The Final Countdown – Running with Champions in Cardiff

Cardiff is always a great place to run, with its gorgeous parks, riverside runs and a superb running community, but it’s an even more interesting place to explore this week.

A massive Gareth Bale banner towers over “Stadiwm Stadium”

A floating football pitch, flags, banners, a massive blue dragon on the castle wall and Gareth Bale looking out at you from pretty much everywhere, you can’t miss the fact that the Champions League is in town.

The city is used to hosting big sporting events, but this is on an epic scale (or scales if you are talking about the dragon).

The word on the street (“y gair ar y stryd” in Welsh) is that this is the biggest event that Cardiff has hosted, and it certainly feels that way when you get out and about.

Make no mistake, it is going to cause traffic chaos all week due to a series of huge road closures and it sounds like everything is going to be disrupted – even the Cardiff parkrun will be on an alternative, alternative course as the usual route and its back-up are both affected.

Cardiff Bus or Paris Saint Germain?

But it’s here and it’s happening and, partly because I didn’t want to drive, I set out on an early morning run to clock up more pre-work miles than I usually would.

Running towards town, the first thing you might spot are the banners on the main roads.

The Women’s CL Final is taking place on Thursday night between Lyon and Paris Saint Germain, and then the Men’s CL Final is on Saturday night between Juventus and Real Madrid.

All four teams are named on the flags on the lamp-posts, along with a healthy sprinkling of red dragons.

The next thing you’ll probably spot are the start of the security measures. With an event of this size and especially in the current climate, these measures are extensive, and the “Ring of Steel” that appeared for the visit of Barack Obama in 2016 is out again.

The blue dragon is protecting the trophy on the castle wall

As you near the centre, you will see some of the fences, barricades and concrete slabs already up and the roadblocks ready to be moved into place too. It’s imposing, it feels unusual and it’s sad that it’s necessary, but hopefully it will help the week pass safely.

Running past the Sophia Gardens cricket ground and into Coopers Field, there are more things to see, with big corporate tents with accompanying fancy toilet blocks and catering facilities settled opposite the Eisteddfod stones.

From there, it’s a short circuit around the castle to see the big blue dragon sitting atop the wall, fiercely protecting the trophy.

Below the dragon, all the teams in this year’s competition are represented on the row of banners, with the faces of Aaron Ramsey, Jamie Vardy, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero among the stars featured.

Representing Real Madrid, the chosen star is, of course, Gareth Bale, who grew up just up the road in Whitchurch and is already a Welsh legend and all-round hero.

The Juventus and Real Madrid logos are on the stadium

Rather fittingly, his banner is over the road from where his new sports bar Elevens has opened just in time to do a roaring trade this week.

Jogging a few steps round the corner, here is Gareth again, with a huge poster adorning the side of the BT Tower next to the Stadium (usually called the Principality Stadium after a local building society, but naming rights were clearly not part of the Champions League package and it temporarily seems to be called “Stadiwm Stadium”).

By now, you are in the heart of Cardiff so you are paying attention to the traffic, and it’s easy to miss lots of the other signs and banners welcoming the eyes of the football world to the city.

It’s worth a quick stop at the stadium itself which is, as ever, a striking sight, especially from the banks of the river, which flows down towards Cardiff Bay. And that’s where I head next.

(As an aside for any non-Cardiffians reading this, the Bay and its barrage is a perfect loop for a marathon training run (as long as you don’t get held up for too long by boats going in and out to the channel), and it’s also a key part of the excellent Cardiff Half each October which is well worth a look).

The floating pitch is just in front of Pierhead and the Senedd

I am getting to the half-way point of my run as I reach the Bay and in Roald Dahl Plass, aka the Oval Basin, to see that the sponsors are really going for it with huge stands/stalls for PS4, Mastercard, BT Sport and more to entertain crowds with netfuls of football-based activity and excitement.

“Get your photo taken in a team line-up”, “Recreate the world’s most famous goals” and “Show how much of a dedicated fan you are”….it’s all a bit bonkers, to be honest, but the kids (and plenty of adults) are going to love it.

The highlight is the floating pitch and it looks brilliant – drifting just off the shore by the Pierhead building and the Senedd (home of the Welsh Assembly), but sadly I cannot stop for a kickabout (and I don’t think the security man would have allowed it either).

There are activities aplenty down in the Bay

I turn and head back into the city, nodding at the Big Gareth poster again on the way.

Then it’s into Bute Park and along the always-pleasant Taff trail, and there are more tents (and teepees!) in Pontcanna Fields – not the corporate ones this time but rows and rows of canvas for a village of people to stay in.

These tents are probably one of the key reasons why parkrun is moving this week, and that’s just one of the smaller details in the mayhem that will come.

The Women’s final is taking place on Thursday night

We have had multiple warnings about how busy everywhere is going to be as Saturday draws closer, and safety and security are the big issues now.

And there endeth the run – I am heading home at the end of nearly nine miles which have flown by because of all the distractions, and I have work to do.

Personally, I am looking forward to going to the Women’s Final on Thursday night and I am bravely predicting a French win in that.

Then let’s see if Gareth Bale is fit to play on Saturday (he’s been injured). It’s his city, and it’s got fairytale written all over it…

Midnight Ramadan Football? Why not!

I like playing football and I knew I wasn’t busy at midnight…

It was a chance to play on a nice big pitch

Recently, I saw an advert for Midnight Ramadan Football, organised by BME Sport Cymru to encourage Muslims to keep active during the holy month of Ramadan, which started on Saturday.

As Ramadan means fasting all through the day, including not drinking water (which is quite handy during exercise), the game is an opportunity to take part in sport during the break in the fast.

BME Sport Cymru aims to make a difference to the inclusion of BME (black and minority ethnic) communities in sport, and this is the first time they have organised the sessions in Cardiff, after seeing it was a popular idea elsewhere in the UK.

On Friday, I got in touch to check that non-Muslims were able to play and Simon at BME Sport Cymru replied straight away. He confirmed that it was absolutely fine and that they had spaces, so I signed up.

Turning up at the House of Sport centre at midnight, I was welcomed by Simon and some of the players. We started warming up and we all got chatting.

Communities from all across the city were represented, including Somali, Congolese, Senegalese, Bangladeshi, Sudanese, Pakistani, Eritrean, Guinean, Yemeni and Chinese, and it was interesting to hear more about how observing Ramadan impacts exercise and  work routines through the month.

But we weren’t there to chat. The warm-up showed that there was plenty of talent on show and piledriving shots were flying in from everywhere – this was going to be a proper game.

We kicked off and, although the others may have just eaten a big meal to break their fast, there was no holding back. It was fast and frantic, and there was no time to be worrying about sleep.

These days, I am used to playing five-a-side on small pitches which stops when the ball goes over head-high, so it was a great change to play nine-a-side on the bigger pitch.

I put some tackles in, chased long balls over the top, got beaten by some ridiculous skills and basically just tried to keep up.

The session flew by and it was thoroughly enjoyable (apart from when I blazed my best chance over the bar), and it was 2am before I knew it. There was food afterwards (watermelon and biryani on offer to all) as the fast started again at 3am.

The sessions are happening again at weekends for the next month, and if you were interested in getting involved, Simon would be delighted to hear from you.

Marathon-training permitting, I hope to get along again – partly because I strongly believe it is so important for communities to interact and sport is a great unifier, but also because I am gutted I missed that chance in front of goal and I would like to put that right.

Thanks to BME Sport Cymru and all the players for the game. Da iawn pawb.

More information and contact details on Twitter at @SportsBme

(I know this post isn’t about running as such, but I did do a lot of running on the pitch)