"For the good of Sporting, I am no longer President. For several reasons I believe the best solution for Sporting is for me to leave my post as President of this great club."
As departures go, it was a low-key affair. Looking a fair bit older than his fifty years, José Eduardo Fragoso Tavares de Bettencourt chose this past Saturday to relinquish the post he had held since June 5th 2009, namely President of the Sociedade Desportiva da Futebol (SAD) and Directive Board of Sporting Clube de Portugal. After that brief press conference, Bettencourt subsequently told RTP that he would remain in office for a transitionary period, until the end of February. But, to all intents and purposes, the Bettencourt era ended just before 23.00 Lisbon time on Saturday night, as Sporting fell to their eighth defeat in thirty matches this season, at the hands of Paços de Ferreira.
Although his spell at the top of the tree lasted just over nineteen months, Bettencourt's association with Sporting formally began on August 22nd 1980, when the nineteen year-old became a member of the club he had supported as a child. Born into a family that could trace its lineage back to 16th century France, Bettencourt's life reflects his privileged upbringing. After graduating with a postgraduate degree in European Economics from the prestigious Universidade Católica Portuguesa in 1984, he entered the world of finance, moving from Citibank, to Barclays, and finally to Santander, where he rose to the rarefied air of executive-level banking.
Having maintained his membership of Sporting throughout this time, Bettencourt became an increasingly crucial cog in the well-oiled machine that linked club and financial sector, and was appointed Executive Director of the Sporting SAD in April 2001. It was an uncertain time. Having captured the title after an eighteen-year drought the previous season, Sporting's first defence had been poor: Augusto Inácio had been replaced mid-season by Manuel Fernandes, but the club idol could only guide the Lions to 3rd, fifteen points off the eventual champions Boavista. However, Bettencourt's arrival coincided with what was to be Sporting's last hurrah, although of course nobody was aware of that at the time. Led by the Romanian Laszlo Bölöni, a side that contained the likes of Paulo Bento, João Pinto, and Super Mário Jardel romped to the Liga and Taça double, finishing five points clear of Boavista, seven clear of Porto, and, most satisfyingly for sportinguistas, twelve points ahead of their hated rivals, Benfica.
Bettencourt remained in his post until June 2004, overseeing Sporting's move to the Alvalade. His departure appears to have been amicable, but he continued to cultivate allies and, more presciently, votes, declaring in 2008 that before he died he wished to become Sporting President. His chance came a year later, and he seized it: defeating the incumbent Filipe Soares Franco with over 89% of the votes cast. Franco had taken office following the joint resignation of President António Dias da Cunha and coach José Peseiro, and although he had attempted to stabilise the club, he found himself unable to appease the many factions contained in Sporting's vast political wing, the current members of which are listed here.
With such a convincing majority, Bettencourt looked well-placed to mould the shape of Sporting for many years to come. Despite the political strife that had preceded his election, on the pitch Sporting were in remarkably decent shape. The 2008/09 season yielded a 2nd-placed finish under Paulo Bento, with the likes of Rui Patrício, Daniel Carriço, and captain João Moutinho forming a fine understanding with veterans such as Marco Caneira, Derlei, and of course Liédson.
However, Bettencourt's first full season as President was not a happy one for the Lions. Bento had been the target of fan discontent the previous campaign, with a growing sense that his time at the club had perhaps run its natural course. Despite this, Bettencourt played a key role in persuading Bento to sign two-year contract extension - it would emerge later that Bento did so with grave misgivings. The end came in November, after a 1-1 draw at the Alvalade with Latvian outfit FK Ventspils. Bento, a great servant since joining the club as a player in 2000, was not blameless in his own demise; but Bettencourt's gamble that he could turn things around was an acute misreading of the situation that Sporting now found themselves in.
Bettencourt then embarked upon a programme of restructuring, but it was all too late. The twin appointments of Carlos Carvalhal as coach and Ricardo Sá Pinto as Sporting Director would have been risky during the off-season, but by November, it was verging on lunacy. Internal strife emerged as a major problem, with matters coming to a head after the 4-3 home win over Mafra in the Taça last January. Sá Pinto, a member of that title-winning side, berated Patrício after the young goalkeeper conceded two goals in the final seven minutes. Liédson took exception to this, and the two reportedly came to blows in the dressing room.
With the media swarming around the story within a matter of hours, Bettencourt was left with a thankless choice: club idol or the man you appointed just two months previously? Thankfully, Sá Pinto made the decision for him, tendering his resignation the following day. Despite this, it was a wholly unedifying episode that did little to redress the notion that under Bettencourt, Sporting were directionless at best, and in chronic decline at worst. The club limped towards the end of the season, eventually finishing a distant 4th behind Benfica, Braga, and Porto. The gaps in the final table are stark: Sporting sit twenty-eight points behind Benfica - they were closer to Leixões, who finished bottom.
With Carvalhal now out of the picture, Bettencourt handed the reins to Paulo Sérgio, the former Vitória de Guimarães coach having agreed a deal to take over the previous April. The courtship was largely played out in the media, as was the debacle that led to the departure of club captain and idol João Moutinho to FC Porto. Depending on your point of view, Moutinho was either chafing at the club's lack of ambition or merely motivated by the financial prospects of a move to the Dragão. Another combustible element in the equation was Costinha: the former Porto man who had assumed the vacant Sporting Director position. The phrase 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' comes to mind: Costinha soon proved himself to be cut from the same cloth as Sá Pinto, falling out with most everyone he came into contact with, and quite possibly bringing matters to a head with Moutinho.
Having lost Moutinho to Porto and Miguel Veloso to Genoa, Sporting began the season with the books marginally better balanced, but with expectations lowered beyond all recognition. On the pitch, things went from bad, to worse, and back to bad again. Off it, the noises emerging from the club were increasingly bizarre: the farce reached a crescendo when a memo emerged outlining how members of staff should comport themselves in public, with clothing being a particular point of order. Honestly, you couldn't make it up. It is perhaps illustrative that the most perceptive and heartfelt dissection of the situation I have read yet came from the fingers of a Benfica fan.
Which brings us up to Saturday evening, and Bettencourt's blink and you'll miss it press conference. As has become customary, the succession process is already being viewed through the prism of the press, with seven names currently floating around the ether. Meanwhile, Bettencourt will remain until February, ahead of elections that are reportedly being scheduled for late March or early April. At 18.00 this evening, a meeting will be held at the Alvalade, where some form of directive for the transitionary period will presumably be thrashed out. A period of destructive introspection surely beckons. As Bettencourt's French forefathers might have put it, plus ça change.
Update: Tonight's meeting at the Alvalade resulted in a unanimous decision to resign by the Sporting board, effective February 14th. General Assembly President José Dias Ferreira announced that elections would be held on March 26th.
Photo Credit: Pedro Fereira.