The eagle has landed. Having spent a full minute swooping in ever decreasing circles above the crowd, FC Benfica’s aquiline mascot – white head plumage, black wings, red ribbons trailing from its talons – ends its pre-match flight by coming in to land in the centre circle. 55,000 voices roar in approval.
As I wonder how on earth the creature is trained, a massed anthem starts rumbling around the stands and I find myself in a blizzard of red and white scarves. “FORÇA Ben-FI-ca!” booms the chant, the noise so intense that the stadium itself seems to shudder. Then the drums begin, the flags are hoisted and in the middle of it all — somewhere beyond the din — a game of football is about to kick off.
Benfica’s Estádio da Luz sits on the northern outskirts of Lisbon. The beer and the grilled pork sandwiches outside the ground are cheap, as are the tickets. In the hour before kick-off, the mood is warm and inclusive. The stadium, meanwhile, is the same one in which, 12 years ago, Greece upset huge odds (or to use today’s terminology, ‘did a Leicester’) by beating host nation Portugal to win the UEFA European Championship.
The current tournament has shown us wildly contrasting sides to football as a spectator sport, from rhapsodies of saturnalia to meat-headed fistfights. It seems as fitting a time as any for a reminder that going to a match overseas should rarely be viewed with trepidation. Tear gas is not the norm.
Football is one of the world’s great cultural levellers. As a source of passion from Venezuela to Vanuatu, it creates a common dialect across the globe. A kick-about can take place anywhere from a city square to a rainforest clearing, and it’s as natural to see a Barcelona shirt in Cambodia as it is in Catalonia. Most British travellers, meanwhile, will have their own memories of words like ‘Beckham’, ‘Bale’ or ‘Rooney’ magically dismantling the language barrier.
But for all this, football also expresses itself differently around the world, both on and off the pitch. The match experience tends to take on different characteristics wherever you travel. It means that going to a local game is often not just entertaining, but enlightening too. If there’s a more vivid display of Argentina’s fervent national character than 60,000 people going deafeningly loco, for example, I’d like to see it.
Like many, I have a weakness for seeking out fixtures that coincide with my travels. To be frank, as an Ipswich Town fan, I need to take excitement where I can find it. I’ve gone along to domestic matches in cities like Marseille (thunderous), Accra (oddly formal), Shanghai (surprisingly tribal) and Tehran (intense and, inevitably, a male-only occasion).
Admittedly, it’s not always thrilling stuff. Five years ago, spurred by a sense of footballing duty, I went along to a league match in Tbilisi. The game was drab. Sitting next to me, however, was a German man who had travelled to Georgia expressly to see the game. It transpired that this was the fiftieth country in which he’d watched professional football. He’d visited around 1,100 different grounds in the process and, what was more, he was en route to Armenia the next day to chalk up another.
I ended up pitching a story about him to a football magazine, who replied to say they came across people like this all the time. It appears that crossing borders purely to watch a 90-minute contest between two teams for whom you hold no allegiance whatsoever is very much a thing. And why not?
I can’t claim anything like the expertise of my German friend, but I know that football can provide a travel experience every bit as memorable as a big-name monument or critic-slaying restaurant. After all, there are few other occasions where you’re going to witness tens of thousands of locals letting their hair down. At its best, it carries the same visceral thrill as a carnival or fiesta.
Back in Lisbon, the supporters around me are belting out a chant to the tune of Karma Chameleon. Benfica are 2-1 up. A teenage fan leaps onto the pitch and sprints over to hug the keeper, running back off the playing area before the stewards have even twitched. The crowd loves it. The songs keep coming and the drums keep pounding. It’s nearly 11pm, but Lisbon is wide awake.