So, first things first, I know I set this blog up specifically to talk about my travels around Spain. But with this being an international week, why not expand the horizons a little?
I’ve just returned from a weekend in Lisbon, where I visited Benfica’s Estadio da Luz and attended a match at Sporting’s Estadio Jose Alvalade, the latter of which will be the main focus of this blog. Lisbon has been one of the cities I’ve most wanted to visit for years and it certainly didn’t disappoint, despite some occasionally iffy weather. The current Estadio Jose Alvalade, like many of Portugal’s big stadiums, is just over 10 years old. Euro 2004 was the catalyst for change, with the old historic grounds being demolished and replaced with modern facilities.
Often a move to a new stadium means trading in an atmospheric, old, city centre venue for a soulless, out-of-town arena, but pleasingly both of Lisbon’s big stadiums were rebuilt on their former sites and certainly don’t seem to lack character.
The new Estadio Alvalade was opened in 2003, with Sporting taking on Manchester United in the opening game. The game is remembered as the occasion when a young winger called Cristiano Ronaldo announced himself to the world, giving the United defence such a runaround that they insisted Alex Ferguson sign him. In fact due to a long-term partnership between the two clubs, United were already aware of Ronaldo’s potential, but that night was enough to persuade Ferguson that he was the real deal. He signed for United soon after and went on to do alright.
The stadium then hosted a number of games in the European Championships, including the game where Portugal eliminated Spain in the group stage, Greece’s shock win over holders France in the quarter final and Portugal’s epic semi-final win over the Netherlands. It was also named as the venue for the 2005 UEFA Cup final, and as often happens, Sporting were inspired by the thought of a home final and battled through to it. However, once they got there, the dream turned into a nightmare as they were defeated by CSKA Moscow.
Currently, Sporting Clube de Portugal (not, as they are often inaccurately called, Sporting Lisbon) are Portugal’s third most-successful club, behind bitter city rivals Benfica and FC Porto, and along with those two they hold the distinction of never having been relegated. Without a league title since 2002, at that point in the 2015/16 season they were locked in a tight battle with Benfica, with even more spice added by the fact Sporting were managed by Jorge Jesus, the man who won the last two titles as manager of their rivals before making the short journey across the city in the summer.
So, this is where I come in. Sporting were taking on fifth-placed Arouca, in what on paper looked a difficult game as they push for the title. Travelling from the city centre on the metro to Campo Grande station, I stepped out to find the area buzzing an hour and a half ahead of the 6:30pm kick off.
After buying a scarf from one of the stalls outside the ground, I then went and purchased a ticket. Only €35 tickets for non-socios remained, but that’s a fair enough price at a big ground in Spain or Portugal, so I had no complaints. With ticket and scarf purchased, I set out to have a look around, while avoiding the people putting stickers on you and asking for a Euro in return. One of the first things I noticed is that there’s a Lidl in the ground. Quite literally part of the ground. I’ve come across grounds where vacant space in the stands is given over to offices, grounds which are built right next to shopping centres, but until now, never one where you could go to the game and then do your big shop straight afterwards.
There are plenty of other outlets, mainly restaurants, which were all as busy as you’d expect ahead of the game. Upstairs there’s a cinema as well. The club shop itself is situated at the other end of the stand and is quite a small space, increased pre-match traffic making it hard to have a proper look around, so it was time to head inside the ground.
Aesthetically it’s a nice ground to look at, and the random-coloured seats idea is something which has been taken up by Northern Ireland’s own Windsor Park. But it’s when the ground begins to fill up that things get properly exciting. The noise from the home fans was outstanding, probably one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced as a neutral visitor to a ground. If that’s what it’s like when a relatively minor club (no disrespect to Arouca) come to town, I’d love to see what it’s like on the visit of Benfica or Porto, or a big European night. The stand at the southern end of the ground was full of flags and banners from before kick off, flares were let off throughout the game and they never stopped singing, creating a superb noisy and colourful back drop for the game.
All that remained was for Sporting’s players to match the display put on by their fans and they didn’t disappoint. Arouca game into the game unbeaten in seven, having not conceded in their previous five matches. But Sporting showed their greater class in the first half, scoring four unanswered goals, two apiece for Teo Gutierrez and Joao Mario. A slightly amusing aside to the first half was that the entire Sporting team played with their names incorrectly spelled on their shirts, the stadium announcer informing everyone at the break that this was to encourage fans not to buy counterfeit shirts.
The scoring continued with a fifth from former Fulham man Bryan Ruiz and after a number of substitutions (including a half-hour cameo for legendarily injury-prone ex-Italy international Alberto Aquilani) Arouca scored a consolation goal. Although the game somewhat petered out towards the end, the fans kept the atmosphere going and at the final whistle the players went over to deservedly salute them.
Lisbon is a great city, both if you’re interested in football and if you’re not. I spent Saturday at the two grounds and then Sunday and Monday exploring the rest of the city, although I was hampered on Monday by the weather taking a turn for the worse. There’s lots more to say about Lisbon, so expect to hear it in the future.