Rui Costa’s first assignment as Benfica’s president wasn’t exactly what he might have expected. Two days after the elegant midfielder who won 94 caps for Portugal replaced Luís Filipe Vieira, arrested last week as part of the Operation Red Card investigation into alleged tax fraud and money laundering, Costa watched the club’s women’s roller hockey team clinch the double by thrashing Infante Sagres 7-0 in the cup final on Sunday.
“We wanted to give him his first title as president,” said the forward Maria Sofia Silva. “We’ve been working all year for this – it’s the DNA of Benfica.”
Costa, spotted as a five-year-old by the legendary Eusébio, knows everything about Portugal’s most popular club. After a week that began with officers from the department of criminal investigation and penal action (DCIAP) exercising 45 warrants that included searching the headquarters of the country’s second-largest private financial institution, Novo Banco, in connection with the investigation and ended with trading in Benfica’s shares temporarily being suspended, the man who won the Champions League with Milan in 2003 has been asked to pick up the pieces.
Vieira had taken over as president in the same year Costa celebrated that final victory over Juventus in a penalty shootout – and was placed under house arrest by a judge until he posts €3m (£2.6m) bail. Benfica have stressed that the club is not under investigation, and three other people who were earlier detained for questioning, namely Vieira’s son Thiago, the businessman José Antonio dos Santos – known as the “Chicken King” – and the agent Bruno Macedo, have been released on bail.
They are accused of orchestrating a tax fraud and money-laundering scheme since 2014 “with a total amount exceeding €100m, which may have caused significant damage to the state and some companies”, according to a statement from DCIAP.
Some of the charges are said to relate to the transfers to Benfica of the Paraguayans Derlis González and Claudio Correa and the Brazilian César Martins, with €2.5m allegedly transferred by the club into a fund owned by Macedo in the United States before it was moved via similar funds in the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia and returned to Portugal to a fund that authorities suspect was “only to cover the identities of the actual managers, Luís Filipe Vieira and Tiago Vieira”.
In a statement released shortly after his arrest, Vieira denied the charges and announced he would be temporarily stepping down as president but appealed to supporters to “remain calm in defending the good reputation of the wonderful institution that is Benfica”. After three nights in police custody and four hours of questioning, he was allowed to return home under guard on Saturday night.
Vieira’s lawyer, Magalhães e Silva, revealed in a television interview on Tuesday that his client had not given up on a return to Benfica even though the club have promised elections for a new board before the end of the year.
“He suspended his functions as president and when he decides to resume, nothing will stop him," él dijo. “He will be the one to decide that. I never know if a client is innocent. What I can know is if there are elements that allow him to be blamed. In this case, I have no doubt that Luís Filipe Vieira is innocent of the facts that are being imputed to him.”
As for Vieira’s reaction to Costa – who had been the vice-president, having worked as the director of football – being named as his successor, Silva admitted it hadn’t gone down too well.
“He only found out about it on Saturday afternoon," él dijo. “He was incommunicado late Friday afternoon and the last thing I would say to him was that before the interrogation. I told him after the interrogation and his exclamation was ‘Did they do this?’ with an air of bitterness. He didn’t strictly say anything else. I let him be calm to digest this situation.”
Costa is said to be ready to take the role permanently after holding talks, although a poll of supporters for the leading newspaper Diário de Notícias suggested 62% would prefer all of Benfica’s board to resign; 88% wanted Vieira to step down for good.
The announcement on Tuesday that the American businessman John Textor had reached an agreement to buy a 25% stake in Benfica from Dos Santos was potentially good news for Benfica fans. The 57-year-old from Florida, a former leading shareholder of streaming service fuboTV, held talks with Newcastle over a potential takeover this year and had been linked with Crystal Palace in recent weeks. Previously he had suggested he might have reservations about purchasing shares after the arrest of Vieira, who made his fortune in construction before investing in real estate.
“I am digesting very quickly the unexpected news that is impacting SL Benfica,” Textor wrote on his website this week. “Though I was looking forward to meeting the management team of SL Benfica in the coming weeks, I am now evaluating whether or not I intend to consummate a purchase of SLBEN shares. It was my great hope to be received as a positive and contributing partner to the community of Benfica and I am obviously having to evaluate the remarkable change in circumstances as I evaluate this opportunity.”
Benfica suspended trading of shares for two hours on Tuesday because of possible “irregularities” but informed the Lisbon stock exchange that evening that they had received notice of the agreement between Textor and a local shareholder for Textor to acquire the stake in a club he has described as the “sleeping giant of world football”. Yet while Portugal’s TVI has reported that Benfica’s general assembly could still block Textor’s acquisition, whether Vieira or Costa will be part of any revival remains to be seen.