Sunday 13th June
Four o’clock on a Sunday morning in Croydon marked the beginning of the unofficial BMH Euro 2004 adventure. I was bleary-eyed but tingling with delicious child-like anticipation at the thought of eleven days in Portugal in the company of half a dozen other hardcore Gills fans (namely Matt, Bjorn, Wolfie, Chay, Danny and Rhian – the token Welsh person). The taxi duly arrived and off we all went – destination Porto via Heathrow and Madrid.
Even getting to this stage had taken some doing; booking match tickets, flights and accommodation before prices rocketed and rooms got reserved. We had decided on a Porto-centred itinerary back in the early 2003 prior to the first official ticket sale via the internet – launched on April 28th 2003. The sales were “blind” which meant you effectively bought tickets to a fixture between unnamed teams, lets say “D1 vs. D2” in the Dragao stadium in Porto on such a such a date at an appointed time. It was not until the following November when all the finalists were known and the final draw was made that we discovered which teams we had been allocated. As ever it was all a big gamble – you could get England vs. France, you could get Greece vs. Russia.
There were “follow my team ticket” available too where you followed a nominated team, say, err, England, for as long as they stayed in the tournament, but they were very limited in number and understandably massively oversubscribed for our Three Lions mob. We opted for the “lucky dip” process applying for eight games in nine days in and around Porto during the group stage. Our reasoning being demand was lowest, ticket prices were at their most affordable and games most concentrated together.
For committed England fans the other option was to have joined the official travel club for the 2002-04 cycle and applied through official channels but we didn’t want to just see England and to be honest none of us wanted to spend our entire holiday surrounded by the “no-surrender brigade”.
We discovered our ticketing fate in July 2003 when initial allocations were made and much to our relief we were allocated most of the tickets we had applied for at the cheapest of the three price categories (35 euros) despite taking the calculated risk of ticking the “will accept higher priced tickets” box. The moment we knew we had received our ticket confirmations we swiftly booked our flight, (the cheapest option by then from London to Porto was with Iberia via Madrid for £145) and our hotel-cum-B&B (the highly recommended Pensao Estoril for about £13 each per night).
Then the fun really started, first my ticket payment was refused by my overzealous credit card company because of the “unusual” nature of the transaction – I don’t normally make one-off payments for large amounts of euros to accounts in Portugal – which caused a bit of a panic when I received a letter from Euro2004 offering me a second chance to complete the payment or see my order cancelled… thankfully it was second time lucky.
The next memorable moment occurred during the official draw on November 30th – we all watched the draw with bated breath and were euphoric to say the least to be allocated two England games plus getting to see the likes of Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. After much gloating and phoning of friends our smug expressions turned to horror when it came up on Ceefax that UEFA “reserved the right” to switch fixtures from smaller to larger stadiums in the “interests of safety”. Suddenly the reality dawned on us, we’d lost the England vs. Croatia fixture scheduled for Coimbra and gained France vs. Switzerland. The only consolation was that we also gained Germany vs. Netherlands at the expense of Latvia vs. the Czech Republic in Porto.
February brought another bombshell with an e-mail from the Pensao Estoril explaining in broken English that “due to causes strange to our will and due to imponderable facts” they were unable to maintains our confirmed reservation and that we were now booked in an unknown alternative, the Santa Luzia about which we knew nothing aside from it was in Porto and that the price would remain the same. These shenanigans were repeated across Portugal as early bookers were “shifted” to alternatives and the likes of the Estoril took advantage of their internet connections and Rough Guide recommendations to maximise their revenues.
By then we were convinced something else would go wrong and indeed our flight times were moved but only by five minutes, for other fans it would mean missed games… There was one Easter bonus though when news got out that there were extra England vs. Croatia tickets on sale via the net. They went in a couple of hours but we were some of the lucky 10,000 to get them even if it left us with spare France vs. Switzerland tickets and the prospect of an epic trip to Lisbon and back. The tickets duly arrived in May 2004.
The flight to Madrid and then on to Porto went smoothly and having finally escaped the overwhelmed regional airport arrivals hall we squeezed ourselves into two taxis for the exhilarating journey into town (Herr Schumacher eat your heart out) in search of the Santa Luzia. Having had no contact with them and clutching only a payment confirmation via the previously two-faced Estoril and an address, I was more than a tad relieved to see that a) the Santa Luzia actually existed and that b) after plenty of pointing, confusion and looking upside-down at a hand-written ledger in Portuguese, there was my name and our booking for two doubles and a triple in faint pencil.
To be honest the place was a bit basic. Our view was of building works and the décor was ancient but crucially the bath was deep and the beds comfortable. What more do you need for £13 a night in the middle of the second most important sporting event on the planet (more people now watch than the Olympics)? It was only going to be a place to crash each night after too much footy and beer so our fairly central location was a crucial plus despite the cramp nature of the double rooms.
It was now time to do a bit of exploring and off we strolled in search of our first taste of Portuguese cuisine and hospitality. There were flags and visiting fans dotted all over the place. We opted to chill out and get our bearings before buying our train tickets for later in the holiday to Coimbra and Lisbon (38 euros return on the inter-city). We then discovered a big screen set up in the Praca Da Liberdade square to show the football and with cheap beer on tap and pleasant sunshine we settled down for what turned out to be a rather dull 0-0 draw between Croatia and a ten-man Switzerland. An ideal result but not a game to stay long in the memory. However our attention was focused on just one thing, the main event, England vs. France being played down in Lisbon that night. After all the pre-tournament hype this was the real deal, for us Euro 2004 started not with Greece’s shock win over Portugal but when Beckham and company took on the holders and favourites.
The square did fill up a bit before the game but the rapped audience could be measured in hundreds rather than thousands with most nations represented and support spit roughly 50/50 for and against England. There were plenty of fellow England fans more than happy to join in with vocal encouragement directed at the big screen. After 38 minutes of scrapping and effort the tension was broken with an unexpected goal from Frank Lampard. Beckham’s free-kick was whipped into the box for Lampard to head home. Cue plenty of dancing about in the square, the improbable suddenly looked possible, particularly with the mercurial Rooney belying his age and fitful form for Everton. Spirits were high at half-time, the Portuguese commentator’s tendency to pronounce the potato-faced forward’s name “Waaannnyyynneee Rrrrooooonnnneeeeyyy” adding to the happy mood.
The second half brought a gradual ratcheting up of the tension as the minutes ticked by and England continued to cling to their advantage. Pre-match hopes of sneaking even a point had been low but with eighteen minutes remaining Silvestre’s clumsy challenge on the rampaging Rooney gave England a glorious chance to secure a famous victory. The errant Frenchman should have received his marching orders but didn’t from the German dentist with the whistle. Sadly Barthez acrobatically saved Beckham’s average penalty and the mood changed from jovial optimism to a gnawing fear that France would make us pay for such profligacy.
With the game entering injury time we were all anticipating a celebratory Super Bock beer or ten but then along came a daft challenge from Heskey in the danger zone. Zidane showed his class by arrowing the ball beyond a typically flat-footed James to stun us into silence. Still “we’d have settled for a point before the game” was what I desperately tried to tell myself but before I’d mentally adjusted my expectations Lampard’s suicidal back pass let Henry in, James flattened Monsieur VaVaVoom and our world collapsed around us. Zidane kept his cool to secure England’s own Dickov ’99 moment and we had to contend with delirious French sympathisers dancing in front of us and ruffling our hair. The horrible, hollow, sinking feeling of abject disappointment washed over me, the final whistle went, I turned to my fellow Gills only to find them already gone, vanished, disappeared into the night to sleep away the hurt or drown their sorrows. My thoughts turned to how the thousands of fans in the Stadium of Light must have been feeling…