AS WE all know, football has become a global language to such an extent that you could strike up a meaningful conversation with virtually anyone if they are even vaguely interested in the game.
That global language extends beyond the great cities of the world, out into the suburbs, the countryside and even to orphaned islands in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Give a small child a ball and they will inevitably end up kicking it around. Football is as ubiquitous as ocean plastic waste, as accessible as eating, drinking and sleeping.
I came across an interesting pocket guide to the world’s tiny islands, a book of small dots in a vast expanse of blue. The features of some of these islands are few, save for the occasional volcano, and some have no population at all, but when the UK government announced its covid-19 green list, I wondered just how easy it would be to visit Tristan da Cunha, Ascension or Henderson, and does football possibly exist in these far-off locations?
When we think of islands, it’s a fair bet Easter Island will be uppermost in our thoughts. Those imposing statues, which have been likened to immobile Championship defences or giant, monolithic centre backs, are not only iconic, but have inspired many debates about their origin, purpose and meaning. Easter Island, which has a population of between seven and four thousand, depending on your source of reference, actually has a football team called CF Rapa Nui.
The red and white shirts of Rapa Nui played their first official game on August 5 2009 when they hosted Colo-Colo (the only Chilean side to win the Copa Libertadores) in the Chilean Cup. Virtually the whole island turned out to see the cup tie, with one of the huge statues overlooking proceedings. Colo-Colo won 4-0. Prior to this tie, Easter Island played against the Juan Fernándes Islands which are largely uninhabited locations, but it is fair to say football resides on Robinson Crusoe Island (population less than 1,000).
Remote can also be something brought about by an incident. The Ukrainian town of Pripyat is one such place, an eerie and forboding area that was in the shadow of the terrible Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The population today is, understandably, zero, but at the time of the nuclear power station’s meltdown, 50,000 people lived there. Now, assorted wildlife roam around the abandoned amusement park and municipal apartment blocks .
Pripyat had a football team, FC Stroitel Pripyat, which played in a small stadium in the town. A new ground was being built when the disaster took place, but the club never got the chance to play there. The remains of the Avanhard Stadium, which would have had a 5,000 capacity, can be seen today, as eerie as the entire region has become. On the day of the Chernobyl disaster, Pripyat were preparing to play local rivals FC Mashinostroitel in the Kyiv Regional Cup. When it was realised how serious events had become, a helicopter was sent to Mashinostroitel’s training ground and two government officials in protective clothing leapt out and told the players they were not travelling to Pripyat.
You would think that you cannot get more barren than the Antarctic, but football has left its mark there. In 2006, 18 explorers from Bulgaria and Spain played the first full football game on the frozen terrain. The match took place at the Livingston Island in South Pole with the support of the Bulgarian champion football club CSKA Sofia. The Spanish explorers prepared a makeshift stadium, while the Bulgarians brought the ball, bearing the CSKA logo. Despite the freezing temperatures of minus seven degrees Celsius, the game ended in a 3-3 draw.
At the other end of the thermometer, football can be found in isolated clearings in jungles or woods, or on the top of mountains. Equally, kids have created improvised football pitches in urban environments – is there anything as “remote” as a concrete pitch underneath a flyover with traffic hurtling along at breakneck speed above the players?
Playing football or indeed, any sport, is seen as one of the corner stones of civilisation. To many, a football club or team is as important to society as those traditional totems, the church and pub. It may be a simple game, but where there is a will, there is a way to make football possible, be it on a tropical island, frozen tundra, steamy jungle or parched middle-eastern desert. Across the globe, there is always someone wanting to kick a ball, and, somewhat peculiarly, someone who wants to watch the action!
This article originally appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.