BY MARK GODFREY
When you’re used to winning nowt, even success in a raffle for a Christmas hamper or bottle of Romanian Vodka feels like you’ve just scooped the Pools. So, imagine my surprise when my last minute entry to Campo’s Blog to Lisbon competition actually won and I was given the good news by Danny Taylor from Campo. To be honest, I’d forgotten I had entered in the first place not once thinking I’d be on my way to Portugal for European club football’s showpiece event.
First on the list of people to inform of my windfall was my wife, Sarah. She is a football fan. Well, I say she’s a fan, she doesn’t really have much of an option in our house. Although, she does like Sky Sports Soccer Saturday as it helps her off into a well-deserved afternoon snooze. Phil Thompson has that effect on most people.
Sarah was, of course, delighted that we had won the two match tickets, accommodation and flights for the trip to the Portuguese capital, and while at that stage we didn’t yet know who would be playing in the Champions League final, neither of us really cared.
The competition was run by the excellent Campo whose range of retro footy gear I’m a huge fan of (I admit to owning a few examples of their wares). All arrangements for our travel, accommodation and attendance at the game were being taken care of by Aejis UK – a corporate events company who specialise in such matters and were very helpful to us throughout the process; especially when I kept throwing their director Mike Cash numerous curve balls when it came to our own crazy work and travel schedules.
So with the details expertly taken care of, the two Madrid clubs caught up and booked their own passage to Lisbon soon after. And although Chelsea fell just short of providing English representation in the final, I was rather pleased that we would see a game between the newly crowned Spanish champions and their crosstown rivals going for ‘La Decima’ – their tenth European Cup crown.
In the build-up, Sarah and I had decided that, although we were complete neutrals, we would probably throw our support behind Real Madrid for differing reasons. She had heard of Ronaldo and Gareth Bale while they were probably the first foreign club I ever heard ‘when I were a lad’. For the reason I furnished myself with a super retro Real Madrid 70’s style jersey from Campo especially for the occasion. Sarah, perhaps hedging our bets, chose to wear a mixture of red, white and blue clothing.
Our journey was uneventful but simple. A flight to Faro on the Algarve, where we bumped into former England goal machine Alan Shearer (he was good enough to pose with me for that most fashionable of snaps – the selfie) was followed by a drive north along Portugal’s virtually deserted motorway system and through its unremarkable agricultural interior to Lisbon in our snazzy rented car.
Upon arrival at our destination – the comfortable 4-star VIP Executive Saldanha hotel located just north of the city’s main attractions – we decided to get our most appropriate walking shoes on and go explore the Champions League final host city.
As you would expect for late spring/early summer in Lisbon, the weather was most agreeable; mild and sunny, very similar to back home and perfect for an exploratory stroll. With sunglasses donned we walked down the exclusive tree-lined shopping street of Avenida da Liberdade with with its designer brands outdoor cafes and roman mosaic style tiled pavements. It may only have been Friday afternoon – a full 24 hours before the game – but the streets were already beginning to buzz with the throng of Spanish supporters. By the time we reached Lisbon’s heart after a pleasant walk, the squares were being prepared with all manner of stalls, stages, banners and paraphernalia for the Madrid invasion the following day.
After a quick change at the hotel we headed back to main part of town which was now beginning to heave with locals and visitors alike all trying to find somewhere to spend their evening. Amongst the tight, picturesque tourist area we chose a suitably local, authentic restaurant with which to share our time and custom.
We began to chat with an English couple on the table next to us (Sarah is very accomplished at sparking up conversations with strangers. I am much less sociable on such situations). The small matter of the impending football match soon raised its head, and by coincidence, they would also be present at the Estadio da Luz the following night. We spent a very nice evening with some good quality authentic local food chatting football, not least because the husband was an ex-Premier League referee from the early 90’s and his wife is a consultant who works very closely with the current crop of England’s top officials.
Saturday brought us brilliant sunshine from the moment we opened our hotel room curtains. Once again we pulled on our trainers and headed out to see what kind of carnival atmosphere the city of Lisbon and the fans of Real and Atletico Madrid could provide.
We would not be disappointed. Both sets of fans packed the streets without a hint of animosity or trouble to be found as people mixed freely together – often groups in cars or around the town were a mixture of fans from both clubs. Beer, food, music and singing flowed in town as the day progressed.
The Champions League fan zone by the Tagus river offered all manner of activities including the chance to hold the famous European Cup, play keepie-ups with former Porto and Barcelona playmaker Deco and watch documentaries about previous iconic finals on the giant screen. After a thirst-quenching ice cream and the faintest beginnings of sunburn on my bald head, it was time to return to the hotel and prepare to make our way to the stadium.
We joined the metro train with hundreds, if not thousands, of other matchgoers; packed into the carriages like workers in the Tokyo rush hour – but with an altogether different vibe going on. Songs, jubilation, expectancy and good humour seemed to sweep those on board. No wonder – it was a Champions League final derby match!
Once inside the modern incarnation of Estadio da Luz (remarkably similar looking to Arsenal’s Emirates stadium inside) the noise began to swirl around the vast bowl as the sun began to set and the temperature began to fall to a more British type chill.
The obligatory opening ceremony brought the usual local-themed oddity of dance and music as both sets of fans unveiled their team’s UEFA-supplied flags and cards to hold aloft and thankfully, given my choice to wear a Real Madrid style retro shirt from Campo, our competition winning tickets were in their supporters’ end.
The game itself was a tense affair despite the superb support from the 60,000 who had turned up. Diego Simeone’s Atletico seemed determined to defend doggedly against the superstars from the Bernabeu; an approach galvanised by their scrappy opening goal just before half time.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men struggled to break their rivals down, so with 20 minutes remaining they were forced into a change of tactics and personnel. Such decisions can make or break coaches and the Italian’s alterations did the trick as Real pushed and probed with an urgency that had been patently lacking for the previous 70 minutes.
Their reward came in the dying embers of second half added-on time when Sergio Ramos headed their last gasp equaliser. You could visibly see the lift this gave to Real and the deflation in the Atletico ranks. From then on, there would only be one winner.
Further goals from game-changer Marcelo and the disappointing £80million pair Ronaldo and Gareth Bale gave the scoreline a lop-sided and misleading look to it, but in the end, the best and most deserving team got to lift the giant-eared trinket for a record tenth time.
So, as Real Madrid did their lap of honour to the strains of the Champions League anthem and their fans’ songs of adoration, we made our exit to catch a metro back to our hotel. Our trip was over, but we had been given the opportunity by Campo and Aejis to experience a fantastic global sporting event and a wonderful city that we most likely would never have done otherwise, and for that, we thank them.