Lessons in Democracy From F.C. Porto

Things started with a brawl and have scarcely gotten better from there. Over the course of the past five months or so, there have been a string of arrests; allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering; dark whispers of illegal data breaches; vague accusations of intimidation; and several charged invectives about financial impropriety, dishonesty and betrayal.

Across the globe this year, at least 64 countries will hold elections. So, too, will the European Union. The campaigns will be fierce. Frequently, they may be toxic. Few, though, will prove quite so virulent — or offer quite such an instructive case study of the state of democracy in 2024 — as the one to decide who gets to be president of F.C. Porto.

Like dozens of clubs around Europe, Porto — one of the three great houses of Portuguese soccer — is owned by its members. Their number is currently somewhere north of 140,000. Every few years, the club holds an election, for both a president and an executive board, to determine who should run the club on their behalf.

Ordinarily, these amount to little more than paperwork. Only a small percentage of members vote. The choice is usually between two essentially indistinguishable old men, when there is a choice at all. Until the last round of elections, in 2020, Porto had been a democracy in only the most nominal sense.

Since 1982, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa has served as Porto’s president. In that time, he has seen the team crowned champion of Europe twice — 1987 and 2004, trivia fans — and established it as Portugal’s pre-eminent force. Porto has won 23 Portuguese titles on Pinto da Costa’s watch, nine more than Benfica, its nearest rival in that time.

Porto fans before a game against Benfica in March.Credit…Pedro Nunes/Reuters
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