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29 março 2010

Benfica Helped by River Plate Reunion - Por WSJ

Por Gabriele Marcotti in The Wall Street Journal

Argentine Teammates Aimar, Saviola Help Club's Bid to Regain Traditional Place

SL Benfica centerback Luisão is not who immediately comes to mind when you think of Brazilian soccer. Fittingly, for a man whose name literally means "Big Luís", his 6-foot-4 frame is long and muscular and, while his main responsibility is taking opposing center-forwards out of the game, he has a knack for popping up with important goals.
He did just that on Saturday, giving Benfica, at the top of the Portuguese League, the 1-0 win over second-place Sporting Braga which, in all likelihood will seal the club's record 32nd domestic championship. Benfica now boasts a six-point lead with six games to go and it's hard to see it throwing away the title.

You can only imagine what the party will be like when the crown does return to the club's Estadio do Luz for the first time since 2005. Benfica is far and away the country's best-supported club, and has more than 200,000 fans worldwide who pay around $210 a year for the privilege of calling themselves "socios" or club members. According to club officials, no team in the world has more paid-up members. And, for a relatively small nation like Portugal, its fan diaspora stretches all over the world. "Casa do Benfica" ("House of Benfica") fan clubs can be found in places as diverse as Johannesburg, South Africa; San Jose, California; Luanda, Angola; and Sydney, Australia.

And yet, Benfica has become something of a by-word for underachievement. In the past 15 years, the club has won just one league title, watching helpless as Porto—its rival from the north of the country—established itself as a force, not just in Portugal, but in Europe as well (witness the UEFA Cup and Champions League cups won under Jose Mourinho).

Last summer, Benfica rolled the dice and spent heavily to redress the imbalance. Some $45 million was spent, with just $7 million recouped in sales. In came, among others, Ramires—at 23 years old already a regular in midfield for Brazil—and Javi Garcia, a promising defensive midfielder from Real Madrid. One of the more interesting signings however was Argentine striker Javier Saviola, who rejoined playmaker Pablo Aimar a decade after the pair set South American soccer alight.

Back in the fall of 1999, Mr. Aimar and Mr. Saviola, 19 and 17 respectively at the time, formed a devastating partnership for Argentina's River Plate, whom they led to the Apertura and Clausura championships. Their precocious success led to call-ups to the national team and big-money moves to top European sides. Mr. Aimar joined Valencia in January 2001 for a club-record $32 million and, six months later, Mr. Saviola transferred to Barcelona for $20 million.

Both hit the ground running. Mr. Aimar led Valencia to two Spanish titles and a UEFA Cup, while Mr. Saviola scored sixty goals in his first three seasons at Barcelona. But then something unusual happened. Their performances dropped off severely. Mr. Aimar remained at Valencia until 2006, though by the end he was a shadow of former self. This was followed by two lackluster seasons at Zaragoza, the second blighted by relegation. Mr. Saviola was loaned out to Monaco and Seville, both times failing to make his mark. After another year as a bit player at Barcelona, arch-rival Real Madrid picked him up as a free agent, but, again he was a marginal figure, making just six league starts in two seasons.

But in the summer of 2008, Benfica took a gamble on Mr. Aimar and, after an injury-slowed first half of the campaign, he excelled towards the end of 2008-09 season. So much so that the club decided to repeat the exercise with Mr. Saviola, whom Real Madrid was looking to off-load.

The pair have enjoyed a renaissance—Mr. Saviola has scored 17 goals and Mr. Aimar is back to his creative best—and, at 28 and 30 respectively, both have a number of good seasons left in them. Together with countryman Angel Di Maria—arguably Benfica's player of the season and, at 22, a likely target for Europe's top clubs this summer—the Argentine trio have been the driving force behind Benfica's resurgence.

With the league all but wrapped up, Benfica can now focus on European competition. On Thursday it takes on Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Europa League. Benfica's legion of fans are once again dreaming, harking back to the early 1960s and the days of Eusebio and Mario Coluna, when the club twice won the European Cup.

Teams Making Delap's Throw-In Difficult
For most of the game's history, the throw-in was merely a way of re-starting play. Because the game's rules stipulate that the ball must be held with both hands, that the delivery must come "from behind and over" the thrower's head and, crucially, both feet must remain on the ground at the moment of release, achieving distance and power is difficult.

Enter Stoke City midfielder Rory Delap. An otherwise unremarkable player, Mr. Delap has become a bogeyman to opposing defenses with his long, flat throws in the final third of the pitch, which often reach the far post (most other players struggle to reach the edge of the six-yard box). Mr. Delap's throws are more difficult to defend than a corner kick because they are delivered with greater accuracy and, unlike corners—where you need to get the ball up and over the first defender, the flight of the ball does not have a natural arc: it simply flashes across the goalmouth, inviting a deflection and wreaking havoc in the penalty area. The physics of Mr. Delap's throws confounds fans. Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, chalks it up to his past competing in the javelin as a schoolboy.

Not coincidentally, Mr. Delap's throws have led to eleven Stoke goals this season and clubs are starting to take countermeasures. Earlier this month, when Stoke played away at Burnley, the home team moved the pitch-side advertising signs as close to the touchline as regulations allow in an apparent attempt to reduce space for Mr. Delap's run-up prior to the throw. And, on Saturday, West Ham went even further, adding extra sets of advertising boards in the final third of the pitch to complicate Mr. Delap's running start. Neither was particularly effective: Stoke drew 1-1 at Burnley and won at West Ham, 1-0.

Marseille Returns to Past And Breaks Long Drought
It took 17 years, but Marseille's dry spell has finally come to an end. By beating Bordeaux, 3-1, in the final of the French League Cup, it won its first domestic trophy since conquering its biggest: the 1992-93 European Cup final. The intervening years have been anything but easy for fans of arguably France's most popular club. A year after winning the European Cup, Marseille was found guilty of bribing opposition players in a league match and committing various financial irregularities. It was stripped of the league title it won that same year (but, curiously, not of the European Cup) and relegated to the second division. Since then, despite heavy investment from its owner, the late Adidas magnate Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the club has struggled to recapture its past glory with a string of frustrating near-misses worthy of the Buffalo Bills.

On three occasions it finished as runner-up in the French league—most recently last season—and twice it lost the final of the French Cup. In addition, it was twice a losing finalist in the UEFA Cup, going down to Parma in 1998-99 and Valencia in 2003-04.

But now the spell has been broken. And it seems somehow fitting that the man to lead Marseille this time was also the man who played a key role in delivering its last title: Didier Deschamps. Seventeen years ago he became the youngest captain to win the European Cup in Marseille's historic 1-0 defeat of heavily favored AC Milan in the final. Now, in his first season at the helm of the club, he's once again making history.

Corrections & Amplifications

The annual dues to be a club member of Benefica are $210. A previous version of this story listed the cost as $34.

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