Nick’s Barmy Wales Trip in the Baking Baku Heat

18 Jun

The next day was match day no.2 and my final full day in Baku. The kick-off was not until 8pm though, so I had plenty of time. I bought some cigarettes to take home. One of the things I definitely wanted to do before leaving was to try to have a game of backgammon with some of the guys who played around the streets, sitting outside cafes etc. near to my apartment. They also play dominos, but I’m not such a keen dominos player – backgammon has always been my thing.

The only thing was, when I’d passed the various men playing, the version of backgammon they played seemed a lot different. I googled it and this turned out to be called nard. I found a table where they were playing this game. They allowed me to watch, and I tried to pick it up. Two main differences, it seemed, were that players move their pieces in the same direction, rather than in opposite directions as with backgammon, and also, that you can’t “hit” your opponent’s pieces in nard.

Some tea was brought out for the five or six of us, and after a few games, I was allowed to have a go. Immediately they realised I had no idea what I was doing, and my opponent offered to play me at backgammon instead. I realised I was a little rusty, and he won relatively easily. I didn’t especially want to play again, but he invited me to another game. He won this too! I think he even gave me a free move at one point. We had a third game, and I made a really bad mistake. I really was a bit rusty. Even then, I think I was unlucky to lose the third game. I would have been happy to take a 3-0 defeat, but I think finally it was suggested we play for money. I had manat to get rid of, so was happy to do this. I suggested 10 manat, my opponent said 100, but we settled on 20 manat.

We each threw 3/2 to start and each made the same opening move. I then threw a double six, a fantastic throw for your first or second throw, and so finally I was in a game with a clear advantage. I was leading throughout the game, really thinking there was little chance of losing, perhaps even giving him the odd chance here or there. I was thinking in the back of my mind that if I did win, I would not want to take money off him, especially as he’d won the first three games which weren’t for money.

As we were getting close to the bearing off stage though, he wasn’t actually that far behind me. He then threw a double six himself and now the advantage was back in his favour. He completed an unlikely victory, I shook his hand, handed over the 20 manat, finally said my goodbyes, and headed on. I have to say though that in my view the men who sit on street corners in Baku playing dominos and nard at all times of day and night are possibly the coolest men on the planet.

It was still a bit early, but after doing a bit of packing, I thought I might as well now focus on the match. I decided this time that instead of going to the hub, I’d try some pubs in the centre and see how many Turkish fans there were – there were definitely going to be far more Turkish fans for this game than there were Swiss fans for the other match. Even the Turkish president was coming for this one, so it was perceived that Turkey had the home advantage.

Nonetheless, by one of the central squares, I was briefly interviewed by a German blogger who I confidently told I was expecting Wales to win 2-0. He also wanted to film my hat (my other hat, a Stone Roses bucket hat which I’d put some badges on).

I first went to a bar I remembered us drinking at after the Swiss game. There were just three Welsh fans here who, if they were not talking Welsh, were talking nonsense about the so called delta variant, so I decided I wouldn’t stay there long.

I found the Burger House that Steve (Merlin) had recommended. I thought he had said he might make it here himself, but he didn’t show up after all. But it was a good place to relax, have a beer, and watch the passing crowds. Black and white photos of film stars from gangster movies adorned one wall.

After about an hour, I ordered three mini burgers, which came in Wales’ colours of red, white and green! A short while later, three Turkish fans came to put up a flag outside the restaurant. The manager was prepared to allow it, but immediately came out with a Welsh flag to balance things up! This really impressed me and I went out to help him put it up. It was clear that for whatever reason, the manager was definitely siding with Wales and the Turkish fans decided after all that they wouldn’t drink here, though they did leave their flag behind.

I saw a carnival-like procession at one point…I’d stayed at the Burger House for quite a while, not drinking too much, before I eventually moved on, getting a photo with the manager before I left.

I strolled down a street I’d had a drink on before and came across the impressionist again. We had a brief chat and there was a pub he suggested I could have one more beer in before getting a taxi to the ground. He seemed to know just about everyone in Baku, stopping to chat with various people as we walked together. He was dressed in Turkish colours, so I didn’t especially want to be seen with him, but there we go.

At the pub he took me to, there was just a group of about six burly English lads sitting outside. They were not at all friendly with me. They looked like potential trouble makers and as they were all English, I didn’t really want to bother with them. I had a quick drink, then a taxi to the ground.

Things were similar to before; they thieved my lighter once again, we were once again housed in the same section of the ground. One big difference was that there were far more supporters of the opposition side this time of course.

I quickly spotted Richard who had gone to the hub, I got myself a beer, and then also saw Huw and Laura, as well as our Leyton Orient-supporting friend, so me and Rich took our vantage points around there.

It seemed like we had to sing a lot louder to make ourselves heard this time. Me and the Leyton Orient fan (I forget his name) were singing some more old school style chants which no-one was joining in with. I thought we controlled this game quite well, although I was disappointed that Wilson was once again not in the starting line-up (maybe he was being saved as a secret weapon for the Italy game I speculated).

We took the lead through a Ramsey goal and went bonkers of course – the first time we’d had the lead in the tournament. This was a much more polished performance. Bale was awarded a dubious looking penalty which he then managed to miss but this didn’t matter (I sometimes wonder that if players don’t think they deserve the penalty that they then intentionally miss it – unlikely of course). The only thing that was lacking was a goal in front of us Welsh fans at this side of the stadium.

The main song fans were singing in the second half was Yma O Hyd, which is a song I don’t know so well – I know Calon Lan of course, one or two others. A quick google of the translation of this song and I can see why it was fitting “We are here…in spite of everything” (since getting back, I’ve learned that Yma O Hyd is not an old hymn, but is in fact a song that was first released in 1981). Relentlessly this was sung, and then, bam! There was our goal in added time right in front of us and I pelted down to the front, even taking off my shirt! The final whistle was blown, and the songs continued pitch-side. A couple of players brought over their shirts, including Ethan Ampadu, whose girlfriend and mum were in the crowd (I think they had become popular with quite a few of the fans). The party was continuing inside the ground and they weren’t letting us out, not even to use the loo, but nobody minded too much.

It must have been a good half hour before we finally filtered out. While all Wales fans – to my knowledge – had virtual tickets, most Turkish fans had physical tickets, and I did think I’d quite like one of those as a momento. I was lucky enough to find two in good condition as I walked out. I saw some young kids who I’m not sure if they were begging. I thought perhaps one of them might like one of the tickets, but when I offered it to him, he just threw it on the ground. Either he was a Turkey supporter unimpressed with the result, or he just didn’t see the collectable worth of the item. “If you don’t want it, I’ll keep it then!” I said.

They were letting people out in phases to avoid huge crowds, which actually worked quite well. Richard, Laura and Huw were just ahead of me, but we weren’t planning on going drinking tonight, with quite an early start before the plane back to Cardiff.

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  1. majordee


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