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June 2010

The Mexican city of Saltillo has special significance for the Portuguese. The Selecção was installed there during the 1986 World Cup, but went through the whole gamut of 'things that could possibly go wrong in preparation for a World Cup campaign'. Hotel and training facilities were poor, no serious friendly games had been arranged, local female 'fans' had virtually free access to the players, and the players threatened strike action over daily expenses and win bonuses. An opening 1-0 victory over England appeared to belie the effect that the state of chaos must have been having on the team, but subsequent defeats to Poland (0-1) and Morocco (1-3) condemned Portugal to an early and ignominious exit.

The name 'Saltillo' has since become a by-word for behind-the-scenes disorganisation and indiscipline. Reference to it has re-surfaced in the last couple of weeks because of what's been going on in the Portugal camp this time around.

Nani, seen as an important weapon given his useful season with Manchester United and decent performances in Portugal's pre-tournament friendlies, injured his shoulder in the penultimate training session in Lisbon, performing an acrobatic overhead kick. He was taken to South Africa, but before the opening game it was announced that the injury was so serious that he would be heading home.

Cue rumours on the Portuguese blogs and question marks in the Portuguese media. He must have been shipped out to avoid doping tests. No, he'd had a run-in with coach Queiroz. The FPF weren't helping; none of the medical staff came forth to give a clear explanation of the injury. And upon his arrival back in Lisbon, Nani declared that he'd be fine within a week. This was startling; Queiroz had insisted on taking Pepe, injured since December, in the faint hope that he might get fit, and he couldn't keep on such a key player as Nani? The FPF PR machine got to Nani, who retracted what he'd said. What he'd meant was that he'd be fit to lead a normal life within a week. The rumours remained (and remain) unquelled.

Then it was Deco's turn. Substituted in Portugal's opening match against Ivory Coast, he strode directly to the dressing room. On the way to the team bus later, he was scathing: "Why was I substituted? You'll have to ask the coach. I felt fine. First he asked me to play on the right, something I've never done in my career because I'm not a wide player. And then he took me off." The next day, there was another retraction: he'd spoken in the heat of the moment, and everything was tickety-boo between him and Queiroz. Funnily enough, Deco will miss the second game against North Korea with a hip injury; the blogs were sceptical.

Then, North Korea happened. The Portuguese have a saying to express wild swings between extremes: "It's either 8 or 80." Eight was the mood before the 7-0 drubbing of North Korea, 80 the mood afterwards. Sports daily A Bola's front page the day after: "Perfect!"; O Jogo's: "Out of This World." Suddenly a whole nation believes again, and recent controversies have conveniently been forgotten … for the time being. It will be 80 in Portugal until at least the round of 16, for which Portugal cannot, surely, fail to qualify now.

(A version of this article appeared on the website of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

February 2010

(A version of this article appeared in the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

It's been rather a vintage year for punch-ups in Portuguese football, with tunnels and Benfica featuring strongly.

In October, Benfica's top-scoring Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo and Sporting Braga's Brazilian defender André Leone were sent off at half-time at Braga (2-0) and subsequently suspended for two games after the referee reported that they had been having a go inside the tunnel. At the beginning of February, the typically sluggish League Disciplinary Committee also found influential Braga captain Vandinho and the team's best player Mossoró guilty of their part in a to-do at the mouth of the tunnel and suspended them for three months and three matches, respectively. "How is it," asked Braga's Director of Football Carlos Freitas, "that in a scuffle involving 50 people, only Braga players were guilty of censurable behaviour?" Coincidentally, Braga are neck and neck with Benfica in the race for the title.

Just before Christmas, and after the final whistle of the Benfica v FC Porto clássico, Porto's star Brazilian forward Hulk and Romanian full-back Cristian Sapunaru, who had not left the bench during the 1-0 Benfica win, were accused of assaulting security personnel, again in the tunnel.

The formal accusation drafted by the League left little to the imagination: Hulk "went up to the security guard and tried to punch him. He aimed two more punches at the guard and then kicked him in the side with his left foot at waist height." Sapunaru "also went up to the same steward and punched him in the forehead with his left hand. Then he jumped up in the air and kicked out with his right leg, hitting him in the abdomen … The same player grabbed another steward and pulled him over, and when he was down, the player caught him with his studs and punched him in the back". The two players have since been suspended for four (Hulk) and six (Sapunaru) months. Sapunaru is on loan to Rapid Bucharest until the end of the season.

Considering Porto to be the victims of an injustice, especially given the provocations aimed at the players by the stewards (for which Benfica face a paltry maximum fine of 2,500 euros), and the slowness of the disciplinary process (perceived as deliberate), pro-Porto columnists and pundits have harked back to two similar incidents, both involving Benfica.

In CCTV footage published by news agency LUSA, showing the tunnel after last season's Benfica v Porto game (1-1), a Benfica suit can be observed aiming a kick at a Porto opposite number. Benfica staff can also be seen changing the direction of the cameras before the game in order that, it has been claimed, they would not be able catch planned shenanigans. Unfortunately for Porto, later on in the same footage, there is a melee outside the team's changing room, with Brazilian goalkeeper Helton and Hulk again caught throwing punches.

Finally, Ruben Micael, now at Porto, recently appeared in the press, evidently coaxed by the Porto powers that be, reiterating the alleged verbal abuse (from Benfica's Director of Football Rui Costa) and physical intimidation (from the Benfica coach Jorge Jesus) that he experienced in the Luz tunnel as a Nacional player at half-time of the Benfica v Nacional game in October (6-1).

Conspicuous by their absence from the tunnel controversies, the third Grande, Sporting, made their contribution to the season's record of violence in January but reserved the fisticuffs for the relative privacy of the changing room.

They were scraping a 4-3 win in the Portuguese Cup against third-tier side Mafra, and the whistles were raining down from the stands. The club's top striker Liedson, on the bench as sub, had apparently spoken ill of the Sporting fans. Director of Football Sá Pinto, a great hero of the Sporting ultras, remarked: "You must think you own the club!". "No, you think you own the club!" was Liedson's riposte.

Sá Pinto, in the job for just 70 days, put all his diplomatic skills to use after the game and planted three punches on Liedson, not wholly unexpected as Sá Pinto had previous in this kind of incident. In 1997, he drove to the National Stadium to beat up the then national coach Artur Jorge after learning that he had not been selected for a World Cup qualifier. He handed in his resignation after the Liedson episode.

All of this has tended to deflect attention away from what has been an exciting season on the pitch, with surprise team Braga leading the way against a rejuvenated Benfica. But it's not just the violence. There has also been a resurrection of the Golden Whistle referee-bribing scandal following the publication of the phone taps on You Tube. Meanwhile, it was recently revealed that Leixões players had been offered money, allegedly by Sporting Braga via an intermediary, to win at Benfica in September.

It would good if, by the end of the season, the football had managed to reclaim the front seat.

January 2010

(A version of this article appeared on the website of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

The Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) scandal concerned alleged bribery of referees, influence peddling and general corruption in football at the beginning of the 2000s. Its scope fell on various top figures in the Portuguese game, but one in particular was targeted: FC Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa (PdaC). The action that went through the criminal courts saw PdaC cleared, some would say controversially, of two important accusations: that he, with the help of others, bribed the referees before two games in 2004, versus Estrela da Amadora and Beira-Mar. In a parallel disciplinary action, known as Apito Final (Final Whistle), the Liga took it into its own hands to discipline PdaC and the club: two years' suspension for the former and a six-point deduction for the latter.

The storm caused by Apito Dourado appeared to have blown over until last week, when the phone taps from the criminal case were posted on YouTube. There was nothing really new to be learned from the publication; the transcripts of the conversations had been leaked almost from the very beginning of the criminal proceedings. What was enlightening, however, apart from the sordidness of it all, was the general tone of arrogance among the protagonists. If they knew they were being tapped, there was little effort made to conceal what they were up to, apart from various code words (for example 'Number One' to refer to PdaC, 'fruit' to refer to prostitutes), and the use of indirect language. But the very use of code suggests an attempt to conceal wrongdoing.

Pinto da Costa has made a criminal complaint about the publication. No one knows who posted the recordings, but there is a suspicion that a benfiquista hand is at work somewhere along the line; Benfica have their best chance in years to win the title, and anything that can unsettle their arch rivals will be seen by them as a bonus.

The main taps, in chronological order:

Boavista 0-1 FC Porto (27/10/2003)

28/11/2003

After the game, PdaC arranges a story with journalist Tavares Teles, whereby Deco would refuse to play for the National Team at Euro 2004 if he was suspended for throwing a boot at referee Paulo Paraty.

28/11/2003

PdaC phones Deco to tell him about the arranged story, and tells him to say "No comment. I'll speak when the time's right," if anyone asks him about it.

29/11/03

Porto director Antero Henrique phones PdaC to congratulate him: "I'll tell you something … I knew you were a genius, but this time … fuck me … I think it's a fantastic bit of blackmail … spectacular!"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2dX61WvLDE

FC Porto 2-0 Estrela da Amadora (24/01/2004)

24/01/04

Just hours before the game, António Araújo, a players' agent close to PdaC, phones him to ask whether some "fruit" can be delivered to the match officials. PdaC says there's no need: "It's already been sent" (?). Araújo says no, "fruit for sleeping" (prostitutes). PdaC asks if it was JP (referee Jacinto Paixão) who asked for it. Araújo says yes. PdaC says: "Tell him yes, of course". Araújo says: "I asked him if he wanted coffee with milk, very dark or light" …

24/01/04

PdaC phones Araújo. He's in the Antas Stadium and is anxious that Araújo, late, will not be able to speak to Jacinto Paixão. "I've said all I have to say to him", responds Araújo. "I don't know if you've said everything," remarks PdaC, cryptically.

24/01/04

Araújo phones Porto director Fernando Gomes to ask for three match tickets for "three goddesses". Gomes says that Araújo will have to pay for the tickets, but that as it's "for that deal we spoke about", he can claim them back as expenses.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG_WW6RF2Uo

Sporting 1-1 FC Porto (01/02/2004)

02/02/2004

Pinto da Costa calls the then President of the Liga Valentim Loureiro to ask him to bring disciplinary action against Sporting striker Liedson for elbowing Porto's Jorge Costa in a Sporting v FC Porto game (1-1). "OK, I'll look into it." He then boasts at how, before the game, he blanked Sporting director and future club president José Eduardo Bettencourt. Finally, he claims that the story of Mourinho ripping the shirt of Sporting's Rui Jorge after the game was invented by Bettencourt to get his own back. Sporting's kit-man (the famous Paulinho, referred to three times by PdaC as "that retard") had reportedly taken the shirt to the Porto changing room to swap it with Vítor Baia's.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WL8BCAUspp0

Beira-Mar 0-0 FC Porto (18/04/2004)

16/04/04

António Araújo phones referee Augusto Duarte to arrange to have dinner with PdaC, whom he calls "O Senhor Engenheiro Máximo", "The Number One" and "The Bank Manager". Duarte says he can't make it because he has a refereeing class and has to take his wife to see a game (Braga v Benfica), but they decide on lunch.

16/04/04

António Araújo phones PdaC. There has been a change of plans, and Duarte can now make it that very night.

16/04/04

António Araújo phones Augusto Duarte to confirm the location of the meet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgwoQoNmT6U

Beira-Mar 0-0 FC Porto (18/04/2004)

16/04/04

António Araújo drives Augusto Duarte to meet PdaC, but has to call the Porto president to get exact directions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5EMtn0EAYc

 

October 2009

(A version of this article appeared on the website of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

The chicotada psicológica ('psychological whiplash') is a favourite tactic of club presidents in Portugal. When results are not going just so, it's the coach that feels the whip on his back, and he's out of the door. The theory is that the shock of the dismissal, and a new hand at the helm, will have a positive psychological effect on the players. The tactic is not unique to Portugal, obviously, but the country can justifiably claim European supremacy in this area.

With just eight games played in the Liga, seven clubs have already changed coaches: Naval, Vitória de Setúbal, Marítimo, Académica, Vitória de Guimarães, Paços de Ferreira and União de Leiria. Only two of the changes were not chicotadas: in a career move, Paulo Sérgio left Paços to join a much bigger club, Vitória de Guimarães, with Ulisses Morais, sacked from Naval, taking over at Paços. Manuel Fernandes, a hero for Sporting in the 80s, left União de Leiria to follow his heart to Vitória de Setúbal, the last club he represented as a player and the first one he served as a coach, 22 years ago. Of the other changes, many eyes will be on former assistant to José Mourinho, André Villas Boas, in his first full coaching job at bottom-of-the-table Académica. Meanwhile, at Marítimo, Dutchman Mitchell Van der Gaag will need eyes in the back of his head to keep a lookout for the knife; it's not unknown for the Madeiran club to get through three or four coaches a year.

Sports daily A Bola compared Portugal's record so far this season with other leagues in Europe, highlighting five changes in Italy, four in Greece and a surprising four in Germany, normally perceived here as a paradigm of stability. As is England, with no changes so far; the Ferguson and Wenger-type phenomenon in particular is spoken of with wonderment here. The nearest the Portuguese game comes to that kind of longevity nowadays is Paulo Bento at Sporting. He's been with the club for four years, but is hanging by a thread after a poor start to the season, made worse by comparison with the explosive form of neighbours and bitter rivals Benfica.

The Sporting president, José Eduardo Bettencourt, has regularly voiced his support for Paulo Bento, but the growing dissatisfaction from sportinguistas, manifested in the whistles and white handkerchiefs at the increasingly sparsely populated Alvalade stadium, will surely force him to get the whip out some time soon. But whether it's Paulo Bento or another coach, perhaps even one of those who are just beginning to warm the bench at their new club, we're certain to hear the chicotada again this season, most likely on a number of occasions.

In the last 25 years, 1987/88 was the season that saw the most movement: 15 clubs (out of 20) changed coaches at least once, some of them more times. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that the record will be matched or broken this time around.

15/08/09

(A version of this article appeared on the website of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

Failing an extremely unlikely historical blip (Boavista's success in 2001 being one such case), you can again choose from three for the Portuguese title.

The six million Benfica fans (sez they) around the world were jubilant last Christmas. The team were sitting on top of the table and were thus the (highly unofficial) Winter Champions. It didn't last, naturally, and they trundled in third behind FC Porto and Sporting. But wave any straw in front of a benfiquista's nose and he'll grasp at it. The close season has given them two more to clutch: transfers and friendlies. As Águias have signed nine players (for around 24 million euros … that they haven't got), making them the transfer runners-up (Porto have signed 11) but they will claim a victory in terms of quality. Some of them actually do look handy for a change, especially Saviola and Javi Garcia from Real, and Ramires from Cruzeiro. They, along with a Pablo Aimar re-born under new coach Jorge Jesus, and a Di Maria looking five years more mature than last season's ineffectual waif, have helped Benfica to four bits of pre-season silverware (Guadiana, Amsterdam, City of Guimarães and their own Eusébio Cup against AC Milan). Nuno Gomes has tried to put a lid on the euphoria bubbling furiously away in benfiquista hearts: "We haven't won anything yet," he's said. In a nutshell, Nuno.

But Benfica do look in a better position than they have been for a long time to challenge Porto's hegemony (14 titles in the last two decades to Benfica's three, Sporting's two and Boavista's one) and stop their march to a second Penta (five straight titles) during that time. Os Dragões have had to replace the highly influential midfielder Lucho González (Marseille), plus the striker Lisandro and full back Cissokho (Lyon), sold for a whopping total of 57 million euros … making Porto the top transfer earners by a mile. However, anyone doubting their ability to adapt need only look back to last season when they started shakily after losing Pepe, Bosingwa and Quaresma but eventually came through with the goods. 'Addicted to winning' was A Bola's headline after Porto won the first official trophy of the season, the SuperTaça Cândido de Oliveira against Paços de Ferreira (2-0). This will be Porto's main weapon once again: their mystique of invincibility. It helps of course that they also have some not-half-bad players, newcomers Varela and Belluschi among them. And then there's the – why not? – incredible Hulk, who disappointed in the showcase Manchester United games last season but, already in blistering form, must surely explode onto the international scene this. A question mark over Porto's prospects will be whether they can hold onto skipper Bruno Alves; a move to Barça is still on the cards, and his towering presence at the Dragão would be sorely missed.

As for the last of the Três Grandes, Sporting … well, they've gone for financial stability, meaning that they've signed just four players, including Matias Fernández from Villareal and Caicedo from Manchester City. Looking on the positive side, this should mean a continuity advantage over their rivals, but pre-season performances have been poor; there was already frustrated whistling coming from the Alvalade stands in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against Twente, which must be a record for premature dissatisfaction.

Key for Sporting again will be perennial top-scorer Liedson, whose naturalisation papers are due through soon. He will then be available for call-up to the Portuguese national team for the vital World Cup qualifiers against Denmark and Hungary in September; if he gets the nod from Queiroz, he'll be the third Luso-Brazilian to represent the Selecção after Deco and Pepe. There are already protectionist noises coming from the Players' Union, which recently published figures for foreigners registered to play in the league last season (53.7% of all players – second in Europe, apparently, after England with 59%). Thirty years ago this week, Benfica fielded their first ever foreigner: the Brazilian Jorge Gomes (11/08/79). On 24 July this year, they beat Sunderland 2-0 in Amsterdam, starting with ten South Americans and just one European … the Spanish Javi Garcia.

Refreshingly, though, all the top tier clubs will begin the season with Portuguese coaches … unless, that is, there are any last minute sackings before it all kicks off this weekend. It wouldn't be the first time.

13/07/09

(A version of this article appeared in the August 2009 edition of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

The turn of the century was very kind to Boavista FC. They'd built up a head of steam domestically in the late 90s but still surprised everyone in Portuguese football by winning the title in 2001 – only the second team outside the Três Grandes (FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting) to do so, the other being Belenenses in 1946. Around this time also, As Panteras (The Panthers) were putting in very respectable performances in Europe, the highlight a UEFA Cup semi-final in 2003 which Celtic just shaded. Paradoxically, however, it was this purple period that was a key contributing factor to Boavista's current plight.

One of the ten stadiums to be used for Euro 2004, the Bessa XXI was completed in time for the club's centenary in 2003. It cost around 45 million euros, 7.5 million of which was stumped up by the State. But the club, heady on its success, had seriously overstretched itself with the stadium, and the income wasn't there to fill the financial hole. While the Três Grandes had, at least on paper, 100,000 or more sócios (fee-paying members), Boavista struggled to reach 20,000. The 30,000-seater Bessa was rarely more than a third full.

Meanwhile, in the mid-noughties, stories began to emerge of difficulties in paying money due to former players, most notably Martelinho, a hero of the 2001 title. These debts were the least of the club's worries, though. The taxman and Social Security were on the club's tail for payment of over 5 million euros owed.

In August 2008, the tax authorities seized the Bessa and put it up for public auction at 29 million euros. Boavista managed to secure a PEC (Extra-judicial Conciliation Procedure) with IAPMEI (Institute for the Support of Small and Medium-sized Companies and Investment), a get-out involving the promise to pay debts over time, which gave the club the chance to circumvent the seizure and to be able to register to compete in the professional leagues last season.

As if the financial problems were not enough, however, Boavista was dealt a massive blow by the Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) ref-bribing case. An off-shoot of the criminal action going through the courts, Apito Final (brought by the Liga de Clubes) found Boavista guilty of influencing referees in the 2003/04 season and banished the club to the Liga de Honra (second tier).

Cash flow dried up: television money and revenue from sponsorship and advertising all shrank in the lower division, and gates were miniscule. Greenhorns from the youth teams were drafted in, veterans with dodgy knees also. They were paid only intermittently. It was a recipe for failure, and fail they did; the team finished second from bottom and were relegated.

Then in June of this year, the Liga de Clubes seemed to be offering a lifeline. The Apito Final process that had relegated Boavista found Vizela and Gondomar also guilty of corruption, dating back to 2002/03. Gondomar had finished bottom of the Liga de Honra, but Boavista could take Vizela's place.

Could but won't. The PEC established in 2008 was terminated at the end of June, leaving Boavista with no alternative but to accept its fate: the club will play its football in the non-professional Segunda Divisão (third tier) next season.

Who is to blame for the fall from the top of the tree to the roots in just eight years? All fingers are pointed at the Loureiro mini-dynasty: local businessman and politician Valentim Loureiro and his son João, the vocalist with 80s pop-rock group Ban, now a lawyer. Valentim was president of the club from 1972 until handing over the reins to João in the mid-90s. João stood down in 2007.

Valentim (O Major) was directly involved in the charges of corruption that led to Boavista's relegation in 2008, while João can be blamed, at the very least, for incompetent management during his time at the helm. For example, an audit carried out at the club in 2008 showed up a deal in which the club had sold space in the stadium to a company for 4 million euros. On the same day, the company sold the space on to a chain of gyms for 13 million. Current club president Álvaro Braga Júnior admits that the club's debts total between 75 and 80 million euros.

Fears are that Boavista will go the way of Porto neighbours Salgueiros, whose senior football team was extinguished under similar circumstances in 2005. Salgueiros has been re-born in the form of Sport Clube Salgueiros 08 (with a badge depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes), but it has had to start from scratch in the Porto district leagues.

The question is: can The Panthers also drag themselves out of the ashes?

12/02/09

(A version of this article appeared in the March 2009 edition of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

In advance of the Big Prize, the Portuguese media were convinced pretty much across the board that Cristiano Ronaldo had his name on the FIFA Player of the Year award. Just for good measure though, sports daily A Bola felt a little push might help and organised an on-line petition, signed by 123,559 people, which was sent to each of the 207 football associations of the voting countries. "Cristiano Ronaldo in Zürich to be crowned the best in the world" chanced the same paper on the day of the ceremony.

But sure enough, that night came the announcement of the inevitable from the rheumy-eyed former Rei Pelé ("THE NEW KING IS OURS" ran A Bola's front page banner headline the next day). It was a little incongruous that this blushing, nervous young man (among all the dedications to his mother, his sisters, his friends, his team-mates, he forgot to mention his brother), normally so flamboyant on and off the pitch, seemed so humbled by the occasion and the award, but it was refreshing that he accepted it in Portuguese; Luís Figo, the only other Portuguese winner, in 2001 and then at Real Madrid, had controversially used Spanish, most likely due to marketing pressure, although he has never admitted as much.

There was, of course, a lot of (sometimes tortuous) hyperbole gushing out of the press the day after. A second sports daily, O Jogo, pulled out all the stops: "This is the corollary of a unique season … as if the FIFA award were just the small step needed to put Cristiano Ronaldo on a level that Humanity has never before reached." Elsewhere, every drop was being squeezed out of the triumph. "More votes than Messi and Torres put together!" boasted the other national sports paper, Record. Free newspaper Meia Hora reminded us that only two countries (Brazil and France) had won the award more times than Portugal, and that in the 18 editions to date, only Liberia (George Weah) had fewer registered players.

But in some newspaper columns and on discussion boards there were enough dissenting voices to take a bit of the shine off, dissent fuelled by Cristiano Ronaldo's indifferent second half of the year, however irrelevant this was to the actual voting for the award. A football-loving work colleague admitted that she was prouder at the prospect of Obama choosing a Portuguese breed – Cão de Água – as the Whitehouse dog than of Cristiano Ronaldo's accolade.

On the night of the ceremony, Portugal's equivalent of the BBC's 'Question Time' (Prós e Contras – 'For and Against') devoted a special edition to the star and set out to identify the things that have made him so successful. In what eventually became more of a Prós e Prós, the guests on the show, including politicians, psychologists and coaches, came up with a veritable litany of key elements: work, professionalism, dedication, determination, commitment, ambition, simplicity, humility, innate talent, and the sheer pleasure he derives from what he does.

Then unexpectedly, there was the man himself, on the phone from Manchester. "I've just got in and turned on the TV and I thought I'd call", he told the delighted assembly. Cristiano Ronaldo is not the best of speakers – his mangling of the Portuguese language is notorious – but he did raise a few laughs in what was becoming an overly earnest evening. The presenter suggested he had dropped his head in relief when he heard Pelé say his name. "No, I was just checking my flies," he giggled. Asked if there had been champagne on the private jet (EUR 1,240/hr to hire, according to glossy magazine Lux) taking him back to Manchester, he was a little cryptic: "Yeah … everything."

After a while he excused himself "because I've got to be up early for training" (work, professionalism, dedication, etc.) and we were back to the guests. CR's first tutor at Sporting, Paulo Cardoso, described how the 11-year-old would cry every night for Madeira and his family, especially his mother Dona Dolores, but how his determination to succeed, even at that tender age, saw him through. In O Jogo, he told the kids of Portugal: "Be ambitious and fight for your dreams. Always believe, because everything's possible in life."

Within a day or two of the award the tabloid Correio da Manhã reminded us of the things that young Portuguese men and boys might really aspire to in Cristiano Ronaldo's life, apart from winning honours: "Mysterious blonde gets into Ronaldo's Bentley" was the story.

12/02/09

(A version of this article appeared in the February 2009 edition of the British football magazine When Saturday Comes)

Despite a series of nearly-got-theres during five years as Portugal coach, by the summer of 2008 Luíz Felipe Scolari had overstayed his welcome and wanted out to lusher pastures. Perhaps seduced by his two successive World Cup wins at U-20 level (1989 and 91) and by his association with Manchester United's successes in recent years, but apparently ignoring his indifferent previous spell as national coach (10 wins from 23 games between 1991 and 93), the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) put their faith in the Mozambican-born Carlos Queirós, at the time a popular choice.

It has taken a matter of months for the initial optimism to crumble into bleak scepticism. A meaningless 5-0 hammering of the Faroe Islands in Queirós' first game, a friendly, was followed by a similar exercise against World Cup Group 1 whipping boys Malta (4-0). In the next game, Portugal collapsed in the last five minutes to lose 2-3 at home to Denmark. A commendable 0-0 draw in Sweden followed, but then came two disastrous results.

Portugal were 10th in the FIFA rankings when they received Albania (98th) on an October evening in Braga. A Faroe Islands/Malta-style goleada was surely on the cards, but no. A limited but organised Albania side, down to ten men for 50 minutes of the game, were more than a match for a disjointed, individualistic Portugal and the game finished goal-less ("Not zero-zero, less than zero", complained sports daily A Bola).

Eight minutes from the end, FPF president Gilberto Madaíl was seen to leave his seat "for physiological reasons … and others". Cristiano Ronaldo, who had tried but failed throughout to settle the game single-handedly, got stroppy with an understandably impatient crowd. And neither he as captain nor the coach turned up for the post-match flash interview. Queirós claimed that he'd got lost in the lifts of the Axa Stadium after first having words with the players, but it all sounded a bit convenient and smacked not a little of cowardice.

Eventually he would tell the press: "We're constructing a team and we're not going to put that objective in doubt. With patience we'll get there." There were two problems with this: firstly, the Portuguese are not very good at patience, and qualification for South Africa is not a long-term project; secondly, against Albania the team looked more like one under de-construction. The next game would lend weight to this idea.

Queirós considered that the November trip to Brazil would be "A great opportunity to motivate and stimulate the players" and "a great day for football, a great event, with all the significance it holds both culturally and socially". As a motivational exercise, the 2-6 drubbing, Portugal's worst result for 53 years, was straight out of 'The Office', while the most significant cultural effect that the performance and result had had, according to columnist Leonor Pinhão, writing in A Bola, was to provide Brazilians with more ammunition for making up Irish-style jokes about the Portuguese.

"For a leader, it's important to know who remains firm when the bridge starts shaking," Queirós had said before the game. But a camera rarely lies, and as the goals flew in, it continually picked up O Professor on the bench, running his hands through his thinning hair in impotent frustration. The sight begged a very unfavourable comparison between Queirós and his predecessor, Scolari.

The Brazilian's brashness had not always been a popular trait but had been effective in instilling discipline and urgency in the players of the newly named Clube Portugal. Despite being an outsider, he had also managed to get the whole country behind the team with his projected nationalism.

This is not, however, the style of analytical, softly spoken, low-profile Queirós. "Those who know me know I'm not one for bombastic statements", he said after the Faroe Islands game, when asked why he didn't try to pump up support for the side. "I prefer not to make promises. I want to talk less and do more."

So far he's certainly done less than Scolari. And as for promises, well, there's one he has made: "The Selecção will get the points needed for World Cup qualification, in whatever stadium and against whatever opposition".

Queirós has three months respite from criticism before that promise is put to the test against Sweden. But few here now believe it's a promise that can be kept by a team that has rapidly gone from being universally feared to being perceived as a bit of a soft touch.

 

02/09/08

(A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 edition of the British magazine When Saturday Comes)

So farewell, then, João Vieira Pinto. The diminutive forward has hung up his chuteiras at the age of 36 after a colourful career that started stratospherically, with two World Cup winner medals at U-20 level, and then hit a good number of peaks and troughs along the way.

Among the highs was a glorious display and hat-trick in Benfica's 6-3 crushing of Sporting at Alvalade in 1994 – for which JVP was awarded an unprecedented 10 out of 10 by sports daily A Bola – and that sublime headed goal against England in 1996. The lows included an ignominious exit from Benfica in 2000 – he was considered surplus to requirements by the subsequently disgraced club president João Vale e Azevedo – and a six-month ban from football after punching referee Angel Sanchez in the defeat against South Korea in 2002, an aberration that effectively ended his international career.

The blonde-haired 'Golden Boy' was part of the so-called 'Golden Generation', a nucleus of players brought together by Carlos Queiroz in the late 80s/early 90s that would be the backbone of the Selecção for more than a decade. The two World Cup wins – in Riyadh in 1989 and Lisbon in 1991 – were the trampoline to success for a number of players.

From the 1989 Riyadh squad emerged JVP, Fernando Couto, who went on to represent Portugal at senior level 110 times, and Paulo Sousa, who enjoyed great success abroad, winning two Champions League medals with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.

Two years after Riyadh, Portugal would retain the World Cup trophy at Benfica's old Luz stadium in front of 127,000 – the largest attendance at a FIFA match after the 1950 World Cup in Brazil – beating a Brazil side including Roberto Carlos and Élber on penalties.

Many of the team from the triumphant Luz Final passed by glittering careers. Goalkeeper Brassard, for example, represented only minor Portuguese clubs before becoming goalkeeping coach for the Selecção; forward Gil lost his way then surfaced as a youth team coach at Manchester United; official Player of the Tournament Emílio Peixe made some bad career choices, suffered a series of injuries and is now with the Footballers' Union, coaching out of work players; and after so-so spells at FC Porto and Sporting Braga, striker Toni ended up working on construction sites in Luxembourg.

But there were others who were destined for greater things. Jorge Costa would become a dominant figure at FC Porto, leading them to the Champions League trophy in 2004 under José Mourinho. The 'Maestro' Rui Costa would spend the bulk of his career in Italy with Fiorentina and AC Milan before returning home to Benfica to finish playing and take on his current role as Director of Football. And the most successful Portuguese footballer since Eusébio, Luís Figo, would earn a record 127 caps for Portugal and be voted FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001.

Despite the individual quality of the players, however, 'Golden Generation' proved to be something of a misnomer at a group level. Failure to qualify for the World Cup in 1994 was just one of a number of instances of underachievement that were to dog a Selecção studded with Riyadh/Lisbon heroes: they were knocked out to a Poborski chip at the quarter-finals of Euro '96; they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1998; they fell to France in the semis of Euro 2000, with Abel Xavier's poorly disguised handball leading to a penalty, pushing, shoving, words, and suspensions for several players. And they were out at the group stage in the World Cup 2002 amid scenes in the defeat to South Korea that would not have been out of place around kicking out time at the Dog and Duck of a Friday night.

By Euro 2004, only Fernando Couto, Rui Costa and Luís Figo of the Golden Generation were still representing the Selecção. With the retirement of João Vieira Pinto, only Luís Figo, Fernando Couto and Abel Xavier – recently released by LA Galaxy – continue to play at the top level.

But as the old gold supply dwindles, things have come full circle. Carlos Queiroz has returned as national coach, inviting the questions: Can he work his alchemy again to uncover a new Golden Generation? And if so, can they shine a bit more brightly this time around as a Selecção?

22/07/08

(A version of this article appeared in the August 2008 edition of the British magazine When Saturday Comes)

Third time lucky, then, for Luíz Felipe Scolari: courted by Benfica at the time of Euro 2004 and by England at the last World Cup, now Chelsea's bottomless coffers have lured him away from the Selecção. But after five and a half years, what is Felipão's final report card as Portugal's Seleccionador? And what can Chelsea fans expect of him?

Portuguese Football Federation president Gilberto Madaíl recently set out the main requirement for Scolari's successor: he must speak Portuguese. One columnist in sports daily A Bola suggested that actually a knowledge of tactics might also be a good idea.

Because for all his qualities, this is one major criticism levelled at Scolari: when it came to the crunch (against Greece in 2004, against Germany in 2006, against the same team this time around), Portugal just did not have the organization and flexibility to deal with opponents that had done their homework and were clinical in the execution of their game plans. Meanwhile the Sargentão's main gambit appeared to be huddles and dependence upon his favourite Catholic symbol, Nossa Senhora da Caravaggio for luck. Not enough, however, to deal with Schweinsteiger free-kicks delivered into the heart of a defence which had apparently never seen such a thing.

Add to this the highly questionable selection of players in some positions and you have a ready recipe for failure. Petit in midfield, after a season of injury and underperforming at Benfica? All-at-sea Paulo Ferreira converted to left back, with qualification stalwart Marco Caneira left at home? Ricardo in goal, with his now legendary flapping at crosses and fresh from a stinker of a season at Bétis?

Faith in his favourites got Scolari unquestioning loyalty from players, but it blinded him to other possibilities: apart from one or two question marks, he had his squad in mind months in advance of Euro 2008, players' form and fitness seemingly of secondary importance to 'The Group' dynamic. He rarely went to stadiums to see games, preferring the sofa and reports from assistants.

But that was one thing that he was able to do: create a family spirit – the paternalistic figurehead and his "meninos". And after the ramshackle affair that was the World Cup 2002 under António Oliveira, Scolari's shepherding of the rabble into a squad that could reach the Final of Euro 2004 was nothing short of a minor miracle.

Euro 2004 also saw an explosion of nationalistic fervour in Portugal; yes because the tournament was played here but also because of a mass response to Scolari's populist discourse. Flag manufacturers had never had it so good, with windows, verandas and cars up and down the country draped in red and green. Four years later, Portuguese emigrants were buying black market tickets for sold-out training sessions in Neuchâtel at ten times their face value.

This will be one of Scolari's great legacies – the approximation of the people to their Selecção. On Portuguese discussion boards, it is the main factor in the Brazilian's defence. Nevertheless, opinion is overwhelmingly critical of the man.

Many feel he treated his time in Portugal as something of a holiday and an opportunity to line his pockets; his substantial salary was supplemented with lucrative advertising contracts (for which the tax authorities are currently after him due to alleged tax-dodging).

His lack of tactical nous is held up as the reason for Portugal not doing better in the last three tournaments, coming up shorter each time: from finalist in 2004, to semi-finalist in 2006, to quarter-finalist now – a 'nearly man' in fact (c.f. Avram Grant).

And his stubbornness, especially in terms of selection, still has the country divided: FC Porto fans will never, for example, forgive the exclusion of Vítor Baía in 2003/04 in favour of Ricardo, a case study in obstinacy on a par with Romário's exclusion from the Brazilian squad in 2002. One visitor to the website Maisfutebol's discussion board commented: "I'd like to remind him that there isn't a dictatorship in Portugal any more … and that being flexible and recognising your mistakes is a virtue."

As for his relationship with the media, it was rocky at best. His manner at press conferences was invariably an uncomfortable mixture of arrogant, supercilious and defensive; in Switzerland, his monosyllabic responses to questions about the timing of the announcement of the Chelsea appointment struck all the wrong notes but were, frankly, par for the course.

Psychologist Regina Brandão, who has worked with Scolari for ten years, told the free weekly newspaper Sexta that "Felipão can't treat the English as he did the Portuguese." It seems clear that Scolari will have to change many of his ways in the demanding Premier League. Oh, and learn English. And quickly.

07/06/08

(A version of this article appeared in the July 2008 edition of the British magazine When Saturday Comes)

While the so-called Apito Dourado ('Golden Whistle') referee-bribing case trundles its leisurely way through the Portuguese criminal courts four years after events, the Liga de Clubes, keen to show that it's on the ball, recently acted in what has come to be known as the Apito Final ('Final Whistle'): various clubs, club presidents and match officials have been found guilty of dirty deeds and dealt a range of penalties including fines, suspensions, point-docking and, in one high-profile instance, relegation.

In the 2003/04 season, when José Mourinho's FC Porto were strutting their irrepressible stuff throughout the continent, the club and its charismatic president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa are accused of having bribed the match officials in two relatively meaningless Liga encounters, on one occasion allegedly providing the men in black with ladies of the night, code-named 'fruit' and 'coffee with milk', on request. As with all the similar accusations in Apito Dourado, this has yet to be proven in a court of law, but the Disciplinary Committee (DC) of the Liga de Clubes couldn't wait; it borrowed the Public Prosecutor's evidence, including thousands of tapped mobile phone conversations, and came to its own conclusions: Pinto da Costa and, by extension, FC Porto were guilty as charged.

At the press conference to announce the Liga's decisions and respective penalties, the DC chairman Ricardo Costa confirmed, perhaps with a shade too much relish, that FC Porto were to be docked six points and Pinto da Costa suspended for two years.

The champions opted to accept the decision so that the points would be docked from this season's already insurmountable 20-point lead over their nearest rivals, Sporting. But what seemed like a clever move at the time may have backfired: failure to appeal has been seen as tantamount to admission of guilt, which leaves Pinto da Costa, who has appealed, hanging out to dry, and has jeopardised FC Porto's participation in next season's Champions League after UEFA got wind of events. [UEFA have subsequently barred FC Porto from competing in next season's European competitions, subject to appeal].

Porto and Pinto da Costa's alleged offence was 'attempted' corruption: there was an offer of reward and a request for favours, but the CD deemed that there was no practical result on the pitch. The same went for União de Leiria, docked three points (they were already rock bottom of the Liga, ten points from safety). Unfortunately for Boavista, the CD thought that they had benefited in certain games and were thus guilty of 'consummated' corruption; Valentim Loureiro, at the time president of the Liga de Clubes (the body ultimately in charge of referees) and son João Loureiro (the then president of Boavista) had allegedly "put pressure on referees". The penalty? Relegation of the club to the Liga de Honra and a fine of 180,000 euros. A club with a 105-year history and champions just seven years ago, but with chronic financial problems, could now go to the wall.

However, Boavista, as everyone else apart from FC Porto the club, have appealed. The next stop is the Portuguese Football Federation's Council of Justice (CJ), which will have to digest 110,000 pages of reports and hand down a decision before June 11 when last season's results and tables are due to be officially approved. But the CJ are notoriously stingy when it comes to appeals, and if it rejects them, then Pinto da Costa for one has said that he could well take the case to the European civil courts, meaning that the process may drag on into next season.

Meanwhile, Apito Final has thrown up various legal/ethical quandaries. Should a private association like the Liga de Clubes be able to use evidence from a criminal trial, especially phone taps which are already of dubious constitutional validity, to support its decisions? How can the presidents accused of corruption be penalised with suspensions of months when the referees involved in the same cases pick up suspensions of years (referee Augusto Duarte got hit for six)? And why do clubs accused of very similar acts of corruption (FC Porto/União de Leiria vs Boavista) cop very different penalties.

And then what if the decisions from Apito Dourado, when (if …) they are finally handed down, actually contradict Apito Final? Will the Liga de Clubes, and the Federation, have to retract their decisions? And if so, what if the season has already begun or even finished? What then?

But despite doubts as to their fairness, constitutionality and practicality, many have welcomed Apito Dourado and its bastard offspring Apito Final as being the brooms needed to at last sweep corruption from the Portuguese game. At the very least, the fact that they are happening at all is, it is widely felt, a healthy development.

 

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