This article was first featured in Issue 6 of the Box To Box magazine on the Assorted History of the World Cup with words by Francisco Cardoso Pinto and accompanying illustration from Natalia Szwancyber.
Disgruntled players. Excessive flight hours. Broken legs. Amateur management. Sloping training grounds. Hypnotising Mexican beauty and a lot – A LOT – of moustaches. This is the story of the Saltillo Affair. The time some Portuguese players realised their pockets were too light.
“Let us dream!”
The words belong to José Torres, prolific striker of the Portuguese team that had finished third at the 1966 World Cup. Two decades of absence later, and his team had come face to face with their big chance to go to a World Cup again. He implored that they dream, because of the task that faced his side. It was the eve of a decisive game in Stuttgart where the Portuguese, in order to book their place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, had to do what no other team had done in 45 years: beat Germany on their home soil.
Carlos Manuel’s historic strike made sure that tradition was broken, but the words of José Torres the night before would stay with the team for some time. That specific dream of going to Mexico had just become reality. But along with the great talent of players like Futre, Gomes or Bento, this group also had the ability to not let reality come in the way of their dreams.
And they dreamt a lot. They dreamt about winning the World Cup. About being treated like professional players. About earning some decent money while representing their country. And they hoped – wished even – to have a proper football pitch to practice on for the World Cup. They were dreamers, and, like all dreamers, they began their journey to Mexico spending a lot of time between clouds. Literally.
What should be a straightforward trip from Lisbon to the Portuguese headquarters in Saltillo, Mexico, became a never-ending saga that had stops in Frankfurt (yes, Germany, the opposite direction to Mexico from Portugal), Dallas, Mexico City, Monterrey and, finally, Saltillo. The team hadn’t put a foot on Mexican soil and the players were already complaining about the lack of professionalism and grasp of how professional athletes should be treated.
Meanwhile, as the team arrived at what some players called a ‘deplorable hotel, Silva Resende, President of the Portuguese Football Federation, was arriving at his 5-star hotel in Mexico City.
The Portuguese have a saying that goes something like this: “what is born crooked, late or never gets straightened”. It might as well be a Mexican prophecy, instead of a Portuguese saying, because what happened in the days that led to the first game against Bobby Robson’s England was worthy of a stand-up routine. From the ‘thousands’ (the quote is from the Portuguese cook) of cockroaches that were found in the kitchen in the first day, to the training ground that was on a slope (some players said the ball could go from one goal to the other without anyone touching it), everything happened.
The Portuguese Football Federation did not want to spend money on friendly matches for the team to prepare itself for the competition, and so the solution reached was to play a team of workers from the local restaurants and bars. Needless to say, it was not a tight game (a modest 11-0 final score).
With all these circumstances playing out, the feeling in the team ranged from disgruntled to excessively laid back. Since day one, the hotel had been surrounded by female Mexican fans who certainly found the Portuguese moustaches very familiar to the Mexican ones. This ‘coincidence’ led to several cross-cultural encounters at hours not friendly to football. The legend goes that on the off days there were lines of 11 to 12 cars at the hotel door, waiting for the players.
And so, one week before the first game against England, the rope broke. Led by the team captain, Manuel Bento, the team gave a press conference announcing that until they were given proper conditions (including a percentage of the sponsorship fees the Federation had signed), they would be on strike from that point onwards. They would not practice, at least not on the football field (the Saltillo night scene was now livelier than ever).
The dispute lasted a few days, at which point the players realised that the Portuguese public opinion was not on their side, and decided that they would resume training. However, as a protest, the team decided to turn their training shirts inside out. When the 1986 World Cup finally kicked off, Portugal were able to defeat England in their opening match. The euphoria was sadly short-lived, as the team then lost to Poland and Morocco, meaning that they left the tournament in the group stages.
In a time when the Portuguese call themselves proudly and full-mouthed “European Champions!”, this story is of special significance. This was the time when a group of players did some maths, and realised they were not being treated fairly nor professionally. It was when they realised that if they were being asked to win games against the best, then they should be able to ask something for themselves as well.
The way they chose to do it may not be the most appropriate one, but the undeniable fact is that their stance ended up being step one for the modernisation of the Portuguese National Team. From then on, players would be treated as the professionals they were. The simple fact that time turned this story from tragic to comic is, in itself, indicative of the importance of the moment. It’s funny because it’s true.