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Champions League - but not as you've ever known it

Lisbon getting ready to host the strangest finale to world’s biggest club tournament

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Warm welcome: Eight teams, including Manchester City, will play out the remaining rounds in a mini-tournament. Photo: PA

Warm welcome: Eight teams, including Manchester City, will play out the remaining rounds in a mini-tournament. Photo: PA

PA

Warm welcome: Eight teams, including Manchester City, will play out the remaining rounds in a mini-tournament. Photo: PA

The last time the Champions League final was held in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital was mobbed by 70,000 Spanish fans making the short journey from Madrid as Real and Atletico played out a local conflict in front of a global television audience of 350 million.

Six years on from Real's 4-1 victory and the return of club football's biggest match couldn't be any more different. Portuguese police expect a maximum of 200 fans to arrive from the eight clubs who've qualified for the mini-tournament to be held over the next fortnight, as this season's competition ends in a way unlike any that have gone before.

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Portugal prime minister Antonio Costa: ‘Having the Champions League here is a victory for all Portuguese people. Photo: Reuters

Portugal prime minister Antonio Costa: ‘Having the Champions League here is a victory for all Portuguese people. Photo: Reuters

Portugal prime minister Antonio Costa: ‘Having the Champions League here is a victory for all Portuguese people. Photo: Reuters

Atalanta will play Paris St-Germain on Wednesday in the first of four quarter-finals in as many nights as European football tries to finally bring its season to a close in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

They will encounter "a very different Lisbon" to the one they may have visited previously, according to police sources. Coronavirus impacted the city more than any other part of Portugal and Lisbon is still regaining its feet.

As a result, the general mood is one of indifference at an international party to which the locals aren't invited. With each team set to be in their own biosecure bubble, there are no risks being taken by any of the authorities.

"We are prepared for everything, but we don't expect a difficult Champions League security operation," explains a source with years of experience policing football matches in the country.

"The risk level is not high as we expect no more than 200 supporters to come with their teams. We are always in touch with our European counterparts and the information we gather from them shows low interest from the travelling fans.

"We could face a few problems if certain teams meet in the latter stages, such as a repeat of Madrid's derby final in 2014. But anyway, this will be a very different Lisbon", the police source added.

Despite this, PSP (the Public Security Police) will have up to 400 officers on the street to ensure the sanctity of the bubbles around the teams. That reflects the stronger quarantine measures that are currently in place for Lisbon's three million residents compared to their eight million fellow compatriots.

That police presence will be centred around creating a security ring outside the hotels, training grounds and Da Luz and Alvalde stadiums that will host the seven matches.

Each club has been allocated one training ground, with Manchester City set to be based at the Portuguese national team's centre to the west of the city, a stone's throw from the Estadio Nacional at which Celtic's Lisbon Lions won the 1967 European Cup.

Other training grounds include those of both Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, as well as smaller lower-league grounds. The eight teams will be in eight different five-star hotels, all within 30 miles of Lisbon city centre, and the authorities are not anticipating trouble.

"We will run a very discreet and preventive operation. We had more problems with the last 10 games of the Portuguese league (which ran from June 3 to July 26), especially the title celebrations when FC Porto was crowned champion, than we will with the biggest matches of Europe," the police source said.

And that victory by Porto is another reason why local interest is lacking. Lisbon football supporters are happy to ignore the sport after Benfica lost out in both the league and cup final to Porto, while Sporting Lisbon slumped to fourth place on the final day of the season.

Then there are the wider issues that are impacting every country around the world. Unemployment is four times higher than at the same period last year and has recently climbed to 7.4 per cent, higher than the 6.7 per cent average across the Eurozone.

In addition, tourism - one of the main income streams for the country - has been decimated, particularly by the UK Government's decision not to put the country on its' 'safe list'.

When it was announced that Lisbon would host the final stages of the competition, prime minister Antonio Costa said: "It is a victory for all Portuguese people. They are demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to resist and get through this pandemic. It is a deserved prize for all healthcare professionals."

It is fair to say that view is not widely shared. The opposition parties say it is unfair for the Portuguese people to welcome Uefa with open arms, while the most stringent critic is Porto president Pinto da Costa, who has a point when he says it is unfair his city is now no longer hosting the Uefa Women's Supercup, while Lisbon is getting another major football tournament after hosting the Euro 2004 and Nations League 2019 finals, as well as the 1967 and 2014 Champions Leagues.

Such local squabbles will not concern the international arrivals, but television viewers will be interested to know that plans are under way to make the visual experience one to remember, with one option being the installation of a huge virtual panel alongside the pitch with live reactions from fans.

As a spectacle, the end to the Champions League will almost certainly look the part - or as much as it could behind closed doors. But for the locals this will not be a tournament to remember.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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