Round Twelve in Portugal saw one player return from whence he came, and put the exclamation point on his personal and footballing transformation. Ben Shave has the story.
Sometimes it can't be easy, being João Moutinho. Although the diminutive Portuguese midfielder has that uncommon knack of making his dynamic, intelligent style of play seem disarmingly simple, there must be moments when, like all of us, he pauses and wonders, like Tony Soprano in that coma, “who am I? Where am I going?'
We all have bouts of self-doubt every now and then, but imagine if our lives and personalities were discussed on a daily basis by all and sundry. Football being football, the opinions and sentiments change at a dizzying rate, something that can be seen in the attitude of José Eduardo Bettencourt, President of Sporting Clube de Portugal, towards the man who returned to his former stomping ground on Saturday evening. A few short months ago, Moutinho's place amongst the modern pantheon of Sporting greats was indisputable. Having moved to the Portuguese capital from his native Portimão at the age of thirteen, the boy turned into a man with remarkable speed: full début at seventeen, appointed vice-captain at nineteen, and taking the armband a year later, becoming the second youngest captain in Sporting history.
An energetic, goalscoring box-to-box midfielder capable of playing across the diamond that Paulo Bento employed, Moutinho was consistently linked with a move abroad, but for whatever reason, the number twenty-eight remained at the Alvalade, and the fans loved him for it. Bettencourt, ever savvy in the discipline of public engagement, continually referred to Moutinho as an idol, an embodiment of all that was Sporting. That is, until July 3rd of this year, when the Sporting captain signed a five-year contract with FC Porto, a transfer that shocked the Portuguese football establishment and fans alike. Moutinho has unsurprisingly remained fairly circumspect about the reasons behind his move, but within days, Bettencourt let rip, describing his former captain as “a rotten apple”, and declaring that “the deal was done because Sporting wanted it.”
The country's sport dailies concluded that a behind-the-scenes conflict with recently-appointed sporting director Costinha, combined with a sense of frustrated ambitions, had precipitated Moutinho's sudden departure, and all eyes immediately turned towards the fixture list; swiftly marking in big fat capital letters the date that the idol turned rotten apple would return to his once-adoring public. Saturday evening's game was proceeded by a confusing statement from Bettencourt - who, as far as mind games go has all the subtlety of Hulk's left foot in a china shop – proclaiming his belief that Moutinho had always been “a fantastic professional.” Did someone say identity crisis?
As the cameras inevitably sought out the FC Porto number eight, and as the rotten apples flew from the stands down onto the Alvalade turf, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much mental pressure is exerted on players, particularly in a tribal football culture such as Portugal's. Everyone knows the story about Luis Figo, Barcelona, and the pig's head, but their capacity to delight and earn outlandish sums of money generally blinds us to the fact that being a footballer is often not the most forgiving of professions.
It also reminded me of Søren Kierkegaard, strangely enough. Having spent much of his life wrestling with conflicts between his Christian faith and his passionate belief in the importance of free choice in counteracting the meaninglessness of life, Kierkegaard ultimately concluded that whilst it was entirely possible to glide through our days satisfying our immediate desires, doing so would render our existence entirely directionless, and without fulfillment. As adored as João Moutinho was at Sporting, his career, long since marked out as one with the potential to flourish beyond the parameters of the Portuguese Liga, was stagnating. He was a player without purpose.
Since arriving at Porto, Moutinho has re-invented himself, and forced us to redefine our definition of him. Gone is the player who found himself a square peg in a round hole, limited (I would argue) by his sheer versatility. Given his performances this season, it seems inconceivable that he was not selected for the World Cup this summer, but it is true. The goals might have disappeared, but they have been replaced by a humming, industrious commitment, and the capacity to create space and opportunities for others with a simple touch here, a drop of the shoulder there. Playing in a side that is beginning to match the type of performances that haven't been seen at the Dragão since the José Mourinho era, Moutinho is flourishing. But what would happen when the new João (a knight of faith, as Kierkegaard put it) returned to the place where his former identity was created?
You should have guessed at least part of the answer- he was whistled, booed, abused, and generally tormented for the eighty-six minutes that he was on the pitch. In a match that had five players facing their former employers (Moutinho and Silvestre Varela for Porto, and Maniche, Pedro Mondes and Hélder Postiga for Sporting), an understandable sense of needle prevailed throughout. There were two fouls within the first forty seconds, nine yellow cards, and two reds, one for FC Porto manager André Villas Boas (his second of the season). Total football it was not, and yet Sporting-FC Porto was rarely anything less than compelling.
Part of this was down to the see-saw nature of the contest, which saw Sporting control the first half, snatching a deserved lead through Jaime Valdés, the Chilean who is enjoying a fine run of form. It was the simplest of goals. Goalkeeper Rui Patrício hurled a long ball up the field, Porto's young Brazilian centre-back Maicon completely misjudged his interception, and Valdés was able to skip through on goal and cooly put the ball through the legs of Helton. Replays indicated that he had in fact been offside when the pass was played, and Porto appealed vociferously for a handball, but the goal stood, and the Dragons entered half-time looking as troubled as they have done for the whole season.
However, that old adage about the best teams producing the goods under pressure is an old adage for a reason, and Porto began the second period with a far more purposeful air. Apart from an early first-half chance, Radamel Falcao had been anonymous, Hulk had been reduced to a spectator by the Sporting left-back Evaldo, and the returning Pedro Mendes had, along with Maniche and André Santos, given Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi next to no time on the ball.
The old Moutinho may well have become frustrated and ended up departing early, but the calmness with which he waited for an opening was striking, even as the Alvalade bayed for his blood and howled each time he went down and had to receive treatment. It came after fifty-seven minutes and fittingly, it was not without controversy. Maniche collided with an opponent in a fifty-fifty challenge, and went down, apparently injured. The ball fell to Moutinho, who, ignoring the whistles and protestations from the Sporting players, drove forward, dragging Evaldo away from Hulk, and playing a neat ball through to the Brazilian, who centred for Falcao, who tapped home. 1-1, and Moutinho's reversal, from idol to rotten apple to fantastic professional to fair play-subverting monster (don't forget game-changer), was complete.
Maicon capped an awful evening ten minutes later, after his leaden attempt to regain possession saw Liédson tumble to the floor with the Porto penalty area clear ahead of him, bringing the desired red card. Given the size of his side's lead at the top of the table, André Villas Boas elected to shut up shop, and the twenty-two players jostled and kicked their way to the final whistle, drawing three yellow cards in the final two minutes. Moutinho was replaced by Fucile, and as he trudged off, pointedly directing his gaze and applause towards the Porto fans in the far right-hand corner of the stadium, there was a serene expressionlessness on his face. It might just have been tiredness, but if you're like me and enjoy marrying sporting endeavour with outlandish philosophical concepts, you might have ventured to say that João Moutinho had been reborn.
Round 12 Talking Points
That result meant that Benfica could move to within eight points of the top with a victory over Beira-Mar on Sunday evening, and the Eagles, visibly chastened by their catastrophic midweek loss in Israel, duly obliged, producing a 3-1 win that marked the return of their Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo. The lanky forward scored two and set up the third for Saviola, and reminded anyone who happened to be watching just how important he is to Jorge Jesus. For all that Alan Kardec has filled in with commitment and determination, he lacks the positional sense and experience that Cardozo possesses in spades.
Speaking of Jesus, he cut a post-match interview short after TVI reporter Hugo Cadete repeatedly pressed him on rumours of unrest in the Benfica dressing room. After batting away the first mention politely but firmly only to have it posed once more, Jesus asked Cadete if he was going to talk about the game. When Cadete replied that it was he who decided the course of the interview, Jesus responded with a curt “all right then, bye”, and stalked off. As heated exchanges go, it was hardly up there with Kevin Keegan, but the response from Benfica fans has been largely positive. With his season in danger of coming off the rails, Jesus could do worse than to install a siege mentality at the club.
Benfica are now clear in 2nd spot after Guimarães slid to a surprising 2-0 defeat at Marítimo, who are now unbeaten in six matches- a record bettered only by Porto. Manuel Machado railed against the officiating, but the Madeira club were largely good value for the victory, and continue to erase the memory of their poor start to the season. Rio Ave, who along with Marítimo propped up the embryonic table, also continued their winning ways, beating Naval 1-0 in Figueira da Foz. Rogério Gonçalves was brought in to reverse the slump initiated under Victor Zvunka, but Naval continue to plumb the depths- they have just five points from twelve games, with six goals for and twenty-two against. With the winter break just two rounds away, Naval are already looking marooned at the bottom.
Three points ahead of them, but still four from safety, are Portimonense, who fell to a bizarre 2-1 defeat at the hands of União de Leiria. The match kicked off at 4pm on Sunday, and all seemed in order when, after fifty-two minutes, the floodlights failed. With the light fading, and no sign of their restoration, the match was suspended until Monday afternoon, whereupon Portimonense conspired to ship two goals in the remaining thirty-eight minutes. Coach Litos received a vote of confidence from President Fernando Rocha following the loss, but with Portugal's sacking season fast approaching, the next two games (Sporting at home and Marítimo away) could decide his fate.
Vitória de Setúbal 0-1 Académica, Paços de Ferreira 1-0 Olhanense (forty-yard screamer from André Leão), Marítimo 2-0 Vitória de Guimarães, Sporting CP 1-1 FC Porto, Naval 0-1 Rio Ave, Beira Mar 1-3 Benfica, Sporting Braga 2-0 Nacional, Portimonense 1-2 União de Leiria.
Round Thirteen Fixtures:
Benfica-Olhanense, Vitória de Guimarães-Paços de Ferreira, União de Leiria-Sporting Braga, Rio Ave-Beira Mar, Nacional-Naval, Académica-Marítimo, Portimonense-Sporting CP, FC Porto-Vitória de Setúbal.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, as well as running a Portuguese football blog, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.