Matt Walker is the ultimate football traveller. He watched a top-division football match in all 55 UEFA nations over a single season and has written a critically-acclaimed book, Europe United, about his adventures. To mark the paperback launch of Europe United, Matt talks to us about football, travel and the people that enhance his experiences on and off the terraces.
Ghana, 2008 Cup of Nations
Matt, tell us something about your early life and how your dual interest in football and travel emerged.
I grew up in the green safety of south-east England. My parents were computer programmers for an airline and this worldliness helped install an early interest in countries and cultures. I loved the now-defunct Commonwealth Institute in London, incessantly played the board game Journey Through Europe and planned family trips to Iceland and California. My first solo adventure was to visit my sister whilst she was teaching in the fine Russian city of Novgorod. I forgot to take a coat, missed the flight home and spent a chilly night in Saint Petersburg airport. I thought this was good practice for future travels.
Watching English football was not really a middle-class pursuit in the 1980s, with decrepit stadiums and occasional crowd violence, and very few people were into the sport where I lived. But I watched live matches with my father at Fulham FC, then playing in the third and fourth tiers of English football, and loved the game, comradery and that my passion was a statement of something different.
I backpacked after university and watched my first overseas football in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. The standard of football was low, despite former England midfielder David Rocastle turning out for the home team, but it didn’t matter. I bought a football shirt, mingled with the locals and felt that the game really added to my travel experience. The following year I watched a couple of matches when travelling in Iran, and then combined football and travel in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Ghana.
Serbia – on the pitch in Kruševac
You’re from the UK – how has being British influenced your personality and take on the world?
The British sense of humour has helped get me out of some tricky situations on the road and break down barriers with football fans. I was standing with a group of Belarusian ultras in Vitebsk when the opposition goalkeeper scored a goal from his own penalty area. You can only laugh at such ridiculous things.
The popularity of English football has also helped me connect with people. I was amazed to find Liverpool FC-themed bars in Malaysia when I first travelled around South East Asia in the late 1990s. A decade later, I was initially rather bemused when hoardes of football-mad Ethiopian school children shouted “Crutch” at me in Lalibela. “Crutch, Crutch, Peter Crutch!” I am nearly as tall as the then-Liverpool striker, but share little of his footballing talent.
Georgia – my first match in Tbilisi
And once we’re still on the UK – give us some little-known gems in the UK that you could recommend to our community.
I really recommend exploring the northeast of England. The people are warmer than the weather, the region has some great landscapes and Durham, my university city, is a lovely place for a wander, with the River Wear perfectly framing the cathedral and castle.
Nearer to my home, I like the attractive small town of Rye and, as a craft beer lover, have enjoyed the pleasurable explosion of taprooms in major cities, often located in some of the least-heralded parts of town. A good excuse to visit South Bermondsey or Walthamstow when next in London.
London and Edinburgh aside, the larger British cities can seem pretty underwhelming to the casual visitor but it’s hard to ignore the footballing history in the likes of Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. I also find football a perfect driver to visit some of the more obscure English outposts such as Carlisle, Barnsley and Swindon.
Faroe islands – rugged football
Now, your travels have often been linked to football and you have been to a top-division match in each of the 55 UEFA nations in one season. What motivated you to do this extraordinary feat? Tell us something about the challenges and the ups and downs of it, and when did you do your final 55th country?
It was my fun midlife crisis. I wanted to travel extensively, but have a goal behind my travels. (As it turned out, there were 227 goals in the 79 top-division matches I watched over 11 months). The idea came to me one dull December day, and I immediately thought it was the perfect combination of football and travel with a challenge to focus my interest.
I was also keen to promote the live match experience, something far superior to watching a match on television, and was desperate to eat khachapuri – cheese-filled bread – in Georgia, something I managed repeatedly early on in my travels.
The European football family extends to the likes of the Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Gibraltar and this gave my travels appealing variety. I loved the contrast between, say, northern Wales and southern Israel in the depths of winter. I spent an average of four days in each of the 55 nations, which normally gave me the chance to explore as well as watch at least one top-flight match.
The logistical challenge was considerable. There are two types of football season in Europe: the traditional autumn to spring season, and a dozen or so summer leagues played mostly in colder Northern European countries. I started my travels in June 2017 and it was crucial that I visited all of the summer leagues before they ended that autumn. Georgia, one of my favourite countries, made a late decision to shift to a summer season so I kicked off my challenge there. My second country was Iceland, hardly the most logical start to my adventures.
Games were regularly moved at short-notice and I even had to bluff my way into an Albanian match being played behind closed doors. There were also several problems with officialdom and the Russian embassy were particularly suspicious about anyone wanting to visit the remote city of Ufa. The Guardian helped me out by featuring an early interview about my travels. I carried around a print out of the article and my mild fame eased open a few doors, including gaining entry to that Albanian match and convincing some sceptical Azerbaijani officials in Baku.
My last match was in Podgorica, the bland Montenegrin capital. I celebrated with friends afterwards on the beautiful coastline and took a speedboat ride captained by a Serbian who claimed he was an ex-footballing prodigy.
Montenegro – 55th and final UEFA nation
What have your family and friends’ reactions been regarding this feat?
Most weren’t surprised, they probably knew that my interests in travel and football were building up to such an almighty challenge. I actually think that my friends were more shocked that I started using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the first time, to promote my travels and connect with football fans.
A few people questioned how much my trip would cost but, as readers will be aware, it’s relatively easy to travel on a budget in many countries outside the western world. I certainly got the best insights into local life and stories for the book when staying in rustic guesthouses, watching games from the cheap seats and travelling on a bargain train.
I met Eric on the train from Almaty to Taraz in Kazakhstan and he became my translator, tour guide and friend. He even bought my ticket to Taraz v Aktobe but, given entrance cost 70p for adults and 12p for children, I didn’t feel too guilty about this act of kindness.
Europe United – hardback launch in 2019
You’ve just released your paperback edition of your book Europe United. Tell us about the book, how you got this done and what your expectations from this publication are.
It’s a football travel book. Football is the beat, the theme, but it’s intrinsically linked to my travels, in particular some of the people I chanced upon. It was always my intention to visit footballing underdogs – not the European Super League wannabes – so my book takes you to Kruševac in Serbia, Crotone in Italy and Trabzon in Turkey. I probably got a more personal experience there than in their big city cousins. I think it strikes a nice balance between football and travel and if you love both then Europe United is the book for you!
It was a hard ask to compress so many experiences into one book – there were plenty of good stories that didn’t make the cut. Fortunately, the structure is quite simple, chronologically taking the reader from my first country through to my very last, and that made the writing easier.
All 55 nations are represented in the book but, naturally, there was more to write about some than others, and I varied the angles to keep the writing tight and fresh. The hardback (published alongside the eBook in August 2019) is beautiful, but it’s quite a weighty tome so I’m hoping the paperback will be enjoyed by people on their travels this summer.
Armenia – on the pitch in Yerevan
Can we expect more travel books from you?
I hope so, it would be amazing to take on another football-obsessed continent in a similarly crazy time frame. South America would be the obvious second book and I love the place, and speak a little Spanish. But, from a purely travel perspective, watching a match in all Asian Football Confederation members over a single season would be a truly mind-bending cultural and football experience, taking in 47 nations as diverse as Palestine, Australia, Mongolia and the Maldives. I better start saving!
Fervent Trabzonspor fans in Turkey
Now, regarding travel, what were some of the biggest surprises you have had during your travels? Good and bad!
I travelled across India after university and met a friendly Bengali teenager called Puran on the bus to Jaigaon, a town close to the Indian-Bhutanese border. Puran invited me to stay in his family’s rustic house which was just a few metres from the muddy path that designated the frontier. I took a chance on the water at his home and ended up losing a fifth of my bodyweight after contracting giardiasis. But his hospitality was something that I didn’t forget.
And Puran didn’t forget me either. Twenty years later, he found me on Facebook and said how he had been reflecting on the experiences that we had shared and wanted to get in touch to see how I was doing. Puran is still living in the area, married to a Bhutanese woman, and working in the mountain kingdom. I find that travel, like life itself, is a rich combination of past memories, present exploration and future plans. And it was great to catch up with Puran, even if it’s unlikely we’ll ever cross paths again.
I love football for its surprises as well. The Kosovan league was ranked the worst in Europe when I visited the unassuming town of Gjilan on a grey November afternoon. My match turned into a rousing 4-3 win for home side Drita, with plenty of skill and intensity on show, and the Drita management invited me to celebrate with the players afterwards. It was the best night out I’ll ever have in Gjilan.
Bhutan – Puran with a friend in 1999
Which destinations are still high on your bucket list for travel and why?
Buenos Aires is a major world city that I really want to visit, especially given the locals’ passion for football and my love for steak. Cameroon seems a fascinating country and are due to be the next hosts of the Africa Cup of Nations in early 2022. Given the African football authorities have changed the hosts for the last four tournaments I won’t be booking my tickets quite yet.
Cameroon was poised to organise the 2019 edition, but it was switched to Egypt at short-notice. I took advantage and watched 15 matches in Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez over 9 days for the princely sum of £66.
As a keen scuba diver, wildlife fan and passable photographer, I fancy Madagascar and São Tomé e Príncipe for the combination of island life and cultural diversity that I crave when not travelling for a football challenge. And, before the pandemic hit, I was planning on completing my set of South East Asian countries with a visit to East Timor, but ended up in Eastbourne. (I know the country prefers to be known as Timor-Leste, but the joke doesn’t work quite as well!)
At the green bazaar in Kazakhstan, this guy was a keen Man. United fan!
Do you think your next goal will be to travel to every country that participates in the World Cup or the Olympics?
Well, watching a match in every FIFA nation would be fun, but I like having a time frame to my challenges. It adds pace to my travels and offers consistency, as I take in the football and travel across all of these countries at a similar time.
This means that differences in the football experience and travelling costs are much more transparent. I find it can be tough comparing old travels with new, not just because of economic and political changes, but also changes in yourself as a traveller. I wasn’t particularly wowed by Japan 20 years ago, but that may have been due to the innocence of youth. Or I may just prefer cheaper places that aren’t so full of concrete.
Switzerland – me, my sister and mum – there to watch Fulham playing Basel in 2009
Any specific travel plans for the summer?
I’ve opted for the relative certainty of Cornwall this summer, the first time I’ve spent a week away in my own country for 17 years. I’ve taken a punt on Corsica in the early autumn, a new NomadMania region for my map, and it looks a beautiful fusion of rugged scenery, Italian-influenced culture and interesting scuba diving. I’m hoping to head further afield later in the autumn. This is exactly what I wrote this time last year.
Finally, our signature question – if you could invite any four people from any period of human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Diego Maradona, Anthony Bourdain, Sir David Attenborough and Roy Hodgson. Diego would get the party started and be a great source of Buenos Aires tips and Spanish football slang. Bourdain could take over the cooking and regale us with foodie tales from around the world. I’m certain global gentlemen Attenborough and Hodgson, who has managed three UEFA national sides and my own club Fulham to a European final, would get on royally. If there was a quiet moment, Diego could juggle a bread roll on his little toe and set me up for a few volleys.
The photo on Europe United cover – in Poland