Being a relatively young football fan, having seen my first game in 1998, I’ve become accustomed to fans, pundits and ex-players talking about how ‘football has gone mad’ or how ‘things were better in my day.’
Whether it’s over inflated transfer fees, rising ticket prices or the obsession with footballing celebrity and social media there are many aspects of the modern game which older fans, and in some cases younger fans, seem to unite against. To paraphrase Blur; for many people, modern football is rubbish.
In many cases, I often spring to the defence of the modern game which I have grown up with and learnt to love; with its quirks, its ridiculousness and its grandiose sense of importance. I know that it is not perfect, but in the same way that people criticise the bands of my youth, I feel need to argue that modern football is just as good as its predecessor – albeit in different ways.
However one criticism of modern football does ring true with me and is something which I worry cannot be replaced in 21st century football.
It is the loss of what I would call ‘football serendipity’. The rise of the internet, 24 hour sports news and games like Football Manager and the FIFA series have taken away our ability to stumble upon or discover the joy of a new player or even a team who we had never heard of. Everyone’s stats are just a click away and YouTube heaves with highlight reels. Armchair critics who have seen a player twice on BT Sport Europe are ready to pronounce on whether one of the big clubs should put in a £30 million bid.
In some ways this ability to find out about players, to learn more about football and to see more games, teams and players is fantastic and allows us to expand our footballing knowledge. However I still have lingering memories of my club, Leicester City, signing Theo Zagorakis and having no idea who he was and if he was any good. And the joy when he turned out to be good was extra sweet.
It gave fans an extra slice of intrigue, something unexpected and novel. I feel a little torn as a defender of modern football but also as someone who can just about remember that excitement of seeing something or someone I had never heard of or read anything about. It is part of that childlike wonder which many of us still feel about football.
However all is not lost in this regard. There are still chances to enjoy this football fortune – that pleasant surprise at the unexpected. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Estonia. I had to go to Tallinn for a conference and was wondering round the beautiful old town trying to find some of the beautiful churches dotted around and ended up in the main square. It was beautiful and littered with spectacular buildings as well as some bars and restaurants.
Around one of these bars was a convergence of people with flags, scarves and banners, clearly football fans. I wondered if a game was on and rushed to the nearest place I could find Wi-Fi and a quick search revealed that one of the local Tallinn teams, Levadia Tallinn were playing Slavia Praha in a Europa League second round qualifier first leg.
I quickly tried to work out how to get to the ground, how to get a ticket and instinctively looked for Levadia Tallinn on Wikipedia. I found out a little about the club and when they were formed, but stopped short at finding out anything about their players. Just before seven o’clock I made my way towards the ground and felt genuinely enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing what was in essence likely to be a fairly poor quality (and according to the bookmakers) one sided game. They had Levadia at 7/1 against their more illustrious opponents, but the opportunity to see a new ground, new players and football in July filled me with excitement.
The game turned out to be excellent, despite the ground only being around two thirds full, the atmosphere was great and the Slavia fans made a lot of noise and held huge banners and flags aloft. Levadia started quite well, roared on by the home crowd, but as the half wore on Slavia had one or two very good chances to score. It was however Levadia who took the lead when Rimo Hunt turned in a cross just before half time. The upset was on…
Just after half time, unfortunately for the home crowd, Slavia equalised through Bosnian striker Muris Mešanović. The roar from the away fans was impressive, as were the flares they lit almost as soon as the ball hit the back of the net.
The Levadia players looked crestfallen – they had been retreating further and further back and Slavia looked set to push on for the win. However, a beautiful cross from Levadia’s number 11 was met by a perfectly placed header from Cameroonian Aime Gando to give the home side back their surprise lead. They rounded off a shock result with a thumping outside the box finish by Ilja Antonov to give them a 3-1 win and a two goal lead to take to the second leg in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for Levadia they lost the return leg 2-0 and went out on away goals.
It was a wonderful game, but what made it such a fantastic experience was the novelty of seeing players I knew nothing about, at a club I knew very little about. It was like being a child again and watching Leicester City play Red Star Belgrade and discovering all the Red Star players by watching them rather than reading their Wikipedia profiles.
The internet has done so many wonderful things for football but next time you decide to visit a local non-league team, or your club signs a little known player, why not just hold off on that Google search and relive a little bit of that special experience of footballing serendipity.