A team without opponents, one an entire league was afraid to play
Canelas is largely made up of the Super Dragons, FC Porto’s largest ultra group
The Canelas 2010 team play in Canelas, Portugal, a suburb of Porto. Photograph: Daniel Rodrigues/The New York Times
The streak started in late October. Canelas 2010, an unheralded amateur soccer team, suddenly could not stop winning. It went 10 straight matches without dropping a point, without so much as conceding a goal, a surge that brought the prospect of promotion out of its local league and into the comparative big time of the national third division.
It was the sort of run that would, in normal circumstances, bring the professional scouts flocking, marveling at this small-time miracle. Nobody came to see Canelas, though. Nobody could. There was nothing to watch.
Though each of those results was officially recorded as a 3-0 Canelas win, none of the matches actually happened.
After a scoreless game with Padroense on October 23rd, Canelas did not play again in 2016. Its players were told they were too violent on the field, too intimidating to referees. They became a team without opponents, one an entire league was afraid to play.
“It is unfair,” said Fernando Madureira, the Canelas captain. “We are not a violent team. We play the same as everyone else: We do not want to lose, we run, we fight for the ball, and we give everything on the field.”
That is not how the club’s opponents see it. In October, the presidents of the league’s other teams held a series of clandestine meetings. Eventually, all but one decided his team would refuse to play Canelas. Porto’s local soccer association informed the teams of the consequences – a fine of €750 for each game missed and a walkover win for Canelas – but they stood firm.
“There is coercion, intimidation, and referees do not have the courage to write reports that say what has really happened,” said Manuel Gomes, the president of Grijo, one of the teams that called for the boycott.
“These problems have dragged on for years, and they are very serious. We have decided something has to be done.”
Their justification came in the form of a smattering of YouTube videos showcasing Canelas’ apparently gratuitous acts of violence – karate kicks, two-footed lunges – from previous games. More chilling was the anonymous testimony of former opponents.
Their words, and particularly their threats, hold ominous weight
Canelas members had a habit, more than one said, of warning rivals and referees that they “knew where their families lived.” In normal circumstances, such threats might have been seen as empty bombast, but not with Canelas.
That is because Madureira is not just the captain of a minor club in a local soccer league. Known by his nickname Macaco – Monkey – he is also the leader of the Super Dragons, the largest, most powerful and most feared of FC Porto’s ultra groups.
The majority of his teammates at Canelas also hold posts in the highest ranks of the ultras. Their words, and particularly their threats, hold ominous weight.
It is not easy to square Madureira’s reputation as the controversial, firebrand commander of an army of 5,000 hard-core fans with the relaxed, engaging character who arrived at FC Porto’s Estádio do Dragão for an interview on a sunny Thursday morning in April.
A group of schoolchildren was milling around outside as Madureira walked up. He had not exactly come incognito: distressed leather jacket, skinny jeans, diamond stud in one ear. The children, a junior futsal team that had just completed a stadium tour, stopped, as one, and stared. Madureira’s day job with the Super Dragons makes him something of a celebrity here. A coach was dispatched to ask, a little sheepishly, if he would pose for a photo with the boys.
Madureira nodded happily as the children flocked around him; paternally, he ruffled the hair of the boy closest to him. The captain of a soccer team ostracised for brutality and intimidation is not without his softer side.
Madureira first became involved with Canelas – a team based in a suburb south of Porto, Portugal’s vibrant second city - as a teenager. He played for the club as an aspiring professional before he gave up his nascent career, 25 years ago, to devote himself full time to the Super Dragons.
They said the local referees were afraid of us, so now they have them from the national leagues
“I was a medium football player,” he said. “But I am a really good fan leader.” As leader, he says, he “works 24/7” for the group: arranging transportation to and from matches; distributing tickets to the group’s 5,000 members; commissioning vast, choreographed tifos to be displayed at games; and leading the chanting after kickoff. Madureira’s income comes from a restaurant, a hotel and some rented apartments that he owns, but his job is with the Super Dragons.
Ultras play too
In 2012, he and several fellow ultras decided they wanted a place to play, too. They settled on Canelas, recently reconstituted after being overwhelmed by debt. “I have played football since I was seven,” Madureira said. “We wanted to play. It is not our first occupation, but it is an extra. I feel good playing.”
Not everyone was quite so happy playing against them, though. “Canelas is the only club in the league that does not have local referees,” Madureira said. “They said the local referees were afraid of us, so now they have them from the national leagues. And they send special police, like a SWAT team.”
Madureira does not feel such special measures were warranted. He takes pains to point out that ultra is not a synonym for hooligan: Though their credo dictates “nenhum passo atrás” (no step back), the Super Dragons do not exist solely to fight, he said. Only around matches with an archrival, Benfica, does violence typically flare.
But he is no fool; he knows his members are not all angels. Outside the Super Dragons’ offices not far from the Dragão, three garbage bins are filled to the brim with beer cans. A sticker reading “I (heart) fascism” has been affixed to the door.
“In the Super Dragons, there are good guys and bad guys,” he said. “We have drug dealers, killers, but good people, too. Everything we have in society, we have in the Super Dragons.”
He is adamant, though, that the group’s members should not be prevented from playing just because they are ultras. “It would be discrimination if you did not let an African, a Gypsy or a Chinese person play,” he said. “So why is it different for a Super Dragon?”
Because of the on-field violence? “The videos on YouTube are from two years ago,” he said, dismissing the violence they show.
“It is from one game. They repeat it all. The media is only interested because of me, the Super Dragons and FC Porto. If we were not here, and the same things happened, nothing would be mentioned.”
His interpretation of the boycotts – a second, lasting six games, took place this year – is that they were an exercise in cynical politicking, rather than a moral crusade. He notes that the influx of ultras into Canelas happened five years ago, and yet fear only seemed to afflict its opponents when the team started this season unexpectedly well, winning six of its first seven actual games.
“There is a lot of money in this league,” he said. “Some clubs pay their players a lot; they have a much higher budget than us to try to win promotion. Canelas happened without money. They decided to stop when we were first.”
Canelas currently sits third, two points off the leader
Madureira points out, too, what has happened since the second boycott. Canelas played the last two games of its regular season – its two opponents “needed to play or they would have been relegated,” Madureira said – and then, thanks largely to all those earlier walkover victories, found itself in a six-team pool playing for the championship, and possible promotion.
Those games have gone ahead, too – Canelas currently sits third, two points off the leader – suggesting to Madureira that the rationale for the boycotts was Canelas’ success.
“They do not seem to be afraid anymore,” he said. In the six pool games so far, discipline, as a rule, has not been a problem. “We do not have many cards,” Madureira said. A handful of yellows, he noted. Only one red.
The rule is one thing; the exception another. The red card was shown to Marco Gonçalves, a member of the Super Dragons, two minutes into a game against Rio Tinto in April. Gonçalves responded to being sent off by steering his knee into the face of the referee.
He has been banned from even attending soccer matches, and could yet face jail for assault. The country’s referees responded by boycotting Canelas games. The club has thrown him out, but still, despite their motto, for all their justification, it felt like Madureira, Canelas and the Super Dragons had all taken a considerable step back.