A succession of deplorable incidents in recent weeks has seen Portuguese club football plunge itself into a toxic bath of violence, hatred and insults, the country’s biggest clubs and their supporters busily trading invective and accusations, the referees fearing for their physical integrity.
PortuGOAL usually focuses on the positive aspects of Portuguese football, and thankfully there are plenty of them to report, but the way the simmering undercurrent of mutual suspicion and animosity has exploded into an atmosphere of open hostility cannot be ignored.
First off, a brief contextual explanation. Portugal’s biggest teams, Benfica, Sporting and Porto, compete in a range of sports. Football is king, of course, because of the number of spectators it attracts, but the rivalry is just as keenly felt in futsal, handball, basketball and hockey, to name just a few of the dozens of sports played at professional or semi-professional level. Common to all of them is the backing of the most hardcore fans belonging to membership groups of supporters, some officially affiliated to the club, called “claques”. Cultural lesson over, let’s dwell on what’s been happening in Portugal lately.
Last week, during a handball game between Porto and Benfica, Porto’s “Super Dragons” claque threw up a chant singing how they wished Benfica had been the occupants of the ill-fated plane that crashed and wiped out the Brazilian Chapecoense team in November. Even in a country where passions among rival football fans run high and unpleasant excesses are commonplace, the mindless evocation of the horrific tragedy, still fresh in the memory, touched a raw nerve. As well as being an exceptionally distasteful barb aimed at rivals Benfica, it completely disrespected the lives of the 71 people who died in the crash in Colombia.
Porto’s hierarchy institutionally distanced themselves from the incident immediately, repudiating the chant, with president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa sending an apology to the Brazilian club. Alas, he was powerless to stop the repercussions. “These Super Dragons are disgusting,” wrote former Brazilian international and ex Porto midfielder Josef de Souza Dias. “This is shameful and disgusting. I have a lot of affection for Porto and their fans, but for the claque that sung this chant I feel only repugnance. They should be disbanded,” said the now Fenerbahce player.
Not a week had gone by before a similarly vile chant was sung at another handball match, this time between Benfica and Sporting. In the 1996 Portuguese Cup final, at the Jamor national stadium on the outskirts of Lisbon, a flare was launched from one set of fans towards the other, hitting and fatally wounding a Sporting supporter. More than 20 years on and the incident served as fodder for Benfica’s “No Name Boys” claque, whose chant “celebrating” the death was used to goad the opposing fans.
These two sickening examples of how the claques have a tendency to lose all notion of basic human decency followed hot on the heels of violence in physical rather than verbal form.
On March 2nd the amateur match in the Porto district league between Canelas and Rio Tinto lasted two minutes. That was how long was played before a crude challenge by Canelas forward Marco Gonçalves earned him a red card. His reaction? To grab the referee by the head and knee him in the face, the impact so violent it broke his nose and led to the need for hospital surgery.
The Portuguese Association of Football Referees (APAF) reacted by revealing that 43 cases of violence towards referees had occurred this year. APAF head Luciano Gonçalves demanded the reintroduction of a law that was suspended in 2012, which stipulated that a police presence was compulsory at all football matches at all levels, arguing that unless the law change was reversed, “one of these days a referee will die.”
Unfortunately, behaviour stoking conflict in Portuguese football has not been restricted to the senseless acts of a minority of inane supporters or out-of-control amateur players. It goes to the very top.
Earlier this month, a document from Benfica’s hierarchy was “leaked” containing detailed instruction about what pundits affiliated to the club – mostly professional journalists and former players – should say about certain topics, complete with a helpful list of insults and jibes to be used when referring to Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho. It subsequently emerged that the “directives” are issued on a weekly basis and have been for several years.
One of Portugal’s foremost journalists, António Saraiva, compared it to Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book, saying the revelation is of the utmost seriousness for Benfica, the writer and the receivers. “It’s serious for Benfica, because they sanction it. It’s serious for whoever writes it because it shows a paranoid sectarianism. It’s serious for whoever receives it because it seems they accept thought control… It is unbelievable that professional journalists accept it,” he wrote in his column in Record on Friday.
Meanwhile, the endless political manoeuvring to attempt to obtain a firmer grip of the controls at the Portuguese Football Federation, the Portuguese League and the Refereeing Council only serve to further erode the frail confidence in the credibility of professional football in the country.
Some argue Portuguese football has always been this way. This year, of all years, it should have been so different.
Last summer witnessed the finest moment in Portugal’s football history. A high proportion of Portugal’s Euro 2016 heroes – around 50% of the team in most matches – had played football only in the Primeira Liga, including the entire midfield quartet that started the final against France: William Carvalho, João Mário, Renato Sanches and Adrien Silva. The triumph could have been the perfect springboard to promote the league as one of Europe’s finest, at home and abroad. Instead, the powers-that-be at the major clubs seem intent on destroying it, with the football authorities powerless or uninclined to intervene.
On Saturday, Lisbon giants Sporting and Benfica will go head to head in front of 50,000 spectators in what is normally a wonderful occasion showcasing the passion, the colour and no little quality that Portuguese football has to offer. A win for Benfica will leave them on the cusp of a fourth straight championship for the first time in their history. A win for Sporting will open up the door for Porto to ascend to first place and knock Benfica off their perch at the top of the table for the first time since the 4th round of games in early September. But nobody is talking about that.
By Tom Kundert