Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fun in Funchal

Madeira in January.

Sunshine, spectacular scenery, cheap beer, good food and British pensioners of every shape, size and accent swarming like a plague of mildly arthritic locusts, more plastic joints than bling crowding round the casino tables.

Football too. The island's 273,000 residents can boast of two teams in Portugal's top flight, both based in the main city of Funchal. The trip away teams must negotiate from the mainland would surely leave Danny Lennon apoplectic.

Extensive research - Wikipedia detained me for all of five minutes - suggests that Maritimo have often enjoyed the island upper hand and a degree of populist political patronage while Nacional have traditionally attracted support from Funchal's more well to do citizens.

Loathe as I am to forget a childhood spent on the mean, if lovingly manicured, streets of commuter belt East Lothian, a quirk of the fixture list meant it would be the toffs of Nacional graced with my patronage.

With both teams having endured financial challenges in recent years it could be that their respective support is now less divided by class or wealth.

Nacional though have preserved the air of the haughty aristoratic thanks to their stadium, modern and modest but perched high in the hills overlooking Funchal.

The Cristiano Ronaldo Academy - he was a Nacional player before Sporting Lisbon swooped when he was just ten years old - adds glamour in the mountains, the perfect spot for looking down on the masses as they look up to you.

Modern out of town stadiums often seem designed to depress. The Estádio da Madeira - a name that might well irk Maritimo - at least offers a bar and a bolo do caco stall churning out freshly made doughy bread with garlic butter and chorizo for all of €2.

(Not only is this an improvement on the "street food" of Scottish football it's also well worth seeking out in down town Funchal where most restaurants pitched at tourists think lunch should be a three course affair beginning with soup. Whether this is dictated by tradition or the dental capabilities of much of their winter clientele is unclear.)

A rather sparse club shop hints at a certain difficulty in parting the locals from their cash. Maybe not just locals, a pile of "half and half" scarves marking a European game with Birmingham a couple of years ago suggests either overly ambitious ordering or reluctant Brummies preferring to leave their money behind the bar.

Most dramatically the stadium escapes humdrum modernity thanks to its location. Windows in the newer of the two stands offer views across Funchal and give the feeling of a modern stadium that is at once apart from and a part of its city.

There was also a match to be played. Nacional, at the wrong end of the table, entertaining Braga, three wins on the trot and lying third behind Porto and Benfica.

Politeness might always have led me to root for the home team but a run in with Braga's team bus, displaying what I considered some reckless reversing in a crowded car park, the day before the game sealed the deal.

Which is why at half time I found myself sitting in a stadium that was two thirds empty, having watched "my side" look enthusiastically uninspired as visitors doing no more than go through the motions had taken a 1-0 lead.

I can cross the road to see that most weeks in Scotland.

A couple of non-alcoholic beers (€1 and pointless) and a couple of gut wrenchingly strong coffees (€0.70 and invigorating) later and I was ready for more.

And so were Nacional. Finding more point to their energy they began to threaten as Braga went from not really trying to really quite narked that things weren't going their way.

1-1 on 58 minutes, 2-1 on 60 minutes. Having broken with no real purpose to squander decent opportunities in the first half Nacional were now breaking with real purpose to make the most of half chances.

78 minutes and it was 3-1, an own goal giving the home side a cushion.

Braga rallied. In the 83rd minute Eder pulled one back, his third in three games and ninth in eleven league games since joining in the summer. The goal was a product of an urgency that hadn't been there as they went 1-0 up or even when they found themselves 2-1 down.

It might actually have taken 75 minutes before their captain, Alan, managed to find it in himself to lift the pace above holiday dawdle.

Too late though. And definitely too late when Hugo Viana got himself sent off with five minutes to go.

Nacional closed it out. Braga missed the chance to gain on the top two, Nacional moved up the league and sneaked past Maritimo on goal difference.

The taxi driver who took us up the mountain was waiting at full time to take us back down.

We were back in the centre of Funchal to catch the hotel crooner finishing off his set with a rousing My Way. Walking sticks were tapped on the dancefloor in approval, the walking dead shuffled riotously towards a live casino dreaming dreams of Euro riches.

There are, I think, worse ways to watch football.