Goodbye, Mr President

by Simon Curtis

There’s hardly a better feeling in the morning, once the smell of coffee has wafted in front of your eager nostrils and the electric pulses of the new day have started to gather form in your loins, than to spend five minutes of gentle digging with a cotton bud. The Cotton Bud this tale involves, however, used and abandoned as it surely is, has given too few people a feeling of relief:

The reign, if that is the correct word, of José Eduardo Fragoso Tavares de Bettencourt, is at an end, a premature end, but nevertheless an end. As he said in his own inimitable way, hosting a low profile late night suddenly arranged press conference: “”For the good of Sporting, I am no longer President. For several reasons I believe the best solution for Sporting is for me to leave my post as President of this great club.”

In a smattering of quietly delivered low-key words in front of a small group of wide-eyed journalists, he announced his departure from a job that he not so long ago stated was “his life’s dream to have”.

It would have made a gripping story to suggest that Bettencourt’s white hair suddenly arrived on the scene as it dawned on him what a precipitous job it is to drag Sporting back into the limelight, but it is far more likely that his tedious yet reasonably successful stint fronting the giant Spanish Santander bank in Portugal was responsible for his silver locks. Rather unkindly, numerous are those willing to add that he was no Billy Whizz at banking either. There is nothing quite like putting the boot into a man already on his way down.

Compared to the at times legal-boundary-pushing antics of his “Big Two and a bit” counterparts, Luis Filipe Vieira at Benfica and Jorge Pinta da Costa at Porto, Bettencourt has always cut a serene and law-abiding figure, a little tame even in his corduroy slacks and beige blazers, suede loafers immaculately brushed. Perhaps this is at the root of what is wrong with him after all and why his aborted reign at Alvalade turned sour so quickly: Alongside Vieira, the wily fox, and “Dom” Pinta da Costa, Bettencourt’s profile was as low-profile as the table service at my local tasca. If the wait for a plate of bacalhau espiritual is anything to go by, Sportingistas may well have been a long time twiddling their thumbs waiting for normal service to be resumed. Where Benfica’s bigwigs bristle with self-defence mechanisms and Porto’s head honcho hoots and harrangues any would-be foes, Bettencourt’s way was always low-density, low volume, low profile.

Sporting are currently washed up in a side canal of the main tributary of Portuguese football, drifting gently along in 3rd place (which represents last place in the real scheme of things), wallowing in the shade of The Good Old Days and waiting patiently for the triumphs to return. As long as they put their money on quiet men with white hair, the socios of this great institution can ready themselves for many more months of mediocrity. There is a body of thought that suggests the horse’s head in the bed approach of certain other high-profile team leaders gains publicity and momentum for the clubs they preside over. A quietly spoken hedge fund manager does not. Sporting must start to blow their own trumpet again. Immediately, prestissimo and loud as hell.

On top of this Sporting have had a charisma bypass in other key posts. Costinha, a man known Europe-wide for his sterling efforts in Mourinho’s Champion Porto side, is proving himself a dab-hand at wearing enormous sun-glasses and intricate-check three piece suits, but his role as General Manager/Conduit/Business Developer or the aptly titled Sporting Director convinces as little as his predecessor, the bare knuckle fighter, Ricardo Sa Pinto. Admittedly the urge for street fights, tunnel fights and press room bust-ups revealed by the latter reflects well in comparison on the studious always-dapper Costinha, but exactly what experience does he have for such a job?

Bettencourt’s reign will be seen as a time when Sporting managed to add several more unnecessary management layers to their business structure. Like the famed Bola de Bolacha, a robust construction of layers of cake, cream, biscuit and yet more cake, cream and biscuit, counting the layers of hierarchy at Bettencourt’s Sporting would leave you with stomach ache of the first order. Better to smash a spoon straight into the middle of it and waggle it all about until some of the ingredients made themselves known.

If off-field matters have been in the hands of faceless bankers and human heaps of pen pushers and bean counters, team affairs have fared equally badly. The current incumbent in the ejector seat that is the manager’s chair, Paulo Sergio, is a jeans and leather jacket sort of guy, minding his own business, securing a draw from a sure-fire win, whilst the team itself contents itself with humdrum mediocrity and the odd spark of ironic levity. His predecessor Carlos Carvalhal, also lacking the charisma to break into a playgroup mime session, managed to bring the club in fourth in a traditionally three horse race. How they laughed in Braga.

On the field things could even be worse again. The summer’s stellar signing, Maniche, looks like a man, who – tiring of trying to puzzle the deep intricate layers of management in the “bolo de bolacha” – decides on a whim to be done with it and eat it all instead. His cameo performance against Guimaraes added to the feeling that he was a diner in search of a corner table, as he surreptitiously got himself sent off in order to be first to the tray of team doughnuts in the “balneario”, thus causing the utter implosion of his team. Within eight tragi-comic minutes, Guimaraes had broken three times to turn around a two-goal deficit in the last dregs of the match. Asked to comment afterwards, Maniche would only say “I prefer pudim flan”.

The loss of the “rotten apple” João Moutinho (now finding his very best form in the eternal orchard of Porto) and the mobile hair experiment Miguel Veloso to Italy helped little. In came non-playing German goalkeeper Tino Hildebrand and Florent Sinama Pongolle, a one-time flop at Anfield, more recently a flop at Atletico and now, it seems almost needless to say, a flop in Lisbon. Of what remains, Liedson, still enjoying the eternal optimists’ unwavering focus, is past his best and fragile, both physically and mentally, Maniche is a parody of his former self, whilst Daniel Carriço and keeper Rui Patricio attempts to show signs of promise with the rest falling down around him.

Thus, Bettencourt leaves Sporting in a state not dissimilar to the one he picked them up in back in June 2009. Poor decision-making and lop-sided priorities will go down on his CV as the watchwords for the last year and a half in charge. Whilst Sporting now have a well thought-out no-jeans dress code (which will please the bejeweled Costinha), it appears to lack either the finance, the staff or the strategy to resurrect itself. For that you must thank the leader.

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