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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64. Champions of Bi…

I know what you’re thinking:

“Where did I leave my car keys?”

I can’t help you with that right now.

You are also probably thinking that this, my first football blog in months, will be about the seismic events which have taken place in FIFA over the past week or so.

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But that blog will be coming soon.

For now, I want to tell you about what happened on Sunday, May 10th 2015.

“You’re going out to celebrate a 0-0 tie?!” my Canadian friend asked me in disbelief after Benfica struggled to a dire 0-0 draw away to Guimarães.

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I know that draws, and scoreless ones even more so, are the bane of most of my North American sports-loving friends, but there was a special reason for celebrating this particular one.

Because when you draw, but your closest rival also draws, giving you the league title, for the second year in a row, with millions of fans across the country and the world biting their nails as the minutes tick by until the edges of their fingers bleed the same colour as their team’s shirt, then yes.

Yes, you celebrate that.

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And she joined me and two other friends to celebrate with around 499,996 other Benfica fans as the traditional evening gathering took place around the Marquês de Pombal roundabout, closing the main dual carriageway of downtown Lisbon for the evening.

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Benfica have now won their 34th league title, (and, almost as importantly, rivals Porto didn’t win, thanks to a late equaliser from Benfica’s neighbours Belenenses against them in that penultimate round of matches).Two weeks later, they won the League Cup, again for the second year in a row.

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I sure chose the right team to support when I arrived in Lisbon 18 months ago…

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63. My year of football blogging, 2014…

I have been writing my book blog for just over three years, and in all that time I was proud to have had 16,039 people drop by to read it.

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In the eight months since I launched this football blog, it has received over 27,000 views since it began on Friday May 27th, with a frankly ridiculous 7,149 people dropping by on one day alone.

This was blog entry number six, my first on Lisbon, and proved the power of my newest team: Benfica, with its 250,000+ fans around the world, the most supported club in the world, and most of them (you!) seem to have stopped by my blog, for which I thank you.

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My readers came from 110 countries!! This is a truly ridiculous number, around twice the number I  have visited, and shows the fact that whilst there were only 32 countries in the World Cup, football is a worldwide sport, (and again highlights Benfica’s global reach, as I explain to both the tourists on my Lisbon walking tours, and in a blog about them here).

Understandably, more of my readers came from my current home country, Portugal, closely followed by the USA and UK…so there is absolutely no correlation between my readers’ locations and national footballing prowess.

(My apologies to US readers, whose team actually did quite well!)

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Oh, and I also funded (and am in the process of writing) A BOOK! Which you are all welcome to read!

Feel free to check out my Wordpress annual report here, and drop me a comment letting me know what you are looking forward to reading about in the coming year.

HAPPY 2015!!

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60. The Europa Cup Final, pt.II: the journey…

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.

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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.

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“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.

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Just as much fun was climbing over the surreal curves of the world’s largest wooden structure (apparently): the part-waffle, part-mushroomMetropol 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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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!

 

41. World Cup Day Who Even Knows Anymore…

Finally, a final round of games which produced some excitement!

The late kick-offs were mildly tense, although sadly I was stuck watching the wrong match, The Red Devils of Belgium yet again proving to be horribly tedious, yet winning by a single goal, this time down to ten men against a South Korea side who proved to be even more dismal. Belgium next take on the USA, and will have to show a lot more devilry if they are to go any further in the tournament.

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The boys will have been wearing these jacket-jerseys with pride tonight…

That meant I was missing the Russia vs Algeria game, which saw Continue reading

36. World Cup Day 12: a dozen down…

The storm I woke up to this morning continued all day and into the evening, keeping people off the streets and realising how little there is to do in Salvador when the weather sucks.

I therefore got to know my apartment very well today, finally making a list of which Panini stickers I need to complete my collection, (166 to go, in case you were wondering), and watching today’s three matches on the small screen.

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Panini 2014: 473 down, 166 to go…

The 1pm game may have been the worst of the tournament so far, as ‘dark horsesBelgium, (should that be ‘red horses’?), put paid to the theory I made up tha Continue reading