Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Portugal: When Football Kicked Against a Dictatorship

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Portugal lived under Western Europe’s longest dictatorship of the 20th century from 1926 until the Carnation Revolution of April 1974. One of the key catalysts for the demise of the regime came in 1969 – and it was a football club that gave the country the confidence to bring down the dictatorship.

The 1960s saw Portugal’s first footballing peak. Bolstered by the recruitment of talent from its African colonies – such as Eusébio and Mário Coluna from Mozambique – both the national team and Benfica were achieving great success. The country was under António de Oliveira Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State), which was based on nationalism and Catholicism.

Salazar was a country man and actually hated football, but his regime had been careful that the country’s most successful side of the era – Benfica – changed the name of its anthem and its nickname to avoid any confusion with being perceived as communist. Hence Benfica became known as the Encarnados (the Scarlets) rather than the Vermelhos (Reds)

The influx of African players since the 1940s was aimed to support the notion of integration within a country that was still the head of an empire, according to Portuguese football journalist, Miguel Pereira.

‘Nevertheless, as with all things with Salazar, there was never truly an intention to support football clubs economically or use football as a propaganda weapon,’ Pereira tells me. ‘They simply took advantage of events and that great Benfica generation and the national team forged with their attacking line-up for the 1966 World Cup was one of those opportunities.’

Portuguese clubs were also forbidden from selling their best players abroad and the regime considered them property of the state. It was also around this period that the Estado Novo started elevating the role of football, including it in the ‘Three Fs’ to promote the image of Portugal abroad – Fado (folk music), Futebol and Fatima, the Catholic pilgrimage site.

Trouble at home and abroad

Portugal finished third in the 1966 World Cup in England, but all the while discontent with the colonial wars at home was growing, with protestors even taking to the streets. Among the key sources of public dissent were the universities, none more so than the country’s most prestigious university and one of the world’s oldest, Coimbra. The wars against African colonial uprising began in 1962 and students that failed at universities often found themselves drafted into the army to go to Africa to fight. This stoked anti-government strikes and protests. Salazar charged his protégé Marcelo Caetano to deal with them.

When Salazar suffered a suspected stroke in 1968 his role as Prime Minister was assumed by Caetano. When Caetano and his ministers and military personnel visited Coimbra to open a new building at the university in 1969, they were confronted by a student protest that led to a weeks-long stand-off with students barricading themselves into campus.

Coimbra’s local football club is Académica de Coimbra. Students could play for the club at that point, right up until the club went professional in the 1980s. ‘Académica at that time was a very political club,’ Miguel Pereira explains. ‘A lot of players who wanted to get a degree went to Académica while they were studying before signing for bigger teams. Players like Toni, Artur Jorge and Manuel António. A lot of the players were also students that came from the African colonies and most of them had connections with the military resistance groups.’

Indeed, on a club tour to Angola during the sixties, four African Académica de Coimbra players slipped away to join pro-independence resistance movements.

Student uprising . . .

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