Benfica’s Downfall

There are few things more enjoyable for the average football fan than seeing the biggest team in their country descend into a slow and painful downfall. So right now, many Portuguese are gleefully watching the drama unfold as the self proclaimed “Biggest Club in the World”, Sport Lisboa de Benfica very publicly self-destruct.

Sunday saw Benfica draw 2-2 with bottom of the table União de Leiria, a team who previous to Sunday’s game had accumulated a pitiful 8 points from 21 games. No matter how bad the result seemed, few Benfica supporters (commonly known as Benfiquistas) could be greatly surprised, because this was the sixth time Benfica had drawn at home in the league this season, turning a stadium once dubbed “The Inferno” into something more akin to a lukewarm hot-water bottle. But for Camacho, it was one bad result too many and as soon as the final whistle had blown he was banging on the office door of Benfica president Luis Filipe Viera so that he could hand in his resignation.

Benfica's stadium

Camacho blamed his exit on the players, whom he believes lack motivation. Within a few hours Nuno Gomes spoke on behalf of all the players at the club in a carefully planned message to the Benfiquistas and “Mister” Camacho, that maybe the players lacked luck or even talent but they never lacked the motivation that is required for any player to wear the Benfica shirt.

Hiding behind the scenes throughout all of this was Rui Costa. This is the second season in his much feted return to the club where he made his name over 15 years ago. He spent the majority of his first season injured, but he has been an ever present this season and by and large the only outstanding player in the Benfica team.

Whilst his every move is adored by the Benfiquistas, there have been unfavorable rumblings regarding exactly how much influence he has over the direction of the team. Just before Christmas, there were reports that Costa was trying to negotiate with ex- Florentina and current Empoli manager Alberto Malesani to take over the hot seat at the Estadio da Luz, which Rui Costa vehemently denied. So while Costa is trying to emphasise how he is “just a player”, he’s already begun some of the duties as Benfica’s Director of Football, which he will become when he hangs up his boots at the end of this season. Last week he helped negotiate a one year contract extension for the Brazilian left-back Léo and the recent acquisition of the Portuguese striker Makakula seemed more to do with the possibility of playing for Rui Costa rather than playing for José Camacho.

One should not forget throughout the whole of this episode the recent passing of Camacho’s father, for whom a minute’s silence was impeccably observed before the UEFA Cup fixture against Getafe last Thursday (the Portuguese usually prefer to applaud rather than remain silent during these moments of reflection). Also, Camacho has been publicly toying with the hypothesis of taking over from Luis Aragonés once Spain’s Euro 2008 campaign has finished. But in leaving in such a manner, Camacho has sparked a very public witch-hunt to discover just who is at fault for this crisis.

Prime suspect number 1 is Luis Filipe Viera, who until kick-off yesterday afternoon was the strong and loyal president who took Benfica from the jaws of administration and has turned them into a profitable organisation. But suddenly the knives are out and various members of the Benfica administration are calling for his head. Chief among them seems to be the administration’s vice-president and ex-Portuguese Minister of the Economy, Bagão Felix. He blames Viera for appointing Camacho in the first place and says that Camacho would’ve been forced to leave at the end of the season by a growing group of directors who were growing tired of Camacho’s leadership and the direction in which Viera has been taking the club.

Overall, Camacho’s exit can only be a good thing for most Benfiquistas. Yesterday saw the end of his second term in charge of the encarnados (reds) and the Benfica he left this time were much the same as the one he left in 2004: tired, lazy, without tactical direction and boring to watch. Camacho’s insistence on playing with only one striker and two defensive midfielders meant that Benfica conceded few goals but scored very few too. Luis Filipe Viera made a brave decision when he decided to sack the previous Benfica manager Fernando Santos after just one game of this season had been played out and he called upon Camacho to sort things out.

Viera’s gamble may cost him his job, which will be a pity because although he may not be the most charismatic of presidents, he is a good businessman and has identified where Benfica’s strengths lie when it comes to generating money. There are rumors that Rui Costa is already starting the search for Benfica’s next manager but in the meantime the legendary mustachioed Benfica player of the 70s and 80s, Chalana, will take the helm and who knows, Freddy Adu might even get the chance to start a game at last.

Photo credits: Jose Ferreira Jr.

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