Portugal toxic mood deflates Euro euphoria
Last summer’s Euro 2016 triumph should have been the perfect springboard to promote the Primeira Liga as one of Europe’s finest. After all, around 50 per cent of Portugal’s winning team played their football in their home country, including the entire midfield quartet – William Carvalho, Joao Mario, Renato Sanches and Adrien Silva – that started the Final against France.
Sadly, as well as missing the opportunity to energetically market the domestic game in a positive light, a succession of deplorable incidents saw Portuguese football plunge itself into a toxic bath of violence, hatred and insults. Referees were attacked, the country’s biggest clubs and their fans traded invective, and a supporter was killed during clashes between Sporting and Benfica fans.
There are few things as cowardly as the courage of a crowd, and distasteful chants from the stands are certainly not the preserve of Portuguese football. But the level of hatred escalated to appalling levels in Portugal this season.
In April, Porto’s “Super Dragoes” supporters group chanted how they wished that 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 fans run high, and unpleasant excesses are commonplace, the mindless evocation of the horrific tragedy, still fresh in the memory, touched a raw nerve.
Not a week had gone by before a similarly vile chant was sung, this time by Benfica supporters “celebrating” the death of a Sporting fan after he was hit by a flare thrown in the 1996 Portuguese Cup Final. Sporting themselves are no innocent party in this sorry phenomenon, its supporters having sung about how they would like Benfica fans to “follow” Eusebio shortly after the Benfica legend’s death. These sickening examples of how the hardcore supporter groups lose all notion of basic human decency followed hot on the heels of violence in physical rather than verbal form.
On March 2, in an amateur game in the Porto district league, Canelas forward Marco Goncalves was shown a red card after just two minutes for a crude challenge. His reaction was to grab the referee by the head and knee him in the face with such force that it put him in hospital with surgery required to mend his smashed nose.
The Portuguese Association of Football Referees revealed that it was just the latest of 43 cases of violence towards referees that had occurred in the season, and there was a call for 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.
Unfortunately, incidents stoking the animosity in Portuguese football were not restricted to the senseless acts of a minority of inane supporters or out-of-control amateur players. It goes to the very top of club hierarchies.
Portugal’s media is only too happy to give club presidents and directors a platform from which to lambast their rivals. Long-serving Porto president Pinto Da Costa has used his position for decades to create an “us against the powers from the capital” scenario. Since his election in 2013, Sporting president Bruno De Carvalho has adopted a fiercely confrontational style against anyone and everyone he perceives as obstacles to his club’s success.
During the season, a document from Benfica’s hierarchy was leaked containing detailed instructions about what pundits affiliated to the club – mostly professional journalists and former players – should say about certain topics, complete with a list of insults and jibes to be used when referring to Sporting’s president.
It subsequently emerged that these “directives” have been issued on a weekly basis for several years. One of Portugal’s foremost journalists, Antonio Saraiva, compared it to Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red
Book, saying it revealed “a paranoid sectarianism” and “the acceptance of
The decision by the Portuguese Football Federation to introduce video referees next season was welcomed by all parties
thought control” by those who sent and received it respectively.
With emotions spiralling dangerously out of control, in the early hours of April 22, mutual provocations between groups of Sporting and Benfica fans led to scuffles that resulted in the death of Marco Ficini, an Italian fan who was run down by a car. The Fiorentina and Sporting supporter had travelled to the Portuguese capital to watch the Lisbon derby that weekend. Lamentably, the tragedy failed to stem the flow of vitriol, with Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira and his Sporting counterpart Carvalho exchanging incendiary missives in the ensuing days.
Only in the closing weeks of the season did the turbulence lessen, with a rare show of unanimity as the decision by the Portuguese Football Federation to introduce video referees next season was welcomed by all parties.
Constant suspicion of rigged officiating is at the root of most of the conflict. It remains to be seen if the use of the VAR will act as a balm and lead to a healthier atmosphere surrounding the game in Portugal, or if the unwelcome fallout from the always ferocious three-way fight for supremacy will find another outlet.
Some argue Portuguese football has always been this way. This year, of all years, it should have been different.
Tribute...Sporting supporters honour Marco Ficini
Support...backing for referees before the game between Estoril (in yellow) and Nacional