When Miguel Rosa and Filipe Ferreira scored the two goals that enabled CFF Belenenses to beat Sporting Braga 2-1 in January, an audible sigh could be heard amongst the scattered faithful in Estádio do Restelo. Since a 2-0 win over Olhanense on 5th October last year, the dark blues had not tasted victory in the league. A real sense of drama and foreboding had begun to fall over the club that hauled itself so impressively back into the Portuguese top flight last season, after a brief three year spell in the wilderness of the Portuguese second tier, the sparsely populated and little followed Liga da Honra. That Alan brought Braga back into the game with a sumptuous goal worth taking a long and repeated look at only heightened the tension, but the home side held out for the much needed tonic of three points and a widening gap with the Superliga's bottom two, Olhanense and Paços de Ferreira. Since then, the fires of passionate belief have once again been snuffed by defeat on Madeira against Nacional and a stultifying 0-0 draw with Académica de Coimbra.
For Belenenses these have been difficult times to say the least. Since being relegated in 2009-10, the club have flirted with various forms of disaster, amongst them further demotion into the grey netherworld of Portuguese semi-professional football or total financial meltdown. Neither of these options involves setting the tables with pretty tablecloths, igniting the churasco and bringing out the party sixes, but there was for a time the real threat of a great club going extinct. This possibility was explored in an earlier article about the state of affairs back in 2011 with the club struggling to maintain its head above water.
Since then, fortunes have turned around somewhat and the club is once again beginning to look towards the future with more than just a modicum of positivity. Under the guidance of Dutch coach Mitchell van der Gaag, ex PSV, Motherwell, Utrecht player and stalwart Maritimo player and manager, Belenenses began to rise. Given the target of promotion back into the big time within three years, Van der Gaag didn't hang about, delivering the golden egg immediately.
The club enjoyed a fantastic promotion season last year, pushing all before them to go up in style and with points to spare. The optimism gripping the place was tangible, with new money and new direction offered by the board of Rui Pedro Soares, a Lisbon-based businessman and long-standing fan and socio of FC Porto, who runs a players' agency. With most of the existing debts paid off and a new young squad assembled and led by Van der Gaag, it was felt that the 2013-14 season could well see a continuation of last season's royal streak of good form, the confident momentum garnered from a season of winning enabling Belenenses to kick on up the ladder. But instead disaster struck.
Van der Gaag has been sidelined after a long-running coronary weakness flared up again, ironically during a match against his old club Maritimo, leaving him unable to take part in the hectic day to day workings of the club. Already carrying an implant, the Dutchman's heart problems forced him to take a back seat, assisting with some training sessions and sundry administrative duties and little more. Rudderless, the team, studiously packed with hungry young pros and off-beat finds from the semi-pro ranks, carried on without a true manager, and the lack of day to day guidance from above began to tell.
"Belenenses is a club with a proud and distinguished history. The first club to have a grass pitch, the first to have covered stands, a true giant of Portuguese football, which has been badly served by its administrators, victim of terrible management and selfish directors, who have brought humiliation to the thousands of Blues supporters in Portugal, the USA, the old Portuguese colonies in Africa and Brazil..." - Miguel Amaral of Belenenses blog Crónicas Azuis
People began to ask if the club had not begun to grow ahead of its natural curve, with Soares' three year plan for promotion now running at twice the original speed. Foundations needed to be put in place before the club could consider making a further leap towards its rightful historical position, which is often deemed to be somewhere close to a top six place. This is, after all, a club with a large and important slice of history attached to it. Their Restelo Stadium, opened in 1956, once played host to crowds of over 60,000.
Today it is still an imposing place, a giant bowl of dark blue seats curving around the natural hollow it occupies above the shimmering beauty of the River Tejo. It has the misfortune not only to share this football mad city with Benfica and Sporting, but also to have been placed in a sleepy middle class area best known for its dreamy lawns, cafés packed with pensioners and shining museums and monuments. Arch football territory Restelo most certainly is not. The real estate market offers a constant reminder that the club has a way out of financial desperation if it were to consider moving from its ancestral home, something many fans do not welcome. With the Portuguese economy in freefall, the construction industry at a standstill, this option awaits sunnier economic days in the future.
Belenenses, meanwhile, from being on the brink of joining the country's dead dog clubs, went to having the club chairman talking about nine years to be challenging for trophies. This kind of mindset takes some serious adjusting to. Forward planning, indeed planning of any sort, had always been a foreign body in this part of town in recent times.
The managerial reigns, meantime, have been taken up by youth coach Marco Paulo. The idea, again a new one in these parts, is to install a calm sense of continuity to a club which once seemed more content espousing another popular football ´c´ word: chaos. Luckily for them, a useful template to follow can be located not too far from the club's riverside location. Travel another fifteen kilometres west down the River Tejo towards the point where it empties into the great heaving mass of the Atlantic and you will roll up in swanky Estoril, a short stride from the beaches with its buzzing casinos and belle epoque hotels, its café terraces and octogenarian bodybuilders. The local club, ably run by another businesman-football agent axis, has not only survived in the Superliga, but has made the upper echelons its home and this season competed in the Europa League for the first time in its history. Belenenses, with a far deeper history and a larger if similarly upper crust catchment area, should be able - if run properly - to emulate their coastal cousins.
For now the target must be simply avoiding relegation. To go back down after all the work that has been put in would be a disaster for the club. The new watchwords of stability and continuity must be drummed into all present. With a reported €5 million investment, Soares is very unlikely to up sticks and leave. Young players too have shown a willingness to stay with the club, despite one or two inevitable departures, among them that of Diakité to Angola. In return, during the transfer window, the club recruited seven new players, including André Geraldes from Istanbul BB, a 22 year old who is hungry for first team action. Television money will also help to this end if the club manages to cling onto its top flight status. The income from local cable supplier Sporttv may be paltry compared to the millions on offer in England, but fall through the trap door into the Liga da Honra and it dwindles to peanuts and the occasional forced 11.30 kick off on a Sunday morning.
In a country where some of the biggest names in football are millionaire agents like Jorge Mendes and millionaire players like Cristiano Ronaldo, it feels a tad distasteful to see a stream of clubs such as Boavista, Salgueiros, Alverca, Estrela de Amadora, Campomaiorense, União de Leiria and now perhaps also Beira Mar teetering on the edge of oblivion (and in some cases falling over into the abyss) after playing significant roles in Portugal's recent football history.
It would be a tragedy of even greater proportions if Belenenses were to follow this group out of business. This might have been a real prospect three years ago. For the time being, however, the future looks unusually rosy for the dark blues, as long as they are able to win themsleves a little time and space to consolidate amongst Portugal's elite.