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Luck, Truth, Girls in Portugal
Written by Mullet on Friday, 29th Jul 2016 20:45

Football is obviously a global game and these days that concept is more keenly emphasised in no other place like England, with the Premier League as vast and cosmopolitan as the Roman Empire, while the national side flounders like ball-playing barbarians.

I took in a rare chance to see the newest champions of Europe's domestic champions Benfica. Competing in the ninth Eusebio Cup against Serie A's Torino at the Estadio da Luz in front of 46,000 people, it seemed there were lessons to be learned from a late July that Marcus Evans might like to heed.

I've rarely attended any matches that don't involve the Blues. I'm just not much of a football tourist so I admit I'm not much of a connoisseur of neutrality. Like Sting in New York or one of our little yellow friends seeing the words 'Nelson's county' in their rear-view mirror, I get a sense of unease and not knowing the lay of alien land when attending a non-Town game.

Opposing that certain warm comfort of the Churchmans or an away end (no matter how sparsely populated with fellow Tractor boys and girls) is easy to take for granted. TripAdvisor of all places wildly enthused about this stadium as one of the best in Europe, a must-see allegedly. And while it rises like a truly grand structure as one emerges from the metro stop, to me these post-90s monoliths of concrete, oversized conservatory doors and God's Meccano just look a bit rubbish. Give me a touch of painted over rust and mould any day.

Whilst this place was built for the 2004 Euros, and it's clear that that brought in possibilities with design and the 'matchday experience' in mind, the thought of replacing Portman Road with an unlikely state-sponsored Marcus Evans Bowl, nestled somewhere between Saxmundham and Woodbridge, as a place to come and pray genuinely leaves me cold.

No one likes going to the Ricoh, the Reebok or other such places dumped by main roads and left to fester on non-matchdays do they? I'm sure MEG cannot even under a Tory government, fix the woes of Ipswich transportation or circumvent them with their own intervention - but the possibility it opens up would sit well with the potential West Ham fans lurking around the commuter corridor. Choose wisely I say.

When you walk to Lisbon's premier ground you are met by an army of Football nans. Pensionable ladies who look like they might bake you a cake or darn your socks line the walkway, holding out the dreaded commemorative half and half scarves, all with 'official' tags attached and bellow at you in Portuguese.

There is I sense, one of two key avenues for cheap labour and profit maximisation for you to adopt here Mr Evans. During the climb from the underpass full of scarfers and scarf sellers there is not just the sound of capitalism but the sight of neo-Communist-style murals to players past and present, great artworks in spray paint to the glories of the home side. These continue along the outside of the stadium itself.

I can only imagine what it might be like as one steps out of the Curve Bar, into the depths of the metroless Ipswich subterranean and before you even smell a Portman pie, your senses are immersed in the giant figurative celebrations of Brazil, Holland, Scotland et al.

The silhouettes of the FA, UEFA and Football League championship trophies adorn the walls of North Stand and not just the memories of a dwindling few, nor the expectations of a growing throng. Surely Suffolk has the young artistic talents to let loose on such a project? We must think bigger than stickers on urinals or defacing bins in small pockets of the country when advertising ourselves!

Another area where the Town outdo the Portuguese is perhaps ticketing, but not ticket prices. Admittedly this was only a friendly. But filling this Stadium of Light is far removed from the hardship or carnage that is a night out in Sunderland.

Organised in three gigantic loops, the bottom and top levels are markedly cheaper than the middle ring. The cheap seats are two gently sloping banks of seats with the added innovation of legroom and arm rests. The pricey middle sections have small TVs placed about the blocks which show replays during the game.

There are two giant screens in the top corners of the stadium which are brilliant concepts I'd love to see at FPR, but they were too small and presumably costly to upgrade to be of much use when one misses or wants to relive the action that can be a goal or hotly contested throw-in in the far reaches across the pitch. Perhaps like household TVs during each major tournament, they are a technology and expense to consider carefully?

Those sat behind the goals in the cheapest levels paid as little as €9 (£7.60), whilst those of us in the seats pitch side were charged €19 (£16) or €14 (11.82) for the equivalent levels. The reason for the differences? Something known as the 'red pass' - heavily plugged inside and incredibly popular outside judging by the very un-English scrum at the ticket office, where one had to guess which window might be manned as you huddled and pushed towards the moment you could raise a Churchillian hand and half shout in one's finest Portugeezer, "Doss poor favor" and point vaguely at the block you hoped to sit in on sepia-tinged diagrams.

I know the new automated system has its problems and received predictable negative feedback as the teething problems of punching customer numbers at one's keyboard were nearly ironed out, however I've never queued for entry in Suffolk with so much hustle or such little hope of really knowing what was going on until the last moment. So how does this 'red pass' work and why should we care?

Anyone can buy one for just under €50 (£42) per year. They then get a sliding scale of discounts on merchandise and tickets. While the gold and silver cards offer something of this, they don't do it in such a simple or open way. Nor do they do enough to incentivise enough people in taking them up in my opinion.

For those not close enough, or in-love enough yet to part with the cash for a season ticket shaped addition in our social calendar, then a modest membership outlay that only really pays for itself by paying more and more into the clubs two big revenues outside of TV money surely makes sense over the course of each season?

There were also small merchandising kiosks dotted around the outside of each stand as you walked through, something I've seen other clubs use but not us, but merchandise is eye-wateringly expensive.

Given how Portugal is relatively cheaper than the UK, replica shirts were €90 (£76) in shops in central Lisbon, pre-printed with player names and numbers they become a staggering €105 (£89) - this incidentally rose to a mind-blowing €159 (£135) in the airport.

These shirts are the exact cookie cutter adidas kits our own boys wear. Ostensibly in a classier range of simple colours and lacking the road sign meets rugby league chic of the current home shirt, but on learning this I expected to barely see one before setting off for the game.

By the time I took my seat it seemed that a far higher than expected proportion of locals were sporting one. Clearly the appetite is there regardless of the cost, and the associated stigma of wearing them non-existent here. Thankfully I don't think Ipswich can make the same margins even with the best will in the world.

Admittedly shirts may be so expensive when tickets are so cheap, competition from two other clubs in the city exists and the team is so dominant and successful. Football mathematics are more a science which at times proves to be quantum and not quantifiable as you must have observed by now?

The comparisons between us and Benfica might be a little stretched but there was a certain proof in the fact that a game against decent foreign opposition brought in 46,000 people and in the past has yielded as little as 25,000. Maybe there is nothing to change but just winning lots of games? But in the meantime some efforts have clearly been made on and off the pitch here and it's working.

The area I was in had a much more family feel to it, but the fashionistas were sporting the latest 2016/17 shirts all printed and badged up (some had a rather classy gold shield reflecting the current status as domestic champions) - there was as I half-thought, a tradition borrowed from rugby where the age of one's home shirt signals or some the virtue of how long you have been attending and some vintages of shirt were mixed in to the crowd too.

Given that for the last few years, as well as sponsors along the chest, their red shoulders are adorned with massive 'Sagres' sponsorship it seems we are missing a lucrative little trick here. In case you're not aware of it Marcus, Sagres is like San Miguel but not quite as good. With that in mind we could even stoop to tempting Adnams in a joint venture towards this more American approach to cashing in could we not, and work our way up to premium brands?

One avenue the club has not done enough to explore is the 'retro' merchandising line. At about the same time as Sir Alf working wonders, Benfica and Eusebio himself were doing pretty well too and there was clearly a popular and official re-release of that shirt in authentic trim and cloth. It looked the business.

With Adidas in tow again and the Mitre branded binbags now disposed of, surely we can get proper editions of the 78 and 81 shirts redone? Pretty please? Even if it means a pre-order campaign it'd be a goer if the goods are good enough.

Likewise there were lots of young Facebook wielding groups of girls, preening in their club shirts and spending much of the build-up trying to capture the perfect selfie for their social media accounts.

Families too got in the act without such pouty results. The world and the world of football are changing, and while the official ITFC Twitter account gets itself about a bit, one day there will be call for wifi across the stands, as games are watched as much through iPads as eyes by those sat right in front of the action.

Perhaps we could go much further and be the world's first to really cater for these younger audiences? Make the Portman Rd. day out much more 1984 in 2017? Forget printing programmes make them downloadable on the official Ipswich matchday app! Terrifying isn't it?

I know you probably can't offer beer in the ground for €2 a glass, let alone let us sit in our seats and drink it, but imagine if you did at least something approaching the first bit Marcus? Whilst one man also chain-smoked his way through the game showing the good and bad side of such legal restrictions in England.

I'm sure you're aware but another area you've not been so warmly received on is service when it comes to those customers inside Portman Road. Before, during and after the local Football Grandads this time were recruited to dish out drinks, crisps and Magnums as if one were at the theatre. Clearly modernity is choking out the white working class male one associates with the average punter at a game here at an even quicker rate.

In theory this system is probably appealing but proved to be another example in life of why getting too close to a grown man in a tabard was not enjoyable. As some little person was taught that tantrums get treats all at the expense of my view becoming inhibited by his rummaging. Maybe stationing snack and beverage vendors at exits or just under the stands milling about would ease the congestion that yields such half-time angst and full-time complaint in Suffolk?

What the muted spectacle this cup final did have above all else was a build-up. We might have the thudding Singing the Blues but Benfica have a whole repertoire of soft-rock hits all with choruses that belt out the club's name. Before you get Nik Kershaw, Dani Filth or that lanky bloke from Busted on the phone, I do think this might be best left to the Europeans.

There were no Junior Blues waving flags, which I know is probably a great money-spinner. But in their place and by the look their kits, were some scantily-clad young women stood hand on hip, the other on pole facing mixed approval from locals. It was another nod to the retro you could but probably shouldn't consider.

The crowning glory even better than Eusebio's image on a giant see-through flag hovering under a small blimp down onto the pitch was the Eagle. Now Benfica are known as the Eagles but to have a real one doing laps of the stadium above the heads of adoring fans before landing on a giant club crest in the centre spot was exciting and met with spine tingling enthusiasm before the players walked out.

I'm sure wags might suggest a horde of Suffolk Punches pulling ploughs from the North to the Churchmans might be in keeping with Mick's approach as much as our county's heritage, I have a better idea though Marcus.

Bluey, Crazee, Milton and Milne and a couple of chariots. There's a film for your reference called Ben Hur, but imagine Rob Chandler's excited shrieks through the Tannoy as Ian sticks a spiked wheel into Simon's undercarriage! The crowd would go ballistic!

I am pleased to see years of effort have been rewarded with the announcement of a Fanzone. That is a huge positive step to rekindling some atmosphere and deserves to be met with you recouping some expenses no doubt. Ignore those dismissing it or offering improvements before it even begins. If you build it they will come, and this applies to plastic pots of warm ale as much as it does flexible midfield options.

One thing this game demonstrated was that apart from pre-match orchestrations most fans just don't sing much any more, or even make noise without on field incident or action. One small corner saw lads taking an operatic approach to songs some with familiar melodies.

In the opposite corner there was cross-talk and clapping and more military-style chanting. Both groups waved giant flags which might not be a good idea for those of us that want to watch the game, but they had banners. Proper ones. These cost at least £50 each so I'm informed but professionally printed and laid out around the stands, with timeless unambiguous slogans they really add something more than divisiveness. Maybe the club could fund a few of these and get them put up between all four corners of the ground? The Fanzone might even fund it with its profits?

The game itself was a non-event but a reminder that we are spoiled in England. Our second tier is not actually all that second rate, even if these 'top' teams would likely prove too much for us, it wouldn't be by much.

The Italians typically better tactically, the home side better technically. Torino used a defensive funnel that pushed wing-backs up when attacking and left the backline a v-shaped receptacle for the inevitable breaks of the quick running reds. Wingers aren't something us Town fans are used to lately, but even decent ones such as these rarely get a killer ball in or past their man they must be given opportunities aplenty to yield success in a game.

Despite the naughty digs at heels even for a friendly and obligatory rolling about, once the A-Level drama and histrionics died down, a goalkeeping howler of the highest sort allowed Benfica to tap one home. The equaliser a truly stunning freekick from the away side, curling into the top corner in a way that should have Mick sitting down with Teddy and replaying it several times.

At half-pace and with whole sides changing throughout the 90 minutes pretty much there wasn't much to learn about the actual football. Julio Cesar appearing after half-time was perhaps the most famous name on display, and seeing the old hand make a few fancy stops was nice.

Likewise the towering Luisao at the back one of the biggest earners one assumes. Having recognised names on the books clearly helps, but fans were happy to adore them and even honour the absent now B-teamed Taraabt amid other second rate superstars judging by those expensive shirts mentioned previously.

One thing Town fans can take comfort from is that we no longer have big names like Mitroglou drawing water from your resources, Marcus. Usually statuesque Greeks with dodgy beards that stand about contemplating are resigned to history. This one seemed barely alive and spent the first half as a lone striker waiting for a gust to take him and his toga ballward.

The Italians had a real sense of well-drilled quality if not the celebrity. Those sitting midfielders and shifting defenders looking to beat a high line with balls over the top that yielded the better runs and best chances of the game.

Usually Eusebio presents a trophy to the winners at full-time, but with him being dead since 2014 and the game finishing a draw we were instead treated to penalties when the whistle went. All scored until sudden death and with the Italians dispatching all of theirs.

Portuguese forums must have lit up with rage at their side hitting the woodwork for a second time, in a game played at half-pace when the natural instinct to play a bit didn't kick in. I wonder how much worry the triple-winners' fans felt at a lack of cutting edge or victory before the season even starts?

But the last and most lasting lesson was the concept of the whole event itself. Honouring the deceased demi-god that is the Black Panther was clearly a great PR move. Inviting decent foreign opposition a popular if non-essential move for pre-season friendlies. We could do the same in aid of the late Sir Bobby Robson whose well-regarded fund might benefit from it too.

While I'd rather see McGoldrick than Messi in the flesh, imagine the tax implications and profit of both on the Portman Road pitch! The little Argentine may not jump at getting to retrace the steps of Steve Whitton or David Lowe as his current club also come to honour their former and beloved boss, but it' sporty asking. George Best turned up once y'know?

Likewise Benfica's arch-nemesis Porto might send a team In homage to SBR, it doesn't have to be their strongest. Former players like Arnold Muhren might be able to persuade his countrymen to come over. We have links with Düsseldorf in the way Torino have links to River Plate who helped them after the Superga air tragedy which incidentally was beautifully honoured at half-time on this occasion.

All this history and community could bring some much needed glamour, cash and feelgood factor to the club. It's not necessarily easy, but then would it not be worth it?

Especially if it allows to open up potential to scout and loan players on a more international level. In our division alone the newly-rich Wolves have just today loaned a young Benfica winger after all, illustrating the ever changing dynamics we operate in.

Those mentioned are unlikely to want what we have, but provide good tests for our academy boys and broadening their horizons as the biggest of clubs do with loans to the continent is another avenue that might yield huge returns from the returnees. What do you think, Marcus? Any of it a goer? It's nice to dream a little big sometimes isn't it?

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