Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game enjoy a stag weekend in Portugal and take in Lisbon’s third wheel Os Belenenses. Naturally.

Having not opted for Clapton or Dulwich Hamlet as the destination for an old school friends Stag Do, even though I hear they are quite the up and coming venues, move over Prague and Talin, instead the best man chose Lisbon. That is why Tom and I, plus a handful of old friends, who have more dirt on me then I care to remember, are sitting in the Stansted Airport Wetherspoons, drinking long before the sun is over the yardarm, and I’m regretting I chose Guinness for my first drink of the day.

The Stag is already on drink three or four by the time I arrive, and as I tuck into a bacon sandwich, my attempt at preparation for the day ahead, he is slamming some clear nondescript alcohol, shuddering as he swallows it, giving the guy who got it for him a look of, ‘cheers mate’ and ‘go fuck yourself’ at the same time.

We are not alone, the strangely decorated, brick laden pub is full of other groups of men jetting off to affordable European cities, to drink too much, shout too much, and bring more shame upon our already much shamed land of ours. Each stag is distinguishable from the rest of the group, mine has been instructed to wear a suit all weekend, and someone has bought him a Donald Trump wig, another in the Spoons has a full Arsenal kit on, with “Number 1 Spurs Fan” written on the back. There are also a couple of serious looking bikers, both with their top and bottom rockers, who are clearly not playing dress up.

As one friend finishes his Kir Royale and orders a glass of Laphroaig, another friend is presented with a vegetarian fry up, to go along with his bottle of craft beer, and I realise there are 24 hours and some to pass, with God only knows what having been arranged in between, before we get to watch some football.

When Éder scored his extra time winner against France, at the Stade de France, he all but confirmed the next country we would visit, after stating pre Euro’s that the country that won, would be the next one we go to. Not knowing much about Portuguese football, other than Eusébio, Figo and Cristiano, and occasionally catching a glimpse of one of their teams competing in one European competition or another, when he did score, I’ll be honest we were left a little stumped. I think that both of us were desperate for Italy to win. The football, the food, the history, but Zaza put a stop to that!

Tom wanted to renege on our social media promise, I on the other hand was keen to stick to it. Thankfully a few weeks post french heartbreak, a Facebook invitation to a November stag weekend in Lisbon, answered our prayers.

Think of Lisbon and football, and most will name Benfica and Sporting, few may even have heard of the cities third top flight club, who once were winning titles, but in recent memory have fallen way down the pecking order, no better highlighted by the Benfica and Sporting scarves hanging side by side in the airport Metro station gift shop, with no mention of their city mates, Os Belenenses (OSB).

Before the football though, many things will happen, and before we even get to the match, I curse Éder’s goal a thousand times, it’s his fault I was subjected to watching someone be sick on the floor of a restaurant.

24 hours later, 24 hours under our belts in the city of ‘Seven Hills’, which has had its ups and downs, nice beer, good food, but neither of us can work out why our bathroom has a blind that opens into the bedroom, like some perverse holiday fish bowl. He wake from our siesta, required after a day of activities, still feeling awful thanks to the night before, still half asleep, standing at the taxi rank outside of our hotel, in the dark, waiting for our lift to the match.

At an average speed of 110 km/h we weave through cars, our driver indicating at the very last moment, before changing lanes, I’m clutching onto the headrest in front of me, Tom is staring out the window, the spacing of the motorways lights illuminating his face for a second, then plunging it into darkness, all while Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ softly plays on the radio, and I’m descending into a dystopian nightmare.

img_20161126_184651“Think we have arrived in Highgate” says Tom, breaking the silence and interrupting Thom Yorke. I don’t think his dehydration has brought on hallucinations, but instead he is commenting on the  similarity of the upmarket, gated houses we are now passing, to those of the north London suburb, thankfully now at under 100 km/h.

The floodlights of the Estádio do Restelo were visible from the motorway, but as we get closer, bizarrely they seem to be getting further away, further up a steep hill, like a football citadel, overlooking the city below. Our driver, probably keen to get rid of the grey, silent Englishmen in the back of his car, drops us off in a car park in the stadiums shadow, pointing to a kiosk, after asking the parking attendant where we can get a ticket.

“Members only” is the response from the man, through a tiny caged window, who directs us up the hill, past a petrol station, to where we can get our tickets. On our way, the steep climb only adding to quite how bad I feel, we pass the kind of merchandise stall, familiar to every football fan, the ones selling polyester scarves, flags, pins, and even a t-shirt with WWE wrestler Batista on, but where you expect them to be OSB, the majority, the vast majority of the tut for sale is that of their opposition tonight, FC Porto (FCP).

A few busy vans line one side of the road, selling beer, food and the pastry that this particular district of Lisbon is famous for the, pastéis de nata. So synonymous with this area, that OSB are known as the ‘Pastéis’, Pastries. The aforementioned pastry which was so high up my list of things to try while I was here, has become the last thing I want to eat, I’m not really in the mood for custard right now.

Along with the vans, the local petrol station seems a popular haunt for a drink, nothing like the heady smell of gasoline with your pint, and as Tom puts it, “gotta love a petrol station beer”.

Finally reaching the summit, another caged man peers from beyond some bars, takes 30 Euros from us both, and the tickets are secured. Tom now thinks it’s time to test ourselves, it’s time to get a drink, and see how we react.

Amongst the abundance of FCP fans, we do spot one OSB supporter, swaying much like the flag he is carrying, which he uses like a hiking pole, to ascend the hill, singing his garbled song, Tom rightly pointing out he “looks a little worse for wear”. As the small sips of beer hit my stomach, I’m instantly aware of my error, my misery is compounded by the increasing rain, “oh dear” says Tom as the heavens open, and he guides us from under a tree, to the opposite side of the road, to a large red umbrella outside a restaurant attached to the ground.

I need to sit down, I didn’t even drink that much last night, and unlike others in our party, have been sticking to the peach ice tea today, but still feel dreadful, Tom thinks there is nothing else for it, it’s time for a “posh beer”.

Directed to our table by a mixture of hand gestures and broken English, nearby a coach load of Japanese tourists, enjoying their pre match meal, and a lot of scarf wearing, FCP of course, supporters, also sheltering from the rain. When the waiter, in his crisp white shirt and black trousers, asks Tom what size beer he would like, he replies with his own hand waving, and a single word “big”.

It’s a coke for me, sitting opposite each other, we try desperately get in the zone, trying to pull ourselves together, we are being truly pathetic. Tom is convinced for some reason that his beer is non alcoholic, but soon gives up on that idea, instead returning to, like me, watching the world pass by outside. Coaches arrive and unload their passengers, one from a local water park, whose scene of fun in the sun painted on the outside, is the complete opposite to our current reality.

Tom’s head is turned numerous times by the passing plates of cake, which he contemplates getting every time one does, but doesn’t. After scanning the menu, the sandwiches and salads on offer, debunk his notion, I think because of the smartly dressed staff, that this is not a “posh” restaurant after all, but more of a cafe. Confused, and a little dishevelled, he shakes his head, mumbling to himself, “funny place”.

After paying, we join the queue to get into the ground, cowering under our hoods, the air filled with a mixture of rain and the smoke from what I think are stalls roasting chestnuts, behind us opportunist entrepreneurial locals are selling raincoats to the ill prepared. It’s about now that our night takes a nose dive of such biblical proportions, putting us both into a tailspin to a very dark place, that I’m not sure we can recover from, we are denied entry.

p1130340“Not allowed” says the steward come bouncer, come Bond baddie henchman, all in black with heavy, military esq boots. Whilst searching Tom’s bag, he finds his camera, and tells us we can’t come in with it, regardless of the amount of times we say we have come all the way from England. He is now looking beyond us, checking the tickets of those behind us, FUCK!

What do we do, gobsmacked and totally bowled over, we run over our options, which end up being nonexistent. We are too far from the hotel, kick off is in about fifteen minutes, so we can’t get there and back in time, we come to the conclusion that we can try and blag it with another steward.

We queue again, both fidgeting nervously, like the opening credits of Midnight Express, we reach the front and another one of Blofeld’s employees asks us to open our bags. Tom’s first, and before he even gets to the camera at the bottom of his bag, he finds another item that gets us denied entry for a second time, his mobile battery packs. We plead again, ask if there is somewhere we can leave them, “I don’t speak English” says the steward in perfect English, and once again we are turned away.

Through a nearby fence I see a potential lifeline, someone who might be able to help, someone who looks a little more approachable than the previous two, his official looking lanyard a beacon in the dark. João, who in his own words is “Mr Belenenses” is more than happy to take the battery pack, as he can put that in his pocket, and we can meet him later, telling us to ask anyone for him, using his unique title. However, when we show him the camera, he shrugs, understandably he is not a cart horse, and it’s just too much for him. Seeing the last bit of colour drain from our faces, he sends us to the bottom of the hill, to see if anyone can help us at the players entrance.

Fiercely guarded, we explain our situation again, doing as I say to Tom “our best Hugh Grant impressions”, hoping they will take pity on these two foreign idiots. Another lanyard wearing, walkie talkie type appears, who is happy thank God to take the bag, which we fill with everything but our wallets and phones, especially Tom’s vape cig, or “r2d2 dick” as one friend calls it, that our new best friend almost faints at the sight of, when Tom asks him if he can take it in.

Bagless, cameraless, battery packless, vape cig less, we climb the hill, wet and gasping for air, we try again, with minutes to kick off. Frisked, searched and finally allowed in, the same man who denied us the first time, has a bit of a grin on his face as he steps to one side, letting us pass, he asks me in a deep voice, “you the one with the camera?”.

Scurrying along the bare concourse, past the bank of portaloos, which Tom needs badly, but can’t face right now, and stalls reminiscent of ones from a school fair selling bags of popcorn, and the Portuguese equivalent of Panda Pops, we find our block, descend the gloss white stairs, right to the front. Squeezing past a few people already in their bolted down faded blue plastic seats, we find our spot, just out of reach of the ever increasing rain, with moments to spare.

Before the teams arrive from their subterranean dressing rooms, situated at the open end of the horseshoe shaped stadium, there is just about enough time to get my bearings. Single tiered all the way round, there are perhaps more empty seats then there are full ones, with the vast majority of people supporting the away team, whose end, or side of the ground we have somehow ended up in, with only a smattering of home fans occupying the half opposite.

The largest congregation of people is on the curve of the horseshoe to our right, hanging in front of them is a long banner “Super Dragões (Dragons) 1986”, with flags, drums and a loud hailer the FCP ultras are here in very good numbers, and are making quite a racket.

As the puddles on the blue running track surrounding the pitch get bigger, the weather is now truly hideous, I’m sure the less than impressed players emerge, not to some blaring pop song, or piece of music pinched from Star Wars, but a traditional club anthem, which if I could hear them over the Dragons, I’m sure the home fans are dutifully singing along with. The kind of anthem which has a familiar, ye olde, European lilt, the like of which you hear at so many clubs when you watch European football on the TV, no doubt including some lines about vanquishing those who challenge them.

FCP in yellow, approach their supporters and applaud them, and could be forgiven for thinking it’s a home game. If Tom and I weren’t on edge enough as it is, slowly starting to relax, but still a bit tense after everything outside, the flash bang that goes off in front of the ultras, makes us both jump, like shell shock victims. Tom then just about sums up this evening, before it’s even got going, in one sentence, “you can’t bring in a camera, but you can bring in a flash bang”.

p1130346Whenever we are in the presence of ultras, be that at home or abroad, and although I know it’s rude to stare, it is inevitable that the football takes a back seat, and Tom and I spend the game gawping, heads turned to one side, engrossed by the constant movement and noise they are making. OSB have their own ultras section, all on their feet and relative to the amount of their fans in total, who are mostly huddled at the back of the stand to avoid the rain, it’s a reasonable sized group, and although we can see them moving, with a couple of big flags swaying at the front, there is little chance of ever hearing them.

Having shelled out for the 30 Euro tickets, instead of the 25 Euro ones, it’s soon apparent I think what the extra five gets you. In front of us the wall is topped by hood wearing people, drenched and cold, the roof unable to protect them, I bet they wish they had stumped up the extra cash.

The first chance of the match goes to the home side, which gets a “ohhhhh”. OSB are very much the underdogs, compared to their powerhouse visitors, perhaps it’s the chance, but someone has got very excited, chucking another flash bang, which once again makes us both jump, and forces Tom to make a dash for the portaloo.

“Smelt of peaches” says Tom as he returns, each hand grasping a beer, clearly up for testing ourselves again, as well as singing the praises of the toilet facilities, “not bad for a portaloo” he informs me. Clearly in a much better mood now, like me the fuzz of the previous night and the pre match trauma is starting to clear, and the beer slips down very well, with no adverse reaction.

Twenty two minutes in, and all FCP have to do is pass square across the box for a simple tap in to take the lead, but someone fluffs it, much to the displeasure of many around us, who are quick to their feet, using some unsavoury language, “puta”. This glaring miss, for the first time brings a lull to the Dragons, and much delight to the now pogoing OSB fans who we can now hear for the first time.

The sight of a big man with a notebook, seems to make people very inquisitive, and I’m quite used to getting a tap on the shoulder, and being asked what I’m doing. Tonight is no different, as my immediate neighbour, smart and well dressed with an air of the AVB about him, who he tells me he is a big fan of, does, close to the end of the half. I was asked in Germany if I was writing a cookbook, a well crafted fat joke I was happy to accept, but this time I’m asked if I’m a “football scout” or if I’m working for “football manager”, alas, if only this were true, but it’s a good ice breaker, and we get nattering, the game is pretty dire, so we won’t miss much.

Considering the Spurs and Porto connection, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to take a Villas Boas course, the ex manager that many FCP fans would like back at the club, however after recently telling the world he wanted some time away from football, then two months later taking a job in the Chinese Super League, he is perhaps not in their good books, and as my neighbour points out, “money talks loud”.

Along with his silver haired, chain smoking father in law, who when informed of the name of our blog, asked if there are any “women involved”, despite both being from Lisbon, both follow FCP. He tells me what a famous club OSB used to be, but it’s only the “old” who remember now, so many people he tells me choosing to support one of the big three, Sporting, Benfica or Porto, and how “sad” it is that a once big team, league champions once upon a time, are getting such low attendances.

The end of the first half, a half of very average football, turns into a bit of a pantomime. A “dirty game” is how Tom describes it, with both sides taking turns in one upping each others theatrics following tackles, at one point the referee is surrounded by both teams, with much gesticulating, but nothing comes of it.

img_20161126_220333It takes quite the effort to drag the sodden advertising back onto the pitch for the half time break, my suggestion of a beer run to Tom is maybe ill timed, “there’s one dude selling them from a table” he tells me, so he might be somewhat over run. We stay in our seats, which gives us a good view of both the flashes of lightning in the distance, framed by the open end of the ground, and the Dragons fighting among themselves, those not up for a punch up dashing to the back of their section, leaping over chairs, those very much up for it, getting into each other, “if they are fighting each other, they would of killed us” says Tom.

A man bounding over seats selling popcorn, springs by us about the same time the players appear, all while the stadium announcer tries to whip up the crowd, “Belém” he says, “PORTO” reply the away fans, he repeats himself, “Belém”, but again the away fans are much louder “PORTO”.

The rain is now at its heaviest, and the pitch is showing the effects of it, big brown scars appearing all over it. When an FCP chance is cleared off the line, the first genuine thing of note to have happened all match, the fans continue to grow increasingly frustrated at their team’s inability to score, and out right sloppy play. Even though I have no idea what they are saying, the international language of eye rolling, tutting, turning away in disgust, is loud and clear.

Deh, deh, deh, deh “Porto”, bangs the drum, as the match turns into a bit of a dirge, and Tom and I find ourselves people watching, in particular, the salt and pepper haired man, with the FCP scarf standing just below us. “He’s not watching the game at all”, says Tom, taking the words right out of my mouth, he is far too busy giving a running commentary to those around him, who more often than not just nod along with what he is saying, only occasionally replying. Every time there is an errant pass or they lose the ball, he is jabbing his finger in the direction of the player at fault, then turning around again to unload on his friends.

Into the last quarter of the game, OSB manage to break free of their half, down the right wing the player wriggles free of his marker, runs down the byline, he is in on goal. He shoots from a tight angle, the keeper going full starfish, but his shot hits the side netting. The chance is one of the few times we hear the hardy OSB supporters, who are now sopping wet, but are steadfast front and centre.

It’s an OSB substitute, who is taking the piss, leaving the pitch at a snail’s pace, that gets our neighbours father in law to his feet, for the first time, shouting at the exiting player, which is joined by shrieking whistles and catcalls from the other fans. He is walking so slowly, both the referee and FCP players walk along beside him, telling him I’m sure to hurry up, OSB are close to getting a much needed point, so every opportunity to steal some time, is taken.

FCP miss another chance, and it’s maybe one of the reasons, that, as I’m informed by him next door, they have not won anything for “3 years”. He asks me other than “Casillas” do I know any of the players. Once I probably could have given it a good go at naming a big chunk of the team, Hulk, Deco, Falcao, but now, I’m not sure I could tell you any. There is the big lumbering 22 or “the tree” as Tom and I call him, who is dead on his feet and is simply banging into people in midfield, or the slightly Sunday League looking right back number 2, who they keep passing the ball to on the overlap, but I think I could run faster, but no one I have seen today, who is going to be a household name anytime soon.

The wafting smoke from down the row, has broken Tom, and he bums a fag off the father in law, and tells me “he’s always wanted to smoke at a football match” we all have our goals in life. I wonder though as he drags on the Marlborough Red, the absinthe of the cigarette world, slowly turning a shade of green, that this goal might have been better left to another day.

p1130356FCP have the last chance, it’s not a great shock when it doesn’t go in, and those around have hit breaking point. Bent over, backs turned, eyes to the heavens, eyes to the floor, puffed out cheeks, swearing or silent, they know their team have dropped a bit of a clanger tonight, against a relative minnow, who have not won in something like five games. Casillas shows his own frustrations when two balls end up on the pitch, which are only helping OSB wind down the clock. He runs over scooping up one, and hoofing the other clear out the ground, which gets a chorus of ironic cheers.

The “Boos” from the away end are in stark contrast to rapturous cheers from the opposite side, the home fans clearly overjoyed with their point. Another flash bang from the Dragons has the same result on us as before, the OSB fans deploy their own bit of a pyro, not as obnoxious as the visitors offering, a blinking white light, like something from a Christmas Tree, except its emitting plumes of grey smoke.

Game over, we bid a fond farewell to our neighbours, but not before he takes a very unflattering picture of us both, retrieving Toms bag is now of the utmost importance. In fact I think it’s been playing on his mind most of the game, so we rush back down the hill, but not before Tom is very nearly run over by a old man making his way into the petrol station. I could see the whites of the driver’s eyes, who didn’t even flinch, at the sight of me pounding his bonnet, alerting him of our presence, and stopping him from mowing us down, could today get any worse?

Outside the players entrance our bag saviour is still milling about, still glued to his walkie talkie, cajoling the press, a camera crew, as well as a high concentration of screaming, high pitched girls, on the hunt for an autograph, as well as a small group of teen boys, who are taking overly posed pics with the players as they exit, who are happy to oblige when asked, but who are also not wanting to get wet.

Everything is wet, the cameraman’s cables are running through a large puddle, it’s a health and safety nightmare, and the girls are less than impressed when a hoard of stewards arrive, creating a perimeter and forcing them to stand in an ankle deep puddle

What look like club officials, perhaps old players or members of the board, are escorted out, by burly minders, who hold an umbrella with one hand, swatting away any unwelcome attention, with the other. Numerous players appear, are quickly swamped, then disappear into one of the flashy cars in the car park, or if they are FCP onto the big club coach. Considering we only know one player, why not stick around a little while, see if we can grab a second of his time, and Tom has a plan on how to achieve this.

The mistake everyone else is making, according to Tom, is crowding the front, getting in the mix, which is being broken up by Lisbon’s finest high viz wearers, we play it cool, hanging at the back, the aim to intercept him, just before he gets on the coach.

There are a few false alarms, we try to decide if the selfie mode on my camera is best or the normal one, I have a bad track record with taking pics in high pressure situations, and feel there is a lot riding on this. Suddenly the crowd surge, and the girls screech “Casillas”, the target is in sight. He makes his way through them, stopping to pose and sign, thinking he is home free, we pounce on him, he is moving at quite a pace, we only have one shot at this.

img_20161126_225853“We are from England” I say, to a bemused looking Spaniard, who is a lot shorter than I thought he would be, but he is still moving, my announcement of what country I’m from has not stopped him. When I finally say “picture” making it clear why I would like him to stop, I’m a moron, he does so without hesitation. Nudging Tom to hold up our sticker, brand awareness, the World Cup, European Cup, Champions League winner smiles with us from under his sweatshirt hood.

There is a moment of frantic checking, as I’m not sure if the pic has taken, but it better have, because he is gone, and is now behind the tough looking man in a suit, guarding the bus door.

We check my phone, and it’s there, us two idiots and a World Cup winner, RESULT! We are just the same as the screaming girls and the posing boys, and it feels brilliant.

Still raining, the Gods are finally smiling on us, a taxi arriving the moment we step from the car park, on to the pavement. Such is my high pitched excitement, when recounting our meeting with the three times Champions League winner, the elderly female taxi driver turns around, half scared and shocked, thinking something terrible has happened.

So what did we learn from out trip to Lisbon? Don’t trust your friends with the complementary wine, beware the over zealous drivers, never touch the window blind because you’ll be in for a shock, and never, I repeat never take a camera bigger than a disposable one, or anything else they might consider, as Tom put it “throwable” because they wont let you in, except of course if its a flash bang, because they’re alright.

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