After UEFA gave me just 5 days notice that I could attend the Europa League final (thanks for that), I decided it made no financial sense in paying nearly £500 for flights for a game that to the neutral had very little interest. And with the added burden of the Queen in town it seemed a security nightmare. So instead I sent Brian Parish and Dagenham Dan Campbell on my behalf.
Now that most of our league seasons have finished, attention turns to the major finals that happen this time every year. Most of the European club attention is focused on the Champions League Final next weekend at Wembley. However, in case any of you didn’t know, the second UEFA competition, the Europa League, had it’s final in Dublin on May 18th.
Just over a decade ago, there were three European competitions to play for. The European Cup morphed into the soon to be bloated Champions League nearly twenty years ago; there was the European Cup Winners Cup, and the UEFA Cup. The Cup Winners Cup was finished with in 1999, when Lazio won the last final at Villa Park, leaving just two competitions to play for. With the expansion of the Champions League to include (in some cases) four teams from the same country, the UEFA Cup started to decrease in importance, with half empty stadiums playing host to teams using barely half their recognised first teams. So, in an attempt to bolster the competition, it was decided that it would become a diet-Champions League, and be renamed. And so, the Europa League was born. The competition even has its own theme music like its bigger brother.
Last season, we had Fulham get all the way to the final in a highly memorable run to Hamburg, where they were beaten by Atletico Madrid. But despite the heroics of Fulham last year, the competition is not particularly highly thought of in an increasingly Premier League centred English media.
This has been re-enforced by the almost complete lack of interest after the English clubs were knocked out in March. Having told people that I was off to Dublin, most have asked why I was going, particularly as two Portuguese clubs had qualified. I just want to attend a European final, but I think I actually got more puzzled looks from people about this one, than I did for the Asian Cup in January.
It almost feels like even the two clubs involved don’t want to be here, although I am certain that this is not the case. It’s probably the luck of the Irish in that, the one year they get to host a European final, the two clubs come from the same country, and that country is in an even worse financial state than they are. On the day of the game, the Irish Independent newspaper reported that Porto had handed back around 2,000 tickets, which would make their official travelling support around 10,000, which is actually still pretty good. Given that the club were European Champions as recently as 2004, I’m not sure if some would have seen this as a step backwards. Still, given that they had won the UEFA Cup the previous year against Celtic, is there anyone backing them to be lifting the Champions League trophy next year in Munich? For Braga, the situation was worse, as the same newspaper reckoned that there would only be around 3,000 travelling.
Of course people have a limit on what they can spend. Travel to football on the continent seems to have got ridiculously expensive over the last few years. I have no figures to back this up, but it’s just the way it seems to me. If people have to tighten their belts, then football, no matter how important to their club will have to go by the wayside.
The other interesting snippet that was reported was that the organisers couldn’t be sure how many of those that had been allocated tickets in the general public ballot would actually turn up. Throughout the day, we heard stories about tickets being available on the day; even the local police, on duty throughout the city for the Queen’s state visit asked us if there were still tickets to be had.
Europa League Final, FC Porto v SC Braga, Dublin Arena
We had booked our flights as soon as we found out that we had been allocated tickets. In fact both myself and Dan had got them, meaning that we had four seats in total. A couple of phone calls later, and the two spares were taken. One was taken by a fellow Dagger, Liam, and the other by Neil Shenton. Us three Daggers would travel from Stansted, and Neil would join us shortly later via Gatwick.
Once we had all got to the hotel, a quick cab ride into the city centre (via several road blocks because of the Queen’s visit), took us to Trinity College, which was actually founded by Queen Victoria, over 100 years ago. From here, it was agreed that we would walk out to one of the fans parks, and with the closest being the Braga version, that was where we headed. After initially being denied entry because we weren’t Braga fans (how did they tell?), we were eventually allowed in, and immediately spent far too much buying various bits of merchandise. Dan went for his programme but was told that there were none available at that moment, but they would be at the stadium. More on that later.
Once we had tried our best to spend the national debt of Ireland on merchandise, we headed back to town, via Temple Bar, so that the other three could have the obligatory pint of Guinness. While there, we were treated to the view of the Royal convoy going past, not once but twice. Honestly, I didn’t think we were there that long, but clearly we must have been.
After leaving, we had a third glimpse of the convoy, and this time we actually managed to spot the Queen. It’s a bit of a bad show, when the first time you see your own nation’s monarch is in another country.
So, after our brush with royalty, and with the wind picking up, we headed out towards the stadium. It’s an impressive arena, although I am still none the wiser as to why they decided to build one stand about a tenth of the size of the rest of it. Because UEFA don’t do stadiums with sponsors names (but if they did…) the Aviva Stadium was renamed the Dublin Arena for the night. The seats spelling out the sponsors was changed, so that it just looked like a series of those slash things that pepper website addresses.
The fears of a half empty stadium were not quite unfounded, although there were quite a few empty seats in the north stand, as well in the Braga section. We had even been asked by some of the police on duty in the city during the day if we knew of any tickets available on the day. I am not sure if you would have been able to just stroll up to the stadium and get in, simply because we had to go through two layers of security, before we could get to the turnstiles.
Having gone our separate ways (myself and Liam were in the south stand, while Dan and Neil were in the west), we went through and headed into the stadium. Normally, you would still be able to purchase any remaining souvenirs or programmes inside the stadium, but because (apparently) of some UEFA rule, this is not permitted. So, having gone into the ground, we now could not get back out to get any of the €7 programmes. Despite the best efforts of the stewards (and they tried) to get programme sellers into the stadium, they were not allowed.
I ventured back to my seat, sent a text message to Dan about this, and sat back down, waiting for the game to begin. The teams warmed up then went back in, before the pre-game festivities could begin, which basically consisted of a big competition logo being unfurled in the centre of the pitch, two huge banners with the two finalists crests on them, and the some small fireworks going off around the centre circle. There was a bit of dancing, and then more banners with the badges of those clubs who hadn’t made it to Dublin. Finally, when this was all over, the teams made their way out, and eventually the game could start.
By the time the game kicked off, there weren’t as many empty seats as expected, and during the second half, the attendance was announced as a reasonable 45391. Still, it’s a strange sight to see what a few thousand empty seats, especially at a European final.
If you saw the game on tv then it wasn’t great, was it? Braga had a decent chance early on, but the shot from Custodio went wide, and that seemed to be about the limit of their attacking. Porto then started to dominate, although given that they had scored seventeen goals in the last two rounds, they weren’t too impressive up front either. Hulk had the first half chance for Porto, a few minutes later, but his shot from a narrow angle went wide as well.
Despite the game not being that good, the half seems to fly past. There are a couple of bookings, but the goalkeepers are not being worked hard enough. Just before half time though, the breakthrough happens; a right wing cross by Guarin finds the tournaments top scorer, Falcao, and his header beats Artur in the Braga goal. Just when it looks as though they are going to hold out, they’ve let one in.
Falcao is engulfed by jubilant team mates. This is his eighteenth goal in the competition, which has beaten the record set by Jurgen Klinsmann in the mid nineties. There is just enough time to announce the additional minute to be played before the whistle goes for half time. First blood to Porto.
Half time is spent on a futile search for the ever elusive programmes, and after negotiating crowded walkways, I find the steward who has been trying to help us out. He has been unsuccessful, but can let me out of the stadium to try and get them. Given it’s taken me most of the interval to just get a couple of blocks along, I decide that I will leave it.
I actually get back to my seat just as the teams emerge. Braga must have had a kick up the backsides, because the first few minutes of the half is spent attacking the Porto goal. There is no breakthrough though, and after about ten minutes, they start to lose the momentum that they were only just starting to build. There follows a few yellow cards, but the game is not really improving overall. As we move into the last twenty minutes, we start to get the normal substitutions, along with another couple of yellow cards.
The board goes up for three additional minutes, and then Braga start to come alive again. The few thousand that are in red and white have a little bit of hope, but as the time runs down, they have a last free kick. By now, the goalkeeper has joined the attack, and even flicks on the ball into the area from the free kick, but it goes nowhere, and it’s the last chance. Almost soon after, the final whistle goes, and Porto have won. Given the lack of attacking in the game, it’s deserved as they did most of it. But given their form in qualifying, I would have expected much more from them than they actually displayed. In the end, Braga were almost exactly like Fulham last year, in that the final was probably a step too far.
We stick around for the presentation, and the confetti that falls on the champions. The Porto fans away to our left celebrate, while the Braga contingent start to stream away in disappointment. Porto will be in the Champions League next season having won the Portuguese league, but will Braga ever reach this stage again?
As we leave the stadium, our priority is to try and meet up with Dan and Neil, and soon the mobiles are out, arranging a suitable meeting point. Then, we get the first of two lucky breaks. Our programme search is over, as there is still a merchandise stall out. We get over, and are fortunate enough to get the amount needed. As we leave, the person behind us is told that the programmes are all sold out.
The next piece of luck is that, having met up with the other two, we manage to get a cab almost straight away from near to the stadium, to save us a walk back into town. Fifteen minutes later, we’re back at the hotel.
General opinion is that, while the game wasn’t the best, we’ve all enjoyed it. Ok, it may not have merited much of a mention in the press, but it’s always a good thing to go to a European final. With no British representative, it meant that we could just go and enjoy the game. And it also means that all four of us will be applying for next year’s final. Anyone fancy Bucharest for next year?