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May 18, 2011

Red, Green and Royal Blue

Portuguese pride is in full bloom on the Emerald Isle, though it will have to wait until Wednesday night to be at the forefront. Dublin has welcomed the footballing heroes of fellow port cities Oporto and Braga with open arms, though the Europa League's reputation as a backwater is perhaps furthered by the news that the continent's secondary competition is by no means top billing here.

History is being made, through the visit of the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II, and those arriving on Tuesday were forced to know their place. This has been the first visit to the Republic of Ireland for 100 years, since the days when Ireland was part of the British Empire. Three days of immense symbolism will see Her Majesty visit a series of sites full of significance to Ireland's struggle for Home Rule and independence, before she eventually gets to indulge her keen interest in horse racing through a visit to Kildare's Irish National Stud, and the famed Coolmore operation at Ballydoyle.

This is by no means a universally popular visitation, and an element of rowdy protestors attempted to make themselves heard on Tuesday as the monarch from across the water laid a wreath in Parnell Square's Garden of Remembrance. Perhaps even angrier were those football fans and tourists whose route to their hotels and across O'Connell Street, which bisects this city, were blocked by barriers and legions of Gardai - Irish police. On her route along this thoroughfare, the Queen and Prince Philip may well have taken in the banners that are previewing Wednesday night's match at the Dublin Stadium.

Lansdowne Road, in old money, and the AVIVA Stadium in the new money of corporate sponsorship, provides a fine setting. Though it may be more associated with rugby greats like Willie-John McBride and Brian O'Driscoll, 'soccer' - as it is known here in deference to Gaelic Football - has a strong hold on this nation, though it is the clubs of the English Premier League who dominate ahead of a national team that has underperformed for nearly a decade.

Compared to the ramshackle shed it was before redevelopment, the final venue is a triumph of modernity, though the north stand provides a reminder of its placing in a residential area. An attack of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) - means it is a single tier as opposed to the other steepling stands covered by a sweeping roof. On Tuesday night, both the players of FC Porto and SC Braga were able to train on what looks a bowling green of a pitch from a high vantage point. The two squads looked to be enjoying themselves as they were put through their drills, to remind that Wednesday is a career peak for most of them. Such moments should be enjoyed while at all possible.

Deep in the stadium's bowels, both team's coaches spoke to an assembled press corps from across the globe of the challenge that lies ahead, and the journey taken to reach here. And it was Porto's Andre Villas-Boas who enjoyed the larger audience, perhaps by virtue of an earlier call, but most likely as a result of his status as Europe's hottest young coaching property. His youth is much remarked upon, though he does not look quite as young as 33, and he speaks with mature authority.

Repeated comparisons are drawn by journalists with Porto's last great team, coached by another Portuguese chap of some repute. Villas-Boas was assistant to Jose Mourinho when they won the UEFA Cup in 2003, and henceforth when the same team lifted the Champions League the year after. Yet Villas-Boas is no 'mini-me'. If anything, his spoken English is better than Jose's, and his philosophy operates almost in opposition to the cult of personality of the man with whom he cut ties only two years ago. Indeed, if Villas-Boas has overriding qualities, they are of modesty, and a desire not to be the centre of attention. The latter may be impossible to meet, but the first was reflected in his words.

"People focus a lot on the work of the manager and I don't see it that way," Villas-Boas said. "I don't see myself as a one-man show. Football isn't won by one person but by collective competence. It is the quality of the players and the structure of the club. I just want to make my players give their most. I give them room to express themselves because that's how they develop. I promote their talent and let them make their own decisions. There are no dictators."

Villas-Boas' achievements this season, in reaching Dublin and managing an unbeaten team to the Superliga title, are making headlines, yet the success of his counterpart in Domingos Paciencia at Braga is barely lessened in comparison. To break the hegemony of Portugal's 'big three' and take them to a European final is remarkable, and it is Domingos who is more of a Mourinho in terms of a sometimes confrontational manner, and deep-set ambitions being matched by his imminent quitting of Braga for bigger projects, come what may on Wednesday evening.

"The fans will remain in my heart and Braga will leave a mark on me," could come from the game's richest coaching nomad himself. Domingos, though, says this meeting of two Portuguese teams in a continental final, unprecedented for a league short on funds and depth, is a time to cherish for Iberia's junior partner.

"We can show to the world what Portuguese football is all about," said the Braga coach, a Porto alumni of some note in his playing days. "Portuguese people have every reason to feel proud."

Here, a nation troubled by debt and default is being visited by another, and Wednesday night offers both Ireland and Portugal a chance to forget their gloom for a short while. Perhaps the Queen's evening meal at Dublin Castle, accompanied by David Cameron, will be low-key as a result though a classic encounter is needed if this week is to be remembered in Dublin for the football. And Barack O'Bama is in town next week too...

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