The Juve Leo members’ clubhouse in central Lisbon is a anthropologist’s dream. Skulls with bullet holes, flags and mottos adorn the walls. And plaques pay tribute to those injured or killed in past riots involving this group of Sporting Clube de Portugal ‘ultras’ – the most fanatical of football fans, who are sometimes involved in violence. Low ceilings keep in the smoke and the noise and those standing by the door appear to act as unpaid bouncers, monitoring comings and goings.
I got an approving nod on my way into the clubhouse this weekend, presumably due to the green Sporting top I’ve just bought under pressure from my Portuguese host, Ruben: ‘Come on! You must support Sporting. You like Arsenal and they’re very good with the youth team. Sporting is the same. All the good players in Portugal come from Sporting’s academy: Figo, Nani, Ronaldo, everyone!’
A friendly barman fetches a beer and we talk about the club’s presidential elections, a topic so important in Portugal that it’s discussed before the impending national prime ministerial elections on many news programmes. While in Britain we talk about Portugal’s financial crisis, in Portugal, they talk about Sporting’s crisis – the slump in form and reputation that has seen the club fall to third place in the league, 17 points behind fierce rivals Benfica and 30 adrift of leaders Porto. In Lisbon’s coffee shops, discussions of Sporting’s spectacular decline, not politics, create the most heated debate.
Saturday was the day of the elections and club members (those who paid monthly dues) were flocking to the stadium to vote. In theory, votes could be cast for any one of five candidates but, by this time, only three men were really in the running. First, Godinho Lopes, a man standing for ‘continuity’ and generally supported by older club members. Second, a younger man, Bruno de Carvalho, who promised change, excellent PR skills and a 50 million euro transfer war chest provided by Russian backers. There were concerns about the money’s origins among the old guard but Carvalho’s support among younger supporters was strong. Third, there was Dias Ferreira, a passionate reformer who had secured Frank Rikjaard as the club’s next manager. His support came from a mixture of fans – including my host.
Our barman explained to us that different Sporting ultras groups supported different candidates. Juve Leo was split between Godinho Lopes (the stability candidate) and the favourite, Bruno de Carvalho, another ultras group Torcida Verde was very close to Carvalho, and yet another group, Diretivo Ultras XXI, remained neutral. ‘Interesting’, I thought.
Interesting indeed. For a few hours after my visit to Estádio José Alvalade XXI, at 1am, around two thousand fans had congregated at the stadium to hear the election results. Rumours circulated that Bruno de Carvalho had won and his expectant supporters were out in force. Indeed, the popular sports newspaper, O Jogo (seen left), went to press reporting a Carvalho victory. But tensions were running high and at 1am Juve Leo members, led by their ex-special forces leader Fernando Mendes, attempted to storm the voting hall – for reasons as yet undetermined. Rebuffed by police, they turned their frustrations towards the television crews, who they accused of anti-Sporting bias. Reporters were stoned and flares thrown, causing damage to several television vans. Police and special anti-riot police were called to the scene, as reporters were told to “barricade themselves” against attacks.
Things calmed quickly but at 5am there was a rapid escalation of violence. To the crowd’s surprise Godinho Lopes was announced as the winner – by a tiny 0,4% margin. Some 30 people were reported injured in ensuing rioting, and the crowd was only calmed by the appearance of the defeated pro-change candidate Carvalho, who promised to fight the verdict through official (and legal) channels. The carnage caused by this small group put the still very disturbing unrest by a tiny minority of radicals at London’s 26 March protest against cuts into perspective.
From a criminologists position, the combination of frustrated youth, a crowd and violence is hardly surprising. But what struck me as interesting when viewing video footage was the fact that while many radical fans engaged in violence, others were clearly vocal but peaceful. Even within ultras groups there is a ‘hardcore hardcore’ and in Juve Leo that hardcore is represented by the group’s second-in-command, Mustafá or Musta (left), recently freed after serving a 9 year sentence for attempted murder.
The other thing that struck me was the role that Sporting Lisbon’s presidential voting system might have played in the violence. The current voting system is a first past the post system, but senior members get extra votes based on how long they’ve been paying their subscriptions. The 10,000 members who’ve been paying their dues the longest get at least ten votes each, while around half of the club’s nearly 90,000 members must be satisfied with just the one vote. This system rewards loyal fans and encourages ongoing subscription payments even in times of dire results. It avoids short-term election-rigging too, particularly because people with less than a year’s membership can’t vote in elections at all.
However, the system had a dramatic impact on the result in this case. Under either a ‘one person, one vote’ system or an ‘alternative vote‘ (AV) system, it is nearly certain that the pro-change candidate Bruno de Carvalho would have won. The winner, Godinho Lopes, received just 36.6% of all votes, and only 31.0% of voters supported him. Carvalho, meanwhile, had greater support among younger voters (indeed 41.6% of all voters chose him) and he would certainly have received the second preference votes of the other reforming candidate, Dias Ferreira, had AV been in place.
The story provides an interesting take on current AV debates in the UK – not least because it suggests that in times where the majority wants change, an AV system may be more likely to give it to them. In these times of turmoil, could it also be that AV might prevent more rioting?
With thanks to Rúben Serém who helped with the research for this post – and spurred my interest in Sporting Clube de Portugal