10th June 2019
In Focus: How the Nations League has transformed the football landscape
By Callum Noad, MSc International Sport Management student at UCFB Wembley
Our Nations League journey started with a leisurely wake up on Wednesday morning. My friend, Jacob had flown over to Madrid the day before and we picked up our hire car on his arrival into Spain. With a cafe con leche and Spanish pastry demolished, we clambered into the Fiat 500 and set our sat nav for Porto.
The drive was to take six hours in total, seven if you take into account our lunch stop in the eerily quiet city of Salamanca a few hours in. Driving on the opposite side of the road was an interesting challenge but we (mostly) safely navigated the roads and arrived at our Airbnb south of Porto.
After some food and a few Super Bocks, we headed down into the centre of Porto where UEFA had set up a fan park with giant screens to watch the games. We got there just in time to catch the second half of Portugal vs Switzerland and witness a Cristiano Ronaldo masterclass alongside a jubilant Portuguese crowd. The atmosphere at the fan park was great and credit must go to the organisers for a well-designed event. Later in the night, a small minority of England fans clashed with local police. It’s always disappointing to see these “fans” causing trouble especially given how hospitable the Portuguese people had been in welcoming us to their city. These fans don’t represent true England supporters and it was great to see The Football Association come out and condone them so quickly.
The next day we headed out to Guimaraes for England’s semi-final against The Netherlands. Guimaraes is a city to the north of Porto some 30 miles away. The FA and UEFA had organised special trains from Porto’s main stations to take fans free of charge to Guimaraes. It was a great initiative as it saved fans a hassle in getting to the game as most fans would have based themselves in Porto. The journey, however, was far from comfortable as we were packed in like sardines for the hour’s trip in a very hot train. Arriving in Guimaraes, we headed down to the main square where we enjoyed the atmosphere with the thousands of other England fans. The locals were very welcoming if a bit bewildered as I’m not sure this small city had ever seen anything like it before.
Arriving at the Estádio D. Afonso Henriques, the home of Vitória de Guimarães, we balked at the long queues that snaked around the stadium. To protect against counterfeit tickets and illegal touting, UEFA had distributed our tickets via a specially designed app. These tickets are then activated by Bluetooth as you enter the stadium. Even though the process seems more efficient, you do question its merits when queueing outside a ground. We managed to get in 15 minutes before kick-off but from the stories we heard and the empty seats around us, it was clear that many fans missed part of the game. Something for UEFA to work on in the future.
The game itself was largely sloppy. England, pressed into playing a relatively weaker side due to Champions League fatigue, were playing well below par. Rashford opened the scoring with a well-taken penalty before De Ligt equalised with a header in the second half. When Jesse Lingard scored what 25,000 England fans thought was the winner, the celebrations were unbelievable. Something however which I wish wasn’t quite as real, was the VAR hand signal and the arduous wait for the goal to be checked. Offside. Extra time beckoned. Over the next 30 minutes, England gifted the Netherlands two goals and the Dutch emerged victorious. In fairness, with a striker a bit more clinical than Ryan Babel, the Dutch would have been home and dry. England didn’t play well and couldn’t feasibly expect a place in the final. Despite the result, the atmosphere inside the England-dominated stadium was very special. If you ever get the chance to follow your national team abroad, you should do so.
— Callum Noad (@calnoad) June 10, 2019
After a crushing defeat, all every England wanted was to get home. This meant a two-hour wait outside in the hammering rain for a train back to Porto. After the debacle in Baku, and now the shoddy organisation in Guimaraes, you wonder if these smaller cities should be awarded hosting rights for big matches. The queues were so badly managed and it’s a wonder that nobody was injured in a crush.
After a few days enjoying the beach and riverfront atmosphere, we found ourselves donning our flags again and heading back to Guimaraes for the third-place playoff. Even though after the debacle getting home, we swore to never go back, we jumped on the special trains once more and headed north.
Despite being a relatively pointless match, the atmosphere in sunny Guimaraes was very positive. England fans enjoying themselves in the sun while contributing a fair amount to the Portuguese bar industry.
The game itself was relatively dry although it was great to see England win another (!) penalty shootout. After the game, the locals of Guimaraes lined the streets to applaud the visiting England supporters as they left their city. Despite what the media has reported, England fans were very welcome visitors in the small city.
Not wanting to face the trains and the two-hour queues, we took a taxi back to Porto. It was important to get back in good time as we had tickets for the final at Porto’s stadium, the Dragao. While we were hoping it was England playing and not The Netherlands, it was great to see Cristiano Ronaldo live, playing in front of a home crowd. It was also special for me individually as it marked the 50th game I’ve attended this season. Despite not being part of the game, the England fans, who like us had hoped to see Southgate’s men in the final, were in fine voice throughout.
Portugal scored midway through the second half in a tight game that saw Cristiano Ronaldo lift the inaugural Nations League trophy in front of a large Portuguese crowd. Outside of the ground, we found a party atmosphere. The Portuguese people were very happy with their victory, evident through the car horns beeping long into the night.
All in all, a brilliant trip to Porto and great to watch England play away. The city itself is beautiful and definitely one I’d like to visit again without the hordes of football fans blocking the picturesque views.
The Nations League has had its critics in what many describe as glorified friendlies. However, by getting rid of friendlies and replacing them with competitive matches, the product is far more appealing to fans both at the stadium and on the sofa. I’ve been to five Nations League games and each one was enjoyable. As a fan, you’d much rather your team play for something more than just pride. In a time when footballing authorities are criticised for introducing new rules and initiatives, credit must go to UEFA for this new tournament. Only time will tell whether the stature, prestige, and popularity of the Nations League will improve but I for one hope so. Here’s to the next one, that one is definitely coming home….