Matt Walker is the author of one of the most epic football globetrotting books. In my mind, Europe United is in the same league as the Indiana Jones journeys of James Montague, Up Pohnpei by Paul Watson and many more. Europe United recounts Matt’s epic footballing journey across Europe and beyond, watching a game of football in all 55 UEFA nations, the first man to do so, including all of your microstates, Kazakhstan, Israel and more, between June 2017 and April 2018. I sat down with Matt to discuss the book in more detail, ahead of the upcoming paperback release on 13 May.
The birth of the idea, and the early hurdles
Matt tells me that he came up with the idea in late 2015, telling his boss soon after: “That’s going to cost a lot of money”, was his first and quite reasonable response. He continues that this was one of the biggest early hurdles, having to watch his budget especially closely in the first few countries with an expensive Nordic first leg involving Iceland, Faroe Islands and Norway. Closer to jetting off, the logistics and the practicalities defining which games could be watched became clear. “I was lucky that Brann were playing at home” he tells me, Brann being the side from Bergen, Norway, one of only 5 cities with flights to Vágar Airport of the Faroes at the time.
An epic Summer journey, beer sticks in Lithuania, and the Finnish Leicester
His choice of IFK Mariehamn for his Finnish side was of particular interest to many readers: “I came across their story in 2016, the season they incredibly won the league, obviously in the same year as Leicester’s miracle achievement in England.” Mariehamn is the capital of the Åland Islands, the autonomous, Swedish-speaking set of islands in the Baltic Sea. Capital could perhaps be misleading – it’s no larger than a medium-size English village, and the stadium holds no more than 1,650 in beautiful, wooded, Finnish glades. Getting a ferry to a game was a particular joy. A near two-week long trip in Kazakhstan followed – needing a 9 hour train journey to the dusty town of Taraz as Kairat Almaty weren’t at home. Belarus and Lithuania signed off this leg – the delicious beer sticks of Vilnius a polar opposite to the grim domestic beers of Belarus. “A bottle of Paulaner never tasted so good”.
Caucasian adventures, gruelling Low Countries, and foxholes in the Balkans
Retrospectively, Matt thinks international breaks were a blessing. “One of the things the book doesn’t really convey was just how tiring the travels were.” Matt recounts how he was offered an invitation to a wedding whilst travelling through the Azerbaijani foothills to watch Gabala. He’s still in contact with a few people from Trabzon in Turkey – “they were definitely the best set of fans I came across on my travels”. He had difficulties paying for a bus ticket between Niš and Kruševac in Serbia, and later on would have to bluff his way into a game behind closed doors in Albania. “The trick is confidence” he says, also in avoiding grumpy locals in wintery Corfu: “The landscape of Meteora monastery was spectacular”, however, one of his favourite of the trip, making up for it. A nice mountainous, scenic change to the tedious driving across the Low Countries in November.
Home for Christmas, needed warmth, and his own Mediterranean Odyssey
Inverness to Dingwall is a stunning train journey – the Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso through Sutherland and Caithness is one of my favourites in the country. “It was brilliant to see a corner of the UK that I had never been to before, and maybe wouldn’t have had the motivation to without football. It was pleasing to tick off the most northerly top flight UK side in Ross County too”. But Scotland was cold, and January’s trip to Israel and Cyprus provided much needed warmth, the 20 degree temperatures feeling like summer in the Sahara. Malta, to Sicily via ferry, to Calabria and Crotone via boat-train was an epic reconstruction of the Islamic conquest by Euphemius. The Mediterranean in February allowed him to avoid the Beast from the East, which caused carnage across Northern Europe, postponing countless fixtures. “One of the moments where luck was on my side”, says Matt. To me, it was good planning.
Visegráds, Alps, and finishing the journey
Matt had to deviate from his theme of avoiding capital cities, ticking off Prague, Vienna and Bratislava in one mad weekend: “It was one of those times where logistics reared its ugly head” Matt says. However, he slowed down to enjoy beautiful Alpine scenery in St. Gallen and Liechtenstein, where we converse over football shirts, more beer chat with the epic Schützengarten Brewery , and the epic Ernst in Liechtenstein. “One of the most incredible men I met on my travels”. Matt finished off with rural travels in Hungary and Slovenia, “a real throwback to the 90s, the EU road scheme was nowhere to be seen in Southern Hungary”. The epic Pancho Aréna was one of Matt’s favourite stadiums. The final destination of Montenegro was a lovely choice.
We finish off with some general questions, before signing off entirely. Matt was a fantastic interviewee, and the book is a must read for all travel lovers, and all football lovers, which, for me, is a match made in heaven. I can’t thank him enough for his time and the amazing entertainment the book has given me.
Keep an eye out for the paperback release of Europe United on 13 May. Alternatively, buy the hardback, available in all of your usual places. The 55FootballNations website provides yet more entertainment and depth, and features all the videos mentioned in the book and our full chat.
Listen to the interview, both solely audio… https://anchor.fm/akshat-chandel/episodes/Matt-WalkerEurope-United-er9u2d
And with video… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdFM9UII6i8