Friday 14 August ~
Failing an extremely unlikely historical blip – such as Boavista’s success in 2001 – you can once again choose any one from three for the Portuguese title. Benfica claim to have six million fans around the world and they were jubilant last Christmas – the team were sitting on top of the table and were thus the unofficial winter champions. It didn’t last, naturally, and they trundled in third behind FC Porto and Sporting.
But wave any straw in front of a benfiquista’s nose and he’ll grasp at it. The close-season has given them two more to clutch at: transfers and friendlies. As Águias (the Eagles) have signed nine players, for around €24 million that they haven’t really got, making them the transfer runners-up (Porto have signed 11). But Benfica will claim a victory in terms of quality.
Some of the new signings actually do look handy for a change, especially Javier Saviola and Javi Garcia from Real Madrid, and Ramires from Cruzeiro. They, along with a Pablo Aimar reborn under new coach Jorge Jesus and Angel Di Maria looking five years more mature than last season’s ineffectual waif, have helped Benfica to four bits of pre-season silverware (Guadiana, Amsterdam, City of Guimarães and their own Eusébio Cup against AC Milan). Nuno Gomes has tried to put a lid on the euphoria bubbling furiously away in benfiquista hearts: “We haven’t won anything yet,” he’s said. In a nutshell, Nuno.
But Benfica do look in a better position than they have been for a long time to challenge Porto’s hegemony (14 titles in the last two decades to Benfica’s three, Sporting’s two and Boavista’s one) and stop their march to a second Penta (five straight titles) during that time. Os Dragões (the Dragons) have had to replace the highly influential midfielder Lucho González, who left for Marseille, plus the striker Lisandro and full-back Aly Cissokho (both Lyon-bound), sold for a whopping total of €57m making Porto the top transfer earners by a mile. However, anyone doubting their ability to adapt need only look back to last season when they started shakily after losing Pepe, Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Quaresma but eventually came up with the goods.
Addicted To Winning was A Bola’s headline after Porto won the first official trophy of the season, the SuperTaça Cândido de Oliveira against Paços de Ferreira (2-0). This will be Porto’s main weapon once again: their mystique of invincibility. It helps of course that also have some not-half-bad players, newcomers Silvestre Varela and Fernando Belluschi among them. And then there’s the – why not? – incredible Hulk, who disappointed in the showcase Manchester United games last season but, already in blistering form, must surely explode on to the international scene this. A question mark over Porto’s prospects will be whether they can hold on to skipper Bruno Alves; a move to Barcelona is still on the cards, and his towering presence at the Dragão would be sorely missed.
The last of the Três Grandes, Sporting, have gone for financial stability, meaning that they’ve signed just four players, including Matias Fernández from Villarreal and Felipe Caicedo from Manchester City. Looking on the positive side, this should mean a continuity advantage over their rivals, but pre-season performances have been poor; there was frustrated whistling coming from the Alvalade stands in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against FC Twente, which must be a record for premature dissatisfaction.
Key for Sporting again will be perennial top-scorer Liedson, whose naturalisation papers are due to be issued. He will then be available for the Portuguese national team for the vital World Cup qualifiers against Denmark and Hungary in September; if he gets the nod from Carlos Queiroz, he’ll be the third Luso-Brazilian to represent the Selecção after Deco and Pepe.
There are already protectionist noises coming from the players’ union, which recently published figures for foreigners registered to play in the league last season (53.7 per cent of all players – second in Europe, apparently, after England with 59 per cent). Thirty years ago this week, Benfica fielded their first ever foreigner: the Brazilian Jorge Gomes. On July 24 this year, they beat Sunderland 2-0 in Amsterdam, starting with ten South Americans and just one European – Javi Garcia, a Spaniard.
Refreshingly, though, all the top-tier clubs will begin the season with Portuguese coaches. Unless, that is, there are any last-minute sackings before it all kicks off this weekend. It wouldn’t be the first time. Phil Town