Thursday 17th June
Coimbra – Estadio Cidade De Coimbra.
England 3-0 Switzerland – 28,214 – Rooney 23, 75, Gerrard 82, (Haas sent off 60).
Having seen the hosts avoid the ignominy of a premature exit it was now our turn to get serious. Having come up in the lucky dip we were all pretty excited about seeing England play away live in a major tournament. I’d been fortunate enough to see England beat Tunisia in Marseille in France ’98, but for the rest of the gang this was their “debut”. There were a few worries, the reputation of a significant minority of the usual “En-ger-land” away fans meant we were wary but we needn’t have worried.
The trip down to Coimbra from Porto on the air-conditioned inter-city (complete with km/h speedometer) took little over an hour. We then had to change onto a local shuttle train that deposited us in the centre of town. Time to explore. Coimbra is an ancient university city (and another ex-capital), the Portuguese equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge blessed with a delightful old quarter of narrow lanes and attractive, intimate squares. There was a slightly surreal feel to the place given the vivid contrast between the picturesque sun-kissed side streets and the thousands of England fans milling around in mostly quiet pre-match contemplation. The two most significant squares were thronged by plenty of fans in colours and flags hung from every available vantage point but it was hardly the raucous carnage we had half expected. The most animated conversations were invariably those between people with tickets to sell and those wanting to buy – the going rate seemed to be 400 euros (about £280).
We then settled down in a quiet local restaurant that quickly filled up with fellow fans. It was welcoming but chaotic; there was plenty of Basil Fawlty-esque shouting emanating from a kitchen that probably didn’t have to deal with a full house on an average Thursday lunchtime. It was friendly enough but it took an age for our food to turn up and when it did all I can say is that a huge earthenware bowl of steaming hunks of stewed goat is not an ideal pre-match meal…
After all the delays getting into the three previous games we took no chances and set off for the Estadio Cidade De Coimbra with plenty of time to spare. There was a free shuttle bus laid on but with huge queues and no sign of any buses we opted to walk it having been reliably informed by locals that it was only twenty-five minutes walk away. As with every other city we visited in Portugal, Coimbra was hilly, we just followed the long line of English and Swiss fans strolling in what we assumed was the right direction.
On and on we went, along the banks of the beautiful Rio Modego and the riverside park, up hill, round a corner, up an even steeper hill, round another corner all in blistering heat. After 25 minutes the stadium was nowhere to be seen, just a long trail, up hill and round yet another corner. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, not a sweaty march for several miles, this was meant to be a gentle amble in the sunshine.
After more than forty minutes hard labour we arrived at the stadium. There were tens of thousands of England fans everywhere, 99% of them were wearing either the team’s red or white shirts. The rest were in fancy dress, knights in chain-mail brandishing swords, a bloke holding up a huge home made version of the Championship trophy topped off with the head and torso of the Queen (not the real one), even one chap sweltering in a Scooby-Doo costume.
The security checks were as stringent as ever although as with every other tournament I’ve ever attended all the pre-match pronouncements of checking people’s identities against the names on the tickets were complete bullshit. Provided your ticket was valid and you weren’t carrying anything offensive you were in. The poor Swiss fan in front of me felt the full force of the overzealous stewards when they searched his rucksack. No bottles, so he had the top of his mineral water confiscated but the bottle returned. Next to go his suntan lotion (a common complaint from northern Europeans when the temperatures were in the high 90’s), then his apple and finally his unofficial biscuits! Having emptied his bag and presented him with a litre bottle of water with no top they cheerily waved him in, much to the amusements of his mates who had been watching the pantomime unfold.
The outside of the 30,000 capacity stadium was quite impressive, all new smoked glass and corporate design, but we knew before hand that the ground was blighted by having a running track round the pitch. This meant we would be sitting some distance from the action, the atmosphere would be diluted and the intimacy of earlier games missing. The other end packed with 6,000 noisy Swiss fans was only a low single tier and partially covered. In comparison with what we had seen elsewhere the stadium was pretty shite by modern standards.
Thankfully we were in the shaded end on a very hot afternoon. We were in the “neutral section” but it was 95% filled with England fans. Even an hour before kick-off every available space was filled by an England flag. There were hundreds of them announcing the presence of fans from each and every club in the country and numerous proud but obscure provincial towns. The pre-match mood was quite upbeat, confident even, the majority of fans expected England to beat the Swiss but my pre-match nerves were terrible, my stomach was churning (not helped by the goat stew), I was thirsty and light headed (dehydrated from the trek from the centre of town) and my irrational fears that it would all go horribly, horribly wrong were swirling round and round in my mind – not to mention the harsh reality of the situation – namely IF we lost England would be OUT and we’d be lumbered with an expensive but meaningless trek to Lisbon, the mood could potentially turn ugly and Euro 2004 would be written off as yet another crap showing by England in the European Championships.
I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere at kick-off was tense but expectant; the Swiss anthem was treated with the up-most courtesy and the new unofficial English anthem “Ten German Bombers” spread round the ground from the official section. There were 20,000 plus England fans in the ground and later it was confirmed there were another 20,000 without ticket in Coimbra – either packing out the official fan-park, or watching it on television in town.
The “Ten German bombers” song sung to the tune of “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes” and repeated for 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 until there are “no German bombers flying in the air…” in a similar style to Chelsea’s “Ten men went to mow” anthem it is all meaningless and childish but it got the crowd going when they weren’t joining in with the usual anthems churned out by the official England band. It is far less offensive than any old “no-surrender” crap (although I’m still not a fan myself) and I am pleased to report only one noticeable airing of the aforementioned sectarian “song” was heard during the entire game and it was rapidly drowned out by the 98% of England fans who can’t stand the moronic element. Sheer weight of numbers of the “normal” football supporters drowned out the scum – which bodes well for the future. With banning orders in place many of the ringleaders were missing, the rump of the potential nutters were so outnumbered that they became an irrelevance and the rest of the fans weren’t willing to play along. The potential “sheep” had a new song to play with and we could all get on with the serious business of cheering England on to victory.
With Terry returning from injury it was a full-strength England side that kicked off, all eyes were on the precocious Rooney, the “in need of redemption” Beckham and the previously anonymous Owen. It was a curious opening with England playing in fits and starts, they looked good going forward and some of the long cross-field passing from Beckham and Gerrard was breath-taking but we looked vulnerable when under pressure at the back and James filled nobody with anything but panic-stricken trepidation the moment the ball went anywhere near him. His handling was suspect and his judgement flawed. He looked out of his depth when compared with the likes of Sorensen, Buffon and Khan.
Rooney was typical Rooney and after eighteen minutes chased onto a Lampard through-ball. The keeper Stiel came out and the two clashed, Rooney’s studs catching the keeper, but Stiel’s subsequent Oscar winning show of pain and suffering earned Rooney a harsh yellow card and the Swiss stopper everlasting contempt from the massed ranks behind him. A few minutes later we all caught our breath when the pugnacious teenager recklessly wrestled Frei. Thankfully his next contribution was far more positive. On 23 minutes the Swiss lost the ball in midfield, Gerrard was blatantly fouled, we howled our appeals, the referee played advantage, Beckham crossed intelligently to Owen lurking in the box, he controlled neatly and then clipped a perfect ball back across the face of the goal for Rooney to head home.
Cue pandemonium all around the stadium, the overwhelming emotion was relief, our excitement heightened by Rooney running over to our corner and attempting a rather lumpy cartwheel before being engulfed by his euphoric team mates. The din in the stadium was re-doubled although credit has to go to the Swiss for their own noisy and passionate contribution. Suddenly all the tension was gone, the fans expected England to take charge and the players visibly relaxed.
Some of the play was patchy but the promptings of Gerrard promised more goals and Beckham and Lampard joined in with some fluent passing and movement. Before halftime Stiel made a crucial error by responding to booing by blatantly gesturing at the England fans. The foolish man spent the rest of the afternoon enduring serious abuse whenever the ball went near him. Feigning injury is a major bugbear for most fans and his antics brought nothing but vitriolic contempt. Both sides went on to create half-chances but the score remained 1-0 at the break.
The second period began with another moment of indecision by James and then a foul on Gerrard that earned Haas a yellow card. The Swiss continued to cause alarm in the ranks due to England’s inability to consistently keep hold of the ball until the 60th minute when a rather daft challenge by defender Haas (a cynical felling of Cole) earned the player an inevitable red card. With more space against tiring opponents England took belatedly charge, a superb long ball by Beckham played in Rooney but he failed to make the most of it. Another Beckham cross saw Campbell head wide, but with fifteen minutes to go the slightly twitchy England fans were able to jump up and down once more screaming “Rooney! Rooney!” A long ball from Hargreaves was gathered by the speeding Vassell, he played the ball into the path of the ever-eager Rooney and England’s newest superstar did the rest. The youngest ever scorer in the European Championship Finals had done it again, taking the ball on and thumping a vicious shot towards goal. From our angle we weren’t sure how it ended up in the net but it transpired from the replay on the big screen that the shot ricocheted off the post and into the net via the back of the wretched Stiel’s head.
With victory all but assured the England fans got into full party mode, the “Great Escape” and the “Self Preservation Society” boomed out in the Coimbra sunshine peppered with the inevitable chants for young Mr Rooney and more vitriolic abuse for Stiel. The final quarter of an hour saw England playing keep ball against knackered and dispirited opponents. From one flank to another the ball was swept with cocky assurance, the fans cheered their appreciation, “Ole! Ole! Ole!” – greeted each pass in the sunshine. After 82 minutes one fantasy move of sublime proportions culminated in a third and final goal. Beckham and Gary Neville combined brilliantly on the wing to get up an easy goal for a jubilant Gerrard to ram home from close range. A cheery chorus of “Football’s Coming Home!” reverberated round the stadium as England played out time.
We spilled out of the ground with a spring in our step, joyful, happy and thrilled by the scoreline if not the entire performance. Rooney grabbed the headlines but we agreed that Gerrard’s contribution had been immense. We walked though the post-match melee of camera crews interviewing celebrating England fans chanting “We’re not going home” and headed back down into town to catch the vital France vs. Croatia game on television.
We found a packed but delightful bar on the corner of one of the main squares. Delirious England fans were dancing in the fountains and “doing aeroplanes” – spirits were high, it was our turn to celebrate. We managed to catch much of the game but were perplexed by most of the England fans cheering on Croatia against France even though it was in our interest for them not to win. A draw would leave England only needing a point in Lisbon to go though but long standing rivalries tended to count for more than logic and we left for the station with France 2-1 down.
Once back at the main Coimbra station on the edge of town were learnt of France’s equaliser and Croatia’s amazing late miss, I was chuffed with the outcome and contentedly chatted with other Gills on the platform awaiting our train north. We were entertained by the antics of the many hundreds of England fans on the opposite platform awaiting their train south to Lisbon. For the bemused locals they might have been scary to look at, all short hair, beer bellies and tattoos, clutching their cans of Super Bock for the trip back, singing with great gusto, but at heart they were just like the fans of the other competing nations. In the entire day we didn’t see any trouble, the policing was low key and sophisticated, it was non-confrontational and the England fans were allowed to get on with enjoying themselves in the sunshine. On the train back we all agreed that if England away games could be like that then we would all love to repeat the experience – Rooney and all! Once back “home” in Porto it was our turn to celebrate down in the Ribeira and toast OUR team and, it has to be said, the tens of thousands of passionate but peaceful England fans who had done their country proud.