EuropeBen ShaveComment

Publicity, Posturing, and Pragmatism

EuropeBen ShaveComment

Benfica President Luís Filipe Vieira is on the warpath. Ben Shave has the story, and all action from Round 8 of the Liga ZON Sagres.

Pinto da Costa doesn't like it. The FC Porto president, who hit the headlines last Thursday when he declared his unfortunate hope that a 3-1 victory at Besiktas would silence "the Bin Ladens" of Portuguese football; is never short of an opinion or three. But this issue has come in for particular scorn. "People would call me crazy", he said. "I would never ask this of the fans." You might be wondering what's got under Pinto's crocodile-thick skin. It certainly wasn't the performance of his team on Monday evening, as they reopened a seven-point lead at the top of the table with a routine 5-1 victory over a pliant União de Leiria. As is often the case, the target of Pinto's ire resides in Lisbon, at the offices of Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

You might recall a few weeks ago that I wrote about a controversial game in Guimarães. Benfica, in the grips of their worst start to a season since the mid-1950's, were beaten 2-1 by Manuel Machado's men. That alone provided more than enough scope for extended gnashing of teeth, but it was the performance of referee Olegário Benquerença that was seized upon by Eagles of all descriptions, including the club President, Luís Filipe Vieira. His reaction was swift and controversial. In a calmly-worded statement that nevertheless contained no small amount of malevolence, Benfica called upon their millions of fans around the country to boycott all away games with immediate effect, and to back the club's decision to withdraw from the BWIN Cup this season. Whilst this second demand has (for the time being, Benfica aren't due to enter the competition for a couple of months) faded into the background, Vieira has continued to reiterate his stance on fans travelling to away games.

Da Costa has not been the only President to express his displeasure at Vieira's actions. António Campos at Rio Ave has warned of dire economic consequences for Benfica's fellow top-flight sides. In a league where the average attendance this season stands at just over 10,000 (and even that number is skewed by the presence of Benfica, Sporting and Porto), the revenue generated by a stadium packed with Benfica fans is not to be underestimated in terms of its importance. Casual fans, i.e non-Socíos, pay upwards of €25 for a match ticket in Portugal, and when Benfica come to town, it's these fans who turn out in force, but are nowhere to be seen for the rest of the season. The income that they provide can often be the difference between holding off the creditors and going under. Rightly or wrongly, these fans are almost as important as the Socíos, at least in cold financial terms.

All of which begs the question: why is Vieira doing this? Taken to its logical conclusion, a concerted boycott would have far-reaching financial ramifications for Portuguese football, and surely more than a few clubs would find staying afloat that much harder. They are already disadvantaged by the fact that TV rights are not negotiated on a collective basis, with the três grandes taking most of the pie, and the rest feeding off the crumbs. Take things too far, and Vieira could find his team short of competition.

Yet in the tribal, tempestuous arena that is Portuguese football, logic is a rare presence, and generally has little influence on events. Vieira may call for his fans to boycott away games, and there might even be a part of him that actually wants them to. But one doesn't survive in choppy political waters without a healthy dose of pragmatism, and Vieira is certainly no idealist. He must surely be aware that most supporters, particularly those that live outside of the Greater Lisbon area, will ignore his request, despite their long-held distrust of an establishment that they view as being dominated by the interests of others.

Sunday's game with Portimonense at the Estádio Algarve illustrated this point. The official attendance was recorded as 12, 373. Given that Portimonense's average crowd prior to Sunday evening stood at 3089, there was clearly a voluble pro-Benfica presence in the stands. And yet, an A Bola report published in the run-up to the match stated that Portimonense were expecting a crowd of between 15-20,000. Herein lies Vieira's true intentions. By pointing to reduced attendance when compared with projections, he can justify this method of protest, whilst maintaining publicity for the cause that lies behind it. Yet the relatively small reduction overall provides an ongoing safety net as he continues to tread a thin moral (after all, not even the most paranoid Benfica fan would mistake the likes of Portimonense as being capable of overseeing their downfall) and economic tightrope. Publicity, posturing, and pragmatism. Such are the forces that underpin Portuguese football. The final score? My apologies. Portimonense 0-1 Benfica, Javi García heading his side into second place.

Round 8 Talking Points:

Behind Porto and Benfica lie a host of sides chasing the European spots. Chief amongst these are Académica and Sporting Braga. The former are enjoying a fine campaign under Jorge Costa, and temporarily moved into second after their 2-1 victory over Nacional on Sunday afternoon. Fidalgo and Berger put the home side 2-0 up after just sixteen minutes, and Costa marshalled his troops sufficiently to hold out with relative comfort. Braga were also at home, and came through a potential banana-skin against Olhanense with goals from Mossoró, and a brace from in-form Lima. Maurício had put the Algarve side ahead just before half-time, but following the restart Braga stepped their play up a notch, and were justly rewarded. After a turbulent start to the season, Domingos Paciência will surely be looking for his side to establish a rhythm as Autumn gives way to Winter.

Down at the wrong end of the table, the six-pointers have already begun in earnest. Bottom two Rio Ave and Marítimo played out a goalless draw in Round 7, missing a golden chance to lift themselves towards safety. Both were on course to pick up points on Sunday, before fate cruelly intervened. Firstly, Marítimo held out for a vital home victory over fellow strugglers Naval, summer signing Valentin with the goal. That saw the Madeiran side leapfrog Naval into 14th with their first win of the season, and condemned Rogério Gonçalves' men to a third straight defeat. Gonçalves has had success at the club in the past, but looks to have an uphill task on his hands. Having watched Marítimo pick up that win, Rio Ave must have thought that they'd done enough to earn a point away at Sporting, who were up to their usual wasteful tricks. However, with eighty-nine minutes played, Abel guided a low shot through a sea of legs, and Rio Ave's hearts were broken. Carlos Brito has a fair amount of capital in Vila do Conde, but if he doesn't turn things around soon, it could well be curtains.

Also hovering around the drop zone at Beira Mar, but of more pressing concern to the Aveiro side are their financial problems- all three million of them. With various creditors (including a former President of the club)  apparently nearing the end of their patience, and Liga President Fernando Gomes as of yet unable to negotiate a solution which is acceptable to all parties, the future is looking bleak. Manager Leonardo Jardim, who has seen four presidential changes in his sixteen-month tenure, insists that his focus remains on football, but off-field events look set to take centre stage in the coming weeks.

Results: Académica 2-1 Nacional, Paços de Ferreira 1-1 Beira Mar, Vitória Setúbal 2-1 Vitória Guimarães, Sporting Braga 3-1 Olhanense, Marítimo 1-0 Naval, Sporting CP 1-0 Rio Ave, Portimonense 0-1 Benfica, FC Porto 5-1 UD Leiria.

Round 9 fixtures: Benfica-Paços de Ferreira, Rio Ave-Sporting Braga, Académica-FC Porto, Nacional-Vitória Setúbal, Beira Mar-Naval, Olhanense-Marítimo, UD Leiria-Sporting CP, Vitória Guimarães-Portimonense.

Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.