Portuguese clubs fall on hard times

Portugal’s football clubs have produced top players such as Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are facing their biggest financial crisis in years, which has left some teams struggling to stay afloat.

The majority of the nation’s 18 premier league teams currently owe their players back wages of between one and five months, according to the Union of Professional Football Players.

While the salary troubles have mostly hit smaller clubs, the nation’s three largest and most garlanded clubs—Benfica, Sporting and former European champions FC Porto—still grapple with huge debts.

Defending champions Benfica have pledged five players, including international midfielder Petit, to builder Somague as security on a debt related to the construction of the club’s new Lisbon stadium.

Cross-town rivals Sporting, where both Figo and Ronaldo got their start, meanwhile are looking into selling property, including a shopping centre and health club located on the grounds of its new stadium, to slash its debt.

The clubs are wrestling with poor ticket sales due to rising unemployment, at a seven-year high of 7,7%, that has helped fuel fan preference for watching matches on television.

Average attendance at matches between the 18 first-division clubs last season was less than 10 000, according to a study published in May by consultancy company Deloitte.

The clubs generated about €278-million in revenue, but the big three clubs took about 70% of the total, it added.

The problem has been compounded in recent years because the government, under pressure from the European Union to reduce its public deficit, has stepped up its pressure on clubs to pay their outstanding taxes.

“The clubs started paying their taxes and they were left with no money to pay players,” the head of the player’s union, Joaquim Evangelista, told weekly magazine Focus last week.

The financial crisis hitting clubs was brought to public attention last month when players from first-division club Vitoria Setubal threatened to strike because they had gone unpaid since the start of the season.

Fans appealed to Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho, whose father once served as goalkeeper at the club, for help and at the end of October player salaries were partially paid after a group of local businessmen put up a financial guarantee on a bank loan for the club, who lie in fourth place.

The financial strain is even tighter on second-division teams, with players telling reporters they rely on help from their family and friends to make ends meet.

Last week, Farense—which just four years ago was a mid-table team in the Portuguese first division—announced it was closing because it could not come up with €500 000 to pay wages owed to former players.

The Portuguese Professional Football League has already warned it is in no position to help the struggling teams out as it has done at times in the past due to the scale of the crisis.

“Many clubs have problems, but now they are of such gravity that the league doesn’t have the capacity to help them all,” the head of the body, Valentim Loureiro, told reporters earlier this month.

The president of the Portuguese Football Federation, Gilberto Madail, meanwhile has said the solution to the financial strain could involve reducing the number of teams that play in the first and second division.

“If there must be fewer clubs, then so be it but the ones that exist should be solid,” he said.—Sapa-AFP