Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game

The Glory Days

When I was a kid I was crazy about football. And I don't mean just the average "crazy", I mean really crazy, as in totally nuts. These days they'd probably give me some sedatives and call it something like OCD; in those days my dad used to say we had the febre do futebol or football fever. Me and my older cousin Bruno, man, we were dedicated fans. Bruno's dad used to bring the A Bola football newspaper every Thursday - I don't think it was a daily paper back then - and we used to read it from cover to cover until the next edition came in. We watched any and all football matches on TV we could get our hands on.

At the age of eight or nine I could tell you all the players in all the squads in the Portuguese premier league (the first 25-odd) and so could my cousin. We knew most of their ages and a lot of their transfer history. We could name most players of the second division. We could also roll-call first-elevens and in some cases entire squads from all the major European teams in leagues such as English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch and many others I now forget - for instance I remember knowing all of the players of Rapid Vienna, as well as the useful fact that Rapid is one of the few teams in Europe to have won their own league (Austrian) as well as the German league.

And we lived the games. Neuchatel Xamax versus Zurich was a showstopper. We endlessly replayed the Red Star Belgrade versus Partisan Belgrade derbies as if we were in the stadium, and cried over Celtic versus Rangers as if we were raised in Glasgow. Few people knew the entire Anderlecht squad, but for us Anderlecht, Brugge, Malines - these were household names. We'd laugh at people that confused Cercle Brugge with Club Brugge. But wait, it doesn't end there. We could name the sixties squads for Real Madrid, Benfica, Manchester United and a few other teams. Puskas was my hero, and so were the other Hungarians. We saved our meagre allowances to spend on the yearly Portuguese league sticker collection, and never ever missed the European Cup and World Cup sticker collections.

At some point in our teenager years our friend Marco joined our crazy football-mad-nerd-gang, and if anything things got even more intense. We discussed tactics endlessly, coaches, schools of thought. And one day, Marco had the brilliant idea to go and actually watch Vitoria Futebol Clube (VFC) live. As in, at the stadium. In loco. In those days money was tight, so it never even had occurred me that you could go and watch live games. So we saved for ages, convinced our parents to allow us to trek to Setubal and off we went to watch a game. I don't even recall what game it was, I just remembered being in awe of a full Bonfim stadium with lots and lots of VFC fans. In Portugal, only Porto, Benfica and Sporting had fans; the rest had empty stadiums. VFC was one of the exceptions, in those long forgotten days.

I have been a VFC fan since that day.

The Dark Days

On hindsight, when I look back I now think we were a bit like football savants; we were truly, deeply, profoundly in love with the game but - perhaps due to our young age - we didn't have the intellectual depth to make proper sense of it all. We weren't skilled enough as players - I certainly was one of the worst footballers to have graced a football pitch - and we didn't have the tenacity of a young coach - to go out there and learn proper tactics, to go on courses make a career of it, even if part time.

Many, many years later, when I met Jonathan Wilson - he of Inverting the Pyramid fame - and many other reporters I finally understood what it would have meant to have both the insane passion and the drive to obtain the intellectual depth required to be a part of the game rather than yet another spectator. As it was, I soon discovered computers and shared my love for football with programming for a decade or so - less and less football, more and more computers. Until University, at which point I just stopped paying attention to football altogether.

When time came to write a bachelor thesis I suddenly thought, here's the chance to right all the wrongs and finally learn about the football business. I spent several months immersing myself in Futebol Clube Barreirense (FCB), my local club. VFC was just too far away to commute, so FCB was the next best thing I could find. The objective of my thesis was very simple: to understand why once great clubs decline; and to try to apply all the newfangled business and marketing techniques to figure out if there was anything to be done for FCB.

After a good few months of hard work, what I found was profoundly disappointing: FCB had been a major institution in years gone by, but the decline was deep. Barreiro at one point had two major clubs, FCB and CUF - both of which were fighting for European places in the seventies. CUF was pretty much dead and buried, great at the schools level but non-existent at the over-21's level. FCB was fast joining them, just about surviving. Eighty percent of their core supporters were aged over seventy and the fan base was literally dying out and not being replaced. The club was shrinking. Being a small club had its advantages; I had direct access to the president and he helped me understand the history of the club, and to imagine a future. I did endless treks to schools in the district to try to figure out why it was that none of us bothered to turn up and watch games when the cost was pretty minimal. My "environmental analysis" revealed that Barreiro and its surrounding areas was not a small place; getting ten thousand people to watch a match should have been doable - and yet they were getting a hundred spectators on good match days.

Fundamentally, what I learned was that there was nothing wrong with football per se; with a lot of effort one could try and turn around the FCB brand. But the biggest problem was organisational - what they called "execution" in the University management circles. You just did not have the right mentally to execute; it was pervasive at all levels of the Portuguese football machine, but more so in the little clubs. All my hundreds of pages were dutifully read by club management - or so I hope - and quickly filled away into the "waster of time" section in the cupboards.

The Present

I'm a rather sceptical football fan these days. I pretty much lost touch with football in general and specially Portuguese football - other than occasionally following the news on VFC. The other day I went to watch Peterborough v Brighton live and saw some ten thousand fans supporting a team fighting for relegation on the second tier of English football. I could not help but be very saddened that my once great VFC now had a lot less fans than this club on a good day.

If anything, the "Super Liga", the Portuguese answer to the premiership, has failed small clubs even more than the previous setups. Whilst very organised teams like Braga are on the way up, everyone else seems to be shells, there to provide the occasional upset but little else.

Benfica may be fighting for the UEFA cup, and Porto may be winning the League - and to my great surprise, Guimaraes may even win the Portuguese Cup. But the Portuguese league is just a three-way version of the Scottish league, a few giants and lots of minnows just barely surviving.

Date: 2013-05-26 21:59:08 BST

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