This time four years ago, on a return journey from Madrid (having of course been to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid), in a conversation with a TV cameraman working with BBC travel journalist Simon Calder, Mrs Football Nerd for the first time described us as football tourists. Since that day we have taken our newly defined status incredibly seriously; where previously we had sporadically attended a few football matches abroad, we now actively plan trips to the continent with the match we are going to attend as the central focus. While we are still developing our ground-hopping portfolio, increasingly we find ourselves allocating more of our holiday time and weekends to trips to the revered football grounds of the continent to take in a match and to explore and experience the selected city. So it was that my wife opted for the perfect combined birthday and Christmas present for the discerning football obsessive in the form of flights, accommodation and of course match tickets for a trip to Porto.
For reasons largely unexplained, the city of Porto and the Estádio do Dragão have held a certain mystique for me and have been on my ‘to-visit’ list for a long long time; so I was understandably chomping at the bit to get underway and start this new football-watching expedition. Thanks to a well-planned and thankfully largely delay-free morning flight, we had checked into our hotel and were exploring the city (read- sitting in the sun with our first beer of the trip) by mid-afternoon, not exactly a hardship!
The city itself, while not unfairly described as somewhat frayed around the edges, carries an old world charm that is difficult to put into words but puts you at ease almost upon arrival. Life is seemingly laid back, lazy even, and while far from being the most affluent city, the people are incredibly friendly, seemingly content with their lot; the warm mid-March sunny weather and relatively cheap food and drink, no doubt help with that!
At the risk of turning this into some form of travelogue, a trip down to the river is a must, whether for the intriguing array of restaurants, cafés and bars that line the north bank; or the numerous traditional port houses on the far side. However, for those looking for a more football-focused experience, there is only one place to head, up the hillside to the incredibly located Guindalense Futebol Clube bar which provides a chance to sip a chilled Super Bock (or several!) while taking in a stunning view of the Douro river and the impressive Dom Luís Bridge designed by a mentee of Gustave Eiffel (yes that one!); quite how much this idyllic terrace would fetch if the club ever chose to sell is anyone’s guess!
According to the barman, Guindalense FC haven’t actually fielded a team for a number of years but they don’t let minor trivialities like that get in the way of continuing to celebrate their 40th anniversary, which technically was in 2016 but why end the party now? Nor did it prevent the pair of us from inventing an entire fictional back history for the club, which got more and more interesting the more the cerveja flowed!
The other thing that is a compulsory part of the football-focused tourist experience in Porto is a visit to the Cervejaria Gazela, recommended by New York TV Chef Anthony Bourdain and purveyor of traditional Portuguese hot dogs, cachorro (literally meaning puppy), which differ from our traditional understanding in that they combine a thin, smoky sausage topped with cheese and chilli sauce and grilled in a thin French roll; a taste sensation of the highest order, it is impossible to leave without having more than one, and our only regret was that it wasn’t open on Sunday for what would have been the ideal pre-match snack. I fully intend to suggest a broadening of his menu the next time I visit Fat Harry’s outside the Emirates.
For the match itself on Sunday evening, through the wife’s incredible pre-planning (or indeed by complete fluke) our hotel was a mere four stops on the metro from the ground. We had been warned, on several occasions, that there was little in the way of pre-match refreshment options in the local area; but our well-developed experience of attending football matches in a variety of interesting locations, drew us towards a council estate immediately across the road from our entrance gate, where the seemingly more passionate fans had congregated, and given the old traditional adage of football fandom that ‘where there is chanting there must be beer’, lo and behold we stumbled upon the Super Dragões’ (FC Porto’s main ultras group) clubhouse who were showing Man City v Liverpool and knocking out cans of Super Bock at a Euro a pop; the perfect pre-match preparation.
Once inside the ground itself, the atmosphere was building even half an hour before kick-off; it reached a crescendo when the teams emerged onto the pitch with fireworks, smoke bombs and huge flags from our new mates, the Super Dragões behind one of the goals; and scarves raised above heads by just about everyone else around the ground; the pair of us kicking ourselves that we hadn’t treated ourselves to one from the well-stocked merchandise stall back in the Super Dragões clubhouse. It is when you experience match atmospheres like this one that you realise just how sterile football back at home has become with money and the ‘customer (sic) experience’ replacing the pure fandom that, thankfully, can still be found abroad. The stadium is ultra-modern with great sightlines and good facilities, with the added quirk of being readily viewable from the main roads at either end, but the club and ultras have clearly worked hard to make sure that it is anything but soulless.
With leaders Benfica having been held to a draw the previous evening at lowly Pacos Ferreira, a win here would allow Porto to wrest some initiative back in the championship race by putting them a point ahead of their perennial Lisbon rivals, a factor that only added to the nervous anticipation around the ground.
From the kick off it was clear the team were feeling the weight of expectation as they enjoyed tons of possession but were struggling to break through the stubborn massed ranks of Vitória de Setúbal; visiting goalkeeper Bruno Varela in particular incurring the venom of the fervent support who suspected him of timewasting at every conceivable opportunity; in fairness it is a wonder how he played on the amount of times he went down ‘injured’!
Finally in stoppage time at the end of the first half the breakthrough came, Corona crashing a volley from a cross from the left into the roof of the net sending the stadium into pandemonium. Neither of us have any huge stake in the fortunes of FC Porto, but you could actually feel the relief brought on by taking the lead.
All that good work was undone by a lacklustre start to the second half by the hosts who were pegged back to 1-1 just 9 minutes after the break when João Carvalho beat Ilker Cassilas one on one after Felipe’s slip had let him in. It was a bitter pill to swallow especially as try as they may Porto couldn’t raise the tempo sufficiently to find a second goal and ultimately the home crowd trudged away frustrated. The gap to Benfica at the top remains 1 point and the title race is still very much on, it just felt that this was a golden opportunity blown. For the two visiting football tourists from London, it had however been a brilliant experience and one we vowed to repeat in the not too distant future.