After missing out on seeing Barcelona play during my last trip, it felt great to finally watch a match, especially between two of the traditional ‘big three’ teams in Portugal.
Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon have shared all but two of the entire Primeira Liga titles contested. Before the match, Benfica were just a point above Porto at the top of the 2016/17 league table, while Sporting were further back in third, seven points away from their Lisbon neighbours at the summit and looking to get back into the title race.
Before the game, the prospect of seeing Porto’s Iker Casillas in goal was my most anticipated moment. He’s not just a hero for Spain and Real Madrid fans – with whom he won club and international honours galore – he’s a football legend, who’ll be remembered as one of the best goalkeepers in the history of the game.
From 2008 to 2012, the Spaniard won the World Cup either side of two European Championships triumphs during an unprecedented hat-trick of major tournament successes for his country. Meanwhile, his Sporting counterpart Rui Patricio had also won the latest edition of the European Championship with Portugal in 2016. Which meant the winning goalkeepers of the last three European Championship tournaments were squaring up in the Dragon Stadium. Pretty impressive.
Porto’s goal celebrations
I’ve heard many songs turned into football chants but the tune that Porto played when they scored their two goals was the most infectious I’d ever experienced. So infectious that when I boarded the plane back to Liverpool, there were Scousers singing it as they took their seats. While I’m also sure Leicester City have started using the same song at their games. Perhaps they discovered it during their Champions League meeting with Porto in December 2016.
I finally managed to track down the song a couple of days after returning home. It’s This Girl by Kungs vs Cookin’ On 3 Burners and it’s magnificent.
It’s pretty hard to complain about the experience but if I had to pick something then the game itself was a bit lacklustre. There were a lot of complaints from the home supporters about fouls given and not given, which summarised how much their team didn’t show up.
Somehow Porto got two goals in the first half from their only chances of the whole game, Soares producing some clinical finishing from the only opportunities that came his way.
Then in the second period, the home side were battered by Sporting. The Lions produced waves of attacks before making a breakthrough on 60 minutes, Alan Ruiz hitting a sweet strike on the volley that made the last half hour a bit more nerve-wracking for home fans.
Were it not for Casillas making some truly world-class saves – particularly one in added time – then Porto could have dropped two points and maybe all three. But seeing Casillas doing what he does best more than made up for Porto’s drab display.
Porto’s stadium is a top-class venue. You could sense how electric those heyday Champions League nights under former manager Jose Mourinho must have been. Seeing the city lights through the open stands really adds to the feel of the occasion.
Unfortunately Porto aren’t the same standard of team that won the Champions League in 2004 and the match reflected that. But even so, it was a pleasure to be in one of Europe’s best grounds and a part of Portuguese football’s biggest fixtures.
Porto 2 – 1 Sporting Lisbon
Ground rating: 8.5/10
Estadio do Bessa
Before visiting Porto, I had no idea the city had two Portuguese top flight teams. Boavista are a pretty big club, too, having become only the second team outside Portugal’s big three to win the Primeira Liga back in 2001.
Their stadium holds an impressive 28,000 seats after being upgraded in the run up to Euro 2004. During the tournament, Estadio do Bessa hosted three group games, all of which were draws. Eventual champions Greece played their second game there, a 1-1 result against Spain.
What I loved most about Boavista was the black and white checkered chessboard design that’s featured on the badge, kit and also outside the ground. I also enjoyed the chance opportunity to see their youth team play at the pitches next to the stadium.
The age group was unknown to me. At a guess, I’d say they were under 12’s. But even for a youth team game like that, the level of football was very high. I have no doubt that those kids of Boavista would have run circles around me.
Also in attendance were a group of young girls who were presumably attending their own match inside the ground. Like many Portuguese clubs, Boavista is more than just a football team. The club practices 16 different sports including cycling, boxing and gymnastics.
Estadio do Mar
Before getting my flight back home, I scoped out another stadium located just outside Porto in the town of Matosinhos. Estadio do Mar is home to Leixoes Sports Club and their football team plays in the second tier of the Portuguese pyramid (LigaPro).
I quickly learned that the strength in-depth for Portuguese football is not to the same standard as England’s. The average stadium capacity in England’s Championship would be something similar to Boavista’s. However, Leixoes feels more like an English lower-league team, maybe even a non-league side, rather than a second-tier club.
However, despite their size, the club’s history is pretty successful. Leixoes won the Taca de Portugal – the equivalent of the FA Cup – in 1961 and they’re the only third division side to ever reach the Taca de Portugal final – losing 1-0 to Sporting Lisbon in 2003. That gave them qualification into the following season’s Uefa Cup, where they lost in the second round to PAOK, despite winning 2-1 during the home leg. They were also in the top flight between 2007 and 2010, finishing sixth in 2009.
As well as football, Leixoes has sporting departments in boxing, karate and even billiards. Their nicknames are The Babies or The Sea Horses, with their stadium name translating to The Sea Stadium.
Best Of The Rest
Porto is a beautiful city and a real surprise for me. I didn’t know much about the place before going there but it became one of my all-time favourite cities.
I really love bridges and Porto has some of the best in the world. Particularly the Ponte Luis I, which was designed by Gustav Eiffel and mimicked the same style as his more famous construction in Paris with criss-crossing steel dominating but still looking elegant. In the daytime, the bridge had a blue tinge to its frame and was equally as impressive to see before and after sunset.
On my first night, I went looking for it in stormy conditions. About 15 minutes away from where I was staying, I crossed a road bridge that overlooked the whole Duoro valley and gave me my first glimpse of the Ponte Luis I. The wind nearly blew me right off, it was so high up. But it was thrilling to be in that storm and seeing such a grand piece of construction all lit up with the River Duoro so far down below.
That began my love affair with the six bridges. I made it my task to walk under each one. There were two for rail, three for road and Ponte Luis I was used for both. Even the plain road bridges were impressive to me, simply for the scale. They were vast. A real treat to stand on or appreciate from down below.
Beyond the bridges, Porto had much to offer. All around were signs to vote for the city as Europe’s top 2017 destination and you could understand why it had been nominated. Even in the storm clouds, the multi-coloured houses stacked on top of each other on the banks of the World Heritage Site-status city centre were incredible to admire.
The Atlantic Ocean and beaches of the Foz district are also nearby. Most of them were closed off because of the bad weather but it didn’t stop people crossing the restrictive tape to get some good storm photos. I was so in awe of nature as the sea churned in front of me, waves continuously crashing into the lighthouse which the ocean had in its grip.
Elsewhere, there’s the Livraria Lello bookstore which is rumoured to be where JK Rowling got inspired to write Harry Potter. The interior does seem to resemble Hogwarts quite a bit. It was a little pricey to enter and the store doesn’t have much space with the amount of people in there. But you can use your ticket to get a discount off one of the books which is a bonus (although the books are pricey too).
If I was a drinker, I’m sure I’d recommend trying some Port. However, I was happy with the traditional Portuguese egg custard tart that my Airbnb hosts left me. They were, incidentally, so nice and helpful and their place was incredible value for money.
Honestly, for adventure or exploring to relaxing and taking things easy, Porto suits all needs. It’s so affordable and it would certainly get my vote for best European city of the year.