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19/10/07

After some shaky performances and compromising results, Portugal are back on the right track to Euro 2008 qualification. A potentially uncomfortable double-header in the far eastern reaches of Europe … more accurately Asia, in fact … became a turn around for the Selecção's fortunes this week. They had had trouble on their travels thus far: there was a defeat in Poland, with points dropped in Finland and Serbia (both more or less acceptable) and, of all places, Armenia. That last result (1-1) was a salutary lesson before these latest qualifiers: the game's not won till it's won. Fortunately for Portuguese aspirations, the Armenia hiccup was not … er … repeated this time.

First up were Azerbaijan, and a Portugal in cruise mode in the first half wrapped it up before the break, FC Porto central defender Bruno Alves and Werder Bremen striker Hugo Almeida getting their first goals for the Selecção. Almeida started after Benfica's injury-prone striker Nuno Gomes tore a thigh-muscle during the warm-up. Gomes' former club colleague Simão Sabrosa, now at Atlético Madrid, travelled east injured and took part in neither game. "Are you happy you came with us?" a member of the coaching staff asks him in a captioned photo in the sports daily Record. "Very", he replies. "I've always wanted to visit Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, ever since I was a kid."

National coach Luíz Felipe Scolari was absent from the bench for both games after being banned for aiming a punch at Serbia's Dragutinovic in the recent qualifier. In his place was diminutive assistant Flávio Teixeira, and doubts about his decision-making capabilities dissolved in the second game.

If Portugal had started well and faded in Azerbaijan, the opposite was true in Kazakhstan. A lacklustre first hour was forgotten with the dynamising entry of subs Makukula of Marítimo and Nani of Manchester United, the former getting the first goal, the latter making the second for club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo. Byakov pulled one back for Kazakhstan in the dying seconds.

Aziza Makukula, an emergency call-up after the Nuno Gomes injury, was making his début in the senior team (in Stuttgart defender Fernando Meira's boots after his luggage had been lost on the trip east); he had previously represented Portugal at all levels from U-15 to U-21. Born in Kinshasa, RD Congo, 26 years ago, he came to Portugal with his parents in 1988. The 1m 92 Sevilla striker spent the 2005-06 season on the treatment table with a leg injury, spent last season on loan to Spanish side Gimnástic, and is now on loan to Marítimo, where he's scored four goals so far in the Madeiran club's bright start. Being back in Portugal, and scoring this vital goal, should surely put him in the front of Scolari's mind for the upcoming qualifiers, especially given Portugal's current dearth of class strikers … although Record's reference to him as the new Pantera Negra ('Black Panther' – Eusébio's nickname) is more than a little generous.

The wins put Portugal one point behind Poland at the top of Group A and three ahead of Serbia and Finland with just two games remaining: Armenia and Finland, both at home. An Internet poll for Record showed that 95% of Portuguese now believe the team can qualify. As Rui Costa told the same newspaper: "It would be Portugal's fourth European Championship in a row, and if in 1996 it was unusual to see Portugal there, now it would be unusual not to see them there."

15/10/07

Once the natural incredulity at 'the best coach in the world' being, shall we say, removed from office had passed, the Portuguese press and the povo's interest shifted promptly to what really mattered: the dosh involved. "Mourinho gets 24 million euros" trumpeted sports daily A Bola. "26 million to keep quiet" reckoned O Jogo. "Filthy rich" blared Record, trumping its rivals with 30 million. Weekly magazine Sábado thought it had the right figure: "25 million … less tax". "Mourinho has shown that he's number one on and off the field … even at getting compensation," jested Benfica coach José António Camacho. Sábado had a graphic showing the rise and rise of Mourinho's income over the years, starting in 1978 with the 500 escudos (two and a half euros) he would get from writing reports on opponents for his dad, a goalkeeper with Vitória de Setúbal, and ending with the 7.5 million euros a year he was getting from Chelsea.

The excitement at the prospect of all that lolly having subsided somewhat, the focus turned to where Mourinho would now be heading. His departure from Stamford Bridge coincided neatly with the fall-out from national team coach Luíz Felipe Scolari's mean left hook to Serbian defender Dragutinovic during the 1-1 draw in the recent Euro 2008 qualifier. That incident and Portugal's disappointing results in the group had pundits calling for Scolari's blood and the transfusion of Mourinho's. The FPF (Portuguese Football Federation) convened an 'emergency' meeting, but only for almost a week later, possibly to see how the Mourinho situation would pan out. He has always said that he would be interested in the job towards the end of his career, but he soon quashed all speculation about any appointment at this time. "I don't want to work in Portugal, neither at clubs nor with the Selecção," he said. "Portugal are going to qualify with ease and have a great Euro … and they're going to do it with Scolari, who's done great things and will continue to do so." The FPF had their meeting and backed Scolari in his appeal against UEFA's four-match ban.

So where else could Mourinho go? Weekly magazine Focus asked the question: "Should they be afraid?", 'they' being Ranieri, Schuster, Mancini and Rijkaard. Milan's Carlo Ancelotti volunteered himself to that group: "Even if I'm careful, Mourinho's a floating mine," he said. "I want a team with pressure, a real challenge, if not there's no fun. And everyone knows that Italy and Spain are places I want to go," Mourinho has said.

Notwithstanding the inevitable speculation, his self-imposed blackout will keep his final destination under wraps for the foreseeable future, though. Before the blackout, the Portuguese were hopeful of some under-the radar nuggets from Mourinho, sworn to silence by the terms of his compensation package. Indeed, in an interview with State TV channel RTP, he launched a sly mortar bomb: "When I said goodbye to the players, 23 of them were crying." But Mourinho is a man of his word, and meaty sound-bites, the Special One's speciality, have all but dried up. He couldn't avoid the scrum of reporters that met him at the airport on his return to Portugal, though, and loath to appear ungracious, he had a brief impromptu chat with them (which caused former PM Santana Lopes to walk out of an interview with TV channel SIC when they cut to the airport scenes). What he said was generally unrevealing, but we did find out that to avoid rumours of his joining one of the Portuguese Big Three (FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting) he wouldn't be going to any stadiums, apart from possibly that of his home-town club Vitória de Setúbal, and that it is indeed Tami who wears the trousers in his house.

Mourinho sells, though, and in the absence of newsworthy snippets, magazines and newspapers are tripping over themselves to put out features. Focus devoted ten pages to him: "Controversial? So what?" it began, finishing with a flourish. "He came, he saw, he conquered." Its suggestion that "English football will forever be divided into the pre- and post-Mourinho periods" was perhaps tainted with a little hyperbole, but that he had a profound effect on the English game was a source of generalised pride here. Carlos de Abreu Amori, writing in the national daily Correio da Manhã, likened him to some of the greatest figures in Portugal's rich history: "The Portuguese who is proud of himself and doesn't hide it."

Meanwhile, Zé Mário, as he is affectionately known locally, has returned to his luxury house in Setúbal, (with a sauna, a view of the Arrábida hills and a gang of expectant reporters camped out at his gate) to watch footy on the telly, go fishing and await the next phase of an already remarkable career.

(This article appeared in the October issue of When Saturday Comes)

10/10/07

1939/40. That was the last time FC Porto had a better start to the season, with 13 straight wins under Hungarian coach Mihály Siska. So far this time it's seven, and it's difficult to see where the first defeat will come from, such is the team's solid assuredness (just one goal conceded). At least one punter got 80/1 from the English bookies recently for them to win the Champions League – a good outside bet, perhaps.

Across the city at neighbours Boavista. things aren't looking so rosy. They've had an awful start to the season after getting a big broom to the squad in the summer. They managed to treble their goals scored at the weekend … to three … but still went down 2-4 at home to useful Belenenses. The card-carrying sócios had had enough, and so had club president João Loureiro; he resigned on Tuesday, with two months of his mandate still to run. Loureiro, who took over the reins of the club from his father Valentim in 1997, won a Taça de Portugal in his first season and oversaw the club's greatest ever feat in 2000/01, winning the Liga title. Since then, though, it's been downhill all the way and the team are currently second from bottom without a single win. For the time being, coach Jaime Pacheco holds on (Loureiro said it was up to him and his conscience whether he stays or not), but it will surely be just a matter of time.

Belenenses were one of the Portuguese sides involved in Europe last week, all of them except FC Porto seeking to expunge poor results in the first legs of their ties. The Blues of Restelo fought with dignity but went out of the UEFA Cup to Goliath Bayern Munich. Also out are União de Leiria and Paços de Ferreira, but both acquitted themselves well against Bayer Leverkusen and AZ Alkmaar, respectively. Sporting Braga had perhaps the easiest task against Swedish side Hammarby and, sure enough, are the only Portuguese team through to the UEFA Cup group stage (where they meet Bayern, Red Star, Bolton and Aris Salónika). But they will have to improve on their Liga form if they are to make an impression. In the Champions League, Porto and Sporting both won, but Benfica have no points from their two games after going down 0-1 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk.

On the international front, national team coach Luís Felipe Scolari saw his appeal against a four-game ban for 'hitting' ("I didn't harm a hair on his head") Serbian player Dragutinovic in the recent Euro 2008 qualifier changed to three months. This conveniently allows him to be in the dug-out for the last, possibly vital qualifying game against Finland. Strangely enough (or not), Portuguese Football Federation president Gilberto Madaíl is on the UEFA Executive Committee. Meanwhile, Portugal are in Eastern Europe for the upcoming qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. It's just this kind of uncomfortable trip that Portugal's stars don't relish, but these are must-win games and no excuses will be accepted.

Finally, who's currently the best Portuguese coach in action? That'll be José Manuel. Who? you may ask. Well, he's just qualified Egyptian side Al-Ahly for their third consecutive African Champions Final, against Tunisian side Étoile du Sahel, to be played over two legs at the end of the month. Al-Ahly won the last two Cups, under Manuel. The Portuguese veteran was mooted for the Portugal National team before Scolari but was not appointed, reportedly through pressure from the players. One club that would certainly welcome him back is Boavista, where he was in charge from 1991-96, but the chances of that happening are as remote as the Axedrezados winning the title this season. And pigs flying.

02/10/07

FC Porto appear to be sailing away with the Portuguese Liga, even at this early stage. They've won all of their six games, conceding just one goal in the process. The latest victims were neighbours Boavista (2-0) who, although slightly improved from recent dismal performances, were no match for Porto's ruthlessness and the Liga's top scorer, the Argentinian Lisandro López, who netted both goals to bring his tally to six.

It was a weekend of derbies. In the Lisbon clássico, Benfica and Sporting ground out a 0-0 draw, a result that only benefited arch rivals Porto, leaving the Lisbon clubs eight and seven points behind, respectively. The game was marked by a series of controversial refereeing decisions, par for the course so far in the young Liga season.

There was another one in the northern derby between Vitória de Guimarães and Sporting Braga. Early in the second half, Geromel headed goalwards from a corner and it looked like Andrés Madrid had cleared off the line, but a goal was given. The result puts pressure on Braga coach Jorge Costa, the former Porto captain, who will be looking over his shoulder after a disappointing start. Vitória, on the other hand, are having a whale of a time; they have just returned to the top flight and currently lie third. If they keep up their momentum, they will be one of the surprise teams of the Liga. The other one at the moment is Madeiran side Marítimo, led by former Brazil coach Sebastião Lazaroni, who are second, despite only drawing 1-1 at Estrela da Amadora.

Last week saw the first appearance of the top teams in this year's new competition, the Carlsberg Cup (Taça da Liga), which only involves teams from the top two divisions. The Big Three saw it as a chance to rest some key players, and that decision came back and hit FC Porto on the nose. In any given tie in the first three rounds, the team that finished lower in the league last season played at home, which meant that Porto had to travel to minnows Fátima, newly promoted to the Liga de Honra. Fátima ran Porto ragged at times and got their just reward by killing the giants on penalties after the game had finished goalless (cue a wave of 'Miracle in Fátima'-style headlines). Fátima have been drawn at Sporting in the next round.

Sporting also needed penalties to see off Vitória de Guimarães, as did Benfica at Estrela da Amadora … but they did benefit from an invented one during normal time to equalise and take the game to a shoot-out. Those mysterious refereeing decisions, once again …

This week, Portugal's European representatives (FC Porto, Sporting and Benfica in the Champions League, Sporting Braga, Belenenses, Paços de Ferreira and União de Leiria in the UEFA Cup) return to duty. They will hope to improve on a disastrous series of results two weeks ago: out of seven games, six were lost, with just Porto getting a point from their home draw against Liverpool.

(This article appeared on the international football website Extra Football)

 

28/08/07

José António Camacho was confirmed as Benfica coach last week, taking over from sacked Fernando Santos. The importance the club has in Portuguese society was reflected in the blanket television coverage of Camacho's arrival at Tires aerodrome. Then sports daily O Jogo made the fascinating news that "Camacho demands shin guards in training!" its main front page story the next day. That first training session further illustrated the phenomenon that is Benfica: four thousand fans packed into the training ground in Seixal, south of the River Tagus, with many more locked out. In contrast, neither União de Leiria v Boavista nor Naval v Belenenses, opening games of the Liga, could attract more than 1,500 each, the former match played out in a (now) 25,000-capacity stadium purpose built for Euro 2004.

Camacho's decision to open up the first training session to the public served to stoke the sudden euphoria emanating from the Luz after a miserable start to the season. The club naughtily tried to cash in by limiting entry on the second day to fans wearing the official shirt, but even this flagrant bit of profiteering did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm . Indeed, there were over 50,000 at the Luz on Saturday for the visit of Vitória de Guimarães, although the enthusiasm did not carry much further than kick off, Benfica once again showing that the quality of the squad is painfully limited. It's true that a junior, Hugo Vítor, had to be drafted into the back four alongside stop-gap Katsouranis after David Luís had broken a toe in training, but that doesn't excuse the lack of ideas going forward.

As Camacho said after the 0-0 draw, which gives Benfica just two points from a possible six: "There's a lot of work to do." They'll have to do it before the vital second leg of the Champions League qualifying round against FC Copenhagen on Wednesday. Benfica travel to Denmark 2-1 up, but that away goal could be a killer.

The first Liga 'clássico' of the season saw FC Porto get revenge for the Supertaça defeat at the hands of Sporting and by the same score, 1-0. The goal generated some controversy, as is to be expected at any 'clássico': Sporting central defender Anderson Polga prodded the ball off Porto striker Hélder Postiga's toe, it rolled towards the goal, Polga's team-mate Tonel stepped over it and Serbian goalkeeper Stojkovic picked it up on the six-yard box. The referee considered it a back-pass and blew for an indirect free-kick, from which Raul Meireles crashed the ball home.

Porto are, unsurprisingly, top, but what is surprising perhaps is that they share the lead with Marítimo of Madeira, looking a very organised outfit under former Brazil coach Sebastião Lazaroni . Two goals from diminutive Brazilian striker Kanu were enough to beat Boavista, still looking like a team of strangers. They have not managed a single goal after three official games (two in the Liga, one in the Taça da Liga), although they did have two reasonable penalty claims turned down against Marítimo.

As for the national side, it seems that the traditional calculator will have to be dusted off once again to work out the permutations for qualification for Euro 2008 after another two points were dropped, this time in Armenia; only a brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo equaliser saved Portugal even deeper blushes. The pitch was atrocious, but that doesn't explain the lack of fire in Portugal's play. A Equipa das Quinas are four and two points behind Poland and Finland, respectively, in Group A. Portugal's next two games are at home, but they're against direct rivals Poland and Serbia. As coach Luís Felipe Scolari said: "This result complicates matters because we have a small margin for error from now on."

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

21/08/07

The chicotada psicológica is a tactic well liked by club presidents in Portugal: results aren't going so well, so sack the coach and appoint a new one (giving the squad said 'psychological whipping'). This normally happens with low-profile clubs after half a dozen games. Famously it happened at FC Porto before a ball had been kicked in earnest in August 2004, post-Mourinho Luigi del Neri given no time to warm the dug-out seat. This season it's another Grande that's jumped the gun: Benfica have sacked their coach.

Fernando Santos was never a very popular figure at the Luz; a confessed Benfica fan, his main crime was seen as having coached Sporting and, more poisonously for Benfiquistas, FC Porto to the fifth title of their probably never again attainable, by any club, Penta (five league titles in a row) in the late 90s.

Benfica had played just two official games before Santos was shown the door. Midweek, the side put in a pale performance against a useful FC Copenhagen at the Luz in the first leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League and were 'saved' by two moments of inspiration from oldster Rui Costa, although the result gives no guarantees for the final outcome of the tie. An ominous sign for Santos was the whistling from the crowd before half-time.

Then in the first Liga game of the season, another weedy display against newcomers Leixões (back in the top flight for the first time in 18 years) ending in a 1-1 draw. Benfica had gone in front a minute from time; Fernando Santos, never one (perhaps unwisely for him) to hide his feelings, was seen crossing himself after Petit's (unique) header went in, confirming perhaps that his tactics were based more on a wing and a prayer than on wingers and play-makers. You could have put money on Benfica not holding the lead going into added time, and sure enough, defensive disarray let in Nigerian midfielder Udochukwo Nwoko for the equaliser in the dying seconds.

The Benfica president, Luís Filipe Vieira, should perhaps have let Santos go at the end of a season that saw them winning no trophy and finishing third in the Liga, giving them the chore of qualifying for the Champions League Group Stage. But the 'Engineer' was kept on, and if the truth be told, his already fragile position with Benfica fans was exacerbated by the club's close-season transfer strategy … or lack of it.

Key player and captain Simão Sabrosa got his wish (at the third time of asking) to leave the club on a lucrative contract (God, how they miss him!), diminutive Italian striker and crowd favourite Fabrízio Miccoli was not considered important enough to hold on to, and on the eve of the Copenhagen game, with his name already on the team sheet in bold black biro, Manuel Fernandes fled the coop to return to the relative sanity of Everton. In their place, Santos was left with the undoubted quality of Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo but the dubious value of (admittedly battling) Argentinian striker Ruben Bergessio, American Freddy Adu, looking all of his 18 years in his début against Copenhagen, and Argentinian Angel di Maria , who arrived injured and has yet to line up.

Add to this injuries to central defenders Luisão and Zoro, meaning that in the absence of other solutions, Greek midfielder Katsouranis has had to fall back to the centre of defence, and we can see that Benfica's season plan appears to have been scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. But nudging the wobbling Fernando Santos into a topple, Luís Filipe Vieira insisted that any coach would be delighted to work with the squad that Santos had at his disposal. Santos said that he was surprised at what had happened; he was the only one in Portugal.

Meanwhile, Vieira nipped over to Spain to secure the services of Spanish coach José António Camacho, well-liked by Benfiquistas and returning to the Luz after a relatively successful spell between 2002 and 2004. He will be Benfica's eighth coach under Vieira, who became president in November 2003.

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

15/08/07

'The Best in Europe' trumpeted Record's front page banner headline Monday: it's Sporting, apparently, who, along with Dynamo Zagreb, have not yet lost a single official game this year (25 in total). This is bare-faced hype, of course, but the three national sports papers published daily (the others are 'A Bola' and 'O Jogo') often have to bend over backwards to find an angle that will shift copies.

The photo accompanying Record's bold assertion was of newcomer Izmailov turning away after scoring Sporting's winner (an excellent swerving drive from outside the area) against FC Porto in the 29th Supertaça (de Cândido de Oliveira, a former national team coach and journalist). This is the football season's annual curtain raiser that pits the previous season's Liga Champions (this time FC Porto) against the winners of the Taça de Portugal (Sporting). The Supertaça is actually a fair reflection of FC Porto's hegemony over Portuguese football in recent years: they've won 15, Sporting six, Benfica four, Boavista three and Vitória de Guimarães one.

Like last weekend's Clássico between Sporting and Benfica for the Guadiana Tournament, the game was a poor advertisement for the coming season, with heart too often ruling head and the top players (Quaresma for Porto, Liedson for Sporting) firing squibs. It was also an opportunity for Porto coach Jesualdo Ferreira to get in the first moan of the season against the referee, for an alleged penalty not given Porto's way. There'll be a lot more whingeing to come, and not just from the Dragões.

Boavista coach Jaime Pacheco was also flexing his muscles on the referee-criticising front after his side went down 1-0 at Beira-Mar of the Liga de Honra (second tier) in the second round of the Taça de Liga. Boavista midfielder Diakité was (justifiably, as it happens) sent off with a direct red early in the second half, seriously prejudicing the team's performance. But their performances are still ragged affairs; former Stoke City (English Championship) striker Sambégou Bangourade of Guinea-Conacri, presented Monday, was the club's 17th (!) signing of the season. At this rate, it will take two or three seasons for the players to get to know each other …

The Taça da Liga, sponsored by Carlsberg, is in theory a good idea. It involves only the 32 clubs from the top two divisions; the first round is between clubs from the Liga de Honra; the second round includes clubs from the bottom half of last season's Liga; and the third round brings in the top teams. The club placed lower in last season's standings always plays at home. It's provided the Liga de Honra and the more modest Liga sides with good, competitive warm-up games … but it remains to be seen how the top teams react to having what may be an unwelcome competition on their calendars come mid-winter, when the Liga and Europe are uppermost in their minds.

One thing the Taça da Liga has not been so far is a particular hit with the public. Apart from games involving Leixões and Vitória de Guimarães, whose fans are notoriously fanatical, the competition has been played out before almost empty stadiums, the beach with apparently a more enticing siren call than the pitch. But this is no news in Portugal, where viewing from a bar or the sofa seems generally to be preferred to an expensive (by local standards) trip to the stadium. Paços de Ferreira, who have qualified for Europe for the first time in their history, staged a presentation game at the weekend against Sparta Rotterdam (2-1) … in front of just 200 spectators.

Meanwhile, all in Portuguese football look on in envy at the attendances and atmosphere generated by the game in England and Spain, given blanket coverage on the nationwide cable channel SportTv. And they look on, and on, and on …

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

09/08/07

FC Porto had a very successful Rotterdam Tournament, beating the Chinese side Shenhua 3-0 and benefiting from Feyenoord's 1-1 draw with Liverpool. The Brazilian newcomer Leandro Lima scored two and, going on his performances so far, really looks the business. The bucket of cold water over the team's minor triumph came on the flight back to Portugal: it was diverted to Lisbon because national carrier TAP needed the plane to be in the capital for an outbound flight to Paris. Porto's players, coaching staff and directors were shifted to another plane which was found to have too few seats. There were words and, after the police were called, the General Director of Football at the club, Antero Henriques, was asked to get off. The Porto group followed suit in solidarity and made their way north and home by coach. TAP subsequently offered a thousand apologies but too late; Porto said they would not be using the airline again.

Benfica won the Guadiana Tournament, played out in the Algarve, beating Sporting 1-0 in the final game and lifting what appeared to be a full-scale replica of the Guadiana Bridge as a trophy. It was the first Clássico of the season but had little of a 'clássico' about it, the players apparently deciding that it would be a better idea to hack bits out of each other rather than produce football that would whet fans' appetites for the coming season. Benfica's goal came from a thunderous header by Brazilian central defender David Luíz, consistently revealing a maturity beyond his 20 years.

The other club involved in the three-way tournament was Real Bétis, who came second. Bétis had ex-Sporting man Ricardo between the sticks, but it seems that he will not be missed: Sporting's new 'keeper, the Serbian Stojkovic, has been exuding safety, something that Ricardo, despite his international reputation, could never quite manage.

Off the field, the dire state of most Portuguese clubs' finances was illustrated by two cases: Sporting Braga are claiming from Boavista a 269,000-euro instalment for the transfer of Brazilian striker Elpídeo Silva, dating back from the 2000/01 season, and Estrela da Amadora have been told to pay 300,000 euros in unpaid salaries and bonuses to former players and staff. Club president António Oliveira said that the debt can be paid off "by the end of the year".

Less than two months of Benfica striker Nuno Gomes' salary would get Estrela or Boavista out of their immediate difficulties. The Portuguese international returned to full training this week after injury, possibly motivated by knowing that he tops the ongoing poll for sexiest Portuguese man being run by national daily newspaper Correio da Manhã. Among actors, models and other Portuguese celebrities, Nuno currently has 42% of the vote, José Mourinho 4%, Cristiano Ronaldo 3%, former FC Porto 'keeper Vítor Baía 2% and Luís Figo 1.5%.

'Sexy' would not be a word immediately associated with the relationship between FC Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa and his former partner Carolina Salgado. The latter's book 'I Carolina', published at the beginning of the year, breathed new life into the so-called 'Golden Whistle' investigation into the bribing of referees, which is going through the pre-trial phase and targets, among others, Pinto da Costa himself. The book is currently being turned into a film, 'Corruption', with João Botelho as director. This week saw the shooting of the scene that depicts the first time Pinto da Costa and Carolina spent the night together, in Santiago de Compostela. The film is set to be the most popular in the history of Portuguese cinema.

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

 

31/07/07

Benfica coach Fernando Santos had said that it would be a "terrible nightmare" if Simão Sabrosa left the club, so he must now be having some sweaty nights after the diminutive winger was sold to Atlético Madrid for 20 million euros, plus first dibs on two Atlético players for the Águias. Simão said that Benfica will always be in his heart, but if the truth be told, he's been trying to leave the club for at least two seasons, first Liverpool and then Valência being favourites to sign him. Once again, it's dosh that does the talking; Simão will earn twice what he was getting at Benfica. The crunch catalyst for him actually moving now, however, may well have been his own personal nightmare: the prospect of having to wear Benfica's shocking new pink away strip every other week …

Simão joined Benfica in 2001 from Barcelona after learning his trade with Lisbon rivals Sporting, and he's been very good value. He cost 12 million euros, and in his 113 Liga games he scored 75 goals, 94 in all competitions, although the majority of them were from free-kicks or penalties. He was voted Player of the Year 2006/07 by the Liga coaches, and his influence, or lack of it, was immediately felt in Benfica's lame performance at the weekend against African giants Al-Ahly; Benfica went down 1-2 against the side coached by the former Luz-man Manuel José. The Pinks' goal was scored by Nuno Assis in his first game back after suspension for doping, but he isn't a strong enough player to kill the saudades Benfiquistas will be feeling for Simão this season. Nor will the latest signings, American Freddy Adu and Argentinian Angel di Maria, be likely to fill the experienced former captain's boots; they are after all only 19.

The sale of Simão has made it possible for Benfica to more than balance the books for the summer. Sports daily O Jogo reported that the club has taken 23 million euros from sales with an outlay of 17.5 (including 9 for Paraguayan Óscar Cardozo). Rivals for the title Sporting and FC Porto have done even better. Sporting have spent 6.5 million for, among others, Vukcevic from Lokomotiv and Purovic from Red Star, and have taken 29 million, Nani (Manchester United 25.5) and Ricardo (Bétis, 2) the main money-makers. But FC Porto are the champions so far in terms of cash rolling in: Anderson (Manchester United, 31.5) and Pepe (Real Madrid, 30) have helped swell takings to 69 million, while just 13 million has left the coffers, Ernesto Farias (River Plate, 4) and Stepanov (Trabzonspor, 3.5) costing the most.

However relatively little the Big Three have spent on reinforcements, in contrast, two of the clubs that might be the most likely to challenge for the top spots, Sporting Braga and Vitória de Guimarães, have spent next to nothing: Braga have recruited 11 players on a free transfer and one on loan. Vitória have signed 11 on frees and two on loan. Such is the financial logic of the Portuguese Liga.

Sporting Braga had a good pre-season run in Holland, winning six out of six, but then returned home to be beaten 0-1 by local rivals Gil Vicente of the Liga de Honra (second tier). It was FC Porto that showed the best form of the week. In a triangular tournament to celebrate Italian side Atalanta's 100th anniversary, Os Dragões beat first Red Star 1-0 (with a spectacular overhead kick by Adriano) and then the hosts by the same score (Lisandro López). The common factor to both games? Deadly crosses from Ricardo Quaresma. Porto then made the short trip across town to comfortably beat Boavista 3-0 in front of just 3,000 at the 30,000-seater Bessa, the goals coming from Tarik (2) and Hélder Postiga, both seemingly on their way out of the Dragão. Boavista, with grave financial difficulties, have signed some promising new players on the cheap, but it will take time for them to get working together as a team. A disappointing Sporting could only draw 1-1 at home to Spanish side Recreativo de Huelva in the official presentation of the squad to the fans. Paraguayan midfielder Carlos Paredes got Sporting's goal and failed to celebrate it; a piece of body language revealing that he is less than happy at the club, perhaps?

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

25/07/07

Things are beginning to warm up in Portugal. All of the Big Three had challenging friendlies at the weekend, and all came out of them positively.

Champions FC Porto replayed their 2004 Champions League Final against AS Monaco at the Dragão and once again won, this time 2-1. Argentinian forward Lisandro López headed the first from a Quaresma free-kick, and Quaresma won a penalty in the second half for Hélder Postiga, on Spanish club Levante's shopping list at four million euros, to bang home the spot-kick. Pino pulled one back for Monaco ten minutes from time. Porto's starting line up was made up entirely of players that have carried over from last season, except for Nuno in goal, who returns to the Dragão from Moscow Dynamo. Of the newcomers who came on in the second half, Argentinian Mário Bolatti arguably looked the sharpest … but it is of course early days.

Two more factors were common to that night of glory three years ago: inspirational captain Pedro Emanuel returned after a season out through injury (the captain's armband was passed on to Ricardo Quaresma when Pedro Emanuel was substituted in the second half) and the team returned to the strip that features thinner-than-normal blue and white stripes. It's to be seen whether this is a positive augury or not.

Against Lille at Alvalade XXI, Sporting changed their strip from midweek, when black numbers on a dark green panel made the players as anonymous as their performance in a friendly against useful-looking, newly-promoted Vitória de Guimarães. That game, for the City of Albufeira Trophy, finished 0-0 and went to penalties, which Vitória won 5-4. On Saturday, Sporting looked much sharper against Lille on a new pitch, laid after the recent Rolling Stones concert at the stadium. It cut up very badly, but it didn't stop Sporting winning comfortably 3-0. Sporting fans have a favourite slogan: "Liedson Resolve". Once again, the diminutive Brazilian striker did most of the resolving with two goals, the other coming from new signing Vukcevic. Of the new faces, Brazilian central defender Gladstone was perhaps the most impressive.

Benfica travelled to Romania to be guests at Cluj's 100th anniversary. It proved a good tough test for the pinks (Benfica were wearing their controversial but oddly very popular new pink and grey away strip) against a club that has been raiding the Portuguese Liga in the last couple of seasons, fielding nine Portuguese players plus a couple of Brazilians nicked from Portuguese clubs. Of most interest to Benfiquistas was the performance of record foreign signing, the Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo. He didn't disappoint, showing some very promising touches and scoring with a cracking shot from 20 metres to add to Rui Costa's drilled goal that was reminiscent of the one he scored against England at Euro 2004. Dani had put Cluj in front, and the Romanian birthday-boys later equalised through Semedo; it's a mystery how this excellent former Estrela da Amadora forward didn't make more of a name for himself in Portugal, but such is footballing fate.

Given that none of these matches was strictly speaking competitive, perhaps the most exciting game of the weekend was a World Final in which Brazil beat Portugal 5-2, Portugal running their eternal rivals very close until they wilted in the third period. It was Brazil's tenth title from twelve (Portugal and the USA have won one each). Played at Portimão in the Algarve. On the Praia da Rocha. The 12th Mundialito of Beach Football.

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

22/07/07

Apito Dourado ('Golden Whistle') is the code name for an ongoing investigation by the Judicial Police (JP) of corruption in Portuguese football. The investigation has its roots in the 2003/04 season, when widespread phone-tapping was conducted by the JP, following up on tip-offs from as yet anonymous sources. There has always been a vague notion of a 'System' in the Portuguese game, with, depending on your allegiance, Benfica and FC Porto at the forefront of suspicions, but Apito Dourado is effectively skewering actual protagonists left right and centre.

In a first wave, club presidents, league and federation representatives, local politicians, agents, lawyers, and referees and refereeing council officials were implicated. But little by little, inevitably, even methodically, the various cases under investigation were being shelved, prompting cries of 'foul play' from the more attentive.

In December of last year, however, a book was published that would pump new lifeblood into the scandal: Eu Carolina was the account, by Carolina Salgado, of her six years as wife to Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, president of FC Porto.

Carolina had met Pinto da Costa in 2000 at a Porto bar of dubious repute, Calor da Noite ('Heat of the Night') in which she was working, their first dance Sting's 'Brand New Day'. "Love has a cruel and bitter way" went the song, auguring far from well for the Porto president.

Carolina's kiss-and-tell book and the various accusations she spat out at her now-ex (despite the dedication: "To Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, for all he taught me.") revived the investigation, indeed, became the backbone of its second wave.

On the basis of the book, the Public Prosecutor's Office put Maria José Morgado, a kind of Margaret Thatcher/Red Adair hybrid, in charge of proceedings. Files started flying off the shelves, and to date, Pinto da Costa has been charged on three counts of active corruption of referees, all of games in Mourinho's triumphant 2003-04 season, in which Porto won the Champions League and the domestic Liga title by 12 clear points from Benfica.

There was a 0-0 draw at Beira-Mar and a 3-2 win for Nacional over Benfica (with the Nacional president Rui Alves also implicated), both games refereed by an alleged favourite of Pinto da Costa, Augusto Duarte (Carolina describes how Pinto da Costa gave him "a thick envelope").

But the most sensational accusation of the three was that Pinto da Costa bribed the referee of FC Porto's 2-0 win over eventual 'red lantern' Estrela da Amadora, who finished up with a lame 17 points from their 34 games. "They [the rather aptly named Jacinto Paixão and his match officials] called to ask for fruit tonight. Can I take it to them?" intermediary António Araújo asks Pinto da Costa on one of the tapped phone calls. The 'fruit' was allegedly code for three Brazilian prostitutes. They subsequently gave evidence to the Public Prosecutor and then returned to Brazil.

Pinto da Costa's problems do not stop at accusations of bribery, though. Like something out of a Sopranos episode, Carolina Salgado has also fingered her former husband for a hit job, outside the scope of Apito Dourado but riding the same onda. She alleges that in early 2005, the Porto president asked her to arrange for Ricardo Bexiga, a local councillor who was apparently a witness to Pinto da Costa's corrupt practices, to be duffed up. "Jorge asked me to make contacts, I did, the job was done and I paid them," she told TSF Radio. Bexiga escaped with a broken arm, but, as Salgado told TSF, it was meant to go further. She claimed that Pinto da Costa's attorney, Lourenço Pinto, had called and told her: "Congratulations, darling … but he's still talking". Pinto da Costa faces between ten and 25 years in prison if this latter charge is proved.

There is grudging respect in non-portista Portugal for a man who, in 25 years as FC Porto president, has turned what was a provincial club round to be champions of Europe twice while eclipsing nearest rivals Benfica to the tune of 15 domestic titles to seven. But diehard non-portistas are rubbing their hands at these developments; they dislike Pinto da Costa for his arrogance, regionalism and, most importantly, power in the game. He is not nicknamed O Papa ('The Pope') for nothing, after all.

He is currently the Apito Dourado suspect providing most satisfaction to the media sharks in their feeding frenzy, but the other protagonists are simmering nicely away on the back burner, including 39 referees, the former Liga president Valentim Loureiro, other Liga and Federation officials and various club presidents.

Meanwhile, O Papa awaits his fate. "I have faith in the justice of the courts and divine justice", he said recently. If the notoriously sloth-like Portuguese legal system can get its collective finger out, and under the whirlwind that is Maria José Morgado it seems more than ever possible, we may see the former run its course soon enough.

(This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of When Saturday Comes)

15/07/07

It was quite an eventful week in Portuguese football.

On the transfer front, Selecção 'keeper Ricardo (he of the no-gloves save that put England out of Euro 2004), who seemed to be a (Sporting) club man if ever there was one, fled the Lions' den for Spanish club Real Bétis, proof perhaps, if any was needed, that dollar signs are nowadays a more powerful motivation than any club badge. FC Porto, gorged on cash from the sale of Anderson and Pepe, said that their 'Harry Potter' winger Ricardo Quaresma would be staying at the club, and that influential captain, the Argentinian midfielder Lucho Gonzalez, could go if the right offer came in: Valência are first in the queue. And Benfica … well, Benfica … with record signing (for a foreign player), the Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo, still on duty with his national side in the Copa América, the focus turned to those that are here … and veteran midfielder Rui Costa put his seal of approval on two players returning to the Luz as, in his opinion, the best reinforcements of the close season: midfielders Manuel Fernandes from England and Nuno Assis from suspension for doping. The latter can only return officially to action on 26 July, but he nevertheless put a hat-trick away in an unofficial 8 -0 trouncing of the Footballers' Union side – made up of out of work players.

Then there was the draw for the new Liga programme, which will begin on or around 19 August. FC Porto have perhaps the most difficult start of the 'Big Three', away to Sporting Braga, coached by former Porto stalwart Jorge Costa. Sporting receive Académica at Alvalade in a minor clássico. And Benfica inaugurate Leixões' return to the top flight after 18 years; there is frantic work going on at the Estádio do Mar to make it fit to receive the Benfica hordes.

Along with the draw for the Liga came the draw for the Taça da Liga (the 'League Cup'). This is a brilliant idea: last season the Liga was reduced from 18 to 16 clubs, ostensibly to make the league more competitive and keep the players fresher. Now they've introduced a new competition to increase the number of games in a season, and on top of that, the Liga recently voted to consider a return to the 18-club league. The first round of the Taça da Liga involves just teams from the Liga de Honra (second tier), and will then take in teams from the Liga (top tier). The clubs' enthusiasm for the new competition was summed up best by Nacional president Rui Alves: "Our sole objective is to get knocked out as quickly as possible."

Finally, those Portuguese guys abroad, eh? Not wishing to be left in the shade by the National team in Euro 2000 (the Abel Xavier handball incident, and ensuing chaos, versus France in the semi-final) and João Pinto's infamous body blow to the referee in the 2002 World Cup in Korea, the Portugal Under 20s sloped ignominiously out of the World Cup in Canada. They won just one out of their four games in the tournament, and in the last one, a 0-1 defeat to Chile, managed to get two players sent off in the last five minutes: one, Mano, for hitting an opponent, the other, Zequinha, for snatching the red card out of the referee's hand as he was showing it to Mano. Coach José Couceiro , also in charge of the recent debacle in the U-21 European Championship, said afterwards: "I don't see any reason why I should resign." Well, José, don't look now, but …

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

08/07/07

Sporting Clube de Portugal have the best youth scheme in the country, possibly in Europe. The likes of Paulo Futre, Luís Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and Nani have passed though it, and remaining there are players such as the much admired and coveted midfielders João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, both shining at the recent European U-21 Championship. The scheme, aided in recent years by the establishment of the Sporting Academia, near Alcochete to the south of the River Tagus, has been the saviour of the club financially. Sporting's two main rivals, FC Porto and Benfica, cannot boast such success.

The last home-grown Benfica player to make any kind of noise domestically and internationally was midfielder Manuel Fernandes, who after two modest seasons in England (Portsmouth and Everton), has now returned to the Luz. Last season, the only home-grown player on view was midfielder João Coimbra, but after just a handful of appearances, he has now been farmed out to Madeiran club Nacional. The club has contracted former striker Rui Águas to head up the scouting department, but it could be years before any effect he may have filters through to the 'A' team.

At FC Porto, the story is much the same. Central defender Bruno Alves returned to his mother club a couple of seasons back and has established a good understanding with Brazilian team-mate Pepe, but promising winger Ivanildo has been loaned out for the last two seasons, and forward Vieirinha will face the same fate next.

Meanwhile, Portuguese teams continue to invest in 'cheap' players of dubious quality from the South American market and, increasingly, from Eastern Europe. The Big Three have all had their fingers burned in recent seasons. Benfica notoriously signed a couple of Brazilian midfielders in 2004, Everson and Paulo Almeida, both of whom bombed completely, but the club was left paying their salaries. FC Porto have a history of off-loading their best players (this time Anderson, possibly Pepé and Quaresma) and replacing them with unknown quantities that make the grade only on a very hit-and-miss basis: for every Paulo Assunção (the excellent Brazilian defensive midfielder), there's a Claudio Pitbull (the Brazilian forward signed in 2004 and still on 50,000 euros a month, but loaned out to Académica last season and still persona non grata at the Dragão).

Other clubs are just as guilty of scooping up quantity, often at the expense of the internally promoted or the tried and tested. Boavista, champions in 2001 but struggling now, have had a massive clear-out of their squad, half of them having their contracts terminated or being transferred or released. Stalwarts like José Manuel (Sporting Braga), Tiago (União de Leiria) and Lucas (Red Star) have been replaced by the speculative likes of Laionel (Anápolis) and Bosancic (Partizan), youngsters who have yet to become accustomed to the Portuguese game. Even coach Jaime Pacheco sees the danger: "I'm making [president] João Loureiro responsible: this squad has to be strengthened with quality players … the squad isn't how I want it to be. To win, we need good players."

But Boavista are merely representative of most of the Portuguese clubs' strategy in the transfer market: buy cheap, hope for a miracle. Sporting have the right idea: they have a well grounded internal system that is producing results on the pitch and profits from transfer transactions. The other Portuguese clubs would do well to follow suit.

(This artcle appeared on the international website Extra Football)

01/07/07

There are two championships in Portugal: there's the regular one from August to May, won last year by FC Porto, and then there's the unofficial campeonato do defeso, the close-season championship. This one is not fought out on the pitch but in hotels, restaurants and parked cars. The object? To see which club can impress most in the transfer market. There's a lot of pride at stake, and a lot of cutting of throats.

The so-called Três Grandes (FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting) are the main protagonists of this sideshow. Year after year, rumours abound of a big player going to one of the three, then being diverted to another amid either overt outrage or feigned indifference from the club losing out. Already this summer FC Porto have snatched Polish midfielder Kazmierczak (ex-Pogon/Boavista) and Brazilian forward Edgar (ex-Beira-Mar) from under Benfica's nose, while Benfica nipped over to Argentina to nab Paraguayan striker Cardozo, apparently on Porto's shopping list. Meanwhile, Sporting are eyeing Barcelona's Argentinian striker Maxi López, serenaded by Benfica on various occasions in recent seasons.

There are many similar stories from the past. Before he came to Portugal, Mozambican born Eusébio was being courted by Sporting (he was, after all, playing for Sporting de Lourenço Marques, an affiliate of Sporting Lisbon, at the time), but while Sporting dithered, Benfica stepped in with a firm offer and cash up front, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Later, Luís Figo, a product of Sporting's prodigious youth scheme, was within a whisker of being nicked by Benfica, but the Sporting president at the time, Sousa Cintra , was hit by a rare moment of perspicacity and blocked the move. in the other direction, Menino de Ouro João Pinto was tempted, with actual large wads of cash, to swap the Luz for Alvalade in the mid 90s, but this time the then Benfica president, Jorge Brito, stepped in to drag him back. João Pinto did of course subsequently move to Sporting, but on a more amicable basis and after being released from Benfica free of charge in 2000.

Then there was the story of Mário Jardel, the best striker in the Portuguese game in recent history, who helped FC Porto to three straight titles from 1996-99. In 1996, Benfica were in negotiations to bring super-Mário to the Luz, but while they haggled with his former club Grêmio over the price, in stepped Porto to take him to the Antas and 130 goals in 125 games.

FC Porto and Sporting appear to have the upper hand in this year's campeonato do defeso, with fresh cash to spend from the sale of Anderson (30 million euros) and Nani (25 million) to Manchester United. Benfica, though, appear to have shot their bolt with Cardozo, the club's second most expensive signing ever at 9.1 million euros (second only to Simão Sabrosa, 12 million in 2001).

As the teams reunite for pre-season preparation, the finishing touches will be made to the squads in the next few weeks. Then we'll see who has in fact won this close-season tussle.

(This article appeared on the international website Extra Football)

 

26/07/06

Speaking some time back at a conference on motivation, Luíz Felipe Scolari told the story of his first days with the Selecção in 2002. He got the players together and asked them to imagine the team as a truck, and to consider what part of the truck each of them thought they represented. He found that what he had inherited from António Oliveira was a truck with four drivers and a wheel missing. Six months later, the same experiment came up with just two drivers and all the wheels in place.

This has been Scolari's great gift to Portugal: to take the rabble that crashed out of the 2002 World Cup and, with some strategic cuts, mould them into a solid, coherent group. In fact 'group' has been the watchword for this team; it's the term most heard in interviews and press conferences, to the eerie point of making the players sound like brainwashed members of some weird cult. The philosophy is exploited to the maximum by 'Sargentão' Scolari, who defends his players to the hilt and requires absolute allegiance in return, along with a sense of humility and a spirit of sacrifice. Cristiano Ronaldo is a case in point, producing during the World Cup increasingly mature displays, notwithstanding the arguable rights or wrongs of his part in the Rooney incident.

Scolari's faith in players whose inclusion in the team was questioned paid dividends. Ricardo had a dodgy season at Sporting, Costinha was six months without playing after a dispute with Moscow Dynamo, Maniche's season was disrupted and uneven, a flagging Figo was struggling in the autumn of his career, but all were first choices and had very good World Cups. Other decisions by the Brazilian coach that were criticised at the time also took on, in retrospect, the quality of astute foresight: FC Porto's Ricardo Quaresma, Liga player of the season, was left at home and proceeded to have a stinker of an U-21 European Championship, held in Portugal at the end of May. And choosing to have the pre-Germany training camp in of all places Évora, notoriously the hottest spot in Portugal and sweltering in a heat wave during the camp, in fact proved excellent preparation for the high temperatures in Germany.

While nationalistic euphoria was less intense than two years ago at Portugal's Euro 2004, when Scolari proclaimed that he wanted national flags hanging from every window, the povo's relationship with the team was a more mature one this time and light years away from four years ago, the country then arrogantly expecting from the outset to see the Cup paraded along the Avenida da Liberdade. Falling in line with Scolari's discretion ("We're in the top eight of the FIFA rankings, so we should come in the top eight in Germany. Anything more will be a bonus."), players and fans took each game as it came, and the latter at least seemed genuinely chuffed at finishing not in the top eight but in the top four, despite the Selecção failing to equal the third place won by Eusébio's Magriços in 1966.

Another of Scolari's skills has been to foster a sense of inclusiveness around the Selecção. To hear a Senhora in her sixties discussing team tactics with the shop assistant while she picked up her copy of 'Olá' was to know that Scolari had made A Equipa de Todos Nós just that: the team of all Portuguese, regardless of age, sex, race, class. Hundreds of all shapes, sizes and colours were at the airport to greet the team on their return and hundreds more lined the roads to the National Stadium, where in May, 18,788 women had formed "The Most Beautiful Flag in the World" and put it in the Guinness Book of Records. This time, thousands sat for hours in the blazing sunshine to show their appreciation for a group that had done them proud. "The three symbols of the nation: the anthem, the flag and the Selecção" ran one hastily felt-tipped banner. The farewell to the players, Figo and Pauleta for the last time, included a rousing rendition of Campeões, Campeões, nós somos Campeões!

As the players trooped away, (not before doing a conga on the pitch to "Uma Casa Portuguesa"), a few questions were left in the air. One, which had been determinedly deflected throughout the tournament, was whether Scolari ("Fica, fica, fica!" they chanted at the National Stadium – "Stay, stay, stay!") would be staying on or not. Another was what awaits national hero Cristiano Ronaldo on his return to club football. It seemed that the poisonous message of the English tabloids had spread abroad, the player being booed relentlessly in the games against France and Germany. But the bitterness of some people's sour grapes could not spoil the sweetness of a small country's modest moment of pride.

(Article published in When Saturday Comes, August 2006)

31/05/06

In the last two years, José Mourinho has been to Portuguese football what Rebecca was to Manderlay in Daphne du Maurier's novel and Hitchock's film of the same name: absent yet omnipresent.

At his old club FC Porto, various coaches have tried and failed to measure up to the historic yardstick set by Mourinho during his spell there, whether in material terms (back-to-back Liga titles, a Portuguese Cup, an UEFA Cup and a Champions League title in two seasons) or in terms of style. Coach Co Adriaanse has just won the championship with Porto, but the team was widely seen as barely the best of a poor bunch vying for the title. And however honourable the man might be, his appeal factor struggles to rise above the dishwater-dull when held up against Mourinho's charisma, still hovering ghost-like above the Estádio do Dragão.

Both on and off the field, the Dutchman cannot escape comparisons with his Portuguese predecessor. His team has struggled to take his tactics on board, his presence in front of the cameras is anything but comfortable, and during a particularly rocky period for Porto and Adriaanse this season, his car was stoned, with him in it, after a poor display and result at Rio Ave. The incident, reportedly the work of members of the Porto claque Superdragões, immediately called to mind Mourinho's inevitably more dramatic run-in with the same claque before Porto's Champions League Final against Monaco in Gelsenkirchen.

The leader of the claque, Hélder Mota, allegedly threatened to shoot Mourinho, and later spat in his face in London; he claimed that Mourinho had been sending secret SMS messages to his girlfriend (which she later denied). Mourinho has brought an action against Mota that will go to court in Lisbon in June.

On a wider scale, and as the country slides inexorably down the economic tubes, Portugal, a net exporter of human resources, has taken The Special One to its heart as a shining example of what is possible out there with a bit of skill and nous. His earnings are held up as a holy grail for emigrant endeavour: you could practically hear the hands being rubbed together when France Football ran its list of the best-paid footballing folk in the world, and there was Mourinho at the top of the coach category with a mouth-watering 11 million euros in 2005.

The man has found his way onto other lists: he was voted the world's 6th sexiest man by 'New Woman' magazine (with Claudia Schiffer and Elton John on the jury) and the second best-dressed man in Britain (after Clive Owen), distinctions gleefully reported by the Portuguese press to a society thirsty for aspirational figures. And along with Cristiano Ronaldo, he is currently at the top of the most-wanted list of Portuguese celebrities for marketing purposes: among others, he has lent his name to a 'Take your Holidays in Portugal' campaign for the Portuguese Tourist Board (with Fado singer Mariza), the Portuguese bank BPI, American Express, Adidas and wine corks (Portugal is the world's largest producer of cork).

The Portuguese were also amused to discover that Mourinho was now at Madame Tussaud's and that his life might be made into a film, with George Clooney to play the lead. But all of this is not to say that Mourinho is necessarily liked very much in Portugal. There is, naturally, admiration for his feats, domestically and in England, but warm and fluffy affection is quite conspicuous by its absence.

A lot has to do with Mourinho's never-less-than controversial passage through Portuguese football. His outspoken and confrontational style made him few friends outside the scope of FC Porto, especially with a sports press focussed predominantly on the south and the fortunes of Benfica and Sporting. When he left for England, the distance allowed animosity towards him to diminish, admiration for him as a Portuguese success story to grow.

But the dislike of his way of being is growing. The Portuguese understand that a lot of his bluster is tactical, and have often delighted in it, but it has become rather wearing to watch it brought into play week after week (all of Chelsea's games are shown live on Portuguese television). It was extremely difficult, for example, to swallow his crass reaction to Barcelona's demolition of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and various Portuguese commentators and columnists laid into him for it.

And there were a lot of nodding heads when the Portuguese press published the open letter to Mourinho from Bobby Robson, much respected in Portugal for his service to Sporting and FC Porto: "What worries me, José, is that you have the potential to become one of the most popular and successful coaches the world has ever known, but this legacy is at risk because of a seemingly endless series of controversial incidents."

Mourinho has said that he would like to be Portugal's coach in a dozen years' time. Portugal will welcome him back for his talent, hoping that he will have lost a bit of the attitude.

(Article published in When Saturday Comes, June 2006)

28/04/06

Luíz Felipe Scolari is extremely successful; as a national coach, he took Brazil to the World Cup title and Portugal to the Euro 2004 Final. His quality gives him the right to aspire to greater things than 'merely' coaching a small country like Portugal, with its limited resources and ambitions. His contract is, after all, coming to an end, and sooner or later he will need to find work. Equally, the English FA, looking for someone to translate England's quality in terms of players into titles, is entitled to approach who they see as the right man for the job.

But on both sides, the timing of this week's negotiations and job offer has been appalling. The Portugal and England teams take the World Cup field in little over a month, and this recruitment process can only have been disruptive to their preparation. Scolari may have lessened the harm somewhat by rejecting the job offer, but some damage had already been done. Won't the message have been weakened when he's in the changing room and on television urging passion and loyalty to the cause? Why exactly couldn't he have left his job search until after the World Cup? You never know - Portugal's performance in Germany may raise considerably his cachet and the sums he can demand for a future contract. And surely he can't be so desperate for cash that he needs to step straight into another job the day after his contract expires on 31 July.

Essentially, the whole sorry episode has exposed Luíz Felipe Scolari for the mercenary that he is. Of course coaches are interested in money; they're only human. It's just that having the fact rubbed in our faces, and as close as we are to what could be an historic moment for Portuguese football and Portugal itself, is frankly rather sickening.

12/02/06

On the pitch, Portugal and Angola have met just twice, both trouncings that went Portugal's way: in 1989 they won 6-0, in 2001 5-1. The latter game had a whiff of colonial war about it.

"I appeal to the fans, both Portuguese and Angolan, to make this a festa", Portuguese Football Federation president Gilberto Madaíl had pleaded in the programme notes for the game. While at the beginning the fans were up for the idea, the Angolan players appeared to have taken not the slightest bit of notice. By half time, three had been sent off.

Within the hour, a sinister game plan began to take shape, Angola rushing on all the substitutions they could make. On 65 minutes, another Angolan was sent off. Down to seven, it only needed Hélder Vicente to fall as if poleaxed on 70 minutes, with no substitutes to take his place, to have the game abandoned.

Initially festive Angolans, making up three quarters of the meagre 10,000 dotted around the old Alvalade stadium, had long since ceased to fazer a festa, and by the half-hour mark had chosen instead to rip seats out and throw them onto the running track, then to abandon the stadium and cause mayhem in the surrounding streets.

The Angolan coach at the time, Mário Calado, was highly critical of the French referee, but could not in all honesty defend his own or his players' attitude on the night. This time it is the coach Luís de Oliveira Gonçalves who is trying to smooth the way for a trouble-free opener: "At the World Cup, the two national teams have an obligation to leave a good image. Portugal and Angola are almost family, with very strong ties."

The war for Angola's independence, in the 60s and early 70s, along with the same movements in Portugal's other African colonies, shook the then regime in Portugal to its eventual demise, culminating in the 25 April Revolution in 1974. While colonisation and the war left both countries with an ambiguous attitude to the other, the overriding feeling, and it is mutual, is that of brotherhood.

So when those in charge of Portuguese football called Portugal v Angola in the teams' first game of Group D "the draw we didn't want", the sentiment had perhaps more to do with the fear of complacency than anything else.

Most of the Portuguese players do in fact see Angola as a pushover. The "nowadays there are no easy games" cliché has been trotted out to exhaustion, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Pauleta and Maniche, to name but three, have all called the group (Angola, Iran and Mexico) by that most poisonous of names: "accessible".

On paper, Angola should indeed be nothing to fear. The backbone of the squad is made up of rejects from Portuguese clubs (Akwá, who passed with little glory through Benfica in the mid 90s), players plying their trade in the Portuguese lower divisions (for example Mendonça and 33-year-old playmaker Figueiredo, both at Varzim of the second division), an out-of-work goalkeeper, João Ricardo, and Benfica's Pedro Mantorras, a centre forward with a big heart but a right knee held together with bits of sticky tape. However, they beat Nigeria to the qualification wire with six wins, three draws and just one defeat, so slouches they cannot be.

Luís Figo struck a sensible note of caution: "It's a dangerous group. History tells us everything: whenever we've had 'easier' groups, we've had great difficulties." Coach Luíz Felipe Scolari had a similar warning: "It's good to remember that four years ago the euphoria turned into a nightmare. We don't want to go through that again." In South Korea, Portugal had a theoretically 'accessible' group in the USA, Poland and South Korea, and the Selecção fell at the first fence.

Defeat to the USA in the opening game was the trampoline to disaster. Journalist Ferreira Fernandes, writing in the daily Correio da Manhã, hit the nail on the head for the opener this time around: "Angola are the Hungary of Puskas; we've got six months to get that into our heads."

(Article published in When Saturday Comes, February 2006)

 

 

Miklós Fehér (27/04/01)

Football as a game obviously took a back seat Sunday as the very sad incident in Guimarães opened news bulletins and later grabbed front pages. And rightly so, of course - the death of a person must obviously come above league results and positions in the pecking order of the human experience. But perhaps football is not merely a game. Perhaps it is one of the media, and perhaps one of the most important media, through which humanity can express itself and be brought, albeit often screaming and kicking, together.

The response of the Portuguese to the televised death of a foreigner, and not a particularly loved foreigner, but playing for the country's greatest team, has been phenomenal. There have been similar scenes in recent years only for the death of Amália Rodrigues, the country's Diva of Fado, the country's 'soul' music. The sense of grief, or at least stunned disbelief, was almost palpable wherever you went Monday.

The incident itself and its aftermath are dealt with elsewhere here. But football created the potential for this level of widespread grief and devotion. However much some may consider football to be a triviality, no one can deny its power to move masses. And move masses it has once again, ever since the untimely death of a young man. On a football pitch. In the North of Portugal. On a wet Sunday in January.

Mário Jardel (12/09/03)

Mário Jardel came to Portugal from Brazilian side Grêmio as a 'goal machine' and left as one ... twice. His first spell at FC Porto, during which he was top scorer in the league four times from 1996-2000, gave an incredible average of 33 goals a season.

He left for Turkey (Galatasaray) and returned. His second Portuguese period, briefer but no less striking, was with Sporting. In his first season, 2001/2002, he scored a massive 42 goals, which won him a Golden Boot. In his second he got 11. And thereby hangs a tale.

His overall statistics really cannot lie about the man's talent: he has been a phenomenal scorer of goals, and while in his golden season at Sporting a lot of them were from the spot, a lot of them were not, and a lot of them were scored from impossible angles, or from impossibly subtle flicks of the head or foot, or from seemingly simple slips away from marking. Whatever, everyone in Portugal, regardless of club affiliation, was of one opinion ... Jardel was a natural and feared goalscorer.

The main problem for Jardel was that this was all taking place in Portugal, which, notwithstanding the Figos, Quaresmas and Ronaldos of this world (or perhaps reflected in the fact that these stars have had to leave the country to get ahead), is widely seen as a backwater of European football. This meant that his goalscoring feats were constantly being undervalued, by the market and also by the selector of the Brazilian national team, most recently Scolari, who stubbornly refused to even consider him.

So, despite the adulation that he had at Sporting after a season (2001/2002) during which it was blindingly obvious that he was the key factor of the team's league success, he wanted more. And that's when he fell out of love with Portugal, and eventually, Portugal fell out of love with him.

Sporting were re-grouping following a second title in three years (after a hiatus of 18). Under Romanian coach Bölöni, they were perhaps a little naïve in thinking that the same formula would do a second time around, i.e. get it to Jardel and he'll sort it out. Whatever, just before the season started, Jardel blew a fuse.

Ostensibly, the reason was a falling out with Karen, his theretofore-devoted wife and, let it be said, Lady MacBeth figure. The first part of Jardel's season was taken up with the separation and subsequent divorce from the statuesque Karen, including various trips to Brazil to deal with the respective paperwork, and returns, invariably unfit, to Portugal.

However, on more than one occasion, Jardel made it clear that he did not want to play in Portugal, despite the fact that Sporting's administration and fans had bent over backwards to accommodate the increasingly unpredictable Brazilian.

All of which gave rise to the idea in some quarters that the divorce from Karen might just have been a drastic, devious ruse (claiming psychological incapacity) to get out of the contract with Sporting and into a more lucrative one with a club of more international standing. Now that SuperMário is back with Karen with apparently no damage done, this theory has gained even more credence.

But if Jardel's season was getting off to a bad start, Sporting's was faring even worse, dependent as it was on the gangling striker's contribution to the team's basic game plan. It was clear, however, that they had no Plan B, and despite Jardel's eventual but obviously reluctant return, and in the event impressive 11 goals, their season suffered a slow, painful, relentless petering out.

Sporting had made the mistake of putting all their eggs in the Jardel basket, as FC Porto had done previously and had equally rued the day. FC Porto have come out of their post-Jardel hangover with flying colours. Sporting have still to find the way.

Which all goes to sum up the advantages and (the corollary) the dangers of having a player like Jardel in your team, both on and off the pitch. Sam Allardyce has said that Bolton are specialists in dealing with difficult personalities. With SuperMário, and the highly exigent Karen, they may well have to be.

(Article published in When Saturday Comes, September 2003)

Sporting XXI (10/08/03)

Sporting have a new home. It's called Alvalade XXI and Manchester United came to help inaugurate it Wednesday. It seats 50,000 and is lined up to take a semi-final of next year's EURO 2004 . Of course, there's a lot of time to go until that eagerly awaited tournament, but if the early days of this stadium are anything to go by, then we will have to firmly cross our fingers for the organisation of the whole thing ...

Let's start with that 50,000. Well, on paper it's 52,000, but in fact it's below 50,000; the presence of the two giant screens, in opposite corners actually blocks the view of many seats. The Sporting administration has come up with the brilliant idea of allocating these to blind people, but as the blind are very often accompanied by people with sight who give them running commentaries ... and the screens can hardly be seen from some angles, e.g. way up in the press section. In fact from there, it's impossible to see the top half of the opposite stand, such is the low-slung sweep of the roof of the stadium, already unkindly likened to a roller coaster track. This has an unsettling, claustrophobic effect which must be the same for the people high up in the opposite stand.

The press section on the night was a bad joke. The stadium was more than sold out, and the public were allowed to enter the press section and stake their claim to a seat there, leaving many journalists desperately scrounging a perch where they could. For those journalists who could find their rightful place, the space in which they were asked to work was ludicrously narrow, and the tables inclined at such an angle that laptops simple slid off into the journos' ... er ... laps. If they wanted to powder their noses, as it were ... nearest toilet, fourth floor (from the seventh, with a single lift that defied all logic in terms of progamming). To their credit, Sporting's administration has acknowledged these deficiencies and has promised to put them right ... which they will have to do before the UEFA big guns get their teeth into them.

The stadium itself was variously praised for its "magnificence" by Portuguese footballing folk, celebrities and Alex Ferguson, but it is in fact a rather ugly edifice. The neat green and white hoops etched by the seats of the old Alvalade have disappeared; there's some green there, but only in patches, and yellow, for some reason, seems to be in equal evidence. Also, the majority of the seats make up a rainbowy mosaic effect, rather disconcerting in that it is difficult to make out the presence of human beings there (possibly Sporting thinking ahead to their future 10,000-average crowds). The outside of the stadium is like the bathroom of somebody with particularly bad design sense, all patches of yellow, white and green tiles, intended undoubtedly to be an advertisement for suppliers Revigrês, but that will be mentioned for all the wrong reasons.

Other things to be put right during the coming season are the deficient signposting in and around the ground, the deficient support of 'support' staff (who did not seem to have been properly briefed on organisational strategies for the Manchester game) and the appalling playing surface, which was cut up like a ploughed field within minutes of the kick-off.

This will all seem like a very negative view of Sporting's new home (and we haven't even mentioned the obviously obscenely expensive but woefully ramshackle pre-match 'entertainment', a cheesy laser show on giant curtains that were only half up, then left bandage-like tatters when they came down, and the weird painting in real time of the Sporting symbol on a large bedsheet by hundreds of young people dressed like the sperm in Woody Allen's 'All You Wanted to Know About Sex' ... an 'entertainment' not quite salvaged by the magnificent Dulce Pontes, dressed incongruously in a mixture of Elizabethan and geisha styles, singing the Sporting anthem), but there are some positive aspects about the stadium, and there were some postive aspects about the inauguration night.

There is now a roof on the thing. This does obscure some of the opposite stands, but it holds in the sound beautifully, and will be a million light years better than the old Alvalade in this respect. It will also keep us all dry in the winter. And finally, Sporting played like a dream against Manchester United. If they can duplicate performances like that on a regular basis, then maybe all the rough edges of the Stadium and its organisation will take a back seat (but not too high up, because ...).

 

Review of the Year 2002 (December 2002)

It's been a pretty miserable year all round for Portuguese football, on and off the pitch, domestically and internationally.

The Big Black Spot over the year was created by the so-called Golden Generation's dismal showing in the World Cup in Korea/Japan. Portugal played pants, managing a win over weedy Poland but losing to the theoretically accessible USA and South Korea. Everything was wrong about the campaign, starting with coach António Oliveira's selection of players (midfielder Paulo Sousa was a crock before he left Portugal, shaky Baía was chosen over the in-form Ricardo in goal) passing, disastrously, through the misguided psychological preparation which suggested that the thing was as good as won and ending with João Pinto punching the Argentinian ref in the South Korea game, reflecting the indiscipline that surrounded the Portuguese camp.

Coach António Oliveira was there on tourism, according to reports, leaving the hotel room at ungodly hours with his assistants in tow to "go for a walk on the beach" (in their suits). The man was justifiably shown the door, but the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) took their time doing it, as they did to name his successor. Agostinho Oliveira stood in and did a fine job in the autumn friendlies, while the Federation hummed and hawed over whether it should be a Portuguese or foreign coach. 'Portuguese', it was decided, with the name of Manuel José in line ... but only as long as it took Gilberto Madaíl, the FPF president, to be helped to win the FPF elections by the block vote of the Association of Portuguese Coaches. With his re-election in hand, Madaíl went back on his word and announced that World Cup hero with Brazil, Felipe Scolari, would be the next national coach.

At club level, Sporting won their second title in three years thanks more than anything to the almost uncanny goalscoring talent of Mário Jardel. The Brazilian's personal year was an unhappy one as he split with his wife Karen. The soap opera of the separation coincided with the start of the new season, and Jardel was given several weeks' sick leave for 'psychological' problems. Some saw the whole situation as a ruse by Jardel to get out of his contract with Sporting and into a more lucrative one with another club, preferably Spanish or Italian. No firm offers were forthcoming, however, and Jardel was forced to eat his affirmations that he would never play in Portugal again and to return to Sporting. But his form and fitness have been missing, and Sporting have struggled to hit the levels of recent seasons, with Niculae slow to recover from injury, Sá Pinto out injured, João Pinto only now beginning to shine again after his suspension for the Korean incident and newcomer Kutusov not really impressing.

FC Porto got rid of unpopular coach Octávio Machado at the beginning of the year and brought in José Mourinho, who had left Benfica under a cloud and had moved to União de Leiria where he did a good job. With very few changes to the squad, Mourinho has performed a small miracle at Porto, restoring the famous mystique of invincibility that has been lost in the last few seasons. At the end of the year, they are six points clear at the top and look untouchable. And in Deco, they have the player widely regarded as the best in the SuperLiga.

Benfica failed to qualify for Europe for the second season running, but kept faith with coach Jesualdo Ferreira ... at least until November when he was replaced by Spaniard José Camacho. Like Mourinho at Porto, Camacho has brought back a little pride to the huge Benfica following; there were two thousand supporters to watch training in Caldas da Rainha over Christmas. The team's football has become more solid and coherent, and winger Simão and midfielder Tiago are sure to be key players in Portugal's EURO 2004 campaign.

Boavista reached the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, but because of financial limitations (the club has only recently broken the 15,000 level of sócios), they had to sell the influential midfielder Petit (Benfica) and had to let captain Pedro Emanuel go (FC Porto). The team has found it hard to replace these two, and a terrible start to this season sees them in the lower reaches of the table, although recent form shows promise.

Surprise teams of the season so far are Varzim, Belenenses and Gil Vicente, all challenging for the European places. Of the teams that came up, only Nacional of Madeira have shown anything, while Moreirense struggle and Académica are bottom and in dire financial straits that saw the board resign recently.

In fact all the clubs in the so-called SuperLiga (re-named for marketing purposes, although some have criticised the name as a patent misnomer) have some kind of money trouble. Clubs are resorting to opening their doors on match days to get people into the habit of coming back to football. But the image of the game here is at its lowest ebb ever. After the scandal of missing funds at Benfica which left former-president João Vale e Azevedo in prison for embezzlement, it was the turn of Vitória de Guimarães president Pimenta Machado who was arrested in December on the same charge. As the year turns, suspicion is flaring once again. Sporting president Dias da Cunha told Radio TSF: "There's a lot of money passed under the table in the Portuguese game, a lot of creative accounting, a lot of dirty money."

It's a story that will run and run into the new year.

 

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