Sunday, May 19

At F.C. Porto, a Toxic Presidential Race Feels Typical for 2024

Things started with a brawl and have scarcely gotten better from there. Over the course of the past five months or so, there have been a string of arrests; allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering; dark whispers of illegal data breaches; vague accusations of intimidation; and several charged invectives about financial impropriety, dishonesty and betrayal.

Across the globe this year, at least 64 countries will hold elections. So, too, will the European Union. The campaigns will be fierce. Frequently, they may be toxic. Few, though, will prove quite so virulent — or offer quite such an instructive case study of the state of democracy in 2024 — as the one to decide who gets to be president of F.C. Porto.

Like dozens of clubs around Europe, Porto — one of the three great houses of Portuguese soccer — is owned by its members. Their number is currently somewhere north of 140,000. Every few years, the club holds an election, for both a president and an executive board, to determine who should run the club on their behalf.

Ordinarily, these amount to little more than paperwork. Only a small percentage of members vote. The choice is usually between two essentially indistinguishable old men, when there is a choice at all. Until the last round of elections, in 2020, Porto had been a democracy in only the most nominal sense.

Since 1982, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa has served as Porto’s president. In that time, he has seen the team crowned champion of Europe twice — 1987 and 2004, trivia fans — and established it as Portugal’s pre-eminent force. Porto has won 23 Portuguese titles on Pinto da Costa’s watch, nine more than Benfica, its nearest rival in that time.

There was, then, usually little appetite for change. Frequently, the club’s elections were the sort that might appeal to a strongman somewhere in the former Soviet bloc. Pinto da Costa was largely re-elected unopposed, the votes little more than a tick-box exercise, a parade of bureaucracy, with all of the excitement that entails.

This year has been quite different. Some 35,000 members or so are expected to vote on Saturday, a far higher turnout than normal. They will be asked to choose one of three presidential candidates on the ballot.

There is Pinto da Costa, now 82, and Nuno Lobo, a 54-year-old businessman and the defeated challenger in 2020. More eye-catching, though, is André Villas-Boas, still boyish at 46, revered not only as the young upstart who coached Chelsea and Tottenham, but also as the manager who led Porto itself to a treble in 2011. He had been appointed, at the age of just 31, under the aegis of Pinto da Costa.

Villas-Boas announced his candidacy — as a lifelong member, he said, it had always been his dream to be club president — at a lavish presentation in November that was attended by a phalanx of former Porto players.

Then he tried to take a diplomatic tack with the man who had given him his chance. The message was — admittedly partly through political expediency — that, for all the gratitude owed to Pinto da Costa, it was time for a change. (Villas-Boas was less gracious toward the manager under whom he made his name: In a stirring montage of Porto’s greatest triumphs, José Mourinho was conspicuous by his absence.)

By challenging a powerful incumbent, though, Villas-Boas quickly found it more and more difficult to maintain that particular line. At the club’s general assembly in November, members of the Super Dragões, Porto’s largest ultra faction, were reported to have attacked those who spoke out against the club’s leadership. A dozen people were subsequently arrested, among them the group’s leader, Fernando Madureira. A police raid on his house later found drugs, weapons and several thousand euros in cash. (Madureira remains in prison, awaiting trial.)

That set the tone. All three candidates have spent the past few months touring various locations in the city, visiting fan groups and canvassing for votes, as any self-respecting presidential candidate would. The rhetoric has grown increasingly splenetic. “Almost every day, it seems like a laundry, washing dirty clothes,” Lobo has said.

Pinto da Costa, clearly stung by what he perceives as a former protégé’s treachery, at one point compared Villas-Boas to his dog. He has accused Villas-Boas of surrounding himself with “enemies of F.C. Porto,” hinting that he is merely a stooge for others. He has highlighted Villas-Boas’s upper-middle-class lineage, casting him as an elitist snob, and suggested that his campaign illegally obtained the phone numbers of voting members.

Villas-Boas, on the other hand, has been unsparing about what he sees as Pinto da Costa’s mismanagement of the club. Porto’s latest financial figures showed debts and liabilities of more than $700 million, proof of what he has called its “dysfunctional structure.” The club, he has said, is essentially in “operational bankruptcy.”

Pinto da Costa, he claims, has allowed Porto, once a model for how clubs could navigate the transfer market, to be used as a “negotiating warehouse,” with control of its transfer strategy essentially ceded to a handful of favored agents. “The club’s authority has been dissipated in favor of the interests of certain intermediaries,” Villas-Boas said.

He has sought guarantees on the transparency of the elections, and described November’s violence — which led to accusations that the ultras were protecting what they see as a beneficial relationship with the club’s current leaders — as one of the “darkest days in Porto’s history.” All of that, Villas-Boas maintains, proves the urgent need for reform.

Quite how the election will go on Saturday is unclear: The anticipated record turnout bodes well for Villas-Boas, but then soccer teams are inherently conservative places, wary of drastic change and quick to grasp at the comfort of the familiar. Porto has been Pinto da Costa’s fief for four decades; the fans, the members, may find it hard to envisage a world in which that is not the case.

What is more apparent, and more disheartening, is that it is not especially difficult to draw a line between all of this — the charges and allegations, the easy-reach conspiracies, the acrid threat of actual violence — and what may play out on rather greater electoral stages in the next few months. This, it would appear, is just how democracy works in 2024, whether it is the future of a club or a country at stake.


It is hard to argue that Arne Slot does not deserve his chance. In his three seasons at Feyenoord, he has delivered only the club’s second championship of the century, picked up a Dutch cup, and guided the team to its first European final since 2002. And he has done all of it with a squad pieced together on a budget much tighter than those of his domestic rivals.

That he has emerged as the front-runner to replace Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, then, is no surprise. (As of the time of writing, the coach and the club were discussing compensation; the momentum seems likely to end in an appointment.)

Liverpool had promised a forensic, data-led approach to its search for Klopp’s replacement. Slot ticks most of the boxes. Liverpool may be gambling that the most gaping hole on his résumé — experience handling the caliber of player he would find at Anfield — is down to a lack of opportunity rather than ability.

Slot’s greatest challenge, though, would not be the squad. It will be the fans. That Slot seemed to feel, to many, to be an underwhelming choice is down not to him but rather to the man he would be tasked with replacing: Klopp, who has not only won almost every trophy available to him in his nine years at Liverpool, but also established an iron bond with the crowd and much of the city, too.

If hired and given time, Slot might be able to replicate that, and perhaps even surpass it. But time is unlikely to be in generous supply. The great challenge for Slot — as it would have been for whoever replaced Klopp — would be what happens if Liverpool, a couple of months into next season, finds itself eighth in the Premier League, already scrabbling to keep pace. Slot is a rational, logical choice. The test, after Klopp, is emotional.

There was no question that Chelsea’s win in the first leg of its Women’s Champions League semifinal against Barcelona last week was something of a surprise: Barcelona Femení, after all, had not lost at all in a year, had not lost at home since before the pandemic and was the overwhelming favorite to be crowned European champion yet again.

Still, the idea of Emma Hayes’s Chelsea team as a sort of Mighty Ducks-style underdog does not really fit with reality. Chelsea, after all, has broken the world transfer record at least twice, employs several of the highest-paid women’s players in the world, and has won each of the last four editions of the Women’s Super League, the richest women’s tournament in Europe.

Barcelona, of course, is under pressure to overturn the one-goal deficit and reach a fifth Champions League final in six years when the teams meet on Saturday in the return leg in London. But Chelsea has certain expectations, too. The fact that it has not yet won a European title is something of an omission on Hayes’s otherwise unimpeachable résumé. She will certainly not want to leave England without rectifying that situation.