Tuesday 15th June
Porto – Estadio Do Dragao.
Germany 1-1 Netherlands – 46,636 – Frings 30 / Van Nistelrooy 81.
After the late night lunacy with the Dutch the previous evening some of us made a bee-line for the Ribeira square the following lunchtime and were not to be disappointed. It was more of the same except in even more vibrant Technicolor. There were thousands of Dutch all over town for the eagerly anticipated clash with the Germans and their gaudy supporters appeared to out-number the less conspicuous Germans two or three-to-one. We just lapped up the scene, there were now two rival brass bands, the statue in the square was suitably dressed for the occasion, the sun was out, the sky was clear, it was warm, the view across the Douro river to Vila Nova De Gaia and the famous port houses was spectacular, there were fans from every other nation enthusiastically joining in the party and then the Dutch royal family put in an appearance on the balcony of the adjacent hotel and were greeted rapturously. The princesses dressed in startlingly orange ball-gowns for added visual impact.
After yet another meal marred by poor service (it always took an hour to get served, the laid-back locals were simply not geared up for the friendly invasion) and bland food (a notable feature of our stay) we made our way via the newly opened metro to Antas station for the stunning Estadio Do Dragao, home to European Champions FC Porto. In true Portuguese style there were no signs marking the tube entrances, we found one more by luck than judgement, hence the trains were rarely busy, but by every automatic ticket machine was a multilingual employee to help you buy and charge up your travel card.
On arrival outside the imposing structure, the remarkable roof and large gap between the top of the stand and the roof at both ends lent an elegant touch to a spectacular design reminiscent of a UFO that had just landed for the evening. We watched the preceding Czech Republic vs. Latvia game shoehorned into a heaving sweatbox of a bar with a “choice” of Super Bock or Super Bock and either cheese rolls (one pathetic sliver of cheese in a bun) or ham rolls (one pathetic slice of meat). It wasn’t pleasant and there were pick-pockets about but the game was just about worth the effort with the plucky Latvians playing well and taking the lead (much to the delight of Germans and Dutch alike) before losing somewhat unluckily to an 85th minute strike by Heinz.
We made our way towards the stadium an hour before kick-off and yet again the queues to get through the initial security checkpoint were horrendous. The crush steadily built up, the fans were funnelled into yet another dangerous bottleneck with no signs despite a fence splitting the scrum into two (one portion was for corporate fans etc.) with the predictable result that hundreds attempted to “jump” the queue and found themselves the wrong side of a security fence and refused entry. It all got a bit chaotic until the nervous local plod decided to try to move the orange tide back. That failed and they eventually saw sense before anyone got trampled by reducing the initial checks to a minimum.
A second scrum at a second checkpoint caused more irritation before we finally approached the flying saucer and more high-tech turnstiles (a third slow scrum). The electric sense of anticipation before the game had been dulled by a sweaty forty-five minutes spent getting the two hundred metres from the metro station into the ground but once inside it was awesome. There were huge swathes of orange, not just the official section of 10-12,000 but sweeping all around the vast arena except for the official German sector (and there were even a few oranges in there). We were in the “neutral” section behind one goal (adjacent to the official German allocation) which was perhaps a third Dutch, had a smattering of mulleted-Germans plus the usual percentage of English (mostly wearing England shirts in, ahem, sympathy with the Dutch) and completely perplexed locals. The reaction by both sets of fans to the respective anthems of their bitter rivals put anything England fans usually manage into perspective…
With the vast majority of the packed crowd craving a thrilling and humiliating rout of the Germans it didn’t really go to plan. The much-vaunted Dutch side packed with famous stars (Stam, Davids, Cocu, Zenden, Van Nistelrooy) played like a disparate bunch of fractious egos thrown together. The much-derided Germans (Friederich – who? Lahm – who? Baumann – who? Schneider – who? And the delightfully monikered substitute Schweinsteiger) played like a team and for seventy minutes were by far the superior side. It soon became clear that the Dutch were off-colour; perhaps they were dazzled by all the orange. It has to be said the noise and passion and drama off the field rather over-shadowed events on the green sward. We spent half the game admiring the elegant sweeping curves of the Dragao (Dragon) stadium, the colourful and excitable fans and the mullets of those Germans sitting nearby. Don’t they realise the 80’s are over – or are they into retro 80’s chic and are actually making a tongue-in-cheek statement?
Back on the pitch Van Nistelrooy did manage to waste a brilliant chance early on but thereafter the Germans took steady and unspectacular control. Monkey-man Khan had very little to do as the Ballack-led white shirts played with more verve and invention than we really wanted. The German counter-attacks were far more threatening but all their initial half chances came to very little indeed – Worns invariably the culprit. However right on the half hour it was the Germans who were going absolutely wibble.
After 120 minutes of football we finally got to see a goal in the flesh at Euro 2004. It was down the other end, it was a bit messy and unquestionably for the wrong side, but it did at least break our duck and set up the game. Cocu fouled Hamann out by the wing. Frings curled in a wickedly swerving free kick and it eluded everyone – all the flailing arms and legs including the usually reliable Van de Sar. It skipped unhindered into the corner of the net for a rather soft goal.
Suddenly the Dutch fans who had sounded completely confident (perhaps a touch arrogant, even complacent) singing their songs in the squares of Porto looked pensive and worried. Losing would be bad enough, but to supposedly the worst German side in living memory, well Dick and the millionaires would have some explaining to do when they got back to Amsterdam…
We all assumed going behind would be the kick up the arse the Dutch needed but they remained second best well into the second period. All our dreams of a mad all-night Dutch post-match party in the Ribeira looked doomed to fade as the game wore on. The orange shirts upped their efforts but it wasn’t until the last twenty minutes that they fought their way back into the contest. Khan was hardly a busy man despite the belated orange surge but was beaten in dramatic style with just nine minutes remaining on the clock.
Lumping the ball in the general direction of Van Hooijdonk was hardly sophisticated “total football” but it was a superior piece of finishing from the otherwise subdued Van Nistelrooy that saved the day. Van de Meyde won the ball and crossed intelligently from the wing for the arch predator to touch the ball home from a tight position with a defender in close proximity. The Dutch and the English and the neutrals roared their relief, the Dutch had got out of jail. Both sides looked to protect what they had at the end but the Dutch did nearly sneak a cheeky win in the 86th minute but Cocu failed to make the most of a glorious chance and his tame header was saved by Khan.
It might not have been a great match but it was undoubtedly a great occasion, one where you were proud to say, “I was there”. The combination of the stadium, the vibrant colour, the tension and the atmosphere made for a memorable night that was not yet over. After negotiating some chaotic queues at the metro station it was back into central Porto and party time. The riverside square soon filled up with thousands and thousands of orange-clad fans.
They hadn’t won but getting out of jail was a sufficient excuse to make merry long into the night. We were more than happy to join them, particularly when we discovered a friendly bar (The AOR) under the ancient stone arches on the corner of the square. We could watch the stunning crowd scenes, savour the balmy late-night mood of boisterous celebration and then pop inside to buy yet another Super Bock (what else) and dance like deranged lunatics when as requested they put on the Smiths or some other English indie band. What a combination, cheap beer, our own choice of music and thousands of friendly football-mad Europeans to mingle with. Where did the time go? One minute it would be two in the morning, the next it would be 4 a.m. again and time for the trek home – uphill all the way – either 210 steps and a steep climb up by the funicular railway or a thirty minute yomp up and down the pleasant but incredibly hilly streets of central Porto.