Sporting Clube de Portugal in crisis
It was a black Tuesday for Sporting Clube de Portugal of Lisbon, possibly the blackest day in the club’s 112-year history. Around 50 masked ‘fans’ invaded the club’s training ground unchecked and proceeded to assault players and coaching staff in the dressing room. Reports have it that hitherto highly-popular Dutch striker Bas Dost, the club’s top scorer this season with 27 league goals (34 in total), was pushed to the floor, punched and kicked, receiving injuries to his legs and head which, together with the psychological shock (“I’m speechless, empty.”), are likely to put him out of next Sunday’s Taça de Portugal Final; Colombian striker Fredy Montero was slapped; coach Jorge Jesus was head-butted. Several players have asked for help from the Players’ Union, apparently with a view to unilaterally terminating their contracts with just cause, which would be financially very damaging for the club.
Various pundits have suggested that the attack was made at the behest of club president Bruno de Carvalho, recently at loggerheads with the players and coaching staff. He denied any involvement and tried to play down the incident: “It’s annoying,” he said, adding “Crime is a part of everyday life.” The police arrested 23 of the culprits at the training ground, all reportedly members of Juve Leo, one of Sporting’s registered ultra groups, although the group itself, with 7,000 members, has denied responsibility. The public prosecutor has said that charges against the 23, when established, may include trespass, aggravated assault, abduction, possession of illegal weapons, arson and terrorism.
It was the culmination of a toxic season in Portuguese football (suspicion, verbal abuse between clubs, police investigations into cases of corruption, etc.) and a couple of months of high tension at Sporting. After the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final against Atlético Madrid (0-2), Bruno de Carvalho took to Facebook (until recently his preferred means of communication) to lay into the team, calling the players “spoilt kids” – not the first time he’d insulted them. The players tried to defend their honour with posts on social media, demanding support from the president. The president reacted angrily, calling the players’ response an act of insubordination. Coach Jorge Jesus demonstrated extraordinary and unexpected diplomatic skills to pour oil on the troubled waters.
Paradoxically, after that the team improved if anything; they narrowly failed to turn the Europa League tie around, and they kept their title hopes mathematically alive until the penultimate day. But on the last day, with FC Porto confirmed as champions, Sporting needed simply to equal Benfica’s result to clinch second place, which would have given them entry into the Champions League (3rd preliminary round). It was not to be: Benfica beat Moreirense at home, Sporting lost at Marítimo.
The team needed police protection at the airport in Madeira and when leaving the stadium in Lisbon by car later that night; a handful of fans found their way into the underground car-park at the stadium and tried to attack club captains Rui Patrício and William Carvalho. But the team slept on the major disappointment and began to prepare the run-in to Sunday’s Taça de Portugal final against Desportivo das Aves … until the training-ground incident (which is not the first of its kind in Portuguese football; there have been invasions of the training grounds of FC Porto, Benfica and Vitória de Guimarães in recent seasons, for example, but never accompanied by such violence).
Hundreds of loyal fans gathered at Alvalade Stadium on Tuesday night (a hastily-made banner declared “50 are not 3.5 million” – the estimated number of Sporting fans globally) to show solidarity with the players; they’re going to need all the support they can get in the days leading up to Sunday’s Taça final.
There were suggestions that it would be impossible for the final to be played at all because of the abnormal pressure on the Sporting players and the risk of further violence. The Minister of the Interior Isabel Oneto, called upon to take a position given the seriousness of the incident, said that it would go ahead, with reinforced security. Political figures came out on Wednesday to condemn the attacks; one of them, the president of the Assembly of the Republic, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, suggested that the final could be played behind closed doors. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared himself “vexed by the image spread around Portugal and the world.”
The chaos at Sporting was exacerbated on Wednesday with the news that the public prosecutor is investigating cases of corruption around five of this season’s games involving the club; André Geraldes, Director of Football, has been arrested.
Bruno de Carvalho is widely seen as being directly and exclusively responsible for the poisonous atmosphere at Alvalade, and pressure is rapidly growing for him to step down. He has called for an Extraordinary General Meeting of associate members of the club to discuss solutions to the crisis, but such a meeting is viewed with trepidation by many for the possibility of more violence.
(A version of this article appeared on the site of
the British alternative football magazine When Saturday Comes)