Oliver McManus writes about the reteurn of the UEFA Champions League, and looks at the teams participating in the first round of qualifying.
In far less glamourous surroundings than the Principality Stadium – home to the 2016– 17 Champions League Final, in May – the quest to reach the group stages starts on the weekend of the 28th/29th of June when the domestic league winners from Estonia, Gibraltar, Wales, San Marino, Malta, Faroe Islands, Armenia and Andorra kick off their respective campaigns.
So, continuing in my mission of scouring the football world for those obscure teams and stories, let’s take a look at the 8 teams looking to make it in Europe.
We’ll kick off with the rather unglamorously titled ‘Match 1’ , taking place between the most successful club in Estonian football – FC Flora – and the most successful club in Gibraltarian football, Lincoln Red Imps.
After going four years without winning the Meistriliiga, as it is known in their native language, Flora finally broke their drought by winning in style, beating their nearest rivals – both on the pitch and off it – Levadia by some 8 points.
Nicknamed The Cactus , for some reason unbeknown to me, they have been a mainstay of European football – through the tournaments various guises – having appeared in every season since the 1994-95 UEFA Cup.
Unfortunately for the Flora faithful, results have limited their stays to the opening round on all but one occasion – the 2006/07 UEFA Cup when they beat Norwegian side FC Lyn Oslo by virtue of the away goals rule.
Under the guidance of 33 year old Norbet Hurt, they’ll be hoping to set up a tie with Celtic, of Scotland, in the next round.
Lincoln, however, have much less experience with regards to competing at the highest level of UEFA club competition – what with Gibraltar only being accepted for UEFA membership in 2014.
They have, however, been the sole representative of their country in the past 2 seasons – and last year beat FC Santa Coloma 2-1 in their opening round before going down to the almost-conquerors of Manchester United, FC Midtjylland.
I caught up with the Chairman of the club, Derek Alman, after the draw took place and asked him how their maiden victory felt;
“Well not quite a relief, I would say it was the culmination of many years work and the feeling was wonderful to achieve the second round at our second attempt.”
Having won the Gibraltar Football League for the last 15 consecutive seasons, it could be argued that the lack of a domestic challenge may prove their downfall when coming up against FC Flora, reflecting on the upcoming tie, Derek said;
“Our ambition is to try to play at our best in the first round. We now know we are facing Flora Tallin which will be a huge challenge for us. The prospect of facing Celtic Glasgow in the second round is an enormous opportunity, and we are very excited about this.”
An exciting tie awaits the victor of this tie, a fact that neither clubs shy from, instead relishes the prospect of.
Moving on to Match 2 and we see the, possibly, one sided match-up between Welsh Premier League champions, The New Saints, and the winners of San Marino’s highest – and only – football league, Tre Penne.
The New Saints are the most successful club in Wales, and in the last two seasons, they have achieved the domestic treble (of the Premier League, Welsh Cup and Welsh League Cup).
The Saints are a fully professional team and have racked up some matches against big teams over the years – facing Manchester City and Liverpool in 2003 and 2005 respectively.
With, arguably, the most notable player to have graced the Welsh Premier League, in Greg Draper, on their books, the Welsh club will be hoping to add to their rather paltry record of just 3 European wins and set up against APOEL, of Cyprus, to continue their European adventure.
Tre Penne were the unlikely victors of a, surprisingly, competitive 2015-16 Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio and, in doing so, qualified for only their 3rd Champions League campaign.
The club itself has already secured its name in the eternal history books of San Marinese football, by becoming the first club from their country to win a game in European competition – beating Shirak FC by a goal to nil, in the first league of their 2013-14 clash. They did, however, lose the tie 3-1 on aggregate.
Tre Penne, apparently, translates to ‘Three Feathers’, resembling the three feather-like insignia upon their badge and with the whole population of San Marino backing the men in white and blue, coach Morris Tamburini will be hoping to secure the ultimate David vs Goliath result when they visit Oswestry to give their fans something to cheer about on the return leg.
The third match will take place between Valletta F.C. , who secured their 23rd Maltese Premier League title last season, and 11 times Faroese Champions, B36 Torshavn.
Both countries are, arguably, most famous for things other than football – Malta for pool-playing legend Tony Drago and the Faroe Islands quite simply for their fishing industry.
As I’ve wrote about before, however, football in the Faroe Islands is on the rise, and Maltese clubs have some form when it comes to European competition meaning the two clubs could be seen as the dark horses of the earlier rounds; with a lot to prove and hunger to match this.
Valletta have appeared in the last 9 editions of the Champions / Europa league and a new sense of pride is sweeping the town, as is proved by their rising attendances, year on year – a revolution in Maltese football is taking place and it’s largely in the Lily White colours of Valletta.
Usually, in the domestic campaign, the play their football at the largest stadium in Malta – the rather resplendent Ta’ Qali National Stadium – which holds nearly 18,000 fans at full capacity and the headquarters of the Maltese Football Association within its grounds.
For a whole host of reasons, however, they’ll be playing in the much smaller, 3000 capacity Hibernians Stadium when they kick off on Tuesday, where they’ll be hoping to return to happier form in Europe after losing in their previous 2 outings – 5-0 to Qarabag in 2014-15, the Azerbaijani side who played against the likes of Tottenham, and 4-2 to Newtown, of Wales, last year.
The history of Valletta, as far as Europe is concerned, is one that is rich (to say the least) , having made their debut in the 1963-64 European Cup, they lost 8-0 to Dukla Prague before playing against some of the best and most iconic teams from Europe in the years that followed; Inter Milan in 72/73 , Soviet powerhouse Dynamo Moscow in 77/78 , the famous Leeds United of 79/80 , as well as the likes of Porto and an 18-0 defeat to Rangers.
B36, on the other hand, have the much more snazzy nickname of the White Tigers and will be going in to this tie with a vein of confidence running through them – thanks to their dramatic comeback to win the 2015 Effodeildin after trailing Runavik with a mere 4 games to go.
Their results have been far more chequered in recent European history – going down 11-2 to Latvian side Liepajas Metalurgs in the 2004-05 UEFA Cup and 9-0 to Fenerbache in the 2006-07 competition.
In the current Faroe Islands Premier League, the team is flailing by 9 points in a meagre 4th place (in a 10 team league); a rather peculiar tale comes to mind given their poor form, initially the club weren’t recognized by many Faroese national newspapers due to their inconsistency on the pitch but, after a string of food performances, they became a household name and one of the biggest clubs on the Island!
B36 have played against Maltese opposition once before – Birkirkara in the first round of the 2006-07 Champions League qualification stages – running out the winners by a score-line of 5-2; the omens are certainly good for Eydun Klakstein’s men, but Valletta won’t go down without a fight.
Our final fixture sees my favourite team at this stage, Alashkert FC, face the rather festively named FC Santa Coloma.
Dubbed El Don (The Lord) by the Andorran faithful, Santa Coloma is the most successful team in both the domestic cup and league competitions of Andorra, having won each 8 and 10 times, respectively.
Rather strangely, they have no permanent stadium and, instead, play their matches around the grounds – so to speak. Not that that bothers the men in white; in fact, on the pitch, they are ground-breakers as far as Andorran football goes!
They hold the proud record of being the only team from Andorra to win a match in European football AND, the only Andorran team to have kept a clean sheet in European competitions.
Armenian opposition is nothing new for Santa Coloma, having registered their first ever win in Europe against such a side – in the 2014-15 First Qualifying Round – when they beat Banants by virtue of away goals. And, in true football hipster fashion, the goal that saw them go through was scored by their Spanish Goalkeeper, Eloy Casals.
Well, I’m sure you’re thinking that story could never be topped but, I believe, it can – no need to worry, I have indeed saved the best two sides until last.
So, Alashkert, quite the story beind this team; they were founded in 1990 in the small, yet picturesque, town of Martuni and dissolved twice within 10 years – firstly in 1993, before returning in 1998 for one season, after which they vanished for a further 12 years.
Revived by a businessman of Martuni, Bagrat Navoyan, the club marked their return to football by winning the 2012-13 Armenian First League and gaining promotion to the Premier League at their first attempt.
Officially relocated in February 2013 to the capital of Armenia, Yeravan, the club were equipped with an eye-catching new logo – it’s great, I LOVE it – and from the 2013-14 Season played their games at their new Nairi Stadium.
A fourth place finish in the 14-15 season saw them make their debut in European football last year – albeit in the Europa League – against huge favourites St Johnstone. Alashkert, however, proved spirituous in both ties, performing sensationally to go through 2-2, on away goals, and create history at their first attempt.
The club appears to be so confident of another win this time around, that they’ve already put the potential second round match against Dinamo Tbilsi on their club calendar – we’ll have to wait and see.
Anyway, that was the lowdown on the 8 teams competiting in the first round of qualifying for the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League; ahead of the 2nd round, I’ll be back (hopefully) to take a look at the history of 3 or 4 teams entering at that stage.
Written by Oliver McManus.
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