31 March ~ The Portuguese domestic season is coming to a thrilling crescendo. For a change, three clubs are in with a shout at winning the title at this late stage: Sporting Braga, FC Porto and Benfica, in that order. Benfica and Porto, old hands at this game, have begun to use all the tricks up their sleeves to gain an edge. This includes the timeworn tactic of criticising referees, which both deflects attention away from weak performances – both sides have stuttered in recent weeks – and puts pressure on the referees of upcoming games. Things have come to a head in the last ten days.
Benfica said the league table was "a lie due to the direct influence of the referees", this after Pablo Aimar had been sent off against Olhanense for a challenge that would have made Jackie Chan proud. After FC Porto were knocked out of the League Cup by Benfica 3-2, club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa said that "all referees that are recognised as being bad" should be sacked.
Sporting Lisbon, out of the real title race but perennial champions at whinging, laid into referee Bruno Paixão after he had the temerity to give two penalties against them within a minute in their 2-0 defeat at Gil Vicente. Club president Luís Godinho Lopes called for Paixão to be banned from football for life. The only leading club not to get involved is Braga, preferring to concentrate on winning games – 13 in a row now.
In the wake of the contestation, hackers posted on the internet the personal details of all the referees that officiate games in the top two divisions. That was the last straw for the men in black. They had a meeting with the football federation on Tuesday and voiced their intention to go on strike. The federation's relatively new president, Fernando Gomes, assuaged their anger a little, but the threat of strike remains.
Gomes has written to the clubs to ask for moderation: "Make your club an active part of the pacification of our football and the creation of a climate of tranquility for the rest of the season. I ask you to avoid the use of offensive language that calls into question the respectability, dignity, honour and honesty of the referees."
There are some crunch games coming up: Benfica v Braga this weekend, Braga v Porto and Sporting Lisbon v Benfica next. It will be interesting to see if the mouthpieces of the top clubs will be willing and able to bite their tongues if vital decisions go against them. Phil Town