Sliema Wanderers / Valletta FC: a story about a groundhop and a sightseeing bus

There are some groundhops which, when written about, bring out the most cultural and aesthetic terms an author can come up with. Some others are already worth the read without even writing a word, but due to the sheer known magic of a place in particular.

This groundhop is none of either.

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The gang waiting in line for tickets. €7 for two matches. “Wait, two?”

Together with probably the craziest bunch of nutters one could put on a plane, I ventured off to Malta in order to visit my main bro Laurens (https://laurensinmalta.wordpress.com/) who had moved to the tiny island of Malta to spark some much needed new life into his career.

Next to beer, parties, hangovers, bars, pubs, everything in between and a tiny dash of culture, Laurens also promised me a groundhop. He mentioned that Malta has a couple of interesting teams … “if you’re a fan of something like the Belgian 4th divison”. Which I am.

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My first impression of Ta’ Qali was not too bad. This could well be the outside of any stadium in western Europe.

Due to the small size of the island and its high population density, every game is a derby. Nearly all of them are played in the country’s national stadium: Ta’ Qali. The teams who call it home are Birkirkara FC, Marsa FC, Marsaxlokk FC, Melita FC, Msida Saint Joseph, Pietà Hotspurs FC, Sliema Wanderers, St. George’s FC and Valletta FC. Sure that’s all of them? At 2PM, the first game is played, at 4PM the second and sometimes at 6PM the third. It’s like a – pun intended – football factory.

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Ta’ Qali Stadium fits 17 000. Here, England will face Malta in September for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers.

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The very laid back game of Balzan v Sliema Wanderers gave a false image of how the rest of the afternoon would fare.

The first game was be Balzan versus Sliema Wanderers. We had no idea in which team’s stand we ended up, until we noticed a girl wearing a Sliema Ultras hoodie.

“Okay, so there is a scene here.”

After a couple of cheap beers, the game started without anything noticeable happening at all. The level was horrifying so we entertained ourselves with a couple of chants, knowing well that the players could hear every word we sung. The Ultra girl didn’t appear to be in to singing. So by the time we were pissed up, we fully took the credit for Sliema’s 1-2 win over Balzan. Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing to mention about this match apart from our drinking capacity .

The match was over before we knew it. Due to our drinking behaviour, most of us even forgot there was a second match to come.

“What?! Another one?!”

The players barely saluted the fans as the next teams, Valletta FC and Hamrun, took to the pitch. The metamorphosis began.

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The Maltese appeared to be masters of taunting.

The main stand was the only stand filled for the game, where a buffer section separated the two sets of fans which were sat along the length of the field. For the second game, we sat in Valletta FC’s end. A turn of fortune. Immediately after the previous game’s whistle, large flags, a couple of drums, a marching band and chants started to cheer the capital’s team. As our group first looked at each other in awe, we decided to join in as good as we can, since all of their chants are in incomprehensible Maltese. The locals noticed us and seemed to appreciate that we showed an active interest in their team.

A marching band was playing, singing was going on in an exotic language and we were swayed by the swaggy rhythms and songs of what seemed to be the most popular club on the island. The whole experience had a very South American feel to it. It seemed like a River Plate match … a friendly, but still a River Plate friendly.

Since we’re not capable of understanding any Maltese, the slightest turn of a couple of Valletta supporters towards the Hamrun supporters which were taunting, was enough to spark all of us in to joining the local Ultras Beltin. By doing so, we doubled the usual number of crazy nutters in the stands.

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The scenes when Valletta scored 1-0. Half of the people in this picture are Belgian.

In fact, the taunting got to us so much that we made our way to the first row of the stand, stood on an open fence and caught the attention of Ultras Beltin. In any other European country, tourists or groundhoppers who behave like this in any stadium would be immediately kicked out. Not in Malta. The Capo smiled at us and encouraged us to carry on. Not long afterwards, Valletta scored 1-0 and the crazy Belgians celebrated with the local Ultras while, of course, taunting the opposition.

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There were plenty of these.

As the game kept heating on, Valletta scored the 2-0 decider. It didn’t stop the Hamrun supporters from taunting back, but you know who had the last laugh. The last minutes of the game are a blur of shouting and alcohol, so pardon the total lack of detail here.

Final whistle: Valletta FC 2 – 0 Hamrun. Let’s fuck off.

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Laurens absolutely unaware of what’s happening after the final whistle. Michael in the background was doing a can-can at double speed. Don’t ask.

The Ultras were outside of the stadium regrouping. So were we, having a much harder time regrouping a group half the size and filled to the brim with drunken Belgians and two Brits.

Before we knew it, we stood in front of a sightseeing bus, the kind of old red English double-decker you see driving tourists around looking like a bunch of twats. The top deck was filled with people. Girls were looking down on us shouting “Go away!”, at the same time the Ultras’ capo told us to get on the bus and join them.

The girls’ faces when we arrived on the upper deck were priceless.

What followed was one of the weirdest scenes I had ever seen on a groundhop. The bus started driving, all of the Ultras on top and it drove straight through the area where the ‘visiting’ supporters had grouped up. Chants and other stuff got thrown in both directions, but the feeling of victory made us untouchable.

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The bus started driving, surrounded by visiting supporters. But hey, we still had our pints.

Keeping our balance, ducking for tree branches and, yes, one even taking a piss off the back of the bus. We had absolutely no idea where the ride would be taking us. I was too busy to mind, after exchanging stickers with the capo and showing him our gratitude for the hospitality.

The bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Valletta. We had to be in Saint Julian’s. Malta may be small, but it’s still quite a drive away. “We’re in Valletta?!” Chris angstly shouted, throwing his hands to his hair with fear in his wide-open drunken eyes. The lad had been sleeping the whole bus ride. Drinking Belgians 1 – 0 Drinking Brits.

In October, a new Maltese episode will follow. Stay tuned.

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The walk home was going to be a tough one.

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Costa Rica Part III: Volcán Arenal & Monteverde

If last week’s bus trip from San José to Dominical was already a long one, this one would dwarf it. A solid 12 hours stood in the way of Krisztina and me reaching La Fortuna, the well-known hub at the foot of the mighty Arenal.

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There it is. The Arenal in the distance.

The bus took us back to where my adventure had started: the Tracopa terminal in San José. Since another company served the north of Costa Rica, we had to change terminals. Forgive me for not recalling the name of the other one. From San José we took the bus into the mountains to Ciudad Quesada and onward to La Fortuna. The winding roads made it nearly impossible to catch some sleep and the slow traffic because of a bus on its side near the cliffs was an adrenaline booster. Just another day in Costa Rica. The sun was already setting as we finally saw the Arenal rise up from the horizon.

Previously known as El Borio, La Fortuna is the only town this close to Arenal to survive the sudden eruption of 1968. Three other towns were destroyed. Enough reason to change El Borio’s name to La Fortuna, meaning ‘The Lucky One”. And boy, did we feel lucky reaching our destination after a whole day of bus riding.

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La Fortuna Main Street with the big guy in the distance.

La Fortuna is incredibly touristy. The main street coming from the east heading west cuts right through the center of town and is lined by bars, restaurants, gift shops and hostels. Still the colonial architecture makes it seem less so. The center is a breeze to navigate through.

We stayed at the La Fortuna Backpackers Resort. There are dorms, privates and tents under a giant roof. I opted for a tent which was great in value and price. And I had a real bed with a real mattress!  They also had a nice open bar that extended into the pool; a small bucket lister awaiting to be ticked off. I can recommend this place. Remember to bring enough cash, because they don’t accept cards.

That meant another search for an ATM was on.

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Iglesia de La Fortuna de San Carlos.

The alarm clock went off at 8, just like your average working day. As a matter of fact I would be working. I signed up for volunteering at an animal shelter which was ‘nearby’ … another 45 minute bus ride. I hate commuting, but sitting between the locals who were also on their way to work while driving through the scenic mountains made it feel a lot less like home.

Proyecto Asis is located in Javillos and rehabilitates wild animals which were captured by citizens and held illegally before putting them back in to the wild. The tricky part is to keep the animals ‘wild’ when they are in confinement. Not an easy task.

“Blue Macaws originate from Brazil. In Brazil, they speak Portuguese, the Scarlet Macaws speak Spanish. Since Macaws love literature, it is not easy to – pull a bird – if you don’t speak the same language.”

Carlos, my boss at Proyecto Asis

Carlos would be my boss for the day and me and some Canadians would join him in feeding all the animals they were keeping at the moment. There were animals like wild hogs and Coati’s but also monkeys and Macaws.

We were dealing with a lot of Spider Monkeys and Capuchin Monkeys. Spider Monkeys act friendly towards humans but can get a little pushy if you’re carrying food. They also love stealing your hat. Capuchin Monkeys may look cuter but act aversive towards humans. It is common for them to pick on humans for their own entertainment by throwing their own poop at you. Clearly, we would be feeding them from outside their cage.

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The Blue Macaw at Proyecto Asis, forever alone.

There was one amazing Blue and three Scarlet Macaws. These parrot-like birds are known for their life long monogamy. If a Macaw’s partner dies, the other one would shortly die after. Carlos explained that their Blue Macaw would remain a bachelor for his whole life.

“Blue Macaws originate from Brazil. In Brazil, they speak Portuguese, the Scarlet Macaws speak Spanish. Since Macaws love literature, it is not easy to – pull a bird – if you don’t speak the same language.”

A solid explanation which captures the essentials about these creatures. Volunteering one day at Proyecto Asis is definitely something I would recommend.

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Enough work for the day.

Once back at the hostel I feel like I deserved my refreshing dip and ice cold Imperial by the pool bar. I enjoyed every second of it since Krisztina had spent the day on a horse-riding tour through the mountains. Later on, we would join a group hike to the Arenal for a sundowner which was arranged through the hostel.

Not much of a hiker myself, we chose the shorter path which was the one carved by the lava stream of 1968. Another option was a longer, steeper hike, which would lead to a smaller dormant volcano next to Arenal. But we went for a gentle climb lead us to about halfway up the Arenal, as far as we were allowed to go. The views after the three hour hike were amazing and had the whole group in silence.

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The sundowner halfway up the Arenal.

This incredibly exhausting day came to an end with another set of Imperials in the pool and at the bar. We were on the verge of creating a new pack with a group of travelers from Michigan and one German girl called Bettina. However, the next day, we would be heading to Santa Elena and the cloud forests of Monteverde.

Well, that didn’t go off without a hitch. On the day I did the volunteering work, Krisztina went on a horseback ride and after went for a massage. At the massage parlour, she forgot her necklace which had a huge emotional value. She would go search for it and take the next bus to Santa Elena. The bus was actually a van which would drive to the edge of the Arenal Lake. From there on, a small ferry would take us to the other side where another van would be waiting to take us to Santa Elena.

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Set right below the cloud forests, Santa Elena guarantees you a ton of rainbows every time the sun comes out.

In the afternoon, I had arrived at Casa Alquimia in Santa Elena, a brand new (still under construction) B&B on the outside of town run by an Ecuadorian couple. They were by far the kindest hosts I have met on my trip, going out of their way to help us with everything they could. The house on the inside is made all out of wood and there was an aroma in the air that reminded me of thyme. Even now when I use it to cook, my mind flashes back to the times at Casa Alquimia.

As I still had to wait for Krisztina to arrive, I took the time to check out the town. And of course, get myself a ton of cash from the first ATM I would encounter. Thanks to Dominical for teaching me that.

Santa Elena is situated right on top of a hill and Main Street is shaped like a triangle, making it easy to navigate. Do yourself a favor and grab a burrito at Taco Taco. I’ve had many a burrito in a lot of places but no burrito compares to the one I had in Santa Elena. Another cold Imperial and I was as happy as can be.

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Don’t leave Santa Elena before having one of these at Taco Taco downtown.

Suddenly, Bettina, the German girl from the hostel in La Fortuna, came to sit in front of me. Apparently, our itineraries were nearly equal since she would also be heading to Santa Teresa after this stopover.

“You are also going to Santa Teresa afterwards? We should do that together!”

Needless to say I nodded, agreed, bought her a beer and we toasted to it. Beer connecting Belgians and Germans half a world away. This solo travel thing isn’t that solo after all.

We shared some more Imperials and ran in to more people from in La Fortuna before the rumbling of thunder in the distance forced us back to our hostels. I decided to use the thunderstorm to catch up on some sleep until Krisztina arrived. A couple of hours later she did arrive without a necklace. The massage parlour was closed but she spoke to the owner and they would bring the necklace along with the bus driver the next day.

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The next day we decided on doing a tour through the cloud forests over the hanging bridges followed by a zipline tour. If you’re planning on seeing a lot of wildlife, I wouldn’t really recommend it. The only animals I have seen, were Coati’s. The view from atop the hanging bridges was phenomenal though. The zipline tour was, of course, more thrilling than walking across bridges and our group even ran in to Howler Monkeys. We had a thorough explanation from our guides who also seemed to know a lot about Belgian football. Needless to say we got along well. Some of the cables run at a height of 20-30 meters and span a length of around 300 metres. The last one is a thriller of about 1km. That’s right.

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Yours truly on a hanging bridge with Krisztina lingering in the back.

The weather in the cloud forests is humid and chilly compared to La Fortuna and even Santa Elena. Bring yourself something to keep you dry and warm. As we made our way back down the mountains to the height of Santa Elena, we immediately felt the difference. The next day the difference would be even greater as we would be leaving the mountains behind us and heading to Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. Krisztina would have to wait for the first bus to come from La Fortuna which would have her necklace on it. I was to meet up with Bettina at the bus terminal in Santa Elena to catch the bus for the ferry in Puntarenas.

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The last sunset from the balcony at Casa Alquimia.

My alarm clock went off at 4:30, the bus was at 6. Tarcisio, our host, had booked me a taxi to the terminal. After waiting outside in the dark for more than half an hour, I had the feeling the taxi wasn’t going to show up. If I’d walk the distance to the terminal, I would miss the bus. To make things even worse I had to leave the keys to the house inside by means of checking out. So I was locked outside and sure to miss the bus. After another half an hour waiting, I saw a light switching on in Tarcisio’s house. He was disgusted after hearing the news and incredibly apologetic, even though he absolutely was not the one to blame for this.

“You should have knocked to wake me up. I am so sorry!”

Kind as he is, Tarcisio called a shuttle that would take me to Puntarenas. On top of that, I got a complimentary breakfast. Everything got solved and covered up with some pure Tico hospitality. Tarcisio and his wife really know how to take care of you.

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Peculiar Puntarenas seen from the sky with the ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula on the left. ©Puntarenas.com

The shuttle arrived on time and it was a long drive down the mountains to Puntarenas. Geographically speaking, Puntarenas is a peculiar town, really. It sits on a small peninsula which is not even 500 metres wide but over 3 km long. There’s one main road which leads to the pier. After finding out where to get my ticket, I was on the ferry in no time. The wind was perfect to cool down since the temperature was noticeably higher than back up in the mountains.

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On the way to the last stop: Santa Teresa.

As I was planning to sit down I suddenly saw Bettina. Normally she should have been on a ferry which would have left hours before the one I took. Apparently, the bus didn’t show up and she was stuck at the station as well. A misfortune that paid off. I forgot how she eventually reached the ferry. We sat back, but our feet up, enjoyed the sun and were on our way to where we would be reunited with the Dominical gang. My last stop: Santa Teresa.

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Costa Rica Part II: Dominical

Here you can find my travel blog from my trip to Costa Rica. To avoid an endless longread, I split it up in multiple parts. Thanks for reading and enjoy.

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The windows open, talks with the locals, not even 5 euros for the ride, a great scenic drive along the Pacific and only one fellow lone traveler (from Denmark) on the bus. This was starting to look like the off the beaten path trip that I had in mind. The latter part of the trip went by quickly, thanks to the stupendous views and sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

If you’re planning on going to Dominical from pretty much anywhere you’ll need to take a bus from the Tracopa company. They have a terminal in the center of San José and their buses are bright green. Here I learned that there are multiple bus companies serving different regions in the country. Tracopa serves the whole southwestern part of the country and have buses that go up to Davíd in Panama. So keep in mind that, for long distances, you will have to change companies, most probably in San José.

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The Tracopa buses which will take you anywhere south. Tracopacr.com

Upon arrival in Dominical, the bus driver whistled me to the front and let me out to grab my bag. It was my first encounter with high air humidity and it soaked me within five seconds. While trotting with my backpack down the dusty main drag in Dominical I was wondering how I would be breathing in this for the next three weeks.

The hostel where I reserved a bed for a couple of nights was called Cool Vibes and was about half a kilometer walk from the village center. I was soaked when I arrived in what looked like a barn with a huge roof and great decoration.

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The sublime common room of Cool Vibes Hostel. http://www.hosteldominical.com

As the hostel is laid out in the attic of a barn and the roof rises up really high, there is a lot of airflow. The whole front of the roof was taken out to let in the sea breeze and the common area was laid out with comfy chairs and hammocks. The bunk beds had a mosquito net. Only the mattress was a bit thin but hey, for 8 euros per night and literally 10 footsteps to the beach, I wasn’t one to complain. Of course it was time for a refreshing shower before I headed into the village for a Casado at El Coco.

“Got just enough cash for my ₡ 1700 (not even 3 euro) dinner.”

“I mustn’t forget to go to the ATM tomorrow.”

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Playa Dominical and Playa Dominicalito in the distance. Humidity, anyone?

As I enjoyed my dinner in the open bar, I noticed two older American guys sitting two tables further from me. They seemed like they knew the place. One lived not too far from there and the other, who joined him for dinner later on, was driving all over the country in a little jeep. They were nearly as old as my own father, but they were here to surf.

“I had fuckin’ shoulder height up ‘n around Jacó. It was friggin’ insane, man.”

I fell asleep like a rock with the sound of the waves just 20 meters away. This was the real deal. The following day I stumbled across the free coffee in the kitchen. Good free coffee! The hostel is owned by a French couple after all. The girl, Céline, was cleaning in the kitchen.

“C’est du bon café. Merci beaucoup.”

“Il n’y a pas de quoi, c’est cool! T’es Français?”

Céline and I chatted a bit about the hostel, the village and the surf. During a trip to Costa Rica, she met her boyfriend Sri and they decided to stay and start this hostel. An amazing story and equal job to say the least. She showed me the way to the ATM and off I went. And sure enough, both of my cards were not accepted by the only ATM in town and the bank’s office was closed since it was a Saturday. My first pickle on my first solo travel. How was I going to cope? I had a little over ₡ 2000 left to feed myself for the next two days.

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A typical casado.

I made my way back into the village and went into a small supermarket to get the bare necessities with my last cash. Back at the hostel I stumbled upon a Canadian traveler Steve who joined me for lunch. He was very spontaneous and we seemed to share some mutual interests. So I finally had a surfing buddy to pick up surfing with again. But I still decided I needed a refresh lesson so I went to go and have a look in the center at Costa Rica Surf Adventures’ little shack on Main Street. Behind the counter, a gorgeous local girl’s smile was a great welcome indeed.

“Yeah, I’m err … looking for a surfing lesson …”

(… and a future wife!)

Luckily, I was getting used to the humidity so I managed to keep a dry face. They had free spots for the day after, so she booked me a lesson with Luís. That also means that they did accept credit cards. I paid 45 euros for a two hour individual lesson and half a day’s rent. So I wasn’t at world’s end after all. Back at the hostel I met up with Steve again for lunch. He was so kind to lend me ₡ 10 000 to get through the weekend and to get us some decent lunch. What a life saver!

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Main Street Dominical. © James Kaiser

We went to Soda Nanyoa just up the road. Sodas are plentiful in Costa Rica. They are usually small and simple restaurants which serve the local delicacies. In Costa Rica’s case, that means Casado. It’s Spanish for ‘marriage’ and hints at the rice which is mixed with black beans, is accompanied by a satisfying amount of fish, poultry or meat and a heap of grilled vegetables and Pico de Gallo (diced tomatoes with chopped onion and coriander). The cost of a huge dish like that? About 2,5 euro’s.

Me and Steve planned out some of the days ahead. We would visit the area around Dominical as well but of course surf and a lot of chilling out. The vibe was really starting to get the hang of me and it felt great. Steve also brought a little Bluetooth speaker with him and was a real reggae and roots music fan. Ideal for hanging out at the beach or in the hammock. The music attracted mutual travelers so we started to build up a little pack. More on that later.

All that hanging out got us to know a lot of people and started creating a tight group mainly consisting of a handful of Canadians (who doesn’t love them, eh?), two German girls, a Hungarian girl, a Swiss girl, and an Irish girl. Typing all of this over again, I realise we were in pretty good company.

My surfing lesson with Luís the next day was a necessity indeed! Although I must admit that the swell wasn’t ideal for a refresh lesson. Luís is a great mentor though and he managed to let me stand up again for the first time in an eternity. Out on the water we also talked about his life as a surfer here and his friends who live in France who he visits regularly to catch some Atlantic waves.

The days were filled up with surfing and chilling out when the swells were down. When swells were too big for us kooks, we took a taxi to neighbouring Playa Dominicalito. The most memorable moment out there was surfing during a thunderstorm. A great sense of humbleness dawned upon me, drifting on the open water and seeing the lightning bolts striking a (safe?) distance away.

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The sundowner surfing at Dominicalito, shortly before a thunderstorm surprised us.

All that hanging out got us to know a lot of people and started creating a tight group mainly consisting of a handful of Canadians (who doesn’t love them, eh?), two German girls, a Hungarian girl, a Swiss girl, and an Irish girl. Typing all of this over again, I realise we were in pretty good company.

One day, me, Steve and Krisztina (the Hungarian girl) decided to check out the Parque Marina Ballena in Uvita, not too far away, where a piece of the coastline is shaped like a dolphin’s tail. We took a taxi (in most parts of Costa Rica, a taxi will also transport you in the back of a pickup truck) to the edge of the park. It was a nice walk up to the tail and we made it just before the tide came up. All the way at the end of the tail, there is a rock formation with a bunch of guys fishing there. We tried some snorkeling but visibility was really poor. As soon as the tide came in, we ran the risk of being locked in on the back of the tail but we got back in time. Right behind me, the waves washed over the tail.

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The whale’s tail at Marino Ballena from the sky. © kuracostarica.com

Another trip we made while in Dominical was a little waterfall just to the east. If I heard it correctly, there’s a touristy one called Nauyaca and a more secluded one called Posa Azul. We took Posa Azul. A taxi took us to where we had to cut in the forest to reach the waterfall. Two local kids were playing around and they had a DIY Tarzan swing set up. It seemed like it had been there for a long time so me and Steve didn’t hesitate to climb up to it and swing ourselves in the refreshing water. Of course I did get a sunburn these first couple of days, so I was in and out the clear water the whole time. When it comes to agility, I lost out to Steve by a landslide.

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It rained for just one night. Didn’t stop the pack from having a good time. Steve did the cocktails, we did the drunkness. (From left to right: blurry Prisca (GER) Krisztina (HUN), Emma (IRL), Steve (CAN). Many nationalities, one state of mind.)

The time came to continue the journey. I was already staying an extra night in Dominical. It was that hard to say goodbye to that little paradise. But I wanted to see the rest of the country. Little did I know…

Our group decided to split up. Me and Krisztina would go north to the Volcan Arenal and Monteverde cloud forests. Another part of the group decided to go south and another part to Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. That’s where we decided to meet up again after about a week. As for me and Krisztina, we had a full day of bus travel ahead of us.

Good night and hopefully we’ll see each other soon, Dominical.

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Costa Rica Part I: Preparations & San José

Here you can find my travel blog from my trip to Costa Rica. To avoid an endless longread, I split it up in multiple parts. Thanks for reading and enjoy.

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May 2014: after a history of making travel plans with friends and seeing those plans hit the deck for a variety of evitable reasons, it was time to take matters in my own hands and head out on my own. I was 26 at the time and aware of the ticking clock and the gauge meter of my 20’s nearing the reserve level. I wasn’t going to let others stand in the way of my plans and dreams anymore; if I wasn’t going on a trip now, it would never happen.

A brief search quickly led me to Costa Rica. I looked in terms of distance, language, safety, culture, climate and surf; since the last time I took a wave was about seven years back. Costa Rica immediately seemed a good place to start this whole travelling alone thing; prices were reasonable, distances not too great and the reviews ecstatic. Plus they were the revelation of the 2014 World Cup, so they must like football down there. Where’s my credit card?

Preparation

Google Flights (in my opinion by far the best fare seeker out there) showed me that United Airlines could get me there and back for 630 euros. A visa wasn’t required, just like any other European doesn’t need one. I did require a vaccination against Hepatitis A and an update for Polio, Tetanus and Diphtheria. If it didn’t come in handy now, it would for future trips. For Malaria I was given the usual pills.

Even though I would visit in the dry season, Costa Rica is still a country with an abundancy of microclimates, of which I would encounter a few: hot and humid South Pacific region, the milder Central Valley, the surprisingly chilly cloud forests, the surprisingly hot and dry volcano region and the perfect Nicoya Peninsula.

I packed up for a hot and humid climate; choosing light hoodies over warm jackets and shorts over trousers. I also impulsively left my boots at home for my Adidas sneakers right before leaving, fearing my backpack would weigh more than the allowed 23 kg. Jungle or no jungle: dress smart. Later on, it turned out to weigh 12 kg. Oh well, I did wear the warmest clothing during the flight since I had a six hour layover in Newark where the temperature was a nice -10°C. Spoiler: I had no trouble with the sneakers in the rainforest. But more on that matter later on.

Next up was the itinerary. The point of my trip was mainly to pick up surfing again, and mixing that up with scenery, nature, wildlife, and culture (that includes the food and parties, doesn’t it). I would spend a day in the capital San José, make my way to the Pacific coast in the south for some surfing in the area of Dominical and Uvita and from there on head on back north into the mountains around the Arenal volcano and the rainforests of Monteverde before finishing with more surfing in Santa Theresa on the fabulous Nicoya Peninsula.

San José

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With three loud bounces, the plane touched down on Juan Santamaria Intl. Airport’s tarmac. “It is quite windy”, was all I could make up from the captain’s initial speech back in Newark. Seems like he didn’t lie. After a total 12 hours of flying and a layover of 6 hours in between, I was pretty knackered. The customs official didn’t give me a hassle.

“How is the surfing in Bélgica?”

“Cold, flat, and beautiful green and brown mixed, señor.”

Immediately after the baggage pickup point a double door opens directly onto the street with about fifty cab drivers looking for an easy job.

“What are you looking for, sir?”

“For starters, an ATM. The one at the baggage pickup point was broken.”

A taxi driver my age showed me to an ATM next to the airport. Since he went out of his way to help me, he might as well give me a ride to Fabo’s place; the Couchsurfer where I would be staying the night. After handing over the address, he stared at it like a monkey doing a math project but still managed to get us there. The geezer wanted to charge me ₡ 10 000 (about 17 euros) but a swift look between me and Fabo made him change his mind. I sent him off with ₡ 5 000.

“I feel bad ripping him off, actually.”

“That’s a good price”, Fabo said as he let me in.

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Fabo went out of his way to make me feel at home.

It was the first time that I Couchsurfed at someone’s place. I have had a profile for quite some time and hosted just one person. Back in December I opened an itinerary on Couchsurfing so the locals can see where you are going and how long you are staying. They can then offer you to stay at their place. That is exactly what Fabo did. He knew a lot about Belgium since his father is Belgian, but he hasn’t visited so far. He was keen on helping a Belgian out and I am easily convinced. I gave him some chocolates I brought along from back home to thank him for his hospitality.

Fabo lives in what I would call a typical suburban house in Heredia, the student suburb of San José. The guy is practically a guesthouse. I signed up for a couch and got a whole room with a king size bed. He also made dinner as we talked about our countries, my itinerary, football, the Barra Bravas over there and Ultras over here. He even set me up to visit the stadium of CS Herediano (read all about said groundhop here), one of the three top flight clubs in San José.

“You should go to sleep now. A taxi will take you to the stadium tomorrow.”

Top lad.

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I slept like a baby. The sound of breakfast (just imagine yourself that breakfast has a sound) woke me up. Really? He is even making me breakfast? I started feeling guilty but I guess that’s just the person he is. The taxi to the stadium would pick me up shortly so after a shower it was time for my first sights in Costa Rican daylight.

The mix between Spanish Colonialism and rigid Latin American architecture was as beautiful as I had imagined it. The low-rise buildings were all nestled together, overrun by the countless electrical wiring that spread across the streets like a spider web. In the distance, the more picturesque city center of San José carried just a kiss of humidity above it. All this against a backdrop of the green mountains protecting the city, partly covered in misty clouds.

The capitol wasn’t the reason why I was here though; I was too short on time to really visit the city. But whether you like it or not: if you travel in Costa Rica, you’re bound to pass through San José once or more. So this wasn’t my final stopover in San José.

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A stopover somewhere on the road between San José and Dominical.

Figuring this heat wasn’t so bad after all after the groundhop, it was time for me to pack my things and continue my journey. I thanked Fabo for his hospitality and we arranged that his next trip would be one to Belgium. The next taxi driver asked everything about my trip.

“Welcome to my country: Costa Rica!”

… he said as he dropped me off at the Tracopa bus terminal, showed me which bus I had to take and gave me a pat on the back(pack). I tipped him royally this time. Buses are by far the best transportation within Costa Rica. There is about one bus company for each region. The bright green ones departing from Tracopa Terminal are the ones that go south into Panama. The bus would lead me to Dominical, a little surfing village between the rainforest and the Pacific.

“Oh, man, Dominical. You will sweat there!”

Fabo’s words were still ringing in my ears. My surfing paradise awaited. It was just a six hour bus ride away.

I will make up for the lack of pictures in my next Costa Rica post.

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Archibald Leitch – Probably your favourite architect of which you’ve never heard

The terrace, one of our favourite football characteristics, practically extinct in the UK since Hillsborough. Up to this day, they still serve as a breeding ground for heated discussions, rightly so. Albeit that they have been making way for all-seater stadiums and safe standing with football rail seats for the past 25 years. This doesn’t only demolish old stands or one of the most romantic sights in football; but also the work of a certain Archibald Leitch: the inventor of the terrace.

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The stupendous façade of Ibrox Park, Glasgow, Scotland. ©Skyscrapercity

Leitch began his career in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland as an engineer and factory architect. This way, he got used to building functional buildings in the most efficient way possible: quickly and cheaply. But Leitch was a football fan. Architects who were football fans were fairly scarce back then, allowing Leitch to dominate the market from an early perspective. He was asked by Rangers to expand their stadium. Since Rangers were his boyhood club, Leitch considered it such an honour that he would do it for free.

Debut at Ibrox

Rangers wanted a stadium capable of gaining revenue from matches. Leitch then expanded Ibrox Park with terraces behind the western goalmouth consisting mainly out of wooden planks bolted onto a framework made of iron. A similar wooden terrace was constructed at the eastern end, giving Ibrox Park a total capacity of 75 000 and bombarding Glasgow as the football capital of the world, boasting the three biggest stadiums on the planet. On the inaugural match between Scotland and England at Ibrox, a crowd of 70 000 gathered to watch the match. The stage was set for a memorable afternoon. Shortly after kick-off, one section of the terracing “collapsed like a trap door”, as was noted in the newspaper, causing 25 people to lose their lives and 517 were injured. It was like the sinking of the Titanic.

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The disaster at Ibrox killed 25 and injured 517 in 1902. ©OldPicz

Leitch blamed the contractor for using low quality wood, but the contractor got acquitted and Leitch was held responsible. Wooden structures were unusual for holding such a capacity. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Rangers from continuing to work with Leitch. A lucky escape from what would have undoubtedly been a career ending. Determined to revolutionise the design of the terraces, Leitch would do anything but throw the towel.

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The first design of Highbury, by Leitch. ©Fourfourtwo

At Ibrox, spectators stood on timber boards laid on an iron framework. Before that, spectators watched from atop grass or dirt slopes around the pitch. Leitch’s new terrace design was built on a bank of earth and held together with reinforced concrete and steel bolted barriers. They were characterized by fixed steps, designated aisles and steel crush barriers which he patented. Terraces were now stronger and safer than ever before; and the type we all grew to love, was now born.

From terrace to grandstand

Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge were the first stadiums in the UK to adapt this style of terrace. But many, many more followed briefly after. Anfield, Ayresome Park, The Old Den, Ewood Park, Fratton Park, Goodison Park, Hampden Park, Highbury, Lansdowne Road, Old Trafford, Selhurst Park and Villa Park are just some of Leitch’s mind-baffling list of built stadiums; many of which have been, sadly, demolished.

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Anfield’s Kop, somewhere in the late 70’s. ©Sportskeeda

Leitch wasn’t just famous for his terraces. His background as an industrial factory architect was also reflected in his typical red brick facades which he mainly used for the Main Stands of the stadiums he has built. One of them, the awe-inspiring Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park, was one of his masterpieces. Yes, was. The marvel gave way to a renovated and rebuilt stand in 2000. But Ibrox Park and Craven Cottage both have the same sort of facades which are standing the test of time.

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Villa Park’s now demolished Trinity Road Stand ©Stadiafile

Craven Cottage’s Johnny Haynes Stand (previously: Stevenage Road Stand) was built in 1905 and creates the iconic façade for Craven Cottage together with The Pavilion. The stand has largely remained untouched, thus making it the oldest active stand in English football. This nearly changed in 2002, when Fulham moved to QPR’s Loftus Road since Craven Cottage didn’t meet the Premier League’s requirements anymore. The fans protested heavily against this by boycotting their ‘home’ games and the club agreed to renovate the stadium for almost £5,5 million. Many parts of the stadium were renewed but the Johnny Haynes Stand and Pavilion were left untouched, apart from the new seats and floodlights. A clear indication of how the clubs value Leitch’s work.

The legacy

By the time of his death in 1939, 16 of the 22 clubs in the First Division were clients of Leitch. And even onwards during the 1966 World Cup, six of the eight venues used, were grounds where Leitch had played a significant role. His son continued his work for twenty more years after his death.

A disaster ignited Leitch’s idea of a revolutionary type of terrace and grandstand. Another disaster, 87 years later, would bring it all to an end. The Hillsborough disaster would change the way spectators attend football games in the UK for decades to come. The Taylor Report, the official inquiry of the disaster, blamed police and the poor crowd management drawn out by the organization. It didn’t mention the design of the terraces as a culprit. Authorities still decided to ban them and clubs in Britain’s top divisions had to replace them with seats or construct all-seater stadiums. A raid which would see much of Leitch’s work fall into rubble.

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The last Leitch Terrace belonged to Saltergate and was demolished in 2010. © The Guardian

Leitch’s legacy still lives on as there are still enough of his designs standing today. Ibrox Park and Craven Cottage have already been mentioned. But make sure to visit the Selhurst Park Main Stand and White Hart Lane’s East Stand in London. If you’re ever in Liverpool, don’t leave without visiting the Bullens Road and Gwladys Road Stands at Goodison Park, and the Main Stand of Anfield; where the concrete core of the 1906 built Anfield Main Stand still exists along with the brick façade. The last Leitch terrace to disappear was the one at Saltergate in 2010. Simon Inglis, the man who wrote the book Engineering Archie, saved two Leitch barriers. One can now be seen at the National Football Museum in Manchester and the other in the Scottisch Football Museum at Hampden Park.

I know where my next trips will be going.

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Hampden Park had the largest number of Leich Barriers. ©playedinbritain.co.uk

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CS Herediano – One for the road

There is always time for a groundhop. Even if that is the only thing you choose to do when you’re in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. I chose to visit the home of CS Herediano.

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© Ultras-tifo.net

Club Sport Herediano is the club of Heredia, a student town by itself but visually a part of the San José metropolis. Winning the championship 24 times since 1921, most recently in 2015, the club is one of the bigger ones in Costa Rica next to Saprissa and Alajuelense, which are also suburbs of San José.

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I stood in front of the gate of the Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero. A security guard was walking about but gladly waved me in. No idea if the tourists ever make it to here, but I asked him if I could walk around a bit. “Sin problema.” Even access to the pitch was no problem since it was a durable synthetic pitch. The smell of the plastic grass and rubber brought me right back to summer days goaltending in a small club just outside of town, half a world away. But I was in a stadium which, in size, could be the home of any mid-table side in the Belgian Pro League.

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Only the main stand had seats. The rest were terraces made out of big steps coloured in the club’s own rojo and amarillo. I was curious on how the ground felt when sold out. According to the club’s website, the stadium has a capacity of 8 700 people. But I bet they can fit in about 10k.

La Garra Herediana & the scene

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© Ultras-tifo.net

Almost by natural instinct, I made my way to one of the stands behind the goal. This is where La Garra Herediana watch the matches. It’s one of the Barra Bravas (Brave Gangs) in the capital. The atmosphere they create is truly Latin American with the typical ribbon banners from atop the stand to the bottom, smoke made by fire extinguishers, large drums (bombas) and the rhythms we all know and love. As the minutes passed by in the stand, I was getting very disappointed that I wouldn’t be seeing one of their matches.

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© Ultras-tifo.net

There is not much I can say as far as the Garra’s hospitality towards tourists goes. It was clear I was in a part of the capital where tourists usually don’t go, but then again, I never felt unsafe in or around the stadium. Although one would understand that a Barra Brava wouldn’t act too kindly to gringos in their group.

In Europe, we try to be anonymous in our appearance. In Costa Rica, they want to stand out.

There is a proper scene in and around the capital. Before making the trip, I managed to gain some basic information from a Facebook page about the Costa Rican Barra Brava’s. The two biggest Barra’s are La 12 (Alajuelense) and Ultras Morada (Saprissa). At least they are the ones who get the most posts on the page, and since they live in the same perish, clash often in the streets of the capital. Barra’s regularly try to steal their opponent’s merchandise (ranging from scarves to t-shirts or even one of the big drums) as a price.

Capture

The Facebook page often shows notices about clashes between Barra’s. “Confrontation between La Garra and Fuerza Azul outside of the national stadium. La Fuerza attacked La Garra, according to reports.”

The Barra’s don’t wear clobber; they wear regular team jerseys or some of the Barra’s have their own, custom made jerseys with the members’ own nicknames on the back. In Europe, we try to be anonymous in our appearance. In Costa Rica, they want to stand out. An interesting feature. As far as weapons go, the lads are pretty dodgy. Numerous reports have shown that knives, brass knuckles and chains have been used in the past. About a year ago, one of the leaders of La 12 got arrested for illegal gun possession.

Lose weight and come back

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It was a clear day so from the stand behind the goal I had a great sight on the mountain range protecting San José. The contrast of the vivid stadium colours against the backdrop of lush green mountains in the distance was special. The main stand had an inclined roof and it looked great. One would sometimes fight for a spot in the shade here. The stand had an old feeling to it, since it has been untouched since 1949.

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I made my way towards the fan shop to consume in order to thank the club for their hospitality. It took me a while to find it, since the fan shop is located in the back of one of the stands behind the goal and is half the size of my living room. That explained why they only had jerseys in small or medium size. Judging from the look on the store clerk’s face, they probably don’t see a lot of bigger blokes like me around here. There were also no stickers or pennants available which was quite saddening since the chances of me going back are rather slim, just like their jerseys.

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© Barras De Costa Rica

Should you go visit the Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero when you are around? The neighbourhood is laid back and the people are friendly, the stadium has a particular charm to it, but I cannot compare it to others in the country. The national stadium is located in the center of town and the stadiums of Saprissa and Alajuelense are bigger ones, but we all know that does not necessarily make them any better. So if you’re ever in Heredia; make a stop at the stadium and have a look around. Maybe by then they have some merchandising.

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Parma Calcio 1913: The club that just won’t die

We’ve all heard about the bankruptcy of Parma FC. In March 2015, I Crociati were burdened with debts of around 200 million euro and hadn’t paid their players for months. The club was declared bankrupt but still finished the season, albeit in last place. What led to their second bankruptcy and how have they fared since? Yes, second. In 10 years.

Boys Parma, at it since 1977.

Boys Parma, at it since 1977.

A sunny autumn afternoon at the Ennio Tardini, the home base of Parma Calcio 1913 for 92 years now. The players, still led by captain Alessandro Lucarelli, head over to the Curva Nord to thank the Boys Parma for their support during the 3 – 1 victory over FC Legnago Salus. The first half was marked with several good opportunities for Parma through Lauria, Baraye and Melandri. We would seem to hit the dressing rooms after a goalless first half but right before the half-time whistle I Crociati get a free kick right on the edge of the area which is brilliantly swept home by Ciccio Corapi. A deserved 1-0 lead at half time.

Parma Calcio's players took to the pitch with 'Forza Longo' written on their t-shirts, supporting injured player Longobardi.

Parma Calcio’s players took to the pitch with ‘Forza Longo’ written on their t-shirts, supporting injured player Longobardi. © Parma Calcio Twitter account

The start of the second half sees a revival of Legnago with a couple of good opportunities and a disallowed goal for offside. True or not? No idea, this is Serie D. Parma is feeling the tension rise up and cannot afford to lose points again after last weekend’s 0-0 draw against Virtus Castelfranco. A sign for trainer Apolloni to switch things up; Rodriguez leaves the field for Sereni which lets Parma play in a more attacking 4-3-3. It pays off. A smart through ball from Baraye sets Corapi up for a one-on-one with goalie Cibulko and he slots home his second of the day. From then on, Parma controls the game and sees Musetti tack on the 3-0 about five minutes before the game ends. Legnago makes it 3-1 from a free kick shortly before the end of the game to deny Fall a clean sheet. Parma Calcio are currently atop their group in the Serie D with 33 points out of 13 matches, four points ahead of Altovicentino.

The dairy grind

Let’s take it back a bit. after WW II, Parma never left the lower divisions and came in turmoil in the late 60’s, before being declared bankrupt in ’68. One year later, Parma merged with A.C. Parmense, who just won promotion to the Serie D. This meant that they could keep on using the sporting license and year of formation. For the next two decades, Parma steadily climbed the Italian competitions, albeit with the necessary drawbacks. In 1990, Parma finally won the promotion to the Serie A and the success attracted the attention of dairy corporation Parmalat. Investments from their part made sure I Crociati kept their place in the highest tier and even won European cups against Antwerp and Marseille and three Coppa Italia’s under the reign of Nevio Scala and later on Carlo Ancelotti. It didn’t last: in 2004, Parmalat collapsed with debts of 20 billion euro and ‘fraudulent activity’ (Italy, anyone?) worth over 10 billion euro, combined with a 167 million euro loss by the club. Parma FC was put under special administration for the time being, but had to be dissolved.

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Parma’s captain Minotti scores the first goal in the 3-1 win over Royal Antwerp in the 1993 Cupwinners Cup final at Wembley. © Unknown

Rebirth revisited

The club reformed in 2004 and got bought out of the special administration by Tommaso Ghirardi in 2007. A spell of Claudio Ranieri initially kept Parma FC out of the Serie B, but the season after, they relegated out of the top flight after 18 years straight. After one year of Serie B it was Francesco Guidolin who forced the promotion with a second place finish. Three years later, it was coach Roberto Donadoni that lead Parma to a sixth place finish and – finally – a return to the Europa League. But that’s when things took a turn for the worse, again. Income tax on the players salaries wasn’t paid and the club’s UEFA license was cancelled and thus couldn’t compete in any European competition. This caused Ghirardi to sell his stake in Parma FC to a company in Cyprus for a mere 1 euro. At this point, the club is 200 million euro in debt. The company resold the shares to Giampetro Manenti for the same price. Manenti was arrested shortly after on allegations of money laundering and credit card fraud. It was March, Parma was last in the Serie A and players wages hadn’t been paid since last summer. Failing to clear it’s debts of 218 million euro, the club was declared bankrupt in June and forfeited the season.

Parma Calcio 1913’s new board, filled with local businessmen, their former success coach and a 25% share owned by the fans. The final recipe for success? © ESPN

Fan ownership

In July 2015, as Parma FC was forced to play under a new name in the Serie D, Nevio Scala (coach during FC Parma’s successful spell in the early 90’s) was appointed as chairman. Led by Scala, the new club is calling itself Parma Calcio 1913, after the original club’s founding year and is backed by a number of businessmen and companies, all local to Parma, from pasta production magnate Barilla to racecar manufacturer Giampaolo Dallara. The new owners installed a new core philosophy, leading to an initial 25% of the club which is fan owned. Fellow businessman Marco Ferrari added: “The failure of Parma was the failure of a patriarchal model which Italian football, nowadays, can no longer sustain. We have been inspired by a completely different model, a more German one.” Next to the fan ownership, the club will reuse its most succesful ingredient of the past: its youth academy.

Italian clubs going for German managing models. A peculiar way to describe the latest Italian Renaissance. Undoubtedly to be continued.

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