With the cold air creeping back through Britain’s streets over the course of October, my girlfriend and I started to become increasingly impatient. It had been almost 12 months since Saffron and I last travelled abroad: a trek to Germany that involved being refused entry to Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park for having dodgy tickets from Viagogo.
That incident-filled getaway concluded a year where we’d travelled to five countries apiece. Burnout and then financial difficulties stopped us from exploring again in 2018. But as money steadily improved, things fell into place with cheap flights to Porto available and Portugal’s final Nations League match against Poland in nearby Guimaraes priced at €10 per ticket.
It would be my second time in Porto but my first time in Guimaraes. This is what we saw in the city credited as being the ‘birthplace’ of Portugal.
A warm welcome
The Portuguese were ultra-chill during my last visit to their country and I was so pleased to sample that vibe again in Porto, while discovering it also extended to further cities like Guimaraes. When we arrived at the game, for example, we found our seats were wet. Without even mentioning this as a problem, a man next to us pulled some tissue out of his bag for us to wipe them down.
That gesture, along with the passion on display from the fans around us as they sung the national anthem and backed their team, only endeared me more to the country and its people.
The very first game I watched in 2018 was the FA Cup third round clash between Wolves and Swansea. Many big-name players were rested for both sides that day but one player who did start for the Swans was Renato Sanches. I recall being very excited at seeing the man on-loan from Bayern Munich, especially after he played such a major role in Portugal’s Euro 2016 success.
However, the game was a rather drab goalless draw and was most notable for Sanches’ terrible performance leading up to his 34th minute substitution because of injury. I’m still unsure if the midfielder was carrying a knock going into the game which led to his poor showing but he looked out of his depth at Molineux, giving the ball away several times and being easily out-muscled in the middle of the park.
Sanches didn’t play another game for Swansea and returned to Bayern in the summer. But since then, the man has turned things around dramatically. He’s played 12 games for the German champions so far, scoring in the Champions League at his former club Benfica, and playing five times for Portugal after being omitted from their World Cup squad.
And in Guimaraes, he continued his rebirth. The 21-year-old looked like a different man against Poland – a team who he scored past in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. His passes were so much more accurate, his touch was sharper and he looked stronger – both physically and mentally. It was from his corner that Andre Silva opened the scoring for Portugal and he helped control the game alongside Danilo in the heart of midfield.
Unfortunately, though, Danilo was later sent off in strange circumstances. William Carvalho let Poland in on goal after a poor headed pass and Arkadiusz Milik only had the goalkeeper to beat. In my eyes, Milik made the most of Danilo’s touch on his shoulder as the Porto man chased him down. Milik sprawled spectacularly to the floor – notably falling forward despite being, apparently, pulled back – a penalty was given and Danilo saw red.
Milik stepped up and found the bottom right-hand corner but had to retake his spot-kick due to encroachment. Despite the sound of piercing whistles from the crowd, the Napoli forward hit his second effort in the same corner even more accurately than his first and Portugal were in danger of losing a game they’d been in control of.
However, with the match being effectively a dead rubber (Portugal had already won their Nations League group and Poland had already been relegated) the only thing at stake was Poland’s place in the best pot for European Championship qualifying. A draw was enough for them to oust Germany as a top seed and thus the game ended with little more goal action from either side.
During the days leading up to the game, I’d eagerly awaited news of the Portuguese and Polish squads. Portugal captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo remained unselected since his last appearance at the World Cup but Manchester City’s in-form midfielder Bernardo Silva was included. Poland, meanwhile, called up their all-time top goal scorer Robert Lewandowski and their record cap holder Jakub Blaszczykowski
Whilst out in Portugal, however, news emerged before the game that Silva was injured – which was sad but nowhere near as crushing as the team news we heard at the stadium. I was devastated to see Lewandowski wasn’t in the matchday squad – the first Poland game he’d missed since 2013! I felt so unlucky and the feeling was only compounded by Blaszczykowski being an unused sub.
There were some exciting players on show though. Even at 35-years-of-age, Pepe showed his multi-title winning credentials, while his defensive partner Joao Cancelo produced a fantastic headed clearance off the line from a deflected effort. Milik also looked very sharp and so intelligent up front. And, in a bizarre discovery, I found out I’d seen Andre Silva and Grzegorz Krychowiak three times apiece since the start of 2017. Silva, in particular, is becoming a cult hero.
Getting into Guimaraes quite early gave us a chance to see the city and also collect our tickets without queueing. I was quite looking forward to seeing the ground as it hosted two matches at Euro 2004 and a number of Portugal games in the past. But when we arrived, Saff accurately noted that its exterior resembled a car park more than an international stadium. It was very grey, very soulless and just looked a bit unkept.
It was honestly the worst-looking ground I’ve seen from the outside, which is so confusing because the interior was very impressive. It holds 30,000 seats, which is the eighth-biggest in Portugal, and is similarly designed to Porto’s stadium where you walk in and the pitch is on a lower level to the gates.
Outside the ground was a statue of Afonso Henriques, who was the first king of Portugal. Vitoria SC – who play their home games at the stadium – feature Henriques on their badge and the nearby Guimaraes castle has lots of information on how he formed the Portuguese nation back in the 12th century. Many also believe he was born in the city and was baptised in the church located on the castle grounds.
But unfortunately, beyond these sights, there was very little to do in Guimaraes. We spent most of the day killing time in the Portuguese rain and trying to find savoury food before all the restaurants opened. Neither task was that enjoyable. Or particularly rewarding.
I remember leaving Guimaraes feeling underwhelmed but reflecting on the experience now, it was really good value for money and definitely worth the journey. Learning about the history of Portugal and seeing some great players of the past and future of both national teams, is hard to be disgruntled by. A near sell-out crowd of 29,000 was a bonus and it was nice to experience the Portuguese cheering on their Euro 2016 heroes; especially Eder, who scored their winning goal in the final.
Despite the red card, the whole contest had a friendly vibe to it and felt like a celebration of Portugal’s achievements in the European Championships and winning their Nations League group – typified by the home fans doing a Mexican Wave with 20 minutes on the clock.
Credit to the Poland fans who packed the away end, they refused to take part in such nonsense and showed great support through constant chanting and even a ‘Poznan’. On the train back they seemed in good spirits too. I think they were pleased to be in a good pot for Euro qualifying. So everyone was a winner in the end.
Portugal 1-1 Poland
Estadio D. Afonso Henriques
Best Of The Rest
Another one of our north Portugal day trips was to Braga, the third-biggest city in the country after Lisbon and Porto. A bit like Guimaraes, Braga didn’t have much else to see other than the Bom Jesus do Monte. But having said that, it’s quite a stunning thing to have as your major landmark.
The panoramic views at the hilltop church rival those at Porto’s iconic Ponte Luiz I. In one direction is a sprawling cityscape and around you stands a miraculous piece of architecture that’s difficult to register as a real life construction. Looking at my own photos really don’t do any justice to the scale, intricacy or wonder of actually being there.
We walked back to the centre of Braga down the same path that worshippers would have climbed in order to show their faith and headed for the city centre. Our goal was to see the Estadio Municipal de Braga before sunset. I’d read on the train up that it had a cliffside as one of its stands and it was possible to view the stadium from on top.
As rain fell, we got closer and headed down a long road in a residential area full of apartments. At the end, we could spot Braga’s training pitches from a lookout point but the main ground was obstructed by trees. We then noticed a muddy path at the bottom of a side street that went over a steep hill. We took a gamble on checking it out and were rewarded by another phenomenal 360 view on the edge of the stadium’s cliffside stand.
I’d never seen a ground quite like that before. We could easily get a stone and throw it on to the pitch, it was such a crazy vantage point. Particularly as, behind us, we could see all the sanctuaries and churches on top of the hills. When I spotted a crack of lightning strike over the horizon, it made the whole thing that more thrilling. But I also began to get wary of electrocution from an oncoming storm, so we quickly departed. What an amazing stadium to find though… and exhilarating to see even without a game being played.