My summer of love for the beautiful game

In last month’s excellent When Saturday Comes, Phil Town writes about the legacy of Euro2004 in Portugal.  In the article he explores in brief what has happened to the stadiums used for the competition and how today 40% are basically white elephants or millstones around the respective club’s necks.

In our eyes 2004 was the finest tournament we have ever attended.  We had fond memories of South Korea in 2002, and Germany in 2006 was everything you expected from the Germans, but 2004 beat all of them hands down for various reasons.  During the course of the tournament we managed to squeeze in twelve games in nine of the venues, met Anders Frisk (the Swedish referee), played a 100 v 3 football match with Portuguese fans, shared a sun bed with Sepp Blatter’s number two (a person not something left in a toilet), gatecrashed the biggest meat-fest known to man, and hit a ball harder than Roberto Carlos.  There wasn’t one day where something extraordinary didn’t happen.

But it was very clear back in 2004 at the tournament that some of the stadiums, whilst looking absolutely out of this world, would sit almost empty after the tournament.  Prior to the final group game in Leiria I climbed to the top of the Castle Hill overlooking the ground to get a view of the town.  In the middle of my eyeline was the stadium, the Stadium Dr Magalhães Pessoa.  We saw Croatia v France in the stadium, thanks to a free complimentary corporate ticket given to us by a suntanned young lady at our 5 star hotel.  “I really cannot be bothered with all this football” She told us as she sipped another cocktail.  The ticket bore the name of her “boyfriend’s” company on (no names but it was “Priceless”), and you got the distinct impression she was looking forward to the attention of one of the waiters for the afternoon whilst her beau was at the game. With the money we saved on not buying it from an official source we went straight and put our cash on a Croatia. The 30,000 all seater stadium cost the town over €50m and is one of the best looking you will see in Europe.  But with only 50,000 people living in the town, and a club who averaged just 2,500 surely this was just a folly?

“Time can never mend, the careless whispers of an old friend” as George Michael once famously said.  UD Leiria saw little point in playing in front of Miguel, Manos and their dog Pedro so up sticks and moved Marinha Grande, down the road where their modest 6,000 seater stadium is a little less “roomy”.  The Pessoa sits empty, awaiting a new owner to love and cherish it.

Leiria’s story is not the only one Simon Bates would be cranking out the “Our Tune” music to.  Fifty kilometres up the road is the coastal town of Aveiro, famed for its tripe, canals but certainly not its football.  Sport Clube Beira-Mar are the local side here and unlike UD Leiria they are still playing in the barren wastelands of the Estádio Municipal on the edge of town.

Our trip here was for the Latvia v Czech Republic game.  The ground is located on the edge of the main road out of town, and with tickets already in pocket for the Germany v Holland game in Porto later in the evening, we figured we could try and sneak in to watch most of this game.  Again, ticket touts trying to offload Corporate seats were plentiful outside the ground a few minutes after kick off and we were soon “Lovin’ it” on the budget of another global brand in the futuristic stadium.  The 30,000 seater stadium officially had 21,000 in attendance on that day but if there was half of that I would be surprised.  The Latvian’s took a surprise first half lead in the swealtering mid-afternoon heat only for the Czech’s to score twice in the second half.

Today the stadium is costing the local council €650,000 to maintain, according to Phil Town and €2.5m in bank repayments.  Even if Beira-Mar charged £50 a ticket for the whole of the season they would not be able to afford the running costs.

In between the towns of Leiria and Aveiro is the university town of Coimbra, which much to the mirth of the English, is pronounced Quim-bra, which hosted just two games in the tournament, hardly justifying the €53m paid out to redevelop the stadium.  Coimbra was our base for most of the tournament, as it was almost halfway between Porto and Lisbon.  It was here that we sat with “Sepp’s” men one afternoon, and discussed the impending financial crisis about to hit AS Parma thanks to collapse of main sponsor Parmalat whilst we sipped Superbock.

On that mega-hot afternoon in June a full house saw England beat the Swiss with ease.  Prior to the game I had met up with a couple of other England fans and was enjoying the atmosphere outside.  Two lovely ladies came up to us and offered us free St George’s Cross bowler hats, sponsored by Loaded magazine.  Just as we reached out for one, two plain clothed policemen jumped out and grabbed the girls, accusing them of unlicenced trading.  With the official sponsors have sole rights to the area around the stadium, the girls Loaded blazoned t-shirts were deemed as “illegal”.  The solution?  Well, 5 seconds of the chant “Get your tits out” the girls obliged, whipping off their tops and handing them over to the policemen and carrying out their way completely topless.

Since the tournament the ground has seen average attendances of less than 5,000. Whilst Associação Académia de Coimbra have kept themselves in the top division, the club can never grow because of the huge millstone around their necks.

The tournament was based in a corridor of around 200 miles from Braga in the north to Lisbon in the south with one exception.  Way down south on the Algarve is the 30,305 capacity Estadio Algarve sitting on the edge of Faro.  Quite why the decision was made to build a brand new stadium at the cost of over €30m in a place that has never supported a top level team is bizarre to say the least.

England fans may remember Ledley King scoring here in one of the first games held at the stadium prior to Euro2004.  Even then, with thousands of fans waiting for nearly an hour after the game to get public transport back to civilisation it could be seen that this was probably the biggest white elephant of the tournament.  Since the championship the stadium has been shared by Sporting Clube Faroese and Louletano Desportes Clube, both who play way down the Portuguese footballing pyramid in front of hundreds rather than thousands of fans.  It is unclear exactly how much the stadium is costing the local municipality on a monthly basis.

Back in the north two stadiums were used in Porto, Portugal’s second city.  The impressive Estádio do Drägo had opened to a great fanfare for Porto next door to their old Antas stadium.  The 50,000 capacity stadium was full to the brim for a number of games in the tournament including the grudge match between Holland and Germany.  With Porto having just captured the Champions League title there was some logic in building such a big stadium.

However, on the other side of town, logic was certainly not on the agenda.  Boavista had been moderately successful in the years prior to the tournament.  In 2001 they won the Portuguese league, and nearly repeated the feat 12 months later.  They also made the second group stages of the Champions League in 2001/02 and the following season made it to the semi-final of the UEFA Cup, narrowly losing to Celtic and denying us an all Porto final in Seville.

However, the rebuilding of their “Bessa” stadium started to impact on the field performance.  The cost of redevelopment spiralled to over €45 million and the club have suffered.  Now playing in the third tier of Portuguese football, the 28,000 capacity stadium is a sparse place these days, with fewer than a couple of thousand in the stands, painfully reminding everyone the dangers of over committing.

It is not all doom and gloom though.  The two new stadiums in Lisbon are not only still magnificent structures some eight years after their completion but have also seen an increase in attendances for Benfica and Sporting respectively.  Ten years ago Sporting Lisbon were playing in the crumbling Alvalade in front of crowds of less than 20,000 (19,001 in season 2000/01).  But the award of Euro2004 meant a new stadium and the new 50,000 Alvalade opened in 2003 at a cost of €104m.  The ground opened with a friendly against Manchester United in August 2003, a game remembered for the performance of a certain 18 year old Cristiano Ronaldo which sealed his €15 deal to the Reds a few weeks later.

The stadium hosted five games in the tournament, and we were lucky enough to see two games.  First up was the thrashing of Bulgaria by Sweden in one of the first games of the tournament which was best remembered for the awful performance of referee Mike Riley (later that evening whilst sitting in the bar of our hotel Swedish referee Anders Fisk came in and wasn’t very complimentary of the performance of his “brother-in-arms”).  We then came back a few weeks later for the quarter final between Greece and France.

Imagine the scene.  You walk into the ground and take your seat.  Next to you is a young English couple.  Him, red faced from too long in the sun.  Her, uninterested in the build up to the game, reading a book.  France’s keeper Fabien Barthez came out to warm up.  As he reached our end the girl stood up and pointed at the Frenchman. “Barthez you complete and utter c#nt”.  And then sat back down.  Her boyfriend didn’t even bat an eyelid.

The other amazing thing we saw at this game (apart from a surprise Greek win) was the presence of a man in black standing on top of the floodlight tower (see right).  If you zoom in far enough you can actually make out a gun on his back.  So now we know why Thierry Henry kept falling over so easily in the latter stages of the game.

The stadium has been well used by Sporting and has co-incided with an upturn in the club’s form.  In 2005, perhaps inspired by the final being on home turf, Sporting reached the final of the UEFA Cup final. Almost all of the 47,000 in the stadium on that night were shocked to see CSKA Moscow run out 3-1 winners.

On the opening weekend of the tournament, The Current Mrs Fuller and I had tickets for England versus France, the opening game to be played at Benfica’s Estádio de Luz.  The stadium was possibly the most impressive build for the tournament and at over €120m, the most expensive.  It replaced the original stadium which held 120,000 at its peak and opened to a capacity crowd for a friendly with Nacional Montivideo in October 2003.  Prior to the game we had been invited to a private event hosted by Carlsberg down in the FansZone in the Expo site.  For two hours we were served more meat that I have ever seen in my life.  Every few minutes another skewer of a different meat would arrive.  If Carlsberg did BBQ’s…oh.

We made our way to the stadium with Frank Lampard senior (as you do) and exited the metro opposite the stadium and were met with chaos. The Portuguese authorities simply could not handle the number of fans arriving at the ground and so made us walk along the edge of the highway (of course they didn’t close the road) before double-backing on ourselves to reach the stadium.  Utter farce.

Two weeks later we were back again for the quarter-final when England played Portugal. Beckham slips, the ball balloons over the bar and the rest is history.  However, our evening was only just starting.    We headed back to our hotel, located on the Marquês Pombal, the huge roundabout at the top of the Avenue da Liberdade.  This was the focal point of the Portuguese’s celebrations.  Hundreds of them, all celebrating a great win.  And we needed to walk through the middle of them.

At first the crowd didn’t move.  And then they started to part. And then a slow clap. A faster rhythm and then back slapping.  A beer is thrust in my hand, a ball appears at out feet and all of a sudden it is England v Portugal all over again.  3 of us versus 100 of them.  But who cares – it was an awesome hour.  Who cares that we lost, we were part of the best night of celebrations we had ever seen.

Memories last forever.  Unfortunately cold hard economic realities take over.  Portugal was a wonderful host of the best tournament I have ever been to.  But what now?  The cold hard facts of the tournament can be felt in the towns of Faro, Aveiro, Leiria and Coimbra.  The future is not bright for these towns and football clubs.

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