FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First newspaper, July 4, 2004
By Chris Hunt



Outside an empty football stadium in Albufeira there are dozens of Dutch fans, dressed from head to toe in orange. It’s the morning after Holland successfully won a penalty shoot-out for the first time in five attempts and their fans are waiting for the players to arrive at training. They don’t know it yet but so pleased is Dick Advocaat at reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2004 that he has given the entire squad the day off.

I talk to an Ajax fan who has followed Holland to every major tournament since 1992. “I came out here before the first game,” he says, “and I won’t go home until Holland go home!” When he’s not listening his wife takes me aside. “He may have gone to every game since 1992 but he has two children now and things are different,” she explains. “I only said he could stay out here this time if he took me to the semi-final.”


Whatever happens to the Dutch in their match against the hosts on Wednesday, this fan will take home at least one fantastic memory that has made the trip unforgettable. “When we played against Latvia the whole crowd was chanting for the Czechs,” he says. “The news had come through that they were beating the Germans and that meant we could go on. It gave me goosebumps.”



Ever since the victory over Spain, Portuguese television has been going football crazy. Well, to be more specific, it has been going PORTUGAL crazy. All day, every day, the schedules are full of middle-of-the-road singers cranking out anthems in praise of the national football team, usually surrounded by attractive thirty-something women waving football scarves!


In this country live football broadcasts feature no half-time or post-match analysis, but on daytime TV you are able to watch endless re-runs of Ricardo’s gloveless penalty save, Darius Vassell’s penalty miss, and Ricardo’s match-winning spot-kick. One thing that you won’t find though is a re-run of Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal. Funny, that!

Mainstream interest in this tournament begins and ends with the Portuguese team. The previous night I spent a fruitless hour wandering around the streets of Belem, a suburb of Lisbon, trying to find a bar to watch the quarter-final between the Czech Republic and Denmark. There seemed little interest in the match and in the end I persuaded the owner of a small patisserie to change channels on his TV so I could watch the second half of the match alone.


Worse still is the fact the Portuguese really only seem to have one chant, which amounts to little more than the repeated singing of ‘Portugal-i-a’ (or, phonetically, ‘Portugal-AYE-EY’), usually by 14-year-old girls who flood the streets after each match looking for a reason to celebrate (bringing along either mum or dad as the designated driver). It remains a mystery to me, but this is no longer about football – celebrating Euro 2004 has become a matter of national pride for the Portuguese.



The semi-finals will soon be upon us and Lisbon is quieter than you would expect. The English are still in Portugal, but in ever-decreasing numbers. I see an ageing Portuguese man approach an England-shirted supporter. The old man apologises for the death, the previous week, of an England fan, a victim of a mugging. He wants the English to know that the death was nothing to do with the Portuguese, nothing to do with football. It is an appreciated gesture.


In Rossio Square a double-take is in order as I pass Sven-Göran Eriksson lookalikey, Dave Newton from Middlesbrough. In the country since England’s quarter-final with Portugal and ticketless, he had concocted an elaborate plan to watch the subsequent matches if England had progressed. “I brought my suit out with me and I was going to try and blag my way in as Sven,” he says. “I’m sure I’d have got in for nothing. I’m sick as a parrot that England got knocked out!”



Lisbon may be filling up with excited Portuguese and Dutch fans ready for this evening’s showdown, but the semi-finals are also an occasion for fans of all nationalities to party. The further you get in a tournament, the more likely it is that the hardcore fans start to become outnumbered by those who bought their tickets either in the unfulfilled expectation of seeing their own team in the semis, or by those who simply wanted to see a fantastic game of football played in sudden-death circumstances.


On the concourse around the Avalade stadium there are Germans, Russians, Swedes, Swiss, English, Japanese and Poles! And that’s not the least of it. I encounter a girl from Belgium dressed in the orange of Holland; three Portuguese Canadians; an Englishman who has flown in from his home in New York just to watch the knockout phase; and a couple of Mexicans, one in a Portugal shirt, one rooting for the Dutch. They all say the same thing – that this is a festival of football best enjoyed by fans of all nations!


After the final whistle, the Portuguese once again fill the city with noise and colour. A Dutch fan sitting by the window of a crowded train is taunted as we pass through every station on the way into the centre of the city – but when you’re dressed from head-to-toe in that shade of orange, there really is nowhere to hide!



The front-page headline of ‘A Bola’, Portugal’s leading football paper, says it all: “SUBLIME”. Daily circulation has doubled since the tournament began and it has become every citizen’s duty to go football mad – even service stations seem to be running out of the collectable discs of the Portuguese team that come free with petrol!

There remains just one potential hurdle ahead that could put a halt to the country’s biggest ever street party planned for just after the final whistle on Sunday – and that’s Greece. Tonight in Porto’s magnificent Dragăo stadium, the Greeks prove once again that they were no flash in the pan, knocking-out favourites the Czech Republic to offer a bizarre deciding tie. The 2004 European Championship Final will be contested between the host nation and the only country to have beaten them in the tournament thus far.


At the post-match press conference journalists go sniffing after a conspiracy theory. They ask Greece’s German coach Otto Rehhagel whether he thinks it is fair to the Portuguese that a fellow German will referee the final. They get more than they bargained for. “I have known Markus Merk since he was 15 years old, so I am hoping he will have a good match,” says Rehhagel with a smile. “But he has always been a very strict with me. He even sent me off to the tribune once, so I don’t think it will be a problem.”


If the Italians were involved, this surely would have prompted a major diplomatic incident, but today the enquiry merely gets lost in translation and peters out.



With Lisbon quiet in the run up to the final, I finally have the mystery of the Portuguese explained to me. On arriving in the country, my landlord Joao was the first local that I got to know – and I admit to being surprised that he expressed little interest in the competition, and even less in football. As with his countrymen, Joao has become more passionate about the tournament the further the team has progressed. “In Portugal we have no tradition of celebrating football,” he says. “We go to a game and we walk home – we don’t go out and celebrate. Unlike the English, the Portuguese are not really a nationalistic country. We don’t go out and wave flags.”


The catalyst for change wasn’t, as I had believed, the victory over Spain – it was when the well-known Portuguese political analyst Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa informed the country on Sunday evening television that everyone should be hanging the Portuguese flag from their balconies. Since that gentle prompt, football has given the country a reason to feel proud. “For the Portuguese, this feeling has snowballed,” says Joao. “We got better with each game and the celebrations have got bigger after each game. I wasn’t a football fan but now I have to say I will be as enthusiastic about the final on Sunday as everyone else in Portugal.”



One day from the 31st and final match of Euro 2004 and all topics of conversation seem to be on the same theme: is it good for football that Greece have made it this far? Judging by the reaction on the street, it seems that the answer is a resounding no. But while the attacking play of the Czechs might have made for a far more exciting match, I have still found Greece a fascinating proposition to watch, Georgios Seitardis and Mihalis Kapsis ruthlessly shadowing the world-class French and Czech strike-forces out of the game.


If Greece are not to everyone’s taste, then there seems to be a little snobbishness at play, resentment that one of the minnows of European football has been a success. But isn’t that what we all dream of? Don’t we all want our team overcome the odds with a big-hearted display of team spirit, reaching the final with a glorious last-gasp goal? For the very fact that we all share this dream, then we should be pleased for Greece. Sure, the football would have been more thrilling with the Czechs in the final, and the party will undoubtedly be better if Portugal win, but if Greece confound all predictions and lift the Henri Delaunay trophy, that means there really is hope for us all.


Enjoy the final – and here’s to the next time.





© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007