A quick look at Portuguese football

Here’s a brief analysis of football in Portugal, broken into the key issues.

There are three big teams and they basically dominate

They are Lisbon’s Benfica and Sporting, and Porto from the north of the country. You have to go back almost 15 years to find a league winner outside of these three, Boavista in 2001, and that was due to spending invisible money. And then back to the 1980s for the previous team to break the mould; Belenenses. There’s usually a huge point gap down from the big teams to the rest, and to put their dominance into perspective, Benfica went between early 2012 and December 2014 without losing a domestic home league match.

Boavista in their glory days
Boavista in their glory days

You won’t bump into many supporters not of the big three, as the fact of the matter is that most of the other teams struggle to get above 2000 fans on match-day in empty stadiums created for Euro 2004. A surge in the number of fans only occurs when the big three are in town.

But they aren’t all such small clubs

You may have noticed the presence of Braga in the Champions League in recent years, and they have done mightily well to punch above their weight. Along with Vitória Guimarães, also in the north of the country, they manage to pull in crowds upwards of 10,000, and the derby between the two teams is certainly fierce. As recently as 2012, Braga stood on the cusp of domestic glory, going on a 13-match winning streak to sit atop the league. However, with just a handful of games remaining, they succumbed to Benfica and Porto in consecutive games and their inaugural title dreams were dashed. Guimarães, on the other hand, made a recent appearance in the Europa League group stage, and under the stewardship of relatively long-serving manager Rui Vitória, they sat joint second in the table with Porto going into the final round of fixtures before the winter break.

Couldn't miss out these shots of Braga's stadium
Couldn’t miss out these shots of Braga’s stadium

A lot of big-name players have emerged whilst playing in Portugal

It has to be said that the Portuguese sides have excellent scouting networks spread around South America, and they have picked up or developed some real talents in recent years and sold them off at massive profits. Think Falcao, James, Fernando or Hulk at Porto who have been sold for a combined amount of about 150 million Euros in recent years, and the riches brought in by the likes of Ramires and David Luiz at Benfica and you get the idea.

Porto have had some big players over the years
Porto have had some big players over the years

Portugal is something of a stepping stone to bigger things for young South American stars, and they are perhaps lured by the fact that the language isn’t too different (Brazilians only have to adapt to a different accent), and the knowledge that they’ll be getting regular European football.

Why are Portuguese teams always seeded in the Champions League?

This is a question asked by a lot of English football fans who often pour scorn on Porto and Benfica’s right to be stuck in Pot One for the draw. Clearly, playing in a league where there are only 5 or 6 tough domestic games a season helps, but you can’t ignore their European performance. In the last 10 years, Porto have won a Champions League and two Europa Leagues, whilst Benfica have made the final of the Europa League in the past two seasons. Add to that both teams usually getting out of their groups and taking the Europa League seriously should they drop into there, and you can see why they are constantly placed amongst Europe’s elite.

The fabled Guttmann curse

Benfica fans often call themselves the unluckiest team in the world, and you can understand why. As recently as 2013, they were in the running for three trophies in the space of two weeks. They led Porto by 5 points with three games remaining, and were to play Chelsea in the Europa League final and Vitória Guimarães in the domestic cup final. Yet after slipping up and drawing at home to a mid-table team on a Monday night, they lost in the 92nd minute in Porto’s Dragão stadium, ending their title hopes. Somehow they managed to recover and put in a sterling performance against Chelsea, only to be beaten by Ivanovic’s last gasp header, one of few Chelsea chances in the game. The writing was on the wall for the Guimarães game, and they duly let slip a half-time lead to lose 2-1 and round off just about the worst end to a season possible.

Bela Guttmann
Bela Guttmann

And this all potentially steams from the famous curse placed upon the club by Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian coach who led Benfica to a pair of European Cup triumphs in the early 1960s. After the second, he requested a pay rise, audaciousness not welcomed by the board. He duly left, and as a parting shot, said that Benfica would never win a European trophy again. And he has so far been proved right. Eight finals have resulted in eight losses and every next one becomes more nerve-wracking than the last for Benfica players and fans who just want to put their dismal record to bed.

They’re all like Mourinho

José Mourinho is something of a novelty in English football. The media crow to his every sarcastic comment and his wit carries something of a charm to it. And in Portugal, all the bosses are the same; cynical and moany, dry and cryptic. When they lose, it’s the ref’s fault. Benefit from a dodgy decision and there’s complete denial of any wrongdoing.

They’re not afraid of a little confrontation either. Jorge Jesus’ provocation of Tim Sherwood as his Benfica team knocked out Tottenham in Europe had me in stitches. To put it simply, in the Portuguese league, they don’t get punished for such behaviour, so Sherwood’s cries of gamesmanship were taken with a pinch of salt over in Lisbon.

Jesus tells Sherwood what the score is
Jesus tells Sherwood what the score is

A little corruption here and there goes unpunished

Pinto da Costa, Porto’s president, was discovered to have bribed referees to make decisions in his team’s favour, the whole thing coming via secretly-recorded conversation between officials and himself. The case was taken to some kind of tribunal, but he got off scot-free as the illicitly-obtained tapes couldn’t be used as evidence.

So, every football fan in Portugal has listened to the recordings on YouTube, and knows exactly what he was up to, yet he still remains Porto’s top man. No punishment from the football association, nor reprisals from the fans or press. Everyone just kinda laughs about it and it’s a permanent excuse for when the team defeats Benfica.

One also has to ask where all that aforementioned transfer money goes. Certainly not on stellar signings. Many pockets being lined, I suspect.

Portugal’s Match of the Day

Being brought up on Lynam and Lineker in England, I must say that the Portuguese version is certainly lacking. For a start, the first thing they do is kill suspense by immediately announcing all results and major incidents of games before showing actual highlights. If there was a last-minute debatable red card in a 3-3 blockbuster, you’ll see endless replays of that before getting to the goals.

There’s also a lot of debate going on, at times extremely heated, and the TV producers seem to just let it roll. I feel for those dedicated Rio Ave and Marítimo fans who stay up to watch their side’s goals just to be bombarded with arguments between Sporting and Benfica pundits vociferously arguing over discrepancies in refereeing neutrality.

And then there are the interviews. Firstly, the camera angle always involves the back of the journalist’s head blocking half of the screen, and then when the chat is over, he turns to the camera and basically repeats word for word exactly what the player or coach has just said.

In case you weren’t paying attention.

Anyway, that’s about all I can come up with for now, so I hope you’ve learned a little about football in Portugal.

If you like hearing about footy from other countries, here’s a match report from Bogota, Colombia.

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