A weekend in Lisbon offers so much in terms of sights to see, things to do and delicious pastries to eat. Of course the city is also home to some rather large football clubs and it was a happy coincidence that Benfica would be playing at home during my stay in the city. We had planned to watch the current Portuguese champions play against Boavista at the Estadio da Luz and I had done my research accordingly. After a beautiful Saturday in Sintra (be sure to go there if you are ever in Lisbon), I decided to double check the kick off time for the Benfica and Boavista clash. It was earlier that same day. Something had gone wrong, I had either got my dates mixed up or the match had been rescheduled, I couldn't believe it. The game was a 3-3 thriller and I had missed it.
All was not lost however as I decided to check the fixtures for the Sunday anyway (the day I thought Benfica were due to play) and saw that Belenenses, a team based in the Belem area of Lisbon, would be playing at home on Sunday night at 8.15pm against Rio Ave. Perfect, I would get my Portuguese football fix after all! Some quick research using the hotel WiFi on Saturday night meant that I could plan the trip to this mid-table Primeira Liga fixture and tie it in to what would prove be a great day out in a beautiful part of Portugal.
Belem is around four miles from the main centre of Lisbon and as we had already been in the city for a couple of days, I was now a dab hand with both the underground and train networks. A quick two minute tube journey from my hotel down to Cais do Sodre was followed by an eight minute train journey to Belem. The trains and the tube all run into the early hours of the morning and so there was no danger of being stranded in Belem frantically trying to order an Uber.
I would recommend arriving in Belem early as there is so much to see besides the football. At the risk of sounding like a travel guide, Jeronimo's Monastery is absolutely breathtaking and is en-route to the stadium when walking there from the tram stop or the train station. There are also various museums, restaurants and cafes all within a kilometre or so of Belenenses' home. We arrived in Belem five hours prior to kick off to allow time to see the other local attractions and I was not disappointed at all. I am led to believe that there is not much to do near the Benfica stadium but Belenenses is totally different.
Belenenses play at Estádio do Restelo which has a capacity of just under 20,000 and is situated around 12-15 minutes walk from Belem train station. The stadium itself is not lavish or over the top and is nestled quietly on the hillside tucked in behind the huge monastery that immediately steals your attention. A map check the previous night told me to walk up the hill beside the monastery and if it wasn't for the floodlights being on the stadium would have been hard to see until we were right on top of it due to the understated architecture.
Following some language confusion with ticket office staff, we managed to get some tickets. After finding the correct entrance to the relevant stand and a quick search by security staff we were in and I was growing increasingly excited at the prospect of my first Portuguese football match. We found our seats easily enough and were a little surprised and kind of sad to see the lack of support present. Around 80-100 Rio Ave fans had made the long journey down from Northern Portugal for the late Sunday night kick off and they were in fine voice, a credit to their club. The Belenenses fans were a little more spread out and apart from 50 or so fans on the far side, they were relatively quiet and surprisingly thin in numbers.
The teams made their way out on the pitch to some quiet applause and I had noticed Hassan Yebda, once of Portsmouth, was in the Belenenses lineup. That was certainly a blast from the past. Apart from the Algerian there were one or two other players I recognised from Football Manager etc but nobody I had ever seen play before. It was to be a totally new experience for me. The match kicked off and although the first half did not contain too much goalmouth action, I was still excited by the match and found myself really wanting Belenenses to find a goal. The passing was crisp, the tackles were hard and it was a shame that only slightly more than 2,100 people were there to witness it. Yebda had shown quality in the centre of the pitch with some very good passing and was almost controlling the game as Belenenses enjoyed a lot of possession without really creating any good chances. Florent Hanin and Fabio Sturgeon looked dangerous down the left hand side and were at the heart of most of the positive things that Belenenses did but it was 0-0 at half time.
At half time we decided to go and search for the toilets and bar as we saw people in the crowd come back into the stadium with bags of popcorn and crisps. To get to these facilities we actually had to go outside of the stadium and down two flights of stairs to rooms that were situated at ground level, underneath the stand. Both areas had the feel of an English League Two club and although the bar was nothing to brag about, the prices certainly were.
Estádio do Restelo is a rather odd stadium and I noticed this even more at half time. On the one hand the toilets are rather grubby and old, the bar looks more like a kebab shop and the seats are faded in colour and some looked like they needed a bit of maintenance. These points though are not negatives, or at least they didn't feel like they were. The stadium is in a historic part of Lisbon and a brand new, sleek, state of the art facility just would not feel right here. The slightly rugged edges of this stadium seem the perfect fit, there was a grassroots feel about the club, despite their lofty status in the Portuguese pyramid. There are also some huge plus points to this stadium and one of those has to be the view. The stand that lies at the river end is basically non-existent and as you are on the side of a hill you can look out, from your seat, at the monastery, river and other picturesque landmarks. Unfortunately I was there for a night match but I can tell that the view would be unreal had the sun been up. It stuck me as odd that I would come away from a football match in awe of the view, but this is a stadium in a unique setting.
The second half was better than the first as both teams pushed on a little more to try and take all three points. The Rio Ave fans were getting a little frustrated at how little of the ball they were having and some tough tackles were getting animated reactions from both sets of supporters. Miguel Rosa of Belenenses began to get involved much more and drive the team forward and it was he who shot wide from inside the box after a neat little turn to gain a yard on his man. Rosa then had a free kick from 35 yards which looped towards the top corner of the goal but the Rio Ave keeper managed to tip the ball over the bar at the last moment. The game was opening up.
Belenenses pressed on and a low cross into the box almost resulted in an own goal as the Rio Ave defender stuck out a leg only to find his interception flick up over his own goal, grazing the crossbar as it went out for a corner. Rosa took the resulting corner from which Goncalo Silva jumped the highest at the near post and steered the ball into the net, it was 1-0 to Belenenses but the 2,000 or so home fans hardly went wild. The home side then sat back a little to conserve their lead and Rio Ave looked for an equaliser with Gil Dias having their best chance of the game in the 89th minute but his shot went across the face of goal and wide. Belenenses won 1-0, ending a poor run of form.
I ended up being glad that I had missed the Benfica match as I would never have attended this game if it wasn't for that planning mishap. As my other half said to me, with Benfica it would be, in many ways, obvious what you are getting but with Belenenses it was something a little different and although I knew the quality of football would be good, I didn't really know what else to expect. This was a match from the top division in Portugal and yet there were little more than 2,000 people present and I felt myself wishing that Belenenses were a little better supported as you can't help but love the suburb of Belem. If you are ever in Lisbon and fancy a cheap day at the football tied in with some great sightseeing, then Belenenses are the team for you.
Cost of travel from Lisbon Centre: €6.50
Match tickets: €15 per person
Refreshments: €1.00 - €3.50
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