SL Benfica – Estádio da Luz

The date was Sunday 4th July 2004 and the stage was the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. The eyes of Europe were on Lisbon as the newly constructed Estádio da Luz hosted the final of Euro 2004. It looked set to be a fairy tale for the Iberian nation, winning the competition on home soil but minnows Greece famously ruined the party. Already a firm fan-favourite at The Reebok, Stelios Giannakopoulos further endeared himself to Bolton supporters when straight after picking up his winners medal, he brought his young son on to the pitch sporting Wanderers colours for all to see.

Stelios is a legend. He played in my first ever Bolton match and he is the only player to have featured at the European Championships while on the Whites’ books. 15 years later, it was time for two more Trotters to make the pilgrimage to a stadium that Alan Partridge would undoubtedly refer to as an ‘absolute scorcher’.

This trip fell in my October half-term. Adam and I had wanted to get away to do a couple of matches and Portugal seemed the only logical choice, with three matches taking place in the Champions League and Europa League that week. A collection of things went horribly wrong during our trip. It seemed to be one problem after another. To provide you with a small glimpse these issues included; Adam tumbling down a set of stairs at Lisbon Cathedral, getting locked out of our apartment, losing the electricity supply for 24 hours and the pinnacle was missing our coach back from Porto resulting in the most expensive Uber trip my circle of friends had ever seen. My bank account still has the battle scars to this day. I did get a great rating off Paulo though.

Personally, my ideal trip would have been staying in Lisbon for the week taking in the two matches at Benfica and Sporting before heading home. Adam, however, has a soft spot for Rangers and wanted to get to their match in Porto which was a 200 mile trip north of the capital. Despite all the chaos, it was still a great trip and I found true happiness underneath a motorway flyover downing a pint of sangria.

Now, before I get into what we did on our trip. I have to address one of the biggest misconceptions in football. It has blighted pub football chatter for years whenever the mention of Benfica occurs. We’ve all seen one of those ‘know it alls’ who stands at the bar, in his dusty work overalls, with a pint of Carling in his hand. “Bet you didn’t know that Sunderland’s stadium is named after Benfica’s?” is one of their favourite lines. Well, it actually isn’t (apparently) and it is in fact one of the most fabricated lies in stadium trivia.

Sunderland’s old chairman Bob Murray kindly explained, in a roundabout way, that ‘The Estadio de Luz in Portugal isn’t the Stadium of Light, it is named after the area – Luz. It’s like, say, Elland Road or Old Trafford. We are the only club whose stadium has that name, and it was because of the history of the region that I named it.’

Now with that crystal clear knowledge, we set off to Lisbon, Europe’s most western capital city that is famous for it’s steep hills, cobbled streets and yellow trams. Our flight from Manchester was with TAP, the Portuguese airline, and they were happy to hand out free booze to all the football fans who were on the flight which was kind of them. Our AirBnB was slightly to the north of the city centre, a few minutes walk from São Bento Palace which is the seat of the Portuguese parliament. The taxi driver who picked us up from the airport probably gave us too much of a tour of the city, driving us down the coastal road and then through the centre.

The city itself is beautiful, with large parts of it being constructed after the 1755 earthquake. We managed to see most of the sights during our time there with my favourite area being the old streets hidden up the hill behind the Cathedral. From there you could get panoramic views of the city while enjoying a bottle of Super Bock. Also a place I really enjoyed was the TimeOut Market, down on the river front at Cais do Sodré. The gargantuan food hall offered lots of local dishes along with food from across the world. I had never seen anything quite like it.

We even managed to have a wander over to Sporting Lisbon before we went to the match at Benfica. It’s around a 40 minute walk in between the two stadiums but Sporting’s stadium the Jose Alvalade was encased amongst various main roads and dual carriageways, so we scrapped that idea and caught the tram across to the Estadio Sport Lisboa e Benfica, to give it the full title. Even around three hours before kick off, there were lots of fans scattered around drinking which meant we had plenty of time to relax and take in the atmosphere.

This is a stadium which has held countless international fixtures, essentially being regarded as the national stadium of Portugal. As I alluded to before, it held the EURO 2004 final as well as the 2014 Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. But my word, what an absolute pain in the arse it is to access. Over a dual carriageway, underneath another one and then up a slip road that curved around before trudging through the large car park. The whole thing just didn’t feel planned out at all for such a brand new build.

Features such as having the club shop in some form of cylindrical supermarket, operating in a one way system were just odd. Fan areas with hardly anything to do seemed ridiculous and lazy. To top it all off, you couldn’t even walk fully around the stadium either. Having almost been knocked out by the club’s famous eagle as it was carried out of an emergency exit we wandered back around and decided to sup a pint next to the Eusebio statue. Here we did a spot of people watching for half an hour or so, admiring the different poses that the locals were having with the bronze version of the football legend. After much consideration, I went for the classic ‘sit on the ball pose’ and improvised with a point of the finger. Nailed it.

The wind was beginning to pick up a bit and as we were about the only people in shorts, we decided to head back down towards the metro station where there seemed to be a few more places to drink and shelter.

On one side of the road was a shopping centre, where some fans chose to drink out of bottles and cans that they had brought along with them. On the other side is where we headed, deep underneath the flyover of the motorway where some strange looking characters were hanging out. A plethora of food trailers kept us all fed and provided lots of drinking opportunities. I got so carried away while ordering a bifana – which is a grilled pork-steak sandwich – that I also thought it would be a great idea to order a pint of sangria.

Looking around the underpass I appeared to be the only having a full pint of the stuff. I decided the best way to approach the situation was to win the battle psychologically by pretending I was stood in a Wetherspoons downing a pint of dark fruits. It did the trick. The gaggle of Lyon supporters who were stood by us definitely sussed that I wasn’t Portuguese or French though, stood there in my shorts downing pints of wine.

I was having a blast under the motorway but as the sun began to set it was time to embark on the walk back up to the Stadium of Light. A few years ago, French newspaper L’Equipe revealed it as Europe’s ‘most beautiful’ and once inside it was clear why. Back in 2003, when it was opened it would have been state of the art with no other structure quite like it. Many admirers soon gathered, so much so that Arsenal employed the same set of designers to create The Emirates which is why the two are so similar.

Passing under the large, imposing statue of the eagle with it’s wings spread, we entered the stadium and hiked up to the very top of the stand behind the goal. The view was spectacular and our tickets cost only €20 each; it costs more to watch Bolton v Accrington.

Once the clubs pet eagle had flown around the stadium it was a dream start for Benfica. Rafa Silva grabbed a goal in the fourth minute before going off moments later with an injury. With their main attacking threat off the pitch, the Portuguese struggled a bit but fortunately for them Lyon didn’t offer much in the way of attack.

That was until former Man United striker Memphis Depay volleyed in the equaliser at the far post in the 70th minute. Benfica then went for the visitors and hit the post in the 85th minute.

Just as the match looked to be fizzling out for a draw, which would have all but finished Benfica’s hopes of progressing out of the Group Stage, they were gifted a winner by Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.

With time and space, Lopes, who has actually been selected as Portugal’s goalkeeper on a number of occasions, threw the ball straight to his fellow countryman Pizzi who hit it back first time and into the back of the net. The Estádio da Luz erupted. The stands were shaking and most were rubbing their eyes, wondering what on earth had just happened. It’s well worth a watch if you have a minute.

Leaving the ground was a complete and utter omnishambles. With huge international stadiums, foot traffic should simply flow out and take you towards transport links or the local district as quickly and easily as possible. It took a good 20 minutes to even leave the perimeter of the ground. This of course wasted precious drinking time. I am a huge advocate of everything being measured in drinking time by the way. Just like relationships should be measured in football seasons or managerial reigns depending on what mood you’re in. For example, I was with one of my ex-girlfriends for just over two years which when compared to a managerial reign is the same time duration as Gary Megson spent at Bolton or Neil Warnock’s spell at QPR.

Once we did finally escape the clutches of the stadium and hopped on to the metro system we headed to a bar called ‘Park’ which had been recommended to me by a couple of people. My girlfriend, Chloe (who I have been with for half a season) had been the year previously and had described it as “A bar on top of a really rough car park which you can only get up through a lift which is difficult to find.” The challenge, as I saw it, was duly accepted and we arrived at a rather dark and quiet multi-storey car park.

A man, who I hoped was a car park attendant and not a drug dealer, nodded at us and pointed towards the corner of a parking space, where there was a doorway. The door was plastered in stickers and grafitti. Cautiously, we edged forward and made our way into an opening where there was indeed a lift. Again, this was plastered with stickers and slogans and stunk of bleach and disinfectant (the Yates smell back home).

We ascended to the top level available on the buttons and we were surprised to end up on just another level of the car park, surrounded by more vehicles. In all good crime thrillers, whenever they end up in a car park the action always happens on the very top floor. These top floors are inaccessible unless you walk up the ramp itself. Adam by this point was becoming concerned and he left me to venture around the corner on my own.

If you persevere you will be rewarded. As I carried on walking up the ramp I could hear a distant thudding. I approached an industrial sized plastic screen that resembled the entrance of an abattoir. We had arrived but we still had no idea what was going to lie in wait past the two burly looking bouncers who appeared to be keeping more than a watchful eye over one of Lisbon’s better kept secrets.

It had different levels in this bar. A DJ was playing a set to himself near the door, while a group of women sat in a booth in the corner drinking wine. The long bar had some annoying Americans downing beer, all trying to be louder than the other; like they tend to do on their breaks in Europe. Past the bar, we came to the very top of the car park. It was an open terrace that overlooked the city and it was brilliant. In the near distance was the Ponte 25 de Abril which is the iconic bridge which stretches over the Tagus River.

The visit to Park really was a highlight of the trip for me so I thought I’d have a browse through TripAdvisor to see what other people had to say about the place. Of course, there’s no pleasing everybody. “Had expected something amazing and tbf, the weather was grey and blowy, but it didn’t shine or twinkle or sparkle in anyway, it really was just seats set out on top of a multi storey car park.” Not my words but the words of Ruth from Royal Tunbridge Wells. 

Following a long day walking up and down the many hills of the city, it was time to head back to the apartment. When we arrived, the door simply would not open. Now, to picture the scene you’ll really need to concentrate on the next bits.

Two large wooden doors next to one another at the top of three flights of stairs in a Portuguese apartment block. Both were owned by the same AirBnB host. While the one on the left simply housed guests, we were in the one on the right sharing a kitchen and bathrrom with an old Spanish bloke who didn’t speak a word of English.

He wasn’t best pleased (to put it politely) when we were banging incessantly on the door as our key just wouldn’t turn. Our mobiles were both dead, meaning we couldn’t message or ring our host. By now, all of the noise had clearly startled two Hungarian girls who were staying next door. One emerged, with a towel wrapped around her head after just vacating the shower. In trying to explain to them what was going on, they had to decide whether we were having them on or not.  After a while, they used their common sense and managed to get hold of the host and I was able to show him the door not opening via FaceTime.

So, by this point I had a Portuguese bloke shouting at me on the phone. A Spanish pensioner shouting at me from behind the door. Adam moaning he was tired. Two scared Hungarian girls in their pyjamas and then to add to the fun three guests from Belarus turned up to add to our Eurovision party. The lad in the group, who worked for BATE Borisov, decided that rather than trying to help he would tell me the full story of how he was refused entrance into the UK a couple of months beforehand. It was like I was responsible for our immigration policy. He then proceeded to head to bed, or to watch some ice hockey on his laptop perhaps.

Around an hour had passed by the time Pedro finally arrived at the scene of what now was resembling a United Nations meeting. He pulled out his key, turned it and opened the door. It all looked too simple. Slamming around like the Incredible Hulk, he went to blast the Spanish man who, it is claimed, had turned the lock “too many times” causing it to jam. If it was indeed the Spaniards fault, Pedro had a funny way of showing it as he really was not happy with us two.

Moments later and no sooner had we got into bed, the electrics in the apartment blew. Adam suggested that we should message our host to inform him. I opted not to; turned over and hoped that everything would be back on by the time we woke up in the morning for our trip to FC Porto v Rangers. Would that go to plan? Of course not.

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