The final journey

Published in Hoops Scene 8 (June 2011)

With all the negative stories in Ireland at present, both in the domestic and international press, the important international visitors we had in May gave Ireland a great ‘good news’ story. The eyes of the media were on Ireland and Ireland, and in particular Dublin, delivered in spades. We were able to showcase our music, our sporting tradition and highlight the country to potential tourists. The Céad Mile Fáilte was laid out for our visitors and it was very well received. Some in Ireland would have preferred more English involvement in the occasion but it was an event for Portugal. I am, of course, talking about the Europa League Final rather than the visit from Barack Obama or English royalty that happened either side of the final. The royal visit did include a trip to a stadium on Jones’s Road but all eyes for sports fans were on the stadium on Lansdowne Road. The victory there in the Europa League Final for Porto saw the event turn into the coronation of the new special one, Porto’s all conquering manager Andres Villas-Boas.

The Europa League competition began back in July 2010 and Shamrock Rovers made their appearance in the second qualifying round where they took on and defeated Israeli side Bnei Yehuda. This set up a fixture against Juventus, a team that have won the Europa League three times under the old UEFA Cup format. Rovers were ultimately undone by early and late goals in the first leg in Tallaght and an amazing late free kick in Italy by Alessandro Del Piero with the Hoops exiting 3-0 on aggregate. Juve wanted to make a return visit to Ireland by making it all the way to the final of the competition to be held in the redeveloped Lansdowne Road stadium. However, six successive draws in the group stages meant there was no involvement by Juventus by the time the final came to Dublin.

Whilst Juventus didn’t make the final, a Shamrock Rovers team did get to take to the pitch on the night of the final but it was Rovers’ under 8 side that did this in their role as the match day mascots. They lined out on the pitch in a 4-4-2 formation with each Rovers mascot representing one of the Porto or Braga players as the teams were announced over the PA to the crowd in excess of 45,000 during the pre-match buildup. As usual at the stadium on match night, there were Rovers fans involved in match organisation and they were supplemented on this occasion with a few Rovers fans, including myself, who were part of the volunteer programme put in place for the event by the FAI along with UEFA’s marketing partner, TEAM.

In autumn last year, the FAI announced that they were seeking 150 volunteers to help during the week of the Europa League final and had an open day in Aviva Stadium outlining how they required volunteers including Accreditation Centre Assistants, Fan Zone Meeter & Greeters, Airport Welcome Assistants, Stadium Assistants and Drivers. All major sporting events supplement paid officials and stewards with volunteers who, in return for a match day uniform (naturally green in colour in this case for a final in Ireland!), food and drink and travel expenses, give up their time to be part of the big event. Having been lucky enough to attend a few of these events, I felt it was an opportunity to give something back, to represent Ireland (and maybe even Shamrock Rovers) and see what it was like behind the scenes at such an event which was taking place a Stephen Rice long throw away from where I work. Okay and maybe it was also a great way to get into the match for free!

All volunteers had to fill in a comprehensive application form outlining their reasons for applying and their experience in volunteering at sporting events. They also had to pass a Garda vetting process and an interview which took place in the stadium back in February. By this stage, I had actually bought a ticket for the final through the FAI lottery (where there were 17,000 applications for the 12,000 tickets available to Irish residents). Following the interview process, I was lucky enough to get one of the 20 or so volunteer positions in the stadium on match night so I felt it was a worth giving up my ticket for the event.

The last 16 draw included three British clubs (Manchester City, Liverpool and Rangers) and three Portuguese clubs. Whilst the week of the final turned out to be the first visit of the head of Britain since the founding of the Irish state there was no British club that made it to the first major football final to be played in the state. Braga defeated Liverpool in the last 16 and went on to defeat Benfica en-route to the reach the final where they would play Porto.

The 75 or so volunteer drivers received a SEAT car for the week and were based out of either in the Shelbourne Hotel, where the UEFA officials stayed, or in the stadium. These cars whizzed between airport, hotel and the stadium during the week and amongst the driver team were a couple of Shamrock Rovers fans. One drove Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager and current UEFA Technical Director, around during the week and another ended up getting a Garda escort on match night to take the doping control doctor to and from the stadium. SEAT are the only sponsor of the event and so the stadium was ‘clean’ for the event meaning all evidence of other sponsors in the stadium was removed for the event. This included all references to the stadium sponsor Aviva so the massive signs on the stadium facade had to be covered over. Even the stadium name was changed to the Dublin Arena for the event. SEAT’s involvement also meant that Rovers’ vice captain, Stephen Rice, attended the game as he is one of SEAT’s sporting ambassadors in Ireland.

I was based in the media centre during the week of the final working with officials from UEFA, TEAM and the FAI. It was very interesting to be involved with the pre-match press conference on the eve of the final. Each club had an hour long press conference with their respective managers and two players including the team captain answering questions from the world’s media. With Brazilian and Columbian players in the teams, there was plenty of interest from the press of those countries, as well as from Ireland, Britain and Portugal. It was standing room only at the Porto press conference with captain Helton and Joao Moutinho fielding questions. Manager Andre Villas-Boas was an impressive character switching his answers between Portuguese and English (translation was available via headsets to everyone in the room). He was patient with each question and avoided the clichés that are often trotted out by managers. Following each press conference, the teams got a chance to train on the pitch which looked in fine condition for the final.

There was a large influx of media on the day of the final. Turn around too quickly in the media centre and you’d bump into a football correspondent from a major international or national paper or even international players such as Stefan Effenberg, Mark Lawrenson or Stan Collymore. Modifications to the stadium ahead of the final including installing additional seating area in the press box and that was where I was able to watch the game from. Adjacent to me was former England manager Graham Taylor who was doing analysis for radio and a Garda who enjoyed the match having spent the last couple of days, according to him, “in a ditch” doing security for Queen Elizabeth’s visit! Ahead of the match, there was an impressive opening ceremony on the pitch. Whilst not quite a sell out, the stadium looked very impressive on the night, with the Porto Ultras impressive in numbers and noise in the south west section of the stadium. A couple of Shamrock Rovers flags hung from the northern end.

The match itself wasn’t a great game with the difference being Falcao, a player with a 30 million euro release price on his head. It was his header late in the first half which proved the only goal of the game and was enough to win Porto the game and him the man of the match award. He faced the media in the press conference afterwards before his 32 year old manager Villas-Boas manager faced many versions of the same question. Would he be with Porto next year? The answer was yes but he caused a bit of a stir amongst the press core when he said he’d probably only manager for another 10 years due to the stress of the job.

The Braga team didn’t hang around after the game but the Porto players lingered in the mixed zone with their winner’s medals around their necks answering further questions from the media. Positioned at the end of the mixed zone, I got a chance to shake the manager’s hand and offer a word of congratulations to him but I sadly did not have enough time for an interview for the Rovers programme! My final job was to hold the door open for the last Porto man out of the dressing room as he was carrying a heavy piece of luggage. It was the Europa League trophy which teams had begun to play for back in July 2010. Now it was in the possession of the eventual winners and was heading back to Porto’s stadium. There will be a new holder of the trophy in 2012 as Porto, the Portuguese Champions, won’t get a chance to defend it as they have the small matter of the Champions League to play for this season. They may even be back in Dublin later in the year, to play the All Ireland Champions, Shamrock Rovers.

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