From Athens to Zabrze, football drew my mental map of Europe. What about yours? | Phil Mongredienthedigitalchaps


How come I, as a Briton, can name vast numbers of Dutch towns and cities, but struggle to think of more than a couple of Greek placenames? Why are the German cities I’m most aware of not always the most populous? And, most baffling of all, why is my 15-year-old son more familiar with a Swedish village with 6,000 inhabitants than he is with Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city?

As he and I completed an addictive online quiz that challenged us to list as many European placenames as we could, these were the questions that occupied me. Although to be honest, the first two were actually quite easy to answer: it was football’s fault.

Between the ages of seven and 13, I was utterly obsessed with the sport. I read anything football-related I could get my hands on. I developed an almighty Subbuteo habit, the power and precision of my right index finger easily a match for Alex Cropley’s left foot, the bruise on my fingernail a permanent reminder of my devotion. My bedroom was decorated with posters of Brian Little and John Gidman, carefully cut out from magazines. I also covered my walls with the maps of the continent that Shoot or Match would sometimes thoughtfully annotate with all the teams playing in Uefa’s three European tournaments that season. And I collected and swapped the seemingly arbitrary European-themed sticker sets that some years would appear in the newsagents of my home town, Nottingham (strangely, given there was no obvious reason for it, two came out in 1976-77, one of them with postcards rather than conventional stickers. Tragically, I never saw another that concentrated solely on club football rather than international tournaments).

I’d pore over these maps and sticker albums for ages, marvelling at how exotic the likes of NEC Nijmegen, Újpest Dózsa and Lokomotiv Plovdiv sounded, pondering whether Górnik Zabrze were from Górnik or Zabrze (the latter), and wondering how on earth a team from Deventer in the Netherlands came to be given the suspiciously English-sounding name Go Ahead Eagles – perhaps in Dutch it meant something more profound? (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

A 1977 European football sticker album belonging to Phil Mongredien
A 1977 European football sticker album. Photograph: Phil Mongredien

I’ve not stopped loving football in the four decades since, although no obsession could continue burning quite that intensely for so long. But all the knowledge my plastic brain absorbed during those formative years has remained there, so even now there is an extremely strong positive correlation between European placenames I can recall and teams that performed well as the 1970s blended into the 1980s.

Why does Jena (population: 110,000) resonate more strongly with me than Wiesbaden (population: 278,000)? Simple: Carl Zeiss Jena reached the 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup final, while SV Wehen Wiesbaden have a long history that’s been unpunctuated by any sort of tangible success (imagine Birmingham City, only less funny). Why, for many years, did Sligo, a town in the west of Ireland, seem as significant to me as Dublin? Two reasons: Sligo Rovers’ 1977-78 European Cup odyssey, if you can really call losing each leg of their first-round tie against Red Star Belgrade 3-0 an odyssey, and because none of Dublin’s bigger clubs actually thought to mention the city in their names.

Why is my geographical knowledge of most of the former Soviet republics and the former Yugoslavia so poor? Because before the fall of communism, the teams from those countries that qualified for European competition were almost all from Moscow, Kyiv, Tbilisi, Belgrade, Zagreb or Split, so Belarusian or North Macedonian placenames never appeared on my radar. And while BATE Borisov and KF Shkëndija, for example, have appeared in the Champions League in recent years, their rise has come too late for my ageing brain to properly index and acknowledge their achievements.

Just as intriguing as the continent’s biggest clubs were its players. Accustomed as I was to the English first division’s legions of lumpen and interchangeable Daves, Clives and Johns, the very names of Giancarlo Antognoni, Antonín Panenka and Franz Beckenbauer (who died this week) would have made them seem impossibly glamorous, even if they hadn’t possessed otherworldly skills (which they did, in abundance). They became so familiar to me that I soon stopped seeing continental names through such a parochial lens. For example, I know that if I am ever introduced to anybody called Zbigniew, I’ll have no trouble remembering his name, given that he shares it with Poland’s most sublime talent from this era.

I’m not the only one in my family to have had my whole way of seeing the world changed by football on a train trip with my children from Cologne to Berlin last summer, there was excitement and recognition as we passed through Dortmund (Borussia!), Essen (Rot-Weiss!) and Bielefeld (Arminia!); more of a shrug as we stopped at Hamm (even if Hammer SpVg is a fantastic name).

But it was only when we were struggling with the online quiz that I finally realised what should have been obvious: we each have a unique, personalised view of Europe, not only determined by where we’ve lived or visited, or whereabouts our friends may be from, but also heavily skewed and distorted by our passions and interests. For the record, I also attach an unlikely significance to Groningen (because of a 1990 compilation album recorded at a club there), Sotkamo (scene of an embarrassing incident with a bicycle in 2000), Kilchberg (for its chocolate) and many others, but each of us will have our own examples.

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Oenophiles may find that for them Bordeaux has a greater cultural cachet than Marseille. Fans of Elena Ferrante would be forgiven for thinking that Naples has a far greater gravitational pull than, say, Milan or Turin. For film buffs, Odesa will always be mentioned in the same breath as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and Cannes won’t ever be just another attractive seaside resort in the south of France. Classics scholars, meanwhile, really ought to have a far better grasp of Greek geography than someone reliant solely on the so-so 1970s exploits of AEK Athens, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos.

As for that Swedish village so familiar to my son yet insignificant to me? That’s because he’s long been fascinated by the periodic table, and Ytterby, not far from Stockholm, is unique for having four chemical elements named after it (yttium, terbium, erbium and ytterbium – three more than the whole of the UK can muster), with a further four elements having been discovered in the old feldspar mine there for good measure. Beat that, Gothenburg!

  • Phil Mongredien is a deputy production editor for Guardian Opinion