comment - 2016





footballportugal was asked by the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes to give its best and worst moments of 2016, and its hopes for 2017. Here they are:

Best moment:
It has to be Éder’s winning goal in the final of the Euros – for its out-of-the-blueness and its couldn’t-have-happened-to-a-nicer-blokeness (but unfortunately for him, probably a “Bobby Stokes” moment). However undeserved in terms of quality of play throughout the tournament, Portugal’s win was perhaps fair reward for a couple of decades of real promise, and it’s always good to see (relative) minnows winning things.

Worst moment:
It’s hard to get past Chapecoense as the very worst moment, of this or any recent year. In Portugal, it was seeing Boavista hero Erwin Sánchez failing to coach a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and being shown the door in October.

Hopes for 2017:
Several for improvements to Portuguese football (all entirely wishful thinking, of course): the media giving clubs other than Benfica, Porto and Sporting decent coverage; coaches saying interesting things at press conferences; club presidents taking a back seat (some do, while others conduct themselves like particularly obnoxious spoilt children); action being taken to stamp out time-wasting.




Portuguese clubs boycott Porto ultras’ team over ‘terror and intimidation’

As the Portuguese Liga settles down to a more-or-less predictable procession with Benfica out in front, it’s a story from the lower divisions that’s sharing the sports headlines. In the district league administered by the Porto FA, the fourth-tier Divisão de Elite, 12 of the 14 clubs involved have refused to play against a team from Vila Nova de Gaia, across the River Douro from the city of Porto.

The 12 have cited "a climate of terror and intimidation" on and off the pitch in games against Canelas 2010, as well as constant pressure on match officials. This isn’t the first time Canelas have been accused of violence; in February, the Porto FA decided to allocate three observers to their games, while it was reported that 90 per cent of the district’s referees had made themselves unavailable for matches involving the club.

The story might only have made it to the margins of page 28 but for the fact that the Canelas squad includes several members of the main FC Porto ultras group or claque, Os Super Dragões, including notorious leader Fernando Madureira, aka Macaco (Monkey).

The claque have a lot of influence at FC Porto. They served as a kind of Praetorian Guard for FCP president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa during corruption hearings in 2004, while in 2006 some members attacked the then coach Co Adriaanse’s car after a 0-0 draw with Rio Ave – with him in it..

Later, from the relative safety of Moscow where he was playing for Dynamo, the former Porto midfielder Costinha, now coach at Académica, said: "During the day they threatened players, in the evening they were having dinner with FCP directors.”

More recently, Madureira and members of the claque were in the news in February, visiting the restaurant belonging to the father of referee Jorge Ferreira, who had just reffed a controversial game in which Paços de Ferreira lost 3-1 at home to Benfica; the police had to be called. Jorge Ferreira hired a private bodyguard for some time afterwards as a precaution.

In defence of Canelas, Madureira, who has written an autobiography and has recently completed a masters in sports management, said: “There’s no aggression. What we have is more desire, more determination, more ambition than the other teams.” Meanwhile, the president of Canelas, Bruno Canastro, has called the boycott “a conspiracy”.

One of the clubs refusing to play, Pedrouços, had two minibuses set on fire last week, although a direct link between the arson and Canelas 2010 hasn’t been made. Canastro has said that he will withdraw the club from the league if any such link is found.

Regulations state that the no-show clubs will be subject to fines and the forfeit of games, but they feel strongly enough to go ahead with the boycott. In an attempt to find a way out of the imbroglio, the 12 have called on the Portuguese Football Federation to intercede.

(This article appeared on the site of the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)




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Portugal may be unpopular champions but they achieved it through smart tactics and teamwork, with their stars putting egos aside for a while.

“We’re not 11 but 11 million” ran the Portuguese Football Federation’s tournament slogan. The day after Paris, those 11 million – the Portuguese diaspora makes it many more – were pinching themselves. But no, it was true, and there were the front page banner headlines to prove it: “Pride of Portugal!”, “Epic!”, “Eternal!”, “We’re Champions!”, “It’s ours!”

While the whole squad played their part in a dogged campaign, some were more influential than others: Pepe, often seen as a borderline psychopath, now arguably the team’s most important player; keeper Rui Patrício, utterly solid throughout and a match-winner in Paris; Renato Sanches, the youngest player to appear in a Final (18 years and 326 days), bringing youthful exuberance and a certain infectious fearlessness to the team; Éder, who got the historic winning goal – the so-called “ugly duckling’ (coined by coach Fernando Santos to defend a contested player that had scored just three goals in 28 games) who “became beautiful”.

Three elements were of major importance to the team’s success, the first luck. That third place, scraping through the group stage as the 15th best of the 16 qualifiers, proved crucial; their half of the knock-out stage meant that they could avoid all the tubarões (sharks) except Belgium, and Wales saw to them. When it came to facing Wales, key players Davies and Ramsey were out through suspension. And woodwork also came to the rescue at important moments – to foil Perisic for Croatia just before Quaresma’s winner in the last-16 clash, and Gignac on 90 minutes in the Final, with Patrício beaten.

In the Final, it looked like the luck had run out when Ronaldo was crocked by Payet early on, but this apparent setback would go to prove that the team were not just Ronaldo plus 10, making the victory sweeter still. By his own high standards, Ronaldo didn’t have a good tournament, notwithstanding his two vital goals against Hungary and that monumental header against Wales. For once, however, his value to the squad was less as a player than as a captain.

The impression he had always given was of an aloof presence, wearing the armband because his status demanded it. But after a couple of false steps in France (his petty denigration of Iceland, and a reporter’s mic thrown into a lake), he was inspirational: his press-ganging of João Moutinho to take one of the penalties against Poland is now the stuff of folklore (“If we lose, fuck it!”); his speech to the crowd outside the training camp at Marcoussis before Wales was pitch-perfect (“We haven’t won anything yet, but we’re going to try to do our best in the semi-final and the final. Keep up the support, which we really appreciate. We’re very proud.”); and his injury against France, the attempt to play on, his joining coach Fernando Santos on the touchline in extra-time to harangue his team-mates – in short, he was fundamental.

And Fernando Santos himself. Before the tournament he was predicting that Portugal would go all the way. Asked later on in the tournament whether it would really be possible to win the whole thing by drawing all their games, he didn’t miss a beat: “Where do I sign?” Even after the dire Austria game (“No one misses like us” was the front page headline of the daily A Bola) he begged for calm. “We’re going to get to the final, and we’re going to win it!” he said, to widespread incredulity at home. The next day, he insisted: “I’ve already told my family that I’ll be back on July 11.”

Santos sets great store by family; after every game, he made straight for the stands to hug his son and daughter and other relatives. And apart from being a highly astute tactician, he did actually make a family of this squad; there wasn’t the slightest hint of unrest in the ranks, even though some players got very few minutes. Compared to certain Portugal campaigns in the past, this was like a month-long episode of The Waltons.

So with a balanced, combative, tactically tight squad focussed on the ultimate prize, great leaders, and a fair bit of good fortune, Portugal have won their first major trophy at senior level. They’re not the most popular of champions (“They were cynical and unsporting and suffocating and the flat-out bottom of international football” said ESPN), but for the ecstatic tens of thousands that lined the route of the victory parade in Lisbon, that mattered little. Because finally the Seleção has some silverware to show for two decades of frustratingly unfulfilled promise.

(A version of this article appeared in the August 2016 edition of
the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)




Unpopular Portugal put substance before style

Cristiano Ronaldo has found new ways to influence the Seleção despite his poor form

Portugal are already champions of sorts: they seem to be the most reviled team of the tournament, for whatever reason – and there are a number to choose from, including Cristiano Ronaldo’s narcissism, Pepe’s borderline psychopathy, and the perceived injustice of the team’s dogged progress, which has come despite the generally poor quality of their play.

Apart from the odd flash of their undeniable potential, Portugal haven’t shown any consistent class and have managed to reach this far on the back of five 90-minute draws. Asked whether it would really be possible to win the whole thing by drawing all their games, coach Fernando Santos didn’t miss a beat: “Where do I sign?”

There’s pressure from some pundits and columnists at home for the team to turn it on a bit, but there’s another school of thought that remembers and dismisses the many moral victories of the past that never won the Seleção any trophies: this will be the seventh semi-final of a major tournament, with only one Final appearance to show for it (12 years ago this week at Euro 2004 in Portugal, 0-1 to Greece). Fernando Santos again: “Playing footy and playing football are not the same thing.” It’s clear that he’ll be content to grind out two more results – shades of his time coaching Greece (2010-14).

This is not to say that the team has been totally devoid of excellence. Pepe, for example, has managed to control his excesses and put in some outstanding performances, notably in the last two games against Croatia and Poland. A thigh strain may rule him out tonight [indeed it did], which would be a terrible blow, such is his influence at the back.

Then there’s the confident arrival on the full international scene of midfielder Renato Sanches. Although still tactically quite naïve, his strength, hunger for the ball and direct, forward-looking approach are refreshing for an 18 year-old (or 23/24, if you believe, most recently, former Auxerre coach Guy Roux). The only doubt is whether the conservative Fernando Santos has complete faith in him [indeed he did], or will prefer an under-par but more experienced João Moutinho for Wales. 

But notwithstanding the 3-3 draw with Hungary (two goals and an assist for Nani), Cristiano Ronaldo has been off his game. This has coincided, though, with something of a transformation in his bearing as captain. There was the incident with the TV mic that he threw into a lake in a huff, but that seemed to be a turning point. Since then he’s been an inspiring, focussed leader on and off the field.

A pitch-side camera caught him convincing João Moutinho to take a penalty against Poland, geeing him up with a neat bit of reverse psychology: “If we lose, fuck it!” Another camera followed him as the shoot-out unfolded, urgently stalking the line of his players like a hyperactive sergeant major. Significantly, he opted to take his penalty first to get one chalked up early (cf. versus Spain in the semi-final four years ago, when he held back for the glory of the final penalty, which never happened as Spain ran out 4-2 winners). Portugal scored all five spot-kicks against Poland with great aplomb.

After the game, Ronaldo patiently fielded for the umpteenth time a question about his form: “My performance isn’t important. What counts is the team, and we did a great job.” The following day, the squad left the Marcoussis training camp to mingle with the crowds of local Franco-Portuguese besieging it. Ronaldo gave a short but quite stirring speech, keeping hold of the mic this time: "We’ve come out to thank you for all the support you’ve given us. We haven’t won anything yet, but we’re going to try to do our best in the semi-final and the Final. Keep up the support, which we really appreciate. We’re very proud.”

Those fans were some of the 11 million from the FPF’s tournament slogan “Not 11 but 11 million”, and they should be in the majority in the Stade de Lyon. But Wales will go into Wednesday’s semi-final with the rest of the world behind them (everyone loves a plucky underdog). Portugal may only regain some of their popularity internationally if they can get into the Final – where they’ll be underdogs themselves once again, whether they meet France or Germany – and win (or lose) it in style.

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




Portugal lack finishers as pressure mounts on Ronaldo

Seleção coach Fernando Santos remains defiant ahead of Hungary clash

Before June 8, the Portuguese had generally been a little sceptical about their team’s chances in France. Then they played Estonia at the Luz in the last warm-up match and knocked seven past them in a dazzling display of attacking football, with a seemingly rejuvenated Ricardo Quaresma scoring twice and assisting for another two. His resurgence offered coach Fernando Santos a viable 4-3-3 alternative (with Quaresma joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani up front) to the preferred 4-4-2, and suddenly the European title he’d been promising seemed very doable.

Until their first two group games that is, when reality kicked in. Portugal dominated both and gave the opposition very few chances (in fact the defence has let in just six goals in the last ten competitive fixtures). But they could kill neither game: goal attempts against Iceland were 27/4, against Austria 23/3 – one goal in 50 shots.

‘No one misses like us’ was A Bola’s front-page headline after Austria. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that they had trouble finding the net, though, even with a man who had just scored over 50 goals for his club for the sixth season in a row; the Seleção had managed just 11 goals in eight games in qualifying, and Estonia had felt like a freak result.

Ever since Pauleta finished his international career in 2006 (47 goals in 88 games), Portugal have been unable to find a reliable replacement. The only out-and-out striker in this squad is Lille’s Éder, who has found the net just three times in 28 appearances. So hopes of goals have rested mainly on Ronaldo (58 – more than the rest of the squad put together). But the problem with depending on a single player to do your scoring for you is if he’s off the boil. Which, for whatever reason, has certainly been the case in France.

Ronaldo missed a sitter and saw his late penalty ping back off a post against Austria. He was already taking flak from all quarters for his petulant post-match denigration of Iceland. John Carlin (admittedly a Barcelona fan), wrote in Spanish daily El País: “Never in the history of football has there been someone who has combined so much talent as a player with so much ridiculousness as a person.” After Austria, though, Ronaldo was being targeted from closer to home, too.

On tabloid Correio da Manhã’s TV channel, one pundit suggested (albeit tentatively) what would have been unthinkable only a short while ago; that Ronaldo should spend some time on the bench (Ronaldo would later throw a CMTV reporter’s mic into a pond). António Simões, a team-mate of Eusébio’s in 1966, was more direct: “Cristiano Ronaldo is an extraordinary player, but his relationship is with himself, with the ball, with the game, and only then with the team. All the ‘kings’ of football, and there aren’t many of them, have understood that there’s a team.” Those of us annoyed, for example, at his insistence on taking all free-kicks within 40 metres of the goal would agree.

But others have leapt to his defence, citing his immense contribution to the national team over the years (he’s just equalled and surpassed Luís Figo’s record of 127 appearances) and criticising what they see as a lack of gratitude to the man. Unsurprisingly, his mother Dolores also weighed in on her son’s side: “Even the best make mistakes, and that’s what’s happened… but I ask everyone to support Cristiano and not to criticise him. I have a lot of faith – Our Lady of Fátima will be with us. I’m going to light a candle and we’re going to win.”

She’s not the only one who thinks so. After the Austria game, an irritated and defensive Santos blustered: “We’re going to get to the final, and we’re going to win it!” The following day, he insisted: “I’ve already told my family that I’ll be back on July 11 [the day after the final], and that I’m going to be feted.”

But first Hungary, who are already through and may rest players. Apart from the scoring problem, the Seleção haven’t played so badly in their two games and to go through themselves, a draw will be enough against a team that Portugal have never lost to (seven wins and three draws). Back home, though, a general feeling of disillusionment and doubt exists and was summed up in A Bola’s editorial on Tuesday, before it was known that a draw would be enough: “If Portugal don’t win against Hungary, they don’t deserve to continue in the Euros.”

(This article appeared on the site of
the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)






I must admit that I went to the opening night of the musical Eusébio: A Hymn To Football (in Lisbon for ten days from 6 April, in Porto for three days in May) with some misgivings. It had all the makings of a schmaltz-fest – the life of the Benfica legend (1942-2014) set to music? And/or it would be hamstrung by amateurishness; the short run was, I feared, a bad sign. In the event, I left Lisbon’s Coliseu concert hall roused, moved and uplifted in roughly equal measure.

At the outset the stage has a section of the stand of the Estádio da Luz, with a small group of Benfiquistas watching a game in the present day – a handful of teenagers, but also a grandfather with his grandson. It’s through the old man that the fans – and the show – travel back through time to pick out the high points of a life well-lived.

Eusébio as an adult never appears, leaving it to third-person narrative to describe his feats. But as we go back to his humble youth in Lourenço Marques (Maputo), Mozambique, we see him as a little boy, making a football out of rags; the boy will return at strategic points in the story, symbolising the grown-up Eusébio – a subtle and touching conceit that works really well. Later, the locals speak of his gifts as a player, and two suits from Benfica turn up to negotiate the first contract with his astute mother, Elisa (“It’s a big family …”).

Once in Portugal, Eusébio keeps in touch by letter (“I can’t describe how cold this land is. Better times will come – I have faith in God.”). Benfica’s Hungarian coach Bela Guttman sees him in training: “This boy’s gold!” Eusébio scores two to help Benfica win their second European Cup, 5-3 against Real Madrid – projected onto the backdrop.

There are less well-known stories, too: Benfica are beating União de Almeirim 8-0 in the Cup (1968/69). Benfica get a penalty. Eusébio already has a hat-trick. The goalkeeper asks him not to score and humiliate him anymore because his father’s watching. Eusébio tells him which side he’s going to put the ball; the ‘keeper saves it …

But the centre-piece of the show is 1966, which made Eusébio (“There wasn’t a country in the world that didn’t know his name.”), especially against North Korea at Goodison. The game is seen from four points-of-view: a father and son watching on TV in Portugal, Eusébio’s family in Mozambique, two Portuguese TV commentators and two very un-p.c. North Korean commentators with dodgy hair, gestures and gobbledegook commentary for comic effect: they get very animated when their team go 3-0 up, but then Eusébio turns it around with four goals in the 5-3 win; it’s a long but very dynamic scene that’s pivotal in Eusébio’s career, and in the show.

On to the England semi, and another grandfather and grandson now watching, with the game projected on the backdrop … but only the final minutes, by which time the grandfather is resigned to the defeat, and slopes off-stage while Eusébio famously leaves the Wembley pitch bathed in tears.

The cast come out and sing a tribute to O Rei and the little boy wanders around to stand in front of each of them. Eusébio has touched everyone, the scene is saying, but at the same time it shows him, through the boy, wondering humbly how he could have had such an effect on people.

To cap the 1966 adventure there’s a phenomenal, spine-tingling version of the national anthem (which is never less than stirring anyway), belted out by the whole cast and in descant by the excellent Sofia Escobar, nominated for an Olivier for West Side Story.

Eusébio’s later years are skimmed over (except for his contribution, with advice, to Ricardo’s penalty save and spot kick against England in 2004) and we come to his death, beautifully and subtly portrayed by the little boy sitting silently in a spotlight that slowly fades to black. If I, a grown man and not Portuguese, and not a Benfiquista, was crying my eyes out, then I can almost guarantee there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (certainly not, I’m sure, from Eusébio’s widow, Flora, and daughter, Sandra, both in the audience).

It’s a terrific show with great pace, humour, colour and sensitivity, some excellent songs and music (the scenes set in Africa are especially good in this respect) and a not-over-exaggerated sense of the importance of Eusébio to Portuguese (and World) football. I’m aware that not many will be in a position to take advantage of my recommendation, but anyway: Eusébio – Um Hino Ao Futebol is very highly recommended indeed.

(This article appeared on the site of
the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)






Portuguese league wide open for once as clássico looms

Saturday’s sold-out clássico between Sporting and Benfica comes at a moment when the Primeira Liga is the closest it’s been in years. Around this point, the race is invariably down to two clubs, in recent seasons Benfica and Porto. This time there are three in it, with Sporting leading the charge.

In the close season Jorge Jesus, who had just coached Benfica to a second consecutive title, moved down the ring road to Lisbon neighbours Sporting, amid much controversy. He had an immediate effect on the perennial underachievers (their last title was 2001-02), primarily toughening them up mentally. They dropped just four points in the first 13 games and took top spot after eight, relinquishing it only twice since then.

Benfica, on the other hand, lost three and drew one of their first 13, at one point dropping to eighth, eight points behind Sporting. Their coach, Rui Vitória, drafted in from Vitória de Guimarães to replace Jorge Jesus, looked shaky and there were question marks over his future at the club. But he rode the storm and got Benfica playing attractive, effective football that has pleased the fans and made up ground on the leaders.

The Eagles have the league’s top scorer in Brazilian striker Jonas whose 26 goals have put him at the head of the pack vying for Europe’s Golden Boot. They also boast the best footballer in Portugal at the moment, the Argentinian winger and playmaker Nico Gaitán, and arguably the league’s best young player, midfielder Renato Sanches, just 18 but already a fixture in the team.

Sporting’s Algerian striker Islam Slimani, the league’s second top scorer with 18 goals, has put contractual differences with the club behind him to become their most influential player, with admirable support from a strong midfield in Portuguese internationals Adrien Silva, William Carvalho and João Mário alongside Costa Rican Bryan Ruíz. 

Sporting have already beaten Benfica three times this season: 1-0 in the Supertaça, 3-0 in the league and 2-1 in the Portuguese Cup. In the cup tie at the end of November, Slimani was caught on camera elbowing Greek midfielder Andreas Samaris in the head. Benfica lodged a complaint post-match and the case went to the Federation’s Disciplinary Committee.

True to Portuguese tradition in matters of justice, three months later we’re no nearer a decision on the incident [Slimani was eventually cleared in April 2016]. In an (apparent) show of magnanimity and an attempt to calm off-field tension ahead of Saturday’s game, Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira came out this week and said that if Slimani is to be suspended, he wouldn’t want it to be for this match. In a Facebook post of over 1,000 words, Vieira’s Sporting counterpart, the incendiary Bruno de Carvalho, responded: “I didn’t know if I wanted to ask for his immediate beatification, or propose him for the next Nobel Peace Prize.”

The controversy has given the clássico some extra bite, as if any were needed. Going into the game, things are nicely poised at the top: Sporting lead on 59 points to Benfica’s 58, while Porto are lurking close by on 55. Porto have a tough visit to Sporting Braga this weekend, but if they win that, and Sporting and Benfica draw, it’ll be 60, 59, 58 and all to play for with nine games remaining.

(This article appeared on the site of
the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)


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