VAR controversy sparks corruption claims among Benfica, Porto and Sporting

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Video refereeing was supposed to help the situation in Portugal but questionable recent decisions have resulted in the top three clubs trading accusations and insults

14 November ~ There were those of us who hoped it might be a watershed season in Portugal – the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system was going to remove suspicion of bias, the playing fields would be levelled and football would become the focus of attention. In fact, with a third of league games played, it’s already been one of the most controversial seasons ever, starting with the VAR itself.

While the scope of the VAR’s function has been widely misunderstood, its real and perceived failings have merely stoked conspiracy theories that the big clubs are being protected. To give just one example, it mysteriously went on the blink (never satisfactorily explained) on 66 minutes in an Aves v Benfica game, delicately poised at 1-2, and ten minutes later Benfica scored after a clear-as-day foul by their striker Jonas, not given. Far from easing the pressure on referees, the VAR has become yet another element of refereeing to criticise.

Benfica have also been under intense scrutiny for alleged corruption of referees. A long-standing case involving gifts given to match officials (including vouchers that entitled each to meals-for-four at the Luz Stadium restaurant) was shelved in August, but it’s now been revealed that one of the arbitrators judging the case requested five complimentary tickets for a Benfica v Marítimo game last season, and got them.

And then there’s the question of the emails. Since June, Porto’s own TV channel Porto Canal, through the club’s director of communication Francisco J Marques, has been drip-drip-dripping emails sent among backroom staff at Benfica and figures involved in refereeing. Although there have as yet been no revelations of direct corruption as such, the sense is at least that a cosiness exists which is far from healthy. Marques says he received the emails anonymously. Benfica were naturally incensed that their systems might have been hacked and filed an injunction to stop the emails being aired; it was rejected in October.

On October 19, four months after Marques had handed his email file over to the police, the authorities swooped on the Luz to confiscate material to support what the public prosecutor’s office called “an ongoing investigation into the crimes of passive and active corruption”. “They came at last,” said a representative of Benfica’s legal department. “Given the insinuations and suggestions made regarding the fraudulent facts practised by Benfica, we were all avidly wishing for the only means by which these accusations could be destroyed, which was what happened today.”

In an interview last week given by Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira to a benign Benfica TV, he said that “There is no corruption at Benfica, and there never will be [although here, the use of tenses didn’t appear to rule out what might have happened in the past]. What we have are six [sic] months of a crime committed against Benfica, repeated on a weekly basis.”

He also sniped at Sporting: “Historically, whenever they have an alliance [an unwritten one with Porto], they always fall by the wayside; they’re not going to win anything.” Sporting’s director of communication, Nuno Saraiva, responded: “Either he’s a sorcerer or he’s trying, abusively and criminally, to define the rules of the game.” The club’s outspoken president, Bruno de Carvalho, reacted in his customary diplomatic style: “The interview I saw was given by a perfect idiot.”

This is all welcome filler for the three national daily sports newspapers – A Bola (Benfica-oriented), Record (Sporting), O Jogo (Porto) – and the arguably far-too-numerous TV discussion programmes involving often frenzied pundits “representing” the Big Three, sadly to the exclusion of any other club.

Of course, one of the aims in creating all this noise will be to unsettle opponents in the race for the championship. Benfica, third and struggling to find real form, are desperately seeking their fifth straight title to equal Porto’s record (1995-99). Porto, currently clear at the top, are desperate to prevent that happening. And Sporting, second, are after their first title since 2002. Phil Town