Matt Walker is the ultimate European football traveller. He watched at least one top-division football match in all 55 UEFA nations over a single season and has written a critically-acclaimed book, Europe United, about his adventures. Europe United was published in paperback in May 2021, and makes the perfect present for the football travel fan in your life. It’s available to buy here.
Matt talks to Euro Ticket Club about his challenge, his book and takes us through some top fives from this packed European football season.
“My epic adventure – to experience 55 footballing countries in one season – was my fun midlife crisis. I wanted to travel extensively, but have a goal behind my travels. (As it turned out, there were 227 goals in the 79 top-division matches I watched over 11 months). The idea came to me one dull December day, and I immediately thought it was the perfect combination of football and travel with a challenge to focus my interest. I was also keen to promote the live match experience, something far superior to watching a match on television. The European football family extends to the likes of the Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Gibraltar and this gave my travels an appealing variety. I loved the contrast between, say, northern Wales and southern Israel in the depths of winter. I spent an average of four days in each of the 55 nations, which normally gave me the chance to explore as well as watch at least one top-flight match. The logistical challenge was considerable. There are two types of football season in Europe: the traditional autumn to spring season, and a dozen or so summer leagues played mostly in colder Northern European countries. I started my travels in June 2017 and it was crucial that I visited all of the summer leagues before they ended that autumn. Georgia, one of my favourite countries, made a late decision to shift to a summer season so I kicked off my challenge there. My second country was Iceland, hardly the most logical start to my adventures. Games were regularly moved at short-notice and I even had to bluff my way into an Albanian match being played behind closed doors. There were also several problems with officialdom and the Russian embassy was particularly suspicious about anyone wanting to visit the remote city of Ufa. The Guardian helped me out by featuring an early interview about my travels. I carried around a print out of the article and my mild fame eased open a few doors, including gaining entry to that Albanian match and convincing some sceptical Azerbaijani officials in Baku. My last match was in Podgorica, the bland Montenegrin capital. I celebrated with friends afterwards on the beautiful coastline and took a speedboat ride captained by a Serbian who claimed he was an ex-footballing prodigy. I then started writing my book, Europe United. Football is the beat, the theme, but the book is intrinsically linked to my travels, in particular some of the people I chanced upon. It was a hard ask to compress so many experiences into one book – there were plenty of good stories that didn’t make the cut. All 55 nations are represented but, naturally, there was more to write about some than others, and I varied the angles to keep the writing tight and fresh. I think it strikes a nice balance between football and travel and if you love both then Europe United is the book for you!”
Matt’s top 5 stadiums
1 – Pancho Aréna, Puskás Akadémia – Hungary
2 – The Oval, Glentoran – Northern Ireland
3 – Estadio do Dragão, Porto – Portugal
4 – Republican Stadium, Yerevan – Armenia
5 – Victoria Stadium, Gibraltar – Gibraltar
Pancho Arena – Photo credit: Matt Walker
I loved the variety of football stadiums, some modern, others crumbling Soviet relics. Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium had the most astonishing view: airport to the left, the Rock to the right. I also enjoyed the charismatic Republican Stadium in Yerevan, built from the beautiful pink-hued stone that characterises the Armenian capital and, closer to home, Glentoran’s Oval is a throwback ground with photogenic terracing circling the pitch, tight wooden seats and the yellow cranes of Belfast docks on the horizon.
The Estadio do Dragão was the best large stadium I went to, and pleasing close to Porto’s historic centre. But my absolute favourite was the astonishing Pancho Aréna in the otherwise unremarkable town of Felcsút. A stunning creation of sweeping curves and timber beams, it’s worth going to Hungary just to see it!
Matt’s top 5 atmospheres
1 – Brøndby IF (v AGF Aarhus) – Denmark
2 – Porto (v Sporting) – Portugal
3 – Trabzonspor (v Alanyaspor) – Turkey
4 – Napredak Kruševac (v Red Star Belgrade) – Serbia
5 – Cracovia (v Wisla Kraków) – Poland
Matt experiencing the Brondby atmosphere – photo credit: Matt Walker
I was amazed to see just how deeply the love of the beautiful game runs through Europe, even in the far corners of the footballing map. There was a great atmosphere in the south stand, where Brøndby’s hardcore fans stand, for their last match before the festive break. Everyone in the Turkish city of Trabzon was seemingly high on caffeine, cigarettes and football. And local residents helped build Napredak’s stadium in the Serbian city of Kruševac (in just three months!).
The vast majority of fans I met during my trip were very welcoming. But, once or twice this passion from fans did spill over into something unsavoury. The notorious Kraków derby, dubbed ‘the Holy War’, turned sour when Cracovia fans started shooting fireworks at Wisla supporters. Completely unforgivable, but at least the home fan’s flares provided the pretty backdrop featured on the cover of Europe United.
Matt’s 5 cheapest top division ticket prices
1 – 70p – Kazakhstan
2 – £1.30 – Moldova
3 – £1.50 – Belarus
4 – £1.70 – Kosovo
5 – £2.20 – Latvia
Matt in Kazakhstan – photo credit: Matt Walker
Football may be expensive to watch in England’s Premier League and other top leagues, although not if you take advantage of Euro Ticket Club offers, but games were pleasingly economical across much of Europe. In Belarus, for example, entrance to the game, a beer, a bottle of water and return travel on the glitzy Minsk metro was just £5. The cheapest ticket was 70p in Kazakhstan – it was actually 12p for children which, even in the remote Silk Road city of Taraz, is not very much at all!
Matt’s highest 5 attendances
1 – Borussia Mönchengladbach, Germany – 53,000
2 – Porto, Portugal – 48,000
3 – Sevilla, Spain – 38,000
4 – Trabzonspor, Turkey – 25,000
5 – Gent, Belgium – 20,000
Matt at Borussia-Park – photo credit: Matt Walker
Matt’s lowest 5 attendances
1 – Flamurtari, Albania – 0 (played behind closed doors)
2 – Murata, San Marino – 22
3 – Lions, Gibraltar – 50
4 – San Julià, Andorra – 60
5 – Ararat, Armenia – 80
A view of Victoria Stadium In Gibraltar (attendance – 50) – photo credit: Matt Walker
The diversity of top division European football was really encapsulated in my highest and lowest attendances. There were big crowds in Germany, Portugal and Spain, and this contrasted with a few dozen spectators – mostly club officials, and relatives of the players – in the microstates. However, some of my best experiences came in these smaller crowds, where it was easier to speak to locals and get insight into their clubs.
Matt’s top 5 matches
1 – Drita 4-3 Liria – Kosovo
2 – Trabzonspor 3-4 Alanyaspor – Turkey
3 – Vitebsk 2-2 Krumkachy – Belarus
4 – ADO Den Haag 2-2 Feyenoord – the Netherlands
5 – Fola Esch 9-0 Esch – Luxembourg
A shot from the Kosovar classic (Drita 4-3 Liria) – photo credit: Matt Walker
One of the best things about live football is that you never know which games are going to be dull stalemates, and which are going to be minor classics. I loved the see-saw games in Kosovo and Turkey. My Dutch match in Den Haag saw ADO score the finest goal of my travels whilst Samir Hadji, son of the former Morocco legend Mustapha, netted four in a 9-0 derby demolition in Luxembourg. However, the most unlikely occurrence was when the Krumkachy goalkeeper scored from his own penalty area … and was then sent off for a professional foul 20 minutes later. I’ll never see anything like that again!
Matt’s top 5 terrace snacks
1 – beer sticks – Lithuania
2 – stroopwafels – the Netherlands
3 – Scotch pie – Scotland
4 – frites and mayo – Belgium
5 – za’atar bread – Israel
Beer sticks in Lithuania – photo credit: Matt Walker
Football snacks weren’t as prevalent, or as tasty, as I expected. But sometimes everything fell perfectly into place. It was a beautiful summer’s evening at my Lithuanian match in Vilnius. Sweet local ale was flowing, and each glass was accompanied by a cup of beer sticks: delicious charred rye bread fried in garlic and sesame seeds. I could have stayed at the LFF stadium for hours to indulge were it not for the DJ’s strange fixation on playing Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ on repeat.
I also enjoyed the sugar-packed stroopwafels in the Netherlands, two especially good Scotch pies at Ross County, crunchy frites in Belgium and, most unusually, za’atar bread in Israel, covered in oregano, thyme and sumac spice.
Matt’s book Europe United, is widely available in paperback, hardback and eBook and available to buy here.