Monday 14th June
Guimaraes – Estadio D. Afonso Henriques.
Denmark 0-0 Italy – 19,595
The morning after the night before brought rueful smiles and an un-written rule not to mention you know what. The perfect antidote was a trip to Guimaraes to take in our first game, Italy vs. Denmark. It took an hour to trundle the fifty-odd kilometres on a local train north to the charming and ancient ex-capital city. In what became typical style the Portuguese didn’t make any allowance for the fact that the town was hosting a major international event and the train was packed to the rafters. The immensely irritating non-stop elevator music piped into the carriage added to the surreal scene of sweating Danes in full regalia mingled with bemused locals.
On arrival at Guimaraes station we were able to confirm the baffling cancellation of the last train back meaning that we would have to return before the end of the Sweden vs. Bulgaria game later that evening. We ventured into the town and were soon engulfed by thousands of brightly coloured Danes, drinking, singing, posing for photos, draping statues in flags and shirts, ambling round the old town centre taking in the sights. They appeared to out-number the Italians five-to-one which was odd given the game was “sold out” and that both nations had an official allocation of 6,000.
We settled down in one of the medieval squares to chill out, sip a beer and watch the world go by. There were some vociferous Italians nearby but they appeared to be the exception to the rule. Another Gills fan, Chris, turned up fresh from the Stadium of Light debacle with Ben, a charming London-based Italian fan, for company with plenty of stories to tell. We listened intently to the gory details before exploring further, admiring the medieval architecture and climbing the castle and proudly flying the “BMH on tour” Gillingham flag from the keep.
Back in town and the Danes were adding immensely to the colour and atmosphere, playing in the fountains and even humouring a fat bloke in red and white striped dungarees who felt compelled to moon at the passing Scandinavian beauties. It was then time to join the streaming multitudes heading towards the 30,000 capacity Estadio D. Alfonso Henriques. We joined a heaving mob waiting to pass through the first security checkpoint – there were no relevant signs and no stewards, we simply had to presume that we needed to pass through the bottleneck and it would take us towards where we wanted to get to. People grew hotter and sweatier and more irritable as the crush worsened, there were Danes and Aussie-Greeks, English and Germans, Italians and Dutch all asking each other whether this was the right way to go. None of us knew.
After an uncomfortable 25 minutes we squeezed through into the park and approached the ground that from the outside looked more like a modern office development. There was a complete absence of official programmes much to the disgust of the English fans milling around in futile search so we went through the high-tech turnstiles and took our seats in the neutral section adjacent to the official Italian seating. It was largely an English style stadium with three linked double-decker stands and one individual one housing our good selves and most of the Italians. In typically illogical style the Portuguese decided to number the seats from 1 to 20-odd in each block of seats and then start afresh from 1 in the adjoining block which meant if you mistakenly turned right instead of left you would find yourself in the correct row in apparently the correct seat but you would be in the wrong block. Total confusion reigned and each and every subsequent game.
Chay proudly found a prime location for his new “Gillingham BMH” flag behind the goal and I sauntered off to take some photos. I returned to find Chay somewhat perturbed because he had been distracted by a fan claiming he was in the wrong seat (that dumb numbering again) and whilst he got a steward to sort it all out some fucking thieving cunting Italian fucker stole his flag. One minute it was there, the next it was gone. We spent the pre-match period hunting high and low, under seats, behind seats, in bins, in the toilets, we asked the numerous English fans in the crowd but nobody had seen what happened. Given for the rest of the tournament there were hundreds of flags from every nation at every game and that the fans mixed brilliantly and didn’t bat an eyelid at rival banners draped side-by-side this was just a very bad case of the Italians not joining in with the pan-European spirit of things.
The Italians were a bit disappointment both on and off the pitch. They filled barely a third of their official allocation (less than any other country, even Greece or Latvia) and those that did come appeared unfriendly wearing no colours, singing aggressive (and later we were told fascist songs), and giving the fascist salute. The charming chaps in front of us then stood for the entire game blocking the view of all the bemused locals in the neutral sections and ignoring the stewards with a mixture of contempt and arrogant distain.
By contrast the Danes were in full party mode. Swaying from side to side, row by row, singing passionately, arms out-stretched hands wiggling up and down for corners, the whole official section (6,000) was packed to the rafters with many more dotted around the stadium. The actual game saw the Danes enjoy themselves far more too. The Italians in their white shirts and therefore illegible silver numbers in the sunshine ponced about, apparently it was too hot and their socks didn’t fit. Whatever the reason the massively talented Italian side failed to strut their stuff.
The Danes matched their illustrious opponents and it was only the inspired keeping by both goalies that prevented an enterprising and sporadically exciting encounter being blessed with some goals. Both Buffon and Sorensen made some magnificent saves, most notably just before half-time when the game sprang into life. Sorensen produced a stunning double save when he denied Del Piero and then Totti in breath-taking style. Zambrotta also fired across the face of the goal whilst at the other end the Danes’ best chance fell to Tomasson with fifteen minutes remaining. Jensen broke down the wing, crossed in only to see Buffon deny Tomasson and Rommedahl slice the rebound carelessly wide.
The final whistle saw the Danes celebrating, whilst the Italians trudged off to a chorus of less than complimentary comments from their less than charming clumps of supporters. We met back in town to watch the Sweden vs. Bulgaria game on an outside television in the company of hundreds of Danes and a couple of Swedes in yellow. As natural rivals there were a few looks exchanged but joint Scandinavian brotherhood saw genuine cheers when Ljungberg gave the Swedes the lead.
Some of our mob had to then head back by train but three of us were kindly offered a lift back to Porto by Chris thus allowing us to watch the second half goal-fest. As each strike hit the back of the net our Swedish neighbour got more and more animated. He ran down into the main Dane-packed square waving his arm about for number two and repeated the trick a minute later to be greeted by hearty cheers. Goals four and five saw him make a recklessly breakneck circuit of the entire square to massive cheers giving high fives to the now expectant Danes.
We left Guimaraes soon after, strolling back through all the narrow streets, the ancient buildings now strung with thousands of white fairy lights glowing in the sultry continental evening air, it was a fabulous fairyland grotto which suggested both civic pride and an artistic bent, it was just a shame about the last train.
He didn’t admit it but I’m sure Chris regretted offering to give us a lift back. We went wrong on the toll motorway (more poor signage) almost ending up in Braga (it wasn’t quite the right moment to suggest we went for a look round the no-ends-just-cliffs mad as a hat stadium) and then got lost in Porto due to the fact that it isn’t very well signposted and we hadn’t yet got our bearings. We landed perfectly in the middle of Porto more by luck than judgement, we thanked Chris profusely and then wandered off into the Porto night wishing him well on his epic trip back to Lisbon and Blighty.
At a normal tournament that would be that, but this was Portugal 2004, so we wandered down hill to the riverfront area known as the Cais Da Ribeira and the small square that acted as a focal point for the entire tournament – the Praca Da Ribeira square. We strolled nonchalantly towards the riverfront in search of a quiet beer only to find ourselves in the middle of bedlam. The Dutch had arrived. There were thousands of them, all head to toe in orange, singing traditional songs, drinking beer by the barrel load, waving flags, climbing up monuments and generally giving the impression that they were having a big party. The brass band added a touch of innocence leading the raucous chanting and folk-singing (yes even the “Tulips of Amsterdam” got an airing or three) and we just let the whole brilliant atmosphere wash over us. We even managed to bump into two other groups of Gills fans so by the end of the night even the “Last Waltz” was echoing around the square. We left them to it around 4 a.m. – we were knackered and we needed to recharge our batteries for tomorrow we had a football match to go to.