This weekend saw the curtain come down on José Eduardo Bettencourt's reign as President of Sporting Clube de Portugal. Ben Shave reports on the turmoil at the Alvalade.
They gathered, deep in the bowels of the Estádio José Alvalade. Jostling for position, scribbling frantically and nervously anticipating what was to come, they waited. As Saturday night crept inexorably towards the early hours of Sunday morning, they waited for a feast. Although they weren't certain what they were going to be fed, they knew it would be something good. After what they'd just seen, it had to be something good.
The news wires (do press rooms still have wires in this day and age?) began to light up around 11.45pm. Meanwhile back at the Alvalade, chaos had descended, as the baying horde feasted on the remains of a once-proud institution. They had been expecting a resignation, sure, maybe even a sacking. But this was more than anyone had the right to expect. This was every headline writer's dream; this was the end of an era.
Rewind three hours. As the fans – all 17,643 of them – filed into the Alvalade for Sporting's second home game of the new year, optimism was guarded, if not especially high. Last Saturday had seen the Lions despatch one of their main rivals for Europa League qualification with admirable poise and composure under pressure. Whilst Braga haven't hit the heights of 2009/10, Sporting's display that evening had been impressive, with their usual schizophrenic defending and wasteful finishing conspicuous by its absence.
No one expected a title challenge to follow, but they did expect a second consecutive home win over Paços de Ferreira – a side who travelled to the Alvalade with just three away wins in the last calendar year, and only one this season. Against bottom side Naval. Paços downed Sporting on the opening day of 2010/11, but as we began the segunda volta, the odds on them repeating the trick appeared long indeed. The two sides had met at the Alvalade since David Simão condemned Paulo Sérgio to a losing start to the season: Sporting ran out 1-0 winners in a Taça 4th round tie that was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. A Paços win simply wasn't in the script.
But, as regular readers of this column will know, Sporting don't have a script. Actually, that might be their major problem: scripts. As in they can't decide on one. Because Sporting are harder to decipher than the Dead Sea Scrolls, and possess only slightly more consistency than an ice cream after a few hours in the sun. Sporting are, to put it kindly, an enigma. To put it unkindly, they are a bloody mess.
After the final whistle, as the remaining fans whipped out the white hankies and whistled the players off the pitch, there was a tangible sense that this was perhaps, finally, the end of something. Never mind the fact that Paços goalkeeper Cassio had produced his finest performance of the season, making three spectacular saves and a string of fine ones to keep his side in the game, particularly during the first half. Never mind the fact that Samuel's opening strike for Paços was a knock-down drag-out nailed-on goal of the season, no, the century contender, and besides, Rui Patrício was unsighted. Never mind the fact that Mário Rondon had conned inexperienced referee Luís Catita into awarding Paços a penalty, and never mind the fact that Sporting had produced some scintillating attacking football whilst chasing the game. Something was rotten in the heart of Denmark, and the fans couldn't hold their noses any longer.
Nor, as it turned out, could President José Eduardo Bettencourt. Elected with a whopping 90% of the vote back in June 2009, the former banker pledged to banish the memories of the turbulent Filipe Soares Franco era, a promise that was to prove his undoing. Unable to combine financial prudence with attempts to meet the expectations of fans starved of a championship since 2002, Bettencourt's administration chose to not merely maintain the status quo, but to enhance it. With the timing of a Charlie Chaplin silent comedy, the club confirmed yesterday the issuing of eighteen million new shares, which would raise the available capital to €39 MN. You might argue that it doesn't matter how much capital you have at your disposal if you continue to sign the likes of Purovic, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Maniche. You'd be right.
But it's not just the money wasted on signings and wages, Sporting are hardly alone in committing such acts of foolishness. Maybe it was the public falling-out with João Moutinho, previously an unimpeachable idol. Perhaps it was the dismissal of Sporting Director Ricardo Sá Pinto, and replacing him with the only man given to more erratic outbursts and confrontation, Costinha. Then there was the alienation and easing out of Paulo Bento, a coach who had delivered a measure of stability to this most unstable of clubs, a coach who has continued to display his potential in charge of the national side.
Make no mistake, Sporting's problems go beyond the Bettencourt administration. But as the fans who waved their white hankies and whistled understood, you have to start somewhere. Where the club goes from here is anybody's guess – elections are reportedly going to be scheduled for early April. Bettencourt's acolytes (coach Paulo Sérgio, Costinha, and recently appointed Director-General José Couceiro) are unlikely to survive the inevitable purge. The baying horde are licking their chops.
Round Sixteen Talking Points
Should Sporting's administrative strife affect the side's performances on the pitch, there will be no shortage of other clubs looking to take advantage. Chief amongst these are Vitória de Guimarães, who lie three points behind the Lions in 4th. Manuel Machado's men had a woeful end of 2010, taking just a single point from a possible twelve, with President Emílio Macedo reportedly attending a recent training session to remind the players of their duties as professionals. It worked: Vitória picked up their first Liga victory since the middle of November with a hard-fought 1-0 win at home to Olhanense. The goal came five minutes into the second half from João Ribeiro, the young midfielder finally finding a way past the excellent Ricardo Batista, who may have played his way into the attentions of larger outfits with a display of eye-catching athleticism.
With Sporting teetering on the verge of collapse, and hated rivals Braga burdened by their European commitments, a little more consistency could see Vitória capitalise come May.
Below Vitória lie four clubs separated by just two points: Nacional, Braga, União de Leiria and Beira Mar. The latter two met this past weekend at the Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa in Leiria, and it was the away side who ran out convincing 3-0 winners. Following the death of his father, coach Leonardo Jardim would have had every reason to remain with his family in Madeira, but the 36 year-old chose to return to his team, displaying commitment to the cause that went above and beyond the call of duty.
The Aveiro club's financial woes are well-documented, yet Jardim has found a group of players that combine the ruggedness to grind out the points needed to survive, but also inject each performance with high-tempo, attacking football. After putting the game to bed with fifteen minutes remaining, Artur, the winger who came up through the club's youth system and has already endured two top-flight relegations, made a beeline for the twenty or so travelling fans, diving into them. It might seem cliched, but Beira-Mar are undoubtedly 2010/11's feel-good story.
There was little of the feel-good factor about Benfica's hard-fought 1-0 victory at Académica. A bad-tempered game that saw Pape Sow and Fábio Coentrão dismissed either side of half-time was decided in controversial fashion. Óscar Cardozo's free-kick was headed into the arms of Peiser, until it took a rather large deflection off the upper arm of Javier Saviola and flew into the back of the net. The Académica players immediately protested but the goal was given, despite replays showing that the Argentine was clearly standing in an offside position.
Benfica registered their discontent yesterday over the “biased” Sport TV commentary of the incident which saw Pape Sow shown a straight red after attempting to clean Cardozo's teeth with his studs, but given that the goal which won them the game shouldn't have stood, the Eagles' protests will likely end there. They remain eight points behind Porto, who cruised past Naval on Sunday evening.
Round Sixteen Results
Portimonense 0-3 Sporting Braga (Braga's first away win this season), Vitória de Guimarães 1-0 Olhanense, Sporting CP 2-3 Paços de Ferreira, Nacional 1-0 Rio Ave, União de Leiria 0-3 Beira Mar, Vitória de Setúbal 2-4 Marítimo (Manuel Fernandes under pressure at Setúbal), FC Porto 3-1 Naval, Académica 0-1 Benfica.
Round Seventeen Fixtures
Paços de Ferreira-União de Leiria, Olhanense-Académica, Sporting Braga-Vitória de Setúbal, Rio Ave-Vitória de Guimarães, Beira Mar-FC Porto, Naval-Portimonense (loser is doomed, to all intents and purposes), Benfica-Nacional (no David Luiz or Coentrão for Benfica, both suspended), Marítimo-Sporting.
As well as co-editing and writing for IBWM, Ben runs a blog on Portuguese football, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.