Off the metro at the last stop, out into the blistering October sunshine. At first, it’s hard to see it, as it stands elevated above your initial eyesight. As you cross the road, journey up the stairs, you’re suddenly welcomed by the Estádio do Dragão. This wonderful, yet modern stadium, stands like a giant overseeing the city of Porto. Futebol Clube do Porto’s guardian.
From your elevated position, you’re able to see the iconic Douro River run through the length and breadth of the city, with stand-out colourful architecture all along the banks. The stadium’s grey outer-base isn’t in keeping with the city’s, that much is true. But the fact that it stands out like a sore-thumb, perhaps adds to that cauldron-like intimidation visiting players and fans alike, feel upon arrival. You sense that once at full capacity, the Estádio do Dragão – Stadium of the Dragon once translated – roars like no other.
Inaugurated against Barcelona on 16 November 2003, the stadia’s capacity holds just over 50,000. This match also saw a then lesser-known Lionel Messi making his first-team debut for Barça at 16 years old.
Unfortunately, the day I visited wasn’t a match day. Porto were playing the previous night in a Portuguese Cup third round tie at lesser-known Lusitano GC Évora in the city of Évora. Their hosts from the III Divisão were no match for the Primeira Liga giants as they were dispatched 0-6.
Nevertheless, whilst walking through the Estádio do Dragão, you sense it was purposefully built for a club of real stature. Images of Porto’s recent successes welcomes visiting sides all along the tunnel and inside the dressing room. From José Mourinho’s all-conquering side of 2002-04, Andre Villas-Boas’ unbeaten league and Europa League winners of 2010-11 and Vitor Pereira’s dramatic late-win against Benfica, thanks to a pot-shot by Kelvin, to more or less seal their 27th title. All of these triumphant scenes must create a sense of general awe amongst some sides, and fear amongst others.
Porto is a club rooted in football history. Founded in September 1893, FC Porto came to being from a secret ambition that became a reality. António Nicolau d´Almeida, a fine sportsman and an expert Oporto Wine trader, was invited by the F.C. Porto president to a game against Club Lisbonense. The president, José Monteiro da Costa, went on to unite the efforts of the local community that included a strong English expat community in Oporto. This led to the extinction of a club called Grupo Recreativo “O Destino” in favour of F.C. Porto. It was the beginning of a structure built on a strong foundation – that became the team we now see today.
Nowadays, Porto are experiencing something of a rebound following a dismal spell under the guidance of now Spain national team coach, Julien Lopetegui. Former Porto and Portugal winger, Sergio Conceicao, has them playing in a dynamically flamboyant style. He has overseen an unbeaten start to the season – having won 10 of their 13 competitive matches, only drawing away at Sporting Lisbon, and losing twice in the UEFA Champions League to RB Leipzig and Beşiktaş. They sit atop the Primeira Liga, having scored 25 goals whilst conceding the mere four. Sérgio Conceição has Porto well and truly back on the domestic march.
The former Nantes manager, who turned down Leicester City’s advances following Claudio Ranieri’s sacking in early 2017, has turned Porto’s fortunes on its head. Although never a club for real struggles in the modern day, under Julien Lopetegui they became a one dimensional and dismal side to watch.
A stadium operator told me: “It was awful under Lopetegui and I’m amazed how he somehow managed to land the Spain national side’s manager role.”
Yet, it seems that Conceição’s vigour is the perfect remedy. Usually known for his technical ability as a player, it also needs remembering that this was the player who was once sent-off, then decided to spit in the face of an opponent, before taking his shirt off and throwing it towards the referee. He was also at the centre of a melee when playing for PAOK at Aris, when plastic was thrown towards him from the crowd and he somehow got red-carded for it.
His career took him from a humble beginning at Penafiel to Porto, on a journey through Italy with Inter Milan, Parma and two spells at Lazio – where he’s still revered today – before another spell at Porto, and then some late form with Standard Liège and PAOK – via Kuwait’s Al Qadisia. The full-circle manner of his career says a lot about the link he has with the Porto faithful.
Discipline has been the formula under Sérgio Conceição. He is renowned from his time at Nantes to have subjected players to double training sessions and a stricter, more precise style of management. When hiring Conceição, you also buy into a culture and vision – a way of life.
Veteran Spain icon, Iker Casillas, is enjoying something of a renaissance in goal. Fellow Spaniard, Ivan Marcano, is playing better than he ever did under Lopetegui. Danilo has become a real force in the centre of midfield – and seems destined for a big-money move one day. Conceição’s biggest success story, however, is Vincent Aboubakar. The Cameroonian is enjoying a second-chance in Porto, having been discarded on-loan to Beşiktaş by Lopetegui. He seems full of confidence, fulfilling potential that was all so often obviously there, romping the domestic scene with seven goals in nine games.
Up next for Conceição’s side is a local derby against Boavista. They are also high-flying compared to previous years, and will undoubtedly pose a threat to Porto as they look to keep the momentum going in their march on the league. But you sense that Conceição’s Dragões are destined for domestic success this year.
As the stadium operator said: “It’s all different under him. He understands the club. His focus, concentration and pure desire to win. That’s what Porto is all about.”