Turned over in Moldova

 

“A longer version of this third slab of mid-90s memories was featured in Welsh in Dylan Llewelyn’s book Awe, brilliant tales of glorious shambolic trips since the 1980s.

Unearthed recently, this is @chsingthedragon ‘s report of the original Moldova, was one of the most iconic trips of all time. We got stared at as if we were aliens for three whole days and nights, as we were the first away fans (all 72 of us) ever to ship up there. Jason Bowen wandered around the players’ hotel in Swansea training gear, we had a chat with Gary Speed and told him he was playing centre forward in the game (in retrospect, we wish he had), and oh aye yeah obviously we got nicked.

 

When we got home and saw the game on TV, it was like one of those games that looked like it was being beamed back from the moon. Cockroaches, shops with literally nothing in them.

 

Of the four of us who travelled in our group, two emigrated and the other one we never heard from again. The rest of the Chisinau 72 are the usual beautiful headers you still see to this day.

 

Wales away: losing to countries you’ve never heard of, since 1876. “

 

@chsingthedragon

 

 

CHASING THE DRAGON : Turned over in Moldova

 

 

 

 

The joy of being a Wales fan is the greatest thing in the world, even when we win. To see us play away somewhere weird is even sweeter. Do it at least once in your life or you haven’t lived. A small, intrepid band of Wales away fans have lived a lot and loved a lot.

 

This is a tribute to the triumph of hope over experience, a talk of how the world’s most beautiful sporting outfit can seep into the very core of an otherwise barren life, elevating mind and body alike to a higher plane of existence. It is a story of the bling love and devotion that a group of men can inspire in you, even though you have never met them, men you would probably not even like if you did meet them. Saving souls and scoring goals, a vision of shimmering seduction, I give you the Welsh national football side, sent to us from heaven, via a hotel just outside Newport.

 

At the risk of sounding like the kind of emotionally stunted loser you would cross the street to avoid, all I have ever wanted in the whole world is to see Wales qualify for the finals of a major football championship. I used to count our appearance in the Kirin Cup, but to be fair there were only three teams in it and .crucially, it was by invitation. The bitter experience of repeated failures against hastily assembled teams of bin men and chimney sweeps all over Europe made me realise a long time ago that we may never qualify unless we blag it and get to host a tournament.

 

Moldova away in October 1994 was the stormiest episode so far in a beautiful, shambolic love affair, kicked from pillar to post by the unforgiving jackboot of fate, ultimately to be smashed in the teeth by my all too fallible heroes. Like all Wales fans, I had long since lowered my hopes to levels so low it would make your mother weep. In the sure-fire absence of us ever being successful, my personal holy grail had been downgraded to a sad and desperate yearning to see us win away, anywhere, against anyone. Having skilfully missed early 90s wins in Cyprus and Luxemburg, I pinned my hopes on us netting a maximum haul in Moldova and packed my flag for the hike.

 

Moldova, a country that had only just been born from painful collapse of the USSR , that never even played a home game until Wales went there, as a country seemingly invented just to bring us happiness into the drab, meaningless existence of the 78 lost, but happy souls who went there from Wales. Surely even Wales couldn’t mess this up and my search for the inner happiness would be over at last. I have never been so wrong in my life.

 

Spurning the simplicity of a direct flight to Moldova, we thought we would be clever and fly to Bucharest and then get the train to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. So, there we were, already exhausted and way off the beaten track. It’s Tuesday morning, the day before the game and we pull up at the crack of dawn at the Moldovan border, dreaming of friendly locals, gallons of cheap wine and Nathan Blake’s burgeoning career as a world-feared striker. Full steam ahead to Chisinau was the plan and time to get our bearings before worshipping at the shrine of sporting excellence that is, to this very day, the Wales U21 side. The nice ticket lady would do a quiet inspection, run through her newly developed “welcome to my lush and bountiful country, have a nice day” routine and Lenin’s your uncle.

 

Except the nice lady was in fact a crack squadron of the erstwhile Soviet army and they’d not been to charm school. They had is at their mercy and a nightmare descent into hell itself began. In the blink of an eye we were turfed unceremoniously and placed under armed guard by a bunch of bored Kalashnikov-touting psychopaths. You hadn’t seen this on Sgorio. For hours, our only crime was that we were foreigners and therefore could not possibly want to go to Moldova. No-one had ever been there before and certainly not for football. Our border nightmare was to last a total of 24 hours.

 

There were four of us and it turned out there was something wrong with our visas. No-one knew whether we would be sent home, starved to death or summarily executed. Even worse, we might miss the game and I’d promised my mates programmes. Romanian army guards immediately post- Ceausescu had little time for decadent Western ideas like time being important, so hours drifted by, a whole day of perfect drinking opportunities slipping through our finger… and us helpless. Our cunning plan of telling the guards in woeful Romanian that we were in fact Welsh international footballers off to play our Moldovan cousins was met with understandable incredulity. We repeated for hours “ footballista Tara Galilor”, knowing that “Tara Galilor” is Romanian for “Wales” and using “footballista” in the desperate way we hope it means “footballer” everywhere east of Brussels. In a frightening glimpse into the inner workings of my psyche, I swore blind to a man with a gun that I was in fact David Phillips and demanded to be released immediately. This understandably cut no ice with our captors. Why didn’t I say I was Mark Hughes, we would have been let off easily. As it was, they just walked off shaking their heads.

 

Nine hours into our incarceration and having now lost the will to live, I persuaded the bloke with the biggest moustache to lend me a phone and I somehow got through to FAW supremo Alan Evans, in the team hotel in Chisinau. Evans was an international trouble-shooter if there ever was one and never happier when he was preventing Welsh football fans being mercilessly ripped off by unscrupulous foreign football federations and law enforcement agencies. Despite the litany of human rights abuses I outlined to the great man as I pleaded for UN or FAW intervention to help our plight, he was unmoved. “Sorry, sir”, he said with impeccable politeness, “there’s absolutely nothing we can do”. The crackly line went dead and a part of me died too, forever. If even the supreme fixer and fans’ friend Alan Evans couldn’t help us, we were in bigger trouble than we had thought.

 

A whole day passed and we were starting to contemplate suicide. To make things worse I was playing chess against a bored army conscript, as a kind of “hands across the ocean” trick to get him to let us go. Only problem is, I was one move away from winning. He didn’t look like he would like losing and was lovingly fondling his Russian assault rifle under his arm. Here’s the dilemma – checkmate and risk my life or let him off and live to see Wales again? This is the sort of every of everyday existentialist crisis that you can only get from following Wales away and it’s part of the reason why we love it so much. You don’t get this down B&Q choosing between magnolia or off-white. Death or glory, hero or zero, your life’s destiny shaped by the move of a rook. I had to let him win, I had Iwan Roberts to go and watch and besides, getting shot over chess, even on a Wales trip, would have been a bit careless.

 

Sixteen hours after they dragged us off the train, the army kindly shoved us on the midnight slow train back to Bucharest. Refused entry to Moldova. They could have told me at the Embassy in London, it would have saved a load of hassle. We had waited an entire day, with no food or beer, to be turned around on a train going away from Moldova. Surely this doesn’t happen to normal people? I was already wondering whether Giggsy would do the same for us.

 

Like good Welsh boys, we jumped off the train at the first station we came to, no-horse town at two in the morning and persuaded a scared looking toothless local to drive us 100km to the next border crossing. It was pitch black, the car had no lights and the driver appeared to be drunk. Pretty much your average Wales away taxi. We were so scared we wanted to go back and get shot to get it over and done with.

 

So, then we pitched up at the second border crossing at 4.00am and after a mere four hours of pleading and bare-faced bribing, we were finally let into Moldova, a trifling 24 hours after we got there in the first place. 50 dollars and 20 fags each it cost, well they could have told us that the day before, moody or what? Deliriously happy at the prospect of seeing our world-beating heroes slay the disorganised rabble that Moldova would put out, we were even delighted to find that the only way to Chisinau was to bunk on a coach full of grim-faced Serbs on holiday (great destination). We quickly realised that we wanted to see Wales more than we wanted to discuss human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia, so we shut up being Jeremy Paxman and vowed never to do this again, until the next time.

 

We eventually got to Chisinau a few short hours before the big game, filthy, starving, demoralised, 30 hours late, but luckily having missed an ominous but characteristic defeat for our Under 21s. Imagine how edifying it was when the first person we saw, Wales player Jason Bowen, who was mates with one of our group, asked us what the hell we were doing there. As if that hadn’t occurred to us a million times over. A four-day traipse to the farthest depths in Europe and the players didn’t even bat an eyelid. My heroes.

 

Moldova away, along with the 5-0 gubbing in Georgia a month later, is the low point in the history of our national side and my raging desire to see us win away was to be denied me, yet again. The Republican Stadium in Chisinau was what it must be like in hell. It was gloomy, ramshackle and the pitch was freshly ploughed. Playing only their second ever game and in a kit that most discerning pub teams would have turned their noses up at, Moldova came from behind to beat Wales 3-2. This had the hard-pressed locals whipped up into an orgy of nationalistic fervour and disbelieving delight that the world had produced a team actually worse than them. We were in the lead, we had a goal disallowed, we hoofed chances over the bar and we deserved to lose. Luckily, the Wales fans were drunk and in some cases dressed as women for no apparent reason. As ever we made the best of a bad job, ignoring much of the game to entertain our hosts and ourselves with non-stop singing in the face of adversity. Not for the first time it occurred to me in Moldova that random selection of any 11 od the Wales fans, no matter how drunk, would have done better than the 11 clowns on the pitch.

 

This is the essence of Wales away, really. Despite having one of the worst times in my life in and around Moldova, I would and no doubt will, do it all again at the drop of a hat. The thrill when the draw is made for qualifying groups, working out what football outposts we can go to. How else would I have been to Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Azerbaijan and the time of my life with people who know how much it means? I’m only gutted I missed Armenia, Belarus and Georgia. The camaraderie, togetherness and sheer unbridled stupid fun of going away with a group who look out for each other come what may, meeting old friends making new friends and even getting an occasional good performance by Wales thrown in, well it’s just perfect.

 

Now, under the guidance of the deity Mark Hughes, success beckons for the first time in living memory and it’s a glorious, disorientating feeling. Used only to failure on the field and the time of our lives off it, regular travellers can scarcely believe it. Although we love it, we’ve been there all the time and are hard to impress with mere transitory greatness. We’ve been rubbish for longer than we’ve been good and we will be rubbish again. In a way, we liked being rubbish. It left us free to have a laugh, unencumbered by trouble, or working out permutations. We’ve made friends for live and loved every minute of it (apart from Belgium) and we’ll be there forever, the finest sets of fans in the world. It’s the greatest thing I have ever done. Don’t tell anyone or they will all be there.

 

 

P.S I finally saw us win in Copenhagen in 1998 and I cried. If we ever qualify, I will explode.

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Turned over in Moldova

  1. Pingback: No Kit, No Power, Some Guns: The Early Days of Post USSR Football Were Pretty Mental - Post Pravda

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