European celebration fuelled by breweries not belligerence

Fans of 16 nations have descended on Portugal for a feast of football. Paul Newman gives his view on a week among the flags and banners
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The Independent Football

Saturday 12 June

Saturday 12 June

Gatwick airport

If the pre-tournament publicity was to be believed, Gatwick Airport should be awash with shaven-headed, beer-swilling hooligans swathed in cross of St George flags, chanting "Ingerland, Ingerland''. Instead, the orderly queue for the flight to Porto is full of men in Marks and Spencer jackets carrying golf clubs and tennis rackets. On the plane there are no more than half a dozen fans in England shirts and the stiffest drink on order is a second cup of coffee.

At Porto airport there are a handful of sponsors' signs advertising Euro 2004 and a long queue for passport control, but little other indication that you are arriving in a football mad country staging the biggest sporting event in its history. A few cars sport Portugal colours and if the roads are understandably quiet during the opening game, they seem even more deserted after the hosts sink to an ignominious defeat against Greece.

Sunday 13 June

Lisbon - England 1 France 2

In the centre of Lisbon at lunchtime, the main square at Rossio is an extraordinary sight, with England fans spilling out of every bar or cooling off in the fountains. There is one common theme: beer. The bars have probably never seen business like it, while the shops' supplies of bottled beer are severely tested. Every waste bin, every doorway, every step is lined with empty bottles.

And yet you sense a different atmosphere to previous England forays abroad. There is singing, chanting and raucous taunting of the small knots of France fans who have dared to enter the three lions' den, but not a hint of malevolence.

Having arrived at the Estadio da Luz two hours before kick-off, it then takes nearly an hour to pass through two security checkpoints, which are woefully undermanned. At the second, one of our party is told he cannot take in his pocket camera. He retreats and stuffs the camera down his shorts. At the second attempt, nobody finds the camera, but the steward insists he cannot take in his spectacles case.

Water bottles also have to be left behind. The solitary bar in our section is manned by only half a dozen flustered staff and tempers start to fray as it takes 45 minutes to get a drink. Gary, a Middlesbrough supporter, tells me the queues for programmes are even worse. "I gave up after an hour," he says.

We make our way to our places in Row G, seats 8-10. Row G ends at seat 5. Sit anywhere, we are told, only to find ourselves having to make way for fans with tickets for our new seats. Dozens of other supporters are also seatless and many end up sitting in gangways.

We finally find three unoccupied seats - not together - and take in the view. The ground, a magnificent bowl with steeply rising stands, is an imposing sight. England fans fill at least three quarters of the 65,000-capacity stadium, with the French penned into a small area behind one goal.

Our section - theoretically a neutral area - is filled almost exclusively with England fans. Every available railing has an England flag draped from it, mostly bearing the names of provincial towns like Kennilworth, Morecambe and Colchester. A Port Vale cross of St George has no red in it. "Stoke City colours, you see," we are told in explanation.

There is some booing and whistling during "La Marseillaise" while "God Save the Queen" is sung with gusto.

The game is a cracker, but after Zinedine Zidane's two late goals the England fans leave in stunned silence. Despite their disappointment, there is virtually no trouble in the bars of the Portuguese capital.

Monday 14 June

Guimaraes - Denmark 0 Italy 0

We make the mistake of taking the scenic route to the old city of Guimaraes, and get hopelessly lost in the sweeping hills and glorious countryside. We quickly learn that road signs are not a Portuguese speciality. Yet we are still able to park less than five minutes from the Dom Afonso Henriques Stadium and, despite more lengthy queues for security checks, we are inside well before kick-off.

The 30,000-capacity stadium is delightful. It is fully enclosed and quite compact but beautifully proportioned and gives a real feeling of space. The official attendance, we discover later, is more than 29,000, but there seem to be thousands of empty seats. There appear to be no more than 3,000 Italians but three times as many Danes. There are plenty of English flags: Hello again, Kennilworth.

The Danish fans are in full voice and entertain us throughout with their songs - one of which sounds like "Half Past Four, Half Past Four, Half Past Four!'' - and bizarre rhythmic swaying. They are in mid-song when the Italian national anthem starts, but they stop singing immediately to observe their rival's anthem in respectful silence. They clearly have a great rapport with their players and at the end Martin Laursen, their magnificent central defender, takes the match ball and throws it into the crowd along with his shirt. Fans of Aston Villa, whom he has joined from Milan, will love him next season.

The Danes play some flowing football but cannot breach Italy's excellent defence. For the most part the Italians disappoint, especially the big names. They appear happy with the draw.

In the town that evening, Danes are everywhere. Their beer consumption appears to beat even that of the English but they are impeccably behaved and there are no piles of empty beer bottles. Maybe they prefer draught. In the exquisite main square, Danes and Italians play an impromptu game of football with local children.

Outside our restaurant, where Dutch fans have been teaching us songs to sing at the Germans tomorrow, we meet Alex, a young Slovenian who has spent 25 days cycling 3,800km here from Ljubljana. "But Slovenia aren't here," we tell him. "I still want to see the football," he says. "I haven't got any tickets or anywhere to sleep tonight, but I wanted to be here." We get lost again on the way out of Guimaraes and find ourselves back in the main square where the football match has gone into extra time. We reckon the Italians still haven't scored.

Tuesday 15 June

Porto - Germany 1 Netherlands 1

There is probably no greater rivalry among European football nations than that between the Dutch and the Germans. If the tournament was going to turn nasty, this might be the occasion.

Outside the ground, however, the mood is boisterous rather than belligerent. A group of German fans dressed up as their manager, Rudi Völler, grey wigs and moustaches included, have their photographs taken with the Dutch who probably outnumber their rivals by two to one.

There are many women and older fans among the Dutch, while the Germans are more like the English: generally young and mostly male. Some Dutch have cone-shaped hats which also double as megaphones, but they are confiscated at the entrance because they are provided by a beer company who are not official sponsors.

The Dragao stadium, home of the European club champions, Porto, is a majestic structure, with towering roofs and sweeping stands. There are plenty of English flags - welcome back, Kennilworth - but they are outnumbered by German banners. We ponder the meaning of one, which reads " Felazio Aschaffenburg". The Dutch whistle and chant throughout "Deutschland Uber Alles".

The sun sets on a sea of orange humanity on the far side and when Torsten Frings puts Germany ahead we wonder if the setting sun is a symbol for Dutch hopes. Ruud van Nistelrooy caps a Dutch recovery with a magnificent goal, but the Germans have impressed with their clever football.

"We feared we would flop, because we have not played well lately," Christoph, a Hertha Berlin fan, says. "But we were excellent. This was a big game for the Dutch but it was important for us too. We know everybody wants to beat Germany.'' Christoph, who also supports Tottenham Hotspur, wishes us luck against Switzerland. "We went to your game against France and we wanted England to win. We like English football. It's fast and passionate."

Wednesday 16 June

Porto - Greece 1 Spain 1

Outside the Bessa stadium, home of Boavista, Porto's second club, you could be forgiven for thinking you were about to enter a block of flats or offices. The ground nestles in a bustling area of narrow streets hole-in-the-wall shops and tiny cafes.

Inside, the ground is a classic inner-city stadium, with steep-sided stands almost tipping you over the pitch. The atmosphere is intense, the stands packed with noisy Spaniards, who vastly outnumber the Greeks.

The English are out in force - good to see you again, Kennilworth - but, as usual, there are very few Portuguese. The average Portuguese national wage is a third of Britain's so, with tickets costing between €35 and €100 (£23-£66), perhaps their absence is no surprise. "The tickets are expensive and most Portuguese are only interested in watching Portugal,'' says Luis, a Porto fan.

At most games probably half the neutrals are English. Most other nationalities follow only their own teams. Some of the neutrals are from outside Europe. We have met Colombians, Australians supporting Germany or Croatia, fans of the Mexican club Monarcas, even Canadians and Americans.

The game is excellent, the Spanish playing some flowing football, the Greeks defending well and looking good on the break. It is still hard to pick a winner from what is looking a wide open tournament.

Thursday 17 June

Leiria - Croatia 2 France 2

Until now we have not seen a single Manchester United or Arsenal shirt. However, in a cosy restaurant opposite the Dr Magalhaes Pessoa Stadium, where we have come to watch England v Switzerland on television before tonight's game, I finally spot a young man wearing an Arsenal shirt. He turns out to be Philipp, a student from Leipzig.

"I'm an Arsenal fan because I love the way they play," he says. "They're beautiful to watch. And I'm here because I want to see people like Henry and Vieira." So how many times has Philipp been to Highbury? "Never. I've tried many times to get tickets but it's impossible. At least when they move to the new stadium I might have a chance."

The stadium for this match is perhaps the most spectacular yet, a hill-top castle towering over the multi-coloured stands. The Croatians, meanwhile, are the most exuberant fans we have come across. The typical Croatian seems to be nearly seven foot tall, built like a weightlifter, and draped in red and white checked shirts or, bizarrely, pyjama suits.

The Croatians spend almost the entire game on their feet, jumping up and down, chanting and singing. When they score, the stand almost shakes under the weight of celebration. On the pitch, they show against a fragile French team that they will be formidable opposition for England on Monday. Off it, the confrontation could be equally intense.

We see only one English flag here - "Liverpool FC Leather Bottle" - but at a service station on the way home we meet some suitably happy England fans with comforting news. "Kennilworth" made it to Coimbra.

Friday 18 June

Braga - Denmark v Bulgaria

One of the pleasures of this tournament is the lack of commercialism. You have very little sense of the Portuguese cashing in. Prices in the bars and restaurants, even right outside the stadiums, are often ridiculously low, while there seems to be very little merchandise available in the shops.

At the same time, you feel that the host towns and cities are wasting a chance to "sell" themselves. Half-time entertainment is almost non-existent. Football matches are simply football matches. The comparatively small towns like Braga and Guimaraes seem to enjoy the occasion but do not take advantage of it.

Above all, this is a celebration of both football and of European national identities. There is a respect for one another, a friendliness that you do not always find in the club game. Some other aspects of European life could learn much from this tournament. Vive la différence.