A football odyssey: 55 countries in a single season
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Watching a match in the desert and how a goalie scores from his own penalty area in Belarus - Matt Walker has seen it (almost) all
Photos: Matt Walker
Matt Walker had a dream – to visit all 55 UEFA member nations in a single football season. And in 2017-18 his dream came true. What was it like? Matt is ready to reveal it all…
I’ve read somewhere that you used to work for the Ministry of Justice in the UK. Then you got a career break and decided to travel around all 55 countries that are UEFA member nations. Was that a spontaneous idea or something you always dreamed of doing and you just found the right moment to make it happen?
I wanted a break from office life, but needed the spark and direction. I thought of my adventure at the end of 2015 and started planning almost instantly. The 2016-17 season was too early (and also clashed with six matches I watched at Euro 2016) so I was always going to travel during the 2017-18 season. I returned to work at the Ministry of Justice in January 2019, immensely satisfied with my journey, but still longing for more football travels.
Even though there are loads of low-cost flights all across Europe nowadays, visiting 55 countries in the space of a single football season can’t be a cheap experience… or are we wrong about that? How did you fund all those trips?
It wasn’t cheap and I had to save for quite a long time. Fortunately, the travel was mostly very reasonably-priced although, surprisingly, my most expensive single journey was a train from Montpellier to Madrid. Accommodation was my biggest outgoing, and I was particularly careful with my spending in the pricey northern European and Scandinavian countries.
Is it true that the weather factor was something you always had in mind while working on the travel schedule?
Yes, I hate the cold! It was necessary to visit many of the cooler countries in Scandinavia and the Baltic during the summer as they play a Spring-Autumn season. But I made a conscious decision to travel around the Mediterranean - from Israel to Portugal - in January and February rather than brave the winter weather in some of my remaining leagues further north.
What was the coldest place you visited during your Euro trips?
‘Why are you coming to Denmark in December?’ asked a football fan at Helsingør. It was only a few degrees above zero and, although the air temperature was colder in Poland, there weren’t intense crowds to keep me warm at Helsingør. But, really, there were only six or seven cold matches out of the 79 top-division fixtures I watched.
In Bulgaria you paid a visit to Lokomotiv Plovdiv. What was your Bulgarian experience like compared to the other Balkan countries?
It wasn’t the best. The Lokomotiv fans were protesting and the team was in horrid form. The match (1-0 to Lokomotiv) was pretty awful as well. I quite liked Plovdiv though, it was one of the most pleasant towns I visited in the Balkans, and a chance encounter on a walking tour led to my story being featured by Lonely Planet.
Which country did surprise you the most in a good way?
I was intrigued by the anomaly on the European football map that is Israel. But I didn’t envisage having such a great time there. I met a cracking range of people, ate some truly delicious food and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both phenomenal cities in very different ways. I also watched a fourth-tier match in the Negev desert and ended up starring in a short film. It was a real rock and roll week and I was sad to leave for Cyprus (which, predictably, was nowhere near as exciting or interesting).
Unfortunately, football is sometimes synonymous with crowd troubles. Did you have any problems in that sense while travelling?
There were problems at matches in several eastern European and Balkan countries. But, for the most part, I was shielded from the disturbances by supporting the home team and meeting their fans.
Is there a country you would never return to? If yes, why?
San Marino. I’ve visited twice now and, with all due respect to the world’s oldest republic, I really don’t need to make it three times!
Did you make some friends across Europe you’re still in touch with?
Yes, I met people in so many countries and know I would have a great time watching teams like Tula Arsenal (Russia), St Gallen (Switzerland) and Brann Bergen (Norway) play with old football friends. But it’s hard for me to return when, even after my travels, there are so many new places to explore.
You wrote a book about your 55-country experience. What’s the craziest story you wrote about?
I think my own story is the craziest! Ha, actually it has to be Yevgeniy Kostyukevich, the goalkeeper for hip Belarusian football club Krumkachy (now called NFK Minsk), who scored from his own penalty area and was sent off 20 minutes later. I will never see anything like that again at a professional football match.
Could be anywhere in the world – what’s your dream footballing destination you’re yet to go to?
Buenos Aires. I’ve watched football in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, yet never in Argentina. The Argentinian league has been riddled with problems recently, but there is so much history and talent in the city and its football clubs.
‘Europe United’ is published by Quercus on 8th August 2019 and available for pre-order on Amazon UK (hardcover/eBook)