Tributes have been pouring in after the very public death of Miklós Fehér, but Phil Town believes Benfica's mourning smacked more than a little of hypocrisy.
Miklós Fehér’s untimely death at the age of just 24 set into motion a wave of popular feeling not seen in Portugal since fado diva Amália Rodrigues passed on in 1999. The fact that it all happened live on television, and that it involved someone playing for Benfica, by far the best supported club in the country, went a long way to stoking up the hysteria.
It started on the pitch, with team-mates tearing at their hair, kneeling, praying, weeping. Even stony António Camacho, Benfica’s Spanish coach, broke down. The solidarity of Vitória de Guimarães’ players and, after initial jeers, their fans, was a taste of things to come. The coffin, draped in the Benfica standard, was driven 200 miles south by hearse to lie in state at the new Luz stadium. For two nights, thousands queued in the rain to file past Fehér’s mortal remains. They weren’t just benfiquistas, either; the giant statue of an eagle in the main entrance hall at the Luz was soon draped in scarves of many different colours. All the major clubs sent representatives.
“Miki leaves us a miracle!” ran a hopeful headline in A Bola, seeing in this solidarity a possible new direction for the strife-torn Portuguese game. But a week to the day later, on the same ground, it was back to business as usual as players, directors and fans were involved in scuffles after Vitória drew with Boavista.
Reactions to Fehér’s death ranged from the sublime (the stirring standing ovations during the minutes of “silence” before subsequent games), to the silly (the president of Salgueiros, one of Fehér’s former clubs, assuring us that “Miki will carry on scoring goals where he is”) to the frankly rather sick (a former referee described how he had presented Fehér’s parents with a framed yellow card “because it was the last thing he saw”).
Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira declared that the No 29 shirt would never again be worn by another Benfica player (but didn’t say that it would be removed from the shelves in the Benfica shop, where it was selling like hot cakes). And the club chartered a flight to send all its players, coaching staff and directors out to Hungary for the funeral.
But Benfica’s mourning smacked more than a little of hypocrisy. Fehér had never been a great favourite amongst benfiquistas and the administration had recently been trying desperately to offload him, thinking again only when Nuno Gomes was ruled out for a couple of months through injury.
Portugal had been a bad career move altogether for the promising 18-year-old from Gyor. During his five-and-a-half years in the country he had passed through FC Porto, Salgueiros and Benfica with little glory, achieving a measure of success only during a loan period at Sporting Braga (2000-01, 26 games, 14 goals). His time at Porto was a nightmare: he played just ten times in his first two seasons there, and was consigned to the B team for the second spell (2001-02) after a dispute between his agent and the club, notably in the person of president Pinto da Costa (manifestly silent following the player’s death).
Perversely, when Fehér moved to Benfica at the end of his contract, Porto made a claim for €6 million (£4m) for “nurturing” him and the case went to court. A week before he died, the decision came back – Benfica were to pay €600,000. Both clubs are set to appeal.
Fehér leaves behind him, then, a stuttering career and a small controversy that will keep his name in the papers for some time to come. But the suddenness and public nature of his death and a glorious smile just moments before he crumpled to the ground on a wet January night are already in the process of raising him to legendary status here.
From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month