I’m writing this on the day Portugal play Hungary in a World Cup 2018 qualifier, a repeat of a game from the Euro 2016 Group stages which ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw. Portugal struggled that afternoon, and remembering that match, and what followed, brought back fantastic memories for us a family.
We had just arrived permanently in Albufeira, on 15th June 2016. The Euro 2016 buzz was just starting but no-one could have imagined how the tournament would end for Portugal. The night before we travelled, we watched Portugal draw 1 all with Iceland. Despite taking the lead through Nani, Portugal never imposed their superiority and Iceland, who themselves would have a great tournament on their debut, equalised in the second half. By the time we had arrived in Portugal, decked out in Portugal attire, and watched Ronaldo miss a penalty as Portugal drew again versus Austria, it seemed like just another same old tournament experience for them; never meet expectations as a dark horse and exit meekly.
Something happened in that Hungary match though. I was now in work mode, working at home online all day but still enjoying the honeymoon of having the sun, pool and beach to enjoy in the evening. However, the football was also on, so on the Wednesday night of our first full week, despite promises not to be tempted to go to the bustling bar scene every night, we decided to take in the double show of Portugal-Hungary and Ireland-Italy. The match against Hungary was probably the best match of the entire tournament. Hungary took the lead three times, and three times Portugal equalised. Each time they were behind Portugal were out entirely on the “as-it-stands” table; when Iceland scored late in their match against Austria, Portugal ended up third in the Group. In previous Euros this would have meant elimination, but in this expanded tournament, they went through to the knockout stages. In doing so they missed a game against England, but were instead due to face Croatia, who had just defeated Spain, winners of Euro 2012 and Euro 2008.
I had seen a pretty average, defensive team at that stage, but I was convinced they would do well. They were hard to score against, had arguably the best player in the world in Ronaldo, but most importantly, had a really good route to the final. All the pre-tournament favourites were on the other side of the draw: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England (lol – only joking!). If Portugal beat Croatia they would be in the quarter finals and facing teams that had never been there before. What if….. I’m not making this up, and my family will attest that this is true, but that night I made a pact with my friend Luis in the sports bar we watched the matches: When (note not if, but when!) Portugal win, I will run the bar, you sit in my seat and enjoy it. He laughed politely, thinking I’d had one too many, and we went home.
That Saturday we had a pizza pre-match and came back to watch Portugal in a dull scoreless ninety minutes against Croatia. Croatia were by far the better team but couldn’t break Portugal down. In extra time, very late in extra time, Ricardo Quaresma scored. The place went crazy. Portugal were now in the Quarter Finals. They hadn’t even won a match in standard time at this stage!
The next Thursday I broke my “won’t go to bar during the week while working” pledge again. Portugal v Poland. We were two minutes late in arriving by which stage Poland had taken the lead. Here we go everyone thought but Portugal swiftly equalised through Renato Sanches. (Incidentally, the parents of Renato Sanches were in the Algarve at the time and we were told by friends they were fantastic people). Portugal then did something strange; they played well and dominated the match. Ironically, they couldn’t break down the opponents, after this being their tactic in the previous round. And so we got to penalties…… This is one of my fondest memories of the early weeks in Portugal. The atmosphere and camaraderie in the bar was amazing. No-one gave them a chance but they did it via 5 perfect penalties. Portugal were now in the bloody semi finals! And their opponents? Wales!
That night’s walk home was amazing. The traffic on the main Avenida Dos Descobrimentos stopped. Horns blared. People were hanging from car windows. Everyone was partying. It was like they’d won the whole thing. People were starting to believe. We were experiencing something special. I sat in the garden and listened for ages. This was amazing to be in the midst of it.
For the semi-final we were in Lisbon. We were going to Nos Alive the following day and had taken a break to see the sights of this fantastic city. “I wonder where we could watch the match” I said to AnneMarie, my wife. Wow! We found the official fan park and it was housing a massive screen and enough space for thousands of people. Before the match excitement was building in the city. Everyone believed. No-one could talk about anything else. If Portugal won, they would be in the final facing either France or Germany. They probably couldn’t beat either but if they just got there….
We stood fairly close to the screen and the rendition of the Portuguese national anthem made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The whole country was behind them 100% and I could see what this was meaning to the “ordinary people”. The match itself was great. Portugal won easily, and made the experience even more enjoyable. By now our Portuguese attire had extended from 3 replica jerseys to face paint, 2 Portuguese flags and a horn! We were basically Portuguese ourselves now weren’t we?!
After an amazing three nights at Nos Alive (more on that in a later blog), we got the train back Sunday afternoon on 10th July 2016. Our mini break over, we should really have been going home and settling down for a quiet Sunday night before starting work the following day. I spent the train journey listening to podcasts on Euro 2016 that I’d missed whilst at the concert. Portugal were to face France. I just couldn’t help but feel that this was their time. France were the hosts but hadn’t really impressed until the semi final win over Germany. Portugal could frustrate them. I turned to AnneMarie in the seat behind me on the train: “Portugal are going to do it – I’m convinced they will”. She thought I was mad in the head; from what she’d seen Portugal were no better than the teams that had long since gone home.
I was confident though. I packed the t-shirt Luis had given me for loyal service in attending their bar. I would need it. I would be working later after all. We again got a pizza in the same restaurant and table that we had before the Croatia match. (I’ve always been extremely superstitious when it comes to football!). Luis had reserved seats and we found three empty seats draped in an Ireland flag perfectly positioned in front of the largest screen in the bar. We were ready for an amazing match!
An amazing match we did not get. Portugal lost Ronaldo early to injury and both teams struggled with the occasion. However, this seemed to suit Portugal. France got more and more frustrated, borne down by the expectation of the home crowd. Portugal, minus Ronaldo, seemed to gain strength as a group, determined not to let their captain down. By the time extra time came I could only see Portugal winning. They would have to score though and that didn’t look likely.
The bar was buzzing. Despite the match being disappointing, the crowd were loving it. This could be history in the making and they knew it. The bar staff, our friends, were so nervous it was almost funny. Almost. I felt for them. They were working on a night they could have been with their own family and friends. On many occasions I caught them in a daze, arms at their sides, just staring at the screen, willing, hoping…
108 minutes. Portugal had a free kick. It was a great chance. They hit the bar. The groans in the bar could have sunk a ship. Oh no! That was their best chance, gone. But wait, here comes Eder. Now I will admit when Eder came on I laughed. I actually said to Luis, if that’s their best chance we may as well go to penalties now. He agreed. Eder was not a great player if you were being kind.
I am so sorry Eder! He scored a sensational goal one minute after the free kick hit the bar. Portugal were now winning. We went crazy. This was amazing. My son, Harry, was mesmerised. The staff were nearly crying. They were so close. This was cruel they thought. France would score, win on penalties and Portugal would revert to the norm, plucky nearly-rans.
The minutes went by and the final whistle came closer. By this stage I think Luis had more or less sank to his knees and we had imposed a ban on any more orders from the customers. They stared at the screen as the match entered injury time. This was happening. This was going to actually happen! The last few seconds seemed to take an eternity. Finally the referee blew! Portugal had won Euro 2016. Portugal had actually won! (and I was right lol!)
What followed will remain in my memory for ever. The streets filled with people immediately. Cars drove by with people hanging from windows and doors. Horns blared. We gave hive fives to children, families, sobbing men, grannies, anyone. The place was going mental. Everyone was celebrating. At one stage I had an eighty year old woman, driving a car on her own, stop in the middle of the street, run round and give us a high-five and a hug. She just wanted to share in the experience!
It was amazing and we will always be so grateful to the wonderful Portuguese people for what they allowed us to experience. I hope, in some way, you’ve experienced a little of it too via this recollection. (And yes, I did serve the bar that night – thankfully the Trip Advisor reviews weren’t too bad and it’s still open for business!).