AND it had started so well.
The brown seats as you walk in – frayed, fretted, frowned upon – give confirmation of their popularity. The indent created by the last person becomes yours; it is half-perturbing, half-welcoming knowing how many have come before you and how many will follow.
Flowing thoughts are accompanied by flowing music; at times upbeat, at other times soothing, but always fantastic. Every string plucked and hushed Iberian lead vocalist sends the room into a spin. The visuals are just as pleasing.
Chalk drawing adorn the wall, sculpted from the hands of pure talent. Idioms and words of wisdom rest beside them. Photographs of water, boats and hastily-shaded caricatured love hearts stand proudly on the wall: Oporto, Lisbon, Faro.
The chatter as you take your seat is pervasive but pleasant. There is a scientific peculiarity abound – individual conversations can be heard amongst the gentle buzz of communication. Background noises accompany choices ahead.
Choices chosen, you walk to the kiosk to pay your fare. Gastronomic necessities are about to be filled; so, too, cultural ones. Menu grasped, mouth opened. But the music stops dead, the drawings are tossed aside. A shrill, inquisitive voice: Scouse, Geordie, Irish. It matters not. It’s not Portuguese.
“How do you want your chicken?”
A fine question, asked with the sincerity of Jeremy Kyle and magnitude of David Icke. But nevertheless, this isn’t Portugal. The music in the background is merely some Santana cover band, chosen because someone in the kitchen thought Santana were from the Algarve. The drawings on the wall are of the company emblem, drawn not with talent but a giant, corporate stencil. The idioms are words of idiots; the pictures are of the Manchester Ship Canal. Or maybe Warrington. This isn’t Portugal.
The picture has sharpened. Every desperate detail to look Portuguese makes it look even less so. The clientele are a cacophony of excitable teenagers, five foot five and perfect propaganda for conscription. There are civilians too – the great unwashed who want to elevate themselves, the snobbery who want to mix with the rabble. A fast-food sit-down restaurant. Purgatory, overcompensatory purgatory, filled with cheap cutlery and crockery.
Sometimes, a professional footballer will walk in. He’ll tweet about it to justify his enormous weekly pay-packet; it’s not all foie gras and canapés. He mixes with the unedifying public, he uses his fingers to rip the thigh-bone, he gets hot sauce in his stubble. But it has to be here, it must be here, in the heart of Portugal. He must be cultured, walk with crowds and keep his virtue, but not lose the common touch – just like Mr. Kipling’s exceedingly good poem. He isn’t just a professional footballer, he’s a professional professional footballer. Some help disadvantaged children in Africa, others tweet about their spicy rice with countless grammatical errors. Whatever helps them sleep at night. This isn’t Portugal.
“How do you want your chicken?”
Here’s a question: how do you want your football team? Rui Patricio stands in goal. The back-four of Coentrao, Pepe, Bruno Alves and Joao Pereira sit deep, while the workmanlike pair of Moutinho and Veloso show flashes at times, but mainly close down the opposition when they have the ball. Raul Meireles floats, box-to-box, while Ronaldo and Nani look to counter quickly. Postiga pins back the defence to allow Nani and Ronaldo to counter.
It’s not Portugal. It’s not Portugal in personnel, style or mentality. They wear the shirt of course, but the more Portuguese they try to appear makes them even less so. There is no Luis Figo gallivanting down the wing carrying the ball at pace, sweat pouring from every orifice, his hunger and determination in sync with his greed. There is now Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s just as good, if not better, than Figo in his prime. He will gallivant down the wing and carry the ball at pace, his hunger and determination in sync with his greed. But there is no sweat. He leaves the field in pristine condition. He looks Portuguese, sounds Portuguese, but he’s not Portuguese.
Raul Meireles is definitely not Portuguese. He orders chicken with lemon and herb sauce. He has his hair cut by Edward Scissorhands in a tumble drier. His arms look like a garish advertisement for Etch-a-Sketch. Raul Meireles is definitely not Rui Costa, whose slicked back hair flowed as he effortlessly glided past another exasperated defender; whose bronzed arms shimmered in the Lisbon sunlight when raised aloft after another successful contribution.
As talented as they are, Moutinho and Veloso are not Deco and Costinha. Nani is not Simao, Coentrao is not Nuno Valente, Pepe is not Couto and no one will ever be Nuno Gomes. That was the side the world fell in love with, whether it be begrudgingly so or not. The golden generation illuminated television screens and produced moments of magic: their stunning comeback against England at Euro 2000, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory, just one of the high points of a team assembled from those who won the Fifa Youth Championship in 1989 and 1991.
That is Portugal. Portugal is not football that sets out to contain, as Paulo Bento has done. Portugal is not about central midfielders being dictated by the opposition, a patsy for a centre-forward and an overreliance on a star man. Portugal is not about sauce bottles with nozzles that make them impossible to use, endless lines of faded silver cutlery, pre-heated coleslaw in small tapas dishes and a giant patchwork quilt of coats with North Face and Paul’s Boutique emblazoned upon them. Portugal, more than anything, is not about accessibility to Carlton Cole and justification of his existence.
But the nozzles, cutlery and tapas dishes are successful. They might not be distinctly Portuguese but they have proven their worth. As a professional professional footballer might claim: they does a job.
The golden generation won nothing at senior level as a collective. For all the romanticism, visceral passion and rumbustious football, they made just one final and choked on the giant chicken bone of Greece, at home, in 2004. This current squad has La Liga, Premier League and Champions League winner Cristiano Ronaldo as its talisman; it has members of Porto’s Uefa Cup winning squad of 2011. Nani won the Champions League in 2008, while Raul Meireles won it this year. All of the starting line-up, bar Joao Pereira, have played in Europe’s elite competition.
The only thing that could be stopping this band of players becoming successful is that the world expects them to be Portugal. Most pertinently, Portugal expects them to be Portugal. The world wants Moutinho, Nani and Ronaldo to be the new Deco, Simao and Figo; the world wants Paulo Bento to become Luis Felipe Scolari and play his full-backs beyond the striker. It will never happen. It didn’t happen against Germany. It didn’t work against Germany, either – but it very nearly did. Down, but not out.
“How do you want your chicken?”
A sigh of resignation. Hot with chips and garlic bread; a bottomless coke too, which gives the pretence of value when it is anything but that. £20 is handed over; a five pound note and a few coins return. You’re no better than the rest. This isn’t Portugal, but it will have to do. Maybe they can win Euro 2012 after all.