Wednesday 16th June
Porto – Estadio Do Bessa – Sec XXI.
Greece 1-1 Spain – 25,444 – Charisteas 66 / Morientes 28.
Our third full day and our third new stadium followed a regular routine. Up late, a gentle amble into town, down the funicular railway to the Ribeira riverfront – which had magically changed colour from orange to Spanish blood red, a reasonably priced but basic meal, friendly but incredibly slow service, a Super Bock or two, a quick mingle with the thousands of Spanish fans (hardly an epic trek for most of them) and then back up into central Porto to play hunt the metro station before trundling off in the opposite direction to Antas.
We alighted at Francos metro station, wandered across the track and through some bland suburbs dotted with hundreds of Portuguese flags, past a dual carriageway jammed solid by coachloads of Spaniards to the outskirts of the Estadio Do Bessa – Sec XXI, home to Porto’s second side Boavista. It was another English-style stadium with 30,000 seats in four individual double-decker stands tight on to the pitch and the corners filled in like Sampdoria’s Genoese home in Italy. Before we could admire the stadium (a dull and unfinished exterior except for a spectacular black and white checked column topped by a rampant black bull) hemmed in by housing we had to endure more frustrating delays at the triple check points.
Crush one for the ticket validation check, crush two for the thorough searches (and confiscation of suntan lotion) and to top it all high-tech turnstiles that required one steward to check your ticket and another to read it electronically scan it before ushering you through. Another 45 minutes to travel two hundred metres…
Like most fans at Euro 2004 we didn’t think of Greece as anything but irrelevant nonentities required to simply make up the numbers along with Latvia and Bulgaria. The only players we’d heard of were fringe squad players in England, we assumed their opening victory over Portugal in the opening game was down to the host’s nervous incompetence rather than any Greek excellence. The Spanish were hot favourites with the likes of Helguera, Raul and Morientes gracing their side but for the third game running the fancied team failed to sustain any expected advantage.
We immediately warmed to the inside of the Bessa, with the seating pleasingly steep (the upper tiers were positively vertiginous), the crowd almost on top of the players it made for a brilliant atmosphere. The Greek section wasn’t full, they had perhaps 3-4,000 fans, but they were very vocal, passionate and excitable. The Spanish dominated the ground with 15,000 plus turning the other end into a sea of red and yellow. The Spanish wee especially impressive with their show of scarves for their national anthem and so were their team for 70 minutes but they were ultimately punished for not taking their chances.
Initially the Spanish “galacticos” played some very sweet football, all clever neat short passes at pace. Critics might dismiss it as just high quality tippy-tappy football but the passing and movement was the most impressive of the tournament thus far. Unfortunately there was little or no end product, the flicks and tricks caused gasps of appreciation but Nikopolidis in the Greek goal was hardly bothered as crosses were over-hit, corners failed to beat the first man and shots sailed wildly high or wide.
The Spanish finally broke the deadlock on 28 minutes. Greece lost possession in midfield; the ball was rapidly switched forward into the path of Morientes who smoothly cut inside one defender before nonchalantly thumping the ball into the corner of the net. We expected the Greeks to wobble but they held firm despite conceding territory, numerous corners and having to chase hard as the ball was zipped about with confidence and poise. The Australian-Greek sitting next to us expected the worst and simply wanted to enjoy being part of Euro 2004 but as the game ebbed and flowed to half-time the failure of the Spanish to turn dominance into efforts on target gave him a glimmer of hope.
Second half, more of the same, Spain on top but profligate up front. The defining moment came on 54 minutes when substitute Joaquin sprinted down the wing, reached the byline and for once cleared the first defender. It was a perfect cross. Raul stood unmarked in front of the goal but jumped like a dead haddock and contrived to balloon the ball apologetically over the bar. The Greeks took their hands away from their eyes and realised they were still in the contest.
Twelve minutes later the improbable happened, The Spanish were just beginning to run out of ideas, when on a rare sortie up field Tsiartas sent a long diagonal ball into the danger zone, with Puyol out of position the ball fell to Charisteas, he deftly controlled it, took it on and then drilled it into the net via the legs of keeper Casillas. The Greeks went mad, the Aussie next to us looked shocked more than anything, the improbable was looking possible. If the Greeks could hold on then qualification would be in their own hands setting up a potentially historic shoot out between the hosts and Spain.
The latter stages saw the Spanish fade, the Greeks gain confidence and even nearly knick the win but Dellas headed over. The final whistle saw the Greeks in ecstasy, their corner of the ground was a sea of blue and white, they acknowledged their heroes by all joining hands and saluting them, the red hordes slunk away in disappointment.
We then hotfooted it back to Francos (no extra trains laid on) and into central Porto to catch the vital second game of the day between Portugal and Russia on the big screen. This time the square was pretty packed, getting served at the beer outlet was time consuming and tempers got raised as the congestion got worse. The atmosphere was pretty amazing. The locals were tense, defeat would mean elimination and we all had a vested interest in the hosts progressing. The locals were so friendly and accommodating (not to mention a bit disorganised but in a lovably laid back way) that we wanted them to win to maintain the brilliant spirit of fun that was gradually engulfing the whole nation. The national anthem saw thousands of scarves being whirled round their heads, the new unofficial “Portugal Allez” anthem both urgent and deafening. We might have been uninvited guests at a private house party but joined in with gusto.
We were still assembling our beers when Maniche gave the hosts a 7th minute lead with a low shot from a Deco cross, the place erupted with relief more than anything. The anthems echoed round the square and yet the anxiety remained in the air. Russia were abject and the harsh sending-off of their keeper Ovchinnikov for seemingly not handling the ball outside the box when challenging Pauleta after a dodgy back pass appeared to seal their fate but Portugal just could not score the second clinching goal.
The second half was even more hysterical, Figo culminated the move of the match by thrashing one effort against a post but generally they failed to make the most of their dominance. Rui Costa did finally put them all out of their collective misery in the last minute, tapping home a Ronaldo cross to set off scenes of unbridled joy amongst the local population. We decided to hang around for the post-match party that involved a free pop concert on the adjoining stage and alcohol-drenched celebrations.
The music might have been crap but the whole euphoric mood was just magical. We couldn’t help but get swept along chatting to the locals and tourists alike (even Palace fans), adopting their green, yellow and maroon colours and in one memorable case a nameless member of our BMH gang found himself dancing like a lunatic with the locals on the roof of a bus shelter. The police politely invited him to climb down before melting back into the shadows to allow the celebrations to continue long and hard into the early hours.
It was the turn of the locals to pack the Ribeira along with the Spanish and Greeks. The walk down was enlivened by the sights and relentless sounds of thousands of locals in their cars sounding their horns, singing, waving flags and packing more people than you thought possible into the backs of alarmingly listing vans and saloon cars. The streets were thronged with the usually chilled-out locals, we headed for our regular haunt, ordered our extra-large glasses of Super Bock and let the whole evening just flood over us in a hazy mixture of drunken multinational happiness.