2017 UEFA Super Cup.
It’s probably fair to say that one of the least anticipated games of the season is one that usually comes first – not all, or just any, but the “curtain-raiser” of the English season, the Community Shield. Few really remember the outcome of this game between the previous season’s league and cup winners, and it’s rarely acknowledged as a trophy, even if it does kick the season off positively as United experienced last year.
So, why get excited about Europe’s equivalent, the UEFA Super Cup, which sees the Champions League and Europa League winners face each other in similar style. To start with it’s a rarer appearance, United only having competed three times after cup wins in 1991, ’99 and ’08, winning the first and finishing runners up in the following two. UEFA have tried to glam the cup up a little, with it now featuring on a road tour of Europe (having previously been in Monaco every season from ’98 to ’12) which is why we’re sloping off to Skopje, Macedonia, to face Real Madrid.
Travelling to Skopje
Planning the trip to Skopje largely took place in the days after returning from Stockholm, and with thousands expected to make the journey we needed to be fairly quick to book. One of the only direct options was from Luton, not the greatest given the cost and hassle of getting there from Manchester for an early morning flight. Sofia in neighbouring Bulgaria offered a better choice with a flight via Amsterdam for £232.
The decision to travel onwards by bus from Sofia to Skopje seemed rational enough at first; with no direct trains between the two countries (only a round about way via Thessaloniki in Greeceto the south) the only other option was to rent a car. At €28 return the 150 mile bus journey seemed a bargain, and loaded up with 50p cans and scenic views the whole way it couldn’t be that bad. There are very few border points between Bulgaria and Macedonia, and just one on the route we were taking, but never did we expect it to take over 90 minutes to actually get through.
Our coach load of 50 were first taken off, bags were offloaded and crudely checked and then we got back on. An official then boarded to collect our passports which were returned a short while later. That all seemed straightforward enough, however on entry to Macedonia a new official came on board to check the passports again. All fine until the 12 or so English folk had our passports held so the police could question our reasons for visiting; apparently the news that their country was hosting United and Madrid hadn’t made it through. All in all a 6 hour coach journey to travel just 150 miles between these two European capitals. Thankfully the return leg took just an hour at border control, though it was still tense given we had little time to make our flight – other reds fared worse and missed theirs back from Sofia; sometimes being in Eastern Europe means being in the hands of their unaccommodating officials.
The City of Skopje
In a country with a population of just 2 million, nearly half of these live in the capital Skopje. Despite that the city seemed fairly compact, the centre no bigger than Manchester, which made for easy sightseeing – definitely important in the 40 degree heat. We met a local red, Filip, who runs one of the Macedonian supporters groups and took the time to show us around the city. Amongst the points of interest this consisted of taking us for £1 pints, more bread and meat than we could eat for £7 each and copious shots of the local Rakia. Hotel aircon is key when waking up after a session on that stuff.
Much of the build up for travelling United fans was the local hotels attempting to try and vastly inflate prices, and every red had a similar story. Ours, Hotel Ani which was minutes from the city centre, was booked for €40 a night months ago before they got in touch to encourage us to cancel our booking citing “water damage”. Given they were still advertising rooms (at a much steeper price) we weren’t going to play their game, nor pay the 300% markup they wanted when we arrived to check in. Thankfully with the help of our local friend Filip and MUST our original booking was honoured, but others still faced a lot of difficulty and the city’s hotels rightly received a lot of bad press. It’s frustrating that when following United we so often get caught up in this sort of situation, one of the few downsides about going away, but it’s great that supporters groups (more so than the club themselves) lobby on issues to help fans.
Back to the sights and scenes of Skopje, we largely based ourselves in the central Macedonia square; this home to a statue of Alexander the Great as well as the rather tame UEFA fanzone, there for the duration of our stay. In between being interviewed by the local TV stations who’d flocked around this area and feeding the mass of stray dogs (not an unusual sight in Eastern Europe) we enjoyed pretty reasonably priced pints, just over £1.50 a go. On the point of statues, there was literally one on every corner. The locals had told us that a lot of these were only built in the past few years as an attempt to inspire patriotism from the new (and now former) government. Some older sights did still remain; the impressive 15th century stone bridge to the old town, with the city’s fortress and bazaar winding amongst mosques and churches. One notable church was the memorial to Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta) who was born in the city over 100 years ago.
On the other side of city was the dominating view of the Vodno mountain, on which sat the Millennium Cross. This can be seen prominently from down in the city, certainly at night when it’s illuminated in the sky, there to celebrate 2 millennia of Christianity. It was a short taxi ride and then a 100 Denar (£1.50) cable car journey to the top of the mountain (1,000m high) with some pretty stunning views of the city and river Vardar below, the Philip II National Arena one of the more prominent sights from the summit.
We spent part of the match day with the local Macedonian reds who’d arranged a few fanzone areas. It was great to speak to most of these fans who were so excited to speak about past games and former players; for all of them it was the first opportunity they’d had to see United live given the tough visa restrictions to travel to the UK, so it was a shame that not all of them managed to get hold of a ticket. Our 15 euro match ticket was great value but the local touts were having a field day charging hundreds to these desperate fans. Quite a few of the reds we were with did get in touch with United to see what they could do for those that had missed out, and hopefully they all get another chance for future European away games.
The walk to the ground was one of the more pleasant (anything beats being ambushed in Ukraine) with the sun setting over the city as we wandered up the river. Security was pretty on top, not a surprise given all the recent tightening up at these kind of events, and a few locals looked as though they’d been turned away for using fake tickets – hopefully not having paid too much for them. The ground wasn’t the largest, around 33k but slightly reduced for our match. United had sold about 3,000 tickets, Madrid’s end looked smaller at around 1,000, whilst the remaining 25k+ were with UEFA sponsors and the ‘neutral fans’ section. I’m not sure quite how many tickets were up for grabs in this lottery but we were told there was over 100k applications meaning a lot of locals did miss out.
There was a bit of an opening ceremony with local Macedonian dancers and flag bearers, something that’s becoming more common at these kind of games – as if finals need any more build up! United lined up with new signings Matic and Lukaku but it was staggering to see how far ahead Real Madrid were in terms of quality and sharpness, quickly going 1-0 up in the first half and hitting the bar twice either side of a 2nd goal. We could have easily been well beaten but managed a consolation goal through Lukaku, coming close to an equaliser through Rashford too. Madrid were clear winners but there was still a good atmosphere within the United end, with the team clearly coming together now and an exciting season ahead, and finished with an unreserved cheer for old boy Ronaldo who made a cameo for the last 10 minutes.
A touch and go journey back through the border control and a slight scare when twice as many people turned up for our bus (before a second eventually turned up) but we made it back, over 3,000 miles travelled by the time we touched back down in Manchester. Eastern Europe is always a great place to go, the time and costs involved in getting to some of the more remote countries is usually worth it for the cheap food & drink and lesser known cities, whilst a rare August game on the continent meant we got the best of the summer weather too – even if 40 degree heat meant that sitting in the sun really was a bad idea.
Meeting overseas United fans whilst away is something I’ve rarely done too, aside from the Moscow reds who hosted us a few years ago. It really did add something to the trip just to share stories about watching past games with them. Though it would have been great to start the season with a win and another bit of silverware, losing to the world’s best isn’t too disappointing. It sets a benchmark for where we really need to be, certainly with a season back in the Champions League which we really ought to be competing for. Hopefully another season of more top travels ahead.
Total travel costs: £259
Miles travelled: 3,096
Accommodation: £36/night (twin room – £18pp)
Match ticket: €15 (£13)
Average cost of pint: £1.50
United allocation: 3,000 (est.)
Result: Real Madrid 2: United 1
Match played 08/08/17