Tue, Jul 24, 2007 - Page 18 News List

'Groundhoppers' making the most of 07 Asian Cup

AP, PALEMBANG, Indonesia

It's called groundhopping, and even the hobby's followers acknowledge it is a little strange.

"Back home, people used to call us loonies, and perhaps that is an apt description of what we do," said Briton Richard Markiewicz of his obsessive attendance at soccer matches across the globe, not matter how small or poorly attended.

The 48-year-old letter carrier from London is one of scores of groundhoppers ticking off matches at this year's Asian Cup, crisscrossing the region frantically to squeeze in as many as possible in the four host countries - Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Markiewicz doesn't count the number of games he has been to, but says it falls short of the more than 4,000 the hobby's most dedicated enthusiasts claim.

Groundhopping started in the 1960s in England, where attending a match in all 92 major league grounds - or "doing the 92" as it is known - remains its best known challenge, attracting hoppers from all over Europe.

Once that has been done, the real hardcore gravitate to the English lower leagues, of which there are around 10. Grounds in those divisions are often little more than a shed next to field, and attendance's frequently less than 50.

"In the big grounds, you sometimes feel a 'wow' when you go in, but in the small grounds ... it's normally about the friendliness," said fellow Englishman Leo Hoenig, explaining his attraction to the hobby. "You always tend to talk to people there."

Hoenig and Markiewicz made lightening trips to Palembang, a little visited town on Indonesia's Sumatra island, last week to watch Saudi Arabia play Bahrain in a largely deserted Gelora Sriwijaja stadium.

"It is more fun going to watch football in places you have never been before," said Markiewicz, who like many hoppers following the Asian Cup came directly from the Copa America in Venezuela. "It is an adventure, finding your way how to get there."

Like many other hobbies, the Internet has given groundhopping a new lease of life, making it easier to check on games in foreign countries and giving a sense of community to its followers.

"Now I can find out with accuracy and confidence, say, the fixtures in a weekend in Bulgaria," said Hoenig, who has clocked up almost 3,000 matches in 49 countries since his first game at the age of 15.

The 48-year-old engineer said he travels each week in search of new grounds. When the Asian Cup ends on Sunday, he will go to the tiny Sultinate of Brunei to attend league matches there before returning to England.

Like many hoppers, he is a collector of ticket stubs and programs. If no team list is provided, he will ask officials for a handwritten record of the starting lineups.

"I have quite an understanding wife, who happens to work a lot in a different country to me," said Hoenig, who has no children.

"There is maybe one weekend where I might go out with my wife, and not do a football match, but that is fairly rare," he said.

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