Most of the controversy in the Portuguese season so far has happened on the sidelines. Phil Town reports
It’s been a vintage season for punch-ups in Portuguese football, with tunnels featuring strongly. In October, Benfica’s top-scoring Paraguayan striker Óscar Cardozo and Sporting Braga’s Brazilian defender André Leone were sent off at half time at Braga and subsequently suspended after the referee reported that they had been having a go at each other in the tunnel.
At the beginning of February, influential Braga captain Vandinho and the team’s best player Mossoró were found guilty by the League’s disciplinary committee for their part in the tunnel scrap and suspended for three months and three matches respectively. “How is it,” asked the club’s director of football, Carlos Freitas, “that in a scuffle involving 50 people, only Braga players were guilty of censurable behaviour?” Coincidentally, Braga are neck and neck with Benfica in the race for the title.
Just before Christmas, and after the final whistle of the Benfica v FC Porto clássico, Porto’s star Brazilian forward Hulk and Romanian full-back Cristian Sapunaru, who had not left the bench during the 1-0 Benfica win, were accused of assaulting security staff, again in the tunnel.
The formal accusation drafted by the League left little to the imagination: Hulk “aimed two punches at the guard and then kicked him in the side with his left foot at waist height”. Sapunaru “also went up to the same steward and punched him in the forehead with his left hand. Then he jumped up in the air and kicked out with his right leg, hitting him in the abdomen…” The two players have been provisionally suspended ever since, pending disciplinary proceedings – their total suspension could be as much as three years. Sapunaru was loaned back to Dinamo Bucharest in February 2010.
Some consider Porto to be the victims of an injustice, especially given the provocations aimed at the players by the stewards, for which Benfica face a maximum fine of €2,500 (£2,200). The slowness of the disciplinary process is also perceived as deliberate. Pro-Porto pundits have harked back to two similar incidents, both involving Benfica.
In CCTV footage published by news agency LUSA, showing the tunnel after Benfica v Porto last season, a Benfica suit can be observed aiming a kick at a Porto opposite number. Benfica staff can also be seen changing the direction of the cameras before the game in order that, it has been claimed, they would not be able catch planned shenanigans. Unfortunately for Porto, later on in the same footage, there is a mêlée outside the team’s changing room, with Brazilian goalkeeper Helton and Hulk again caught throwing punches.
Finally, Ruben Micael, who recently joined Porto from Nacional, appeared in the press to reiterate the alleged verbal abuse and intimidation he received from Benfica’s director of football Rui Costa and coach Jorge Jesus at half time of Benfica v Nacional in October.
Conspicuous by their absence from the tunnel controversies, the third grande, Sporting, made their contribution to the season’s record of violence in January but reserved the fisticuffs for the relative privacy of the changing room. They were scraping a 4-3 win in the Portuguese Cup against third-tier side Mafra, and the whistles were raining down from the stands. The club’s top striker, Liedson, on the bench as sub, had apparently spoken ill of the Sporting fans. Director of football Ricardo Sá Pinto, a great hero of his club’s ultras, remarked: “You must think you own the club!” “No, you think you own the club!” was Liedson’s riposte.
Sá Pinto, in the job for just 70 days, put all his diplomatic skills to use after the game and planted three punches on Liedson. Sá Pinto has previous in this kind of incident. In 1997, he drove to the national stadium to beat up coach Artur Jorge after learning that he had not been selected for a World Cup qualifier. He handed in his resignation after the Liedson episode.
All of this has tended to deflect attention away from what has been an exciting season on the pitch, with surprise team Braga leading the way ahead of a rejuvenated Benfica. But it’s not just the violence. There has also been a resurrection of the Golden Whistle referee-bribing scandal following the publication of the phone taps on YouTube. Meanwhile, it was recently revealed that Leixões players had been offered money, allegedly by Sporting Braga via an intermediary, to win at Benfica in September. It would good if, by the end of the season, the football had managed to reclaim the front seat.
From WSC 277 March 2010