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14/11/17

Controversy - VAR and e-mails

There were those of us who hoped it might be a watershed season in Portugal – the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system was going to remove suspicion of bias, the playing fields would be levelled, there would be peace and light, and football would become the focus of attention.

Oh, we of too much faith. In fact, with a third of league games played, it’s already been one of the most controversial seasons ever, starting with the VAR itself.

While the scope of the VAR’s function has been widely misunderstood, its real and perceived failings have merely stoked conspiracy theories that the big clubs are being protected. To give just one example, it mysteriously went on the blink (never satisfactorily explained) on 66 minutes in an Aves v Benfica game, and ten minutes later Benfica scored after a clear-as-day foul by striker Jonas, not given. Far from easing the pressure on referees, the VAR has become yet another element of the refereeing mix to criticise.

Benfica have also been under intense scrutiny for alleged corruption of referees. A long-standing case involving gifts given to match officials (including vouchers that entitled each to meals-for-four at the Luz Stadium restaurant) was shelved in August, but it’s now been revealed that one of the arbitrators judging the case requested five complimentary tickets for a Benfica v Marítimo game last season, and got them.

And then there’s the question of the e-mails. Since June, FC Porto’s own TV channel Porto Canal, through the club’s Director of Communication Francisco J. Marques, has been drip-drip-dripping e-mails sent among back-room staff at Benfica and figures involved in refereeing. Although there have as yet been no revelations of direct corruption as such, the sense is at least that a cosiness exists which is far from healthy.

Marques says he received the e-mails anonymously. Benfica were naturally incensed that their systems might have been hacked and filed an injunction to stop the e-mails being aired; it was rejected in October.

On 19 October, four months after Marques had handed his e-mail file over to the police, the authorities swooped on the Luz to confiscate material to support what the Public Prosecutor’s office called “an ongoing investigation into the crimes of passive and active corruption”.

“They came at last,” said a representative of Benfica’s legal department. “Given the insinuations and suggestions made regarding the fraudulent facts practised by Benfica, we were all avidly wishing for the only means by which these accusations could be destroyed, which was what happened today.”

In an interview last week given by Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira to a benign Benfica TV, he said that “There is no corruption at Benfica, and there never will be [although here, the use of tenses didn’t appear to rule out what might have happened in the past]. What we have are six [sic] months of a crime committed against Benfica, repeated on a weekly basis [Francisco J. Marques’ revealing of the e-mails].”

He also sniped at Sporting: “Historically, whenever they have an alliance [an unwritten one with Porto], they always fall by the wayside; they’re not going to win anything [this season]”. Sporting’s Director of Communication, Nuno Saraiva, responded: “Either he’s a sorcerer or he’s trying, abusively and criminally, to define the rules of the game.” The club’s outspoken president, Bruno de Carvalho, reacted in his customary diplomatic style: “The interview I saw was given by a perfect idiot.”

This is all welcome filler for the three national daily sports newspapers – A Bola (Benfica-oriented), Record (Sporting), O Jogo (FC Porto) – and the arguably far-too-numerous TV discussion programmes (like ‘The Day After’, ‘Front Three’ and … ‘Foot Up’) involving often frenzied pundits ‘representing’ the Big Three, sadly to the exclusion of any other club.

Of course, one of the aims in creating all this noise will be to unsettle opponents in the race for the championship. Benfica, 3rd and struggling to find real form, are desperately seeking their fifth straight title to equal FC Porto’s record (1995-99). Porto, currently clear top, are desperate to prevent that happening. And Sporting, 2nd, are after their first title since 2002.

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

 

05/08/17

Preview - Liga 2017/18

The Portuguese season kicks off this weekend with the Supertaça (equivalent to the FA Community Shield) and the first full programme of league games, spread over five days. Predictably, only the Big Three have a realistic chance of winning the league title; Vitória de Guimarães and Sporting Braga, respectively fourth and fifth last season, are perhaps the teams most likely to do a Leicester, but the odds are extremely long.

Champions Benfica meet Vitória, the team they beat in the Taça de Portugal final, in the Supertaça in Aveiro on Saturday, then Braga, Vitória’s neighbours from the northern region of Minho, in the league four days later. These are two tough games for a Benfica side that has had a shaky pre-season, which included shipping five goals against Arsenal and Young Boys – perhaps not so surprising given that last season’s miserly defence (the best in the league, with just 18 goals conceded in 34 games) has been ripped apart. Keeper Ederson has gone to Manchester City, the ageing Júlio César being left to plug the gap; right back Nélson Semedo has signed for Barcelona, with no clear substitute in place; and captain Luisão’s centre-back cover Victor Lindelöf is now at Manchester United.

Benfica are aiming for their fifth straight title, something only one other club has managed: FC Porto, between 1994 (with coach Bobby Robson) and 1999 (Fernando Santos); Porto will be keen to keep that record. Unlike their arch enemies from Lisbon, they’ve had a terrific pre-season. They’re rather hamstrung in the transfer market because of UEFA fair-play rules limiting their spending, but have compensated by recalling a couple of key players: right-sided full-back/winger Ricardo Pereira from Nice, and Cameroonian striker Vincent Aboubakar from Besiktas, who has teamed up with Brazilian striker ‘Tiquinho’ Soares in what looks to be a formidable partnership. The whole squad, though, including moody but magical Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi, seem to have been given a new lease of life by the replacement for sacked coach Nuno Espírito Santo (now at Wolves), Sérgio Conceição, after his acrimonious departure from Nantes. Right now, the smart money would be on Porto to re-gain the title, but it may all depend on how many of their excellent squad they can resist selling before the transfer deadline.

It’s customary and politically correct to include the third Grande in the list of candidates for the title, but Sporting haven’t won it since 2001/02 and came third last season, 12 points behind Benfica. Internal upheavals at boardroom level haven’t helped stability, a trickle-down effect often cited as one of the reasons for recent disappointment. After some success at Benfica (three titles in six years), coach Jorge Jesus moved to their neighbours in 2015 but has only a single Supertaça to show for two years’ work. The patience of fans and belligerent president Bruno de Carvalho will surely stretch no further than this season without some kind of major trophy. It’s hard to see them breaking the habit of failure, though, especially if they’re unable to hang on to key players like keeper Rui Patrício, midfielders William and Adrien, and sprightly winger Gelson Martins, all oft-reported targets for foreign clubs. Sporting do have last season’s top scorer with 34 goals, Dutchman Bas Dost, they’ve signed forwards Seydou Doumbia of the Ivory Coast and Argentinian Marcos Acuña, and they have some of Portugal’s promising U-21 European Championship stars, notably Daniel Podence and Bruno Fernandes. But their main problem will be defence, with three goals conceded in friendly defeats against Valência, Basel and Vitória de Guimarães.

One novelty of the new season will be the introduction of VARs (Video Assistant Referees) in all top-flight matches. There are bound to be teething problems, and some decisions will undoubtedly still be controversial, but the constant whining about refereeing from all clubs should dissipate to a certain extent. Some peace in this respect is essential to eradicate suspicion on all sides; much of the early close season was taken up by a mini-scandal in which FC Porto Communications Director Francisco Marques revealed a series of leaked e-mails suggesting attempts by Benfica to exert behind-the-scenes pressure on referees. Although this story still has legs, hopefully the new transparency will mean that for a change this season, it will be the football itself attracting most of the attention.

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

 

22/05/17

The violence spreads

April was something of a mensis horribilis for Portuguese football. At the beginning of the month, a player hit an opponent in the opening minutes of a game in the promotion phase of the Porto Football Association Divisão de Elite (fourth-tier) and was shown a red card by the referee, José Rodrigues. The player didn’t go quietly, though – far from it: he grabbed Rodrigues by the neck, forced his head down and kneed him in the face. The ref abandoned the game and subsequently needed reconstructive surgery on his nose.

The team involved, Canelas 2010, have been a newsworthy item all season. They have a reputation as an extremely aggressive side – during the season proper, 12 of the 14 clubs in their division boycotted games against the team from Vila Nova de Gaia, across the River Douro from the city of Porto, citing “a climate of terror and intimidation” on and off the pitch. Their reputation also spread across borders: the Spanish football daily As called them “the most violent team in the world.” Their newsworthiness has been compounded by the team being largely made up of members of the Super Dragões, FC Porto’s official claque, or ultras.

The 34-year-old Canelas forward Marco Gonçalves, aka ‘Ears’, a high-up member of the SDs, used a sudden attack of amnesia to defend himself post-match: “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 apology didn’t get Gonçalves off the hook; he was arrested and, to their credit, the club immediately said that he would “never wear the club’s shirt again”, though by local regulations he can only be banned from the game for a maximum of four years.

It was the 43rd assault on match officials at all levels since the beginning of the season. Some saw the incident and that statistic as a result of the trickling-down of extreme inter-club tension at the very top of the game, especially between the so-called Big Three (Benfica, Porto, Sporting), with criticism of refs by club directors, coaches, columnists and TV pundits a tiresome and incendiary constant.

The footballing institutions were quick to condemn the assault. The president of the Football Federation, Fernando Gomes, said: “The Federation laments and repudiates this assault in the strongest possible terms.” (One social media poster pointed out the faint hypocrisy of that position, however: the FPF employ as a director João Pinto, guilty of punching Argentinian referee Angel Sanchez in the gut during the defeat to South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.)

Meanwhile, the president of the Players Union, Joaquim Evangelista, said: “It’s important that the football family begins to set an example.”

All very fine words, but while there have been no major incidents involving match officials since the Canelas 2010 one, little has changed in terms of verbal restraint. Club presidents have continued their petty point-scoring, and most Big-Three-affiliated TV pundits have barely broken their stride. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that the claques felt empowered to sink to new levels of bad taste mid-month, taking advantage of clássicos in other sports to get their digs in.

In a handball match between FC Porto and Benfica, the Super Dragões were chanting “How I wish the Chapecoense plane had been Benfica’s!” Three days later, in another handball match between Benfica and Sporting, the Benfica ultras sang: “It was in the National Stadium that the lizard [derogatory term for a Sporting fan] burned, in the Cup Final the Very light fucked him up,” accompanied by a whizzing noise. (In the 1996 Final, a Sporting fan was hit in the chest and killed by a Very light fired by a Benfica supporter.) The next day, Sporting ultras hit back with “Whereabouts is Eusébio?!” (who died in 2014) at a Futsal game between the two clubs.

It all came to a head on the eve of the Sporting v Benfica football clássico on 22 April, and this time it was more than an exchange of words. Fans of the two clubs arranged a rumble by SMS for the early hours of the morning and it left an Italian Sporting fan dead, knocked down by a car allegedly driven by a Benfica fan. Benfica supporters failed to respect the one-minute’s silence for the fan before the game the next day.

The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, thought it time to weigh in: “It doesn’t make sense. Sport is a school of civility; it can’t be a stage for sterile fighting.”

Fine words again. But once this season is out of the way, action needs to be speaking louder.

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

 

04/04/17

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.”

 

01/04/17

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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