When choosing our summer holiday this year, my girlfriend and I wanted to combine the best of both worlds: a relaxed “pool” holiday with a city break. We plumped for Lisbon, as neither of us had visited the city, or indeed Portugal, before. Having no kids, we also decided to go out of season to avoid the exorbitant prices and screaming kids associated with the summer holidays. Conveniently, this also coincided with the start of the football season although I had the excruciating wait of the fixture schedule both for the league and the Champions League being released. Considering we were arriving on Friday and leaving on Wednesday I hoped to catch a league game at the weekend and potentially a Champions League fixture on the Tuesday. And luckily for me that is exactly how it turned out.
Sport Lisboa e Benfica were drawn at home to Turkish champions Besiktas on the Tuesday night in the opening fixture of the Champions League group stage, whilst Sporting Clube de Portugal were to host Moreirense on the Saturday. The two clubs, along with FC Porto, make up Portugal’s Três Grandes and together boast 53 league titles and two European Cups. Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo, both raised in Sporting’s famous academy, are highly decorated Ballon d’Or winners and the legendary Eusebio won the gong whilst playing for Benfica.
Before I left for Portugal I had a look on Sporting’s official website but couldn’t make head nor tail of it, so decided to be spontaneous on the day. I’d been assured that considering it wasn’t a high-profile game, tickets wouldn’t be a problem. Kick-off was set for 6.15pm, and being generally early for everything I set off over two hours earlier without my girlfriend, who decided to stay by the pool at the hotel and relax. The Metro trip to the stadium was a breeze, and I just followed the lads in the green and white shirts. Upon emerging from the ugly Metro/bus interchange at Campo Grande, the Estádio José Alvalade XXI opens up before you and is unmissable. I joined the line for match day tickets and I was three from the front of the queue when a staff member advised me that tickets for non-members were now sold out.
It was now time to start mildly panicking although I decided to persevere. I had a brainwave: why don’t I become a club member? I joined another queue and 30 minutes and €12 later I was officially a member, joining 140,000 others around the world. I rejoined the original queue, hoping to get a ticket as a member, and once again I got almost to the front only to be told that by now all of the tickets had now been sold, even to the members, with the exception of ridiculously priced VIP tickets. Now I’d come a long way for this game, and queued for almost 90 minutes so far, but no way could I justify over €100 for a game that was likely to be a procession, especially if I wanted to stay out of the dog house on the first full day of the holiday.
Just as I thought all hope was lost I was approached by two twenty-something Sporting fans, whose dad had been unable to attend the game. I purchased his ticket for €20 and entered the stadium with my very own local tour guides. The lads’ English was superb, and their knowledge and passion for Premier League was palpable. I pumped them for information about their team and they said Sporting had assembled their best team for five years. They were also very proud of the club’s tradition of promoting youth players, which has seen the aforementioned Ronaldo and Figo play for the first team after coming through the academy, as well as Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, João Moutinho and England’s own Eric Dier.
Sporting lined up on the day with some familiar faces: Sebastian Coates, the Uruguayan defender who has had spells at Sunderland and Liverpool; Joel Campbell on loan from Arsenal; and European Championship winners Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and club captain Adrien Silva. Before the game kicked off, the 44,000 fans in attendance belted out a club anthem, an impressive adaptation of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. The heat was stifling, and the sun bore down on us throughout the whole of the first half. The football on show in the opening period wasn’t great although Sporting took the lead after 27 minutes when Carvalho clipped a ball into the box which was converted by Gelson. The visitors, Moreirense, had clearly come to park the bus and spring the odd counter attack, although their slim chance turned to none once they had a man sent off on the half hour mark for what seemed from the stands to be two soft bookings.
The sun dipped below the stands during the interval and thankfully Sporting came out firing in the second half, looking like a completely different team. Perhaps the manager had reminded the players that they were fighting for their places ahead of the upcoming clash against Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell doubled the lead in the 52nd minute, and prolific Dutch striker Bas Dost made it 3-0 four minutes later. The manager was then able to rest a few players, including captain and string-puller-in-chief Adrien Silva, and bring on three debutants, amongst Liverpool’s on-loan Lazar Markovic. The job was done and Sporting went back to the top of the league. Despite the ticket-related panic before the game the experience was great and heightened by being able to spontaneously enter with a pair of friendly locals who went home as happy as I did.
After a few more great days in Lisbon, our last night coincided with the Benfica game. Thankfully, unlike for the Sporting game, I had already secured the tickets before leaving England, ordering them online and picking them up from the club megastore before the game. I was still keen to arrive early and soak up the atmosphere, and arrived at the Estádio da Luz to find a “Fan Zone” outside the stadium, with entertainment and food & drink on offer. I settled for what was lovingly described by the vendor as a “pig sandwich”, and a beer. Ironically, despite Heineken being a Champions League sponsor, beer was not on offer within the stadium so I had to have a couple before venturing inside. The atmosphere inside the fan zone was great, and I got a real family feel for the club, with men, women and children, young and old milling around. A 3G pitch next to the stadium was full with the next generation of Benfica, being put through their paces by club coaches.
I was highly anticipating Benfica’s pre-match ritual with the eagle from the club’s emblem being let loose from high up in the stands before circling the stadium and landing on the pitch. This unique ceremony proved to be a real highlight coming just before the iconic Champions League anthem. The attendance was 42,126, which considering the impressive stadium has a capacity of 64,000 means it was two-thirds full. I was a little surprised and disappointed with the attendance, considering it was the first fixture in the competition, but wondered if it is to do with people’s apathy with the Champions League. Despite the empty seats, fan culture within the stadium was strong, with pockets of fans behind each goal challenging their opposite number to sing and chant louder. Alternate shouts of “Benfica…Benfica” from each end gave me goose bumps.
The home team, despite fielding few household names, took the game to their Turkish opponents and moved the ball quickly with a direct style. It only took 12 minutes for Benfica to take the lead through effervescent Argentine forward Franco Servi, after he pounced on the goalkeeper’s parry. The home side dominated most of the first half but Besiktas came into the game as the game wore on. Ricardo Quaresma, featuring for the Turks, was roundly booed by the home fans despite being part of Portugal’s triumphant European Championship-winning squad, due to his past history with rivals Sporting and Porto. In the last minute, as the home fans were leaving to beat the rush, the visitors struck through a last gasp free-kick from substitute Talisca, which gave impressive goalkeeper Ederson little chance. The Besiktas players, and the few hundred fans high up in the stands, went crazy. Boos rang out from the home fans, having seen their team throw away two points. To be fair a draw was probably a fair result. Benfica edged the game but it must be said that they just didn’t do enough to warrant the full three points.
Lisbon is a stunning city and well worth a visit. The main tourist areas are fairly close together, so you can cover most of the city on foot, ride the Metro or the famous Tram 28. The weather is great, as is the food, and the locals are super friendly. The football, as always with any trip, was an added bonus!
Sporting: Assuming the game is not versus Benfica or Porto, tickets can be bought from the stadium on the day of the match. The ticket office opens from 10am and I’d advise you to arrive at least 2-3 hours early to avoid the queues/disappointment.
Benfica: Tickets can be bought on the official website and then picked up at the stadium megastore on the day of the game. They can also be bought from the official club shop on the pedestrianised Rua Augusta.
Prices for both stadiums start from €20.
Sporting: Take the Linha Verde (Green Line) towards Telheiras and get off at Campo Grande.
Benfica: Take the Linha Azul (Blue Line) towards Reboleira and get off at Alto dos Moinhos.
Single journeys on the Metro cost €1.40. Journeys to both stadiums take approximately 15 minutes from the centre of Lisbon.
First Published by Football Weekends magazine (Issue 18, November 2016)