Friday 18th June
Porto – Estadio Do Dragao.
Italy 1-1 Sweden – 44,926 Cassano 37 / Ibrahimovic 85.
Porto had turned yellow. After the orange of the Dutch and the red of the Spanish came the yellow of the Swedes. If the Danes were the funniest fans and the Dutch the most colourful, then the Swedes were the most sociable. Invariably they spoke perfect English and were knowledgeable about the English domestic game. They sang in English half the time (“Super Henrik Larsson!” “Sven-Goran Erikson tra-lala-la-la” “Go Totti! Go home!”) and even translated their favourite song for us that sounded great in Swedish but lost some impact in English (literally “stick the ball in the net”).
We were back to the rhythm of life in Porto for Euro 2004; get up late, wander down through the town centre to the funicular railway, laugh at the reaction of the first-time passengers not expecting the near vertical drop half way down, pick a random riverfront restaurant for lunch, watch the world go by, spot some more Gills fans, wave to them, wait ages for the main course, amble over to the Ribeira square, watch the inevitable sight of daredevil fans climbing up the monument at the top end to dress the statue in their colours, listen to the new songs, down a couple of Super Bocks and then head off in the direction of the Dragao stadium.
Once more the game at the “Dragon” stadium was in the evening, so we were forced to return to the sweatbox bar nearby if we wanted to catch the earlier game between Bulgaria and Denmark on television. Once more the Italians were conspicuous by their absence out numbered three or four to one by more cheery Scandinavians. The sulky looking lad in the Italy shirt next to me in the bar got more and more pissed off as the place got packed with very drunk Swedes who all kept asking him rather patronisingly where the rest of the Italians were. We were all on full pickpocket alert after several previous incidents in the bar. With a couple of shady characters doing the rounds by the final whistle every single viewer had one hand firmly in their pocket clutching their wallet (UEFA shamefully had no method of issuing replacement tickets to those who fell victims to robbery) whilst clutching a Super Bock or cheese roll in the other.
With most fans having already experienced hassle getting into grounds they tended to turn up earlier (minus suntan lotion). The stewarding was slightly slicker and enough fans had already attended a game in the Dragao for there to be less confusion outside. Most of our group spent the time admiring the stunning Swedish supporters, most of whom were tall, tanned and blonde, a cliché but one that applied throughout Porto. The Swedes were all dressed in yellow but were big on fancy dress and silly hats, from Vikings to Afros they added a sense of fun to the evening despite the sullen Italian fans intermingled with them. The fact that they had won 5-0 in their previous game had certainly left them in a confident frame of mind.
The actual game followed a familiar pattern for us. Once more the historically more fancied team (Italy) played well, for seventy minutes they were superb, but failed to make their dominance count and ultimately were made to pay by previously unspectacular opponents (Sweden). The Italian section was once again sparsely populated, perhaps there were 6,000 seats taken out of 10,000 plus available but the rest of the elegant arena was pretty packed, with a healthy sprinkling of yellow shirts all around the neutral areas along with the invariable English contingent (there were more Gills fans in our row) and a fair number of Germans (in town for their game with Latvia the following day).
The big pre-match news was the suspension of Italian golden boy Totti. The iconic striker had been caught spitting at Poulsen, a Danish defender, in Guimaraes and received a three-match ban along with Europe-wide condemnation (he received plenty of boos when his glowering visage appeared on the big screen). After their “sore feet” and ill-fitting socks the Italians looked set for another emotional debacle but they responded in the best possible way by playing some brilliant football – all sophisticated passing, movement and energy. Gone was the complacent lethargy and in came genuine urgency mixed with the genuine pace and drive of Cassano, a twenty-one year old starlet at Roma. The Swedes were immediately on the back foot and never really got going. Their fans grew anxious as Italy established control. Cassano missed out on one fine diagonal cross but deftly headed them into the lead on 37 minutes. Panucci did the spadework running down the wing, he then cleverly switched the ball onto his left foot and changed the angle. His cross found Cassano in space and the ball was simply guided into the net. Cassano and his friends than ran right over to where we were sitting to celebrate before ambling back up the pitch expecting further goals.
The dominant impression for the next half an hour was simple. Italian strikers can’t head the ball. Cassano failed to convert one header before the break but the real culprit was the grumpy old sod Vieri. The Inter forward contrived to head wide twice when unmarked with the goal at his mercy. The Swedes really should have been dead and buried. Del Piero sent one shot screaming inches wide after a brilliant run and pullback by Panucci and the Swedish keeper Isaksson saved smartly from Cassano. Vieri and Del Piero then fluffed further easy headers and the latter saw a delightful lob cleared.
With less than twenty minute remaining Sweden were wobbling badly but then Italy made the crucial tactical error, instead of trying to score a second killer goal they substituted their strikers and went back into their shell to protect their slender lead. Sweden suddenly sensed their opportunity and belatedly began to swarm forward. Defeat would leave them looking vulnerable against the Danes in their final game so the previously subdued Larsson and Ljungberg began to fire. The same couldn’t be said for the utterly useless donkey they had partnering the Celtic legend, a certain Zlatan Ibarhimovic. The Slavic Bambi-on-ice had a wretched evening, his control was laughable and his finishing woeful but with five minutes to do he saved the day for the Swedes.
It was all a bit weird really; the flurry of Swedish pressure had appeared to have blown itself out. One final chance ended in a frantic scramble in the box, the ball appeared to be half cleared but bobbled out to Ibrahimovic eight yards out. Heaven knows what he was trying to do but whilst facing away from goal he flicked a boot at the loose ball in mid-air, connected sweetly and saw the ball loop up and drop improbably over the static Vieri on the goalline and into the net. The Swedish hordes erupted in total unbridled joy; the massed ranks in the official section a sea of wildly flailing bronzed arms and yellow shirts. They knew they’d just got lucky, a fluky freak goal, but they didn’t care. The Italians were inconsolable.
Once again a late goal at the Dragao ensured the party down at the Ribeira went with a swing. By now the natives had got the hang of things and on every street corner on the route down to the riverfront were local women, both young and old, but invariably diminutive (short arses), with a bucket of iced water selling cans of Super Bock to the thirsty passing football fans. Drinking in the street appeared to be encouraged rather than simply tolerated by the authorities and so the budding local entrepreneurs took advantage although one Euro per can (60p) was hardly excessive exploitation. With all the Swedes seemingly six foot seven and the local beer sellers five feet nothing there were some comical exchanges with one woman craning her neck up to greet the latest Scandinavian hunk and offer him beer and chasing after him shouting, “Stop! Come back! You’re all too tall!”
Once more we found ourselves in the indie bar on the corner of the Ribeira square combining Super Bock with people watching and dancing to the Smiths. We spent much of the night standing on the tables and chairs outside the bar chatting to various mad Swedes. The atmosphere was brilliant; within ten metres of where we were sitting we could see English, Portuguese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Latvians, Danes, Swiss, Croatians and Dutch. They were all wearing their colours, mixing and mingling, sharing stories, translating songs and speaking the universal language of football. Naturally none of that ever makes the shit-stirring tabloids but it left us all with a warm fuzzy glow inside even if the Swedes did make us feel physically and linguistically inferior!