It was the day that England had the gall to go Gallic, beating France by playing them at their own, inimitable, crazy-paving game.
I toddled along to my sports pub in Stockholm, arriving half an hour before kick-off to be sure of finding a seat with a good view of the big screen. As I passed the side of the pub, I glanced inside and saw a heaving sea of green and white. The penny dropped: Celtic were playing Rangers.
I took a last, deep drag on my cigarillo, survived a coughing fit and made for the entrance. Gearing myself up to wade through a welter of Fergiespeak, I lunged for a slot next to a bearded kilt at the bar. Pint pulled and tasted, I turned to survey the scene: where was the best place to stand?
Then the next penny dropped: Hammarby! Not Celtic scarves - Hammarby scarves! Yes - local club Hammarby, with their green-and-white colours, were in the semi-finals of Sweden’s bandy championship, and their ground is a stone’s throw from the pub. Their fans were here in force, enjoying a pint before the game.
Bandy? To put it simply, bandy is hockey on ice. It’s not ice hockey - the players don’t wear all that silly protective gear, and it’s not played on a small rink. The pitch is about the size of a football pitch and there are eleven players on each side. It is hockey, adapted to the climate of a country which - until recently - enjoyed long, icy winters.
Bandy has many positive aspects. One is that big money has not taken over: it is still, if you like, the ”people’s game”. And bandy people have a whole ”bandy culture” of their own - not least the bandy briefcase. This briefcase - preferably of the brown, retro variety - traditionally holds all that is needed to brave two hours standing in an open wintry arena, i.e. a thermos filled with coffee and a hip flask filled with hooch. It’s a great Swedish game!
A great Swedish game? No - a great English game! Bandy originated in the Fens, and its rules were formulated in 1891 by C.G. Tebbutt, captain of the Bury Fen Bandy Club, when the National Bandy Association was founded in England. In 1894, Tebbutt visited Stockholm to spread the gospel. Perhaps he took along star player William ”Turkey” Smart, whose surname mirrored his way of skating - hunched forward, arms a-flailing, just like today's players.
Some say that it’s all the fault of a volcano on the other side of the Earth. In 1883, Krakatoa erupted in faraway Indonesia. Its soot and ash polluted the atmosphere, leading to a low-budget version of the Ice Age in Europe. Markets were held on the frozen Thames. The wetlands of the Fens froze, too, and the locals had no choice: if they fancied a game of hockey, they had to play on ice. Anyone for bowls? Oh, sorry - curling!
These days, bandy is big in Scandinavia, Russia and (cue: Borat) Kazakhstan - but hardly anyone knows about the game in its native Fen country. Strange, really, in view of the fact that an English bandy club has won the European Cup - the footy version, that is. The original name of Notts Forest was, apparently, The Nottingham Forest Football and Bandy Club...