ON SATURDAY May 18, hundreds of Portuguese expatriates gathered in south London to celebrate Benfica’s 37thPrimeira Liga title. The Wandsworth area has a large Portuguese community and there’s even a restaurant, Casa Benfica, that draws in the fans.
Benfica clinched the title with a 4-1 victory against Santa Clara, meaning they finished two points ahead of reigning champions, and fierce rivals, Porto. A crowd of 64,000 watched the game at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz, underlining that Benfica remains a massive club.
Benfica’s resurgence this season, which has earned them a UEFA Champions League group stage place for 2019-20, has been partly attributable to the club’s faith in its youth development, the Caixa Futebol Campus at Seixal in Setúbal. In 2015, it was named the best academy in the Globe Football Awards. The Benfica team that clinched the Primeira Liga title included four notable players from the club’s youth system – Rúben Dias, Ferro, Florentino and Felix. These young players have not only invigorated Benfica’s style of play, but they also represent assets that could bring the club significant income in the future.
Benfica – and Porto – are both prolific player traders, renowned for developing talent and selling it on. It’s an important element of Benfica’s business model in an age when being a big club in your local domain is not enough to compete on the European stage. Benfica, like other clubs that were once among the elite, such as Ajax, have to use player trading to bolster their revenue streams. Over the past few years, players like Jan Oblak, Victor Lindelof, David Luiz, Bernardo Silva and Angel Di Maria have all been nurtured at Benfica.
They do player trading well in Portugal and Benfica currently have a batch of youngsters that could be the next big thing in Iberia. João Sequeira, or Felix, as he is known, is just 19 and is a talented playmaker who has been put on contract until 2023. Furthermore, if anyone wants him, there is, allegedly, a €100 million buyout clause to deal with. Undeterred, the agents are already circling Lisbon.
There’s also a young and relatively untried forward, Jota, who is already attracting the attention of big clubs in Europe. He was top scorer in the Euro under-19 tournament last year and is being tipped to shine in the under-20 competition this summer.
Felix formed part of a three-man attack was introduced by coach Bruno Lage when he took over from Rui Vitória in January. At that point, Benfica were trailing Porto by seven points. Lage has a more expansive style than the conservative Vitória – he opted for a flexible 4-4-2 formation – and this was immediately appreciated by the Benfiquistas, who had been frustrated by the team’s lack lustre performances.
Under Lage, Benfica went goal crazy at times. Vitória’s last game was a 2-0 defeat at Portimonense, but in the former youth coach’s first game, at home to Rio Ave, Benfica fielded Felix and Haris Seferovic up front and the team came back from two-down to win 4-2. Soon after, they hit 10 past Nacional as part of an eight-win run that prepared them nicely for the visit to Porto’s Estádio do Dragão. Benfica came from behind to win the classic 2-1 and went top of the table.
Apart from a 2-2 draw with Belenenses, Benfica won all their remaining fixtures, averaging more than three goals per game and netting 72 goals in their last 19 games. Porto had a similar record, but the damage had been done with that Benfica win and the Dragons had to rely on their rivals from Lisbon slipping up.
On the final day, Benfica scored early on through Haris Seferović and by half-time it was 3-0, thanks to further goals by Felix and Rafa Silva. Seferović scored again early in the second half and the visitors gained scant consolation with a goal on the hour.
Benfica’s commitment to attacking football yielded 103 goals in 34 league games, with Seferović scoring 23 and Rafa Silva, who greatly benefitted from a mid-season switch to the left wing, contributing 17. Felix (15), Pizzi (13) and Jonas (11) all reached double figures.
Success in the Primeira Liga, albeit a more challenging triumph than most of their recent title wins, wasn’t matched in the UEFA Champions League, although they did come up against Bayern Munich and Ajax. They were switched to the Europa League after the groups and reached the last eight, losing to Eintracht Frankfurt. Benfica will be hoping for a kinder draw in the group stage later this year.
The financial benefits of a good Champions League campaign cannot be underestimated – Benfica may be a top 30 club in Europe’s pecking order, but its financial strength is dwarfed by the continent’s genuinely big guns. Benfica, in 2017-18, generated € 151 million, around 20% of the total income of Real Madrid. Benfica’s average attendance of 53,000 is among Europe’s highest, but Portugal’s economic position and the size of the country prevents the club from rejoining the elite. Benfica’s track record in Europe includes 10 finals, but the last eight have all been lost. They were runners-up in the Europa League in both 2013 and 2014.
The club, for all its domestic success – five league titles in six years – is a long way from the days of Eusébio, Coluna and Augusto, when Benfica won two successive European Cups. How the die-hards must ache for a return to prominence for a club that once excited football fans the world over.
But coach Bruno Lage, while delighted that Benfica’s fans were delighted by the “reconquest” of the Primeira, reminded everyone that the game isn’t the be-all and end-all of life. “Football is just football. There are more important things in our society and in our country that we have to fight for. If you come together, if you have the strength and the demand that you have in football in our economy, in our health, in our education, we will be a better country.” What would Mr Shankly have said about that?