The Malta Independent 21 June 2018, Thursday

The European football leagues wanderer

Domenic Aquilina Sunday, 4 February 2018, 12:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

Some might ask: who is Matt Walker? Matt Walker is an Ascot-born keen football traveller, football fan, photographer and writer who this season wants to achieve a unique feat -what he himself has labelled a "slightly crazy aim" to be the first to watch top division league football in all 55 UEFA nations in one season.

Himself a keen Fulham FC follower, 41-year-old Matt has watched hundreds of football matches at its home ground at Craven Cottage. But his story does not stop there. He has experienced the Africa Cup of Nations, European Championship and two World Cups. His reports from Brazil were featured on the Fulham FC website and in several programmes.

ADVERTISEMENT

He admits he can play football to a particularly mediocre standard wherever he may roam. He has cut the soles of his feet to ribbons playing barefoot on a Burmese beach, struggled desperately with high altitude in Mexico, and had dozens of football-crazy Ethiopian schoolchildren shout "Crutch" at him, in referral to Peter Crouch as he bears a resemblance to the current Stoke City footballer.

This season, the lanky football follower has already visited and covered top elite football matches in Georgia, Iceland, Faroe Island, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey,Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Denmark, Poland, Scotland, England, Wales, Israel and Cyprus - the last football nation before landing in Malta on Thursday where he has stayed until today.

While in Malta, Matt attended the BOV Premier League matches played on Friday, Saturday and today before embarking on his route to Italy, France, Andorra, Gibraltar and Spain in the month of February.

March will see him visit Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg with the final groupof countries being those of Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro in April, which should complete his "dream" feat.

Walker reports and uploads photos he takes himself from the stands and documents all of his adventures in these countries to the website he manages himself www.55footballnations.com.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to Walker about his "unique" feat and asked him how the idea took root.

A charismatic character, Matt replied "As you probably read, I have a normal job, a proper job. I am a statistician at the Ministry of Justice in the UK Government, so my proper job involves a lot of project management, a lot of numbers and meeting quite a number of people but all done in an office environment. I have been working in an office for a long time and I wanted to do something different, to take a break from my normal life; not just go on holiday. I am lucky to have travelled to a good number of countries, 80 to be exact. Now, since the beginning of this project, I have visited 94 countries. As I have travelled a lot and already seen the world, I wanted to challenge myself and do something different. So yes, I love travelling and I thought, well this must be the perfect combination. In addition, it will be a big challenge watching 55 division games from top division clubs in one season.

"I have expectations when I visit countries because I have travelled a lot. The last place I visited, Cyprus, was not new to me and I knew all about the country which is very much like Malta. Actually, I have some good contacts in Cyprus which were very insightful and gave me a lot of information beyond the obvious about the country. I watched three games in three days in Cyprus and it was good."

Matt also spoke about what makes this project so exciting: "In Cyprus for example, the first game I saw was between Doxa Katokapias and Alki Oroklini (0-1) which was quite a normal game played in very good weather and conditions. Then I watched the game between the top two sides of the Cyta Championship between APOEL and AEK Larnaca, which finished in a thrilling 3-1 win for the home side - an encounter which produced an amazing goal from the half way line. I mean you see a goal like that in maybe 200 to 300 games. The last game in Larnaca, between Ermis Aradippou and Olympiacos Nicosia (4-0) was played in terrible conditions as a thunderstorm hit the stadium. So, you might think expectations from Cyprus was sort of average but I think it exceeded them."

We spoke with Matt about any peculiar incidents he still remembers vividly "Well yes, for example in Belarus there was this goalkeeper who scored from his own penalty area. I have never seen that live before. Twenty minutes later, the same keeper was sent off for a professional foul. So all this added to the excitement. Unbelievable - a total one off!

"Off the pitch overall, I must say I am a bit disappointed with stadium food - it is all about greasy burgers nearly in all the stadiums and countries. In Eastern Europe, it is sunflower seed which I hate. I cannot eat them as I do not how! I have to have been born in Azerbaijan to do so! However, in Israel I got some really interesting good food; a bit like garlic bread with Arabic herbs. Very interesting and it is sold in football grounds. Therefore, it is not only about football. It is the culture of every football nation which makes this project come to life."

Grinning at our next question on how he rates the help he gets from people around the game and the stadiums he has visited, Matt answered: "I would say 80 per cent are really friendly, 10 per cent just don't really care and the other 10 per cent have this sort of "why are you here?" attitude. But most are really friendly especially if you choose to be present at their team's match and not their rivals!"

Asked how he feels about probably being the only football enthusiast to have achieved this goal, he said: "My intention is to write a book about it. If someone has done it before but has not written a book about it, I will be the first person to write a book about covering 55 football nations in one season. For example, Kosovo only joined UEFA as a member nation last year so this is actually the first season anyone could do it. So I think doing all this in one year is special, yes.

"I kind of imagined the story before I started on the project. Nobody knew anything about it. I had to keep it a secret because I had to get time off work with my boss' approval. Once he had agreed and given me 18 months leave from work then I could speak about it. But I had no contacts at all, so I wrote to clubs, to newspapers and they wrote back to me."

How does he rate the demands of his project?

"Well I have to admit there are things which come up, like before I came to Malta I had a bit of a sore throat and had to wake up at three o'clock in the morning to catch my flight and I said to myself that I could have done with another week back home. But as soon as I got off the plane, I visited Valletta on a beautiful day, a city I have never been to before and I am saying to myself 'I am back at it again' because travelling is what I like doing. I could see why this amazing city has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2018. So, as you can see, this is not only about football.

"Once this is done I obviously have to write about it. I am travelling so fast that I have only written about a quarter of the book. I have to finish it when the next three months of my project is done. However, it has given me some ideas on how I can combine football or football journalism with my current job. My current job is very different but I always have the option of going part-time and having something on the side-lines. I see it as the perfect combination because you have a solid office job and then you can get a little bit of fun!"

"This project has cost me a lot of money as you can imagine but has been all worthwhile," Walker concluded with a grin.

During his stay in Malta, Matt watched the BOV Division Premier League matches between Gzira United and St Andrews at the Centenary Stadium, on Friday. Yesterday, he watched the matches at the Hibernians Stadium between Senglea Athletic and Tarxien Rainbows and Floriana and Hamrun Spartans. Today he will visit the National Stadium at Ta' Qali where he will view first-hand the top-of-the-table clash between Valletta and Balzan and Mosta against Hibernians earlier on.

Matt would love to get in contact with any local football follower/s and club representatives to get more insight which will help him complete his book project.  

Anyone willing to contact him can do so on:

http://55footballnations.com

facebook.com/55FootballNations

instagram.com/55FootballNations

twitter.com/55FtballNations


  • don't miss