaragua)

Diriangén FC are giants among boys in Nicaraguan football. The winningest team of all time in their home country, they've weighed in with a whopping 26 league wins since their inception in 1917. They don't seem as keen on the cups mind, as they've only reeled in a brace of wins in their national knockout trophy in the mid-nineties.

They're based, not in the capital, but in the city of Diriamba, a settlement famous for its week long festivals, and named in part after the much loved Chorotega chieftain, Diriangén, from where the football team get both their name and nickname - Caciques being a local dialect word for Chieftens. Indeed, the legendary old fella even appears on their club crest, so instilled in the city's collective identity as he is.

Their biggest rivals are Real Estelí, despite them only winning a measly eight titles - although the bulk of those have been in the last ten years - which has signalled a relatively lean spell for The Chieftens.

Their most famous former star is the local legend Mauricio Cruz Jiron, who played for both Diriangén and the national side for just shy of twenty years. He scored a tasty 170 goals in his time with The Caciques, and went on to manage them on a couple of occasions, between long stints as national manager.

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AC Siena (Italy)

Any team in Italy playing in the historic black and white stripes is in for a tough time, when you've dragged yourself to the top table after years of under-achieving the pressure is really on. And since Siena finally dragged their way to Serie A in 2003 it's been a constant battle with relegation - one they finally lost in the last few games of this season.

They formed in 1904, as a sports club with the slightly cumbersome name of Società Studio e Divertimento  or The Society for Study and Entertainment if you're not so good with your Italian. A general sports club, they chose their back and white colours in tribute to the city's coat of arms - so they most definitely can't be accused of pinching them from their illustrious cousins in Turin.

Once the football club really got going in 1908, they renamed themselves Società Sportiva Robur (Robur the Italian for Strength, still features on the club's crest). They then pottered about moderately in the middle leagues until the immediate post war years when Serie A and B merged and split into regional leagues - but even though they finally reached the top level of Italian football, the unusual circumstances meant they still were considered a full blown Serie A club.

In 2007 they briefly flirted with another name change. Their sponsors, the local bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena suggested that they could change their long-standing title to AC Siena Montepaschi for a bit more cash, and although they formally announced their new name, the Italian FA refused to recognise it, so they reverted back to their less commercially motivated moniker.

Famous old boys include the Norwegian ex-Chelsea and Leeds star Tore André Flo, briefly good Middlesbrough goal machine Massimo Maccarone, the marginally unhinged German keeper Alex Manninger and a quick stint for Brazilian international Roque Júnior.

After seven years of constant relagation battles it will probably come as something of a relief for the Siena fans to actually win a few games next season. Let's hope they spring right back and give their more famous stripe-alikes a bit more of a challenge next time they make the top flight.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Rochester Rhinos (USA)

The Rhinos are among the longest standing American football sides, having formed as the slightly sillier sounding Rochester Rampaging Rhinos in the distant mists of 1996 - practically a lifetime for a football team on that side of the pond. They're based in the city of Rochester - also known as The Flour City - on the Western Edge of New York State. Their home town, nestling on the shores of Lake Ontario, was ranked the sixth most desirable city to live in across the whole of the US.

Based at the 13,768 capacity Marina Auto Stadium in the centre of the city, the Rhinos currently play in the USSF D2 Pro League, in the second tier of the American game. However, this league is onely a temporary, one-season arrangement, after a bust up between the fueding United Soccer Leagues, and the North American Soccer League, so it is not yet known quite what format football outside of the MLS will take next term.

They were orginally a member of the A-League, which was the highest level of their national game until the MLS came along. Indeed, they've been considered for the top flight on a number of occasions, although their ground is still considered too small to take the step up.

Under the pre-MLS league system they were the league winners three times, in 1998, 2000 and 2001, and are also the only team from outside the MLS to have won the US Open Cup, back in 1999. They got into financial difficulties in 2008 though, when the City of Rochester siezed their ground, and were only saved when businessman Rob Clark bought the club - thankfully insisting that the Rampaging bit was removed from their name.

Notable former players include Onandi Lowe, the free-scoring Jamaican international who also put in a long stint with Rushden and Diamonds, one-time Celtic, Leicester and Port Vale striker Steve Guppy, legendary Canadian keeper Pat Onstad and South African midfielder Lenin Steenkamp, who put in a massive ten year spell with the club.

Their main supporters group call themselves the Rochester Stampede, and delight in chucking green and yellow streamers every time their team score, or whenever the opposition get a corner. Better make sure Manchester United don't play them in a friendly then, or there could be hell to pay!


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SC Young Fellows Juventus (Switzerland)

In a country famous for its fabulous team names, Sportclub Young Fellows Juventus is among the finest. Currently playing in the third tier of Swiss football, this Zürich based side were formed in 1992, after the merger of the much older and historic local sides Young Fellows Zürich (founded in 1903) and Società Calcistica Italiana Juventus Zurigo (founded in 1922). So despite what seems like a right mouthful of a name, it seems like they got away with it lightly!

Their biggest achievement was when they won the Schweizer Cup (as Young Fellows) in 1936, and until last season's relegation they had been plying their trade in the Dosenbach Challenge League, the second level of national football in the country. 

Their Stadion Utogrund home, with its unusual, wave-shaped stand running down one whole length of the ground, can hold 2850 happy punters, and it only costs a measly eight quid to get in. So they're definitely worth a visit if ever you're in town - despite the vast and unfriendly running track that loops around the pitch. But the best thing of all about this cosy little club is that they're sponsored by a pizza restaurant - the rather tasty looking Pizzeria Sorriso. The after match meals for this mob have just got to be good!

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Escuela de Jorge Bauger (Dominican Republic)

Escuela Bauger, as they are more usually known, are must be one of the smallest teams in one of the smallest national leagues on the planet. Ostensibly the representative team of a chain of footballing schools across the island, they play in the Liga Mayor de Republica Dominicana, an eight team round robin of teams mainly from the country's two major cities - Santo Domingo and La Vega.

Hailing from the former, they have the option to play in the capital's 20,000 capacity Estadio La Barranquita, although as football is very much the minority sport in this baseball crazy country, they very rarely have the need to, instead favouring a number of much smaller local grounds.

They have been competing in the Dominican top flight for some time, and to our limited knowledge are perhaps the only school side in the world to have currently earned this lofty position.

The school's founder, Jorge Rolando Bauger himself, is also somewhat of an interesting character. Born in Argentina, he had a moderately successful playing career, first in his home country with lower league teams like Racing de Avellaneda and Misiones, then in France with Troyes and Dieppe. It was there he entered into coaching, and quickly became a respected youth coach for the FFF. Further travels saw him coaching in USA, before he found a home in the Dominican Republic where he subsequently set up his school.

But that's not all. he also sponsors, hosts and produces the nation's only televised cup competition, and has been their commentator for every World Cup since 1982. His main mission, he states, is to use football as an educational tool to help young people to attain the highest possible achievement, and to denounce those who attempt to discredit the sport - and we can all say amen to that!

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Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Cartagena (Spain)

Now here is the tale of two teams from the middle- sized city of Cartagena in Spain and their curious, convoluted histories. One, the second division stalwarts FC Cartagena, the other, their slightly digruntled regional third division cousins Cartagena FC, both of who play in the famous black and white stripes. Now pay attention, because this might get complicated.

Despite their lowly status, Cartagena FC are by far the more historic team, having formed in 1940. Shy of a short spell in the 1980s when they achieved the dizzy heights of the Segunda División, they've spent most of their days in the third level or lower - even dipping down as far as the uber-regional Preferente for a few years in the early 21st Century. But for 45 glorious years, they were the only major footballing outfit in town, until in 1995, the upstart Cartagonova Fútbol Club were formed, who soon changed their name to FC Cartagena.

If this wasn't enough of an imposition, FC Cartagena soon subsumed Cartagena FC to become their reserve team for a number of years, but they finally regained their independence in the 2009-2010 season and are now working their way back up the league system.

FCC play at the classic Spanish bowl-like Estadio Cartagonova, which can cram in just upwards of 15,000 punters, while CFC have kick the ball about in the much cosier out of town ground the Estadio Gómez Meseguer, which holds a respectable 2000. But if both teams continue their current trajectories, they could find themselves being the subject of a very unique local derby in one of the next few seasons.

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Club Atletico Estudiantes (Argentina)

Estudiantes de Buenos Aires, as they are usually known, to distinguish them from La Plata's considerably more successful bunch of students, are a third tier Agentinian team playing in the regional Primera B Metropolitana. They've spent their whole footballing life in the lower leagues, bar one golden season in 1978 when they finally made the top flight. That they finished 21st and last didn't matter, as it was their year to remember.

Formed in the August of 1898, that's a long, hard history of nothing much, you might think. But they have had a few other seasons of note. They've won the Primera B on three occasions, and the fourth level Primera División C the once. They were also winners of the national amateur league back in 1942, so there's clearly some grit behind the lack of trophies.

Notable former players include Boca Juniors' current rising star Pablo Mouche, who they found as a teenager, the much travelled Cristian Tavio, now at his 12th club in 14 years, and Napoli's nippy striker, Ezequiel Lavezzi - one of many players to have been cursed with the mantle The New Maradona in his youth. The latter was a member of Argentina's gold medal winning Olympic team, so keep an eye out for him at the next couple of World Cups.

They are also notable for having graced one of the ugliest black and white strips in footballing history. White down one half and black down the other, each half had pin stripes of the opposite colour running vertically through them. Technically I suppose it can be counted as a black and white shirt, but it's pushing the boundaries pretty dang close. Thank heavens they've gone back to the more traditional format - although you have to credit them for their creativity - however ill-judged!

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PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv (Bulgaria)

As with most great East European teams who share their name, Lokomotiv were formed by railworkers at the main station in Plovdiv - Bulgaria's second city - in 1926. But they didn't immediately take on the historic name. They were initially known by the simple but effective Sportclub, and kept that appellation until as recently as 1949 - some eleven years after they joined the Bulgarian National Football League.

Despite their long history, they were known as one of Bulgaria's under-achievers, grabbing the odd second and third place and occasional minor cup here and there until they stunned the nation with the league title in 2004. They clinched in the penultimate match against Slavia Sofia in a hard-fought 3-2 win in a massively over capacity home match at their homely stadium, knocking their nation's most successful team, Levski Sofia into a grudging runners-up slot.

This period of success corresponded with the club's ownership by the multi-millionaire businessman Georgi Iliev. However, there was more to their benefactor than immediately met the eye. A talented wrestler in his youth, Iliev had to give up the sport after he was imprisoned for his involvment in a brutal gang rape. While inside he became well versed in the way of the mob, and after his release became the boss of a shady crimnal organisation called VIS. Thought to be one of Bulgaria's richest men, he was flung into the headlines after he was shot and killed at a Black Sea holiday resort after Loko's UEFA Cup match against OFK Beograd in 2005.

After his death, the club was plunged into financial difficulties, and had to break up the winning team and sell off all their most prized footballing assets to survive. This didn't stop them finishing a plucky fifth the following season, qualifying them for a short-lived InterToto Cup run.

But Loko would probably prefer to be remembered for the stuff that happened on the pitch. Indeed, they were the home of Bulgarian legend Hristo Bonev. In three stints on the playing staff between 1959 and 1984 he became his nation's biggest footballing star, and went on to score a record 47 goals for his national side in a mammoth 96 appearances. he then went on to manage Loko for a spell, before taking the national team to the 1998 World Cup in France.

Their fans, going under the deceptively cute name of The Smurfs, are considered the most fanatic in all the land, and regularly meet with their sworn rivals Botev Plovdiv in remote locations for old school hoolie dust ups. More sedately, they also have the oldest, and some say largest fan club in Bulgaria, and matchdays are noted for their lively, if not slightly unhinged, atmosphere.

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