Football’s Iberian Odyssey through Spain and Portugal

May 10, 2017

The 2017 European Football Tour finally took flight on 8 April, after months of planning, agonising and “dreaming”. Thirty students from Years 8–11 gathered at Kingsford International Airport and were warmly wished “bon voyage” by parents and families. Thereafter, a veritable football and cultural feast unfolded as we sped onwards to the jewel of Catalonia, Barcelona.

A whirlwind day and a half in this spectacular city was punctuated with wonders of the modern and ancient worlds including: La Sagrada Familia, the multifarious Gaudi creations, the Gothic quarter, Montjuic and of course the iconic, world renowned Camp Nou stadium and Museum tour. The boys faces were aglow with wonderment as they gazed out on to the 100,000 capacity cauldron that plays host to the greatest club side in Europe and the planet’s No.1 football star, Lionel Messi. This was their first taste of football on our Iberian odyssey and the extraordinary numbers of visiting tourists to this sporting mecca gave the boys exactly the message intended, “You are in the home of football”.

The “magical mystery tour” rolled quickly into the magnificent waterside capital of Portugal, Lisbon. What a marvellous city Lisbon is with its white, yellow, peach and bright coloured houses illuminating every vantage point, day and night. Passing by Sporting Lisbon’s stadium got the boys to their feet, and the drive to our Hotel Aldeia base took in the 25 Abril suspension bridge, a direct replica of the Golden Gate, with the majestic Cristo Rei statue striding above the landscape akin to Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. Breathtaking scenery embraces the river Tagus.          

Our footballing sessions in the Caixa Training Campus, Benfica’s headquarters for player development from 1st team down encapsulated why the tour was advertised. Through the wonderful personalities of Diogo and Vasco, the boys were held spellbound by the brilliance, humour, clarity and energy of the two Benfica Academy coaches. In addition our four goalkeepers, Michael, Tom, Jonty and Joon Tae were given outstanding guidance from goalkeeping coach Joao. The quality of the sessions with Diogo emphasising “behaviours” were something the boys would not experience “down under”. To our boys immense credit, the coaches ( and Gullivers Sports Travel liaison people “Inspire Sport”) all spoke glowingly of the boys attitude, concentration, application and manners, characteristics that are not as common as you would like to think, they proffered.

The boys were taken on a walking tour by our in-house travel guru, Mr Verco and we enjoyed the old cobbled streets of the Alfama district culminating in a climactic roof top view over the old city, once under Moorish influence with Sao Jorge Castle a reminder of that era. While in Lisbon the boys were treated to a walking tour of the famous navigators monuments, Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, et al as we strolled along the promenades of Bellem Tower, the Navigators Tribute Monument and Jeronimos Monastery. Topping all of that was our tour of the famous Benfica stadium, Estadio da Luz and a beautiful meal in the best seat in the stadium, capped off by a pitch side visit and an introduction to the 3–4 live Golden Eagles used on match days by the club, still known as the “Eagles” (also the “Reds” and El Glorioso).

Our trip to see Benfica play (as well as pay homage to Benfica’s Greatest ever player, Eusebio) against Maritimo in the Primeira Liga was a memory literally “from heaven” as the boys, part of a 60,000 attendance, took in the spine tingling atmosphere, eagles flying all around the stadium, and the cacophonous singing which was in full voice long before the match. The brilliance of Jonas and Rafa in particular took their breath away and the sheer passion and fervour of the Portuguese fans was something all the boys had never witnessed before. Needless to say all the players and staff of Newington were bedecked in Benfica scarves and even joined in the local fans’ sing along, as our Lisbon guide, Tiago had given us some elementary lessons. It was an evening of sheer football bliss and transported all of us to a greater appreciation of the place of football in life in Portugal, as the attendance was so diverse – men and women, boys, girls, grandfathers, grandmothers religiously devoted to the red shirts of the Portugal club founded in 1904 by Cosme Damiao.

Our final day in Lisbon saw both our Junior and Senior teams take on an Elite International Benfica squad, composed of players from around the globe all on a month long training camp cum trial. Our Juniors were valiant in defeat while the Seniors had a great second half comeback eventually succumbing 5-3 but not after Christian Yamine (11/MO) and Indi Memak (11/MO) had reduced the arrears to 4-3 at one stage. Still a marvellous experience for the boys against boys from Portugal and beyond.

Our Portuguese leg of the tour came to an end as our coach wound its way through the low plains of southern Portugal (the Algarve) meandering in to the ancient city of Seville, as we stopped en route in beautiful rustic hotel for Sunday lunch. As our luck would transpire we secured tickets for the La Liga match, Real Betis v Eibar at Estadion Benito Villamarin. We timed our arrival to perfection on that very same evening as 38,000 people crammed into the historic stadium for a game of visceral passion as the green and white Betis supporters (“Betis” supporters are born, “Seville FC” supporters are made, they say) gave full vent to their frustrations and feelings, including their own coach as “a villain of the peace”. We arrived into the game in the first 30 seconds, desperately trying to locate our seats. Unfortunately our entrance curbed the view of the opening Betis goal from an irate Betis grandmother, and she admonished us fervently with her cane, a sure sign to the boys of the pressure cooker that Spanish football is to the local people.

Our three coaching sessions at the Esportiva “Antonio Puerta” Training Centre were really engaging and the boys learned in a different manner from Seville’s excellent group of coaches. Benfica have their own “way” and so do Sevilla.  Our city centre tour took in the famous Alcazar as well as Seville Cathedral and the sheer age of these jaw dropping marvels stunned the boys. The Moorish influence was particularly poignant in the Alacazar. A walk to Plaza Espana – “ the Venice of Seville” – and the superb panorama unveiled was a sensory sensation. A tour of the three times consecutive Europa League winning club’s Pijuan Ramon Sanchez stadium and museum conferred on the boys a startled sense of history as the 1890 founded “Los Blanquirrojos” (the Whites and Reds) emerged from the ashes of a community, as did many Spanish clubs.

Our final chapter in Seville saw us play the Academy’s U17 and U13 teams in what can only be described as “taking a Masters” from the Masters. The technical brilliance, superb movement, slide rule passing and cobra-like finishing from the Seville boys had to be seen to be believed. Sharing the pitch with some of Spain’s most talented young players will be a memory all the boys can all look back on and learn from. Truly there wasn’t a nutmeg or rabonna in sight, the simplicity, beauty and speed of their play is a level we must all aspire to in Australia.

An Iberian Airways flight to Valencia and onward to Valencia CF’s superb Esportiva Ciudad Complex for all teams heralded another heady coaching feast as Mr Jablonski joined in with the boys in some outstanding games challenging the players in “the Valencian Way”. A trip to the famed Mestalla Stadium and Museum, a walk in the City’s award winning Science and Arts architectural wonderland, and two games against local rural teams in an Old Masia setting enriched our experiences of Spain even further. Our Seniors recorded a fine 3–1 win while Oscar Swan (8/FL) and Oliver Smith (10/KL) scored in our 4–2 loss for the Juniors, a brilliant effort by the boys. After a final castle-bespeckled drive up the coastline to Barcelona, an exhausted but very happy Newington contingent made their way to a homeward Qatar Airways flight back to Sydney.

The memories, lessons, experiences, atmospheres, vistas, sensory delights and friendships will linger for a long time for all the boys and staff who were fortunate to “Discover what’s possible” when you make the most of such a tantalising opportunity.

The students of the 2017 Newington College European Football Tour were outstanding ambassadors for the College, for Sydney and indeed for Australia. A very special thank you to all the parents and families who supported the boys and made this happen. An extra special thank you to our superb, caring and engaging staff of Mr Potter, Mr Verco, Mr Summers and Mr Jablonski.

Sincere thanks to all at Gullivers Sports Travel and especially Orsi who knew no bounds in assisting, supporting and motivating us to make this marvellous tour a reality.

Mr Brian McCarthy
Director of Football