Letter From Coimbra, Portugal: Pride of a town transformed

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The Independent Online
LISBON AIRPORT is already flying the flags. "We love football. Portugal Euro 2004" they proclaim, in English. But after winning the bid to stage the finals of the 2004 European Championship, the Portuguese are realising with a gulp just how much needs to be done. Especially in Coimbra.

The stadium at the ancient university town midway between Porto and Lisbon has not altered much since it was built in 1948, and it is showing its age. Grass pushes between cracked concrete and the pompous Fascist-era monumental arch looks stained and forlorn. The other day the city's main club, Academica, were playing away, and just 300 enthusiasts trickled in for a Second Division match between Uniao de Coimbra and Vouzelense.

But strategists behind Portugal's meticulously planned bid to host Euro 2004 - which left their Spanish rivals incredulous and humiliated when they won the vote- earmark Coimbra as a showcase among the five stadiums to be renovated and five to be built from scratch. It requires something of an imaginative leap to believe this, but Luis de Santerino, sports spokesman for Coimbra's local council, has no doubt. "It's going to be totally transformed," he says, with a broad sweep of his arm as he shows us around just before kick-off. He leads us through the wire mesh gate strapped together with tape that reads "Peace in Timor", past piles of old hoardings propped against the crumbling concrete.

He nods a greeting to the pretty girl selling bags of almonds and bottles of water from a trestle table covered with a flowery cloth that flutters in the squally breeze. The fans string themselves along the back rows beneath a narrow concrete canopy, the only spot offering shelter from the rain.

For a start, he says: "We're going to clear away the campsite." The campsite? Santerino points to a thicket of fir trees behind terraces mosaiced with garish purple and yellow plastic seats, possibly the only innovation since the days of the fascist Salazar. "I know it's nice for campers to be able to get a free view of the match from their tents, but for Euro 2004 they'll have to go elsewhere."

Coimbra's stadium is owned by the municipal authorities. It is part of a sports complex that includes a swimming pool, gym and the campsite, plus an area for park-and-ride buses that encourage you to leave cars on the edge of town. Santerino and his colleagues had a clear vision of what should be done. Their biggest problem was fending off pressure from property speculators keen to grab this prime site in the centre of town.

"When the stadium was built it was on the outskirts, but now, look around, the city surrounds it and we're in the heart of Coimbra. Lots of people wanted to pull down this old stadium and build a new one out of town. We'd have sold the site to raise the money, and done very well. But we always said this was the place where local people could enjoy the sports facilities. It's no good having a new superstadium miles away."

Coimbra would be a socialist council, then? Santerino shoots me a look of steel. "Absolute majority, three times running."

The stadium will remain open while its capacity is doubled from 17,000 to 35,000. It is rare for more than 5,000 to turn up at once, so there will be room for everyone while, first, one side, then the other is closed for the works costing 3.53bn escudos (about pounds 11.6m). Scrubby expanses of lawn and forecourt will be filled with shops, restaurants, bars and gyms, and the new ground will boast a press centre and five television studios.

Coimbra's authorities, like those of Lisbon before Expo98, have seized the opportunity to implement long-term pet projects. Coimbra's new Europa Bridge over the river Mondego will be ready by 2001. More five-star hotels are planned. And new motorways will put the city within two hours' reach for seven million Portuguese, and establish a high-speed link to Madrid. The nearby beach resort of Figueira da Foz is a long-standing favourite among Spaniards. Coimbra stadium will be the best-connected in Portugal.

Euro 2004 is vastly more ambitious than Expo98. It will attract more visitors and millions more television viewers. "We're a small country and we're proud to take this on," Santerino said. "We want to show we can organise a big event properly. I mean, everyone knows we Portuguese are fanatical about football."

Portugal has transformed economically since joining the EU in 1986, and Euro 2004 promises to trigger another surge of development. As we leave, Santerino catches my arm. "Come back to Coimbra in 2004. You won't recognise it."