Helping fans feel at home

Gary Fisher is the British Embassy’s Euro 2004 Football Attaché. He has been in Portugal since October 2003, making preparations for the influx of England fans that are expected to arrive in Portugal at the beginning of June. GEORGE FLETCHER met him to find out more about what his job involves and how the British Embassy is working to ensure that everything runs smoothly during the tournament.

You have been attached to the British Embassy in Portugal specifically for the Euro 2004 football tournament. What does your job involve?

The Foreign Office realised before Euro 2000 that football Championships represented the biggest mass movement of Britons overseas, and therefore a vast Consular workload. So they posted their first Football Attaché then. EURO 2004 in Portugal would be no different. It was easy to decide that the tournament warranted at least one dedicated officer within the Embassy, focused entirely on the event. Essentially, a Football Attaché is the main Government point of contact within the Embassy and I am the attaché for this championship.

There’s something like 50,000 English fans coming over to watch games. I am a contact point for the police, the government and local authorities, and for fans. In reality, I’ve spent half my time facilitating contacts between UK fan groups and representatives’ and the Portuguese authorities, normally through visits over here. We wanted Portugal to get a feel for what English fans are expecting from the tournament as well as for the dynamics of England fans. I’ve facilitated the flow of information between both sides.

In what way do you prepare fans for their trip to Portugal?

To give an example, I have travelled to Coimbra with a representative from the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) in the UK, to find out whether the local authorities were planning to lay on any entertainment for England fans and to learn about the local transportation. Our three way relationship has developed and all information is passed onto fans because we want fans to have as few surprises as possible when they get here. The FSF communicates everything back to its 100,000 plus members through its website or its Free Lions fanzine.

Why would someone travel to Portugal to watch a match without a ticket?

Lots of fans travel abroad during tournaments in order to watch the games in local bars or cafés where they are being televised, or in fan-zones.

What about buying tickets in Portugal once fans have arrived. Is that a possibility?

Not legally. During tournaments, competing teams get 20 per cent of tickets for the stadiums where they are playing. The remainder were sold direct through UEFA or go to the Football family. Tickets for the match can only be obtained officially in England through the FA and UEFA. To fight the black market official England fans have a membership card, so when they enter the stadium they show that identification along with their ticket. The entrance gates are obviously all manned, and the security teams at the gates have the right to check tickets against the ID cards. They also have the right to refuse entry into the stadium. As well as that, the FA will be at the stadium checking tickets on entry.

Do you expect much ticket touting during the games?

Ticket touts are a problem for any big event – everything is being done by Portugal and UEFA to avoid that. Ticket sales have been very tightly controlled. It is absolutely necessary to be strict about the selling and purchasing of tickets – it protects the consumer for a start.

How will you communicate information to England fans?

In various ways. Firstly, we have printed 250,000 ‘Z-cards’, which all contain vital information for fans travelling abroad. When folded they are the same size as a credit card, therefore very easy to carry. They contain maps of where the stadiums are located, helpful tips – for example, the need to carry ID around at all times, some useful phrases in Portuguese and, most importantly, the British Consular Hotline number 808 78 1966. For anyone that’s not an England football fan, 1966 is the year that England won the World Cup!

We are also making collectable postcards with snippets from the Z-card on the back. One is called ‘old friends’, which pictures Bobby Charlton and Eusebio playing football. We’ve produced another, called ‘new friends’, which features David Beckham and Luis Figo. Experience and our contact with fans has told us that they find information offered to them, particularly in the z-card format, very useful. When fans leave the UK, everything they have been given, guidebooks etc get ditched because they are normally too cumbersome. This is not an issue with the z-card.

Our most up to date guidance takes the form of tournament specific travel advice on the FCO website – www.fco.gov.uk/travel. It is being regularly updated and will continue to be so during the tournament.

How will fans get hold of the cards?

They will be available in UK airports and charter airlines will be handing them out on board during flights. They are also being sent to fans alongside their FA and UEFA tickets.

We are also holding road shows at different stadiums in England where we will hand them out. As well as all that, we will be leaving them in bars particularly in the Algarve, to ensure that they circulate and reach all the fans.

Is it standard practice for the British Embassy to make such detailed action plans during a sporting event and to devote this much manpower and money?

For football Championsips we have had attaches since 2000. I am aware that we had an Olympics Attaché in Sydney and have an attaché in Athens. We also have separate travel advice for certain events, like the recently completed England cricket tour of the West Indies. But football is special to England. No other sport sends such massive numbers on their travels. You have to prepare accordingly.

So, how many fans are you expecting?

We estimate 50,000 fans will visit Portugal actively seeking to see games. This will be on top of the normal Summer rush.

Did the Portugal versus England friendly in February provide any kind of indication of what you will have to cope with during the actual championship?

In some respects it did: it was a useful opportunity for the Embassy to have a trial run. We opened a command centre in Faro Airport and we tested our emergency number for English fans. This gave staff an opportunity to experience an England match and test communications with the authorities etc.

Personally, it provided me with a chance to see how good my working relationships were with the fan representatives I had spent so much time with. It was also a good dry run for the Portuguese. The success of the day has impacted positively on fans and the Portuguese side, although clearly everything was on a much smaller scale .

Does this effort have anything to do with the fear of hooliganism?

Our efforts are not concentrated toward hooligans. The Portuguese have said that they want to treat fans as tourists, and England fans the same as others. Our focus is the same. Our focus is the numbers and keeping them informed and prepared for Portugal, for example the need to carry ID.

The vast majority of fans never present a problem and that point should not be lost. Of course hooliganism exists and, as you would imagine, the Portuguese and English Police have been liaising closely, particularly over the last two years. In fact, overall there has been an unprecedented level of cooperation between both countries.

What else is the Embassy doing to ensure fans have a point of contact here in the Portugal?

The majority of fans are flying to Faro, staying in the Algarve and travelling by public transport up to Lisbon and Coimbra for matches. That is another element which the Embassy has been involved in – helping ensure the Portuguese transport systems can cope and that fans have the appropriate travel arrangements. As a result of our involvement special trains are being laid on purely for England fans.

As significant numbers will be based in the Algarve we are strengthening our operation there. We will have a booth at the airport, which will be alongside the airline ticket offices. But the Command Centre will be based in the Embassy in Lisbon where we have a team of local and UK consular experts available to field queries and be deployed as necessary. Our emergency number will ring in this Centre.

Finally, who do you think is going to win?

I think the final will be between England and France, when we’ll lift the trophy!