A football club usually owes its popularity to regional factors and its sporting achievements. Benfica, known worldwide as the giant from Portugal, are no exception.
In fact, one of the main reasons for Benfica’s incomparable popularity in their home country is their achievements since the club’s early years. The Reds have won the most championships (34) and Portuguese cups (25), they are the Portuguese club to have played in the greatest number of finals of European competitions (10 – seven European Cup and three Europa League) and the only one to have triumphed in two consecutive European Cups (1961 and 1962) and to have conquered the Latin Cup (1950), considered to be the predecessor of the European Cup.
In the most comprehensive study about Portuguese society (published in 2002), 50.3% of the respondents stated that they are Benfica fans, while FC Porto (23.1%) and Sporting Lisbon (22.5%) occupied the runner up positions. Another interesting fact highlighted in this study is the insignificance of age, regional or social and economic factors when it comes to Benfica’s popularity. In other studies, the relative values changed. However, the comparison between Benfica and their two main rivals is constant. Benfica has more fans than FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon put together.
With this information in mind, a less watchful observer might link Benfica’s greatness to the 1960s. The team of this glorious decade is considered to be among the best teams ever, for reaching five European Cup finals and winning two of them, and also for Eusébio. The ‘black panther’, one of the best footballers ever, is Benfica’s biggest figure and the only one honoured with a statue on the premises of the ‘Estádio da Luz’. In 15 seasons, he celebrated 11 national championships and scored 638 goals in 614 games.
However, in 1961, when Benfica beat Barcelona 3-2 in the European Cup final, Eusébio was still in the early stages of his career and didn’t play in any of the games of that year’s competition. In that season, Benfica won their 11th championship, holding the record for the most titles. And, at the time, the capacity of Benfica’s stadium was already 70,000. So, we have to go back further still to understand the origins of Benfica’s popularity.
In the beginning of the 20th century, enthusiasm for football was on the rise in Portugal. Belém was, at the time, one of the youngest and most populated neighbourhoods. It also had the city’s then-biggest teaching institute, which was geared towards accommodating orphaned children and preparing them for adulthood. From the shared will of many young men of that area of Lisbon to play football, Benfica was born. All enthusiasts were welcomed and integrated into the club, causing it to grow rapidly; while at the same time, it preserved an important premise: all athletes had to be Portuguese, Benfica being one of the few clubs that did not accept foreigners into their squads (Brazilian Jorge Gomes became Benfica’s first foreign player in 1979).
At the time of Benfica’s foundation, the team of Carcavellos, made up exclusively of British players who worked on the Submarine Cable, had long been invincible. In 1907, after a nine-year English domination, it finally fell to Benfica to defeat them. This triumph had a significant impact on football fans, not only for the achievement itself, but also because, among the Portuguese, a sense of outrage prevailed towards the British. The ‘British Ultimatum’ of 1890, where the UK urged Portugal to abandon the territories between its colonies of Angola and Mozambique, had caused anger which now found an outlet in football.
In the following years, the club, which had already moved to another major Lisbon neighbourhood, Benfica, became the most successful one, winning eight regional championships (the most important competition in this period) in 11 seasons between 1909 and 1920, and establishing itself as the main promoter of football (and other sports) in Portugal. Since that time, Benfica focused efforts on their growth. They participated regularly in matches in regions distant from Lisbon: for instance, they were the first continental Portuguese club to travel to the astonishing island of Madeira and were the first Lisbon club to play in Oporto. They also opened an office in downtown Lisbon to better serve their members, started publishing a weekly newspaper in 1913 and established delegations around the country, including in the former African colonies.
In 1925, Benfica inaugurated their first self-owned arena, the Amoreiras stadium. It was situated between two of Lisbon’s most populous districts in the first half of the last century, in which the working classes dominated. The following year saw the ‘National Revolution’, the movement that led to the dictatorship that ruled Portugal until 1974. However, Benfica did not let themselves be influenced by the political situation in the country, never ceasing to hold free and democratic elections for their board, and it was one of the few Portuguese institutions, if not the only one, to do so in this period. Although Benfica’s democratic stance was not meant to antagonize the political regime (or the opposite, as a matter of fact: the principle was that of non-interference in political life), there were some political events that did contribute to Benfica’s massive popularity.
First of all, this was the expropriation of the Amoreiras stadium by the State (1941), which forced the club to look for a new location. Further, the anthem of the club was censored due to its title because it included the word ‘Avante’ (‘forward’ in English), which, then as now, carried Communist connotations. Later, it was common for protesters to use Benfica’s red flags in political protests against the dictatorial regime. Moreover, it was in the decade of the five European Cup finals, the 1960s, that the largest wave of Portuguese emigration took place, which meant that, for hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who sought better living conditions abroad, Benfica often was the only link to Portugal.
Furthermore, Benfica was the first club to have a black player among its shining stars in a Portuguese society still reluctant to integrate black people. Espírito Santo (1936-1950, 199 goals in 285 games) is considered one of Benfica’s best ever players. The club’s open-minded approach was also reflected in the origin of the players, which resulted in a strong connection to the former colonies. Out of the many examples that could be given, José Águas, captain of the two European Cup victories and Benfica’s second best goalscorer, was born in Angola. Mário Coluna, ‘the captain of captains’ was born in Mozambique. So was Nené, who is Benfica’s record appearance-maker with 802. And of course, the ‘king’ Eusébio, who joined Benfica at the age of 18, from Mozambique.
António Lobo Antunes, one of the country’s major writers, often says that in the colonial war, Benfica’s games were the occasion for a temporary truce. On each side of the barricade, all followed the matches closely, replacing the weapons with radios and listening to the reports of the achievements of Eusébio and his teammates.
All these facts and events contributed to an estimated 14.5 million supporters, including the former colonies and Portuguese communities throughout the world. Benfica is the biggest club in Portugal, Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde. And it is probably the most popular in Switzerland and Luxembourg, and has one of the largest followings in France. A tour of Benfica in North America, France, Germany or Switzerland means a guaranteed box office success. As Benfica fans usually say, ‘Benfica is bigger than Portugal’.