This year was supposed to one of celebration for Os Belenenses. The historic club from the Belém district of Lisbon, from which they take their name, were meant to spend the summer of 2018 preparing to mark their centenary year, having been formed in 1919 on the banks of the Tagus river.
Little did they know that as the curtains closed on the 2017/18 season, the coming campaign was to go down in history for all the wrong reasons, as the season the club was torn in two, with ‘Os Belenenses’ – meaning ‘those from Belém’ – splitting from its parent entity Belenenses SAD and forfeiting its place in Portugal’s Primeira Liga in the process.
The SAD entity kept the first-team playing squad and the under-23 team under the divorce settlement, but lost almost everything else. Most of the fans stayed loyal to the original club, which kept the stadium and all other assets, but was forced to recruit a new team from scratch to compete in Lisbon’s regional leagues and work their way up from there.
The origin of the split can be traced back to 1999 when Os Belenenses club formed a SAD, – Sociedade Anónima Deportiva – a Public Limited Sports Company. All Portuguese clubs in the top two professional divisions are required by law to operate their teams through such entities. The idea is that the clubs will have greater financial security and transparency as the doors are opened to investment from all over the globe.
In practice, it hasn’t always worked out that way. The law only requires clubs to have a 10 percent minimum shareholding in the SAD, and in 2012 the club’s members voted to sell a 51 percent controlling interest to an investment fund operating under the name of Codecity Sports Management. This meant that the club no longer had decision-making power over the team’s affairs and was forced to sit back and watch Codecity call the shots.
The relationship between Codecity and the club’s management soon grew sour and a legal battle erupted over various financial and contractual issues, including the club members’ right to buy back the 51 percent stake at a future date, which formed part of the contract signed in 2012. The courts eventually ruled in favour of the SAD, with the club losing any right to buy back its shares.
When the 2012 contract expired on 30 June 2018, the relationship between the two entities had become so bitter that the club decided to no longer have anything to do with the SAD. This meant that the Belenenses club would carry on as it had done before, managing its teams across various sports ranging from handball and basketball to rugby and swimming – it is common in Portugal for clubs to field teams in multiple sports.
Crucially, Os Belenenses would no longer be represented by the senior football team, who were contracted to the SAD. They would have to build a new team out of nothing, much like AFC Wimbledon did when they started out in England’s bottom tier in 2002.
Their relative financial power and prestige meant that Os Belenenses would have little trouble in recruiting players of sufficient quality to be promoted in their first season, a goal which they achieved with ease, breezing the division, winning 24 of their 26 games and scoring 121 goals in the process.
This newly-assembled team have been able to pull on the famous blue jersey in front of loyal home support, which has continued to flock to the club’s 20,000-seater Estádio do Restelo located on a hill behind the historic Jerónimos Monastery, one of Belém’s, and indeed Lisbon’s, major tourist attractions.
The Azuis (Blues) have been playing here since the club inaugurated the stadium in 1956 and in most of that time it has been home to top-flight football, unbeknownst to the city’s tourists who are more eager to visit Benfica’s Estádio da Luz or Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade, both built for when Portugal hosted Euro 2004.
The Restelo isn’t the only venue that has been used for the club’s home games this season, however. With Belenenses marking their centenary year, the opportunity presented itself for them to arrange an April home fixture at the historic Salésias ground, where the club played its home games before the Restelo was built.
Home to the Portugal national team until the Estádio Nacional was built in 1944, the Salésias was one of Portugal’s major sports stadiums in the years between its inauguration in 1928 and its eventual abandonment in 1956 when Belenenses moved to the newly-built Restelo. The Salésias site was left neglected as grass, weeds and concrete covered what used to be the pitch, with only a small plaque reminding passing visitors that this sorry spot was, in fact, the location of Portugal’s first grass football pitch.
That has all changed now, though. With the help of sponsors and the local council, Belenenses began a project in 2014 to lay a new pitch on the site, to be used by their youth teams as well as a local school. It may not be much compared to its former glory, but it is a perfectly-laid modern pitch, a fine surface to play on at any level.
Now playing their football in Série 2 of the first AFL division, Belenenses saw the perfect opportunity to arrange an event that never would have been possible when they played in the Primeira Liga – a home league fixture on the Salésias pitch itself. The timing couldn’t have been better. Scheduled for 28 April with promotion already secured, the fans, dressed in blue t-shirts provided by the club, would meet two hours before the game at the Restelo and march through the streets of Belém in front of bemused tourists to Salésias, where the club became national champions in 1946.
It was a day of celebration, romping to an 8-1 victory followed by a pitch invasion as the fans got to take photos with the players and chat to them with a closeness between players and supporters that in some ways you would like to think evokes the football culture of the ground’s heydey back in the 1940s.
The same certainly can’t be said about the SAD side, however. The senior team have been playing their home games at the 37,000-seater Estádio Nacional, commonly known as Jamor, a three-sided uncovered arena that encompasses a running track and hosts the Taça de Portugal final each year. Jamor is conveniently located just ten minutes down the road from Belém in neighbouring Algés, but the close proximity of the venue hasn’t been enough to coax the local fans back for a taste of top-flight football.
With no facilities to its name, the SAD entity has had to rent the stadium for training sessions as well as games, at a cost of over €3,000 per week just to train and an extra €1,600 per match. A few hundred fans still attend, though, split between loyalty to the club as an institution and to the players and manager they’ve been accustomed to cheering on every week, who are holding their own as one of the league’s stronger mid-table sides.
It is hard to imagine things can carry on this way much longer. A week after Belenenses’ 8-1 victory at Salésias, the SAD side faced giants and local rivals, Sporting. With tickets readily available, the away fans made the short trip across town in numbers. With the sun beating down on the several thousand Sporting fans decked out in green and white, it looked as if they had come to watch their team play in a meaningless pre-season friendly at a local lower-league team.
As Sporting’s hardcore support set up their banners and waived their giant flags behind one of the goals, there was no one for them to antagonise at the opposite end. The opposing stand was closed and empty, the remnants of the home side’s most vocal support confined to one of the corners where a few great blue flags were being waived solemnly and silently.
One of these flags bore the famous red cross of the Cruz de Cristo (Order of Christ). The cross is one of the national emblems of Portugal and is historically linked to Belém, the starting point from where Portuguese ships set out on their voyages of discovery with the cross emblazoned across their white sails.
Since Belenenses has existed, the cross has been used as a symbol of the club, and is incorporated into their crest. The cross continued to feature as the club logo on the shirts of the SAD side, until a court injunction in March banned them using the iconic emblem. The ban had immediate effect and the SAD club were obliged to come up with a new logo overnight, eventually opting for a red letter ‘B’ with a turret motif meant to represent the Tower of Belém. Replica shirts featuring the new logo aren’t available in the club shop – because there isn’t one.
The fans who opted to follow the Belenenses club into the depths of the lower regional divisions could be forgiven for having wry smiles across their faces when they saw the final result from the Jamor stadium: Belenenses SAD 1-8 Sporting CP.
By Gareth Thomas @gareththomas54