Sunday, July 1, 2018

It's a knock-out in Tallinn

The last day of June, day 33 (61.8% complete) saw the resumption of the battle for the World Cup after a football day off. I saw both round of 16 games in the beautiful Old Town in Tallinn, which resulted in the first quarter final being decided. It'll be France v Uruguay next Friday. Apart from watching the football I changed accommodation, watched the end of a wonderful Estonian folk dance concert and visited Estonia's national stadium.

Estonia's compact but excellent ground
After the day I'd hoped to spend cycling on an Estonian island got washed out, I decided to spend an extra day in Tallinn and stayed at a reasonable hotel the night, The Park Inn. It was comfy and quite near to the bus stop which was a big plus in its favour as it was pouring. I'd already booked two nights in a relatively cheap apartment on the other side of town so, after a nice breakfast, my first task was to find the new place and get settled in.

Didn't know the best way to go 

Park Inn

Passed the Lithuanian Embassy on the way

Close to the new place here
The owner of apartment had just arrived as I did and he showed me his very pleasant accommodation. Luxury, really, for half the price of the hotel.

And, bonus, it had a cute washing machine so I was able to do another wash even though I didn't really need to do one.

After that I set off to do a bit of exploring. No 1 on my agenda, it's sad to admit, was the national football stadium of Estonia (and league club Flora FC), so I planned a route and started walking.

The place I'm at is right near the old city walls of Tallinn so it was an obvious route to walk through the town center again which is just so gorgeous you can't help but get your camera out every couple of minutes. I guess the locals must get sick of hoards of tourists posing and pointing their cameras but it must bring in a lot of money. Tallinn is the perfect picture postcard place.

It was quite cold and I quickly realised I should have brought a coat or at least worn another layer or two, so I decided to buy an Estonian T shirt to add to my collection. 

As I approached the town square I started to hear a very familiar sound to my ears, folk dance music. Could it be? Yes!! An Estonian folk dance concert going on right in the center of the square.

I uploaded all my photos and videos to a separate blog post. Click here to see it.

After the concert finished, I tearfully thanked the performers before setting off for the Estonian National stadium, called "Le Coq Arena."

Whenever I go somewhere like this my first inclination is to walk but this was really quite a way out of town so I asked a few people about buying a tram ticket. For one reason and another, the trams never seemed to come at the right time or be heading in the right direction, so in the end I did walk.

Not the best route again
It's a pretty impressive, modern stadium even though it's only got a capacity of 15,000. Apparently, it's going to hold the European Super Cup final between the European Cup winners, Real Madrid and the Europa League winners, Atletico Madrid later this year.

Certainly, of the three Baltic States, it's by far the best. When I arrived the only thing open seemed to be a shop. I asked the young guy behind the counter if it might be possible to get a sneak view of the inside and take a couple of pictures.

He seemed impressed about my trip to the World Cup from Australia and my quest to see each of the national stadiums of ten former Soviet Republics.

"Follow me" he said

And he led be down a corridor, though a door and out into the ground. I have to say my first impression was just "Wow!"

Anyway, he was a very nice young man and we had quite a bit of a chat about football in Estonia and the old Soviet times. I bought an England lightweight back bag for 10 euros as I've been wanting a way of carrying stuff around without having to lug around my back pack and it's got the three lions on it too. In the past I might have bought a shirt but as I'm not going to see any England games, and I wouldn't want to be wearing it in St Petersburg and because it cost 15 times as much, I passed on that one.

Approaching the ground

Training ground

Le Coq

Cool 5-a-side pitch

Estonia have never made it to the final of a major football tournament, not just this one. But they did reasonably well in their qualification group. It was the one Belgium qualified from and Belgium beat Estonia 8-1 at home but only 2-0 here. Estonia had a couple of handy results themselves, beating Gibraltar 4-0 at home and an incredible 6-0 away. I bet England wouldn't have done that. They also got a great draw away to Greece.

Belgians on tour to Estonia in 2017...

Final table - not too bad for Estonia

Estonia are currently ranked the highest of the three Baltic States and are the only team in the top half of the FIFA rankings.

The three Baltic States take part in a bi-annual tournament called, appropriately, the Baltic Cup.

Despite their higher current ranking, Estonia haven't won this since 1938. Latvia have won the last four, taking them into a significant lead over Lithuanian.

Le Coq arena is also the home ground of the Tallinn professional football club, Flora FC. They have nothing to do with margarine and presumably are quite fit as they often win the Maerstriliiga in Estonia.

Flora, challenging for the title, as usual, this season

Eesti's Eesti's No 1, Eesti's No 1

After my football ground fix, I set off back to the old town, by almost crawling through a tunnel under the railway line.

I came back here, recharged my phone an uploaded the concert photos and videos.

Then it was time for the World Cup and the first of eight knock out games in the round of 16. Two per day for the next four days.

First up, a very juicy looking tie between France and Argentina. The owner had recommended a place for me to watch the game so I followed his advice.

I was one of the first there, with about twenty minutes until kick off and so got a good table near the front where they had a projector and a screen under some cover, in case of rain. It was a bit cold and I wished I'd worn my leather jacket.

After a few minutes a big group of Argentinian supporters arrived and were clearly frustrated at not having a better view so I invited them to bring their table up next mine and share my space. They were mostly from Guatemala but one was married to German fellow (I couldn't help smiling). Her brother was there with his friends.

They smiled when I said I was born in England but I was quick to say that my only objection with Germany is that they win too much at football and that I wish it was more evenly balanced.

"I have nothing against Germany or Germans" I squeaked.

"I have" joked the brother. "I hate Germans!"

Strangely, to me, they had adopted Argentina as the team to follow.

"Why not Panama?"

"We hate Panama. They have only been playing football for twelve years. It makes us sick. We are 17 millions and they are 4 millions and they get to the World Cup before us."

"Why not Mexico?" I inquired

"We hate Mexico. Too cocky."

Funny how every country tends not to favour its neighbours. I think the Baltic States are a rare exception to that.

It was one of the best games in the competition so far. The best games usually have lots of goals and a sequence of scoring that alternates between one side winning and then the other. This ticked all the boxes.

France scored first through a totally unnecessary penalty. Griezman's spot kick could have easily been saved if the goalkeeper hadn't guessed wrongly, though. Di Maria scored a superb equaliser for Argentina just before half time to level the scores.

I was getting pretty cold and the beer wasn't great so I decided to say "Adios amigos" to my new Guatamalan acquaintances and find a bar where I could go inside into the warmth.

Vamos, Vamos, Argentina! 

I found one just a few hundred meters away and sat next to Scot who now lives in California

In the second half, Argentina took the lead when Mercaro subtely deflected Messi's shot in.

Game on.

It looked for a while that Messi and co were going to go through after all but the French fought back strongly and a superb goal by Pavard in the 57th minuted leveled the game again at 2-2.

Then it was 3-2.

Then 4-2.

Just as it seemed the game was in the bag for France, Argentina pulled a late goal back to keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

So, goodbye Messi and well done to France. The first quarter finalists.

Before leaving I had to have a "natural break" and discovered a very innovative toilet that made me giggle as when you closed the door the position  of the mirrors it made you think you were in a field of clones of you sat on the toilet.

After the France game I came back here to get my leather jacket as it was getting colder all the time.

For the Portugal v Uruguay game I headed to one of Professor Google's recommendations, an Irish pub called "Mad Murphy's" (oh well, I suppose it fits the genre). I'm never 100% keen on Irish bars but they're often a decent choice if you don't know anywhere better. At least the ones abroad don't force you to drink Guinness, like the ones in Ireland do - or at least they used to when I was a lad.

Mad Murphy's

I sat at the bar and had a very nice pint of IPA as the national anthems bellowed out. I must admit I was definitely hoping for a Portugal win, which kind of guaranteed they were going out.

Inevitably, from my jaundiced anti-Uruguay viewpoint, they scored very early, in the seventh minute. It was a great goal, really, with a superb cross from Suarez being met at the far post with a brilliantly timed run by the impressive Cavani. It seemed to come of his shoulder, rather than his head, but it flew in to make it 1-0 and stun the pub crowd who all, like me, seemed to favour the Europeans.

What happened next was predictable. Uruguay parked two buses and basically challenged Portugal to break them down, which they really struggled to do.

I was getting the grump on increasingly as the match wore on. Firstly it was becoming clear that Uruguay's ultra cynical tactics of defending in depth, man marking anyone with talent (that would be Cristiano Ronaldo then) out of the game, diving to win free kicks and trying to get opposition players booked - was going to work, again.

To add to this grumpiness a band were clearly warming up to play. Not again. Please. Don't practice your drums or your bass guitar while there's a World Cup game going on.

Furthermore two drunken men decided to stand right in front of me and, apart from swaying from  side to side, wouldn't move.

I was out of there and, again thanks to Google, found a quieter restaurant type place with a relatively small TV. There was no commentary but I didn't mind as I was getting into a bit of a sulk about the way the game was going.

As I ate my beef pattie and egg and supped a small glass of pale ale, my hopes were raised for precisely seven minutes when Portugal, at last, found a way through Uruguay's endless wall of sky blue shirts.

Not as nice as the Prof suggested
But alas, another cracking goal from Cavani reset the game status back to "We have the lead. You try to score" again.

Look, I know Uruguay are a small nation of approximately 3 million people on a continent dominated by bigger countries and there is something quite appealing about little guys punching above their weight but don't forget that Uruguay have won the World Cup twice - and Portugal never - so spare them the sympathy. Iceland is one tenth of the size of Uruguay and they never resort to the cynical tactics of La Celeste.

So, goodbye Messi, goodbye Ronaldo.

Anyway, rant over. I hope France slaughter them in the quarter finals. (Sorry, France. You didn't need my jinxing!)

It always saddens me when we get to the knock out phases of the cup. As it means that the party has started to end already.

I remember once going to a house of an Australian for one of the first times after arriving in Perth. It was one of Laima's friends'. Her parents had invited everyone back for some kind of post-leaving do drinks or something.

The typically aussie dad very humorously said something to the group of us like...

"Look. There's beer. There's wine. A few nibbles. Have a bit of a chat for half an hour and then piss off!!"

I must say I was very impressed. I wish I could say that sometimes.

Anyway, here we are at the biggest "party" in the world and now, every day two guests have to leave.

Imagine it. The party started at 8 pm. It's due to finish at 11. At 9:30 pm you tell half of them to "piss off" and then every quarter of an hour from then on, another two are evicted.

By eleven, there's only two left. Not much of a party.

The problem is it's all about winning. You often hear football fans complaining about the fact that the World Cup always has 3rd/4th play off.

"Who cares who finishes 3rd?" They moan.

Well I do.

In fact I wish they'd all stay and play for places. So right now, as well as the eight matches in the round of 16, there'd be another eight playing for places 17th-32nd.

When it's quarter finals time, I'd have another 4 games being played for the losers of the round of 16 as well as four more for the winners and losers of the other eight games.

And so on, until every team had it's own "Final" to determine their place in the 32 teams at the World Cup.

The bottom half draw might not appeal to everyone...

... but it surely would be of interest to the fans of the countries taking part.

What? are we so arrogant that if we don't win it, we don't care about anything else?

I am surprised FIFA, being so focused on money, don't propose this as a way of expanding the tournament further but it seems I'm in a minority of one on this issue.

Anyway, rant number two over.

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