FC Porto – Estádio do Dragão

It was 05:30 AM in Lisbon when our alarms went off. The previous night had turned into an absolute shambles but not as much as what was to follow. Having been to Benfica v Lyon, we didn’t get to sleep until the early hours after a Spanish tenant locked us out of our apartment; it must have been something I said. Once we did finally break in, we then managed to blow the electrics. 

I was in no doubt. Things would continue to go wrong. I didn’t know what would happen but I just had a gut feeling. Perhaps I was anxious with my family continuously reminding me of the bad luck I have had on the Iberian peninsula. A missed flight back from Barcelona when I was 18 and strangely enough, being locked out of another apartment in Portugal when I was younger. What follows just adds to it. I’m only now brave enough to share with the world what happened on this fateful night in Porto, for fear of being wound up by my mates. This really is a masterclass in how not to do a European away trip.

Weeks beforehand, I had raised my concerns with Adam over the logistics of this Portuguese double header. It all felt like a bit of a faff. It was my half-term off work and I wanted to just chill out. Getting to and from Porto was my primary concern, with the last train back to the capital departing before the final whistle. We couldn’t stay overnight in Porto as we then wouldn’t be back in Lisbon in time for the flights back to Manchester. Then added on to that was the issue of getting hold of two tickets for the match itself. Personally, even on the morning of the trip I really just wanted to stay where we were and lounge around at Sporting v Rosenborg instead.

With our train tickets to Porto secured the day before, we arrived at Santa Apolónia railway station at 07:00 ready to find some breakfast before the departure soon after. It was pleasant strolling around Portugal’s oldest terminus so early on a Thursday morning. Opposite the main entrance we found a small bar, which would probably struggle to achieve a basic food hygiene certificate back home. This was our last full day in Portugal and by now I was fluent in ordering the coffee. Choice for the morning; a galão which is a large, milky coffee and a Pastéis de Nata which is a Portuguese tart (we had seen plenty of those).

Normally with so much sugar in my system I would be absolutely buzzing. However, it was turning into a nasty habit. The previous morning I dragged Adam out of bed early to visit Pop Cereal Café in the Chiado area of the city. Much deliberation occurred before I scoffed a #7 which consisted of Froot Loops, Rice Krispies, marshmallow, dehydrated strawberries, waffle cookie, ice cream, strawberry syrup and milk. It’s what I like to imagine American’s eat each morning.

This was a football away day, on a Thursday. Of course I was going to make the most of it. Straight on to the train, to the bar, guzzling my way through numerous bottles of white wine which was produced near Braga. Super Bock and Sagres seemed too heavy and irresponsible… plus I needed to pace myself. 

Zooming through the Portuguese countryside, I was eventually joined by another customer in the bar. This made me feel happier as I felt the woman behind the till was beginning to judge me, the sole customer. My new mate, Elliot, was also off to the Rangers match and he had an accent that not only could I understand but instantly recognised. He was from Selby, a town which I know very well as I once completed a teaching placement there.

Numerous bottles of wine had been supped by the time we arrived in Porto, the nations second largest city, just before 11:00. It was slightly overcast as we made the half an hour walk from Campanhã railway station towards the Cathedral, where we assumed there would be things to see and places to drink. Having been talked into going to Porto against my will, Adam was kind enough to let me visit (tick off) the Hard Rock Cafe on the proviso that we then headed down to Praça Ribeira where the Rangers fans were congregating.

Personally, if I am abroad I do anything I can to avoid spending time with fellow Brits. I much prefer to spend the time down the back streets where the locals hang out, drinking what they drink and having a more chilled out time. You can imagine just how much I enjoyed standing in a square in Portugal for three hours, surrounded by 3,000 Rangers fans singing loyalist songs and stockpiling Super Bock by the crate load. 

The sunshine was threatening to break through, so I treated myself to an Aperol Spritz. I had wanted to sample some Port but they were refusing to sell it to the football fans, which was a major disappointment. I had travelled all the way to Porto and couldn’t actually taste any Port. As I stood by the Duoro River in the shadow of the grand Luís I Bridge I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out on so much that the city had to offer.

I could see various Port cellars on the other side of the river, along with a cable car which stretched across the local district. This new form of transport was finished in 2009, adding on to the metro system which was only opened in 2002. Why were there no fans drinking on the cable cars? They were missing a trick. I knew for a fact I had to come back to the city again sometime and explore properly. I think I’ll try and coincide it with a trip to Boavista, a club which was formed by the English back in 1903.

Meanwhile, back in the square where we were stationed, some new tributaries into the river had formed. With no toilets available, everybody had to head through a dark tunnel next to one of the bars where they could relieve themselves in front of hundreds of others. The only way in and out was to splash through other people’s bodily fluids. Better hygiene practices had been witnessed in livestock markets in Wuhan, China. There was still no sign of any Port.

With around an hour and a half to go until kick off, everybody left the square en masse. It was quite a sight seeing a couple of thousand football fans marching through the cities narrow streets, while the locals stood to the side wondering what was going on. São Bento metro station was our next port of call, where not one single person even attempted to purchase a travel ticket. This unnerved me slightly but then I remembered Northern Rail wouldn’t have their guards waiting to pounce at the other end, threatening me with a criminal record.

We emerged from the Metro system, more by luck than judgement, in the shadow of the Estádio do Dragão. Nowhere around the stadium seemed to sell alcohol, so we ended up traipsing through the shopping centre opposite, up to the top of the food hall and ordering pints of Super Bock from McDonald’s. Rangers fans were staggering in and out of the various clothes shops, generally making a nuisance of themselves.

As we wandered over to the stadium, totally unaware that there would be an issue with our tickets, we were really looking forward to a Europa League match under the lights. I think what made this stadium visit a bit more exciting for the likes of Adam and I is that when FC Porto won the Champions League back in 2004, we were just beginning to understand the importance of the competition. As far as I was aware, at the age of nine, FC Porto were just as big as Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan who had won it the year previous. In that sense, even though they’re not, I’ve always viewed Porto as being a massive club.

You’ll have to stick with me while I explain what happened at the turnstiles. Our tickets were for the home end. After all, I’m not a Rangers fan. If anything, I wanted Porto to win. I even made sure we weren’t in with the more ‘passionate’ Porto fans; just in a normal, boring bit. The tickets were booked weeks beforehand, without a problem. On the off chance that we would encounter any issues though, I thought it would be an extra bit of security to book the tickets with a Spanish address. Luckily, Matt who now lives in Marbella, gave me his and we were all set.

The lights on the scanners turned red, alarms went off and suddenly we were surrounded by stewards. The bloke, who really was a horrible, detestable jobsworth of a man kept telling us to head to go to the away end. We could see already that the away end was full and there was absolutely no chance of getting in there. Quite rightly, we stood our ground and this just angered the clown even further. An hour long stand off then ensued.

Getting absolutely nowhere, we went over to a large group of police who were manning the segregation and they agreed, after a few phone calls and studying our ID’s, that we should be allowed in the home end where our tickets were for. “Come with me. I will take you in,” said one police man quite confidently. We were marched back over to the same turnstile and the man who refused to let us in before began shouting at the police, who in turn started shouting back.

In the midst of a Portuguese argument, we really had no idea if we would get into the match. The silence between Adam and I suggested that we both secretly thought the odds were stacked against us. It was at this point I tried to explain the situation in terms that they may understand, or maybe not. “We are Bolton Wanderers fan, from England,” we explained while showing him our season tickets. “I have no interest in Rangers from Scotland. It is like you going on a holiday to England, buying a ticket for Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao and not being allowed in because you’re Portuguese.”

Eventually, the penny began to drop but they still would not let us in. The police advised that we would be better off heading to the ticket office, before apologising to us for not being able to help. What an odd set up where stewards have more power than the police?

As we walked back out of the gates, past everybody getting into the stadium all I could think of was the Arctic Monkeys song Ritz to Rubble.

And you realize then that it’s finally the time
To walk back past ten-thousand eyes in the line
And you can swap jumpers and make another move
Instilled in your brain, you’ve got something to prove
To all the smirking faces and the boys in black
Why can’t they be pleasant? Why can’t they have a laugh?

The match was about to kick off and we were stood in quite a lengthy queue at the ticket office. Miraculously, out of the 30 or so bodies who were there having issues with tickets all but two of them were from England. The bulk were couples from Carlisle who were simply in Porto for a wedding and decided they may as well have a night out at the football. These lot too turned up to find their tickets had been blocked. A woman, who was in charge of the office seemed genuinely fed up with the whole situation.

We asked the wedding party if we could join on to their group. Not for the wedding of course, just to get into the fortress that was the Estádio do Dragão. Sheer numbers seemed to work in our favour and with her clipboard and FC access-all-areas pass in her possession, the manager waltzed us through the first set of security and then took us to the turnstiles. Of course, she too took us to the exact entrance where our mate the steward was. Perhaps we should have swapped jumpers, like Arctic Monkeys suggested?

She blasted the bloke, in a similar way that the Police had and once again he refused to let us in. Wearing an orange UEFA bib had clearly gone to his head. Having absolutely none of his nonsense, she took her pass, slammed it down on the scanner and told us to enter. With one last assertion of power, he confiscated our tickets but reality soon set in… we were finally in the stadium with only 15 minutes gone! Kick off is overrated anyway.

Keeping a low profile, we sat on the back row of the first section we came across, next to a bloke from Glasgow who had purchased a Porto shirt to help him sneak in. It was only at this point I was able to take in the scene and admire just how stunning the Estádio do Dragão is architecturally. It immediately became one of my favourites. Two large, tiered stands run the length of the pitch on either side while two small structures behind each goal have a floating, translucent roof which allow lots of natural light into the ‘arena’ like build. It has a capacity of over 50,000 but it felt a lot smaller and intimate.

I won’t talk much about the match as I still have to tell you about how we became stranded in Porto. It ended a draw with Rangers surviving a late onslaught from Porto to keep them in second place in the group stage table. Luis Diaz put the hosts in front after 36 minutes, but Alfredo Morelos scored his 10th goal in 11 Europa League games to level before the break.

After the match, we left a few minutes early to ensure we could find the Rangers supporters coaches (of which there were three) heading back to Lisbon. We asked numerous people and all told us to wait outside the exits where the Rangers fans were streaming out from. Half an hour had passed by the time three coaches rocked up. To double check we were getting on the correct coach, I asked the driver and he nodded his head in agreement when I said the word “Lisbon”.

Ten minutes later, just as we were beginning to settle for the journey back, we arrived at Porto Airport… and everybody disembarked. We knew immediately that we had messed up. Time stood still as it dawned on us what we had done. These were coaches for fans who were flying straight back to Glasgow. 

No trains were going back to Lisbon until the morning. No coaches either. The bloke we booked our travel through wasn’t picking up the phone, conveniently. There were spaces on the next flight to Lisbon which was in 40 minutes time but they wouldn’t let us book without our passports, which were at the hotel. The woman at the desk looked at me as if I had two heads when I informed her that you didn’t need a passport for internal flights in the UK.

As I became sidetracked lecturing foreigners on the terms and conditions of British air travel, the Rangers squad walked through the airport to a crazy reception from the travelling supporters. There was so much joy and jubilation going on around us but yet we sat there with our head in our hands, dejected and worrying that we probably wouldn’t even make it back to the capital in time for our flights the next morning.

“Why don’t we try Uber?” came a small, ridiculous thought from the back of the mind. What a stupid suggestion. Who in the right frame of mind would decide to make a 400 mile round trip to drop two football fans off on the other side of a country? Well, Paolo was certainly up for it. Within one minute of us requesting a ride, he had picked us up from the departures ramp at the airport and we were on our way.

He was very excited to see us. You see, Paolo was a part of a WhatsApp group and by the time we had reached the motorway, his phone was “blowing up” as the kids would say. With a big grin on his face he had informed all of his taxi driving mates down in Lisbon that he was coming down for the night. His plan was that after he had dropped us off, he was going to head over to his mates for a few drinks, go out for the night and then drive back the next day. His wife and kids were left at home. He didn’t care. What a bloke.

We hadn’t known Paolo long but he was clearly a man who liked to live life on the edge. I don’t know if it was his spontaneous decision to pick us up and have a night out? His instance on smoking on petrol forecourts or his habit of using his mobile while he drove that gave us that impression. Either way, we enjoyed his company and he enjoyed ours as we made the three hour journey south.

By 01:00 we were back at our apartment and collectively €300 lighter. Much like Alex Sanchez’s £65 million move to Manchester United; it had all been a costly and regretful mistake. The main thing though, that we didn’t think would happen four hours earlier, was that we were back in Lisbon. As long as we got our heads down for three hours, we would make it to the airport in time for our flight back home, which thankfully we did without a problem.

Ever since my trip to Porto, I’ve had a niggling feeling telling me that I need to head back there at some point, to see the place properly. My knowledge of the place just feels very incomplete, almost like I didn’t actually visit. Wine tasting, local food and a match at Boavista is now on my hit list. I just want a more culturally rich experience.

As for FC Porto, I shall never return there. They were more than happy for me to create a club account and then take my money without an issue. They then blocked our tickets, failing to send us an e-mail explaining what they had done. There was no apology and many ticket holders weren’t as lucky as us, missing all of the match, standing outside listening to the atmosphere. They really are a joke of a club. Up the Boavista!

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