Sunday, 27 June 2010

Zamora Fútbol Club (Venezuela)

Zamora play in the Primera División of the Liga Venezolana, and 18 club league that, like many in South America, splits its games into two seperate compeitions - the Apertura (August to December) and the Clausera (February to June). The winners of each have a play off to decide who is that season's absolute champion. Sadly, Zamora have never taken part in that game.

Formed in 1977, they've spent most of their days in the Segunda División, finally getting promoted to the top level by finishing runners-up in 2006. They play at the chunky multi-purpose sports stadium, the 30,000 capacity Estadio Agustín Tovar, in the city of Barinas, an historic old town in the North West of the country.

The last few years have seen the best results of their history, and despite never having won their league, they've come close enough to merit a place in the Copa Sudamericana - South America's version of the UEFA Cup - in both 2007 and 2009, reaching the preliminary and first rounds respectively.

Their fans go by the nickname of La Furia Llanera, and their fan club band play furiously through every game. you'll also notice that the good old fashioned bogroll plays a big part in watching football in Venezuela - sounds like my kind of place!

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Neftçi Baku (Azerbaijan)

The most successful team in Azerbaijan history, Neftçi Peşəkar Futbol Klubu are a team intrinsically linked with the oil-trade that has made their country one of the richest in the region. Indeed, the Neftçi of their name roughly translates as Oilmen, their club crest pictures an oil rig and their colours refer to the black of the oil that springs so fulgently from their many wells.

Formed in 1937, they had much success in the old Soviet First League, where they had three long spells, finishing as high as third place in 1966. Many of that squad have become national idols in their own lifetimes - much like some other mob from the same year from a little closer to home. Names like Anatoliy Banishevskiy, Kazbek Tuaev, Aleksandr Trophimov and goalkeeper Sergey Kramarenko are spoken of in the coffee bars of Baku with the same reverance as Hurst, Banks, Charlton and Moore are over here.

Since the splitting up of the Soviet Union they have gone on to become one of the major forces in the Azeri Premier League, winning it five times since its inception in 1992. They've also won the Azerbaijan Cup five times and bagged the CIS Cup (for former Soviet states) in 2006. 

The Oilmen usually play in the 30,000 capacity Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, also home to their rivals FK Baku and the Azeri national team. Built in 1951 by German POWs, it was made in the shape of a C - Stalin's initial letter in the cyrillic alphabet. However, it was renamed in 1993 to commemorate the death of a legendary Azeri referee. You may know him better as the infamous "Russian Linesman" from the 1966 World Cup Final. Could you imagine Wembley becoming the Uriah Rennie Stadium? Actually, that'd be quite funny!

The ground's currently under repair, so they have no firm home until the massive monolith is finished.

Their main rivalry though is with Khazar Lankaran from the south of the country, in a game so fiercely fought that it's known as the Azerbaijan Derby. So if you ever find yourself around that way and that game is on, do everything you can to get a ticket, because by all accounts it's flipping bonkers!

Stop Press!
I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Azerbaijan's Cup Final when I was out in Baku recently, and who should be playing but our very own Neftçi. Sadly they suffered a surprise 2-0 defeat to their city rivals FK Baku, but they still won the league the week before, so it was a good season all round. Their fans, of course, were fabulous!

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TP Mazembe (DR Congo)

Tout Puissant Mazembe - the TP part of their name translating as, rather immodestly, All Powerful - are one of the oldest and most successful club sides in African history. Based in Congo's second city, Lubumbashi, a copper-mining settlement near the border with Zambia, they were formed back in the 1930s by an order of Benedictine monks at the Holy Institute Boniface of Élisabethville, to keep those of their students who didn't want to take up the cloth fit and healthy.

In those early days they went under the name of the Holy Georges, and they soon joined the Royal Federation of the Native Athletic Associations league, where they came third in their first season. They continued on as the Georges until they changes saints and became Holy Paul FC in 1944. A few years later they cut all link with their church-based founders and became the rather quaint sounding FC Englebert, named after their new sponsor, a local tyre brand.

But it wasn't until the sixties that their star began to really shine. In 1966 they won a rare local treble - the National Championship, Katanga Cup and Congo Cup - while it reached the final of the African Cup of Champions between 1967 and 1970, winning the first two years, and becoming the only team to have ever defended the title, until Enyimba International of Nigeria finally equalled their record in 2003 and 2004. 

They won the Cup of Champions again in 2009, going on to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, where despite starting well, they finished sixth.

In total they've won the Congolese national league ten times, the Congo Cup five times, and have qualified for the Cup of Champions, and its successor the CAF Champions League on an admirable 13 occasions.

After their initial spell of success in the sixties and seventies, they spent getting on for two decades in the wilderness, when the Governor of the Katanga Province, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, took over as club president, changed the name and started pumping money into the team. Indeed, he's recently announced that he's looking to punp ten million dollars into the team next season, and plans to build a new stadium to replace their 35,000 capacity Stade Frederic Kibassa Maliba soon - the first to be solely owned by a Congolese club.

However, The Crows, as their fans call them, made the news most recently for much less pleasant reasons when they were expelled from the West African CECAFA Cup, when their star player, Tresor Mputu Mabi, set about the Ethiopian ref after he had a goal disallowed in a tetchy match against their fellow stripes form Rwanda, APR FC. The match was abandoned and Mazembe sent home in disgrace. It has transpired that Spurs have shown an interest in the Mabi for the Champions League push, so if they do go on and buy him, keep an eye on this talented yet volatile player!

TP Mazembe more than made up for their above indiscressions when they became the first African side ever to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup - a tournament for the continental champions from across the globe - in the UAE in 2010. They made history when they beat the South American Champs, Brazil's Internacional, 2-0 in the semi-final, before going on to lose 3-0 in the final to that other Inter, from Milan in Italy. Good work fellas!

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Oruro Royal (Bolivia)

Oruro Royal are one of the oldest and best respected clubs in Bolivia. They were formed way back in 1896 when the British-based Bolivian Railway Company Limited began to lay the lines on the Oruro to Uyuni line across one of the most mountainous areas in the country. Much as the missionaries did with religion some years earlier, the Brits brought the hip new sporting trend with them wherever they set foot, and many of the famous clubs in South America were formed by travelling British workers.

The game was instantly picked up and loved by the local workers, and an exhibition match was arranged by the British, close to the Oruro cemetery. The local clergy were up in arms that the new craze was keeping their subjects away from their sermons, but as we were prone to back in those colonial days, we completely ignored them and encouraged the youth of the area to start up their own team.

Four years later a more formal club was founded, when the town's elders realised that this new game was a good way of keeping their young people both fit and off the streets. All through those early days the team was stuffed with Englishmen. But as time went on the locals became so rabid in their fervor for the sport that it soon became a completely local affair.

Fast forward to 1930 and the Royals made up the basis of the Bolivian team that took part in the first ever World Cup in Uruguay. Going into the tournament, Bolivia had yet to win an international match. And drawn in a tough group along with Brasil and Yugoslavia, they would leave the tournament without improving that record. But the boys of Oruro still made their mark on the world of football history.

These days the Royals play in the rather complicated Bolivian second tier, the Copa Simón Bolívar. This competition consists of nine regional leagues. Bothe the winners and runners up of each division then play in a knockout tournament to decide who gets promoted to the Bolivian Professional League. To that end, the team are wildly unpopular among teams from the more lower-lying regions of the country, as their 28,000 capacity Estadio Jesús Bermúdez ground is a breath-sapping 3710 meters above sea level!

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FC Warrior Valga (Estonia)

FC Warrior are an Estonian team who play in the second tier of their still fairly fresh national league. They were formed in 1990 in the town of Valga in the south of the country, right on the border with Latvia. Indeed, up until 1920, Valga and their just-across-the-border neighbours Valka were one-and-the-same place, and still remained closely twinned to this day.

They managed to win the second level of the national league - the Esiliiga - in 2002, under their old name FC Valga, and plied their trade in the top flight Meistriliiga until their relegation back down in 2007. Much like the Scottish Premier League, each division has ten teams, who play each other four times in a championship season, which in Estonia runs from April to November.

Now you'd think being formed in and named after the town of Valga, they'd actually play there. Well despite citing their home as the Valga Kekstaadoin on their official biog, they've actually been playing their home matches at the 500 capacity Sportland Stadium in Tallinn - some 200 miles to the North.

Sportland in itself is a bit of an odd one, as it's actually the training pitch attached to the 10,000 capacity Lilleküla Stadium, home to Flora Tallinn and the Estonian national team. Quite how, and indeed why, they found themselves there, and what the residents of Valga have to say about this is unknown. But what is clear is that you can only love a club with the word Warrior in their name and a pair of crossed swords on their badge!

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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Albinegros de Orizaba (Mexico)

In a country whose domestic football is already a heady confusion of franchises and bankruptcy, Albinegros de Orizaba have in turns disappeared and come back more times than Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Lazarus put together. As such, their's is a complicated and difficult chain of events to follow, so if you know more about them than I and see that I've missed something important out, please do let me know!

Formed as a general sports club, the Orizaba Athletic Club, in 1898, their football wing kicked off three years later. Founded by Scotsman Duncan MacOmish, they were one of five clubs in the La Liga Mexicana de Football Amateur Association - the first national league in the country - which they won, notching them down in history as Mexico's debut champions. Interestingly, the whole of the winning squad were Scottish. Sadly, this was to be the height of the team's achievements.

Playing in the lovely little city of Orizaba in the mountainous Veracruz region in the south of Mexico, the snow-topped peak you can see on their badge is the Pico de Orizaba, a volcano that at 18,490 ft is the highest point in Mexico - and indeed the third highest peak in the whole North American continent. The mountain is clearly visible from their traditional Estadio Socum home. 

However, this is where things begin to get complicated. The team, then still named Orizaba Athletic Club, saw some internal wrangling immediately after their title season and immediately folded, only to return in 1906, when it joined the Liga Veracruzana under the name Asociación Deportiva Orizabeña. They plodded along in their regional league until1943, when they were invited to join the Liga Mayor - Mexico's first professional league. Here they stayed until 1949, when after a little more internal wrangling, they went out of business for a second time.

Fast forward to 1967, when a newly reformed ADO joined the newly formed Mexican third division. Four seasons later they won their way up to the second tier, where they have plied their trade ever since. Well kind of. Now each level of the Mexican league has regional inter divisions, and also has two championships a year. In 2002, after a poor season, they almost went out of business again, but were restored by the president of Club Bachilleres de Guadalajara, Juan Manuel Garcia, under their new name of Albinegros de Orizaba. Are you following? It gets more complicated still!

After another bad year, their principal franchise was sold to the team who briefly became Lagartos de Tabasco - but their reserve team kept on the Albinegros name and have played as such ever since. Well kinda. In 2009, the team then known as Tiburones Rojos de Coatzacoalcos swapped franchises and moved to the city of Orizaba to play on as Albinegros. For a bit at least. Last season also saw them temporarily move stadiums to Veracruz to go play at the Estadio Luis Pirata Fuente while their grand old stadium - first built in 1899, and one of the oldest in Mexico - was brought up to scratch for the league.

So it's been a complicated history - and one that will probably have changed at least twice more by the time you get to read this - but throughout all of this, (well, most of it) the people of Orizaba have had one heck of an interesting team to follow!

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Saturday, 19 June 2010

PAOK FC (Greece)

There's a good reason behind why a number of Greek teams prefer to be known by their initials. PAOK being a case in point. Well, would you want to be the bloke who began the good old "Give us a P...!" chant when the team you support is called Panthessaloníkeios Athlētikós Ómilos Kōnstantinoupolitōn?

Actually it makes a bit more sense when translated into English. The All-Thessaloniki Constantinopolitans' Sports Club is a multi-sports organisation based in the Northern city of Thessaloniki, that was founded in 1926. Alongside the wrestling, basketball, water polo and half a dozen other popular sports, the club's football wing soon became one of the most rabidly supported teams in an already lively nation of hardcore ultras.

The club's official crest led to them becoming known as the Two- Headed Eagle of the North, a throwback to the region's connections to the Byzantine Empire, and they are considered the best supported team in the North of the country. They were formed out of the first wave of Greek refugees fleeing from Constantinople, during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922. Indeed, the team's black and white colours indicate a mourning for the expulsion from their homeland.

PAOK have spent their entire history in their nation's top flight, winning two league titles - in 1976 and 1985) and four national cups (in 1972, 1974, 2001 and 2003), although they hold a record that perhaps they are not so happy about, as the team who has lost the most Greek Cup finals - a massive twelve defeats in the year's biggest game under their belts.

They play in the grand old Toumba stadium, a 28,701 capacity ground that was used as one of the offical training facilities for the Athens Olympics in 2004, situated in a leafy suburb in the south of the coastal city.

The team have had an up and down history in the Greek league, but their first true golden period came in the 1970s and mid 1980s, when they won their two titles and played some of the most attractive football to have graced their nation's pitches up to that point. But with that came the birth of the hooliganism that has blighted them for many years since, and saw them expelled for European competition for five years after a particularly nasty set to with PSG fans in the UEFA Cup in 1992 - which in turn nearly led to their demise a few years later.

In the early years of the 20th Century, the unpopular club president Giannis Goumenos - accused by many of embezzlement, corruption and dodgy deals - was ousted after fans occupied his offices at the Toumba. The club's new management was appointed under order of the District Court of Thessaloniki, as the club was now pretty much under state observation, because of their huge debt to the state - at that point well over €30 million.

Thankfully though, under the stewardship of eventual new chairman Theodoros Zagorakis the club has started to pay of its debts and start looking like contenders again - finishing a decent second and third in their last two seasons, qualifying for the Champions League once more. So let's hope hat with a firm hand on the finances and some decent performances on the pitch we could see yet another team representing the stripes in the later stages of the world's greatest club competition.

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