Saturday 19th June
Porto – Estadio Do Bessa – Sec XXI.
Germany 0-0 Latvia – 22,344.
For half our group this was to be their last game, they were flying home on Monday morning so we were all determined to make the most of it even if the fixture was not the most promising. What it lacked in glamour it certainly made up for in idiosyncratic appeal. Everybody’s favourite underdogs, Latvia were taking on the perennial grindingly efficient party-poopers of world football – otherwise known as Germany.
The Latvians were all new to this international football tournament lark and their fans were frankly bemused by the reaction they caused wherever they went. As complete underdogs all the neutrals wanted them to do well at the expense of the Germans. Chants of “Latvia” greeted them from English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, even Portuguese fans wherever they wandered in Porto. For the day they were minor celebrities (on a par with Big Brother evictees) and were asked to pose for numerous photos. They were an oddity, a novelty, perhaps it was patronising but they loved all the attention and additional support they received. I even spotted a large clump of Lithuanians in yellow shirts that were undoubtedly showing Baltic solidarity with their neighbouring minnows.
With up to 15,000 plus Germans in town and only 2,500-3,000 Latvians they were thoroughly outnumbered and unlike the Dutch game the Germans felt comfortable enough to wear their national shirt rather than their invariably hideous club shirts. It was their turn to paint Porto white, the Ribeira would be theirs later in the evening but it was the Latvians with their eccentric facial hair and maroon shirts that defined the day.
The other notable feature was the excess of spare tickets. One well to do middle aged German approached the café I was in with ten spare 100-euro seats and gave them away at a nominal price of just 10 euros. Elsewhere there were few takers and apparently the selling got so blatant on the road between Francos metro station and the Estadio Do Bessa – Sec XXI that the usually reticent Portuguese police moved in on a whole row of Germans, confiscated their tickets, ripped them up and told them to “fuck off” in English. What harm they were doing is unclear given that the Germans we saw with spares tended to be genuine fans with the odd leftover, not cynical touts out to make a killing.
Having negotiated the usual triple entry requirements I was a little disappointed to find myself in the neutral section adjoining the official German allocation. Bjorn, Matt, Danny and Rhian were undoubtedly going to have more fun down the other end with the Latvians. We were forced to put up with a right bolshie load of Germans including a complete drunken moron to our left and several charming neo-nazis a few rows in front of us who stood for much of the game in the searing heat despite the protestations of Germans and neutrals alike whose view they were so selfishly obscuring. The timid Portuguese stewards were about as much use as a chocolate teapot in dealing with the tossers.
Having managed to severely alienate all the neutral fans in our stand it was no surprise to find every non-German cheering for the Latvians. There were plenty of England fans in red or white shirts openly chanting for Latvia but we couldn’t rely on the one Englishman that could and ultimately should have really made a difference – the referee for the afternoon, a certain Mr. Mike Riley. The Germans were not happy. He might have enraged the crabby Krauts with a series of palpably incompetent decisions, but when it came to the crunch, when the Latvians had two shouts for blatant penalties he bottled it and didn’t give either. What more could we have expected from the “cream” of our own referees? Frisk might have a fake tan and blow-dried hair, Merk might be a German dentist and the boggle-eyed Collina might scare small children but at least they are usually competent. Riley had a shocker; it was embarrassing; how he got chosen to represent England we’ll never know. On this showing I don’t think he’ll be at Germany 2006.
Having cheered the Latvian anthem to the echo we set about supporting the plucky minnows but soon another entertainment had superseded that one. Namely listening to severely upset Germans ranting and raving at their own team. I don’t speak German but could get the gist as all around us severely agitated fans greeted each sliced cross, each wasted corner, each errant pass, each ballooned shot with increasingly shrill whistles and manic gesticulations. We grinned and fantasised about a Latvian winner and calculated whether it would be safe to goad the arseholes in front of us if the “Miracle of Bessa 2004” occurred.
The miracle so nearly transpired on 40 minutes when the outstanding Verpakovskis embarked on a remarkable run beginning in the centre circle. He dodged a couple of Germans, then headed off in the general direction of Oliver Khan, He darted this way and that, skipping past challenges in the implausible manner of Pele in “Escape to Victory”, it would have been goal of the tournament, one of the greatest goals of all time, but by the time he had slalomed his way to the edge of the box he had run out of steam and his final shot was of the powder-puff variety and a relieved Khan saved easily.
The pattern of wild finishing by Kuranyi and Bobic indispersed by brilliantly incisive Latvian breakaways by Pahars (he would invariably fling himself to the ground when challenged) and the aforementioned Verpakovskis continued into the second half. After 54 minutes Verpakovskis went on another surging run, into the box he went, sandwiched by two defenders who cynically and blatantly brought him down. The only person in the Bessa to not think “penalty” was Mr Riley, he scandalously waved play on. Perhaps he thought he was at Old Trafford with the potential wrath of Ferguson hanging over him.
The second penalty shout was marginally less clear-cut, again Verpakovskis was the victim but this time the free-kick was given, but outside the box (Riley bottle-job) and came to nothing. The dying moments saw frantic German pressure but no real quality; Klose comically missed their last chance before the final whistle signalled euphoria in the Latvian end. Their players celebrated with them as if they’d won. They should have done… The Latvians showed their contempt for the Germans at the end by doing not very politically correct Basil Fawlty-esque Adolf Hitler impressions but their real contempt should have been directed at the referee.
Back in Porto we then gathered to watch the Czech Republic take on the Netherlands. The crowd watching on the big screen was overwhelmingly German but dotted with Dutch fans in orange that were quite understandably chuffed to see their heroes go 2-0 up. The Czechs had equalised by the 23rd minute as a truly epic encounter unfolded before disbelieving eyes. It was sublime end to end stuff, shots crashed against the woodwork or sizzled just wide, it could have finished 6-6 but the only goal of the second half didn’t arrive until the 88th minute via Smicer – they Germans erupted taunting the Dutch supporters who could do no more than slink away in stunned silence.
Then it was time to head down to the Ribeira although we were going to keep a lower profile after a tense moment with some Germans earlier in the week. Half a dozen Germans had surrounded our table chanting “Fuck You” Fuck You!” repeatedly whilst gesturing aggressively. Thankfully one of our gang Bjorn is three-quarters Germans and is fluent in the language. He was able to communicate with the lads taunting us and realise they were harmless and didn’t realise how offensive they were being (unlike many other Germans their English only consisted of swear words to use at football). Bjorn then got us to respond by singing “Do you remember 5-1?” at them in German. They responded with “Euro ‘96” and before long we were all sharing Super Bocks and cheery insults over previous England vs. Germany games.
We weren’t going to take any chances though by advertising we were English but we needn’t have worried, spending much of the night outside our regular haunt chatting to Austrians (they hate the Germans) and Swiss, breaking off only to chant “Latvia!” each time some more happy fans from the Baltic state ambled past.