Attack on Sporting: What Drove Lisbon Fans to Violence Against Their Own Team?

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IMay 18, 2018

Sporting fans wave a flag prior to the Champions League Group G soccer match between Sporting and Schalke 04 at Sporting's Alvalade stadium, in Lisbon, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Bleacher Report

It was just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday when reporters first spotted the group of masked men running in the road near Sporting CP's training ground at Alcochete, about 20 minutes outside Lisbon. "Let's go inside," one remembers hearing. There was fear in the voices around him, an immediate expectation of the nightmare to come.

The mob was 50 strong. Security guards were unable to prevent them from entering the training centre, where Sporting, Europe's 37th-ranked football club and one of Portugal's most storied, were preparing to train. Forcing its way into the locker room, the group launched a brutal attack on players and the coaching staff, beating them with belts, fists and sticks.

"Vamos-vos matar [sic]! Voces estao fodidos!" the assailants screamed, according to a Public Prosecution Service document based on the players' testimonials, revealed by Portuguese magazine Sabado. Or, "We're going to kill you! You are f--ked!"

Dutch forward Bas Dost, who has scored 34 goals this season, was beaten up and thrown to the floor, with visible wounds to his head and legs. The 6'4" man broke down crying while he watched his colleagues being assaulted by the hooded gang, according to sources close to the players. An alarm blared in the training centre, giving it the feel of a war zone.

Players feared for their lives. "They thought it was the end of it for them," Jaime Marta Soares, president of Sporting's general assembly, told Portuguese media outlet Expresso. "It was inhumane." No one was killed, but one player's agent told Bleacher Report that his client was left "OK physically" but "psychologically destroyed."

It was a shocking scene of violence that propelled the club—perhaps most famous for being Cristiano Ronaldo's first professional side—into horrific international headlines while it should have been preparing for Sunday's Portuguese Cup final against Desportivo das Aves. Local newspaper i called the incident "A guerra de Alcochete" or "The Alcochete War" and featured an image of Sporting's president, Bruno de Carvalho, dressed as a guerrilla on the front page.

Perhaps even more shocking, though, is what we've learned about this attack in the days since.

According to sources close to the players, many believe that De Carvalho himself instigated the attack. He has denied that accusation, but A Bola and Record have also reported the same suspicions. On Friday morning O Publico went further, reporting that Sporting coach Jorge Jesus has evidence to support the allegations against De Carvalho.

Record uses a phrase that translates to "moral authorship" for how his actions might have led to the attack—perhaps criminally so.

De Carvalho has been called "the Donald Trump of Portuguese football," and his reign at Alvalade was recently compared to the North Korean regime. His belligerent style has earned him bitter enemies. Among them? His own players, Cristiano Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes and even the president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. De Carvalho has seemed to revel in having a reputation as a Trump-like figure, generating sensationalist headlines and attacking his players in the press. In early April, he threatened to suspend 19 of the team's players following a Facebook quarrel between himself and the players.

In a Thursday evening press conference, De Carvalho said he would not be resigning.

Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho
Sporting president Bruno de CarvalhoCarlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

The constant outspoken and confrontational behaviour may have created the environment that made the incident possible.

"I believe the persistent presence of a violent language from the club's communication office, and from those associated with them, that has appeared in the media, has led to the understanding that violence is acceptable," Eurosport analyst Luis Cristovao told Bleacher Report. "In the last few months, we've heard about threats to journalists, opponents, referees and now to the footballers. Alcochete is one more step in the degradation of the Portuguese football environment.

"He created an atmosphere of distrust inside and outside of his own club. He defends the idea that the president should also be a fan and that somehow, there's a concordance to the violence used within it."

Sporting's forward Gelson Martins (3rdR) is welcomed by Sporting's president Bruno de Carvalho upon his arrival with teammates for a training session at the club's training ground in Alcochete, outskirts of Lisbon, on November 21, 2016, on the eve of the
FRANCISCO LEONG/Getty Images

Or it could go even further. According to Record, players were led to believe De Carvalho would be at the team headquarters at the time the attack occurred. His absence was conspicuous, prompting suspicion about whether he instigated the mob not only by creating the environment in which such a thing would seem normal, but by "order."

When De Carvalho did arrive at Alcochete's training complex, a half-hour after the attacks, he tried to speak to the players.

As he entered the locker room, star players like Rui Patricio and William Carvalho refused to talk to him and left the premises. A few hours later, a group of Sporting players headed to the police.

Some of them have already begun working on an exit plan and will pursue the termination of their contracts after the weekend, according to sources close to the players. Highly rated midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who has been linked with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, appeared to tell team-mates, "It's been a pleasure being with you all," in a leaked video of the aftermath of the attack.

De Carvalho's statement after the attack did nothing to calm the fervour. "It was annoying," he said to the club's official TV. "But tomorrow is a new day, and we have to realise that crime is part of everyday life and has to be punished in the right place."

So far, 23 people have been arrested and charged with terrorism, among other crimes, though the leaders of the mob were reportedly not among them.

And the uproar shows no sign of slowing down in the aftermath of the attack.

On Wednesday, police conducted searches and made arrests at Sporting's stadium for alleged "active corruption in sport" as part of an operation codenamed Cashball. De Carvalho's right-hand man and team director, Andre Geraldes, was among those detained.

Geraldes is suspected of match-fixing by allegedly bribing referees and players, mostly in handball matches, but also in six football games.

On Thursday, the club's vice president and three other members of the board presented their resignation letters, and more promised to follow if De Carvalho doesn't. The team also cancelled its Friday training session at the national stadium, according to Diario de Noticias, meaning unless something changes, the players will not have had any practice this week ahead of Sunday's final.

"Unfortunately, I think this is one of the saddest moments of our history," Sporting fan Goncalo Ferreira told B/R.

"Sportingly, this season has been below our expectations—despite still having the chance of winning a trophy [on Sunday]—and is ending in the worst possible way with this tragedy," Ferreira said. "After everything that happened, the board, led by Bruno de Carvalho, has to seriously rethink their position inside the club since their prestige with the members is diminishing."

Ferreira felt he needed to do something to show support to Dost and the rest of the players and coaching staff after the attack, so he created the hashtag #AoVossoLado (or #ByYourSide) on Twitter. He also helped gather more than 500 Sporting fans on Tuesday night at the Alvalade stadium in an effort to prove that the 50 intruders did not represent the club's 3.5 million supporters around the world.

The team's players have responded to the support. They had considered not playing the Portuguese Cup final against Aves, issuing a statement saying they "are not in a physical or psychological condition to resume normal training immediately," but they have confirmed they will "honour their status as professionals."

When the game is over, perhaps they can have some closure on this nightmare season.

For the club, the problems could be just beginning.   

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