Don's Diary: Having a ball not a bout

September 26, 2003

One thousand "hardcore thugs" are heading to Skopje today to watch England's Euro 2004 qualifier against Macedonia. I cannot speak for the other 999, but I feel slandered by the tabloids' description. Last year, feted for climbing Mount Fuji for The Royal Veterinary College's charity during the Japan-Korea World Cup; today, vilified even by my mother and threatened with a life ban from attending England internationals.

On a clear morning in West London we are told that our flight is delayed due to bad weather. But the plot to keep us away from Skopje is foiled when Austrian Airlines hold our connecting flight in Vienna. After all, there are 50 of us on the plane, a fraction of the 2,000 to 3,000 English fans heading there. The planes were packed today; tomorrow, the daytrippers will arrive by bus and train from Sofia and Thessalonika.

Vlatko, vice-dean of the Skopje Vet School, shows me round the city. He is a contact of a contact whom I emailed in the hope that he could cadge me a ticket for tonight's game. He can't. In fact it's the other way round, but that doesn't stop him becoming the latest recipient of a copy of my college's bicentennial history.

After the tour we are drinking coffee al fresco at one of the many cafés fronting the River Vardar when it kicks off at the next café.

Not the match, but trouble started by a few alcohol-fuelled Macedonian fans. Our waitress, recognising that I am English, brings our bill immediately: she doesn't want her furniture reduced to matchwood.

I buy two seats in the main stand from a ticket-touting taxi driver (300 per cent mark-up but still cheaper than my legitimate ticket for England's home game against Liechtenstein) and watch our 2-1 victory with Vlatko.

Fortunately, the allegedly gun-toting, grenade-throwing homicidal Macedonians resist any temptation to take out their frustrations on me as dodgy refereeing decisions cost their team the match. I bump into Rob, whom I first met on the ascent of Fuji. He is legendary for attending more than 170 consecutive England internationals, a narrow irrational focus that should have marked him out for a career in research.

Someone texts to tell us that we were described as "scum" by a commentator on TV last night. This particularly upsets two of the fans I spend the day with. In the morning, I climb to the Millennium Cross on Mount Vodno with Alan, a Cambridge graduate who plays the church organ and works as finance director for a French multinational. Then I share a cab back to the airport with George, a GP who, apart from watching the game, has spent all his time in Macedonia visiting mosques and monasteries. We share the plane with a grumpy press pack, whose predictions of murder and mayhem have proven wildly inaccurate.

Down to earth when a Higher Education Funding Council for England consultant comes calling, preparing a value-for-money report on a collaborative project.

Email from Vlatko inviting the college to join a Tempus project to help his vet school prepare for European Union entry. The opportunity to return to Macedonia is too good to miss, so I spend the rest of the day enlisting the support of colleagues whose expertise would be valued in Skopje.

Paul Probyn is head of academic development at The Royal Veterinary College.

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