All quiet on the Western front

Wednesday was football day in the Algarve in more than one sense. England’s friendly encounter with Portugal not only marked the inauguration of the new Algarve Stadium on the international stage, but was also the first test for Portugal’s security forces to see how they will cope in Euro 2004 year. Appropriately the attention of over 170 media representatives was focused on the 27,000 fans attending the match, almost 6,000 of them English. In the event, prudent policing, a warm welcome and warm sunshine contributed to a true friendly between the two countries, traditionally on the best of terms over the centuries. Supporters spent the day being entertained at a special welcome party featuring live music, street entertainers and copious amounts of beer in Faro’s Jardim Manuel Bivar before joining local residents who occupied the entire eastern end of the new ground, before the 9.15pm kick-off. On the pitch, Luis Figo, perhaps the outstanding player of his generation, celebrated his 100th cap for Portugal, and shook hands with his opposite number and Real Madrid teammate, David Beckham.

The two captains led their players into a sporting contest that never had a hope of living up to the expectations generated by the surrounding hype. England fielded a makeshift side lacking four first-choice central defenders, and a strike force composed of a less than fit Michael Owen and the still very inexperienced Wayne Rooney. As a result the game was scrappy in the first half. Portugal had the best of the exchanges and came closest to scoring with a Figo free kick in the 25th minute. England managed to take the lead almost from the second half kick-off, when Ledley King turned in a David Beckham free kick at the near post. Despite this setback Portugal continued to dominate and were rewarded with a Pauletta free kick in the 68th minute. James was powerless to stop the shot and the score levelled at 1-1. A host of substitutions followed from both sides, which rendered the remainder of the game almost pointless.

At the final whistle the score stood and both teams trooped off to the strains of “God Save The Queen”, slowly drowned out by chants of“Por-tu-gal”. A diplomatic mission had been achieved, honours were shared, and there was not a hint of trouble. The Algarve’s new Euro 2004 venue basked in an almost surreal atmosphere of goodwill – but should these two sides meet again later this year, the result is by no means a foregone conclusion.