Football rocked by corruption

In a scandal that has rocked Portuguese football, police have arrested 16 referees and senior football officials, including the chairman of the country’s Liga de Clubes (League of Clubs), Valentim Loureiro.

“I thought I had explained everything”

Investigators questioned the detainees about corruption, match-fixing, bribery and forgery allegations, before indicting Loureiro on 23 counts – 19 corruption charges and four relating to the illicit granting of favours. He was freed on bail of 250,000 euros but placed under house arrest and suspended from his post as chairman.

Loureiro and the head of the referees’ panel, António Pinto de Sousa, were the most prominent detainees following raids on 60 premises. Loureiro, a former chairman of Boavista football club, is also the Social Democratic mayor of Gondomar. Both men spent four days in the Polícia Judiciária (Judicial Police – PJ) cells in Porto. Loureiro then returned home, where he spoke to journalists of his surprise at the judge’s decision, claiming he had nothing to hide. “The only thing I can say is that I tried to reveal everything to the judge,” commented the 66-year-old. “I think I succeeded, but I admit that, in these kinds of situations, there remains room for doubt. I am surprised because I thought I had explained everything.”

Loureiro revealed that he has received many letters of support, including one from the Social Democratic President of Lisbon Câmara, Pedro Santana Lopes. Lopes later expressed surprise that Loureiro had chosen to make his message of solidarity public, but said that the party should “stand by its friends, even in dark moments”.

Referee tipped off authorities

Police launched what has been called Operation Golden Whistle after a year long investigation involving 150 officers. It is understood that the operation was launched after a referee made an anonymous tip-off about alleged bribery to Gondomar’s Public Ministry. The referee in question is now under police protection. But another referee, Rui José de Sousa Vieira Mendes, currently working in the Third Division, has been named as a key figure in the unfolding drama. Although Mendes claims the tip-off did not come from him, the authorities had previously interviewed him in connection with his claims that bribery was commonplace when he was a referee.

Among the premises searched by police were the offices of the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) in Lisbon and those of Super Liga (similar to the Premier League in Britain), club, Sporting Braga. According to the Judicial Police, the arrests were carried out “because there was strong evidence of the practice of falsification of documents, corruption in the sport and currying of favours.”

The 60 premises in question were private homes and buildings belonging to sports authorities and officials. Materials including computers and documents pertaining to the nominations of referees were seized. Police are also reported to be investigating suspected accounting irregularities involving players’ wages at clubs currently in the Supa Liga, including Benfica.

Among the matches whose results are now in dispute, several involve hotly contended penalties, including a game between Bragança and Gondomar and the Braga B-side against Gondomar. The scandal has prompted renewed calls for referees to be overseen by an independent body.

Insinuations had been made for years

FPF president Gilberto Madail said he was not surprised by the police move, following “insinuations, which have been made for years”. And investigators have not discounted the possibility that Madail will be called to give evidence. Portuguese coach Luiz Felipe Scolari declined to comment on the case, saying he had “no opinion” about it. “It is a matter for you journalists,” he maintained.

Euro 2004 will not be tainted

Meanwhile, Minister of Sport, José Luis Arnaut, guaranteed that the Euro 2004 football tournament would not be affected by the corruption probe. “The organisation for Euro 2004 is proceeding according to plan. With each passing day we are more certain that this event will be a great moment to celebrate football and Portugal,” he maintained.

Arnaut did not want to comment on the arrests, citing the state’s constitutional principal of total separation between ministers and the judiciary.“We must scrupulously adhere to this principal by not commenting on the specifics of the judicial process,” he said.

Reaction from the political world was more mixed. Prime Minister Durão Barroso, who publicly embraced Loureiro on the platform of the PSD party conference in Lisbon two years ago, declined to make a detailed comment on the investigation. He simply said that he hoped “everything will be cleared up”. Opposition leader Ferro Rodrigues said: “Justice must be seen to be done in court and not in the public domain.” But the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) has called for a “full and rigorous investigation” into the links between clubs and local authorities.