RACING CLUB DE BLACKHEATH
   
 

Nations linked by a crossbar

by Mark Jones (Independent: 16 August 2003)

The controversial decision to allow England's third goal in the 1966 World Cup final was attributed to a 'Russian linesman'. But he wasn't Russian, he was Azeri - and instantly became a national hero. Mark Jones (accompanied by his Sunday morning team mates) picks up the trail of The Linesman in Baku

The Lancaster Gate pub is heaving. Men with red faces and white T-shirts knock back bottles of Heineken. Women in jeans play pool, there are half-finished plates of chips and half-a-dozen TV screens show Premiership football highlights. It's anywhere in England on a Friday night. But if you take a post-pub stagger from the Lancaster Gate, turn right and walk for 100 yards, you don't trip over a municipal bench or head-butt a red postbox. You walk straight into the Caspian Sea.

The Lancaster Gate pub is heaving. Men with red faces and white T-shirts knock back bottles of Heineken. Women in jeans play pool, there are half-finished plates of chips and half-a-dozen TV screens show Premiership football highlights. It's anywhere in England on a Friday night. But if you take a post-pub stagger from the Lancaster Gate, turn right and walk for 100 yards, you don't trip over a municipal bench or head-butt a red postbox. You walk straight into the Caspian Sea.

The Lancaster Gate is in the centre of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The pub caters for expats (you probably guessed that), mainly oil workers (you maybe worked that out too) and homesick football fans. No surprise there.

Halfway through the evening, I feel a pressing need to tear myself away from the talk of Marmite availability and Bristol City's prospects for promotion. I need information. Upstairs, an Azeri team of footballers is relaxing over beers and celebrating their victory over a touring English team (mine, as it happens). Amid the clinking of bottles, I detach an English-speaking youth from the table. "Ask them this," I shouted over the din. "WHERE CAN I FIND THE LINESMAN?"

Elbows are clutched, urgent conversations had. Finally, there emerges from the scrum a portly man in his fifties. He shakes hands solemnly. "Tomorrow," says my interpreter, "10am. This man is with the Football Association. Big man there. He will take you to The Linesman."

We shook hands again and made the sacred sign that will link our two nations for eternity: a rapid north-to-south-west gesture followed by a slower northwards movement. It is the sign of a football bouncing downwards from a crossbar.

This was the climax of the 2003 Racing Club de Blackheath tour of Georgia and Azerbaijan. It had been one of the most gruelling in memory, especially for a team which considers any player in his thirties to be part of the youth policy. There were five games in seven days. We criss-crossed the Caucasus lands by train and bus in 80F-plus temperatures from the Caspian to the Black Sea and back again. By the last game, we had 10 players left, of which perhaps seven could be called able-bodied. (Luckily, that game was against the Lancaster Gate, and they were as hungover as we were. It finished 2-2).

Hard it was, and hard work it needed to be. In choosing a venue for the annual tour, we see ourselves as freelance international peacebrokers. Where international diplomacy fails, the spirit and philosophy of south London parks football must be given the chance to succeed. We oversaw the breakout of democracy in the former Soviet states (Poland tour, '88), the early days of the newly liberated states (Budapest and Prague, '91) and the first pencil marks on the road map to peace in the Middle East (Lebanon '00).

We have occasionally gone to places normal people go on holiday (Italy '88, Portugal '90, Bordeaux '92). But not often. As tourism trailblazers, we have seen Prague and a couple of new Pragues (Tallinn, '94, Ljubljana, '97), forthcoming hotspots (Krakow '99, St Petersburg '93) and some which, shall we say, are still simmering (Romania '95). We've seen the death of some countries (East Germany, Czechoslovakia) and the birth and rebirth of many others.

There were pressing reasons to visit the Caucasus. As newly independent Soviet nations, they ticked several Blackheath boxes: potentially unstable - yes; plenty of beer - yes; dodgy food - perhaps; middle-aged men who still play football - yes.

And we needed to restore good relations. In the months preceding the tour, the Georgians were heavily fined after crowd trouble during the visit of the Republic of Ireland. As for Azerbaijan, they had been suspended from international football because of a political battle between the football authorities and the government (since resolved, the fuss at one stage threatened Wales's qualification for Euro '04).

It was a groggy Blackheath that emerged on the sunlit terrace of the Hotel Sputnik in the Georgian resort of Batumi. Groggy emerging is something of a Blackheath trademark, but this was a more-than-normally disoriented group of unshaven men with white legs. Two nights before, we'd landed at Baku at 11pm, gone to the hotel bar, slept for five hours, taken a 14-hour bus journey to T'bilisi, then an overnight train to Batumi. The duty-free whisky was gone.

The Sputnik is well up to the standards of Weird Soviet-Era Hotels We Have Known. The architecture, like the name, spoke bravely of dawning space-age optimism; the décor muttered something less complimentary about three decades of the Soviet hospitality industry. The men on the front desk greeted us like KGB agents looking for evidence of recidivism.

But the location is terrific. Misplace a pass in a Sputnik car-park kickabout, and the ball will roll past hillside villas and wooded slopes to an almost tropical seaside town. Batumi is one of those places where the Politburo liked to feel the sand between its fat toes. Today, the place has the post-colonial air: dilapidated grand houses, palm trees, mildew, the sense that the big men with the money and power have moved on. The Soviets left a less picturesque legacy too: huge rusting factories, blind and ugly tombstones of an industrial infrastructure no one even tried to save after the collapse of the economy.

Dinamo Batumi's ground makes our top 10 of Spectacular Pitches On Which We Have Been Soundly Beaten. The shoreside pitch is ringed by mountains, palm trees and more colonial mansions. The Batumi veterans we played strolled around somewhat humorously while we puffed and panted - especially the sweeper, whom we later discovered was a USSR international defender in the Seventies. He fended me off like a heavyweight boxer sparring with an eight-year-old.

Batumi is where Jason and his lads triumphed in the Ancient Greece Golden Fleece Tournament. On the drive back to T'bilisi we saw the mountains where Prometheus was chained, howling to the gods like a manager disputing an offside decision. The Caucasus offer a suitably epic backdrop to a journey that started as a tour and turned into an odyssey.

Next stop was Kutaisi, the legendary home of King Aeetes. His descendants, a bunch of portly bankers and doctors, beat us 1-0 in a game notorious for my rubbish performance in front of goal. I blame the atmosphere. It's hard to concentrate on beating the goalkeeper when a brass band is playing The Best of the West Georgia Hit Parade 1950-75 on the touchline.

Our marvellous hosts put us up in a Chekhovian sanatorium set in overgrown gardens where the fat-toed ones used to go to drink vodka, play snooker and plot the downfall of capitalism. Their strategy now rests in the hands of just one woman, the female caretaker. She looked like a cross between Les Dawson and a KGB official and served the slowest breakfast in recorded history. Every grain of bread was individually toasted. After an hour, we were ready wholeheartedly to embrace the legacy Comrade Stalin (who was born just down the road in Gori): anything to get fed.

The Georgian football lads made up for it that night with a supra for our benefit in a local restaurant. A supra is a feast with speeches. It goes on for about 10 hours. The speeches are hugely entertaining, especially if you don't understand a word and you've spent six hours drinking Georgian wine and brandy. There are a host of important rules associated with the supra, of which I only remember two. Never make a toast with beer - that's for enemies. And don't drink red wine - that's for girls. The blokes get stuck into the hard stuff: the white. We made speeches, sang "You'll Never Walk Alone", tried to do Cossack dancing, fell over, and went back to our sanatorium happy.

T'bilisi is a beautiful city, but knackered. The guidebook tells us the place has been sacked 30 times over the past 1,500 years, but has always been able "to renew itself commercially and culturally". Maybe, but they haven't gotten around to mending the walls yet. There are signs of new Pragueness - our hotel, the bright Hotel Tori for one. The old town is beautiful in a decrepit kind of way. Wandering the streets, you glimpse a sunny Caucasian bohemia. Then you round a corner and another wall has fallen down and there are more child beggars in the ruins.

Baku, by contrast, has been very thoroughly renewed commercially and culturally. There's nothing like huge oil revenues and pricking the strategic interest of the United States to keep your streets and squares in good order.

We did the groggy emerging thing at 7am at the station after a traumatic journey overnight from T'bilisi. There was the normal trauma of being stuck in an un-air-conditioned carriage with locked windows alongside 14 snoring footballers. Then there was the unusual trauma of losing a player at the border because some twit in T'bilisi had failed to stamp hi-s visa properly. The poor bloke had to take a 150-mile taxi ride back to the Georgian capital followed by an internal flight to Azerbaijan. That performance, followed by some intricate footwork in the dodgy nightclubs of Baku (oxymoron, that), was enough to see him stroll the coveted Man of the Tour title.

So it was we found ourselves in the Lancaster Gate, legs weary, livers creaking, our bags weighed down with pirated CDs. Our odyssey was reaching its heroic climax: the meeting with The Linesman.

The next morning, two Mercedes drew up outside our peeling Soviet hotel. Our friend the Football Association man emerged, accompanied by minders in the usual dark suits of the Azeri male; and a cameraman from the local TV station. We were less impressively attired in battered chinos and shirts that still bore the signs of our endeavours at the supra. Our cars swept up the hills above the city, high above the sparkling Caspian Sea. We stopped to buy flowers; then stepped out into the muggy sunlight next to the state cemetery.

Tofik Bakhramov died 10 years ago. He is Azerbaijan's greatest sporting hero; indeed, the national stadium is named after him. Though Azerbaijan has several sporting heroes - one of the teams we played had an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler on the wing (he kept falling over) - none reaches Bakhramov's eminence in this football-crazed nation. For it was Bakhramov who made the most contentious decision in football history, when he ruled that Geoff Hurst's shot in the 1966 World Cup final had rebounded off the bar and over the line. He went down in history as "the Russian linesman" - to desperate footballers, a deus ex machina who will come to your rescue with a dodgy decision. But he wasn't Russian. He was Azeri.

We reverently placed our flowers on his black marble grave while an imam read prayers. If it hadn't been for this man, the world might have been a very different place: no Bobby Moore carried aloft on red-shirted shoulders, no dancing in the June Wembley sunlight, no Baddiel and Skinner songs. We crossed ourselves, made the solemn north-to-south-west sign and wandered back in thoughtful silence to the cars.

Mark Jones is editorial director of 'High Life' magazine

The Lancaster Gate pub is heaving. Men with red faces and white T-shirts knock back bottles of Heineken. Women in jeans play pool, there are half-finished plates of chips and half-a-dozen TV screens show Premiership football highlights. It's anywhere in England on a Friday night. But if you take a post-pub stagger from the Lancaster Gate, turn right and walk for 100 yards, you don't trip over a municipal bench or head-butt a red postbox. You walk straight into the Caspian Sea.

The Lancaster Gate pub is heaving. Men with red faces and white T-shirts knock back bottles of Heineken. Women in jeans play pool, there are half-finished plates of chips and half-a-dozen TV screens show Premiership football highlights. It's anywhere in England on a Friday night. But if you take a post-pub stagger from the Lancaster Gate, turn right and walk for 100 yards, you don't trip over a municipal bench or head-butt a red postbox. You walk straight into the Caspian Sea.

The Lancaster Gate is in the centre of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The pub caters for expats (you probably guessed that), mainly oil workers (you maybe worked that out too) and homesick football fans. No surprise there.

Halfway through the evening, I feel a pressing need to tear myself away from the talk of Marmite availability and Bristol City's prospects for promotion. I need information. Upstairs, an Azeri team of footballers is relaxing over beers and celebrating their victory over a touring English team (mine, as it happens). Amid the clinking of bottles, I detach an English-speaking youth from the table. "Ask them this," I shouted over the din. "WHERE CAN I FIND THE LINESMAN?"

Elbows are clutched, urgent conversations had. Finally, there emerges from the scrum a portly man in his fifties. He shakes hands solemnly. "Tomorrow," says my interpreter, "10am. This man is with the Football Association. Big man there. He will take you to The Linesman."

We shook hands again and made the sacred sign that will link our two nations for eternity: a rapid north-to-south-west gesture followed by a slower northwards movement. It is the sign of a football bouncing downwards from a crossbar.

This was the climax of the 2003 Racing Club de Blackheath tour of Georgia and Azerbaijan. It had been one of the most gruelling in memory, especially for a team which considers any player in his thirties to be part of the youth policy. There were five games in seven days. We criss-crossed the Caucasus lands by train and bus in 80F-plus temperatures from the Caspian to the Black Sea and back again. By the last game, we had 10 players left, of which perhaps seven could be called able-bodied. (Luckily, that game was against the Lancaster Gate, and they were as hungover as we were. It finished 2-2).

Hard it was, and hard work it needed to be. In choosing a venue for the annual tour, we see ourselves as freelance international peacebrokers. Where international diplomacy fails, the spirit and philosophy of south London parks football must be given the chance to succeed. We oversaw the breakout of democracy in the former Soviet states (Poland tour, '88), the early days of the newly liberated states (Budapest and Prague, '91) and the first pencil marks on the road map to peace in the Middle East (Lebanon '00).

We have occasionally gone to places normal people go on holiday (Italy '88, Portugal '90, Bordeaux '92). But not often. As tourism trailblazers, we have seen Prague and a couple of new Pragues (Tallinn, '94, Ljubljana, '97), forthcoming hotspots (Krakow '99, St Petersburg '93) and some which, shall we say, are still simmering (Romania '95). We've seen the death of some countries (East Germany, Czechoslovakia) and the birth and rebirth of many others.

There were pressing reasons to visit the Caucasus. As newly independent Soviet nations, they ticked several Blackheath boxes: potentially unstable - yes; plenty of beer - yes; dodgy food - perhaps; middle-aged men who still play football - yes.

And we needed to restore good relations. In the months preceding the tour, the Georgians were heavily fined after crowd trouble during the visit of the Republic of Ireland. As for Azerbaijan, they had been suspended from international football because of a political battle between the football authorities and the government (since resolved, the fuss at one stage threatened Wales's qualification for Euro '04).

It was a groggy Blackheath that emerged on the sunlit terrace of the Hotel Sputnik in the Georgian resort of Batumi. Groggy emerging is something of a Blackheath trademark, but this was a more-than-normally disoriented group of unshaven men with white legs. Two nights before, we'd landed at Baku at 11pm, gone to the hotel bar, slept for five hours, taken a 14-hour bus journey to T'bilisi, then an overnight train to Batumi. The duty-free whisky was gone.

The Sputnik is well up to the standards of Weird Soviet-Era Hotels We Have Known. The architecture, like the name, spoke bravely of dawning space-age optimism; the décor muttered something less complimentary about three decades of the Soviet hospitality industry. The men on the front desk greeted us like KGB agents looking for evidence of recidivism.

But the location is terrific. Misplace a pass in a Sputnik car-park kickabout, and the ball will roll past hillside villas and wooded slopes to an almost tropical seaside town. Batumi is one of those places where the Politburo liked to feel the sand between its fat toes. Today, the place has the post-colonial air: dilapidated grand houses, palm trees, mildew, the sense that the big men with the money and power have moved on. The Soviets left a less picturesque legacy too: huge rusting factories, blind and ugly tombstones of an industrial infrastructure no one even tried to save after the collapse of the economy.
Dinamo Batumi's ground makes our top 10 of Spectacular Pitches On Which We Have Been Soundly Beaten. The shoreside pitch is ringed by mountains, palm trees and more colonial mansions. The Batumi veterans we played strolled around somewhat humorously while we puffed and panted - especially the sweeper, whom we later discovered was a USSR international defender in the Seventies. He fended me off like a heavyweight boxer sparring with an eight-year-old.

Batumi is where Jason and his lads triumphed in the Ancient Greece Golden Fleece Tournament. On the drive back to T'bilisi we saw the mountains where Prometheus was chained, howling to the gods like a manager disputing an offside decision. The Caucasus offer a suitably epic backdrop to a journey that started as a tour and turned into an odyssey.

Next stop was Kutaisi, the legendary home of King Aeetes. His descendants, a bunch of portly bankers and doctors, beat us 1-0 in a game notorious for my rubbish performance in front of goal. I blame the atmosphere. It's hard to concentrate on beating the goalkeeper when a brass band is playing The Best of the West Georgia Hit Parade 1950-75 on the touchline.

Our marvellous hosts put us up in a Chekhovian sanatorium set in overgrown gardens where the fat-toed ones used to go to drink vodka, play snooker and plot the downfall of capitalism. Their strategy now rests in the hands of just one woman, the female caretaker. She looked like a cross between Les Dawson and a KGB official and served the slowest breakfast in recorded history. Every grain of bread was individually toasted. After an hour, we were ready wholeheartedly to embrace the legacy Comrade Stalin (who was born just down the road in Gori): anything to get fed.

The Georgian football lads made up for it that night with a supra for our benefit in a local restaurant. A supra is a feast with speeches. It goes on for about 10 hours. The speeches are hugely entertaining, especially if you don't understand a word and you've spent six hours drinking Georgian wine and brandy. There are a host of important rules associated with the supra, of which I only remember two. Never make a toast with beer - that's for enemies. And don't drink red wine - that's for girls. The blokes get stuck into the hard stuff: the white. We made speeches, sang "You'll Never Walk Alone", tried to do Cossack dancing, fell over, and went back to our sanatorium happy.

T'bilisi is a beautiful city, but knackered. The guidebook tells us the place has been sacked 30 times over the past 1,500 years, but has always been able "to renew itself commercially and culturally". Maybe, but they haven't gotten around to mending the walls yet. There are signs of new Pragueness - our hotel, the bright Hotel Tori for one. The old town is beautiful in a decrepit kind of way. Wandering the streets, you glimpse a sunny Caucasian bohemia. Then you round a corner and another wall has fallen down and there are more child beggars in the ruins.

Baku, by contrast, has been very thoroughly renewed commercially and culturally. There's nothing like huge oil revenues and pricking the strategic interest of the United States to keep your streets and squares in good order.

We did the groggy emerging thing at 7am at the station after a traumatic journey overnight from T'bilisi. There was the normal trauma of being stuck in an un-air-conditioned carriage with locked windows alongside 14 snoring footballers. Then there was the unusual trauma of losing a player at the border because some twit in T'bilisi had failed to stamp hi-s visa properly. The poor bloke had to take a 150-mile taxi ride back to the Georgian capital followed by an internal flight to Azerbaijan. That performance, followed by some intricate footwork in the dodgy nightclubs of Baku (oxymoron, that), was enough to see him stroll the coveted Man of the Tour title.

So it was we found ourselves in the Lancaster Gate, legs weary, livers creaking, our bags weighed down with pirated CDs. Our odyssey was reaching its heroic climax: the meeting with The Linesman.

The next morning, two Mercedes drew up outside our peeling Soviet hotel. Our friend the Football Association man emerged, accompanied by minders in the usual dark suits of the Azeri male; and a cameraman from the local TV station. We were less impressively attired in battered chinos and shirts that still bore the signs of our endeavours at the supra. Our cars swept up the hills above the city, high above the sparkling Caspian Sea. We stopped to buy flowers; then stepped out into the muggy sunlight next to the state cemetery.

Tofik Bakhramov died 10 years ago. He is Azerbaijan's greatest sporting hero; indeed, the national stadium is named after him. Though Azerbaijan has several sporting heroes - one of the teams we played had an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler on the wing (he kept falling over) - none reaches Bakhramov's eminence in this football-crazed nation. For it was Bakhramov who made the most contentious decision in football history, when he ruled that Geoff Hurst's shot in the 1966 World Cup final had rebounded off the bar and over the line. He went down in history as "the Russian linesman" - to desperate footballers, a deus ex machina who will come to your rescue with a dodgy decision. But he wasn't Russian. He was Azeri.

We reverently placed our flowers on his black marble grave while an imam read prayers. If it hadn't been for this man, the world might have been a very different place: no Bobby Moore carried aloft on red-shirted shoulders, no dancing in the June Wembley sunlight, no Baddiel and Skinner songs. We crossed ourselves, made the solemn north-to-south-west sign and wandered back in thoughtful silence to the cars.

Mark Jones is editorial director of 'High Life' magazine