FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First newspaper, June 20, 2004
By Chris Hunt



Lisbon’s central square is rammed full of England fans. It’s come as a sudden culture shock to the Portuguese, who have been slow in waking up to start of Euro 2004, but the locals are finally getting a taste of what hosting a modern football tournament entails. There are England fans everywhere, thousands of them, mostly dressed in the shirts of their country. There are banners too, hundreds of them. Some are well thought out, witty and amusing, while others just advertise the hometown football club or the local pub. ‘Stick Your Vava Voom Up Your Arse’ says one. “It took me days to think of that,” explains its creator. “But I messed it up. I started off the ‘VAVA’ with ‘VV’. I wasn’t concentrating, but I got away with it in the end.”


The banner reflects the mood of the day – the most dominant chant is the steady cry of ‘Thierry Henry, you’re having a laugh!’, creatively adapted from the chorus to ‘Tom Hark’. For others, a fancy banner is the least of their worries – getting hold of the competition’s most sought-after ticket remains the biggest concern. Every street corner has a fan holding a cardboard sign advertising their need for a ticket. The more adventurous just wander from street to street, chanting the same mantra: “Spare ticket? Anyone got a spare ticket?”


I chance upon the three Huddersfield lads who I first met at Stansted Airport. Two of them were already sorted for this game, but for the third, this was his missing ticket, the one he most needed. “I managed to get one – but it was £200,” he says, grimacing at the cash he had to fork out. For lads on a camping budget, the prices mentioned in some newspapers – up to £500 – were out of their price range, but the trick is to shop around and to know where to look, and to never be afraid to ask.


The match itself remains a blur, punctuated by two Zinedine Zidane goals – not the sparks of brilliance that we had been warned against, but the result of a lapse of concentration, of negligent English defending in the dying minutes. On the final whistle a woman seated in front of me is cursing Beckham for having missed the penalty, but most others are just stunned speechless.


Later that evening the atmosphere in the central square is in marked contrast to the pre-match party. Most fans have headed back to their coastal resorts, leaving the city for the few thousand who wander aimlessly about, unable to comprehend exactly what they have just witnessed. It’s quietly bad-tempered and tense, but disappointed looks are the only things thrown at passing French fans tonight.



For some, hurt pride is the hardest thing to come to terms with. On the train back to my apartment the previous night I had sat with some fans heading up the coast to their base in Estoril. The youngest of them was considering what he had just missed out on – a little piece of football history perhaps. “It should have been one of those games where I could have said ‘I was there’,” he bemoaned, “like when we played against Argentina in Japan, or against Germany in Munich.”


“That’ll be us, like the Porkycheesers,” said his older travelling companion, looking at a newspaper front page carrying the story of Portugal’s opening day defeat. “What will our headline be tomorrow? Will it be ‘The Last Chance Saloon!’ again?”

A handful of French fans walked through the carriage – young, quiet and offering no threat. “Here comes the croissant brigade,” the older England fan offered. “What you want son is some Jaffa Cakes!”


It was as if the Jaffa Cake was a centuries’ old rite of passage for every true Englishman, a traditional delicacy not understood by the croissant-chomping French or the sausage-guzzling Germans.


Defeat at football can wake deep-festering inadequacies. This fan’s anti-French rant had little to do with football, it was all about pulling out of Europe, about the UK Independence Party, about anything and everything – but not football.


Thankfully by the morning after the night before, most England fans were waking up to the realisation that the game with France was not a catastrophe of the same order as England’s defeat to Brazil in Shizuoka, or to Argentina in St Etienne – after all, we were still in the tournament and progress to the quarter finals would still be easily achievable. Pride had been hurt, but for England the tournament is a long way from over.



With local television beginning to report on trouble among the English in the Algarve, it comes as something of a surprise for fans elsewhere in the country. Our experience of the tournament has been trouble-free, even Sunday’s game with France passing off without any incident.


Escaping Lisbon for the day, many of England’s travelling army, like QPR fan Dom, head up the coastal train line to resorts like Caiscais to watch Germany’s plum tie with Holland in one of the many bars screening the game with an English commentary – always a big plus when you’re at a tournament abroad! “There was no aggro here at all,” he reported, “just a really good atmosphere with fans of all nationalities. The reason we based ourselves at this end of the country was to keep away from the Algarve – it was obvious that if there was any trouble, that’s where it would be. But the trouble down in Albufeira is just the same kind of stuff we get in England every Saturday night. It’s nothing to do with the football – it’s more Faliraki than football!”



With not that many Russians in Lisbon for their game with the hosts, today was a day that the Portuguese could really take control of the city once again and show Europe how to party. But after registering their first victory of the tournament, the celebrations seemed muted. Of course there were cars driving around the city, horns honking, flags waving, but in the square that England had packed with thousands of fans on Sunday afternoon, stopping the traffic in the process, only a few hundred excited Portuguese now lined the edge of the street to cheer at the trickle of passing cars. Even down in the bar-lined Docas area, Portuguese shirts remained outnumbered by the English, French and Croatians.



The huge travelling England following – and a healthy contingent of Swiss – take to the roads, heading for Coimbra, a small and pleasant university town situated two-thirds of the way from Lisbon to Porto. England’s performance on the pitch is shaky, the players seeming to wilt in the heat, but the fans are more than happy with a 3-0 scoreline.


After the game many head straight out of town again. Accommodation is at a premium in Coimbra, but the few thousand who remain make their way into the old town to watch France’s game with Croatia. At the Euro 2004 Fan Park, people mass in front of the giant screen, distracted occasionally by the celebrating England fans who hurl themselves off a nearby bridge into the Mondego river. It appears as wide as the Thames, but police merely look on, occasionally advising that it might be slightly safer to do it further along the bridge. Soaked fans come out of the water complaining of the strong current, but one still manages to swim the river’s entire width.


In amongst the winding streets of the old town, we take in the game on the slightly smaller screen of the Pandaria Popular Snack Bar. There’s a mix of Portuguese, English, Swiss and Croatian, including one fan who spends part of tonight’s match reminiscing about his trip to Benfica during Derby County’s UEFA Cup run in ’72-73.


After the game, local TV cuts to footage of riot police confronting the English in Albufeira. “Have you seen the rubber bullets? They’ve got them in the shape of mini footballs,” jokes a young England fan. For most, the trouble is so remote, so totally unrelated to their experience of this tournament that they just shake their heads when they see such images. We hear no word-of-mouth tales from the troubles, no first (or even second) hand accounts, with most of the knowledge circulating about events in the Algarve coming back to us from imported English newspapers and phone calls to wives and girlfriends back home who relate the British television line.


“It’s just terrible,” said a voice from the back of the bar. “But how can it be anything to do with the football? We’re watching live pictures, but if they were England fans they’d be in Coimbra, they wouldn’t be in Albufeira. That’s 300 miles away from the football.”



Just a day after I witnessed an Englishman spitting in the direction of a couple of Swiss fans comes the news of Francesco Totti’s three-match ban for gobbing at Christian Poulsen during Italy’s draw with Denmark. Not since Frank Rijkaard’s infamous flob at Rudi Völler during Italia 90 has spitting been so high on the football agenda. I scoured Portugal in search of some of the stars of football to canvass their opinion on the great spitting debate.


Jürgen Klinsmann was an on-pitch witness to the original ‘spat’ between Rijkaard and Völler, but this week the German dive-bomber told me that he would have been lost for words had he ever been gobbed on during a match. “You just don’t know what you would do if something like this happens to you,” he says. “I was happy with the way Rudi Völler reacted in 1990. He got mad but he didn’t get out of control – but you’d never wish to get in a situation like that because maybe you would over-react yourself.”


England’s John Terry knows that in today’s game one thing that you can’t do is over-react. “I’ve never been spat at but, if it happened to me, as a professional footballer you have to deal with it,” he says. “On the pitch you don’t react. You just let the people above you sort it out after the game.”


“Has Totti ever spat at me?” considers David James. “No, no-one has ever done it to me – and if they did I really wouldn’t be very happy about it, but unfortunately I suppose you expect it in football from time to time.”


For his own part, Francesco Totti has had the good grace to apologise, but with the behaviour of fans coming under such scrutiny, with accusations of yob culture gone mad, this week no fan would disagree with UEFA decision to judge players by the same standard.



Holland may be taking on the Czech Republic tonight, but for most England fans the nervous debate has started: how will England do against Croatia on Monday? When you’ve travelled around the world to watch the national team play, there’s an occasional air of reluctance when recalling the inevitability of England’s ultimate failures. But we’re not alone. A Portuguese fan, overhearing such a conversation, puts the whole thing into perspective for us. “It’s not just England. We manage to make things go wrong every time,” he says, “no matter how good our team is. But there can only be one winner every time.”




© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007