World Cup qualification under threat
24 November ~ "Worse than going to Gabon: Manchester United in an Indonesian video-clip" ran the headline on sports website Maisfutebol. The clip – in which Wayne Rooney and a few team-mates stand around sheepishly while local pop star Nidji suggests "making love across horizons" – may well have been ill considered, but Portugal's recent trip to the burgeoning African country for a friendly ran it uncomfortably close in the awfulness stakes. Taking advantage of the international date set aside by FIFA, the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) snatched at the €800,000 (£650,000) offered by their Gabonese counterparts.
The Gabonese federation must have been expecting more for their money than they got, though: no Cristiano Ronaldo, no Nani and only two or three regulars in the starting line-up. On an allotment of a pitch, the weakened Selecção huffed and puffed in the high humidity to scrape a 2-2 draw. (As can be seen here, the players' rendition of the national anthem is almost more tuneful than the band's.)
The conditions, the players available and the opposition made the game far from a prestigious outing and largely meaningless, prompting a typical reaction from outspoken FC Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa: "This game is an absurdity at a time when Portuguese clubs are involved in important European competitions. It's deplorable to remove players from their clubs, who don't receive anything in return, and take them wherever they please. The Federation is after money at the expense of the players." Pinto da Costa also took a swipe at coach Paulo Bento: "He made sure that Pepe (Real Madrid) and Bruno Alves (Zenit) only played a half each, but as for our players …" (João Moutinho played 73 minutes, Silvestre Varela 67).
Bento was quick to respond. "I don't interfere with the work of directors, and therefore I can't accept that they interfere with mine." He pointed out that on the same day, Porto's Colombian internationals James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez had played 90 and 80 minutes respectively in the Colombia v Brazil friendly in New Jersey, involving a bigger time difference than Gabon. "Either someone has something against the FPF and should sort that problem out, or they like the Colombian federation more," he said. In fact Porto have had a prickly relationship with the federation for some time, stoked by former national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who once famously called up Porto's third-choice keeper Bruno Vale in preference to Vítor Baía.
They weren't going to let Bento get away with having the effrontery to stand up to their leader now. In a press release headed "Who told you to play the double-bass, shoemaker?" – a riff on an old Portuguese proverb – the club said that Bento seemed "more worried about FC Porto than the opponents he meets on the pitch. He's lost visibility because of the team's performances and now he's trying to get on the front pages by attacking the president of FC Porto."
The club also stuck the boot into the head of the federation, Fernando Gomes: "At FC Porto, leadership has a name: the president. Apparently that's not the case at the FPF, which goes some way to explaining the difficulty the coach has had in concentrating on his duty: to win games." The FPF could hardly let that go by without comment and issued their own press release: "The federation supports Paulo Bento unreservedly and appeals for union around the goal that is common to all Portuguese, without exception: qualification for the World Cup 2014." With qualification hanging in the balance, union is indeed of paramount importance. This latest spat will not have helped. Phil Town