The Art of Controlling your Environment

Sporting continue to flounder in the Liga, but election fever has gripped the Alvalade. Ben Shave has the story, and all the action from round 24.

Electioneering is a delicate business, awash with slippery communications strategists, malleable pollsters and irate, over-worked journalists. Throw the additional ingredient of an ailing football club into the mix and you're left with a highly combustible brew. Rarely has the Danger: Do Not Consume label been more necessary.

It takes a special type of personality to not only consume such a concoction, but to swill it down their necks with the reckless abandon of that bloke outside Oxford Circus tube, with the same nihilistic disregard for the long-term implications. It's not for the faint-hearted: as well as the aforementioned mixers, you can throw in libellous accusations, and a set of players that continue to find new and morbidly fascinating ways to tarnish the reputation of a once-proud football club. That's right, dear reader, it's election season at Sporting Clube de Portugal.

Since José Eduardo Bettencourt and his beleaguered administration announced their collective resignation back in January, the Alvalade has been riven with rhetoric and increasingly rancourous debate concerned with the direction of Portugal's third grande. Having fallen behind F.C Porto and Benfica both on the pitch and the annual balance sheets, this election could reasonably be described as the club's most important moment in recent memory.

This season has seen Sporting reach critical mass. They began 2010/11 with the assumption that nothing could be as bad as the previous campaign, and although the Lions are on course to finish 3rd (something which is more down to the failings of their rivals than their own performances, it has to be said), the club have continued to plumb the depths with alarming regularity. One by one the main protagonists have exited stage left: director of football Costinha, Bettencourt, and the hapless Paulo Sérgio, who refused to resign but in the end was pushed before he was, well, pushed.

Director-General José Couceiro, a man with a direct line to the club's golden age (he is related to Fernando Peyroteo, one of os cinco violinos who entranced fans during the 1930's and 1940's) was installed as coach; but has done little more than maintain the status quo: Saturday's match was the latest in a series of drab home performances against unambitious opposition. União de Leiria were well-organised, and goalkeeper Mika (making his full Liga debut) delivered a performance that he himself described as “inexplicable, fantastic”, but Sporting's toothlessness was wince-inducing, Hélder Postiga in particular spurning a number of chances that the recently-departed Liédson would almost certainly have buried.

But here's the thing. The crowd didn't seem to mind that much. Sure, Yannick Djaló was whistled, but as any Sporting fan will tell you, that's par for the course. Sure, the Alvalade was noticeably empty (15,510 was the official attendance), but again, nothing new there. Indeed, those that did make the trip were in fine voice, encouraging the players and displaying a fraction of the usual murmurings of discontent and frustration. The reason? Electioneering, my dear Watson, as Sherlock Holmes' pollster brother might have said. For as March 26th and election day has drawn nearer, the candidates willing to fill the ideological vacuum that haunts the Alvalade have engaged in an absorbing contest of one-upmanship that will be familiar to followers of political machinations. It's a simple game, grounded in that familiar playground staple: my dad is bigger than your dad.

The five men (Pedro Baltazar, Bruno de Carvalho, Dias Ferreira, Godinho Lopes, and Sérgio Abrantes Mendes) have spent the last month or so pressing flesh, kissing badges and vociferously dissecting the shortcomings of one another with a fervour that is both admirable and slightly worrying. The blows have been thrown with more frequency than by Manny Pacquiao during his twelve-round demolition of Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium, though (un)fortunately for observers, they have been strictly of the verbal kind.

But there's no belt line in this particular title fight: money laundering, poll-rigging, and personal denigrations have all become de riguer in a conflict that has – naturally – been played out in the pages of Portugal's three sports dailies and numerous television chat shows. Whilst the winner won't have his hands raised until next weekend, it was De Carvalho who landed a potentially fight-changing shot after the final whistle on Saturday evening, presenting his promised coach: Marco Van Basten.

The choice of coach is always amongst the juiciest of the numerous tidbits in the build-up to any club election, and whilst names such as Frank Rijkaard (Ferreira), Zico (Baltazar) and Braga's Domingos Paciência (Lopes) had been circulating amongst fans and press alike, De Carvalho was the first to parade his in public; the importance of which is hard to overstate.

In many ways, the juxtaposition of Sporting's woeful finishing and the presence of the legendarily predatory Van Basten would have been an acutely painful one for supporters, but for De Carvalho it was a priceless piece of political theatre. The Dutchman made all the right noises, declaring that “I know most of the Sporting squad. I've done my homework. There is a lot of quality there but also a big lack of confidence. With some new players next season we can do a good job.” It might not have been Maximus Decimus Meridius-esque, but Van Basten's willingness to discuss his commitment to the project is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by sportinguistas.

For De Carvalho, Monday's headlines put the exclamation point on a campaign that appears to have all the momentum heading into the final week of glad-handing. A poll conducted for A Bola gave him 42.6% of the vote, with Lopes his nearest rival but trailing significantly with 18.5%. The two candidates represent two fundamentally opposed schools of thought. De Carvalho has rarely been out of the headlines in the last fortnight, with his promise of a €50 MN spending fund attracting much attention. The money has purportedly been guaranteed by a trio of Russian investors, and whilst this has been greeted with suspicion by the other candidates, the fact that one of the Russians succeeded Roman Abramovich as Governor of the Chukotka region, has, combined with Sporting's well-documented financial difficulties, made the prospect of the modernising De Carvalho a tempting one, if polls are to be believed.

By contrast, Lopes has surrounded himself with the great and the good of yesteryear, with former forward and coach Manuel Fernandes a notable supporter of his campaign. Presenting himself as the candidate of continuity, Lopes' campaign is also the only one containing a promise to hire a Portuguese coach, believed to be Paciência, who is out of contract at Braga in June and has refused to discuss his future. Whilst any number of embittered ex-campaign strategists would warn against placing too much stock in pre-election prognoses, it does increasingly appear that De Carvalho and Lopes are to be the leading contenders in the battle for the future of Sporting Clube de Portugal, a battle that has captivated not just supporters of the club, but the wider Portuguese football community. To the polls!

Round 24 Talking Points

Whilst Sporting's future is still being wrestled over, the outcome of the season for their fellow grandes appears to be rapidly heading towards the point of no return. Porto's 3-1 home win over Académica saw the Dragons deliver a stodgy first half performance, before turning on the style after the interval. It was comfortable in the end for André Villas Boas' men, who played with a verve that belied the size of their lead at the top of the table.

The reason for this intensity was simple: Porto are now thirteen points clear of Benfica (who defeated Paços 5-1 in a highly entertaining encounter at the Mata Real on Monday evening), with a possible eighteen remaining. For those of you at the back, that means that they are just one victory away from securing their twenty-fifth Liga title. Porto's next fixture? A trip to the Estádio da Luz, for O Clássico.

At the other end of the table, Portimonense (who looked nailed on for relegation four weeks ago) continued their mini-revival with a 2-1 home win over Vitória de Guimarães. Urged on by a raucous crowd of 2961 – attendance figures have spiked since the re-opening of the Estádio Municipal de Portimão – Carlos Azenha's men appeared to have shot their bolt after captain Ricardo Pessoa saw his penalty saved by Nilson, but continued to press for a winner, which eventually came courtesy of Pires' instinctive tap-in after Pessoa had struck a gorgeous free-kick off the post.

Portimonense may well have left it too late, with Vitória de Setúbal's victory at home to Nacional leaving them five points adrift of safety with six to play, but the Algarve club are at least going down fighting. One can only speculate as to how much better they might have done had they not been forced to relocate to the soulless Estádio Algarve for the first nineteen rounds of the campaign, whilst the Municipal underwent renovations – renovations which were delayed on multiple occasions.

The most comprehensive victory of the weekend came in Funchal, where Marítimo ran out 4-0 winners over Olhanense. Both clubs are hovering around the wrong end of the table, with Olhanense in particular appearing to be entering a slump at precisely the wrong moment. Daúto Faquirá handed starts to two January reinforcements in Tiero and Dady, but neither was effective as his team slumped to their worst defeat of the season. Any outside ambitions of European football are receding into the distance, and after an impressive start to his tenure, Faquirá will perhaps be feeling the pressure as the season enters its final phase.

His counterpart on Sunday, Pedro Martins, will be feeling the same pressure lifting from his shoulders. Marítimo have scored seven goals in their last two matches without reply, and after receiving the dreaded training ground visit from the President, Martins has done well to engineer this latest revival of fortunes.

Round 24 Results:

Portimonense 2-1 Vitória de Guimarães, Sporting CP 0-0 União de Leiria, Marítimo 4-0 Olhanense, Naval 2-2 Beira Mar (two penalties for Naval and a red card for Beira Mar in the last eight minutes), Vitória de Setúbal 2-1 Nacional, F.C Porto 3-1 Académica, Sporting Braga 1-0 Rio Ave (Braga move up to 4th, good week for them) Paços de Ferreira 1-5 Benfica.

Round 25 Fixtures:

União de Leiria-Marítimo, Académica-Portimonense, Beira Mar-Sporting Braga, Rio Ave-Vitória de Setúbal, Olhanense-Naval, Vitória de Guimarães-Sporting CP, Benfica-F.C Porto, Nacional-Paços de Ferreira.

As well as writing for and co-editing IBWM, Ben runs a blog on Portuguese football, Cahiers du Sport. Follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.