Lower leagues across the globe #1: Portugal
In the first of what will hopefully become a fairly lengthy and comprehensive series examining lower leagues across the globe, In Bed With Maradona co-editor Ben Shave takes a look at the Portuguese equivalent of the Seventy Two.
The geography, languages and footballing cultures might be different, but with the increasing globalisation of football, the problems afflicting lower-league clubs across the world are (depressingly) familiar.
Portugal has not escaped this homogenisation. Whilst the três grandes of Benfica, Sporting Clube and FC Porto have exerted a vicelike grip over the silverware since the nationalisation of the Liga in 1938 (previous championships were regionalised, with Lisbon being the most prestigious); smaller clubs have laboured under the financially strafing conditions that a long-term lack of success brings – a state of affairs which has not improved as the level of financial investment in the game has grown.
The most recent round of fixtures provided an apt illustration of this unfortunate truth. Sport TV, Portugal’s rough equivalent of Sky (but with a near-monopoly of rights that would make even Rupert Murdoch green with envy), have, in their benevolence, decided to add coverage of the Liga de Honra for the first time this season.
The second tier
Currently known as the Liga Orangina for sponsorship reasons, the Liga de Honra is the second of Portugal’s two professional divisions, which are overseen by the Liga Portuguesa de Futebol Profissional (LPFP).
Very much the junior partner to the Liga Sagres (from which Sport TV brings subscribers at least four live matches each weekend), the sixteen teams straddle a vague boundary between the professionalised demands of the top flight and accompanying legislative boundaries relating to stadia and the like; and the more realistic (for many) environment of semi-professionalism.
Nevertheless, a spot of TV money never goes amiss, and Sport TV’s millions of subscribers got undoubted bang for their buck with an entertaining 2-1 win for Feirense at bottom of the table Fátima on Saturday; and a technically poor but hotly-contested 1-1 draw between Oliveirense and Moreirense on Sunday. The clubs will receive a much-needed cash injection, and the players got the chance to put themselves into the shop window. Everyone’s a winner, right?
Well, no. You see whilst the entry of Sport TV into the lower-league market may be welcome from a short-term financial standpoint, it brings with it a number of acutely obvious problems. The attendance at Fátima-Feirense was 404, whilst Oliveirense-Moreirense was only marginally better, at 487. The two matches were the worst-attended of the weekend (the highest was Belenenses’ 2-0 win over Gil Vicente, which saw 1630, er, pack the Restelo).
In a nation of Benfica, Porto and Sporting fans, attendance issues have been a central narrative in the history of Portuguese football. Clubs at all levels of the pyramid have traditionally relied upon a small, devoted fanbase, who pay their membership fees on time and support their team through the bad times and the not-so bad. It is on this nebulous social contract that football in Portugal is founded.
But outside of the Sócios, clubs have gone to great lengths to attract the casual fans, who don’t feel any great allegiance to their local side but sometimes fancy watching some live action on a Sunday afternoon, with their club of choice more than likely coming up on TV later. Sport TV dictates the kick-off times in Portugal, with top-flight games generally spread between 8.15pm on Friday and 8.15pm on Monday. Saturday and Sunday evenings are reserved for Benfica, Porto, Sporting, and recent gatecrashers Sporting Braga.
This unbreakable commitment means that Liga de Honra games selected for coverage are scheduled for 11.15am on Saturday or Sunday, with the rest of the fixtures kicking off at the conventional hour of 3.30 or 4.00 on a Sunday afternoon. By altering the kick-offs, Sport TV have, in one fell stroke, eliminated any motivation on the part of casual fans to make the trip down to their local municipal stadium. The elevated non-Sócio prices were bad enough, but the early start and the fact that the match is on the TV anyway…
Further down the pyramid, there is a punctuated drop-off in coverage and resources. The II Divisão (overseen by the FPF – Portugal’s FA) has been tinkered with more times than Claudio Ranieri’s team sheet, with the current incarnation in its second season. There are three zones (North, Central and South), with the three ‘champions’ competing in a round-robin playoff following the end of the season.
The top two gain promotion to the LPFP’s club, whilst the loser remains where they are, joined by the bottom two sides from the Liga de Honra. Relegation from the II Divisão precipitates a further slide into obscurity, and the eight-group III Divisão, where attendances rarely struggle into three figures.
A glance at the three II Divisão tables provides a cautionary tale. Exactly a decade ago Boavista (currently 4th in the Zona Centro) were on their way to becoming the first side not named Benfica, Sporting or Porto to win the Liga championship since 1945. That team, containing the likes of Petit, Nuno Gomes, and Bolivian playmaker Erwin Sánchez, are still talked about amongst Portuguese football fans, but their supporters have had to face near-extinction and the ignominy (Boavista is one of Portugal’s oldest football clubs) of demotion to the comparative wasteland of the semi-professional tier.
Despite the absence of television money, this regionalised level often finds a way to make an impact on the national footballing consciousness. The long-held indifference of the bigger clubs to the national cup competition (at least until the latter stages) has meant that history is littered with stories of minnows punching far above their weight.
Leixões, currently 2nd in the Liga de Honra and historically a yo-yo side, won the Taça in 1961 and reached the final in 2002. Pinhalnovense (4th in the Southern zone of the II Divisão) have just reached their second consecutive quarter-final, defeating Leixões on penalties.
Last season’s beaten finalists were northern side Desportivo Chaves, who devoted such attention to their Taça campaign that they were relegated from the Liga de Honra. Whilst clearly not the intended outcome, the financial compensations of their run to the final (which included victories over top-flight sides Paços de Ferreira and Naval) more than cushioned the blow.
As well as on-field successes, it is in and around the II Divisão that the some of the most engaging, idiosyncratic aspects of Portuguese footballing culture can be found. With media coverage generally limited to classified results and the odd brief snippet about a managerial change, fans have taken it upon themselves to document histories of their teams.
Whilst this is a feature of Portuguese football in general (with the grandes the subject of too many blogs to count), it is those devoted to smaller clubs that provide particularly evocative moments of internet browsing – Google any lower-league team and you will find a blog (often photo-based) documenting their finest moments, long-forgotten idols, and aged press cuttings.
Given that many squads are flooded with loan players from the top two divisions (unlike Spain, few clubs have second teams playing in the lower leagues, choosing instead to compete in reserve competitions comparable to those in the UK), this meticulous documentation provides fans with a tangible connection to an era that has long since departed.
This respect (bordering upon reverence) for history derives from a wider narrative within Portuguese culture: saudades.
The word is difficult to translate into English without diluting its essential meaning, but the closest equivalent to us would be nostalgia, and more specifically a sense of abstract longing that creates a simultaneous sense of happiness and sadness. Whilst saudades is a fundamentally philosophical idea, it permeates all aspects of Portuguese cultural life, including the national game.
The glitz and glamour resides at the Estádio da Luz, the Estádio do Dragão and the Estádio José Alvalade, but after six years of following it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the soul of Portuguese football, and the truest expression of saudades, can be found in its lower divisions.
Which, given the identity of the website that I’m writing this article for, brings us back to globalisation, doesn’t it?
Huge thanks must go to Ben for this entertaining, educational and engaging insight into the Portuguese lower leagues. And if you didn’t learn anything new from this, then I can only applaud you too for your staggering football knowledge or overwhelming Portuguese-ness!
Read the other posts in this series: