CD Nacional - The Most Unique Football Experience I've Ever Had

Holidaying on the Portuguese island of Madeira, I decided to go and see the local side CD Nacional play in the Europa League - the experience had was truly unique...
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Do you know what regret feels like? I mean, lots of people talk about having regrets, but it’s a word that’s now thrown around so carefree with such recklessness that’s it’s beginning to lose all meaning. Regret is a word that brings with it baggage. However, in a moment of sheer desperation, I came to know what regret felt like.

Standing halfway up the side of a Madeiran mountain, bursting for a piss, covered in buckets of my own sweat and aggravating what can only be described as an undiagnosed groin issue, I felt regret. In truth, I had nobody but myself to blame, and if I hadn’t urged my Dad to join me, I doubt I’d have even made it that far.

This is no Sir Edmund Hillary tale of man conquering nature, more of a modern day football fan used to away days in retail parks venturing out to one of the most remote European ties possible. Here’s the story of how me and my Dad ended up watching CD Nacional play Dinamo Minsk, sharing one of the most unique experiences of European football along the way.

It was, unsurprisingly, entirely my idea. With no actual plan of how to get to the stadium, or any real idea of where it was, all I was armed with was two tickets worth €15 each - the most expensive in the house, which my Dad bought - and around ten to fifteen minutes of general googling. My travel plans can be described in much the same way I can: simple and lazy. Free hotel shuttle to town, taxi to the stadium, reverse on the way back. Easy, right?

No, not so easy. Stopping to ask the shuttle bus driver where the stadium was when we arrived in the centre of Funchal, he half laughed, craned his neck comically backwards and pointed to a concrete looking block at the highest point of a close by mountain face. What google claimed to be an eighteen minute drive from hotel to stadium was now a twenty to thirty minute bus journey.

Still, this was only a mild setback. Cristiano Ronaldo used to play for CD Nacional once upon a time, surely the ground wouldn’t be that hard to get to.

Another ten minute march across town led us to our bus stop, and to the packed number forty-seven service that would take us to where we thought we wanted. “Where do we get off” my Dad asked me making small talk, and he received a sarcastic reply along the lines of “that big stadium thing will do”. That cockiness would soon come back to bite me right on the arse.

Twenty minutes in to a bus journey where we only had a rough idea where we were heading, I’d only spotted one sign for a stadium, and that was fifteen minutes earlier in the opposite direction. The ergonomically challenged vehicle (both myself and Dad are a fair bit over six foot and our legs were crushed) climbed the mountain one narrow spiral road at a time, the unprotected sheer drops at the side of the track so steep that one false steer would leave my dental records the only means of identifying my broken remains.

The higher we climbed, the emptier the bus became, and we spotted a lad at the very back wearing a Nacional scarf, who would become our signal to get off the bus. When the time came, a stadium was nowhere in sight, and Dad make the executive decision to keep climbing the hill. With twenty minutes to go before kick-off, doubts started creeping in. Traffic was thin and trees were thick, the roadside met deep gorges and shallow streams.

I suddenly came to realise why modern stadiums are built in retail parks with adequate signposting, direct public transport and parking opportunities.

Standing halfway up the side of a Madeiran mountain, bursting for a piss, covered in buckets of my own sweat and aggravating what can only be described as an undiagnosed groin issue, I felt regret. In truth, I had nobody but myself to blame, and if I hadn’t urged my Dad to join me, I doubt I’d have even made it that far.

We climbed for around ten minutes before finding any sort of sign of civilisation. Suddenly, cars began to be parked on the roadside, and a little further up the road at a brief clearing, we first heard the noise of the stadium, and then saw it, from around fifty metres below and directly across a massive drop. Why would you build a stadium here? It isn’t easy for anybody to get to, and you’ve had to calve the space out of what was before centuries old forestation.

When I first alerted Dad to my need to take a piss, I was told in no uncertain terms to “fuck off and hold it in”. Five minutes later, I could no longer oblige, so nipped in between two cars and quickly relieved myself. Then we walked up that mountain some more.

photo 3

By the time we’d reached the summit, and made it to the flat ground around the stadium, I was a broken man. My clothes were sticking to my body, my flip-flops were full of loose rock and my troubled leg was stiffening at a rate quicker than a virgin in a strip club. A few exchanges in broken English to men in yellow jackets later, we found our way our seats, with only a handful of seconds to spare before kick-off.

The atmosphere was strong, without being at all intimidating or threatening. A drum hit out the beat to the songs, and most of the locals clapped and sang along. With a capacity of just over five-thousand, the Estádio da Madeira isn’t anything like the sort of stadium you’d ever really encounter back home. Both ends of the pitch are bookended with tall fencing, while two stands run along either side of the pitch.

Within minutes, the grass was cutting up and several wayward strikes had been blasted over the fencing behind the goals. The football was technical, but not of any decent standard. Tactically quite sophisticated, playing an extremely fluid - if not somewhat disorganised - 4-1-2-1-2, a few of the Nacional players did catch the eye at points, but Minsk were far too professional for them.

The best player on the night, or at least my favourite, was 21-year-old Egyptian international Saleh Gomaa in the #10 shirt, who according to his Wikipedia page is the ‘Egyptian Andrés Iniesta’, but seemed more to me like a combination of Juan Román Riquelme and Joey Barton, which I’ll explain. All of the play went through him, even when his teammates probably preferred it didn’t, and he went out of his way to bicker with his colleagues at every given opportunity if they dared disagree. He made the goalmouth scrap which lead to the penalty, and also assisted the second goal with the cross of the game. Fantastic touch, vision, ability and self-confidence, it’ll only be his temperament which will hold him back from bigger moves in the future.

Already 2-0 down on aggregate after the first leg away, Nacional had it all to do, and started brightly. Early chances were wasted, before a soft penalty lead to the opener. Minsk replied twice by scoring exactly the same headed goal from exactly the same set play before half-time, and the likelihood of Nacional advancing became even more distant.

The home crowd were tense. European success has never really graced Nacional too often, and a run in the Europa League group stage would have meant the world to them, both in a footballing sense, and financially. The old man in his seventies or eighties sat next to me probably embodied the passion the most. With each goal, either for or against, down his fists come crashing, one routinely in to my left thigh, and up he would spring to either celebrate or berate.

Bizarrely, when they converted the penalty for 1-0, a small child ran the length of the stand back and forth carrying an extremely worn and faded jumbo flag of a very young Cristiano Ronaldo, as if his spirit was still propelling the club forward. I’m sure had he been there himself, he’d have appreciated the gesture.

They did level midway through the second-half after a great second phase delivery from a corner caught the keeper in no mans land, giving and easy header in to an open goal. However, not long after, Minsk scored their third header of the game, this time from open play, and the fat lady had well and truly sung her song.

The game, while memorable, will alway be overshadowed by the experience of watching football where we were. High up in the mountainous Choupana region of Funchal, Madeira, for the first half, the sun baked us as the floodlit ground seemed somewhat unnecessary. However, during halftime, the sun set across in the distance and suddenly the game became played under thick cloud cover. Unable to clearly see from one stand across to the other in the ten to fifteen minutes the cloud made home over the stadium, it was the sort of weather most English referees would probably take sides off the pitch for a time to shelter from.

We left the stadium and went back to town the same way we came, climbing down the mountain proving a much easier task than going up it. Headphones in, trying to ignore the fact that the bus driver was cornering the sheer drops one handed going at a pace like he’d just seen Speed for the first time and thought it was a good idea, I reflected on the whole experience.

It was unique, it was special, and it was well worth the effort of finding and getting to one of the most remote stadiums in European football. When else have you seen a football match played in a stadium etched in to the side of a mountain at altitude, covered in thick cloud cover while being routinely assaulted by an elderly Portuguese man?

Força Clube Desportivo Nacional.

You can follow Raj on Twitter @BainsXIII, where you'll find him tweeting pictures from holiday, like both of the ones featured in this article.