One foot in the Algarve
Esperanca de Lagos 2-1 Fabril Burreiro
Who wouldn't want to go and see a game in the Portuguese Section F Regional Division III? Making his EFW debut Rob MacDonald of the Magic Spongers blog on the glamour of Portugal's nether regions:
Lagos, on Portugal’s south coast, may have a population only capable of filling Vale Park, but it's a very popular holiday destination. Most tourists sit on the marina drinking cocktails, lie on the beaches or eat and drink to their heart's content in the town centre. Few, it has to be said, while being struck by the stark appearance and surroundings of the its municipal stadium – unmissable as you arrive – have likely ventured to watch its football team, Esperança de Lagos.
The team doesn't only suffer from international indifference as increasingly few locals grace the matches with their presence. With Portimonense's promotion to the Liga Sagres last season, top-flight football in the Algarve has become even more accessible. The region now boasts two teams in the national league; Portimão's representatives (a short drive from Lagos) have joined Olhanense in looking forward to visits from Porto, Benfica, Sporting et al. Olhanense have made a cracking start too and sit third, despite only narrowly avoiding relegation last year.
However, attendances across the country are poor, no matter the league. With the exception of the Liga Sagres's big three, crowds rarely exceed 5,000. Lower down the leagues, they are marginal and most people I spoke to in Lagos were fans of traditional powerhouses Sporting or Benfica. Most offered expressions approaching alarm on being consulted as to where the next 'Bébé' might be coming from.
Lagos, in case you were wondering, are definitely lower down the leagues. The club competes in 'Section F' of the regionalised Division III – Portugal's fourth tier – which consists of eight sections overall (A through to F and sections for the Azores and Madeira). The twelve-team Section F splits into two after the first round of matches – the top six contest promotion while the bottom six attempt to avoid relegation.
Crossing the main road and walking across the sandy car park to Lagos's stadium (capacity 4,600), in the middle of a construction site, is on a similarly grandiose scale to arriving at, say, Stevenage. It did provide proof though, if ever any were needed, that everything looks a bit more amenable if it's really sunny.
Note the tall floodlights.
It just wouldn't be the same in the rainy North-West.
As a municipal stadium, Lagos's ground is used for a variety of sports. As well as boasting the bane of all short-sighted fans' existences, a running track around the outside of the pitch, I'm reliably informed that the stadium is also used for track and field in the summer and, more intriguingly, fun runs and gymnastics. The ground has just one small stand, elevated above pitch level so you can see over the dugouts, but offering little shade and consisting mostly of concrete.
With Portuguese as stilted as mine, it becomes fairly difficult to glean much information when the Lagos locals already feel you are intruding on the parts of their town they don't regularly share with tourists. Luckily (for me), the influx of Brits over the years means many people in the town either speak excellent English or are of British descent themselves. One such barman used to play for the club and was perfectly happy to chat about it, albeit for the price of a beer haze (mine) that lasted some 60 minutes into the game the next day.
Lagos appear proud of their reputation for developing young players – presumably as much of a lifeline for them as it can be for smaller clubs in the UK. None of their four summer signings were over 20 years old (two, Fabio Sapateiro (20) and Anderson (19), were loan signings from Portimonense and the other two, Hernani (19) and Alex (20) were from Lagoa and Belenenses in the second division). And while Brazilian centre-back and captain Edson may be 39, it's a testament to Lagos that the squad’s average age remains at 25.
Fabril Burreiro (white) and Esperanca de Lagos (yellow) line up in front of an empty table. As you do.
The opening exchanges of the game offered few hints of what was to come. Both teams seemed fairly happy to attack quickly and directly, but while back home this would mean hoofing it up front to a big man, in Iberia it entails playing passes quickly and trying to keep your opponents chasing in the heat. As a result of this slightly more cavalier attitude, possession was exchanged with almost metronomic frequency and no one was quite able to manufacture a decent shot on target. This was undoubtedly good news for the keepers, who would prove time and again that the propensity for punching the ball away from corners, free kicks, crosses, throw-ins, shots, long balls etc. on the continent remains undimmed.
A fairly disinterested crowd of perhaps 150 watched the stalemate unfold. In the absence of early chances, I tried to work out Lagos's formation, which appeared to include Match of the Day's ever-obvious two banks of four, although the banks were in midfield and up front rather than at the back. When in possession the two centre-backs dropped extremely deep and the full-backs pushed on to join the midfield, with the 'wingers' abandoning winging duty and moving inside to support the strikers, of which there could be as many as three (when Lagos were in possession) or as few as one (when they weren't). Such attacking intent was commendable, but it asked a huge amount of the midfielders and especially Lagos's full-backs, who to be fair to them were quick, skillful and far more capable on the wing than the wide midfielders ahead of them.
Portuguese at the back. Mad dogs and Scotsmen to the front.
I want to live in a house that overlooks a football ground.
Though the stalemate was broken by a free-kick on the half hour, putting Fabril 1-0 up, chances from open play remained hard to come by. Both teams were guilty of crowding the final third with attackers and attempts to get forward were usually overcomplicated and broken up. The long ball though, remained conspicuous by its absence.
Lagos certainly needed something as half time approached and as the whistle blew, it appeared they were definitely going to get it when they got into the dressing room. I have never seen a manager so consistently angry for 45 minutes as was Paulo Nunes, and I watched Macclesfield when Brian Horton was in charge. I’d always wondered whether enormous bollockings worked when the game was only 50% complete, especially since Horton once reduced Kevin Sandwith to tears and refused him a position on the bench having hauled him off.
While no one emerged from the Lagos dressing room emerged sobbing, it took until the 65th minute for a goal to arrive. Yet again, it wasn’t from open play as Roberto scored a penalty. The stage was set for a comeback and Lagos’s second goal duly arrived from Anderson, their 19-year old substitute striker, in the 83rd minute. A rare shot on target could only be parried by Madureira (what a surprise) in the Fabril goal and in the ensuing scramble Anderson poked the ball in. The heat had taken its toll and by now the game was extremely stretched. Lagos looked almost pleased to be able to get 10 men behind the ball, safe in the knowledge that lung-bursting runs into the opposition half were now a thing of the past.
Lagos celebrate Anderson's late winner whilst Nunez (dart t-shirt) continues his rant.
This straightforward strategy lasted for all of three minutes as Gonzalez was sent off for the home side, apparently for nothing, unless being clean through on goal following a defender's slip is a red-card offence on the continent. Questionable refereeing decisions were a feature throughout, but this one was particularly bizarre. Cue more incredible management from Nunez. Throughout the game, balls had been dotted around the outside of the pitch to minimise delays in play – as the ball would go out and over the running track to the edge of the ground. Somehow, after Lagos went 2-1 up, most of the balls had worked their way round to the dugout. With Gonzalez's red card, Nunez saw fit to send all the replacement match balls next to his dugout bouncing down the tunnel. No more swift re-starts. Gamesmanship? Cheating? I'll let you decide, but I laughed my head off.
Victory was eventually Lagos's. It was quite a stirring comeback, really. Lagos's players aren't fully professional and while they receive a nominal wage every week, for four nights' training and a game on Sundays, most have other jobs. Across the leagues at this level players are incentivised predominately by game bonuses and I can't say Lagos didn't earn theirs, given this was only their second game of the season. They've since won again and sit fifth in the league, with a game against the league leaders approaching.
A penalty, a mystifying red card and gamesmanship approaching cheating, plus the most remarkable piece of circus football ever – two foul throws in a row – made for pretty good Sunday afternoon viewing. Heading back into the town, past the eaters, drinkers, dolphin spotters and yacht owners reinforced that while the football might not have been as aesthetically pleasing as Lagos’s marina, it was thoroughly entertaining.
Read more of Rob's fine work at Magic Spongers
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