Fernando Chalana – Portugal’s Little Genius

Portugal: a small country with a big influence over the modern transfer market. Every summer another group of talented Primeira Liga players complete moves to Europe’s biggest clubs, deals mostly negotiated on their behalf by the formidable Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes. Here we rewind the clock to 1984 for the tale of another exceptional Portuguese footballer whose talents were in demand across Europe, a Benfica winger who also had the nation’s most formidable agent of the era representing his interests: his wife.

Fernando Chalana was a very different type of Portuguese footballer to the physically commanding all-purpose players of today that are so sought after by the major clubs of England, Spain and Italy. Standing just 5ft 5″ tall with a huge drooping moustache, Chalana was an electrifying winger and a proper throwback to the good old days when wide players were a whirl of fancy footwork, mazy dribbles and an uncanny talent for dropping pinpoint crosses onto the heads of centre forwards.

Fernando Chalana, Benfica

He made his Benfica debut aged 17 and his early impact brought about a call up almost immediately to represent his national team. Chalana became a fixture for his boyhood club for the next eight years and played a major role in Benfica’s great domestic successes that included five national title wins. His skills earned him the nickname of Pequeno Genial (Little Genius) and Sven-Göran Eriksson, his manager between 1982 to 1984, described him in later years as the most skilful player he had ever worked with.

These days Chalana would have be whisked away from the Portuguese game within eight months of his debut rather than eight seasons, however this was a very different and distinctly less in vogue Portugal still finding its place in the European mainstream during its fledgling years as a democracy. The winger’s wonderful performances at Euro ’84 finally gave him the international profile missing from all those years starring in the Primeira Liga.

Fernando Chalana, Portugal

The highlight of his and Portugal’s campaign came in the semi-final against the hosts, France. The winger’s skill and pace teased and tormented the French defence and he supplied the crosses for both Portuguese goals. France prevailed 3-2, but such was the impact he had made on his opponents that Ligue 1’s then-dominant club side Bordeaux made overtures to sign him.

This is the point where the Chalana story becomes as much about Anabel as it is about Fernando. Anabel Chalana was the wife and agent of Fernando and by the height of his career in the summer of 1984 had already earned a reputation as a controversial and outspoken character. An avowed feminist who modelled herself on the similarly forthright agent-wife of Bernd Schuster, how much of her unpopularity could be ascribed to her manner and how much simply because she was a woman in the most masculine of environments is moot.

Certainly when she set her mind on something she tended to get it. Wanting to travel with her husband to the European Championship in France, she got round the ban on partners and girlfriends by getting herself journalistic accreditation instead. When news emerged that Bordeaux had agreed a fee of just over £1m for Chalana, aggrieved domestic rivals Boavista angrily announced it had signed a legal pre-contract deal three months earlier with Anabel. Just to add another layer of confusion, the player himself stated that he would have preferred to stay at Benfica and sign a contract extension there.

Fernando Chalana, Alain Giresse & Dominique Dropsy, Bordeaux

Eventually the mess was sorted out and he joined the French champions to play alongside 80s luminaries like Giresse, Tigana, Battiston, Lacombe and Dieter Müller. Alas, the transfer proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Early promise in his first season soon dissipated to be replaced by perpetual injuries, complaints of homesickness and the ever-increasing demands of Anabel who was continually attempting to extract more money from the increasingly exasperated Bordeaux president Claude Bez – reportedly to support her rumoured profligate lifestyle.

Bordeaux continued to dominate the French game with Fernando Chalana as a broadly incidental member of their squad. During his three years in Ligue 1 he managed just 22 appearances and two goals. A return to Benfica in 1987 failed to reignite his career as injuries and Anabel-inspired issues off the pitch marginalised him once more. Fernando Chalana ended his career with inconsequential spells at Belenenses and Estrela Amador leading to his retirement in 1992 at the age of 33.

This mercurial left-footed maestro was one of the most polarising examples of a career delivered in two distinct halves. The first brought dazzling skill, individual acclaim and multiple honours; the second offered only injury, unhappiness, poor career choices and the overriding sense of a talent diminished before its natural time.

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