Portugal – The Benfica circus

More turmoil has engulfed the biggest club in the country, who carelessly keep losing coaches. Phil Town reports on the shambolic mess that is Benfica

Consider it, if you like, a neat and timely metaphor. After the recent Benfica v Sporting derby (2-2), they began to dismantle Benfica’s grand old Luz stadium. Parts of the stand were pulled down and along with the seats and terracing went the massive eagle that kept guard over the entrance to the stadium, as well as the bronze statue of Eusébio, also at the entrance.

The Luz has been the venue for half a century of glorious moments that have, however, become in­creas­ingly rare over the past decade. The demise of the emblematic stadium coincides directly with an ab­sol­ute low point in the club’s history. Benfica’s last Por­tuguese title was won in the 1993-94 season. They won their last Portuguese Cup in 1996. Three coaches came and went last season, the very worst in the club’s history, when they finished sixth in the league and failed to qualify for Europe for the first time ever.

On the rebound from this disaster, the club invest­ed heavily in what was dubbed (laughably in retrospect) A Equipa Maravilha (“the Dream Team”). In came the highly-rated Angolan striker Pedro Mantorras and almost an entire team of foreign players  including Slovene star Zlatko Zah­ovic from Valencia. Combining these and other experienced talents with the spirit of the youngsters that were involved in last season’s crash would surely bring the success that Benfiquistas, with ever-waning patience, craved.

No. The team has failed dismally to impress anyone at all, consistently playing like a bunch of complete strangers. By Christmas they had drawn seven and lost two of their 16 league games, leaving them an ominous fourth and five points off the pace. And they were out of the cup, falling at the first hurdle to Marítimo.

Numerous reasons have been put forward for the on-going slump in the club’s fortunes. There have been injuries to key players (most importantly Zahovic and Croatian forward Tomislav Sokota) and the team can point to a number of refereeing decisions that have gone against them this season, most recently two flagrant penalties not given against Boavista (in a 1-0 defeat). But there has also been a notable lack of hunger and urgency, not to men­tion cohesion, the blame for which must be shar­ed between the players themselves and coach Toni, an en­gaging man who has always loved the club but whose coaching and leadership skills are questionable.

Most obvious is the chronic absence of continuity at directorial, coaching and playing levels, for which the directors are chiefly to blame. When Ar­tur Jorge was sacked as coach in the mid-Nineties, he famously labelled the club “a circus”, referring to the calamitous­ly amateurish way it was run. Not much has changed.

President Manuel Vilarinho was elected a year ago, promising to introduce honesty and transparency after the reign of João Vale e Azevedo, still under arrest pen­d­ing fraud charges. One of Vilarinho’s election trumps was Toni, the last coach to win the title for the club and as straight as a die. He replaced José Mour­inho, formerly of Barcelona, who had started making claims beyond his station, including one for an extension to his contract after a 3-0 defeat of Sporting. Mour­inho left with his tail between his legs, accused of psy­chological blackmail and vilified by the board and fans.

Just a year later, history is being rewritten. Toni, a hero then, has become the villain. Following the most recent set of poor results, graffiti against him was daub­ed around the Luz. The directors, with a weak Vilarinho increasingly upstaged by newcomer Luís Filipe Vieira (who won immense popular support by bringing prodigy Mantorras to the Luz) mumble their sup­port but convince nobody. Shortly afterwards, Toni resigned, very probably nudged from above.

And Benfica turned to Mourinho (currently with União de Leiria). But once again he made conditions they didn’t like and the deal was called off. So the board announced as coach Jesualdo Ferreira, Toni’s assistant but clearly the brains behind the duo. But it’s obvious to the whole world, including of course Ferreira him­self and the players, that he is second choice to Mour­inho. It must be doubtful whether he will last long.

Benfica does indeed often resemble a circus. As Toni said when he resigned: “The most stable thing about Benfica is the instability.” It’s no way to run the biggest club in Portugal, that’s for sure.

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month