Who’s In Charge of Portuguese Football?

by Simon Curtis

Who’s In Charge Here?

With the creosote still drying on the DopeGate affair in Covilha, prompting a swift change of national coach and much hand wringing in the corridors of power at Rato, this is a logical moment to question the immediate direction of the FPF (Federação Portugues de Futebol)

After all is said and done, the FPF is currently a body of old men in C&A cardigans, who have exceeded their sell-by date. The ill winds of autumn have blown in a new coach in the shape of the affable, wide-eyed, and so far successful, Paulo Bento and whilst a stuttering, semi-prone start to the qualifying campaign has left many feeling vindicated in predicting a long period trampling the wet grass of the wilderness for Portugal in the years to come, a dose of fresh lifeblood cannot come fast enough. Many have been the strained voices of despair in the press. A multitude of moans and groans fill the air in the tube stations and the tascas, as the locals bite into their bacalhau a braz and weep.

So, who are the movers and shakers in the Portuguese corridors of power? Are there realistic successors to the gnarled old faces that have run the game here for so long? Will any of the intriguing names that crop up in conversation offer the prospect of anything fresher than yesterday’s octopus salad?

Let us begin with the current head honcho, the gravel voiced prevaricator general, Gilberto Madail. Like all who fall to the whims of Positions of Power & Influence, Madail has long outstayed his welcome. Born in the Congo and inflated to his present incarnation by years of minor power broking on Aveiro Council south of Porto, he has been exclusively a football man since 1997, holding a raft of impressive titles and distinctions. What none of the fancy acronyms on his business card say is that Madail should have stepped aside some time ago. His recent trip to Madrid to try to persuade José Mourinho to take temporary charge of the national team smelt heavily of sardines from start to finish: first it ridiculed the position of national coach, secondly it turned the eventual choice, Paulo Bento, into an immediate “second best candidate” and thirdly, it cheapened Mourinho’s current god-like, gold card status in these parts.

The idea, as limp as it was absurd, was to have the Special One take control for two games of qualifying. Even if won, quite what this would have achieved is unclear. Thereafter, presumably, in would have stepped another poor sop to return us to the mediocrity we had just escaped? Or perhaps, José would suddenly like it so much, he would write an immediate resignation letter to Valdano “Desculpe, Jorge, having far too much fun here with Gilberto to come back to Madrid…”.

Roll up, roll up, who’s next to have a bash? Two games, for just 10 euros, you Sir…?

It is this kind of rank misjudgment and village carpenter thinking that Madail has been treating us to for some time now and the Espresso newspaper recently talked of his resignation in terms of a “solução genial”. Not exactly a glowing affirmation. A sure sighted “tiro no pé” (shot in the foot) as they put it, and by no means the first shot either. His little beach sandals stored for the yearly Praia de Rocha holidays must be riddled with bullet holes. His modus operandi has been belittled as little more than the simple tactics of a poor man organising his snack bar: a couple of bifanas for table three, a nectar de pera and a José Mourinho for table two… Sad, laughable and far from good enough in the circumstances.

What is clear about Portuguese football’s great and good is that they fall into two distinct categories: the media friendly and the invisible. For some punters the best to be said of Fernando Seara is that he is married to the fragrant RTP newsreader Judite Sousa, but the current President of the Municipal Council of Sintra, the affluent hilltop enclave just outside Lisbon, is a sensible if somewhat omnipresent Talking Head in the domestic world of daily football psychobabble. Puffed forward as a celebrity Benfica fan, he appears regularly in television debates, sometimes politically motivated, more frequently football oriented and writes a solid if unspectacular column for a Bola. He is an adept political animal of some magnitude and makes Gilberto Madail look a little like The Man Who Fell To Earth. Concise, confident and lucid, he is many things that Madail is not. Importantly for Seara, he is also a self-confessed Benficista, which immediately deposits you amongst the front runners, be it a beauty pageant or a queue for Psychadelic Furs tickets (the ancient rockers play Lisbon this month)

There’s nothing like a declared interest in the encarnados for boosting your national popularity rating.

Public backing, naturally enough, is already on board from Benfica president and wily old performer Luis Filipe Vieira (“um opção bastante valida”, as he graciously put it), anxious no doubt to have someone both pliable and sympathetic in the leather-clad FPF chair. Here is a man, who wields more power than is healthy. His latest public outpourings have illustrated this nicely. Peeved at what he percieved as refereeing errors during Benfica’s game in Guimaraes, he has issued all Benfica socios with a pleasant written exhortation not to travel to any Benfica away games, thus avoiding filling the coffers of other teams in the Superliga until “suitable refereeing standards” (ie refs that spot only infringements against Benfica players) can be arranged. Vieira was also swift to utter other willing platitudes towards his friends in the north, which shed a little light on how the untouchables live. “If anyone puts our coach’s windows in when we visit Porto,” he stated, “we have a little surprise for them.” What kind of football administrator speaks like the capo of a latino wide-gang, you might ask. Bringing the game into disrepute? File a charge and I’ll show you a little surprise we have for you…..

Vieira’s worst nightmare right now would be to witness the rise of young Turk Vitor Baia, ex goalkeeping legend and sharp dresser. Now in football management on the business side, Baía looks just the sort of suave, savvy young blood that the Portuguese football community could do with getting into bed with. Vieira would see only one tiny snag: he is Portista through and through. Herein lies the crux: Portugal’s football community (save brave islands of resistance in Braga and Guimaraes) is split unevenly but almost completely between the Big Three, or, as it should be termed these days, the Big Two and a Bit. It matters little whether you were born, brought up and reside in a tiny Alentejan hamlet, an Algarvian beach resort or a hillside Minho village, the likelihood is that you sleep under a picture of Eusebio, a pennant of the virgin mother and a photo of yourself being force fed arroz doce at your sister’s christening. Swap Esuebio, if you prefer, for Fernando Gomes or Hector Yazalde, and you have the picture nationwide. This is why a) Naval could recently post a pitiful attendance of 478 and nobody batted an eyelid (no one cares) and b) Benfica can threaten to walk out on a domestic cup competition and, instead of being slapped with a hefty fine for disrepute, everyone falls over themselves to accommodate the bobbing bouffant of the outraged president.

This is why Baía strikes fear into the heart of Benficistas. The Northern agenda. Another prop that makes the villainous Pinta da Costa untouchable. A direct line to God, without even needing to crawl on all fours to Fatima. With this prospect of block and counter-block between the Big Two, the “bit” part player might just prove to be relevant after all. Sporting, shorn of success as irrefutably as a sheep coming through the clipping machine, has already provided us with the new national team manager. Could it be possible that a compromise candidate may emerge from within the bathroom tiles of the Estadio de Alvalade? It is about time the green and whites began to shift out of reverse gear under the tutelage of the meandering Bettencourt.

Outside the tatty box marked “usual faces”, Portuguese football is under the sway of a small number of highly astute and manipulative individuals, who rule the roost as strictly and carefully as any third world despot worth his salt.

Jorge Mendes is in the enviable situation of being the FIFA approved agent with the largest and most valubale portfolio of clients in world football today. The gold mine he sits upon includes innumerable high quality nuggets: Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Simao, Nani, Di Maria, Bruno Alves, Tiago, Bébé, Carlos Queiroz, Paulo Bento (a nap hand of outgoing and ingoing national coaches!), Anderson and lesser rock fragments such as Hugo Viana and Maniche right down to the copper deposits of the likes of Hilario. This is a man who owns the world. In Portuguese terms he is untouchable. A man with the Midas Touch right from the off, who basks in the deeds and profits of his clients but rarely takes centre stage himself. An ex-left winger at Vianense, a third tier club from the extreme north of Portugal (from the small city of Viano do Castelo), the poverty of his football career could not be of greater contrast to the life of wealth and influence he now leads.

One short anecdote sums his methods nicely. A meeting is called with Braga regarding the prospect of taking Hugo Viana on loan for the new season. Braga are baulking at the fee. Mendes chooses not to stay too long. He tells the Braga board “I want Viana to play here, not Sporting. Now pay him what we ask and nothing less.” point made, Mendes leaves meeting for pastures new, Viana resigns for Braga despite saying he’d walk to Lisbon to sign on for Sporting and a lot of money and influence can be heard creaking ominously in the background.

Joaquim Oliveira presides over Controlinvest, a holding company with its fingers in so many pies, the board’s hands smell permanently of apples, chicken and occasionally fish. As a sports media rights company, this group has a stranglehold on t.v. football rights, owns a raft of publications, including daily nationals and one of the three dailies covering football (O Jogo, based in Porto), as well as sports marketing and other media outlet companies. The huge success and subsequent growth of the Sporttv channels, which can now be watched in HD, English football and Golf formats, has helped hoist Oliveira into the stratosphere, as he is the sole rights holder.

Nothing moves in Portuguese football until Controlinvest has sniffed and scratched to see if it might produce winnings. With a presence in radio and internet too, this group – and it’s unassuming looking leader, hold sway at the top of the tree. This is News Corp with added thick Portuguese moustache for effect For a man, who began his career washing pots in the kitchens of his mother’s Pensão Roseirinha in Penafiel, before rising to the cumbersome challenge of business management in the shape of a strip-joint called Zimbo in Porto, then a small deli in Lisbon, it feels entirely right that he should now be a magnate in the highly fragrant world of football and social media. There are still one or two capable of dipping their hands in excrement and coming out smelling of lavender.

Make no mistake, here is a man who has spent a lifetime cultivating the famous Portuguese “cunha” (contact, as in who you know…) to the point where he now has the ear of some of the richest and best positioned business and political leaders in the country, including rotund sports minister Lourentino Dias and the president of Banco Espirito Santo Ricardo Salgado, whose financial backing once helped him in a power struggle with the wily lawyer and ex-Benfica president and convict Vale e Azevedo, stalwart of many acts of chicanery and skullduggery whilst holding the presidential reins at Luz in the late 90s.

His company has built up a war-chest of shares and interests in Sporting (19.4%), 11% of FC Porto, 23,3% of Boavista, 20% of Benfica Multimedia, and other interesting portfolios at Belenenses, Braga and Alverca.

Somewhat luckily for him, Portuguese legislation does not outlaw multiple participation in companies such as this, which leaves Oliveira sitting pretty on a cork throne.

The muddy waters of football often produce some curious looking predators lurking beneath the surface and Portugal is no different in this respect. With the intense rivalry between the Big Two and a Bit, expect the two-step, a fox trot and plenty of waltzing before Madail is properly replaced on the dancefloor.

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