Futebol Feminino is growing in Portugal, but as Ben Shave reports, there are still many barriers faced by women who want to play the game.
April 25th has become a special day in Portugal. In 1974, a mixture of military and civilian forces toppled the authoritarian Estado Novo dictatorship, eventually restoring democracy to a country that had been ruled with an iron fist since António de Oliveira Salazar came to power in 1932. The Revolução dos Cravos was so called because rather than employ violence to achieve their aims, the Portuguese people chose to join the military in the streets in carrying carnations, a symbol of both peace and the left-wing ideals that propelled them into action. The coup was achieved with almost no casualties.
Since then, April 25th has been a national holiday in Portugal, and this year the semi-finals of the Taça de Portugal de Futebol Feminino were held. One of the matches passed without incident; Albergaria defeating Freamunde 7-3 to reach the final, held at Jamor, the old national stadium in Oeiras, near Lisbon.
The second semi-final was somewhat more eventful. Held at the Estádio Bessa in Porto, it pitted Boavista against rivals 1°Dezembro. The two teams had finished 3rd and 1st in the eighteen-match regular season, and going into the semi-final were 2nd and 1st in the Apuramento Campeão phase of the competition, with 1°Dezembro (Portugal’s most successful female team of recent times) looking the stronger.
Founded in 1994/95, the team have won every national title since 2001/02, and have competed in the last two editions of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The men’s senior team plays in the southern section of the II Divisão (the third tier of the Portuguese football pyramid) but to be frank, the achievements of the women in sixteen years have far outstripped those accomplished by generations of players since 1938.
As well as being the starting right back for the most successful female team in Portugal, Mariana Cabral is a journalist and blogger. I first starting following her on Twitter earlier in the season, and have since taken more of an interest in the women’s game – I don’t mind admitting that before that it rarely appeared on my radar.
Whilst Joey Barton’s decision to use his profession as a platform to espouse his views on everything from Nietzsche to the quality of punditry has attracted much attention this season, for female footballers in Portugal the need to do something else other than playing is just that, a need. The game remains amateur only, reflective of the fact that despite being a nation obsessed with football (this season’s Taça da Liga semi-final between Benfica and Sporting reportedly drew in almost a quarter of the population on television); the women’s game has, due to its relative youth, not yet gained the same traction as male competitions.
As a result, Mariana and her teammates remain amateurs, “which means we all have other jobs (or study). In my case, I'm a journalist by day and a footballer by night. I think most of us would love to play professionally but that is nowhere near reality yet. However, women's football in Portugal is growing at a steady pace and I do believe we will get there one of these days. Sooner rather than later.”
Whilst the fact that a successful female footballer cannot train full time and a squad player in the second tier can is in one sense lamentable, it has allowed Mariana time and space to chronicle the events that surround the female game, which – unfortunately – share one major characteristic with its male counterpart: a tendency for conspiracy, mistrust, and no shortage of ill-feeling. She takes up the story of what happened when 1°Dezembro travelled to the Bessa.
“The game went pretty smoothly and there was no fuss, really. The only problems were with the fans, who kept insulting us throughout the game. When the game ended [1°Dezembro won 2-1, qualifying for Saturday’s final] the fans went wild and the police told us to wait on the field before going in to the tunnel.
We waited for about 30 minutes and the people from Boavista kept insisting that we left, against police advice. The police had to force them to open up that plastic protection around the tunnel so we wouldn't get hit with anything. Unfortunately, when we headed for the tunnel, the fans threw lighters and other objects, and one of them actually hit one of our players in the face.”
Having visited the Bessa earlier this season, the idea of descending into the bowels of this once-proud but now sadly dishevelled stadium with a group of lighter-wielding fans in the way does not sound like an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Like their stadium, Boavista were once proud, but since being relegated from the top flight on corruption charges in 2008, the club has slid into a financial black hole; something which has only heightened the senses of those associated with it to the vaguest hint of conspiracy.
“Inside the tunnel, I was the one heading the group, and Boavista's assistant coach – who had been sent off during the game, for insulting the referee – kicked me in the legs, trying to trip me. I looked at him and kept going. That was when Catarina Sousa, a Boavista player – the tunnel was filled with players and other people I didn't recognize, but she was with Boavista's president, Álvaro Braga Júnior – came right at me and slapped me in the face four times in a row, asking ‘why are you smiling?’ I did not respond. My teammates behind me pushed her away and there was some confusion, with pushing here and there. I stood with a teammate next to the wall and one of the paintings in the tunnel – a painting of Nuno Gomes, actually – fell on top of us. That was when the police intervened and we finally got to our locker room. The referees were long gone by this point. Our bus had a police escort until we left Porto [1°Dezembro are based in Sintra, near Lisbon].”
At the time of writing no enquiry has been opened into what happened at the Bessa, although the Portuguese Football Federation are investigating Boavista’s meeting with Vilaverdense earlier in the season, which ended in a mass brawl and led to Boavista’s coach being suspended. To her credit, Mariana didn’t imply any link between the two incidents when I spoke to her, but it undoubtedly bears mentioning.
It is a harrowing story, and one that unfortunately can be seen as a logical extension of the prevailing atmosphere in Portuguese football. One legacy of the Estado Novo (in my experience, at least) is a widespread perception amongst football supporters – and perhaps society as a whole – that conspiracy and hidden agendas are an unfortunate fact of life. Similar perceptions (and realities) also exist in Spain and Italy, countries that share an authoritarian past similar to Portugal’s.
Before the game, Mariana had published a blog post that criticised A Bola, one of three national sports dailies, with a particularly large circulation in the central and southern regions. She believes that somewhere in the lead-up to the semi-final, the truth had been distorted and an ugly rumour developed. “It must be a crime of some sort, to win a game and actually crack a smile – instead of being terrified, like they wanted us to be. Some fans said I had disrespected Boavista but that is in no way true. I criticised A Bola for an article they wrote about one of our games a few days before, not Boavista. But you know how rumours are, there’s no way to stop them.”
The role of the press in Futebol Feminino has traditionally been a marginal one – Portugal may boast three national sports dailies, but an overwhelming percentage of their pages are devoted to the machinations of the men’s game, particularly those involving the traditional giants Benfica, Sporting, and Porto. “Lately it's been better, they've been writing a lot more about our games, but we still have a long way to go. A few months ago they wouldn't even write a small box with news about us, now we can go up to one page, which is pretty good.”
Yet as the incident at the Bessa shows, increased press coverage brings its own new set of problems. Expertise is impossible to acquire overnight, as is sensitivity to the rivalries, traditions and relationships that characterise any football competition.
To my mind the role of the blogger, whatever the subject, has always been to fill the void left by the relentless demands placed on conventional journalists by the modern 24-hour news cycle. It is an important role, and its development has enriched the way we consume all cultural pastimes, not just football. But just as the freedom of the press has sometimes been compromised the world over, the temptation of certain people to suppress dissenting voices remains an ever-present threat.
Not that this will stop Mariana. “I treasure my opinions and my freedom greatly, and I will never be silenced in any way. It has brought me some grief over the years, yes, but I like to speak my mind. One should always remember that there was a time when people in Portugal could not speak their minds without being assaulted or jailed, so we have to honour the people who fought for our rights.” In football as in life: 25 Abril, sempre.