Tensions are running high with inflammatory press releases from both sides as Portugal’s top two, separated by just one point, prepare to meet
31 March ~ Portugal dispatched Hungary 3-0 in their World Cup qualifier last weekend. It was an opportunity to bask once again in the Seleção’s status as European Champions, but rumbling away in the background during the whole two-week break from club football has been the looming Benfica v Porto Clássico.
The only sides that can realistically win the title now (Sporting lag by ten points) go into the game separated by a single point. Porto missed a great chance to take top spot in the previous round; Benfica drew at Paços de Ferreira, but the next day Porto were surprisingly held 1-1 at home by Vitória de Setúbal. Now, with just eight games left, the Clássico takes on supreme importance, not least because final positions, if the teams are level, are decided on head-to-head results (the first meeting finished 1-1).
If Benfica win, they go four points clear. If Porto win, they go two clear. In the run-in to the end of the season, Porto’s most difficult challenge will be a trip to fourth-place Braga, while Benfica visit their Lisbon rivals Sporting at the end of April. On form, Porto should get something out of this Saturday’s game, but on-field matters have been pushed to the back of coverage, replaced by off-field noise, supplied and fuelled by the clubs in question.
Through their director of communication, Porto attacked Benfica coach Rui Vitória for remonstrating with the match officials after the Paços draw: “Coaches exist to coach, not for this. The purpose of this behaviour is to try to gain advantage in the future. This is intended to influence the work of the match officials.”
In an interview this week, retired coach Manuel José, who was at Sporting, Boavista and Benfica in Portugal, and, most successfully, Al-Ahly of Egypt, said it was a generalised trend: “To be Champions in Portugal, it’s not enough to have the best coach and players and to play the best football. With this pressure everywhere… the decisive factor is the referee.”
To heap more pressure on the football authorities, Benfica issued a press release early last week, claiming “an unequivocal case of double standards in sports justice”, citing the sluggishness of disciplinary action for other clubs compared to the swiftness of action against them (in the persons of president Luís Filipe Vieira, football director Rui Costa and coach Rui Vitória). “Benfica has not been duly respected.”
As a follow-up, the club officially boycotted the Portuguese Football Federation’s second annual awards gala last week, as well as the Hungary game, even though it was played at the Estádio da Luz, Benfica’s home. Sceptical columnists and pundits suggest that the motive for the press release and the club’s actions, apparently strategically timed to coincide with the Clássico, is two-fold: to put indirect pressure on the match officials, and to pre-empt a negative result, slipping a ready-made excuse of alleged surreptitious, on-going persecution up their sleeve.
Added to all this is the question of the claques (ultras). Porto have been allocated 3,250 tickets for what will be a 65,000 sell-out. Fernando Madureira, leader of the Super Dragões, Porto’s ultras posted a photo on Facebook showing tickets for other sections of the stadium. “Owing to the great demand for tickets, and the fact that our club is only entitled to 3,250, I call on all Portistas to find other ways of getting tickets so that we can carry this invasion through!” Madureira also headed up the unofficial claque of the national team for the Hungary game, which exchanged verbal abuse outside the stadium with elements of Benfica’s unofficial ultras the No Name Boys.
All in all, tensions will be high before and during Saturday’s game. Benfica are seeking a fourth title in a row for the first time. Porto are the only club to have won five in a row, but they haven’t been champions for three years. There’s an awful lot at stake. Phil Town