Something to read during the off-season…?

Many of you will be aware that this used to be a weekly, if not daily blog.

That was until I decided to take three months off to write a book.

A year and a half later, it is finally finished, and I can get back to my blogging ways.

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I don’t think I’ve missed too much in the meantime: just the downfall of Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and FIFA, (almost); Spanish football dominating European competitions, with 3 out of 4 finalists in the two biggest competitions on the continent, and 2 of the 2 winners, (whoever wins the upcoming repeat of the 2014 Champions League Final between the two Madrid teams, after Sevilla won a ridiculous third straight Europa Cup, and their fifth in ten years!); and my beloved Benfica winning their third straight league title, and 35th ever, a point ahead of city rivals Sporting.

Oh, and the greatest shock in British footballing history, with Leicester City defying the odds to win the Premier League.

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Looks like I have some catching up to do.

But in the meantime, you can pick up a copy of my book, ‘Benfica to Brazil’, detailing my travels following the World Cup across the globe for the past 19 years. It’s full of history, culture, comedy and tragedy, and a fair bit of footie too.

You can order it now from any major book seller, (from AMAZON to BARNES&NOBLE to THE BOOK DEPOSITORY, and even on KINDLE), and if you would like a PDF or a version for another eReader, just let me know.

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Also, I can arrange for discounted copies to be delivered anywhere in the US of A (where I find myself now living; yet another minor change over the past 18months), and these copies will come signed, dedicated, and possibly even featuring a special gift.

It’s good to be back: I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour! 

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66. The Curse of Béla Guttmann…

I am just back from a visit to the disappointingly half-empty Stadium of Light last night with a group of wonderful tourists. We were behind the goal to see Benfica, currently struggling in the league, dominate and achieve a well-deserved (if unbelievably stressful) 2-1 Champions League victory of Galatasaray. This puts us on the edge of qualification for the knockout rounds of this years tournament, and seems like a good time to discuss The Curse which has been on the club for over half a century.

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In 1962, Benfica won their second consecutive European Cup, and may well have been the best team in the world. So, naturally, they refused to give their Hungarian manager, Béla Guttmann, a bonus. He quit in fury, allegedly leaving a curse that the team wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years. Luckily I don’t believe in curses…

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…but if I did, Benfica could be the reason. The penalty shootout against Sevilla in 2014 which I was (un)lucky enough to be present at was our 8th successive European Cup Final loss since then, and second in a row after an injury-time defeat to a Chelsea team we had outplayed even more than we had Sevilla.

Will we get a chance to cast the curse aside this year?

Either way, luckily for me I will still be a Benfica fan in 2052, when the curse officially runs out…

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BOOK UPDATE:

Writing has finished on ‘Benfica to Brazil‘ and I am currently editing the book. If you guys have half as much fun reading it as I am having re-reading it, (and remember, I already know what’s in it!), it should be worth the wait.

A month of editing, a few weeks of proof-reading, and then the logistics of turning the digital word into the physical form, and I hope to have the book flying around the world to you within a few months.

If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, contact me through this blog to reserve your book now!

59. The Europa Cup Final, pt.I: getting a ticket…

These are some of the stories of an incredible year of football and travel, which you can now order in Benfica to Brazil: THE BOOK!

In one of the earliest blogs on this site, I wrote about how lucky I was to choose BENFICA as my football team of choice soon after moving to Portugal. At the time, we were third in the league, out of the Champions League, playing horrible football, and with tiny crowds disappointed after the horrific end to the previous season.

I had no idea what a wild ride I was in for…

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Firstly, the team went on an unbelievable unbeaten run in the league which led us (it was very quickly ‘us‘) to win the league with a few games to spare, sealing the deal with a 2-0 home win which I was lucky enough to be at, along with two friends, (one of whom had brought two youngsters to their first ever football match).

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I had to explain to them that not every match you go to has a crowd of 64,000 in the most beautiful stadium in Europe where you see your team win their 33rd league title. But it’s not a bad start.

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We ended the domestic season beating Rio Ave in the Portuguese Cup, an unbelievably tense match settled by a Nico Gaitan wonder-goal which, being held in a small stadium just west of Lisbon city centre, was packed to its 37,000 seater capacity.

At the risk of taking some of the suspense out of the blogs to come, (and, indeed, the book), this was the only major Benfica game of the season which I didn’t manage to find a ticket for.

Still, in between the league win and the cup victory, I had managed to get into an even smaller stadium in a town around 150km north of the capital to see us face the same opponents in the country’s second cup, the Taça da Liga, or League Cup.

I made no plans, as ever, and merely announced to some co-workers at the end of a morning tour that I was thinking of going there, and would probably take the train. One of them checked his phone and told me that the train took five hours, for some reason.

Nothing is five hours away in Portugal.

Except Spain.

So I showed up at the bus station, and was told that the last bus back left twelve minutes after the final whistle.

If there was no extra time.

I had little choice, and booked my tickets, enjoying a stroll around the beautiful city, sprawled under the watchful eye of its famous medieval castle.

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I had no ticket, of course, Benfica fans being so passionate  (and so prevalent) that it had sold out long before, so I stopped a friendly-looking policeman to ask where the ticket office was, hoping to try my sad-eyed look and hope that they found one lying around. The policeman practically laughed at my request (or possibly my terrible Portuguese), but a passing middle-aged gentleman heard us talking, and offered to sell me one he happened to have spare.

For €30.

€10 more than the face value, and the happiest I have ever been to be ‘ripped off.’

This is how my life works.

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I wasn’t 100% sure the ticket would be real, so I decided to try to take my seat two hours early, (bizarrely, entering the stadium through a giant fun-fair which was operating from a parking lot in front of the main entrance, full of kids eating candy floss and riding roller-coasters, and hawkers selling all manner of Benfica merchandise, from scarves and shirts to whistles!)

The ticket, of course, worked, and I was soon joined by João, a friendly Lisboeta who spends half of his life in Brasil, the other half running a popular sushi restaurant in my new adopted city.

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He also brought his parents, which was the cutest thing: a lifelong Benfica family.

We soon got chatting, and João offered me a ride straight back to Lisbon, meaning I didn’t have to miss the trophy ceremony.

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(Long story short: we rode some early luck and scored two cracking goals to win 2-0. It was less of a formality than the statistics made out, considering we hadn’t lost to our opponents since…2005! You can see the goals below, one from my favourite striker of the season, Rodrigo, the other from our veteran captain and defender, Luisão, Brasilian both.)

João changed my life in more ways than just a ride home that night: he told me that he had (somehow) managed to acquire tickets for the Champions League Final to be held later in Lisbon, which I was desperately trying to find a ticket for.

(And if you haven’t read about that adventure yet, you can do so in my earlier blog here).

We exchanged details and stayed in touch, but whilst that elusive Champions League ticket never materialised, he put me on the path to another golden ticket:

Benfica vs Sevilla in the Europa Cup Final in Torino, Italy.

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This blog is already too long, so the story of how the team got to Torino will have to wait until the next entry, but the story of how I got my ticket is simple.

João sent me a midnight Facebook message on Friday, four days before the game, to tell me that a friend of his who ran a tourism company had a spare ticket. Since it was already bought, there was no haggling on the price: €250. I asked him to hold on to it for me whislt I thought about it.

The next day at work, I made exactly €250 from my guided your job.

This is how my life works.

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Busy at work…

Benfica having some of the most rabid and loyal fans in the world, tickets for just about every means of public transport for getting to the final in Italy had already been booked, or the few remaining places were at obscene prices.

So Saturday morning I found myself a ride to Sevilla with the incredible Blablacar, (connecting drivers with spare seats, and tourists with a destination and not enough money for trains and buses), and within ninety minutes of making my decision, I had the ticket in my hand, (home delivered by João’s friend), and a ride to the home of our opponents.

Why was I getting a ride to Sevilla, not only the wrong city for the match, but the wrong country?

Read on next week for the story of the journey…

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These are some of the stories of an incredible year of football and travel, which you can now order in Benfica to Brazil: THE BOOK!

 

57. Champions League Final pt.III: the match…

We left our intrepid hero having paid €320 outside Benfica‘s Estadio da Luz for a seat with the Atlético Madrid fans at the 2014 Champions League Final, and if you have forgotten how he got there, read up on the adventures so far here.

Now, for the match itself…

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I had missed the first ten minutes of the match, but once the green light on the stadium turnstile came on, I realised I had actually made it into probably the second-most desirable football match in the world.

My seat, naturally, was at the very top of the stadium, and I ran to it, risking a heart attack at the crucial moment.

I have been to Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, (Stadium of Light), over a dozen times since I arrived in Lisbon in December 2013, but today was something special. I was in the corner right next to the TV cameras, surrounded by the red and white stripes of Atlético Madrid, and facing a wall of white where the Real fans were sitting.

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The atmosphere was, as you can imagine, tense – I was sat with some rabid Atleti fans who refused to sit down, and some friendly German workers who had built the press box we were sitting below, but you could feel the nerves throughout the ground.

And then Diego Godín scored for Atéltico, and everyone in my half of the stadium went mad.

We danced, we hugged, we cheered.

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And for the next 54 minutes (plus injury time) the tension ratcheted up slowly as Atleti hung on, and I felt every second along with my adopted underdog brethren – cursing every Real dive, (although Atlético were throwing themselves around a fair bit, it has to be said), abusing every dubious refereeing decision, (of which there were one or two), and cringing with every stunning run, and subsequent miss from my favourite ex-Spurs player, Gareth Bale.

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On a night when local legend Ronaldo failed to live up to the hype of his homecoming, (he began his career up the road at Sporting Lisbon), Bale set himself up time after time, and time after time he poked the ball just wide. As 90minutes came and went, and the referee indicated five minutes of injury time, (five minutes?), Atleti fans dared to believe.

Real Madrid, featuring the most expensive player in the world, alongside the greatest player in the world, (this year at least), were on the verge of losing to a team which, three years ago, was going nowhere and had just lost to a third tier side in the cup when Diego Simeone joined them; a team which had beaten both them and my beloved Barça to the league title, the first team to do so in a decade, and the first team to even get within 17 points of the pair in the past five years; a team which had sold most of its star players over the last few seasons, and had lost more towards the end of a gruelling season when their squad depth couldn’t compare to the big boys.

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And then Sergio Ramos scored a 93rd minute equaliser and that, every single person in the stadium knew, be they Real or Atleti, fan or manager, was that.

Manchester United and Bayern München fans know how vital 3 minutes can be in a Champions League Cup Final, and now Atlético Madrid do, too.

But even worse than that: Atlético Madrid have played two Champions/European Cup finals in forty years, and they lost both of them by a combined total of around 139 seconds. Atleti were apparently ‘seven seconds’ from victory against Bayern Munich in 1974, when their goalkeeper, (father of Liverpool legend Pepe Reina), allegedly took off his gloves to give to a journalist as a souvenir before the final whistle..and promptly let in the equalising goal! This time there were 2 minutes and 12 seconds left of injury time, and they went on to lose the replay 4-0.

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The rest was almost a post-script. In the second half of extra time the Argentinian Ángel di María took advantage of his rivals’ exhaustion to fire in a shot which, after it was saved, my man Bale broke my heart by heading into an empty net, and Marcelo did the same minutes later, without the keeper being able to save this time. CR7 went back into my bad books, after years of working his way out of them since his Manchester United days, with his ridiculous topless posing after scoring a meaningless penalty, and the tears of the fans around me made me glad that this was only my team for the evening, in the same way I wouldn’t have felt quite the elation had ‘we’ won.

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It may not have been the highest quality match I had ever seen; some stars may have been missing; and the play may have been swallowed up by nerves at times; but from Simeone storming the pitch to remonstrate with Real players, to the Real fans celebrating late into the evening, this was a first Champions League Final I will never forget.

You can watch the highlights here…but I don’t recommend it, if you’re an Atleti fan.

If you enjoyed this, you can get much more by picking up my book: ‘Benfica to Brazil’ now available, online or in print, HERE!

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40. Benfica to Brazil: THE BOOK!

For those of you who are enjoying the daily updates from the 2014 Brazil World Cup, you will be excited to learn that this is just the first part of a bigger project.

The ultimate goal is to turn the blog, (and my footballing life), into a BOOK entitled:

‘Benfica to Brazil.’

As the name suggests, the book will feature tales of my year following Lisbon-based super-club Benfica across Lisbon, Portugal and Europe, culminating in my attempts to watch them play in the Europa Cup Final in Torino, Italy.

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There will also be tales of how I made my way into the Champions League Final between Atlético and Real Madrid.

The culmination will be, of course, my two months spent following the World Cup in Salvador and across Brazil, including stories from my time at the past two World Cups in South Africa and Germany.

The book will be coming out in around October 2014, with a marketing campaign launching soon after the World Cup ends.

TO STAY INFORMED OF THE BOOK’S PROGRESS AND EVENTUAL RELEASE, PLEASE SEND AN EMAIL TO THE FOLLOWING ADDRESS, WITH THE SUBJECT: ‘BOOK INFO’

benficatobrazil@gmail.com

You will then be kept up to date with all developments, and will have the first opportunity to acquire the book when it becomes available.

Enjoy the rest of the games!

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5. Champions League Final, pt.II: the hunt for tickets…

Saturday, 24th May 2014: I slept until I woke up, and then strolled down the classy main boulevard of Lisbon, Avenida de Liberdade, to join the madness of the FIFA fan zone in the capital’s main square, the river-side Praça Comercio.

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FIFA descends on Lisbon…

Normally a giant, empty meeting point overlooked by a statue of the fairly useless 18th century King Joseph I, for the past week the square had been taken over by FIFA, Ford, Adidas and all of the other sponsors which make football what it is today.

(Note: this is to be read either sarcastically, or with the understanding that ‘what football is today’ isn’t necessarily a good thing). Continue reading