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Several players were injured when supporters stormed Sporting’s training ground ahead of the cup final, rounding off a toxic season in Portugal

17 May ~ Tuesday was possibly the blackest day in the 112-year history of Sporting Clube de Portugal. Around 50 masked “fans" invaded the club’s training ground unchecked and proceeded to assault players and coaching staff in the dressing room. Reports have it that hitherto highly popular Dutch striker Bas Dost, the club’s top scorer this season with 27 league goals, was pushed to the floor, punched and kicked, receiving injuries to his legs and head which, together with the psychological shock (“I’m speechless, empty”), are likely to put him out of this Sunday’s cup final; Colombian striker Fredy Montero was slapped; Argentinian midfielder Rodrigo Battaglia was attacked with a belt; coach Jorge Jesus was headbutted. Several players have asked for legal advice from the players’ union, apparently with a view to unilaterally terminating their contracts with just cause.

Various pundits have suggested that the attack was made at the behest of club president Bruno de Carvalho, recently at loggerheads with the players and coaching staff. He denied any involvement and tried to play down the incident: “It’s annoying,” he said, adding: “Crime is a part of everyday life.” The police arrested 23 of the culprits at the training ground, all reportedly members of Juve Leo, one of Sporting’s registered ultra groups, although the group itself, with 7,000 members, has denied responsibility. The 23 are subject to charges that include trespass, aggravated assault, abduction, possession of illegal weapons, arson and terrorism.

It was the culmination of a toxic season in Portuguese football (including mutual suspicion and verbal abuse between clubs, refereeing controversies and police investigations into cases of corruption) and a couple of months of high tension at Sporting. After the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final home defeat against Atlético Madrid, Carvalho took to Facebook (until recently his preferred means of communication) to lay into the team, calling the players “spoilt kids” – not the first time he’d insulted them. The players defended themselves with posts on social media, demanding support from the president. The president reacted angrily, calling the players’ response an act of insubordination. Coach Jesus demonstrated unexpected diplomatic skills to pour oil on the troubled waters.

Perhaps surprisingly, the team did not collapse; they narrowly failed to turn the Europa League tie around in the second leg and kept their title hopes mathematically alive until the penultimate day. But on the last day, with Porto confirmed as champions, Sporting needed simply to equal Benfica’s result to clinch second place, which would potentially have given them access to desperately needed money from the Champions League (they would have entered at the third preliminary round). It was not to be: Benfica beat Moreirense at home, Sporting lost at Marítimo.

Players and staff needed police protection at the airport in Madeira and in Lisbon later that night when driving away from the club’s stadium; a handful of fans managed to gain entry into the underground car park at the stadium and tried to attack club captains Rui Patrício and William Carvalho.

But the team put the weekend’s events behind them and began to prepare the run-in to Sunday’s final against Desportivo das Aves – until the training-ground incident. Hundreds of loyal fans gathered at Alvalade Stadium on Tuesday night (a hastily made banner declared “50 are not 3.5 million” – the estimated number of Sporting fans globally) to show solidarity with the players; they’re going to need all the moral support they can get in the days leading up to the cup final.

There were suggestions that it would be impossible for the final to be played at all because of the abnormal pressure on the Sporting players and the risk of further violence. In view of the seriousness of the incident the minister of the interior, Isabel Oneto, said that the final would go ahead, but with heightened security. Political figures have condemned the attacks, with the president of the republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared himself “vexed by the image spread around Portugal and the world”. The president traditionally presents the trophy at the final; it is uncertain whether he will now attend.

The chaos at Sporting was exacerbated on Wednesday with the news that the public prosecutor is conducting investigations (codenamed “Cashball”) into possible corruption around five of this season’s games involving the club; André Geraldes, director of football, has been arrested. Bruno de Carvalho is widely seen as being directly and exclusively responsible for the poisonous atmosphere at the club, and pressure is rapidly growing for him to step down. He has called for an EGM of associate members of the club to clear the air, but many view such a meeting with trepidation due to the possibility of more violence. Phil Town 

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