The fan - Hunter Davies visits Lisbon's Stadium of Light
I visit Lisbon's Stadium of Light and see a live eagle paraded on a rope
I haven't decided yet about the England pop-up gazebo (Argos catalogue price - £49.99) with the England logo on both sides, which looks excellent, but I have got a set of six England paper napkins and paper tablecloth, only £3 from Wilkinson's, a cheap shop in Carlisle. And I have told my wife that if there's anything she might want to say to me in the next four weeks, then say it now, lass, or hold your wheesht.
But my main preparation for Euro '04 was to go to Portugal, check out where England will play. Half the ten stadiums are brand new, the other half substantially rebuilt. Lisbon's Stadium of Light, where England will meet France on Sunday, and where the final will take place, is new and magnificent, known by the locals as the Cathedral of Light. It was full, 65,000, for Benfica's last match of the season.
I'd tried and failed to get a press seat, the bastards - look, I am from the New Statesman, I said, but strangely it didn't work. Big clubs in big cities, like Man United, tend to be so arrogant, dismissive of the press as of the public. So I bought a seat behind the goal, only £20. Lots of space, no need to stand as at Highbury or White Hart Lane when people want out. In front, on the back of the seat ahead, was a holder for drinks. Very handy for England fans. No programme, which they don't do in Portuguese league games. How can they ignore such an easy chance to make money? My little umbrella got confiscated as a security risk. I bought a red Benfica raincoat and ten postcards of Eusebio.
By being so near the touchline, I got a bit of a shock when a live eagle appeared in front of me. It was being paraded around the ground by a bloke who had it on a rope, followed by roughly 30 pubescent dancing girls waving silly plastic whisks. Do they have a name, those sticks beloved of drum majorettes? The eagle is the symbol of Benfica, but I don't think animal rights people in the UK would allow it. The huge crowd cheered the eagle and politely clapped for the girls. In Britain, the girls would have been greeted by lewd leers, raucous whistles and obscenities.
Then I went to Coimbra, where England will play Switzerland. The staff could not have been more helpful. I got a tour of the ground and looked inside the England dressing room. Coimbra is a provincial city, though an ancient one, with one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded circa 1288. The stadium holds just 30,000 but has been hugely renovated at a cost of 50 million euros. It was reopened not with a prestige footer game, but a Rolling Stones concert.
I had to shield my eyes from the multicoloured seats, a mass of clashing blues and oranges, trying to work out the motive. Blue is the colour of the PP, orange the colour of the PSD - the two parties now in Portugal's coalition government. This has pleased the politicians, and might well have helped with all that funding, but the colours were chosen at random by the architect. He just wanted to brighten up the stadium. Ignore any commentators who detect political significance.
Academica, the local team, just managed to avoid relegation on the last day of the season. It would have been embarrassing if they'd gone down on the eve of hosting a major competition, in a municipal stadium on which so much had been spent.
In the square outside the stadium was a roadshow taking the Uefa Cup in a glass case to all the main cities in Portugal. I queued up with local kids and got one to take my photograph with the cup. I look great, big cheesy smile, but you can't see the
cup. Ruined by the reflection from the glass. Or my cheap camera.
Everyone in Coimbra is thrilled they will be the focus of European attention, if just for two games. More than 500 journalists had been to look around already, 400 of them from England.
The Portuguese are a modest, reticent, unpushy people, but they are passionate about football. And they are no longer one of the poorer countries of Europe. It's not just the stadiums that gleam, but the trains and public transport, so much cheaper, more efficient than in the UK. The city centres are clean, bright, welcoming. Let's hope the English fans will muck it all up . . .