Following is just a sample of the exploits of the author who has spent fifteen years following football around the world, and whose book can be ordered here.
When we left our intrepid hero in the last blog, he had just managed to get his hands on the hottest football ticket in town, the Europa Cup Final between Benfica of Portugal and Sevilla of neighbouring Spain.
With the rabid Benfica fans having booked every seat on every mode of transport to the neutral venue, Torino in Italy, I had done some rapid research and discovered a car-sharing site called blablacar where drivers with spare seats share costs with temporary travellers.
Within minutes, I had booked a ride from my street in Lisbon to Sevilla in southern Spain and, a day later, from Sevilla across three countries to north-west Italia and back again.
With a mini-van full of rival fans.
“I am a Benfica fan, but a nice guy, and would love to join you on your journey to the cup final, if you’ll have me,” was my message to them.
“Sure” was, essentially, their reply.
I spent a day or two with a friend from Australia wandering the gorgeous, sun-drenched streets of beautiful, tile-covered Sevilla, marvelling at the Moorish architecture of the UNESCO Heritage Alcázar palace complex directly in the city centre.
Just as much fun was climbing over the surreal curves of the world’s largest wooden structure (apparently): the part-waffle, part-mushroom ‘Metropol Parasol‘ again in the heart of the city. Sevilla proved itself to be one of the most fun places I have ever been, with amazing weather, and modest prices.
But I was a man on a mission, and 36-hours after arriving, I was stood outside Sevilla airport at 7am, waiting to be picked up by a mini-van. Half an hour after the time they were meant to be there, I realised that I had no working phone, no internet, and a very expensive piece of paper which would be useless if I couldn’t get to Italy.
“Spanish time, huh? ” I greeted my driver, Carlos, when the ride eventually showed up 45minutes late.
The next two days were amongst the most surreal, and fun of my life.
The Boys pulled up, threw my bag in the back of the rented minibus, and whisked me North through endless Spanish countryside. They were six seasoned Sevilla fans: Carlos, Joaquim, Manuel, Fernando, (I’m not making these up from a mental database of ‘stereotypical Spanish names), José, and José Angél, of various ages and professions, but all united by a passion for football, and as friendly and welcoming to someone from the enemy camp as I could have hoped for.
We drove all day and most of the evening, sharing stories and reminiscences about past matches and journeys, stopping occasionally at picnic spots to take photos and ruin my vegetarianism, (I had presumed we would stop at restaurants, but with military precision they had packed enough food to feed an army for the journey…93% of it consisting of the various meat products which can be derived from pigs).
Along the way I learned a lot about Spanish football: how Sevilla’s stadium is a ridiculously close 3km stroll away from their arch-rivals, Betis; the names of heroes, past and present; and, worryingly, how they had won this competition two years in a row in the not-so-distant past of 2006 and 2007.
Best of all were the songs they sung over and over…and over and over again, and with such a friendly crowd, coming from such a beautiful city, I had no trouble adopting SFC as my second Spanish team.
(Having spent a few months living in Barcelona, the boys of the Camp Nou will always be my true Spanish love).
On top of all this, I also finally learned who uses Twitter: slight bored middle-aged men on fourteen-hour car journeys, apparently…
We crossed the border into France, and pit-stopped at a hotel at which I earned the group’s love and affection by being able to speak the lingo and get us rooms for the night.
Early the next morning, we set off again, passing some stunning mountain scenery as we whizzed past the Alps to arrive, early afternoon on match day, in the centre of Torino: one of the least attractive cities I have ever visited, but one which was painted red and white for the day: the colours of both teams all over the city.
We parked next to the impressive, compact Juventus Stadium where the match would be kicking off at 7:45pm that evening, and spent the day wandering the streets.
We ate, drank and chatted with fans from both countries as well as locals of neutral affiliation, (although many were leaning towards cheering for Sevilla, since Benfica had somehow managed to knock their beloved Juve out of the competition in a bloody and hard-fought semi-final, which prevented them from playing the final in their home stadium).
Most bizarrely, with the city having allocated two areas for each of the sets of fans to congregate before the match, and with me not really knowing any of the Portuguese fans, my adopted friends insisted on me joining them at the Sevilla fan zone…even dressed in the jersey of their rivals for the day. Everything would be fine, they assured me.
And they were right – the Sevilla fans, in their thousands, barely gave me a second glance as we all drank and sang together.
(Sevilla’s centennial theme song is truly gorgeous, and you can hear it in all it’s glory here: I was told that it is massively popular all over Spain).
This is what football should be all about.
Finally, with maybe two hours before kickoff, we left the fan zones, took over the city’s trams, and returned to the stadium.
After 1,800kms, and around €400, it was time to find out if my ticket would get me into the match…
All of these stories, and many, many more, are available in the forthcoming book: ‘Benifca to Brazil’, which can be ordered online HERE.