The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Welcome the “Big Lady” and the tractor factory!

Posted by steigs on August 28, 2008

Today saw the draw for the group stage of the Champions League.   Lots of familiar characters.  Soccer fans are familiar with the “Old Lady” — Juventus of Serie A, who are back in the competition after a couple of seasons on the sidelines due to that little match-fixing indiscretion.  Well, it’s time to meet the “Big Lady,” first-time participants Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus.  A true minnow, this team, which qualified by knocking off Olympiakos of Greece, a regular group stage participant, if usually as an also-ran:

Thousands of jubilant fans lined the streets outside Cyprus’s Larnaca airport on Thursday to welcome the team flying back from Athens.

Not exactly how they behave in Liverpool or Madrid when the local side reaches the group stage of the Champions League, is it?  Aside from being small, Cyprus has significant political issues, with the island effectively divided between Turkish and Greek zones.  As a result:

It has effectively been playing in exile since 1974, since its home base of Famagusta was seized by Turkish forces in an invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. The island has been divided since.

Now they’re in a group with Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, and Panathinaikos.  Bet when he took over Inter that Jose Mourinho didn’t expect to taking the team to play in Cyprus!  And if Anorthosis could beat one Greek team, maybe they’ll even be able to take points off of Panathinaikos.

There’s another really interesting minnow in this year’s group stage — BATE Borisov of Belarus.  BATE would stand for “Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electrical,” which sounds a bit like a Soviet Little League team.  Jonthan Wilson, the UK’s reigning expert on Eastern bloc soccer, describes them in the Guardian:

BATE are a club who have been growing ever since they were refounded in 1996. Based originally on the Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electrical Equipment factory, they were promoted in 1998, won the league for the first time in 1999, and have finished outside the top three only once since, winning the title on three further occasions.

They enjoy greater resources than the majority of their domestic rivals – MTZ-RIPO (the team of the Minsk Tractor Factory and youth movement) perhaps excepted – but such things are relative. Their annual budget is only around £1.2m, and their success has been rooted in their focus on youth development. Most notably, BATE’s academy has produced the FK Moskva goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, the Parma forward Vitali Kutuzov, who is on loan at Pisa, and Alexander Hleb.

And now they’re in a group with both Real Madrid and Juventus (along with the potentially more familiar Zenit St. Petersburg)!  I imagine Real Madrid hasn’t played too many other teams of late with a such a recent heritage involving a tractor factory.  Given the unpleasant authoritarian regime ruling Belarus these days, I hope the BATE fans get a chance to really enjoy the visit of the latest edition of the Galacticos.

The other rookie is Cluj of Romania (in the group with Chelsea and Roma).  Aalborg of Denmark (in the group with Manchester United and Celtic) is hardly a regular as well. 

I know people love the Champions League for the big match-ups, such as Real Madrid-Juventus or Chelsea-Roma.  But I’m a sucker for the lesser-known sides, the ones that aren’t so familiar, especially before the knock-out rounds when we all are pretty certain that Real Madrid and Juventus, to name two, are going to qualify.  Give me a minnow looking for that one great day, especially one that I’ve never seen play before.  So…welcome the big lady and the tractor factory!

The fun starts on September 16th when Anorthosis heads up to Bremen and on the 17th when BATE get to take on Real Madrid in Madrid.  Welcome to the big stage, kids, and good luck!

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