Sunday, 9 May 2010

Liechtenstein Football: the Beautiful Game in a Beautiful Country.

As I think I mentioned in my previous blog, “Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and its World Cup Dream” is the first non-fiction work on my journey for a while, as well as being the first for a while that is written by a non-native of the country (the author being Charlie Connelly from the UK).

I don’t know if it was the first person narrative, the fact that this was a fellow Brit writing, or just the engaging style of Connelly’s prose; but I immediately felt like a long-distance traveller who has happened upon a chance overseas meeting in a bar with a fellow compatriot and suddenly feels homesick as a result…

And I haven’t even left my hometown in England! Maybe that says something about the power of literature…

Anyway, on to Liechtenstein. I have to say that I really enjoyed Connelly’s portrayal of this tiny nation-state: whose 32,000 residents would not even fill Old Trafford, and which could fit into Ireland 437 times. Connelly intersperses his personal experiences of the country with a number of fascinating facts such as these – and indeed the Old Trafford stat is particularly pertinent: as Connelly is here as much because of the unique national football team as the unique country itself – although as becomes clear, the two elements are inextricably linked (despite the home fans’ general indifference to their team).

Connelly arrives in this country pretty much on a whim, which is fine as he brings with him a total ignorance of this state, which I as a reader shared.

Connelly provides a colourful, funny and genuinely affectionate account of this idiosyncratic nation: with just the right amount of historical background; an account of the general tedium of the capital city Vaduz (a description which still manages to be entertaining – especially the inevitable visit to the stamp museum), and a roll-call of the various colourful characters of this tiny state: including a man who is ‘married’ to an eagle, and some truly disturbing hotel staff who seem to be straight out of a 70s Hammer film.

Of course, central to all of this is the Liechtenstein football team, and their efforts to make some sort of an impact upon their 2002 World Cup qualifying group (qualification is never a realistic goal here, from a team whose last competitive goal came 2 years ago and until recently conceded deficits more often seen in cricket matches). Charlie had me biting my nails during his descriptions of the games of this minnow nation - despite me being totally aware that they didn't go on to win the World Cup! – whilst counter-pointing these dramatic descriptions with a series of dialogues (often taking place in one of Liechtenstein’s few nightspots at the end of a drunken evening) with the genuinely self-effacing members of the national football team themselves. It is here that Connelly skilfully uses football as a wider medium to explore Liechtenstein’s national idiosyncrasies.

Connelly makes some interesting points about the differences between his homeland of England here (where success in football – and indeed success at any cost generally - is paramount), and that of Liechtenstein, where quality of living and modest security reflects the more modest, and realistic, aims of the national team and the wider citizenship. On a wider, cultural level, Connelly highlights these differences through a description of the country’s National Day (a brilliant chapter which incorporates equally tragicomic accounts of Connelly’s excruciatingly embarrassing meeting with the country’s monarch, as well as an ill-advised attempt to scale several of the local peaks with some – far fitter – locals). That said, his obvious affection for this country does lead him to draw a few parallels between our nations – such as the shared national anthem tune (apparently the Liechtenstein family, upon establishing their sovereign state, liked the tune and so commissioned a German-language set of lyrics for it), and also the sense of using the monarchy as a means of distinguishing ourselves from neighbouring states.

All in all, an enjoyable book which does not sacrifice insight for entertainment.

If I have one gripe about this book it is that it all ends rather abruptly. Connelly includes an Afterword which provides an update of sorts, but - right at the last page – I was left with a feeling that I had spent an enjoyable few hours in a bar with Charlie as he recounted his adventures and then, mid-sentence, he just got up and left…

Which made me pleased that I had a further chapter on Liechtenstein to finish off with in Colin Leckey’s book “Dots on the Map” (you may remember Colin’s book was a Godsend in providing the only contemporary literary account of San Marino that I could find for my trip). Colin’s wanderings through this tiny monarchy pretty much backed up Connelly’s account (indeed Leckey gives Connelly’s book due credit in his chapter), and it was nice to sign off from this engaging country with an equally engaging account of Leckey’s stopover in the state.

Indeed Leckey - without the need to focus on the national football team - provides a number of insights which add to Connelly's description of this country. For a start, Leckey bases himself outside of the capital, opting instead for a mountain village called Triesenberg; and a B&B named Haus Alpenbeck where (he soon discovers), guests arriving back from travels to Vaduz after 10pm are met with locked doors and an absence of internal lighting... Leckey also gamely takes a number of walking trips around this tiny state. Charles Connelly - in extremely humorous fashion - describes his lack of walking fitness in a particular chapter on an attempt to scale one of Leichenstein's peaks, so it is nice that Leckey takes this challenge up. And we do learn more about this tiny state beyond its capital through these excursions. He uncovers areas which may well of been of interest to Connelly in his book - such as the "National Calculator Museum" in Schaan, and a competitive crazy golf centre in Vaduz. Of particular interest was Leckey's visit to the impressive historical building Castle Gutenberg, in the Balzars region. This is a 13th century structure to rival the ubiquitous Castle Vaduz. Whilst this is apparently owned by the state, it is only open for a few public events each year. However, I am surprised that Charles Connelly did not cover this in his book - perhaps reflecting a rather Vaduz-centric focus to the work.

Thus I make my way to Vaduz’ modest but efficient bus station in the centre of town where I also take a moment to receive the popular souvenir stamp in my passport. From here I take the 12433 bus to Sargans, and so am in Switzerland within half an hour! As there is no border control between Liechtenstein and Switzerland, I don’t need to show my passport (the bus doesn’t even slow down). I take a brisk walk to Sargans’ train station and just catch the 12.28 train to Zurich - a train which, I must say, puts British trains to shame: with its smoked glass, double-decker layout, extremely comfortable seats and working air-conditioning.

More impressive is the amazing scenery on the hour-long journey; as the trip passes along the southern shore of Lake Zurich, against a backdrop of snow-peaked mountains and picturesque villages. Upon arriving at Zurich’s volumous rail station (and ensuring that I don’t mix up Abfahrt (departures) and Ankunft (arrivals) on the connections board – a pitfall that Charlie Connelly fell into); I board the 13.32 InterCity train to Geneva, where I arrive at 16.15.

And so on to my Swiss book “Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story”. This is my first graphic novel since “Regards from Serbia” (which was an account of the Balkans War). My next book deals with an equally serious subject in describing the author’s romance with an HIV-positive woman named Cati (whose young son is also seropositive). As a long-term graphic novel fan, I look forward to updating you all on how this genre deals with this sensitive and personal subject...

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