comment - 2017





Violence in the lower leagues

The Benfica v FC Porto Clássico came and went, finishing in a 1-1 draw and leaving things as they were at the top: Benfica lead Porto by one point, with seven games left.

Fears of apocalyptic violence in and around the game were unfounded, although there were some incidents. There was an attack on a fan by a riot cop beforehand – the officer has been suspended. During the game, there were some minor altercations between Benfica fans and Porto fans who’d got their hands on tickets for the home sections. The FCP ultras Super Dragões destroyed 350 seats. And Benfica striker Jonas feigned a stumble to try a full-tilt charge at Porto coach Nuno Espírito Santo on the touchline (“I’m 1m90, 105 kgs and not easy to knock down.”)

It was the day after the game that it all kicked off, though, 350 kms to the north of Lisbon, and it had nothing to do with the Clássico. Several of the Super Dragões play for the 4th-tier side Canelas 2010 in the Porto Football Association district league. The team has been benefiting from forfeited games as other sides in their league refused to play them because they were too aggressive. Now they’re through to the second phase, vying for promotion to the third tier (Campeonato de Portugal).

Two minutes into Sunday’s visit to Rio Tinto, 34-year-old Canelas forward Marco Gonçalves, aka ‘Ears’, a member of the Super Dragões, punched a defender. The referee, José Rodrigues, saw it and rushed over to give Gonçalves a straight red, but Ears wasn’t having any of it. He grabbed the ref by the neck, forced his head down and came up with his knee into the ref’s face.

The game was abandoned, the player arrested and the referee taken to hospital. He’d broken his nose in three places and will need corrective surgery. In an interview shortly after the game, Gonçalves tried to justify the punch that got him carded: “He said ‘You son of a whore, death to your mother.’ We had a tussle, I stuck my arm out and he threw himself on the ground, like babies do.” He had a touch of amnesia about the knee in the ref’s face, though: “I don’t remember hitting him. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I remember grabbing him, but I don’t know how that happened. If it was a knee in the face, I’d really like to apologise to the ref, to his family and to the Portuguese.”

The video footage shows there really can be no doubt what happened in the incident. Gonçalves has been summarily dismissed from Canelas (“He will never wear the club’s shirt again.”) but by local regulations can only be banned from the game for a maximum of four years. He’s been charged with common assault, which may be aggravated if it’s proven, as reported, that he has martial arts training.

Some see the incident as a filtering down of extreme inter-club tension at the very top of the game, especially between the Big Three (Benfica, Porto, Sporting), with criticism of refs by club directors, coaches, columnists and TV pundits a tiresome and incendiary constant. Already this season there have been 43 assaults on match officials at all levels.

The footballing institutions were quick to condemn the assault. Joaquim Evangelista, president of the Players Union, called for “exemplary punishment” for the player, and added: “It’s important that the football family begins to set an example.”

The president of the Football Federation, Fernando Gomes, said: “The Federation laments and repudiates this assault in the strongest possible terms.” At least one social media poster pointed out the faint hypocrisy of that position, though: the FPF have given a job as a director to João Pinto, who infamously punched Argentinian referee Angel Sanchez in the gut during the defeat to South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.

The president of the Referees Association, Luciano Gonçalves, said that a strike of match officials is not out of the question: “All we ask is for the minimum security so that we can do our job on the pitch.” The Federation have requested that all games at all levels under their tutelage be policed, although who would pay for that is a moot point.

The victim of Sunday’s assault nobly played down the incident. Father of two José Rodrigues, 43, said: “I’ve been a referee of national and district competitions for many years and I know that this episode does not represent what I experience on the pitch. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.” And he hasn’t been turned off: “As soon as I get the medical all-clear, I’m going to ref again. It’s the activity I like most in the world, and what happened at the weekend won’t push me away.”



Tensions precede SLB v FCP clássico

Portugal dispatched Hungary 3-0 in their World Cup qualifier at the weekend. It was an opportunity to bask once again in the Seleção’s status as European Champions, but rumbling away in the background during the whole two-week break from club football has been the looming Benfica v FC Porto clássico.

The only sides that can realistically win the title now (Sporting lag by ten points) go into the game separated by a single point. Porto missed a great chance to take top spot in the previous jornada; Benfica drew at always tricky Paços de Ferreira (0-0), but the next day Porto were surprisingly held 1-1 at home by Vitória de Setúbal. Now, with just eight games left, the clássico takes on supreme importance, not least because final positions, if the teams are level, are decided on head-to-head results (the first meeting finished 1-1).

If Benfica win, they go four points clear, if Porto win, they go two clear. In the run-in to the end of the season, Porto’s most difficult challenge will be a trip to fourth-placed Braga, while Benfica visit their Lisbon rivals Sporting at the end of April.

On form, Porto should get something out of this Saturday’s game, but on-field matters have been pushed to the back of coverage, replaced by off-field noise, supplied and fuelled by the clubs in question.

Through their Director of Communication, FC Porto attacked Benfica coach Rui Vitória for remonstrating with the match officials after the Paços draw: “Coaches exist to coach, not for this. The purpose of this behaviour is to try to gain advantage in the future. This is intended to influence the work of the match officials.”

In an interview this week, retired coach Manuel José, who was at Sporting, Boavista and Benfica in Portugal, and, most successfully, Al Ahly of Egypt, said it was a generalised trend: “To be Champions in Portugal, it’s not enough to have the best coach and players and to play the best football. With this pressure everywhere […] the decisive factor is the referee.”

To heap more pressure on the institutions running the game here (the Federation and Liga), Benfica issued a press release early last week, claiming “an unequivocal case of double standards in sports justice,” citing the sluggishness of disciplinary action for other clubs compared to the swiftness of action against them (in the persons of president Luís Filipe Vieira, football director Rui Costa, and coach Rui Vitória). “Benfica has not been duly respected.”

As a follow-up, the club officially boycotted the Federation’s second annual awards Gala last week, as well as the Hungary game, even though it was played at the Luz, Benfica’s home.

Sceptical columnists and pundits suggest that the motive for the press release and the club’s actions, apparently strategically-timed to coincide with the clássico, is two-fold: to put indirect pressure on the match officials, and to pre-empt a negative result, slipping a ready-made excuse of alleged surreptitious, on-going persecution up their sleeve.

Added to all this is the question of the claques (Ultras). Porto have been allocated 3,250 tickets for what will be a 65,000 sell-out. Fernando Madureira, leader of the Super Dragões, Porto’s claque, posted a photo on Facebook showing tickets for other sections of the stadium. “Owing to the great demand for tickets, and the fact that our club is only entitled to 3,250, I call on all Portistas to find other ways of getting tickets so that we can carry this invasion through!!!”

Madureira also headed up the unofficial claque of the national team for the Hungary game, which exchanged verbal abuse outside the stadium with elements of Benfica’s unofficial claque, the No Name Boys.

All in all, tensions will be high before and during Saturday’s game. Benfica are seeking the first Tetra (four titles in a row) in their history. Porto are the only club with a Penta (five in a row), but they haven’t won the title for three years and are hungry. There’s an awful lot at stake.

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


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