Group 'A' for 'Atmosphere' ? Part I - Porto - Late Bottled Vintage

Posted by nige on September 12, 2007, 02:51:14 PM

There's been a bit of a dearth of full-length, front-page Euro away trip reports on RaWK recently.  It was all looking so promising when we had 3 separate full-length accounts of trips to Kiev for the Maccabi match last season, including that luggage-free classic by the young man who once promised to be RaWK's answer to Michael Palin ...but perhaps we've been taking it all a bit for granted lately?  So, all you Euro independent travellers out there, consider this a challenge and get writing !

Anyway, in this 4-part series I'm going to look at the atmospheres of the 4 great port cities in Champions League group 'A' and the atmospheres inside the respective stadia. We'll start with a bit of cheating as I re-hash a report I wrote of a visit to Oporto for Red All Over The Land fanzine after the UEFA Quarter Final in March 2001. I know some of you like reading these old away reports- that's my excuse, anyway. After the match next week we can compare FC Porto's new Dragao stadium atmosphere with their old Antas one described here, and then we'll move on to Beşiktaş for Part II ...

It might be a different stadium, 6½ years on, but it's amazing how little changes - a city disrupted by 'Capital of Culture' roadworks, foot and mouth disease in the news, supporters too pissed to watch the match let alone sing.  Same old story, Euro glory ...

  Late Bottled Vintage (some of us very late indeed)
A diary of 4 days in Portugal

Travelling  independently to these  European aways has its advantages. You don’t get greeted by riot police at the airport and herded around ; you can stay as long as you want, and see the sights, either anonymously  or decked out in your LFC regalia, depending on who you want to talk to and about what; above all, it’s cheaper. To get it cheaper, though, you sometimes have to travel the long way round, and sit in Frankfurt airport, for example, while your mates on the officially-organised Lonsdale, Towns or Barnes  trips are already  in the riverside bars of Oporto. In Frankfurt airport you have to listen to announcements every 5 minutes about having to hand in all British food to customs officials due to the Foot and Mouth epidemic, but because you're not flying directly you don't have to step in a bowl of disinfectant upon arrival like the official trips do !

Anyway the flight  from Frankfurt to  Oporto does have  a lot in common with  an official LFC flight, cos it’s run out of beer due to all the thirsty Dutch troubadours in red and black medieval regalia  who are heading for some sort of event in Oporto, the “European Capital of Culture 2001”.  They could easily be football supporters themselves, covered as they are in  badges from all the different festivals and competitions they’ve performed at… one of them sees my Hillsborough Justice Campaign badge and asks if I’m part of a musical  ensemble myself. I soon enlighten him. I read the Portuguese newspapers on board (can’t speak a word, but I can understand 60% of what I read from Spanish & French), and think how  strange it is to be heading from wet, depressed, foot & mouthy,  railcrashy  England  to wet depressed  Portugal, which the paper tells me is in  a state of national shock, mourning and self-doubt after the  loss of 70 lives  in the bridge  collapse at Castelo de Paiva, just  20 miles up the river from  Oporto. We know how these people must feel, and LFC players and supporters, of all people,  will certainly observe all due  respect tonight.

The paper also shows Robbie Fowler stepping straight off the plane into a  washing-up bowl of disinfectant. The way he has to twist his left leg sideways  to squeeze his shoe into the tiny bowl  makes me hope there were no injuries  before the lads were even out of the airport ! Good job the already-injury-prone-enough Berger or Redknapp haven’t come along for the ride !
The local paper also tells me that four planeloads of “Red Devils” are flying in to support us, which could be interesting (they must have only just got back from United's game at Panathinaikos on Tuesday!) and that the police will do their best to keep “these hooligans” out of the city.  Just as well really, as only 2 or 3  planeloads of Reds are here from Liverpool . Perhaps they intercepted  the Man Utd.  planes before they arrived, because I never saw any at all. Hold on, though, maybe that explains the red & black regalia mentioned above …?

As I wait for the bus at the airport I’m struck  by two of the impressions that will dominate my short stay in Portugal’s second city : non-stop rain and the chaos of construction work everywhere.  As I’ve already mentioned, Porto has been designated “European City of Culture 2001”, and the  injection of Euro-cash means that they are upgrading just about every plaza, square, pavement and carpark in the city. I’ve never seen so many  cobblestones and paving slabs piled up in one place. Whether the EC cash was late or whether the 5 months of non-stop rain has delayed the work I don’t know, but these projects seem very unlikely to all be finished by the time the extra tourists  flock in this summer.  As I say, it seems very much in tune with the present mood of Britain !

All the digging up  of roads means  that most of the city’s traffic lights are out of action. At one point our bus driver takes a short-cut down a steep cobbled hill to avoid gridlocked traffic and gets  the nose of his bus stuck in a pothole in the  flat street at the bottom. Both  Oporto  and Lisbon have lots of steep cobbled hills,  but Lisbon’s trams cope with them a lot better than Oporto’s  buses – even Lisbon’s buses are shorter, to cope with the narrow, hilly streets.

After  a  circuit  around  some of  Oporto’s  gorgeous baroque  buildings  the bus drops me right outside the city-centre McNasty's, from whence, predictably, bevvied-up Liverpudlian  chanting is emerging. As  I get off the bus  and shelter from belting rain in  the porch of this fast food monstrosity, porch  a  fellow Red  moans about  the  weather and the city’s  lack of bars. “What lack  of bars ?” I  am  thinking half an  hour later  as I enjoy a beer down by the river with APB,  Johnny Mac  and the  incredibly inebriated Wirral Brothers (WB#1 & WB#2).

It wasn’t hard to find them, but no thanks to APB himself.  I find a hotel and ring him on his mobile.  £3.30 to talk to someone  on satellite, via the UK, who is  probably standing 800  yards away, but is incapable of telling me  where he is.  He  gives me the name of a street which is not listed on the receptionist’s map. But I’ve guessed exactly where they are so  I call back :
“Andrew. Are you  down by the river ?”
“Cais de Ribeira ?” ( literally “Riverside Quays” )
“Don’t know.”
“Can you see the massive iron bridge from where you are ?”
“No … Nige ….we’re leaving the bar  now anyway ……can  you  call back in 20 minutes ?”
Stuff that. I head  straight for the  bars  of the Cais de  Ribeira, which the guide book says are where it’s at,  and there they are.  Outside a bar,  right under the  massive  iron bridge. The one they couldn't see.  All of them already pretty far gone (they will later blame this near-paralytic state on the weather, too wet to do anything but stay in bars and drink, and especially the Port chasers after every other beer). Wirral Brother #1  is particularly far gone and I’m already thinking he’ll be lucky to be let into the  match, from what I’ve heard of the  local police preparations.

The massive iron bridge - practically invisible as you can see. Mind you, did I mention the rain ?

In the next hour and a quarter I remember 5 bars in the steep winding streets and alleys that climb up from the riverside. 

 I doubt that WB #1 remembers any of them. Luckily  WB#2 is there to help him stagger up the cobbled streets and alleyways of Oporto – he doesn’t want anyone else’s help.  There’s no way I can catch these lads up  now in the drinking stakes, so I make it my personal mission to ensure that WB#1 gets some coffee, and maybe even some food, down his neck. By the 4th bar I succeed, pouring three coffees  into one larger  cup for him, and I also try to order 2 cabs for the ground  for the 5 of us as it’s now 7 o’clock. The bar staff are really helpful  but  Oporto’s rush hour is notorious and in 15 minutes not one cab firm answers the phone. So we head to the central station – there must be taxis there, surely ?? There aren’t, and anyway, by the time I’m  there I’ve lost the  me mates into  yet another side-street bar. I’m standing in the middle of the road trying to flag down the few cabs which pass but either they’re full, or  rushing to a  call, or they don’t want to  crawl through the gridlock  to the stadium, 3 miles away. Or  perhaps they just don’t like the look of this foreign footie fan  (who has even started waving wads of cash at the drivers). So I cover up everything red and only show the Porto scarf thet  I’ve just swapped in bar number three (I think),  but even when I  decide to hide that one too  I am still obviously a footie fan.

When I do eventually get a taxi  to  stop, 2  previously unnoticed Reds fans   emerge from  the shadows and jump in , having the cheek to offer  me  a share  of ‘their’  cab ….  “I can’t, ‘cos I’ve got to go back with a cab for me  4 mates in that bar down there.” So off they drive.
It’s now 7.15. Back to the bar.
“Come ‘ead lads, if you don’t come now you aren’t going to make it.” They reluctantly sup up. When I did eventually find a taxi  I did ask it to double back to look for my 4 mates.  I really  did try to be  loyal  to  this merry bunch of staggering  fellow Wirralians, honest lads I did, but  they had disappeared into the gridlock, presumably in another cab. Mine made good progress for 3 minutes, but with all the traffic lights out of action in  rush hour and  all the roadworks everywhere, we soon came to a halt.  2 anxious-looking Porto supporters waited at a bus stop  and I shouted to them to jump in.  They were thankful, and it was comforting in a way that they were just as stressed as me by it all, as we cursed in different languages, glanced constantly at watches, tapped feet and fingers  nervously, cracked knuckles and bit fingernails  down to the flesh. We didn’t talk about the match. Too tense.

We hit a wider road, and suddenly the canny driver had created his own private fast lane and  was bombing up the centre of the road. Suddenly he was saying “May the best team win”, and the two Porto lads were getting out, shaking me by the hand  and thanking me, as I gave the driver  his £3 tip. We reached the stadium at  precisely kick-off time, 8.05, probably just seconds after the  minutes’ silence that was scheduled  for the victims of the bridge tragedy. I was very disappointed to miss this, as I wanted to pay my respects 
and to be part  of a special moment. I was so pleased to read the next morning how immaculately observed the silence was by all the fans in the stadium (much better indeed, now that I have seen the video, than at  a  Benfica league game I attended in Lisbon  2 days later).

I had to sprint round the stadium to find the Liverpool section, and after passing through various barriers and being thoroughly body-searched  I get  in with about 4 minutes gone.  APB and WB#2 arrive a few minutes later, having come in another  taxi, but without Johnny Mac or WB#1. APB has had his deodorant confiscated on the way in , amongst other things  ! There’s a sticker on every away ticket telling us not to bring in “Umbrellas, fireworks, or any throwable objects” – why not just confiscate our shoes at the airport instead of making us clean them ?  I later found out that Johnny Mac  had  half the contents of his bag confiscated, permanently, including  a  souvenir coffee set, and finally got in after missing half an hour !  A few days later I found out that WB#1  had seen about half the match, but at the time, when nobody else knew what had happened to him,  I was very worried, and  when 2 Irish reds I met in Lisbon told me what had happened to them  during the match at the hands of the police, I was even more concerned -but more about that later. OK, the incredibly inebriated Wirral Brothers have been going to a lot more aways than me for a lot more years, and I suppose they know what they’re doing ....(?)….but lads, try not to get so paralytic on these trips that  your mates can’t even look after you properly, however hard they try.

We go down the front to hang up  APB’s  Monty-Python & Ulster-inspired People’s Front of Judaea flag.  Predictably the “J” of Judaea is already falling off. Letters always fall off APB’s  labour-of-love banners. Which is probably why he usually  sticks  too many ‘L’s in, even in the name  of his own  local, the “Pavillion” !
We end up standing between  some  lads with an “LFC Bootle”  banner  and the lads with the now famous  “Goodison Park closed  due to Foot & Mouth” banner which was given a full 20 seconds on the BBC as half-time drew to a close.

The singing  was disappointing because the   500 or so of us in our 3,500-seat section were so spread out, with banners on seats between us . You got far more singing  in our tiny packed end at Liberec  where 500 had crammed into the seats of 300.

I had been eager to see how  we coped with Porto’s famous 4-3-3 style. Would  Capucho ‘roast’ Jamie Carragher down their right ? Not at all, the much-improved Jamie coped really well, and service to Capucho was often poor. How would Marcus cope with Drulovic, one of the stars of Euro 2000 for me,  on the other wing ?  Well, the little Serb was in very poor form. Deco, the Brazilian in the middle of the park, pulled a lot of strings, but Stevie G.  and Didi  coped well, playing well within themselves. Liverpool ended the game at the Antas stadium the stronger team,  no risks taken, job done, with a definite psychological edge for the return. Nevertheless it was still very strange that none of the above-mentioned, Porto’s three  most creative  players, started the 2nd leg at Anfield – was manager Fernando Santos playing for penalties from the outset ? I don’t think he  will last long, as Porto seem stuck in third place in the league.

Of the  20,000 Porto fans in the 50,000-seater about 2,000 did their best to give the game some atmosphere, but it was obvious that most locals had stayed at home to watch the game on TV. League games here, nearly all live on TV these days, get just 8-10,000, apart from games between the ‘Big Three’ (Benfica, Sporting, Porto).

Our loudest song of the night was probably  “Gérard Houllier”  (unfortunately the  ‘Go West’ version that we now seem to be stuck with, rather than the superior ‘French’ version ) as the players  left the pitch, with Le Prof smiling and waving to us.  During the next half an hour of waiting behind the  best song was “One Step beyond”,  after some wag had performed a perfect version of the whole  Suggs intro, to the bemusement of the onlooking Portuguese riot police. There was no video to watch a la Roma, but the rain had at least finally stopped.

Now comes the tricky bit. At this point, whichever country you’re in,  the police are always programmed just to herd you  onto a bus for the airport …
they won’t let me through the cordon even though  I show them the hotel receipt (I paid up front precisely so I’d have something to show them – this has happened to me before). But as soon as the transport arrives I escape around the back of the coaches, along with a few other sneaky independents. I pass a restaurant, am tempted inside by the sight of good food and various familiar faces –Norwegian Reds and others – and enjoy  a meal  of octopus, salad, chips and rice with two pints for about £8 total.

Another group of reds pops in for a pint but this restaurant is a bit too quiet for them and they manage to  make the staff feel uncomfortable without even trying – try starting with a friendly smile, lads.  They soon leave, asking for directions to “somewhere with lots of girls” in this most traditionally Catholic of Western European countries.

The restaurant  shuts and  my walk to the town centre then  takes me past an internet café, the only one I passed in Oporto or Lisbon. And it’s still open at midnight. So it’s great being able to get on the
Red All Over the Land Forum  - where they’re laughing about the “Goodison” banner - just a couple of hours after the final whistle.

The next morning it’s still  pouring with rain. Plenty of time to hang around reading the Portuguese papers, full of stories about the “Red Devils” visit. “Dragons only draw with Devils” says one. All of the three national sports dailies carry  at least 6 pages of analysis, views and  interviews  about this one match, with lots of action pictures.  One paper tells me there were 6 arrests the  day before the match, after Liverpool fans brawled amongst themselves in their hotel.  Embarrassing … if true.  The biggest selling national newspaper has a picture of Robbie  Fowler  presenting a bunch of flowers  in respect to the dead of the bridge disaster. Another shows Vladi with flowers.

Nearly every café  has the TV on, and nearly every picture is a live report from  beneath the fallen bridge, explaining how many (or how few) bodies have been found – some of them, carried by the swirling River  Douro down through Oporto and way out to sea, have been found off the coast of Northern Spain. The bus itself had been swept away and still  hadn’t been located when I left Portugal. And still the  rain came down.  I walked over a bridge high above the swirling Douro  towards the warehouses of the famous old Port companies : the huge signs above  shouting  “Taylors”, “Cockburns”, “Sandemans” and all those familiar Christmassy names.  A café  owner tells me the same story  Barry Davies mentions on his  match commentary – that even these warehouses may soon be flooded by the river, for the first time in living memory, with  the  ten or so dams up the river and its tributaries in Portugal and Spain all full to capacity.

And I’m getting very wet.  It’s time to get a bus  to  Lisbon, because the news-
paper tells me it’s not raining 23 hours a day there. The Portuguese capital
is almost exactly the same distance from Oporto as London is from  Liverpool, 330 km South. The bus takes 4 hours ( £8 ) the train 3 hours ( £12 ), and both  are more comfortable than their UK equivalents.  But I can’t tell you about the scenery because it lashed down all the way, the bus got steamed up, and it was still lashing down when we got to Lisbon.

But for the rest of my 48 hours in Lisbon it was  spring-like. I saw  traditional
‘Fado’ folk singing performed in  a  restaurant, avoiding the  most touristy places and paying  about £18 in total for another great fish meal, with 2 bottles of wine and the entertainment.  Over  dinner  I get talking to a Railtrack director,
who is holidaying  in Lisbon to get away from the aftermath  of transport disasters at home.  I then sample the backstreet nightlife of the famous “Hill Quarter”.

The next day I visit a beautiful monastery, and then  I only have to walk 200 yards to see my first Portuguese league match, as Belenenses beat Benfica 1-0. These teams were joint 4th and not far behind leaders Boavista (FC Porto’s city rivals), so I’m disappointed by the half-hearted pace and  by the low attendance, with around 10,000 in a  30,000-seater. Plenty of flags, chants and fireworks from the Benfica fans, but somehow it’s still low-key. I think about buying a lovely big red & white Benfica banner to wave at the  Porto fans next Thursday, but then I remember that Souness used to manage this lot … and anyway they were CRAP. Benfica were away today, but one day I hope to return and see them  at home in the Stadium of Light, playing better than this …. and losing to Liverpool.

On a bus, by amazing coincidence, I bump into a lass I met last year in Leeds , who I didn’t even know was now teaching English in Lisbon.  Let's call her K. We go for a drink and  another coincidence…  we bump into 2 Irish Reds, working in Lisbon bars, who had gone up to Porto on the night  and bought tickets for the Porto end. But The police hadn’t allowed them in, had confiscated the tickets and kept them in custody during the match. Released shortly before the end, they were then beaten up on the streets by a vanload of young riot police. I saw a black and blue ribcage and some clear  truncheon marks across a back. They have reported the incident to both the British and Irish embassies. Anyway, K shows me some more excellent bars and the evening ends with my inebriated & clumsy attempt to get a bit (ahem) friendlier with her rebuffed without total humiliation (thank you).

Another day looking around Lisbon – and finally some real sunshine !  Back to Oporto on the train, where yes, it’s still raining, and my Liverpool scarf  is getting puzzled looks, as if to say “why are you still here ?”  But I don’t feel unwelcome,  and  while I’m  having my last delicious fish lunch  on  Monday  ( £4  including wine on the ‘bargain lunch’ menu),  I’m actually asked out  by a lovely local waitress who must be a  bit of an anglophile.  The restaurant is mad busy, but she gets her “What’s on in Oporto" magazine out and asks me to come to a gig with her that same evening… all this, and the sun is finally out  - something that someone had told me never happens in Oporto (mind you, he was a Benfica fan) !!!  Ain’t it always the way  when you’re leaving on  a jet plane ….

I tell her I'd have loved to, and enigmatically mutter the the phrase 'ships in the night' as I leave.  I hope she didn't think I said something about 'shits in the night', I'm thinking as I head off for the airport bus, with  the exact same bus driver. And yes, he manages to have another accident in the cobbled backstreets, this time ramming a security van as if executing a perfectly-planned payroll robbery and, after police intervention, he only just delivers us in time for check-in. Late again.

But is there still time to grab some duty free ? Go on then - late, late, late bottled Vintage Port – that’ll do nicely. I fly home with three wishes – that the second leg will be a better game and atmosphere, that we will win, and that please, ……let it be BARCELONA next !!!!

3 out of 3 ain’t bad - see in Barca. Força Liverpool FC  !!

Nige, March 2001
(By the way, I posted this report on the FC Porto Online fans’ forum – both Porto and Benfica fans responded positively, and the Porto fans also praised our atmosphere and  hospitality at the return leg – what a great night it was).

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