But this feels like a perfect time to look back at my last visit to Porto, in December 2015, when I took a quick trip south to see FC Porto in the Estadio do Dragão.
The First Time
Now this wasn’t my first trip to Porto. I had been there before about a year and a half before, which was actually my first ever visit to Portugal. On that occasion, I was prevented from going to see Porto by a very late date change for a match – it was literally two days before I left when I saw that the game had been switched from Sunday to Monday night. Unfortunately, this kind of thing would become a theme on my travels over the coming years.
I was still able to see a game there – Porto’s city rivals Boavista playing in the third division! – and visit the Estadio do Dragão to do the stadium and museum tour with its impressive collection of creepy plastic statues of club legends.
But not seeing a game there rankled with me and by the autumn of 2015, I decided to do something about it. Finding a weekend ahead of a Champions League round where Porto were playing on a Tuesday, I felt confident enough to bet on a Saturday kick-off – for some reason the thought of it being brought forward to Friday never even entered my head! Bus tickets from Santiago and a single night’s accommodation were swiftly booked and I was all set.
Getting to Porto
From Santiago de Compostela, the easiest way of getting to Porto is the Alsa Bus, which takes about four hours from the city bus station to the Casa da Musica stop in Porto, via stops in Pontevedra, Vigo and over the border in Valença and Braga. It’s not the longest journey I’ve ever taken, but some of the winding roads in the south of Galicia and north of Portugal aren’t great, so it does rank as one of the more uncomfortable ones.
Upon arriving at the Casa da Musica, I had a short walk to my accommodation for the night, where I dropped off my bag, took a short rest and then headed back to the Casa da Musica to take the Metro out to the stadium.
This is not exactly a complicated journey as four of the city’s Metro lines go direct from the Casa da Musica to the Estadio do Dragão, eight stops down the line.
Although it was a couple of hours before kick-off when I arrived, it was already extremely busy outside the ground as I joined the queue for tickets. One thing I did notice as I waited was a lot of Spanish being spoken by people around me – lots of people had made a similar journey to me, though for them the attraction was probably getting to see Iker Casillas – the Spain legend having joined Porto in the summer after leaving Real Madrid.
Under Julen Lopetegui, there was quite a strong Spanish contingent in the Porto squad, Casillas being joined by defenders Iván Marcano and José Angel as well as former Rayo forward Alberto Bueno and on-loan Barça winger Cristian Tello.
With my ticket having been purchased for the princely sum of €15, I took time to look round the club shop, somehow resisting the lure of buying that season’s chocolate brown away shirt – something which has haunted me ever since.
Alas I didn’t spot my favourite product from my previous visit, which stands above all others as the strangest thing I have ever seen in an official club shop, Porto’s official anti-virus software.
A very late lunch came in the shape of a trip to the food court of the shopping centre which is adjacent to the stadium, which with this being the start of December, was packed out with Christmas shoppers. You get a cool view of the inside of the stadium as you walk over to it though!
Enter the Dragon 🐉
Like Portugal’s other big clubs, Porto benefitted from the country’s hosting of Euro 2004 with a brand-spanking new stadium, opened in 2003 with a friendly against a Barcelona side which featured a young Lionel Messi making his debut for Barcelona’s first team. Porto won that friendly 2-0 and would go on to shock Europe that year by winning the Champions League under the irrepressible Jose Mourinho.
It was also the venue for a number of key games in Euro 2004, including the opening game, where Portugal lost 2-1 to Greece and the Greeks’ silver goal elimination of tournament favourites the Czech Republic in the semis. It did produce better international memories for Portugal in 2019 when they won the inaugural UEFA Nations League there but for my money, the most significant international played there was in 2012, when Northern Ireland spoiled the party for Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100th cap by claiming a 1-1 draw there.
The game I was for was not one of the more glamorous occasions the stadium had hosted. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill Liga NOS game and one which Porto were expected to win and win handsomely. It wasn’t even the biggest game Porto had that week as their Champions League tie at Chelsea had turned into a must-win game if they were to progress.
Paços de Ferreira provided the opposition at the Estadio do Dragão and thanks to the free programme I was handed on the way in, I knew that they had lost 5-0 on their previous visit earlier in the year. I would have settled for a repeat of that – plenty of goals to make my trip worthwhile.
When the players came out to warm up, there were huge cheers for Helton, the Brazilian goalkeeper and Porto stalwart who had been supplanted by Casillas’ arrival. I had previously seen Helton in action twelve years prior to this, in a UEFA Cup preliminary round tie at the Coleraine Showgrounds where, representing União Leiria, he conceded goals from Paul Gaston and Rory Hamill in a memorable Bannsiders victory!
As kick-off neared, the pitch became increasingly congested, filled with kids waving flags, advertising boards for the teams to be photographed with and large sheets with the logo of league sponsors NOS (a Portuguese telecommunications conglomerate which includes a mobile phone network, broadband internet, cable and satellite television and a cinema chain among its businesses) long with an inflatable version of the Porto club badge. Because why not?
Once the action got underway, it soon became clear that Porto weren’t in for quite as easy a ride as they had hoped. With only eight minutes on the clock, the visitors went in front with a goal from Bruno Moreira. The atmosphere in the grounds became a bit edgy, the nature of the Portuguese league means that dropping points in a game like this could potentially be fatal come the end of the season and Porto poured forward to try and get back in the game.
This they did when Jésus Corona equalised just before the half hour, but they weren’t able to quickly turn things around. Paços coped well with everything their hosts threw at them and went in level at the break.
I went down to explore what half time snack options there were and had a quick bite to eat while admiring the walls decorated with old matchday programme covers. The number of stars featured there included Falcao, Deco, Hulk, James Rodriguez, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, I could go on and on, really made you think about how lucky Porto and their fans have been down the years to see these players, even if only fleetingly.
Back to the current crop though, they were still struggling to break down their determined opponents and continued to do so until the 64th minute when they were awarded a penalty, converted successfully by Miguel Layún. But if the home fans had expected Porto to cut loose and score a few more goals, they were sadly mistaken.
The players were edgy as they couldn’t quite put their opponents away and this edginess spread to the crowd. The final 20 minutes were not a great spectacle, mostly Porto attacking but without a great deal of conviction.
The one image which really stays with me from the game – and sums up Porto’s night – was an utterly inexplicable open goal miss from Vincent Aboubakar right at the end. Unfortunately I can’t find the footage of it on YouTube, but take my word for it, that miss was almost worth the ticket price all by itself!
The Morning After
For a December morning, it was remarkably warm as I checked out of my accommodation and made my way into the centre for the last part of my trip.
Porto is a lovely city to walk around on a quiet Sunday morning and it was even nice enough to take my morning coffee out on a terrace before I took a walk around Avenida dos Aliados and down towards the River Douro and the time absolutely flew in before I realised I would have to make my way back to the Casa da Musica and my bus ride home – which unfortunately was a worse journey than the outward one.
Reflections from 2020
Within a few weeks, Porto’s 2015/16 season totally unravelled. Having just scraped past Paços de Ferreira, Porto then lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, dropping them into the Europa League and meaning there would be no repeat of their run to the Champions League quarter finals the year before.
This increased the pressure on Lopetegui, and that pressure became unbearable after they lost to Sporting on 2nd January. After a draw in their next game at home to Rio Ave, Lopetegui was dismissed and would remain out of work until he was the slightly surprising choice to replace Vicente del Bosque following Spain’s exit from Euro 2016. He led Spain to an impressive qualifying campaign, but seriously blotted his copybook by agreeing to take over at Real Madrid days before the World Cup started. Fired and sent home in disgrace from Russia, he didn’t even make a success of his big move to the Bernabéu – being sacked in October after losing 5-1 to Barcelona. He has done a lot to rebuild his reputation at Sevilla this season though by leading them to fourth spot in La Liga.
Porto didn’t improve much after firing Lopetegui, ending up a distant third behind Sporting (who I also saw in action that season) and eventual champions Benfica. They then turned to former goalkeeper Nuno Espirito Santo to try and break Benfica’s dominance, but after only one season where they won nothing, he left to go on and achieve great success at Wolves in England, taking one of the club’s rising star Rúben Neves with him.
To replace Nuno, they appointed his former team mate Sérgio Conceição and he had a fantastic impact, winning 28 of the 34 league games to regain the title for the first time since 2013. The next season saw Porto finish runners-up in all three domestic competitions, losing two cup finals to Sporting and trailing behind Benfica in the league, but they regained the title in 2020, capitalising on the Lisbon club’s collapse to regain the title after the league returned from lockdown and they still have the Taça de Portugal final against them coming up on 1st August. So there could be some celebrations while I’m in the city!