BY MARKUS HORN
If football games ended after 80 minutes, Benfica could have celebrated last season as one of the most successful years in its glorious history. Until May 11th 2013, winning the Portuguese League, the Europa League and the National Cup was within reach. But the following two weeks scattered all title hopes, and at the end, the Portuguese giants only held a “triple of horror” in their hands.
For the penultimate round of the Portuguese “Liga ZON Sagres”, Benfica travelled as the unbeaten league leader and two points clear of FC Porto to their arch rival’s Dragon Stadium. Even a draw would have virtually guaranteed their 33rd league title. But Kelvin’s goal in Porto’s 2-1 victory in the 91st minute catapulted the Eagles from Lisbon into a state of shock. The image of Benfica’s team manager, Jorge Jesus, kneeling alongside his jubilant colleague from Porto became the symbol for a whole season.
The next setback was waiting for Benfica only 96 hours later. Throughout the entire Europa League final in Amsterdam, Benfica went toe-to-toe with Chelsea. Nevertheless, the final was lost. Again, the result was 2-1, and again, Benfica’s opponent scored the decisive goal only in injury time; the cruelest way to lose a final.
Eleven days after the Amsterdam final, Benfica reached the ultimate low point at Lisbon’s National Stadium: The Eagles faced Vitória Guimarães for the Portuguese cup final on May 26th as the undoubted favourites. But even after scoring the opening goal after half an hour, Jorge Jesus’ team acted strangely apathetic throughout the entire match. As a consequence, Vitória’s double strike between the 79th and the 81st minute finally buried Benfica’s last trophy-winning hopes of the season.
The disgraceful incidents that occurred after the cup final still overshadow Benfica’s preparation for the upcoming season. Directly after the game, star striker Óscar Cardozo pushed his coach in front of the TV cameras and apparently blamed him for the team’s defeat. Later on, Benfica’s players refused the obligatory handshake with Portugal’s President Cavaco Silva and left the pitch before the trophy was handed to Vitória Guimarães.
Scoring 105 goals for Benfica so far, Óscar Cardozo is the club’s most successful foreign striker of all time. But since the Paraguayan publicly questioned the authority of his coach in such an obvious manner, it quickly became more than obvious to the fans and the media that one of the two would have to leave the club. President Luís Filipe Vieira quickly made his decision in June, when he extended Jesus’ contract for another two years. The controversial coach will continue to earn four million euros per year, which is an outstanding amount in a league that suffers under the country’s deep economical crisis.
Thus, Cardozo’s transfer to another club seemed to be decided. During the summer break, the three daily Portuguese sports newspapers beat out the speculation and rumour about the striker’s destiny in a frenetic rhythm. Cardozo’s move to Fenerbahce in Turkey has been reported as concluded on several occasions. But all negotiations have failed so far due to Benfica’s requirements. The Eagles want to achieve at least 15 million euros for their star striker, who still has a contract until 2016 containing a release clause of 60 million euros.
Meanwhile, everything points towards Cardozo remaining in Lisbon, especially after an interview that the Paraguayan gave to the club’s TV channel “Benfica TV” last week, in which he apologised for his behaviour after the cup final. Just days before, the striker still declared that he was determined to go to Turkey.
It remains to be seen whether Jesus and Cardozo will manage to re-establish a good working relationship, and how the coach’s obvious loss of authority might impact the team’s performance during next season. In his fifth season at Benfica, Jorge Jesus is under tremendous pressure to succeed from the very first league game onwards. Only one national championship title and three League Cups in four years does not meet the expectations that the traditionally demanding “Benfiquistas” have on a coach, who has been blessed with the highest budget in the club’s history.