Matt Walker had a special opportunity to make something different. The 41 years old statistician from London got a chance to have a career break from his job in ministry of justice. After travelling for more than 80 countries and visiting two World Cup, one European Championship and even one African Cup of Nations, Walker tried to find something that would make this year special.
In last June, Walker started his chase for watching football in all the fifty-five member nations of UEFA during a single season. Yes, 55. As an experienced traveler that already visited some of the biggest cities in Europe, he decided to visit different places. That is the reason that he chooses to watch a game of Trabzonspor in Turkey instead of a match in Istanbul, and in few weeks he will check in his visit to Italy while watching Crotone hosting Atalanta.
In order to begin such unusual journey, you have to plan it carefully. "The start of the project was all about the summer leagues because I realized that I had to cover these leagues between June and August, as there is no other football games on in Europe. When I got back in August I had only 41 leagues to cover", describing Walker the beginning of his travel. "A lot of spreadsheet work, a lot of research into which game will be held in each days, so it helps to plan the round a little bit".
Another main issue in planning the schedule was the weather. "The other thing was I hate cold weather, so the prospect was to go to places where I could actually sit outside and have a beer in January, it is a lot more appealing than a snowstorm in Scotland". That is the reason that Walker decided to make his Mediterranean leg in January, including visiting in Israel, Cyprus, Malta and Italy.
Walker's travels usually takes place in clusters of three or four countries, who situated in close range from each other. He always aspire to change the atmosphere as much as he can at his next region to visit. For example, in one leg he visited in Belgium, Netherlands and Germany, while his next leg was at the Balkan with visits in Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Greece.
His journeys from region to region are marking the differences between the leagues in a more visible way. "In the Caucasus region, the Azerbaijan league is better than the Georgian and the Armenian league, but they are all quite slow leagues with good technical players. They all have cigarettes after the games, so no one can run". While he is recalling some of his memories, he compares also the style of football, "there are some countries that they are naturally defensive, packing the defense, like in Ukraine and Russia, not really entertaining football to watch, every team is too scared to lose".
The differences are not only by the football style but also by the attitude of the fans for the game and their team. "It wouldn't surprise that in Turkey and Serbia it's really intense, lots of chaotic fans, they are really connected to their side. There are also nations like Wales and Estonia. There is a game, it's cheap to get in, you can have a beer and see your friends".
During his travels, Walker is writing his experiences on his notebook. It is full of details and memories as he wish to write a book about this adventure. In order to feel more connected to the games he tries to find out any connection to the English football and especially his favorite team, Fulham. No matter whether it will be Hugo Rodallega, who played in Fulham for three years and now playing in Trabzonspor, or Marcello Trotta, that played for the youth team and now playing in Crotone, he will find that kind of linkage.
While he is watching the games, Walker need to decide what he is going to do. "One of my biggest chellenges is whether to take photos, to concentrate on watching the game visually or to take notes". As we saw already, even for that Walker have solution, "night games tend to help because the chance to take good photos when you are on the stands is quite low. I wouldn't take notes when I watch Bournemouth-Everton because I knew that if anything big will happen there it will be on Match of the Day". Of course, there are some unusual moments, like he had in Belarus. "If you are watching Krumkachy against Vitebsk and the goalkeeper scores from his own penalty area, all the fans will celebrate and I will take notes, because that is not getting captured".
Walker also spend some of his time with meeting people. Some of these, like this interview, were organized before his arrival, but some of them were complete spontaneous. "If you are just relying on random meets you could go for a straight of several nights with meeting nobody. In some of the country it's have been quite hard to find people who speaks any English at all". Of course, some of these meetings were based on social media connection, but surprisingly Walker said that he signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram less than a year ago, at the beginning of this travel. "Thanks to the growing network of football friends I've got quite few contacts in foreign countries. For instance, someone who followed my story in Bulgaria who write for the newspapers there gave me the number of Lokomotiv Plovdiv press officer".
Walker mentioned especially his visits at the unusual places. "For getting stories and for finding out about the local area, being an obviously foreign tourist that just desperate to get a ticket and watch the local club, it's get you really on their side". In one of his stories from Belarus, he says that some tried to convince him to go for Bate Borisov match, but he preferred to watch a game of Vitebsk. "I turned up to stadium really early and some guy heard me speaking English. Quite bizarrely, he was the only English speaking person I've found in Vitebsk. He invited me to stand up with their fans". This meeting included also an invite to drink beer and eating kebabs with them after the match, which probably would not happened at the Bate's stadium.
When Walker compared between the football he watched all over Europe and the English football he is aware to the differences. He says that there were some places that the level is equaled to Premier League and in others is was like watching 6th tier match. Even though, he criticize the English point of view on football from other nations. "People in England are quick to judge leagues as not being as good as England. In some leagues the skills level is higher than people expect. I think that if the players were fit, they could perform a fairly decent level in bigger leagues. The skills there, there is a talent, but maybe it's about the facilities or the coaching. I think that in places like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia there are some good players out there, but they just not physically fit".
Matt Walker's journey showing a special view of the European football from his own eyes. Walker himself knows that football tourism became more and more popular, but throughout his camera's lens you can see it well. At the modern era, when the money talks rather than the skills or the support of fans, Walker gave another opportunity to show the places that keeping football real.