Argh the credit crunch. With banks falling like autumn leaves and financial uncertainty in the air for many honest hardworking Blues fans, the cost involved in following our beloved football club in Europe can be punitive or indeed a barrier.
The Champions League tie CFR Cluj was an excellent opportunity for Chelsea FC to demonstrate it genuinely cares for those supporters who follow the Blues over land and sea. What did the club negotiate on behalf of the fans? Four fifths of nothing, if the truth be told.
£18.50 for a match ticket plus £1.50 Chelsea tax was frankly ludicrous considering the cheapest season ticket at Cluj costs £25. Anyone who travelled to Sofia and paid £5 to watch the game (which again included £1.50 Chelsea tax) will understand my frustration. It’s not so much the cost in this case, but the principal fact that Chelsea appear to have little sway at the negotiating table … mind you looking at our recent dealings in the transfer market should any of us be surprised?
Those who embarked on ‘official travel packages’ through CFCs travel partner Thomas Cook will have paid £269 for a day trip. Day trips are ideal for those short on time or concerned about making their own travel arrangements but when you look at the comparatively low cost of the alternatives it puts everything into sharp perspective. Not only are Chelsea profiteering excessively, but the margins enjoyed by Thomas Cook must be quite exceptional … and guess which team you are inadvertently cross subsidising every time you fly with these aerial bandits? That’s right, Rottenham Dropspur, the relegation strugglers from north London whose shirts they sponsor.
I knew for certain that I wasn’t the only Blues fan waiting with baited breath and fingers crossed to see which team would join Chelsea, Roma and Bordeaux in Group A when the Champions League draw had been made in Monaco a few weeks ago and I wasn’t to be left feeling dissatisfied.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m unappreciative of the fact that Mr Abramovich’s squillions have ensured that Chelsea no longer face the ignominy and uncertainty of having to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition or worse still have to compete in the UEFA Cup with the likes of lowly Sp*rs, and it’s not that I don’t enjoy the regular sorties to Barcelona, Valencia and Porto, but sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere different. Somewhere that you have never heard of, somewhere that once you’ve done a bit of research makes the mind boggle … somewhere like Cluj.
‘CFR Cluj of Romania. Where the Efan Ekoku is Cluj?’ I’d mused, as I proceeded to test the capabilities of several internet search engines following the draws conclusion. Not since Chelsea were drawn to play MSK Zilina a full five years ago had a Blues away European tie ignited such curiosity. That trip to Slovakia didn’t disappoint, only several hundred diehards made the journey to witness the first competitive match of the Abramovich era and I expected many of them would be journeying to Romania brimful with enthusiasm for what jolly jackanapes might lie ahead.
Cluj-Napoca, to give it its full title, is the third largest city in Romania, situated in the north-west of the country it is 200 miles from capital city Bucharest, and for those who like to try alternative routes, a similar distance from Budapest, the hub of my chosen route, and Belgrade.
Why Budapest? Well apart from the fact that it’s a beautiful city populated by beautiful women, and easyJet fly there on the cheap, it is also the home of a true-Blue by the name of Balazs Mate, president of the Hungarian branch of the Chelsea supporters club and a friend of legendary Magyar Blues fan Kalman Soos. Kal is a familiar figure at Chelsea, a likeable big burly bear of a man whose hilarious expletive riddled observations on football matters and life in general often have me wondering if his English teacher suffered with Tourette’s syndrome.
‘All you need to do is get to Budapest and I will take care of everything else’, Kal had advised me enthusiastically. It was an offer that myself, Tom Broderick, Sam Orsini and David Johnstone of cfcuk fanzine fame found hard to refuse and I’d all but forgotten my sleep-depriving early start as the plane touched down and we found ourselves bathed in warm Autumnal sunshine having left London to a grimly fiendish rainy windswept day.
There is something wonderfully cathartic about watching Chelsea on their travels around Europe which is why I try and rinse as much enjoyment out of these short trips as possible. Travellers with Thomas Cook would have been herded prescriptively onto coaches at Cluj airport and ferried into town, we were met by Kal’s brother-in-law in a sporty blue Jaguar and driven to our accommodation, which had been provided free of charge by our generous host.
The consumption of alcohol in liver threatening quantities is a fundamental part of any Champions League expedition and what better way to prepare your body for the toxic shock it is about to experience than a visit to a health spa. Trust me, I’m not joking. The invigorating afternoon we spent at the Saint Gellert hotel spa on the banks of the River Danube readied me for the travails that lay ahead, its thermal baths easing the pain in my creaking joints and several sessions in the scarily titled inhalatorium left me vowing to give up the gaspers for good.
‘You’ve changed Marco,’ I can hear you saying. ‘Visiting heath spa’s on footy trips? Behave yourself son.’ Yeah well of course that was only for a couple of hours, Kal had the serious entertainment laid on for later in the evening … a visit to Budapest’s premier non stop erotic dancing establishment the Eden Bar.
Everything on the house as a token of gratitude for helping the Hungarian Blues out by sourcing tickets at face price for the 40 odd members who would be attending the Cluj game.
The highlight of the night was the tardy arrival of Long Way Round Pete with a couple of accomplices who drink in the Rising Sun public house … the reason I know they drink in the Rising Sun is because his pals unfurled a fabulously embroidered flag proclaiming their allegiance to Chelsea and advertising their favourite drinker. What followed can only be described as ‘proper Chels’. Kal persuaded the DJ to download Blue Is The Colour and we were then treated to the sight of a bevy of horny Jack the Rippers slithering up and down shiny metal poles and gyrating on stage to our most hallowed tune. Surreal. (any readers wanting to check out the photographic evidence are welcome to add me as a friend on Facebook)
The next morning’s hangover was as predictably uncomfortable as the eight hour coach journey from Budapest to Cluj, but the memories of the night before lingered along with the smell of cheap perfume and stale ale. Cluj is the capital of the historical province of Transylvania. Ask the good citizens of Romania and Hungary about the region and they will wax lyrical about the scenic beauty of its Carpathian landscape, ask anyone who was on our coach and they will moan about the twisty winding roads and the rustic traffic calming effect of carts being pulled by donkeys and women leading cattle to market.
We arrived in Cluj with a couple of hours to spare and dined in Arcana, a restaurant patronised by the Cheeky Girls (the criminally untalented musical twins hail from the city and return often). Our waitress was flawlessly beautiful and attentive, though I did wonder if the roll-neck of the fitted sweater she was wearing concealed a two-pronged bite mark … you can’t be too careful around these parts. Dracula country.
From a footballing perspective, CFR Cluj are a bit of an enigma. With a team comprised of local players oddly augmented with a smattering of unknown Argentineans and Brazilians, CFR became the first club outside Bucharest to win the Romanian title for 17 years completing a fine season with victory in the Romanian Cup Final to give them an unprecedented league and cup double. Not bad for a club that was playing third tier football just six years ago. The start to this season had been less than impressive, and a run of four straight defeats had seen head coach Ioan Andone sacked at the start of September to be replaced by his Italian assistant Maurizio Trombetta. They had however managed to beat AS Roma in Italy a couple of weeks previously and so couldn’t be written of as the no-hopers of Group A.
I was told that significant investment had been made to bring CFRs Constantin Radulescu Stadium up to UEFA standards, if that is the case then I wonder what condition it was in before the improvements had been made. The stadium and the wire meshed pen which housed the 1200 traveling Blues fans was redolent of Kenilworth Road, Luton circa 1985 and left me wondering if Stevie Wonder might have the UEFA official responsible for granting the necessary permit to the club.
The match itself was a shocker. I spent most of the time I wasn’t singing the fabulous new ode to Juliano Belletti, you know the one mated with Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, apologizing to Balazs and the Hungarian Chelsea posse for the atrocious game of football we all had to endure. Fortunately they were just happy to be there, for many it was the first time they had been able to see the Blues live but it was still a shame that the team failed to live up to its billing.
The post-match lock-in was a palatable 30 minutes, and the coach journey back to Budapest silent save for the pig-like snoring of a stray unknown Chelsea fan that Kal had offered a lift to out of the goodness of his heart. Our flight back to London was on time-ish and we returned home jaded but happy.
On behalf of everyone in our small party I would like to take this opportunity to extend a big thank you to Kal for his generosity and hospitality and wish Balazs and the Hungarian Blues all the best.
Up the Chels!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ is out now. Copies are available to buy with a discount of 30% and free postage within the UK at http://www.overlandandsea.net/