Sunday, 9 June 2019

Nations League Finals. 09/06/19

"It's the Amex on steroids"

Switzerland 0-0 England. Estádio D. Afonso Henriques
Sunday 09/06/19. 2pm.
Portugal 1-0 Netherlands. Estádio do Dragão.
Sunday 09/06/19. 7.45pm
When UEFA first announced the creation of the Nations League, many football fans were quick to pour scorn on the idea.

An international competition with promotion and relegation? Playing the same two opponents home and away in quick succession in the group stage? All for a trophy that looked like a giant Mr Whippy ice cream carved out of silver.

It all seemed so pointless. A needless addition forced into the international calendar in place of international friendlies. It wouldn’t be any better than the repetitive cycle of meaningless games with France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands that England went through every few years.

Well, how wrong can you be? As the inaugural Nations League came to a close in the stunning setting of Estádio do Dragão, even the most ardent sceptic towards the format had to admit that it’s been a roaring success.

The third-place playoff and the final were held on the same day, one in Guimarães and the other in Porto, two fantastic cities just over an hour away from each other in northern Portugal. With there being a near-four-hour gap between the first game finishing and the second game kicking off, that presented the tantalising prospect of doing both games. Challenge accepted.

TAP Air Portugal did their best to scupper those plans though. We had been due to fly from Gatwick to Porto on the Friday but due to radar problems, the flight was cancelled. No problem according to our friendly Portuguese carrier – they could still get us to Porto.

We’d just be flying a day later. Oh, and it would now be from Heathrow. And we would first have to go to Lisbon. Where we’d have to wait seven hours for another flight to Porto. Which would arrive at 11pm on Saturday night. Just the whole 24 hours later than originally planned.

That seemed like a worse deal than a no deal Brexit – and speaking of Brexit, now seems like a good time to thank Theresa May for delaying it happening for long enough so that we can attempt to claim compensation from TAP Air thanks to EU rule 261/2004. Losing that right wasn’t written on the side of a bus.

Super Bock and sandwiches in Lisbon Station - this wasn't part of the plan
Unfortunately, there was no other choice and so it was off to Heathrow for a night in a Premier Inn before that flight to Lisbon. Rather than hang around in Lisbon Airport for seven hours, we decided to make our own way to Porto via a three-hour train journey. This was turning into a lot of effort for a third placed playoff with Switzerland.

Wine with a view in the Guindalense Football Club Bar 
Turned out that Porto was worth all the effort that went into travelling there
Porto it turned out was worth the wait. It’s a beautiful city full of stunning architecture and the first bar we stumbled across while exploring had views as good as any I’ve ever visited. It was called Guindalense and was perched precariously above the Douro river, right next to the Luís I Bridge. With the sun setting, the lights of the city starting to shine and a good bottle of red wine costing €4, it was the perfect place to relax after such an eventful journey.

Porto. Plenty of hills
The city itself is famous for its wine and we certainly got through a lot of it - along with the mythical Super Bock which must be one of the best beers in the world. Porto is also famous for the Francesinha, which is pretty much a heart attack waiting to happen in meal form. This local delicacy is a sandwich which contains ham, sausage and steak or beef. It’s topped off with a fried egg and melted cheese and then covered in a thick tomato and beer sauce. Great for the appetite, not so great for the life expectancy. Porto being a city of hills meant it was relatively easy to walk off however, or so I keep telling myself.

The famous Francesinha - aka a heart attack in a meal
When in Rome - Katie shows her support for super Super Bock
That was Saturday night and on Sunday it was game day. Special trains had been laid on from the historic São Bento railway station to Guimarães, a city of 158,000 people an hour and 10 minutes to the north where the Portuguese nation was born in 1128.

If you’ve read some of the more excitable members of the British press, then no doubt you’ll be expecting tales of a warzone. Thousands of English hooligans rampaging through the cobbled streets. The smell of tear gas and pepper spray lingering in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site town centre. Locals scared for their lives, hiding indoors until the massed yobs had finished desecrating their homes.

England's vile supporters enjoy themselves with the locals in Guimarães
The Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward was certainly peddling that myth on Twitter. He described the experience of having England fans playing in their town as “scary” and “vile” for the people who live there.

One of his more dramatic tweets read: “I wouldn't be sorry to see England forfeit and go home, out of consideration for the people of Porto and Guimarães. Failing that, they should stop playing away games until the safety of local people can be guaranteed.”

That couldn’t have been further from our experiences of Portugal. Perhaps Paul should have visited the town square in Guimarães before the Switzerland game. He could have seen the locals who were merrily chatting to and taking photos with the supporters they were apparently running scared of.

Pre-match beers and wine. This would be very much needed given the
standard of football that was to come
He could have met the owner a of Pintado Fresco, a great little bar just off the main square which we chose for pre-game refreshment. Rather than worrying about his safety not being guaranteed, he was drinking with England fans and telling everyone that he was delighted that Gareth Southgate’s side had lost their Thursday night semi-final to the Netherlands. He actually wanted these vile people back in his town and back in his bar drinking €5 pints of Super Bock and €2 glasses of local sparkling white wine because they were such good fun.

That alcohol was much needed as the football wasn’t up to much. Guimarães’ Estádio D. Afonso Henriques was around a 10-minute walk from the city and was neat and tidy, a two tiered affair all the way around. It was a particular delight for us fans of floodlight pylons, with two large columns at the opposite end to the main England section having been built actually in front of the upper tier.

The home of Vitoria Guimarães
Switzerland v England prepares to kick off at Estádio D. Afonso Henriques
The person in front prays for a goal between Switzerland and England.
He wasn't to be answered

The game was played in front of a sparse crowd and you could tell that England’s players in particular were coming off the back of a long season. Neither side really created an opportunity in the first half aside from Harry Kane rattling the woodwork with a fine piece of improvisation.

It had the feel of a pre-season friendly about it, which pretty much confirmed our decision to bail and head back to Porto for the final – tickets for which were still available and only a few clicks away thanks to UEFA issuing them electronically via a special app.

A pretty sparse crowd - but check out those floodlight pylons
Having heard about the public transport nightmare that unfolded after the England - Netherlands game 72 hours previously - which had seen some fans stuck in Guimarães for up to five hours after the final whistle due to a lack of available trains - we left the England game after an hour in order to get back to Porto.

It turned out this wasn’t actually a sacrifice that needed to be made. Some supporters reported staying right the way up to final act of the penalty shootout - Jordan Pickford scoring and then saving to give England victory - and still managed to make the final as on this occasion the trains ran like clockwork.

Given the travel disasters we’d already experienced, that wasn’t a risk we wanted to take. Having also missed the spot kick success over Colombia at last summer’s World Cup in Russia, seeing England win on penalties will have to wait for another day.

The stunning Estádio do Dragão awaits Portugal v Switzerland
The Amex Stadium on steroids...

Estádio do Dragão couldn’t have been more different to Estádio D. Afonso Henriques if it tried. While the ground in Guimarães was a quaint little affair with a homely feel, the home of Porto was a bold and brash stadium which must be one of the most striking in the world.

As a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter, the best way to describe it is as the Amex on steroids. It has the same sweeping arches holding up the roof, but it’s twice the size of its cousin some 1,300 miles away in Sussex.

That roof floats over the vast stands behind each goal which have open backs, providing glorious views over Porto itself. If you are in the right seat in the stadium, you can watch the sun go down in the gap between terrace and roof. It’s a real marvel.

"Can I get a hotdog with, er, crisps on the top please?"

The concourse of Estádio do Dragão offers some pretty nice views over Porto
One of the other criticisms thrown at the Nations League when it was launched was would anybody care about it? Judging by the atmosphere inside Estádio do Dragão, the locals certainly did. Half of the stadium was a sea of red and green. Portugal are going through a golden period at the moment led by the irresistible Cristiano Ronaldo and their 1-0 win means they are now both European Champions and Nations League champions.

For once, it wasn’t Ronaldo who delivered their success on this night but Goncalo Guedes. It was much more entertaining than the earlier game – not that that is saying much – with both sides having chances throughout and the 43,199 in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves.

Ronaldo and company celebrate winning the Nations League
A large proportion of that crowd was made up of England fans who’d brought tickets hoping that it would be the Three Lions in the final. Even though it wasn’t, many turned up anyway. That led to the strange situation whereby an international final between Portugal and the Netherlands was played out to impromptu songs about Harry Maguire drinking vodka and jaeger and a backdrop of flags of St George.

Most of the English in attendance seemed to be siding with the Dutch but I was firmly in the neutral camp, just wanting a good game of football. In the end, that’s what we got. The streets of Porto were bedlam afterwards. Flags out of sunroofs, beeping horns, people singing and dancing. Further proof if it were needed that this new fangled Nations League does matter.

Sadly, we weren’t able to join the party. A 7am departure the following morning to Madrid meant an early night and an attempt to get a significant red wine stain off the wall. That’s one of the dangers that comes when the vino is so good that you leave a glass on your bedside table to drink during the night, only to end up spilling it everywhere in your sleep.

UEFA have already confirmed that the Nations League will return for the 2020-21 season. With Bosnia and Ukraine promoted into England’s League A, the prospect of trips to Sarajevo and Kiev is a very real possibility. It can’t come soon enough. What a tournament.

Third Place Playoff: Estádio D. Afonso Henriques, Guimarães  

Switzerland: Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi, Fabian Schar, Manuel Akanji, Kevin Mbabu, Edimilson Fernandes (Denis Zakaria), Granit Xhaka, Remo Freuler, Ricardo Rodriquez (Josip Drmic), Xherdan Shaqiri (Steven Zuber), Haris Seferovic (Noah Okafor).

England: Jordan Pickford, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Harry Maguie, Joe Gomez, Danny Rose (Kyle Walker), Jesse Lingard (Jadon Sanco), Eric Dier, Fabian Delph (Ross Barkley), Dele Alli, Harry Kane (Callum Wilson), Raheem Sterling.

Attendance: 15,742

Final: Estádio do Dragão, Porto

Portugal: Rui Patricio, Nelson Cabral Semedo, Jose Fonte, Ruben Alves Dias, Raphael Guerreiro, Bruno Fernandes (Joao Moutinho), Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho (Ruben Neves), Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Goncalo Guedes 1 (Rafa Silva).

Netherlands: Jasper Cillessen, Denzel Dumfries, Matthijs de Ligt, Virgil van Dijk, Daley Blind, Marten de Roon (Luuk de Jong), Georginio Wijnaldum, Steven Bergwijn (Donny van de Beek), Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel (Quincy Promes).

Attendance: 43,199

Monday, 15 October 2018

Spain v England. 15/10/18

"If the tapas is this good across Portugal, it isn't hard to see why you'd risk leaving your kids in a hotel room to go out and eat it."

Spain 2-3 England. Estadio Bentio Villamarin.
Monday 15/10/18
Seville was named as Lonely Planet’s number one city to travel to for 2018 and it isn't hard to see why.

It has over 2,200 years of history. It's been a Roman city, a Muslim city and a Christian city with every race or religion that conquered it leaving a deep impression on the modern-day Seville.

The Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe having first been used in the first century. There's an old town to rival anything in Eastern Europe. It's the birthplace of Flamenco and the place from where Christopher Columbus set off to discover the Americas. There's great food, cheap wine and England producing a potential coming-of-age performance in Estadio Benito Villamarin to beat Spain 3-2.

OK, so that last one didn't actually make it into Lonely Planet, but it should've done. In their first away game since the World Cup, Gareth Southgate’s side produced a performance that topped the heights of the summer jaunt to Russia to go second in League A Group 4 of the UEFA Nations League. "We are staying up" as the 3,000 strong England contingent high up in Real Betis’ fantastic stadium sang.

I went into this trip with pretty low expectations given a complete indifference to Spain. I'd visited three times before and been accosted by angry animal rights activists in Barcelona and then pick-pocketed outside the Bernabeu, losing a ticket to the Champions League Quarter Final between Real Madrid and Wolfsburg in the process. For all of Lonely Planet's gushing praise of Seville, perhaps it should simply say, “Seville was a city that made Scott McCarthy actually like Spain.” You won't find much higher praise than that.

You know there isn't much to do in a town when street
signs are directing you to pubs...
With a stadium ban in place for England's trip to Croatia ruling out the prospect of a tantalising Rijeka-Seville double, the trip instead began in Portugal. Faro to be exact, a town of 64,560 people known for it's historic centre, fishing industry and laid-back approach to life. The size of Faro meant there wasn't actually much to do there other than relax, eat fish and drink £10 bottles of locally produced wine which suited us fine.

Nice pint of Super Bock, Portugal's finest

What could've livened things up was some lower league football. For reasons unknown, Portuguese football outside of the Primeira Liga seems to take place exclusively on a Sunday. The local team, SC Farense, play a bit of a hike out of the town centre while Stadium Algarve, which was used in Euro 2004 and has also provided temporary asylum for the Gibraltar National Football team was out of bounds at about 10 miles away. That meant that Faro was a football free zone except for watching the closing stages of Portugal’s away game with Poland in a bar adorned with murals of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Tapas <insert joke about Maddie McCann here>

Clay jug full of a litre of wine for under £10? Yes please, barman
The lack of football was made up for by Faro being home to the best tapas restaurant in the world, a tasco do joao. Owned by a local family, the home made tomato dip was out-of-the-world, the dishes kept flowing and the wine was £10 a bottle for a really good drop of white. With Praia da Luz just 70 miles down the road, it wasn't hard to see why Kate and Gerry decided to leave their daughter in a hotel room and go for it tapas if it is this good across the Algarve.

Hope you like fish...
It turned out the next morning that drinking more wine than the Tapas 7 put together wasn't a sensible move with a boat trip to some islands off Faro on the agenda. Regular readers will be acquainted with the fact that I suffer with sea sickness anytime I leave dry dock. Even crossing from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight leads to a battle between will and stomach contents, so smashing into waves on a speed boat at 100mph driven by a madman called Phil was never likely to have good results. Remarkably, I was only sick in my mouth and the journey was worth it for the stunning views once we got to Ilha da Culatra and several cocktails which settled the nerves ahead of the journey back to the mainland.
Only being sick once on the boat journey to Ilha da Culatra was a success
Scenic shot as Katie enjoys the Deserted Island
"Sex on the Island", a clever poly on Sex on the Beach
There were no such travel dramas for the bus trip to Seville, a short two-and-a-half hour hop across the border. Almost instantly, Seville was in credit with the discovery of Festival de las Naciones, a market-like set up on Prado de San Sebastian which featured stalls selling food and beer from around the world.

While some England fans were experiencing Spanish culture in Irish bars and goading overenthusiastic riot police, here we were sipping Mythos from Greece, Pilser Callao from Peru, Rolihlahla from South Africa and Presidente from Venezeula. An excellent way to warm up for the game the following day.

Festival de las Naciones
A quick trip through Greece, Peru, South Africa and, er, Spain
 Real Betis are considered the cities working class team with Sevilla the side for the middle classes. As a result, Estadio Benito Villamarin is situated in the Heliopolis area of the city. It seats 60,720 making it the fourth largest stadium in Spain and was opened in 1929 with expansions following in 1982, 2000 and 2017.

Due to Seville receiving an average of 313 days of sunshine a year, it doesn't have a roof. Needless to say after three days of blazing sunshine and 30 degree heat since we arrived in firstly Faro and then Seville, on game day it didn't just rain - it poured.

More stadiums should have water fountains outside
Perhaps this shouldn't have come as a surprise with Katie present. She won't thank me for writing this, but she has a comically bad record when it comes to away games. Her previous trip with England was so wet that Noah could be seen building his ark next to Lithuania’s LFF stadionas and she's been to seven Brighton away games in the Premier League and in six of them, the Albion have failed to score.

In order to seek refuge from the rain, we met up with fellow Brighton fans Ciaran, Lewis and Mark in a bar called 100 Montaditos which was next to Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium. 100 Montaditos are a chain who sell small tapas-style sandwiches at €1 a pop and pints of Cruzcampo for €2. For all Seville’s historic churches and fantastic architecture, Montaditos might just be the single greatest thing about the city. Another thing for Lonely Planet to take note of.

From there, it was a metro back to the Festival de las Naciones for a whistle-stop tour of Argentina (Quilmes) and Mexico (Corona and tequila) before catching a bus towards the stadium. With the rain still falling, we headed off to meet more of the normal crew in Kev, Fiona and Sara. They were hiding in what can only be described as a school canteen which served beer. It also served food, or in this case, cold croquettes and chips. Had Gordon Ramsay been present - unlikely, given Scotland’s presence in lowly group League C Group 1 of the Nations League - then he'd have wandered into the kitchen shouting “THEY'RE ******* FROZEN.” We happen to be much easier customers to please and so as long as the €2.50 Kruzcampo continued to flow we were all happy.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on Real Betis
Good luck vertigo sufferers with the steepness of the stands in Estadio Bentio Villamarin
Happiness turned to delight about 45 minutes before kick off when the rain ceased. That made for a pleasant evening at Estadio Benito Villamarin. The stadium itself is fantastic, two tiers of steep sloping seats rising into the Seville sky. The floodlights are those that Spain really does specialise in, four short pylons raised slightly above the back row behind each goal supporting a long row of lights. 

Open air stadiums can be notoriously devoid of atmosphere without a roof to keep the noise in, so it says much about the design of Estadio Benito Villamarin that the England supporters could generate a real racket. The ridiculous gradient of the stands helps - when you looked down towards the goal Jordan Pickford was minding in the second half, it felt like a sheer drop.

With such noise generated in a game in which the home support were largely quiet, it makes you wonder how noisy the place could be with a full house behind Betis, especially when they take on Sevilla in the derby. Another game for the bucket list, that one.

The atmosphere in the England section was of course helped by what went on on the pitch. Eric Dier set the tone early on by nearly breaking Sergio Ramos in half right below the away section before the Three Lions raced into a 3-0 lead through a Raheem Sterling brace and Marcus Rashford, playing some of the most incisive football in years. People were pinching themselves at half time and I was so shocked I couldn't even navigate my way to the bar on the off chance they sold a beer.

We'd never seen Brighton cock up a 3-0 lead before - Coventry on the other hand...
The talk on the terraces was of how England could cock things up. The Brighton contingent struggled to recall a game in which they'd seen the Seagulls throw away a three goal lead before so if/when the inevitable happened, it would be a first for us. Sara had seen Coventry do it so this wouldn't quite be uncharted territory for her.

Spain did come close to completing a comeback. Paco Alcacer beat Pickford and then Ramos headed home with the final touch of the game for 3-2. Previously England sides might have crumbled in a second half under such Spain pressure, but this version did what was necessary to get over the line.

A scoreboard you don't see everyday
Not even a 45 minute lock in could dampen the England sections spirits after that
 Some pundits compared it to the victory over Germany in Berlin two years ago and while that was a fantastic night in the Olympic Stadium, this felt different. Roy Hodgson’s side on that occasion weren't so young and lacking in international experience. There didn't seem much that they could learn from winning that game, especially as there was a sense that Germany had thrown it away rather than England winning it.

To storm into a three goal lead away against a side who have been in relentless form since the World Cup and then manage and see off the game was a very different type of result. It gave players with few caps invaluable experience and after a run to the last four in Russia in which England were accused of never meeting a decent team, proved they do have what it takes to compete with the best in the world. All of that made this one of the greatest England away games in recent times.

Not even an unnecessary 45 minute lock in and a three mile walk back to the city centre afterwards could dampen the mood. Nor could the attitude of a fat Spanish waiter, ironically the spitting image of Rafa Benitez, trying to refuse service of beer to any England fans who didn't order a main meal in his bar. His mood wasn't improved by everyone buying drinks at the bar, taking them to a table and then pretending to spend the next half hour looking at the menu.

Seville Cathedral in all her Monday night glory
After abandoning Rafa and his fascist attitude without having been forced into forking out £40 for food, we discovered that Seville has something for everyone, even those who want to party all night long as we celebrated the win in a street full of bars drinking some strange sangria cocktails and Jagerbombs at €2 a pop to end the night.

Not a building you want t be climbing on a hangover
The views from the top over the rest of Seville were worth it though
The tomb of Christoper Columbus 
The Alcazar, the oldest royal palace still in use in Spain
With a further two days in Seville, we took the Lonely Planet approach and climbed the cathedral (not good on a hangover), wandered around the Alcazar and explored the area of Triana just across the river. Most intriguing was Torre del Oro which translates as the Golden Tower, so called because it was where every ship returning to Europe from the Americas had to dock and pay 50% of its cargo to the city. This was then reinvested in the beautiful architecture and stunning churches that make Seville so picturesque.

Torre del Oro, home of the 50% tax. Don't give Jeremy Corbyn ideas...
The home of the cities other club, Sevilla
Return visited needed to tick off Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium
Our final stop was Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, only for it to turn out that tours weren't available on that particular day. The home of the Los Rojiblancos looked impressive from the outside and the fact we couldn't get in adds another reason to return to Seville.

The list keeps getting longer and that is perhaps the biggest endorsement Seville as a city can have. A man who previously disliked Spain now wants to return. Forget about that Lonely Planet recommendation, Seville has the coveted Scott McCarthy recommendation.

Spain: David De Gea, Jonny Castro Otto, Nacho, Sergio Ramos 1, Marcos Alonso, Thiago Alcantra, Sergio Busquets, Saul  Niguez (Paco Alcacer), Iago Aspas (Dani Ceballos),  Rodrigo Moreno (Alvaro Moratta), Marco Asensio.

England: Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier (Trent Alexander-Arnold), Harry Maguie, Joe Gomez, Ben Chilwell, Harry Winks (Nathaniel Chalobah), Eric Dier, Ross Barkley (Kyle Walker), Raheem Sterling 2, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford.

Attendance: 50,355