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Saturday 25th January 2020 ko 20.30

Primeiria Liga



Att 2,012  at Estádio Nacional, Lisbon

Entry – Complimentary

As a tourist in Lisbon, its virtually inevitable you’ll end up visiting Belém, in the west of the city. You’ll take the 15E tram from Cais do Sodré and visit the Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, all within 5 minutes from the tram stop for the monastery. But before you leave do cross the road at Largo dos Jerónimos and have some grilled sardines at the excellent Flor dos Jerónimos cafe, then discover a hidden piece of Lisbon’s history.

To the right of the cafe is the Beco do Chão Salgado alleyway. It translates as “Alley of the salted ground” and refers to the Távora scandal of 1755. The family was accused of plotting to kill King Joseph I and the whole family was executed in grisly circumstances here with the ground salted afterwards to prevent anything growing. A shame memorial with an inscription just below waist height was erected, the idea being that it would be used as a public urinal, and this is still in situ.

In footballing terms Belém is famous for its team Belenenses, you can see the floodlights of the Estádio do Restelo behind the Jerónimos Monastery. But when Robyn said she fancied doing another game on our honeymoon I spotted the game was being played at the little used Estádio Nacional whose use is mainly to host the Portuguese Cup final! The answer why is fascinating if a little convoluted.

In the 1990’s Portugal introduced the legal entity Sociedade Anónima Desportiva or public limited sports company in order to to make the ownership of professional sport more transparent. It is now mandatory for all football clubs in the top two Portuguese divisions to hold SAD status.

Now its arguable that aim hasn’t been achieved, clubs need only have a minimum of a 10% holding in the SAD and in the case of Belenenses it led to a schism between the SAD, the professional football section and the rest of the sports club that included the youth, and amateur football, and all other sports under the Belenenses banner.

In 2012 the club sold a 51% stake in the SAD to an investment fund called Codecity Sports Management in echoes of SISU and Coventry City. The relationship between Codecity and the sports club soon soured, particularly when Codecity won a legal battle allowing the sports club no right to buy back Codecity’s interest in the SAD. It all came to a head in June 2018 when the original contract between the sports club and Codecity was due to expire. The sports club decided to have nothing more to with the SAD letting their Primeira Liga side leave the Restelo for pastures unknown.

It meant that Belenenses suddenly lost both their first XI and place in the Primeira Liga  but very quickly formed Belenenses Os and had little difficulty both recruiting a new team and retaining the vast majority of their support. They are now playing games at a full Estádio do Restelo and are marching their way through Lisbon’s regional leagues in a manner than does remind me of AFC Wimbledon.

But what of the SAD? They lost the right to use the club badge, and decamped to the Estádio Nacional in adjacent Algés and are apparently paying €3,000 per week to train and play here. The ground is most famous for being where Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup, the Lisbon Lions winning here in 1967. The ground holds 37,000 and Robyn and I were more than aware it wasn’t likely to be very full.

One issue Belenenses SAD has is Algés may well be next door to Belém but it isn’t anywhere near as easy to get to, not least because the 15E tram stops at Jardim des Algés, still some distance from the stadium. And that dear reader is how we came to meet Sylvia.

We decided to book a taxi from our hotel both ways mainly for the convenience, we were on honeymoon after all! It cost a rather pricey €30 return but having Sylvia as our chauffeuse was an experience in itself. Driving in Old Lisbon’s narrow streets is not for the faint of heart and being a lady of a certain age she laughed and made it crystal clear she cared not a jot who tried to get in her way- they would be doing so entirely at their own risk!

She dropped us off at the open end of the ground, by what is the away end and since we weren’t from Setúbal we were directed to the one entrance open to home fans, the eastern end. You’d have thought that would be a simple stroll round the stadium’s perimeter, but no it involved an uphill unpaved mud track through the trees behind the goal to a muddy field co-opted for use as makeshift car park.

At the entrance we were directed to a table where two young boys were selling tickets for €5 each but a club official rapidly handed us a complimentary each well before money could be handed over! But then the “Security Check” proved to be altogether more problematic.

I’m used to professional grounds having some fairly arcane contraband policies, but what was their issue with my pocket camera? Was my little Panasonic really a threat to their copyright, particularly as these days a mobile phone is a reasonable substitute? And why was there no means of discovering their policy before leaving our hotel?

Worse, there was no left luggage system in place, just steward Bruno and his rucksack with no receipts which simply isn’t acceptable for a top flight club anywhere. In the end I waited until stoppage time, retrieved my camera and snapped away as I left via the away exit. Whatever SAD’s reasoning it failed to prevent me taking pictures.

Belenenses SAD’s tenure here cannot last, you simply cannot run a football club like this shorn of everything that gives a club its identity in front of virtually a TV audience only. There was no club shop, merchandise, programme, branding- anything to make you want to support them. There were virtually no fans either, just a sprinkling of home fans wondering what on earth they were watching, and the Setúbal fans who made up around two-thirds of the crowd. A word on the attendance, 2,012 apparently, I have no idea where that number came from, it looked about half of that and I’m well aware of some people think I inflate my crowd counts!

Needless to say that game did attract a fair number of groundhoppers and I was far from being the one to fall foul of Bruno and his chums. We all watched and would have happily watched them take a pounding. That didn’t happen and such was the drop in playing standard compared to the Sporting/Benfica derby the previous evening that Robyn honestly thought we were watching a third division game. At least the right side won, from my perspective.

But that shouldn’t detract from the stadium, this is a wonderful historic place to watch a game even if it is inadequate for today’s requirements for a top flight venue. It does remind me of the classic Eastern European bowl, a smaller version of the Népstadion before redevelopment perhaps.

It was a complete pain in the neck of a place to get to, enter, and even stay dry in. Nevertheless it was a fascinating evening in so many ways, due to the club’s machinations and the history of the ground. We met Sylvia as planned, back where she’d dropped us off earlier. She sped through the Setúbal fans who scattered with a few choice phrases before asking Robyn what the game was like? She replied that it wasn’t brilliant and Sylvia replied,

“Ah but SAD are a sh!tty club”

She wasn’t wrong, and I got the distinct impression that Belenenes SAD are metaphorically playing on the Távoras’ salted ground. They stand for nothing and eventually will fall for nothing although they’ll probably do enough to maintain their top flight status this season. I goes without saying that I’d love to now go and see Belenenses Os. I suspect they’d be everything SAD are not and never will be.